Stealing A Million
The oil painting of sunflowers was radiant with brilliant yellow strokes resembling the sunflowers in my garden. Ten tall stems with with large flower heads attracted birds and insects. I was roused to embrace a celebrated mood because I could finally do a painting of these flowers just like Vincent Van Gogh who painted them using vibrant chrome yellow. But I won't make the same mistake that he did when he used white pigments to lighten the yellow that eventually turned to brown. Surely there were better quality of oil paints today than in the 19th century. All I was thinking was to go out to the garden, cut some sunflowers, place the tall stems in a glass vase and start painting. But first, I had to go out to buy milk and eggs. When I returned home, I saw no sight of my sunflowers!
I called my son, John who rushed to my house. I had to make chamomile tea to calm my nerves. I offered him a cup and began telling him what transpired last year after his father's death. I recalled very clearly the morning when a heavy downpour did not stop me from making an appointment with an art tutor. Alan was a retiree just like me but I knew nothing about him apart from that. My wet shoes squeaked as I rang the doorbell of his art studio.
I tried to make a good impression on Alan. I had my floral dress with lace collar pressed with a borrowed iron, got my hair permed and, dyed black. I had painted my thin lips with a rosy hue to make me look youthful but I could do nothing about my wrinkled face. My petite body and slightly hunched shoulders did garner unwanted attention from strangers who thought of me as a helpless old woman. I didn't want Alan to think of me as one either.
I wanted to learn about composition, texture, colour, light so I could produce an oil painting like Van Gogh. Alan was surprised that I only wanted to learn to paint sunflowers. His composed face made him look younger although his shoulder length hair was grey. Alan showed me a workbench yet I eyed the easels with mounted canvases. He handed me a charcoal pencil and a drawing paper.
'Mastering an oil painting takes years but if you're only interested in painting sunflowers, I could certainly instruct you but first, let's see you sketch some sunflowers for me.' He left me alone to draw sunflowers using my imagination.
Framed works of minimalist paintings hung on the four walls of the studio. Large glass windows let in the morning sunlight after the rain had washed the broad streets. Some of the window glass pieces were in shades of red, blue and green. The beautiful architecture of the front studio connected with the landscape. Through a glass window, I saw maple trees shedding their leaves and standing naked while the ground was scattered with yellow, red and orange leaves while some were turning brown. Raindrops and dew on the leaves would make a perfect canvas but I stubbornly devoted my heart in painting sunflowers.
Several art students were working on a still art arrangement of green wine bottles, a glass bowl of black grapes and, a white linen napkin. Soon they left after picking up their coats and umbrellas. Only Alan and I were left in the studio with an instrumental music playing softly in the background. I concentrated fully on my sketch. Working on this art was like a therapy as I could keep loneliness at bay. Being a widow was not easy for me as I missed my husband.
Alan lifted his round rim glasses to his forehead and said, 'Are these sunflowers? They look more like daisies to me.' He heaved a sigh and said, 'Come back on Saturday at sharp 9.00am, not a minute late.' I was kind of perplexed because I still had half an hour more. He apologised saying he had to close early and asked me to bring a bouquet of sunflowers next week if they're still available in fall. I heard him say under his breath that daisies cannot bloom into sunflowers in a day or ever. I walked out as gracefully as I could. I contemplated on quiting but I was determined to learn.
It was weeks before I could actually master drawing sunflowers that looked "alive" with their own characteristics and I loved the ones that tilted their flower heads to soak up golden rays of light. I also fancied the flowers that drooped shyly. I admired the pencil sketches but I could not wait to paint.
One evening when I stepped into his studio, I noticed that all the framed paintings were missing from sight. I closed my eyes and imagined the minimalist painting of squares of different sizes and lines on the bare wall. I startled when I saw just one easel in the studio and there were boxes piled at one corner. I thought Alan might be redecorating his studio.
'I'm ready to paint in oil,' I said.
'Yes, I think you are.' he said and led me to an easel with a white canvas. There were tubes of Ultramarine Blue, Cadmium Yellow, Titanium White and Burnt Sienna alongside turpentine, palette and paint brushes. Using a charcoal pencil, I sketched the sunflowers that I've mastered. I was excited in doing my first painting.
After instructing me on painting in oil, he said, 'I'm afraid this will be our last class.' I was dumbfounded.
I fumbled, 'I've not even started painting yet and even if I do, I won't be able to finish my painting.'
'Girl, sorry..Freda, tell me what you see outside.'
There was a blanket of snow, rows of trees dressed in snow and a Christmas tree adorned in lights. A family strolling by with their hands full of shopping bags. I didn't describe what I saw instead I waited for him to continue.
'I miss that!'
'You miss snow?'
'No, I miss my family in London. I'm closing my studio to be with them.'
My eyes once again glanced at the almost empty studio. I asked him, 'Are you not coming back?'
'Yes, I've sold my studio. I'm sorry. I'll refund your money!'
We said our farewells. I did not paint that day! I felt the biting cold wintry weather as I lumbered along the snowy street with a heavy heart.
