‘Ma’am, I don’t know if we –’ he began.
‘You heard the lieutenant colonel, Krabowski. The lady’s in charge today. And she’s telling you to show her around.’
He gave me the kind of look my dog used to give me when he thought I was going to kick him up the you-know-what. But he exchanged a word with Rogerson and off we went.
It didn’t look like much at first. Just rows and rows of wooden stacking systems, a load of grey, military-issue blankets slung over the contents. But then I went closer and pulled a painting out of one of the racks: a modern piece of a horse against an abstract landscape, in a heavily gilded frame. Its colours, even in the dim light of the vast room, glowed like treasure. I turned it over in my hands. It was a Braque. I stared at it for a moment, then placed it carefully back in its rack and kept walking. I began to pull things out at random: medieval icons, Impressionist works, huge Renaissance canvases, the frames delicate, in some cases supported by specially built crates. I ran my fingers over a Picasso, astonished at my own freedom to physically touch art I had previously seen only in magazines or on the walls of galleries.
‘Oh, my God, Krabowski. You seen this?’
He looked at it. ‘Um … yes, ma’am.’
‘You know what it is? It’s a Picasso.’
He was completely blank.
‘A Picasso? The famous artist?’
‘I don’t really know much about art, ma’am.’
‘And you reckon your kid sister could have done better, right?’
He shot me a relieved smile. ‘Yes, ma’am.’
I put it back, and pulled out another. It was a portrait of a little girl, her hands folded neatly in her skirts. On the back, it read: ‘Kira, 1922’.
‘Are all the rooms here like this?’
‘There are two rooms upstairs with statues and models and stuff instead of paintings. But, basically, yes. Thirteen rooms of paintings, ma’am. This is one of the smallest.’
‘Oh, my good Lord.’ I gazed around me at the dusty shelves, stacked in neat lines back into the distance, and then down at the portrait in my hands. The little girl stared solemnly back at me. You know, it only really hit me then that every one of these paintings had belonged to someone. Every one had hung on someone’s wall, been admired by someone. A real live person had sat for it, or saved money for it, or painted it, or hoped to hand it down to their children. Then I thought of what Danes had said about disposing of the bodies a few miles away. I thought of his haunted, craggy face, and I shuddered.
I placed the picture of the little girl carefully back on the rack, and covered it with a blanket. ‘Come on, Krabowski, let’s go back downstairs. You can find me a decent cup of coffee.’
The morning stretched across lunch and then into the afternoon. The temperature rose, and the air around the warehouse grew still. I wrote a feature for the Register on the warehouse, and I interviewed Krabowski and Rogerson for a little Woman’s Home Companion piece on young soldiers’ hopes for their return home. Then I stepped outside to stretch my legs and smoke a cigarette. I climbed up on the bonnet of the army Jeep and sat there, the metal warm beneath my cotton slacks. The roads were almost completely silent. There were no birds, no voices. Even the sirens seemed to have stopped. And then I looked up and squinted against the sun as a woman came walking up the road towards me.
She moved like it required some effort, with a pronounced limp, even though she couldn’t have been more than sixty. She wore a headscarf, despite the warm day, and had a bundle under her arm. When she saw me she stopped and glanced around. She saw my armband, which I had forgotten to take off when my trip out got cancelled.
She nodded, as if this were acceptable to her. ‘Hier ist where the paintings are stored, ja?’
I said nothing. She didn’t look like a spy, but I wasn’t sure how much information I should give out. Strange times, and all.
She pulled the bundle from under her arm. ‘Please. Take this.’
I stepped back.
She stared at me for a moment, then removed the coverings. It was a painting, a portrait of a woman from the brief glimpse I got.
‘Please. Take this. Put in there.’
‘Lady, why would you want to put your painting in there?’
She glanced behind her, as if she were embarrassed to be there.
‘Please. Just take it. I don’t want it in my house.’
I took the painting from her. It was a girl, about my age, with long reddish hair. She wasn’t the most beautiful, but there was something about her that meant you couldn’t tear your darned eyes away.
‘Is this yours?’
‘It was my husband’s.’ I saw then she should have had one of those powder-puff grandmother faces, all cushions and kindness, but when she looked at the painting her mouth just set in this thin old line, like she was full of bitterness.
‘But this is beautiful. Why do you want to give such a pretty thing away?’
‘I never wanted her in my house,’ the woman said. ‘My husband made me. For thirty years I have had to have that woman’s face in my house. When I am cooking, cleaning, when I am sitting with my husband, I have had to look at her.’
‘It’s only a painting,’ I told her. ‘You can’t be jealous of a painting.’
She barely heard me. ‘She has mocked me for nearly thirty years. My husband and I were once happy, but she destroyed him. And I have had to endure that face haunting me every single day of our marriage. Now he is dead I don’t have to have her staring at me. She can finally go back to wherever she belongs.’
As I looked, she wiped at her eyes with the back of a hand. ‘If you don’t want to take it,’ she spat. ‘Then burn it.’
I took it. What else could I have done?
Well, I’m back at my desk now. Danes has been in, ghostly white, promising I’ll go with him tomorrow. ‘You sure you want to see this, though, Toots?’ he said. ‘It’s not pretty. I’m not sure it’s a sight for a lady.’
‘Since when did you start calling me a lady?’ I joked, but he was all out of jokes. Danes sat down heavily on the edge of my bunk and sank his head into his hands. And as I stared at him, his big old shoulders began to shake. I stood there, not knowing what to do. Finally I pulled a cigarette from my bag, lit it and handed it to him. He took it, signalled his thanks with a palm, and wiped at his eyes, his head still down.
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