"Frank's car, this year. Frank's car for now."
"Whatever the boss takes a shine to. I driven five models in three years."
"Does Frank like to drive?"
"Naw. Frank likes to be driven."
Wilderness sat in the back, feeling he should have sat in the front, but the sense of protocol was palpable. The man drove, the man was paid to drive. The front seat was his. He doubted Frank ever sat in the front. Manhattan loomed up so quickly it caught him unawares. Suddenly above the one- and two-storey buildings either side of the road there it was, shining pinnacles against a western sun, the sun all but eclipsed by the spire on the Chrysler Building, a corona of light sending the skyscraper into chiaroscuro. A black spike in a red sky.
Crossing the Queensboro Bridge he was entering something akin to a dream. He'd always dreamed of cities. He'd always fallen in love with citiesmostly because he'd never known anything else. Childhood trips to the seaside had palled before he was tenhow many sandcastles can you build for some bigger kid to knock down? And rarer trips out into the Essex countryside to visit great auntsrelics from another century, all aprons and safety pins, a generation and a gender that seemed always to be dusted with flour or wiping their handsleft him awkward and speechless, blushing as his resemblance to Uncle Harold or Cousin Alfred was rattled off, baffled as they wished for him a better fate than Cousin Tomreduced to a red mist at Ypresor Great-Uncle Brinsleya petty thief, an incompetent burglar, his life wasted in and out of Queen Victoria's prisons.
That was the beauty of a city. You entered anonymously. Who you were, with luck, with will, was who you could make yourself. You were not the sum parts, the flawed arithmetic of your own genealogy.
They crossed several avenues, Wilderness wound down the window trying to see the names, but they seemed to be only numbers. Then in rapid succession, they crossed Lexington, Park and swung right on Madison to pull into the kerb a dozen blocks further on.
It wasn't quite a skyscraper. It was thirty or forty floors. Bigger than anything London had to show. A long row of brass plates ran down each mock-classical column either side of the revolving door. The driver led Wilderness so quickly through the door and the lobby that he could take in next to nothing. They took the lift to the twenty-first floor, and as the doors opened a glass wall appeared, bearing the stencil "Carver, Sharma, and Dunn."
It was tempting to ask when or if Frank's name would ever appear, but he didn't.
Reception was glass and leather. Glass-topped tables, Barcelona studded leather chairs, ashtrays on stilts that spirited fag ash away like a child's spinning top at the press of a button. Furniture than defied suspension or the basic laws of physics to hang in space. It all screamed modern and it could scream all it liked. Wilderness was listening.
What screamed loudest hung on the wall, filling a space about seven feet by three between the receptionist's desk and the door to the inner sanctum. He would not have known what it was but for his wife, but then that was true of so many things. He knew what he knew because Judy told him. He had no shame about it. If she was a willing teacher he was a willing pupil and it had been that way since the day they met the best part of ten years ago.
This, and he had no doubts, was a Jackson Pollock. The kind of painting, the kind of artist to be featured on a highbrow BBC arts programme like Monitor, on which Judy had often worked, and to be described by the critics as cutting edge or possibly postmodern (a phrase which made no sense to Wilderness) and as "looks like something my three-year-old would do" and "what a load of old bollocks" by the general public. Just below it on the wall was a small typed label: "Early Autumn. October 1955."
Then We Take Berlin © 2013 by John Lawton; used with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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