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Ridley's Daughter

* Story contains bad language

He called her Lucia after Joyce's mad daughter, or sometimes he said she was Santa Lucia, singing her song at the top of his voice whenever she stepped into the studio He never had problems telling them apart - Sophia, Maude, Cassandra, Sinbad, Costello, Tatiana, Hamlet, Icarus, Jezebel or the dozen or so children by the secondary mothers. 'Lucrezia!' he'd call out, without turning his head. 'O mercy to myself I cried, if Lucy should be dead!'

There he'd be at his easel, dressed in a spattered blue shirt like the one Kirk Douglas wore in Lust for Life, surrounded by the paintings that he turned out so effortlessly. Portraits mostly - not just of women, though these were his most famous. The faces of madmen and vagrants from his Dublin sketchbooks, and of his own children when they were young.

Sometimes he even said she was named after Lucian Freud, that cold fish, just to tease her. Lucian Freud! The London establishment. To Ridley, painting was just a fragment of what he was about. His great enterprise was the gathering of hidden knowledge, and for him the true meaning of art transcended craftsmanship.

All of his offspring were talented. Costello was playing Horatio at the Old Vic. Tatiana's first novel was on the Booker shortlist, while Cassandra was a furniture designer and Icarus a potter. Only Lucia had chosen a more conventional career. She taught at a school in a small town far away. She loved the bright eyes and the squirrelling bodies of the little children. Many of them arrived at reception class barely able to talk or answer to their own names. Most of them had never sat down at a table to eat. Yet she could get the whole lot of them hushed and attentive, just for that one pure moment when she held the whole room in the palm of her hand. She considered herself a fortunate person.

In public, Ridley disavowed parental ties. 'What concern is it of mine, what my spunk goes to make when I've shot it?' In private he was more indulgent, writing out and illustrating his own version of Alice's Adventures Under Ground specially for Lucia, which he read aloud to her when she came to visit. Lucia's mother, Muffin, was legally his wife, though they'd never shared a roof together in the forty years since they met at art school. Ridley never spent the night with any of his lovers. He considered the process unnatural and vampiric. Muffin was his wife because she was hard-headed and sensible and could manage his business affairs. Ridley had a premonition that he would meet a violent death, and throughout his career was concerned that posterity would find everything in order.

Muffin was perfect for the job. She kept the accounts and she tended the flame, living frugally on benefits and later on a small allowance, devoting all her energies to managing the great man. Raising ten children was part of that enterprise. Lucia's brothers and sisters were the only ones entitled to bear the Ridley name.

There were rivals for his affection. Ridley kept a dog for a while, a nervy little whippet, discarded by one of his admirers, or maybe it just wandered in from the street. Lucia started calling round after school with a girl in her class called Claire; Claire knew all there was to know about handling dogs. Walking Vincent, even off the lead, wasn't exactly difficult; he was so shy he'd never leave your side, cowering from any dogs who tried to socialise. Lucia soon got bored but Claire insisted on keeping it up, building Vincent's confidence till he almost was the playmate Lucia had envisaged.

Unlike Lucia's other friends, Claire took no interest whatsoever in Ridley. She was entirely a dog person. She made no comments about the naked women, the bubbling hookahs, the phone numbers scribbled on walls, the cobwebs hanging from the ceiling, the row of human skulls and the extraordinary figure of Ridley himself. And Ridley appeared not to notice the girls. According to Ridley, he never knew Lucia once had a friend called Claire. He first spotted his new muse hanging round on the steps outside the Central Library on William Brown Street.

The women Ridley favoured were generally the pre-Raphaelite type, over-ripe and statuesque, with dark flowing hair. He never needed to pursue them; they were drawn to him, and when there were recriminations he always pointed out that he never pretended to be other than himself. Claire was different. If she was a pre-Raphaelite, she'd be Lizzie Siddal - a redhead, almost translucent, with pale, lashless eyes. Ridley had no idea who this girl was, but he knew where to find her, thanks to the school uniform.

Claire rebuffed Ridley for years. At one time, when she was seventeen, with a job at Paws for Thought, her parents took out a restraining order, and if it hadn't been for Muffin he probably would have faced some very unsavoury charges. Lucia never recognised 'Clarissa' in the series of spectral paintings, seemingly inspired by Munch. She'd moved on to sixth form college and another best friend. So it came as a total shock when she realised the 'little girl' Muffin referred to was someone she used to know.

