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Prospero's Island

Chapter 1

Mickey Morgan threw the last bite of his cheese sandwich high into the air. A hovering seagull, black-tipped wings white against the overcast sky, dived after it with a squawk of satisfaction and bore it aloft in triumph. Draining his glass of shandy, Mickey turned back to his laptop. ‘A delightful study of hollyhocks…’ he paused, and squinted at his notebook. His own version of shorthand wasn’t terribly effective. Did it say hollyhocks or horses? He crunched despondently on the last of his cheese and onion crisps. Mickey Morgan, ace reporter, writing an article about the local art show in a sedate little seaside town where nothing – nothing! – ever happened. 

      Mickey was sitting at one of the wooden tables outside the local pub.  Beside him, rows of pastel-painted beach huts stretched away into the distance, facing onto the shingle beach where white-foamed wavelets splashed around the dark breakwaters.  In the middle distance, where the water shaded from green to grey, reflecting the dark clouds gathering above, a string of jaunty sailboats went scudding past with the wind in their sails. Oysterton was a pretty place; Mickey liked it. But it was not enough.  Mickey dreamed of – longed for! - the big story. Mickey wanted mean streets, film noir, life on the edge; to walk on the wild side. Mickey wanted grit! But for now . . .  Mickey sighed.  His next task was to interview the winner of the local art competition, Mrs . . Ms . . . he tried to decipher a few more random squiggles – Tina, was it? – Tredegar. He threw his notebook into his backpack and got to his feet.

      Making his way along the High Street, he lapsed into a familiar daydream. This job working on the local paper was only the start. A stepping stone to working on a national. Maybe a move sideways into radio journalism. ‘Mickey Morgan, ace journalist,’ he muttered below his breath, ‘reporting from  . . . from the war-torn’ – he caught sight of his reflection in a shop window.  Nowhere near six foot, on the skinny side, and badly in need of a haircut, he didn’t look the action-hero type. ‘Not war-torn anything,’ he thought. Maybe reporting some financial scam. ‘Mickey Morgan, reporting from Wall Street.’ That was more like it. He stepped into the road to avoid a dawdling tourist, narrowly escaped death by post office van, and ducked into the local art shop.

Tory was trying to add up a complicated selection of items in her head, not helped by a difficult customer. “And, um, two brushes at two-fifty each, that’s, um… oh, and the canvas at six pounds…”

     “You are sure about these oil paints? I don’t want student quality. I need proper, professional paints.”

    “Yes, absolutely. They are exactly the same paints that – er, that Van Gogh used in his work … so, where was I, that was, um, thirty pounds seventy five pence and…”

     "But when Van Gogh painted those big daisies they went all dirty-looking. I don’t want paint that turns the wrong colour.”

     “I shouldn’t worry.” Tory busied herself packing tubes of paint into an empty box. “I don’t expect your painting will turn out like Van Gogh’s.” Mickey choked back a laugh.

       “Anyway, I make it forty-five pounds and – well, let’s call it forty-five pounds. For cash.” Tory wished, for the umpteenth time, that old Mr Bacon, the owner of the shop, would install an electric till that did the adding up for you. Maths had never been her strong point. If you added up all the money that she had lost the business over the twenty years she had been working here, she thought, it would probably pay for a new till about a hundred times over. She had suggested it more than once, heating him up some soup for his lunch or collecting Bessie, his equally ancient spaniel who would totter gamely along the beach with her, but Mr Bacon would smile gently, turning his soft gaze sightlessly towards her and patting her on the hand.

     “I like to hear the bell on the cash register ring, my dear.” He nodded in the direction of the wall that separated the little flat he lived in from the shop. “It reminds me of the world outside. And makes me feel safe to know you are there, looking after my lovely shop for me.”

 

The customer smirked, brandishing his calculator at her. “I make it forty-four pounds eighty. Good job I checked.”

