Ultima, p.26

Ultima, page 26

 

Ultima
 


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  The water was lapping the front of the prom now. Da Silva’s head had long since disappeared beneath its glossy surface. The thing with love is, it makes you gullible. It makes you credulous. It makes you slow. So if a man thinks a woman is those things, it makes him weak. I had been gullible, credulous, slow. But in the end, da Silva’s own image in my eyes had made him relax just long enough to underestimate me. He had thought me transparent, pellucid. We had both believed for a time that he could see me, which turned out to be his mistake. I bundled the shirt, cast a quick glance along the front for early-morning joggers and dropped it into the waves. It unfurled in the water, spreading helpless arms. Somewhere, above the tilt and whistle of a wind from across the Atlantic, someone was crying. Maybe it was me. Maybe because forever had turned out to be a bit short.

  Time for the next thing. But maybe breakfast first. There was a caff open on the main road behind the prom, salty fat brimming out into the salty air.

  ‘All right, queen?’ asked the bloke at the counter.

  I grinned. ‘All right, ta.’

  Bacon and double fried egg sandwich, rust-scalded tea, HP sauce. It was good to be home.

  29

  My mother was meeting me at eleven in the café of the Tate Gallery in the Albert Dock. I had the van parked in Hanover Street by eight and huddled down on the front seats for a couple of hours’ sleep. I didn’t fancy the mattress in the back much. When my phone woke me I brushed my teeth with a bottle of water, cleaned my face with a wet wipe, changed into a navy cashmere sweater for the summer weather and walked down to the Mersey.

  She looked good. I felt so fucking old sometimes that it was hard to remember she was only forty-seven. Her face was drawn, but since she’d had that tooth fixed and her hair highlighted, her skin looked quite fresh with a bit of bronzer. And she’d dressed up – a white shirt and a bright scarf, brown ankle boots to match the Mulberry bag I’d sent her.

  ‘All right, Judy.’ No one else called me that, now that my old friend Leanne was dead. I’m taller than her, and when I stooped to kiss her cheek I tried to stop myself sniffing suspiciously, but she caught my hand and held it for a second against her face.

  ‘I’m all right, love.’

  ‘Yeah. You look lovely, like you’ve been taking care of yourself?’

  ‘I’ve been going to the pool at the leisure centre. With Mandy. They’ve got a steam room now and everything.’

  ‘That’s great.’

  ‘Do you want to order something?’

  ‘Just a black coffee. I had breakfast.’ I was itching for a fag.

  ‘I’ll have a cappuccino, then. Are you . . . staying?’ Such frailty in the hesitant question.

  ‘I can’t . . . I’ve, I’ve got to get back to work.’

  ‘To Italy?’

  ‘Yeah. I just came up to deliver something. A piece.’

  The coffees came and we stirred them. When we raised our cups simultaneously she caught my eye and set hers down without taking a sip.

  ‘I seen the papers. It’s amazing. I didn’t say anything though,’ she added hurriedly.

  ‘Yes. It went really well. My clients are thrilled.’

  ‘Yeah. Listen, I’m sorry, Judy.’

  ‘What for?’

  ‘All of it. The drinking. I know I can’t make it up to you, but I’m sorry. I . . . I understand, why you’ve stayed away.’

  For twelve years, I’d stayed away.

  ‘I’m dead proud of you though. All that – with the picture? On telly and everything. You’ve really made something of yourself.’

  ‘Mum, we’re not on Jeremy Kyle. Give it a rest. I understand about the drinking. Why wouldn’t you fancy a drink when one of your daughters had killed the other?’

  ‘Don’t say that.’

  ‘It’s true though, isn’t it?’ I leaned forward over the table. My Americano had come in a jam jar. ‘I killed Katherine.’

  ‘It was an accident. We know that. A terrible accident.’

  ‘Which you let me take the blame for.’

  ‘What choice did I have, Judy? They would have taken you away.’

  ‘No. It was because you know I did it.’

  ‘Is that why you came? To torment me?’

  ‘No. I wanted to see you. I wanted to—’

  ‘To understand? I don’t understand. I know myself, I know what a failure I am. I do my best to get along, that’s all. But you? Why you’re . . . as you are? You know better than I ever will.’

