Seldon put his filofax back into his briefcase and shifted awkwardly in the uncomfortable chair, before looking over to the window at his client.
Given the nature of the valuation, it was not exactly the scene he had pictured. And yet, money was money. Art was art. The auctioneer had made deals in less salubrious surroundings.
“I can, of course, authenticate the works. There is no doubt to my mind that they are genuine. I went through some of the finer points earlier. Typical. Typical. Definitely typical. The subject matter,” he paused and smiled, “Well, shall we say controversial? And, as I’m sure you understand, there is quite a bit of interest at the moment. A quick sale might capitalise on the recent publicity surrounding the anniversary.”
He smiled again.
“As to value. Together, as one lot, I would estimate they would fetch somewhere in the region of £20 to £30 million.”
With a slight flourish, he sat back in the depths of the chair and waited.
A red Austin Metro pulled up by the pavement on Manresa Road SW3. The driver did not leave the car but sat steaming up the windows; as he drank tea from a plastic flask, he occasionally wiped the windscreen with the sleeve of his jacket.
Eventually, he emerged with a thick black umbrella before him to ward off the rain. He ran to the parking meter and shoved a fistful of 20p coins into the slot before darting back to the car to stick the ticket in its window. He then walked quickly ten metres before turning to climb the steps of one of the houses.
He pressed the electronic buzzer and waited.
“Hello? Who is it?” said a crackling voice.
“It’s Remy Gray from the London Review. You are expecting me.”
“Two minutes, Mr Gray.”
Remy turned to face the blue door squarely. At last – the rain was beating against his back – the door opened slightly.
Even from the gloom of late autumn Remy struggled to see inside. Then he made out the form of a man dressed in a dark suit, his pale face looking at his expressionlessly.
The man quickly shut the door behind Remy.
“Please take your coat off. You can put the umbrella by the stand.”
“Remy Gray.” The younger man extended a wet hand.
“Marc. Marc Gunn. How do you do?”
“Thanks. Really nice to meet you at last.”
Before Remy could quite meet his stare, as he tussled with his coat, the older swiftly turned around and began walking away.
“Shall we do this in the Gallery?”
Remy followed his host upstairs. The house had been extensively renovated, its second floor being open-planned but what he called the Gallery was filled with art, lined up uniformly as in a museum.
“Before you ask. Yes. They are. Please sit down.” His hand offered a chair. His face said nothing. “It is OK to stare. Don’t worry.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t know what to expect.”
“They tell me the experience can be disconcerting. The difference between tone and expression. But please believe, the alternative is far worse.” He paused. “Perhaps you would like a few moments before we begin. And please, call me Marc.”
As Remy anxiously took his notepad from his satchel, he caught a glance of his host. In the light he could see the delicacy of the painted mask, its fine youthful colours and angles, yet the only sign of life the pale green eyes, slightly hidden in the shadows, searching his body. Awkwardly he went over some of the details his editor had discussed until he was ready.
“Okay. I think where I’d like to start is, why? Why now?”
There was a slight pause as the masked figure considered.
“It has been thirty years. That is a lifetime. Longer than your lifetime. Perhaps these things need airing. To prevent the myths building up too far.”
“But you have refused all previous requests for interviews.”
Again, the man waited before he spoke.
“Would you not if you were me?”
“I really can’t say,” replied Remy. “But – if you’ll forgive me for saying so – it is like there is a wall of silence. One of Britain’s greatest artists – and yet nobody speaks of him.”
“That is not quite true.”
“You know what I mean though. Critics yes. But anything personal, and the drawbridges come up.”
“I think perhaps the art world – if that is not too grand an expression – is like any circle. It takes a lead. Jer was a private man. I have, by necessity, become a private man.”
“Some people might say that shame has something to do with it.”
“Then they are very silly. Worse than silly. Ignorant.”
The mask looked out the window, as if posing for a portrait, but I could feel his eyes on me.
“Do you think the unveiling affected your decision?”
“You mean the -?”
“Well, it certainly pushed everything to the forefront. Yes, I think perhaps you would not be here were the National not to have displayed it.”
“Have you seen it? I mean, did the Gallery contact you beforehand?”
“Yes, they did. But no, I did not need to see it. I knew. I knew it was his.”
“Instinct. It made sense.”
“The display has been controversial. What do you make of Norman Tebbit’s description of it as ‘deviant art’?” The eyes said nothing. “A junior government minister.”
