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Authors: Jonathan Gash

The Possessions of a Lady

BOOK: The Possessions of a Lady
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Dedications

To Ts'ai Chen, the Chinese God of lucky guesses made when buying,
this story is humbly dedicated.

Lovejoy

 

For Old neighbours of York St, Bolton, Lancashire.

 

Thanks

Susan

 

 

1

Life is women and antiques, nothing else. Antiques are found
everywhere, but women are the only supply of women. It's where problems begin.
One problem is fashion.

 

Fashion is embarrassing. I'd never been to a fashion show before.
Women find them thrilling. When you're a duckegg like me, you have to laugh at
yourself to stay sane. You occasionally have the luxury of having a laugh at
others. A dangerous game, though it seems worth it at first. Later, horror
comes a-hunting, and all smiles vanish.

Getting things wrong's my way of life, me being the best antique
dealer in the known world. I'm also the only honest one. Women'll tell you
different. See who you believe, them or me.

I didn't know I would face ruin at such a glitzy gathering. Thekla
was all excited, said it would be the most wonderful afternoon on earth. It was
nearly that all right, no thanks to a load of undernourished birds parading in
daft rags. That's what a fashion show is. End of message, start of trouble.

 

'Stay still, Lovejoy. For heaven's
sake!
’ She was tying her husband's bow-tie on me.

'I feel a right prat.'

'You're making a silly fuss about nothing, Lovejoy,' Thekla kept
saying, dolling me up.

'Thekla, love.' I wobbled giddily. 'I'm ill . . .'

'Stop making it up,' she scolded, enjoying herself. She looked
superb, having started getting ready at dawn, though her clothes today were
really strange. 'You've had a dozen illnesses since we got out of bed. Worse
than a child.'

'There's an antiques auction, Thekla.' That brainwave also bit the
dust.

'No, Lovejoy. And just stop
that
.'
She shoved my hands off her and stepped away to admire her handiwork.

'I've buyers coming,' I invented, desperate. If the other dealers
saw me at a mannequin parade I'd be finished.

She went all sarcastic. 'From Christies? Sotheby's, hmmm?' She
combed, my hair, tutting when it didn't stay down. 'Millionaires beating a path
to penniless Lovejoy's cold cottage in East Anglia?'

A motor honked in the lane. It was now or never. I collapsed,
groaning. She stood there in glacial rage.

'My old wound, love,' I gasped. 'My malaria.'

'Lovejoy. I phone Ricard if you're not in that car in two
minutes.'

Which made me surrender. Her husband's an innocent killer—innocent
according to law, but a murderer to the truthful. Being a pushover's hard
enough without collecting more trouble.

'Coming, love.' I forced a smile. 'I'm quite looking forward to
it, actually. Will they have those new velveteen Florentine panel-striped
gaberdines?'

'I haven't heard of those, Lovejoy!'

We left arm in arm, Thekla really interested. I hadn't either,
having made it up.

'No, dwoorlink? That designer, Galberti Rappada of Manchester. I
was at school with him.'

'I'd no idea, Lovejoy!' she cried, the cottage door banging on
loose hinges. 'See? You
love
it!'

We drove in her long saloon. Thekla's from Aldeburgh, so can mill
around our old town almost with impunity. Thekla Paumann's wealth is
independent of her husband's criminally weighty wallet.

She insisted on arriving at the Moot Hall's front entrance, all
lights and commissionaires, crowds ogling as though we were up for Oscars.
Thekla stood smiling in queenly condescension while I tried to eel in without
being noticed. Done up as I was like a tuppenny rabbit it was impossible. Oddly
leapt out of the throng, grabbed my arm.

'Lovejoy? That you?' He stared in disbelief.

'Hello, Oddly.' I was shamefaced.

'Never seen you spruced, Lovejoy. You nicking antiques inside?'

'No.' I coughed, red. 'With, er, a lady.'

His brow cleared. 'Oh, you're after grumble. Thought you'd gone
strange. Here, that mazarine's gone.'

'Gone? It can't have.' I was aghast. It was happening again.