  I have a lot in common with my mother. Our faces. The way we think. But she’d never made me feel stupid before. She was pressing her lips together, as though she was trying not to cry, but the strained white lines in her make-up didn’t show sorrow. It was contempt.

  My mother put a ten-pound note on the table and picked up her bag.

  ‘Bye, Judy. Take care of yourself. It’s been lovely to see you, give me a ring.’

  I wondered how much cash she had in her purse. How far she’d get before she gave in and opened the door of the nearest pub. I imagined her, falling out pissed at three o’clock, crying on the bus home, and somewhere, the image gave me pleasure. She was like me in lots of ways, my mother, but she was weak. Which is what had made me strong.

  *

  My sister Katherine, who smelled of almonds. She was born when I was twelve. For a while it was good, the three of us. My mum stopped drinking. She’d come to meet me from school with Katherine bundled in the buggy in her little pink hat with fluffy ears. On Fridays we’d go to the café at Gregg’s bakery and my mum would buy me a hot chocolate. We’d share a vanilla slice, with Katherine’s puddingy weight in the dark-green lap of my school skirt, and her fat tiny fingers furling and closing around her bottle as I helped her drink her warm milk.

  I loved Katherine. But then my mum started going down the pub again, crashing in late with some fella she’d picked up, screeching at me to wake up and see to the baby while they banged the sofa against the wall. I was tired all the time, my eyes felt peeled with it. I dropped things, forgot my textbooks, dozed off in class and got a D on a maths test. I couldn’t do my homework because there was always Katherine to see to, Katherine to change and feed and her cot to make up and the bins to be put out, and the wash to run, getting her in the buggy to go to Tesco when there was some money in my mum’s bag, trying to cook the tea with the baby on my hip while my mum slept it off in front of the telly. In the end, it seemed easier not to go to school at all. I didn’t want to leave her alone with Mum. The head had me in for ‘a little talk’. He told me I could be clever, that I could get into university, but his eyes were on the clock on the grey wall of his office, which stank of Bensons. It was round the school that he kept a bottle of vodka in the drawer of his desk. He was marking time, just like everyone else on our estate. I felt sorry for him, for his horrible breath, the pouches under his eyes. Stuck. But I started going to school again and when I got in Katherine would be screaming in her cot, soaked and filthy, and sometimes I just left her there and shut the door, because it wasn’t fair.

  So that day, when I opened the door, the flat smelled of sweet almonds. The light was on in the bathroom, but the flat was dim and airless. My mum had run Katherine’s bath with the special baby oil, then she must have forgotten about it, because there were empty bottles next to her on the sofa. Katherine was slumped against the bars of the cot. She tried to cry again when she saw me, but she must already have sobbed herself hoarse because all her poor little voice could manage was a rasping croak. I picked her up and cuddled her.

  And then I thought. ‘You won’t be able to leave.’ I was twelve. Four years, five, I could get out. But Katherine would only be about four, and I knew I couldn’t leave her. That’s how it would be. And in a bit I’d end up just like my mum, nothing to look forward to but getting pissed the day I cashed my cheque from the social. We went and stood over my mum. She didn’t wake. I bent down and Katherine reached for her face, but I drew back and carried her
into the bathroom. I got out a clean towel and unpopped the wet buttons underneath her Babygro, ran some more hot into the cloudy water. When she was naked, pink and wriggling, I kissed the soft place at the corner of her eye.

  ‘I’m sorry, baby,’ I whispered.

  It didn’t take long. Afterwards, I wrapped her in another towel, her special towel, the yellow one with the hood. Her face was grey, her eyes all glassy. My legs were shaking when I carried her back to the sofa.

  ‘Mum,’ I said then, over and over. ‘Mum?’

  *

  My coffee was cold. I wandered out through the brave smart shops lining the arcade and held on to the railings where the river flowed. There wasn’t anything else I wanted to see in Liverpool, so after a bit I went to find the van, and the ring road and then the M1. The radio was playing ‘Hot Love’ by T. Rex, but I had a date with Elvis.

