Underpainting 6


Chapter 6 of my novel Underpainting set in the 1990’s. The other chapters can be found at the link above.


Peter, Marianne and Angela walked quickly, leaning against a biting October wind. The remains of the street market blew around the street, a box of pears was squashed on the pavement, paper flew up in spirals then crashed into lampposts. Dust blew round a corner from road works like a fog. There was a smell of rotting fruit and fish. There were no voices the only sounds were the rattling of shuttered shops and a background noise of traffic in the distance. The buildings were dirty London yellow and as they walked they could pick out the noise of a band tuning up at a pub on the corner. It was turning dark and the street lights were taking over from the grey skies.

“This is it” Angela said when they reached The Ancient Briton. The sign swinging in the wind showed a faded picture of a bearded man with a sword in his hand. The blacked out windows were covered in posters for bands none of them had heard of. A roughly written poster on the double doors read ‘Tonight – Con Su Mar’.

They were the only customers. The pub floor was a map of worn carpet and wood, with grey bits like beaches. The air a mix of stale tobacco and spilt beer, like no one had bothered cleaning the place since the previous evening.  A fattish pony tailed barman was leaning on the long bar reading the Evening Standard. There were oblong tables along the opposite wall with plastic chairs around, behind the bar area they could see a large open room, dark except for a few dots of red light. In the murk they could make out that the band’s gear was set out, but the performers weren’t there.

Peter ordered three lagers, the barman looked at him as if he knew they were in the wrong place and handed him three bottles. Peter asked for glasses. The barman looked at him as if he was mad, leaned down and brought out three clear plastic beakers.

“You didn’t ask if Lizzie was here did you” Angela said when Peter came over with the drinks.

“No, I had enough problems getting glasses”

Marianne smiled at him and drank out of the bottle.

“It’s how it’s done Pete nowadays, you should know that”.

“Well I like a proper beer glass” he took a sip of the thin looking lager, “…and this stuff it’s like gnat’s piss. You’d think..”

Marianne broke in, “It’s only a place for bands. The kids don’t care what they drink, look at our students, if it’s cheap and alcoholic what does it matter to them”. She stopped as Angela stood up. Marianne knew that Angela wanted to see Lizzie, it was the only reason she’d come down to London. Seeing Anne and Keith was just an excuse.

Angela went to the bar and asked where the band were. Marianne couldn’t quite hear what was said, but Angela went into the large room and disappeared through a door, only visible when opened.

“What the hell are we here for? Lizzie will go mad”, Marianne took a long drink, Peter was watching some people coming in, they looked young. “… God I’d have hated my mother turning up at something like this. You know we had a long chat that night Bill died. Lizzie so wants to succeed at this, she believes in it, but Angela’s trying to stop her, wants her to go to college, follow in the footsteps…” She stopped and looked at Peter, and knew he wasn’t listening.

Peter realised Marianne had stopped.

“Sorry, I was thinking about this afternoon”

“I don’t suppose we’ll get to hear them”, Marianne sounded disappointed. She’d borrowed the tape Lizzie had played and often listened to it in the car. She liked the contrasts of sound, the energy and the words. “…you know I could send that tape to Ryan”

Peter remembered Ryan from their early days together. Ryan had played in a band, left college early, then started to promote and was now head of a music company. He was always friends with Marianne, and Peter thought that at sometime there’d been more to it, and was secretly a bit jealous.

“Yes” she slowly and deliberately carried on, “Ryan could help, he’d know what to do.”

“He always did… haven’t we got to meet Anne and…. Keith?” Peter looked up and Marianne nodded that he’d got the name right, “…nineish they said at that Thai place”

“Mm” Marianne said looking over as more people came through the door. She saw Angela coming through the large room, she looked upset.

“Lizzie’s all right isn’t she?”

“Yes, but she doesn’t want me here…” Angela tearfully mumbled, “let’s go” and Angela rushed out through the door, Peter and Marianne followed into the windswept night.

Peter lay awake on the bumpy sofa bed at Anne and Keith’s. He could hear that Marianne was still awake.

“You awake?” Marianne asked.

“Mm… I think that fish curry…” his voice trailed away. He thought how expensive it had been for nothing.

Marianne turned again and found a comfy position, which pushed Peter towards the edge. Soon she was asleep. Peter closed his eyes but was restless, he went over the day and was excited by the possibilities.

