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Dougie McHale

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The Girl In The Portrait Chapter 2

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Joann says lightly, ‘What happened?’

‘It’s what didn’t happen. I could have stopped it,’ Mark says.

‘I blame you?’ Her voice rises.

‘I blame myself. It was my first reaction.’

‘And there obviously wasn’t a second reaction?’

‘No.’

 

‘Is red ok?’

‘Red or white I don’t mind as long as it has alcohol in it. Something smells nice and spicy.’

‘It’s just chilli and rice. I made it mild just in case. Here, let me take your coat.’

Gill slides from her jacket and hands it to Mark along with the bottle of wine she has brought. Her hair falls onto her shoulders in dark waves. She wears little makeup, just a touch of eyeliner and lipstick. Instinctively, Mark’s eyes sweep her blouse and skirt and he hopes she hasn’t noticed, but her smile tells him otherwise.

‘Your friend Joann has done wonders with the place.’

‘It’s up for sale, just this week actually, as far as I know, there’s been some interest already.’

‘I’m not surprised. She must have spent a small fortune. Does that mean you won’t be around for much longer?’

‘I’m afraid so. It was never going to be long term. Your drink.’ He sets a glass of wine on the table.

Mark feels relaxed with Gill and although he hardly knows her, he is already at ease in her company, and, he finds her attractive. It is the first-time Mark has felt a genuine sexual excitement for some time.  He hands her a glass of wine and they sit at the table.

‘Mm, this is nice.’

‘It’s a Merlot. I got it in St Andrews.’

‘I love St Andrews, I’ve often thought of moving there but the price of the property is through the roof, bloody London prices in Fife.’

‘It’s getting just as bad in Edinburgh.’

‘Where in Edinburgh do you stay?’

‘The West End. It’s not far from Haymarket Station.’

‘I know the area. A journalist friend of mine moved from London and bought quite a large flat there. Palmerston Place. Nice area.’

‘That’s close to where I stay, Eglinton Crescent, just around the corner really.’

‘Small world.’

‘It is. I’d better check the chilli.’

Mark spoons out a little portion and tastes it. ‘I hope you’re hungry. I always make too much.’

‘I’m starving. I’ve been saving myself all day.’

‘No pressure then.’

They eat in almost silence. Mark refills their glasses and after the chilli, he serves a cheesecake.

‘I’m stuffed. That was delicious Mark.’ Gill wipes the edges of her mouth with a napkin.

Mark smiles gratifyingly. ‘Would you like a coffee? A real one, I’m sure I’ve still got some pods in the cupboard somewhere.’

Gill lifts her empty glass. ‘No, I’m fine, but you can fill this again.’

Mark retrieves a bottle from the wine rack. ‘A Rioja this time.’

‘Perfect.’

‘I’ll help with the dishes. I need to do something to help quench my guilt.’

‘No, you’re fine, relax. There’s a dishwasher.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes. I’ll load it up later.’

‘In that case, then, I need a cigarette. I’ll go outside.’

‘I’ll come with you; we can go into the garden.’

They sit on a wooden bench, Mark has brought their drinks.

‘Is the garden nice? I like a well-kept garden. It’s hard to tell, it’s too dark.’

‘It’s a bit overgrown to be fair. Joann’s hardly here, which is a shame. Even if she was she’s not a gardener anyway.’

‘Are you seeing her?’

‘Joann?’

‘Yes. Are you together, a couple?’ Gill prompts.

‘What?’

‘Do you fuck each other? God, this is hard work.’

‘No… No. We’re just friends, good friends. She’s my business partner.’

‘Ah, I see.’ Gill nods. ‘So, tell me, Mark, what brings you to Elie? I’m curious that’s all. You’re not on holiday, you’re not working here, but you’re staying at a friend’s cottage.’

‘There’s nothing to tell.’

She looks at him. ‘Really. My job has afforded me the opportunity to travel to many countries and interview diplomats, presidents, businessmen and woman, and your ordinary Joe Blogs. They all have one thing in common when they lie their body language gives them away.’

‘So, you think you know my weakness.’ Mark grins.

‘All I’m saying is your reasons for being here seem to be different from most people.’

‘Does that matter?’

‘Not really, but since we are getting to know one another I’m curious.’

He turns it around in his mind, the complications of his past.

She seems full of confidence, normally this would alert him to be cautious, but he has an overwhelming urge to tell her. He ignores the contradiction. He is aware his throat is a little dry. She looks at him expectantly and in that moment, all he wants to do is lean forward and kiss her.

‘Ok, you win.’

She smiles then, a warm glow of self-satisfaction.

