Chapter 8 of my novel Underpainting set in the early 1990’s. The previous chapters can be found in the link above.
The early morning clouds were pink and grey through Clare’s window. She could not remember when she had last been up at six. Matthew wasn’t home yet, she wasn’t over concerned, after all he was nineteen, but it was getting into a pattern, and patterns concerned her. The drug councillor told her to look out for patterns of behaviour, and this was the fourth night in a row that she knew he had been out all night. He had also started locking his room again.
Clare surveyed the street; cars parked bumper to bumper, a black cab setting off to work in the West End, through a corner of the bay window she could just make out Holloway Road at the end of her street, red buses regularly passing even at this time, and the glint of the mirror shop. She lit another cigarette, tied up her dressing gown, which was always falling open, and heard post falling through the letterbox, which made her jump. She looked outside and the postman was already next door.
“Hmm he’s alright,” she said to herself, “nice bum”.
She went down the hallway to the front door and stopped in front of the full-length mirror at the bottom of the stairs, opened up her dressing gown and looked at herself, naked. Morning light streaming through the front door glass softened the edges. Clare knew she looked OK, she worked at it. She pushed her breasts up and felt she could do with a boob job, though no-one else seemed to mind, and where would she get the cash anyway. Stomach still flat (when she breathed in!), ‘nice legs’ she thought, ‘always had good legs’.
“You’re not bad for 37” she said to her reflection, and moved closer to examine her deep blonde hair. The dark parting was getting wider, “need to get that sorted don’t want to look like a fuckin’ tart”.
She picked up the mail, and decided she quite liked the quiet of the morning. Water bill, two catalogues, those damned electricity people again, and a handwritten letter from Knype. She opened it as she walked to the kitchen.
A note was hurriedly written on University paper, and she read:
Dearest Clare, sorry not to have been over on my last couple of visits, been really busy. I’m coming down soon for a couple of months to work on the set, so I’ll have plenty of time to see you then. Hope enclosed OK. Hope all’s well with Matthew, Peter.
£80 in twenty’s was folded up with the letter. She put it a drawer, screwed up the letter, and tossed it in the waste bin.
Clare knew Peter from her days at art college, he was a regular now. She’d been a few years older than most of the other students and was ambitious to make money from her painting, which separated her from the others. She already had Matthew who was nine when she had started at Knype, and that too set her apart. Peter was her personal tutor in the second year.
Since an early age she’d known how attractive she was to men, including her father, the thought of which made her shudder, however she never told anyone, he’d never touched actually her, except to slap. Attraction she’d tell herself could be both useful and a nuisance, and she had an ease about her that attracted men, as well as her body. Within ten minutes, they had usually told her their life story, or what was worth telling anyway. She’d learnt it was profitable to show great interest in their self-indulgence.
Soon after starting at Knype, Hilton Douglas, one of the painting tutors, asked if he could photograph her, he’d pay. From her first few weeks there she was expecting this; Hilton undressed her with his eyes every time she entered the studio. She needed the cash, Hilton promised the pictures were only going to be for his own use, and she knew what that meant. At the end of the second sitting, he offered her more cash and she gave him a blow job, after the third they had sex, he was gross, but it was money. Even now she shuddered at his stained black beard, mass of red/grey pubic hair, and greasy hands, but Matthew needed new shoes.
Hilton Douglas drank too much and talked freely, and by the end of her first year, she had lecturers from various departments of the university visiting her. Clare was discreet and became friends with a couple of their wives, who would quite often look after Matthew for her while (unknowingly) she was with their partner.
It was not until three years after she’d left college and had moved back to London that Peter started to visit her. She’d met him at a friends’ opening at the Clouds Gallery with Marianne, who she had always liked. They arranged to meet so they could look at her new work, Marianne couldn’t make it, and to the surprise of both of them, after talking very personally she and Peter had sex. She thought Peter didn’t realise how many regulars she had, she never talked about anyone else, and Peter didn’t ask.
At first, they would spent some time talking about Marianne, as well as Peter and his work and rise to success. Over the last year or so, he’d stopped mentioning Marianne; in fact, his hour with her was often spent lying on the bed chatting, about his work, college, Matthew, Dover Passage, students. Less and less sex, she didn’t mind, it was cash whatever the outcome. They would go into the room she used to use for painting, and they’d talk about what she was planning to do. The next time he came the plans were still to be started.
Clare heard the door open, and someone creeping in.
“Is that you Matthew?” she called out.
“Yes I’m knackered…. off to bed… wake me at one”
“Good” she thought to herself, “he’ll be gone in time”. She had a client coming at seven, she also hoped he’d brought her the diazi’s she’d asked him to get, he always seemed to know where to get them.
Over the past ten years Clare had slowly built up a regular clientèle, she liked them to be married and if possible, over fifty, easier to deal with, usually better manners, no hassle over wanting a ‘relationship’. Then ten months ago, her house had changed hands and her new landlord had asked her to a meeting. She had lived in Disraeli Street for eight years, and thought the meeting was to get rid of her, the area was changing, lots of yuppies moving in, higher rents, and she was ready for a battle.
