Chapter 14 of my novel Underpainting. The previous chapters can be found on the link above or in the Categories section.
Peter was sitting in the new staff room at the University. Gone was the view over the railway, they now gazed upon the new computer science block which Peter felt was hideous, but was about to win an architectural prize. In the eight months he’d been away the whole staff seemed to have changed.
Mike Potter, the Dean’s third in command, came purposefully towards him, Peter looked intently at a proof of a catalogue for the forthcoming show, hoping he hadn’t seen him.
“Peter, we’re pleased to see you home again. The Dean was so sorry the first night had to be put back, his sort of thing you know”, he laughed as if it wasn’t his, and Peter knew he was green with envy not to meet and be photographed with Princess Di.
“Yes, I’m sure he is.”
“He’s sent me down to have a little chat. You are now the most senior lecturer in the department, you’ve got a standing well that no one else here even comes near…”
“Well, I wouldn’t…”
“Oh don’t be modest. There’s plenty here who would want your power. Well, he’s sent me down to ask you to put yourself forward for Head of School. We need someone of your experience, of your capacity and standing…”
Peter’s mobile phone rang interrupting the flow.
“I’m sorry…” he took it out of his pocket and flicked it on. He angrily said “Yes, I’m busy!”
“Please one minute, it’s Eva Wilson from The Independent”
“Look, I’m busy, and I thought my agent was dealing with this”
“Oh no, it’s not about your painting, I want to speak to you about Frank Butter”
“Look ring me later and I’ll deal with it OK, after four” Peter abruptly switched the phone off, “I’m sorry about that Mike, some reporter from The Independent, God knows what she wants”
At the name of the national newspaper Mike Potter’s attitude changed, he didn’t mind that sort of interruption.
“Where was I?”
“Something about Head of School?”
By the end of the conversation Peter had refused to apply for the post, he said he really didn’t want to be so tied down, it was administration, meetings, planning. Peter liked to work directly with the students, he was flattered to be asked of course, but no. Peter was pleased that he was now First Year course leader for a change. Didn’t they see this?
Mike Potter didn’t.
It was nearly four o’clock when Peter had time to catch his thoughts.
‘Hang on’ he thought ‘no one knows that number, only Marianne, not even Henry, how did she get that?… and Frank Butter, why him?’
The phone rang.
“Hello Mr Marten its Eva Wilson again”
“Hi, yes, look, I can’t talk now, I’m in the staff room.”
“Can we meet, I’m only just round the corner from you”
“What in Knype?”
“Yes, I got in on the one forty five, thought it better if we met”
“O..K…” Peter said very slowly, “I really have very little to say”
“I’m standing next to a pub, The Black Horse, can you be there by five?”
The Black Horse at five in the afternoon had an air of desperation. It wasn’t dark enough to hide the stained red carpet and ripped seats, the evening hadn’t begun and people were in a transitional stage, waiting to go home or waiting to go out or nearly drunk from an afternoon of drinking. Eva Wilson was sitting at a table next to a flashing games machine, she looked younger than she sounded on the phone. Peter bought a drink for himself, he didn’t offer her one even though her glass was empty. He felt a bit mean, but then he thought, why should he?
“Hi, I thought you must be Ms Wilson, you don’t look from round here”
They sat for a minute silent as Eva looked through some notes she’d still been writing when he’d walked in.
“What on earth is all this anyway? And why couldn’t Henry deal with it”
“As I said, it’s not about your paintings, no. I’m putting together an article with three other journalists about the rise of Frank Butter. We’d heard there’s some big moves going to happen and it seemed an opportune time, you know?” She talked in an assured and well educated manner. He didn’t think she actually cared about this, it was a job, she was gathering the sweepings of someone’s life to make a five minute diversion one Sunday, she continued, “… I wanted to speak to you because you knew him when he was young”
“He lived on the same estate…” Peter interrupted.
“He knew your father, they were very close. And… you did that painting for him. He came to your opening, I hear you and he were outside talking privately for ages?”
“He commissioned the painting and I understand he’s a friend of Constantine Levy-French… who gave a party, who also bought some of my paintings… I really don’t…”
“They are business partners” she interrupted. “They and some other partners are putting together a large bid for the franchise to run security for the Benefits Agency”
“I know nothing of that… and yes Frank certainly knew my father, he was older than me, we didn’t mix. He did some jobs in the ex-servicemen’s club where my dad was chair of the committee, cleaned up, moved barrels, so did other lads. It was pocket money, that’s all.”
“That isn’t how I’ve heard it”
“Well that’s how it was”
“What about his homosexual tendencies? Did those ever surface in those days, did he…”
“Now look here Ms. Wilson, I know nothing about Frank Butter’s private life. If he’s gay so what? Does that matter?” asked Peter.
“It’s of interest”
They were silent.
“What do you remember about the death of Vic Williams?”
“That was years ago. Anyway what’s that got to do with this?”
“Your painting, in Frank Butter’s office. It’s of the exact spot it took place.”
“But it means nothing… Miss Wilson, for anyone growing up on that estate that was the biggest thing to happen. The place was dead, if you know all this then you must have seen it, I know it’s worse now… it was always on the edge of nowhere, even more so then. If anyone brought up there in the early sixties remembers any place it was that bit of road. Frank Butter wanted something to remind him of his roots. We met at an opening in Manchester, I hadn’t met him since I was a kid, and a deal was done. I went back to the estate and headed there, it seemed the obvious place to go, OK?”
“So you don’t think he murdered Vic Williams? We know he was there when it happened, the police have files, he’s implicated”
“They questioned everyone, I remember that, and if I remember rightly no one was ever charged. I’m sorry, I really cannot help you any further, you’re going into fantasy land. If you start printing that sort of stuff he’ll roast you in court, and quite rightly so!”
“From my information he left the estate almost immediately after it happened, with a quite large wad of money, that’s how he set up and from there well, look at him now”
“I really cannot help, I know nothing about any of this. I remember he left but at fifteen many lads left the area…”
“Not with a thousand pounds! That was more than an average wage round there then!”
“I know nothing about any thousand pounds”
“Would your mother know what happened?”
“If you go near my mother I’ll have you in court for harassment, OK, you hear that OK?” he said it so loudly that the other people in the pub looked round.
“Well at least we know where we stand”
“I hope you do. I do not want my mother bothering about this. Anyway, how did you get my phone number?”
“Oh it’s easy, we have contacts. Thank you for helping me anyway, it’s crossed a few T’s. Oh, one final thing, did he ever tell you about how he got hold of the studio you’ve been working in for the past six months?”
This came as a shock to Peter, and felt it must have shown on his face.
“I didn’t know it was owned by him”
“Oh come on Mr. Marten, you’re not that stupid”
Peter stood up nodded at her and left the pub feeling dirty.
Peter rang Frank Butter’s office from his car and was surprised anyone was still there, then remembered that money never sleeps. After an inquisition by an efficient secretary he got through to Frank. He told him about Eva Wilson and what was said. Frank was silent throughout. When he’d finished there was a short silent gap, Peter could hear office noises.
“Thank you for telling me Peter, it’s good of you, many people wouldn’t. We know someone is looking into me and the company… but they’re not from The Independent. It depends who they talk to which paper they’re from, they must think you are an Independent reader type! I think they’ll sell to the highest bidder. Anyway, they seem to be trying to dig up dirt, there’s a big deal coming up, a lot depends on the background and integrity of those involved, as much as the money”
“Yes, she said something, I didn’t really take any notice”
“Good… that’s the right attitude. I don’t think there’ll be any more problem with her or any of the others, if they do go and hassle Pearl let me know, we can deal with these things, you will won’t you?”
“Of course Frank, of course”
“Good… Well I’ve got to go, we’re up to our necks here, I won’t get home ‘til midnight. Good to hear from you and keep in touch. I want to chat over a proposal, I’ll be in touch”
The phone went dead. Peter drove on, stopped at a pub and had a double brandy.