  30

  The Bunch of Grapes, in Duke Street, for old times’ sake. I’d brought my old black Chanel suit from Italy, nipped-in jacket, flippy pleated skirt. Dave was waiting at a table with a pint and a glass of what I knew from experience would be nasty white wine.

  ‘Got something for you.’ He pushed a dark green Hatchard’s bag over the glass-rimed wood. ‘Hardback of my book.’

  ‘Oh, Dave.’ I flipped to the back first, the author biography, Dave looking smart and serious in his regimentals. Then to the front – he’d signed it. With love and thanks always, Dave.

  ‘What are the thanks for?’

  ‘You know.’ It had been my fault Dave had lost his beloved job at the House, but then the sale of a Richter painting, my first acquisition as a dealer, had enabled him to take his teaching qualification. Still, that was nothing to what I owed him.

  ‘I am so proud of you. I’m so lucky to have you as a friend.’

  We both took a long, British sip of our drinks.

  ‘I hope it’s a ticket to the Bahamas. Now you’re famous and all. “The girl who found the Gauguin”. Like the new name.’

  ‘Yeah, well. Professional reasons. I won’t be needing it again. But you’ – I humped my briefcase onto the table – ‘you really are going to be famous. The BBC are going to love this.’

  I started to unpack the notes I had taken on the Lady with a Fan II provenances, the photos I had printed up of Li at work. I’d been careful to only shoot his hands. Dave stared at them, running his fingers back and forth across the glossy paper.

  ‘You what?’

  ‘It’s a fake. Rupert sold a fake. For three hundred and forty million. And it’s yours. The proof. You can destroy him, Dave.’

  ‘Why would I want to do that?’

  ‘He fired you! He fired me! He chucked us both away, like . . . like the butts of his fucking cigars. This could make you famous, Dave – you could be an expert, a newspaper columnist, all sorts! Don’t you want that?’

  Dave stacked the papers and photographs neatly, taking his time about it, then pushed them back across the table. His face had shut down, all the warmth and enthusiasm locked away.

  ‘I don’t know why you did this, and I don’t want to know,’ he began. ‘But it wasn’t for me, was it? It was for you, Judith, or Elisabeth or whatever you call yourself these days? Because you always have to be the superstar, don’t you? That business back at the House, with the Stubbs? It was all about you. You used me then, and you’ve used me ever since.’

  ‘I made it right,’ I answered sulkily.

  ‘You did, and I’ll always be grateful. But that’s not the point. Why would I want to drag all this down on me? They’d want to know how I got it, how I know you – I just want a quiet life. Always have.’

  ‘So why did you help me all those times?’

  ‘I felt a bit . . . sorry for you, I suppose. You’re a good girl, deep down. I always felt there was something missing though. Like, when I first knew you, back at the House, people said you were . . . funny.’

  ‘Because I wasn’t born posh? I thought you of all people understood that.’

  ‘Not that. Like I said, something missing. People said you looked at them as though they weren’t real.’

  Watching, all the time. Imitating, working out what was expected. That’s what everyone does isn’t it? I’m just . . . faster than most.

  ‘Stop there, Dave,’ I spat. ‘Just stop there.’

  ‘OK. I’m sorry. I always thought you were all right though. And when you got yourself in trouble, I wanted to help you out. But this – this isn’t anything to do with me. I’m sorry.’

  I got to my feet, placed the provenances back in my briefcase, imitating his care. Then I leaned forward, looked into his kind, honest face. There was pity there, which might have been unbearable if unbearable was something I actually understood. But there was nothing to say. I wasn’t angry: Dave was absolutely right. I could make no further use of him. He was an irrelevance.

  I straightened my back. His silence followed me out into St James’s.

  *

  Maybe that’s how it should have gone. Us against them, plucky crusaders for truth, taking them down fraud after snob, the crooks and the social climbers. The ones who believed that beauty is only ever business, that oil paint can temper bloodstains. That isn’t ever how it goes though. Which was why I was going back to the House for the last time on my own.

  I didn’t even bother speaking to the girls on the desk, just made for the carved staircase in the central hall, the one it had always made me feel so proud to climb.

  ‘Elisabeth!’ Rupert was all smiles for his record-breaking seller. ‘How are you? What can I do for you?’

