The Way We Lied

“What was her name?” Caroline waited for an answer, but Evelyn appeared not to have heard and by now they had reached the gallery entrance, where a small entry fee was charged and posters announcing local events were displayed. Although the building still bore evidence of its former ecclesiastical life, it had been converted into spacious but comfortable living quarters by its more recent owners, so the works were not hung in sterile, white spaces, but in light rooms amongst well used items of furniture. A labelled Ruskin pot with its distinctive dark red Sang de Boef glaze was displayed next to a cosy armchair and a still life painting was placed above a fireplace, just as I might hang a picture in my own house, thought Caroline.
They walked the rooms in silence until they came to a hallway, where a small but richly coloured oil was hung, its deep frame complementing the thick paint strokes layered onto its surface. It showed a woman sitting, her head hanging heavily in her hands, her face buried in agonising sobs. The piece was powerful in spite of its size and as Caroline moved forward to view it more closely, she felt Evelyn’s hand clawing and tightening on her arm.
“This is such a moving picture,” Caroline said. “It’s quite disturbing.”
“It’s her,” whispered Evelyn. “I remember him finishing this.” Her hand wavered towards the painting, as if she wanted to comfort the distraught woman.
Caroline glanced at her and then read the painting’s description printed on a white card mounted on the wall. It said, ‘ A Mother Weeps – Alexander Grozny. On loan ( anonymous).’
“Did you know the artist, Evelyn?”
“I did many years ago. I knew him for what he was. So beautiful but so cruel.”
Evelyn turned away in silence, her head lowered and although Caroline was intensely curious, she guessed no more would be said. So she thought this would be a good time to suggest they left the gallery and found some lunch. She settled Evelyn at a table in the adjoining refectory while she fetched a tray of sandwiches and coffee and as they ate she attempted to steer the conversation back to the painting and the past.
“Please don’t feel you have to talk about this, not if it would upset you, but that painting you recognised….? I get the impression you knew the artist. Is that right? Was it painted here? In this country?”
Evelyn nodded. “He lived here before and after the war. I think you know where. You have been there,” Evelyn said with a shrug. “ I know you have.”
“You mean Mary’s cottage, don’t you? That’s where he lived. I’ve seen the painted room.”
“He lived there with all of us. It was wonderful…for a time.” Evelyn put down her cup and looked sad. “These young people today, they think they are the first generation to discover love. But we knew all about free love long before they were born.”
Caroline looked at her with renewed interest. This was not the sort of conversation one normally expected to have with an octogenarian. “You said you all lived there, at the cottage. Were there many of you?”
Evelyn gave another little shrug. “People came and people went. Sometimes it was just the three of us. Before the war there was Alex, me and my sister and sometimes there were friends. And then afterwards there were others. My sister always loved to encourage them.”
“Mary told me about her aunt. That would be your sister Mo, I suppose. Mary said Mo helped a lot of struggling artists. I thought she sounded like a very interesting character.”
“Foolish more like. They all took advantage of her.” Evelyn sniffed.
They were both silent for a moment, then Caroline said, “I didn’t know you and Mary were related. How did you know I had met her? Did she tell you?”
Evelyn looked straight at her with a sweet smile. “My dear, she showed me the drawings. I knew then she had caught you and you were under her spell.”
“Oh, I see.” Caroline was a little shaken, wondering why Mary had shown her the drawings and which ones she had shown. Were they the ones she had done early on in their acquaintance or the more revealing ones of recent weeks?
“What do you mean caught me?”
“She takes after her father. She captivates people, then takes what she wants without a care for the consequences.”
“She told me Alex Grozny was her father. Is that true?” Caroline asked, tentatively.
“Of course, if being a father is simply the biological act of insemination.”
“Then who was her mother?” But Caroline knew without waiting to hear the response.
And Evelyn just dabbed at her lips with her napkin and smiled.

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