‘It was months ago. We agreed that it should end. When I say we, I mean Abriana and myself. We met at a gallery in Italy, Rome, the Ermanno Del Bramante, it’s a culture and arts centre. Abriana was one of their directors.  Influential people run it, from the arts and Italian politics. Anyway, we were attracted to one another and before long we were meeting up at other venues and sometimes travelling together when we were both attending the same meeting at a gallery or museum. We tried to keep it low-key, but it was impossible,’ Mark sighs. ‘It’s quite a close community, the art world. She stayed a few times in Edinburgh, I went to Rome. Anyway, it went on for some time until one day she phoned me saying that she’d resigned. Our relationship posed potential damage to her employer’s reputation; she was going to ‘explore a new challenge,’ that’s how she phrased it. Seemingly we were photographed together several times by the Italian press when we were at galleries and conferences. She was married you see.’ Mark runs the tip of his finger around the rim of his glass. ‘The press ran several stories. The adverse publicity that followed her resignation was scandalous. A reporter and photographer from the Italian press came to Edinburgh, harassed our staff for a story, followed me, found out where I lived and hounded me for days. That’s when Joann suggested Elie. Once I’d gone, the Italians lost interest. Abriana did an interview for one of the Sunday papers in Rome saying she deeply regretted her behaviour, but her personal life was a private matter. I was told she was given a lot of money for her story.’ Mark inhales deeply and thinks briefly. ‘I suppose she deserved the money.’

‘Well, I wasn’t expecting that. So, you stopped seeing each other?’

Mark smiles sadly. ‘We did. The thing is, she loved me, but because of me, her world fell apart. I hate myself for that. I’ve struggled with it a lot, you know, what happened. I don’t even know if she’s still with her husband.’

Gill touches his arm. ‘If it makes you feel better, I’m not looking for love.’ She leans forward and kisses him.

 

Most mornings, he wakes to the laughing wail of gulls. It is another dismal day, the third in a row as rain continues to peck at the window. The cottage is beginning to feel like an incarceration and an intellectual numbness has begun to spread within him.

At first glance out of the window, there is blurriness to everything around the edges. The light reminds him of water coloured paintings he once saw in his gallery, strangely he can’t remember the artist. That morning, there is a milky film over the sea and sky, but by midday, sunlight begins to flood the cottage and Mark decides to venture outdoors. 

Outside it is strangely quiet. Leaves fall onto the pavement like fluttering snowflakes. There is a chill in the air, he buttons up his jacket.

It is the discreet nature of their meetings that as he walks, prompts a swathe of exhilaration, excitement, but also guilt, as he draws closer to the house. He rings the bell and the realisation of that guilt grips him, disturbs him, quenching his enthusiasm, but then memories of their lovemaking add a different dimension to his thoughts, stopping him from turning and leaving. The door opens and at once Gill’s smile snags him. He apologises and says he should not have come. She invites him in and instead of leaving he makes it worse and accepts her offer.  

 

‘You were meant to be keeping a low profile, not having an affair,’ Joann says, shocked and astonished.

‘It wasn’t an affair.’ Mark is adamant.

‘It doesn’t matter what it was, the facts are you told her why you were in Elie. What were you thinking? You weren’t thinking that’s the point.’

‘No, I suppose you’re right.’ He had no convincing answer.

‘I know I’m right. God Mark, you’ve made a right meal of this.’ Joann draws heavily on her cigarette and turns her head to the side as she exhales the smoke.

‘I hadn’t planned on it. It wasn’t an affair exactly.’

‘She was married Mark, another one, or has that little detail slipped your mind?’

‘He never knew.’

‘Lucky you.’

‘If it makes you feel better, I feel guilty about that. She didn’t tell me she was married. She just said they were having a break from each other.’

‘She had a ring on her finger, No?’

‘Most women have rings. It was an oversight. Anyway, we only saw each a few times. She was unhappy.’

‘God, you’re really making a habit of this. I thought getting your fingers burnt once was enough. And you made her happy?’

‘For a bit, I suppose. It was a distraction for both of us.’

‘You were both running away then.’

‘Well, it wasn’t a marathon, more like the hundred metres.’

‘She’s a journalist. Has that slipped your mind? You told her why you were in Elie. The last thing we need is bloody journalists sneaking around again.’

‘That won’t happen. She’s not like that.’

‘How do you know what she’s like? You hardly know her. All you know is what her bedroom looks like. I can see the headline she will write, ‘The Italian Mistress, the Scottish Art Dealer and the Missing Masterpiece.’

‘That’s a bit of an overreaction. She’s not working now, anyway.’

‘What did you tell her?’

‘I never mentioned the painting, don’t worry, she doesn’t know.’

‘All she’d have to do is Google your name and up it would come.’

‘Why would she?’

‘Why would any of us? Out of curiosity, that’s all it would take. She’s a journalist for Christ sake, it’s in her DNA.’

‘Look. I didn’t go into any detail, it’s fine, honest.’

‘I hope you’re right. Going to Elie was meant to make this mess disappear; you might have just made the whole thing worse.’

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