Ultima, p.11

Ultima, page 11



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  ‘Of course.’

  ‘Happy New Year, then.’


  The Folkwang Museum in Essen was once described as ‘the most beautiful museum in the world’ but that was presumably before the construction of its three modern extensions. Even the snow that had, to Li’s delight, greeted us at the airport, couldn’t prettify the greenish concrete boxes plonked dispiritingly by the highway. We’d taken three rooms at the Dusseldorf airport Sheraton, where da Silva and I ate currywurst in the atrium while upstairs Li changed into the warm jacket I’d insisted da Silva buy him and assembled his kit. We couldn’t afford to use anything too professional in case it attracted attention, but I’d suggested Li buy an LED clip-on magnifier for his smartphone to get the best possible image of the brushstrokes. Gauguin had usually drawn out his compositions in Prussian blue, then covered them with a base ground of colour before adding further layers of pigment with regular vertical or diagonal strokes. Li was already equipped with period sable-tipped brushes, but I wanted him to practise laying the colour in until the supple gestures of Gauguin’s tools had become part of his own muscle memory.

  It was already getting dark by the time we entered the transparent-walled corridors of the museum. There were only a few other visitors – Essen wasn’t exactly a Christmas holiday destination. Li put his palm wonderingly to the glass, as though he was absorbing the snow’s coldness through the pane. We made a tour of the collection, pausing before works by Renoir and Macke before approaching Woman with a Fan. For a moment, we none of us moved, even da Silva hypnotised by the still intensity of the colours. The model is seated on an ornate carved chair, the folds of her simple white wrap framing the ostrich plume fan erect in her hand. She looks solid, densely fleshed, the weight of her body apparent in the shadow beneath her fingers, and yet she might be floating on a sunlit cloud, so delicately do the infinite shades of the ground play out around her. A blue patch diagonal left, the suggestion of a flower against a glimpse of sky conducts the eye up and around her body, its journey enclosing her in the looping magnetism of the painter’s gaze. Very much a girl, she might equally, in this endless captured moment, be a goddess, poised serenely between two worlds. The veined feathers of the fan are laid in flat, reducing the perspective between living skin and lifeless object, yet their tips have just left off quivering, as though moved by the warm beat of her heart. She was entrancing.

  I broke the spell, hustled the guys together and we wrapped our arms around one another for a selfie, just like the majority of other visitors, because isn’t that what museums are for? We take a selfie to show that we have been in the presence of something amazing, something extraordinary, when what we are actually doing is pushing ourselves into the foreground of the artwork, this marvellous thing on which we are literally turning our backs. It doesn’t matter whether we’re giving the cold shoulder to a Michelangelo, because our own banality is the real subject, degrading the piece to a frame for our own egos even as the need to take the photo subverts our intentions. It made me want to puke, even as I gurned for the camera. Our normality established, I sent da Silva off to the coffee shop and took out a heavy catalogue raisonné – the compendium of all an artist’s known works – while Li photographed the painting from every angle. I was hoping we’d pass for students, or just particularly eager fans, should anyone be watching.

  ‘Look at this one,’ I suggested when I’d found the illustration I wanted. And the Gold of Their Bodies, from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Two girls, one subject nude, the other wearing just a white hip cloth, both of them gazing out at the viewer from what might be the edge of a forest, a blaze of orange flowers centring their heads in a formless halo. The pose of the nude sitter echoed that of the woman in the painting before us, leaning forward slightly on the left shoulder, hand splayed flat from the wrist, the crook of the bicep pushing the exposed breast slightly forward. I traced Li’s hand over the book as he looked up at the painting, echoing the line of the composition.

  ‘We’ll put the fan here, in her right hand,’ I whispered in Italian. Li nodded, captivated, his eyes darting between the two images.

