“Mary! What a surprise to see you here,” Nick said with great enthusiasm. “Are you thinking of bidding for it then?” He was smiling, alert and curious.
“I would like to very much, but I fear it will be way beyond my reach,” she answered, her eyes flicking to Alex.
“Sorry, I haven’t introduced you,” Nick said. “Alex this is Mary Reid. She’s fairly new to the area.”
Alex held out her hand as Nick spoke. Mary’s hand was cool and strong and she held Alex’s manicured fingers far longer than was necessary.
“And do you like it as well?” Mary asked.
“Like it? Oh you mean the painting?” Alex glanced at it again, wondering what she could say about the dreary colours, the depressing subject, the starvation in the man’s eyes.
“No, of course you don’t. I can see it’s not your sort of thing,” Mary said. “I should think you would prefer a more cheerful theme, brighter colours.
“Well I can’t say I’d choose to hang it on my wall,” Alex stumbled, feeling humiliated in front of Nick and aware that he was watching the interchange with amusement. “It’s a bit gloomy for my liking.”
“Who wouldn’t feel gloomy if they were oppressed. It speaks of desperation and pain. It is powerful, not pretty.”
“Well I like it very much,” Nick interrupted. “I am a great admirer of Grozny, and I can see you are too.”
“So you are hoping to buy it then? I think it’s going to do very well in the auction.”
“I’m thinking about it. I take it you won’t be bidding against me?”
“No, but I would like to know who is going to buy my father’s picture,” Mary said. “I would like to know where it is going to live next.” Then she turned and left the room, leaving Alex and Nick staring after her.
“Her father? Does she mean it is a portrait of her father?”
“I’m not sure,” Nick said slowly. “ Maybe she means her father was the artist. Wait here, I just want to catch her and find out.” He walked briskly out of the room, leaving Alex standing alone, disconcerted by this strange confrontation.
She stood looking at the door for a moment and then another couple of viewers wandered in holding their auction catalogues, so Alex began studying the listings as if she was seriously interested in some of the lots. Then she moved closer to the painting that had caused Nick’s departure. She would never have anything like this in her house. She liked light airy scenes of children playing on sunny beaches, bright still lifes of flowers and delicate watercolours of the countryside. Charles had somewhat more eclectic tastes but she couldn’t imagine even him liking this dour portrait of a ragged man with hollow cheeks holding a dark crust of bread. The description in the catalogue read, ‘Breaking bread with Stefan, 1948, Alexander Grozny b.Berlin 1897, d. Paris 1965’.
Then she heard steps behind her and felt Nick’s hands on her shoulders. “Well Alex, shall we get some lunch now?”
“Did you manage to speak to that woman?”
“No, she’d gone by the time I got downstairs. Never mind. It doesn’t matter.” He frowned. “I’ve seen enough anyway.”
He held Alex’s hand as they walked back to the main hall and she wondered why he had really run after Mary. She was tempted to ask, but decided on a different question. “So Nick, are you going to attend the auction yourself?”
“Yeah, I might,” he said casually. “Or I might do a phone bid.”
“For that awful painting?”
He laughed. “It might not match your sofa, but whatever you may think, my love, that awful painting, as you put it, could be a fantastic investment. Come on, race you to the pub!”
to be continued March 7