“The functions of government and the functions of art are quite opposed. I am sure Mr Tebbit was merely doing his job.”
“What do you mean?”
“It is a government’s job to keep order. To maintain the state. It is an inherently conservative role. Perhaps I did not see that when I was younger. Art’s job is to question. Art has to be controversial if it is to survive. The two must oppose each other.”
“Will you go to see it?”
“How did you meet?”
The mask did not move. But Remy thought the voice showed a moment of anxiety.
“How did you meet Descombes?”
Once more the room fell into silence. His eyes looked down. It was as if Remy were no longer in the room.
“It was after the war. Jer was still an RAF pilot waiting to be demobbed. I was nothing. A runaway staying at my aunt’s in Stepney. A boy for whom the war did not mean suffering or loss but handsome men – heroic men – in uniform.” He stopped for a moment. “He was much older than me but he was incredibly attractive – both in personality and physically. His world was a different world to the one I had known growing up. And I remember seeing him across the room – “
“It was a queer pub in Marylebone. The Quebec. He was in his uniform. And his eyes never left me. I can still see them now.”
“They say he was obsessed with you.”
Laughter came from behind the face.
“Jer was never obsessed. If anything, it was the other way around. Surely this latest find demonstrates that! But I do think he used me – in the nicest sense, and I never resented it – to come out of the closet, as you say these days. I was his canary.”
“It sounds almost cruel. He would have been 45.”
“When the pictures were first displayed, yes.”
“You were -”
“18, yes. But no, he did not take advantage of me. Not in that sense. He was remarkably kind. They never understand that.”
“The ghouls who think they know him. Even worse, those who think they know us. He used me to tell the world he was queer but I was happy that he did. Jer taught me it was – that there was nothing wrong with liking men. So I was more than happy to be used. I encouraged him.”
“So what do you say to those who have said that it was you who drove him to do what he did.”
“I feel sorry for them, the bourgeoisie. Their self-loathing. Their subservience. It’s just so banal. I have grown used to snobbery.”
“How do you mean?”
“This absurd idea that a gentleman could never do such a thing. That it must be an act out of character.”
“But he was arrested. And prosecuted for gross indecency.”
Remy had felt as if he were interviewing a mannequin. The mask was expressionless and Marc’s cut-glass vowels rarely betrayed any great emotion. Even now he maintained a statuesque decorum.
“He was not just arrested.”
“You mean the chemical castration?”
“Such a vindictive punishment. And what for?”
The question did not need an answer.
“Is that why you did what you did?” Remy asked.
“It was rage.” The gloved hands briefly forsook their owner as they gripped his trousers before settling back on his lap. “The man I was left with wasn’t a man at all. They had taken everything from him. Scooped him out and left a shell. They had fawned over him – lesser men – then destroyed him. And somehow it was worse because he was an artist. I know one should not think like that but…” Remy went to speak but the mask interrupted: “They said I didn’t love him. It was worse. He was everything. So they left me with nothing. He didn’t kill himself. They had already killed him. And I did not even think before I acted.”
As the older spoke Remy thought of the iconic, almost martyrish, pictures from a hundred Gay Lib protests; then about the front page pictures of the newspapers, and the tabloid pictures from the hospitals. He thought about they smell of burning petrol and flesh that the witnesses spoke about.
“I just did it. Without thinking when I found him. I think if I were to characterise it now, I would say that such a brutal society deserved a brutal response. It needed to see itself. So I stood on the steps of the court that convicted him and set fire to myself.”
Tired of the clatter of his typewriter, Remy had taken the bus into Trafalgar Square. He stood in front of Number 4, as the gallery had taken to calling it. Besides the painting was the simple post “Jeremy ‘Jer’ Descombes (1903 – 1951). Unidentified youth. Supposed to be part of a lost Quintych.”
Beside it was a longer biography of Descombes. It detailed his life from Winchester and Cambridge to his suicide without mention of Marc nor the arrest.
It had been nearly a fortnight since Remy had first seen Marc. At first, he had despaired. He had words, even an article, but nothing else. That night, he had returned. Marc had refused to let him in. But he waited on the doorsteps until the door had opened.
“Does anyone know you’re here?”
“No. Nobody,” he replied, scrambling to his feet.
Unlike that morning, Marc did not cower in the gloom behind the doorway. He did not move for several moments. Then, he opened the door more and Remy followed him inside.
Remy had stayed until the early hours. Nothing was on the record or even background: he just wanted to understand. They had talked before he took Marc’s hand and hesitantly led the host to his own bedroom.
