Ultima, page 22
‘Yah. It’s just after the birth I’m bothered about.’
Carlotta said she fancied a nap after all when we arrived at the Byblos, so I spent the afternoon swimming laps, reading by the pool and going over my plans for the day after the sale. The train ticket was still waiting in its locker at the St Pancras Metro Express. But maybe I wouldn’t have to use it after all. Flipping on my back, I floated in the soft water, paddling my hands as I drifted, my face turned to the cobalt Mediterranean heavens. Maybe I daydreamed, just a little.
At six, I went up to dress. I was more excited than I felt I ought to be at the prospect of seeing Yermolov after seven months, so naturally the last thing I wanted was to look as though I’d made an effort. I eventually picked out a pale-grey coarse linen Caravane dress with a double-looped brown leather Isabel Marant belt and simple flat sandals. I have a theory that once a man has seen you naked you don’t need to worry about heels. But I fiddled with my hair much longer than usual and made up my face for twenty minutes before wiping it all off again.
‘Are you wearing that, darling?’
Carlotta was in a billowing Luisa Beccaria empire line in rag-washed white muslin. She looked vaguely as though she was sitting for Élisabeth Vigée le Brun, one half of the female artists from whom I had chosen my alias. I’d texted Yermolov to remind him to call me ‘Elisabeth’; equally I’d explained to Carlotta at her wedding the previous summer that I’d switched from ‘Lauren’, as she’d first known me, for business reasons. God, my life was exhausting.
‘I mean, you look gorgeous, but you said the Italian’s like, poor? You don’t want to limit your options.’
‘I like him, Carlotta. We have a lot in common.’
‘Like, a spiritual connection?’
‘You could say that.’
‘Then you have to respect it. That’s just how I felt about Franz, you know.’
I regretted my dress as soon as we arrived at La Vague d’Or, where Yermolov had a table at eight. I’d supposed he had company, since he’d turned down my request to dine at his house just out of town and take another look at his pictures, but I hadn’t guessed that the company would be six foot five in heels. No wonder Mackenzie Pratt’s life had been so bitter. Tatiana made me feel like a gnat as she bent down to kiss a perfunctory hello. Still, there are few things more boring than a hostile woman and my badly accented Russian wasn’t too rusty, so I did my best to make friendly conversation, aided by hefty swigs of a rather perfect Corton-Charlemagne. Carlotta was keeping her end up in English with Yermolov, the usual Eurochat about where everyone had been and where they were going next, the international rich version of the name game.
Tatiana informed me that she was a jewellery designer. I suppressed my commiserations and asked if she sold her work in London.
‘I’d like to, but I’m just so busy, you know, travelling with Pavel.’ She reached an etiolated arm across her untouched lobster tart and clutched possessively at Yermolov. I shot a look at Carlotta. I needed to speak to Yermolov alone, but Tatiana obviously had no intention of letting him out of her sight. Carlotta excused herself to go to the bathroom, Yermolov bobbed up politely as she stood and then caught her arm as she tottered sideways, her bump swinging neatly round to knock Tatiana’s cosmopolitan all over her skintight Alaia jumpsuit. Waiters rushed up with napkins, but there was nothing for Tatiana to do except retire to repair the damage, Carlotta clucking apologetically in her wake. Yermolov switched to English.
‘That was mean, Judith.’
‘Well, if you will associate with the kind of girl who drinks cocktails through dinner. She’ll be back in a moment. I need you to come to the sale at the House on 5 July. And I want you to bid for a painting. Not to buy it, just bid. Bid high. It’s a Gauguin, Woman with a Fan II.’
‘Yes, I’ve seen the catalogue. And the newspapers, in fact. So why shouldn’t I want to acquire such an important picture?’
‘Believe me, you don’t want to. But I want you to pretend you really, really do. Will you help?’
‘I’m always glad to help out . . . a friend. But why so urgent?’
