The Gallery of Vanished Husbands
An Excerpt From
The Gallery of Vanished Husbands

CATALOGUE ITEM 1

Woman with a Bowl of Apples (a.k.a.The Fridge), Charlie Fussell, Oil on Canvas, 26 x 46in, 1958

It was juliet Montague’s thirtieth birthday. This did not worry her unduly, although she conceded that other women in her position might well be disconcerted. She examined her feelings with her usual frankness, but concluded that she felt just as befuddled sliding out of bed at half past six as she had the day before, and when she dressed the children for school she felt no sudden urge to reach for the cooking sherry. Thirty, Juliet decided, was the point in her life when a woman is at her handsomest. She might not have the flush of her teens or the swagger of her twenties, but at thirty a woman has a directness in her eye. Juliet Montague did anyhow. She knew exactly what she wanted.

She wanted to buy a refrigerator.

That morning was wet and unseasonably cold, but Juliet tried not to take it personally. It seemed unfair to have rain on one’s birthday, and yet she supposed every day was somebody’s birthday and if it never rained on birthdays England would be a desert, and Leonard wouldn’t have anywhere to sail his model boat. Resigned, she buttoned her mackintosh, fastened her scarf tight about her throat and darted around puddles the colour of milky tea as she hurried to the station, uncertain as usual if she would make her train. Juliet lost time, mislaying minutes and even the odd hour, the way her father spilled loose change from his trouser pockets. The freezing rain sliced against her cheeks and in half a minute the wind blew her wretched umbrella inside out.

Yet by the time the train was pulling into Charing Cross, the winter’s morning had been transformed into a spring afternoon. The laundered sky stretched a taut blue above Trafalgar Square, while shuffling pigeons lined up along Nelson’s outstretched arm to dry out in the sunshine like so many pairs of socks. The high puffs of white cloud looked just like the ones Leonard drew in the pictures that Juliet pinned to the corkboard in the kitchen. She glanced at her watch, wondering whether there was time to slip into the National Gallery and visit a few old friends before her shopping trip. The last time she had visited, she’d been caught by a sunflower and misplaced the rest of the afternoon. She’d watched the canvas until the yellow paint began to vibrate and tremble in waves like liquid sunshine, falling out of the frame and spilling onto the gallery floor. On the way home she’d bought sunflowers and sat with Frieda at the kitchen table for nearly an hour watching them in their glass vase to see if all yellow shook if only you watched for long enough.

Feeling her resolve weaken, she jumped on board the first bus going by – which turned out to be going in exactly the wrong direction, but it was such a lovely afternoon she didn’t mind in the least. The prospect of a walk beside the park was just right for a birthday. She pictured the neat pound notes and tumbling coins inside her purse and felt a tingle of exhilaration in her chest. Twenty-one guineas. She’d not had that much money to spend since George left. That had happened on her birthday too. And, she thought, as she dodged the spray thrown up by a rushing taxi, at first it had not even been such a bad birthday – she had not known then that George wasn’t coming back. She’d only been irritated he had forgotten it was her birthday. Not a card, not even a bunch of flowers from the garden (he’d given her one the year before and she’d been touched by the bouquet of black tulips, pleased he’d remembered they were her favourite, until she’d looked out of the kitchen window and seen he’d lopped the heads off all the flowers in her pots by the back door). Her mind tripped down familiar lanes. If only he’d left a note. He could have written it inside a birthday card, killing two birds with one stone: ‘Darling, Many Happy Returns. By the way, I’m off . . .’ Juliet smoothed the silk of her scarf to soothe her thoughts and determined to think of other things; nothing must spoil today. She’d saved so carefully and at last she was going to be a thoroughly modern woman, or at least one not quite so far behind the times. No more fussing with the stupid icebox or leaving bottles of milk on the windowsill outside to chill on winter days and having to buy fish or meat on the afternoon one intended to eat it. She knew how Leonard longed for a television set – for a while now he’d been cultivating friends who possessed one, and when he returned from their houses his cheeks were flushed and he was very quiet, polishing his little round spectacles on his school tie even more than usual, silently rehearsing the wonders of what he had seen. Juliet remained resolute; however enthralling the television might be, it was a luxury and a fridge was essential. Frieda and Leonard watched with fierce solemnity as at the end of each week she dropped another handful of coins into the old custard tin stashed on the top shelf of the larder. They’d not been terribly excited at first: Leonard puzzled that anyone should save for anything other than dinky cars or televisions and Frieda, who spent all her pocket money in the sweet shop the afternoon she was given it, thought of the tin-money in terms of penny sugar mice queuing nose-to-string-tail – she was quite certain it could buy enough mice to stretch all the way to Bognor Regis (a place she could not point to on the map, but which signified an almost infinite distance from Chislehurst).

