Seahouses by Louise Wilford

If the wind hadn’t been slapping his face, Michael might not have turned his head, his hand sheltering his screwed-up eyes from the spots of freezing rain that had just begun to fall. He might have been looking straight ahead, not into the windows of the shabby shops and rundown cafes on the seafront. He might not have spotted her, sitting at a table near the window of Maisie’s Tea Room, where he had coffee several times a week.

The sight of her – there, then – was so extraordinary that he stumbled slightly, snagging the current of people moving along the pavement. That’s what made her glance over, recognising him immediately. He considered just hurrying on, pretending he hadn’t noticed her, but she was already waving, beckoning him to join her, so he had no choice.

What was she doing in Northumberland anyway? The last time they’d met had been in court. Elephant and Castle, 2009.

Inside, the café was as warm as a sauna, slightly steamy, its swimming-pool sound settling round them like an insulating blanket.

‘Fancy seeing you here,’ he said, as he reached her table, switching on his charm like a light bulb. ‘What an amazing coincidence!’

‘Isn’t it?’ she said, looking up at him with a brittle smile and indicating the spare chair opposite. Up close, she looked younger than he expected, younger even than she used to look. Back then, more than a decade earlier, she’d worn her sixty-five years more luridly, a Norma Desmond made up for a movie – ‘Alright, Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up!’ – ageing skin corrugating beneath a thick layer of foundation and powder. Greasy orange lipstick used to leak into the fine lines around her mouth. She hadn’t trowelled on the slap so thickly today, and the more muted tones suited her. Maybe she’d had Botox? Collagen in her lips? Her hair, too, was a more natural shade of greying pale auburn. He’d heard she’d married into a minor branch of the aristocracy, so maybe she’d changed her image. ‘It’s good to see you, Michael. Please, darling, have a cup of tea with me. You look like you could do with warming up.’

The rain took the opportunity to splatter against the window as if illustrating her point, and the café doorbell jangled as several new customers scuttled in.

‘Yes, it is a bit nippy out there now,’ he said, ‘but what can you expect at this time of year, up here?’

‘I don’t know how you can stand it, darling!’

‘I like it, actually.’ His voice was slightly more defensive than he would have liked, but she didn’t seem to notice.

He sat down, nodding at the waitress who stomped over to them with the air of someone who hated her job.

‘Well, it’s good to see you, Margot,’ he said, after he’d ordered some tea and a slice of carrot cake. ‘How are you?’

‘I’m very well, Michael, as you can probably tell.’ He glanced at her politely, noting the lime green silk scarf tucked into what looked like a genuine fur collar. She was wearing pearl earrings; he couldn’t tell whether they were real or fake. She must have been at least seventy-five, he thought, but her new style knocked years off. Or, at any rate, it made her look a different sort of seventy-five than her old style would have. Classier. He gave her a gracious nod.

‘You’re looking well,’ he said. ‘What brings you all this way up north?’ She’d always been very scathing about places outside London.

‘You, my dear,’ she said, grinning at his surprise.

‘What?’ He thought he must have misheard, and wondered for a horrified moment whether she had romantic intentions. Surely not. Their relationship had always been strictly business. Was the baronet hubby just a rumour then?

‘I heard you’d moved to Northumberland so I came to find you.’

‘But… but how? How did you know I’d be here, today, in Seahouses?’

‘I didn’t, darling – I just happened to fancy a little look at the sea and it was pure serendipity that you walked past.’ She gazed out of the rain-smeared window. ‘It looks like the sea is trying to break in. Is it always this dismal here?’

He shrugged, looking down at his cup so she didn’t see he was offended. His voice had a defensive edge. ‘No, no, it’s often beautiful. It’s a stunning coastline. Bamburgh Castle’s just further up the coast, within walking distance.’

She shuddered. ‘I can’t imagine anything worse than hiking through the wind and rain to visit a dreadful old castle.’ She gave him a sudden, disturbing smile. ‘Though there might be some notable artworks there?’

‘I shouldn’t think so,’ he said, quickly. ‘Nothing valuable, I’m sure. Family portraits perhaps. Reproductions.’

‘Are you still painting, my dear?’ She was slipping casually between Patronising Upper-Class Salon Hostess and Curious Doting Great-Aunt.

He gave her a sharp look, feeling his heart beating faster, but she was sipping her tea and waving one bony hand at the waitress to indicate they needed more hot water, as if her question had been simply an innocent enquiry

‘I do a few sea views for tourists,’ he said, guardedly. ‘That’s all.’

‘What a pity,’ she said, setting her cup down and looking him straight in the eye. ‘I had hoped you would still be in the trade, as it were. I have a job you might be interested in.’

‘You know I got out of that racket,’ he said, his voice low. ‘And you know why. We only just got away with it last time. I made enough.’

