‘And the roof, as with much of the house, is made of special glass, which retains heat to the same degree as your average insulated wall. It’s actually more eco-friendly than a normal terraced house.’
These two don’t look as if they have ever set foot in a normal terraced house. The Japanese woman walks around the kitchen, opening and closing the drawers and cupboards, studying the interiors with the intensity of a surgeon about to dive into an open wound.
Liv, standing mute by the fridge, finds she is chewing the inside of her cheek. She had known this would never be easy, but she had not realized she would feel quite so uncomfortable, so guilty about these people trailing through, inspecting her belongings with unfeeling, acquisitive eyes. She watches them touching the glass surfaces, running their fingers along the shelving, talking in low voices about putting pictures up and ‘softening it all a bit’, and wants to push them out of the front door.
‘All the appliances are top of the range and included with the sale,’ the estate agent says, opening her fridge door.
‘The oven, in particular, is almost unused,’ a voice adds, from the doorway. Mo is wearing glittery purple eye-shadow, and her parka over the Comfort Lodge Care Home tunic.
The estate agent is a little startled.
‘I’m Mrs Halston’s personal assistant,’ she says. ‘You’ll have to excuse us. It’s almost time for her meds.’
The estate agent smiles awkwardly, and hurries the couple towards the atrium. Mo pulls Liv to one side. ‘Let’s get a coffee,’ she says.
‘I need to be here.’
‘No, you don’t. This is masochism. Come on, grab your coat.’
It’s the first time she has seen Mo in days. Liv feels unexpected relief at her presence. She realizes she has craved the vague impression of normality that now comes with a five-foot Goth in purple eye-shadow and a wipe-clean tunic. Her life has become strange and dislocated, fixated on a courtroom with its two duelling barristers, its suggestions and refutations, its wars and looting Kommandants. Her old life and her own routines have been replaced by a kind of house arrest, her new world centred around the water fountain on the second floor of the High Court, the unforgiving bench seats, the judge’s peculiar habit of stroking his nose before he speaks. The image of her portrait on its stand.
Paul. A million miles away on the claimants’ bench.
‘You really okay about selling up?’ Mo nods in the direction of the house.
Liv opens her mouth to speak, then decides that if she begins to talk about how she really feels she’ll never stop. She’ll be here, burbling and railing, until next Christmas. She wants to tell Mo that there are pieces about the case in the newspapers every day, her name bandied about within them until it has become almost meaningless to see it. The words theft and fairness and crime appear in them all. She wants to tell her that she no longer runs: a man had waited outside the block just to spit at her. She wants to tell her the doctor has given her sleeping pills that she’s afraid to use. When she explained her situation in his consultation room she wondered if she saw disapproval in his expression too.
‘I’m fine,’ she says.
Mo’s eyes narrow.
‘Really. It’s just bricks and mortar, after all. Well, glass and concrete.’
‘I had a flat once,’ Mo says, still stirring her coffee. ‘The day I sold it, I sat on the floor and cried like a baby.’
Liv’s mug stills halfway to her lips.
‘I was married. It didn’t work out.’ Mo shrugs. And begins to talk about the weather.
There is something different about Mo. It’s not that her manner is evasive exactly, but there is some kind of invisible barrier, a glass wall, between them. Perhaps it’s my fault, Liv thinks. I’ve been so preoccupied with money and the court case that I’ve hardly asked anything about Mo’s life.
‘You know, I was thinking about Christmas,’ she begins, after a pause. ‘I was wondering if Ranic wanted to stay over the night before. Selfish reasons, really.’ She smiles. ‘I thought you two might help me with the food. I’ve never actually cooked a Christmas dinner before, and Dad and Caroline are actually pretty good cooks so I don’t want to mess it up.’ She hears herself babbling. I just need something to look forward to, she wants to say. I just want to smile without having to think about which muscles to use.
Mo looks down at her hand. A telephone number in blue biro trawls its way along her left thumb. ‘Yeah. About that …’
‘I know what you said about it being crowded at his place. So if he wants to stay Christmas night too it’s totally fine. It’ll be a nightmare trying to get a taxi home.’ She forces a bright smile. ‘I think it’ll be fun. I think … I think we all could do with some fun.’
‘Liv, he’s not coming.’
‘He’s not coming.’ Mo purses her lips.
‘I don’t understand.’
When Mo speaks, the words emerge carefully, as if she’s considering the ramifications of each one. ‘Ranic is Bosnian. His parents lost everything in the Balkans. Your court case – this shit is real to him. He – he doesn’t want to come and celebrate in your house. I’m sorry.’
Liv stares at her, then snorts, and pushes the sugar bowl across the table. ‘Yeah. Right. You forget, Mo. I’ve lived with you too long.’
‘Mrs Gullible. Well, you’re not getting me this time.’
But Mo doesn’t laugh. She doesn’t even meet her eyes. As Liv waits, she adds, ‘Okay, well, if we’re doing this …’ she takes a breath ‘… I’m not saying I agree with Ranic but I do sort of think you should hand the painting back too.’
‘Look, I couldn’t give a monkey’s who it belongs to, but you’re going to lose, Liv. Everyone else can see it, even if you can’t.’
Liv stares at her.
‘I read the papers. The evidence is stacking up against you. If you keep fighting you’re going to lose everything. And for what? Some old blobs of oil on canvas?’
‘I can’t just hand her over.’
‘Why the hell not?’
‘Those people don’t care about Sophie. They just see pound signs.’
‘For Chrissakes, Liv, it’s a painting.’
‘It’s not just a painting! She was betrayed by everyone around her. She had nobody at the end! And she’s … she’s all I’ve got left.’
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