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Authors: Jonathan Gash

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BOOK: The Grace in Older Women
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She didn't trust me, after all I'd been to and done for her. Well,
nearly been, and nearly done. (Tip: when entrusting some antique to an ‘expert',
do two things. First,
it. Then when it's
returned, so-say cleaned or whatever, you have a couple of measurements to
check that it hasn't been swapped for a fake.)

'I'm at the library meeting some old crone. Then the priory ruins.
Six o'clock and eightish.'

'Don't tell me, Lovejoy,' she said, sure of herself now I was
hooked on her priceless fan. 'The geriatric at six, the married bitch in the
dusk at nightfall. Have I got it right?'

'If it's Lovejoy, dear,' a voice tweeted, 'it's
call the right way round!'

Cyril stood there, a riot of coloured sequins. He and Keyveen had
lately become our town's most flamboyant flamers. God knows where they get
their money - and their household furniture, paintings, jewellery.

'How do, Cyril,' I said miserably. I never know what to say to
this pair. They spend their time scrapping about intangibles. Keyveen is always
bitter about something. Cyril is, according to him, the showpiece. Today's garb
was a drum majorette's tall military hat, glittering cloak, and a Hussar's
fitted riding trousers with a magenta stripe into circus boots. He looked a

'Three hundred,' Cyril cooed.

Scanning the pedestrians, I saw Keyveen glowering and my heart
sank. They'd have heard every word of my chat with Tonietta, seen my response
to the antique fan. They already knew what to offer. Keyveen's Irish, sullen
and always working something on a calculator.

'Ignore Keyveen, Lovejoy,' Cyril said. 'He's in a most terrible
sulk because I stopped him dancing, during breakfast. Can you imagine, the
Moonlight Saunter with your crispies?'

'Oh, good,' I said lamely, going red because everybody was looking
and grinning, but everybody knows Cyril and his mate.

'Wrong, Lovejoy. Indescribably

'That what you're offering?' Tonietta asked.

'Six, then, you slush-mouthed cow.' The cloying sweetness of
Cyril's voice is often at odds with his words. 'And I mean that description
most sincerely.'

'What d'you think, Lovejoy?' she asked me.

'Double.' The price was an insult to the lovely masterpiece. Think
what had died, and how. Cyril and Tonietta were bargaining over the last mortal
remains of a beautiful sea creature, one of the oldest species on Planet Earth.

'Twelve hundred,' Tonietta said, breathless. 'And you pay Love
joy's repairs.'

People gathered. Keyveen was pacing, guessing things weren't going
Cyril's way. I wondered if they had some sort of concealed mike.

'All right, you thieving rotting corrupt evil bitch.' Cyril
maintained his cherubic smile. He turned to me. 'Lovejoy? Remember this moment.
I still haven't forgiven you for saying my last hairdo looked barmy. Now, it's
war. Do you hear?'

He saw me try to duck beneath the stall, looked round, glimpsed
the besuited magisterial figure stalking through the square, and smiled

'Yoo-hoo!' He waved, pointing at me, shooing people aside so I
could be seen. 'Lovejoy's here, sailor!'

My heart walloped as far as it could go. Cyril screamed with
laughter as the gent marched towards us. Bowler on, moustache abristle, brolly
stabbing the flagstones.

'Cyril,' I said, but I don't know how to threaten like him.
Tonietta,' I said, but I don't know how to beg like her.

Both were smiling, counting gelt. I felt sold. Across the square I
glimpsed Beth, gliding towards the car park. My hopes lifted. I stood up,
smiled, got in a quick wave, but she instantly turned away. Ta, Beth,
sweetheart who had begged me to use foul language while we shagged among the
daisies, how long ago? Keyveen intercepted my desperate gesture and beamed.

Time to grasp the nettle. I set my shoulders, smiling my best
ingratiating smile.

'Mr. Battishall!' I exclaimed. 'I tried to find you, but that
Heanley's never there, is he? How can I help you?'

'Job,' he barked. 'Car. Two minutes. Post office.'

Not all bad news, then. I cheered up a bit. 'I wonder if it can
wait, sir? It's getting on for four now and I have my sick uncle to see to in
the village. Needs his tea about now.'

'Nobody indispensible! Get organized! Two minutes!'