Nothing had happened. Marc had not even undressed. The pair merely lay together, their bodies entwined.
“You lied before. About where you went to school.”
“How -? I’m sorry. Its part of the job.” Remy paused. “How did you know?”
“Lies are easy to spot. Liars not so easy. It was a lesson I learned. We’re always pretending. Escaping from the past. I can see it as I look at portraits of me. In the end, I was given the ultimate escape.”
It became a ritual. They would walk upstairs together. Each night, as Remy took off the mask he felt Marc’s pain as if the exposure was a stab into his chest that he could not refuse. As he had interviewed him, he had felt like he was talking to a shard of ice. Stripped of his defences, he felt Marc cling to him with the uncertainty of youth. Remy strangely felt as if he were the senior of the two; Mark’s embrace was one that seemed as if it were trying to capture what he himself lacked. It was not youth. It was something else. In silence afterwards, he felt both the pain and calm.
In the second week, as they lay together not speaking, Marc put on his dressing gown, took Remy’s hand and led him downstairs.
The Gallery was dark, without even streetlight and only the gentle light of the moon casting in. In the shadows, he pulled back an Art Deco partition to reveal a door.
In the hidden room, there were two paintings. The first was undeniably Marc, its features resembling the mask to an uncanny extent. His eyes looked in a tragic defiance towards the viewer. The body itself was both youthful but tortured, each stroke capturing the pain of becoming a man. But was captured the eye was the pose: his arms were spread Christ-like, begging for martyrdom, as an older man loomed behind him.
The second was a mass of pale naked bodies entangled in one another. Like the first, their skin was milky white and set against a background of dark browns, reds and shadows. Only their lips retained any colour. The features were elegant, sometimes feminine as even male features were at an age. It was almost vicious in its brushstrokes, then tender as it touched the human. At its centre was the artist himself somewhere between the two.
Whereas the portrait of Marc had an exactness to it, this was chaotic. Somehow its perverse elegance prevented it from becoming pornography.
“They are beautiful.”
“But alone, they are pointless.” Together they paused and looked at the two portraits.
“I have no idea what he was thinking painting them. Except that he always had a need to paint. Who would have shown these. Look at the controversy today, fifteen years after they made us legal. It would have caused a storm. But I think he wanted to paint the first explicitly queer art. Not suggested. Not hinted or in subtext. Definitely queer.”
“Do you think he would have?”
“I honestly don’t know. His grandfather had served under Disraeli. His father was the recruitment face of the Great War. Gay sex was still illegal. There was that strange mix of fighting that which reared him and never giving up loving it. It is, I guess, slightly Oedipal. He wanted to shock them, but I think, he also wanted them to forgive him. As one of theirs. As an artist. The exception. That was what was so awful about the end. The lack of understanding. The silent acceptance of betrayal.”
“What happened to the others?”
“These two I have. Everything else – the photographs, the negatives – we destroyed after Jer was arrested. He painted over the five and we hid them under sheets in the basement as far apart from one another as we could. It was a terrible time. When I restored them, only two remained. In truth, I thought they were lost forever until the first stories about the quintych appeared a few years ago.”
“Who were the others?”
“What I told you was the truth. I wish I could remember their names. Two were lovers. Local boys from Kent. Jer met them there. The fourth, Henry- I think – was one of those people you just knew. Even then there were people who stood out wherever they were. The difference was, Henry was pretty. But there were five pictures. There were three of them, and us.”
Even though the light was uncertain, Remy could not doubt that this was part of the series. He tried to imagine how it would look with the other, what the quintych would look like as a collection.
He turned to see the young man next to him staring at him. He had all the appearance of a typical art student. Before he could do anything else, Remy turned to leave, walking through the gallery rooms until he got to the steps at the top of Trafalgar Square.
He quickly looked at the attendants cleaning the graffito from the stained walls before walking into the crowds.
That afternoon, his editor called. The National Gallery was taking down the Descombes Number 4.
“Why did you bring them?”
The voice was soft. Remy had known it was coming. He had expected more accusation though.
“I needed to see them together. I couldn’t resist.”
Marc’s shadow was cast over the room from the light of the gallery behind. He stood in the doorway, his gown covering his twisted body. In front of him, Remy stood in front of the quintych, perfectly arranged so they were both five and an impossible one: the artist as omnipotent actor and seer at the same time.
“And if I had just taken the two, it would have been theft.”
