“Season of mist and mellow fruitfulness,” said Augustus Sly.
“Don’t you start,” I said.
“Well, why the rendezvous in West Ham Park? Do you have a concern that we might be overheard?”
I hesitated for a moment. The real reason for meeting outdoors was that, of the two most obvious indoor locations, my house was ruled out because the better half had taken to being vocally critical – in my view over-critical – of Augustus Sly’s dress sense, and the last time I had visited his flat it had been hard to talk, as the sound of the South African mouse in his wainscoting had become much worse: both as to the volume and as to the self-pity.
“It’s a lovely day,” I said. “And Bella needs an airing.”
It certainly was lovely. It was quite early in the morning and the sun shone on the dew that covered the grass. Indian women jogged past heavily encumbered by their saris. Pensioners with dogs called to each other and, with time, coalesced into quite large wagon trains that progressed in a stately fashion from one side of the park to another. At weekends the activity is more organised. There is running, with signposts and sponsored water, and groups of five or six women toning their muscles together; but this was a weekday and activity, such as there was, was individual. In the distance a man gestured with his arms. It might be tai chi; it might be insanity; at my distance it was impossible to tell.
“I love the Park,” I said. “I like the fact that everyone has their own little projects and everyone progresses at their own speed, and we can watch them in a detached way.”
“Like God,” said Augustus Sly.
“That’s true, I suppose. I was thinking, more like the opening sequence of the film Titanic. You remember that we see as if from an anachronistic helicopter the passengers promenading around the deck, each up to their own little schemes – all to be resolved in the course of the film – through the magic of recently invented CGI techniques. Unfortunately the CGI techniques were then so primitive that everyone walks at exactly the same speed, with their arms coordinated like soldiers’; in years to come we will all laugh at it for being so clumsy.
“I always wondered,” I said, “why the painter Carel Weight didn’t paint more pictures of people in parks. He often painted people progressing at their own speeds, up to their own little schemes, but rarely when he painted parks.”
“Were your wonderings crowned with a conclusion?”
“No. And he denied it. There’s a thesis for you: Social Interaction and Avoidance in Parks.”
“Where’s the colon in that? There has to be a colon if it’s a thesis.”
“Parklife: Social interaction and Avoidance in Urban Recreation Space.”
“Anyway, I don’t need a thesis, I’ve got one: you,” said Augustus Sly. (Augustus Sly’s ongoing doctoral thesis is about this blog.) “And what have you been up to? You’ve been rather quiet.”
“Ah,” I said. “Two things. One was what I wanted to speak to you about.”
“Tell me the other one,” said Augustus Sly.
“It’s the Anthony Powell Society,” I said. “They have a competition. You have to write about Lady Molly’s secret life. I’m planning to submit.”
“I suspect she had none.”
“I suspect that’s the point. But I’m thinking along the lines of Lady Molly as gentleman detective.”
“Good idea,” said Augustus Sly. “Very golden age. She had the advantage that at any given time she could bring everyone in her drawing room to order and say, ‘And one of you is the murderer,’ and have a good chance of being right.
“And who will be her Dr Watson? Jenkins?”
“Too obvious. I’m toying with Brandreth.”
“Whenever there is a doctor in the novel it usually turns out to be Brandreth, who, indeed, was at School with the narrator.”
“I hope that you are not planning to put anything about it on your blog. Few of your readers know who Lady Molly is, let alone Dr Brandreth.”
“Of course not. Well, possibly just in the restricted access part.”
“And what’s the other thing?”
I produced my iPad with a flourish and showed him the two bottoms: Schiele’s and the photograph of Maria.
“Ah,” said Augustus Sly, scrutinising them. “Austro-Hungarian, obviously. Who is the painter?”
“Of course. Hang on. There was no colour photography in Schiele’s day. The painting must be a modern forgery.”
“Wrong way round. The photo and the painting are kosher. It’s different women.”
Augustus Sly looked more closely.
“I find it impossible to believe that. It’s the same bottom. I’d…”
“You’d put money on it?”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Augustus Sly. “But it’s a staggering likeness.”
“The painting is in the Courtauld. I know nothing about the sitter. The photo is of my neighbour. I’m convinced there’s a connection. I want you to investigate it. Can you?”
“Intriguing. I’d probably need to go to Vienna.”
“You have a student card, don’t you?”
“Do you have an information pack?”
“I thought you’d ask,” I said, producing it from my pocket.
“And does your neighbour want to find herself linked to some demi-mondaine of the Viennese Secession?”
“She made it clear that notoriety would not be entirely unwelcome.”
Augustus Sly looked through the information pack, which had been painstakingly assembled.
“Elementary, my dear Brandreth,” he said with a smirk.
“No,” I said.
“No,” he said.
Unexpectedly a cloudburst started, and I regretted being out of doors. Even Augustus Sly’s sordid flat would have been better.
“How is your South African mouse? The one in the wainscoting?”
“Suddenly gone quiet,” said Augustus Sly. “No more self-pity, no more of his ramblings on about the toilet. Nothing at all. I rather miss it. He seems to have been removed elsewhere.”
“I think it shows a proper sense of shame,” I said.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Augustus Sly.