     Tory’s smile dimmed. The afternoon seemed endless. It was her last night with Nettie before she returned to college in London. The thought of the long, dreary evenings that would follow, with nothing but a book or the television for company, was a miserable one, but Tory comforted herself with the recollection that she and Nettie were going out for supper. Only fish and chips down at the seafront, but it was to be Nettie’s treat. She had earned the money by busking in the London Underground. “Don’t fuss, mum. All the students do it. It’s not like begging. We have to get proper licences and everything.”

     Tory imagined her daughter singing deep below London’s busy streets. Nettie’s lissom, tawny loveliness in those sunless, echoing chambers - that magical voice floating up to the surface above the unheeding heads of the commuters as they rode the escalators, cascades of perfect notes raining down upon them like pearls and diamonds.

  “Hello? My change? My twenty?” The customer was waving his hand in front of her face. Tory jumped, opened the till, and took out a twenty pound note.

     Mickey had been browsing his way along the shelves. It was a lovely shop. He doubted it had changed much in the last fifty years. A brass bell jangled when the door opened, and the till was an old-fashioned silvered monstrosity – he wouldn’t have been surprised to see prices in sixpences and farthings. Stacks of canvases leaned against the walls. Cedar boxes of oil paints, water colours in black japanned tins, great pots of brushes of all kinds were displayed on wooden shelves which gleamed with the patina of age. The customer’s eyes were gleaming, too, at the sight of the twenty pound note being held out towards him. He reached for it, but Mickey was there first.  “Excuse me. I think the lady’s made a mistake.” He took twenty pence out of his pocket and dropped it lightly into the man’s outstretched hand. Scowling, the customer picked up his bags and slammed out of the shop.

     “Oh - thank you! How awful of me! I was miles away!” Tory looked hopefully at Mickey. If he bought the book of photos he had been looking at, the shop would be in profit for the first time this week. He passed her his card, and placed his notepad and pen on the counter. "I’m a reporter with the local paper. I’m here to interview you about the art competition. You must be thrilled!”

     Tory was doubtful. “Well… yes, I suppose. If it increases sales. Though it’s not my shop, so it doesn’t make much difference to me, really.”

     It was Mickey’s turn to be confused. “No – I mean, you must be pleased that your painting won first prize.” He was rummaging in his rucksack, looking for his camera. He knew the format. She’d be all gushy and excited, wanting to look her best for her photo on the front page of the Gazette.

     “My painting?” Her voice was the merest quiver of sound.

     Mickey found the camera and gave it a quick rub with his sleeve. “You won first prize. They announced the results this morning. Mrs – er, Tredegar. That’s right? Tina, is it?”

     “Tory.”

     “Tory. As in Victoria, would that be? And Tredegar…. that’s an unusual name. Cornish, by the sound of it.”

     “Yes. I mean, no.  That is – I don’t know.” He had to strain to hear her.

     “Your daughter’s training to be an opera singer, someone told me. At music college, is that right? It’s a very striking portrait. Unusual colouring, Takes after her father, does she?”

     Nettie’s vibrant, leonine beauty, her tumbling tawny hair and eyes that were more golden than brown bore no resemblance to Tory’s thin mousiness. In her ill-fitting dirndl skirt and drab, much-washed blouse, her hair in an unbecoming pony-tail, Tory looked the sort of dull, middle-aged woman who would pass unnoticed through a crowd. But when she raised her eyes imploringly to his, Mickey was taken aback to see that they were thickly fringed with the same dark lashes and glinted with those same golden lights. Her knuckles were white where she gripped the counter.

     Mickey held the camera to his eye. Tory’s drawn face had no more colour to it than the whitewashed walls behind her. The dark circles round her eyes were smudged thumbprints of indigo. “Right, well, smile for the camera - ”

     Tory threw her hands up to her face. “I don’t want my photo taken.”

     “Want to run a brush through your hair? I can hang on a minute if you like.”

     “No. It’s not that. I don’t want to be in the paper. Sorry.”

