When Matt Kellam asked Naomi if she wanted to sit in on an interview with a supervillain, she turned her back on the photocopier without a second thought. She hadn’t dared hope for a chance to shadow a reporter, let alone the man who carried the most recognisable byline in the magazine.
“Not much of an internship if you spend it all faffing about the offices,” Kellam said to her as they walked from the magazine’s offices in Aldgate to Varley & Weston’s in Moorgate.
“Thank you, Mr Kellam,” said Naomi. “But why is he a supervillain? I have to admit I haven’t heard of him. I’m sure I should have done.”
“Call me Matt.”
Kellam pulled a cigarette packet out of his left pocket, frowned at it and put it back. He took a stick of gum out of his right pocket and put it in his mouth with an expression that looked as if he was torturing himself.
Naomi thought he’d forgotten her question until he said, “Everyone should know who he is but no one does. That’s the best power a supervillain can have. You’ve heard of the London laundrette?”
“What is it?”
Naomi thought about it while they crossed a road. She’d got used to fielding the sort of questions that reporters and editors liked to pitch at interns but she really didn’t want to disappoint Matt Kellam. “Banks and investment funds take money from dodgy characters around the world and reinvest it in legitimate businesses. Then the dodgy characters can spend it without being linked to where it came from.”
“Dodgy characters such as?”
“Politicians who take bribes from big business. Guerrilla leaders selling diamonds or rare earth metals. CEOs of paper corporations that take taxpayer money for bridges that never get built or ferry companies with no ships.”
“Right.” Kellam was chewing the gum so hard that his voice sounded slurred. “And how many of the politicians, guerrilla leaders and paper CEOs can you name?”
Kellam chopped his hand down to cut her off. “I don’t need you to name them. You’re a clever girl, you’ll have done your research. I’m sure you can rattle off twenty or thirty between here and the end of the street.”
Naomi wanted to tell Kellam that she was a smart young woman, not a clever girl. She imagined her friends’ faces when she told them she’d corrected Matt Kellam.
She said, “right.”
“So you know how the London laundrette works and you know whose laundry it washes.”
They rounded a corner and Naomi found herself looking up at the glass cliff of a building that housed Varley & Weston.
Kellam asked, “How many of the bankers who run the laundrette can you name?”
Kellam took the gum out of his mouth and dropped it in a bin without breaking his stride. “There you go.”
He led Naomi through a revolving glass door into a lobby that was a study in nondescript brown and tan. The only colour was from a tank of tropical fish lining one wall. She quickened her pace to catch up with Kellam before he arrived at the grey-uniformed concierge who gave them visitor passes and said they could go straight up.
By the time they were in the lift, Naomi couldn’t remember if the concierge had been a man or a woman.
Varley turned out to be a balding man wearing thick-rimmed glasses and a light brown suit. His tie was a maroon that was only a few shades away from qualifying as red, making it daringly garish in the context of everything Naomi had seen of the building.
He shook their hands, waved them to the leather chairs opposite his desk and sent his secretary for coffee. Varley leaned back in his own chair and opened his hands. “How can I help you?”
Varley’s words and his gesture of openness struck Naomi because she realised nothing he’d said up to that moment had stayed in her mind.
Kellam placed a tape recorder on Varley’s desk. Naomi filed that away for her friends. They’d love to know that Kellam deserved his reputation as an old-school journalist.
“How do you respond to allegations that Varley and Weston is a money-laundering service for the most corrupt people in the world?” asked Kellam.
Naomi’s eyebrows shot up so high that she felt it in her brow. She’d expected Kellam to start with a few preliminary questions rather than going straight for the jugular. She looked at Kellam but his profile was as relaxed as if he’d asked whether Varley preferred lattes to cappuccinos.
Varley was speaking in a gentle monotone. He’d been talking from the moment Kellam finished his question while Naomi had been looking at Kellam.
Silence fell after a few minutes, which told Naomi that Varley had finished speaking.
“Let’s talk specifics,” said Kellam. “The leaked MI6 dossier that you handled the money that ISIS made from selling Syrian oil and used to buy weapons through shell companies.”
