Outside the Tate on the clean, classical steps, Pimlico Lolitas smoke and yawn and stretch their baby-animal legs in the November sunshine

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The Independent Online
"It's just dead animals cut in half, you realise?" says Jonathan when I announce I'm quitting my word processor this afternoon for the Turner Prize exhibition at the Tate.

"I know," I lie airily - though I know nothing except that it's Damien Hirst. I know about the sheep, the shark. Does he only do dead things swimming in formaldehyde then?

"For an ex-publicist," muses Jonathan, "You're such a sucker for publicity." I smile. Damien Hirst: I've seen him in the magazines. I like his manic looks, his hellish name, the idea of him fiddling with those groovily pointless tanks.

Well, it's 2.15pm - almost an hour before I have to leave to get the kids from school. Outside on the clean, classical steps, Pimlico Lolitas smoke and yawn and stretch their baby-animal legs in the November sunshine. I march into the foyer, present my bag to be searched.

My bag is new and I'm out with it for the first time and it feels nice. I've never had a proper grown-up handbag. Bum-bag, yes - crammed with old receipts, Lil-lets, half-sucked lollipops, keys, Nurofen, biscuity crumbs that seem to come from nowhere. But this new bag's shiny dark-chocolate patent mock-croc, little bronze clasp. It's also more or less empty. My walk goes all slinky just thinking about it.

"You'll never go anywhere with that," said Jonathan, as I modelled it for him at bedtime against my flannel dressing-gown. "You don't have that sort of life. I just can't see you going round with a handbag hanging off your elbow like Margaret Thatcher." He was cleaning his teeth, one hand cupped under his chin, toothpaste frothing.

"But there's a detachable shoulder strap," I informed him, triumphant at my shopping ability. "Look" - I produced the strap and fixed it on to the poppers inside the bag.

"I'm staggered," he said and went to spit.

"Where's the Damien Hirst thing?" I ask the silver-haired man at the information desk.

"The Turner Prize? Through the sculptures and right."

I walk, enjoying the click of my boots on the shiny floors - the hushed art gallery air, the space, the light. Students crouch in corners, frowning, sketching. As I pass the Epsteins, the Giacomettis, the Rodins (creamy, ponderous vastness, muscles you could squeeze), my bag crashes to the ground. Whunch! The poppers on the left have come undone.

I gather the thing up quickly and walk away, popping the poppers on again as I go.

The first Turner Prize room contains a series of canvases - one all white, one all red save for a pin-prick, one punctuated with a Jaffa-coloured cube, one soft bluish-violet stripes on cream. Two middle-aged women stand in front of the white canvas, arms folded.

"He's a high-scorer, if you know what I mean?" says the first woman in an Australian accent, "But he's not a people person." I stare at the white rectangle, wondering what she means, how she makes such a deduction from such limited information.

High-scorer? People person?

"I mean," she continues, "we went to Yorksheer? And we never stopped, we drove right through? Can you imagine? You know, they are the kind of people who find a B&B, bed down by four and that's that? Can you believe it?" Her companion nods.

They move on to the orange cube picture, position themselves in front of it. "I mean, I'm my own person," the first woman continues emphatically. "I can put my hat on and go, know what I mean? I can get lost in the West End of London and not give a hoot."

The next room's dominated by two huge, brown-velvety racehorses and a wall of jockeys' brilliant paintbox clothes. A young man with a wispy, wizardy beard walks purposefully up to me. "Anya?"

"Er, no," I smile and move away.

Apparently unconvinced, he trails after me. "Jack Glover."

"Pleased to meet you." Three TV sets show the Queen arriving at the races in a carriage.

"I'm not Anya," I say again, trying to look at the TV sets. Each picture lags a fraction behind the other. Opposite, there's a massively enlarged, joyous photo of a crowd, with the artist's name - Mark someone - on a great banner. I feel an inexplicable surge of happiness just looking at it.

Jack Glover begins to floss his teeth with a Tate Gallery plan. I ignore him, stand in front of Damien Hirst's spot picture in sugared Smartie colours - an explosion of sweeties that makes your eyes go funny - and then finally I turn to the dead animals.

A big cow and a small cow, each sawn immaculately in half, frolic in "cow jumped over the moon" pose through a slice of greenish liquid - though the effect is more school biology lab than nursery rhyme. If you walk between the two tanks, you can admire their insides - beige-grey, puckered, bloodless, lots of curly bites.

"Anyway, they're going to Stoke-on-Trent next," continues the first Australian, who has caught up and seems predictably unmoved by the four separate pieces of cow. "Let's just wait and see what they make of that. If they bother to get out of bed, that is." Jack Glover nods and laughs loudly at this and I take advantage of the attention shift to leave - running through the huge white rooms and out into the late afternoon sunshine.

The Lolitas are lolling among the colonnades drinking 7-Up, tossing hair from their troubling, Balthus faces. One of them's probably Anya - or maybe not. As I suddenly wonder whether Jack Glover has any black ink on him, my bag quits its poppers again and crashes to the ground.

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