Ultima, p.14

Ultima, page 14

 

Ultima
 


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  ‘I didn’t mean that. I meant . . . doing what you want.’

  ‘What did you want? If you hadn’t gone into the Guardia?’

  He dragged deeply on his cigarette. ‘Down there, in town? My dad used to have drinks with the cops in the bar all the time. Kept everything quiet. So it was natural for me to join. Either that or they said I had to be a civil engineer.’

  ‘Ugh. There you go again with “they” . . . And if there hadn’t been a “they”? What then?’

  ‘It never occurred to me to think about it. That’s just not how things are.’

  *

  Travelling behind the House van in the car Rupert had sent to City Airport, London seemed vast and strange as we came in from the flatlands of the docks, the skyline ragged with cranes and ever-taller buildings, rookeries of new apartments and block-towered containers. Only when we came past Smithfield into the centre did it begin to seem familiar again, though much brisker and shinier than I remembered. I’d obviously been holed up in the sticks too long. As we crawled along Shaftesbury Avenue I found myself checking and rechecking my face in the driver’s mirror. When I had met Rupert briefly at the Biennale just after I launched Gentileschi in Venice he had certainly not recognised me, but we had been passing in a crowd. Might propinquity stir a memory in him? On the evening when he fired me from the House, I’d been fairly forthright with my opinion of him. If someone had called me a talentless overprivileged cunt I was pretty sure I’d remember them, but then I wasn’t a talentless overprivileged cunt.

  Yet Rupert hadn’t recognised Judith Rashleigh in Venice simply because he didn’t expect to find Judith Rashleigh there. Memory can be a matter of context, of association – you might think you remember the features of the guy who makes your skinny latte every morning, but without his barista’s uniform and the jaunty name badge, chances are you’d walk past him on the street. I’d considered the porters, obviously, but there I was relying on the strict hierarchies of the House. Clients came and went all the time, and if one of the porters saw a resemblance between one of them and a latter-day employee, it certainly wasn’t their place to mention it. That left the girls on the front desk – the ‘Spice Rack’ as they were sometimes called – but they had been virtually interchangeable to me when I worked there, those glossy-maned Euro-princesses who handed out catalogues in between skiing holidays. Besides, they had been far too beadily focused on husband-hunting to pay the slightest attention to a scruffy junior. Back then, I hadn’t even looked like competition.

  I settled the lapels of my jacket. Siderno didn’t offer much in the way of luxury brands, but inevitably there was an outlet store and I’d picked up a slouchy Céline suit in French navy that I’d put with a soft grey T and plain brogues. Unassuming but confident. I already had the story of my discovery by heart, but I repeated it over as the van pulled into the yard behind the House. And there was Rupert, large as life and twice as repulsive. OK, Judith. Showtime.

  He gave me a meaty handshake as we watched the porters lower the back ramp of the truck and load the picture onto a trolley, as carefully as if they were disembarking an ambulance. He affected to recall our last encounter in Venice, but it was plain he discerned no connection between Elisabeth Teerlinc and Judith Rashleigh, or ‘Er’ as he’d usually preferred to address me. We progressed ceremoniously behind the trolley into the basement. Tracing the once familiar route through the complex warren of passages that led to the warehouse, we passed a lovely, arrogant Bronzino portrait and a sedan chair with a stuffed Minion toy seated inside. One of the porters’ gags. Smiling to myself, I remembered how lucky I had once felt to come down here, to move amongst so many beautiful things. A bench had been prepared and Rupert leaned forward eagerly as the wrappings were slowly removed.

  ‘I must say, I can’t wait to see her!’ he boomed. The two porters stood back respectfully. I hadn’t seen either of them before.

  ‘I’m Elisabeth,’ I said firmly, offering my hand.

  ‘Sorry!’ said Rupert. ‘This is Jim and this is, er . . .’

  ‘Malcolm, sir,’ the older of the two supplied.

  Rupert made a show of adjusting the UV light and running his eyes over the panel, first with a large old-fashioned magnifying glass and then with a loupe. He made little panting noises of appreciation. I’d heard those before, though this time I tried not to shudder.

  ‘Very pretty. Very pretty indeed.’

  ‘I think so.’

  ‘What do you think, Jim?’

