The fork in the display case glinted under the lights. It rested on a shiny black plastic podium, and impaled on its tines was what appeared to be a human finger. He was pleased with the finger and gave a grunt of satisfaction. It was his own finger, pinkie of the left hand, plaster cast thereof. Title of work: give/take/eat. Listed in the catalogue as item no. 17, price £6,000.
Jeremy looked at his watch. Six twenty-four. People would be arriving soon, emerging head first from the top of the staircase. At street level you had to enter via the doorway next to The Naked Grill and follow signs for ‘Transformations – Private View’. Mentally he looked up from the pavement at the gallery’s curtainless windows, shining down in the January darkness on incurious passers-by and potential connoisseurs alike. A rangy figure in a polo-neck jumper returned his gaze, framed in the brilliant window: the artist, inhabitant of a firmament populated by his own creations.
He turned round. It was Charlie. She was gliding towards him across the parquet floor with arms outstretched. Jeremy submitted to the obligatory hug, breathing in her familiar scent.
‘Charlie, you look wonderful. Welcome to Aladdin’s cave. I hope you’ve brought your cheque book…’
Charlie, wriggling, sloughed off her coat and looked around the room.
‘What a lot of stuff!’
She threw the coat over the back of a chair and moved towards a case of metalwork and jewellery – platinum studs, silver bracelets, some quartz, some emeralds.
‘And how versatile you are! Jewellery, drawings, bits and pieces…’
Her eyes had registered the fork. The shadow of a frown crossed her face and Jeremy said, ‘Wine?’
‘Does the bear pee in the woods?’ she smirked.
Twenty minutes later the hubbub was well under way. Jeremy weaved between friends and acquaintances, receiving congratulations and answering questions. The room was beginning to get hot – the radiators were an enigma and the windows couldn’t be opened properly. Annoying. People didn’t seem to mind, though: they stood around drinking and laughing, their cast-off outer layers gravitating into piles – on the floor, under a table, precarious atop a chair. At any given moment three or four pairs of eyes would be peering at one or another artwork. A couple of pieces already bore the red circular stickers declaring ‘I am sold’.
Am I? thought Jeremy. Perhaps I am. I am also rich. And he smiled.
‘I love this,’ said an elderly lady wearing too much make-up. He half-recognised her but couldn’t retrieve the name. She was pointing at item no. 12, A Handful of Dust – a woolen glove stuffed with sawdust. The sawdust trailed out of the wrist of the glove, seemed to drop off the edge of the little podium onto the display case floor, and petered out in a wispy arabesque.
‘A jeu d’esprit,’ said Jeremy modestly.
‘Oh, but lovely,’ replied the old lady, her purple-lipped smile turned towards him. ‘Have you read Waugh?’
‘A long time ago. Can I refill your glass?’
‘I knew his son slightly – Auberon. Delightful man. Catholic, of course, but apart from that delightful.’
Charlie was beckoning at him from the other side of the room. Dutifully he made his way through the crush to where she was standing. Next to her was a tall man in glasses with a luxuriant beard, still wearing his overcoat.
‘Jeremy, this is Cyril or Kirill. I invited him, I hope you don’t mind.’
Jeremy put out his hand. ‘Hello, Cyril or Kirill. You’re most welcome.’
The man shook him by the hand without smiling and Charlie said, ‘No – I mean you can call him Cyril or Kirill.’
‘I did, though.’
Jeremy didn’t much care for Charlie’s friends. She seemed to have a thing about east Europeans and Slavs and the like. Cyril-or-Kirill could almost be an Orthodox priest in that get-up. He was bound not to buy anything.
‘And where do you come from?’ Jeremy asked, and at the same moment he caught sight of his half-brother, wearing a suit that was too small for him and holding a glass of white wine. There stood Roddy, as real as an exhibit, his bulk obscuring a charcoal nude. Their eyes met and Roddy raised his glass slightly.
Charlie had followed the direction of Jeremy’s gaze. ‘It’s Roddy!’ she cried.
‘Roddy?’ echoed Cyril mournfully.
As Jeremy walked away he heard Charlie begin to explain. Let her, he thought. , Ignoring somebody’s greeting (‘I say, Je…’), he went over to his half-brother and halted near enough to smell the spirits on Roddy’s breath.
‘Why are you here?’ he said as quietly as he could.
Roddy sipped his wine.
‘I said why are you here?’
