“That might be the least come-hither look that I have ever seen.”
Alex Page grinned briefly at his companion, then returned to studying the small, forbidding marble figure. The centrepiece of the dining table, it remained resolutely unsoftened by the setting of delicate flowers and palest cloth. Alex frowned and moved slowly to the left before making a sudden dart forwards, in an attempt to surprise a more yielding look. It failed; the cold, stony mouth remained set in a firm line, arms clenched tight to the bosom; not as a shield but as weaponry, elbows sharp as flints.
The statuette was entitled ‘Purity’ and it was the stern figurehead of the Rackham Collection, an assortment of carefully picked pieces from the most collectable artists of the last generation or so.
“Never too new,” Rackham was wont to say, “never too old.”
Too old would not fit his lively, go-getting and, most of all, young self-image. Too new and he was at risk of falling into the trap of buying the Johnny-Come-Lately, the Flash in the Pan or the outright cynically fraudulent. Take the example – the highly gratifying example – of Mary Stokes Wheeler. She had blazed through London’s Art Scene with her ‘Scenes of Riot’ and her ‘New Modern Prometheus’, art-pieces that used found objects, in conjunction with scribbled-on photographs and ironically juxtaposed sounds, to create “highly original and emotive masterpieces” that “reduced me to tears” and “spin conventional notions of art, meaning and beauty into a flustered heap” according to critic P.M. Gilmore, then fronting a prestigious BBC arts programme. Archie Moresby, Rackham’s closest friend and bitterest rival, had gulped her down like a thirsting hart at a brook, buying three pieces at a, really, very moderate sum, for such guaranteed investment gold and parading her as his own personal discovery. Shortly afterward, she revealed that the whole thing was a hoax.
P.M. Gilmore had discovered, within the space of three miserable days, that a younger, more attractive, presenter was soon to replace him; that his wife was leaving him for a plumber; and that he had contracted an embarrassing and unpleasant disease from one of the many indiscretions that had contributed to his wife’s decision. Burning from every one of these stings, despite lavish application of cream, he had remembered Mary, a one-time production assistant, with whom he had once failed at indiscretion; remembered, especially, her very robust views on certain aspects of modern art. He had decided to retire with a spiteful bang.
In the aftermath, after threats of prosecution had floundered in embarrassment and a general desire to just pretend these things didn’t happen, Moresby proclaimed that the pieces were made extra valuable by this “added layer of meaning and subversion”. Posing the question “Is it art if the artist denies the artistry?” he came to the convenient conclusion that it was. The rest of the world thought otherwise. Within a month, the name Stokes Wheeler was merely an unpleasant aftertaste and Moresby’s acquisitions had been dismantled, stamped on and binned.
Rackham had invited Moresby to dinner every week for a month after this disaster, to commiserate. He had enjoyed it enormously.
And now he had fresh occasion for triumph. Having recently lost two desirable Casinot paintings and a clean-lined Japanese pot – not valuable, but it would have just perfectly filled a spot in his second reception room – to Moresby (who had been, perhaps, a little provoked beyond monetary prudence) Rackham had secured ‘Purity’, the very finest work of Henri Claude Dupont, an artist of exceptional skill but controversial views.
Dupont had flirted with Eugenics. He had made distasteful remarks and dubious friends. There were darker rumours. But, then, he had also made other, rather politically influential, friends; and he had sculpted like an angel.
Rackham knew all this in a vague, undetailed way but, on the whole, thought that the man had talked a fair amount of sense. Purity, propriety and perfection were his mantra and what could be wrong with that? And, anyway, he was noticeably back in the ascendant. More importantly, Moresby had a true passion for his work and was going to be sick to his very gills. Rackham had been lucky; a friend of a friend alerting him, he had swooped in and bore off the prize before his rival had even known it was on sale.