This little girl imagined that she had some sort of entitlement simply because she was pregnant. And for some inexplicable reason, Ridley was playing along. Muffin knew that she was cruelly deceived, and at first she just laughed at the silly fool, with her pitiful sense of importance. Did she really not know how disposable she was? Just one of a kind - not the first, nor the last. The pose that she held, proudly fertile, her thin breasts uncovered, brushing her hair from her face with a gesture that might be protective - Muffin herself had been painted like that. If she understood Ridley half as well as Muffin, she'd know this portrait, far from being a triumph, signified defeat. When Ridley asked his muses to pose, it meant he'd lost interest in them sexually. He'd possessed them, and now he was giving them back to the world. Sitting still and silent, they wouldn't pester him with their demands, and it was also a sop to their self-importance to be immortalised in oils. These paintings could be a slog to finish, but they always sold quickly. They were not as good, Muffin thought, and Ridley agreed, as the sketches and phantasmagoria he completed in the fevered early stages of infatuation.

No one knew Ridley, or his work, as well as Muffin. She had dealt with much more tricky situations, the woman for instance who had wanted to commit ritual suicide in Ridley's studio. And Ridley had been all for it, not stopping to think about the legal implications - but then he never did.

Ridley proposed that Clarissa be given power of attorney. So far as Lucia could make out, that meant she would take over all Ridley's financial transactions, leaving Muffin with the responsibility for cataloguing the work and arranging exhibitions and shipping paintings abroad. And writing endless grant applications. Ridley never got state sponsorship. Figurative art was despised nowadays. But Muffin kept applying on principle, and it was even beginning to look as though the city fathers might be swayed by Ridley's potential for attracting tourists.

When Ridley made his proposal, Muffin's disdain for Clarissa turned first into exasperation and then into fear. How long was he keeping this up for, and why? There could be no question of a half-educated girl having any understanding of what it even meant to have power of attorney, let alone the financial acumen to handle Ridley's complex tax arrangements. And then Ridley disappeared.

He was gone for six weeks. Muffin was not, at first, concerned. Although on the whole he disliked travelling, Ridley often took impromptu trips. He had patrons as far away as Tangiers and California whose doors were always open to him. In his absence, Muffin carried on much as normal, making arrangements, and forging his signature on the paperwork. But she needed the artist himself for an exhibition she'd organised in Dublin, the town where he was born. Ridley was not so famous that he could afford be reclusive. He came back - just in time for the opening - claiming he'd forgotten all about it.

Things were getting difficult for Muffin. She had just discovered that Icarus was using heroin, and Sophia was at the start of her long succession of violent relationships. It was actually quite handy, having Clarissa on hand to sort out the minor details - the power of attorney having been quietly dropped - until Ridley's little girl started getting rather pushy, making claims on behalf of the child.

In the end, she was palmed off with one of the original Clarissa paintings, completed not long after Ridley first laid eyes on her outside the library. But she never disappeared completely. Like one or two of the others, she still came round with her baby, and a few years later there was a second child.

Ridley catalogued all his sexual encounters. His whole life was a series of projects, documented in drawings, notebooks, paintings and file cards. He believed that human beings were beasts driven by appetite; even artistic creation was a bodily function. He also believed that we were at the mercy of cosmic forces, manifested through ancient spells and sacred texts; and that some individuals were able to channel those powers, either completely unconsciously or by force of will. Ridley despised the word 'love'. It was tainted by ownership. Yet he was loved devotedly. Lucia realised, through the Clarissa affair, that despite her cold eye for Ridley's failings, Muffin's life was nothing without him, and she loved her children only because they were his.

The first copies of Alice's Adventures under Ground were published privately by Macmillan in 1865. The author gave away fifty copies away. The rest were sent back because Tenniel was unhappy with the way his illustrations had been printed. Out of those fifty copies, twenty-three were returned immediately. Of the rest, book dealers know the whereabouts of them all, except one. Ridley had most editions of the Alice story, illustrated not only by Tenniel but by Arthur Rackham, Mabel Lucie Atwell, Mervyn Peake, Salvador Dali and numerous other well-known and lesser artists. He owned The Nursery 'Alice' and the Sixpenny edition; editions in languages including Latin, Arabic and Esperanto; he would not be satisfied until he traced that final copy.

Muffin was his scout in a task she must have known was utterly futile. She spent hours on the internet and making phone calls, following every lead, and making trips to booksellers in New York and Switzerland. Ridley would pay any price, and he truly believed that he was destined to find that imperfect book and close the circle. But what he really wanted, more than anything in the world, was even more precious. It was the original copy written out by Dodgson himself, at Alice Liddell's urgings, on the train home, following the famous boat trip in 1862 - not the illustrated version, presented afterwards to Alice, but the original Adventures Under Ground, with the gaps left for the drawings. He said his quest was too important to delegate, or even discuss. Ridley was profligate in the sharing of secrets. But something uncharacteristically hesitant in Ridley's manner made Lucia believe that, when he confided in her, he was speaking about this for the first time, and that Muffin was being kept in the dark. Lucia was telling him all about her work with the children; Ridley was interested, which was more than you could say about Muffin, who considered school-teaching rather conventional.

