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Authors: Gillian Galbraith

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As she observed the scene, the faint, rhythmic whirring sound made by her windscreen wipers suddenly and unexpectedly reminded her of her childhood. Rainy days all those years ago meant, if she
was lucky, a trip to Haddington with her mother, to the newsagents to buy one of those miraculous colouring books. A single stroke from the wet paintbrush and the grey flowers would become blue,
orange and purple, and the grey grass, lime green. Even a lick to the paintbrush was enough for the magic to start to work.

Turning into Broughton Place her luck held, a residents’ parking space was free and not too far from the door of her own building.

Locking the car door, she looked up at the third floor and saw, to her delight, that the lights were on in her flat. Ian was home. In seconds, she would be able to chat to him about her day,
tell him all about the hearing and the ‘Not Guilty’ verdict.

She ran up the cold common stair and let herself in. Immediately she could hear the sound of animated voices, chuckling, talking together, deep in conversation. One of them was Ian’s, and
she recognised the other too. It belonged to Celia Naismith and, she thought, there was almost no one on the planet she would like to see less. In fact, in the whole infinite space of the Universe.
The woman, petite and feline with unnaturally large unblinking brown eyes, somehow managed to undermine her by simply breathing the same air, by being in the same room. To date, on every occasion
on which they had met, Alice had gone away feeling like a clodhopper, ungainly and ill-educated. That was the extent of the woman’s talent, and, as far as she was concerned, it was about as
welcome as the deadly song of the Siren.

Taking a deep breath she entered the drawing room, and from their positions sprawled comfortably on the carpet, both Ian and Celia looked up at her.

‘We’ll ask Alice, shall we?’ Celia said, excitedly.

‘OK,’ Ian replied, sitting up, helping himself to a crisp and smiling warmly at Alice.

‘We’ve been discussing Rothko,’ Celia said, resting her head on her elbow, ‘and I think that he was more influenced by Avery, but Ian thinks Still’s fingerprints
are more evident. What do you think?’

‘No idea, I’m afraid,’ Alice answered evenly, slumping down in an armchair and sipping from a nearby glass of wine that she hoped fervently belonged to Ian. For this
conversation, some alcohol would be essential.

‘Maybe the TRAP people were more influential on him?’ Celia remarked.

‘You mean De Kooning, Pollock and so on?’ Ian asked.

‘Yeah. What I really like about Rothko is the sheer unintellectuality of his later work, you know, the fact that he had the courage to emphasise feeling and physicality – put thought
to one side. Feel the paint.’

Celia stretched, raising both her arms above her head, evidently entirely at home and at ease in Alice’s home, in Alice’s presence. ‘Who do you like?’ she asked
innocently, turning her wide brown eyes on her hostess.

Here we go, Alice thought, feeling nervous and already, somehow, put on the spot. She tried to summon into her mind images she was fond of, but other than one of Francis Bacon’s screaming
popes, nothing came, and she did not even like that picture really. She found it disturbing, almost too powerful with its lumps of amorphous flesh.

‘I quite like . . .’ she began slowly, ‘Lucian Freud. Some of his horse pictures, like
Mare Eating Hay
, and the strange early ones with animals in them . . . and some of
Cadell’s portraits.’

‘Just figurative stuff, then?’ The slightly puzzled, condescending tone used to frame the question let Alice know that she had failed the test. Having scented blood, Celia added, as
if in clarification, ‘You probably like things like Vettriano’s
Singing Butler
and so on?’

‘Celia!’ Ian Melville said in a warning tone, but he followed it up with a little laugh to soften the rebuke. He was well aware of her views of the Scottish artist and had begun to
realise that she was playing with Alice in, possibly, a not entirely benign way. Rather like a cat with a mouse.

‘Yes, I do like figurative stuff, but I also like some of Eardley’s later works,’ Alice said, some random inspiration having come at last, ‘those wild ones, the stormy
ones . . . the ones painted at Catterline.’

‘Just figures or landscapes, then?’

‘Yes, I do like landscapes too . . .’

Perhaps, Alice thought, she should just retire from the joust with her lance not yet broken. She had not wanted to enter this contest; it just seemed to have happened. As it always did with
Celia.

‘What do you think of Rothko’s aquarelles?’

Now her lance had been well and truly bloody snapped! Alice took a deep breath. What the hell was an ‘aquarelle’? Before she had time to assemble her thoughts, or attempt to bluster,
Ian tried to throw her a lifeline.

‘Enough shop talk, painter talk, for the moment, I think. Alice, how did you get on at work today?’

Looking into his eyes, it was obvious that he had forgotten all about the hearing. If he had remembered he would have chosen some other diversionary topic. He knew how she had been feeling about
it, how scared she was, how private the whole matter was to her.

She told herself that his lapse did not matter, after all he was trying to help her. Anyway, nothing would have induced her to talk about this afternoon’s purgatory in front of Celia,
whatever the result had been. The very idea of Alice being subjected to any kind of disciplinary proceedings would have her salivating at the mouth, inciting her to pose a barrage of
ill-intentioned questions, each one designed to embarrass or elicit some further unflattering disclosure.

‘I spent this morning with the SART – the Search and Rescue Team at Gayfield Square,’ she said brightly, ‘and it was very interesting. Friendly men, a clever system
– they’ve got really close relationships with all the pawnshops in the city.’

‘Bloody hell!’ Celia expostulated, putting a hand across her mouth as if she was about to be sick. ‘You spent this morning in porn shops? Porn shops – how
horrible!’

‘Not porn shops, P.A.W.N. shops,’ Alice said, spelling the word out quickly. ‘Actually they’re quite respectable now. The manager of one of them told me that they now see
themselves as part of the Financial Services Industry. That may be going a bit far, but they’ve got customer charters and everything. They’re pretty tightly regulated nowadays, I
think.’