This dinner party was ostensibly in honour of his publisher’s birthday: it being always wise to sweeten a publisher, especially when you had an excellent new book idea and much dampening experience of resistance to excellence. It was also, happily, a marvellous opportunity to shove ‘Purity’ into Moresby’s smug, sagging face. Of course, he needn’t come – but it was a point of honour to both, never to refuse an invitation. That would be an admission of defeat; and after all, they were friends.
Susan Oakes, the excellence-denying publisher, came over to the table to greet her young authors. Alex was an enthusiastic weaver of implausible and lucrative thrillers and Viola Grey was an outspoken and exciting New Voice. She might, also, be a good writer, someday. Pleasantries and deadline threats conveyed, Susan considered, for a moment, the grim white dagger of a figure.
“Dupont was an unpleasant character. There is no doubt, though, that he was an incredible sculptor.”
Alex shrugged. “Genius is not discriminating.”
“Unlike that particular genius.”
Viola spoke with youthful energy then blushed a little, feeling gauche. She looked hastily away.
“The rest of the room, though, is incredible.”
As well as selected pieces from the Collection, artfully arranged to advantage on the walls and furniture of the dining room, almost every object there was notable in some way. Even the dullest, Susan explained, tended to have a story attached.
“That spiky ashtray – don’t, for heaven’s sake, use it – appeared in every film that Albert Hartford ever made. It was even the murder weapon, once. The dining-table belonged to Guy De Fleur, The Modern Wizard; it was his famous Black Arts magic table. That chair by the wall was De Fleur’s, as well, and I think there’s a dove-smothering handkerchief somewhere. Now, the drum – well, who’s the most famous drummer you know?”
Viola and Alex took turns to drum the drum, long sleeves flapping in their enthusiasm, which became so great that a cuff-link pinged violently across the room. Susan shook her head slightly as she joined the search. Sensible, open-minded and tolerant on most things, she was yet, in the privacy of her head, a stickler for dress. Youth, she sighed, has no idea how to clothe itself with elegance. Cuff-link retrieved and drum reverently replaced on the floor, she turned their attention to the wall.
She pointed to a ostrich feather, slightly crumpled, in a slim and elegant frame.
“… that once belonged to the incomparable Billie Trent.”
Rackham had approached quietly and he gazed at the feather with an unusual softness of expression.
“The very greatest actress of them all. She gave it to me with her own hand.”
“Billie Trent? I recall something about her and Dupont…”
“Oh, there were, no doubt, some, er, regrettable words. In his dotage, Dupont was not always careful with his words. Miss Trent was, as always, gracious and forgiving.”
Rackham was dismissive. Knowing little about the subject he, therefore, wished to avoid it. Alex, though, tickled by his memory, tried for more satisfactory recall.
“‘He carves his heart.’ she said, didn’t she? Something like that.”
“‘It is a pity it is such a bleak one.’ ”
Susan finished the quotation with a glance at the pitiless beauty on the table. Rackham, caught up in reminiscence, carried on.
“I saw her just that once… she glowed…”
At that moment of warmth, Moresby entered like winter, scowling at the whole, rotten world and all its works. His wife, Caroline, balanced out his gloom a little, with a wide, friendly smile.
“My dear Moresby! And Mrs Moresby, what an… interesting dress.”
Caroline, who had remained for thirty years on a strictly formal footing with Rackham, responded with a smooth automatic politeness, but she felt the strain. Archie’s humiliation over Mary Stokes Wheeler, followed by his ridiculous overspending through petty spite, had already caused tensions in their relationship. Now, all this nonsense over a lump of rock, which had left Moresby as sore and sulky as a teenager with boils, threatened to sink them altogether. Caroline loved her husband and was as loyal as a Bassett Hound, but, just at present, she was struggling constantly with the urge to give him a good hard bite on the ankle.
“Now, I don’t believe you’ve seen this piece yet, Moresby. You dabble a little in Dupont, I think?”