  ‘Ah mean, it’s really disgusting!’ A loud, forceful voice broke our vigil. A tiny woman in black was advancing along the gallery, swathed in a huge down coat that covered her so completely it seemed that she moved on wheels. Heavy black sunglasses covered most of her face, beneath the severe fringe of a bright-red bob. Fuck. I buried my face in the catalogue. MacKenzie Pratt was an instantly recognisable art world harpy, an heiress from Virginia who fancied herself as a latter day Peggy Guggenheim. I’d glimpsed her in person at the Venice and Kiev Biennales, but her photo popped up everywhere from the Met Gala to Frieze Art Fair. She owned a significant nineteenth-century collection that she leveraged with loans to museums to get herself onto every board and prestigious junket going. She was giving the benefit of her opinions to a harassed-looking young man with a clipboard trailing in her wake.

  ‘Ah mean, I’m not having my Monet hanging next to him. He was a day-generate!’ she continued, planting herself between Li and the Gauguin. ‘What he did to those girls – sheer exploitation! They were teenagers. No, you’ll have to move it.’

  ‘That might be –a bit – difficult?’ ventured the young man.

  ‘Ah don’t care. Ah think it’s a disgrace that he should be displayed and Ah intend to take a stand.’

  I turned away, but she moved at the same moment, planting a spiked boot heel into my sneaker.

  ‘Oh. Excuse me,’ she murmured disdainfully, as though her clumsiness was my fault. Then she glimpsed the book in my hand. ‘You like Gauguin?’ she demanded.

  I gave her a blank look. ‘Yes.’

  It was impossible to tell from behind the glasses but I sensed she was glaring at up me. Beneath a strained, Botoxed forehead, her face was shot through with fine wrinkles like a piece of crumpled cling film. Bright poppy lipstick had bled into the corners of her mouth, giving her the look of a junior ghoul.

  ‘Well you should think again, honey. He was no more than a payed-o-fyle.’ Her companion made an apologetic face as she marched off.

  ‘What was she on about?’ asked Li.

  ‘Nothing. It’s too boring to explain. They’re closing in a few minutes, see if you can get really close now.’

  Gauguin painted a whole lot of other subjects aside from naked brown-skinned young women, but it’s the Polynesian babes that everyone recognises. Not the rich tensions of Self-Portrait with Halo and Snake, not the disquieting, rural Yellow Christ. The complex, elusive iconography, the perfervid brilliance of the colour aren’t worth considering when we can tut instead about the poor colonials, exploited by the old white pervert, as though his paintings could be explained by the vulgarities of psychology. No one ever asks whether our prurient obsession with Gauguin’s sex life says more about us than it ever could about him.

  A bell rang and a tannoyed voice informed us in German and then English that the museum would be closed in five minutes.

  ‘Quick,’ I whispered to Li, ‘get a few shots of the borders, where the frame meets the canvas.’

  The finish at the rim of a piece is often a weak point for spotting forgeries. He knelt down as near to Woman with a Fan as he could, positioning himself carefully. Major pictures are usually alarmed to prevent curious visitors from getting too close. An echoing tap of heels sounded in the direction of the lobby. I moved in front of Li and opened the book again, trying to conceal him as much as possible. Mackenzie Pratt appeared again, peering into the gallery from the corridor. She lifted her sunglasses and stared at me once more. Her exposed irises were almost colourless inside their jagged clumps of mascara, miniature poisonous flowers.

  ‘My, aren’t we studious?’ she remarked.

  I gave her a blank nod and turned my eyes to the book. I didn’t look up again, but as Li shot I could feel those suspicious, malevolent eyes absorbing us across the wide space.


  Li plan
ned to return to the museum in the morning, but he was already eager to try out the composition. Working from the pictures and the illustrations in the catalogue, he quickly sketched out version after version in pencil on an A2 pad, shifting the angle of the pose slightly each time. His line was clean, unhesitating, so much so that after a few attempts I could almost believe I was looking at a Gauguin. He was astonishing.

  ‘Li,’ I asked when we paused for a lukewarm Lipton tea. ‘Why don’t you work for yourself? You’re an amazing artist. This stuff – it’s not all you could do.’

  He shrugged, tucking his pencil behind his ear.

  ‘It pays well. And what else would I do? I can paint, sure, I can paint pretty much anything. But no one’s interested in painting any more.’


  ‘I’m used to it. No sweat!’ he added endearingly in English, his hand moving deftly across the paper. Too right, I thought. I’m the one who should be sweating.


