Underpainting 16


Chapter 16 of my novel Underpainting set in the early 1990’s. For previous chapters go to the link above or to Categories. This is about the half way point.

Chapter 16

Ronald Reagan Airport was heaving. Marianne nudged the luggage trolley she’d almost got into a fight over through a throng of passengers, to the double doors and into what felt like a cattle market. Thousands of faces. All colours and races examined each person as they walked past. Marianne couldn’t see Lorete, but felt she could probably see her.

At the end of the fenced off section she noted a bored uniformed black woman holding a hand written sign at waist level with her name on it. Marianne waved and smiled in recognition. The woman remained stony faced.

“Was Lorete unable to come?”

“I know nothing about a Lorete ma’am, I’m here to deliver you to your hotel and give you this” the driver handed her an envelope. “Sign for it.”

Marianne duly signed.

They pushed through the crowds to the exit and towards a large silver car. The driver placed Marianne’s meagre luggage in the huge trunk where it looked smaller than the tool kit. Marianne sunk into the comfortable seat and realised how tired she felt. Looking at her watch it was late in Britain and still only six o’clock here. The car silently and effortlessly joined the flow of traffic. Inane music came on. She looked around, she’d never been to Washington, the airport was miles out, and along the freeway all they passed were great offices of the multi nationals.

She opened the letter:

I’m sorry not to be there to greet you. I had to go to Atlanta on unexpected business, a donor has died and left us a large legacy, I have to be there, to sort things out and thank the family in person. I’ll be back the day after tomorrow, so enjoy your hotel. We’ve booked you a suite at The Monaco. Take a chance to look round DC.
Call my office and talk to my assistant, Shannon, who will deal with anything you require – supply a car and driver, tickets for a show, whatever you want. Try “Butterfield 9” near the hotel for lunch, and as I know you like Italian“The Galileo” in Foggy Bottom is great for dinner, all on expenses of course. Just ask Shannon and don’t be shy to, I know you English!
Sorry I couldn’t let you know sooner, but it all happened so quickly.
Warmest love, Lorete.

“Oh well” she thought to herself.

The hotel was vast and her suite about the size of a bungalow. Everything you’d ever need was there. After unpacking Marianne poured a large gin and felt a bit dizzy. She rang and ordered some food and ate it whilst switching channels on a huge TV.

She fell into a deep sleep and dreamt of her mother and father getting married.

When Marianne woke it was still dark. The TV was still on and she switched it off. Her watch said 7.14 and the clock in the room glowed 2.15. Her body clock was still in Britain. The gin had given her a headache and the airless room felt stifling even though she knew it was quite cold outside. For a few minutes she wished she were back home. In the mini kitchen she found she could make tea, she knew she could ring for service but couldn’t be bothered to wait. She looked through the huge windows and traffic was still flowing, seen but not heard, though not as heavily as earlier. Tail lights shone brightly, a police car sped by, a street cleaning machine washed the pavements soaking a ragged man asleep in a doorway opposite. In the distance she could see the Capitol lit up with harsh blue white lights, and a huge stars and stripes in sharp focus against the orange and blue night.

Marianne switched on the TV again and flicked channels. A Mexican station was in full flow with two people almost coming to blows over an issue she couldn’t understand because of the rapid Spanish. She switched it off and took a hot bath.

By three o’clock she was asleep and dreaming of her childhood. They were together on a bright English beach, making sand castles, she kept telling herself this wasn’t right, her father was dead by the time this would have happened, she explained this in words that took so long to get out, he only laughed saying it was a mistake, she showed him a newspaper cutting and he told her that the papers all lied, and he played and dug sand and bought everyone bright pink candy floss.

The Lincoln Memorial was a let down. It wasn’t as impressive as the photographs. Marianne had decided to be a tourist for the day, bought a ticket for the little train that goes round all the monuments and museums and had gone to look for America’s heritage. This was the first stop.

The day was clear and autumn sharp, yet underneath was a softness of somewhere much further south than she lived. Marianne crossed the multi lane traffic, drivers were used to tourists and usually missed them by a few inches. She reached the Vietnam Monument. Marianne hadn’t been planning to visit it, but whilst walking around and hearing the American voices remembered Luke, from college days.

In 1967 his parents were rich enough to send him to Britain to study. Like her he took part in all the Vietnam demos. Then a friend told him how all the rich white people were supporting Johnson and the war, and were paying for their sons to go abroad and draft dodge manipulating the system, so most of the soldiers being killed were poor young black and latino kids. Luke knew this wasn’t right, and his easy life was wrong. So he returned and joined up, his parents were shocked. Two days after arriving in Vietnam he was dead, killed in a fight in a bar. Marianne remembered him only as a shadowy figure now, she’d slept with him one drunken night, it felt a long time ago. Here the memories became clear and she felt close to the sentiment behind the Monument, as she actually knew someone named on it, or would he be, as he wasn’t killed in action?

The Vietnam monument snakes down a green embankment, dark and unassuming, impressive for not being heroic. There were a few people, mostly over fifty, searching for names, then when finding them, laying a flower close by, making a rubbing of the chiselled letters, or just standing looking at nothing. Remembering. She felt they were not angry anymore.

Marianne eventually found Luke’s name. Luke Berenson, there it was, about three feet off the ground. She stood for a few minutes reading his name and the names of those above and beside, so many, and wondered what the hell had been achieved. She felt around in her bag and found a pencil, a B, a bit hard she felt. The only paper she had was a tourist guide to the Lincoln Memorial. She was able to made a rubbing of Luke’s name across a quote from the Gettysburg Address, it seemed apt, and she thought she’d use it in a piece of work sometime.

As she walked on her thoughts moved from Luke to Vietnam and she wondered if those killed over there had a monument, she remembered being angry and helpless when seeing the pictures on TV of mothers and children fleeing from burning villages, and the bombing of the North. Were they so effectively remembered? She thought probably not. And as Marianne walked through crunching crumbling leaves an idea came to her, it quickened her step, ideas flew though her mind, and by the time she returned to the hotel her body was walking, but her mind racing ahead. In her room she got all the hotel writing paper out and started to plan.

First the name, why?

Because it was important.

She wrote – Monument to Unknown Women. Right, a bit pretentious, but why not? It would be six foot by four foot sheets of untreated wood or fabric or canvas or paper, portrait ways. Fabric yes. She’d go around the world to Vietnam, Bolivia, South Africa, Iceland, taking photos of women. Women in the street, at work, at home, then screen print them onto the fabric using natural earth colours that she’d mix herself. Brick red mud from the Mekong, deep black soil from the Veldt. The colours would be muted, soaking in to the untreated surfaces becoming not a surface but an integral part of the canvas, the faces would be shadows, haunting.  The borders would be detailed like Medieval scripts, full of symbols intertwined with amusing and garish faces, no, she didn’t like that, simplicity was needed. Yes bold bare simplicity! Yes this was good she thought!

Marianne sat back and realised it could be ten or twenty years work.

“Juliet Farrow Women’s College! JULIET FARROW WOMEN’S COLLEGE!” she shouted out loud. “They’d love it. Lots of little helpers, the time, studio and money to do it. YES!!!!”

She wanted to begin now! The writing paper was used up, she needed drawing paper, pastels and a camera. She remembered that Lorete had said to use her office staff and even better, there were expenses. She rang, explained she needed some things. In just a few minutes a capable sounding woman phoned her and told her which shops to go to and that they could be charged, they’d deal with it. She’d send a car to take her around.

By the time she’d reached each shop, she found all was quietly and efficiently sorted and they knew of her arrival. She bought ten huge beautiful sketch books, some top quality pastels and an outrageously expensive Hasselblad camera, with loads of film, a special portrait lens and a tripod.

Back at the hotel she got staff to cover over carpets and walls so she could rough out ideas. Marianne took her first three photographs of the Dominican women who did the cleaning and who in turn thought she was mad.  The project was under way, there was no turning back now. She worked until dawn, covering the walls with ideas, then fell into a deep dreamless sleep.

Lorete led Marianne into her immaculate office. A great sweeping window overlooked a wide square where trees were shedding bright orange leaves. There were two very different paintings on opposite walls, a Bridget Riley, which surprised her, the other was a very crudely painted family portrait.