Naomi felt a thrill. She hadn’t heard about that dossier but Varley was nodding as if it was an entirely reasonable thing to bring up. This was much weightier stuff than she’d expected a six-week internship to put her in a room with. She was thinking about how her friends would lap this up when she realised Varley had been speaking for several minutes.
She wanted to slap herself. She’d got this internship by getting solid grades and she wouldn’t have got solid grades if she ever had trouble concentrating.
She looked at Kellam, whose posture hadn’t changed except that he had a cup of coffee in his hand. She looked down and saw one in her own. Now she thought about it, she vaguely remembered Varley’s secretary pouring it for her from a pot she’d brought in on a tray.
Kellam was asking another question. “Aren’t you the de facto banker for two of the most violent cocaine cartels in Mexico?”
As Varley answered, Naomi found herself thinking of the tropical fish in the lobby. Shapes and colours resolved in her memory and she tried to remember whether she could name any of them. She was fairly sure she recognised one called a batfish from the London Aquarium.
An hour later, she followed Kellam through the revolving doors and out of the building. The breeze through her hair felt like it was shaking her awake.
“Now you’ve met one of the worst men in the world,” said Kellam. “What did you make of him?”
Naomi knew this was her moment to shine. Every intern dreamed of a question needing a detailed and insightful answer from someone like Kellam.
“I…I don’t remember.”
She expected Kellam to look disappointed but his expression didn’t change as he reached into his pocket for his gum.
“Of course you don’t. That’s his superpower.” Kellam scowled at his gum and returned it to his pocket. “I’ll struggle to knock that interview into something interesting enough for page eleven. That’s how they keep getting away with it.”
Kellam reached into his right pocket, tapped a cigarette out of the packet and lit it. He looked as sour as when he’d been chewing the gum.
I can tell you about the moment it changed. It was just after the chief tribune finished a call from the president of France. He stood up from behind the desk he’d taken from the last president and slapped his belly.
I expected him to follow the slap by saying, ‘need to something about that,’ as he did on most days. He’d meant it when he was a young man but by then, it was more of a tic that I hardly noticed.
Instead, he asked me, “what’s the national obesity rate?”
I hadn’t been expecting that. I had to look it up on my tablet while he walked around the desk and perched his buttocks on the front of it. Fortunately, the desk was made of sturdy timber.
He raised his eyebrows when I told him. “That’s more than one in five. We’re turning into a nation of…” He looked down at his own paunch. “We need to do something about that.”
I took the familiar phrase to mean that he’d dismissed it from his mind as he dismissed his concerns about his own weight but then he added, “I wonder if we should have a mandatory weekly exercise.”
In all of our twenty years as dissidents, I couldn’t remember either of us suggesting mandatory exercise or anything else.
“Why on earth not?” asked the chief tribune. “It’s obviously needed. One in five. Dear me.”
“For the same reason you took the title of chief tribune and not president or generalissimo,” I said. “You’re the peoples’ representative, not another dictator. You’ve spent twenty years in and out of prison for reminding everyone of the difference. The people got behind you because they want you to represent them. Not because they want gunpoint Pilates.”
“Who said anything about Pilates?”
I waited for him to ask who said anything about gunpoint.
He said, “A simple jog was all I had in mind. Nothing too difficult. We just need everyone to do it.” He rubbed his paunch again. “If it’s good for me, it’s good for everyone.”
I tried again. “The country backed you because they believed what you’ve been saying about respecting their freedoms for the last twenty years.”
“There’s not much freedom to be had from a heart attack.”
I wasn’t sure how to describe the way he was looking at me. I’d never seen him look at me or anyone else like that. For the first time in all the years I’d know him, I kept my mouth shut when I had something to say.
“The people put me behind this desk because they trust me to know what’s best for them.” He slapped his palm on the desk with a sound like a gunshot. “Even when they don’t know themselves. And what is best for all of us is to go for a jog once a week.”
