Hannibal and the Masked Girl – Chapter 2 (extract)


Portrait of the author aged 21, by Stanislaw Frenkiel. 1971.   


8 am

November 11th 2003

Martha’s dream fades but its atmosphere remains.  The colours too: ochre yellow, cobalt blue, the greens, pinks and greys still blooming in her mind.   She opens her eyes to the ceiling.  His face looks down on her, like Christ’s in the Turin Shroud. She’d seen it everywhere this week, in old doors, puddles – dreams – not young anymore, but full of character and experience.   Turning her head towards the window, the early morning light filters through the white blinds, illuminating his first portrait of her.  Drawn in the style of Holbein, with a soft pencil on canvas, the emphasis on the curves of her mouth and upper eyelids, then painted with the relish of an eight-year-old.  She sees something new in it every day; undertones of green in the flesh, different brushstrokes in the long wheat-coloured hair, the gradations of orange, brown and black in the background. The anxious hands.  Eye contact is deflected, sitter and painter unable to maintain it for very long, unlike the fleeting glance of a photographer.  A collector had offered her six grand for it. She’d refused.

‘Should I go tonight?’  she asks.  But the twenty-one year-old staring into the middle distance has no idea.  Anyway, she’d torn up the invitation. 

She turns her head the other way, to the clock radio. The digits shimmering in its face say 8.30.   Just four hours sleep – enough she supposes – and turns on the radio for the half hourly news; only half hearing about student tuition fees, Bush’s UK visit, more horrors from Iraq.   

 ‘And now,’ announces the presenter, ‘an interview with the painter, Josef Stefko.’   

 Martha sits upright,  snapping on the light, her reflection in the wardrobe mirror looking more like a deranged infant than a middle-aged woman.   Hair all over her face, dark smudged eyes – spotty pyjamas.

‘Mr Stefko,’ continues the presenter, ‘Tate Modern is honouring you with a retrospective, opening tonight.’

‘Good morning,’ says Mr Stefko.

‘Congratulations,’ says the presenter.

 ‘I said good morning Mr Humphrey.  Why can you not say it back, hmm?   Is this to save time?  Money? There, I have just taken up the time and cost of two good mornings.’

Martha laughs. His voice has lost its strength, an octave higher maybe, but the wit and bloody mindedness are still there.    

‘I’m so sorry, good morning,’ says Mr Humphries.  ‘You have had a long and productive life. What would you say you have contributed to contemporary art?’  

 ‘Nothing, I am a modernist.’

‘Our listeners may not be aware of the difference.’

‘Are you? ‘

 ‘Of course,’ says the presenter, and then a punctuating cough. ‘Your depictions of women have come in for some criticism.’ 

‘All artists must receive criticism, and I do not depict, I paint. You have to see my work in context, like Lautrec’s, Carravagio’s.’

‘But theirs was of their time.’

‘So is mine,’ snaps Stefko.  ‘I do not paint for puritans.’ 

‘I’m sorry?’ 

Then a few seconds of dead air before Mr Humphries declares,  ‘Josef Stefko seems to have left us.’


Jan Woolf
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