I STARED at a virgin, white canvas. I had been staring at it every day for a fortnight and I was beginning to appreciate how the Russian born, American artist, Mark Rothko must have felt. He would spend weeks, sometimes months sat on a chair in his New York studio, chain-smoking and staring at a blank canvas, agonising over what to put on it. At the end of all this solitary contemplation, he would do what he always did; paint a red square on a black background, or a black square on a red background, or two red rectangles on a dark brown background. If you have ever seen one of Rothko’s paintings you will know what I mean.
Now, I don’t know what was going through Rothko’s mind; if he was looking for a new direction or if he just found it hard to get started – the point I’m making is, he stuck to what he did best – which worked out well for Mr Rothko because his work continued to sell. Sadly, doing what I do best was the one option that was no longer open to me. Let me explain. You see, artist is a blanket term for someone who creates art; Rothko was an abstract expressionist (no, I don’t know what it means either; the art world is full of bullshit terms like that) I’m a Portrait painter. He was an artist, I am an artist but the only thing our work has in common is that, to put it crudely, we have both slapped a bit of oil paint onto a piece of canvas.
Before the invention of the camera, an artist who could produce a true likeness was considered something of a magician. These men and they were mainly men, great British portraitists like Reynolds and Gainsborough were lionised by society; their work held up as representing the very pinnacle of their chosen profession. Anyone who was anyone, would commission a portrait of themselves, their wives or their children.
Now, I’d be the first to admit that Leo Tate, will only ever be a tiny footnote in the history of art. Leo, short for Leonardo – my mother is an art historian and my father was an art critic, what can I say? I may have been treading in the footsteps of geniuses but I’m never going to stand on their shoulders. Still, modest though my contribution has been, I have managed to earn a decent living out of Portraiture, until recently, that is.
In the last two years I’ve received just three commissions. Three! And two of those were in the first of those two years. Call me a digital dinosaur but I blame the iPhone and the selfie. These days, any fool with a phone can achieve immortality in an instant simply by posting a selfie on their facebook page. As long as the worldwide web exists so will they.
After six months without so much as a sniff of a commission, my long-term girlfriend, Josie felt a change of direction was called for; “You’re a painter,” she said “If no one wants a portrait – paint something else.” I couldn’t fault her logic so I tried my hand at landscapes; they’re always popular, I thought. My landscapes weren’t bad – a bit derivative perhaps – but neither were they good. More to the point, they didn’t sell. Three months later, Josie took her cat and went to live with a Turner Prize Winner; an installation artist called, Zak – in other words a man who represents everything I despise about modern art. Her leaving sent me spiralling into a deep hole of self-pity and despair. We’d been together a long time; since meeting as students at St Martin’s School of Art in fact. It seemed that everything I loved had been taken away from me; career and soul mate gone and still only a thirty something!
That was three months ago which brings me back to where I began, and the ‘Rothko stare’. Having failed to produce a saleable landscape, I decided to abandon the purely representational and embrace the abstract. That’s what people want these days I convinced myself – a splash of colour to liven up those plain magnolia painted walls. Wouldn’t take much more than a few splodges of paint on a white canvas and it would be money for old rope – I could easily knock one of those off, perhaps two in an hour or so…
Turned out it was harder to do than I’d thought and as creative strategies go, the ‘Rothko stare’ just wasn’t working for me. It had a calming, almost soporific effect which left my mind as blank and empty as the canvas I was staring at. Nothing was happening. Rather like the videos that Josie’s new lover, Zak produces and a damned sight more interesting than the piece of crap he won The Turner Prize with.
The ‘Rothko Stare’ was so soporific indeed that when the phone began to ring I didn’t immediately recognise the sound; it had been so long since anyone had rung me. It rang for some time before I came to my senses and dived across the room to snatch it up. My heart skipped a beat – was this a tearful Josie ringing to say leaving me had been a big mistake, a remorseful Josie who would beg me to take her back?
‘Hello?’ It was a woman’s voice, but disappointingly not one that I recognised.
‘Hello?’ I answered warily in case it was one of those damned ‘ambulance chasers’ who want to know if you have had an accident that wasn’t your fault or if you have been imprudent enough to take out Payment Protection Insurance.
The woman on the other end of the line sounded as wary as myself, ‘Am I speaking to Mr Tate, Mr Leo Tate, the portrait painter?’ she enquired.
