Maestra the most shockin.., p.1
Maestra: The most shocking thriller you'll read this year, page 1
Part One: Outside
Part Two: Inside
Part Three: Outside
Part Four: Outside
To the Norse God of Everything, with thanks.
Heavy hems and vicious heels swooped and clacked over the parquet. We crossed the hallway to a set of double doors, the low hum within indicating that the men were already inside. The room was lit with candles, small tables positioned between sofas and low dining chairs. The waiting men were dressed in thick black satin pyjamas with frogged jackets, the sheen in the weft of the fabric offsetting their starched shirts. An occasional heavy cufflink or slim watch flashed gold in the candlelight, an embroidered monogram rippled beneath a flamboyant silk handkerchief. It would have felt silly, theatrical, had the details not been so perfect, but I felt hypnotised, my pulse slow and deep. Yvette was being led away by a man with a peacock feather pinned in his cuff – I looked up and saw another man approaching me, a gardenia like my own in his lapel.
‘So it works like that?’
‘While we eat, yes. Afterwards you can choose. Bonsoir.’
He was tall and slim, though his body was younger than his face, rather hard and lined, with greying hair swept back over a high forehead and large, slightly hooded eyes, like a Byzantine saint. He led me to a sofa, waited while I sat and handed me a plain crystal glass of white wine, clean and flinty. The formality was arch, but I liked the choreography. Julien clearly appreciated the pleasure of anticipation. The mostly nude waitresses reappeared with small plates of tiny lobster pastries, then shavings of duck breast in a honey and ginger paste, tuiles of raspberries and strawberries. Gestures at food, nothing to sate us.
‘Red fruit makes a woman’s cunt taste so beautiful,’ my dinner companion remarked.
There was some quiet conversation, but mostly people watched and drank, their eyes moving from one another to the swift movements of the waitresses, who had dancers’ bodies, I saw, slim but strongly muscled, their calves full over their tight boots. Moonlighting from the corps de ballet? I saw Yvette dimly across the room, being fed almond-stuffed figs with a sharp-tined silver fork, her body laid out like a serpent’s, one dark thigh a hint between the red silk. Solemnly, the waitresses circled the room with candle snuffers, dimming the lights in a cloud of beeswax, and as they did so I felt the man’s hand on my thigh, circling and stroking, entirely unhurried, and an answering tautness between my legs. The girls set out shallow lacquered trays containing condoms, small crystal bottles of monoi oil, lube decanted into bonbon dishes. Some of the couples were kissing, happy with their matched partners, others rose politely and crossed the room to find the prey they had selected earlier. Yvette’s robe was tumbled about her parted legs, a man’s head dipped to her. I caught her eye, and she smiled, luxuriously, before letting her head fall back among the cushions with the ecstatic motion of a junkie nodding out.
If you asked me how it began, I could truthfully say that the first time, it was an accident. It was about six in the evening, the time when the city churns again on its axis, and though the streets above were full of the sharp wind of another piss-miserable May, the station was stuffy and humid, squalid with discarded tabloids and fast-food wrappings, irritable tourists in garish leisurewear crammed amidst the resigned, sallow-faced commuters. I was waiting on the platform for the Piccadilly line Tube at Green Park after another fabulous start to another fabulous week of being bullied and patronised at my super-fabulous job. As the train on the opposite side pulled away, a low collective groan rippled through the crowd. The board showed that the next Tube was stuck at Holborn. Someone on the tracks, probably. Typical, you could see people thinking. Why did they always have to top themselves at rush hour? The passengers across the line were moving off, amongst them a girl in crippling heels and an electric-blue bandage dress. Last season’s Alaïa via Zara, I thought. Probably on her way to Leicester Square with the other rube losers. She had extraordinary hair, a great cascading plum-coloured mane of extensions with some sort of gold thread bound through them that caught and held the neon light.
‘Judeee! Judy! Is that you?’
