Copyright is held by the author.
IT WAS my idea to invite Eric for dinner. Neither of us knew him well despite the fact we lived literally around the corner from him, but I’d known his wife Julia a little; we’d met while depositing or collecting various children from elementary school and had gone to the same yoga class. I thought she was a bit stiff — not my kind of person — but we’d had coffee a few times over the years and had got on reasonably well.
Anyhow to cut to the chase, once their youngest had gone to university — Bryony I think she was called — Julia seemed to spring into life and within months she’d left Eric for a woman who was — and I jest not — half her age. There was a lot of surprise in Sunny Acres. It seems that no one had anticipated that.
So Eric the cuckold was left alone and in a house I’d coveted for years; it was old and had spread itself discerningly over the plot; it also had a turret for god’s sake! Our house was a 60s Canadian lump that I cared very little for; all I could say about it was that it had served its purpose as a child rearing and cooking centre for just over 23 years.
I suggested asking Eric for dinner as I felt sorry for him and, I have to be honest here, I was nosey and wanted to know more about Julia’s new squeeze. I also thought we might be eligible for a return dinner at his house. I really wanted to see inside.
When I called round to the turret house on a very cold Wednesday evening in the hope of — well you know, Eric didn’t invite me in, not even into the hall but he did seem pleased to be invited to our little dinner party, which was going to comprise Joe and me of course, Marty and Marie-Claire from next door, Eric, and then Joe’s long divorced sister Rachel. I wasn’t match-making, neither did I go for harmony in table numbers but Rachel was a little unconventional and if I wasn’t sure about someone, one of her more entertaining quirks would always force the deciding factor: Rachel was, still is, incredibly proper looking and sounds ever so posh — she’s a Brit — until she drops a beautifully surprising “well fuck me” in the middle of the conversation.
On the evening of the Eric dinner, we were talking about Guelph’s green agenda when Rachel let slip her first “fuck.” Eric dropped his spoon onto his soup-plate with a clatter and a small splash of asparagus and pea. He did a masterful job of looking disapproving; probably thinking “Such foul words from such a pretty mouth.” I knew then he could never be our friend. How prescient of me.
Overall and despite Rachel, the dinner was unremarkable and merited few comments during the clean-up; though in bed later Joe suddenly laughed apropos of nothing and said “God that Eric needs his prostate checked. Do you know how many times he went for a pee? Four! Worse than you when you were pregnant. You won’t ask him back again will you Cat?” No I wouldn’t.
A few days later, it was a Thursday afternoon and I’d had a very good and satisfying shift at the hospital; I usually finish work early that day and always look forward to a couple of hours by myself before Joe blasts his way into my peace. I’d just arrived home; I still had my coat and one boot on when they knocked on the door; it was as if they’d been lurking around the corner.
There were two of them: a prepubescent police officer and an older man, not in uniform but with a dangly ID and an impressively bulging briefcase. Behind them was a police car with two other uniforms leaning against it and next to that a flash, long, dark car with a single, still blue light atop. I was confused, perhaps a little anxious about my absent family, perhaps a tad shocked but above all really pissed off that these people were upsetting my two hours without Joe. I waited.
The older man in mufti started with a terribly lugubrious voice “Mrs. Watson. Mrs. Catherine Wats —”
It was then that I knew they had something dreadful to tell me and I’m pretty sure I shrieked “What’s happened!”
He stared and coughed and brought out a beautifully pressed white handkerchief from his navy blue wool coat pocket. He appeared to be in no rush. “Mrs. Watson. Detective Superintendent Chalmers. I’m the head of Fine Art Recovery, Toronto and I have a warrant to search your house for stolen property . . .”
I laughed when I butted in “Oh. No no no no no! Fine art and us — no. You have the wrong house.”
“Mrs. Watson. We believe we have the right house. A warrant . . . to search.” He passed a single sheet of paper to me. “A painting, you see, stolen from the AGO many moons ago. We have reason to believe we will find it here.”
The warrant appeared to corroborate what he said — namely that some fool had decided they should search our house for stolen property. I thought “how ridiculous” but let them in and stood guard while they removed their boots. Chalmers told me to wait in the hall. “I have it on good faith that you’ll be able to see everything we do from here.”
DS Chalmers and the uniform went upstairs and straight into a tight conflab in that dark corner outside the main bathroom. Chalmers delved into his briefcase and then were a number of flashes — about ten in all maybe. The young police officer then came downstairs, replaced his boots and within two minutes he was back at the front door with a cardboard carton, a roll of bubble wrap and blue gloves. With the blue gloves and immense care Chalmers removed Uncle Fred’s picture from the wall and placed it on the layer of bubble wrap the police officer had placed on the landing floor. Chalmers wrapped the picture slowly, tenderly, in reams and reams of wrap before ever so gently depositing it in the cardboard box. Chalmers gave his briefcase to the underling and carried Uncle Fred’s picture downstairs. He was still in no rush.
He carried the box out to the police car and then came back and asked “Mrs. Watson. Who does that painting belong to?”
I said, “Well me of course, and I suppose Joe. We’ve had it for years. It’s always been there. Horrible old thing.”
Chalmers said, “You have to come to the police station . . . Guelph and make a statement. At the moment, well, you may face charges . . . mmmmm.” And then he gave a funny kind of sardonic laugh “Won’t arrest you yet, but I will expect you at the station within 30 minutes.”
I rang Joe and he said he’d meet me downtown. He thought it was very funny.
I insisted on sitting in the waiting area until Joe arrived and after my quick recap Joe laughed some more. When we were summoned in to Chalmers, a different police officer asked if we wanted coffee or tea. Rather rudely I thought, Chalmers butted in advising against the offer of a hot drink “Terrible, terrible . . . better off with water. Fountain just outside.”
Chalmers then asked if we wanted a solicitor. I said “We have one.” And pointed a finger at Joe who said in more heavily accented Mancunian than usual, “Well divorce and family really mate, but I’ll cope.”
Then Chalmers spread out his papers and photographs on the table between them and us and pushing the photographs towards us, asked me how I’d acquired that painting.
“My Uncle Fred. It was a present.” I paused. Nothing happened. Joe and Chalmers and the police officer were all looking at me expectantly so I proceeded to give them the long version. I have a habit of providing long versions.
“My Uncle Fred. Fred the womanizer, gambler, philanderer. Frederick David Sidney Hamilton. Never married. Never anywhere for very long. Born Toronto before the war. My mother’s older brother and she was born in 1940. She was embarrassed by him. He turned up at our door every few years and stayed for a day or so. He was different: handsome, nonconformist, anarchic even. He smoked cheroots and never ever came to church with us. I thought he was wonderful. I hadn’t seen him for quite a while and then Joe and I got married we went to the UK — the Lake District — for our honeymoon. Camping can you believe. It peed down the whole time we were there. When we got back to Guelph — we had a nice apartment in the Ward then — there was this scruffy parcel in the porch. It was that picture with a note saying whatever from Uncle Fred. We hated it. So dark and gloomy. We’ve always called it “the man who’s had a really bad day.” We thought it was from a junk shop or thrift store. We stashed it somewhere until we moved into the house where we are now and stuck it where you found it. I occasionally waft a feather duster over it. That’s it.”
“Well. Thank you Mrs. Watson. Very enlightening. Mr. . . . uh . . . Watson . . . Joseph . . . Joe. Can you enlarge . . .?”
“No. I can minimize though. It’s always been there. Don’t know how it got there. Could have come with the house for all I know. You can have it.”
I jumped in “No he can’t. Uncle Fred gave it to me, us.” Even though I didn’t like it, I was dammed if I was going to give it away without a proper fight, though as I spoke it was seeming less and less likely that we’d be taking our “man who’d had a really bad day” home with us.
“Well Mrs. Watson, well, you’re both wrong. You can’t give it away because it’s not yours to give. I strongly believe it belongs to the Art Gallery of Ontario. It was donated by the Johnson family in 1954 and disappeared — there was a little carelessness — sometime between 1992 and 1994 while it was resting in the basement. And Mrs. Watson, we know Mr. Frederick Hamilton. He is — has been —imprisoned on more than one occasion for theft of art. He is or was an art thief.”
Joe started laughing again, this time in earnest “God what is your mother going to say! A thief in the family. Sorry Cat. I can’t wait for you to tell her.”
I ignored him but asked Chalmers “When you say was do you mean was as in dead?”
“Yes. As a dodo. In Istanbul. Apartment full of ‘interesting’ artefacts. We are working with the Turkish police. We think your mother will be the next of kin. It’s going to be a jolly big mess but I’m very happy.”
“Oh, what a shame. Does my mother know? Oh of course she doesn’t. She’d have told me without delay.”
“At once,” Joe added for comic effect I believe.
I ignored him and sensing defeat — and I wasn’t that bothered by losing on this count — I asked Chalmers, “So who’s it by — the artist I mean? And what’s going to happen to us?”
“It’s a Vermeer. Not of great consequence but a Vermeer nevertheless. Oh and you, a written statement . . . for now. I don’t think, can’t guarantee of course, I’ll take it back to Toronto and . . .” Chalmers drifted off. He seemed bored now.
“And how did you know it was in our house? You went straight to it.”
Joe said, “Whoa! I know. That fucking Eric with the pretend prostate problem at dinner last weekend! He’s something to do with art isn’t he? Sneaky bugger!”
Chalmers didn’t say anything but he raised his eyebrows in a particular way that told me Joe was right.
We haven’t spoken to Eric since. He assiduously avoids any contact with us and we’re not sorry.
We bought a nice little Modigliani print from a thrift store to fill the space outside the upstairs bathroom. It looks much better than the Vermeer.