“I shall miss spending my evenings with Lia and discovering all the plot twists, none of which I had flagged. Lia’s a wonderfully conflicted heroine, and [the book has] such a sweet, sexy hero.” – A reader from US.
“Fabulous dialogue… a novel that kept me entertained right to the end.” – Jeannie Zelos Book Reviews
Art galleries. You might think they’re boring, but a quick visit to an art gallery one rainy morning started off a whole chain of events for me that encompassed sex, lies and (the modern digital equivalent of) videotape. As well as a wedding and a funeral that never happened, a dramatic reconstruction of one of the drier scenes of Titanic, a little kung fu and spoon-bending, and dancing to Barry Manilow in Basingstoke. All beginning with meeting a fictional man who’d been murdered and decapitated centuries previously.
Art galleries boring?
I hadn’t been inside the Tate Britain for years and I wouldn’t have gone there that day if there hadn’t been time to kill before the auction started. Eddy had dropped me off in central London on his way south of the river, and I’d taken the tube to Pimlico. Incredibly the London traffic and the tube had contrived to get me in the area over an hour before I needed to be there.
For a while I sat on a bench watching the Thames sliding along under Vauxhall Bridge. Sitting next to moving water is always therapeutic – not that I specially needed therapy, you understand, but a little relaxation is good for the soul. The weather, however, was not particularly conducive to relaxation. I could cope with the icy wind blowing off the river, could cope even with a little light rain, but when the rain began to fall in a more determined fashion, I looked around at the possibilities for shelter. It didn’t take much looking – there was a world-famous art gallery right behind me, and I joined the steady stream of people making their way inside.
I suppose because of my job – I’m an antique furniture restorer – I have some affinity with the visual arts, but as far as paintings are concerned I wouldn’t have said I was an expert or even that interested. Okay, you could even call me a bit of a philistine. My problem in art galleries had always been this: how long are you supposed to stand in front of each picture? How do you know when you’re finished with it? What makes some paintings worth stopping at, and which ones should you glide past like you’re on a conveyor belt? On this visit, the problem was alleviated because there was a special exhibition of the Pre-Raphaelites and it was so crowded I was borne along at crowd speed.
The pictures were stunning. Jewel-bright colours, languid, flame-haired women in beautiful robes, landscapes rendered so perfectly they looked like photographs. Prettily-drawn feet. I recognised Ophelia being borne down the river clutching at a handful of bright flowers, famous portraits reproduced on a million calendars, men in tights (a fashion long since ripe for revival, in my opinion) and almost hallucinogenic detail and colour everywhere.
One picture stopped me dead with its strange beauty. It depicted quite possibly the most socially awkward dinner party since the occasion some time in the early 1980s when my ‘flighty’ Aunt Helen’s boyfriend du jour waited until the roast lamb was being carved before revealing his staunch vegetarianism. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t go down well with my mother, who maintained a thorny silence throughout the meal. Her indignation briefly lifted while she served the jam roly-poly, but unfortunately, vegetarian boyfriend had to decline this treat, too, as it featured suet. He was never invited back, and Mother didn’t speak to ‘flighty’ Aunt Helen for several months.
In this painting, the vegetarian boyfriend role was apparently being taken by a striking young man in red sitting on the right hand side of the picture; there was a palpably frosty atmosphere among his fellow diners, with the three men opposite him looking particularly pissed off. One of them was behaving in a very mean fashion with a pair of nutcrackers and poking a dog with the toe of his tights at the same time. However, the man in red certainly didn’t look like a pallid vegetarian with an objection to suet. He looked like an utter sex god. Oblivious to the hostility around him, his attention was fixed totally on the woman by his side. Her eyes were cast demurely downwards, but his were fixed on her with such burning intensity that he looked about to explode with passion.
I looked at the caption on the wall next to the picture: Isabella by John Everett Millais.
I looked at the male figure. His soft red velvet robe clung to the lines of his body, revealing that, although he was quite ethereal looking, he had broad shoulders, a well-developed pair of pecs and was generally a bit of a hunk. He was quite beautiful, and such passion on his face, the way he was leaning towards the woman and creating a private space excluding everyone else present except the two of them, offering her an orange on a plate (bound to be symbolic of something deeply rude), all hinted that she wouldn’t be getting much sleep that night. No wonder the poor woman daren’t look up, she was probably trying not to pant.
The picture completely captivated me. It was such an odd painting; everyone apart from the young man in red was in profile and they looked like they’d been cut out from photographs and appliquéd rather than painted on. I was lost in looking at it for I don’t know how long.
