I greatly enjoyed Randall Wright’s film about the artist, Maggi Hambling, Making Love to Paint, that was shown recently on BBC2. Hambling herself has such a strong and idiosyncratic personality and it was fascinating to hear her talk about the constant preparatory work she does in advance of making the paintings themselves. I knew her turbulent sea paintings from an exhibition at the National Gallery, but little of her portraits – some with a nod in the direction of Bacon, others reminding me of Auerbach – all clearly her, strong and deeply felt.
One work of Hambling’s I’m very aware of is Scallop, a large stainless steel sculpture in memory of the composer Benjamin Britain, which is installed, controversially, on the beach in Aldeburgh.
I used the sculpture and the setting in a 2009 novel, Far Cry. The central character, Ruth, has suffered the terrible experience of a daughter, Heather, dying in an accident while on holiday in Cornwall; since then she has done all she can to put her own life back on track: she remarries, and, with her new husband, she has another child, Beatrice. In this chapter from the book, Ruth and Beatrice have taken advantage of the good weather and driven to Aldeburgh for a day out by the sea.
They ate their sandwiches in the lee of one of the numerous fishing huts, keeping a wary eye out for the more predatory of the gulls wheeling and gliding above. A light haze was settling over the further reaches of the sea, so that the horizon had all but disappeared and sea and sky were one.
‘Come on,’ Ruth said, stuffing things back down into the rucksack, ‘there’s something I want to show you.’
From a distance, the steel constructions rising up from the shingle at the north end of the beach looked like giant fans and then, as they drew nearer, like angel wings.
‘What are they?’ Beatrice asked.
‘Wait and then you’ll see.’
The nearer they got, the bigger they became, until they stood some twelve feet high at their tallest point and almost as wide.
‘They’re shells,’ Beatrice said.
‘That’s right, scallop shells.’
‘What on earth are they doing here?’
‘An artist designed them, Maggi Hambling. A tribute to Benjamin Britten.’
‘He’s a composer. Was. Used to live near here. A lot of his music was about the sea.’
Beatrice shrugged and pressed her hand against the surface of the iron shell. ‘It’s warm.’ She leaned her face against it and closed her eyes.
I love you, Ruth thought. So much. I really do.
‘Look,’ Beatrice said, ‘there’s writing round the top. What does it say?’
‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned.’
‘It’s from an opera,’ Ruth explained. ‘Peter Grimes.’
‘By that man?’
‘What does it mean?’
‘What d’you think?’
Beatrice flapped her hands. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Do you like it, though? The sculpture?’
‘Some people don’t. People who live here. They’ve poured paint over it and everything. They think it should be taken down or moved.’
‘That’s stupid.’ Beatrice shielded her eyes. ‘Can we go now?’
Half way on their journey back to the car, Beatrice let go of Ruth’s hand and started lagging behind, head down.
‘Come on,’ Ruth said cheerily. ‘Not far now. We’re nearly there.’
By the time Ruth had reached the beginnings of the town, Beatrice was a good fifty metres adrift. She swung the rucksack down from her back and sat on a bench to wait.
When Beatrice caught up she stood, swivelling first on one foot and then the other, looking anywhere but into her mother’s eyes.
‘What’s the matter?’ Ruth asked.
‘You don’t want to tell me?’
A shake of the head.
‘Come and sit here, then. Let’s just rest for a minute before we get back to the car.’
At first it seemed as if Beatrice was going to stay put, but then, grudgingly, she went and sat beside her mother, close but not close enough to be touching, flip-flops trailing on the ground.
‘Voices that will not be drowned,’ she said eventually. ‘That’s her, isn’t it? Heather. That’s why we came here, because of her. It is, isn’t it?’
‘Not really, no.’
‘But you’ve been here before? With her?’
‘Yes,’ Ruth admitted.
‘To look at that – that scallop thing?’
‘No, that wasn’t here then. But to Aldeburgh, yes. A long time ago.’
Beatrice turned away, back hunched.
‘Beatrice, don’t … ‘
‘I hate her,’ Beatrice said. ‘I hate her.’
Ruth reached for her and felt her body stiffen, before she turned, sobbing, and pressed herself against Ruth’s chest.
‘It’s all right,’ Ruth said softly, her face resting close against the top of Beatrice’s head, smelling her little girl smell, the warmth of the sun in her hair.
‘It’s all right,’ she lied.