A Painted Smile


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Frances Fyfield has spent much of her professional life practising as a criminal lawyer, work which has informed her highly acclaimed crime novels. She has been the recipient of both the Gold and Silver Crime Writers' Association Daggers. She is also a regular broadcaster on Radio 4, including as the presenter of the series 'Tales from the Stave'. She lives in London and in Deal, overlooking the sea which is her passion.




Opening picture. A young woman with hair the colour of sand
sits with two companions round the fire. Waiting for a storm.

Diana Porteous could see this room as a portrait of her life. A large, high-ceilinged room of graceful proportions facing the sea in a big house that was formerly a school. The walls were covered with vibrant oil paintings of dif­ferent subjects and interiors.

The room was both a study and a gallery, giving it an atmosphere of learning and, at this moment, just a little bit of ennui. The email Diana Porteous was showing her two friends had arrived the week before on an evening when Di had been looking out to sea. The view from the windows often distracted from the pictures on the walls. This evening, it was moonlight on calm water, a sublime work of art in itself. Di handed a printout of the email to Sarah and Saul.

‘Letter from a distressed curator,’ she said. ‘So it is,’ said Sarah. ‘Do you get many of these? How exciting.’

Dear Mrs Porteous,

I’m the curator here. Only the part-time curator. I’m holding my breath and writing you a letter instead of screaming.

In response to your enquiry, dear MS Porteous, I don’t know the answer! You were looking for a particular painting by that woman, Eve Disher, which we are supposed to have. Somewhere.

I’m not supposed to be writing back to you, but the Director ignored the request. We have some wonderful oil paintings in our stores, all listed, photographed and then put back. Not digitalised, oh no, and the records are a bit . . . We probably have the painting you mention, acquired circa 1956. Fact of the matter, we have a lot of paintings down in the store, several by very good English artists. Problem is our new Director doesn’t like them. Doesn’t like oil paint, full stop.

Painting is nada. Instead, there’s a video installation in the major space, and a model cow the size of a house with six legs and two tails, all created by an Outreach project last year.The video installation features a mouth opening and closing. Apart from that, the walls are empty, although there are luminous footprints on the floor, leading you from one space to the next in case you can’t follow. Even the school parties are bored.The only things they like are our life-sized mechanical toys, manufactured locally at a time when automata and such things were fashionable.They were used as advertisements outside shops, thus a metal waitress would sit outside a café, and if you put a penny in a slot, she would raise her teacup and put it down again.There’s a dog that will wag its tail for tuppence. Ghastly, garish animated dummies, and of course the Director adores such kitsch, probably because they’re obedient.

Fact of the matter, I might be able to find the painting you’re seeking, but in the mess of the middle floor downstairs, it might take a week or three. What’s there doesn’t correspond to what’s supposed to be there, or to the catalogue I did when they were last on show. He just stacked them up, rather artfully, to make room. Got to innovate, he said. Make space work. And so he stops me finding anything.

Sorry, sorry, sorry, Mrs P. I’m not making sense. But he keeps rearranging everything, and when I notice he interrupts me. Still, I’ve been looking for the painting you want to see, and what has upset me so much is the fact that there could be an awful lot missing. When I realised that, I was horrified, and then I thought, perhaps it’s better if they have been stolen. Perhaps we need more thieves in this museum. At least if the paintings are stolen, they have a chance to see the light of day. Better be stolen than rot in the dark, I say.

Someone is coming to look over my shoulder.

My dear Mrs P, it might be easier if you just came and looked for the painting yourself.Take it away if you can find it.

Sorry. Winifred Doris, Curator

‘It’s an invitation to burglary,’ Sarah said joyfully. ‘Let’s do it!’

‘It looks like she was writing this late in the evening after a drink or two and a bad day at work,’ Saul said. ‘What on earth did you suggest to her to set her off like this?’

‘I sent a letter to her Director, asking to see a painting I know they have. I said I had a great portrait by an artist called Eve Disher on my wall, and I’d love to see more of her work. Research via a website told me they had one in their collection, not on display, like so many aren’t. I asked could I have an image of it, or could I come and see it? That was the reply. I was trying to track down other works by artists we already have. You know how it is. Part of ongoing research. Part of being a collector, seeing what else the artist did.’

‘Have you ever been to this Kemsdown place?’ Sarah asked. ‘It isn’t far.’

‘No,’ Di said. ‘I didn’t know of it.’

‘An invitation to steal,’ Sarah repeated. ‘What an excel­lent idea. We need something like that.’

‘Oh, stop it, you two,’ Saul Blythe said. ‘I thought we were having a preliminary discussion about our proposed forthcoming exhibition, the first in our wonderful new space. Let Me Remind You,’ he said, speaking in capital letters, ‘that we’re trying to compile an exhibition of sorts. We are not currently collecting or researching; we are preparing for our first interactive exhibition. With a theme as yet to be determined. We must make a selection, and then link it to a theme. Concentrate. One thing at a time.’

‘So we are,’ Di said, stretching and yawning. ‘Summit conference coming up tomorrow evening. Patrick’s work­ing on it. We need the input of a child and he wants to announce the theme. Enough for now. It’s drawing classes for both of you and Patrick and Peg all day tomorrow. Saul, you’re modelling for the painting classes, with Patrick. Sarah, you’re doing the Life Drawing class with Peg in the afternoon. And I shall take time off until we have a meeting about the exhibition in the evening. Forget Winifred Doris and her paranoid letter. For now. Although she haunts me.’

‘What a shame,’ Sarah said, wistfully. ‘It’s not very often you get an opening like this.’

Saul squinted at the email. ‘Good of you to share this with us,’ he drawled. ‘I think the woman’s merely mad and disgruntled in her provincial museum. I’m guessing you’ve also shared it with your supposed brother, dear Steven?’


‘Must you?’


Saul left it at that, with a hint of disapproval in the air. He began to think ahead to the next day with real excite­ment, because that guy would be there at the class. The man called Toby, the real artist, the old man who could really draw and paint, he was going to be there. Di was not going to elaborate on her reply to his question. She smiled at him. They all smiled at one another, acknowledging the fact that they did not tell each other everything. And that nothing was quite as cosy as it seemed.

‘Time for beauty sleep,’ Sarah said, patting her brother on the shoulder. ‘See you tomorrow.’

A day among collectors and would-be thieves: Di, owner of the house and the collection, Saul, collector and agent, both of them made a little morally ambiguous by a passion for paintings; Sarah, with her practical amorality; Patrick, aged twelve and Peg, nineteen, the only innocents of the household, asleep upstairs. And Patrick’s parents, Gayle and Edward, full of venom, safely lingering as ghosts in far away London, like snakes in hiding.



Two hours away from their coastal town, Steven Cockerel sat in his eyrie, looking out over Pall Mall with a very dif­ferent view. He had read the letter from Winifred Doris, forwarded to him by Diana Porteous. He pictured her, sit­ting in that glorious room by the sea amidst the pictures on the walls, and the image made him content. She could be looking at the picture he had once stolen from her, and then returned, and he would see her soon. Hair the colour of sand, Di had. His half-sister, perhaps.

The view from Steven’s windows was over rooftops and down to rumbling traffic, and he wished for it to be the sea. He had been born by the sea and he was a collec­tor, at first of paintings featuring the sea, now of anything. Also sculpture. Paintings had become his passion in the thirty-sixth year of his money-making life, lifting him into moments of happiness he had never otherwise known. The walls of his apartment were not full enough, but every painting represented a moment of triumph, a source of joy and achievement like no other. Paintings made him happy: it followed that acquiring more of them would increase his happiness and therefore his humanity. He wanted more. He wanted the insight and the joy. He wanted to protect; he wanted what no one else had. He wanted the hidden and the forgotten.

He looked again at the letter from Winifred Doris. Did it really amount to an invitation to steal from a public collection? He shook his head. Stealing was wrong, wasn’t it? Di had taught him that. You never truly owned what you had stolen; it was never yours. But here, in this letter, there was the suggestion of an opportunity for acquisition. If the Director of this museum despised his stock, perhaps he would be willing to engineer a sale. There would be legalities and restrictions, of course, but there were always ways round that. Steven should know. He was a master of buying at the back door. He was a buyer and seller.

‘What do you think?’ he said to the statue. ‘An idea to be investigated?’

He was speaking to a small, graceful neoclassical sculp­ture he had recently acquired. John Bacon, about 1690, which made this young woman very old. She wore Greek costume and seemed to be stepping across a river on sweet, sandalled feet. Her left arm, the one which might have been carrying a basket, was missing; she had prob­ably adorned a grave before her abandonment into a rubbish heap. The missing arm was poignant. Steven touched her gentle head and bade her goodnight.

Once he had wanted perfection. Now he loved the flaws. Once he had been an investor into art. Now he was a collector, prepared to negotiate because he was in love.

She was not safe from envy and he wished she was. Someone was waiting for her to fall.


Frances Fyfield © 2015


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