  We ordered dinner in da Silva’s room, where I ran through my suggestions for the provenances, explaining what I would need at each stage of the backstory I had concocted. Li mentioned that he’d need some wax to mix with the paint, showing da Silva the close-ups from the museum, the thin layers built up for sheen in the colour, but da Silva barely glanced at Woman with a Fan. He was distracted, endlessly checking his phone, fiddling with the gold Dupont. Li cleared his plate efficiently, folded his napkin and excused himself to go back to work. All his movements were quiet and precise, as clean as his hand when he drew.

  ‘Want a smoke?’ I offered.

  ‘It’s too cold out there.’



  I found the minibar and made him a gin and tonic, took a brandy for myself.

  ‘What’s the matter? Nervous?’

  ‘I should be getting back to Rome.’

  ‘I thought you had leave?’

  ‘Until July, yes. It’s not that.’

  ‘The wife?’


  I was half minded to ask him if he fancied a screw. It seemed like there was eff-all else to do on a cold night in Essen. And isn’t that what people do on business trips – empty the minibar and fumble away the loneliness in anonymous hotel rooms? I realised I was admitting to myself that I fancied him after all, but that was hardly news. I’d fancied him ever since I first saw him that summer on Lake Como. I could still remember the way the muscles of his chest had stood out beneath his shirt. In between thinking up ways to kill him, that is. There was a coldness to him, a detachment from anything but the next thing. He was quick at reading people, situations – the gunman on the dock, the boy in Tangier. And I’d watched his eyes when he shot the man in Albania. I couldn’t stop remembering it.


  ‘What now?’

  ‘When you have to . . . you know. How does it feel?’

  ‘You already asked me that.’

  ‘I didn’t mean emotional shit. I meant physically. How does it feel to you? Your . . . body?’

  He thought. ‘My eyes. My eyes feel different. And I hear really well. As though the volume’s been turned up. I’ve never really thought about it.’

  I wanted to say, you are like me. I felt your heart, after you killed the Moroccan boy. But maybe we weren’t that special. Maybe all we had in common is that we did what other people only think about.

  ‘What about you?’ he asked. I didn’t answer at first, went to the window and looked out at the dirty banks of snow four floors below.


  The Picton Library closed at eight, so it would have been about nine when I got to the bus stop nearest our flat. I used to go there from school most days, not only because it was warm and quiet, but for the grand columns on the curved façade, the orbs of gold-green light along the polished rows of Victorian desks, the dusty, lulling shuffle of the librarians’ feet as they pushed trolleys of books between the stacks. As soon as I was inside, I was someone different, serious, important.

  I must have been about sixteen then, the year before I left for good. The Tesco was already shut, bundles of homeless wadded down for the night on their cardboard pallets. I usually crossed the road to avoid them – sometimes a hand would snarl out from one of the rancid heaps, or a rearing figure, slurring a demand for change. A ginnel ran between the supermarket and the first of the blocks, round the car park at the back, a shortcut past the bins to the pub. That night, I heard a woman’s weak wailing and a tinny thud as though something had fallen against the wheelie bin. At first I thought it was just the pissheads scrapping, but then I recognised the whine of my mother’s voice.

  ‘Giv’ iback! Don’be a bastard. Giv’iback.’

  She was trapped between two of the big metal containers, three lads in hoodies blocking her way. They were just ratty-limbed kids, no more than twelve or thirteen. Messing with her. One of them had her bag, taunting her as she lurched forward to grab at it, but she missed and fell over, hauling herself pathetically forward over the wet dirt.

  ‘What’ll you give us, missus?’

  They weren’t trying to mug her, just taking the mick, but once she was on the ground, they got scared and vicious. The biggest of them kicked her hard in the face. She shied back, hitting her jaw on the corner of the bin, curling up with her hands clutched to her face.

  ‘There you go! There’s your stuff.’ They emptied the bag on the ground; I heard a few coins fall and the heavier weight of her pink umbrella.

  ‘Fuck off, you little gobshites!’

