Chapter 11 of my novel Underpainting. The previous chapters can be found above or in the Categories section to the right
Peter’s head was overflowing with the murmur of voices, laughter, clinking glasses and music of the party. He was outside leaning against the wall of a large patio, looking across the Thames at reflected lights on the other side of the river. He felt awkward and quite cold in the cream linen suit he’d chosen, and knew it didn’t do anything for him, it had looked good in the shop and Henry had said he should make an effort. Rachel looked amazing, her dress was so simple compared to the overdressed over-rich party goers, Mark had done a good job, as Marianne said he would.
The ‘opening’ had gone well. Constantine had introduced Peter perfectly; Peter had thanked him; Henry had thanked everyone and was busy finding enough work for Peter for the next ten years.
Peter wished Marianne was there, and for some reason also wished Clare was there, she’d have enjoyed this. Rachel was great, and busy charming rich men with the naturalness of her manner, soon she would be the star attraction. A motor boat glided past, containing a group of four people drinking cocktails, laughing loudly and richly.
He looked round.
“Ryan. I didn’t see you…”
“No, we came in while the ‘official’ business was on. Marianne?”
“No, she’s busy… getting work ready for her show”
“I thought not… who’s that with you?” Ryan gestured to the window where Rachel and Lizzie were talking together.
“Oh, someone working with me, she was a student last year, you know…”
Ryan stared at the window.
“Mmm, like it Peter, yes… like it”
“It’s nothing like that Ryan, I needed a partner tonight, she was, well… there. It’s nice to see Lizzie looking so well”
“She’s great Peter. So much life, so many ideas… I knew she was… well you know…”
“No, Ryan I don’t.”
“…And I suppose you think I’m far too old for her as well? She wanted me. Her mother won’t listen, Lizzie loves me Peter. I feel like a teenager again!”
“But you’re not are you?”
They stood in an awkward silence looking towards Rachel and Lizzie as they laughed and gossiped. Lizzie turned, saw Peter and waved to him, gestured to him to come inside.
“And I suppose you’ve been telling him off as well” Lizzie said when they’d reached her.
“Not really, but well… It’s up to you”
“It is. I’m so happy Peter!” Lizzie held Ryan’s hand tight, she looked more like his daughter. “Have you seen Queen B. lately?”
“Mari has… I think you two ought to get together… I think she needs you”
“She can go to Hell” she said softly, “… she’s upset me, said things. I’ll never forgive her.”
“Oh let’s forget all this” Ryan said lightening the air, “come on let’s have a drink, this is your night Peter. Introduce me then” he turned to Rachel.
“I’m Rachel, I suppose you’re Ryan…”
“Look I’ve got to mingle, Henry’s orders” and Peter ambled away into the crowd.
Marianne was standing at the kitchen table, stirring a pot noodle. She felt guilty eating it but was too tired to bother cooking or even get a take away. However, she felt good, almost triumphant, the ‘great work’ was finished and she’d seen it in its entirety for the first time.
The doorbell rang.
Marianne thought about ignoring it, but the hall light was on.
The doorbell rang again, this was someone not to be put off.
“If it’s double glazing I’ll…”
When she opened the door her brother Colin almost fell in past her, she stopped him with an outstretched hand. He stank of alcohol. She looked beyond him to see if Shirley was there, or worse still the kids.
“… aren’t you going to let me in then sis? I am your bloody brother you know!”
Marianne stood back, and he lurched forward.
“Have you been driving like this?”
“No. Have you sis?” and laughed his nasty spoilt laugh. He was unshaven, his shirt collar was filthy, and his hands almost black with dirt.
“Does Shirley know you’re here?” Marianne said coldly.
Colin looked sheepish, swayed on the spot, found his balance and headed for the living room.
“God it’s cold in here Mary, you going in for funerals?”
“Colin” she said to him like a school teacher “sit there”
“Yes ma’am” he fell into a battered armchair.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’ve come to visit my favourite sister” the words slurred, “my only fucking sister. Is that not allowed? Is it not a free country, am I not allowed to do as I please as long as I don’t harm anyone, I have a vote, I pay my taxes, I mow the lawn, I wash my car…” he was starting to shout.
“Stop talking rubbish. What’s gone on?”