And after all, mused Caroline, glowering at Rackham, why should she be sparing with her teeth, when there were so many deserving cases?
Just in time to prevent an undignified scene, the door opened once more, revealing the final guest.
Moresby spat the name as though belching fire.
“Well.” Alex murmured low to Viola. “This should be an interesting meal.”
It was, in fact, a highly enjoyable meal, as far as the food was concerned and Caroline, Alex and Susan made determined attempts to steer the conversation into light and relaxing channels. Rackham was all smiles and heavy charm.
“Miss Grey, I do hope you like the flowers. I remember, on your last visit, you so admired the carnations…”
Viola and Moresby, though, sat unwillingly side by side, were united in their impatience with pap and with being soothed. And Moresby – shunning Rackham, because of dudgeon; his wife, because of guilt; and almost everyone else, because making eye-contact across the table would involve glimpsing his heart’s painful desire – had no option but argument with his neighbour or silence. Argument won; a heated cutlass duel that slashed at religion, politics, class and the EU, upon all of which subjects they differed with passionate ferocity. Gilmore, dry and spent-looking, merely ate, smiled – as at some inward amusement – and looked on.
“You can’t possibly side with Vickers on immigration, Moresby, she’s practically calling for the sluicing clean of the country of all these nasty little foreigners…”
“It’s not about ‘nasty foreigners’ at all, my dear young lady, it’s about earning. Giving before you take. Do you really want all those non-contributing blood-suckers bringing down the Health Service, cramming the country full…”
“This is a delicious sole, Mr Rackham, the lemon is so delicate…”
“Thank you, Mrs Moresby.”
“… no, I’m not Islamophobic and surely it’s you being hypocritical, Miss Grey? From a progressive woman’s perspective…”
Discussions continued all through to the dessert; the excellence of which, along with the latest music and the decline of cinema, failed entirely to drown the Question of Private Education or stem the Rivers of Blood.
“Well, if you’re going to drag up Enoch, you must be running out of real arguments…”
Alex hastily intervened.
“Rackham, you were telling us how you met Billie Trent?”
Besides wishing to prevent bloodshed – Viola was clenching her fork and narrowing her eyes at Moresby, as if gauging the most appropriate part to plunge it into – Alex was genuinely interested. He had met Rackham on several occasions without suspecting him of anything so close to sentiment.
Rackham smiled with pure pleasure.
“Ah, I was very young then, of course. Barely out of the egg…”
“If you leave the egg at thirty.”
Gilmore murmured this so quietly, that it was possible that Rackham had not heard. In any case, he continued.
“It was at the time of her greatest role, in the Taming of the Ibis… no-one has done it justice since… and in the scene when the spirit of her Goddess-mother enters with a mighty…”
Crash! Everyone turned, startled, towards the sideboard where the ashtray, smitten by some playful spirit, had performed a neat back-flip onto the drum.
“What on earth…?”
Rackham went over and wrenched off the ashtray with its elaborate sharp edging: so useful for subliminal suggestions of knives and doom; so unfortunately incompatible with a delicate instrument. There was a silence.
“That,” Viola said mournfully, “was a very good drum.”
Moresby, still avoiding looking at his host, wandered over, followed by the others.
“Do you have a cat stashed away somewhere?” Alex asked.
No cat having been admitted to, nor indeed, in evidence, there was a general bafflement as to the cause of the crash. Caroline went to the window to check for drafts, but, after some rattling, reported it closed.
“It’s too heavy to have blown over, anyway.”
Alex gazed abstractedly round, as Susan tidied up some pieces of drum and a few small items that had been knocked off along with the ashtray: a fountain pen, a tiny toy car, some paper-clips and a signed photograph of Albert Hartford, brooding and monolithic, with ashtray in hand. She flicked the switch on the car to and fro and set to brooding too, in echo.