Frieda was right – the money in the custard tin represented all sorts of pleasures not taken. They had bought cheap seats behind a pillar for Peter Pan and Juliet had nearly cried when Leonard had slumped with disappointment, unable to glimpse Peter swinging across the stage, cutlass between his teeth. For a month they had had meat for supper only three times a week (twice at home and once at Grandma’s on Friday night). Juliet had tried sneaking into the ordinary butchers on the high street to buy the not-so- dear, non-kosher kind, but Mrs Epstein had caught her coming out and told Juliet’s mother, who’d been so upset at the thought of her daughter risking her soul for scrag-end of mutton that Juliet had promised never to do it again. Frieda and Juliet each needed new clothes, though not underthings as Juliet had decided she could endure all manner of privation as long as her knickers were pretty, even if no one would see her in them again. She refused to be one of those women whom the Mrs Epsteins of the world stared at and shook their heads at, muttering with a twist of satisfaction, ‘Ach, she was such a lovely thing, but didn’t she let herself go after the business with her husband?’ Now, at least, when they glared at her with hostile pity, she could think of her silk knickers and smile back.

Her parents had given her the last ten guineas at dinner on Saturday night. Mr Greene slid the notes across the table to Leonard (‘Keep them safe for your mother now . . .’) while Mrs Greene watched her daughter a little unhappily and wondered between mouthfuls of chicken, ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer to buy a nice bit of jewellery for your birthday?’ Juliet shook her head, determined to be sensible. She knew that her newly minted practicality made her parents sad. On the one hand, they were terribly proud of the way she managed. ‘It’s not easy what you do, Fidget,’ said her father, toasting her with his weekly schnapps. On the other, she knew that they missed the decidedly impractical girl who yearned for tennis lessons one week and a vegetable patch in which to grow rhubarb the next. They wanted her to be showered with golden trinkets and not scrimp for fridges. One Friday evening Mrs Greene confided to Juliet that she believed herself responsible for what she preferred to call ‘the unfortunate business’. She confessed, after drinking an uncharacteristic sherry, that she believed it was entirely due to Juliet’s name. They had intended to call her Ethel, a good sensible name for the sort of no-nonsense young woman who liked to weed and wore brown shoes and never forgot to telephone her mother before Shabbos, but bobbing amid the flotsam and jetsam of good feeling following the birth of her only child, Mrs Greene had an attack of romance (the only one she ever suffered in her life, if truth be told) and found herself naming the baby Juliet. Somehow a girl called Juliet seemed destined for that particular type of drama, what was it called? Iambic. Yes, Juliets were destined for iambic dramas in the way that Ethels were not.

The Bayswater Road was one of Juliet’s favourite places. The old iron railings provided an enchanted dividing line – the road on one side and Hyde Park on the other, with green tangles of leaves reaching through the railings like fingers and the birdsong swelling out into the city streets. In the days when there was still a George and free afternoons were ordinary things, Juliet liked to bring the children here in their pram to this rectangle of hush within the clatter of London’s streets. Even now Leonard loved the Peter Pan statue concealed in a huddle of ash trees. He liked to pretend he’d forgotten it, for the joy of stumbling across it once again. Men in suits hurried back to offices, dusting sandwich crumbs from pinstriped lapels, and typists in neat wool coats ambled back arm in arm from paper-bag luncheons in the park. The girls were of an age when all money is for spending, friendships are for ever and every girl still believes that she will be the one to marry Cary Grant. No. That was wrong, Juliet realised. That was when she was eighteen. Nowadays the girls dreamed of Elvis Presley and James Dean.