All around people were surging, arriving motors revving. Thekla
was furious at the world's attention being deflected away from her gorgeous
apparel. She eyed Oddly. He eyed her. He looked off-the-road, blue ex-R.A.F.
greatcoat heavily patched, Wellingtons from some mucky farmyard, about as
elegant as—usually, but not today—me.

'Lovejoy!' she spat, smiling ice. 'Inside!'

'In a sec, love. Oddly's got vital

She whisked me up the steps and into the perfumed parlour with a
grip like a haulier's clamp. I tried to scramble back for Oddly's news but she
held me until we were circulating and smiling and being given that acidy wine
that gives you indigestion.

People called Thekla 'dahling' and me 'daaahhhling'. They were
mostly women, cooing with more eyebrow play than a Victorian melodrama. They
had a way of looking meaningfully over the rim of a glass that made my spine
funny. The blokes were very, very quaint. I prefered Oddly's brand of oddity.
He earned his nickname by blowing bubbles in soapy water dripped into his ear.
I really envy him. I tried it, but it hurts. He does it for charity, quid a
time, in the Donkey and Buskin pub.

'Who's
this
feral theriac,
Thekkie?' warbled a bird in a tuxedo and no skirt that I could see.

'He
found
me, lovvie!'
Thekla trilled, causing laughter from trendy folk of uncertain gender.

It was all strange. I heard shy whispers. 'Have you
seen
those crashy stilletos, lovvie? In
ultraish garishimmo fustian?
I would kill
for one!
' Flapping hands, exotic wrists.

Two women, shackled together at the ankles, paused. One asked me,
'Am I being unreasonable? Syndronised hair slides should be shot. Yes?'

'Er,' I said brightly.

'He
loves
syndronised,'
her chainee pouted.

'You fascist
pig
.' They
hobbled off.

A bloke in three cloaks swept up. He wore Turkish chain-mail,
posed dramatically.

'Tell me, liebkin,' he snarled. 'Tetrafluoro-ethylene-coated
cotton's utterly pass
-say
,
non e vero
? Yea or absolo
nein
?’ He waited, mailed foot tapping.

A passing mauve geranium in mountaineering gear with taup bells on
his yard-long fingernails paused to help out.

'What
if
Teflon makes
material waterproof and wear-lasty? Who
does
crave twice-wearability?' They tripped away together.

A lady almost poked my eye out with a mile-long fag holder,
genuine ivory to show she wasn't hoodwinked.

'Daaaahhhling,' she cooed. 'Penny for 'em?'

Where I come from you have to be truthful when asked that.
'Somebody nicked my mazarine.'

'Nicked . . . ?' She rotated slightly, stared. Her voice sank to a
whisper. 'You look positively
murderous
,
daaaahhhling.' And there in the press of a perfumed throng she moaned, kneading
my arm. '
Sweet
heart! What's a
mazarine?'

You've to pity ignorance. 'Think of a beautiful silver dish,
fenestrated like a flat sieve, inside a silver fish container. Made by the
greatest silversmiths the world's ever known. A mazarine.'

'What's so special, Lovejoy?' She was honestly asking. I didn't
throttle her, a miracle of restraint.

'I divvied it—felt its vibrations—as a genuine antique,' I said,
rage thickening my throat. 'I pretended it was a cheap fake, yet still some
dealer bought it.'

My mind flickered, went blank.

The best I can hope for in life is to get only one thing wrong at
a time, but I usually do it in clusters. It all comes down to understanding.
The more you think you understand, the less you actually do. I suppose the end
comes when you've lived through umpteen monarchs and know ten gross of nowt.
It's scary.

My other flaw is to be terrified of authorities, of violence,
wrongful arrest—or rightful, come to that—accidents, or getting caught with a
sumo wrestler's missus. Oh, and mystery. Umberto Eco claims that all stories
are detective stories, so we ought to like mystery. But when it barges in and
upsets my world then I truly hate it. Mystery ought to keep out and let me get
on.