While Marianne and Angela had gone down to Wimbledon to meet up with an old friend who had a pottery studio and shop, Peter had organised a visit to Kennings and Jarvis, who were set painters for West End theatre to see the techniques they used. He wanted to create a set rather than just a large painting hanging behind the dancers. The day before he’d met Felix Blucher at the Dover Passage Gallery. Felix and Peter immediately got on well; the dance piece was about memories of old cities and the clash with the new, the music though still unfinished was amazing, it sounded like a piano being ripped apart. Peter wasn’t sure how they could dance to it, but knew that wasn’t his problem.

At Kennings and Jarvis, he saw how effects were created with gauzes and different reflecting colours and paints, the scale of painting was so much greater than he’d ever attempted, but ideas flooded his mind. The commission was good, and he’d have to find a space to do it in, perhaps employ some help. His plan was for a series of large frames to the left and open fronted tenement house to the right, that changes into flat land, derelict, and different pictures come and go in the gold frames.

Marianne moved in her sleep, which gave Peter more room, he wondered if he should get up and ring Clare, but before he’d decided went to sleep.

After an over long breakfast mainly taken up admiring the way Anne’s dog understood everything one said, Marianne and Angela set off to Belsize Park and Peter headed for The National Gallery to draw some frames.

When he arrived it struck him that he’d not been there for a long time. For a while he wandered around, visiting his favourite pictures and finding things in half forgotten ones he’d not realised were there. He felt that he knew them like old friends.

Eventually he sat down on a bench in the middle of a gallery full of eighteenth century Italian paintings, took out a large sketch book and some black Conte pastels.

The frames were magnificent. The ornate gilt woven in and out of itself, knots of oak leaves and acorns, archaic shields and armour, complex crosses and symbols, elaborate shells and castellation.

Fluidity out of hardness.

As he sketched he attracted a crowd who couldn’t understand why he hadn’t drawn the people in the paintings. He never liked drawing in front of people and moved to another gallery, and another crowd assembled.

He was annoyed and was about to pack up when a gallery attendant approached him and asked if he had permission to draw. He hadn’t. The attendant asked him to stop as he was causing a problem. So Peter, slammed shut his sketch book, and started putting his things in his bag, when he remembered Christine Peckham, a former student of his worked in the restoration department. He asked the now annoyed attendant to check if she was available.

The attendant spoke into his radio and a voice came back that she was and would meet Peter in the Sainsbury wing, near the stairs.

Christine was there by the time Peter arrived. She was tall and could see him over the crowd.

“Peter! It’s good to see you, I hear you’re having problems”

“Hi. Sorry to bother you. Yes, I want to draw some details on frames and it appears I now have to have permission to draw in the Gallery.”

“Yes… they love rules here, it really pleased them to have someone to check, you should’ve heard the radios buzzing. You know I saw your paintings at the RA and then the Tate! I kept thinking that man taught me painting”, she laughed an annoying laugh that reminded Peter why he used to speed up her tutorials; “I’m working on something you may be interested in, a Goya, do you want a look? And there’s loads of frames in the back you could draw…. I’ll get you a pass”, and she strode off through a door marked ‘No Admission’.

The Restoration Room was teeming with paintings in various states of repair and cleaning. There was no daylight, the walls were shelved from floor to ceiling covered with pots and bottles, each had a label showing an exact colour match or mix of varnish and a painting they were mixed for. There were paint brushes of every shape, age and size.

There was an overwhelming smell of oil paint, turpentine, and varnish.

Christine stood by her working area. A large easel held the quite small painting depicting a man having his throat cut, his eyes were wild, but you couldn’t see who the murderer was, just a black shape looming behind, an arm holding the man down clothed in what could have been a bull fighter’s costume. Faces laughing, perhaps a troupe of dwarfs, watched the proceedings from the lower corners. His eyes kept going back to the black shape, which reminded him of something, coming down from the sky…

“I’ve not seen this one before”

“No, it’s from a private collection somewhere. Here…. take a closer look, we sometimes do outside work, brings in some cash for the Department”

Christine put on what looked like surgeon’s gloves and handed Peter a pair. She took the painting from the easel and handed him the canvas.

Peter held it with awe. On the edge of the canvas he could see the artists finger marks in the rich brown paint Goya had used. Peter put his own finger against one, compared finger sizes. He looked how the stretcher was constructed, how thick the paint was in parts and how bare the canvas was in others, he wanted to run his fingers over the paint and feel the flow of the brush strokes. Goya’s own movements.

“I’m hoping you’ll see the murderer’s face when I’ve finished”

That made him shudder.

“Thanks Christine” and he handed the painting back.

“You OK Peter?”

