Underpainting 5


Chapter 5 of my novel Underpainting, the other chapters you can find at the link above. In this chapter I do one of the things every book and workshop tells you not to do early on in a novel, but for anyone reading through to the end will see it as a catalyst.


“Will King Billy be all right Mari?” Lizzie asked yet again.

Marianne and Peter often went to Bill and Angela’s. Peter called it the zoo. Lizzie would be practising the guitar, kids and animals flying around, a baby half dressed, books and magazines piled on chairs, toys and half eaten food left in every nook and cranny, and yet Angela still found time to make pots, loads of them, and sold them by the crate load.

Marianne shook her head slowly. She and Lizzie had got Anne and Diana to bed. Charles was running round his room lost in some intergalactic war. Philip sat in his room unable to cope with it all. Marianne and Lizzie were sitting at a piled up scrubbed pine table in the kitchen drinking coffee.

“I don’t see why not. He’s not that old, he’s what forty nine?”

“Sixty two”, interjected Lizzie.

“…you know I think sometimes he still thinks he’s a student, too much to drink, late nights…” Marianne stopped, realising this wasn’t really what she should be saying to Bill’s daughter, but she knew Lizzie knew it anyway, at seventeen she was older than Marianne in many ways. Lizzie wasn’t really listening, just staring at the clock that had shown ten past eight since Marianne could remember.

“Was it my fault?”

“Yours Lizzie?” Marianne sounded surprised, “…no …no of course not it’s nothing to do with you, men that age, it happens…”

“We had a big row yesterday”, and from the hundreds of ‘chats’ with young women at the college, Marianne could tell that Lizzie needed to talk. ‘I hope it’s not something I have to keep secret from Angela again’, she thought.

“You see” and Lizzie’s voice got quicker and quicker, “I don’t want to go to college, I… I know it’s all great there… and I’d love to go and work with you… and of course Jasmine and Karl are going… but I think there’s more. King Billy and I rowed about it for hours yesterday he didn’t see that I want to try things NOW…. he said wait, get the education then go… but I don’t want that, I can go to college any time can’t I Mari? I want to go and do something. But this. This has spoilt it all. Queen B will blame me, she always does, I’ll have to go now as it’ll all be my fault”, Lizzie stopped and looked at Marianne for a reaction.

All Marianne could think about was where on earth did Angela and Bill get this stupid thing of King Billy and Queen B.

“Are you sure…” Marianne stopped herself and realised that what she was about to say was what her mother said to her. Lizzie started again before Marianne could finish…

“…The band. We’ve got gigs and we sound so good… Ali and Laszlo, we’re a team, its so tight now… they want to have a go at it, perhaps go down to London… we can do it and do it by ourselves, just listen…” She stood up. “…wait there”, and ran upstairs.

Marianne sat looking at, but not reading, the back page of the local paper.

“Oh God” she thought “why me and why now?” and could hardly keep her eyes open.

Lizzie ran back into the kitchen and put a cassette in a machine hidden under a pile of children’s clothes on an almost invisible pine Welsh dresser. A loud distorted noise filled the kitchen, a sort of punk thrash with quite haunting but totally unintelligible chanting over the top. Lizzie looked at Marianne expectedly.

‘What the hell do you say’ thought Marianne, ‘one or both of them will hate me’.

Bill tried to sit forward in bed and a buzzer went off which then repeated and repeated as he tried but failed to move.

“Fuck…” he said but no sound came out and another higher pitched buzzer went off.

Bill was connected like a puppet to a machine and had no power over what went in and what came out of him. He needed a drink.

He could see a clock through a glass panel. Seven-thirty, but he wasn’t sure if it was morning or evening

The last thing that he thought was real, was the discussion he was initiating in the Lecture Theatre.

He tried to turn on the red hot pillows and tried to speak the words he’d led in on, nothing came out but his brain heard a quote from Ruskin – ‘… Giotto, like all the great painters of the period, was merely a travelling decorator of walls, at so much a day…’

It was at that moment he thought ‘..the floor came up to meet me’, Bill liked that quote, it was apt for so many occasions he tried to laugh and a third buzzer bleeped and kept bleeping. But that’s what it was like he thought, he saw the ground come up then all was dreams and bumps and…

His head was sore otherwise he felt nothing, his legs floated in the air and felt bigger than the room. Bill tried to put his hand to his forehead, which must have been where he landed. A different buzzer went off even louder and suddenly a nurse was standing by the bed, looking about the same age as Lizzie.

“Please William, try not to move… the machines are very sensitive”. He thought she had a hint of a Scottish accent and Bill wanted to ask where she was from, but couldn’t.

She adjusted one of the sticky pads on his chest, made sure all the pipes were clear of him and left. The ward was a working not a sleeping place, he knew he must be in intensive care or something, but didn’t feel ill. There was the distant clatter of trolleys, phones softly ringing, and a hum of people talking. Without moving his body he could see two windows, one busy with staff and a glow of monitors. The other looking high over the glistening city, from the silent movie of a distant road, he felt it must be evening.

Bill turned his head to the left and saw in bright white sunlight Saint Francis catching birds and pulling their wings off, Lizzie in a nurses uniform bandaging them up, and Angela hanging out huge sails of white washing on some trees.

Bill’s forward fall in the Lecture Theatre had shocked the students to rigidity for a couple of seconds. They thought for a moment it was one of his tricks, part of the show. Deep dark blood was pouring from his mouth. Rachel had been first to realise things were wrong, she leapt from her seat and made sure Bill was comfortable and not moved, she gently wiped away blood from his mouth. Another student rang the college emergency number. Soon the oft practiced well-oiled cogs were set into motion, as Bill’s existence slipped into other people’s hands.