Here in this fashion turmoil I was doubly baffled, trebly worried,
fourbly alarmed. The silver mazarine was my best attempt to collar the enemy,
and I'd failed. The fashioners brought me back.

'Naheen, dear. Where
ever
did
old Thekla buy him?' This from the arm-kneading fagholder, gazing into me. She
wore a dress made solely of, I swear, green and purple planks. They clattered
as she moved.

'More to the point, Dovie,
how
much
?’ said a blonde in a chequered kaftan, a steel helmet.

They trilled laughs. Three were gathered about me, with smiles
that didn't mean it.

'He's bursting with questions,' Dovie said, clacking her planks.
'Ask away, Lovejoy daaahhhhling.'

'Ta.' I asked the third lady, a petite dark-haired lass, 'Why are
you the only one with proper clothes on?' I'd wondered if she was rich and the
others'd had to raid their attic rag bags. She wore a smart violet suit, blouse
frothy at her throat.

The world collapsed in a rollicking heap, shrieking. Folk rolled
in the aisles, splitting their sides. It was all guffaws, uncontrolled
laughter, everybody falling about and dropping drinks. I was mystified. What
had I said? I'd only tried to make conversation.

Except three weren't laughing. Me, nonplussed. Thekla, white with
anger, inevitably at me. And the quiet lass, also white with anger, i.a.m.

'Faye's the reporter, Lovejoy!' Thekla's voice was almost too
tight to make it. 'We're the fashioneers!'

She was beside herself with fury. Wouldn't speak to me again for a
week, with luck.

The pandemonium slowly abated, people telling each other of my
gaffe, loudly reminding red-faced me that I was an idiot and they weren't. But
why were they dressed in junky tatters and this bird not? It seemed worth
asking.

'Why're they all dressed in junky tatters?'

'Lovejoy!'
Thekla spat. 'I'll
talk to you later!'

Dovie clattered off sounding like a two-stroke outboard, with
Naheen, recounting the story to gusts of hilarity. I was being punished, left alone
and palely loitering. I stood like a lemon. Thekla and her fashion-daft mates
had wafted, sanity taken wing.

Faye hadn't. She wasn't mad at me any longer. Why not? My mind
gave up.

'Proper
clothes
!’ she
said. '
Proper
clothes?'

Best stay mum, my brain warned. I blurted, 'Well, you're the only
one doesn't look a pillock.'

'Wrong, Lovejoy.' She had a dry voice, now quite smiley. 'I'm
off-the-peg. They are the height of fashion.'

Well, if she said so. Doubtfully I gazed about. There were now
some two hundred, hallooing extravagantly, all admiring all. I'd not a hope in
hell of reaching the buffet. I was starving.

'Then why do you look bonny and them duckeggs?' I was puzzled. 'If
that's their best, I'd give up.'

'Forgive me, Lovejoy, but what are you doing here?'

'God knows. I should be hunting.'

'Hunting?' Startled.

'Not foxes and that. Just some dealer.'

Her hand crept to her throat. 'Not
hunt
, though? You sounded, well, menacing.' She laughed nervously.

'Course not, love,' I said, all innocent. T only meant look for,
see how they were doing it.' And why, I added silently.

'What've they done?'

'Brought me to ruin.'

'You sound melodramatic, Lovejoy.' She looked at the throng, came
back. 'These folk use those expressions and sound harmless. You . . . don't.'

'Thekla's funding me. Hence . . .' Hence I'm looking stupid among
tinsel mongers.

'What will you do when you catch them?'

A hesitation I hoped she didn't catch. 'I'll ask them how they
outguess me in antiques. Nobody does that.'

A gong went, almost jarring the teeth from my head. Everybody
squealed and rushed.

'Look, Lovejoy,' Faye said quickly. 'Can I see you after the
fashion parade? Please? Phone.'

She gave me a business card. Fashioneers hurtled past. Some saw
Faye's card and called suggestive comments. I went red.

Thekla caught me near the exit, angrily swept me to where total
glamour ruled. That's what it said on the posters.

BOOK: The Possessions of a Lady
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