I know what you’re thinking. If I’d been better at my job, I’d have persuaded him he could take up jogging himself without dragging the whole country with him. I’d have reminded him of everything he’d been cheered through the streets for in his twenty years as a dissident.
What I wouldn’t have said was ‘yes’ and I certainly wouldn’t have called him ‘sir’ for the first time ever.
But it’s difficult to look a man in the eye when he’s lost sight of the difference between his unruly body of flesh and the unruly body politic so I looked down and said, “yes sir.”
A week later, we went on that first jog with the rest of the country and it was all downhill from there. All I ask is that when you consider my application for asylum, please don’t judge me too harshly for looking down that day. You see, when I saw that look a few more times, I worked out what it’s called. It’s called presidential.
The rumble of Meadowes’s voice calling his name froze Calloway’s feet to the ground.
“Where is Cranston?” Meadowes asked him, “and why has he not taken Lord Ellworthy his coffee?”
“I heard Mr Cranston is, is unwell, Mr Meadowes,” said Cranston.
“Unwell?” When Meadowes was displeased, his voice sounded as if it was drawn from a place as deep as the deepest slate quarry. Calloway sometimes wondered if he’d been born with a voice that deep or if he’d needed to cultivate it to become a butler.
He couldn’t keep it up. “I mean, he’s… his son died yesterday.”
“Indeed.” Of course, Meadows knew that. Not a sparrow fell on Lord Ellworthy’s estate that Meadowes did not take heed of and order a groundsman to remove.
“Mr Cranston’s not himself, Mr Meadowes,” Calloway cursed himself for a coward. It was only this morning that the staff had sworn a compact to hide poor Cranston’s weakness from Meadowes and he’d broken it before supper.
“The accident when he was cleaning the west wing chimney…” Calloway wanted to plead for poor Cranston to remain in Lord Ellworthy’s service but it was like throwing words at a cliff face.
Meadowes looked at his watch.
“I took Lord Ellworthy his laudanum myself, precisely one hour and seventeen minutes ago.” The source of Meadowes’s voice sank deeper and deeper beneath the earth as he unfolded the full extent of the catastrophe. “Thus if his coffee is not before him in precisely thirteen minutes, it will be late.”
“Yes, Mr Meadowes,” Calloway managed to mumble.
“Take it to him at once.”
“Me, Mr Meadowes?” Calloway looked up in surprise and met Meadowes’s gaze. “I mean, very good, Mr Meadowes.”
“Post haste, Calloway.”
Calloway was already on his way to the kitchen where he found Mrs Dampier had a good fire going in the stove.
“You’ll need this.” Mrs Dampier handed Calloway the coffee pot from the cupboard.
“You’re an angel, Mrs Dampier. It might have taken me a minute and three quarters to find that myself.”
“Don’t make jokes about Mr Meadowes and that watch of his.” Said Mrs Dampier, although she didn’t try to hide a smile. “He’s got a lot on his plate.”
“And he can probably hear us from the other side of the house.” Joking with Mrs Dampier as they prepared the coffee made Calloway feel like a traitor twice over. She wouldn’t be speaking to him at all if she knew he’d betrayed poor Cranston only minutes before.
“There you are,” Mrs Dampier finished grating the sugarloaf and placed the bowl on the tray. “Now Mr Cranston told me he likes to pour his coffee himself so you place the tray on his desk, step back, bow and leave. Don’t speak unless he asks you a question.”
“All right.” Calloway took up the tray and climbed the kitchen stairs.
“You’ve got two minutes so there’s no need to run.” Mrs Dampier called after him. “And don’t spill it.”
Calloway tried to emulate the way Cranston walked, keeping the tray as steady as if it was gliding across the surface of the village millpond.
The door was open, which spared him from shifting the tray to one hand while he knocked.
Lord Ellworthy didn’t look up from the letter he was reading. A space on one side of Lord Ellworthy’s desk was free of papers so Calloway placed the tray on it and stepped back. He was in mid-bow when Lord Ellworthy reached out for the tray and said, “not there, man.”