Juliet’s favourite time on the Bayswater Road was Sunday afternoons when the railings were transformed from dividing line into destination and festooned with paintings of every colour, style and skill. She never minded that some of the artists were bad and that the landscapes were usually muddy pastorals under mislit heavens, stars overlarge and moon too blue, or that the nude beauty was in fact ugly. There was always something good to find among the more ordinary pictures and whenever she spotted it, Juliet felt she had uncovered a secret that belonged to her alone.

She hadn’t had a Sunday afternoon on Bayswater Road for years. Not since the unfortunate business with George. Now Sundays invariably seemed to be filled with the debris washed up from the rest of the week: laundry and half-finished spelling tests, dishes abandoned in the sink, mournful as a shipwreck. She was about to indulge in a few moments of rare self-pity (it was her birthday after all) when to her delight she noticed that further along the road a stallholder had started to fasten canvases to the railings. This was an unexpected treat for a humble Wednesday and she hastened along the pavement in happy anticipation. She found a series of watercolours of London streets, dreary renditions for tourists, but she examined them anyway, enjoying the lazy pleasure of recognition. The stall-holder thrust a hurried sketch of the Houses of Parliament into her hands but Juliet had been distracted. Fifty yards away a young man was propping canvases against the base of the railings. She drew closer, stopping before a portrait of a young girl with cropped brown hair and wearing a full primrosecoloured skirt, which caught in the sunlight rushing in through an open casement window. The girl’s legs were tucked up beneath her in a pose of childlike ease as she leaned forward, immersed in the pages of a book. The picture pulsed with light. It looked to Juliet as if the artist had snatched handful after handful of morning sunshine and spread them over the canvas. How had he managed to get them to stay in the picture and not dribble away? She glanced at the pavement, half expecting to see puddles of sunlight lying at her feet.

‘I’m going to call it Privilege at Rest,’ said a voice, and Juliet turned, noticing the painter properly for the first time, taking in his pale indoor skin and the faint whiff of turps. He exuded an air of contrived decadence; a cigarette dangled from his unshaven lips and he sported a pair of faded denim jeans, torn at the knee and artfully smeared with paint.

‘No,’ said Juliet. ‘It’s called A Study in Sunlight.’

She felt him examining her, his eyes narrowing like two little letter boxes, and her cheeks grew warm until she almost regretted speaking. But no, she had been perfectly right. Whatever his intention, this was not a political painting of the kitchen-sink school. The picture had declared itself and taken life beyond the painter’s brush. If he hadn’t realised this, then somebody needed to tell him. Suddenly he smiled; his frown vanished into an even white grin and Juliet realised just how young he was, not more than nineteen or twenty, probably still a student.

‘Yeah, all right. All right,’ he nodded at her, throwing up his hands as if he’d been caught filching apples. ‘Thought I’d try something different. Didn’t really work, did it?’

Juliet smiled back. ‘No. I’m sorry. But it’s a wonderful painting.’

The young man nodded, attempting nonchalance, but the pink tips of his ears betrayed him. Juliet peered at the signature on the canvas.

‘Charlie Fussell? Is that you?’

He held out his hand in answer and Juliet shook it, feeling the calluses and hard skin. A painter’s palm.

‘Juliet Montague.’

‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Montague.’ Charlie held onto her fingers for a moment too long and Juliet firmly withdrew, removing her hand to the safety of her handbag strap and suspecting he was laughing at her and her prim middle-class manners.

‘It’s not . . .’ She was about to correct him, to tell this boy that she was Mrs Montague, when she remembered that she wasn’t really – only sort of. And what did it matter anyway and why would he care?

She cleared her throat. ‘How much is the picture, please?’

‘Twenty-one guineas.’