In spring, I received a delivery from a florist here in Manchester. They were sunflowers from Alan with a message saying: 'When you've finished your masterpiece, let me know. I would like to exhibit your work at my studio.' My eyes welled in tears and my legs sprang to twirl around.
John interrupted my thoughts, 'Did you call me over to tell me your sunflowers were gone? I left my job because I thought that something dreadful happened .. I thought you had hurt yourself!' He did not stop but continued nagging for the next two minutes.
I stared blankly at him.
'Someone stole my sunflowers!'
'So, what's the big deal?'
'Stealing a million pieces of my heart!'
John felt sorry for me and comforted me. We went out together to the garden.
'Are you making a police report?' I asked.
He scratched his head and said sheepishly, 'If that makes you happy, mama.'
'Mama, why do you love sunflowers very much?'
'The best thing that ever happened in my life is your father. He always got me sunflowers. He left me a letter saying that even when he was gone, he would still be here in spirit in the presence of sunflowers!'
I stood in admiration of a painting at an art gallery in London. It wasn't as good as Van Gogh's Sunflowers but I felt it was a masterpiece, my one and only love-abiding work.
Monte Carlo? Listen! I'll tell you about Monte Carlo.
I'd set it up good. Everything seemed just right; the timing, the punters; the setting. How could it fail? The casino was full and the croupiers on duty. The Cote d'Azur never looked brighter.
I planned this for over a year. Finding the right player is always the difficult part. I need glamour and skill; star quality and good knowledge of casino games.
After months searching the gaming houses of South America, I found Mario in a flophouse in Buenos Aires. He was thin and dirty but I could see his style had not deserted him. He still possessed that spark he had as a first class gigolo. He smiled when I outlined the game to him and I'd found the man.
Alexia was never a problem. Her auburn hair and full breasted figure had been a feature of six or seven magazine covers before she fell out with Harvey Weinstein and lost her contract in Hollywood. When I rang her she was 'resting' in a motel in downtown San Diego, a long way from the bright lights. She had been 'resting 'for quite a few years.
"You sweet man! Of course I can make it to Monte! I'm having a break from filming and would be happy to help. What's the gig?"
I outlined the plot and she jumped at the idea; two days later she was in Nice looking at dress shops at my expense.
As they sauntered along the boulevard leading to the Grand Casino, I knew they looked the part. Mario wore his tuxedo with elan, his long black hair pulled back into a shiny knot like a bull-fighting torero and his slim figure completed the image. He smoked a cheroot in a jade holder and strolled with the studied ease of a rich sportsman. Alexia took his arm and they made the picture of a celebrity couple as they walked up the long flight of steps to the main entrance. I was their chauffeur in black cap and dark suit, carrying an aluminium briefcase.
"Good evening," The major domo bowed and presented an orchid to the beautiful Alexia, "May I ask you to sign in and I will take you to a table."
His smile was warm but his eyes were like flints. I warned Mario that the staff would check on them and I provided him with the name of a Spanish bull fighter who was fighting in Mexico at that time.
A dark suited clerk took me aside and examined the briefcase; it contained one hundred thousand US dollars. His fingers flickered over the notes like the touch of a butterfly, then he nodded to me and I closed the lid. We were in.
The money belonged to me. If you think I have a hundred thousand dollars -think again! It was made for me by Luigi Macron in Lille. Of course it would not fool a Treasury Official but good enough for a quick show at the guichet of a casino and it worked perfectly. The clerk issued a chitty for chips to that figure and I drew them from the counter and handed them ostentatiously to 'my Boss.' They made a pretty pile as he sat at the big roulette table. I positioned Alexia at the far end of the same table with a few chips so that when she leant forward to play, she accidentally showed her cleavage . When she did, no man could watch Mario and no woman would take her steely eyes off her.
My role was to spend time in the basement like a good servant, chatting and gossiping with the others. I held the briefcase tightly since the Company would not accept responsibility for punter's assets. I sat apart and no one watched me as I pinpointed the fusebox for the lighting system. The plan was to switch off the interior lighting and 'top hat' the winning numbers at the best table.
Give me a moment and I'll explain.
If you can quickly add extra chips to the winning counters, then you can make thirty five times the stake on each coup. It takes quick hands and good timing but two working together make it easy. How do you make the switch? Kill the lights for a second and it's done. We had set it up for midnight plus five minutes and I watched the clock.
Just before I moved to the switch I felt something was wrong. The staff around me began to gather round the screens showing the gaming tables. Then one screen zoomed in on the table where Mario sat. His hands filled the screen; in his fingers you could see three 100 dollars chips ready to flick onto winning numbers as soon as the lights went out.
What could I do? What would anyone do? I pulled the switch. There was uproar in the basement and I slipped upstairs to the Gaming Salon, holding the briefcase. Within a few seconds, the emergency lighting came on and I confronted bedlam.
What had been the sophisticated social scene, was a madhouse. At every table glamorous women old and young were grappling with each other or stretched across the green baize to reach any chips still lying on the table. A man in a wheelchair barged through the crowd to reach one of the Baccarat tables, scooping up chips on his way.
Alexia? I found her under the gaming table, half naked, struggling with an ancient crone who managed to snatch the chips Alexia had pinched from the croupier.
There was no sign of Mario. His chair was empty and his pile of chips had disappeared. The Casino staff were struggling through the swarming mass to reach the tables and rushing to close the doors to the Gaming rooms. I squeezed out just before they closed and ran downstairs with my briefcase.
Before I got my head together, a burly Gendarme grabbed me by the arm and pulled me out into the street.
"What's up Monsewer?" Says I.
He gave me a sickly smile, "About five years, I reckon."
He pointed to the briefcase and the fake dollars.
"But I can explain," I said.
He shoved me into a van and we drove off. As we passed through the square, I peered out of the window. There, at a café, sat Mario with a large plastic bag; it bulged with what I knew to be casino chips. He looked content.
You see, it all depends on the staff you pick. I struck out this time but in a few years I'll be out and give it another go. You've got to keep playing the game, haven't you?
In our teens we turned our attention to Mrs. Davies. She and her ugly daughter lived alone in a big house with a long. thin strip of garden to the side. If you so much as played on the pavement in front of the house she shouted at you. She threw things too turning annoying her into more of a challenge. Several times a week we would dash to the bottom of her garden and back ducking the stones she lobbed. The daughter never left the house so we didn’t actually know she was ugly but why else would she sit inside with the curtains drawn and her face obscured by a hood?
The stones got sharper, more like flints and when one cut your cheek we began to plot in earnest. The daughter worried me but you said she would probably be glad to get out of that house, she was a prisoner there. Once we got the money we’d pay for her to have surgery, make herself beautiful. That made sense. Sometimes people have to be made to do things for their own good. That’s what Mum said when they took Dad away.
What I couldn’t work out was how to make Mrs. Davies give us her house. Whichever way I came at it she didn’t seem to be in the picture anymore. She wouldn’t do it voluntarily – she hated us. I thought we’d better check what her current will said so I broke into her house at night. I didn’t take you because someone always seemed to get hurt when you were around.
It was easier than I’d imagined. There was a spare key under a hideous frog plant-pot by the front door. You’d have thought she wanted to be burgled but I took nothing, just rifled through the papers in her desk, got lucky again and found her will. The next day I showed it to you. As we’d expected it left everything to her daughter. The witnesses could have been a problem but we knew both of them died last year. ‘So Ugly Daughter gets it all.’
‘Not for much longer,’ you said and got to work creating a will that favoured you and me. By the time you’d finished it was only the names that distinguished the genuine one. ‘Now,’ you said, ‘all we have to do is make her like us so people will believe she meant this.’
We never worked harder than we did that summer. We trimmed her overgrown hedges, did her shopping, washed her car but nothing softened her attitude towards us. It was your idea to try and befriend the daughter. I’d left school and was doing nothing so you sent me in. I waited for Mrs. Davies to go out and knocked on the door. There was a shuffling sound like something inhuman was creeping down the corridor.
She was nothing like I’d thought. Her hood covered a frail elf-like face but she was pretty. Too pale and thin but she gave no impression of illness. ‘Hi,” I started, ‘my name’s Jess. I’m doing door-to-door friendship.’
She didn’t reply but shrank even further back from the doorway to indicate I should enter. I went into the dark house. It smelt of cooked cabbage. I followed her into the front room. The curtains were drawn. She stopped and faced me. ‘I’m Ellen. This is my house.’
It felt as if she knew what we had planned. Her stare made me face the part of the scheme I hadn’t wanted to think about. In order for us to inherit Mrs. Davies would have to die. You were planning to kill her. All that rubbish about imprisoning her daughter was a fiction. I had no idea why Ellen was housebound. ‘Why do you never go out?’
To my surprise she laughed. ‘Have you made up stories about me? I used to do that when I was young. I can’t go out in daytime. I’m allergic to sunlight.’
‘But can’t they do something? Give you some drugs?’
‘They’ve tried but nothing’s worked so far. It’s awful for Mum always having to sit in the dark. She’s petrified kids like you might break a window or something, put me in danger. I’m sorry she shouts so much.’
‘That’s OK. We didn’t know. If we’d known we wouldn’t have.’ I meant it too but I didn’t think the same was true of you. As we got older you'd changed. Sometimes your intensity scared me. My friendship with Ellen took over from my hanging out with you. She and I started writing stories together. At first you did the illustrations but you soon got bored. By the time we were published you’d left town and we'd dropped your rubbish drawings.
I heard you were in prison for a while. I tried to get in contact but I was so busy at the time. Ellen couldn’t do any of the publicity because of her condition so I seemed to live in hotel rooms in big cities. I thought of you but I never made contact. Then last night Ellen called to say her mum had died.
Ellen and Mrs. Davies never moved despite all the money our books made. I wonder what happened to that forged will. I'm not too worried because I’d put the genuine will back in the desk ten years ago. If you turn up and try to make a claim I only have to confess to our childhood prank. There's no reason for me to feel this dry-mouthed panic.
Somebody is hammering on my door.