There was silence. Colin starred in front of him looking at the now glowing gas fire.
“Have you rung Shirley? You know she and Mum will be frantic…”
“Mum doesn’t know” Colin intervened. “Thinks I’m at a conference”
There was silence again.
“Well Shirley… do you want me to ring her, let her know..”
“No, no no no!” Colin was shouting, and crying.
Marianne had never seen Colin like this since he was four.
“Look, I know we’ve not been close, and I know we never see each other, but if you want to tell me..”
“Oh shut the fuck up Mary!”
Colin put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a screwed up sheet of paper, handed it to Marianne. She unscrewed it. It was a charge sheet. She had to read it twice, the words – Colin Paul Maddox is charged with assault and battery on Sunday May 14th to the person of Shirley Anne Maddox at – stood out.
“What the hell’s been going on Colin?” she said sternly.
Colin was asleep.
‘Does Mum know?’ she thought, ‘God this could kill her. Shirley, I can’t stand her but this? Hey you’ve got to go! I’m not supporting you Colin’.
She wondered how long it had been going on, she’d never noticed anything, hadn’t seen bruises, but then, she thought they usually get hidden. She wondered why he’d come? Did she need to ring the police?
She looked at the charge sheet again. He was due in magistrates court in four weeks.
‘I’m not having it’ she shouted inside, ‘I’m not going to sympathise. You may be my brother Colin, but you don’t do that, that is not on!’.
She switched the light out and went to bed.
Peter had had enough of the party. He’d met some bloody awful people. Rachel was livid at something Ryan had said to her, her eyes sparkled like Peter had never seen them before, she looked darkly beautiful.
Peter realised he was drunk.
“Peter, are you listening?”
“Hmm, yes I think so”
“I think you’re pissed, I’ll get Henry to ring a taxi…”
“Good God” Peter was suddenly cognisant again, and stared straight past Rachel. A well built man in a wheelchair was being pushed towards them by a tall blonde athletic looking man.
“What the hell is he here for?” he whispered, Rachel looked round.
“Peter!” Frank Butter said loudly, many of the guests looked round at the intrusion into their conversations.
“Frank, I didn’t expect you here.”
“Oh, Constantine and I have some joint business connections, and we share an admiration for your work”, he made a gesture in the air with his right hand that actually took in a Turner water-colour and a series of Bill Brandt photographs. Frank looked self-satisfied. Peter felt like a commodity. Peter and Rachel gazed at Frank’s tall blond ‘minder’.
“Oh, this is Sandor, don’t mind him, he helps me with some personal aspects of my life…”
They nodded towards him, Sandor nodded back and smiled a razor smile. Peter thought Frank looked vulnerable for the first time in his whole life.
“…and this is? Not Marianne, I know that?” Frank put his hand to his mouth in mock horror, “…Oh I haven’t said the wrong thing have I?”
Peter introduced Rachel.
“Another artist! Another one for your Henry to hound me about? That man, he sees a bit of spare cash going and he’s in there like a ferret!”
Peter and Rachel laughed with Frank, whose eyes beadily shot from one to the other.
“I really must find Mark and thank him for choosing this” Rachel gestured to her dress.
“…and quite rightly, you look stunning my dear” said Frank with a lightness Peter didn’t expect and had never heard before.
Soon gales of laughter were heard as Mark, Lizzie and Rachel were bitching about the other guests.
“Peter will you push me outside, I need a word”
“It’s bloody cold out there Frank, will you be…”
“Oh shut up and push” Frank intervened.
Peter pushed Frank’s wheelchair onto the patio, the evening felt warmer or perhaps the wine had warmed the blood. Sandor stood by the door on guard.
“Peter, your painting. I didn’t realise it was going to be let’s say, so personal”
Peter felt a cold shiver go down his spine.
“Oh, don’t think I don’t like it, no no, it’s quite magnificent, much finer than these here, even I can see that and I don’t know fuck all about art. No, it’s the memories it brings back, not ones I’d wish to be made public, you know what I mean?”
“Of course I do Frank, of course. No, it was a…” Peter tried to find the words, “…the most significant place, a time when we all seemed to grow up”
“Yes, but your dad, he wouldn’t have wanted it all dragged up again, you know that don’t you?”