     Mickey lowered the camera with a sigh. “My boss is expecting me to do this story. Honestly, it’s just the local paper. I’ll be five minutes, you won’t even notice.”

     Tory ran round the counter and picked up his rucksack. She staggered slightly under its weight, but headed for the door.

     “Here - hold on!” Mickey grabbed his notebook and pen. She had the door open.  Before he could stop her, she’d heaved his rucksack into the street. There was a horrible clunking sound as it hit the pavement. He winced. That would be his laptop. The shop door slammed shut behind him and he heard the bolts ram home.

Tory ran up the stairs to the little one-bedroomed flat above the shop.  Her hands were shaking so much, she could hardly manage to fill the electric kettle. She made herself a cup of tea, and drank it leaning against the draining board, looking out of the window at the view of dustbins and the ungainly straggle of overgrown back gardens. 

     Tory had missed Nettie so much when she went away to college that there were some days that she thought she could hardly breathe with the pain of it.  One quiet afternoon she’d been wandering round the shop, tidying up some brushes here, and sorting out some pencils there, all the while thinking of Nettie. Almost without thinking, she’d assembled her materials and set up her easel right there in the shop. She didn’t need Nettie in front of her to paint her portrait; Nettie’s face was burned into Tory’s soul. The paint simply melted from the tip of her brush onto the canvas. Every brushstroke was in the right place. She’d hardly needed to look at her palette, painting with ferocious intensity. It was past midnight before she stopped and took stock of her surroundings. Every light in the shop was on. The door to the street was still open. But in front of her, her daughter’s face blazed out of the canvas, as still and watchful as a nun, but with Nettie’s sweet smile hiding in those wonderful amber eyes.

     Tory had looked at the canvas in front of her, and the tears had come. She wept soundlessly into her hands, unable to stop, for a long time. Finally, with a last, stifled sob, it was over.  She had blown her nose, picked up the canvas, taken it into the store room and hidden it, face to the wall, behind a stack of old cardboard boxes. Nettie must have found it and put it into the art show in a misguided attempt to liven Tory up a bit; Nettie made no secret of the fact that she thought her mother led a dull, unfulfilled sort of life. 

     Tory stared out of the window. The sky was charcoal-colour, and a few thin fingers of rain were beginning to pat gently on the glass. For a moment, the clouds parted, letting through a thin last wash of sunlight. Beyond the view of the dustbins, a tiny sliver of sea suddenly shone silver. Tory fixed her gaze on its distant glimmer.

      “Well,” she said out loud. “I’ve always known this day would come. And I don’t suppose, now, that I have any choice.”

And she pulled her suitcase from beneath her bed, and started to pack.

 

Mickey headed back to the Town Hall to take another look at Tory’s painting. The judging panel had met that morning and now, with their deliberations complete, the show was open to the public. A small, excited crowd had already gathered in front of Tory’s picture.  Amongst the seaside scenes and studies of seagulls and the arrangements of oyster shells, bucket, lemon and silver knife (there were at least a half dozen versions, each as bad as the others) Tory’s glorious portrait of Nettie was as out of place as – ‘oh, I don’t know,’ thought Mickey, ‘It’s as if someone’s driven up to London and pinched a portrait from some gallery and stuck it up on the wall as a joke!’ He stiffened. Gallery… that rang a bell.  Part of his media studies course had involved a trip to London and a tour of the art galleries. The students had taken a quick look round and then headed for the pub.  But something was niggling away at the back of his mind.  The portrait reminded him of … that is, he remembered looking at …  

     The churning feeling in the pit of his stomach intensified. He punched his fist into the air. He was onto a story, he knew it!  He looked at his watch. The next train to London left in twenty minutes. If he ran - he ran.

