This story is by Avril Millar and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Elena punched in the code to deactivate her client’s burglar alarm. Leaving her dingy basement flat hadn’t been hard; her kids were in California visiting her ex, Graham, enjoying the pool and sunshine. The first time they’d gone, she’d cried every day; now she was used to the pain of missing them, but increasingly fearful he would carry out his threat not to return them to her. It was such a different, carefree life for them there, they’d probably choose to stay if he tried to persuade them. She wouldn’t blame them; life with her was shit just now.
Today, however, was a treat. Her rich, feral clients had decamped suddenly to their house in France, escaping the upcoming lockdown against an unknown plague. When her boss, Richard, asked her to stay in the house for the first few days until he could hire professional security, she’d jumped at it. It would help her cope. Elena was worried sick about her kids; what if Graham used this as an excuse to keep them there? What if she never got them back?
The mess was awful. Discarded clothes, shoes and food everywhere. She would never let her kids behave like that. Elena may not have money, but she had standards. She put her small case in the best guest room, spent a few hours cleaning the mess, then opened a bottle of wine from the kitchen cooler. She knew she shouldn’t drink their wine. Doing the right thing mattered to Elena. She’d replace it.
Finally relaxing in the huge sitting room, she dialled James on WhatsApp. He would appreciate this story better than anyone.
‘Darling!’ His voice was as plummy as ever. ‘How the devil are you?’
‘Switch to video, James.’
‘You know I hate video. My chins are breeding.’
‘It’s not for your face, you idiot. I want to see your reaction to something.’
‘Ooh, have you finally had a lift?’
‘Piss off James, just look at my new home.’ Elena stood up and wafted the camera past the furniture, across the walls and into the hall, pausing occasionally as she went.
‘Wait! Back up!!’ James screeched. ‘Is that a LICHTENSTEIN???’
‘An actual Lichtenstein? Not a poster?’
‘Not a poster. The real deal.’ She walked further on. ‘What about this?
‘Hirst? You’re kidding? Where are you? The Tate Modern?’
Elena swung her wine glass into view.
‘The Tate with wine?? Come on, what’s going on?’
Elena laughed and walked back towards the kitchen to refill her wine. ‘Well, you know this virus thing?’
‘Sweetie, who doesn’t? I’m going to barricade myself in with alcohol, put Deliveroo on speed dial and stream porn until this is all over.’
She smiled. James had a way of sending himself up that bore no resemblance to real life. He was a ferociously good art dealer and a very capable artist himself. Elena and he had met at St Martin’s School of Art but, whereas he had carried on building a career, Elena had got pregnant, married Graham the (w)banker and followed him around the world. When he screwed first the nanny, then herself in the divorce court, she was reduced to menial work to keep food on the table in her shabby rental flat.
‘So, this housekeeping thing I’ve been doing…’
James cut in. ‘You mean skivvying, darling.’
Elena was used to James’ spikiness and shrugged. ‘I thought it would make you smile. They’ve raced off to France and I’m housesitting till my kids come back. Nice art, huh?’
Before James could answer, the doorbell rang. ‘Hold on, got to answer that. Will ring straight back.’
Simone pushed through the door, screeching. ‘Where’s my bloody portfolio?’ Elena had seen her before, made her numerous (ignored) coffees; the snooty interior designer.
‘Come to the kitchen.’ Elena steered Simone by the elbow onto a kitchen stool. ‘Wine?’ She lifted the bottle questioningly.
‘Hell, yes.’ Simone took the proffered glass and glugged a large mouthful. ‘That bastard.’
‘Any particular bastard?’
‘Richard.’ Simone held out her glass for a top-up.
Elena took a fresh bottle from the fridge. Could she afford to replace two bottles? ‘What’s he done?’
‘Cancelled my contract, refused to pay the design fee.’
‘Can he do that?’
‘He can do whatever he bloody well wants. The rich always can.’ Simone suddenly looked surprisingly vulnerable for someone who had been such a bitch before.
‘I think it’s in Richard’s study. Your portfolio.’
Sure enough, there it was, propped in the corner. ‘Bastard, he’s not keeping these.’ Simone clutched it to her and turned to leave.
‘Stay and finish your wine.’ Elena fancied some company. Who knew when she would see anyone again? At Simone’s hesitation, she blurted, ‘Show me your designs. I’d like that.’
They were surprisingly good, and Elena told her so.
She blushed. ‘Thank you. It was my biggest commission so far. Would have made all the difference. It’s not easy being a single mum. I promised the kids we could go on holiday this year on the back of this.’ She glugged again. ‘It’s not as if he has any taste either. He buys all this,’ she waved her glass around, ‘to show off. Couldn’t tell a Basquiat from a Breughel if his life depended on it.’ She hiccupped. ‘Need a pee.’
When Simone wobbled off to the bathroom, Elena flicked through the folder; she spotted a printed list tucked into the back, behind the samples. She slid the paper into the kitchen drawer just as Simone settled back onto her stool.
Elena woke just before three am, hungover as hell. The longing for the kids was physical and she realised it was just before bedtime there. Worth trying a call.
‘Benton residence.’ God, Graham’s pretension was nauseating.
‘Hello Graham. May I speak to the children please?’
A distinct sigh. ‘The children are in the bath, I’m afraid. Perhaps call tomorrow?’
‘I could read them a bedtime story. I can ring back in ten minutes.’
Graham almost barked. ‘Elena, the kids are going to bed. You’ll only unsettle them. I’ll call you in the next few days.’ He hung up.
She rushed to the toilet and knelt, nauseous, with her head on the edge of the basin (at least it was clean, that much she knew). She was desolate; she knew it was only a matter of time now till she lost them.
In the kitchen, she opened the drawer for a spoon for her coffee and spotted the list she’d pulled from Simone’s file. She studied it for a long time, sat up straight, then picked up her mobile and took a photo of it, forwarding it on email.
Ten minutes later, ‘Holy shit!’ James’s voice was excited. ‘Is that your boss’s collection?’
‘Yep. Must be stuff there your clients would like, don’t you think?’
‘For sure. I’ve got clients waiting for good pieces all the time. Is he selling?’
She ignored that. ‘They’d need provenance though? Paperwork?’
‘Darling, the contemporary art market is awash with fakes. Most owners are Philistines anyway.’ James guffawed. ‘Why, are you planning to steal it? I think he’d notice if there were blank spaces when he got back, don’t you?’
‘He would.’ Elena drew in a breath. It was now or never. ‘But what if there were no blank spaces? What if everything looked the same?’
It took three weeks in total. Graham was surprised but delighted that Elena didn’t object to the kids staying on during the crisis; Richard was grateful that she could stay on for a bit longer.
The owner of Authentic Fakes, whilst not short of commissions, was more than happy to oblige his old friend James and allocated three of his best forgers. (‘Darling, he declared, ‘They don’t do forgeries. Not since prison. These are authentic fakes, it says so on the back. In smallish letters.’)
James’ framer had no difficulty replacing the original paintings in the existing (tasteless) frames and re-hanging them.
By the next afternoon, the originals were all safely out of the country. It turns out provenance is not so hard to forge either, if you know how. James did, it seemed.
Elena was in California when Richard rang. He wasn’t happy and shouted a lot about wine. But only about wine.
‘Who was that mummy?’ her daughter said, twirling in her new dress, to show her unimpressed brother.
Elena hung up, smiling. ‘Just a silly man, darling. Time to go, you two. We can post this letter at the airport.’
Simone was surprised to get the banker’s draft for twenty thousand pounds in the post. She didn’t recognise the name of the account it was drawn on, but that didn’t stop her hurrying to the bank to deposit it. She left the card that came with it on the mantlepiece.
It was a drawing of a beautiful house with a sign outside, saying ‘Interior beautifully designed by Studio Simone’. No signature, just the message;
Keep creating! Art always pays!!