Great episode challenge 24-30 November 2017 (The Pop Art Affair, 1)
(Who painted the “other” portrait, and where (and why) is Illya hiding it?)
(Who painted the “other” portrait, and where (and why) is Illya hiding it?)
With Mr Waverly successfully conned into buying that extraordinary artwork of Sylvia’s, she tried to persuade me to buy (unseen), for our office, a drawing she’d done of Illya. She said he didn’t want it because he “had a portrait” already. News to me. I’ve never seen a portrait of him – only official photos, and one or two of mine he’s appeared in. Anyway, if he hadn’t wanted it, it couldn’t have been very good, so I declined, valuing Illya’s friendship and the future of the partnership slightly higher than the pleasure of tormenting him.
Something had happened between them – presumably while they were chained together and out of sight – and it was fairly obvious what (and it wasn’t hiccups). Illya’s starting, let alone continuing, a relationship with a girl barely out of her teens and rather naïve, was baffling, considering his general preferences for women with a modicum of experience, if not intelligence. I wanted to know, too, why my partner had given that other girl, Heidi (who also seemed revoltingly taken with him) such an odd look when she identified him so immediately because of Sylvia’s description of his “Dostoevsky eyes.”
So, what was this Dostoevsky thing? Significant? Probably not, but as there was only the last mission to write up, and I didn’t feel like doing that, I thought I’d put in a little research.
The library at headquarters turned out to be a little thin in Russian literary history, so I went to the New York Public Library, where I found a helpful librarian with a passion for nineteenth-century Russian literature. She said she’d read all of Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, including “War and Peace” a dozen times, which I found hard to believe, never having got past the list of multi-named dramatis personae.
All was explained when she confessed to being a quarter Russian herself. Yes, and she had blue eyes, and was quite attractive too. Unfortunately, she also shared my partner’s expository style, and insisted on telling me a lot of stuff I didn’t really want to know.
“He had a terrible life, Mr Solo,” she said. “Dostoevsky was imprisoned for reading the wrong kind of literature and condemned to death. He even had to undergo a mock execution. He was lucky it wasn’t real, I guess.”
“Very lucky.” I’ve been in that position myself so I know what it feels like.
“Anyway, an admirer of his was there…”
“An admirer went to watch his execution?”
“Apparently so. Weird isn’t it. I wouldn’t want to see my hero executed, would you?”
It was easy to concur with that, but I didn’t bother to mention how often we’d almost come to something similar.
“This man, Baron Wrangel wrote a description of him, though. Here it is, in this biography.”
At last. But as it was in Russian, I handed it back. “Would you mind translating for me? My Russian isn’t that good.”
“Oh, of course. How silly of me,” and she started to translate the description. Apart from being sickly, he’d also been morose, and pale, an introverted dreamer, hot-headed, and stubborn. So far, so coincidental. Maybe all Russians were like that. But it got more interesting when she said, “his blond hair was cut short. He was a little over average height and looked at me intensely with his sharp, grey-blue eyes. It was as if he were trying to look into my soul and discover what kind of man I was.”
Now that was intriguing. “Is there a portrait of him anywhere?” I asked.
There was. Dostoevsky’s general appearance, as someone who had been kept shackled during years of exile, was definitely morose and sickly-looking, as per his admirer’s description. Nothing like as good-looking as Illya, who, though frequently morose, didn’t look sickly. It turned out, he had almost nothing else in common with him either. Dostoevsky had no interest in science or mathematics, he was awkward and clumsy, and was a failure in his military career. On the other hand, Illya could turn out a nicely fictional account of a mission when required.
So, really, it was just the eyes – assuming that the girl hadn’t just pitched on just any old Russian name she’d heard of. Well, it was a more interesting way to spend the day than writing up that tedious mission.
“Did you know that you look a bit like Dostoevsky?” I asked him, later that afternoon.
“I don’t.” His tone was indifferent, uninterested. He was reading.
“There’s a portrait of him.”
“Yes. By Vasily Perov. It’s in Moscow. So what?”
“Could be you – after a mission gone wrong.” I ducked as he threw a balled-up piece of paper. “It doesn’t show in the painting, but you do have Dostoevsky eyes, like Sylvia said. Ever thought of having your portrait painted?”
