Get someone to budge up if you need to. There are only so many benches
and so many people feeling the need for a sit down. Start with watching your benchmates. Look as directly as you like; they’re not looking at you. They think everyone but them only has eyes for the marble. They all think that as they scroll through their texts or bend over their parked babies. Some are just staring at nothing through unfocused eyes as though they’re trying to see the reason they came in here in the first place.
Now look up.
See the people here because of marble carved two and a half millennia ago. Look at the tourist couples enduring their two hours of culture slotted into their week of shopping. Watch them struggling and failing to find the awe dictated by their audioguides. See which ones are trying, really fighting with themselves, to find it. See which ones wish they were in Harrods.
Those two over there have no such qualms. They don’t need to understand something to take a selfie with it. They tell the world how they feel about these fragments of the Parthenon with the two finger vee: Look Facebook, here I am!
Quick, pull your feet under the bench before one of those kids trips over you. Children are unpretentious. They see no reason to hide their disinterest. All they see is a large enough space to chase each other around while they ignore their mother’s entreaties to stop. She wants to bellow at them, but she doesn’t want to make a scene. She hasn’t spent the last few minutes watching the people like you have, so she thinks there is genuine reverence to be intruded on in here. Her face reddens by shades until one of the children stacks into an audio-engrossed tourist and falls over backward. She seizes her chance and hauls it away by the arm, gather up the other one and drag them to where she can stuff them full of ice cream while she asks herself when, why and how it occurred to her to bring them here.
Look to your left.
Yes, at her. That’s a rare sight indeed. The woman with no companion, no audioguide and eyes only for the frieze. She isn’t here because she’s heard it’s where you’re supposed to go when you visit London. She’s here because she’s read about the Parthenon and followed the parts of it that ended up here. She may have spent years dreaming of seeing that frieze with her own eyes. The swirl of disinterest opens up a space around her, as if in veneration of what they are failing to experience.
Leave her with the fresco and close your eyes. Feel the other presence in this room. The presence that needs no audioguides, text messages or dreams of Harrods. You’re sensing the sculptors who carved the marble. The kings who commissioned the artwork and the priests who guided it. Here is the Earl of Elgin, who brought their work here. Their attention is focused in one place. They are following the woman round the fresco. They speak to her.