The cow was wearing a red jacket. A loose-lipped grin had replaced its vague stare, and the missing fourth leg had been painted in. Lifted off the ground, the foot hovered over a ladybird the size of a cat. Enormous bees thronged the blue enamel sky and the branches of palm trees. The whole thing was bluer, redder, yellower than I’d ever thought a painting could be.
“Shit, Nico!” I said, “You did this?”
“It’s good, is it?”
Nico’s English was good, but he just couldn’t get the is/isn’t thing right. So I knew he wasn’t asking me if the thing was good, he was telling me. And in a weird way, it was. Miles better than Honey Fishbarker’s original, anyway.
“Next I will do the pigeons,” he said, waving towards a canvas on which three miserable-looking pigeons stood. One of Honey Fishbarker’s big problems was feet. Her figures either looked as if they were hovering above the ground or glued to it. These pigeons were glued. And there was something wrong with their necks. And their wings.
“Nico, you can’t! It’s probably some sort of crime. And what about when Fishbarker comes back?”
“He doesn’t look. And I am not the criminal. This woman is the criminal.”
Nico’s trouble was that he knew about art. The paintings didn’t bother me. I could sit out in the hall all day reading and dreaming up impossible schemes to win back the love of Carly Nipper, with hardly a visitor to disturb me. The only people who came to see Honey’s pictures were American tourists from Idaho or other tourists who chanced on the studio as they wandered the narrow streets off the Brompton road. The Fishbarkers had lived here twenty years ago when Myron, who was something enormous in the financial world, had been based in London, and had kept the house on when they returned home. Since Honey’s death eight years ago Myron came only for business, a week or so every few months. But he maintained the studio as it had been when Honey worked there, and it was open, in her memory, every weekend. Maybe Myron was devoted to Honey, maybe he even thought her work was good. Nico said it was to do with tax. Whatever it was, it meant that every Saturday and Sunday I sat in the hallway to greet visitors, keeping an eye on them as they wandered round the long room that was hung with Honey’s “Studies of English Life.” Nico lived in the attic, rent-free, as a kind of house-sitter.
“You don’t have to look at them,” I said. Standing in front of the pigeons he looked like someone whose insides were being gnawed by red-hot worms.
“I don’t look. But I know they are here.”
He glared at me, “popping his eyes”, Carly used to say. Carly thought Nico was mad. I said he wasn’t, only foreign, and he’d had a bad time in the war.
“So did my granddad,” said Carly, “but he’s normal now. Sort of.”
Oh, that girl, with her flirty little skirts above the big boots, her tiny grubby hands.
“I must do this,” said Nico. “You know Ruskin?”
“Ruskin, oh yeah, Ruskin.” Never heard of him.
“Industry without art is brutality. This woman is brutality.”
“I can see she’s not all that good, but still you can’t go round changing her stuff.”
“If I make it better, why not? The woman is not important. She’s dead anyway.”
And so we argued round and round. If it was my job to look after the paintings when strangers came in, it must be my job to protect them from Nico too. On the way home I passed the police station and briefly imagined myself going in, then ducked my head and scurried past as if it was me that was the criminal. Just let me lie low long enough to get my teaching degree. Just let Myron Fishbarker stay away another three months. Good old Jake, I heard Carly say in my head. Pretend it isn’t happening.
But it is, Jake. Come back next week to see what happens next.