The jury was still out on that, I thought but decided to go with it, ‘Er… yes, that’s me,’ I said.
‘You don’t sound too sure….’
‘No… I mean, yes, it’s definitely me,’ I confirmed.
‘Well, now that we’ve established I’m speaking to the right person, perhaps I can explain my purpose in phoning you,’ she went on. No longer wary, she spoke to me in the tones of a maiden aunt from a Victorian novel. ‘My employer would like to meet with you. Can you make yourself available tomorrow morning?’
At that particular moment I was available any and every morning for the foreseeable future but I didn’t want her or her employer to know that. ‘Well, let me just consult my diary…’ I said and flipped through the empty pages.
‘Excellent. You will be collected at exactly nine-thirty tomorrow morning. My employer doesn’t like to be kept waiting so please ensure you are ready in good time.’
Collected? What was I, a parcel?
‘Yes, but who are you and who are you working for… hello?’ I said belatedly but I was speaking to myself.
AT PRECISELY nine-thirty the following morning a car horn sounded in the street outside my loft apartment in Bermondsey. I went to the window and looked down. A sleek, black, BMW X5 stood at the kerb. Beside it on the driver’s side, the door open, was a tall, well-built, blond-headed guy dressed in a dark blue suit. The entry phone buzzed and I realised there must be two of them. I went to the wall phone beside my front door and lifted the receiver.
‘Mr Tate?’ enquired a disembodied voice. ‘Could you let me in please?’ The tone was clipped, military.
I hadn’t expected them to want to come in. I surveyed my home which also served as my workplace. Weeks of staring blankly at a canvas and very little else had resulted in my apartment looking as if it had just been turned over by the drug squad. There wasn’t time to tidy up and in any case it would take several days, so with a reluctant sigh I said, ‘Come on up,’ and activated the door release.
Another dark blue suit but this one had slicked back, black hair like Al Pacino in Godfather II. He was wearing an ear-piece communicator and holding one of those wands that security guards all over the world wave at you.
Who are these people? I wondered.
‘Could you step back please, Mr Tate and raise both arms.’
It seemed absurd but I complied with his request as he didn’t strike me as the kind of man who would take no for an answer. This went way beyond cautious; his anonymous employer had to be seriously paranoid to see a man armed with a sable brush as any kind of threat to his personal security.
The wand produced an electronic screech not unlike the sound a mouse might make if someone stepped on its tail and the ‘Michael Corleone’ look alike asked me to empty my pockets. I took out my car keys and a small collection of coins, showed them to him and placed them in a little heap on the nearest chair. He repeated the business with the wand and this time it made no sound. The man swept the room and his cold gaze fell upon the brown leather satchel I had dumped beside the front door. He had the kind of eyes you would normally only ever expect to see on dead people.
‘Is that coming with you?’ he asked in a tone that implied I had been trying to slip the bag past him.
‘Er…yes,’ I said a little nervously. ‘There’s just a sketchpad in there and a few pencils.’
‘Give it here,’ he said and held out a hand. I was a little surprised to see he had beautifully manicured nails like a woman’s. He caught my look. ‘My employer is a stickler for cleanliness,’ he explained, somewhat defensively. A tough guy with a thin skin – who would have thought it?
I picked up the satchel and handed it to him. Those dead eyes of his took in my bitten down nails and then my tip of a room. He gave a disapproving sniff. ‘Oh, he’s going to love you,’ he said.
He took the satchel over to the chair and, undoing the straps, emptied the contents onto it. The first item to fall out was my mobile phone. ‘Dead Eyes’ pounced on it and held it up as if it were exhibit ‘A’ in a particularly gruesome murder trial. His eyes narrowed with suspicion and the look he gave me, you would have thought it was a block of weapons grade Plutonium rather than an iPhone, and an old one at that. Replacing the pad and the pencils in the satchel, he handed it back to me.
‘The phone stays here,’ he said sternly and proceeded to remove the battery which he slipped into his pocket.
‘Hey,’ I protested. ‘What are you doing?’
‘You’ll get it back when I drop you off,’ he said and that was that; end of discussion.
Just what was I getting myself into? I wondered. The more I learned about my prospective client, the less I liked the sound of him; not only was he paranoid about personal security but was obsessively compulsive in matters of hygiene. This behaviour of his was disturbingly reminiscent of the reclusive billionaire, Howard Hughes.
And what if he had good reason to feel paranoid? If someone really was out to get him, I could be putting myself in harm’s way.