  Rupert smiled patiently, the expression an adult makes when a fond parent asks their child’s opinion.

  ‘Looks pretty straight to me, miss.’

  The tension in my nerves slackened a notch. The porters had always had the best eyes in the House.

  ‘Well, if you’re willing, Miss Teerlinc, I’ll have the chaps get started straight away.’

  ‘Of course.’

  ‘There’s a bit of bumph for you to sign, I’m afraid. I’ll get someone down from the department and then I’m sure you’d like a spot of tea?’

  The affected nonchalance was a good sign. A very good sign. If Rupert hadn’t been acting as though I’d just dropped off a fruit cake for the church bazaar it would mean he wasn’t convinced. He sent a message on his phone and in a surprisingly short time a young woman appeared – a young woman in a cheap black suit that was working hard without convincing anyone and a striking mop of red-gold Pre-Raphaelite curls. She would have looked very pretty had she not recently applied too much powder to her lovely pale complexion, but the UV glowing from the bench behind us showed what the make-up would otherwise have concealed, that she had recently been crying. Not that she gave any indication of this to Rupert.

  ‘Is this it, then?’ she asked in a broad Yorkshire accent. She turned to me and offered her hand firmly.

  ‘I’m Pandora Smith, Rupert’s junior. Pleased to meet you, Miss Teerlinc.’

  Yorkshire accent? ‘Pleased to meet you’? What the hell had happened to the House?

  ‘I’ve brought the permissions, Rupes. If you’d just look them over, Miss Teerlinc, and then sign here and here and . . . here, please.’

  Rupes? I was so flabbergasted I almost signed my real name on the paperwork that consigned the Gauguin to the House and authorised their investigation into its authenticity. Pandora waited respectfully while I fiddled with the fountain pen, then stepped forward for a look at the canvas.

  ‘Late,’ she said, after a long but unselfconscious pause. ‘The saturation from the chalk is really high in the ground. The lean technique.’

  ‘Which recalls?’ asked Rupert genially.

  ‘Italian Primitivists, change in application marking transition from Naturalism to Symbolism between 1886 and 1889.’

  ‘Bravo. Isn’t she marvellous? A real asset to the department.’

  ‘Spot on,’ I muttered. What the fuck was happening here? Rupert encouraging a junior? Asking her to display her knowledge?

  Pandora made a sort of half bob and disappeared back through the warehouse.

  ‘First from Edinburgh,’ Rupert remarked, ‘Super girl. Now, about that tea. I’m sure you must be dropping after such a fraught journey.’

  *

  What was left of my disdainful composure collapsed entirely when we arrived in the lobby on Prince Street. The ornate carved staircase remained, but the House I recognised had vanished completely. The Spice Rack were still in evidence, but they actually appeared to be working instead of booking salon appointments and keeping their eyes out for passing billionaires. What had once been a gloomy waiting area furnished with heavy Victorian sofas had been transformed into a café, which was actually Open To The Street, serving what seemed suspiciously like green smoothies in bright coloured Murano beakers to several people who looked quite normal. There were even tables outside on the pavement. Rupert asked a young, bearded waiter in skinny trousers and braces showing under a witty House tailcoat for a pot of Earl Grey and a plate of cinnamon bi
scuits, which came dusted with the company logo in icing sugar.

  ‘Awfully good,’ he munched, spraying crumbs. At least some things never changed. ‘We bake them here, you know, all in-house. Organic.’

  ‘Yummy. I remember them from the last time I was here,’ I lied. ‘I popped in to the Old Masters sale last summer.’

  ‘Oh – you ought to have called me.’

  ‘It was just a flying visit. You know how it is, the travelling.’

  ‘Quite. I was in Maastricht and Miami in a week myself last month,’ Rupert divulged proudly. ‘Well, may I say, Miss Teerlinc, that we’re delighted, just delighted, that you have decided to go with us. And if we have a Gauguin – well!’ For a moment I caught a glimpse of the old Rupert peering acquisitively from behind those fat-cushioned eyes. Eyes that had no idea what I had planned for them.

  ‘Do call me Elisabeth. I’d love to see around the department, if I may, before I present?’

  ‘Of course, of course! I thought we’d start about five.’ Rupert gallantly took my briefcase and ushered me towards the stairs. ‘How long are you staying in London?’

