Episode Thirty Six
‘Ha, ha, ha! Aiden! You are serious about this.’
‘Well, of course, Quinn. I did tell you it was the Burne-Jones exhibition.’ He consulted the catalogue in his hand. ‘His first solo at the Tate since 1933.’
‘I thought you were joking. Hiding the real visit behind this.’ She waved her hand around at the paintings on the walls. ‘It’s chocolate box art.’
‘But inherently British, no?’ He wandered over to a painting called The Wheel of Fortune. ‘It’s hard to believe he’s a contemporary of Manet and Cezanne. It’s as if he inhabited a completely different world.’
‘That’s because, silly, he did. Look at his works. They’re all based on myths and legends.’
‘Does that make them inferior to the impressionists then?’
‘Well, it’s a different vision, that’s for sure.’
‘I’ve disappointed you inviting you here.’
‘No, Aiden.’ She patted his arm. ‘You were trying to do the right thing, I can see that.’
‘I take it, then, you don’t want to go around the show.’
‘Well, now we’re here, I guess we can have a quick look.’
She took his arm and led him over to Love among the Ruins. She stopped in front of the painting and gazed at it. ‘I wonder what’s caught her gaze?’
‘You caught spying on their tryst.’
‘Very funny.’ She turned and flashed him a smile. ‘However, that’s exactly how a modern artist would repurpose this work. They’d create the voyeuristic experience.’ She grinned. ‘I see I shouldn’t quite give up hope yet for you becoming an artist.’
‘You think I could paint?’
‘It’s in everyone. But whether you have the talent to become famous, that’s different.’
Aiden positioned himself to see the painting in full. ‘Do you think this nosy sense of looking in on his world is what makes him popular?’
Quinn laughed. ‘It’s probably all those postcards of his paintings you can buy.’ She pointed at the woman’s blue dress. ‘He does do a nice line in haute couture. I like her outfit.’
‘The bloke doesn’t do so badly, either. He’s dressed like a priest. I wonder why he’s wearing socks?’
‘That’s because he’s in the hosiery business.’
‘Aiden! How can you be taken in by that?’ She tut-tutted in mock reproach. ‘I think Burne-Jones had in him in socks to avoid having to paint his feet a flesh colour.’ She came and stood beside him. ‘Consider the whole arrangement. See how their flesh tones, her ivory and his parchment face and hands, provide the focal point to the picture. They have their hands around each other as if they have just embraced.’
‘Well, the title does suggest they are lovers.’
‘It is Love among the Ruins.’
‘It could be a parable for something else. See. There are symbolic flowers at his and her feet. It could be he is only dreaming of her being there.’
‘That’s a bit farfetched, no? I’m more inclined to think its more like a forbidden relationship. An illicit love.’
‘But one might expect something more erotic. It’s all very prim and proper. A bit like a brother and sister.’
‘I agree it’s all very Victorian, and prim and proper. But while their bodies are modestly hidden in their folding robes, nevertheless their pose and the folds hint at their sexuality.’
‘He’s got a big thingy clutched between his legs.’
‘You can’t be serious. That’s a musical instrument.’
‘I did say it was symbolic.’
‘You honestly think that is what that’s supposed to represent?’
‘Why not? My reading of the painting is as good as anyone’s.’
Aiden turned to gaze at the other pictures within view. ‘Do you think all of them can be interpreted like that?’
‘You did say they are popular. Sex sells, you know.’
‘So I’ve heard.’
‘Let’s see what other delights are here, shall we?’
They stopped in front of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid.
Aiden read the description in the catalogue. ‘It says here, this painting is greatly admired for its technical execution and its theme of love transcending power and wealth.’ He gestured at the painting. ‘More about sex?’
Quinn giggled. ‘You’ve got it on the brain.’
‘Whose fault is that? I didn’t bring it up. You did.’
‘But I was only interpreting what was in front of me.’
‘See how she glows. The rest of the painting is in rich colours, presumably to reflect the theme of wealth. But the real beauty for all the material is a luminous woman…’
‘Who seems uninterested in her admirer.’
‘Perhaps she heard a noise offstage?’
Quinn burst out laughing. ‘Touché.’ She took his hand in hers. ‘Come. I think we have seen enough.’
They emerged from the Tate into a darkening sky.
Aiden gazed upward at the threatening weather. ‘Fancy a drink? I know a nice place around here.’
Quinn smiled. ‘If it’s that or getting soaked, I’m all for the drink.’
‘Let’s go, then.’
He led her down a side street, along another street then a further narrow lane.
They came to an alley. Above the entrance was a sign: A Quiet Drink.
Aiden led Quinn down the lane to a side door. The name of the establishment was emblazoned across the etched-glass viewing pane. Below which was another sign that stated Silence is Golden. He opened the door and they went in.
It was dark inside. A few lamps lit up the bar area where a barista was polishing a glass with a towel. He looked towards them and reached up and put a finger to his lips.
Quinn stepped forward. ‘What’s happening?’
The barista frowned and raised a hand.