It was Caroline’s sudden gasp that alerted the rest to the absence of ‘Purity’. Rackham turned to the table, puzzled for a moment, then actually moaned out loud when he realised that his trophy was gone. Moresby, his own agony forgotten, held out a hand to briefly touch Rackham’s arm, drawn into a rare commonality of feeling. It was Gilmore who laughed.
“Well, what an excellent entertainment you are providing, Rackham. And now, a darkened room, spirits from beyond the veil?”
Viola, glancing at Rackham, who was currently distressed beyond riposte, nipped under the tablecloth to look.
“It must have just fallen off somehow.”
She emerged, slightly dusty, a few seconds later, shaking her head.
She sank, cross-legged, onto a chair by the wall, and thought for a moment. Turning her head, consideringly, to take in the whole of the room, she finally rested her gaze on the vast chandelier.
“Ah! So sickeningly pure that it ascended to the heavens, you think, Miss Grey?”
Gilmore was glared at, but otherwise ignored, as it became clear that Rackham was regaining the power of thought; and also clear in which direction his thoughts were leading. Caroline, instinctively protective, stepped in front of her husband just in time to prevent a strangling.
“What did you do with my…”
“Precious?” suggested Gilmore.
“… ‘Purity’ ?” Rackham snarled, ignoring Gilmore entirely, who became so convulsed at the image that had popped into his head, that he turned quite purple and had to be given a glass of water and a sit-down. Susan turned from these ministrations, just in time to see Moresby’s sizeable rear disappearing under the table.
“… be so ridiculous, man, the girl must have just missed it, I wouldn’t stoop to stealing even from a bas…”
He became muffled. Emerging after ten seconds, however, he was as empty-handed as Viola had been. Rackham merely glared, stony-eyed.
“Well, now that you’ve finished playing the fool, and I do trust it will give you indigestion, you can just return my statue and I will press no charges.”
“Charges? My dear imbecile…”
“Rackham, I’m sure nobody stole your statue. But, perhaps, just to prove it, we should all agree to a search?”
Alex was enjoying this enormously and mentally trying to work the scene into his new novel (they would be searching for something more exciting, though, an ancient curved dagger, perhaps cursed?). Agreement was reluctantly made, for Rackham to search the men and for the women to search each other, having all declined, in Viola’s words, to allow his “fervid little fingers” to have a grope. The result was a resounding negative.
“Well,” Viola suggested, sitting back down. “Perhaps we should get a ladder?”
Rackham, scowling, ordered his guests to stay put while he scoured the room; but in vain.
“Perhaps we should conduct a séance?” Gilmore suggested.
“Damn, you… wait, wait. This is one of your hoaxes, isn’t it?”
Gilmore raised an eyebrow as Rackham worked himself up once more.
“That’s it, this is your idea of fun! Or did someone pay you? You’re all washed up, after all… and you must have had help.”
He glared round at the others, desperately searching for signs of guilt or perhaps for someone to sweep off a wig with a flourish and reveal his ‘Purity’, pallid and disapproving, nestled in the scalp.
Gilmore sobered a little.
“Mr Rackham, I am sorry for your loss, and for your sad delusional state, but it is late, we are all very tired…”
For a third time the table cloth was lifted, as Alex lightly rolled underneath.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!”
Rackham practically gnashed his teeth.
“I do believe we could consider that particular horse beyond flogging.”
The crowd, for once, was with Gilmore. Alex poked his head out, briefly, to reassure them.
“No, hang on. The Great Detective has a brainwave…”
He vanished, once more, and muffled noises were heard from beyond the damask.
“Rackham, isn’t this a magician’s table?”
Rackham cursed. He dove under the table to join Alex and, shortly after, there were more clicks, a scrape and a momentary silence. Then Alex crawled sheepishly out, brushing his sleeves.
“Well. It seemed like a good idea.”
The guests eventually demanded that Rackham either call the police or just let them all go home. It had been a close run thing; but the statue was not insured (Rackham having been firmly of the belief that only a fool allowed himself to be robbed) and he wished neither to face the publicity nor further annoy his publisher, whose birthday had not been a notably happy one.