  ‘Oh, just until this evening. I need to get back to the gallery. But of course, in a month or so, we’ll need to meet again?’

  ‘With something stronger, hopefully? By way of a celebration?’

  ‘I’m sure my client will be delighted to provide the champagne!’ I enthused.

  The café had prepared me for what to expect as we reached the European Painting department on the first floor, and sure enough the torpid dustiness I remembered from British Pictures had been well and truly swept away. Most of the experts were working at shiny Macs with headphones in, occasionally whizzing backwards on their chairs to consult on a price or a detail.

  ‘Hot-desking,’ explained Rupert. ‘We introduced it last year. Keeps things dynamic.’

  ‘Is this the catalogue for the July sale?’ I asked, pointing to a layout of Impressionist works on one of the screens.

  ‘Just so. Huge sale – our first collaboration with American twentieth century. We’re very excited about the de Kooning.’

  ‘Which one?’

  ‘Weeell, as a matter of fact, we’ve got Intersection coming in.’

  I whistled. ‘Impressive.’ De Kooning currently held the record as the world’s most expensive artist, with a price tag of three hundred million pounds at a recent sale.

  ‘We’re finding that our clients prefer to bid across a wider geographical range – period too. That’s why we’re mixing up the sales.’

  ‘You’re so right, Rupert.’ I twinkled. ‘Those old categories just don’t feel current any more.’ Not to mention that if you include all the most fashionable artists in a single sale, buyers are more likely to compete for works and drive the prices up.

  ‘Perhaps you’d like to see my office, Elisabeth?’ Hot-desking clearly didn’t include the boss’s chair. Health and safety wouldn’t have allowed it, for a start.

  There was a knock at Rupert’s leather-padded door.

  ‘And this will be Charlie. Charles Eagles, our chief auctioneer.’ Rupert still had his corporate smile firmly pasted on, but I could hear the loathing in his voice.

  ‘So you’re the girl who found the Gauguin!’ The deep, drawling voice belonged to a man about my age with thick coffee-coloured hair just touching the collar of his tailored Turnbull and Asser shirt. He was tall and slim and tieless with a tennis tan and Arctic-blue eyes that ran over me with all the warmth of a rattlesnake being introduced to a rabbit.

  ‘Elisabeth Teerlinc. I believe we’ve met,’ I said as I offered him my hand. He took it and leaned in for an expert double-cheekbone brush. We hadn’t actually met, but Eagles wouldn’t care either way. He had been poached by the House from New York after several seasons of racking up record sales for what we had always called the Other Place. A profile in Vogue had described his ‘uniquely insouciant blend of uptown chic and downtown cool’. He modelled for Mr Porter, dated actresses famous enough to land him in Heat and had two million followers on Instagram. I almost found myself feeling sorry for Rupert. Eagles was obviously a total twat, but I still would have done him.

  ‘Well, now Charlie has joined us,’ Rupert said, pointedly looking at his watch, ‘we might begin?’

  ‘Sorry, Rupes,’ Charles’s tone was briskly insolent. ‘Lunch at Isabel. You know how it is.’ He gave me a little cool-kids-together eye roll as Rupert waddled to the door and clapped his hands.

  ‘Everyone! If we could all gather round? This is Elisabeth Teerlinc from Gentileschi. I’m very much hoping – that is, we are very much hoping, that she’s brought us a Gauguin!’

  I flipped open my laptop while the members of the department formed a group in Rupert’s office, noticing that Pandora wasn’t amongst them. I waited until they were silent and then a moment more, allowing their expectancy to build. Charles was lounging against the wall, reading a message on his phone.

  ‘If we’re ready? Thank you. So – I’m an independent gallerist with a space in Venice. Last year I spent some time looking into the archive holdings of the Banca di Società Mutuale in Palermo, and one of the pieces I took out for consideration was this.’ I clicked onto the first screen of my presentation, a simple shot Li and I had taken of the picture against a white background. They leaned forward, even Charles. ‘Immediately, I noticed . . .’

  I didn’t describe a moment of thrilling discovery, the exhilaration of recognising a potential masterpiece. That kind of stuff was for amateurs, or PR releases. We were professionals concerned with the intricate details of our merchandise, no more. Clear, practical, impassionate, that was how I needed to seem.

