Ultima, p.6

Ultima, page 6

 

Ultima
 



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  ‘Come and keep me warm.’

  They lay down on either side of me. Raffaele, bolder, slid his hand into my pussy at the same time as his tongue found mine, Serafim buried his lips in my neck, grasping at my breasts. One of them told me I was beautiful. Raffaele began to move his mouth down my body; I gasped as he found the inside of my thighs, slowly circling his tongue, taking his time. I pulled Serafim against me harder, reaching for his cock, released it, fumbling in the darkness, then guided him onto his knees, straddling me, to take it in my mouth. Little nuzzles and whispers, then the fat bulb of smooth flesh pushing my throat wider as I stretched my jaw to swirl my tongue over the tip, supporting my neck with one hand as finally the other man’s tongue found the soaked lips of my cunt, lapping upwards in long strokes. I sucked harder, pushing my mouth down Serafim’s cock to its shaved mount, reaching my other hand to cup his balls with my thumb firm on the base.

  ‘Si, bella, si, cosi.’

  ‘Wait. Attendez. I want to see you.’ Pulling back, I sat up against the damp plaster, the yellow flames glowing on a single skein of juice between my pussy and Raffaele’s lips. He wiped the back of a hand against his mouth, grinning.

  ‘Show me. Stand up, go on. One of you to fuck me and the other one over me.’ They obeyed, both of them stroking their cocks outside their jeans. I took a good hungry look. Serafim was definitely the best of the bargain.

  ‘I’ll have you. Lie down.’ As we changed places I kissed Raffaele again, tasting the clear musk of my cum on him, lemony tonight.

  ‘Touch it,’ I instructed him. With my back to Serafim, I lowered myself onto him, bringing my knees forward as I lay back against his chest, until I had his cock fully inside me, pinioned. As Raffaele began to wank himself off with a tight, urgent fist, I ground my weight against the thickness inside me, circling my arse against Serafim’s belly, squeezing the muscles of my cunt upwards with every stroke until he began to moan, then slowly sitting up, bringing his hand to my hips so he could push deeper at me, feeling the pulse of his closeness as I spread my legs just a little, wide enough for my fingers to find my clit, wanting him to flood me, wanting a lake of sperm up me as I began to come, his cock a dull weight now, swelling, stretching me, until he came as Raffaele cried out and thumped his load over my face, sending it dripping down my jaw to pool in my clavicles as I scooped a palmful of Serafim’s cum and gulped it and let it fall over my chin, glistening silver against the freezing burn of my skin, and that got me there, drenched, worshipped.

  Serafim sank his teeth into my shoulder as I fell softly back against him, reaching my arms to Raffaele, who pillowed his head on the cooling slip between my breasts. A time when I could hear all three of our hearts. Then the shock of another pair of eyes a little behind us, and another at the edge of the wall, somewhere a half-stifled gasp.

  ‘I think we have company,’ I said, very slowly.

  ‘Don’t worry, they won’t bother us,’ murmured Raffaele. ‘They were just watching.’

  Both my boys were still dressed; we rested there, my nakedness between the weight of their two bodies, until silent, shuffling footsteps told me our silent audience had melted away, and the ice in the wind off the sea began to bite.

  *

  It was about one in the morning when I began the walk back to the hotel, clutching my coat around me. My dress was a ruin, the thin suede stained and scuffed, but I didn’t mind. The churches were letting out the worshippers from midnight Mass, stretching in their smart jackets, ferrying drooping children hurriedly to their cars. Oh come all ye faithful. Somewhere far out on the black water, the boats were searching. I’d bought a carton of fags earlier. I wrapped a sheet of hotel notepaper round a pack, scrawled ‘Happy Christmas’ across it, and left it outside da Silva’s door. I planned to spend Our Lord’s birthday asleep.

  6

  Boxing Day morning. The industrial estate was as ugly and nondescript as all such places are. We passed anonymous warehouses and loading bays, a few Chinese workers snatching a cigarette break outside. Two rows of flat-pack garden sheds, similar to the chalets of the refugee camp, with washing strung between them, a heap of bunk beds glimpsed through an open door. Many of the buildings would be crammed with sewing machines, men and women bent over the seams of delicate, expensive clothes like the ones I was wearing, the big designers paying sweatshop rates to achieve the crucial ‘Made in Italy’ label. One low block had huge security doors and two guards with patrolling Alsatians. There was a sharp smell of chemicals in the air, and when I looked up, two sinister chimneys leaking white smoke. Perhaps they were cooking smack in there. Perhaps I gave a shit.

  We stopped a little further along, at a smaller red-brick building where another Chinese man waited outside. He was middle aged, paunchy, dressed in a blue overall like the other factory workers.

  ‘This is Li,’ offered da Silva. ‘Li, this is Miss Rashleigh.’

  ‘Judith, please.’

  ‘I’ll leave you to it, then,’ said da Silva. He returned to the car, opened the window and lit up.

  ‘Don’t you want to see?’ I called.

  ‘Old news,’ he smiled back.

  Li held the door courteously and asked me in perfectly accented Italian if I would like something to drink. I declined, and followed him eagerly into the workshop. The space was larger than it looked, replete with natural light from several wide skylights and an enticing smell of oil paint and varnish. We walked along a partitioned corridor to a heavy door in a brick surround. Li punched in a security code, waited for the door to click.

  ‘This is the storeroom. What would you like to see?’

  ‘Anything that’s ready to go perhaps, please?’

  Li paused a moment, then grinned and reached for the handle of what looked like a giant fridge. Inside was a revolving rack, which he turned with a small remote control. I saw the edges of canvases clicking by, until Li paused it and pulled out a Kandinsky.

  At least, it wasn’t a Kandinsky. I knew, rationally, that it wasn’t. And yet, weirdly, marvellously, it had exactly the same effect on me as the real ones I’d seen. Had it been real, the picture would have belonged to the artist’s earlier period, around 1911. A landscape with houses, a meadow in the foreground, a river curving round a hill. The simplest of colours – green, red, yellow, blue – the childish precision of the buildings contrasting with the daubs that gestured at earth and water. The kind of picture about which people still say ‘My three-year-old could do that!’ as if the point was a mere clumsy rendering of what the painter saw. Until you look again and see the glazed depth of the water within the apparently flat layers of the paint, the dance of shadow as the invisible sun plays on the roofs, watch the colours bloom out and out so that the damp of the plaster walls and the dust on the shore grass haze your eyes, until you feel, rather than see, even though what he has drawn is the front of your own iris.

  It’s estimated that about ten per cent of the works that hang in major museums are fakes. Looking at Li’s work, I could easily believe it. Perhaps this picture wouldn’t have withstood complex technological analysis, but I suspected it might. And if it did, then where did the reality of a Kandinsky lie?

  I didn’t need to tell Li it was good; that would have been an insult.

  ‘Something else, please.’

  Again he clicked the rack and selected a larger canvas, a classic seventeenth-century-style Dutch still life. Deep coffee-blue background, a lawn-covered table, a silver dish of pomegranates and black grapes, the light from a trio of candles in an ornate holder burnishing the must on the skins of the fruit. On the rim of the platter, a tiny, vivid green caterpillar crept out towards the viewer, so realistic it seemed at first to be glued to the canvas. A standard trick, inserting a miniature, playful detail as a flourish of virtuosity.

  ‘Got a loupe?’

  Li handed me the magnifier from the pocket of his overall and laid the picture down on the workbench. I moved it carefully over the surface. The ‘craquelure’
is the pattern of tiny fractures made on the top level of a painting as the oils and varnishes dry. The right effect can be faked – often by baking the finished work in an oven, but a poorly executed craquelure can catch a forger out, identifying them in the same way as human fingerprints. I was no expert on still life of any period, but I’d seen enough similar compositions back at the House to be pretty sure that this one would pass.

  ‘The pigments?’

  ‘All correct. We grind them ourselves.’ He crossed the room to a bookshelf and took down a large square volume in a plain red dust cover, the Dictionary of Historical Pigments. He proffered another, reading the title carefully in English, Optical Microscopy of Historical Pigments.

  ‘I’ve heard of them.’

  ‘And here’s our checklist.’

  He pointed to a handwritten notice in Chinese characters pinned to the wall.

  ‘Canvas, stretcher, panel, layer, ground, priming . . .’ – he hesitated, found the word – ‘binding, patina. Each piece is checked before it leaves, but this is only a reminder, of course. Not necessary.’

  ‘I shouldn’t think so. Thank you. May I see the workshop?’

  ‘Of course.’

  When people think of artists now, they mostly imagine a lone genius, toiling in solitary confinement in a garret. But that’s a fairly recent invention. Until the nineteenth century at least, artists ran their studios as production lines, with canvases passed between the newest apprentices, who would block in the ground, up through the specialists in landscape or drapery, and finally to the artist himself, who would execute the final strokes to a face or the shadow of a cherub’s wing. Not altogether different from the processes going on around the industrial estate. Many pictures that pass as Old Masters have precious little of the old master in the paint – a picture by Rubens, say, might actually be no more than a portrait of a hand. Li’s atelier seemed to be based on the same principle. Several men, middle-aged like himself, were working quietly at long tables to the gentle sound of classical music from a radio. One was laying in ground in dark oils, another – meticulously – the thick white underpaint of what was probably an Impressionist with a small wooden tool that resembled the stick of an ice lolly. They moved unhurriedly between their tasks in their dark overalls, intensely concentrated, like monks in a medieval scriptorium. I thought of the fake Stubbs, the painting my old boss Rupert had tried to move through the House. Had it been altered here to appear genuine? Watching the men work, I couldn’t summon any outrage on behalf of the clients they were defrauding. What they were doing required such patient, rare skill, such precision, such love. They were only doing what generations of apprentices had done before them, after all, and the results to my eyes were far better than the wank coming out of the average art school.

  ‘What’s your usual time for a piece?’ I asked. I found myself whispering.

  ‘Usually three months maximum. For something more modern . . .’ Li grinned mischievously.

  ‘A Pollock, say?’

  ‘Oh that. We can do that in an afternoon.’

  ‘You can work on wood?’

  ‘Wood, paper, anything. Once we did something on a . . . lady’s dress?’

  The Caravaggio. I knew all about that one.

  ‘I’m going to try to bring you some wood. You’ll need oils, late nineteenth century, nothing earlier than 1860, nothing later than 1905.’

  ‘Varnish?’

  ‘Maybe. Applied and then removed, I think.’

  ‘Easy, then?’

  ‘I think anything would be easy for you.’

  *

  My first question had been: who? Which artist should I choose? An Old Master – Rembrandt or Velazquez, say – would obviously be the most reliable in terms of the price it would fetch, yet even if the identical period paint was used, if the canvas, sizing, pigment density and brushwork were impeccable, just as on Li’s checklist, there remained the problem of history. To forge an artwork, there has to be the possibility that it really existed, a fissure in the chronology into which the forger can insert the fake. The Rembrandt Research Project had spent forty years in microscopic examination of every single attributed canvas, erecting a barrier of scholarship around van Rijn that only an idiot would nowadays attempt to scale. Occasionally, it’s true, a lost work by a master is discovered – a Leonardo had been sold in Paris quite recently – but such miraculous discoveries make international news, and their rightful ownership can be a matter of disputes between governments. Way too complex, too public, too slow.

  That left more modern works, late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century. Impressionists or Abstract Expressionists are much easier to fake, especially the latter, as it’s not actually necessary to know how to paint. If Li was going to make a piece that would fetch over a hundred, that would be the most promising area. Willem de Kooning’s Interchange had fetched three hundred million, Cezanne’s Card Players two hundred and fifty, Pollock’s 17A two hundred, placing all of them ahead of poor old Rembrandt, whose double portrait Soolmans and Coppit had gone for a measly one-eighty. The biggest challenge was the gap in the catalogue. I knew that Modigliani, whose works also sold at well over one hundred, had often been faked for that reason – the painter had spent much of his life near destitute and had often exchanged canvases for food, making the extent of his output notoriously difficult to track. Yet for that very reason, Modigliani might be too obvious, too risky.

  Then I had thought of Gauguin. Often, when I had worked at the House in London, I had been sent to the archive at the Courtauld Institute on the Strand. There was a Gauguin in the collection that I always took time to visit – Nevermore, painted in Tahiti in 1897. At first, it had seemed ugly to me, a heavy-flanked nude on a brightly coloured counterpane, her head supported by an acid-yellow pillow. The pose was ungainly, the patterned decorations of the room clumsily gay. And yet I had found myself drawn back to it, rushing up from St James’s past Charing Cross, weighed down with heavy files, to steal a few minutes in front of the picture. The gallery notes told me that what I was seeing was an exploited teenage girl, the artist’s vahine, his Tahitian ‘wife’; that the composition, with its two watchful figures placed at the right and the vicious-beaked bird, a raven, to the left, was sinister and troubling. But that wasn’t what I saw. To me, the girl just looked sulky and bored, impatient with her older lover’s demands that she sit for him. I had liked that defiance, and I liked the artist for showing it, for laughing at himself. But I also remembered that Nevermore had been painted over another composition, a tropical farmyard of energetic palms, with a horse and a chicken, revealed by the infrared examinations of the museum. From what I knew of Gauguin’s life, it had been restless, peripatetic – he had painted in Paris, Brittany, Arles, in Copenhagen and Martinique, Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands. Gauguin did not only work on canvas, but in ceramic, woods, fresco. And that had given me another idea.

  Yet as I left the workshop, I realised that my job was going to be far, far more difficult than Li’s. Li could make the pictures, but he couldn’t sell them. Inventing the backstory, the provenances, was also technical, and Christ knew, I’d faked enough versions of my own life. A laborious detective story run backwards. But Raznatovic wanted me because I might be able, had to be able, to convince the buyer. Li could make something that looked exactly like a Kandinsky, but what made it a Kandinsky was the conviction of its owner that it was a Kandinsky. In any encounter involving desire, the person whose need is greatest is the submissive. It was as true of commerce as it was of sex. I was going to have to elicit that complicity, to make our buyer believe, to make them feverish with want, possessed by the urge for possession.

  *

  There were three fag butts outside da Silva’s car window. Leaning against the wall I lit one of my own. A compact of faith sealed with money. A hundred million. I blew a zero of smoke, watched it quiver and dissipate. Eight of them. I’m a good actress, but was I that good? Though the alternative wasn’t look
ing too appealing. I shook myself, pulled out my phone and typed my reply to Pavel Yermolov.

  Happy Christmas. All well. Though I may need two favours. Can you call me?

  I hesitated, then added a kiss.

  Next I called Dave.

  ‘Judith! It’s great to hear you, love! Happy Christmas!’

  ‘Happy Christmas to you too! I’m not disturbing you, am I?’

  He sighed. ‘Got the mother-in-law here. She and the missus have gone to the John Lewis sale.’

  ‘That’s . . . er . . . nice. So tell me about the book!’

  I’d finished it on Christmas Night, in bed with a bottle of Ciro and a club sandwich. It began as a memoir, describing Dave’s time in the army, the loss of his leg and the solace he had found in beginning to learn about art. The second part discussed his work with injured servicemen, research on art and therapy for PTSD, ending with a passionate plea for the continued teaching of art history in schools. I could see that readers would find many of the stories moving, and Dave wrote well, simply and unpretentiously, his enthusiasm springing off the page.

  ‘It’s really good, Dave. I was proud to read it.’

  ‘But guess what?’

  Dave’s wife had suggested he self-publish the book online, and it had been downloaded so many times and received such positive comments that a literary agent had picked it up. He had an advance from a publisher and everything, he explained. ‘And the BBC have been in touch. They wanted some ideas for a documentary, about the work we’ve been doing.’

 

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