“It is incredible. Five paintings that work as a story of conflict and resolution either way you look at them.”
It was long before dawn. Marc had felt the emptiness next to him. Strange that it should be a factor after years locked away. He had heard the sound of doors opening. When he saw Remy return to the house, he waited before walking to the secret gallery.
“I should have recognised you. Now it seems so obvious.”
“It was you who loaned Number 4 to the National?”
“My calling card.”
“Number 4 was your father’s lover.”
“How did you find out about the quintych?”
“You mean -?”
“My father. Two years ago. It was not quite a deathbed confession. But close. He told me about the summer. About Jer and you. Everything I guess. It was a different side of him. A side he wanted to remember in me, my name. I don’t think he’d have ever called himself gay, but he wasn’t ashamed of what he’d done. There was something in his voice when he told me. Before he died he told me where the pictures were. He wanted – I think – one last look.”
“So Jer must have – “
“Yes. One afternoon, the most famous fucking queer artist in Britain stood in a council flat in Margate, and bit by bit restored two mediocre pictures into these.”
“And how did you end up with three?”
“You got it the wrong way round. Uncle Henry died a few years ago. Pneumonia. Would you believe he married? In the early seventies. Before that he was my father’s lover. Or one of them. Jer mistakenly gave my father two portraits. And so, when Henry died, he ended up with three.”
Marc looked at the boy.
Then there was silence.
“What happens now?”
“Nothing. I leave.”
“With the paintings?”
“What makes you think I am going to let you take them?”
“Because he didn’t want you to have them. He took them away from you. The best work he had ever done and he made sure they stayed out of your grasp. That’s why.”
He was looking directly at the fragile figure before him. He body barely moved as he spoke. His voice was calm, completely in control.
“Because the alternative is that once again the spotlight falls on you. All alone in this vast mausoleum, they’ll come for you, the fucking faggot boyfriend of a faggot artist. If you think it is bad once a year. Try living it again every day. What do you think is worse, the shit you’ll get through your letterbox or the fanatics who want every bit of you?”
As he spoke, Remy stroked the mask upon Marc’s face. Then without saying anything he removed the mask and gently cradled the older man’s head in his chest. He felt him twitch with fear and pulled his body into his as he tried to pull away.
“Because it’s pathetic. You’re pathetic.” Remy had picked the mask up from the table. “You would let one of the greatest works of art rot here like you have rotted for thirty years. They deserve to be seen and you don’t have the courage to do it. You don’t even know the difference between reality and fiction.” Marc had given up resisting, holding Remy tightly and digging his nails into his back “They will be nothing because you are nothing.”
He whispered in his ears.
“I’m sorry but that is the way it is going to be. They called you a whore, didn’t they? At the trial. Or as good as. And it’s true, that’s what you were. And that’s what I have been to you. All I’m doing is picking up my payment. That’s my price.”
All the while he held Marc tight and stroked his face, his voice retained a calm menace.
“What was it you said about tone and expression?” He laughed.
“So do you want me to begin to organise the sale?” said Seldon uneasily.
“They tell me the experience can be disconcerting. The difference between tone and expression. But please believe me, the alternative is far worse.”
“I am sorry. Forgive me.”
“And in turn, Seldon, I am sorry. The Broadstairs Quintych is not for sale.”
“Then why did you call me here?”
“I have found in my possession one of Britain’s most notorious works of art. It would be remiss of me not to knows its value. I will, of course, be making sure that anyone who needs to will have access to them before I leave. But until a permanent home is found for them, they will be at Coutts & Co.”
His hands waved awkwardly around the barren walls of the gallery.
“Thirty years is a long time. A change is needed. It is what makes us human.”
“Good piece in the London Review.”
“Did I read that the young journalist had gone missing?”
“Yes. I believe so. He owed a lot of money, I understand.”
“I know the type. Don’t get me started. Now, are you sure – “
“I am sorry but yes,” said the mask, “I just needed to know what the value of beauty was.”
The SHALLOW CREEK Short Story Competition
Mallum Colt, proprietor of Colt’s Curiosity Shop, invites authors to explore the sinister shadows and crooked streets of his once splendid town of Shallow Creek.
Guests are gifted a Shallow Creek visitor pack consisting of a map of Shallow Creek, a character profile, a specific location, and an item of interest.
These items shall act as a source of inspiration as Mallum Colt guides his guests through Shallow Creek and reveals the secrets and stories of a town bereft of sleep.
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Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
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