Underpainting 4


Chapter 4 of my novel Underpainting highlighting the tension of life before mobiles were an everyday object. If you want to read Chapters 1-3 click the link above.


Peter sat in a crowded carriage on the nine eighteen train to Euston. He was penned in by a Swedish student who appeared to be carrying most of Sweden in his backpack, and two salesmen who from their conversation and regular phone calls he thought must be in electronics of some sort. Peter looked at the crossword in his paper, he’d done one clue, which he thought was wrong, and had a pain across his forehead due to being out with Bill the night before; then when he got home suffered three hours of Marianne in torment over her Mother. He couldn’t believe that he’d promised to give a talk on water-colour painting, but it had calmed her down and by 3a.m. they’d eventually got to sleep.

He felt uncomfortable.

“Damn” said Peter quite loudly, as he realised he’d forgotten to phone Clare, which stopped a seemingly endless conversation one of the salesmen was having down his phone.

He went to the buffet car, ordered a tea and a sickly carrot cake, and decided to eat it standing at the small shelf bar covered with coffee and tea rings.

He looked at the few coins he’d got as change from the five pound note and thought how shocked his mother would be. He took a sip of the scalding tasteless tea and watched the familiar landscape go by. The canal basin was coming up so less than an hour to go.

He knew Henry wouldn’t have put up with this. He’d have gone first class, been served breakfast, he wouldn’t have thought twice about it. Peter could afford to, but something about the words ‘first class’ rankled him. ‘Inverted snobbery’ he thought, ‘I’d have been more relaxed, but I’d have felt guilty’.

He remembered the time he invited his mother to go and see his paintings in London; he’d sent her the money for a train ticket; she’d come by bus and brought enough sandwiches to last her for the day.

He’d planned to take her to a restaurant where Henry had taken him, but they ended up eating bacon and egg sandwiches on a seat outside the Festival Hall overlooking the Thames, and had to admit that they tasted better than what Bumbles, or whatever it was called, would have offered.

“…Don’t want to be spending London prices on food you can make yourself…” she’d said.

Peter knew he was like his mother, however hard he tried not to be. He felt ill at ease travelling round in taxis, couldn’t think of spending fortunes on clothes, was careful with his money, the legacy of being brought up with just enough to get by.

He still couldn’t believe that people paid thousands of pounds for his work, which meant he was now reasonably well off and all from his own efforts. That pleased him.

His father had said that art was a dead end, for ‘nancy boys’, technical drawing was the key, there would always jobs for draughtsmen. He looked out as the train sped past the Ovaltine factory.

Peter’s father had worked shifts in a steel works for 38 years, a small cog in a huge continuous production. His finger nails never got clean and he smoked heavily to annul the smell of the coke. He’d dreamt that a son of his would be one of those who didn’t have to go to work until 8.30, who sat in their own canteen, didn’t get dirty, could wear a white shirt and a suit. He said it’s what he’d gone through the war for, what he never had himself.

But from the age of six Peter knew what he wanted, to be an artist, but to be on the safe side he always said he’d be an art teacher. Through the hell of a secondary modern school where unambitious staff told him to look for a job in an art shop, he retained his dream. He had to hide his ambition for fear of the bullies, and kept secret from his dad the times his mother took him to see pictures in the town’s pitiful art gallery.

Then like a new awakening Peter went to art school, 15 years old, with the smell of the oil paint, pastels and gouache blasted his senses, his longing to move on.

Wembley Stadium shot by in the distance and Peter made his way back to his seat.

Osborne’s sat in the middle of Covent Garden like something left over from another age. The shop window had a few old brushes placed in a pot, dusty corners and a board painted a peculiar mix of olive and emerald green. Either side were the shops of the new Covent Garden. To the right a designer jeweller, with small beautifully coloured earrings tastefully set on simple glass shelves. No prices. To the left was a shop selling Japanese household goods at exorbitant prices, ‘Probably where Henry buys his toilet rolls’ Peter thought, and went in to Osborne’s.

He handed over his list and spent time chatting about the new spatulas they’d had specially made, he added six to the order, though he never really used them. He asked about water-colours. The assistant produced from under the dark counter a beautifully polished wooden box, filled with a whole spectrum of individually wrapped cakes of paint set in white china pans. The box cost £495; Peter took a sharp intake of breath and bought it. He left with it wrapped in brown paper under his arm. The oil paints, brushes, spatulas and canvas would be delivered.

