Underpainting 7


Chapter 7 of my novel Underpainting to read the first six press the link above.


Marianne inspected half a doll’s head she’d found in the park. One side was perfect, the other burnt. She placed it on the two foot square board, next to a tiny sweet box she’d found in Arras.

“Too sentimental” she murmured, and rummaged amongst the mass of debris she’d amassed over the years for a more suitable item.

Marianne’s studio was a cross between a magical kingdom and a refuse tip. Her current pictures featured found items, some repainted, some glued to a surface in the state they were found. They were an assembly of disparate items, sketches, small paintings; juxtaposed to tell their own stories or make disharmonious comments about a world which didn’t know how to value what it had. She was about half way through making her most ambitious work, for a touring exhibition featuring women artists. It was going to be a ‘quilt’ of 80 pictures, each one two feet square set out ten across and eight high. Each was different, some bright and glittering with what looked liked jewels sparkling through bright coloured paint, others were sombre, hard to decipher, objects draped with a found piece of fabric and paper.

Marianne would spend hours looking in corners, in skips. From holidays she’d bring home a suitcase full of discarded objects, boxes, the fragments of other peoples lives and cultures. Once in a car park near Disneyland in Los Angeles, two huge security men frog-marched her to their office because she was searching through trash cans. After she’d explained who she was and what she did, the two men escorted her around Disneyland. The things they turned up were phenomenal and a whole series of pictures featured plastic Mickey’s, Minnie Mouse socks, Donald Duck pens and all the ephemera and junk imaginable. Marianne sent the Guards two special pictures and they wrote polite thank you letters.

From a red wooden box she picked out a three legged plastic dog, quite big.

“Yes” she said out loud, “that’s it”.

With a large brush she painted parts of it blue, left it to dry and was wiping her hands clean when her mobile phone rang. Peter had insisted she have one and now she had to admit it was useful. She pressed the reply button, and before she’d had time to say anything Angela’s voice bellowed “How dare you come between Lizzie and Me! How dare you, I thought you were a friend?”

“Angela, what do you…”

“How dare you, behind my back… I have never been so humiliated, just because you’ve got no children doesn’t mean you can interfere with mine”

“Hang on Angela… I’ve never..”

“Oh yes you have, Lizzie told me about that little chat you had, and introducing her to that Ryan Harris, well… he’s as old as me… her whole life is ruined because of your stupid meddling”

Angela burst into tears. After about half a minute of Angela sobbing Marianne slowly spoke.

“Angela… the night Bill died…. Lizzie and I sat in the kitchen and talked…. she was anxious and not sure what to do… Lizzie wanted to tell me about her band… it appeared important and she wanted to do things her way, she only needed to talk to someone”

“She could have talked to me, she always knew she could… You should have put her off the idea, she should have gone to college, it’s what we wanted.”

“Is it what she wanted?”

“Of course it was you bitch, she doesn’t know what she wants… only a silly teenage whim.”

“She’s a young woman Angela… Have you heard the band?..”

“Oh it’s just noise, I couldn’t spare the time…”

“There, you see, she wanted to talk, someone to listen seriously, and it’s good”

“Oh, you can’t blame me for this mess, this is of your making”

“How do you mean my making?”

“Yes you, you bitch, you fucking bitch! You got her in with that Ryan, that scumbag you used to fuck at college, he’s old enough to be her father, did you tell him he’d get an easy lay with a young girl?”

“I really don’t know what you’re on about now Angela? When we were in London I took a tape of Lizzie’s to get his opinion, he said he’d listen, send someone from their R and D department whatever that is, that was all, he knows about bands and recording and all that sort of thing…”

“Well she’s moved in with him”

Marianne was dumb struck.

“Yes… that’s made you think miss high and mighty. He went to see the band play, went backstage and Lizzie was bowled over by the thought of stardom, he asked her to come and lay down some tracks and well…”

“Angela there was nothing I said… I was trying to help Lizzie”

“Well you did a damn good job of that didn’t you…”

“What about Sue?”

“Who’s Sue?”

“Ryan’s wife”

“There’s been no wife been mentioned, Lizzie’s moved into his house, queen of the bloody castle, won’t talk to me, no the silly girl, doesn’t want to know!”

Angela hung up. Marianne thought about ringing her back, but felt it would be better when she’d calmed down and looked around her desk for Ryan’s number.

“… The dirty old bastard” she thought “…and I didn’t fuck him Angela” she shouted, “…you’re the one to talk about fucking for God’s sake, you old cow!”.

She felt better for that.

There was a soft knock on the studio door and a woman’s head popped round. It was Greta, who had the studio next door.

“You OK Marianne? I heard shouting”

“So did I, must have been outside”

Greta’s head disappeared. Marianne couldn’t find Ryan’s number. She looked down at her picture.

“The dog!” she cried out. The acrylic paint had dried hard. “Damn…” She’d lost her concentration, took a deep breath, stood up and decided to go home.

A Post-it note was stuck on the kitchen table. “Gone to Angela’s, back soon”, it was from Peter.

“I bet he’s getting it in the neck as well” Marianne thought as the front door opened and Peter walked in, he looked shaken.

“She got at you as well?”

“What, Angela’s not said anything has she?” Marianne thought Peter looked worried.

“Angela, she rang and told me about Lizzie and Ryan, she must have said something…?”

“What about them?”

“They’ve moved in together”

“But how? It must be ten years since Ryan was about?”

“She blames me”

“Mari, I haven’t a clue what you’re on about”, Peter sounded stern and sharp.

“Don’t snap like that at me. In London, I saw Ryan, forgot…”

“Sorry, it was nothing to do with me”

“What do you mean?”