  ‘I need to speak to you urgently. In private. Would you mind locking the door so we’re not disturbed?’

  ‘Of course.’ He bustled past me, locked his office, turned and found me seated on his desk, with the Caracal aimed at the congested flab of his heart. His first reaction was a shrill titter, an absurd queef from deep within his bulk.

  ‘I’m not laughing, Rupert. Come and have a seat.’ I pushed out the chair with the tip of my Saint Laurent stiletto. When he had inserted himself between the arms, I hopped down and circled him, bringing the pretty little ‘O’ of the barrel to rest on the bulge of flesh above his collar.

  ‘Open the briefcase. Get the papers out. Take a look. Do anything else and what passes for your brain will be in Whitehall before they get up the stairs. Go on.’

  Watching him set out Li’s work, I wondered how fake it really was. A perfect Gauguin, just not by Gauguin.

  ‘Fuck.’

  ‘Language, Rupert. Though yes. The fucking fucker’s totally fucked. The fucker being you.’

  ‘What do you want? Money?’ He had grasped the situation with admirable speed – I had to admire the control in his voice, the fact that he wasn’t wasting time on incredulity.

  ‘No.’

  ‘Then what?’

  There were various answers to that question. Option one: I leave with the papers, take a cab straight to Kensington and hand them in at the Daily Mail. Au revoir Rupert’s career. Option two: I let him withdraw the picture – shame and embarrassment – Raznatovic kills da Silva. Oh wait, da Silva was already dead. Option three: I let Hay-Z hang it in whatever hideous monument to ego his architect had designed and just leave it there, only me and Rupert knowing the truth. Shits and giggles, forever and ever. I was quite tempted by option three.

  Rupert’s attempt at sangfroid collapsed at that point. He began to cry, big ugly sobs.

  ‘It’s a picture. It’s just a fucking picture,’ he wheezed.

  Option four: I smear Rupert’s medulla all over his desk. At least he had a medulla. But I’ve always liked to play fair. What was it Raznatovic had offered? The collective option.

  ‘Nah. I don’t want money. I don’t want to ruin you. I don’t even want to kill you, all that much. What I want . . .’ I walked slowly round his body, which was quite the workout, and resumed my seat on the desk. I twitched the tip of the Caracal between his
head and his heart. ‘What I want is to play a game. It’s simple. All you have to do is tell me my name. If you get it right, I pack up the papers and you never see me again. The Gauguin hangs, you get a promotion and eventually a knighthood, for all I fucking care. If you can’t, well – oh dear.’

  At that moment, a car alarm went off in King Street below us. Suit your art to your circumstances was something I’d learned from Caravaggio, so I took the opportunity of the noise camouflage to slightly shoot Rupert in the left foot. The slug made a little firework underneath his Edward Green brogue as it lodged in the parquet. He reared out of the chair, attempting to clutch his injured limb, but he was too fat to reach it.

  ‘No screaming.’ The flanks of Rupert’s cheeks were as pasty and damp as fresh mozzarella, he gulped and sucked desperately as the pain hit, but he didn’t cry out.

  ‘Sit back down. Good. Now, are you ready? I’ll make it a bit easier for you.’ I buttoned my silk blouse primly at the neck, the way I had worn it as a junior, and quickly knotted my hair into a ponytail.

  ‘Ring any bells?’

  I’d never seen anyone drool with agony before. It was running down his chin, mingling with the sweat on his collar. I could actually smell the high reek of his fear.

  ‘Come on, have a go.’

  ‘Er . . . er.’ His desperate eyes remained uncomprehending.

  ‘Well, you’re getting warmer.’

  ‘Please,’ he burbled. ‘I don’t understand. What have I done? I haven’t killed anyone!’ That makes one of us. ‘Do you want a clue?’

  He nodded frantically.

  ‘It’ll cost you.’ I leaned down and trailed the gun over his face, the wet front of his shirt. ‘Which bit of you are you willing to trade for a clue? Another toe? How about an ear?’

  ‘Please, please.’ He was sobbing again now.

  ‘Oh go on, I’m getting bored. Stubbs?’

 
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