Nowadays, Yermolov’s billions were one hundred per cent legit, but I knew I wouldn’t have to explain who Raznatovic was.
‘There are other ways of avoiding Raznatovic, surely?’
‘Pavel, please. I’m planning on avoiding him anyway. I’ll have to. But this, first. To buy me some time?’
‘And in exchange?’
‘What do I have that you could possibly want?’
‘You are looking very serious this evening.’
‘You mean dowdy.’
‘Dowdy? Yes, that word. Perhaps these will cheer you up. Open it later.’
He handed me a small package under the table.
‘What are your plans – after the sale?’
‘What about her?’
‘Tatiana? She is . . . temporary.’
‘In which case I’m open to offers. Maybe. I can’t promise. I have to see how things work out in . . . in London. But I do need you to bid for that picture.’
‘Then I will be in London. And then we’ll see.’
‘I’ve been dreaming of your paintings, you know, Pavel.’
Yermolov rose to his feet again just as the ladies returned to the table. Tatiana had turned her stained pants into a playsuit by cutting them off. A waiter bore the drooping tubes of fabric over his arm behind her. Even amongst the stiff professional competition in a three-star restaurant in Saint-Tropez in mid-June her legs made a temporary vacuum tunnel along the terrace as she passed. Yermolov kissed her shoulder from behind.
‘We’ll go shopping tomorrow, baby,’ he murmured, but his eyes remained on my face. It was odd to think I had once been afraid of him.
‘He’s, like, totally obsessed with you!’
Carlotta and I were having a cup of camomile tea on her balcony at the Byblos. I hadn’t lit up from deference to the twins.
‘We’ve got history, but you saw Brienne of Tarth back there.’
‘Nah, this place is crawling with girls exactly like her.’ The mink at the very corners of her eyelashes fluttered. ‘We should know.’
‘He gave me something.’ I chucked the little box I had concealed in my bag over to her.
‘Asprey’s? Bit meh. I would have expected Harry Winston at least from a Russian. Oh. Rewind. Have a look at these babies!’
The earrings were a Belle Époque design, diamond pears the size of the ball of my thumb in a triple-strut curved pendant.
‘I told you!’ shrieked Carlotta.
I turned one of the earrings upside down. The set of the stones from that angle looked like the plumes of a fan. Pretty good, Yermolov, pretty good.
‘At least Franz is decent with jewels,’ Carlotta was saying, fingering her necklace complacently. ‘I mean, before I was engaged to Hermann. You remember Hermann? Before Franz?’
‘The one who went to jail?’
‘Yah, so him. He was a total pig. So anyway, I was seeing this guy and he got me a pair of studs from like, Tiffany’s. I mean, seriously?’
‘Your life is a vale of tears, Carlotta.’
‘You wanna go down to Les Caves for a bit?’
‘Then put these on and change that sack, will you?’
Zulfugarly had informed me proudly that we had a one o’clock appointment at 55, explaining, in case I didn’t know, that only regulars could get a table before 3 p.m. He’d also sent a boat to take me round to Pampelonne, a Cerri whose thirty-odd metres was a bit unnecessary to give one person a lift. Still, perched cross-legged as far along the prow as I could get, with my hair streaming in the wind and the waves doing their limpid sparkly thing as we wound between the flotilla of showboats anchored in the Ramatuelle bay, I experienced a moment of what might have been mindfulnes
‘Bonjour, Patrice!’ The owner of 55 flinched almost imperceptibly as Zulfugarly clapped him familiarly on the back.
‘Bonjour, madame, Monsieur Zulfugarly, what a pleasure to see you again.’
Once we were installed amongst the blue and white linen with a bottle of rosé, and an order of sea bass and ratatouille, Zulfugarly informed me that he intended to buy the Gauguin. I said I was delighted, but that I couldn’t quite understand why he had invited me to Saint-Tropez to tell me, delightful though it was to see him.
‘I thought that perhaps we might come to an arrangement?’
‘Do you mean a private sale?’