'Would you mind,' Lucia said, 'if I borrowed my 'Alice'? That book you had bound for me when I was little? My kids would love to see it…I'd be very careful.'

'Keep it,' said Ridley. 'I made it for you.'

She took the key to the attic - it had to be locked these days, now people knew the prices rare books could fetch - and went straight to the shelf where Ridley kept Lucia's Adventures Under Ground, alongside all the other versions of Alice. His paintings were stacked at random, and drawings kept in piles, but his books were organised meticulously. Most of the more recent stuff was still in crates - there was no room left from floor to ceiling - but the Alice collection was where it always had been.

Lucia's book was not filed under the artists name, between Rackham and Tenniel; nor was it among the foreign editions or the cartoon versions. Lucia spent all afternoon taking the Alice books out one by one, as if they might suddenly metamorphose into the volume she was seeking. When she came back downstairs, Ridley had forgotten she was there; he was hauling out more pictures to show to some American connoisseur. She glimpsed an adolescent nude that could have been herself, or possibly her sister Jez.

'Oh,' he said when she explained, 'can't you find it? I must have given it away.'

Lucia was very hurt. She noticed amongst the paintings laid against the wall one of herself, at thirteen, shyly covering her pudenda. The visitor glanced over at her briefly before turning back to talk money.

But she got over the pain. And she was Ridley's confidant in the search for Alice. She became close to him, so she believed.

Ridley did not die violently, or at least not yet. All of his plans for posterity were turned inside out, because Muffin was now certain to predecease him. She didn't tell anyone she was unwell, didn't even admit to herself that anything was wrong, until she was beyond help.

Even then her first concern was who would take over the management of Ridley.

'It ought to be someone in the family,' she said.

Lucia wouldn't do it. She knew Muffin thought her way of life was pointless, but she wasn't going to sacrifice herself like some Victorian daughter. And yet, she was the obvious choice, the sensible one; and the one, she liked to think, who knew his heart's desire. The finances were a mess; left to his own devices, Ridley spent money as soon as it came in, yet he believed, because he only spent on books - which were not material goods - that he wasn't profligate. Because Muffin was unwell, she lost her grip. She let things slip through she would never have allowed if she'd been herself. The debts were bigger than ever. Unknown to her, Ridley had been consulting charlatans and mystics on the secret whereabouts of Dodgson's manuscript.

He was also deeply involved in a new phase in his career. Ridley's Mutilation Project was intended as a counterblast against those critics who accused him of catering to what they called the Athena poster market. The nude portraits of limbless beggars and motorcycle amputees were considered by many to be his best work, though most were painted from photographs rather than life. He became especially interested in self-harmers, painting them into a massive crucifixion taking shape across the whole wall of the studio.

During this time, there were numerous family conferences. The siblings were always close, squeezing into Muffin's council house nearly every Christmas, until the children themselves had partners and offspring, too many to fit into one space. The youngest, Cassie never accepted her mother was dying. Lucia's brother Hamlet raged against the medical establishment; did they know how high the survival rate was for breast cancer these days? Why wasn't she diagnosed earlier? But the others knew it was nobody's fault, not unless they counted Muffin herself for staying away from the doctor.

Costello was the worst affected. He was never as intense as Sinbad, for instance; he had a light, easy presence, just right for an actor. But for some reason he turned his anger against his father. 'He'll be there with his sketchbook,' he said. 'That fucking shit, I bet he can't wait.'

So far as Lucia knew, there were no such visits from Ridley. She was fully expecting a series, like the photos Annie Liebowitz took of Susan Sontag on her deathbed, but there was no sign of his presence, either before Muffin went into the hospice or after. Perhaps that was why there was always a strange look of disappointment when Lucia walked through the door; she was hoping for Ridley to make her immortal.

All of them entered a limbo during this time. Few of the children had nine to five jobs, so it was relatively simple to work out a rota that became such a regular routine they almost forgot it was going to end. They took scented soaps and orchids - the sort of feminine luxuries she never used to bother with before. Lucia read to her; she was good at reading aloud. And she spoke in a kind of monologue about Tatiana's reviews or the boat Sinbad was building, the kind of thing she knew gave Muffin pleasure. Lucia's position was the least flexible - none of the others had clock-watching jobs - but she managed to get down there as often as she could, finishing her marking and writing reports on the train.