Jeremy was smiling pleasantly: he was chatting to an old friend, that was all. Only Charlie and a few others knew any different.
‘Is that how you greet a long-lost brother?’ answered Roddy. He shook his head sadly and placed a pale plump hand on Jeremy’s arm. ‘We’re the same flesh and blood, Jezza, the same flesh and blood.’ The hand fell away and he took another sip of wine. ‘My dad fucked your mum, if you remember. `Course, my dad and your dad were one and the same, which is why we’re the same flesh and blood.’
‘Will you stop repeating yourself like the drunken sot you are and just explain what you’re doing here?’
‘Carol told me about it,’ said Roddy simply. ‘Wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Mind you, some of this stuff is sheer crap, you’ve got to admit. The drawing I’m standing in front of, for example. That’s why I’ve stationed myself here as a matter of fact, to protect the public.’ He emitted a machine-gun burst of laughter, wiped his eyes, and went on: ‘I think this glass needs replenishing, Jezza. Shame your only white wine is cheap sauvignon blanc. A sign of the artist’s perennial stinginess, I guess.’
He held out the empty glass. Jeremy took it from him. The pleasant smile was gone. Nodding as if in acquiescence he moved off towards the table with the drinks and nibbles.
‘Great exhibition!’ his friend Tom yelled in his ear as he squeezed past him.
‘Thanks!’ Jeremy shouted back. Tom grinned and did a thumbs-up. Jeremy struggled on and finally reached the table, where bowls of pretzels and crisps rubbed shoulders with wine bottles and fruit juice cartons. He decided on the Chilean merlot. If Roddy wanted cheap he could have cheap.
He’s come to borrow money, he thought as he poured the wine. Knows it’s a situation where I’ll find it hard to refuse. Knows he can make a scene, knows I know he can make a scene. All the same, he won’t succeed. (Jeremy felt his teeth clench.) I’ll have him ejected first.
Carrying the glass of wine in front of him he turned back into the crowd.
As he neared the charcoal nude he saw that it was no longer occluded, that Roddy was no longer standing there. The sight momentarily buoyed him: perhaps the silly fool had decided he was out of his element and gone home. Looking around, he spotted Tom leaning in close to Charlie, shouting something – Jeremy’s next door neighbour Dr Walsh taking off his glasses to read the small print of a caption – and Roddy, pudgy hands clasped behind his back, bending over the display case of metalwork and jewellery.
Roddy looked up as he approached.
‘This is more like it! You’ve got some nice knick-knacks here, I must say, very nice indeed. Cost a pretty penny, eh?’ He took the proffered glass of wine. ‘Though this crucifix-looking thing worries me a bit.’
Standing upright in the case was a six-inch high pewter cross inlaid with a medium-sized diamond. Near the tip of the cross: red lips and a lolling tongue, insignia of the Rolling Stones, in tin.
‘Isn’t that copyright?’
‘Only if the tongue points left,’ said Jeremy wearily.
‘Hmm.’ Roddy was letting his eyes wander over the contents of the display case, the emeralds, the platinum, the quartz – the diamond. Jeremy began to feel uneasy.
Suddenly Roddy stood up straight and looked his half-brother in the face. A tic just below his left eye was blinked away with a shake of the head.
‘My doctor’s given me three months, Jezza. Brain tumour.’
‘What? You’re joking.’ Jeremy felt a mixture of shock and relief, followed by a half-pang of shame.
‘Three months at the outside.’
Roddy smiled an odd, lopsided smile. Jeremy noticed that his face was sweating under the bright lights.
‘Thought I should let you know.’
He took a gulp of wine and turned back to look at the jewels and metalwork. Jeremy was silent. He disliked his older half-brother, had always disliked him, despite rarely laying eyes on him – but… three months? And the guy was only forty-seven.
He was about to say something when an ear-splitting noise started up, defeating all conversation: the banshee whoop of a fire alarm. People stared at one another with open mouths, some frowned under the pressure of the noise, a few were already picking up coats and scarves in preparation for leaving the building.
Oh God, muttered Jeremy inaudibly, this can’t be happening.
‘It’s probably a false alarm, everybody,’ he shouted. ‘Or – or they’ve singed some bacon in the restaurant…’
But his guests seemed to have other ideas. All attention to the artworks had evaporated, even conversation had given way to action. The move to gather up clothes and belongings had become general. Charlie was struggling into her fur coat with Cyril’s aid; Tom was helping a disabled man with a walking-stick to negotiate the staircase.
Jeremy started going from person to person, trying to persuade them to stay. His efforts met with smiles and shrugs, semi-apologetic but belied by the tense movements of human beings who are not, yet, succumbing to panic. After a bit he gave up and accepted that the private view was fated to be interrupted, cut in two by a silly surge of self-preservation. It didn’t matter all that much, he reflected. The alarm would stop as suddenly as it had begun and people would drift back up to the gallery, to continue where they had left off. A few more little red stickers would no doubt appear scattered among the exhibits before the end of the evening. For now he supposed that he should follow protocol and go down to hang around on the street like everyone else.
‘What a shame.’
The voice came from behind him. It was Roddy, of course. Trust him to stay put.
‘I think we have to leave the building, Roddy,’ Jeremy shouted back.
‘Oh, it’s probably nothing, as you said. Just a false alarm.’
The calm exchange of yelling struck Jeremy as strangely intimate, as though each was baring his soul a little – two hostile brothers embracing amidst pandemonium. It was an illusion, of course. Roddy remained Roddy. And he couldn’t help noticing that Roddy was currently standing next to a case containing a pile of jewels and metalwork. The case could be opened easily, it occurred to him. Much too easily.
‘I know, but…safety first, don’t you think?’
Jeremy’s smile had returned – nervous now, cajoling. His eyes were on Roddy but he couldn’t help throwing an involuntary glance at the display case.
‘After you, Jezza,’ shouted Roddy. He looked stolidly at his half-brother.
‘Well, I really need to grab a few things first…so – ’
‘Grab away.’ Roddy drained his glass and placed it in a leisurely manner on top of the case.
‘But you need to … I have to be the last one out, Roddy…’
‘Bullshit!’ Roddy glared at him. ‘You don’t trust me with your stupid trinkets, that’s what it is, isn’t it?’ The sweat on his forehead glistened and his lips were curled in an unpleasant sneer. ‘You think if you go out ahead of me I’ll pocket the jewels, right? Then follow after and blend with the crowd. Easy peasy.’
‘You moron!’ Roddy was bellowing at the top of his voice. ‘I’ll be dead in three months! What am I going to do with your pretentious baubles?’
Jeremy was dumbstruck, paralysed. In vague denial he shook his head. The din of the fire alarm continued. Outside the building there was shouting.
It was then that he smelt the smoke. He turned round to see it oozing up from the stairwell, oozing and drifting, drifting into the space of the gallery, upwards towards the apex of the roof. He watched its slow ascent as if hypnotised. Somebody laughed. For a moment he wasn’t sure if it was himself or another person. The leash of his inertia snapped suddenly and he jolted towards the stairs, managed to go down five or six steps, stopped short in the blinding choking smoke… stumbled back up to the gallery, coughing and weeping.
This is for real. A real fire, started in the kitchen below, spreading uncontrollably, eating up fabrics, wood, plastic – anything that comes in its path. Burning up paper, melting silver, destroying all human handiwork. Cooking human flesh. Please God let the fire brigade arrive. Please God let them arrive.
He was moving around the room at random, stopping, starting, stopping again. ‘The building’s on fire, we’re on fire…’ We’re on fire exploded against the relative silence left by the fire alarm abruptly cutting out. Into the vacuum a humming, crackling sound, enough to drive you crazy.
‘We’re on fire!’ he repeated pointlessly, making for one of the windows.
Roddy lent against a pillar.
From out of the stairwell shadows crept and flickered, cast onto the walls by the encroaching light. The shouting outside had grown louder.
‘Think of all this crap going up in flames,’ said Roddy. ‘I hope you’re insured.’
Jeremy was struggling with the window, his fingers fumbling with what seemed to be catches, slipping and fumbling while he cursed and grunted.
‘Won’t it open?’ Roddy called out gleefully.
A tongue of flame reached out of the stairwell to lick the banisters. The gallery was filling up with smoke. Suddenly the lights died as the electrics outed. The humming had become a roaring now, and when Jeremy looked over his shoulder he saw through the sweltering dim fog a bright blazing fire.
A crowd of people had gathered in the street below. From the middle of the crowd Charlie looked up and saw Jeremy framed in the brilliant window, hands and face pressed against the glass. She gave a whimper, and just before she fainted and fell Cyril put a comforting hand on her shoulder and pointed wordlessly to the next window along. A plump man with a gleaming face was pouring himself a drink.
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