Peter didn’t understand. He thought of asking what Frank meant, but didn’t.
“How’s Pearl?” Frank always called Peter’s mother Pearl, even when they were young.
“She’s fine, you know what she’s like, always something, never stops”
“They were good to me, I can never repay them. They were my family, much more than my own”
“There was nothing to repay. It was different then, what little we had was shared, God I’m sounding like some old man now Frank! Too many glasses of wine. Too many damned stupid people telling me how wonderful I am.”
Frank smiled and gestured to Sandor.
“Come on Sandor let’s go home.”
Constantine came out and joined them.
“Oh you’re not going already Frank, you’ve only just arrived”
“Yes, got to be up early. I like that belt Cony” Frank said gesturing to the two headed eagle buckle, “Polish?”
“Hungarian, an old friend’s, he was in the army. I wear it on special occasions, it reminds me…” Constantine’s voice trailed off.
“Yes, I know, Peter and I were talking of the past. So much of it isn’t there? So bloody much of it. People need reminders so they remember where they’ve come from”.
Sandor pushed the chair towards the exit and stopped, turned Frank around.
“It was good to see you Peter” Frank said with a wave, “come and see me soon, I’ve got a proposition for you”. They disappeared through the mill of the party.
Constantine looked at Peter and nodded, then returned to his guests.
Peter picked up his wine glass and leaned against the wall overlooking the river. It was dark and the wind made the water choppy. He felt cold again and remembered Frank as such an active boy, always on the move, how he’d come and get Dad for something or bring a message, how Mum would always ask if he’d eaten, then sit him down for beans on toast or a bacon sandwich. Dad would always say how she spoilt the lad, but Peter could see that Frank was really the son he wanted, someone to go fishing with, go to the club. Peter was a disappointment to his Dad.
Peter thought about his visits to Vic. The other lads always called Vic a ‘puff’, ‘homo’, shouted ‘nigger bum boy’.
Vic would sit and talk to Peter, he never once tried to touch him, never suggested anything, only gave him tea in a beautiful blue china cup, “…the only one left from a set” he’d always say. They talked about art and about Peter’s ambition to be an artist. Vic told him he had modelled for many artists in the 1950’s in London and Paris. He told Peter about the studios, the smell of oil paint. It was like walking into a wonderland for Peter, who dreamt of a studio overlooking Montmartre in an attic and beautiful girls with big breasts taking their clothes off for him. Peter never told his Mum and Dad about his visits, they were his secret. He knew his Dad would go mad, Vic was the devil incarnate to him.
“Peter, you’re crying”
It was Henry.
“Am I? Must be the wine”
“Well, you are favoured aren’t you?” Peter looked puzzled, “Frank Butter. He never goes anywhere. Constantine said he rang and asked to come, now that really is something isn’t it? And his minder… very smart.” Henry’s eyebrows lifted.
“We go a long way back,” Peter watched the bedroom lights of a house on the other side of the Thames come on and light up a garden. “I must go home soon Henry. I’m not used to all this to drink since Bill died”.
They went back into the party. About four hours later a taxi came and picked up four people who, by that time, were not sure who they were.
Whilst descending a spiral staircase which kept falling away Marianne heard a distant voice calling her name. Not Peter. Colin? Why? A dream? No. A hand was shaking her shoulder, a solid hand.
One eye opened and she could see a mug of tea steaming next to the book she’d been reading what felt like five minutes ago. The side light was still on. Her other eye opened and took note of the clock radio. 6.34.
“Good God Col! It’s only 6.30″
“I brought you a cup of tea… I couldn’t sleep”
Marianne sat up. It was just getting light.
“Colin?” then she remembered, no dream. She took a deep breath. “Oh, shit”
“I’ve made a decision” He waited for a reaction. Marianne’s head was splitting. “Can I stay here, for a while… until the court case. I won’t be in the way. You know me”
“No, I don’t” she said firmly.
“You think I’m guilty, don’t you?”
“I’m damn sure you are.”
“I suppose I am”
Marianne sat up and took her tea. It was hot, too milky and sweet. She put it down.
