Chapter 3 of my novel Underpainting, for the first two chapters click on the link.
Marianne parked outside her mother’s neat red and yellow brick terraced house. It had been a hell of a journey, 90 miles of morning traffic, horrendous road works and to cap it all, the car was playing up. She’d driven non-stop to make sure she’d get there when she’d promised to. She felt stiff and tired.
As she undid her seat belt Marianne looked towards the house and knew her mother was out. Mrs. Rogers the next door neighbour was watching her, she’d always done so and probably always would do. Marianne waved at her and Mrs. Rogers quickly dusted the top of the window.
“Nosy old cow” she said, remembering the time when she was fourteen and Mrs. Rogers had delighted in telling her mother about seeing Ray Picket kissing and fondling her in a bus shelter. “Your dad would never have allowed it, showing us up, he’d have sorted you out”, her mother had gone on and on and on.
Marianne got out, and went through a white wooden gate into the small front garden. Every plant was perfectly in its place, each grain of soil looked polished, she stood for a second willing a weed to break through and bring some life to the scene. Marianne looked at the new plastic windows that Colin (“so kind of him, so kind”) had paid for, white and gleaming, the original coloured glass lost forever, or for sale in a Bath antique shop.
Marianne rang the door bell, Westminster Chimes, but knew her mother was not in. She could feel Mrs. Rogers’ eyes watching her.
She used her key to open the door.
Within ten seconds all hell was let loose.
“Damn Colin, I’ll kill him, I’ll kill him, I’ll kill him!” Marianne shouted. She ran around looking for the burglar alarm control. In the kitchen next to the back door a brand new white plastic box with a keypad was fixed to the wall and a tiny red flashing light was telling her it was active.
“I know it’s bloody active, for God’s sake! Why on earth didn’t you tell me mother!”
She pressed numbers, any! She looked in kitchen drawers, in the front room cabinet, under the plant pots, “she must keep the number somewhere… she’d never remember”, she muttered.
The bell was a deafening, constant.
Mrs. Rogers was already outside in her back garden as Marianne unlocked the back door and went outside.
“Mrs. Rogers do you know where mum is?”
“Coffee morning she said, for the new hall, said you were coming and you wouldn’t mind. Noisy isn’t it, Colin got it fitted the other day, good of him wasn’t it, so many burglaries”
Marianne turned and went inside ‘God with her around who needs fucking alarms’ she thought.
She tried more numbers, her birthday, her mothers, Colin’s, Colin’s children, Colin’s Shirley even Peter’s, though her Mother always seemed to forget that one.
Marianne gave up and started to make a cup of coffee. Some dark brown granules spilt on the gleaming surface, and when she poured the water they spread in an oily looking mess. Marianne wiped the surface, picked up the mug and walked to the front room to look out for her mother. Should she go and pick her up?
‘She’s probably on the way home already’ she thought.
The alarm continued ringing.
The front room was immaculate. Rose patterned wallpaper and magnolia paint, spotless in every corner, every surface even the invisible ones. Under the window was a table covered with framed photographs: a black and white one of her parents wedding day; one of Dad, who’d died when she was five, in his fireman’s uniform, and she knew that behind the photo was a browning cutting from the Argus about his bravery, how he’d saved four people before being engulfed in flames; her mother in a nurses’ uniform with two other nurses; Colin in school uniform aged seven, then aged nine on holiday at Butlin’s with a Redcoat, then aged seventeen in his first suit, then on his wedding day with Shirley, then with Shirley and baby in a studio, then with Shirley and second baby a couple of years later.
There were countless photographs Marianne’s niece and nephew, Marjorie and Ray “so nice to call them after your Dad and I”, (one day Marianne would scream when her mother said that): as babies, in knitted cardigans, in school photographs, in nativity plays; on holiday with Gran and a strange one at Dad’s memorial plaque at the old fire station before they pulled it down.
Of Marianne there was a school photo of her aged ten, uniform a bit tight and one from when she was at art college in 1967. The photo of Peter and Marianne in Greece seven years ago shared a frame with a photograph of her mother’s best friend Winnie Blackley, ‘he’s put on a bit of weight’ thought Marianne.
She knew that her mother had had a hard time after Dad died. Marrianne was only six, and Colin two when it happened. She vaguely remembered the mayor coming apologetically to the house with £289/7/6d collected in the town, in recognition of Dad’s bravery, a lot of money for 1953 she thought. Mum put it in the bank and never touched it, ‘for my grandchildren’ she said.
Mum had returned to nursing and Marianne spent many long days and nights looking after Colin. She only remembered Dad as a tall dark figure who once smelt of burnt rubber and Mum shouting at him to make sure he was clean before he came in. They’d only been married eight years when he’d died, ‘God’ Marianne thought, ‘Peter and I have been together more than three times that’.
Marianne was good at school, bigger than most of the rest of the girls, and could always draw and paint well. Colin had to work hard. “Your Dad would have liked you to be a teacher”, Mum had said when they’d argued about Marianne going to Art School. She went though, and never really came home again, it was the late 1960’s when students went on strike, great issues were debated, an exciting time. “But what are you going to do, women don’t become artists” Mum had said.