‘And how do you envisage that working? Please remember that the picture isn’t mine, I’m merely acting as the dealer.’
He gave me what I thought I was meant to take as a cunning look. Black sprouts of hair had wound their way through the shoulder seams of his white Vilebrequin shirt.
‘Precisely. And for a private sale, with a pre-agreed price, I would also be willing to pay your gallery a brokerage fee. Gentileschi, yes?’
I took a tiny sip of rosé, as all the other women at the tables around us were doing. Watching them toy with their grilled fish and tomato salads, raising their forks to their mouths and replacing them still full on their plates, it seemed a perverse conspiracy that all social life on the Med was arranged around endless lunches and dinners at which the women were expected to consume virtually nothing, like Scarlett O’Hara at the barbecue in Gone With the Wind. I took off my sunglasses and looked Zulfugarly in the eye.
‘One hundred for the picture plus ten for you.’ He didn’t need to state that he meant millions either.
‘Sweet. I would be very interested . . . except—’
‘Mr Zulfugarly, I wouldn’t insult you by bargaining. No, as I said, I’m acting for the Società Mutuale, and they were insistent that the picture was auctioned publicly. As you know it’s already consigned, so there would be a withdrawal fee to consider.’
‘What’s the reserve?’
‘Ten per cent on that plus fifteen to you makes a hundred and thirty-five. I could—’
I cut across him. ‘But there’s another reason. It’s my duty to see that my client receives the best possible price. And I heard just recently that there’s another buyer interested. Seriously interested.’
‘I couldn’t possibly say.’
We went on with our lunch, Zulfugarly trying to conceal his irritation, finishing the wine quickly and calling for another bottle. At the table nearest the water a group of Arab guys were spraying a wriggling girl with ’85 Dom Perignon. Two waiters scuttled over, not to stop them but to fend off a rubber dinghy of tourists who had got too close to the jetty with their selfie sticks. Next to us, two blond children were absorbed in their iPads, ignoring their specially prepared hamburgers with the same indifference they showed to the enticing line of wet sand on the shore, an indifference affected by the whole club when a famous actress in filthy cut-offs came through from the beach. What would they do, these people, if a boatload of refugees washed up right here amongst the effluvia of capitalism? Jump to it and get stuck in with an urgent black tie charity gala and earnest speech by Leonardo DiCaprio? Like you give a toss, Judith. There was one place I intended to stay, and it wasn’t the section of the beach reserved for the gawping public.
‘Actually,’ I leaned forward naughtily to Zulfugarly, ‘shall I tell you a secret? The buyer? It’s Pavel Yermolov. Will you be attending the auction in person?’
‘I have to be in New York.’
‘What a pity.’ I reached for his hand over the table. I had reluctantly brought the Bulgari bracelet with me. ‘I’d hoped we might celebrate together. When you get it.’
He stroked the inside of my forearm. ‘So you’re turning me down?’
‘I should have said the opposite.’
I sat back. OK, let’s see who’s got the biggest dick after all. Job done.
Sometimes it happens that you have been sitting indoors all afternoon, reading perhaps, and someone comes in and turns on the light, and only then do you realise that it is twilight outside, that you have been sitting in the gathering dark without noticing. That was how I felt those days with da Silva in London, that the world had taken on a patina of drabness which he had cleaned away. Like – well, like the varnish on a painting. Perhaps it was because he could actually see me, had been there, somehow, since it all began, and that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that I had to hide. That sounds creepy, but it didn’t feel creepy. It felt wonderful.
With the sale all set, there was nothing for me to do except attend the occasional drinks party with Rupert or Charles Eagles. Angelica was ‘working from home’, or at least someone’s home on Formentera, though she would return for the sale. Rupert was terribly proud of the way he had brilliantly taken control of the Gauguin story. As he explained to the department, it was ‘all about owning the media narrative’. Charles Eagles had rallied round with a call to his close personal friends at the Tatler, and after a piece on their website entitled ‘Bid-Off!’ was posted, Mackenzie’s righteous concerns were dust. Newspaper profiles of Yermolov and Zulfugarly speculated on which of them would win the picture, and I sent Pandora round to William Hill with a tenner to start the betting, followed up naturally with a discreet call to the gossip columns.