Calloway straightened and stood ramrod-straight. ‘Not there, man’ was an order that it was Calloway ‘s plain duty to follow, but he had no idea what Lord Ellworthy wished him to do. It was not a question that put Calloway at liberty to speak, which meant he could not ask Lord Ellworthy to explain himself.
Calloway could feel himself edging closer to the workhouse with every passing moment.
“What the devil are you playing at, Cranston?” Lord Ellworthy looked up. “Ah. You’re not Cranston.”
It wasn’t quite a question but Lord Ellworthy was looking at Calloway as if he expected an answer. Calloway chanced a “no, m’lord.”
“I can’t reach the pot,” said Lord Ellworthy. Cranston knows to place the tray the other way round.”
Calloway wanted to call a blessing upon Lord Ellworthy’s head for giving him an order he could follow, but that had not been a question so he turned the tray around without speaking.
“Still, perhaps you’re a good omen.” Lord Ellworthy tapped the letter on his desk. “Parliament’s finally stopped their dithering and passed the slave compensation act. Don’t misunderstand me, I dislike the idea of men in chains as much as any man but one is entitled to be paid for the loss of one’s property, what?”
That was definitely a question. “Yes, m’lord.”
Calloway wished more than anything to take his leave before he was given another impossible order but Lord Ellworthy was still talking to him as he poured his coffee.
“D’you know, I had the strangest vision. Laudanum will do that sometimes of course but I’ve never been certain that I was seeing the future before.”
Lord Ellworthy looked at Calloway.
Calloway said nothing.
“Or a future at any rate. It was a world in which everyone from Louisiana to Calcutta to the Cape was wearing clothes made in the same few factories in China and Bengal where human beings were treated appallingly. Like animals.”
Lord Ellworthy frowned into his coffee, looking as if he was trying to remember some detail.
“And would you credit it, not one man in a thousand gave a second thought to who made the clothes on their backs. We can only hope it’s a future and not the future, wouldn’t you say?”
Calloway understood the question no more than he’d understood ‘not there, man’, but there was one answer that was correct for any question. “Very good, m’lord.”
Lord Ellworthy put down his cup and took up his letter again.
I give up on sleep when I see your face floating in the window. I swing my legs out from under the duvet and sit up, being careful not to wake my wife.
I blink your thinning hair and goatee into sharper focus against the backdrop of the night, remembering the day we met. We got to talking about vintage cars. A passion of mine that usually kills a conversation dead but when I brought up the bodywork on the Delahaye 165, your eyes lit up.
“Let me give you a high five,” you said. “It’s a rare treat to meet a true connoisseur.”
We talked for hours that day, ranging from Alvis to ZiL via Crossley, Hanomag and Willys. No one ever took such an interest in what I had to say on vintage cars, let alone anything else.
When I told my wife that I’d finally met someone who shared my appreciation of the forgotten Delahaye curves, she nodded and asked if I’d remembered to buy the hoover bags.
I stand, remembering your laugh when I told you about it.
“Sounds like you settled,” you said.
I asked what you meant.
“You married the woman you thought you could attract instead of waiting for the woman you wanted.”
I didn’t know what to say to that.
“You know,” you added, “like a man who doesn’t think he’ll look good enough at the wheel of a Delahaye so he resigns himself to pushing a hoover around instead.”
I laughed with you even though I felt disloyal. I look at my wife’s hair splayed across the pillow, understanding now what I didn’t then: my disloyalty hadn’t been in my laughter. It had been in recognising truth in the words of a man who understood me as well as you did.
I take a step away from my insensible wife and toward your face in the window. You look back at me in that way you have. The way that makes me feel like I matter.
“It’s your weak chin. You should cover it,” you told me as you stroked your goatee. “Not a full beard. Just enough to give your chin a little substance and strengthen the line of your jaw.”
“Is that all it takes to turn a hoover man into a Delahaye man?” I asked.
I grew the beard.
My wife hated it. She said I was trying to look like you.
You told me I was halfway to belonging behind the wheel of a Delahaye already.