Aiden grabbed at her arm. ‘Shush. You have to whisper here.’
‘You know, keep your voice down.’
‘The philosophy of the place is that silence is the way to enjoy a good drink. Hence the name and the idea that silence is peace. So we have to be quiet, like in a library.’
‘I see. This is unlike any other drinking hole I know.’ She paused. ‘No musak.’
‘There isn’t even a sound system.’ He led her forward. ‘Let’s find a booth.’
He directed her to the right of the bar. The house wasn’t particularly busy. A few patrons glanced casually as they went by. Some were deep into a book or checking their phones.
They came to an empty booth at the rear that was in semi darkness.
Aiden gestured at the bench. ‘Take a seat. What can I get you? They do a good whiskey sour here.’
‘Is that what you’re having?’
‘Probably, unless there’s something really interesting in the specials.’
‘Whisky sour sounds fine.’
‘Give me a moment.’
Aiden went over to the bar and the barista strolled over. He whispered in the man’s ear. ‘Two whiskey sours, please.’ The man nodded and turned away towards a shelf that contained large tumbler glasses. He pulled two from the shelf and placed them on the bar, then added ice. He next fetched a measure and a bottle of bourbon and decanted two cups into each. He finished it off with other ingredients before picking up the glasses and placing them in front of Aiden.
‘Fourteen quid, please.’
Aiden pulled out his debit card. The barista fetched a mobile card reader and punched in the amount. Aiden tapped the machine. It whirred as it printed out a receipt.
Aiden picked up the paper and the two drinks, nodded to the barista and headed back to the booth.
Quinn, her face lit by the faint light from the bar, smiled up at him as he approached. Aiden put down the glasses on the table and sat down beside her.
He picked up his and raised it for a toast. Quinn did likewise.
‘Cheers.’ It was barely a whisper. Aiden sipped at his drink.
Quinn made a face. ‘It’s funny being in a dark place and whispering. It reminds me when I was little, and I played hide and seek. I’d always try and find a dark corner in which to conceal myself.’
‘You weren’t afraid of the dark?’
‘It always gave me a frisson. I felt I was playing a scary game.’ She twisted a loose strand of hair with her fingers as she spoke.
He looked at her. ‘Are you scared now?’
Quinn turned away and examined the room. ‘There’s lights here even if it’s pretty dark.’ She turned back to her drink and took another sip. ‘Nice. It’s the first time I’ve had one of these.’
Aiden tasted his again. He could see Quinn watching him.
‘There’s something I’ve been meaning to do.’
She leaned over, putting her arms around him and drew near to him. She reached out kissed him on the lips
Aiden responded passionately. He put a hand on one of her breasts.
* * *
‘No problem. You’ll give me a good review, yeah?’
The client walked off. Ahmed watched him go. His phone pinged. He turned to see what it was. Two quid tip on an eight quid trip. Thanks, matey.
Ahmed consulted his app. Come on. Where’s everybody? He sat watching his phone for several minutes while nothing happened. Then it beeped once, twice and then after a short pause a third time. He scrolled down the hire requests. Too far. Yeah, this un’s good. And this ‘un. He quickly made offers. A few seconds went by before his mobile sprung to life again. Accepted. Fucking good. And not five minutes from ‘ere.
He started the Prius, checked for traffic and pulled out from the kerb.
He had not gone five hundred metres when a police car, blue light flashing and screaming sirens raced past going the other way. Ahmed was only mildly interested in the car’s passage. He had seen and heard many emergency response vehicles as he drove around London. Police. Fire Service. Ambulances. They were a part of the landscape.
A car pulled out in front of him. Ahmed braked. Honked. The vehicle accelerated away and widened the distance between them.
Ahmed turned at the lights into a side street as the app guided him towards his hire. He stopped at the next lights, which were against him. He watched the lights waiting for them to change. They had just gone to amber when a car raced into the junction box.
Another car from the opposite direction also charged in. The two cars somehow grazed each other. One skidded onto its side, while the other spun in the middle of the road. The skidding car then crashed into the side of the lead car on the opposite side of the junction on which Ahmed waited.
Ahmed switched off his motor, turned on his warning lights and, checking for traffic, got out.
A passer had rushed out to the spinning car, which had now stopped moving. It rested, blocking the junction. Ahmed ran over to join the first responder.
‘What we do mate?’
Ahmed leaned down and looked in at the driver of the car. The woman sat frozen by the airbag that had gone off. She was ashen faced. She turned towards him.
The woman gave him a blank stare.
‘I’se said, are you ‘urt?’
‘You hit t’ other vehicle.’
‘Which other vehicle?’
Ahmed glanced away at the other car. A small crowd had gathered and were surrounding the two cars.
‘You hit a Renault.’
‘How did I do that?’
‘I think you ran through a red light.’
‘I don’t remember.’
‘ere, missus, we’d best be getting e to casualty, like.’
‘I’ll be alright.’
‘You’ve had a friggin’ accident, baby.’
‘Mind your language!’