Magna was a large lady with tiny feet who wafted in gracefully on a cloud of expensive Lily of the Valley perfume. I could tell it was expensive because even though she appeared drenched in the scent ( - you could smell it from several feet away- ) it still smelled wonderful, none-the-less. That there should be a reason she might wish to douse herself in SO much scent had never really occurred to me. Only now, thinking back, I remember that she had given up a good career as a University Lecturer to look after her Barrister husband who had become an Alcoholic. It seems natural to me that she should want to surround herself in a protective layer (- in every way -) against the acrid ketone smell of an Alcoholic.
She was a kind and gentle tutor who had found a niche for herself shepherding novice students through the Open University Arts Degree courses, many of whom had little or no qualifications on embarking; some of whom would fly, others who would need hoisting up by the breeches and pointing in the right direction. Magna knew just how to get the best out of everybody. She was as sympathetic to all my whingeing and pleading for extensions on the grounds of lack of sleep due to having a new three month old baby, as she was to all the others.
If it was a come-down for her from teaching the creme-de-la-creme then she never showed it. Her enthusiasm was electric, yet gentle and soft in voice. It was as if she saved all her energy up for these Tuesday night sessions and then exploded her enthusiasm for Pre-Raphaelite paintings or the complex meanings hidden behind an Enlightenment text. It was impossible to not come in on a dark and windy night with the rain pelting down outside and not feel immediately engrossed in something warmer and brighter.
Her tiny feet were truly amazing. They defied any law of gravity that someone so large and voluptuous should move around so daintily, barely seeming to touch the ground in any one place at all. I have seen cartoons of characters shaped not too dissimilar to Magna and always dismissed them as caricatures or incomplete line drawings. The laws of gravity should have held some sway, and yet Magna appeared to have no centre of gravity whatsoever.
I haven't seen Magna for several years now, and, as I put together this most humble of meals, I am wondering how life has treated her. To have been prepared to put so much of herself aside and not to feel embittered by it showed me how it was possible to still live against the odds and be happy. She threw more of herself into what she could do instead of pining after that which she could no longer. If her high voice betrayed an over-enthusiastic optimism, then the energy and vigour behind it was genuine and she took huge delight in watching the penny drop at times.
Her deep Catholic beliefs which had led her to make such a radical career choice were ingrained. She once took us on an outing to her old family home which had since been given to the National Trust. We looked at the Priest's hole and the simple furniture and the picture of Christ hung on the wall.
'Of course,' she said, 'they've got it wrong here. In a Catholic house like this where religious practise had to be kept secret, and the priest hidden at times, there would never have been a painting like this hung up on the wall.' And she was right. She showed us how to take the hidden testimony from a room, or a painting, or a piece of furniture and see what else was there - what interpretation or prejudice time had placed, and needed stripping back like a painting beneath a painting only to be caught in Infrared scanning - like the man hidden behind Picasso's 'Blue Room'.
She was very matter-of-fact about it all, and never grand. I think life had taught her to value all things and all people equally. For all that, she was amazingly clever and it was always interesting to be in her company and talk on any level. She was the kind of teacher who brought you up to her level rather than the sort who would rather demoralise and squash in order to gain some kind of paltry self-esteem.
As I stand here waiting for her to come in it is her resonating voice that greets me first, closely followed by a cloud of Lily of the Valley, before two tiny feet in red shoes shuttle her in over the doorstep. She sits down like a parachute coming in to rest and immediately asks, questions and notes in the same sentence so that I don't know which part to address first. My brain notches up a gear and I reach for the wine.