Juliet felt the Bayswater Road dwindle into silence all about her, as though someone had lifted the needle off a gramophone record and it kept on spinning but making no sound. Her mouth was dry and her tongue stuck fatly to the roof of her mouth. Twenty-one guineas. Juliet did not approve of fate. Chance was an untrustworthy thing that led to gambling, and then George pawning her fur coat and the little sapphire earrings she was given for Hanukkah and all manner of unpleasantness and yet, and yet, this painting was hers. It was clearly supposed to be hers. She had tried to be dutiful and sensible and everything she ought to be and she tried to aspire to new refrigerators and live only for her well- mannered, messy-haired children but it was no good. She wanted this painting. This was what a birthday present was supposed to be, not a stupid refrigerator.

‘I’ll take it.’

Juliet’s voice was no louder than a whisper and her hand trembled slightly as she reached into her handbag for her purse. She did not notice Charlie’s eyes widen as she accepted the exorbitant price – having never bought a picture before, she did not know that she was supposed to negotiate.

‘Will you wrap it, please?’

‘I’m not selling,’ said Charlie.

A trickle of anger ran down Juliet’s spine like perspiration.

‘If you want more money, you’re sadly out of luck. This is all I have and I was supposed to use it to buy a fridge.’

Charlie laughed. ‘A fridge? You think art is interchangeable with household goods? Now I’m certainly not selling it to you.’

Juliet sucked her lip and frowned. She decided that this was some sort of game she didn’t fully understand.

‘You don’t want this picture,’ said Charlie.

Still Juliet said nothing.

‘You want a picture of you. A portrait. I’ll do it for the same price. Twenty-one guineas.’

Juliet glanced at the young stranger, uncertain if he was teasing her, but he watched her steadily, head tilted to one side as though he was already assessing the pigment he would need for her lip, her eyes. Did she dare? She thought back to that empty wall in the cramped little house in Chislehurst and considered for the thousandth time that she might have come to forgive George in time if only he hadn’t taken the painting with him. In the one before her, the girl studied her book in the morning sunshine, oblivious to Juliet’s disquiet.

‘I want to paint you. You’ve got a good face. Not beautiful. Interesting.’

Juliet laughed, aware she was being flattered. She closed her eyes, and tilted her face up to the warmth of the afternoon sun, conscious that he was looking at her in that inquisitive painter’s way, pondering her face as a puzzle to solve. She found that she liked it. After the business with George, the rabbis insisted that she must become a living widow. He was the one who had vanished but to her dismay she found it was she who had been quietly disappearing piece by piece. At that moment, on her thirtieth birthday, she decided that she wanted something more than fridges, more even than paintings of girls reading in sunlight. Juliet Montague wanted to be seen.

That Friday evening, Juliet sat in the kitchen with her mother, watching the wobbling tower of dirty dishes beside the sink. She knew better than to wash them. Nothing must be touched before the Sabbath ended. Washing-up was work and work was forbidden. Smoking was similarly taboo. She really wanted a cigarette but Mrs Greene would have palpitations if she dared to light a match.

From the living room Juliet could hear her father patiently explaining to Leonard for the umpteenth time why he could not go upstairs to the spare bedroom and play with his Hornby train set. This was a shared passion and through it Mr Greene seemed to discover in his eight-year-old grandson the son he’d always hankered after; hours were lost to signal changes, laying new tracks and the repainting of engines. Fridays, however, were contentious. Leonard couldn’t understand the point of being with his grandfather and yet unable to race trains. His grandfather’s patient explanations about moving parts and work and wheels meant little to Leonard, who simply concluded that God must dislike public transport.

Juliet knew that her son’s confusion was entirely her fault. Shortly after her marriage, she’d discovered that she did not care to keep the rules of Kashrut in her own home. The first time she had accidently eaten a bowl of strawberries and cream out of a chicken soup bowl, she had buried it at the bottom of the garden as was expected. The second time, she rinsed it and placed it back in the cupboard. Nothing happened, except for the merest flutter of guilt. The third time she broke the laws even the guilt disappeared and Juliet quietly exchanged the Jewish standard of one set of crockery for milk and one set for meat for the middle-class standard of one set for ordinary and one set for best. No wonder poor Leonard didn’t know how to behave.