‘What’s his name – this boss of yours?’ I asked ‘Dead Eyes’.
‘If he wants you to know it, he’ll tell you himself,’ he said. He consulted his watch; one of those flashy, expensive, aviator timepieces. ‘Time to go,’ he said then, raising his right hand to his mouth, he spoke into the cuff of his sleeve. ‘We’re coming down.’ A pause, presumably while he listened to the guy downstairs, ‘Roger that,’ he replied.
Downstairs in the street I was bundled into the back of the BMW like a hostage and ‘Dead Eyes’ jumped in beside me. Without a word to either of us, his blond-headed colleague slid behind the wheel and buckled his seat belt. A glance in the mirror and we were off.
‘Where are we going?’ I asked as we pulled away from the kerb.
“Just sit back and relax,” I was told and after that all three of us sat in silence as ‘Blondie’ as I had christened him, skilfully weaved his way through South London’s busy streets. With nothing to do but look out of the window – tinted, naturally, I consoled myself with the fact that at least they hadn’t put a hood over my head.
It soon became apparent that we were headed westwards and to pass the time, I tried, using the meagre clues I had to go on, to make an educated guess as to our destination. My prospective client was undoubtedly wealthy – bodyguards and all the paraphernalia that went with them didn’t come cheap. So, assuming that he didn’t live too far from central London, I concluded that his multi-million pound residence would most likely be located in Berkshire, or perhaps, Surrey. It was still so vague that I might as well have closed my eyes and stuck a pin in a map, so I decided to suspend further speculation until I had more to go on.
Forty minutes later, having meandered, like the Thames, through Lambeth, Vauxhall and Nine Elms, I was still wondering where we were going. Not long after we had driven past Battersea power station, the driver made a right turn and drove at speed down a narrow road which was hemmed in on both sides by high walls.
I heard it before I saw it; its arrival announced by an angry whirring. As we approached a wire perimeter fence, the helicopter came into view hovering like a shiny black insect above a white circle painted on the tarmac apron below it. There was nothing, not even a company logo, on the all black livery of the aircraft to identify the owner, other than the white registration letters on the nose and tail. We swept around a bend and pulled up in front of the heliport terminal; a low curved building that seemed to have grown out of the tall glass tower next to it.
My dead-eyed friend got out of the car and held the door open for me.
Exciting though the prospect of a first flight in a helicopter was, I hesitated. I was used to my clients coming to me. On the rare occasions I had to go to them, I drove myself or took a taxi. I’d never had anyone send a car for me, let alone a helicopter.
‘We’re flying the rest of the way?’ I queried, still not quite able to believe it.
‘Dead-Eyes’ gave me a withering look. ‘Well we’re not here to collect aircraft numbers,’ he said.
In the end it was my desperate need for cash that overcame the doubts that had assailed me. Feeling sheepish, I followed him into the terminal, where the staff greeted us like VIP’s. Whoever he was, the owner of the black helicopter certainly carried some clout with these people, I thought. I felt like an ‘A’ list celebrity as we were ushered through with the minimum of formalities and escorted to our helicopter by the managing director of the company who ran the terminal.
Up close, the helicopter was even more impressive than the brief glimpse I’d had of it earlier. Its streamlined curves and an aggressive looking snout gave it a disturbingly military look. An impression belied by the interior which was reassuringly luxurious and comfortable with wall to wall carpet and real leather seats.
I’d hoped that my taciturn travelling companion would sit up front with the pilot but to my displeasure, he followed me into the passenger section of the cabin. As I eased back into my seat and strapped myself in, he sat down in the seat opposite me and stared at a TV screen which was mounted above my head.
The rotor blades began to turn, slowly at first but gradually gained speed until they were little more than a blur; the engine noise building at the same time until it became a banshee scream. And then with a slight wobble we rose slowly into the sky and I could see the Thames and a line of barges and small boats strung out parallel to the north bank. We rose a further 50 feet or so and the pilot dipped the nose and turning, headed across the Thames in, as near as I could judge, a north westerly direction. I’m not good with maps or navigation and never drive anywhere outside London without my trusty Sat Nav, but Berkshire now seemed to be our likeliest destination. Moments later a motorway came into view which I assumed must be the M4 and I felt a smug satisfaction in having my prediction so quickly confirmed. But as the flight time grew longer, I began to think my confidence had been misplaced.