“Yes, just need some air, I think the fish and fruit last night have got to me again”

By eleven o’clock Marianne was fed up with Angela and the people at the craft gallery. Angela was busy talking to the owners about new markets for her pots and a possible exhibition. Talk had moved on to what they’d do after lunch and who they should meet and which other of the expensive little shops in Hampstead would be good places for selling her work. Marianne said that she felt like a walk and had friends nearby. They arranged to meet again at three.

She walked down Haverstock Hill, the wind had gone, there was a blue sky and it was quite warm brown leaves crackled underneath her feet. London hummed around her.

Near to Primrose Hill tube station was the office of Protocol Records. After passing through a security door Marianne found herself in front of a desk where a young woman with a shaved head was sorting through a pile of mail.

‘I wish I could look as good as that’ Marianne thought. The woman looked up and smiled.

“Can I see Ryan Harris… if that’s possible?”

The shaven headed woman, pressed a button and spoke so quickly Marianne couldn’t tell what was said.

“Have you an appointment? Ryan’s in a meeting, he is very busy today and hasn’t got any time this morning”

“No, but can you tell him it’s Marianne… Marianne Maddox… I’m an old friend”

She transferred the information down the phone. Her face changed to a smile again.

“He’ll be down soon, if you don’t mind waiting a few minutes” She ushered Marianne to a waiting area “Coffee?”

“Have you some water? I feel very dry”

She brought a blue bottle of Greek fizzy water.

Marianne sat in a rather haggard office chair, which was the best on offer. A low table was covered in trade magazines, last weeks’ New Musical Express and some dog eared flyers for various Protocol records and promotions. She picked up a Q magazine. Every page was covered in biro’d graffiti, mainly of a highly obscene nature. She took a drink of water and looked around.

Piles of boxes covered what had been a carefully planned and painted wall. Men in bikers gear regularly arrived with packages. After fifteen minutes Ryan appeared at the top of the stairs. He looked heavier than she remembered, wore a loose fitting suit, and looked tired. He was still good looking, strong features and his hair still dark, swept back now rather than long, but Marianne knew this was just a façade and wondered if he used hair colouring. He stopped half way down and looked at her.

“M-a-r-i-a-n-n-e… Marianne… you should have rung, we could have done lunch, it’s so good to see you. When did I last see you?”

He put his arms round her to kiss her lips, Marianne turned and it landed on her cheek.

“I was up in Belsize Park with Angela… do you know Angela?” from his face she knew he didn’t, he came from further back in her life, “No… no you don’t… I was at some God awful gallery she deals with and I remembered you were nearby. You don’t mind?”

“No… Oh God no… It’s so so-oo-o good to see you. How’s Peter?” then hesitantly, “…you and Peter are still..?”

“Oh yes, he’s at the National doing some drawings, for a set or something, he’s quite famous now”.

“Yes… Yes I know. But what about you. You are still painting?”

“Yes, I’m in the same studio and I do a bit of teaching. I’ve asked you loads of times to come…” She looked at him head angled, he put his arms out and shrugged his shoulders, “anyway, you never even answer. But I have got some work in a touring show soon which is exciting, perhaps you’d like to come to the opening?”

“I would l-o-v-e to, just let me know, and I’ll be there! When is it?”

She knew he’d never actually come.

“Next Spring, I’ll let you know”

“Come up to the office and have a drink”

They walked through half a dozen swinging doors, there were offices and meeting rooms, posters and music beating from behind closed doors. Stale cigarette and marijuana smell pervaded the atmosphere.

Ryan’s office was messy. Huge speakers filled one end. There were posters of bands, of tours, of records.

“Tea? Coffee?”

“I’d love some tea, thanks”

She wandered around the office looking at the faded posters. There was one for his first ever promotion.

“Hey I did this one!” she laughed. The poster was for an all night happening and concert in the Flower Pavilion with now forgotten bands. The border was an interlace of dragons, fairies and peace signs, the lettering hand done with intricate figures weaving in and out.

“1967” she half whispered.

Ryan came over and looked at it.

“I never paid you for it did I? Even charged you for a ticket, five shillings!”

“I remember it now. Started at ten o’clock and went on till seven, that awful American band came on last, you hadn’t booked them they turned up that night didn’t they… and I danced topless!”

“Well someone had to, wasn’t a happening without that!”

They both laughed.

“I was so scared my mother would see the pictures, some newspaper was there… I remember I went home to Peter’s flat afterwards, you remember that shithole in Tewksbury Street, I hadn’t moved in with Peter then, but he made me some breakfast, he hadn’t been… I remember now… he had to make some cash so worked the bakery that night and I was mad at him for not coming along. I was so tired I went to sleep with the food on my lap and it went all over his bed… God it was a mess…”

The girl from the desk brought a tray of tea.

