‘Really?’ Her throat constricts.
‘Yes. Jerry Goldstein told me last week – they thought it would be nice to commemorate David in some way. They were very fond of him.’
She lets this thought settle. ‘That’s … that’s great.’
‘I thought so. You’ll be coming to the opening?’
‘I’d love to.’
‘Good. And how’s the other stuff?’
She sips her coffee. She always feels faintly self-conscious talking about her life to Sven. It is as if the lack of dimensions in it cannot help but disappoint. ‘Well, I seem to have acquired a housemate. Which is … interesting. I’m still running. Work is a bit quiet.’
‘How bad is it?’
She tries to smile. ‘Honestly? I’d probably be earning more in a Bangladeshi sweatshop.’
Sven looks down at his hands. ‘You … haven’t thought it might be time to start doing something else?’
‘I’m not really equipped for anything else.’ She has long known that it had not been the wisest move to give up work and follow David around during their marriage. As her friends built careers, put in twelve-hour days at the office, she had simply travelled with him, to Paris, Sydney, Barcelona. He hadn’t needed her to work. It seemed stupid, being away from him all the time. And afterwards she hadn’t been good for much at all. Not for a long time.
‘I had to take out a mortgage on the house last year. And now I can’t keep up with the payments.’ She blurts out this last bit, like a sinner at confession.
But Sven looks unsurprised. ‘You know … if you ever wanted to sell it, I could easily find you a buyer.’
‘It’s a big house to be rattling around in. And … I don’t know. You’re so isolated up there, Liv. It was a marvellous thing for David to cut his teeth on, and a lovely retreat for the two of you, but don’t you think you should be in the thick of things again? Somewhere a bit livelier? A nice flat in the middle of Notting Hill or Clerkenwell, maybe?’
‘I can’t sell David’s house.’
‘Because it would just be wrong.’
He doesn’t say the obvious. He doesn’t have to: it’s there in the way he leans back in his chair, closes his mouth over his words.
‘Well,’ he says, leaning forwards over his desk. ‘I’m just putting the thought out there.’
Behind him a huge crane is moving, iron girders slicing through the sky as they travel towards a cavernous roof space on the other side of the road. When Solberg Halston Architects had moved here, five years previously, the view had been a row of dilapidated shops – bookmaker, launderette, second-hand clothes – their bricks sludge brown, their windows obscured by years of accumulated lead and dirt. Now there is just a hole. It is possible that the next time she comes here she will not recognize the view at all.
‘How are the kids?’ she says abruptly. And Sven, with the tact of someone who has known her for years, changes the subject.
It is halfway through the monthly meeting when Paul notices that Miriam, his and Janey’s shared secretary, is perched not on a chair but on two large boxes of files. She sits awkwardly, her legs angled in an attempt to keep her skirt at a modest length, her back propped against more boxes.
At some point in the mid-nineties, the recovery of stolen artwork had become big business. Nobody at the Trace and Return Partnership seemed to have anticipated this, so, fifteen years on, meetings are held in Janey’s increasingly cramped office, elbows brushing against the teetering piles of folders, or boxes of faxes and photocopies, or, if clients are involved, downstairs in the local coffee shop. He has said often that they should look at new premises. Each time Janey looks at him as if it’s the first time she has heard this, and says, yes, yes, good idea. And then does nothing about it.
‘Miriam?’ Paul stands, offers her his chair, but she refuses.
‘Really,’ she says. ‘I’m fine.’ She keeps nodding, as if to confirm this to herself.
‘You’re falling into Unresolved Disputes 1996,’ he says. He wants to add: And I can see halfway up your skirt.
‘Really, I’m quite comfortable.’
‘Miriam. Honestly, I can just –’
‘Miriam’s fine, Paul. Really.’ Janey adjusts her spectacles on her nose.
‘Oh, yes. I’m very comfortable here.’ She keeps nodding until he looks away. It makes him feel bad.
‘So that’s where we are, as far as the staffing and office issues stand. Where are we all at?’
Sean, the lawyer, begins to run through his upcoming schedule; an approach to the Spanish government to return a looted Velázquez to a private collector, two outstanding sculpture recoveries, a possible legal change to restitution claims. Paul leans back in his chair and rests his ballpoint against his pad.
And she’s there again, smiling ruefully. Her burst of unexpected laughter. The sadness in tiny lines around her eyes. I was great at drunk sex. Really. I was.
He doesn’t want to admit to himself how disappointed he had been when he emerged from the bathroom that morning to find she’d simply let herself out. His son’s duvet had been straightened, and there was just an absence where the girl had been. No scribbled message. No phone number. Nothing.
‘Is she a regular?’ he had asked Greg, casually, on the phone that evening.
‘Nope. Not seen her before. Sorry to land you with her like that, bro.’
‘No problem,’ he had said. He hadn’t bothered to tell Greg to watch out in case she came back. Something told him she wouldn’t.
He drags his thoughts back to the A4 pad in front of him. ‘Um … Well, as you know, we got the Nowicki painting returned. That’s headed for auction. Which is obviously – um – rewarding.’ He ignores Janey’s warning glance. ‘And coming up this month I’ve got a meeting about the statuette collection from Bonhams, a trace on a Lowry that’s been stolen from a stately home in Ayrshire and …’ He leafs through his papers. ‘This French work that was looted in the First World War and turned up in some architect’s house in London. I’m guessing, given the value, they won’t give it up without a bit of a fight. But it looks fairly clear cut, if we can establish it really was stolen initially. Sean, you might want to dig out any legal precedent on First World War stuff, just in case.’
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