My guard, as I’d come to regard him, had yet to utter a word. So far I’d managed to ignore him by staring out of the window but he remained a silent presence; the elephant in the room that was making everyone feel uncomfortable. I didn’t like the man, he made me feel nervous but when I’m nervous, I have the urge to talk. I just can’t help myself.
‘I suppose this is just like catching a bus for you,’ I said, indicating the well-appointed cabin.
He turned those fish-cold eyes on me. ‘It’s a helicopter,’ he said, ‘So no, it’s nothing like catching a bus.’ And went back to staring at the TV.
Thankfully five minutes later we began to descend and craning my neck, I was surprised to see the mellow spires of Oxford looming up below us.
We landed on a rooftop helipad. The roof in question was keeping the rain out of one of those grand Palladian mansions; once the home of the impoverished nobility, but now the must have status symbol for the nouveau super-riche. I just caught a glimpse of walled garden and some parkland beyond it, before I was taken through a doorway set into a sentry-box like structure. A tiny service lift, barely big enough for two people, took us down through the core of the house and into a marble floored reception room. ‘Dead Eyes’ led me to a leather chesterfield and told me to wait there, then left. Frankly, I was glad to see the back of him. I sincerely hoped that his employer had a sunnier disposition.
The only reading material in the room was a copy of that day’s Financial Times. Beside it on a marble topped table was an internal telephone. High finance didn’t interest me; I was more concerned with where my next month’s rent was coming from. Besides, the room contained something far more interesting – paintings, and not just any old paintings either; these were genuine surrealist masterpieces. Amongst others there were two Picassos and a Giacometti. Millions of pounds’ worth of art and they were hanging in a reception room! The proceeds from any one of those paintings would have set me up for the rest of my life.
I was back on the chesterfield considering how much more I could charge my prospective client for his portrait, when a young boy bounded into the room. He was brandishing a toy gun. Holding it out in front of him, he advanced upon the sofa until the muzzle was within a foot or so of my nose.
‘Hands up,’ he said.
Spoken in a cut glass, public school accent, the words sounded incongruous from one so young, for judging by the missing front teeth, I reckoned he must be 6 or 7 years old.
Playing along, I slowly raised my hands above my head. ‘Please, don’t sh-sh-shoot me,’ I stammered.
Apparently dissatisfied with my play-acting, the fair-haired boy waggled his gun at me to indicate I should raise my hands higher still. I was thinking to myself how much more realistic toy guns were nowadays when a very large, red-faced man in shirt sleeves burst in. When he saw what was happening he froze, and the blood drained from his face. It was then I noticed the empty shoulder holster he was wearing.
Until that moment, I had only pretended to be scared, but now I was doing it for real. Time slowed, as if I were watching a movie frame by frame, and every detail of the scene before me was thrown into sharper focus. Staring down the dark muzzle of that gun was like staring into eternity. I thought my hour had come.
“Leo Tate, this is your life”, would be a much shorter programme than I had envisaged when, in wilder moments, I had allowed myself to believe that I would someday join the ranks of those great English portraitists who had gone before me.
Coupled with the terror of imminent death, was a fixation with the instrument of my extinction. I just could not take my eyes off the open maw of that gun barrel, at the other end of which lay a bullet which apparently had my name on it. The boy’s finger closed around the trigger. I held my breath…
‘Sasha.’ A woman’s voice. ‘Take-your-finger-off-the-trigger.’ She spoke in a calm, measured rhythm, her voice almost a whisper. She must have nerves of steel, I thought, but then it occurred to me that the boy might have done this before. ‘Now, I want you to turn around and look at mummy.’ Reluctantly, the boy complied. ‘Good boy,’ she said.
I breathed again.
Eternity postponed for a while longer, my attention shifted to my rescuer and I was immediately struck by how beautiful she was. A tall, willowy blonde of roughly my own age, she was blessed with the kind of bone structure that would ensure she retained her beauty well into her later years. I found myself hoping, praying even, that she was to be my subject. The time spent capturing that beauty on canvas, would go some way to compensating me for the trauma her gun-toting son had just put me through.
The lady in question went down on one knee. ‘Gently now, Sasha,’ she said. ‘Put Kolya’s gun on the floor and come to me.’
A moment’s hesitation then the boy knelt down and carefully placed the pistol on the hard marble floor. Having done so, he ran straight to his mother, and she gathered him up in her arms.
