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Authors: Jonathan Gash

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The other bays were more mundane: iron chastity belts (two hundred
quid, as this goes to press), whips, bondage instruments, cuckold's horns, the
inevitable faked Japanese woodblock prints, and posters from exotic films.
Tryer had introduced a small video stall, where folk could buy movies. This
alcove was marked Tor Educational Instruction Only'. A section on love chairs,
conversation chairs, and love positions was badly illustrated by modern
pictures torn from magazines. On the whole it was pretty poor, and badly
displayed. A kid could have done better.

'Why not have some rope, an obsidian blade and a twist of bark,
for a Maya ritual? Nick the pictures from books.'

'Of what, Lovejoy?' Chemise asked.

The Mayas. Central America, AD 250 to 900. Bloodthirsty lot who
beheaded their losers at football. The King slit his, er, thing, passed a rope
through, caught his blood on some bark that he burnt. His missus did the same
rope trick through her tongue's frenulum. The smoke gave them visions-with a
little help from hallucinogens.'

That's simply beautiful,' Lovejoy!' Her eyes shone.

But those boxes. Chemise was still dabbing me. I shoved her away,
managed to stand.

'Get off me, silly cow.'

'Lovejoy! You just take your time! Do-you-hear?' Chemise gets
self-righteous when a bloke's off colour.

l Can I look? I think you've got something, love.'

'What's up?' Tryer entered, the trailer tilting to a cant.

One box was large, held a few old cards, nothing else except a
small bronze. It was nineteenth century, French, showing Diana. Somewhat
corroded, but nothing to worry about. She was seated, arms raised almost as if
sleeping, yet with her knees flexed and her naked form all curves. Lovelier
still, the name Denecheau was underneath. It was worth the Sex Museum and the
trailer. She was good enough to eat.

Another box held two corkscrews, both German about 1899, give or
take. Don't laugh. One was the famous Folding Lady corkscrew-the torso was one
'arm', raised legs the other, and the business bit standing erect between. The
second, its fulcrum rusted, was the well-known Amor, one ‘arm' being a soldier,
the other a lass. Open them, they assume one position; close them with the
screw between, they get up to no good. Collectors give about a fortnight's
wage. Nothing in a couple of the other boxes except yellowed cuttings from
newspapers needing sorting out.

Then a Japanese print, folded (pity; reduces the value by half).
Modern posters or comic-book glossies of starlets had these olden-day Japanese
equivalent. Only, they made them by woodblock prints of Kabuki actors. This was
on lovely fine paper; a rare surimono one done especially for an admiring
patron. I think they're gruesome, those faces, but I was looking at a new
trailer. It showed an actor depicting a made-up woman character. Another superb
find. Tryer had made it, all in one go. But it was the last that was the true
winner for Tryer's flying-tackle guess.

It was jade. And I do mean real, honest and true jade. Everybody
knows jade, but forgets there are two sorts. One is jadeite jade -comes in any
colour you like, but only became the expensive front runner in the eighteenth
century. The most valuable isn't the orange, white, bluish, red jades, but the
'imperial' emerald-green jade. It's still carved, of course. But there's a trick
for jadeite jade. I took out the loupe I'm never without. And looked close at
the little bell shape, moving to the light.

Modern jadeite carvings tend to be polished with diamond powders,
otherwise you can't get that lovely iridescent sheen jadeite gives. This looked
matt, which I actually prefer because it's older, and felt almost greasy to the
thumb. I had to keep my breathing going so I didn't keel over, for just visible
were minute discontinuities, quite like crazy paving cracks. That's what stops
it from taking a perfect polished gleam. It was ancient jade, predating the
modern period where everybody wants 'perfection'. It was a bell, imperial
emerald jadeite jade. Nephrite jade, however, is usually green or
brownish-pale, less favoured, and only moderate value, even though it's often
brilliantly carved.

'Jadeite.' I was overcome from delight. I felt floating. 'This was
carved by a bobby-dazzler so long ago it doesn't matter. Look!'