Illya sighed. “I do not have Dostoevsky eyes, I am not interested in having a portrait painted, and anyway…”
“Anyway, you’ve got one already – that’s what your little girlfriend said.” And I was delighted to see him blush. “So, where is it? Why have I never been privileged to see it?”
He did one of his eye rolls, and shook his head. “Napoleon…”
I waited, grinning.
“Come on, Illya. Give! Where do you keep it – in the attic?”
“I don’t have an attic.”
“Where then? Under the bed? You do have a bed.”
“You won’t find it, so don’t try. Now, I’m busy, so get on with your own work, yes?”
Hah. So, there was one. I’ll find it. I’m not a spy for nothing.
It was some time before I got a chance, and if Sylvia hadn’t turned up with the drawing one evening when we were out as a foursome, I’d have forgotten about it altogether. Illya wasn’t best pleased; in fact, he was embarrassed and annoyed. This relationship wasn’t going much further, that was clear – though not to her. She’d grown up a bit from being so much in his company, but she wasn’t the sharpest knife in the box. No doubt their brief summer of love had lasted as long as this for other than intellectual reasons, but Illya was getting a bit bored. Even being able to tower over someone, just for once, must lose its attractions after a while.
He categorically refused to allow her to try again to sell, or even give, the drawing to me. Not that I wanted it – it was awful – and the superficially-attractive thought of having it on permanent display as a source of irritation to him wasn’t sufficient temptation.
She seemed quite disappointed, and then cheered up and said “It needs finishing, doesn’t it. Come on, Yo Yo,” and went off, dragging Illya with her, “to pose.”
“Yo Yo,” I laughed, and saw him turn and give me one of those looks. And, as Mary Beth explained, to my increasing mirth, “It means weekend hippie. She’s not quite as dumb as she appears.”
Yo Yo. Yes, that would be a better irritant – just once in a while. Give him time to forget, then try it.
With more overseas missions taking us away, Illya’s affair with Sylvia took its natural course. It was evidently a fond farewell; she was quite unresentful, and even forbore to buy a badge she’d seen, that said, ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30!’ The matter of her portrait of him was also quietly dropped. She probably kept it as a masterwork.
But I hadn’t forgotten about looking for the other one. For the first time, it occurred to me to wonder who had done it, whatever it was. Must have been a woman. Illya kept most of his liaisons private, but it was probably someone in the Village. There was bound to be someone who knew.
So, I tried asking around, but it wasn’t till I went into a small gallery on East 9th Street that I struck lucky. There was an exhibition on; mostly abstract stuff, but a picture in the corner, which wasn’t strictly abstract, attracted my attention. It was eyes, just pairs of blue eyes – some open and surprised, some looking interested, some smiling – lots of expressions. The same eyes. They looked familiar – or were all blue eyes the same?
A patchouli-scented, kaftan-wearing, genderless species of exotica slid out from behind a screen as I was examining these eyes, and said, in husky tones, “I see you’re admiring the “Eyes of the Steppes.”
“Steps?” I said, misunderstanding the reference.
“The Russian steppes.”
Aha. “Russian, eh. Anyone in particular?”
“I believe so; a former lover of the artist’s, I think,” the creature said lusciously. “Do you want to purchase the ‘Eyes’?”
“Ah, maybe, but not just now. Who’s the artist, can I meet her? Has she done others of this lover?”
“You’d have to ask her – she hasn’t exhibited them with us, if she has. The studio is across the road.” I was dismissed with a disparaging flick of a much-ringed hand.
It was three floors up, and as there were several studios, I had to choose which to try. It made sense to start at the first, and eventually I found the lady herself. She was a tall honey blonde; good looking, and she didn’t smell of patchouli. A cool and not very forthcoming lady, but when I said I’d come from the exhibition, she let me in. The studio was a long room with tall windows looking out into a scruffy yard. Among the paintings stacked against the walls was an interesting series – of body parts. Not like an abattoir, but attached to the rest of a living body; just separate. Hands, torso, thighs, buttocks, and, so forth. The torso showed a faint glimpse of gold chain; the hand hanging down by a thigh was large. Interestingly familiar.
“Did you ever do a complete portrait of him?” I asked, and she looked surprised.
“You’re assuming it’s one man,” she remarked, but added after a moment, “OK, you’d be right. As you can see, we were close at one time. I did a full-length portrait once. I don’t have it now – I gave it to him when we went our separate ways.”