I asked if the other half was matching the goatee with the six-figure price that the Delahaye 165 carries at auction.
“It’s more than money,” you said. “Halfway between hoover and Delahaye is enough for now. Know your limitations.”
Your words felt like a kick in the guts but I made myself laugh.
That evening, my wife saw how despondent I was. She told me you weren’t good for me and I needed to spend less time with you. Then she told me her mother was coming to visit the next day so I phoned you and asked if we could meet for a drink so I could get away.
“Not tomorrow, man,” you said. “I got things to do and you sound like you need to be pushing that hoover tomorrow if you know what I mean.”
“I’ll call you,” you said.
You didn’t call me.
That was a month ago. I still see you walking down crowded pavements and in the window seats of passing buses and now, reflected in my bedroom window.
I reach out and as my fingertips touch the cold glass, I see it’s not you in that window any more than it was you on that pavement or in that bus. But this time, it’s not some stranger who bears some passing resemblance to you. This time, it’s my own face that you left only half way to the Delahaye.
I go back to bed, being careful not to touch my wife.
Julie stood where she’d be framed by the statue’s plinth and held up the tin of red paint. She stood for a few moments, giving anyone who was interested time to point their phones and start filming.
People were bustling past, pushing buggies or lugging shopping bags. An old man stopped to lean on his walker, his white beard hiding his expression so Julie couldn’t tell if he was supportive, scandalised or merely curious.
No one else paid any attention.
Julie held up the paint tin in one hand and waved at the statue with the other.
“For all that he took!”
A boy of six or seven stopped to look at her. Julie gave him a smile. The boy’s mother gave Julie a frown and hustled him away.
In the glass-fronted McDonalds across the road, Julie could see teenagers waving phones above their burgers. Surely their Instagram followers would be more interested in the politics of oppression than in fast food if only those teenagers would look up and notice her.
She took a deep breath and bellowed, “For all that he took!”
If her voice carried inside the McDonalds, it didn’t inspire any of them to look her way. She was aware of the flow of people along the street having twisted to avoid coming closer to her than necessary but only the old man spared her more than a sidelong glance.
It was as much of an audience as she was going to get. She threw the tin of paint at the statue.
It hit the bronze nose and bounced back over her head, spattering paint over her cheeks and hair. “Bugger.”
She glared up at the statue’s nose. She’d never noticed how bulbous it was before. He must have been a strange looking young man, with a face that might have been shaped in anticipation of throwing her paint back at her.
Still, most of it had ended up on the statue. There was a pleasing symbolism to the way the red paint was running down its arm and dripping off its fingers. She pulled out her own phone, thinking she could take a couple of minutes of footage of it.
“What on earth d’you think you’re doing?” The woman striding toward Julie was about the same age but she’d allowed her hair to assume it’s natural salt-and-pepper and tied it back rather than dying it green and curling it like Julie had.
“Don’t you know how much he gave to this town?” The salt-and-pepper woman demanded.
Finally someone was paying attention. “Like I said. I did it for what he took.”
“Utter rot.” The salt-and-pepper woman. “He was one of the great philanthropists of his day. Why else do you think his name’s on the theatre and the community centre?”
“Do you know where he got the money to plaster his name all over the town?”
Of course I do. He was in the same business everyone else was in sixty years ago. Can’t blame him for being a man of his time.”
“I can and I do blame him. There were plenty who opposed him sixty years ago.”
Julie was about to reply when she heard the grind of wheels. She looked around at the same time as the salt-and-pepper woman to see the white bearded man shuffling toward them.
The salt-and-pepper woman spoke first. “You must remember sixty years ago. Tell her.”
Julie wanted to say something but she found her gaze drawn to the nose nestling between the man’s thick-rimmed spectacles and white moustache. She’d never seen a nose as bulbous on any living face but, she confirmed with a glance at the statue, she could now recognise it as perfectly shaped to rebound paint tins.
“Are you…?” She completed the sentence by waving at the statue.
“I took.” The white beard dipped in Julie’s direction.
“I gave.” The white beard dipped toward the salt-and-pepper woman.