I inverted the bell to show the carved interior. Two concubines,
partly clothed, were depicted on the inside of the bell's lumen, arms spread,
limbs amorously disposed. The clapper was free-swinging carved in the form of a
bifid male organ. Each swing gave a musical tinging sound, the shafts piercing
each of the concubines in turn. once each oscillation. A fortune, from any
collector of erotica.

'What's it for?' Tryer, ever the tactless genius.

'It's for hanging on oneself or the lady, in certain . . .'I cleared
my throat. 'Actually had a variety of uses.'

Chemise smiled her beatific smile. 'What exquisiteness! Musical
love! What elegance!'

'What d'you mean?' Tryer asked, looking.

'It means you can buy the frigging town, Tryer,' I said, but wry
because this miracle never happens to me. I only make discoveries for somebody
else.

'Lovejoy,' Chemise said, moved. 'Thank you, darling. Is there
anything I can do for you?'

Right offer, wrong moment. 'Any chance of a coffee?'

Ten gallons, for you,' she said.

During nosh, I told them about the corkscrew, and the little
bronze, but kept coming back to the jade piece.

'Where'd you find it?' I asked. You never ask this of another
dealer. It always leads to trouble.

'Suffolk,' Tryer said. 'Fenstone. I was clearing a neighbour's
tied cottage. A lady's farm's in Queer Street.'

Fenstone was popular lately, for a village sinking slowly in the
west. 'You lived at Fenstone?'

'Used to. That was where I met Chemise.'

'Yes!' She was glowing, as only women suddenly rich can. Tryer's
holy well. Didn't you hear about it?'

'Nobody heard about it,' Tryer said bitterly. That bloody parson
cocked the whole scam up.'

'Parson? You mean that Smith?'

'Him.' Tryer looked venomous. 'I invented this holy well. Built a
grotto, me and my sister's lad from Breakstone. Lovely. I put it about that the
Virgin Mary appeared there. Wishing Well stuff, printed histories. I had
touring agencies interested. They'd have flocked in.'

'It got scuppered, eh?'

'He got my lease cancelled. Said it was blasphemous.'

'Oh, Tryer, don't keep on.' Chemise was exasperated. This was
obviously old ground. 'Lovejoy's divvied the job lot. We've made it! Let's be
thankful. Anyway, how d'you know it was Father Jay?'

'Because his parish council had us evicted, that's how!'

No good. I said I'd best get off because I had to go to an
auction. Chemise rushed after me. She'd wrapped some slices of toast in kitchen
foil, and gave me a kiss and three apples. I said so long. I couldn't help
thinking what a lot of useful con tricks had died the death near tranquil
little Fenstone. So tranquil, in fact, that it was being made comatose. Where
had I seen that stout, limping, balding bloke before, the one lighting the
candles? And who was the lady with the farm in decline?

 

10

Hoping I’d got the day right, I went along the Roman wall as far
as the Balkerne gateway. Now fashioned into a tavern, it overlooks the river
slope, where schools abound and cattle graze. I like it because you can see
countryside without having to suffer its terrible terrain. It makes me smile
with wicked glee, very like a kid looks at a tiger, secure enough to taunt the
caged menace.

The pub's called the Railway Vista now - you can see the station a
mile off- and has a cellar that was part of the Roman wall. Cool, door a mile
thick, safe from prying eyes. It's there that the tomorrow auction would be
held, eleven o'clock. I hung about outside, judging the town hall clock. I saw
Litterbin Bell go in, leaving his blonde dolly bird in his huge Lagonda. She
sat there la-lalling to the radio, gorgeous and vacant as a balloon.
Litterbin's made a fortune out of rubbish, having started rooting in dustbins.
He wears capes now over hand-tailored suits, spats even, hand-lasted shoes,
smokes cheroots, fawn kid gloves in his shoulder bar, movie-spiv tash.

There are usually only six in a tomorrow auction - you'll see why
when I can get round to explaining. This is Big John Sheehan's decree. He's a
quiet Ulsterman with power, has a Praetorian Guard, and rules the roost
hereabouts in bent activities. Only occasionally does he launch into antiques,
but when he does it's essential to know his wishes. In fact, it's vital to
guess what his orders might become in the near future because if he gives a
naff order he's likely to look for blame among those around him. He trusts me,
knowing I'm too scared of him to do anything but obey to the letter. Usually, I
mean.

Corinth arrived next, attractive, early forties, in a pastel green
suit, matching everythings, expensive hairdo, amber bracelets. I love Corinth. Well,
I would if. She took her name from some film years ago. She talked earnestly
with a neatly dressed man her age. He's her secretary, Montgomery Mainwaring,
who cohabits with Corinth in a splendid house at Aldeburgh beach. She deals in
Regency furniture, paintings, English porcelain. I've never quite worked out
their relationship. Speculation is rife. I saw her tick off her instructions,
Montgomery nodding. Then she snapped a goodbye, and walked off towards
Luciano's coffee bar on the theatre corner. Big John doesn't allow women in
auctions, deals, murders. I was there when somebody once asked him why. Big John
was astonished, said, 'What
for?
'
Couldn't understand why anybody'd let a female decide the next crime. It's his
upbringing, gentleman of the old school.

Montgomery, Litterbin, me, Sheehan himself, making four. A Rolls
was illegally parked asplay the cul-de-sac, so a fifth was already in. I stood
among the trees by the theatre - on show nights patrons emerge with interval
drinks, a pretty sight. It gave me protective colouring. I wanted to know who,
because I'd a vital question about funny names. I saw Bog alight from a taxi,
smiling as if at admiring crowds. Bog Frew's an ageing thespian given to
declaiming Shakespeare speeches. He never was any good, but his dreams flirt
with reality and they tend to merge. He has a terraced house near the bypass,
one room crammed with stage memorabilia. He'll tell you barefaced falsehoods
like, 'Oh, that poster? Me and Larry - I was very young, o' course - went a
bomb at Strateford-on-Avon. We did the Bard's Scottish play, y'know. Macduff,
me. The critics
raved
. . .' Not
true, none of it, but where's the harm?

Six, was that enough today? I went in at one minute to eleven,
through the taproom bar, made it downstairs just as Tomtom, one of Big John's
goons, was closing the door. He hesitated, let me through, and there was the
tomorrow auction, ready for off.

They stood around in an awkward circle, like the Privy Council.
Big John was talking with a thin small coloured bloke wearing, would you
believe, sunglasses, in a cellar? Sheehan has an Ulsterman's typically mobile
alert face, with steady eyes for worrying you if you dare look in. I leant
against the old Roman mortared walling. It warmed me like a cherub's smile.

'Who asked Lovejoy?' Big John asked the air.

Silence, so we could all freeze in terror in comfort.

'Er, I came to, er, ask, John, please. . . ?' My voice broke like
when I was a lad, yodelling in spite of trying to keep it steady. 'Er, if
that's all right, er . . .'

My speech was as grovelly as I could make it without actually
kneeling to supplicate. Was it too late to fling myself down?

'How did Lovejoy know it was now?' Sheehan's quiet words fell like
a pall made visible. I saw even the stranger blanch. John's voice goes softer
the more menace it contains.

Er . . .'I heard my frantic yodel, cleared my throat, shoved it to
a bass, started anew, i overheard somebody, dunno who, in the Drum and Dog, say
about Sunday, eleven o'clock. I waited outside . . . Well, see, they're usually
here, John. '

Best I could do, and with enough truth to make it stand a rough
test. A lie has to be either so far beyond credulity that its bizarre lunacy
might just carry the day, or so close to truth that it seems probable right
off. I'm good at lies, except when I'm scared, which is usually.

'Shut it,' Big John told nobody. 'Fine the beater, both seven
days.'

"Right, John.' Tomtom, pale with relief, sloped out.

We all relaxed, me almost screaming that I'd got away with it.
Actually, Tinker had told me about this gathering. But I'd saved his hide, even
though the poor old Drum and Dog would have to bolt its doors and lose a week's
trade. The beater - the looker-out outside, who should have detected me lurking
away by the old wall - would be one of Big John's own. He'd lose a week's
everything - money, status, car, home, credit. A terrible punishment. But I was
in the clear.

C-c-c-can I stay, John, please?' I almost said sir.

'Got a question?'

BOOK: The Grace in Older Women
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