Then I got the strongest feeling someone was looking at me, almost as though someone had said my name out loud. I turned and looked around. At first all I could see were people wandering from picture to picture – students, tourists, some talking and others listening to commentary on headphones. Then, at the far side of the room, I saw him.
Looking straight at me was the double of the man in the painting – his hair, his cheekbones and particularly those huge, intense eyes. He was staring at me with the same concentration, and like Isabella I couldn’t meet his gaze, but had to look away, like a cat does when another cat stares at it. I felt a surge of butterflies in my stomach and my finger ends started to tingle. I was about to walk away, but out of the corner of my eye I saw him move, and suddenly he was standing next to me. He was tall and slender, with pale skin and slightly curling hair to about chin level. ‘This is weird, isn’t it?’ he said. He had a very faint accent which I couldn’t for the moment place.
‘Well, I always think Lorenzo looks a bit like me, or I look a bit like him, anyway,’ he said. ‘And now there you are, looking exactly like Isabella.’ I glanced back at the woman in the picture. Her face was in profile, so it was hard to tell what she looked like: pale, straight nose, long, mahogany-coloured hair tied back. That was how I wore my hair for work, although it was currently hanging loose. The man suddenly reached forward and gathered my hair in his hands. His skin was cool and his hands were as bony and light as two birds. He pulled my hair gently into a pony tail, all the while his eyes never leaving mine. ‘See?’ he said softly, brushing a strand of hair gently from my forehead. ‘You’re her.’ I realised his accent was faintly Liverpudlian: he pronounced ‘her’ in the Liverpool way, like ‘hair.’ ‘Your hair.’
He let my hair fall around my shoulders again. He wasn’t looking at me any more, he was looking at the painting. I wondered if it might be a good idea to creep away while his attention was distracted – although he was beautiful he was quite probably mad – but before I could move he spoke again.
‘Do you like the picture?’
‘It’s beautiful,’ I said.
‘Maybe I ought to steal it for you,’ he said. ‘As a gift.’
‘What? You can’t!’ He was mad. I glanced quickly around for a security guard, but at that minute there were none to be seen.
‘Come on: what’s to stop me stealing it?’ he asked.
‘Well… it’s illegal.’
He’d thrown me into such a flap I almost didn’t notice the amusement in his eyes. ‘I had you going there, didn’t I, posh girl? You probably think, Typical Scouser, he’d nick anything that wasn’t screwed down.’
He was just teasing, after all. I attempted to enter into the spirit. ‘But it is screwed down, look.’
He peered at the picture frame. ‘Too bad. Looks like I’ll have to cut it out of the frame.’ He produced a small Swiss Army knife.
‘Not on my account, you don’t,’ I said quickly. I’d relaxed too soon, and tried to humour him. ‘I like it fine where it is, on the wall.’
He laughed, so loudly it attracted the attention of several people who turned our way to see what the joke was. ‘Okay, posh girl,’ he said. ‘I’ll keep my thieving fingers off it for now.’ The knife, which I belatedly realised was nothing more threatening than a keyring, was returned to his pocket.
I was relieved when an American couple paused to look at the painting, the man leaning right across me to read the information panel. ‘“Millais,”’ he read loudly. ‘French.’
‘English, actually,’ my companion said. ‘Jersey, anyway.’
‘Hey, are you a guide?’ the American man asked and the strange man said he would be happy to answer any questions they had about the painting.
So he was nothing more harmful than a tour guide. I surprised myself by feeling a pang of disappointment: there had been something rather thrilling about meeting a person who might have stepped out of a painting, who was so wildly attractive and attractively reckless that he would offer to steal it for you.
He knew his stuff, though. The Americans were entranced by his explanation of the symbolism in the painting, particularly as the story was rather a lurid one. Lorenzo and Isabella were, as was apparent even to me, in love. The problem was that he was an employee of Isabella’s family and therefore deemed to be not worthy of her. Isabella’s brothers, outraged by the relationship, murdered Lorenzo and buried his body. In a dream Isabella had a vision of where the body was buried and went to try and dig it up. Not being strong enough to carry the body of her dead lover, she cut off his head, which she buried in a pot of basil. Unfortunately the brothers denied her even that comfort and took it from her. In her grief, Isabella killed herself. Millais had filled the painting with details and clues about the story – plants, the food on the table, the bird sitting on a chair back, everything had a symbolic function. There was even a phallic-looking shadow cast by the nutcracker one of the brothers was holding.
‘That’s not an accident,’ explained the guide. ‘Millais did not paint accidentally. Everything in this picture is exactly where he wanted it to be and meant what he wanted it to mean.’
I was so engrossed I lost track of time, till I realised I was now ten minutes late for the auction. While he was still talking, I gradually made my way to the door and left, never expecting to see ‘Lorenzo’ again.