Authors: Ruth Rendell
OMNIBUSES: COLLECTED SHORT STORI E S | WEXFORD: AN
OMNIBUS | THE SECOND WE XFORD OMNIBUS | THE THIRD WE XFORD
OMNIBUS | THE FOURTH WE XFORD OMNIBUS | THE FIFTH WEXFORD
OMNIBUS | THREE CASES FOR CHIEF INSPECTOR WEXFORD | THE
RUTH RENDELL OMNIBUS | THE SECOND RUTH RENDELL OMNIBUS
| THE THIRD RUTH RENDELL OMNIBUS | CHIEF INSPECTOR
WEXFORD NOVELS: FROM DOOM WITH DEATH | A NEW LEASE OF
DEATH | WOLF TO THE SLAUGHTER | THE BEST MAN TO DIE | A
GUI LTY TH ING SURPRISED | NO MORE DYING THEN |
ALSO BY RUTH RENDELL
MURDER BEING ONCE DONE | SOME LIE AND SOME DIE | SHAKE
HANDS FOR EVER | A SLE EPING LIFE | PUT ON BY CUNNING | THE
SPEAKER OF MANDARIN | AN UNKINDNESS OF RAVENS | THE VEILED
ONE | KISSING THE GUNNER'S DAUGHTER | SIMISOLA | ROAD RAGE
| HARM DONE | THE BABES IN THE WOOD | END IN TEARS | NOT
IN THE FLESH | SHORT STORIES: THE FALLEN CURTAIN | MEANS
OF EVIL | THE FEVER TREE | THE NEW GIRL FRIEND | THE COPPER
PEACOCK | BLOOD LINES | PIRANHA TO SCURFY | NOVELLAS:
HEARTSTONES | THE THIEF | NON-FICTION: RUTH RENDELL'S
SUFFOLK | RUTH RENDELL'S ANTHOLOGY OF THE MURDEROUS MIND
| NOVELS: TO FEAR A PAINTED DEVIL | VANITY DIES HARD | THE
SECRET HOUSE OF DEATH | ONE ACROSS, TWO DOWN | THE FACE
OF TRESPASS | A DEMON IN MY VIEW | A JUDGEMENT IN STONE
| MAKE DEATH LOVE ME | THE LAKE OF DARKNESS | MASTER OF
THE MOOR | THE KILLING DOLL | THE TREE OF HANDS | LIVE
FLESH | TALKING TO STRANGE MEN | THE BRIDESMAID | GOING
WRONG | THE CROCODILE BIRD | THE KEYS TO THE STREET | A
SIGHT FOR SORE EYES | ADAM AND EVE AND PINCH ME | THE
ROTTWEILER | THIRTEEN STEPS DOWN | THE WATER'S LOVELY
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Published by Hutchinson 2008
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Copyright © Kingsmarkham Enterprises Ltd 2008
Ruth Rendell has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs
and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work
This novel is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product of the author's
imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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First published in Great Britain in 2008 by
Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road,
London SW1V 2SA
Addresses for companies within The Random House Group Limited can be found at:
The Random House Group Limited Reg. No. 954009
A CIP catalogue record for this book
is available from the British Library
For Doreen and Les Massey
It is called the Portobello Road because a very long time ago a
sea captain called Robert Jenkins stood in front of a committee
of the House of Commons and held up his amputated ear.
Spanish coastguards, he said, had boarded his ship in the Caribbean,
cut off his ear, pillaged the vessel and then set it adrift. Public
opinion had already been aroused by other Spanish outrages and
the Jenkins episode was the last straw to those elements in
Parliament which opposed Walpole's government. They demanded
British vengeance and so began the War of Jenkins's Ear.
In the following year, 1739, Admiral Vernon captured the city of
Puerto Bello in the Caribbean. It was one of those successes that
are very popular with patriotic Englishmen, though many hardly
knew what the point of it was. In the words of a poet writing about
another battle and another war: 'That I cannot tell, said he, but
'twas a famous victory.' Vernon's triumph put Puerto Bello on the
map and gave rise to a number of commemorative names. Notting
Hill and Kensal were open country then where sheep and cattle
grazed, and one landowner called his fields Portobello Farm. In
time the lane that led to it became the Portobello Road. But for
Jenkins's ear it would have been called something else.
Street markets abounded in the area, in Kenley Street, Sirdar
Road, Norland Road, Crescent Street and Golborne Road. The
one to survive was the Portobello and from 1927 onwards a daily
market was held there from eight in the morning to eight in the
evening and 8 a.m. till 9 p.m. on Saturdays. It still is, and in a
much reduced state, on Sundays too. The street is very long, like
a centipede snaking up from Pembridge Road in the south to
Kensal Town in the north, its legs splaying out all the way and
almost reaching the Great Western main line and the Grand Union
Canal. Shops line it and spill into the legs, which are its side
streets. Stalls fill most of the centre, for though traffic crosses it
and some cars crawl patiently along it among the people, few use
it as a thoroughfare. The Portobello has a rich personality, vibrant,
brilliant in colour, noisy, with graffiti that approach art, bizarre
and splendid. An indefinable edge to it adds a spice of danger.
There is nothing safe about the Portobello, nothing suburban. It
is as far from an average shopping street as can be imagined.
Those who love and those who barely know it have called it the
world's finest street market.