Alone, he brooded, drank and beat out a dirge on his broken drum with a stray cufflink.
The Moresbys went home, tired but united. Pompous, insufferable fool, they agreed and shared a nightcap and, later, for the first time in some while, a quilt.
Gilmore took a taxi to an empty house, laughed briefly, then sighed and went to search for his cream.
Alex walked home, five miles being just long enough to put the finishing touches to his tense scene with the dagger (Egyptian and not cursed, after all, but encoded with a message written in jewels).
Viola waved off her flatmate, who was just preparing to go out for the night, stretched out and slept like a child.
Susan kissed her own sleeping children and sleepy husband, then lay back in bed, where there seemed to be no sleep left to spare for herself.
Two weeks later, Susan was finalising a letter of impolite rejection – Rackham’s excellent notion for a Art History/Autobiography/Recipe book having inspired greater than usual resistance – when there was a knock.
Young people, so scruffy. So addicted to jeans and ugly T-shirts. Not, Susan chided herself, that appearance matters.
“Did you have a question about the new book? Because it’s not quite as far along as I’d…”
“No, no. Not the book. Though I do hope to see it appear at some point prior to its deadline and not about three months later. No, I was wondering… was it for money? I like you very much, you know, and I’ve been trying to think what to do for the best, but it’s been weighing on my conscience…”
“For money? What do you mean?”
“The statue, of course.”
A blank, innocent look. Susan sighed.
“You set a remote control car under the ashtray to provide a distraction while you ‘disappeared’ the figure. You knew about the table from a previous visit and you must have researched the mechanism. You slid it into your sleeve when you went under the table.”
“We were all searched.”
“Not until after you had sat down on the other magician’s prop in the room. Hollow legs, I should think? And then, when Rackham searched the room, you were already sitting back in the chair. You simply fished it out, while we were all watching him wrenching his furniture about. So, why did you steal the statue, Viola?”
Viola blinked, considered another denial and then sighed.
She spat the word. It was explanation of a sort.
“He was always careful with words, Dupont. Purity, propriety and perfection. Though, ironically, I suppose, he corrupted them. Carved them to his own harsh vision.”
It had felt like a mockery, she explained, Dupont’s rise in popularity; his insularity and coldness, his values, all receiving such praise.
“… as if his obsession with the perfect, the ideal, the pure, untainted white, had merely been a harmless quirk. No, worse – a noble aspiration.
“I never intended to sell it. What I meant to do was destroy it. Crush it out of existence. Reduce it to the dust where it belongs. Such a denial of warmth, welcome, acceptance, it just…”
Viola paused, her rush of passion dribbling suddenly to a slightly embarrassed halt. She swallowed.
“Well, it riled me. And I really don’t like her face.”
Susan could understand that.
“So, where is it now? Did you destroy it?”
“I was too tired when I got back, but I woke up in the night. And I was going to, I tried, but… Billie Trent kept coming back to me. She was plagued all her life, you know – even a genius like her – plagued by comments, sneering, discrimination. But she still said that. Yes, there was a punchline, but she said it. ‘He carved his heart’.
And it – eventually – dawned on me that stamping out hatred by, well stamping on it, was, just possibly, not the right thing to do.
“Particularly…” Viola grimaced ruefully. “…when you’re doing it in bunny slippers.”
Rackham, at breakfast, opened his letter – with dejection, then his parcel – with a dawning joy, tinged with bafflement. He extracted his bleak figurine, along with a small, ornamental pair of scales and an ostrich feather, with a crook in the tip like a wink.
Puzzled, he hefted the statue in one hand and lifted the feather with the other; and felt a tickle, somewhere, of meaning.
Then he kissed his statue, set the scales aside, for later valuation, and tossed the feather, unhallowed by memory, lightly into the bin.