54. The gallery

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[RECAP: Mr Marek's painting of Sera is finally going on public display at Lionel's gallery...]


There was a red spot on the top corner of Mr Marek's painting of Sera. Someone had already bought it.

For some reason this crushed her though she knew she should have felt happy for him that it had sold so quickly.

It was the first time that she, Lois and Joel had been to a gallery opening. They were all dressed up to the nines. The evening class students had also been given invitations and all of them had made it, even Bob and Winifred.

"You are a dark horse," Jasper commented to Sera when she had told him about the painting. They were all fascinated that Sera had secretly been posing for him.

"We had to keep it discreet because my school probably wouldn't have approved," Sera explained. This was as true as anything. Her parents would also have freaked out, in fact they still would once they discovered what had been going on. She was going to have to brace herself for that conversation.

"He's certainly done a very beautiful job," Elizabeth said. "Of course you're naturally very lovely, Sera, he hasn't painted anything that isn't there. It was rather a shame we couldn't finish sketching you that first week, I've always thought. But there's something quite magical about this painting, isn't there? The quality of the winter light streaming through, and the glowing ruby of the drape over the couch."

Sera confessed that she struggled to feel comfortable looking at her unclothed self.

"That's only natural, dear. Were it me up there - even in my heyday - I would have pinned my handkerchief over certain areas by now," Winifred said.

It wasn't merely the nudity. It was also being an object. Sera was the object of the painting that everyone wanted to see and it made her feel oddly removed from herself. As though she didn't own her own image any more.

Lionel had fixed up the exhibition opening night to be a momentous occasion. The champagne flowed, endless caviar and other delicacies travelled round the room on silver trays and a harpist in a diaphanous gown played a mellow tune on a small dais.

Lionel was also brilliant with the art press: they danced to his tune. It helped that he had an uncanny eye for talent spotting and kept uncovering the Next Big Things.

Tonight he was barely suppressing his delight as he greeted Sera, Lois and Joel. "I may as well tell you all now. We've had a two hundred and fifty thousand pound bid for Tarq's painting of Sera." He said this in deliberate earshot of a couple of journalists who immediately hovered closer.

"Is that why there's a red dot on it?" Lois asked.

"Partly. We haven't confirmed the sale yet but the offer came in this afternoon. From a buyer in Japan who already owns several Mareks. A buyer with quite exceptional taste to choose a work of this beauty and quality," Lionel said in a subtly louder tone, angling for the critics to quote his remark.

Sera wasn't sure how she felt about such a huge offer. It was a huge amount to take in. The thought of some unknown Japanese man forever gazing upon her naked form was more unsettling than she had realised it would be.

She didn't have long to think about this because at that moment an icily furious Victoria accosted her. She looked devastatingly stylish in a slinky silvery garment which would have had two extra zeroes on its price tag than Sera's frock had. Large emeralds glittered at her throat, though Joel muttered "paste" behind Sera's ear.

"Exactly what are you doing here?"

"I was invited by Lionel," Sera told her.

"You know the agreement. You stay well away or there will be consequences."

Sera could finally see what Joel had perceived about Victoria's age. She was very well preserved and her make-up was immaculate, but there was no way she was in her late thirties. For a split second Sera almost pitied the other woman her desperation.

But then she caught sight of Mr Marek's face and the haunted look on his face, and her heart hardened against Victoria's machinations.

Lionel rapidly intervened. "Victoria, darling, some people you must meet. We needed the model here for publicity purposes, nothing more," he said to appease her, casting an apologetic glance Sera's way.

Victoria glared at Sera as the gallery owner ushered her away.

"That was close," Lois said.

Sera was fretting. "Do you think she'll tell?"

Joel doubted it. "She'll lose him the moment she does. I think she just wanted you out of the picture so he'd focus on her again."

It hadn't worked of course. It may have kept them apart, except for those couple of lapses, but the forced separation had only made Sera feel even more strongly about her art teacher.

Tonight they were thrown into proximity by the occasion and there was nothing Victoria could do about it. Many people wanted photographs of artist and model together, either side of the painting. Sera's face began to ache from smiling.

Lionel had shielded her from any interviews lest the newspapers unearthed the somewhat scandalous circumstances of their teacher-pupil relationship. Even if nothing further than modelling was suspected between them, it would still cause a sensation for a school art teacher to have painted a nude portrait of his sixth form student. So when any inquiries were made, Lionel implied that Sera was a professional model.

Sera got just a few minutes alone with Mr Marek when Victoria visited the powder room. She had stuck to him like glue all evening but could hardly drag him into the ladies' with her.

"I can't believe the price offered," Sera said.

"That's Lionel for you. He wasn't a bad artist when we were at art school but selling art turned out to be his true talent." He dropped his voice. "I still miss you, baby. Wait for me." He looked devastatingly handsome that night in a well cut suit.

As if she could do anything but wait. "I miss you too."

He paused, drinking her in. There was hunger in his eyes. "That painting, it's what you did to me."

Sera was puzzled. "This one?"

"The boat. You took me out of the storms." He was gazing at her so sincerely, a strange and tender look on his face, that her stomach dissolved. She couldn't speak.

She just wanted to be in his arms. For the whole room and everyone in it to disappear. Looking at him, she felt that he was thinking the same.

All too soon Victoria returned and whisked her reluctant escort away once again, leaving Sera by herself. Joel was the other side of the room chatting up a handsome young artist. Her fellow art class students were grouped in one corner of the room nibbling canapés. Jasper was giving her a somewhat knowing look, having observed her conversation with Mr Marek.

Lois was nowhere to be seen.

Feeling like taking a break herself, Sera slipped out the back of the gallery. There was a service and utility area outside where the caterers had their trolleys and there was a goods lift. Sera was about to walk around the corner when she stopped short.

There was a couple pressed up against the opposite wall.

It was Lionel, locked in a passionate embrace with Lois.

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