‘Darling boy, you can never make enough.’ Her lined eyelids puckered as she smiled mirthlessly. She leaned towards him, in a wave of Lily of The Valley. ‘Maybe you made enough for a damp little house in this dreadful place, but I don’t believe a man like you could be genuinely happy here, painting sentimental scenes for tourists.’

‘They’re not sentimental.’ He felt angry now. ‘They’re good paintings. They bring me a steady income. I do okay.’ He struggled to keep the defensiveness out of his face. She always managed to get under his skin.

In fact, he’d begun to make a name for himself. His paintings were becoming increasingly popular. A journalist from Art Monthly had travelled up to interview him the previous summer, and he’d agreed to allow the article to be published as long as there were no photographs of himself. He told the journalist that he had a policy of remaining unrecognisable, letting the work speak for itself. So the article had appeared with just pictures of one or two of his paintings and one showing his hand holding a brush up to a canvas in his studio. A gallery in Hampstead had offered him an exhibition on the back of this article but of course he’d had to turn to it down. Too much chance of being recognised, of falling in with the old crowd.

‘I’ve seen some of them,’ she said, ‘in the gallery up the road.’ So, she’d been checking up on him, visiting the local galleries, had she? ‘They’re not exactly Turner, are they? Oh, pretty enough, I’ll grant you, but not the sort of powerful work you know you’re capable of. And you don’t even sign them with your own name. Michael Tenby? Some habits die hard, eh?’

‘Tenby is my mother’s maiden name. I wanted to change it anyway, after my father left us.’ He leaned back in his chair. ‘Anyway, how do you know they’re by me?’

She laughed and sipped her tea, leaving a pale lipstick stain on the lip of the teacup. ‘Darling, when you’ve been in the business as long as me, you develop an eye for people’s style. Particularly when you know the artist well and have seen so much of his previous work. And particularly when you read in Art Monthly about the reclusive David Tenby of Seahouses, Northumberland, whose past is apparently a mystery and who only arrived in the north-east about ten years ago…’ She arched her eyebrow.

So, she’d read the article, had she?

‘Why are you here, Margot?’

Ignoring him, she took a delicate but ill-judged bite of one of the ginger biscuits the waitress had brought them, and – predictably – crumbs spilled down her chin and onto the fur collar. He winced. He’d always hated watching her eat. For a woman so concerned about appearance, she was strangely unworried about table manners. Most of their old meetings had been in out-of-the-way cafes, rundown restaurants, half-empty pubs. Whenever he thought of her, which wasn’t often, there was always a table top covering her lower, seated half, and food and drink in front of her.

‘So,’ she said, taking another noisy sip of tea. ‘That’s the real you, is it?’

‘What?’ he asked.

‘Those paintings of the sea I saw in Taylor’s gallery?’

‘As I said, they bring in a steady income,’ he said, leaning back and gazing at her levelly. Her eyebrows rose, as if she was unconvinced. ‘And I enjoy painting them.’ He paused. ‘And this is the real you, is it?’

This time, the look she gave him was, for a second, disturbed, startled even, but she hid it quickly behind a veneer of cool affability.

‘Of course it is, my dear. I’m always superlatively myself!’

‘You never used to wear real fur and pearl earrings.’

‘That’s what comes of marrying a baronet,’ she said, her voice low. ‘Even if he is poor as the proverbial. The earrings and the fur collar belonged to his late mama. We live in a few rooms in the smallest wing of his stately pile, and try to scrape a living showing visitors the old furniture and the overgrown knot garden.’ At that moment, the waitress returned with their hot water. Margot gave her a thin smile. ‘Please take the old cup away and bring me a fresh one, my dear,’ she said.

‘Sounds fun,’ said Michael.

‘Believe me, darling, fun is not the word.’

‘How did you meet him?’

‘Oh, the usual way,’ she said, brushing crumbs off her collar. ‘I did a great deal of research, spoke to the right people, then pretended I was an art dealer come to evaluate his paintings. Henry, bless him, has had to sell most of the estate’s art works to pay death duties and keep the place running. I visited his mansion in Devon, used my specialist expertise, and charmed the socks off the old devil.’ She grinned mischievously, looking suddenly younger. ‘He’s really very sweet. He thinks my father is a retired naval officer now living in Mauritius with his second wife, and that I went to Roedean!’ She chuckled as if she’d made a joke. ‘Oh, we chug along quite happily together. Birds of a feather!’

‘He’s an old fraud too, is he?’ asked Michael, wryly. She pulled a face at him and for a moment he recognised her old impish self.

‘He most certainly is not a fraud. He is the most charming man I ever met.’

Michael began to laugh. ‘Don’t tell me you’ve actually fallen for this upper-class twit? My god, Margot, I never thought I’d see the day!’

She put down her teacup rather sharply and it clattered in its saucer, making a woman on the next table half-turn her head towards them. The surly waitress gave them a sharp look.

Margot leaned towards him and spoke quietly. ‘You wouldn’t begrudge me some modest happiness in my old age, surely?’

Michael gave her a keen look. ‘Of course not, but I don’t see where I come in.’

‘Well, you see, darling, poor old Henry sold the last of the genuinely valuable paintings last year, but we still need something big to retire on. I’m working on persuading him to sell the stately pile to a hotel chain, though it’s damned hard work, I can tell you. The house has been in the family for generations. The original building was erected in the seventeenth century. But quite frankly, my dear, it’s a dreadful old heap, if I’m honest. Damp. Cold. It’s like living in a mausoleum. Much rather have a snug luxury apartment with a balcony, somewhere hot. But for that we need to find one more valuable painting in the attic… say, a Turner…?’

‘Oh, no,’ said Michael, shaking his head and starting to rise to his feet. ‘No, no. Count me out. I told you I’m retired.’ She reached out and touched his forearm gently. He noticed she was wearing a heavy-looking gold band round her wedding finger, but what he noticed even more was the way her fingers bent, the redness at the knuckles, the age spots on the back of her hand.

‘Please, Michael, for old time’s sake?’

He sat back down, staring out of the window with a hunted expression. She stayed silent, letting him think. Finally, he turned to her and spoke in a quiet voice she could barely hear above the café’s hubbub.

‘I can’t, Margot. I can’t risk prison again.’

‘We managed it last time, didn’t we?’ she said, equally quietly. ‘I could pull some strings again, make sure they called on my services as an expert witness. I am the pre-eminent Turner scholar of my generation, after all! That’s what Brian Sewell called me, the lovely old queen. I might be retired but I still do consulting work.’ Noticing his grim expression, she added: ‘It worked last time.’

‘It wouldn’t work twice. There’s too much that could go wrong. No, it’s too risky.’

Margot opened her bag and took out a mobile phone. She pressed a few buttons and turned it round to show him a photograph. ‘I took this yesterday,’ she said, quietly.

Michael stared at the image. ‘How did you get into my studio?’ he asked.

‘Darling, I might be old but I still have some skills,’ she said, with a sly smile.

The picture showed his half-finished painting, a seascape worthy of the master himself. In fact, though it was half-finished, even the experts would be hard-pressed not to take it for a genuine Turner.

‘Let me have it once it’s finished – and maybe one other – and we’ll pay you well. You know I’ll give you a fair price, darling. You’re the best in the business, after all.’

Michael felt himself begin to tremble. It was so unfair. There was no crime in imitating Turner – it was only a crime if you tried to pass off the imitation as the real thing. He’d never intended to sell the one in his studio; it was his private pleasure.

‘There’s no proof it was painted by me. It’s circumstantial at best. I’ve done nothing wrong! There’s no crime in copying another artist in order to learn from them.’

‘I suggest you keep your voice down, my dear.’ Margot glanced round pointedly. ‘I wish I hadn’t been forced to resort to such underhand tactics, darling, but you left me no choice. That streak of – what shall we call it? Honesty? Cowardice? – has always been your downfall. The picture is so like the ones before, and so unlike your new little seascapes – it is of course merely circumstantial, but what with the name-change and the sudden move up here, it is all very… suggestive. And, darling, I don’t suppose artists who copy the great masters of the craft take the same pains you do – using authentic old canvas and paint from the right period. All the CPS would need to reopen the case would be a link between you and me…’

‘No one knows we even know each other!’

‘Well, you know the frightfully efficient waitress over there?’ He glanced at the waitress, who, to his surprise, was staring back at them. ‘She’s actually my niece, Gretchen. She’s been working here for a month or so, undercover. She was the one who tracked you down. She was the one who told me you came in here around twelve o’clock several days a week.’ Margot’s eyes narrowed and her voice was almost a hiss. ‘I’ve been sitting at this window each lunchtime since Monday waiting for you. Thank god you finally decided to turn up! While we’ve been chatting, my very useful niece has taken a whole series of photographs of us having tea together like the old friends we are. These new mobile phones are very handy, aren’t they?’ Michael’s throat tightened and he half-rose, making the table shake. ‘Oh, don’t think you can wrest her phone from her delicate hands – the pics will all have been emailed to my computer back at the stately pile by now. So, darling, if you’d be so good as to pay, we can take a stroll to your studio and make a proper assessment of my newly discovered Turner…’

About The Author

Louise Wilford lives and works in Yorkshire, UK. She has had many stories and poems published and has won or been shortlisted for many competitions. Most recently, her poems have appeared in POTB, Makarelle and English Review. In 2020, she won the Arts Quarterly Short Story Prize, came first in the Merefest Poetry Competition and was awarded a Distinction for her Masters in Creative Writing. She is currently working on a fantasy novel aimed at middle school children.

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