She started waving at me enthusiastically. I pretended not to hear.
‘Judy! Over here!’
People were beginning to look. The girl had hobbled precariously close to the yellow safety stripe.
‘It’s me! Leanne!’
‘Your friend’s waving to you,’ said the woman next to me, helpfully.
‘I’ll see you upstairs in a min!’ I didn’t hear voices like hers very often anymore. I’d never expected to hear hers again. She obviously wasn’t going to disappear, and the train showed no sign of appearing, so I settled my heavy leather briefcase across my shoulder and pushed my way back through the crowd. She was waiting on the gangway between the platforms.
‘Hiya! I thought it was you!’
‘Hi, Leanne,’ I tried gingerly.
She tripped the last few steps towards me and threw her arms around me like I was her long-lost sister.
‘Look at you! Dead professional. I didn’t know you lived in London!’ I didn’t point out that this was probably because I hadn’t spoken to her in a decade. Facebook friends weren’t really my style, and nor did I need to be reminded, ever, of where I had come from.
Then I felt like a bitch. ‘You look great, Leanne. I love your hair.’
‘I don’t go by Leanne anymore, actually. It’s Mercedes now.’
‘Mercedes? That’s . . . nice. I use Judith mostly. Sounds more grown up.’
‘Yeah, well, look at us, eh? All grown up.’
I don’t think I knew, then, what that felt like. I wondered if she did either.
‘Listen, I’ve got an hour before work’. Werk. ‘Do you fancy a quick drink? Catch up?’
I could have said I was busy, that I was in a rush, taken her number like I was actually going to call it. But where did I have to get to? And there was something in that voice, strangely welcome in its familiarity, that made me feel lonely and reassured at the same time. I had just two twenty-pound notes in the world, and there were three days before payday. Still, something might turn up.
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Let me buy you a drink. Let’s go to the Ritz.’
Two champagne cocktails in the Rivoli bar, £38. I had twelve on my Oyster card and two in hand. I just wouldn’t have much to eat until the end of the week. It was stupid, maybe, to show off like that, but sometimes you need to show the world a bit of defiance. Leanne – Mercedes – fished enthusiastically with a fuchsia shellac nail extension for the bobbing maraschi
‘That’s dead nice, thanks. Though I prefer Roederer now, myself.’
Well that served me right for being flash.
‘I work round here,’ I volunteered. ‘Art. In an auction house. I do Old Masters.’ I didn’t, actually, but then I wasn’t sweating that Leanne would know a Reubens from a Rembrandt.
‘Posh,’ she replied. She looked bored now, fiddling with the swizzle-stick in her drink. I wondered if she was sorry she had called out to me, but instead of feeling annoyed I had a pathetic feeling that I wanted to please her.
‘Sounds it,’ I said confidentially, feeling the brandy and the sugar soothing their way into my blood, ‘but the pay’s crap. I’m skint, usually.’
‘Mercedes’ told me she had been in London for a year. She worked in a champagne bar in St James’s. ‘Reckons it’s classy, but it’s full of the same dirty old gits. Nothing dodgy,’ she added hastily. ‘It’s only a bar. The tips are amazing though.’
She claimed she was making two grand a week. ‘Puts weight on you, though,’ she said ruefully, prodding her tiny belly. ‘All that drinking. Still, we don’t have to pay for it. Pour it into the plants if we have to, Olly says.’
‘He’s the owner. Eh, you should come down sometime, Judy. Moonlight a bit, if you’re brassic. Olly’s always looking for girls. D’you want another one?’
An older couple in black tie, probably on their way to the opera, took the table opposite us. The woman ran her eyes critically over Mercedes’ fake-tanned legs, her shimmering cleavage. Mercedes swivelled in her chair, and slowly and deliberately uncrossed and recrossed her legs, giving me and the poor old bugger next to her a flash of black lace G-string, all the time staring straight into the woman’s eyes. There was no need to ask if anyone had a problem.
