Shopping Vignette with Hans Memling

Triptych of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist (detail), Hans Memling, 1479

“Could you help me?’ an elderly woman bent over a large trolley in Marks & Spencer asked. She was smartly dressed in a dark blue woollen jacket with a flowing red scarf and well cut black trousers and black boots. Her face was intensely alive and blue eyes sparkled with life and curiosity.

She slowly raised her hand and pointed to the top of the shelf

‘Have you stopped growing?’ I asked

She laughed, ‘yes’, she said, ‘now I go the other way’, pointing to the ground.

My hand slowly moved across a row of bottles waiting for her instruction.

‘That one’, she said, pointing to the French salad dressing.

She went off slowly pushing her trolley. Her accent lingered. European, from another age. She must be in her eighties. She has lived through war and great change. Where in Europe I wondered, what war?

I continued shopping and met her again at the checkout and offered her my place in the queue. She took this opportunity and explained that tomorrow she is going to Bruges

‘For the opening of an art exhibition’, she said, ‘and my husband and I are guests of honour’. She looked at me with an expression of incredulity and proud delight.

‘This is because we own one of the paintings’.

We talked about art galleries in Bruges and Hans Memling.

The whole morning of back to back meetings, spreadsheets, reports, minutes, agendas, hidden agendas, compliance, technical details disappeared. A memory of Bruges was magically conjured up; standing outside the Sint-Janshospitaal where the Hans Memling paintings are on display, in the Groeningemuseum, back in the streets during a cold February night.

It was her turn to be served and as she started to put her shopping on the conveyor belt for the cashier she explained that these were all gifts for friends in Bruges

‘We will go in the tunnel tomorrow’, she added. Carefully taking an orchid out of the trolley and adding it to the items of shopping which were slowly moving along to be scanned.

On the way home I stopped to take a photograph of some of the ships in the channel. A bloke came past who I vaguely know. We always say hello and sometimes have a chat.

‘You can go up my steps if you want. You’ll get a better view’. So I did, and the view was better.

He came up and joined me, leaning against the metal hand rail that runs besides the steps. And we looked out across the channel and talked about the ships and this and that.

And then I realised I had another meeting to attend and had to hurry off.

The spell dissipated and Hans Memling and Bruges and ships and the Narrow Seas faded away.

Replaced again by the atmosphere and labour processes of corporate production.

Sti Clapham, oil/ chemical tanker sailing from St Petersburg to Rades (Tunisia)

Federal Mosel, bulk carrier, sailing from Porsgrunn (Norway) to Cristobel anchorage (Panama canal)

Sea Pearl, oil tanker, sailing from Rotterdam to Angra Dos Reis (Brazil)

Al Deebel, LNG tanker, Zeebruges to Port Said

Triptych of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist (detail), Hans Memling, 1479

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