The bodyguard who had failed to guard his gun, wiped a trembling hand across his glistening brow. I had a feeling he was likely to be out of a job before the day was through. From his hangdog expression, I could see that he was of the same mind. He and the lady of the house exchanged meaningful glances, and the hapless bodyguard approached his discarded weapon, with the leaden steps of a man mounting the gallows. The gun back in its holster, he addressed a mumbled apology to me in a heavily accented baritone. As he was leaving, the blonde turned and said something to him in what I took to be Russian. Whatever was said, it didn’t make him any happier.
Unfolding her arms, she took hold of her son by his shoulders. Gazing straight into his eyes, she said, ‘Go to your room now, Sasha. I’ll come up and see you in few minutes.’
‘Now, Sasha.’ She reiterated in a sterner tone.
She released him, and he meekly obeyed without further protest.
His mother watched him go, then with a sigh, got up off her knee, and came rushing towards me.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she said, and looked as if she was about to burst into tears. ‘What must you think of us?’
‘Oh, it’s all right,’ I said, with the air of a man who deals with this sort of thing all the time. ‘Boys will be boys.’ But when I went to stand up, I was as unsteady on my feet as a new born calf; my legs so shaky I almost toppled back onto the chesterfield.
She took my hands in hers, steadied me. ‘No, it’s not all right,’ she said. ‘You’re shaking. It’s inexcusable. Please forgive my son. Sasha’s not a bad boy. He just gets very bored in the school holidays and Kolya should have been more vigilant.’ Her eyes, I noticed, were hazel and flecked with gold. They stared pleadingly into mine. ‘I know I have no right to ask this of you, but could you please not mention this unfortunate incident to my father. He sent me to fetch you, and he’ll be wondering why we’ve been so long. I’ll deal with Kolya. He’s been with the family for a long time, but my father won’t forgive him for endangering Sasha’s life, and yours too, of course,’ she added, just a fraction too late.
‘Yes. You are Leo Tate… the portrait painter, aren’t you?’
‘That’s right. So, it’s your father I’m to immortalise on canvas then?’
She smiled. ‘We think so…’
I assumed by ‘we’, she referred to her husband and herself, but I asked the question anyway. ‘We?’
‘Me and my sister, Polina, but he won’t tell us. He’s being very secretive about it in fact. So I’ll leave him to tell you himself. ‘If you’re ready, I’ll take you to him…’
There followed an expectant pause, and I realised she was waiting for a reply to the plea she’d made.
How could I refuse?
‘Yeah, I think I’ll be all right now,’ I said. And don’t worry; I won’t say anything to your father about Sasha having the gun.’
Her relief was palpable. She took my hand in hers. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.’
Amen to that, I thought. If I were to get the commission, it would almost certainly involve return visits to the house, and I didn’t fancy playing Russian roulette with Sasha every time.
My guide took me out into a wide hallway, and led me up a grand staircase complete with red carpet. I imagined us both in period costume; me in a Hussar’s uniform with lots of gold braid, and her in a silk ball gown. As if reading my thoughts, she turned and looked back at me.
‘I’m Sofia, by the way,’ she said.
With all these Russian names – it could be War & Peace, I thought.
At the top of the staircase, there was a galleried landing and another flight of stairs which gave access to the second floor. Dotted around the landing were a series of alcoves, each one containing a piece of sculpture. In one, I spotted what I’m fairly certain was a nude figure of a woman by Matisse. There was more modern art hanging on the walls. Not all of these paintings were priceless by any means, but quite a lot of them were. I followed Sofia through an archway, and came face to face with yet another bodyguard – how many of them did it take to guard one man? He was stationed with his back towards a pale duck-egg green, panelled door. The man looked me up and down, then gave a gentle tap on the door, and a gruff voice from within commanded us to enter.
We stepped inside.
It was a very masculine room with lots of dark wood, and an absence of bric-a-brac; a room where business was done, rather than a den. The sole decorative ornament was an ornate, silver Samovar. As we entered, a short, stocky man with heavy jowls and a shock of jet black hair, came out from behind a large leather topped, partners desk.
‘Ah, Mister Tate. There you are,’ he said with a sidelong glance at his daughter, who averted her eyes. He didn’t offer to shake my hand, I noticed, presumably because he feared he might catch something. Instead, he waved me to a chair. He had thick bushy eyebrows, and looked like one of those soviet era presidents.
‘Can I offer you something to drink, Mr Tate… tea, coffee?’