Ryan sat behind what was supposedly a shiny steel desk, and enveloped in a mess of papers, files, tapes, and printwork. Marianne sat in a chair designed for torture, or so it felt.

“Sorry about the chair, I had a designer in a few years ago, he was into bondage and well… that’s all that’s left.”

They laughed again.

“It’s so good to see you Marianne. You know there’s no-one here who can laugh… it’s all so bloody serious. You know it doesn’t really matter if you don’t meet every day…”

“You mean every ten years”

“No… you know… real friends, people who’ve seen you drunk, wearing flares, and who’ve been there. It doesn’t matter does it? Oh you know what I mean!” Ryan quickly ended the sentence.

“Yes, I do… It’s like you’ve never really left each other, just carry on where you left off, and no one really cares how long it’s been do they?”

“That’s it. How long are you down for?”

“We’re here till tomorrow. I think Peter has to see the theatre before we go”


“He’s got a commission for a set design”

“Peter’s doing well”

“Yes. I think he’ll give up teaching soon and paint full time. Since Bill died he’s lost interest in the college, I don’t think he knows it yet, but I can see it”


“Bill Watson, you didn’t know him either.”

“I saw that painting he did for Frank Butter. Powerful stuff”

“He was quite pleased with that. You know Frank Butter? It hasn’t been on show”

“He bought some derelict warehouses I had, which I’d planned to turn into more studios, and apartments, you know the sort of thing, he bought them and I had to go over to his office. Saw it there, I meant to ring say how good it was, but well you know… Nice guy.”

Ryan looked at his huge silver watch.

“Am I keeping you from something, I didn’t mean to waste your morning…”

“No… nothing, it’s more important seeing you.”

Marianne remembered why she was there.

“I hope you don’t mind Ryan but I’ve brought a tape with me”

“You going into music?”

“No, silly… Angela’s daughter’s in a band. I liked it, sort of punk meets Gregorian chant! You probably get loads of this stuff, but if you’d listen, tell me if it’s… well any good really. They’ve moved down here and are trying to make it, they were on last night at The Ancient Briton”

Ryan looked up in recognition.

“Good start… OK, but no promises, we get about a hundred tapes every day, so many people want in. If I don’t get time I’ll hand it on to the A and R people. They on anywhere, I’m always looking, especially if they’re cheap!”

“Never change do you Ryan? I think they’re there again next Monday, and The Great Eastern on Tuesday?”

“Great Western you mean”

There was a natural but uncomfortable silence as Ryan tapped on the tape and the design Lizzie had drawn on it.

“It’s been so good to see you Marianne, it really mustn’t be so long. Do you have a mobile?” he held the tape up “…for when I’ve listened”

“Peter got me one a couple of month’s back, no use really no-one I know has one, well only you. Here, it’s got my home number on too…”

She handed him a card.

“Very smart”

“They’re for the show, you’re the first to get one”

“I’ll have to see some of these paintings of yours. I need something new on these walls. We’re doing some classical stuff soon too, I’ve bought a huge catalogue from the East Mongolian Radio Symphony Orchestra, not great performances but it was so cheap”, Marianne lifted her eyes to heaven, “… I know Marianne some of us never change, but they will need classy covers and I’m serious about that.”

A mobile phone rang from under a pile of papers. Ryan scrabbled around for it and answered.

“I better go, let you get on”

Ryan covered the mouth piece.

“Sorry… Got to deal with this… I’ll give you a bell… promise”

As she left the building she remembered she’d forgotten to ask about Sue. Surely he’d have mentioned her if they were still together. It was lunch time and she decided to treat herself, she deserved it.

In Trafalgar Square Peter decided to walk to Dover Passage and say hello to Henry. He tapped the number into the mobile phone, feeling self-conscious about using it. He hadn’t dared use it at college, heaven knows what the students would have said. He’d bought it after Bill died. Henry was there and said he’d love to see him and he’d got good news.

The clear autumn day made London dazzle. He liked the bustle and the architecture. As he walked through back streets to miss the tourists the black shape in the Goya kept haunting him. He stopped for a drink at the Walsingham Arms.

Peter sat in a corner, the tiny pub almost empty, a pint of bitter in front of him. He took out a photo of his painting for Frank Butter. It was set around a small connecting road to the Highlands Estate, called Meadow Way. When he was a boy it had high hawthorn hedges either side, a dark and gloomy place at night. That’s where it had happened. Until the commission he’d not thought about it for years. He took out the Polaroid of the Goya Christine had given him. He put the photos side by side and took a long drink.

