Ultima, p.10

Ultima, page 10

 

Ultima
 


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  ‘Did you ever go to a schiticchio? A banquet?’

  ‘That’s Sicilian. We don’t call it that.’

  ‘So you admit there’s a “we”, then?’

  ‘I thought I told you to shut up? Jesus, what did I do to deserve this?’

  I stared out at the landscape. Grey winter fields, blotch-veined earth rotted with illegal pesticides. Half-finished buildings whose purpose couldn’t be guessed from their sagging concrete skeletons. Outlet malls, blowsy amusement arcades, despairing medieval churches, tattered publicity hoardings every fifty metres, all blending into a seamless dinginess brightened only by random swamps of rubbish, blooming by the roadside like sweating, exotic orchids. Italy.

  *

  I was thinking about da Silva’s suggestion. They had been friends, Gauguin and van Gogh. Everyone knows van Gogh’s Sunflowers. It’s reproduced on calendars and notebooks and fridge magnets, a pleasing, cheery picture of a nice, understandable bunch of flowers. Yet, in a sense, the canvas is as bloody as anything Artemisia Gentileschi ever painted. Van Gogh intended the Sunflowers to flank an ‘altarpiece’ he was planning for the Yellow House in Arles, the home he shared with Gauguin for nine weeks in the winter of 1888. In London, Jack the Ripper was slashing his way to immortality, matched only for celebrity in the French press by a home-grown version, a murderer named Prado, the brutal killer of a prostitute, whose trial began in Paris in November that year. Like the rest of the country, in between painting and drinking and paying ‘hygienic’ visits to the nearby brothel, van Gogh and Gauguin were captivated and horrified by Prado’s crime. Nine days after his trial began, Prado was condemned to the guillotine. At the time, van Gogh was working on La Berceuse, ‘The Cradle-Rocker’ for which he used his regular model, Augustine, the wife of the postmaster at the station in Arles. He planned to make as many as nine versions of the picture, the soothing mother wrapped in the silence of the night, and hang them between the Sunflowers, whose joyous, radiant petals would act as ‘candelabra’, like the votive candles mounted next to the tiny statues of the Madonna he had seen at the street corners of the mist-enveloped southern town.

  The papers reported that Prado was turning mad in his prison cell, while Gauguin was concerned that his friend, too, was losing his reason – either drunk or painting in a frenzy. The colours of La Berceuse, which van Gogh believed to be the finest arrangement he had ever devised, are sinister when compared with the clarity of the Sunflowers. At first they seem fixed, a ground of red containing Augustine’s stolidly seated body in its green dress, but as the eye moves up to the garish flowered wallpaper, they swirl and meld, orange swelling against the flesh tones, the vicious malachite of the sitter’s eyes seeming to wink, horribly, from the greedy pistils of the flowers. The paint crawls and shivers, making delirium of serenity. Gauguin couldn’t take it, the sweating and the singing, the wild declamations. He informed van Gogh that he was leaving Arles. Van Gogh silently handed him a newspaper cutting, an account of another, anonymous killing in the capital – ‘and the murderer took flight’, it said.

  It was nearly Christmas. Gauguin left the house, but van Gogh followed him into the little square where the oleanders were in bloom, an open razor in his hand. Or so Gauguin said, fifteen years later. He ran, left van Gogh there, took a room at a hotel, and when he returned to the Yellow House the next day, he found the floors soiled with bloody linens. Van Gogh had sliced off his own left ear, wrapped it carefully in another piece of the newspaper and delivered it to the brothel, as a gift for a whore named Rachel.

  Gauguin left on Christmas Night. He never saw his friend again. Two days later, he waited amongst the crowds on Rue de la Roquette to see the condemned Prado guillotined. He claimed to have been near enough to the prisoner to hear him ask ‘What is that?’ ‘The basket for your head,’ the gaoler replied. Exceptionally, as the blade fell and the crowd roared in release, Madame Guillotine missed her mark. Prado’s face was sliced, rather than his neck, and two blood-spattered constables had to wrench him back into position. One month later, Gauguin made a vase, dully glazed in blood-red, in the form of a self-portrait of his own severed head, both ears sliced away. That spring, he left for Tahiti.