“I see you’re looking at the family”

Lorete said as she joined Marianne in front of the painting. It was painted on wood with a hand painted frame, the artist had however crudely captured a family likeness. There were eight people, a man wearing traditional Polish costume leaning against an impossibly angled TV set, five males who looked between 15 and 25, a woman who was dressed in an evening gown and a very young dark skinned girl in a ballet dress.

“That’s me” Lorete pointed at the little girl, “those are my brothers and my Mom. Gary was killed in a mining accident, Petra in an accident in the army, Ronny’s in California delivering Coke, Sonny’s still in West Virginia, still mining, and I’ve lost track of Steve, I think he’s in Kansas. Mom lives with Sonny and his huge family, Dad died about two years after the news came about Petra, couldn’t take it in, he was the oldest.”

“I’m sorry” Marianne was genuinely sorry, she looked in a different way at Lorete’s hard features honed to perfection in countless workouts, seeing instead struggle and sadness.

“The painting’s awful isn’t it?”

“Well… no, no it isn’t, it means something, that’s more important than technique…”

“Grandma did it, she came over and was so proud of what dad had done, we lived in a trailer, Logan County, West Virginia, just about surviving, but it was heaven to her, six great big men to look after her, she took this home to show how well they’d got on, then when she died it came back to us in a broken cardboard box, all the good things she had, the old family things, stolen en route, only this and a book of family photos”

“It means a lot to you”

“It’s my roots, when I look at this it makes me work harder, they deserved better, I help out when I can. I can see on your face you’re dying to ask me… No she isn’t my real mom and he isn’t my real dad, but they took me in when my real mom died, they’d always wanted a girl… Nothing official, just moved in from next door. They called me Frenchy, I think because my mom came from New Orleans, they said she spoke French, and my skin was lighter then, Petra often said ‘you’d never think she was a nigger’” Marianne looked a bit shocked, Lorete saw this, “Remember it’s the South, you get used to it”

They sat down and a young woman, with perfect teeth and as immaculately dressed as Lorete brought in three coffees.

“This is Shannon, she’s my right hand, indispensable. Officially she’s one of our fund raising managers, and part of the team busy raising money for the new wing, where your ‘quilt’ will play a central part”

They acknowledged each other with a ‘hi’.

“Shannon has this idea. You don’t mind if I…” Shannon nodded approval to Lorete, “…tomorrow night we’ve got a small reception for some of our legators, each one will be leaving us a million at least, so they’re important people”

They all nodded.

“Shannon would like it if you could show those transparencies you brought over and explain a bit about your work, nothing formal, just part of the evening. I also thought we’d get some of those sketches you did last night onto film and you could talk about those as well, they’d love that I know”

“I didn’t expect… and I’ve nothing to wear, I thought this was well, only a look at where the quilt is going, I’ve only brought jeans” Marianne thought Lorete was the sort of woman who wouldn’t have dreamt of leaving home without suitable evening dress, just in case.

“Oh they’ll adore you and your work, if you can speak to them with such enthusiasm as when I came to pick you up, they’ll buy it before you’ve even made it. And don’t worry about something to wear, we’ll go out and get something after lunch, you’ve hardly touched your expenses.”

Marianne agreed but inwardly felt her life was starting not to be her own.


A dull red light hovered into Marianne’s view, she realised she hadn’t opened her eyes yet. She was comfortable and felt warm inside. She could tell from her body she’d had sex and she could feel Peter in bed next to her which made her feel good. She was relaxed, in fact she hadn’t felt as good after sex for as long as she could remember, she felt different. It was good to feel wanted, and she curled her body up and felt it was good to feel good, and went back to sleep.

A pounding in her head woke her, she tried to forget it and lull herself back to sleep. A white glaring light slithered through the slits in her eyes and she slowly realised where she was. She could still feel Peter next to her, warm, and asleep.

Her eyes jolted open.

She was in Washington, Peter was in England.

So that wasn’t Peter next to her. Perhaps it wasn’t anyone just the quilt rolled up. She put her hand behind her, creeping slowly across the sheet.

