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Vicky Trelinska

The Painting - 48 hours to turn back time

Episode 1 – Niamh: New York, June 2015

‘Oh, yes! Delicious,’ said the art dealer.

That diamond chipped accent, thought Niamh, would skewer even a Duke. She assumed it was put on to impress the New York art market.

‘The exquisiteness of the subdued palette, absolutely delicious.’

Naimh watched as the art dealer, Algernon Horace Montague-Smythe, (surely another sop to the New York art market – no-one would call their child that) put an eye-glass in to his right eye and bent over the painting to carefully examine the fine detail. He muttered to himself about brush strokes and subtle tints.

Niamh’s friend, Patrick, had found this Englishman. An interior designer, Patrick thought he knew something about art. ‘It doesn’t fit here,’ said Patrick, when Niamh had proudly shown him her purchase from the junk shop. ‘I think the frame is worth more than the painting.  Sell it and buy something contemporary. There are plenty of good young artists trying to make their name. Buy them now and it will be a good investment.’

‘I can’t sell it.’ Niamh was surprised how the thought of selling appalled her. ‘I know I’ve seen it before but I don’t know where. I feel it’s trying to say something to me.’

‘It’s saying sell me and buy something modern. I’ll find someone to look at it for you.’

Niamh realised Patrick didn’t understand her feelings so she didn’t talk about the painting anymore. She did agree to take it to the dealer Patrick found, mainly to see if she could find out more about the painting and the artist.

‘It’s a good example of Stephen O’Hanlon’s work,’ said Montague-Smythe taking the eye-glass out and straightening up. He was an Irish artist working in the 1940s and 50s.’

‘O’Hanlon’s work was fixed in the style of 1900,’ continued Montague-Smythe. ‘Abstractionism, existentialism and all the other -isms walked straight past his easel.’

Niamh wasn’t concentrating. Bad lot the O’Hanlons was swirling around in her head. Where had those words come from?

Montague-Smythe was consulting various sale catalogues and the internet. ‘Seems he came from a place called Lisnagroob in Ireland. He exhibited once in London.’

‘London?’

‘Yes and Dublin in the late 1950s. His style wasn’t popular then but it is coming back into fashion. Prices for his work, especially the cottages, his signature painting, are rising. He did many versions of them.’

‘Is he still alive?’

‘I don’t know. There’s nothing about his death that I can see. He could be but he’d be very old.’

Niamh thanked the dealer and hurried home. Once there she took out her laptop and Googled ‘flights to Ireland’ and ‘Lisnagroob’, wondering what she should pack.

Short story - Humour

Goring Towers

This story was shortlisted for the October 2015 Writing Magazine subscribers’ competition “One thing after another”.

Come in Miss Wood – Julia then. Welcome to Goring Towers. No need to use the title, just call me Peregrine.

So, according to my assistant you want to write an article about us for your magazine, Country Matters, I think? The lighter side of running a stately home, you say. Well, I don’t know I’ll be able to give you anything funny to write about; running a listed Victorian pile like Goring Towers is a very serious business. My life is full of worries. If it’s not English Heritage on my back about restoration and conservation, it’s the local council about Health and Safety or the Home Office about new employment regulations for employees from outside the EU.

Quite frankly, Julia, I was horrified when I inherited this place. I wanted to pull it down. I had ideas for building a luxury gated community. You know the sort of private estate in Surrey for oligarchs with billions in the bank who want ten bedrooms, indoor swimming pools, home cinemas, games rooms, good security etc.

Why didn’t I? Well I did make a start. Architects had drawn up the plans and we started to pull down the East wing as that was in the worst state of repair. Dry rot, wet rot, rising damp, beetle – you name it was in there – so we started to pull it down. We’d moved out all the valuable furniture and paintings. Then, drat them, English Heritage found out what was going on and slapped all sorts of orders on me and I was forced to stop. What’s more they told me I had to rebuild what I’d already pulled down.

I tell you, Julia, I may look rich but all the money is tied up in the property and land – there’s very little ready cash. As you say, I suppose I could have sold the blocks of mansion flats in Knightsbridge to pay for the repairs but the property market was depressed at the time and since then they’ve risen dramatically in price so my money is much better left in the property.

Yes, wasn’t it a good thing the East wing burnt down? It certainly saved my bacon I can tell you. How did it happen? We were due to give a dinner party for some very important people. No, I can’t tell you who but I don’t think I’m giving away too much if I say Royalty was involved. I’d employed a new chef and we thought a trial run would be a good idea. He was using the old kitchen in the basement of the East wing which was still in use. It was the usual story. He left a pan of fat on the hot stove, the fat caught fire; he panicked and flung the pan in the sink and poured water on it which of course spread the flames everywhere. Luckily, he wasn’t hurt and had the sense to rush out and leave it to burn while he ran to warn me. I was in the library in the centre of the house entertaining a few friends who I’d invited to sample the trial dinner.

Of course by the time the fire brigade arrived there was nothing they could do to save the East wing so they concentrated on containing the blaze and saved the rest of the house. Fire extinguisher? There was one in the kitchen but the chef lost his head and forgot all about it. Yes, it was strange it should have happened to such an experienced chef. You’d like to interview him? I’m afraid he’s not here. He went back to Russia afterwards to recover from his ordeal. No, I don’t think it odd to employ a Russian chef. He had trained in Paris and came with very good references. So, I was off the hook after that as it was too difficult to re-build.

The greenhouses? You’re right I was ordered to restore them to their former glory. They’d been built by some chap who’s been involved with the one at that other place – can’t just think of his name. It was lucky that I’d inherited some money and could afford to do the repairs. My wife left me quite a bit when she died just after the fire. No it wasn’t the shock which killed her. The police said it was a tragic accident. She was trapped in the ice house and froze to death before we found her.

Tragic, tragic – it still upsets me to talk about it. Thank you, I don’t need a break, I’m fine to continue. It was a day before we realised my wife was missing. She had said she might go to London and when she wasn’t at dinner I just assumed she’d gone. We didn’t keep tabs on each other – tended to do our own thing. She never came down for breakfast so it wasn’t unusual that she wasn’t there. No, we didn’t share a bedroom – that’s very ‘non-u’, to coin a phrase, to do that. It was only when she wasn’t at dinner the following evening that I wondered where she was and when the servants said they hadn’t seen her either I started to worry.

We searched the house but it was too dark to search the grounds and anyway there are acres of them. The police came the next day and about a week later someone had the idea of checking the ice house. No-one knew why she’d gone there. At the post mortem they said there was a large amount of alcohol in her blood but that was all – absolutely tragic. Yes, Julia, I suppose to someone like you she would have seemed very rich. Yes, I did inherit everything.

Can you see the greenhouses? Sadly, no, they blew down in that dreadful storm. Yes, I know the Met Office said it only hit the West country but I can assure you, Julia, it did reach this far. Well, I can’t answer for what the Met Office said. Maybe it was some freak local weather condition but the glass was all destroyed and the cast iron supports came down.

I agree, Julia, you would have thought that cast iron would have remained standing but there you are, just shows what a powerful force nature can be.

Excuse me Julia; I’d better take this phone call. It’s Harry the restaurant manager.

Yes, Harry… Oh dear… Are you sure she’s just unconscious and not dead?… Oh good. Why did the chef hit her with a rolling pin?… She complained she couldn’t get the scone with cream and jam in her mouth?… She didn’t cut the scone in half first! No-one could get a whole scone with cream and jam on top in their mouth. You have to cut the scone in half. I’m not surprised the chef took a rolling pin to her. I’d be on his side except I’m thinking of all the paper work I have to do now not to mention the bad publicity. Does our public liability cover this?

Where’s the chef?… Stop him! I can’t have him running amok in the restaurant smashing everything in sight. Just think of the compensation all the customers will be demanding… Who’s got him pinioned with a pitchfork?… What on earth are Gurkhas doing with a pitchfork?… I’d forgotten about the display of farming implements. Just make sure they don’t harm him. Goodness knows how much paperwork and compensation that would involve. Do try, Harry, to get the situation under some sort of control. I’m busy doing an interview at the moment… A journalist.

Sorry Julia, where were we? No I don’t think you should go to the restaurant and interview them all. Now, what else can I tell you about running the estate?

I’ll have to take this call, Julia, sorry.

George – everything OK?… Can’t the estate manager deal with that, I’m rather busy?… Oh, is he alright? How did the car manage to run over him?… The car backed into the Portaloo?   Was John in the Portaloo?… A Gurkha was. How was John run over then?… The car backed into the loo and dragged the loo behind it as it accelerated away, then knocked John down when John tried to stop the car. What about the Gurkha?… As I understand it, as long as the kukri is sheathed that’s OK. It’s only if it is unsheathed that they have to draw blood… It’s unsheathed. Then I suggest you run like hell and call the army and the police… What do you expect me to do? I’m no match for an annoyed Gurkha… If you think his CO is around then find him. He’ll be able to calm the man down. I’ll leave it with you.

My apologies again, Julia, things like this don’t normally happen round here but at least you can see the difficulties there are in running a stately home. No, I can’t allow you to interview the Gurkha or write about it.

In fact, I’ve changed my mind. I think it would be better if we forgot about this interview – destroy your notes and we’ll cancel the whole thing and have a cup of tea or something stronger instead.

Hey, Julia, come back. Be careful there’s a loose step on the stair… Are you alright Julia?… You want an ambulance?… Have you broken anything?… No I’m sure you don’t want to sue, Julia. I’m sure we can come to some arrangement…

Short story - Music

A major problem

However hard I tried I could not get it to add up. My outgoings were more than my income. All because four piano pupils had given up at the end of the autumn term without giving me any notice. Even if I took them to the small claims court for breach of contract it would take months to get the money they owed me and in the meantime I would be £500 short over the next three months. I would advertise for more pupils but it was the beginning of January and it might be several weeks before anyone responded. Everyone would be paying off their Christmas bills and have no money for extras. I would be alright by the end of March. I was sure to have found more pupils by then and, in any case, I had extra work in the diary for that month. The trio I was in was booked for two weddings and I was the official accompanist for the local music festival.

In the meantime I would have to cut back. There would be no going to the pub, theatre, cinema, concerts or the opera. (How would I manage without the opera?) I could eat less. Musicians are not thin because they are so wrapped up in their art they forget to eat, it is because they cannot afford to. I needed a stiff drink but it was only ten o’clock in the morning and anyway I now could not afford alcohol. I would have to make do with a strong coffee.

I went to the kitchen and put the kettle on. I gazed out of the window at the bare plane tree swaying in the breeze. I was dreaming of winning the lottery when my phone rang. “Is that Valerie Jenkins?” I thought I recognised the man’s voice but I could not place it.

“Yes.”

“I don’t know if you remember me. I’m Paul Anson. You played for my choir a while ago.”

It was five years ago and I did remember. I had never forgotten it. My friend Marianne who usually accompanied his choir had broken her wrist in a car accident so she asked me to deputize for her. At the time I was glad to. I had left music college two months previously and was trying to establish myself as a freelance pianist in London so I needed all the work I could get. The choir was rehearsing the Messiah for a concert at Christmas in the Albert Hall. I knew the Messiah well so I had not hesitated to accept.

Paul continued, “I need a rehearsal pianist for the next two months. My regular man has broken his leg.” What was it with this man? Did all his pianists end up in plaster? “We’re performing the Matthew Passion on Good Friday. I need someone as good as you are.” If I was so good how come he had not offered me any work in the last five years? No, this was code for I’m desperate. No-one I’ve asked so far wants the job. “The rehearsals are on Wednesdays from 7:30 to 9:30,” he told me. “In the same church hall you came to before.” I was free on Wednesday evenings.

I had turned up at that church hall five years ago full of enthusiasm, keen to impress and confident I could do a good job. The choir was large, nearly one hundred singers, mostly students, professors and people connected with the local university. When I arrived I found Paul sitting on a high stool at the conductor’s rostrum going over the score. He looked up when I introduced myself, nodded, said ‘I hope you can play the Messiah,’ and returned to the music before I could answer. Not the most friendly of receptions but I assumed his mind was on the rehearsal and as long as someone was at the piano it did not matter to him who it was.

He began with the Hallelujah Chorus. Within a few bars he began to shout. “Watch the beat, watch the beat.” The choir and I found this difficult as there was no discernible down beat. His right arm waved in a circle like a wind turbine. Behind the music stand he became a monster. His face went red and he mopped his forehead with a handkerchief, dark patches of sweat appeared under the arms of his shirt as he stamped his foot to give the beat.

“Why aren’t you playing staccato?” He glowered at me over the piano lid. Because it’s not marked staccato in my score, I thought to myself but did not say anything, just played it staccato. My mind was racing trying to keep up with his instructions; my hands shook so much I fluffed all the semiquavers and I was shouted at again.

Fortunately after that I was left in peace while he turned his attention to the tenors. “You bloody tenors,” he yelled when they missed an entry. I heard a sharp collective intake of breath from the choir; everyone stiffened. I managed to make it through to the break without either collapsing or running out into the High Street. I needed the money. I had to put up with it unless he sacked me. In the break I took my cup of tea and hid behind the upright piano where I could not be seen. In my hideaway I overheard some of the choir chatting.

“He’s so rude.”

“What right has he to swear at us like that? We’re supposed to be here to enjoy ourselves.”

“He thinks he’s another Solti but he’s not, he’s only an amateur. I think his day job is in the Physics department.”

“He’s not even a professor, only a technician.”

I returned to the present when Paul said the magic words. “The pay is £25 an hour. There are ten weeks of rehearsals.” That would be £50 a week extra making £500 in all. It solved my immediate problems; my income would match my outgoings. All I had to do was put up with being shouted at and humiliated in front of a hundred people for two hours once a week for ten weeks.

I had more experience now than five years ago. I was tougher and harder so was it likely that I would I have the same sleepless night before the rehearsal as I had before, waking up gasping for breath and shaking with fear? I had lost half a stone in weight then as I had been unable to eat on the day of the rehearsal. But he had not sacked me; I had stuck it out and earned my money. The choir made me feel I was appreciated when they gave me a standing ovation and a large bouquet at the end of the final rehearsal. If I had been that bad would he be ringing now and asking me to play? “I do hope you can do it,” he said.

I remembered the relief five years ago when his baton came down for the last time. I had felt the same sense of freedom at the end of term when I was driven away from boarding school by my parents. Paul was waiting for my answer.

“Thank you for asking me,” I said. “I’m very sorry but I can’t make Wednesday evenings. I am very booked up at the moment. I do hope you find someone,” and cut off the call before I changed my mind. In the past I had always managed to find work when I needed it. There was no need to think this time would be any different. I made my coffee and went back to my calculations. I knew it was not worth putting my nerves through the mincer again for £500. I would rather starve.