Doodles was bright and sparse, white walls without any decoration, the tables – dark wood with gleaming white linen, the chairs – plain, the floor – scrubbed wood. It felt like a dressed up butchers shop. Peter was early and sat drinking a long glass of orange juice. Henry was due at one o’clock but as always he’d be late. Everyone at the tables was smart. The effect reminded him of the Degas painting of the Cotton Exchange in New Orleans. He felt out of place; the only male without a tie, without a suit.

Henry was 10 minutes late.

Henry looked exactly what he was, someone who could make deals, be assured when ordering food and without guilt when taking his percentage from the sale of your work. He was certainly younger than Peter, but he couldn’t tell how much.

“How good to see you Peter… I see you’ve been to Osborne’s” looking at the brown paper package.

“Water-colour paints”

“A new departure?”

“Not really….  a whim”


Henry sat down and immediately picked up the long narrow menu, he already knew what to order but it was habit.

“Have you chosen?”

Peter had looked at the menu. It was mainly offal, expensively packaged, a bit like school dinners with a posh sauce.

“No… any suggestions?”

“I’m having the brains with shallots in a mascarpone sauce, and some of these”

Henry pointed at one of the items which Peter didn’t really fancy.

“I’ll have the lamb chops”

Henry ordered lunch and a suitable Chilean wine.

“I’ve been sorting some things out for you Peter. We’ve almost finalised that show in Tokyo. You and two others from the Gallery, The Contemporary English Landscape, follow up on those sales we had after the Academy. Also, Felix Blucher of Euro Contemporary Dance contacted me, saw your painting in the Tate and wants a large backdrop for a new production, opening in Sadler’s Wells. Looks a good opportunity if you want it?”

“I’ve never worked for theatre… never thought of it”

“It would get great exposure for you”

“My work, you know, it’s about places… what’s the subject?”

They’d had an argument last time they met after Henry had said that some large company wanted to buy some pieces to fit in with their décor, and could Peter do them. Peter did not want that sort of work and threatened to break off with the Gallery if they thought he did. Henry was able to calm him.

“It’s commissioned, something about unemployment… sounds grim but could be good… they’ve got good sponsors, software company”.

“I’ll think about it, when do they need to know?” Peter asked.

“I’ll ring you, set up a meeting. You know it really would be better if you were down here, so many good contacts… but I know I can’t persuade you”

They’d had this discussion before. Henry couldn’t understand why Peter wouldn’t move to London, leave the college, do more painting. Peter always explained how much he believed in teaching, the stimulus the students gave him, about how they couldn’t afford a studio and certainly not a house                                                                                                                                             in London. What he always failed to say but both he and Henry knew, was that being at the University was a safety net, he knew where he was. Peter was also unsure whether he could sustain more than two paintings a year.

The food came and they gossiped about people they knew, about exhibitions, about the Gallery, about where some of Peter’s pictures now hung.

When they’d finished eating Peter knew he better tell Henry about Frank Butter.

“Henry, I have a confession. I’ve been doing a commission that I sorted out myself, of course I’ll make sure you get your commission, I know about the contract”

Henry looked quite surprised.

“Who is it for?”

“Frank Butter”

“I didn’t know he collected”

“I don’t think he does”

Henry wrote a note in a little leather note pad with a deep azure blue Mont Blanc Mozart pen he always carried. Presents from his partner.

“Do you want us to deal with anything? How on earth did you get him… he really is a bit of an outsider”

“Oh you know…” Peter rather dismissively said. “I can deal with it. We met at an opening in Manchester, I don’t know what he was doing there, guest of the mayor or something… you know the sort of thing? Anyway we got talking and it came about… likes to deal directly with people… meant to tell you last time, but with all that interior decoration crap, it went out of my mind”.

Henry made some more notes.

“Mm… how much was it?”

“Eighteen thousand”

“Good… he paid yet?”

“Yes, all up front.”

“Why? I mean, how did he know your work? I’d have thought boats and sunsets in a fancy gold frame was more Frank Butter”

‘Bloody snob’ thought Peter.

“He’d seen that piece in the Times, which surprised me. He wanted something painting about where he grew up… we come from the same area so knew some of the same places. He knew my dad.”

“Ri-i-ght… He’s been very quiet lately. Must be doing well… D’you mind if we contact him, see if there’s any more business?” Henry was sort of shaking his head as he spoke as if he expected to hear ‘no’.

“I doubt it” Peter replied.

“Look I have to dash, I’m due back at the gallery… Let me know when you’ve finished that for Butter. We could show it before he gets it, have an opening, could be a nice little event, if he’d allow it.”

“I doubt it, but I’ll ask… it’s all done and ready”

Henry finished his wine.

Peter wanted to buy some books before getting his train, so they were both keen to be off. He still hadn’t rung Clare. Looking at his watch he thought – ‘Too late now’.

