Chapter no 30

The Silent Patient

I FOLLOWED JEAN-FELIX into a storage room. He went over to a large case, pulled out a hinged rack, and lifted out three paintings wrapped in blankets. He propped them up. He carefully unwrapped each one. Then he stood back and presented the first to me with a flourish.


I looked at it. The painting had the same photo-realistic quality as the rest of Alicia’s work. It represented the car accident that killed her mother. A woman’s body was sitting in the wreck, slumped at the wheel. She was bloodied and obviously dead. Her spirit, her soul, was rising from the corpse, like a large bird with yellow wings, soaring to the heavens.

“Isn’t it glorious?” Jean-Felix gazed at it. “All those yellows and reds and greens—I can quite get lost in it. It’s joyous.”

Joyous wasn’t the word I would have chosen. Unsettling, perhaps. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.

I moved on to the next picture. A painting of Jesus on the cross. Or was


“It’s Gabriel,” Jean-Felix said. “It’s a good likeness.”

It was Gabriel—but Gabriel portrayed as Jesus, crucified, hanging from

the cross, blood trickling from his wounds, a crown of thorns on his head. His eyes were not downcast but staring out—unblinking, tortured, unashamedly reproachful. They seemed to burn right through me. I peered at the picture more closely—at the incongruous item strapped to Gabriel’s torso. A rifle.

“That’s the gun that killed him?”

Jean-Felix nodded. “Yes. It belonged to him, I think.” “And this was painted before his murder?”

“A month or so before. It shows you what was on Alicia’s mind, doesn’t it?” Jean-Felix moved on to the third picture. It was a larger canvas than the others. “This one’s the best. Stand back to get a better look.”

I did as he said and took a few paces back. Then I turned and looked.

The moment I saw the painting, I let out an involuntary laugh.

The subject was Alicia’s aunt, Lydia Rose. It was obvious why she had been so upset by it. Lydia was nude, reclining on a tiny bed. The bed was buckling under her weight. She was enormously, monstrously fat—an explosion of flesh spilling over the bed and hitting the floor and spreading across the room, rippling and folding like waves of gray custard.

“Jesus. That’s cruel.”

“I think it’s quite lovely.” Jean-Felix looked at me with interest. “You know Lydia?”

“Yes, I went to visit her.”

“I see.” He smiled. “You have been doing your homework. I never met Lydia. Alicia hated her, you know.”

“Yes.” I stared at the painting. “Yes, I can see that.”

Jean-Felix began carefully wrapping up the pictures again. “And the Alcestis?” I said. “Can I see it?”

“Of course. Follow me.”

Jean-Felix led me along the narrow passage to the end of the gallery. There the Alcestis occupied a wall to itself. It was just as beautiful and mysterious as I remembered it. Alicia naked in the studio, in front of a blank canvas, painting with a bloodred paintbrush. I studied Alicia’s expression. Again it defied interpretation. I frowned.

“She’s impossible to read.”

“That’s the point—it is a refusal to comment. It’s a painting about silence.”

“I’m not sure I understand what you mean.”

“Well, at the heart of all art lies a mystery. Alicia’s silence is her secret

—her mystery, in the religious sense. That’s why she named it Alcestis. Have you read it? By Euripides.” He gave me a curious look. “Read it. Then you’ll understand.”

I nodded—and then I noticed something in the painting I hadn’t before. I leaned forward to look closely. A bowl of fruit sat on the table in the background of the picture—a collection of apples and pears. On the red apples were some small white blobs—slippery white blobs creeping in and around the fruit.

I pointed at them. “Are they…?” “Maggots?” Jean-Felix nodded. “Yes.” “Fascinating. I wonder what that means.”

“It’s wonderful. A masterpiece. It really is.” Jean-Felix sighed and glanced at me across the portrait. He lowered his voice as if Alicia were able to hear us. “It’s a shame you didn’t know her then. She was the most interesting person I’ve ever met. Most people aren’t alive, you know, not really—sleepwalking their way through life. But Alicia was so intensely alive.… It was hard to take your eyes off her.” Jean-Felix turned his head back to the painting and gazed at Alicia’s naked body. “So beautiful.”

I looked back at Alicia’s body. But where Jean-Felix saw beauty, I saw only pain; I saw self-inflicted wounds, and scars of self-harm.

“Did she ever talk to you about her suicide attempt?”

I was fishing, but Jean-Felix took the bait. “Oh, you know about that?

Yes, of course.”

“After her father died?”

“She went to pieces.” Jean-Felix nodded. “The truth is Alicia was hugely fucked-up. Not as an artist, but as a person she was extremely vulnerable. When her father hanged himself, it was too much. She couldn’t cope.”

“She must have loved him a great deal.”

Jean-Felix gave a kind of strangled laugh. He looked at me as if I were mad. “What are you talking about?”

“What do you mean?”

“Alicia didn’t love him. She hated her father. She despised him.” I was taken aback by this. “Alicia told you that?”

“Of course she did. She hated him ever since she was a kid—ever since her mother died.”

“But—then why try to commit suicide after his death? If it wasn’t grief, what was it?”

Jean-Felix shrugged. “Guilt, perhaps? Who knows?”

There was something he wasn’t telling me, I thought. Something didn’t fit. Something was wrong.

His phone rang. “Excuse me a moment.” He turned away from me to answer it. A woman’s voice was on the other end. They talked for a moment, arranging a time to meet. “I’ll call you back, baby,” he said, and hung up.

Jean-Felix turned back to me. “Sorry about that.” “That’s all right. Your girlfriend?”

He smiled. “Just a friend … I have a lot of friends.”

I’ll bet you do, I thought. I felt a flicker of dislike; I wasn’t sure why.

As he showed me out, I asked a final question. “Just one more thing.

Did Alicia ever mention a doctor to you?” “A doctor?”

“Apparently she saw a doctor, around the time of her suicide attempt.

I’m trying to locate him.”

“Hmm.” Jean-Felix frowned. “Possibly—there was someone…” “Can you remember his name?”

He thought for a second and shook his head. “I’m sorry. No, I honestly can’t.”

“Well, if it comes to you, perhaps you can let me know?”

“Sure. But I doubt it.” He glanced at me and hesitated. “You want some advice?”

“I’d welcome some.”

“If you really want to get Alicia to talk … give her some paint and brushes. Let her paint. That’s the only way she’ll talk to you. Through her art.”

“That’s an interesting idea.… You’ve been very helpful. Thank you, Mr.


“Call me Jean-Felix. And when you see Alicia, tell her I love her.”

He smiled, and again I felt a slight repulsion: I found something about Jean-Felix hard to stomach. I could tell he had been genuinely close to

Alicia; they had known each other a long time, and he was obviously attracted to her. Was he in love with her? I wasn’t so sure. I thought of Jean-Felix’s face when he was looking at the Alcestis. Yes, love was in his eyes

—but love for the painting, not necessarily the painter. Jean-Felix coveted the art. Otherwise he would have visited Alicia at the Grove. He would have stuck by her—I knew that for a fact. A man never abandons a woman like that.

Not if he loves her.

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