Maestra, page 1
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
Publishers Since 1838
An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
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New York, New York 10014
Excerpt from “Don’t Tell Mama” from the musical Cabaret, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb
Copyright © 2016 by L. S. Hilton
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eBook ISBN: 9780399184284
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
To the Norse God of Everything, with thanks
PART ONE | Outside CHAPTER ONE
PART TWO | Inside CHAPTER ELEVEN
PART THREE | Outside CHAPTER FOURTEEN
PART FOUR | Outside CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE
EPILOGUE | Inside
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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 pajamas with frogged jackets, the sheen in the weft of the fabric offsetting their starched shirts. An occasional heavy cuff link 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 hypnotized, 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. Afterward, you can choose. Bonsoir.”
He was tall and slim, though his body was younger than his face, rather hard and lined, with graying hair swept back above 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 slices 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 dancer’s 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 monoï 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 leisure wear crammed amid the resigned, sallow-faced commuters. I was waiting on the platform for the Piccadilly line at Green Park after another fabulous start to another fabulous week of being bullied and patronized 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, among 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 the stinking tourist traps of Leicester Square with the other rube losers. She had extraordinary hair, a great cascading plum-colored 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 toward 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, nor did I need to be reminded, ever, of where I had come from.
Then I felt like a bitch. “You look g
“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 Tube 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 shellacked nail extension for the bobbing maraschino and took a cheerful slurp.
“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 Rubens 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 broke. 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’s fake-tanned legs, her shimmering cleavage. Mercedes swiveled in her chair, 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 little 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 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 selling 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 weeks in the department, I had realized that no one there really cared if you could tell a Brueghel 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 e-mail 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 and seldom appeared before eleven.
The Heinz Archive has a huge catalog 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 the paintings more interesting to buyers.
“Okay. Have you got a set of photographs, please?”
Laura sighed. “In the library. They’re marked as ‘Longhi/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 rumors 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 computerized; often one stumbled across little Dickensian ghosts wedged despairingly into obscure cubbyholes between mounds of receipts and triplicate photostatted accounts.
“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 five hundred odd meters 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 toward the archive. I had five photographs in my bag, scenes at the Fenice theater, the Zattere, and a coffeehouse on the Rialto, and after working through the boxes for a couple 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 catalog 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 e-mail to you this morning.” That would have been the e-mail with no content.
“But, Laura, you said they were in the library.”
“I meant the electronic library.”
I didn’t say anything. I logged on to the department’s online catalog, 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 e-mailed 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 that 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 Lillywhites on Piccadilly to pick up a sleeping bag for Laura’s son’s school camping trip, reappearing exhausted and grimy at five-thirty to another reprimand for missing the departmental viewing of the paintings I’d spent the morning working on.
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