Marianne felt skin, could hear breathing.

“Oh God” she thought. She didn’t dare turn to look. “Oh God” she whispered, her throat was dry, she knew she’d drunk too much last night. Slowly she pushed herself upwards not daring to move in case her ‘partner’ woke.

Marianne was now sitting up in bed naked. She made sure she was covered then looked sideways.

It was a woman. She breathed out and felt less tense. Only some rumpled hair and a dark shoulder was showing, but she could tell who it was and recognised the clothes piled on the floor. “Lorete!” she whispered. She carefully got out of bed, found a dressing gown, tiptoed into the kitchen area and put the kettle on. She made tea and sat down.

“Oh God” she said to herself again, “… perhaps she was too drunk to go home, stayed, shared a bed. But why am I… and she naked? …I can smell her on me. I’m sure I’ve had sex… No, surely not. Oh Garrrrd.”

She massaged her neck which felt stiff. Outside it was raining and Washington was in full flow, brake lights shone in the lines of water. Marianne’s head pounded and she thought the tea was making her drunk again. She reviewed the day before to try and figure out what happened.

Lorete, Shannon and she had gone to lunch, a smart place, what was it called? Then she and Lorete went to one store after another, trying on very stylish clothes and giggling like a pair of teenagers. For some moments in the changing room Lorete was naked and she’d thought how good she looked. Lorete had asked her to smooth a silk dress over her body, and she’d enjoyed the feeling. Lorete had given her shoulders and back a massage between trying on other clothes, it had felt good. Eventually they’d bought a blue suit for her, quite a strong blue not really her colour she thought, by some designer she’d never heard of.

She looked across at the pile of clothes and there it was, mingled with a deep green dress which she remembered Lorete had elegantly worn. They’d gone to a bar and had a drink. Then they were at the Museum. Lots of women of indeterminate age who kept the plastic surgeons busy. Masses of jewellery, and more to drink. Marianne remembered stifling a laugh at Shannon’s joke that they ought to poison the food and get their money sooner. Marianne was nervous before she gave the talk, Lorete had put her hand in hers and kissed her cheek for good luck. When she showed the slides of the quilt the audience clapped, she could tell they loved it. Then she’d talked about the monument, some had wanted to take part there and then, do it, in fact she remembered taking names of women who wanted to be photographed. How pleased Lorete was, hugging her and, as then Marianne thought, mistakenly kissing her lips.

Afterwards they went to a club. Music was loud, cocktails, so easy to drink. They danced, at first in fun, then when the others left together, close, Lorete kissed her, she kissed back, held her tight.

Then blank. No, no Marianne remembered tumbling into bed. She remembered actually having an orgasm, something almost forgotten, something from 20 years ago. With Peter sex was irregular, she felt almost a duty on both parts, but last night with Lorete.

God, she thought, oh my God you stupid bitch!

She looked through the door at the bed. Lorete was asleep the sheet only just over her. Her body was tight, not an ounce of fat, no good to draw, but beautiful and for some reason at that moment she desired her. Marianne looked at her reflection in a mirror, at least a stone overweight she thought, like a bag of potatoes. No Lorete wouldn’t fancy her, what the hell was she thinking! Anyway, she wasn’t a lesbian! She had many lesbian friends, good friends, but she wasn’t one, she didn’t fancy women, not like that, no.

God what will Peter say? She thought. He needn’t know, will he guess? What would I think if he went to bed with Henry. She giggled out loud, trying not to wake Lorete.

Oh God she thought, I’ll never tell Angela, Christ she’d have a field day. Then she whispered “I think you better go home woman, before you get into a real mess, just grow up!”

The rain was beating silently against the window. She didn’t know the time but by the traffic and people going earnestly about their business she guessed it must be mid morning. Her tea was getting cold, and she finished it off with two aspirin.

Lorete was still asleep, turned over, her whole body showing now. She looked peaceful.

Marianne went to the bathroom and stood in the shower. Through the steamed up glass door she saw Lorete, still naked enter the bathroom. The door opened and she entered the shower.

“Good morning” Lorete said.


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