The 6.15 train was surprisingly empty. His fellow travellers looked tired and gaunt in the hard green and yellow shadows of the station’s strip lit underworld. Passengers were reading work papers, writing notes from meetings, and looking through bulging bags at what they’d bought.

Peter took off his jacket and settled himself at an empty table. He threw the Socialist Worker and Big Issue he’d bought to ease his conscience under the seat, then leafed through some of the books he’d bought on water-colour painting, in his mind putting together his talk and drifting off into the possibilities the fluid transparent medium held for his own work. The idea of the ballet set intrigued him the two ideas merged together into layers of paint and fabrics blending together.

By the time they arrived at Watford he was staring at the lights of houses, thinking of the opportunities Henry had put before him. ‘I bet he’s selling them like wallpaper’ he thought ‘ perhaps I should move down, I’ll put it to Mari she’d enjoy being back down here, lots of friends’.

He dozed off, the rush of a train in the dark woke him up. ‘Better ring’ he thought and went to the buffet car. He bought a £5 phone card and rang home, the noise and crackle were almost too much to hear anything. Marianne answered.

“It’s me” he shouted above the crackle, “should be home by eight thirty’

“Peter…” the sound broke up “…is in hospital”

“What Marianne? Who did you say is in hospital? You broke up”

The line went clear.

“Bill, Bill is in hospital, his lungs or liver or something”

“Oh…” said Peter, stunned.

“I’m off to Angela to look after….” the line broke up.

“I didn’t hear …” Peter shouted, then the line cleared and Marianne’s exasperation could easily be heard.

“When you get back, you go straight to the Infirmary, then meet me at Angela’s later, I’m off soon, she’s worried about the Royal Family….”

The phone went dead as the card ran out. Peter bought another and re-dialled, but only got his answer phone. He bought a couple of miniatures of scotch and went back to his seat.

Peter stared out of the window at the blackness and the reflection of the carriage mixed with dots and splashes of orange and white lights of houses, cars, small towns and villages.

He sat back and drifted back to when his father was in hospital eleven years previous.

An urgent phone call had interrupted a tutorial on a blistering summer day near the end of term, he remembered that students were packed into their darkened common room watching Wimbledon. His mother, not distraught or upset told him, ‘Your Dad’s had to go in to the Royal, they said it’s just as a precaution’. Peter hurriedly made arrangements at the college and drove over the sunlit Pennines.

When he arrived in the ward he saw a man whose only attachment to life was through a series of tubes, electronic probes, and bleeping machines, quite abstract to the reality of his experience. His mother was sitting next to the bed reading a magazine, his father was awake his face covered with an oxygen mask, they weren’t talking, they never really did, just the questions and answers that get through life. His mother was pleased when she saw Peter, his father stared at the ceiling.

A goods train thundered past the train window. Peter looked at his watch, only half an hour to go. He looked at the back cover of one of his new books and wondered why he was thinking of his father and not of Bill, perhaps he was making sure the shock of seeing Bill in hospital was lessened through experience. It annoyed him that there was nothing he could do to hurry the journey up. He drank the second miniature, it was bitter poor quality whiskey. He wondered why he’d bothered. The light in the carriage window reminding him of the sharp hospital lights when he had to go and see his father’s body and pick up a grey plastic bag of possessions.

Dad was in and out of hospital for eighteen months, lung cancer had spread and he ended up looking like a skeleton. When he died his mother was more relieved than sad. Peter had gone over twice a week, she’d gone to the hospital each day, three bus rides from the Highlands estate.

Then the funeral.

God that was awful. All of dads ‘mates’ from the Legion were there, in their berets and blazers, their army badges and medals, they even brought the flag. ‘Old George’ had lived for the Legion, he was ‘the cornerstone’ they time and again told him, and they were there to give him a proper send off. Peter and his mother declined the offer to go to on afterwards. Peter wondered if his mother had ever been there, he didn’t think so.

The only person missing was Frank.

That thought made the dozing Peter sit up with a jerk, ‘…but he wouldn’t have known’ he thought, ‘how could he?’. He recalled how Frank Butter and his Dad knew each other. Not really friends but as a lad Frank helped out at the club, did errands, collected glasses, moved barrels, painted walls, anything he’d get paid for. Then suddenly he was gone.

The train sped past a power station lit up with sharp blue white lights. Almost home, ten minutes. He breathed deeply and thought how Bill must have been suffering whilst he was gossiping at lunch with Henry.

“You know I quite fancy doing that ballet set” he said out loud as he doodled ideas on what remained of his newspaper.


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