“Angela, she told you about this afternoon?”

“Now I don’t know what you’re on about?”

“Angela”, Peter said slowly and thoughtfully, “… rang me at about two, a pipe had burst and she didn’t know what to do…”

“I’d only just talked to her, she didn’t say anything. Doesn’t sound like her…”

“Well I went over…”

“Knight in shining armour” Marianne interjected.

“….I went over and there was water all over the kitchen. Angela went to switch off the main hot tap upstairs. It was a connection come loose. I went upstairs to tell her it was all OK, and she was standing in her bedroom naked…”

Marianne started to laugh.

“And what did you do? Draw her?” she went into convulsions of laughter.

Peter was angry.

“No! And nothing else! She said how good I’d been to her, how great a friend I was, for God’s sake Marianne stop laughing, it wasn’t funny!” Marianne was crying with laughter.

“I wish I’d been there to see it, I bet your face was a picture Pete, a bloody Rembrandt!”

Peter couldn’t see what was so funny, to him it was sad and embarrassing.

“…I said I loved you and asked if I could help her, how I knew she was still grieving…”

This sent Marianne into even more gales of laughter. Peter couldn’t stand it, he left the house slamming the front door.

Marianne knew she’d been cruel to him, but really, he wasn’t Angela’s sort was he?

Over the twenty years they’d known Bill and Angela, they had become close and Marianne had become Angela’s confidante. Peter, Marianne supposed, had become Bill’s, she wasn’t really sure. Bill had rather publicly, and often highly embarrassingly, had a string of silly affairs with young women students. One had even visited Angela and announced that Bill was going to leave her, Angela had taken her upstairs and told her to start filling cases with his things, and she could take the kids as well. Angela loved telling that story and Marianne wasn’t sure if it was true. Bill always had to confess to Angela in highly graphic detail, she extracted everything, every little detail of what happened, how and where. She would then make a scene which she’d perfected over the years to a piece of high camp drama, and would eventually forgive him, for now.

Peter would have a long man to man chat with Bill in a pub, which Marianne would hear about and pass on to Angela, these mainly consisted of Bill saying how he had to keep his freedom even in the constraints of marriage, these earnest talks would usually end in Peter going home drunk.

On the other hand Angela, certainly not to Peter’s knowledge and Marianne thought not to Bill’s (who thought of her as a saint), had had numerous and quite serious affairs. Angela would go away on ‘selling trips’, usually to London, Bath or Edinburgh. There she had what she called her ‘alternative therapy’ with gallery owners, actors, potters, artists and once a quite famous American poet. She even went to Vermont with him and Marianne remembered thinking how much Charles looked like the poet, the only one in the family with red hair. She commented on this but Angela dismissed it out of hand.

So what was she doing trying to seduce Peter? To get back at Marianne?

“Well it hasn’t worked madam” thought Marianne, “… I know you far too well”

What Peter must have thought she really didn’t know.

“He should have gone in and done it that would have called her bluff…” she thought, “…do I really mean that?”. She knew that Angela would have revelled in telling her all the details and she’d have felt bad, even though it wouldn’t have meant anything.

“I wonder if she’s ever tried before?” she said out loud, and Marianne remembered a disastrous holiday in a Cornish cottage, twelve years before. Bill was sleeping off a hangover, Marianne had gone to Truro to meet a friend, and Peter and Angela had gone to a secluded beach to draw. When they returned to the cottage Peter had wanted to go home straight away for some stupid reason.

“… I remember now”, she thought, “I bet she did, wouldn’t think he did… the old cow, she always did keep quiet about that day.”

Then she remembered how Bill had once pushed her into a corner at a party, feeling her bum, then her breasts, saying how she was so beautiful and the sort of woman he really needed. Marianne had pushed him away but Angela had noticed what was going on and went mad at them, not listening to Marianne’s protests of innocence.

It didn’t matter now she thought.

Peter sat in The Lamb. He was upset. He couldn’t understand how Marianne could laugh, it had hurt him, and after all he’d told her, he didn’t need to.

“…and Ryan? What’s all this about Ryan?” he thought.

Marianne, Ryan and Peter had attended the same college. Ryan was more interested in music than painting and had been kicked out before the end of the course, and had a soft spot for Marianne, in fact he’d been the first person to call her Marianne. Her name was really Mary Ann; Ryan liked Leonard Cohen and thought Marianne sounded more romantic, more artistic and it stuck. Peter thought that they’d been lovers before he and Marianne got together. Marianne always denied it. Ryan was different to the rest, even at college he made money, promoted music, made deals. After he left college he set up his own promotions company, and a record company at 24. When he was still at college he’d married Sue who he’d known for years, a finalist for Miss England. The long haired scruffy lads at college mocked her, but were secretly jealous of Ryan for being able to (in the parlance of the time) ‘pull such a bird’. Marianne and Sue had got on well, then they went their separate ways, Peter and Marianne back up North, Ryan and Sue to Surrey.

Peter and Marianne had drifted together. Moved in to share a flat in their third year, as it was cheaper, never thought beyond the next week, both had separate plans after college, even now they still had separate bank accounts, had none of the official ties people seemed to get lumbered with. If they’d sat down in 1968 and thought that in twenty two years they’d still be together they’d have never believed it.

Ten years previously they’d met up again with Ryan and Sue and had dinner, then nothing.

“… and what was all this about Lizzie anyway?” Peter thought. He finished off his pint and decided to go home and see what it was all about. He realised that he must have sounded like a pompous idiot and ought to apologise to Marianne.

“Shit” he thought, “I better ring Clare, she’ll be frantic”.


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