  So I went through the background, the research, the provenances. I outlined the work Mariangela had done, adding that she had used the same de-varnishing technique employed by the Getty Museum in New York on Gauguin’s Arii Matamoe. They laughed politely at the tomato sauce, nodded sagely at the dendrochronological confirmation. I explained the pigment analysis, the correlations with Gauguin’s process. Fluent, precise, confident – all the things I had dreamed of being once, in this place, with people just like this, attentive, respectful. And as I watched their faces, I saw in each one of them the moment of epiphany, the seizure of the possible, the crucial transformation of hope to faith, of that desire which is the most important of all, the need of the art lover to believe. The last screen was a quotation from Gauguin himself:

  My artistic centre is in my brain and nowhere else, and I am strong because I am never thrown off course by other people, and because I do what is in me.

  ‘Of course,’ I added in conclusion, giving Rupert the most Madonna-like look of humility I could conjure, ‘the real knowledge is yours, and that knowledge will determine whether my . . . suggestions are correct. I hope, for all of us, that they will prove concrete. Thank you.’

  I kept my eyes modestly on my shoes as they applauded. For a few magical seconds, I almost believed it myself. The strings picked up on the soundtrack and, outside, a rainbow danced over St James’s Square. Here I was, triumphant, vindicated. Except, as with most things in your life, it’s all the most terrible crock.

  I excused myself to go to the bathroom, remembering to ask the way. I’d half been expecting a water wall and a gender-neutral Japanese loo, but the Ladies was still furnished with the same row of reassuring old thunderboxes. From behind a closed door, I heard someone crying. Muffled, snorting tears, stifled and then jerking out again in short bursts. Angry tears. It had to be Pandora. I’d spent enough time suppressing my rage in these stalls to recognise the sound of a woman who’d been fucked over by Rupert.

  I lingered at the basin until she unlocked the door.

  ‘Man trouble?’ I asked, keeping my eyes on my reflection in the mirror. She started.

  ‘Oh, Miss Teerlinc. I’m so sorry, have I missed – I had no idea. Oh shit!’ The tears welled up again and she turned her face away, rubbing furiously at her eyes.

&n
bsp; ‘Would you like a cup of tea? I’ve got a few minutes. We could go to Crown Passage, out the back stairs?’

  She looked at me, smeared and bloodshot. ‘Thanks. Yes, I would.’

  I ran some cold water over a paper towel. ‘Put that on your eyes first. I’ll just say goodbye and meet you there.’

  Rupert gave me a warm double handshake on the steps of the House. Warm as in sweaty liver.

  ‘That was a very impressive presentation. We’ll go through it all, of course, and then it’ll be time to let the boffins get to work!’

  *

  The greasy spoon across the road in Crown Passage was fuggy with fat and coagulated London sunshine. I bought two thick white china mugs of tea and a Chelsea bun. Pandora picked at one of the burnt currants in the crust, then pushed the plate aside.

  ‘Smart move. They’ve been on the counter since Rupert was a junior.’

  ‘Rupert . . . ’

  ‘Not a boyfriend, then? Or a girlfriend?’

  ‘No. Just something that happened this morning.’

  ‘I don’t want to pry. It’s just you seemed so upset.’ I let the implied question hover sympathetically.

  She pushed her untidy hair defiantly out of her face and took a swig of tea.

  ‘I’m fine, thanks. Sorry, I don’t even know you. You must think I’m a right pillock.’

  ‘I can keep a secret.’

  ‘Miss Teerlinc.’

  ‘Elisabeth.’

  ‘Elisabeth. You have your own gallery, right?’

  ‘Yes. Gentileschi.’

  ‘You see, that’s what I want – one day, you know. After I’ve been at the House a bit longer. But this morning . . .’ I could see her wanting to tell me, to confide, just as her need to seem professional was holding her back. The black suit had a tear on the collar, ineptly mended. It made me ache for her.

  ‘How old are you, Pandora?’

  ‘Twenty-five.’

  There were only four years between us, but I felt ancient.

  ‘So, when I was about your age’ – God, I sounded ancient too – ‘I had a bit of bother with a client. Was it something like that?’

 
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