  *

  We had been driving for two hours in silence. I relented, dismissing the drift of images, the colours, the blood.

  ‘Look, you don’t have to come to Germany. We’ll only be gone overnight. You could go home, see your family?’

  ‘I have to stay with you,’ da Silva answered wearily.

  ‘There’s stuff you can work on here – I told you, I have a list.’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Suit yourself. But then . . . um, we may have to go to Palermo.’

  ‘Madre di Dio.’

  *

  So, three days later, we touched down at Dusseldorf. Despite the abrupt drop in temperature, Li looked pretty jacked to be out of Italy. I had no sense of the terms of his employment, but I wondered whether da Silva’s insistence on accompanying us might have had more to do with the odds on the forger’s defection. Not that da Silva hadn’t been faithfully, indeed relentlessly, by my side. Even had I been in with a chance at the Siderno nightlife with an eye like a fried egg, there hadn’t been a moment for any further visits to the castello dive bar during the short time we had been back in Italy. For a start, da Silva and I had set up home together. Our new pad was a converted farmhouse not far from where da Silva had banged me up in the shed, let in the tourist season to the kind of people who imagined that a shower in an olive press and a five-kilometre drive to the baker’s constituted the ‘real’ Italy. No Calabrian would have holidayed there for money, but I had asked da Silva to find somewhere secluded, with a workspace where I could lay out my plans for the provenances away from inquisitive hotel staff.

  A small man in a sturdy overcoat and a flat cap had arrived at the President to help us transfer our things. It wasn’t until he bent over to help me lift my suitcase into the car boot and I caught a whiff of him that I realised this was Fish-Breath. Having grown into such a chimera during my days in the shed, it was odd to see my mysterious captor was as commonplace as any other of the middle-aged men who sip away their days in espresso cups in every Italian town. Da Silva didn’t seem to feel the need to reintroduce us, and the brief conversation they exchanged during the drive took place in the same impenetrable dialect I had heard the night we arrived on the beach. Fish-Breath unloaded several boxes of provisions from the supermarket before he drove away from the farmhouse, and when we were sitting down to our first domestic evening (artichoke ravioli courtesy of Signor Rana, which da Silva insisted on boiling himself as he refused to believe a foreigner could be trusted with pasta), I asked him how he had managed to conjure Fish-Breath out of nowhere to play Cerberus.

  ‘Does it matter?’

  ‘I’m curious.’

  ‘You don’t say.’

  ‘I mean, is that guy one of – your people?’

  ‘I don’t have “people”. I’m an inspector in the Guardia in Rome. I don’t work down here.’

  ‘But that business at the docks? The stuff you move?’

  ‘It’s not like I’m loading it personally. I don’t have anything to do with it. Salvatore is a friend – a family friend – he helped me out.’

  ‘In the middle of the night, landing a prisoner and keeping her, feeding her, for days, without asking questions? Some friend.’

  ‘Ask him yourself. He’s just outside.’

  I unfolded the grey-washed shutter at the kitchen window and looked out onto what had once been the farm’s threshing floor. There was old Salvatore, sitting on a white plastic garden chair, with a shotgun broken across his knees.

  ‘Are you for real? So this is a house arrest?’

  ‘You said you wanted somewhere quiet to work – you have it.’ He rubbed his temples with his thumbs. ‘Leave it, will you? You don’t need to know anything more than what you’re working on. Just get on with that, for the love of God.’ He
got up from the table and marched into the sitting room, snapping on the TV.

  ‘You’re a dickhead, you know that?’ I called after him.

  ‘Fuck off.’ Really, we might have been happily married.

  I cleared the plates. It was chilly in the kitchen. I fetched another sweater from the bedroom I had chosen at the end of the low house and went to work.