His accent was decidedly Russian, though not as thick as Kolya’s had been.
Still feeling the after effects of my close encounter with a loaded automatic, I was tempted to ask for a brandy, but settled for strong black coffee. It was barely 11am, and I didn’t want him thinking I had a drink problem. That kind of bohemian behaviour, though expected of us arty types, tends to put a punter off.
He turned to his daughter, ‘Sofia, darling, would you see to that for me, please?’
‘Of course,’ she said.
As she came past me on her way out, she mouthed ‘thank you’.
Her father returned to his high-backed, leather chair behind the huge desk. From this biologically safer distance, he appraised me from beneath heavily-lidded eyes that were almost as black as his hair.
‘Tell me something about yourself,’ he said.
‘By all means,’ I said. ‘But first, do you mind if I ask you a question?’
He’d guessed what was coming, of course, was prepared for it.
‘You want to know my name, yes? I understand this, but I am not yet ready to exchange such confidences. I am a very successful man and successful men have enemies. If they became aware of our association, they might use you, to get to me and my family. So, for the moment, you may call me, Andrei.’
I should have asked his daughter while I had the chance, I realised. But for the moment, it seemed I had no choice but to humour his paranoia, and so I gave him a potted history of my life and works. This résumé was punctuated by frequent stops to answer his often probing questions. I was about done, when Sofia returned with the coffee, which she served up, along with a warm smile and an almond biscotti. After which, she lingered; eager no doubt to learn which of them her father wanted me to paint, but seeing her hovering, he shooed her out.
‘OK. I like you, Leo,’ he said, expansively. ‘I have decided. I want you to do the work. You are prepared to accept this commission?’
‘Well, yes. I’d be delighted, but who…’
‘Good. That’s settled then,’ he said, before I could finish speaking then hurried on. ‘Now, I have some conditions and, they are non-negotiable. Firstly, all sittings must take place here.’ He looked up enquiringly, and those eyebrows of his shot up like a couple of dancing caterpillars. ‘How many would you need?’
‘Oh, half-a-dozen at least, probably more, but I’m still not clear who I’m being commissioned to paint?’
‘It is to be a family portrait,’ he said. ‘My two daughters, my grandson, and myself, of course. So, I will set aside the whole of next week for the sittings. You will stay here with us.’ I opened my mouth to voice an objection, but he dismissed it with a wave of his hand. ‘A fully equipped studio has been prepared for you.’ he assured me. ‘When we have finished here, I will get Sofia to show it to you. Let her have a list of the materials you will need, and they will be here when you come back on Monday morning.’
‘But you don’t understand,’ I explained. ‘The sittings are an ongoing part of the process and occur at different stages of the work. You can’t just lump them all together and do them in one go.’
‘Then you must stay here until the portrait is completed,’ he said, as if there was no other option.
Granted, I was in no position to turn down the work. As things stood, this commission represented my one chance of straightening out my finances. Without it, I was in danger of becoming a pavement artist; literally, living and working on the streets. On the other hand, I barely knew these people; my client wished to remain anonymous, and I would be surrounded by armed guards – a prisoner, in all but name.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘I’m more than happy to come and do the sittings here, but I don’t see why the rest of the work can’t be done in my own studio.’
‘I thought I had made it clear why that would not be possible,’ he said.
‘You do realise, that the painting will take several months to complete,’ I countered
He nodded, and his heavy jowls quivered. ‘Naturally, I would expect to pay more for this level of service,’ he said. ‘And so, I’m prepared to pay you three times your usual fee.’
Ker-ching! I couldn’t believe it. He’d just offered me the best part of £30,000. He knows, I thought. He’s had someone look into my circumstances and he knows I can’t afford to say no. But then, why offer me so much, when he could have got me for a lot less?
He was growing impatient for a reply. ‘And still you hesitate?’ he said.
‘I’m stunned,’ I explained. ‘It’s an extremely generous offer.’
A shrug of his shoulders, ‘The money is not so important.’
That was easy to say from where he was sitting.
‘You find this hard to believe?’ he said.
‘No, it’s just…’
‘Yes, you do. It’s written all over your face. But trust me, my young friend, money isn’t everything. You have family?’
‘Of my own? No,’ I said. With Josie gone, that prospect seemed farther away than ever.
He smiled. ‘Well, one day perhaps, you will understand what I am talking about.’
