‘I couldn’t believe it. The actual painting. Staring me in the face.’
‘What did you say?’
Paul pulls his scarf up around his neck. ‘I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t think what to say. I just … left.’
‘I needed time to think about it.’
Pirate, the smaller of Greg’s dogs, has shot across the heath like a guided missile. The two men stop to watch, waiting to determine his eventual target.
‘Please don’t let it be a cat, please don’t let it be a cat. Oh, it’s okay. It’s Ginger.’ In the far distance Pirate hurls himself joyously at a springer spaniel and the two dogs chase each other manically in ever-widening circles in the long grass. ‘And this was when? Last night?’
‘Two nights ago. I know I should ring her. I just can’t work out what I’m going to say.’
‘I guess “Give me your damn painting” isn’t your best line.’ Greg calls his older dog to heel, and lifts his hand to his brow, trying to track Pirate’s progress. ‘Bro, I think you may have to accept that Fate has just blown this particular date out of the water.’
Paul shoves his hands deep in his pockets. ‘I liked her.’
Greg glances sideways at him. ‘What? As in really liked her?’
‘Yeah. She … she got under my skin.’
His brother studies his face. ‘Okay. Well, this has just gotten interesting … Pirate. Here! Oh, man. There’s the Vizsla. I hate that dog. Did you speak to your boss about it?’
‘Yeah. Because Janey would definitely want to talk to me about some other woman. No. I just checked with our lawyer about the strength of the case. He seems to think we would win.’
There’s no time bar on these cases, Paul, Sean had said, barely looking up from his papers. You know that.
‘So what are you going to do?’ Greg clips his dog back on to the lead and stands there, waiting.
‘Not a lot I can do. The picture has to go back to its rightful owners. I’m not sure how well she’s going to take that.’
‘She might be okay. You never know.’ Greg strides over the grass towards where Pirate is running around, yapping dementedly at the sky, warning it to come no closer. ‘Hey, if she’s broke and there’s proper money involved, you may actually be doing her a favour.’ He starts to run and his last words fly over his shoulder on the breeze. ‘And she might feel the same way about you and just not give a shit about anything else. You’ve got to keep in mind, bro, that ultimately, it’s just a painting.’
Paul stares at his brother’s back. It’s never just a painting, he thinks.
Jake is at a friend’s house. Paul arrives to pick him up at three thirty, as arranged, and Jake slopes out of the friend’s front door, his hair mussed, his jacket hanging over his shoulders in apparent preparation for his adolescent years. It never ceases to shock him, the familiar jolt, the umbilical nature, of parental love. Some days he struggles not to embarrass his son with the depth of his love for him. He wraps an elbow around the boy’s neck, hooks him towards him and drops a casual kiss on his head as they set off for the tube station. ‘Hey, fella.’
Jake is cheerful, pointing out the various permutations of a new electronic game. Paul nods and smiles in the right places, but even as he does so, he finds he’s conducting a parallel argument in his head. He keeps working it over silently. What should he say to her? Should he tell her the truth? Will she understand if he explains it to her? Should he just steer clear? The job is everything, after all. He learned that a long time ago.
But as he sits beside his son, watching his thumbs flicking on the controls, his total absorption in the pixelated game, his mind drifts. He feels Liv, soft and yielding against him afterwards, sees the drowsy way she lifted her eyes to his, as if she were dazed by the depth of her feelings.
‘Did you get a new house yet?’
‘Nope. Not yet.’
I can’t stop thinking about you.
‘Can we go for a pizza tonight?’
‘Mm.’ He nods. The hurt on her face as he had turned to leave. She was so transparent, every emotion registering on her face as if, like her house, she had never known what she should conceal.
‘And ice cream?’
I’m terrified. But in a good way.
And he had run. Without a word of explanation.
‘Will you buy me Super Mario Smash Bros for my Nintendo?’
‘Don’t push your luck,’ he says.
The weekend stretches, is weighed down by silence. Mo comes and goes. Her new verdict on Paul: ‘Divorced Toxic Bachelor. Worst variety of species.’ She makes Liv a little clay model of him, and urges her to stick things in it.
Liv has to admit that Mini Paul’s hair is alarmingly accurate. ‘You think this will give him stomach ache?’
‘I can’t guarantee it. But it’ll make you feel better.’
Liv picks up a cocktail stick and tentatively gives Mini Paul a belly button, then feels immediately guilty and smoothes it over with her thumb. She can’t quite reconcile this version of Paul with what she knows, but she is smart enough to grasp that some things are not worth dwelling on, so she has taken Mo’s advice and run until she has given herself shin splints. She has cleaned the Glass House from top to bottom. She has binned the shoes with butterflies. She has checked her phone four times, then turned it off, hating herself for caring.
‘That’s feeble. You haven’t even broken his toes. You want me to have a go for you?’ says Mo, inspecting the little model on Monday morning.
‘No. It’s fine. Really.’
‘You’re too soft. Tell you what, when I get home we’ll ball him up and turn him into an ashtray.’ When Liv returns to the kitchen Mo has stuck fifteen matches into the top of his head.
Two pieces of work come in on Monday. One, some catalogue copy for a direct-marketing company, is littered with grammatical and spelling errors. By six o’clock Liv has altered so much of it that she has pretty much written the whole thing. The word rate is terrible. She doesn’t care. She is so relieved to be working instead of thinking that she might well write Forbex Solutions a whole extra catalogue for free.
The doorbell rings. Mo will have left her keys at work. She unfolds herself from the desk, stretches, and heads for the entryphone.
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