“Frank” he said aloud but to himself, “bloody hell Frank what have I opened up?”

Frank Butter was about four years older than Peter. He’d never bothered with school, was always out getting odd jobs, selling things for people, digging gardens, carrying things. He did jobs for Peter’s dad at the Club, and they seemed to get on well. Frank learnt life from experience. Peter couldn’t remember anything about his parents, but they didn’t seem to care.

The other kids were scared of Frank, but Peter never recalled him actually doing anything. There were tales of course and it was said he carried a knife and even had a gun, but that was playground talk. Two skinheads from Millhall had once chased Peter, knocked him over and started to kick him, Frank came running down the road and they ran off. He never had any trouble again after that.

Then one day the playground was full of talk. “Got what he deserved my Dad said, bloody puff”; “Frank did it, got the old queer”; “Deserves a medal my dad said, shouldn’t be allowed in Highlands, not natural”; “I saw the body, knife through the neck”.

Vic Williams’ body was discovered one Thursday morning in Meadow Way. The face so kicked in it was almost impossible to tell who it was. A smell of rotting blood and shit pervaded the place for weeks afterwards. The police questioned a few people, including Peter’s father, they’d also been at the Club asking questions. No one knew anything, no one saw anything, no one was charged and no one cared. It was soon forgotten about by the papers.

Peter reached Dover Passage later than he’d planned and had to wait while Henry finished on the phone.

“I thought you’d got lost”

“I walked and needed a drink”

They strolled round an exhibition of work by three Dutch artists. The two men stood before a large flatly painted head that was grotesquely distorted.

“These aren’t selling… we’ll have to look for another market”

“Hmm… I like them. You said you had some good news?”

“Yes! those two paintings you did, I’ve sold them, what about that eh?!”

“But you’ve not even had them on show, in fact the one of the earth mound is still wet… I did some repainting. Who’s bought them?”

“Constantine Levy-French” he said it slowly and precisely.

Peter looked at Henry and could see the delight in yet another 50% commission.

“Constantine Levy-French? And why did he buy two paintings unseen?”

“Said he’d seen your work and liked it, he asked if we had any. I showed him the slides you’d sent and the tree pictures International Computers bought, it is trees isn’t it?….” Peter nodded “…and that was it, paid what we’d discussed. He’s a collector, got loads of English landscapes and well, liked yours, said something like you were ‘…continuing the long thread of interest in the representation of our green and pleasant lands’, or something like that”.

Peter stared at the portrait. He felt a bit like the character portrayed, pushed around and distorted.

“I can’t believe someone would buy a painting unseen. Bit odd, don’t know if I really like that”

“I don’t think Peter you really have much say in the matter. Of course we’ve never yet had a contractual problem, but I think you’ll see that when you put your paintings in our hands we can sell them to who we like,” the words were said clearly and deliberately in his Oxbridge voice, he knew where the Gallery stood, “…of course we would never do anything to upset you.”

“Oh it’s OK a bit of a shock really”

They looked at each other. Peter had upset Henry by not being positive and after all Peter had painted these to sell. He’d just been told that he’d made more out of two paintings than he did from his salary at the college, even after the Gallery’s cut. But he was not sure about it. Paintings were important to him, he’d hoped to get a show together with these, and liked to know where they were going. He wanted people to see and enjoy his work, not hung in some posh office or well-guarded house. Peter was proud to have work in the Tate, free for anyone to see.

“He’s got some computer parts company in Slough, lives in Cookham. Moving into property I believe.”

“Spencer’s Cookham?”

“Yes, beautiful house, by the Thames. I went over yesterday to finalise things, I tried ringing you to see when we could get them down for delivery, oh… and he agreed they could go to that show in Bradford next year”

“Good” Peter quickly had an idea. “Look… I’ll run them down, it’s years since I’ve been there, I’ve got to bring a van down soon with stuff for this set. By the way d’you know of any large spaces going I could get to paint this thing? It’s really big and I can’t find anywhere up there.”

“No problem… I know some empty warehouses, they were being turned into recording studios, there were some financial issues and I think they’re up for short leases, close to Sadler’s Wells as well. Do you want me to ask about them?”

“OK, sounds good. Not too expensive though, I’m asking two graduates from last year to help, did you get those preliminaries?”

“Yes, why don’t we have a show of them around the time of the opening night, great opportunities, you’ll be in all the press?”

“I don’t really like showing drawings, we’ll see”

A smartly dressed secretary discreetly descended from an upstairs office with news that Henry was wanted on the phone, from Japan. Peter walked to an overpriced coffee shop to spend a fortune on some frothy coffee that burnt his tongue.


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