“I’m not going to let you stay here”, Colin looked hurt and dejected. “There’s no way. I can’t stand Shirley, but you can’t do that, oh no, hitting her is no way out. You’re another spoilt little shit who… oh”
“But you don’t know, you really don’t”
“Oh I do, I do… How long’s it been going on eh? You may be my brother but in this you’re alone mate. Just sod off… sod off!”
Colin stood up straight. Rage filled his eyes, blue lines crossed his forehead. He turned, ran downstairs. Marianne heard the door slam and a car skid off into the distance. Her head was pounding, she was shaking. The house was quiet, but her head was like a drum and a red pain was behind her eyes. She turned over and buried her head into the pillow.
She dreamt of the sea.
She was woken by the phone downstairs. The clock said 10.15. ‘Never’, she thought, ‘damn there’s a class in half an hour!’ She ran downstairs as the answer phone clicked in and she decided to leave it. It was Mum.
“Mary, it’s me. Are you there?… No, well Colin’s just arrived, how could you say such things to Colin after all he’s done for me. Shirley’s just… over sensitive, she’ll get over it. Oh I hate these machines. Ring me as soon as you get back. How could you Mary, your own brother?”
Marianne closed her eyes and thumped her head on the door.
“Oh shit!” she shouted, “this is all I bloody well need!”
Peter’s eyes opened with a start. He lay and stared at the cracks in the ceiling, and realised he wasn’t at home, ‘but this is the flat’ he thought. Harsh light flooded the room and when he tried to move his head it spun, so he lay back. His mouth was dry but it was far too much effort to get up for some water. He realised he still had his clothes on from the party and was at a 45 degree angle on the bed. For the next ten minutes he slowly took his clothes off and settled under the sheets.
His phone rang.
Peter put his head under the pillow, but it kept ringing.
His throat and mouth were so dry that only a grunt came out.
“You all right Peter?” Marianne said on the other end. “Sounds like you had a good night last night!”
“Hello Mari” he turned over and looked at his clock, 11.45.
“You still there?”
“Oh yes, my body is but I don’t think my brain is”
“Oh Peter, I bet you look awful. Was it successful?”
“I think so, you’d have to ask Henry. Oh you’ll never guess who was there, Lizzie and Ryan!”
“Was she OK?”
“Fine, but you should have heard what she said about Angela, and Ryan started to chat up Rachel! Oh and Frank Butter turned up as well with Mr. Universe in tow!”
“Sounds like a busy night. I’ve finished the quilt”
“Oh that’s amazing Mari, God I bet you’re pleased”
“Sort of. I’m not sure what to do now. But it looks OK, I could make some changes, but that’d be fiddling”
“I know what you mean” Peter’s headache moved round his head, then back again.
“You OK? That sounded painful. Anyway, I had a call from a Lorete Kropitchnik or something like that, she’s a curator at The Museum of Contemporary Women’s Art in Washington. It seems Alice had been talking to her and telling her about the quilt and she wants to see it, seems like they’ve got loads of money from a bequest to buy new stuff. Could you ask Henry if he knows her, he knows everyone”
“He’ll want his pound of flesh”
“Mmm I hadn’t thought of that, she wants to come over later this month, before the show gets on the road, have ‘first option’ as she so horribly put it. I don’t know if I want to sell really, what do you think?” They were both silent for a few seconds. “Oh! and you know what else happened”
“Mmm” Peter was half asleep not really caring at the present.
“Colin arrived, drunk”
“What, Colin from Ceramics!”
“Noooo, my brother Colin”
“What on earth did he want?”
“It appears he beat up Shirley and is facing charges”
“I’m not. Anyway I kicked him out this morning, he had this idea to stay with us and keep his head down”
“That’s what I thought, anyway, I’ve already had Mum on the phone telling me off, deserves all he gets the little shit”
“Mari! That’s no way to talk about your brother” Peter put on a voice like Marianne’s Mother.
“It’s no joke Peter. I can’t abide Shirley, but that’s no way to behave is it?”
“Oh no, it’s no laughing matter. Hope he gets life!”
“Better go Pete, got a class in ten minutes, bye. Oh! You had a message from some reporter, forgotten her name but you can get it off the machine yourself can’t you? I should think Henry will handle that. Got to go, bye…”
“I miss you….” but before Peter could finish Marianne had switched her phone off. Peter lay back exhausted and went back to sleep.