The first time David sees her, he thinks she’s just another patron, eyes fixed keenly on the Dalí. Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by the Horns of Her Own Chastity doesn’t typically draw the crowds, and it certainly doesn’t typically draw viewers like her, for all that it’s a Dalí.
She’s dressed neatly in slim-cut black trousers that hug her hips and a plunging striped top, mostly covered by a plum leather motorcycle jacket, its buckles half done-up. Her hair is a mousy brown, which seems incongruous to him, though he’s not sure why. She’s topped it all with a jaunty fedora, slightly askew. The red feather in its band is hanging on by a thread, gently waving in the breeze from the ceiling vent.
The woman stands a polite distance from the painting, hands linked behind her back. She tilts her head from one side to the other, as if the work will become less strange if she views it at an angle.
Suddenly, she turns her head and looks straight at him.
David squeaks and ducks behind his gallery guide, hoping she’s just looking at the much more sedate Christ of Saint John of the Cross that hangs behind his bench. He waits, shoulders hunched, as if his mortification will be enough to make him vanish.
To his relief, when he finally tentatively extricates his head from the pamphlet, she’s gone.
Later, he reads that someone’s stolen Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by the Horns of Her Own Chastity. He shrugs, turning the newspaper to an article on the latest renovations to the V&A. The painting was rather crude.
He next sees her in Paris, though he doesn’t realize it’s her in the moment. He’s at the Louvre, in the Renaissance wing. He’s paused by a Botticelli, paging through his map to try to locate himself (and the nearest gents'). He curses the Louvre and its endless white walls, which provide no help in navigating its maze of priceless artifacts.
He’s just decided to give up on the map and quietly ask the next person who looks like they know where they’re going when he walks straight into her, head still buried in the booklet.
She’s heading for Tintoretto’s Susanna and the Elders, a crease between her brows. As he flails about to try to steady himself, his hand lands on her shoulder. She stiffens, and he hastily snatches back his hand.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I wasn’t watching where I was going,” he says in a rush. Then he notices that she looks slightly familiar, though where he might have met a curvy redhead in a fluffy pink dress, he doesn’t know.
“I’m sorry, do we know each other?” he asks, puzzled.
Her face is impassive, and she answers him in a breathy, high voice that matches her dress but clashes oddly with her stern expression.
“Excusez-moi, monsieur. Je ne parle pas anglais,” she says, ducking her head. Excuse me, sir. I don’t speak English.
He shakes his head to clear it. Must be mistaken, then.
“Er— desolé, um. Bonne journée!” He flushes, embarrassed at his horrid accent. He turns and flees in the opposite direction.
He eventually finds a public convenience in a nearby café. He stays far away from the Louvre for the remainder of his trip, and never does figure out why the woman looked familiar.
By their third meeting, David’s mostly forgotten the first one, though the second is firmly embedded in his brain as only embarrassing memories can be.
He sees her, of all places, at an auction. She’s across the room, long blonde hair in a plait down her back, leaning down slightly as she examines what appears to be an upended urinal in a roped-off area.
He’s curious, so he ventures towards her. He thought this was an auction of masterpieces of sculpture, so he’s not sure why the urinal is there.
He stops a few feet away from the woman. From here, he can see the fine lines on her face, emphasized as she squints at the urinal through dark-rimmed glasses.
He clears his throat.
“Excuse me,” he starts. She glances over her shoulder with a puzzled expression, then straightens up and turns around to listen.
“This is— rather awkward,” he says, and tries for a casual laugh that comes out slightly nervous instead. “But, could you explain to me the, er, purpose of this sculpture? I’m afraid I must be missing something. Is it, um, just a— well, just a urinal?” He can feel his face heating.
She laughs, a rich chuckle.
“You’re right, of course,” she says, her voice deep and her eyes mischievous. “It really is just an upturned urinal. It’s called Fountain, by a dreadful man called Marcel Duchamp. He was quite anti-establishment, and he supposedly made it as a commentary on just what counted as “art” at the time.” She pauses, sizing him up. He’s standing, transfixed, unable to look away from her.
“In reality, of course, he just proved that anything that men do will be called art and considered highly valuable, even if it’s just a broken old piss-pot. If a woman had made it—” she starts, then breaks off. “Well, there are certain conspiracy theories that say that it was made by a woman, but that Duchamp claimed it as his own. As if that makes it better!” She shakes her head.
“Anyway, you didn’t sign up for a feminist rant,” she says, and thrusts out her hand. “Victoria Coren, art critic.”
David, who’s been trying not to gape like a goldfish, pauses a second too long before reaching out to shake her hand. “Ah, David Mitchell. I’m in finance. Certainly not as interesting as all of this!” He waves his left hand vaguely to indicate the sculpture-packed room. He realizes he’s still holding her hand and hastily pulls his back, face flushing.
He scrambles around for something intelligent to say about art, and remembers a crackpot theory he read online, one night when he was drunkenly Googling for art that he’d never earn enough money to buy.
He decides to chance it; after all, she brought up feminism first.
“Have you heard about the, um, “Pussy Burglar?”” he asks, ducking his head to avoid her gaze. He’s too busy staring at a spot on the floor to notices that she stiffens, going slightly pale, then forces herself to relax.
“It’s a ridiculously degrading name, I know,” he says, rubbing the back of his neck, “but apparently, this person goes around stealing expensive works of art that, ah, feature women in… less than egalitarian ways.”
He laughs nervously. “No one knows what they do with the art once they’ve taken it, but I imagine that she— or he,” he hastens to add, “might destroy it. I imagine that might be cathartic, for a certain type of person.”
He finally looks up to see that Victoria is regarding him with a calculating gaze, one finger tapping her lips.
“Would you like to come back to mine?” she asks, tilting her head.
David feels himself blush again, certain she’ll think his face is fixed this color.
“Er— yes, very much,” he says, breathless and beaming.
When he walks into Victoria’s flat, he’s somehow unsurprised to see her walls covered with the charred remains of misogynistic masterpieces.