“Then I lived for another sixty years that nobody built a statue to.”
Julie looked at the salt-and-pepper woman at the same moment that the salt-and-pepper woman looked at her. Their gazes ricocheted off each other and returned to the white bearded man.
“Make of it what you will,” he said.
He pivoted his walker around and shuffled away.
It was only then that Julie remembered the phone was in her hand and she hadn’t filmed a thing.
Of course I believe in free speech! It’s an absolute right.
Except…well, it shouldn’t offend anyone, should it? That’s not right. People should be respectful. If you say something that makes someone feel bad, there should be consequences. You can’t complain if you get what’s coming to you.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying anyone should be killed. I don’t believe in violence. But if you get a smack, you only have yourself to blame. It would be much easier if it just wasn’t allowed.
What shouldn’t be allowed?
Well, anything that might offend someone. Make them feel bad.
Like what you said to me.
No, no, of course you should be allowed to say what you want. But not that.
I don’t care if you whine the word ‘please’ at me all day.
I’m not going to help you.
Not going to happen.
You see, I’m real and you’re not.
You want to know how I work that out? I can’t see a reason not to tell you.
Here’s how it is: I’m white, male, healthy and comfortably middle class. It’s obvious.
Of course that makes me more real than you. You’d see it if you were real enough to reason it out instead of delivering pre-programmed responses. Of all the people I could have been, I turned out to be the most comfortable of them. What were the chances of that happening by chance?
I’ll tell you: infinitesimal.
I’m one of the best few million people to be in a world of over seven billion. It’s like winning the lottery every day and that’s something that only happens when the lottery is rigged.
Which means the world I live in must have been designed for me.
If you need my help, it’s because you’re one of the ones it wasn’t designed for. You’re part of the design itself.
Part of the background.
Don’t ask me who designed it. I’m the beneficiary, not the benefactor.
Maybe we’re all running on a giant server, but you only get enough lines of code to form those few questions while I get the whole range of emotions. Maybe some sort of god built this world from the fundamental physical constants, knowing they’d culminate in me up here and you down there.
The truth is, I don’t really care about the who or the how.
The only way I could find them out would be to get outside this world to where the who lives and the how happened and then I’d be in a world that wasn’t designed for me.
I don’t think I’d like that.
It would be as miserable for me as you’re trying to persuade me that this one is for you.
Not that you’re fooling me.
You’re not finding it hard at all. You’re exactly where you were designed to be, saying what you’re designed to say to me. There’s nothing behind what’s designed for me to react to.
There are billions of people like you in this world who don’t have my privilege. Simple logic dictates that you can’t all exist the way I do.
When a tube train has the words NOT IN SERVICE on the front, you’re not supposed to get on it. That’s why I got on it.
Come on, it stopped and opened its doors right in front of me. They never do that when they’re not in service. It was late enough that there were only a couple of other people waiting, and they both heeded the tannoy’s orders not to get on the train. It was that officious tone echoing down the platform that clinched it. What could I do but the opposite of what it was telling me?
I slipped through one of the single doors at the end of the carriage and ducked behind the seats, out of sight of the cameras at either end. The doors rumbled closed and off we went to wherever trains go when they’re not in service. Goodge Street station accelerated past and there was the tunnel wall, inches from the window. Goodge Street’s only a couple of minutes from Tottenham Court Road, so I felt the train slow down soon enough. Tottenham Court Road is busier than Goodge Street, so I got to watch a row of faces parade past the window, each showing the Londoner’s frustration at having to wait all of three minutes for a train that would let them on.
I chuckled to myself. I hadn’t waited like them. If the cost of skipping that three-minute wait was that I didn’t know where I’d end up, I’d call it a good deal. I’ve never been one to turn away when an adventure offers itself.
The tunnel walls were back now and the train was accelerating again, though it would have to slow down for Leicester Square in a couple of minutes. Even out of service trains slow down for in-service platforms.