Juliet glanced around her mother’s kitchen: the cramped stove with its single electric ring and the rickety oven that had to be cajoled (by Mrs Greene) or kicked (by Juliet) into action; the faded curtains fluttering in the evening air that had been green and yellow during Juliet’s childhood but had now been washed to a nondescript grey. The evening was cool and cloudless, a string of early stars across the sky. A breeze ruffled the leaves on the apple tree, yet still they sat in the hot kitchen with the back door firmly closed and drank their too strong tea without milk because they always had.

‘Mum, we could go and sit in the garden for a minute.’

‘Best not.’

Mrs Greene shook her head and gripped her cup tighter, offering no explanation. Juliet frowned, seeing her childhood home properly for the first time in years. The kitchen was fusty and dark and smelled of stale dishes and old soup and she wanted to sit in the starlight and breathe cool, fresh air.

‘Come on. It’ll be nice.’

‘Your father hasn’t mended the bench.’

‘He’s never going to mend the bench. We can sit on the back step.’

Mrs Greene recoiled. ‘We can’t do that. It’s common.’

Juliet stalked to the sink to hide her irritation, adding her cup to the heap of dirty crockery. Mrs Greene cleared her throat, a habit when she was nervous. ‘Your father thought that maybe he’s gone to America. Many of them do, you know.’

Juliet said nothing. She didn’t want to think about George. It was too nice an evening to spoil. Mrs Greene, mistaking her daughter’s silence for distress, reached out and clasped her hand. ‘Don’t you worry, my love. This’ll be the year we find him. We’ll fix this unfortunate business once and for all, and get you married again.’

Juliet glanced down and saw that she had gooseflesh threading all the way up her arm, although she was not cold.

A month later, Juliet found herself sitting on a vast and broken sofa in a bright attic flat – no, not flat, studio, Charlie insisted on correcting her.

‘I want the deck of cards on the table. They’re symbolic.’ Charlie’s voice took on a petulant tone, which Juliet recognised as the one Leonard used when declining to eat his spinach.

‘Not to me they’re not. I don’t play.’

Charlie stopped sulking for a moment and glanced at Juliet in mild surprise. ‘Don’t play cards? Everyone likes cards.’

‘Well, I don’t. I hate them. And I won’t have them in my painting.’

Juliet was taken aback by her own vehemence. Embarrassed that she had betrayed too much of herself, she tried to soften her outburst with a smile, pretend it was a joke. ‘Since I’m paying you the princely sum of twenty-one guineas, I get to decide. Goodness, I’m bossy. I suppose this is how rich people are all the time.’

Charlie laughed and Juliet closed her eyes for a second, shocked again at how young he was and a little frightened at her audacity. She was supposed to be at work, busy answering telephones and filling out order books and bills for spectacle lenses at Greene & Son, Spectacle Lens Grinders. There was no son, Juliet being an only child, but Mr Greene assured her that the words ‘& Son’ evoked the necessary impression of an established family business. It nonetheless caused her a pang every time she saw the shop front, a reminder of how her father’s disappointment in his daughter had begun with the mere fact of her birth. That afternoon, instead of sitting with the other office girls (always called ‘the girls’ even though Juliet was the only one under fifty), she’d feigned a dentist’s appointment. Unsure if it was guilt or liberation making her heart pound and her blouse stick underneath her arms, she’d taken the train into London and sought out this drab flat – no, studio – in Fitzrovia.

‘Well, there needs to be something on the table, otherwise the balance is wrong. I want a flash of colour.’ Charlie stood back from the canvas he’d set up beside the window, assessing the composition.