Yet none of the excitement building up around the sale felt quite real to me any more. All I could see was Romero. I’d tear myself out of bed, dash to whatever event I was attending and make half an hour’s distracted small talk, the white noise of my want for him booming all the time in my head, until I could escape back to him, the nest our bodies had made on the bedclothes still warm. I don’t know that either of us had ever really made love before. I don’t think I’d ever even thought of it. The first times we had been together, there had been a clumsiness about his desire that I found immeasurably touching. Sex was at one remove from him, something he had watched on a screen, the words and gestures what he thought he should be doing, rather than what he wanted to do. It had never interested me before – a lover had only ever been good or bad, to me – but with a combination of boldness and tenderness I had never imagined I could possess, I wanted to teach him. And I did, and in doing so I taught myself, and it was wonderful, because no one was acting any more. What we did wasn’t always gentle or loving, though often it was. Under their clothes, our skins were a map of striving pleasure – his fingerprints wealed deep in the smooth inside of my thigh, a bloody quartet of stripes on his shoulder. I was swollen and bitten and bruised, and when he wasn’t inside me I felt nothing but the hollow weight of his lack.
It didn’t matter that he hadn’t read much and didn’t care about pictures, or that my Italian sometimes got tangled up when I was trying to explain something to him. We agreed that we had never doubted that we would be together, that it had only ever been a matter of when, an unspoken question that had hung between us since we first saw one another. So now our conversations were fascinating because they were about ourselves – what did you feel that time? how did you know then? And maybe there was something monstrous in our complicity, but it felt strange and beautiful to us, the lovers’ privilege that I had never thought to claim. The only thing we didn’t talk about was what was going to happen after the sale. He faceTimed his wife and children when I was out, I knew, and I appreciated that he tried to be discreet about it. And I couldn’t quite bear to contemplate the awful cliché of an affair with a married
Apart from my mother and Dave, I’d never really had anyone to buy presents for. Romero had pretty obvious taste, but it amused me to indulge it. His delight in new things reminded me of how I had been, once, and somewhere, maybe, I thought that if I dressed him for a new life he might be more inclined to want one. So when we weren’t in bed, or dining at all the restaurants I’d wanted to go to when I lived in London and had never been able to afford, I took him shopping. We ordered shirts at Turnbull & Asser and shoes at Edward Green, the softest scarves and cashmere sweaters, a real English suit from Savile Row. I wanted to spoil him, to give him gifts until everything he owned was perfect. I knew it was vulgar and silly, but I didn’t care.
The night before the sale we went to a small French place in Bermondsey. After the wine was poured I handed Romero a box. A Rolex Daytona – not what I would have chosen, but I knew he’d love it. I’d taken it to the silversmith’s in Marylebone Lane to have the back engraved. Sempre. Forever. He weighed it between his hands before fastening the bracelet.
‘Judith. Thank you. It’s fantastic, beautiful. I wish I could give you things like this.’
‘I get more pleasure out of giving them to you.’
‘I won’t be able to wear it,’ he added sadly.
‘Yes you will. Say it’s part of a . . . a cunning undercover operation.’
‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, you know, that things can’t be different.’
‘Please, let’s not talk about it. There’s nothing to say. Let’s just be here.’
Later, when we had walked home first through the cobbled Victorian streets and then along under the lights of the Embankment and around St James’s Park, and later still, when we had drenched the sheets, I finally asked him the question that had been humming through my mind since the spring.
I felt for his face in the dark, kissed his eyelids, the sides of his mouth, the sweet hollow under his ear.
‘Can I ask you something?’ My face was in his neck, my lips on the steady, familiar throb of his pulse.
by L. S. Hilton have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes