Chapter 10 of my novel Underpainting. the first 9 chapters are available above or by clicking the Category to the right.
New leaves shone like silver coins in the sun and looked as if they would snap off in the icy north westerly wind. Peter stopped; looked towards the top of the hill, there were only a couple of hundred yards to go. His leg muscles ached. Malcolm was well ahead of Peter, his wiry body bending into the hill like one the hundreds of saplings surrounding them.
They had climbed silently through the ages of trees, the first ones planted more than forty years ago. They had reached the five year olds. The trees were mixed but planned. There were no paths, Malcolm knew every tree, he’d planted them all, carefully planning where each one should go. These were his brush strokes, each tree his choice. Today he had Peter to help, so both carried five pots in special backpacks Malcolm had made. In each pot a three inch oak peeping through fertile black soil. The hill felt almost vertical to Peter who was not used to such exercise, his lungs worked hard, but it felt good, he felt a part of something great and proper.
Malcolm was sitting in a green grassy circle when Peter eventually reached him. Peter was breathless, Malcolm was gazing at the same landscape he saw and noted each day. He pointed.
“Good light today Peter, you can see Clun church, look”
Peter looked in the direction and surveyed a green patchwork of undulating fields, he’d seen it many times, but today was extra sharp, extra clear. He’d love to paint this, to capture it, but it was illusive to him, this was too real.
“Malcolm, how do you keep it up..?” Peter was trying to catch his breath. He sat down on the damp grass next to Malcolm.
“Those birch there” Malcolm pointed at ten six foot high trees, slender curved poles against the pale blue sky, “you and Bill put those in, 1986. D’you remember?”
They sat watching the shadow clouds scurry across the valley far below.
“Did Bill really want all that fuss or was it Angela’s idea?”
“Oh no, he wanted it all right”
“…those damn bells tinkling, that priest who looked like Boris Karloff, all that bloody singing in Latin. Was he that religious when alive?”
“I didn’t think so, I only found out at the hospital when the priest turned up. Seems he was part of the holy Joe’s. You never really know people, when you think you know it all…”
“They better not have that fuss when I go, you’ll make sure of that won’t you?” Malcolm looked sternly at Peter, “I mean it Peter. Just scatter me to the winds from the top of here, better still use me as a bit of bone meal for one of those larches down there!”
“Oh you’ll go on for ever Malcolm”
“This will” he said with an encompassing gesture to his trees, “…but I’m eighty three now, and when I can’t get up this far I’ve made sure I’ll be off, I’ve got some stuff in the caravan. I’d go mad in one of those bloody homes, singing hymns and being ordered round by some bossy little sixteen year old. Oh and worse, smarmy vicars praying over you.” He shuddered. “No I’ll go when I say so, they’re not getting me.”
Peter hadn’t known how old Malcolm was. The age quite shocked him, he’d thought he was in his early seventies. They sat silently, and the early spring sun warmed them as the wind dropped.
Malcolm Davies was Peter’s painting tutor. He painted in the classical English landscape style. Peter had rebelled against him, but they’d got on well and became firm friends as Peter grew older. In 1963, much to his own surprise, Malcolm had inherited a hill in Shropshire when an uncle had died. He decided to grow trees, he first started going at weekends, then when he retired and his marriage broke down he moved there, living in an ancient caravan. Each day he planted at least one tree, slowly creating a forest, he planted like a painter painted, carefully planning where each colour should go. He’d given up painting years ago, as he couldn’t capture the feeling that this gave him. He knew he’d never see it in its full glory, but that was the joy, his mind could see it and he knew others would. As he planted Malcolm was making a beautifully detailed map, each tree marked and with names for little groups. Peter had a row of maples named after him and Marianne a set of willows near a stream.
Peter had helped set up a trust so the area would remain untouched and the work continue when Malcolm died, he loved the place, tramping over the hills planting and dreaming of an unseeable future.
“We need another person for the Trust now Bill’s gone” Peter knew he had to bring this up and this was a good opportunity.
“Yes, I know, it’s got to be right hasn’t it. I don’t want any greedy relatives of Muriel getting hold of it, they’d have houses all over here as soon as look at it.”
“I thought of asking Constantine Levy-French to be part of us, he’s bought a couple of pictures. Do you know him?”
“He bought one of mine” Malcolm could see Peter’s surprised expression, “yes years ago it was, one of my moorland watercolours. Come up in the world a bit now hasn’t he? If I remember for five guineas, in 1953, something like that. He hadn’t got the ‘French’ bit then. I think he was a refugee in the war, from Poland or Czechoslovakia, somewhere like that, loads came over you know. After the war he bought old radios from all over the place, took them to a hanger near Reading, or was it Slough? Somewhere down there anyway, and cobbled up new ones. He had a huge ex-army truck. Had a couple of stalls in markets to sell them, and you could always buy ‘em on the never never. God he worked hard, but even harder to get rid of his accent! Cony Levi…” His voice dwindled away in thought and they sat in silence for a few moments, contemplating the patchwork of fields below.
“How did you get to know him?” Peter asked.
“Oh you know, when he got a bit of cash, he started to buy paintings, crap stuff at first then I don’t know… someone must have advised him, he started buying English landscapes, as if he needed to buy the culture to become part of it. He’d turn up at galleries when he was out collecting radios. Bought loads of Spencers for almost nothing, worth a fortune now I suppose?”
“I think Henry collared him”
“Ha, sounds like Henry. Bet he got a good commission eh? Yes, he’ll do as a trustee, doesn’t waste money, not Conny, but don’t let him have this, I want this for everyone, Cony Levi has to own things, own places, own people. He hides things I know that, what you see is only a surface. Best not rub too deep Peter, don’t look for the underpainting, just the varnish.”
Peter was not sure what to think of all this, but was pleased he’d agreed.
“She’s OK, busy on some pictures for a touring show. Haven’t seen too much of her while I’m doing this set. Are you coming to the opening?”
“No, that’s not me, but I’ll be thinking of you” Malcolm lay back on the damp grass watching clouds scurry past. “Have you seen much of Angela since Bill died, I suppose she’s back to normal by now?”
“Lizzie left, gone to be a musician”
“Good for her, get away from those clutches”
“… and Angela’s pregnant again”
“Who by this time, God doesn’t that woman know when to stop”
“Tom, Tom who?”
“Oh you don’t know him, he recently left college, only twenty two, in fact he’s working with me on this set. Angela hasn’t told him, it appears she told none of them, Bill thought they were all his, well I suppose they were, he looked after them” Peter gave a long exhalation and shook his head.
“Good for her, she can still get them going then.”
“It appears so, she asked Tom round to help her out and well ended up…”
“Bill never knew what a great woman he’d got? All that chasing after young girls… too easy, you don’t have to think. She’ll find this baby harder than the rest”
“I suppose so” Peter said, “you could always tell the girls Bill would end up with. I used to see them in the first few days of term when we did induction sessions. Dark haired, open faced, usually the younger looking ones, especially if they were American. He had a chat up line, it’s only since he’s gone I realised it was always the same, something like… ‘you really ought to see the Carravagios in the National, I can show you them in their real light’. He was no better than any other dirty old man wanting a fuck. Same old script each time.”
Peter realised Malcolm wasn’t listening, but was looking for the best site for the oak trees.
“Over there, I think, yes… We’ll make a circle, in memory of Bill, Caravagio’s Erection we’ll call it on the map. Eh.. ha ha.. When this lot are at full height no one will know what the hell I was on about, bugger them eh! Bugger the lot of ‘em”
Peter and Malcolm stood up and set about pacing out a circle.