Well, I'd tried. I'd made enemies, some old, some new, made not a
penny, and failed to endear myself to practically everybody. Uselessly, I'd
wriggled as best I could and still lost out to fate. I finished up getting
driven out past the decaying village of Fenstone and to Dragonsdale by Mr.
Ashley Battishall to his mansion house for tea and crumpets.



Except it wasn't a mansion house. Once, it had been grand, lovely,
old, a place that might welcome you, say everything's all right now you're
home. Queen Anne if it was a day, the great place was imposing, chimneys
elegant, red brickwork warm, windows stylish without those windows phoney
walled-in to avoid the iniquitous window tax of bygone times.

It looked glorious, felt cold as charity.

Mr. Battishall skidded to a halt, showering gravel. A wrinkled
bloke, small and dapper, came forward smiling.

'Bags, sir?' he asked, chirpy, then his smile faded.

That look I'd seen a million times. It announced: I recognize you.
Without a groat, no tips, no luggage - get lost, mate.

'Lovejoy will not be staying, Nick,' Mr. Battishall said, striding
to the grand balustrade, leaving the motor running.

‘I’ll not be staying, Nick,' I said, following at an unmilitary

We entered what could have been a beautiful home. A discreet
notice said it was the Dragonsdale Guest and Residential Hotel. I apologized to
the old place. It felt ashamed. It was cardboarded off into flatlets, a sort of
pigeon coop for, well, those who want to be pigeons cooped.

The carpet was a modern Chinese mass product, not bad but still
only that. The woodwork - panels, skirting boards, pelmets even, staircase,
bannisters - was replaced by imported softwood and chipboard. It felt an utter

'Hard luck, love,' I said, then realized I'd spoken aloud.

'What?' Battishall rounded, bristling.

'Your house. Poor thing's been ruined. Gutted,' I explained, 'and
falsified.' I swear the old manor straightened up. I felt it go:
Tell 'em, friend.

'This mansion is restructured on the best architectural precepts,
designwise, from reconstructional necessity.'

'So's the bloody council's car park.' They'd recently demolished a
wondrous ancient building - this place's contemporary - on Balkerne Hill, to
make a flat spread of concrete for council workers to park their limos. 'You
desecrated her. She was exquisite, once, I'll bet. I'd give almost anything
to've known her then.'

'You are stupid, Lovejoy,' he said. A maid came forward to take
his bowler, brolly, leather gloves. is Mrs. Battishall in, Lily?'

'Yes, sir.' She avoided my smile. Like Nick, in the guest drawing
room, sir.'

He strode across the imitation parquet flooring and knocked on an
imported kiln-dried pine double door. God, I was already sick of the place. He
listened. After five minutes, a faint voice said, 'Enter.'

A lady reclined on a phoney (meaning made yesterday) chaise longue.
She was straight out of a domestic Ealing comedy of years ago, desperately
trying to be young with wispy attire and makeup that had probably taken hours.
Dyed blonde hair. Enough jewellery to float a Zurich loan - were it genuine. I
wish I'd had some quality sunglasses, to check the polarization of her false
diamonds. She didn't wear a tiara, but it had been a close call. Oddly, a
curtained painting -I could just see the frame - hung above a cornish. A votive
candle burned there, quite like an altar.

'This is the person, Roberta. Lovejoy.'

She extended a languid hand. I didn't know what to do. Genuflect?
Stoop to kiss her digits, or just say wotcher? Clearly she expected some sort
of grovel.

'Er, how do, missus.' I wished I'd had a hat. I could have rotated
it in my hands, peasant before gentry.

'Put him where I can see him, Ashley.'

He almost tiptoed, beckoned me to cross a synthetic rug and sit
opposite the lady. I couldn't help gaping. Battishall's manner was transformed.
From barking military country gentleman, to an instant serf. She lay back
exhausted on the cushions he leapt to arrange, and indicated a glass of milky
fluid. He sprang to lift it to her lips so she could drink without expending
too many ergs.

Was she dying, then? Or simply crashed out from night-long
wassailing in this genteel guesthouse? These things worry me because I never
know where I am with women at the best of times. Now here was Madam Frailty
making her servile hubby bring me here, when I could be elsewhere being
ravished by Adelaide or protecting my assignations with Beth by chatting up old
Juliana Witherspoon. Both would have been useful pursuits. And I had fake
mediaeval pieces of jewellery to make by noon tomorrow, for Slicer. He's called
that because he likes to cut people - cut as in slice, not as in ignore.

The firedogs were fake, epoxy resin monstrosities done down
Aldgate. God, but the manor had been diced up. I wonder they hadn't taken the
brickwork. Then I noticed the faint indentations by the window, a giveaway, and
knew they had taken the frigging brickwork. There's a terrific market for it.
You can always tell, however good the plasterers are. Something to do with
oblique light.

'How?' the lady managed to whisper.

‘?’ I went, not even knowing what I was here for.

'How do you do it?' La Battishall was prompting an awestruck
courtier before her august majesty.

'Divvying?' I might have known. Everybody wants me to do it,
scenting money. 'Near an antique, I feel queasy, malaise, like flu's on its
way. Duds don't do it, unless they're particularly repellent like your house.'

'What did he say, Ashley?' She moved an inch.

Ashley hurtled to hold her. Even the bloody cushions were
replicas, supposedly Victorian but unhumanly machined.

'He said our lovely mansion was . . . not nice, dearest.'

Tears filled her eyes, pools of reproach. She wept at the horrors
out there and the pain within.

'Lovejoy!' Still quiet, trying for sibilance, he glared, at
attention but quivering. A horse whipping was the way for daring the truth
here. 'You will speak with greatest possible respect to Mrs. Battishall at all
times. Am I understood?'

'Aye. But look at it, for Christ's sake.' I rose and crossed to
the window. 'Can you imagine what this building was like? Lovely proportions,
gables, brickwork perfect, everything in delicate balance. Instead, you've
raped the poor thing, reamed it out like a petrol motor's cylinder, and sold
its very arteries, veins, lifeblood.' I drifted back, feeling really down.
'You've not even done a post mortem. You've vivisected, and left a bonny husk,
you rotten sods.'

For a second the image of a sea turtle rose but I wiped it out.
I'd had enough giddy spells for one day, and I still hadn't recovered from

Beth in the woods yet. I was hungry as hell. Battishall talked of
manners, but he hadn't even offered me a cup of char.

'Is he being horrid to me, Ashley?' she whimpered.

'For the last time, I assure you.'

His glares were getting me narked.

'Look. Your husband's a legal eagle, so can put the screws on me.
That doesn't mean I have to admire the crime you've committed gutting this
lovely old house. Because, in fact, it makes me puke.'

'Ashley!' she screamed faintly, swooning.

'Is that it?' I didn't sit down, moved towards the door.

'Stay!' Battishall thundered, repeated it in a whisper.

'What for?' I watched them both. It was an act, her snowflake
fragility, and him the great panjandrum becoming the bootboy in her parlour.
Pathetic. Like me, I suppose.

Her tears flowed. She held out a hand. He sprang, gave her a lace
wisp - manmade fibre, meaning of course anything but manmade in today's sham
world. 'Tell him, Ashley.'

'Very well.' He rose, jerked his head at the armchair I'd vacated.
I stayed still, noticing now that he wasn't immense as he'd seemed before. In
fact, he'd definitely shrunk.

'Do listen, Lovejoy.' Her lips fluttered. 'It is vital. The hope
for the world.'

My mind went,
, but
my heart had done its plunge. Antiques is a loony game, with blood in it. I've
had anything and everything brought to me. Everything from the Holy Grail to
the Crown Jewels, every barmy scheme you could imagine. Some scoops aren't quite
so daft - I mean, Roosevelt and Churchill both wrote scripts for the movies,
Hitler painted (if that's the word for those things a mighty London auction
house auctioned off lately). Celebrity sells. They'd sold everything they could
remove, cut, tease, yank out, of this mansion house, replacing it with modern
gunge. And even the space too, if they had paying guests lodging among the
rafters. I didn't mind them claiming that civilization hung in the balance if
they'd got some precious antique. I've seen blokes weep at missing a cigarette
card or a Huguenot twine button for a set. I've done it myself, twice hourly if
it gets results. I remember making love to this woman who had a Regency
commode, with only an hour to go before a buyer came from Sotheby's. You should
have heard the promises I made to her. I moved me to tears. I wish I'd been on
tape, maybe learn a few things. You forget what you say in the heat of the
moment. . . Where was I? Fate of the world, these loony Battishalls.

BOOK: The Grace in Older Women
3.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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