“An amicable break, then.”
“Oh yes. Not a break, just a drift. I see him occasionally, but we’re not together now.”
“Is that why you paint him in pieces?”
She smiled a catlike smile and made no reply. It was surprising they weren’t still together, but maybe they were too alike.
“Does he still have the painting?” I wanted to know.
“I’ve no idea, why?”
“How big is it?”
She fixed her large grey eyes on me, somewhat intimidatingly. “I begin to think I know who you are,” she said. Well, like I say, he often picks intelligent ones.
“The name’s Solo.”
“I thought so. He warn… told me about you.”
I produced my most winning smile. “Then you know what good friends we are. I’d like to buy him another one for his birthday.”
“You’ve missed it by a mile.”
She laughed (she really was quite a stunner). “All right. Which painting did you have in mind? – No, Mr Solo, that one is not for sale.”
“No? I wonder why?” I said, just to tease her a little. However, to forestall any colourful comeback on my person (she still had a brush in her hand), I said, “I think maybe I’ll buy the ‘Eyes of the Steppes,’ it’ll be safer.”
She was disgusted. “That creature over there is so weird. I didn’t give it a title, I just said they were Russian eyes… I might have said Dostoevsky eyes, I forget. Anyway, I guess the word Russian might not get a buyer – and I do need the money.”
So, she thought he had Dostoevsky eyes too. “Well, that settles it. I’ll buy it.”
“Thank you, kind sir. But be careful.” That catlike smile came again. “The eyes follow you wherever you go.”
I returned to the gallery. The exotic creature guarding it was delighted to shift one of the pictures, though clearly he (she?) had hoped to get rid of one of the abstracts.
She, the artist that is, was right about the eyes following you. Boy, do they! It was like having him in my living room the whole time. I moved it to the hall, where it could frighten intruders instead.
Of course, the first person to see it was the subject himself. “Where the devil did you get that?” he inquired as soon as he came in, one evening.
“Recognise… Napoleon! … Have you been … Oh my God. Take it down.”
“Not till you show me the one she gave you.”
“No!” he squeaked.
I had to wait till the next time he had to be carried home a little the worse for wear, before I got the chance I’d been waiting for. He’d recovered from the concussion and was sleeping – like a baby, I thought. So, as I had the excuse of keeping a caring eye on him, I went on a search. He had so little stuff, it didn’t take long, but there was nothing in the kitchen or living room. I even tipped up the sofa, and looked under the rug. It had to be the bedroom.
In my best silent-agent mode, I went on my hands and knees feeling around in the dust under the bed, having found nothing in or on top of the wardrobe. There was a large box under there.
Carefully, I drew it out, and took the lid off. Records, just his jazz records. I picked up the lid again, intending to put it back and noticed its weight. A bit heavy for a cardboard cover? I picked at the inside and a layer of brown paper came away, together with a sheet of artist’s canvas board.
I jumped a mile, and jerked round. Blue eyes – they do follow you…
“Ah, hi. How you feeling?”
“Some might describe it as violated. Just what do you think you’re doing with my things?”
“Ah. Well, I think I may have found the picture of Dorian Grey – so, now that I have, let’s have a look…” and before I could say any more, he leaped from the bed and fell with a crash beside me.
“Damn,” he said weakly, as I helped him back onto his pillows.
“It can’t be that bad,” I said. “I’ve seen her stuff. She’s a real artist. Now – are you OK?”
He just groaned, so I returned to the box, picked up the board and turned it over.
“Wow,” I said, after a pause. “She thought quite highly of you, then.”
His frown softened a little. “Maybe,” he said.
“It looks better than you do at the moment, too. Why not get it framed?”
“Because I’m not going to hang it anywhere. It would be … it would be like ...”
“Showing off all your assets?”
That glare would freeze a moose at fifty paces.
“Just put it back, OK?”
“OK. I guess it wouldn’t look good to have it in the office. Bound to get complaints about the number of female visitors.”
And, keeping the door between me and a thrown pillow, I added, “But I might commission one of me as a companion piece. We could have them both framed, and hung over our desks. And lovely as you are, Yo Yo, odious comparisons might be drawn. …”
It missed me, but I heard the crash. It was a heavy book (guess who by), not a pillow.