“Charles are you absolutely positively certain it’s right for here?” Nancy had grimaced when the painting was first unwrapped after it had been delivered to the agency. “I mean, I know I was the one to point it out on the website, but now you’ve actually got it here, I think he looks ghastly. He is simply famished. You don’t think our clients will be a wee bit put off by his miserable face?”
“Can’t see why,” Charles said, standing back to get a good view. The light was not very good in Nancy’s room so he carried it through to his office and propped it up on a chair against the wall opposite his desk so he could look at it all the time. “That’s better. I think we’ll have to hang it in here, right on that wall where I can see it while I work.”
Nancy followed him in and pulled another face. “Well he still looks half starved.”
“Good. Lean and hungry. That’s the sort of advertising agency clients want!”
“Oh ha ha, very funny Charles. Now, some woman called Mary Reid has been calling about this painting. Apparently you’ve promised to let her come and see it, I gather. Do you want me to put her off or are you happy for her to come over?”
“I’m fine with her coming here. It seems she knows something about the artist. See when she can come up, but get her to come fairly late in the day and make sure you’re still here in case I need you.”
It was three days before a convenient date could be arranged. Three days in which Charles looked at the painting every time he entered his office and sat at his desk. Three days in which he wondered about its subject and its creation and what she would tell him. As he made calls and read emails he often looked up at the sad eyed figure in the picture and felt he was being criticised, being questioned.
When Mary arrived, she looked much as she had at the auction. She had not made a special effort for London. Her nails were short and unvarnished, she wore jeans and a loose shirt and that pale blue coat. As soon as she entered his light, sparsely furnished office, her eyes went straight to the painting.
“He looks good there,” she said. “He would not be at home with chintz and drapes. This is a good place for him. A place of industry, thoughtful argument and ideas.”
“I’m glad you approve,” Charles said, ignoring Nancy’s amused expression as she left the room, her spiked heels clicking disapproval, after bringing them a bottle of wine and glasses. Charles poured the deep red Shiraz and they both stood sipping and studying the picture.
“You said there was a story behind the portrait. Are you ready to tell me that now?”
She smiled and nodded. “Yes, I am. I think you have proved you are worthy of taking custody of the painting, so yes, I will.”
Slipping out of her coat, she then sat on the long sofa, still gazing at the picture as she spoke. “As far as I know, this is a portrait of my uncle Stefan. Of course I don’t know how good a likeness it is, as I understand it was painted after his death from sketches made some years earlier. But I believe it has captured the essence of the man and of the time.”
“You said you knew the artist?”
“I knew him and yet I didn’t know him. It was painted by my father. But I have only the faintest recollection of him. When I was a very young child he was still living in this country, but he spent the latter part of his life in Paris and I only saw him again briefly, shortly before he died, when I was sixteen. The little I know of him I have gleaned largely from my aunt and my mother.”
to be continued May 12