‘Still, I’m not sure that’s how I’d want to spend my day, or even a minute of it, sniffing around the detritus of other people’s lives, in and out of pawn shops,
mixing with irresponsible losers or thieving scum,’ retorted Celia, trying to catch Ian’s eye in search of agreement, a manufactured expression of pity on her face.
‘Someone’s got to do it, I suppose,’ she added, looking around for the crisps.

‘Alice enjoys it. Don’t you, darling?’ Ian said, holding out his hand for her to take. She took it, aware that he was trying to defend her in his loyal, uncomplicated way.

‘Yes, I do enjoy it. Not the “sniffing”, as you call it, Celia, or even the visits to the pawnshops, which was a first for me, incidentally, or the “mixing” with
thieving scum and “irresponsible losers”, whoever exactly they are. What I enjoy is very simple in its way. Corny, even. Putting things right, restoring order . . . helping people
out.’

‘Beware of kryptonite, then!’ Celia replied, taking another sip of her wine and laughing into her drink.

Alice felt tired and unwilling to spar any more. It was like fighting with smoke. She got to her feet, taking with her Ian’s empty glass.

‘I’m going to get some food. What about either of you?’ she said, walking out of the room.

‘We’ve arranged to eat with two of our pals from the studio, haven’t we, Ian?’ Celia shouted back. And Alice noted the use of the proprietarily inclusive
‘we’. The use of it twice.

In the kitchen she heard herself slamming shut unit doors and clanging pots on the cooker as if in an unsubtle bid to get Ian’s attention. Picking out a couple of eggs
from the fridge, she managed to crack both of them, without breaking the yolks, into the frying pan. How is it, she wondered, that when I feel so disturbed, so uneasy in that woman’s
presence, he cannot see it and continues to invite her home? Is he blind? No doubt she is short of friends, and no surprise there, but she is most decidedly
not
a ‘lame duck’.
Too bloody glamorous for that description, more’s the pity. And it’s too bad if she does live in her studio. She does not deserve to be allowed in here, certainly not under the lame
duck exception. If she is any kind of bird, it is a bird of prey or, even more apt, a vulture. Whatever she is, Alice wanted to shout, isn’t it obvious that she only deigns to talk to me in
order to make me seem like an uncultured Philistine? She views me as some kind of troglodyte, happy to plod about attending to my mundane, distasteful police tasks. Wallowing in the blood and filth
of society’s dirty laundry like some kind of perverted washerwoman. Sodding aquarelles!

She pulled out a dictionary from the bookshelf beside the cooker and found the definition: ‘A drawing done in transparent watercolours’. Pretty esoteric stuff. Come to that, did
Celia know what ‘plethoric’ meant or ‘adipocere’? Of course not, because she had never read a post-mortem report nor found a decomposing body. Words learnt through life or,
more accurately, death.

And, she thought, irritably, I should have told her, unashamedly and confidently, that I don’t like Rothko. He’s just another link in the chain of art history, nothing more. I
don’t like huge blurred blocks of colour, and they don’t move me one iota either. They bore me, and had he died fat and happy they would have been viewed quite differently. Intellect is
required in art as it is in virtually any other worthwhile human activity except, perhaps, making love. There is a qualitative difference between such simple, childlike daubs and, say,
Monet’s
La Pie
and a place for both. Under a fridge magnet for the first along with the rest of the children’s artwork, and on a gallery wall for the second.

‘Alice?’ Ian ended her heated, silent argument with herself.

‘Yes?’ she said coolly, her resentment with Celia still burning, bleeding into her reaction to him.

‘We’re off to Blanco’s. I didn’t realise you’d get back so early tonight. We all arranged it at lunch. Do you want to come too?’

‘No thanks,’ she answered, spooning hot oil over the eggs, the very idea of spending the evening with Celia, plus others who might be every bit as toxic, making her shudder
inwardly.

‘Bye, then,’ Celia said sweetly, peering round the door and then adding, as she wrinkled her nose, ‘Egg and chips! Don’t you get enough of that kind of stuff in your
works canteen?’

After she had eaten, Alice sat in the dark on the drawing-room floor, leaning against the front of an armchair and stroking the dog’s soft head. The solitude was blissful.
Bach’s
Goldberg Variations
were playing and she was familiar with the recording, anticipating each note on the piano and Glenn Gould’s strange, dissonant moans.

The phone rang and she picked it up while lowering the volume on her CD player. It was her mother.

‘How did it go, darling?’ she asked, in a tone Alice recognised well. It was one she adopted when she felt the need to disguise an underlying anxiety with a veneer of brightness.

‘Fine, Ma. Just fine. The couple both said that Stevenson was the one to let the cat out of the bag, not me. One or other of them must have changed their mind recently, otherwise we
wouldn’t both have been subjected to investigation, charged and so on. But, thank God, they both told the truth today.’

‘That’s terrific. So you’re in the clear now? Completely exonerated?’

‘I am. A clean slate, again. I got a nice text from Alistair and the DCI is delighted, apparently.’

‘I expect you and Ian celebrated tonight?’

An innocent enough inquiry, and one that should have been straightforward enough to answer, but was not. Alice was well aware of her parents’ view of her lover, and it would only be
compounded if she told the truth. To them, he appeared overly detached, selfish and unnaturally self-sufficient. Not sufficiently protective of her. So if she said, ‘He’s gone out for a
meal with friends,’ she would, to lessen the impact, also immediately have to add, ‘but I was asked out too,’ and then go on to explain why she had declined to go. And that, in
turn, would be complex, involve telling more than she might wish. It would be so much easier just to spout a small, white lie.

BOOK: The Road to Hell
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