Funny how fond the rich are of saying money doesn’t buy you happiness, yet spend their lives striving to get their hands on lots more of the stuff that makes them so unhappy. And were those millionaire Beatles really serious when they sang, “money can’t buy me love”? If that is true, how come even the ugliest of millionaires, can take his pick of some of the world’s most beautiful women?
Before I left, Sofia showed me the studio. Situated on the top floor, it had two north facing windows and, best of all, a large skylight. As my client had promised, it was well equipped. The easel alone, a Jack Richeson ‘Crank’ model, would have set her father back at least £1500. But it was the room itself that appealed to me more than anything; light and airy, it was a perfect space in which to paint. A table and a swivel chair had been set up beneath one of the windows. I sat down and listed the paints and other materials I would need; canvas, linseed oil, turpentine and so on. Like most professional artists, I was particular in my choice of manufacturers and suppliers of these things, along with the palette of colours I preferred to use. When I was done, I handed the list to Sofia. She glanced at it, then folded it in half.
‘I’ll get these ordered for you today,’ she promised. ‘So, did he tell you who he wants you to paint?’
‘It’s about the only thing he did tell me,’ I said.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean, I still don’t know who I’m going to be working for.’
‘Oh, I see…’
She dropped her gaze.
‘You’re not going to tell me either, are you?’ I said. I got up, pushed the chair away. Took a few steps away from her, came back. ‘What is it with your family, why all the secrecy?’
She looked shamefaced, but said nothing.
‘Is your father in some kind of trouble?’ I asked. ‘Are the Russian mafia after him or something?’
She laughed at the suggestion. ‘No, nothing like that. It’s a family matter. Nothing you need worry about,’ she assured me.
I left it at that. Further probing seemed pointless, and in any case, it would be rude to pry into a private family matter.
‘In case you’re still wondering,’ I said. ‘Your father wants a portrait of himself, with you, your sister and Sasha.’
She smiled at that, but there was a sorrowful look in her eyes.
THE SAME TEAM dropped me off outside my apartment at a little after two in the afternoon. As he was climbing back into the BMW, ‘Dead Eyes’ tossed my phone battery to me. I scrambled to catch it before it hit the pavement, and he laughed. When I looked up again, it was in time to see the BMW disappearing amongst the mid-afternoon traffic. I was glad to see the back of them. I was about to turn and go up to my apartment, when I noticed a dark blue Audi parked on the other side of the road. I barely had time to register the driver’s features; dark, bearded, before he started the engine and drove away.
I thought no more about it, but later, when I popped out to get some milk, I had the feeling that I was being followed. I glanced back over my shoulder several times on the way to my local convenience store, but no one particular face stayed there for long enough to make me suspicious. The feeling, however, persisted.
Who is paranoid now, I wondered?
I spent the rest of the afternoon searching for ‘Andrei’ on the internet. He’d implied it wasn’t his real name, but how many Russian oligarchs could there be in Oxfordshire?
Quite a number as it turned out.
I trawled through all the Googled images, but none of them bore much resemblance to Andrei. Perhaps the luxuriant eyebrows had been an attempt to disguise himself, or the man I’d met had been a stand-in; one of the oligarch’s retinue posing as my client, so that I wouldn’t know what he looked like until I came to paint him. The idea being that I would be unable to identify him until I was incommunicado; installed in that heavily guarded mansion of his until the painting was completed.
After wasting several hours on this fruitless search, I gave up. So the guy valued his privacy, so what? It was his prerogative, and none of my business how he conducted his affairs. After all, he was paying handsomely for the privilege.
By this time, I was beginning to feel hungry. I couldn’t face cooking another meal for one, so I ordered a take-away pizza and, when it arrived, I opened a bottle of red wine. I ate the pizza on my lap in front of the telly. When it was finished, I continued to drink steadily. When the bottle was empty, I downed several cans of beer, along with a couple of shots of some vodka I found in the cupboard under the sink. All that alcohol made me maudlin, and my thoughts turned to Josie and the life I used to have. On a drunken impulse, I picked up the phone and dialled her mobile. It rang and rang, and I was about to end the call, when she answered it.
‘Oh, hello, Leo! I’m glad you phoned,’ she said, brightly.
It wasn’t the reaction I’d been expecting.
‘Are you?’ I said, unable to keep the surprise out of my voice.
‘Yes. You see, the other day, I was unpacking the last of the stuff I brought from your place, and I found that lovely little painting you did of your mother.’
