Monday, March 30, 2009


continued from Twenty-Four

They fetched lunch from the Gallery Cafe and took it on trays to Harry's flat at the top of the building - a bigger gallery than the Gallery below. The walls were filled with pictures. Rows and rows of them rose in stages, up and up into the high inverted V of the roof. A floor had been taken out to make extra wall space and even then they crowded right up to the skylights, every one of them suspended between owners till Harry judged it the right moment to sell. They were, she said, maturing. Like cheese. Or wine. Only more personal - because she knew which buyers they were destined for before the buyers even knew the works existed. She monitored collections. She nurtured tastes. She drew on new artists. Targeted buyers. Scoured for old paintings. Sought new locations. She bought, . . . waited weeks . . . months . . . years . . . then she sold - and because she lived in her storehouse nearly everything conformed in some way to her own taste. It had to. There were vases on pedestals and sculptures in boxes; crates, cartons and opened exhibits. In the corners, at the extremities, for convenience, not for comfort, she'd left spaces for living in . . . a kitchen (which was cupboard, cooker, counter, hatch) a bathroom (with no window) and a small room at the far end with a bed and a wardrobe and a telephone on a table. Everything else was bare boards, bright sofas and - art.

Harry went to the kitchen for glasses. Stephen put his tray on the floor beside hers and turned, expecting to make a quick tour of the room, perhaps pick something they could talk about. Instead, he found himself staring, horrified, at a trail of muddy flakes which led directly from Harry's front door - to him. He undid his laces, slipped off his shoes and placed them neatly beside one of her sofas. Then he sat on it.

This wasn't the best arrangement. He had been working at Thorncombe all that morning and his feet were hot.

“Would you like Socks?” Harry was grinning at him through the hatch. "Afghan ones." (Thick and woolly with patterns up the sides and soft chamois soles? No. He wouldn't.)

So she tossed him a towel instead and he washed his feet in the tiny bathroom. When he came back, the mud had been swept away, his shoes had been put outside and there were glasses of white wine on the floor beside their bowls of salad. She'd filled a shallow basket with bread and brought butter on a plate. There was even a vase with three gold chrysanthemums.

"Right," said Harry, handing him a fork, "why are you here?”

“Told you,” he said, breaking a piece from the bread. "I need somewhere to stay.”

“No one needs to stay in King’s Hampton. Not till they’re seventy. At least.”

“You’re here.”

She popped a cherry tomato into her mouth and winced. Silly time of year to put them in salads.

“It suits me,” she said. "Would you like soup instead? Tinned? We could tip the bean sprouts into it. It might be quite nice. More seasonal than this trendy stuff. Things sell here." She meant paintings. "People know where I am."

She went to heat soup. Not that it felt wintry. Not up here. The temperature was constant throughout the building. Stephen wondered how much the heating cost.

The ceilings were high. The walls, cold. But Harry couldn't risk condensation. Not with these paintings. So she had the atmosphere under control. And there was more - a row of little screens set into her desk. One of the staff would be keeping an eye on it while Harry was up here for lunch. Every room was observed. Everything monitored. Temperature, atmosphere, safety, fire, security. Even up here. Harry was clever, he thought sleepily. Sophisticated. Yes, he was definitely tired. They'd been running the barrows up ramps and out through the drawing room windows. His legs and arms ached. How did Harry know about everything? Hugh had arranged the task so they didn't have to move the sheep again, shift the makeshift pen further from the front door. But it was awkward. At first, he'd pretended he was working on a building site, as if he were scooting up and down planks with barrows of cement. It was lovely and warm in here. Up the ramp. Down the other side. Dozy. But he'd soon got bored. His muscles hurt. Hugh and Camellia were farmers, with muscles to show for it. His was the physique of a financier.

For the post before this - Twenty-four