Juliet glanced round the small room. Pictures covered every surface – walls, doors, bookcases, even the sloped attic ceiling was adorned with charcoal sketches of dimple- thighed swimmers at the seafront. Three washing lines zigzagged between low ceiling beams, flapping watercolours and pastels pegged to them like knickers. There was little unity of style – this was the hideaway of several painters – and the pictures were all at various stages of completion, from preparatory pencil sketches to finished oils stacked against the walls. A series of gouache seascapes fluttered on their drawing-pins like stuck moths. The floor was bare where it was not heaped with pictures, the boards stripped and planed to reveal smooth, white wood. The ceiling struts had similarly been exposed, the wood sanded and whitewashed. Despite the smallness of the room it breathed with light, and Juliet felt almost as though she was drifting above London in a bright, wooden ship. She inhaled the smell of turps and oils and beneath that the distinctive note of the old building itself, a scent of earlier lives, of paraffin and beeswax, sweat and smoke, dust and deathwatch beetle. It was unlike anywhere she had ever been and the stillness and the sense of quiet industry filled her with a wordless content.

‘That’s it. That’s the expression I want,’ Charlie cried out. ‘No. It’s gone. You smiled. Never mind. I’ll remember.’

Juliet stretched out on the sofa, drawing up her stocking-clad toes and watching as he pulled out brushes and a palette of watercolours. She frowned, but didn’t like to complain until she remembered the princely twenty-one guineas.

‘No thank you. I don’t want to be painted in watercolours. I’m not a watercolour woman, all soft pinks and gentle yellows. I need oil paint and definite colours.’

Charlie glanced at her in surprise. ‘The watercolours were just for a sketch, but I won’t use them at all if you mind that much.’ He tucked a brush behind his ear and studied her again. ‘You paint too, I take it?’

Juliet chuckled and shook her head. ‘No, I’m not a painter, I’m a looker.’

‘A what?’

‘It’s a knack, like the way some people can do the crossword in ten minutes flat or make the perfect apple strudel. I can’t draw or paint but I can see pictures. Really see them. It’s not the most useful of skills and both my mother and my children would much prefer that I had the gift of making apple strudel.’

Charlie continued to stare at her, thick brows creased. Juliet sighed and tried to explain.

‘I’d always loved going to galleries – that was always the treat I’d pester my mother for, but I didn’t realise I saw differently than other children until I was about ten. At school we were set the task of drawing our favourite toy. I suppose the mistress wanted something cheerful to decorate the rather dreary schoolroom. I don’t remember what I drew. I know it wasn’t very good. We all pinned up our drawings which were ordinary, not worth a jot, all except for one. Anna’s rabbit. It was a perfect portrait. I couldn’t look at anything except that drawing. I listened to the other girls and watched them glance past Anna’s rabbit, oblivious to its particular beauty, and I understood. Unlike Anna I couldn’t draw or paint, but I could see.’

Juliet’s stomach grumbled, she’d been too keyed up to eat much breakfast and it was nearly half past one.

‘Do you have anything to eat?’

Charlie nodded towards the makeshift kitchen, a sink filled with brushes and a solitary kettle. ‘There might be some apples.’

She padded across the floor, picking her way round the piles of paper and canvases. On a rickety dresser rested a bowl of Granny Smith apples. They were a bold, primary-school green amid the bleached wood and subtle painter’s tones. She seized the bowl and set it down on the table, dumping the deck of cards onto the floor.

‘Here you are. Colour. And besides, it was an apple that brought my family to England.’

‘An apple?’ asked Charlie by rote, already lost in thoughts of his painting. ‘Brush your hair back. Behind your ears. Yes. That’s it. And you can keep on talking. I like it.’

Juliet settled back onto the sofa, absently shining the apple on her skirt, watching as Charlie prepared the canvas, mixed paints and then, with broad sweeps of a sponge, marked out the floor, the triangle of light from the window, the yellow-white of the ceiling. Juliet spoke, realising that Charlie was not really listening. She found his half- attention oddly soothing. She could say anything at all – be utterly outrageous, shocking, obscene even, and no one would ever know. With a sigh, she decided that nothing she had to say would seem terribly wicked to a young student. She wished she had something truly despicable to confide, some desire or story to make his eyes widen as the rabbi’s had done when Mrs Greene forced her to recite the business with George and the rabbi sat twisting his beard around his finger until Juliet forgot what she was saying, so mesmerised was she by the purpling of his pinkie. She gave a little laugh. She might tell Charlie about George. Would he find it funny or only sad?