The porter’s especially loved clearing a way through the sculpture department for the ambulance crew. The excitement lasted through to the afternoon tea break; then became a part of communal memory. Within a couple of hours the administration found three temporary part-time lecturers to fill in.

Angela was phoned immediately, she was leaving to pick up Charles and Anne from school, Diana was already strapped into the back of the car. She rang Marianne and arranged that she pick them up and look after them for an hour or so.

When Angela arrived at the hospital there was nothing to do. She saw Bill for about one minute before he was whisked off. She thought it had only been a fall, not this. He was unconscious, making an animal like gurgling in his breathing. The doctor told her things could be better but not to worry. Diana was demolishing the waiting room and the doctor advised that it would be better to go home and make sure her children were OK, he looked pointedly at Diana who was at the time underneath a seat pulling out dirty paper tissues. Angela felt like hitting him or was it Bill she felt like hitting?

By the time Angela arrived home Lizzie and Marianne had fed Charles and Anne. Angela tried to help get Diana fed, but realised she couldn’t concentrate and wasn’t needed anyway. Marianne sat her down, gave her a huge glass of brandy which almost made her sick, then sent her back to the hospital. She explained that Peter should be there by now, so she wouldn’t be alone.

A weasely barman called time and rang a huge ships bell, as Bill struggled through a mass of men in black coats and grey suits, his glass was empty and held out in front of him, but the bar got further and further away and more men came between. An angel swooped out of a Botticelli above the bar and swept him up in her strong arms above the heads of all the drinkers, higher than the clouds to the tiny side bar in a pub in the mountains. A barmaid pulled foaming pints of deep amber beer.

Bill heard Peter say, “OK, I’ll have one, thanks”, and opened his eyes, focussing on Peter drinking a cup of tea from a blue grey cup. The noise of the hospital flooded back as a trolley rattled along a distant corridor.

“How was Henry?”

Peter jumped, his tea slopped in the saucer.

Bill’s voice was weak, but in this humming silence, clear.

“God Bill, I thought you were asleep…. OK, but how are you?”

“Don’t know Pete, I really don’t know”

Bill saw a tall black figure, wearing a long cloak. He turned and ran towards the garden at his grandmother’s white stone cottage, deep in the lush green Ayrshire hills, the sun felt warm and a breeze blew. He was helping his mother and Angela peg out thick white and gold flags with the Lamb of God intricately embroidered in the middle. Blood was spurting from the wounds and soiling the flags however hard they rubbed they became a deeper and deeper red.

Peter stood when he saw the priest at the door.

He didn’t really know what to do. He was not sure if Bill would want him or not.

He knew Bill wouldn’t.

“Hello I’m Peter Marten, a friend of Bill’s, look…”

But before Peter could finish the priest smiled and said in a soft West Country voice, “Oh so you’re Peter, yes Bill’s told me a lot about you… I’m glad you’re here… you mean a lot to him you know. Angela’s in the waiting room…” and he guided Peter towards the door.

He’d never thought of Bill as religious, but then he knew there were things Bill didn’t know about him. He watched as the priest placed a highly ornamented silver chalice next to the plastic water jug, knelt down on one knee by the bed and prayed.

Peter left and went to Angela in the Waiting Room who was sitting staring at nothing. Peter joined her on the orange seats.

“Oh Peter, I’m glad you’re here. Marianne’s looking after the royals, she said you’d be here, I know they only let one person in at a time, I’ll go in soon.”

Angela looked tired and a lot older than Peter usually thought of her.

“He woke up… asked after you” Peter knew he didn’t sound convincing, but how could he say he asked after Henry of all people. Angela seemed pleased.

Peter went to a coffee machine.

“Want one?”

Angela shook her head.

He sat down next to her. The shadows of a TV danced on the walls in an empty room next to them.

“Do you know a priest is with Bill?”

“Oh yes, Father Brown, I rang him, I knew Bill would want him to be here”

Peter couldn’t help but smile at “Father Brown”.

“He doesn’t go to Mass. I don’t think he’s a believer but they get together to argue, they both enjoy the fight and Father Brown is an expert on malt whiskies. He used to play rugby for Cornwall and you know Bill played at school and I think at University…” Angela’s voice tailed off and she stared silently at the ward door.

“I’ve known Bill for twenty years he never said…”

“Bill must have told you? His dad was a chauffeur, a Protestant from Glasgow and his mother a Catholic, from the country. She was so nice, so gentle and so proud of Lizzie. They met when she was in service. His dad died well before I knew him…”

Peter knew all this but just let Angela talk, it broke the silence and stared blankly at the posters on the wall imploring people to give their blood and kidneys. Peter thought of the meal he’d eaten a lifetime ago with Henry, and realised he was very hungry.

A doctor came in and spoke quietly to Angela.

She nodded and he walked away.

“I don’t think they hold much hope for him Peter… What on earth are we going to do without him? What’ll we do?”

She broke down and cried.

Peter put his arms round her, and as he stood comforting Angela he couldn’t think of Bill or Angela. He was quite numb and knew he should be part of this, but wasn’t. All he could think of was a huge painting with frames in rubbed out gold and tenement blocks dissected into sections each a mass of life and death.

At 2.25am Bill Watson died without gaining consciousness again.


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