  First, I needed Gentileschi to be back in business, which meant resuscitating Elisabeth Teerlinc. I sent out a few emails explaining that though the gallery space in Venice was temporarily closed I would still be buying for private clients, and that a shipment of new pieces would shortly be available on the website. I hadn’t thought I’d need to be Elisabeth ever again, but obviously I couldn’t enter a painting in an auction at the House as Judith Rashleigh. That part I hadn’t quite got round to mentioning to da Silva yet. Ever since I had heard Raznatovic’s ultimatum, I had known where I wanted to sell the piece. Partly it was a practical decision, in that there were only two auctioneers in the world who could command the type of client able to raise the sort of money the Serbian was demanding, but I didn’t bother pretending to myself that was my motivation. From a distance, I had kept track of the career of my former boss, Rupert. The House had undergone a bit of a corporate shake-up by the look of its website. My old enemy Laura Belvoir had retired, while her god-daughter Angelica, who had taken my job when I was fired, was nowhere to be seen. Probably designing jewellery, like every other thick heiress I’d ever met. Rupert had been promoted – probably out of despair – from Head of British Pictures to Chief Coordinator, European Paintings. There was a photo of him, bulging out of his Savile Row suit, with an oleaginous, unnatural smile. I didn’t imagine the new title had made much difference to his daily routine of lunching and bullying the juniors, but it would be Rupert who decided if ‘my’ Gauguin was fit for sale. Once I’d re-established Gentileschi as a viable presence, we could begin the game.

  The next question was where the ‘Gauguin’ had suddenly emerged from. Provenance is a tricky thing. For a masterpiece to be ‘found’, ideally there needed to be a paper trail that buyers could follow, clearly showing that the painting had a consistent timeline, but equally, I would have to invent a story in which none of its ‘owners’ had suspected what they had.

  I took a pad of paper and began to tear off leaves, giving each one a title and laying them out in front of me. When the painter returned from his first expedition to Tahiti in 1893, over forty of his works had been exhibited at the Paul Durand-Ruel gallery in Paris, and Gauguin continued to send pictures back to France after he left for good in 1895. The real version of Woman with a Fan was produced in 1902, but usefully, Gauguin himself had never directly referred to the picture in any of his own extensive writing on his work. There was a photograph, taken from Gauguin’s home at Hiva Oa and recovered after his death, which showed his model in a similar pose. Conceivably, then, if there were two versions, then ‘my’ picture could have travelled with him from Tahiti to the Marquesas Islands and then been shipped back to Marseille. Unlike the real original though, my version would never travel north. I imagined a young officer, exhausted and excited after the sixty-day voyage, arriving in port with a picture given him by some crazy old drunk in a battered cowboy hat who reckoned he was an artist. By that point in Gauguin’s career, the booze and the syphilis as well as his own careful and disingenuous cultivation of his image as an outlaw made it plausible that he would have given a picture away, or lost it at cards, or sold it for a song.

  So, my officer arrives at Marseille, does what sailors do when they come home, finds himself short of cash, pawns the picture. Li would make a suitably period receipt from the pawnshop that would be pasted to the back of the panel. The pawnshop, unfortunately, would be destroyed when the Nazis dynamited the old town north of the port of Marseille in 1943. However, the canny ‘uncle’ had taken the picture with him when he fled the city along with 20,000 other refugees. I’d have to choose a name for him. It might be more realistic to choose a Jewish name, as many of the persecuted Marseillaises had been Jewish, but I reflected that this could cause complications. It wouldn’t do to have the picture classified as one of the looted art objects which the Nazis’ specialised ‘cultural plunder’ division, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, might have got their hands on, as this could cause legal disputes over its ownership. No, he’d better be only French.

  My supposition would then suggest that the pawnbroker sold the picture, again with no idea of its worth, to an Italian partisan returning over the Alps at the end of the war. After the Nazis left Italy, many soldiers in the Italian army had been shipped to prisoner of war camps in Germany, making their way home as best they could through the chaos of Europe after peace was declared. I made a note to myself to check the names of the ranks of different soldiers to describe my imagined partisan on the label. Another receipt to add to the panel, another invented name.