Clare was ushered through a suite of offices just east of the City, to an oak panelled room and was sitting in front of a large desk, behind which was her new landlord, Frank Butter, behind him stood what she thought must be his minder, a tall good looking blonde guy, with cold blue eyes. She’d noted he had some good paintings and was surprised that Frank Butter wanted to see her personally; not leaving it to an agent to deal with what was a minor matter.
“Miss Forester” he opened abruptly, “I have a proposition”
“I know my rights Mr Butter, and by the way I have reverted to my mother’s maiden name Zetzer three year’s ago, I did inform the former landlord”
“I’m sure you did… Miss um… Zetzer” he looked at some papers on his desk, and wrote a note, “we’ve been noting who comes and goes at your house”; he put his hand up to stop her protesting, “we weren’t spying. As you probably know the house opposite is one of mine as well, and next door, well I just noticed someone I knew, and then looked a bit further into things”
“I have many friends Mr Butter, I’m an artist”
“Yes. Well Miss Zetzer, I want to make a deal with you. I’m sure an offer to let you live virtually rent-free wouldn’t come amiss?… No?” she nodded. “I thought not. I have many business acquaintances, often visiting from abroad, they usually arrive alone. I need someone to entertain them. Someone with a bit of class, who can talk intelligently, eat and drink properly, know which knife to use”, he put his hand up again to stop her interrupting, “…in addition, I need to know a little bit more about them, give me the edge when we’re finalising things. Do you understand me?”
Clare did and they came to an agreement. As well as her rent being cut by 90%, Mr Butter would remunerate her per visit, and sometimes the gentlemen would add to that with ‘tips’; she would let Mr Butter know what had been said, what had happened. Clare didn’t have to discuss the ‘tips’.
She didn’t really like the arrangement but felt it was hard not to accept. It reminded her of the time when she was desperate for cash and worked for an escort agency. She preferred the cosy arrangements she had with her regulars, but the extra cash would be handy, and London was getting expensive. However, she didn’t feel fully in control of her life and promised herself to get out of it as soon as she could. She never thought herself a prostitute, just someone who offered a personal service, a sort of therapy.
In the ten months since that meeting, she’d only once had to complain to Mr Butter about one man. She’d kicked him out after he’d given her a love-bite, a cocky man who said he was in the music business, wanting services she certainly wasn’t willing to offer. She was a bit worried when she told Frank Butter, but he didn’t mind, in fact he laughed very knowingly, and said that she was right, if he wanted that sort of thing he knew plenty of others who could help, he’d be more careful in future who he sent, and thanked her for the information which may be useful in the future.
Clare went back upstairs, and began tidying her bedroom, which didn’t need much doing, she was a very tidy person. Moishe the one-eyed black cat was asleep on the bed, she shewed him off and reluctantly he left for the warm kitchen. The room smelt of lavender to cover smoke and sweat. She had a round table in one corner covered by a white tablecloth, on which a rose patterned china tea set was set out, her gentlemen often liked to sit and talk over a cup of tea. It was part of her act and it filled time they were paying for. She had acquired a posh accent at the boarding school her grandparents’ had paid for, very English, and always wore smart clothes, not tarty, and thought she played the part well.
The evening’s client was initially one of Mr Butter’s business acquaintances, but had become a regular. She thought he must be at least seventy and he spoke with a strange accent. She felt a little uneasy because she had decided not to tell Mr Butter everything. He called himself Harry, but she thought that wasn’t his real name. He always brought with him a beautiful soft leather briefcase with the letters CLF embossed. She wondered if he was a politician.
He paid her well, far more than anyone else, so why bother what his name was she thought, and it was always in well-used ten-pound notes in a long blue envelope, which she didn’t open until he’d gone. They didn’t have sex; when he came, he took from his briefcase a black broad old thick leather belt, with a silver buckle shaped like two eagles. He stripped naked and knelt down, and told her to beat him with it, at first, she just slapped him, but he told her to beat him, hard, harder. The last two times he also brought a silver framed photograph, which he put in front of him, of a young man in uniform. As she beat him he cried out in a language she couldn’t understand. The one thing she didn’t like was that he’d asked her to shout anti-Semitic insults as she thrashed him. The worse the insults and harder she hit, the more he paid. £450 last time. She knew those insults from the time her drunken father hit her when she was home from school the week after her mother had died. Nevertheless, she knew it was business and you had to put up with things, especially as she’d seen a coat she liked, so today she planned to really let loose. At the end of each session, he’d dress, put on the belt, go into his case, turn and fill then hand her the sealed envelope, arrange another meeting, shake hands, and go; always through the back door. She told Mr Butter each time he came, in case he was monitoring her, but just told him he liked a blow job, she knew his need came from much deeper than Frank Butter required to know about.
The front door slammed, Clare looked out and saw Matthew walking quickly down the road.
“Damn” she said, she hadn’t got her diazi’s from him.
Dark clouds had gathered and it started to rain. When she went downstairs, she noticed the kitchen drawer was open and the £80 gone. She knew he was back on the stuff and hoped he wasn’t injecting.