‘As I was saying,’ she said, when the woman turned beet-faced to the cocktail menu, ‘it’s a laugh.’ Laff. ‘The girls are from all over. You could look smashing, if you got a bit dolled up. Come on.’
I looked down at my black tweed Sandro suit. Nipped-in jacket, flippy pleated skirt. It was meant to look knowingly coquettish, professional with a little Left Bank spin – at least that’s what I told myself when I clumsily mended the hems for the umpteenth time – but next to Mercedes I looked like a depressed crow.
‘Yeah, why not? I’ve got loads of stuff in me bag.’
‘I don’t know, Leanne.’
‘Come on, you can wear my lace top. It’ll look ace with your tits. Unless you’ve got a date?’
‘No,’ I said, tipping my head right back to catch the last drops of bubbles and angostura. ‘No, I haven’t got a date.’
I read somewhere that cause and effect are safeguards against contingency, against the terrifyingly inaccurate mutability of chance. Why did I go with Leanne that day? It hadn’t been worse than any other. But choices are made before explanations, whether or not we care to know it. In the art world, there are only two auction houses you really need to know about. They’re the ones who make the hundred-million-pound sales, who handle the collections of desperate dukes and socially anxious oligarchs, who funnel a thousand years’ worth of beauty and artisanship through their museum-quiet rooms and turn it into hard, sexy cash. When I’d landed the job in British Pictures three years ago, I had finally felt like I’d made it. For a day or two, anyway. I soon twigged that that the porters, the blokes who did the actual lifting, were the only people who cared anything about pictures. The rest of them might have been flogging matchsticks or butter. Despite the fact that I’d been employed on merit, despite my hard work, diligence and generally rather impressive knowledge of art, I was forced to admit that as far as the standards of the House went, I was distinctly not made of awesome. After a couple of weeks in the department, I had realised that no one there really cared if you could tell a Breughel from a Bonnard, that there were other, more vital codes to crack.
There were quite a few things I still liked about my job at the House after three years. I liked walking past the uniformed doorman into the orchid-scented lobby. I liked the satisfyingly reverent looks the clients reserved for “experts” as I climbed the imposing oak staircase, because naturally, everything about the House looked like three centuries’ worth of imposing. I liked eavesdropping on the conversations of the identikit Eurosecretaries, their French and Italian vowels flicking as crisply as their hair. I liked that, unlike them, I wasn’t angling to snare a passing hedgie in the tendrils of my blow-dry. I was proud of what I had achieved, winning an assistant’s position after a year of interning in British Pictures. Not that I intended to remain in the department for long. I wouldn’t be spending the rest of my life looking at pictures of dogs and horses.
That day, the day I bumped into Leanne, had started with an email from Laura Belvoir, the deputy head of department. It was headed ‘Action Immediately!’ yet there was no text in the body. I walked across the office to ask her what she actually wanted. The bosses had recently been on a management course and Laura had really got behind the idea of desk-to-desk digital communication, though unfortunately she hadn’t yet worked round to typing.
‘I need you to do the attributions for the Longhis.’
We were preparing a series of conversation pieces by the Venetian artist for the upcoming Italian sale.
‘You want me to check the titles in the warehouse?’
‘No, Judith. That’s Rupert’s job. Go to the Heinz and see if you can identify the subjects.’ Rupert was the head of department, who seldom appeared before eleven.
The Heinz Archive has a huge catalogue of named images – I was to look up which particular English lordlings on their eighteenth-century gap year gaieties might have sat for Longhi, as identification of particular individuals could make them more interesting to buyers.
‘OK. Have you got a set of photographs, please?’
Laura sighed. ‘In the library. They’re marked as Longhi-slash-Spring.’
