Time to Say Goodbye
I stood by the window, the pile of books in my arms and the box at my feet, looking out at the sunlit garden and wondering how it would feel never to see it again, as very shortly would be the case. It had been part of my life for so long, I would miss it. The cats would miss it. I wondered, miserably, where the three of us might end up, somehow I couldn’t bring myself to focus on the future. It was a future that had been too long in coming, whose inevitability I had tried to fight every inch of the way.
Now, I was wondering why I had bothered, the end to our romance had been written long ago. It was some time now since I had really wanted Jay, even longer since I had trusted him. We had tried, and we had lost, and what I would be missing wasn’t the husband who had left me in spirit many years before, but the home we had built together, where our children had grown up, that I was about to lose and that seemed a sad epitaph for our marriage.
Behind me, in the half-dismantled room, the sound of my daughter Sally briskly packing and sorting more books, had slowly ceased. A silence fell, into which her voice finally spoke, hesitantly. ‘Mum?’ When I didn’t turn round, she repeated it, more urgently. ‘Mum?’
Only then did I summon the strength of mind to move, placing the books carefully in the box and straightening up, turning to face her. ‘Hullo?
‘Are you OK?’ She took a quick pace towards me and stopped, hands at her sides. ‘Only, you had gone so still...’
‘I was thinking,’ I explained.
‘Not surprised,’ said Sally, relaxing. ‘Dad is being a bastard! Do you really have to have this man intruding in your private affairs?’
‘According to my solicitor, yes. I agreed to divide the value of the house down the middle to get your father off my back, it’s entirely my own fault that I didn’t realise that would mean the value of everything in it too. I thought he meant, half the house and he would take what he wants from the furnishings and things, and I would take what I want, and we’d sell the rest and just divide that. My mistake.’
‘It’s nit-picking, Mum. It’s punishing you to make himself feel better, he doesn’t really want any of it. Just tell him he can have the lot, and take the money yourself.’
‘Unfortunately, it doesn’t work quite like that. And there are some things I would like to keep.’
‘Then just don’t let the bastard know which they are.’
I sighed, but I couldn’t help silently agreeing with her. Then I it said, anyway. ‘Do stop calling your father a bastard, Sally. It doesn’t really help.’
She gave me a belligerent look. ‘Well, he can’t touch your personal things.’
‘That’s why we’re packing them away, before the valuer gets here.
My soon-to-be-ex husband, Jay, had insisted that everything we owned between us should be valued, down to the last spoon in the drawer, and that the value of anything I took should be included in the settlement he had finally agreed: a sum equal to half the value of the house to me. I hadn’t wished to be reminded of him by regular alimony payments and had fought for a lump sum. Now, it seemed, he was going to make me pay dearly for the victory. But that wasn’t Jay, I told myself cynically. That was the grasping woman who presently had her claws in him, and I had little doubt that she would, very shortly after she haled him before the registrar, have the shirt off his back and move on. She had done it before, with other men. Poor, besotted Jay was the only one who couldn’t see it. She was his worst mistake yet, and I found it hard not to feel that it served him right, and she was also one of the reasons I had stood out for half the house. When he was flat broke, as he probably soon would be, Jay would be in no position to make alimony payments, and I couldn’t be bothered any more to argue about the exact terms of the agreement. Any furniture I would wish to take wouldn’t be that valuable anyway.
Know thine enemy. Only he wasn’t. I had loved him once, or believed that I had. It wasn’t until we went to Greece that fateful summer, almost ten years ago now, that I had learned differently and every day since we came back I had been working out a self-inflicted penance for a betrayal that had never gone further than my own heart. I had thought I owed it Jay to try. Only, he hadn’t tried at all in spite of all his promises. And here we were.
‘You’ve gone off again,’ Sally accused, staring at me. ‘Mum, are you sure you aren’t upset? I know you say you’re not, but...’ She fell silent again.
‘Of course I’m upset!’ I told her. ‘Who wouldn’t be? This is my home.’
‘Well, said Sally, ‘time to say goodbye. Where will you go, think about that. It’s a new beginning for you, and probably the end for him, the -’ She coughed instead of ending her sentence, and we both laughed.
‘I haven’t decided,’ I told her.
‘You could go and live near Marina,’ Sally offered. Marina had said the same thing, but I didn’t think so. She is my dearest friend, but she would try to run my life, and anyway I didn’t want to live in Essex. Nor did I want to live too close to either of my daughters, I had done my share of bringing up little children and they both had young families, it would be a mistake to make myself too available and I could read the sub-text. If I was to have my freedom back, as both Sally and Stephanie kept assuring me I was, then I wanted to be free to enjoy it, not at the loving beck and call of my family or under the eye of my best friend So not Essex. Not Devon. Not West Sussex. That still left a wide field of choice.
‘You don’t want to be on your own in a strange place,’ Sally assured me, but I rather liked the idea myself. I was still nearly two years off fifty. There was a lot of time left to enjoy. New surroundings, new friends, new things to do; it all looked very appealing from the springboard over nothingness where I stood now. I changed the subject.
‘We should get on. I don’t want the valuer arguing over whether I own things or whether I don’t, and he’s your father’s recommendation.’
‘Ouch!’ said Sally. ‘Better get on, then. When’s he due?’
She glanced at her watch. ‘Full steam ahead, then.’
Unfortunately, we didn’t steam quite fast enough.
The valuer arrived punctually, and seemed a pleasant enough man, in fact I found I already knew him slightly from some of Jay’s Lions’ Club dinners. He was a man of around fifty called Maurice Hardacre, solid and reliable-looking, and came from a reputable auction house who surely had too much at stake themselves to play silly games with people. I had wondered if I might be wise to get a second valuation on my own account, but once I had met Jay’s candidate, decided that I had been being paranoid. Moreover, as I walked round the rooms with him, he talked to me about the items he found interesting, and what he said made sense. For most of it, as I would have expected, he recommended a house clearance sale if neither of us wished to keep the things; for those of any worth that we had each already specified he gave sensible valuations. It was all going remarkably well until we reached the sitting room.
There was a picture hanging over the fireplace that Jay and I had bought together when we were first married; it was by a local artist, reputed at the time to be going places, and Jay had always referred to it as "our little investment." He said, always with a laugh and perhaps a little too often, that it was good to have an asset that we could appreciate while it appreciated, and it was on his list of desired objects. This, I had no problem with; I liked the picture, a pleasant street scene, but not as much as he did. He had obviously already mentioned it to the valuer, and I was careful to point it out, because if it was really valuable, half that value was due to me since we had bought it between us, and I would need it. However, things didn’t work out quite as either Jay or I had expected.
‘Oh yes,’ said the valuer, giving it a cursory look. ‘Edward Minton.’ He peered at the signature in the corner. ‘Yes, he looked like a coming name twenty, twenty-five years ago, but I’m afraid he never really made it. Three to five thousand, maybe, if it went to auction and somebody really wanted it. Say three and a half, realistically.’
‘Jay thought it would be more,’ I said, and Maurice Goodacre said he realised that.
‘A good artist in his time, but not popular today. He had good reviews when he first started out, but he was a bit of a one-trick pony and it all fizzled out, I’m afraid.’ He made a note on his pad and turned away, patently uninterested, and then his eye fell on a small watercolour hanging above the bookcase by the window, and he stiffened like a bloodhound on the scent. His previous polite interest in our modest worldly goods suddenly metamorphosed into a burning flame of interest. He crossed the room in three strides.
‘I’m seeing things,’ he muttered to himself, as I followed him. We ended up together in front of the bookcase looking at the picture of a small harbour crowded with boats tied under a high stone wall, and the curve of a Mediterranean quayside beyond , white in the strong sunlight with bright shops and strolling shoppers under a clear blue sky. It was vibrant for a watercolour, the paint laid on thick and bright so that it appeared to glow off the wall.
‘Hydra,’ I told him, helpfully, and he said, ‘I can see.’ He reached out almost reverently and touched the simple wooden frame. ‘May I lift it down, have a closer look?’
‘Of course, ‘ I said, bewildered by his manner. ‘It isn’t anything, you know. A friend gave it to me, years ago.’
He wasn’t listening. He had taken out a glass and was studying the signature in the corner - no, not the signature, exactly. Just three initials, and a date. A date in a year that was graven on my heart and in my head. I swallowed, and even after nine years or more felt the tears pricking behind my eyes. He didn’t notice. He let out a long sigh as he looked up, and asked, ‘Wherever did you come by this?’
‘I told you,’ I said, more impatiently than I had intended. ‘It was given to me.’
‘Who on earth by?’ He sounded stunned.
‘Someone we met on holiday,’ I said defensively. He narrowed his eyes at me.
‘To you, personally? Or to both of you?’
‘To me personally,’ I said.
‘You’re sure of that?’
‘Of course I’m sure. Is there a problem?’
‘Not if you can prove it’s your personal property, no.’ He tapped the picture with his fingers, but gently. ‘Do you know who painted it?’
‘I told you. Someone we met.’
‘Come over here.’ He carried the picture over to the window where the light was better. ‘See this in the corner? O J N, and just under it, a date back in 1995. In the early-to-mid nineties, long before he became known, a now very prestigious and desirable seascape painter named Oliver Nankervis was out in the Med, bumming around and getting what work he could, and sometimes, when times were hard and he ran out of money, he would pay a bar bill or for a meal in a taverna with a small painting like this one. He doesn’t sign his work like this today, and because they are therefore hard to recognise, these early pictures turn up very rarely, and they fetch high prices since they have a scarcity value. Your friend probably bought it for peanuts in some waterside bar somewhere, and now here it is. I can’t believe it!’ He gave me another hard look. ‘The friend who gave it to you will presumably confirm that it was given to you alone? Because this little picture is worth anything up to eighty thousand pounds today, and your husband may make an issue of it.’
I swallowed hard, and my voice came out as a squeak. He had no idea of the shock he had just handed me as I tried to pull myself together and make some sense of what seemed utter nonsense. ‘I haven’t seen him in years. I wouldn’t know where to begin looking.’
‘That’s a pity.’ He looked sorry.
‘But it’s mine. It’s no business of Jay’s,’ I said, and knew already what he would say.
‘I only have your word for that. Unfortunately.’
‘Jay knows it’s mine,’ I said, knowing that I was fighting a rearguard action here. Once Jay got wind of this, he would swear blind, and to give him his due, probably believe, that the picture was a gift to us both.
‘He may not remember,’ said Mr Hardacre, diplomatically. ‘I’m sorry, Mrs Starkey. Without proof of ownership or someone to corroborate what you say, I have to mention this to your husband. If I do not, and he finds out later, I could end up in trouble myself. Of course, he may well confirm what you tell me, in which case there will be no problem.’
I knew that if he once heard the magic words "eighty thousand pounds" Jay’s memory, on purpose or not, would default to convenience mode and in order to resolve the argument the picture would have to be sold. I couldn’t afford to pay him forty thousand pounds from my share of the present settlement if I was to live in any sort of comfort thereafter, and I would have to if I wanted to keep it.
I did want to keep it.
Mr Hardacre was looking at me, not without sympathy. He said, ‘Is there no way you could trace your friend, do you think?’
I felt him to be on my side, even if he was watching his own back and I couldn’t really blame him for that. Jay could be a real bastard, just as his daughter had said.. I said, with regret, ‘We met out there. I never knew where he came from originally.’
‘A pity. Where were you staying, how did you meet? You might trace this person - this man -’ he had spotted the giveaway pronoun, and what else I could only guess - ‘that way. If it’s only nine or ten years, they may have a record still.’
‘We were on a flotilla holiday,’ I said, slowly. My mind was whirling with new ideas; I could hardly bear to think. He said, ‘Then I suggest you start with the flotilla company. After you have phoned your insurance company.’ He gave me a sympathetic smile, and repeated, ‘I’m sorry, Mrs Starkey,’ as he handed the picture back to me.
But I thought I might have no need of the flotilla company if what he had told me was true - and if they were even still in business, which might be debatable after what happened. After he had gone, I rehung the picture and went into the study to switch on my computer.
I felt numb, but slightly sick too as I watched the screen come to life and went on the net, called up a search engine.
Then I entered his name and sat there, staring at it with blank eyes that saw only the past.
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