‘Tell me the thing about the apple,’ said Charlie.

‘All right,’ said Juliet, grateful and disappointed to be saved from her confession. ‘Well. We came here from Russia because of an apple. My grandmother Lipshitz was a terrible flirt, but really she’d always loved one boy, a Cohen. I like to think he’d always loved her back but that part of the story was always rather vague. Once I asked my mother to clarify but for some reason she never seemed to think it relevant whether the love was requited or not. My mother is not a romantic. Anyway, when Grandma Lipshitz was about twelve she was dozing in the sunshine in an orchard beside the village and teasing some local boys playing ball among the trees. The ball landed in Grandma Lipshitz’s lap and she held onto it, refusing to give it back. A boy pleaded with her but – and you must remember this bit – the boy was not the Cohen. He said something like, ‘‘Go on, be a doll and I’ll marry you in a moment.’’ Grandma Lipshitz never lost an opportunity to flirt and replied, ‘‘If you’re going to propose, do it properly with a gift.’’ The boy plucked an apple from a tree and tossed it to her, reciting the Hebrew marriage proposal. When Grandma returned home that evening, she told the story to Great-great-grandfather Lipshitz, a learned rabbi. He became very grave and consulted the other learned rabbis who all agreed: my twelve-year-old grandmother and the-boy-who-was-not-the-Cohen were married. He had recited the holy words before witnesses and offered her a gift which she’d not only accepted but eaten. There was only one thing to be done: the boy must divorce her. Then came the hitch. The boy did not want to divorce her. It turned out that he’d secretly hankered after Grandma Lipshitz but always thought she’d marry the Cohen. Now he wouldn’t give her up. She pleaded and raged and threatened to starve herself and hack off her hair but nothing worked. This is where romance gives way to practicality. Deciding that she didn’t really want to starve herself to death, Grandma Lipshitz chose to make the best of things. She agreed to settle down with the-boy-who-was-not-the-Cohen if he took her far away across the sea to where she wouldn’t have to look on her true love every day. Her husband, realising he was onto a good thing, agreed and they sailed away to England. A few years after they left, the pogroms reached the village. All Grandma Lipshitz’s family and the Cohens were murdered. Meanwhile on the other side of the sea, Grandma Lipshitz went on to have seven children and a terraced house in Chislehurst. So you see, I am here because of an apple.’

And a man who would not divorce his wife, thought Juliet, though she did not say this aloud even though she could tell Charlie was no longer listening.

As he paints, Charlie hears her voice as though from under­water. The picture pulls him on. Dark hair but with flecks of red from days in the sun, eyes not quite green, not quite grey. She is trying to be still, but she betrays her restlessness in the wiggling of her toes. She talks and talks but the sound of her voice is wordless, like the tumble of water. Juliet Montague. Charlie doesn’t know girls – or rather women – like her. She is not like his sister’s friends who are part of the smart set and speak on the telephone in loud whispers, desperate to be over­heard. She’s younger than his mother and not a bit like her tennis pals with their cool white dresses and endless fretting about the help. He realises that he’s trying to paint her but he doesn’t really know her at all. She’s an assortment of parts, pale hands, blue dress, tiny mole on her left cheek, a bold cupid’s bow. He watches and watches her, trying to see. On the table rests a bowl of green apples all the way from Russia.

Years later, when Charlie Fussell is an old man, he sees his painting hanging in a gallery. He makes a beeline for her, eager to make her acquaintance once again, but when he reaches her, he’s struck by his own shabbiness. Back then she’d been older than him but now they’ve swapped places and time has run away from him and stopped for her. In age, he examines youth, hers and his, up there on the canvas. He’s filled with sadness (which he expects) and irritation (which he does not) and realises it’s quite clear that in a career spanning many decades he painted his best picture one spring in 1958 when he was not yet twenty­one. Nothing he has done since is as good as this dark­haired woman with her bowl of apples.