You can buy anything there. Everything on earth is on sale: furniture,
antiques, clothes, bedding, hardware, music, food and food
and more food. Vegetables and fruit, meat and fish, and cheese and
chocolate. The stalls sell jewellery, hats, masks, prints, postcards
old and new, shawls and scarves, shoes and boots, pots and pans,
flowers real and artificial, furs and fake furs, lamps and musical
instruments. You can buy a harp there or a birdcage, a stuffed bear
or a wedding dress, or the latest best-seller. If you want to eat your
lunch in the street you can buy paella or pancakes, piping hot from
a stall. But no live animals or birds are for sale.
Cheap books in excellent condition are on sale in the Oxfam
shop. A little way up the road is the Spanish deli which sells,
mysteriously, along with all its groceries, fine earthenware pots and
bowls and dishes. There is a mini-market in most of the centipede's
legs and at Portobello Green a covered market under a peaked tent
like a poor man's Sydney Opera House. In Tavistock Road the
house fronts are painted red and green and yellow and grey.
The moment you turn out of Pembridge Road or Westbourne
Grove or Chepstow Villas and set foot in the market you feel a
touch of excitement, an indrawing of breath, a pinch in the heart.
And once you have been you have to go again. Thousands of visitors
wander up and down it on Saturdays. It has caught them in the way
a beauty spot can catch you and it pulls you back. Its thread attaches
itself to you and a twitch on it summons you to return.
Quite a long way up the Portobello Road, a glossy arcade now
leads visitors into the hinterland. There is a children's clothes
shop, for the children of the wealthy who go to select private
schools, a shop that sells handmade soaps, pink and green and
brown and very highly scented, another where you can buy jerseys
and T-shirts but exclusively cashmere, and a place that calls itself
a studio, which offers for sale small watercolours and even smaller
marble obelisks. It was here, long before the arcade came into
being, that Arnold Wren had his gallery. He never called it that
but preferred the humbler designation of 'shop'.
Stalls filled the pavement outside. Mostly fruit and vegetables
up here. When Arnold's son Eugene was a little boy the vegetables
and fruit were of a kind that had been sold in English
markets for generations. His grandmother could remember when
the first tomato appeared and he, now a man of fifty, saw the first
avocado appear on old Mr Gibson's stall. The boy's mother didn't
like the taste, she said she might as well be eating green soap.
Arnold sold paintings and prints, and small pieces of sculpture.
In rooms at the back of the shop stacks of paintings occupied most
of the available space. He made enough money to keep himself, his
wife and his only son in comfort in their unprepossessing but quite
comfortable house in Chesterton Road. Then, one day when the
boy was in his teens, his father took his family on holiday to Vienna.
There, in an exhibition, he saw paintings by the Swiss Symbolist
Arnold Böcklin on loan from various European galleries. The
Christian name struck him because it was the same as his own.
Arnold Wren never forgot them; they haunted his dreams and later
on he could have described some of Böcklin's works in the greatest
detail entirely from memory,
The Isle of the Dead
, the frightening
self-portrait with the skeleton's hand on Böcklin's shoulder, the
He had forgotten where most of the paintings in the rooms
behind the shop came from. Some had been inherited from
father. Others were sold to him for shillings rather than pounds
by people clearing out their attics. There were thousands of attics
in old Notting Hill. But looking through them one day, wondering
if this one or that one were worth keeping at all, he came upon a
picture that reminded him of Vienna. It wasn't at all like
of the Dead
The Centaur at the Forge
but it had the scent of
Böcklin about it, which made him catch his breath.
It was a painting of a mermaid swimming inside a glass vase
with a narrow neck, trying perhaps – from the expression on her
face of fear and desperation – to climb out of the water and the
vase. All was glaucous green but for her rosy flesh and her long
golden hair. Arnold Wren called the picture
Undine in a Goldfish
and showed it to an expert without telling him what he
suspected. The expert said, 'Well, Mr Wren, I am ninety-nine per
cent certain this is by Arnold Böcklin.'
Arnold was an honest man and he said to the potential purchaser
of the painting, 'I'm ninety-nine per cent sure this is a Böcklin,'
but Morris Stemmer, rich and arrogant, fancied himself an expert
and was a hundred per cent sure. He paid Arnold the sort of sum
usually said to be 'beyond one's wildest dreams'. This enabled
Arnold to buy a house in Chepstow Villas, a Jaguar and to go
further afield than Vienna on his holidays. His was a Portobello
Road success story while old Mr Gibson's was a failure. Or so it
appeared on the surface.
When his father died Eugene Wren moved the business to premises
in upmarket Kensington Church Street and referred to it as
'the gallery'. The name in gilded letters on a dark-green background
was 'Eugene Wren, Fine Art', and partly through luck and partly
due to Eugene's flair for spotting new young artists and what from
times past was about to become fashionable, made him a great
deal of money.
Without being a thief himself, Albert Gibson the stallholder
married into a family of thieves.
only son Gilbert had been in
and out of prison more times than his wife Ivy cared to count.
That, she told her relatives, was why they had no children. Gib
was never home for long enough. She was living in Blagrove Road
when they built the Westway, which cut the street in two and
turned 2 Blagrove Villas into a detached house. The Aclam Road
mini-market separated it from the overhead road and the train line,
and the Portobello Road was a stone's throw away if you were a
marksman with a strong arm and a steady eye.