'You have to go,' she told Ridley. 'How long is it since you last saw her?'

'About a year.'

Lucia was startled.

'Since I saw Muffin, I'd say a year. That woman isn't Muffin. You know as well as I do. She's just a carcass, cancer eats you alive, that's what it is. Don't disappoint me, Lucia. It's not like you to be sentimental. And please, for Christ's sake, don't be shrewish.'

It was his grief - he couldn't handle it - she tried to convince herself - he couldn't cope - it was his way. On the journey home, she was too upset to concentrate on school work. All she could think about was her mother, thin and drawn, her strong features slowly dissolving; and by the time she left the train she'd sketched her outline over and over again in the pages at the back of her diary, as it stayed in her memory, a stroke of the pen.

The old Muffin still surfaced, whatever Ridley said. When she was strong enough between the pain and the morphine, she fretted over the business. Lucia thought about saying she'd take over, just to set her mind at rest. But Lucia was not a liar. So she explained, gently, that she had other commitments. 'Is there anyone else?' she said.

Muffin said at once: 'Clarissa.'

Ridley agreed. Yes, she was still around. He thought she was living in Otterspool, one of those boxy new houses near the river. And there she was, in the very first cul-de-sac, tending her flower beds, like something out of Millais, a grey lurcher bounding up to the gate as Lucia approached. When she straightened up, Lucia saw she was pregnant again.

'So you don't have any kids?' Clarissa said. 'Lucky you.'

The kitchen was chaotic, football kits and dirty vests scattered round the floor, and the work surfaces cluttered with empty jars and bottles. Crayoned drawings and school notices were stuck to the fridge. Fisher Price toys rang and buzzed underfoot as Lucia stepped over a second lurcher, slumbering on the floor.

'I can't believe it,' Clarissa said, gathering a child into her lap. 'You haven't changed.'

'Nor have you.'

'Come on!'

She hadn't, not really. She'd put on weight, but her figure could stand it. You couldn't stay Beata Beatrix forever.

'Now then, what can I do for you?' she asked when the tea was poured.

She'd heard about Muffin. She was up to date with all the news, including Ridley's new project and Costello's break with his father. 'What makes you think I'd want to take over?' she asked.

'It would be a job for you - help you along.'

'And what are you going to pay me with?'

They'd thought about that; between them the children would guarantee her wages for a year, in a fund quite separate from Ridley's account. Maude had married a Bohemian aristocrat who managed rock bands; she could always borrow a few grand, so long as it didn't go directly into her father's pocket.

'I suppose it's worth it to you,' she said. 'You'll come into a fortune when he dies.'

'Hardly -' But Clarissa cut her off before she could explain.

'No - I'm not interested.' She meant in Ridley's money. 'I'll think about it,' she said and Lucia knew that her answer was no. 'Anyway, never mind that old phoney. What have you been up to since I last saw you?'

People who knew Ridley, or even Ridley's name, always wanted to talk about him; they were never really interested in her except as Ridley's daughter. Besides it wasn't as if she and Claire were lifelong buddies. Lucia really wanted to get back to Muffin's house; she'd forgotten to set the alarm, and none of the others were there that weekend. But when Clarissa offered to make them some pasta she felt obliged to say yes.

'Come on,' said Clarissa, 'let's get pissed.'

Lucia was used to running into the spawn of Ridley's loins. They weren't especially relevant; she had too many real brothers and sisters to care about the others. But she was taken by Clarissa's little girl. She was the double of Sophia's five year old; whereas the boy, the fruit of Ridley's first passion, looked more like his mother. After the meal, he wandered off to play on his computer, but the little girl was fractious, ingratiating herself with the visitor, putting off going to bed.

'I want to talk to the lady,' she simpered.

'The lady is sick and tired of listening to you whining.'

'How about if I help you clean your teeth?' said Lucia. 'And then I'll read you a story.'

It was a ruse that always worked with Sophia's little girl. Like Sophia's little girl, she was mad about The Little Princess. 'Oh can't we have The Gruffalo tonight?' Lucia pleaded melodramatically 'or let me see…' She searched through a bookcase full of picture books and classic stories inherited from Clarissa's childhood and from her own and from Muffin's and every other little girl's - Black Beauty, The Secret Garden, Alice in Wonderland. And next to them, a dainty hand-bound volume with illustrations in pen and ink.

'Princess, Princess!'

