‘Yeah. I get that.’
She lights another cigarette, scolds the cat, which is yowling plaintively for food in the open-plan kitchen. ‘Honey, I have no answers for you. Either you’re going to break her heart by taking that painting or she’s going to break yours by losing you your job.’
‘Or we forget the whole thing.’
‘And break both your hearts.’
Her words lay it bare. They sit there in silence. Outside the air is thick with the sound of barely moving traffic.
Paul sips his drink, thinking. ‘Ms Andrews, did your mother keep her notebooks? Her reporting notebooks?’
Marianne Andrews looks up. ‘I did bring them back from Barcelona but I’m afraid I had to throw a lot out. They’d been eaten to nothing by termites. One of the shrunken heads too. Perils of a brief marriage in Florida. Although …’ She stands up, using her long arms for leverage. ‘You’ve made me think of something. I may still have a bunch of her old journals in the hall cupboards.’
‘Diaries. Whatever. Oh, I had a crazy idea that someone might want to write her biography one day. She did so many interesting things. Maybe one of my grandchildren. I’m almost sure there’s a box of her cuttings and some journals out there. Let me get the key and we’ll go have a look.’
Paul follows Marianne Andrews out into the communal hallway. Breathing laboriously, she leads him down two flights to where the stairs are no longer carpeted, and a tranche of bicycles lines the walls.
‘Our apartments are pretty small,’ Marianne Andrews says, waiting as Paul pulls open a heavy fire door, ‘so some of us rent spare caretaker’s cupboards. They’re like gold dust. Mr Chua next door offered me four thousand pounds to take over the lease for this one last year. Four thousand! I told him he’d have to treble it, and then some.’
They come to a tall blue door. She checks through her ring of keys, muttering to herself until she finds the one she wants. ‘Here,’ she says, flicking a switch. Inside the dim light bulb reveals a long dark cupboard. One side is lined with metal garage shelves, and the floor is thick with cardboard boxes, piles of books, an old lamp. It smells of old newspapers and jars of beeswax.
‘I should really clear it all out.’ Marianne sighs, wrinkling her nose. ‘But somehow there’s always something more interesting to do.’
‘You want me to get anything down?’
Marianne hugs herself. ‘You know what, honey? Would you mind very much if I left you to dig around? All the dust aggravates my asthma. There’s nothing there of any value. You just lock up and give me a shout if you find anything. Oh, and if you find a teal blue handbag with a gold clasp, bring that up. I’d love to know where it disappeared to.’
Paul spends an hour in the cramped cupboard, moving boxes out into the dimly lit hallway when he suspects they might be useful, piling them up against the wall. There are newspapers dating back to 1941, their pages yellowed and corners missing. The tiny windowless room is like a Tardis. Its contents pile up in the hallway as it empties – suitcases full of old maps, a globe, hatboxes, moth-eaten fur coats, another leathery shrunken head, grimacing at him with its four oversized teeth. He stacks them all against the wall, covering the head with a tapestry cushion cover. Dust coats his hands, settles into the creases of his face. There are magazines with New Look skirts, pictures of the Coronation, reel-to-reel tapes. He takes them out, placing them on the floor beside him. His clothes become grey with dirt, his eyes gritty. He finds a handful of notebooks, helpfully dated on the front covers: 1968, Nov. 1969, 1971. He reads about the plight of striking firemen in New Jersey, the trials of the President. Occasionally there are notes scrawled in the margins: ‘Dean! Dance Friday 7 p.m.’ or ‘Tell Mike that Frankie called’. There is nothing relevant to wartime, or to the painting.
He works methodically through each box, checking between the leaves of every book, scanning the contents of every folder. He opens every box and crate, piling its contents up and then replacing them neatly. An old stereo, two boxes of old books, a hatbox of souvenirs. It is eleven o’clock, twelve o’clock, half past. He looks down at his watch, realizing it’s hopeless.
Paul straightens, dusting his hands on his trousers, keen to escape the airless, cluttered space. He longs suddenly for the bare whiteness of Liv’s house, its clean lines, its airiness.
He has emptied the whole thing. Wherever the truth is to be found, it’s not in this overstuffed cupboard just north of the A40. And then, near the back, he spies the strap of an old leather satchel, dried out and snapped in two, like a thin slice of beef jerky.
He reaches under the shelving system and pulls at it.
He sneezes twice, wipes his eyes, then lifts the flap. Inside are six hardbound A4 exercise books. He opens one, and sees the intricate copperplate handwriting on the first page. His eyes flick up to the date. 1941. He opens another: 1944. He races through them, dropping each in his haste to find it – and there it is, the second to last: 1945.
He stumbles out into the hall, where the light is brighter, and leafs through the pages under the neon strip-light.
30 April 1945
Well, today sure didn’t turn out like I expected. Four days ago, Lt Col Danes had told me I could go into Konzentrationslager Dachau …
Paul reads on for a few more lines, and curses twice, with increasing vehemence. He stands immobile, the weight of what he is holding becoming more significant with every second. He flicks through the pages and curses again.
His mind races. He could stuff this back into the far corner of the cupboard, go back to Marianne Andrews right now, tell her he had found nothing. He could win his case, collect his bonus. He could give Sophie Lefèvre to her legal owners.
He sees Liv, head down, battered by a tide of public opinion, the harsh words of strangers, impending financial ruin. He sees her bracing her shoulders, her ponytail askew, as she walks into another day in court.
He sees her slow smile of pleasure the first time they had kissed.
If you do this, you cannot go back.
Paul McCafferty drops the book and the satchel beside his jacket and starts stacking the boxes inside the cupboard.
She appears at the doorway as he clears the last of the boxes away, sweating and dusty after his exertions. She is smoking a cigarette in a long holder, like a 1920s flapper. ‘Goodness – I was beginning to wonder what had happened to you.’
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