  And then, the painting would disappear for thirty years, only to turn up as a lot in a sale of miscellaneous objects abandoned in the left luggage of the Rome railway terminal. Such sales periodically took place. After the sale, the Gauguin would travel south to Palermo, where it would hang for a decade in the kitchen of a modest apartment. The owner of the modest apartment would then have taken out a mortgage, on which he would default, leaving his home and its contents to be repossessed by the bank. In the inventory, the owner would also state that he had picked up the painting at the railway sale. I would then ‘examine’ the records of that sale and insert a document into the original price list, where the dismissive description ‘Painting of a woman’, could then be found amongst the genuine items. Inserting details of fake paintings in real sales was a trick that had been used by a forger named John Drewe who had succeeded in selling fake Giacomettis, many of which still hung in museums, their authenticity in abeyance.

  And the bank in question would be the Società Mutuale di Palermo. As I had discovered from when I was tracking down the fake Caravaggio, the Sicilian organisation owned a large collection of art assets – some genuine, some less so. The pictures were held at the main headquarters in Palermo, but the bank had small branches in Rome, Naples and Milan. Both Moncada and then Kazbich had flipped paintings through the Società Mutuale, which meant that it was, at least in part, used as a cover for the art-for-arms operations which had been conducted for at least twenty years. Officially, I would pose as a disinterested private dealer who had ‘discovered’ the Gauguin while looking to acquire pieces from the Società Mutuale’s holdings. I would buy a couple on behalf of the gallery and stick them up on the website, and in the meantime the bank would then engage me, as Gentileschi, to research the Gauguin and broker any potential sale. I would then ‘investigate’ the backstory I had already prepared. The bank would be my client, with the proceeds going to them, after which it would be da Silva’s responsibility to see that any money reached its destination, with the surplus profit taken by Gentileschi as a fee.

  If I ‘acquired’ the picture for Gentileschi fairly soon, then the time it took Li to actually make it would cover the period of my supposed research into its provenance.

  Presumably the Società Mutuale would be able to provide the paperwork for the mortgage, the default on the loan and the repossession of the picture, all suitably backdated. I’d need to work on a third identity, this time of the last owner who had bought the picture at the railway sale in the seventies, and then lost it to the bank in the eighties, all conveniently pre-computer database. The unfortunate mortgage defaulter would pass away shortly afterwards, I decided, leaving no living descendants. I looked at the sheets in front of me, now filled with scribbles and underlinings, added a note that we would need period paper from the forties, seventies and eighties. And a couple of old phone books. Da Silva would have to arrange a meeting in Palermo. It could do. It could just do.

  *

  It was nearly midnight, but Salvatore remained in place, upright and staring out in
to the lights of Siderno twenty minutes below us. Indoors, da Silva was still glaring at the TV news, a report about fresh migrant routes into Western Europe from Romania. I was going to offer him a glass of wine, but there was already a three-quarters empty bottle of red open in the kitchen. I poured out the last of it and joined him, staring at the screen.

  ‘Romero?’

  ‘What now?’

  ‘When you took me to the port that day, you said that the refugees mostly ended up in the camp. What did you mean, “mostly”?’

  ‘I meant accidents happen.’

  The report switched to an ad break, the usual showgirl in a micro-bikini. This one was ecstatically washing a car, mostly with her breasts.

  ‘Go on.’

  ‘Sometimes they need to make space for the stuff. So the boats have to unload their cargo first.’

  ‘That being the people? You mean they just dump them in the sea? On purpose?’

  His eyes were still fixed on the glow of the screen. He nodded and reached for the remote, zapping through the channels until he arrived halfway through Clint Eastwood facing down a saloon full of outlaws.

  ‘You want to watch this?’

  ‘No thanks.’ I chucked back the remains of my wine in one and went to bed. I didn’t lock the bedroom door, in case he heard the latch over Clint’s last stand. I didn’t want him to think I was locking him out, because that would have implied I was thinking about him in my bedroom. Which of course I wasn’t. The air tingled with ice as I opened the window to reach for the shutter. Salvatore was standing, watching the firework display crackling above the sea. I went back downstairs.

  ‘Do you know what day it is?’

 
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