  They shot off at that, trainers pounding down the alley, but I was fast, much faster than them. I kept my eyes on the pink nylon brolly as I shot across the road, scooping it up without breaking my stride, and had the last of them by the back of his neck before he reached the open space of the car park. I kicked his legs out from under him and the other two turned round.

  ‘Ar ay, it’s Rashers.’

  They closed in, scabby shaved heads shrouded by their hoods, the light from the lamp post catching the greyed crumble of their last baby teeth.

  ‘Fuck off, you fucking no-marks.’

  ‘Or what?’

  ‘How about this?’

  I had the boy on the ground, his trainers scrabbling on the slimy tarmac. Using the umbrella as a truncheon I started battering his face, so hard I felt the stem inside the rolled fabric snap. I beat him until his grey hoodie was dark then pushed him onto his back and brought the thick heel of my school shoe down on his balls, once, twice, again and again until he was clutched up, whimpering.

  ‘You fucking bitch. You’re fucking mental.’ But they were backing away. I brandished the umbrella at them. A spike had come loose. It looked sharp.

  ‘Want some? Want some of what your mate’s got? Not the big men now, are we? Now fuck off.’

  They ran. It had only taken a minute. I gave the kid on the ground one last kick and went to find my mother. She was still on all fours, rooting blearily for her possessions.

  ‘Get up.’

  There was blood on her chin and a cut under one eye. He’d taken a tooth out.

  ‘Look at you. Look at the fucking state of you.’ There was dog shit in her hair.

  ‘I’m, I’m sorry, love.’ Shorry. She was a fucking disgrace.

  ‘Just get up, Mum.’

  I reached out a hand to haul her to her feet but she flinched back, toppled over again. Her eyes were huge in the neon glow of the Tesco sign. Wide and white and suddenly sober, brimming with fear.


  ‘Nothing. It feels like nothing,’ I said finally.

  We were silent again.

  ‘You were right about my wife.’ He offered it in the same voice he had used in the dark at the riad, quite different from the exasperated contempt of his usual tone towards me.

  ‘How so?’

  ‘That it was . . . an arrangement. We were together for years before we got married, from when we were teenagers. I lived in her family
s apartment while I was at the university. Separate rooms of course.’ He finished his drink.

  ‘So you didn’t?’

  ‘Not until the wedding night.’

  ‘Jesus. And . . . since then?’

  ‘We don’t like . . . waywardness. Even now, a divorce – impossible. So, I don’t mess around.’

  I thought about that one. Did he really mean he’d never slept with anyone else?

  ‘You want another?’ he asked.

  ‘Better not. Li and I have a lot to think about.’

  I was almost at the door when he spoke again.

  ‘Cleret. He told me about you.’


  ‘Where you met him. That stuff you’re into.’

  ‘That wasn’t very gentlemanly of him. And?’

  Romero da Silva was actually blushing. ‘I just thought.’

  ‘What? What did you think?’

  So da Silva knew about my taste for the night. Did it excite him? Or disgust him?

  The silence stretched out like the lozenges on the hideous Sheraton carpet.

  ‘Nothing. Sorry.’

  ‘Good night, then.’

  ‘Good night, Judith.’

  In the corridor, I waited a moment, listening. I heard the compressed rubbery squeak of the fridge and the sound of liquid hitting the bottom of a glass. Like the volume’s been turned up. So much so that I could also hear da Silva’s ears, casting for the stagger of my breath as I leaned against the wall.


  ‘Tomato sauce.’

  ‘You what?’

  ‘Li needs some tomato sauce. Can you make some?’

  ‘Can’t you we just buy some?’

  ‘We need Sicilian tomatoes.’

  Da Silva and I were smoking on the deck of the ferry between Reggio Calabria and Messina. We were the only passengers outside – the few other travellers today, the feast of Epiphany, were downstairs, many of them vomiting unselfconsciously into paper bags. The straits were so choppy that the first departure had been cancelled. It was also freezing and pouring with sleet, but at least up here we didn’t have to inhale the stench of regurgitated New Year zampone. Da Silva was in uniform, accessorised with a cane for his ‘injured’ leg. I couldn’t see why he was being arsed to keep up appearances, but then much of the logic of his façade was still beyond me.

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