At 15 Colin went to the local TechnicalCollege then joined the council as an office assistant in the housing department. He’d worked hard and got his exams. At 24 he married one of the secretaries, Shirley, and they now had a steady business setting up loans, selling house insurance and mortgages. Marianne had to admit that he was very good to Mum (“Your Dad would have been proud of him…”), far better than she was. He visited or rang Mum every day, took her on holiday, paid for all sorts of things, had even offered her a granny flat in their new house in SilverhillsPark. In the photographs they were the perfect family.
Marianne visited her mother when she could, which was not often, her mother disapproved of Peter because they weren’t married, that didn’t seem right to her, “You will when little ones come along”, and Marianne would reply “Why?”.
Someone knocked at the front door, which jolted Marianne out of her thoughts, the incessant bell was like some ancient torture. Marianne saw a police car outside and at the door was a Policeman, who looked about the age of most of her students.
“That yours?” he said looking up at the red box that Marianne had failed to notice.
“No, this is my mother’s house, I don’t know the combination”
‘Should I say it took you long enough’ Marianne thought, about twenty minutes had elapsed, but didn’t.
“Have you got any identification?”
“What? Look, my mother was out when I arrived and I didn’t know my brother had had this damn thing fitted, so I’m waiting for her, she won’t be long”.
He looked at her, and she motioned for him to come in. They went to the kitchen to look at the control box.
“Do you know the code number?” he asked.
Marianne looked at him annoyed and he realised what he’d said.
“They don’t tell us you know, we get an automatic phone call from a central office, half my day can be spent chasing around after these things”.
He tried some combinations of numbers. The bell still rang.
“Want a coffee?”
The front door opened and they looked round to see Marianne’s Mother coming in.
“Hello Mary” she kissed her cheek, she was the only person who called her Mary now, “such a noise. I was leaving it as a surprise for you when you came, so kind of Colin wasn’t it. I didn’t think you’d be so early, you’re usually late”, Marianne tried to defend herself. Her mother turned to the policeman “Oh and what trouble it’s caused you, I’m so sorry to have taken your time up”.
She went to the keypad and slowly pressed 1,2,3,4,5.
The policeman left after Marianne had signed a form.
When she returned to the kitchen her mother was cleaning the kitchen surface of the coffee Marianne had already cleaned up.
“Looks like we live in a slum” she said pointedly as she polished. When all signs of coffee were gone she went to the refrigerator and took out two carefully prepared salads. She always made cheese salad for Marianne who was vegetarian, as she really didn’t know what else to give her. She’d made a ham salad for herself.
“Winnie said you’d be here but I said you wouldn’t mind. We made 26 pounds and 86 pence”.
“That was good, how much more to go?”
“I said you’d come and talk about water-colour painting to the Friday afternoon group when you can find time”.
“Oh Mum, Friday’s not a good day, you know that”.
“But you only work part time”, and very precisely, “you know when I was at St. John’s I worked 52 hours at least each week, I still found time for you and Colin”.
‘No you didn’t’ Marianne thought but didn’t say it aloud. The effect was blackmail and guilt rolled into one, which always worked.
“I really don’t know much about water-colours, Peter would be much better”.
“You teach at an art school, you did all those years at college, surely an afternoon with a few old ladies is not beyond you or beneath you now”.
They remained silent for the remainder of the salad.
Over a cup of strong tea and Battenburg silence was broken.
“Colin’s picking me up at two thirty, Marjorie is singing in a concert at school and wants me to be there. Like to come?”
“I don’t think so, I was hoping we could have a chat, go for a walk by the river”.
“What have we got to talk about? I said you wouldn’t want to go, I told him you weren’t coming for a proper visit, just one of your flits in and out, I suppose there’s someone else to see”.
“No I came to see you”.
“All that way, doesn’t seem worth it really”.
By 3.30 Marianne was stuck in another set of road works. Inside she shouted and screamed and knew her mother shouldn’t get her like this, but she always did and always would do. She stared at the back of a vast white refrigerator truck that pumped diesel fumes into her car. Her back and left leg ached, the radio was almost unintelligible from the trucks interference.
“How on earth did I agree to talk about water-colours, I hate water-colours, I’ve never even painted in water-colours, what on earth was Mum thinking about, and Fridays, she knows I go to the studio on Friday”, she talked on and on to herself in short punchy sentences, annoyed she’d given in, “…and I bet Peter’s out with Bill tonight”.
As she waited for the temporary lights to change she pondered Bill and Angela’s family life. Was it happier than hers? Five children, Elizabeth, Philip, Charles, Anne and Diana, ‘The Royal Family’ as Bill called them, Elizabeth was seventeen and Diana eighteen months old. And how did Angela cope with all those kids? Bill half drunk most of the time and all those silly affairs. Still Angela gave as good as she got.
“And I bet Bill gets Peter drunk!”
Marianne watched a large dark blue BMW slowly pushing in from the outside lane, its red faced driver speaking importantly into a mobile phone reading off a document propped on his steering wheel. She made a very vulgar gesture towards him which made him almost run into the white truck.
She felt better for that.