 

The National Portrait Gallery houses paintings of the great and the good; here an unknown face beloved of the artist, there a famous face, known to all. But none of the pictures was as renowned as that of Gregoire St John Prechac’s portrait of Jake Stephens. It was a must-see for every visitor, and there was always at least one lovelorn girl gazing up at it. Seated on her chair at the doorway, Cath smiled to herself. This might be the only time they saw him. But she was the lucky one – she could see him every day. Cath loved Jake.

     When Harry proposed to her, they had been to see Jake Stephens as Romeo, in his very first performance with the Royal Shakespeare Company. They’d been working together for years, smiling shyly at one another as their paths crossed, Cath in the office, Harry in the warehouse, but it was their first actual, going-out-together date.

     The crowd of theatre goers had spilled out along the South Bank on that hot summer night in virtual silence, stunned by the power of the play they had seen. There was moonlight, a huge full moon hanging low above the city and gleaming along the black length of the Thames. Cath and Harry had stopped and leaned on the parapet looking out over the water. Cath was wearing a new dress, pink – her favourite colour - and had got her hair permed, too. It hadn’t turned out as she had hoped. Rather than the soft waves she’d imagined, her hair was a mass of what she thought looked like bedsprings.

Harry was quite a lot older than her. He was losing his hair, and had a bit of a tummy on him, but he’d turned to her with tears in his eyes.

     “I know I’m no Romeo, Cath,” he’d said, “But every time I see you I feel as tongue-tied and foolish as any silly seventeen year old boy, just like that lad on the stage tonight.” And he’d gone down on his knees, right in the middle of the street with everyone around, and asked her to marry him. They’d only been married a year when Harry had his heart attack.

     There was a young man standing in front of the portrait now, gazing at it with great intensity, muttering to himself and making notes on a pad. Cath walked across to him. The National Portrait Gallery attracted its fair share of misfits and obsessives, though she’d never had to deal with one. She checked that her walkie-talkie was switched on. She only had to yell for help and half a dozen security guards would be there in a moment.

     “It’s a lovely painting, isn’t it?” She smiled reassuringly at him. He looked a bit odd; shocked, almost. She couldn’t see why. There was Jake, just as ever, his face half in shadow, head bowed as if in prayer, though if you looked closely you could see that he was reading something. A letter, or a script, perhaps. The background was a fantasy, mermaids and unicorns and dragons, waterfalls and caves, rose-filled gardens and daisy-strewn meadows. It might have been a tapestry or it could have been wallpaper, it wasn’t easy to tell. The overall effect was of – well, Cath had once read something that described it perfectly, though she didn’t know where it was from, but it was ‘a verray parfit, gentil knight’ and she thought that was exactly it. In the portrait, Jake looked as if he had just stepped out of a fairy tale.

     Mickey looked wildly at Cath. “Do you know - who painted this portrait?”

     Cath indicated the label on the wall. “Gregoire St John Prechac. Look, it says so, right here.”

     Mickey studied the label. “Gregoire Saint John - I don’t think – I mean, who is he?”

    “Sinjun – that’s how you say it. Gregoire Sinjun Prechac. He is the son, Gregoire, that is, of St John Tredegar, the sculptor.” She paused. The young man had dropped his notebook. “Well, the illegitimate son. You must know the family – St John Tredegar was married to Demelza Trenwith, the opera singer. But she lives in-”.

     The young man gaped at her. “Opera singer?” he croaked.

     “Yes, opera singer. Anyway, Gregoire had an exhibition. It would have been about twenty years ago. A dozen or so paintings including this portrait. Jake Stephens then was – oh, he was wonderful. I saw him, you know, in his first ever performance with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He was only seventeen. I mean, he was seventeen when I saw him. This portrait was painted when he was in his twenties.”

    "So, Gregoire had this exhibition. It was a sell-out – he was hailed as a genius. But he never painted again.  Jake was in a car crash. He was going to get married. Allis Ambrose, she was an actress. But there was a car accident and she died and Jake -.” Cath’s eyes filled with tears; she couldn’t help herself. “He was marvellous. The best actor of his generation.      "And all we have left to remember him by is this portrait.”

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