‘Oh that… I didn’t know you had it.’
But then it wasn’t the painting I’d been missing these past three months. Sadly, it didn’t sound as though she’d been missing me. After the initial lift of hearing her voice again, my spirits had sunk even lower than they’d been before I made the call.
‘Thing is,’ she continued. ‘I don’t want to post it to you, in case it gets lost or damaged. But I’ll be in all afternoon tomorrow, if you’d like to collect it.’
‘Tomorrow? Sure, I can do that.’
‘Th-a-a-nks Leo. The sooner it’s safely back where it belongs the better. We wouldn’t want Mr Muggles to get his claws into it now, would we?’ she said, in that soppy voice she used when talking to her cat; a great brute of a ginger Tom. ‘Have you got a pen and I’ll give you the address?’
I grabbed a pen and wrote her it down on the back of the empty pizza box.
‘How have you been?’ I asked.
‘Oh, Busy, busy. Zak’s got a retrospective coming up at The Saatchi Gallery and we’ve been rushed off our feet. I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow,’ she trilled.
‘Oh, Josie, before you go,’ I said quickly. ‘I’ve just landed a big commission…’
But the line was already dead.
The following afternoon, I ‘ubered’ a cab to take me to the address in Camberwell that Josie had given me. Minutes later, it pulled up outside my building. I’d been using the uber app for a while, but recent events had made me cautious and I checked the driver’s face against the photo on my phone. There was another man, I noticed, sat in the passenger seat. As I got in the back, the driver, a swarthy looking man, turned to me and gave me a beaming smile that revealed two rows of large, white even teeth.
‘You don’t mind if I give my friend a lift, do you? He’s going your way.’
His friend peered round the headrest of his seat.
‘My car broke down,’ he explained. He had an eastern European sounding accent.
‘Bummer,’ I said, sympathetically. Breaking down anywhere is a pain at the best of times, but in London it can be positively traumatic. London’s drivers are an impatient lot, and if you delay their progress for as much as a few seconds, watch out!
Conversation lapsed after that brief exchange, which suited me perfectly. I’d been in a pensive mood all morning. The malaise had taken a hold on me while I was still lying in bed. Once I’d started thinking about the phone conversation I’d had with Josie the previous evening, I couldn’t stop. In the hours since, I’d repeatedly analysed every word and nuance of tone in her voice for clues as to her true feelings. Was she glad that I’d phoned purely because it had saved her the trouble of delivering the painting to me herself, or because it provided her with a face-saving excuse to see me again? Was she happy in her new life with the great Turner prize winner, or was she already regretting moving in with him?
Questions, questions, nothing but questions… I was going round in circles. It was enough to drive a man mad. It was answers I needed, and I could only get those from Josie herself.
I also examined my own feelings. I was about to bounce back in a big way; in a few months I’d be ‘The Come Back Kid’, with money in the bank, and the possibility of more to come, if my retiring oligarch was prepared to introduce me to some of his mega-rich friends. But, did I want her back after what she had done? We had a lot of history between us, and I felt I knew her better than anyone else in the world, yet still couldn’t understand why she had betrayed me, and with that pretentious prick, Zak of all people.
Hunched up against the nearside rear passenger door, my face pressed against the window, I stared out at the passing streets with unfocussed eyes. Lost in my misery, it was a while before I realised that the driver seemed to be taking me on a decidedly long and circuitous route. I sat up in my seat then, and started to take an interest in my surroundings, tried to get my bearings. I saw a sign for The Den, home of Millwall Football Club and realised we were travelling in entirely the wrong direction.
‘Scuse me driver,’ I said, leaning into the gap between the front two seats as I did so. ‘You’re going the wrong way.’
‘I told you, we have to drop my friend off first,’ he said, over his shoulder.
‘Yes, I know you did, but you said, he was going my way,’ I reminded him.
The man in the passenger seat appeared round the edge of his seat.
‘I think you’ll find you’re going my way,’ he said, with heavy emphasis.
‘But someone is expecting me…’ I protested.
‘Don’t worry, Mr Tate,’ said the driver. ‘I’m sure the lovely Josie won’t mind if you’re a little late’
‘Josie… You know her?’
‘We know everything,’ he said.
‘So why don’t you sit back and enjoy the ride,’ said the guy in the passenger seat.
His hand came up, and for the second time in almost as many days, I found myself staring down the wrong end of a gun.
Copyright: Chris Niblock 2018