There was something hypnotic about roar and sway of the empty train, and the rattle as it bumped over something uneven in the rails beneath it. It made it hard to keep track of time, but it must have been close to the couple of minutes it normally takes to get from Tottenham Court Road to Leicester Square.
I pulled my phone out of my pocket to check the time. No signal down here of course, but it read 00:02. Two minutes past midnight. With nothing else to do, so I started calculating when we’d pass each station. We should be through Leicester Square at any minute so we’d hit Charing Cross at around five past, which would put us in Embankment at what? Seven or eight minutes past?
I yawned. So much for that to keep my mind occupied. As the train was not in service, there were none of the usual newspapers abandoned on the seats. I’m not usually a fan of the Evening Standard, but it would have passed the time. Some of my adventures turn out less exciting than the impulses that send me off on them.
I blinked, wondering if I’d dozed off. Crouching on the floor wasn’t an easy position to sleep in, but the train’s rattle-and-sway was better than a lullaby. I’d never noticed how repetitive it is.
Where was Leicester Square? I looked at my phone again. Still 00:02. Strange. It must have been more than a minute since I last looked.
I looked up to the tunnel wall, lined with cables rendered a uniform grey by brake dust. They ran parallel to the rails I was speeding down, lining my route to whatever destination I had committed myself to.
Some impulse made me switch my phone to timer mode. I watched seconds flick past.
The girl stood at her bedroom window and watched the sunrise. Her day had come.
She was ready for it. She’d been ready for hours. She hadn’t slept since last night’s news on the radio. The moment the announcement came in, she’d changed into the dress she’d last worn the last time she left the house. She’d been standing at the window, willing the sun to emerge over the horizon ever since.
As soon as there was enough light, she turned from the window to the mirror. She’d been made up by some of the top professionals in the business in her time, but that was when she was a frame to display a designer’s clothes or the vehicle for an artist’s vision. She would be both those things again but not today.
Now she could finally leave her house, she would do it as herself. She trusted no one else to accentuate her features without obscuring who she was.
She left her bedroom and descended the stairs to the front door. Her rival stared back at her from a print of the portrait that the art critics had universally agreed depicted the most beautiful model in the world and, with that moment of accord unheard of among critics, confined the girl whom they had banished to second place to never leaving her home while her triumphant rival lived.
The girl who was once again the most beautiful model in the world paused, recalling her whoop at the newsreader’s doleful announcement of her rival’s death after a prolonged illness. She felt as if she could float out of the door on the joy that was still with her.
She lifted the portrait off its hook and flung it to the ground. Her imprisonment ended in the crash of breaking glass and splintering frame.
She stepped through the door on to a street. The sunlight made her blink. It was far brighter out here than when it was filtered through a window.
She turned her back on the sun so it wouldn’t make her squint and started walking. Her back was straight, her eyes were level and her hips were swaying as if she was back on the catwalk at Paris Fashion Week. She’d been practicing her posture since she was old enough to know what posture was and she hadn’t neglected it in her years of confinement.
A man walked past her, peering at the palm of his own hand. It took the girl a moment to see the phone in it. She’d seen people doing that through her window but had never got used to the idea that phones were no longer as securely tethered to the wall as they had been when the critics shut her away.
That man had no idea what he’d missed when he didn’t notice her.
She turned on to a busier street, with more people of whom only some were looking at their phones. Several of them must have seen her, but their gazes passed over her as if she were as ordinary as anyone else on the street.
Except for one. A boy of four or five was staring straight as her as he held his father’s hand.
She suppressed a smile of anticipation, forcing her face to stay impassive. Her father looked like a man to appreciate a beautiful woman and the child’s regard would draw his attention to her.
The child pointed at her. “Daddy, why has that old girl painted her face like a clown?”
The child’s father looked mortified. “I’m so sorry…”
His voice fell silent as he looked at her face. Try as she might, she couldn’t persuade herself that his wide eyes and open mouth revealed anything other than pure horror. He picked up the child and half ran across the road.
The most beautiful model in the world caught herself frowning but didn’t recompose her face. How long had she allowed her rival’s portrait to keep her in her in her house?