Paul rests his face in his hands. He lifts his head and looks at her. ‘Liv, I’m really sorry. This is the worst case I’ve ever dealt with.’
‘This is what I do. I look for stolen works of art and I return them to their owners.’
She hears the strange implacability in his voice. ‘But this isn’t stolen. David bought it, fair and square. And then he gave it to me. It’s mine.’
‘It was stolen, Liv. Nearly a hundred years ago, yes, but it was stolen. Look, the good news is that they’re willing to offer some financial compensation.’
‘Compensation? You think this is about money?’
‘I’m just saying –’
She stands, lifts her hand to her brow. ‘You know what, Paul? I think you’d better leave.’
‘I know the painting means a lot to you but you have to understand –’
‘Really. I’d like you to go now.’
They stare at each other. She feels radioactive. She is not sure she has ever been so angry.
‘Look, I’ll try to think of a way we can settle this to suit –’
She follows him out. When she slams the door behind him it reverberates so loudly that she can feel the whole warehouse shake below her.
Their honeymoon. A honeymoon of sorts. David had been working on a new conference centre in Barcelona, a monolithic thing, built to reflect the blue skies, the shimmering seas. She remembers her faint surprise at his fluent Spanish and being awed both by the things he knew and by the things she did not yet know about him. Each afternoon they would lie in bed in their hotel, then stroll the medieval streets of the Gothic Quarter and Born, seeking refuge in the shade, stopping to drink mojitos and rest lazily against each other, their skin sticking in the heat. She still remembers how his hand looked resting on her thigh. He had a craftsman’s hands. He would rest them slightly splayed, as if they were always holding down invisible plans.
They had been walking around the back of Plaça de Catalunya when they heard the American woman’s voice. She had been shouting at a trio of impassive men, close to tears as they emerged through a panelled doorway, dumping furniture, household objects and trinkets in front of the apartment block. ‘You can’t do this!’ she had exclaimed.
David had released Liv’s hand and stepped forwards. The woman – an angular woman in early middle age with bright blonde hair – had let out a little oh oh oh of frustration as a chair was dumped in front of the house. A small crowd of tourists had stopped to watch.
‘Are you okay?’ he had said, his hand at her elbow.
‘It’s the landlord. He’s clearing out all my mother’s stuff. I keep telling him I have nowhere to put these things.’
‘Where is your mother?’
‘She died. I came over here to sort through it all and he says it has to be out by today. These men are just dumping it on the street and I have no idea what I’m going to do with it.’
She remembers how David had taken charge, how he had told Liv to take the woman to the café across the road, how he had remonstrated with the men in Spanish as the American woman, whose name was Marianne Johnson, sat and drank a glass of iced water and gazed anxiously across the street. She had only flown in that morning, she confided. She swore she did not know whether she was coming or going.
‘I’m so sorry. When did your mother die?’
‘Oh, three months ago. I know I should have done something sooner. But it’s so hard when you don’t speak Spanish. And I had to get her body flown home for the funeral … and I just got divorced so there’s only me doing everything …’ She had huge white knuckles beneath which she had crammed a dizzying array of plastic rings. Her hairband was turquoise paisley. She kept reaching up to touch it, as if for reassurance.
David was talking to a man who might have been the landlord. He had appeared defensive initially, but now, ten minutes later, they were shaking hands warmly. He reappeared at their table. She should sort out which things she wanted to keep, David said, and he had a number for a shipping company that could pack those items and fly them home for her. The landlord had agreed to let them remain in the apartment until tomorrow. The rest could be taken and disposed of by the removal men for a small fee. ‘Are you okay for money?’ he had said quietly. The kind of man he was.
Marianne Johnson had nearly wept with gratitude. They had helped her move things, stacking objects right or left depending on what should be kept. As they had stood there, the woman pointing at things, moving them carefully to one side, Liv had looked more closely at the items on the pavement. There was a Corona typewriter, huge leather-bound albums of fading newsprint. ‘Mom was a journalist,’ said the woman, placing them carefully on a stone step. ‘Her name was Louanne Baker. I remember her using this when I was a little girl.’
‘What is that?’ Liv pointed at a small brown object. Even though she was unable to make it out without stepping closer, some visceral part of her shuddered. She could see what looked like teeth.
‘Oh. Those. Those are Mom’s shrunken heads. She used to collect all sorts. There’s a Nazi helmet somewhere too. D’you think a museum might want them?’
‘You’ll have fun getting them through Customs.’
‘Oh, God. I might just leave it on the street and run.’ She paused to wipe her forehead. ‘This heat! I’m dying.’
And then Liv had seen the painting. Propped up against an easy chair, the face was somehow compelling even among the noise and the chaos. She had stooped and turned it carefully towards her. A girl looked out from within the battered gilt frame, a faint note of challenge in her eyes. A great swathe of red-gold hair fell to her shoulders; a faint smile spoke of a kind of pride, and something more intimate. Something sexual.
‘She looks like you,’ David had murmured, under his breath, from beside her. ‘That’s just how you look.’ Liv’s hair was blonde, not red, and short. But she had known immediately. The look they exchanged made the street fade.
David had turned to Marianne Johnson. ‘Don’t you want to keep this?’
She had straightened up, squinted at him. ‘Oh – no. I don’t think so.’
David had lowered his voice. ‘Would you let me buy it from you?’
‘Buy it? You can have it. It’s the least I can do, given you’ve saved my darned life.’
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