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by Vivienne Blake

In a quiet street in Bloomsbury near the British Museum, Freddie Ekins strolled along.  He was sussing out the going-downhill townhouses of the new poor from the seedy student flats.  A chirpy little man, Freddie was intent on finding just the right target.  His eye homed in on a polished brass lion’s head knocker.

‘This’ll do me.  Just the ticket,’ he exclaimed as he climbed the elegant flight of steps.  A smart rat-a-tat rang out.  He arranged himself so as to make a swift entry, should he meet with any opposition.

‘Yez,’ was the terse greeting from a rotund female as she opened the door cautiously.  Freddie’s foot was already in the crack.

‘Morning luv.’ One glance was sufficient to inform Freddie that he was dealing with a housekeeper.  ‘I’ve come to value the antiques and stuff.  You know, to see if there’s anything you want to get rid of.  Is the boss in?’ Freddie was easing himself into the hall, the reluctant backward step of the servant being all the permission he needed.

‘I do not know.  He has not told me.  You cannot go in there. Sir, please...’

Freddie took no notice.  By this time he was gazing avidly at the gilt-framed art on the walls.  This is a bit of all right, he thought, I’ve struck lucky.

‘In here, is it?’ Freddie’s hand was out to open the door on the right.
‘No. Please.  Sir. Do not. He will be angry with me.                                   

‘Now then, don’t get the ‘ump.  It’s to his advantage, and yours, I shouldn’t wonder.’  Freddie’s eyes lit up as the open door revealed an elegant salon stuffed with antiques – more of a gallery than a home, he reckoned.

‘Ah.  Good morning, sir. Frederick Ekins at your service.’ Freddie advanced confidently towards the wheelchair carefully placed so that the occupant could survey the choice pieces of art.  His smile was fixed, his hand outstretched, confident of a welcome. It was not forthcoming.

‘Mrs Washinska.  What are you doing letting this disreputable person enter my home?  I have repeatedly told you.  I do not wish to see anybody at all.’

‘I’m sorry, sir.  He forced his way in.  Shall I call the police?’

‘No don’t do that love.’ Freddie was quick to forestall such a potential disaster. I’m ‘armless enough.  Just want to do the boss a good turn.’

Laertes Riverton may have been old and physically incapable of doing very much, but his brain was as active as ever.  He flapped a hand dismissively at his housekeeper who backed sheepishly from the room, leaving the door ajar.  He surveyed the interloper from rakish tweed hat to scruffy desert boots.  ‘And to what do I owe the honour of your good turn?’

Freddie studiously avoided looking at the picture which had attracted his attention from the doorway.  ‘Here’s my card, sir. Freddie Ekins, dealer in art and antiques.  I may be able to put you in the way of a tidy sum, if you’ll let me look at your stuff.                                                                                              

‘Stuff!’ harrumphed Riverton. ‘I don’t possess stuff.  I am a connoisseur and collector of fine art.  What makes you think that I would part with my treasures?’

‘Difficult times, sir. Most people could do with some extra readies.  I can see that you could do with a new carpet for example.  This one’s worn to a thread.  I could take it off your hands for a few bob if you’ll take an offer for one of those pictures.’

‘My dear chap’ drawled the amused Riverton, ‘that thread of a carpet happens to be a valuable Nishaboor Qalii. And don’t try and bamboozle me into thinking you weren’t aware of it.  Nice try, but you’ll have to do better than that if you’re hoping to buy anything here.’

‘Just testing.  Shall we get down to the nitty gritty?  What could you be persuaded to part with?’

‘How boring.  I was looking forward to an interesting discussion; to plumbing the depths of your ignorance.  Now let me see.  There’s very little here that I might sell, and even then it would be at Christie’s or Sotheby’s.  Tell me Mr Ekins, what do you think of that abstract?  The one above that early Kandinsky.’

‘Ah.  Now you’ve got me.  I really don’t do abstract.’

‘So you really wouldn’t know a Kandinsky from a Monet then?’

Freddie’s mind was racing.  If he let on to the old geezer that he knew which one was the Kandinsky, and that it was the jewel in the collection, would he be able to screw the price down on the weird and wonderful little abstract painting hanging immediately above it? Would Mr. Riverton know about Dominic Tolly?  Obscure and undervalued at present, there was every chance that that little daub would make him a bundle if he could get his hands on it now.

‘Kamarad.’  The soft, cultured voice of Laertes Riverton interrupted his reverie.

‘Owjer mean guv?’  The linguistic lapse gave away something of the knocker’s nerves.

‘Come off  it, Ekins.’ Rendering like for like, Riverton was about to call his bluff.  ‘If you tell me which one you’re after, we’ll have a proper professional discussion.’
‘OK then.’ Time to stop messing about, thought Freddie. ‘Would you be averse to a grand for that little one hanging upside of the Kandinsky?’  There, he’d done it.  He held his breath, waiting for the explosion.
For a long moment there was silence.  The old man’s eyes were darting anywhere rather than meeting the eyes of his visitor.  It was as much as he could do to contain his glee.
‘Don’t be ridiculous, man.  It’s worth at least fifteen hundred and you know it.’
‘Just a minute, you’re leaving me no room to make a profit.  My name isn’t Mister Softy.’  Another heavy pause.  ‘OK, I’ll tell you what I’ll do.  I’ll give you twelve hundred and that’s my final offer.’
Riverton’s hand came out to shake on the deal.  ‘Done,’ he replied.

‘Done,’ repeated Freddie.

Ten minutes later, the newspaper-wrapped painting under his arm, the happy purchaser was jauntily skipping down the steps as Mrs Washinska re-entered the salon to ask if her employer was ready for tea.
‘Now Marisha, I do hope you won’t be displeased with me.  But I think you’ll be happy.  You remember the painting you did for me last Christmas?  It’s not that I didn’t appreciate it,’ crossing his fingers under the blanket, ‘but that man made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.  Here you are, my dear.  Twelve hundred pounds.  How’s that for a nice little earner?’

Vivienne Blake is a 71 -year-old grandmother living in rural Normandy. She started writing three years ago, with Open University creative writing courses. She has written a great deal of silly poetry, a few short stories, and a novella, all of which are pining for the light of day. Contact Vivienne.