When she'd tucked the child in bed, Lucia tiptoed from the room. The stairs were dark by now, but she didn't turn the light on. She slipped Lucia's Adventures Under Ground into her bag in the hallway and zipped it up quickly.

'Is everything all right?' Clarissa was suddenly standing beside her. 'I see you found the book.'

'My book. I've been looking for ages. Ridley must have forgotten he lent it to you.'

'Your book?'

'My book with my name on it.'

'Your book? What, like all the pictures of you in the nude that he sells to paedophiles?'

Lucia stiffened. 'My book that he made for me when I was a little girl.'

'Ridley never lends anything. He sells or he gives it away.'

Clarissa was right. Ridley was generous with his own possessions, and sometimes with things that didn't actually belong to him.

'Mummy!' the child called.

'Shush, it's alright, go to sleep or the lady won't come back, you hear me? Come on…' She ushered Lucia into the front room, dominated by the great oil painting of Clarissa, her green eyes blazing and her long red hair merging with the sunset over the Mersey. She'd opened another bottle of wine, and lit candles. 'That's her book now. She can't read; she thinks it's called Lottie's adventures.'

'I'm sorry,' Lucia said, in her best schoolmarm fashion. 'I should have asked you - I wasn't thinking - it's been a rough few weeks - you know? If you just let me take the book, I'll bring it back. I'll ask Ridley to make a new one, a special one for Lottie. Wouldn't she like that?'

Clarissa snorted.

'She'd like that, wouldn't she?'

'Grow up, Lucia. The door's locked. You're not getting out until you give me my book back. I've rung my partner.'

'You didn't say you had a partner.'

'You never asked. I've rung my partner, and my brother's coming too. They know all about you lot.'

Lucia told herself not to be frightened, just because the room was dark and the sinister portrait loomed over her. Clarissa's voice was measured and calm, but she'd had a lot to drink for someone in her condition. She was fantasizing.

'Okay,' she said. 'You can keep it for now.'

'Oh thank you.' Clarissa swigged another glass. 'Thank you, thank you so much.'

Lucia laid her Adventures Under Ground on a coffee table crowded with kids' books and crayons. It was in almost perfect condition, the letters on the cover entwined with fantastical creatures and the outline of a little girl peering curiously up at them, her back turned to the reader.

'Did Ridley give it to you?' she said. 'Or to Lottie?'

Clarissa hesitated. 'How about if I nicked it?' she said. 'When we were kids and we used to walk poor old Vincent? Do you remember Vincent? What if I found it lying around?'

'You're making that up.'

A horn tooted outside, and the two grey dogs, invisible till now, rose to their feet at the sound of a car.

'You never missed it, did you? You never gave it a thought all those years. You lot make me sick, you think you're entitled. Royal blood.' She blew the candles out and opened the door to the hallway. 'You don't know anything. How do you know you're even Ridley's daughter?'

'What do you mean?'

'Ask Muffin. Ridley knew all along. She thought he didn't, but he does. Go on. Ask Muffin, why don't you? Ask Muffin.'

But of course she would never ask Muffin. And she couldn't face speaking to Ridley that night. He'd probably have company - or else he'd be roaming round town on a Saturday night, drinking in the pubs where he was best known. In any case she knew she'd never get a straight answer from Ridley. You don't own children, he'd say. They aren't anybody's. And maybe that was true.

She told the cab driver to make straight for Muffin's house - the driver who'd been waiting outside Clarissa's, her brother, another redhead like the boy. Even her own family called her Clarissa. He turned, grinned at her and winked: 'I won't charge you this time,' he said, 'seeing as we're related.'

Muffin's house was a shrine. It contained only the tiniest proportion of Ridley's output, and yet his work was displayed on every wall. Lucia hardly looked anymore; it might as well have been the Disney wallpaper in Lottie's bedroom. Now she thought about what would happen afterwards, and in years to come - the division of the spoils. She wanted none of it, nothing, only her book. So, for the first time, she looked over Ridley's work like a visitor at an exhibition.

How good they were she couldn't say. What did Lucia know about art? She was just a schoolteacher. But there was one picture she especially liked - a little watercolour showing Muffin breastfeeding with, Lucia thought, her first or second child, long before Lucia. Muffin's dark hair was swept over one shoulder; she hadn't cut it off yet. The Muffin Lucia knew never cared what she looked like. She bought her clothes from charity shops, never used creams or cosmetics, never checked her face in the mirror. In middle age she was practically sexless. You could not have conceived of her taking a lover. But when she was a young mother she was very beautiful, and as she gazed back at the artist she knew that it was so.