Since the House occupied a whole block, it was a four-minute walk from the department to the library, and it was one I did many times every day. Despite rumours of it being the twenty-first century outside, the House was still run largely like a Victorian bank. Many of the employees spent their days plodding round the corridors delivering scrips of paper to one another. The archive and the library were hardly even properly computerised; often one stumbled across little Dickensian ghosts wedged despairingly into obscure cubby holes between mounds of receipts and triplicate photostatted accounts. I retrieved the envelope of pictures and went back to my desk for my bag. My phone rang.
‘Allo? It’s Serena onna desk. I’ve got Rupert’s trousers here.’
So I schlepped to reception, picked up the vast bag from Rupert’s tailor, couriered over the 500-odd metres from Savile Row, and took it back to the department. Laura looked up.
‘Haven’t you gone yet, Judith? What on earth have you been doing? Well, since you’re here, please could you get me a cappuccino? Don’t go to the canteen, go to that nice little place in Crown Passage. Get a receipt.’
Coffee fetched, I set off on foot towards the archive. I had five photographs in my bag, scenes at the Fenice theatre, the Zattere and a coffee house on the Rialto, and after working through the boxes for a couple of hours, I’d made a list of twelve positive identifications of sitters who had been in Italy contemporaneously with the portraits. I cross referenced the Heinz index with the pictures so that the attribution could be checked for the catalogue and took them back to Laura.
‘What are these?’
‘The Longhis you asked me to do.’
‘These are the Longhis from the sale six years ago. Really, Judith. The photos were on my email to you this morning.’ That would have been the email with no content.
‘But, Laura, you said they were in the library.’
‘I meant the
I didn’t say anything. I logged on to the department’s online catalogue, found the correct pictures (filed as Lunghi), downloaded them to my phone and went back to the Heinz with a flea in my ear from Laura for wasting time. I’d finished the second lot of attributions by the time she was back from lunch at the Caprice, and got on with cold-calling invitees who hadn’t RSVP’d to the private view for the sale. Then I wrote up the bios and emailed them to Laura and Rupert, showed Laura how to open the attachment, took the Tube to the Applied Arts depository near Chelsea Harbour to check on a silk sample which Rupert thought might match with a hanging in the Longhis, discovered to no one’s surprise that it didn’t, walked most of the way back because the Circle line was stuck at Edgware Road and detoured to Lillywhite’s on Piccadilly to pick up a sleeping bag for Laura’s son’s school camping trip, reappearing exhausted and grimy at 5.30 to another reprimand for missing the departmental viewing of the paintings I’d spent the morning working on.
‘Honestly, Judith,’ Laura remarked, ‘you’ll never make any progress if you’re haring about town when you could be looking at the works.’
Twitches on invisible threads aside, maybe it wasn’t all that surprising that when I came across Leanne at the Tube station a little later, I really did feel like a drink.
My interview at the Gstaad Club that night consisted of Olly, the giant, morose Finn who was proprietor, maître d’ and bouncer, looking me over in the lacy nude blouse I’d hastily shuffled on in the loos at the Ritz.
‘Can you drink?’ he asked me.
‘She’s from Liverpool,’ giggled ‘Mercedes’, and that was that.
So for the next eight weeks, I worked Thursday and Friday nights in the club. Not hours that most people my age would welcome, but after-work drinks with the team weren’t really a big feature of my career. The name, like everything else about the place, was a dated stab at fake class; the only thing that was real about the club was the truly eye-watering mark-up on the champagne. In fact, it didn’t look much different from Annabel’s, the has-been nightclub a few streets away in Berkeley Square. Same Sloane-Ranger yellow walls, same bad-good pictures, same collection of tragic paunchy older men, same lounging gaggle of girls who were not quite hookers but who always needed a little help with the rent. The job was simple. About ten girls gathered half an hour before the club opened at nine for a pick-me-up dispensed by Carlo the bartender in his immaculately pressed but slightly whiffy white jacket. The rest of the staff consisted of an ancient babushka who took the coats, and Olly. At nine sharp he unbolted the street door and made the same solemn joke.
by L. S. Hilton have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes