Ultima, page 7
‘Don’t be modest. They want to make a film about you!’
‘Yeah, well. It’s ace, anyway, isn’t it?’
‘More than. I’m really so happy for you. Your wife must be just thrilled. Good for her, too, putting it out there. You’d never have done it on your own.’
‘Thanks. And you – everything’s all right, is it?’
I knew what he meant, was grateful that he didn’t ask more.
‘Just fine. One thing, though – maybe you can help me – what do you know about recent sales of Gauguin?’
‘Well . . . there was that big one – funny name? Fetched over two hundred?’
‘Nafea Faa Ipoipo. Yeah, I know about that. Anything else, further back?’ Decent online research is only good for about a decade; after that, it’s easy to miss things from the good old days before everything was online. Here in Siderno, Dave was as close as I could get to a proper archive.
‘Nasty bugger he was, that Gauguin. Couldn’t half paint though. Hang on – let me just have a look . . .’
I heard Dave’s stick tapping away from where he’d laid his phone.
‘Here you go. I cut it out of the paper. So, there were two versions of the same picture. Up in 2000. Vase des Fleurs (Lilas), they were called. Our place had one in their spring catalogue. But they both came from the same dealer, some crook in New York. Our lot was withdrawn, the Other Place sold what they said was the original.’
‘Two versions? OK, thanks a lot. Just a bit of research.’
‘Anytime, love. You take care now.’
I tapped on the door of the workshop and Li reappeared. ‘Sorry, I forgot something. Prussian blue. You’ll need lots of Prussian blue.’
Back at the car da Silva was having a snooze. I prodded him in the shoulder.
‘Yo Cha-Cha. We have to get ready. Bit of winter sun.’
‘You might need to take me to Tangier.’
At the President, I set a grumbling da Silva to research flights while I packed a bag and paced up and down my terrace, smoking and waiting impatiently for Yermolov to call. I started as da Silva stuck his head over the adjoining parapet.
‘What do you want to go to Morocco for, anyway?’
‘Don’t you want to go?’
‘Why would I? Perchè è pieno di marocchini!’
‘Well, who else would it be full of, you racist twat? Anyway, we’re in a hurry.’ I made a gun with my fingers and pointed it at him. ‘Tick-tock goes the clock. Raznatovic isn’t going to wait forever. If you take me to Tangier, we can maybe have your piece ready for sale in six months.’
‘Six months? Cazzo.’
‘Which reminds me.’ I pointed over the front wall of the terrace to the hotel gardens below, where the wheelchairs were enjoying a morose airing. ‘I’ll be needing a new house. This place is way too depressing. And I’ve made a to-do list for you. Stuff I’ll need. Do you speak French?’
‘No,’ said da Silva wearily. I was really enjoying the Mafioso-is-my-bitch shtick, I had to say.
‘Then you won’t be any use to me there. You can stay in the hotel and get on with the prep.’
‘No way. And if you think—’
My phone rang, stopping him mid-sentence. ‘Sorry,’ I whispered, ‘got to take this.’
Da Silva slammed his terrace door.
‘Здравствуйте, Pavel, как дела?’
‘Your accent hasn’t got any better, Judith. But you are well?’ It was good to hear his voice.
‘Fine – I’m in Italy. How are you? How is . . . Elena?’ Elena was Yermolov’s estranged wife. She had been the one to drag me into the Caravaggio business.
‘Good. She is much calmer, on holiday now with the boys.’
‘I’m glad. You’re in France?’
‘Yes. In my bedroom.’
There was a pause. I remembered that bedroom. Considering what we’d shared – nights of sex and pictures and wine, blackmail, Balensky’s murder – I felt oddly shy.
‘You said you needed a favour. Two favours? Perhaps you might elaborate? Though I don’t exactly see why I should do you a favour.’
‘Yes you do. What we had was so special, Pavel. Plus there’s a tape somewhere in Serbia which shows you cracking Balensky over the head with an ashtray.’
‘You said you’d destroy it!’
‘Just teasing. Maybe. Anyway, the second favour depends on the first. You went to Balensky’s house, right? The one in Tangier?’
‘The Man from the Stan’ had owned a place in the famously louche port town, where he had given famously louche parties.
‘Several times, yes.’
‘And you said something about the décor. Polynesian stuff? I know Balensky had crappy taste in art but you said the house itself was surprisingly OK?’
‘There were some pretty things – why do you want to know?’
‘Doesn’t matter. I’ve looked online but there’s tons of villas in Tangier and nothing to say which one belonged to Balensky.’
The existence of Balensky’s home in Tangier was common knowledge, at least if one enjoyed a read of OK! in one’s leisure time, but any details had remained discreetly vague.
‘He bought the house from a Frenchman, I think. An architect.’
‘Do you remember the architect’s name?’
‘I’m afraid not. But the house had a name, wait a minute.’ He paused.
‘апельсины. That was it.’
‘I think so, yes. Something to do with oranges.’
‘Дарлинг, где вы?’ A woman’s voice, cutting in – where are you, darling? Oh well.
‘Umm, OK. Anyway, sounds like you’re needed. Thank you. That was all I wanted to know.’
‘And the second thing?’
‘I’ll be in touch. Thank you, Pavel. Really, thank you. Say hi to the paintings for me.’
I found I didn’t much want to think about Yermolov’s lady house guest, her presence in Yermolov’s bedroom, or whether she had visited his private gallery, so I switched that part of my brain off and googled up houses in Tangier with oranges in the name. A few clicks took me to ‘Les Orangers’, formerly the property of one Xavier de St Clemente. A made-up name, for sure. And also a French architect. St Clemente had been a well-known member of what French Vogue quaintly referred to as ‘les happy few’. He had died of Aids in the eighties, and I found several gushing magazine pieces reviewing his career, with photographs of the Moroccan home – full title Chateau des Orangers – and its owner, plus antique celebrity guests. The construction of the house, which indeed included antique panelling and sculpture from French Polynesia, was illustrated in several shots. In others, Jackie O squinted balefully from the terrace. I ran a cross check through an article on dendrochronology, the dating of wood, on the site of the Philip Mould gallery in London and came up with what I needed. Then a search of estate agents in Tangier, until I found the house listed, only its name and one photo, with a note saying that price was on application. I took a few moments to open a Gmail account as ‘kateogable’ before sending an email with a brief enquiry.
‘Romero!’ I screeched over the terrace. ‘We’re on! Get your bucket and spade!’
‘Don’t be such a grumbleweed. You’ll love it. You know, the Krays used to go on holiday in Tangier. Right up your alley.’
Da Silva had pushed for a modern hotel, with air con and satellite telly, but there was no way I was going to Morocco and staying in the Best Western. The discovery that we had to travel via Naples and Barcelona did nothing to improve his temper; after grudgingly handing over my old passport, he had spent most of the eight hours of flights bitching that we were bound to be harassed and robbed, timorous suspicions which only grew more wearying as an ancient mustard-coloured taxi
‘Look,’ I gestured at the menu, ‘they even serve wine! Cheer up – or are you missing Franci? Where does she think you are, by the way?’
‘Business. Like I said, she doesn’t ask questions.’
‘But aren’t you pleased to be here?’
‘We usually go on holiday to Sardinia.’
‘God, you’re provincial.’
‘Will you stop breaking my balls and let’s just have dinner, OK? Whatever disgusting muck they serve here. I’m exhausted.’
Da Silva’s misery was only adding to my pleasure. As he poked suspiciously at his perfectly lovely plate of chicken and preserved lemons, I sipped dark-red wine and looked out over the crazy jumble of Tangier’s rooftops. Even now, after all the places I’d seen, there was still a part of me that couldn’t quite believe that I was somewhere like this, somewhere that looked and smelled so . . . exotic. The sound of the call to prayer over the city seemed ancient and thrilling, even the faint tang of sewage wafting up from the mysterious streets below was somehow exhilarating.
Da Silva clattered down his fork bad-temperedly. ‘Fa schifo, serving meat with fruit.’
‘What about mostarda? Can’t you just relax a bit?’
‘Maybe if you tell me why we’re here.’
It hadn’t seemed safe to discuss it on the journey, but now I listened to the conversations around us, which were mostly in French. I leaned forward, poured him some more wine. The waiter replaced our plates with little diamonds of cake soaked in orange flower syrup.
‘We need some wood. There’s a house here that I think has some, of the right age. If we can get it then Li can start work on the picture.’
‘Why couldn’t we just buy some?’
I detailed the method of dating panels by analysing the growth rings visible in the end grain of the wood. By measuring the distance between the rings and comparing the sample with chronologies of known date and location, it’s possible to determine the age of the youngest growth ring, giving the earliest possible date for the use of the wood in question, and hence of any painting on it.
‘So if the thing we want to make is supposed to date from 1900, the wood has to be the right age.’
‘It’s not as though there isn’t plenty of old wood in Italy.’
‘Yes, but it’s got to be the right kind of wood. That’s why we’re here. You can date oak, or beech, but they don’t come from the right part of the world. You’ve heard of Gauguin, right?’
‘So you know that he worked in Polynesia? In Tahiti? The wood has to come from there.’ I paused as the waiter set down wire-chased glasses of fresh mint tea.
‘And so this place, this house, it has the right kind of wood,’ I explained. ‘Miro, it’s called. Do you get it now?’
‘Do you think they have espresso?’
‘Jesus. You didn’t have to come, you know. I can manage perfectly well on my own.’
‘I told Raznatovic I’d stay with you. Besides,’ he added, ‘you might need . . . protecting.’
‘As we both know, the most dangerous thing round here is you. Unless I’m abducted by a wildly passionate nomad sheikh? That would be nice, but we’ve got a schedule here, remember?’
Da Silva looked puzzled.
‘The Sheltering Sky? Paul Bowles? The writer? He lived here, in Tangier.’
‘I told you, I don’t have much time for reading.’
‘Whatever. Let’s go down. We have to be up early for church!’
The heavy brass candlestick between our beds had been lighted and two starched linen bathrobes laid out. I changed in the small bathroom, navy silk pyjamas from Olivia von Halle, a monogram of a burning cigarette on the breast pocket. At least I could look the part. I slipped into bed and tried not to listen to the sounds of da Silva pissing and cleaning his teeth. As da Silva emerged in T-shirt and boxers and blew out the candles, his presence in the soft darkness was suddenly very loud. I found myself remembering that moment in Albania, when he had pulled the trigger on the kneeling man. The quietness of him. You’re like me. Perhaps my hand strayed down under the sheet to the silk between my legs. Just for a second.
‘How do you do it?’
‘Your life. Being two things at once. I don’t mean practically, I mean – how do you stand it?’
‘E cosi,’ he answered. That’s how it is.
I heard him shift onto one shoulder, the crisp rustle of the bedclothes. There was a long pause, and I thought he had fallen asleep, but then he whispered.
‘And you? How do you stand it?’
Staring up into the dark, I listed the names in my head.
‘You know,’ I whispered back after a while. ‘That’s how it is.’
He hadn’t waited for my answer – all I got in reply was a snore.
White-towered and green-roofed, with an incongruous flag of St George on the turret, the Anglican church of St Andrew in Tangier looked more like a Moorish fortress conquered by the Crusaders than a dour outpost of empire. According to the InterNations website, the post-communion coffee morning was the hub of ex-pat life in the city, a bit of a comedown for a place which had once been considered a cosmopolitan hotbed of sin. Da Silva and I shuffled in at the back just as the vicar was launching the congregation into a rousing verse of ‘Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending’. Church hadn’t been a big feature of my childhood and da Silva was a Catholic, but we knelt and muttered our way clumsily through the service. The building, with its cool colonnade and ornate marble screen might have belonged to another world, but the worshippers were straight from a costume-drama version of England circa 1953. Dark suits, stiff collars and red faces for the men, floral frocks and sensible sandals over tan tights for the women. Some of them even had hats. The only indication that we were technically in Africa was provided by a large woman in a brightly printed fuchsia ikat kaftan and severely bobbed grey hair, with a huge silver necklace and earrings that I had a suspicion she might describe as ‘fun’.
The vicar and his wife shook the congregation by the hands as we filed through into the parish hall, a low wooden walled space to the side of the church, where the vicar’s wife installed herself behind a large urn; da Silva looked disgusted as she handed him a brimming cup of watery Nescafé with a Rich Tea biscuit in the saucer. I made a beeline for the necklace lady who was loudly discussing her drains with a rather frightened-looking chap in a tweed waistcoat. ‘So I said to Hassan, this is simply impossible. The fourth time this year! We’ll be dead of bloody cholera before summer.’ Her accent was ringingly RP, but as she got more excited about the iniquities of Moroccan plumbers a tiny bit of south London slipped in. I wondered if she’d retired on the proceeds of a cathouse in Putney. Tweedy Man and I waited for a pause in the flow, but when it showed no sign of coming, I just interrupted her.
‘Morning! Lovely service, wasn’t it?’
‘Oooh!’ beamed the woman, sensing fresh prey, ‘A newbie! Who are you, dear?’
‘Katherine Gable. I’ve just arrived.’
‘I’m Poppet!’ announced the woman, as though that explained something.
‘Poppet’s been here thirty years,
‘Well there’s nothing I can’t tell you about the place,’ trilled Poppet. ‘And what brings you here? Rellie at the consulate?’
‘Not exactly. My colleague and I’ – I pointed to da Silva – ‘are here for work. We’re property consultants.’
‘Are you now?’ Poppet was giving me a shrewd eye as Tweedy Man slipped gratefully away. I had chosen an A-line black skirt and a fine navy cashmere round-necked jumper which I hoped would give the impression of a string of pearls under the collar. ‘From London?’
‘Based in Montenegro, actually. I used to work at . . .’ I gave the name of the House. It would impress Poppet, I knew.
‘I see. So you must know Laura Belvoir?’
‘Oh yes! Dear Laura!’ I spluttered. Fuck. I’d been caught out by the name game. Why hadn’t I resisted that chippy little urge to show off? Laura had once been my superior at British Pictures.
‘She used to be out here all the time – staying with the Whitakers, you know.’
‘Yes, of course, the Whitakers. Small world!’ I pitied them, whoever they were.
‘And you’re looking for something here?’
‘One place in particular. Les Orangers. I heard it was . . . for sale?’
Poppet obviously hadn’t been this delighted since Princess Margaret’s last visit.
‘Les Orangers. Oh goodness, that dreadful business. Did you hear?’ She leaned in, the claws of the necklace threatening to snag my sweater.
I assumed she was referring to the scandal surrounding Balensky’s death in Switzerland a few weeks previously. Yermolov and I had taken care to make sure it was all over the internet. In the accepted version, the broke billionaire had been having a bit of a last hurrah with a piece of ski-station trade, complete with a saucy pair of PVC panties, when things had got slightly out of hand. A dead oligarch had made for spectacular headlines in the pre-Christmas lull.
‘Not really. Just that the property was available. It’s listed with Price and Henslop, but there are very few details and we weren’t able to reach them.’
‘Oh, you’ll be wanting Jonny Strathdrummond. Are you at the Hotel Minzah? No? Well, you must come along to supper later. I have my little “at homes” on Sundays, everybody comes. Here, have a card. About seven.’ She looked suddenly serious. ‘We have gin, you know. Isn’t it wonderful?’ By the whiff off her, I guessed Poppet had had a go on the Tanqueray already, but I wasn’t complaining.
by L. S. Hilton have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes