Authors: Alex Connor
Bartolomé’s motives were revenge on his wife and brother. He would never divorce Celina – her silence had been bought with the wedding ring – but he would relish humiliating her. He would not disown his son either. Juan was an Ortega, after all. As for Gabino? No, he would not be exiled. Instead Bartolomé would watch Gina’s exquisite and prolonged torture of his brother and encourage it. The Ortega fortune with which he had purchased Gabino’s private hell would be a constant encouragement to keep Gina as head jailer and his brother under the cosh.
Some of this Bartolomé had told Bobbie. But she wasn’t privy to all the details, although worldly enough to know that love had little to do with their relationship. Sex might play a limited role, but ambition was the amyl nitrate which stimulated both of them. But of one thing she
certain – Bartolomé Ortega would never know that the skull wasn’t genuine. And Ben Golding was never going to expose her – because he couldn’t prove it was a fake. Otherwise he would already have done so. From that quarter she was now safe. As for her assistant,
Maurice de la Valle had already forgotten any doubts Bobbie might have had, his memory wiped clean by his ambition.
So it came as quite a shock for Bobbie to receive a call from London. From Ben Golding, no less.
‘What d’you want?’ she asked, triumphantly rude.
‘Are you going to admit the skull’s a fake?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous! If you pursue this, I’ll sue you,’ Bobbie replied, ‘I have the power—’
‘And influential friends,’ Ben cut in. ‘Like Bartolomé Ortega. I believe you two are close again. People gossip so much, don’t they?’ He paused, but when she didn’t answer he continued. ‘I know Bartolomé. Only a little, but Leon knew the Ortegas in Madrid. Bartolomé was as obsessed by Goya as my brother was. But he wasn’t as clever as Leon—’
‘Just get to the point, will you?’
‘I heard that Bartolomé has solved the riddle of the Black Paintings.’
The thrill of victory shot through her.
‘Yes, he has. And we’re going to include it in the exhibition. Bartolomé’s writing a book about it too. It’s been the work of lifetime.’
She flinched. ‘What?’
‘Leon solved the riddle, not Bartolomé.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake! You want to claim the skull for your brother and now the theory too – are you out of your fucking mind? Maybe you are. Maybe Leon wasn’t
the only Golding brother who was mad.’ Her triumph made her cruel. ‘Bartolomé’s solved the Black Paintings. He has a theory—’
‘No, he doesn’t.’
‘What are you talking about?’
Ben smiled down the phone, smiled across the Atlantic – across the sea and the wrecks of ships and aeroplanes, and the bodies of dead mariners. Smiled for all the folly of the world and the greed at the heart of it.
‘When Leon died I took all his papers and his computer. And then I found his theory, the solution to the Black Paintings. I deposited a copy with my bank and gave the original to the Prado. They were impressed. So impressed that Leon Golding’s theory of Goya’s Black Paintings will be published next year to a fanfare of publicity. At last my brother will have what he deserved – his triumph. Albeit posthumously.’ Ben paused, his tone contemptuous. ‘You should ask your lover how he came by
theory. How Bartolomé Ortega got his hands on it.’ He relished the injury he was about to inflict. ‘You don’t know, do you? Of course, he wouldn’t tell you the truth.’
‘I didn’t trust my brother’s girlfriend. And I was right not to, because she stole Leon’s theory. She copied it.’
‘But not before I’d already made
my own copy.
Bobbie Feldenchrist swallowed painfully. ‘What are you saying?’
‘Leon’s theory is with the Prado, Madrid, and has been
I lodged it with them the day after my brother died
. If Bartolomé Ortega tries to claim that he’s the author, he’ll be outed for a liar and a fraud.’
There was silence down the line, Bobbie struggling to answer.
‘You’ve got a fake skull and a fake theory. You’ve got a great big pile of lies and you’re sitting on the top of them, holding on for dear life. I wouldn’t want to be you. I used to be angry with you for cheating my brother, but not now. I told you that one day you’d regret ever seeing that skull. I warned you.’ His voice hardened. ‘Bartolomé Ortega lied to you. He used you. But then again, I imagine you used him too. I don’t suppose he knows about the skull being a fake—’
She was reeling, but still fighting.
have the real skull?’
‘I have nothing, Ms Feldenchrist,’ Ben said enigmatically. ‘Nothing but right on my side.’
Putting down the phone, Ben paused for a moment, thinking he heard a noise from upstairs and then remembering the nurse who was caring for Abigail. Walking into the hallway, he stood at the base of the stairs and looked up. But it wasn’t the nurse who stood there.
It was the very fragile – but resilient – figure of Abigail Harrop.
Later that night, while Abigail dozed on the sofa in the study, Ben sat down and looked at the skull, now sitting on his desk. Goya’s skull – for which three men had died and another had been tortured. Goya’s skull – which had been stolen from a corpse and temporarily housed on the shoulders of a great ape.
Thoughtful, Ben kept staring at it. From the day Leon had been given the skull to the poisoning of Emile Dwappa, everything had been permeated with a kind of sickness, a madness of greed. The madness of the art world, who sought to possess the skull at any lengths. The insanity of Leon, driven to the end by his own obsession. And the madness of the Black Paintings themselves. In awe, Ben touched the cool, dead bone of the skull and felt the holes under his fingers, and then he reached into the middle drawer of the desk and pulled out the battered envelope in which were Leon’s writings. All his jottings, his scribbled
notes, his sketches, and his conclusion. The final and definitive meaning of the Black Paintings.
With the curtains drawn and the lamps turned on, Abi slept on while Ben hesitated, his right hand resting on the papers, preparing himself to read the last entries his brother had made. Now, finally, he was going to understand what had obsessed Leon for so long. The theory for which he had lived and died. The culmination of his brother’s life.
It was almost too much to bear. But he began to read.
… Coming to the painting later entitled The Reading. The meaning of this has been disputed for many years
What are this disparate group of men reading? They represent communication. A testimony. Goya’s testimony. He is saying ‘Look on my works, read them as you would a book. Study what I have painted on these walls and find the message within.’ In the image there are three men fixed on reading a book, on the left is a skeleton, and behind them all is a man looking upwards to Heaven. ‘Read what I have written, not in ink but in paint,’ Goya is saying. ‘See death and look to Heaven – as I do – for deliverance.’ I believe he was also looking to Heaven to bear witness to what he was suffering, And, if possible, to intervene
Read what I am telling you. See it
And now is the time to consider The Cudgel Fight
For how long have people studied this image without understanding it? But I humbly believe that it represents the most atavistic clash of wills – that of good
and evil. A competition, each man fighting for the upper hand, both knee-deep in the mire. For Goya, it represented Spain and France. Light and dark. Life and death. Goya’s health against the onslaught of his illness. But most of all I believe that it represents the cause he believed in – the Liberals against the Spanish King. The very reason why Goya, ill and old, was so afraid, hiding within the suffocating walls of the Quinta del Sordo
We then come to the penultimate image – The Fates. The Daughters of the Night
These are the three women of allegory who depict the goddesses who determine the fate of man. One spins the thread of life, one determines its length and one severs it. With them is a bound man, whose fate they are determining. But do these creatures really represent the old fable of The Daughters of the Night? Perhaps, instead
Goya was updating his version and making it peculiar to him
The three women I believe depict the three women of the greatest importance in Goya’s life: his wife Josefa, a gentle soul who spins the thread of life for him by giving him children and hope for a future; the Duchess of Alba, who Goya loved and who controlled him more than any other woman, determining his thread of his life – the thread that bound the painter to her; and lastly, Leocardia
Ben leaned back in his seat, trying to assimilate what he had just read. Then, after a moment, he continued.
Goya wasn’t insane, but he was willing to be believed mad. Why? Because that was his protection. Hiding behind old age, infirmity and deafness – how much less of a threat would the great man seem? But madness wasn’t protection enough
When I examined Goya’s skull I saw the small holes in the bone: three of them, of differing sizes. Then I spoke to several specialists who confirmed what I suspected. But I’m hurrying on too fast. I must go back … The last picture of the series, entitled The Witchy Brew, depicts an old woman eating, with a skull-headed figure next to her. This was the final painting Goya did in the Black Painting series. It is the conclusion –
and it tells us what happened to him