The summer was drawing to a close. The plum tree in the back garden had discarded its fruit onto the browning lawn faster than Leonard and Frieda could gather it up, so the small yard now smelled sweetly of rotting plums. It was a Friday and the children drifted around mournfully, conscious that Monday was the start of a new school year and that this last, precious weekend had an air of sorrowful finality, like the last penny sweet in a paper twist. They remembered all the things they had planned to do with the endless weeks that were now ending, and regretted the bike they had not learned to ride (Leonard) and the pocket money that they had not saved for the fancy new school bag (Frieda). Leonard perched on the swing his grandfather had fixed to the tree. It was wonky and he slid down to one end of the crooked seat, swinging half-heartedly and lopsidedly. Frieda lazed on the grass, sighing and sucking on sugar-cubes filched from the pantry. Leonard wondered whether if he hid in the abandoned privy / tool shed at the end of the garden, they would find him and force him to go to school. He concluded with regret that they probably would. He slithered off the swing and slipped out of the side gate. As he crossed the scrap of lawn with its pair of flowerpots that passed for a front garden, he noticed with interest that a large van was attempting to steer down the narrow suburban street, collecting snatches of twigs and leaves in its wing mirror like a jaunty buttonhole. His melancholy forgotten, Leonard scrambled onto the low wall between the garden and the pavement. To his intense excitement, the van shuddered to a halt right in front of him. The Montagues never had deliveries. The neighbours did, almost every week, it seemed to Leonard, who always came out to watch from his spot on the garden wall. He had observed with palm-tingling envy when next-door had their new television set delivered. It was so big and so heavy that it had taken three men to carry it up the front path. Leonard closed his eyes and, turning his face heavenwards, muttered one of his grandfather’s grace-before-meals prayers, willing his own prayer to become a grace-before-television. His supplication was disturbed by a loud honk of the horn, and his mother emerged from the front door, wearing lipstick in a glossy post-box red. Leonard understood this. If he had known that a television was arriving, he would have combed his hair and put on his Saturday trousers in its honour.

Juliet hurried along the path, calling, ‘Darlings, come and see my birthday present.’

She reached for Leonard’s hand and drew him round to the rear of the van, where two stout men bundled a rectangular wooden pallet onto their broad shoulders. Leonard eyed them with suspicion. Televisions should be handled with more reverence. Frieda joined them in the garden in her socks, also intrigued by the commotion.

Juliet hustled the children into the house, following in the wake of the deliverymen. Vibrating with excitement, Leonard padded into the living room as the men began to lever open the pallet. Frieda lingered in the doorway, hands thrust deep in her pockets.

‘I thought your birthday present was going to be a fridge.’

Juliet flushed. ‘Yes. It was. But then, well, I decided that was really rather a horrid present for a birthday.’

Neither Frieda nor Leonard spoke. They had always thought that refrigerators were horribly dull but believed them to be one of those things grown-ups term ‘an acquired taste’. They were surprised but intrigued to discover they had been right all along. As the deliverymen finished prying open the packing pallet Juliet, Frieda and Leonard stepped closer.

‘Oh,’ said Frieda. ‘It’s much better than a fridge.’

Leonard felt a sharp pang when he saw the object inside the pallet was not, in fact, a television and then a ripple of wonder. He knew somehow that his mother had done something unexpected, something marvellous and something that Grandma would not approve of. He looked at the woman in the crate who was his mother but transformed into some familiar stranger. He turned back to Juliet who stood behind him, head to one side as she surveyed her other self, and at that moment she was a stranger too.

Kneeling, Juliet eased the portrait out of the box and then, slipping out of her shoes, climbed onto the sideboard and hung it on the wall.

‘Is it straight?’

‘No,’ said Frieda. ‘That side is lower. The left. No the other left.’

Juliet jumped down and stood between her children. ‘Do

you remember when another picture used to hang here?’ Leonard shook his head. ‘I think so,’ said Frieda. ‘It was a girl.’ ‘It was me.’ It was me, thought Juliet, and he stole me when he vanished.

The Gallery of Vanished Husbands

The Gallery of Vanished Husbands

A Novel