Chapter 17 of my novel Underpainting. For previous chapters use the link above or the Categories to the right.
Peter slowed the car down as Coombe Bay came into view. From the steep angle of the road, choppy grey green sea reached high into the distance. An empty orange bus lumbered up the hill heading for Bodmin. Peter drove on and reached the small sea front where a few elderly people walked their dogs, leaning into the wind. He stopped at a newsagents and asked for directions. Eventually he pulled up at a tidy row of council bungalows for elderly people which jarred against the pretty Devon cottages of the rest of the small town. Wherever you were in Coombe Bay you could hear the sea. He knocked on a blue door and it was answered by a woman with a stick wearing a dark red cardigan and a flowered apron on which she was wiping her hands, she must have been eighty, hard to tell.
“Mrs. Williams? I wrote to you. I’m Peter Marten… about the pictures?”
“Oh yes, of course… yes, I wasn’t sure if you’d come… such a long way… come in…. I’m not sure if I can be of any help really, no, I’m not… but it’s nice to meet you”.
It surprised Peter that she didn’t speak with a Devon accent, he thought it sounded Welsh, but could as easily have been Liverpool. They went inside. The hallway felt chilly but her living room was warm, stuffy, a gas fire hissing on low. Mrs. Williams made tea that was the colour of mahogany and opened a tin of plain biscuits. They sat at a table next to the window. Rain suddenly pattered the glass and stopped as quickly.
“… as I said Mr. Marten, I didn’t really know Mr. Miller, I did his cleaning when he was up at Whitefields. If you’re interested in pictures he gave me that one there…”, she pointed to a small portrait drawing of Vic, hanging beside the TV, almost hidden behind a cheap china horse. Peter stood up and examined it. It had the same fine lines of the drawings he’d brought with him to show her. Peter took the drawing off the wall, leaving lighter coloured wallpaper where it had hung. “… it’s of my son, Victor. He modelled for Mr. Miller sometimes. Mr. Miller gave me that after he heard he’d died, very young he was…”
Peter felt he should say something and felt ashamed at his pretence of writing a biography of Raymond Miller. He’d found Mrs Williams address easily, she’d never moved for nearly forty years. He didn’t know why but he needed to know more. The visit from ‘Eva’ and what Frank had been saying led him to examine his past, about Vic and his death. Nothing he knew fitted.
“It’s a fine drawing”
“Yes it’s a good likeness”
Peter noticed that there were no photographs of Vic, however there was one of a man who looked like a larger version of Vic. Mrs Williams noticed Peter looking at them.
“That’s not my son, that’s my husband, Ali. You look surprised he was black.”
“…don’t worry, plenty think so. It wasn’t that odd, not where I’m from. He was a Somali sailor, they used to employ them to do all the dirty work. Big man, about six foot five, huge hands, he could hold Victor in one outstretched hand when he was a baby. He could use those hands as well, had to sometimes, especially in the years after the war and all the men came back looking for work. We met in a café where I worked, he walked in, could only speak English swear words, but over a couple of weeks I helped him with proper words and before he went off again we were married, I was fifteen, 1935, pregnant with Victor. Never thought he’d come back, but he did, he was a good man. Then came the war. Ali worked the convoys, Russia, America, North Africa, all over, glad of him and his kind they were then. He used to shovel coal day after day, he’d come back exhausted, sleep for a week then off. Whenever he left I never expected to see him again, so many were sunk, then there he’d be back a couple of months later, worn out, always with a present, oranges or something like that, sort of thing we couldn’t get in the war. He was a good man, gave me all his money, didn’t drink, don’t think he had other women, wouldn’t have mattered anyway, never hit me, better than most in Butetown. We called him Victor after Victor Sylvester who was always on the radio, makes you laugh now to think. Called ourselves Williams, my maiden name, Ali said it would help the boy fit in… I’m sorry Mr. Marten, I do go on…”
“No, no, please carry on, please” Peter could tell that like his mother, she had few people to tell her story to.
“… well after the war people became harder, as work was hard to get, Victor was getting bigger and Ali could only get cleaning jobs on cattle ships, endlessly crossing the Irish Sea. One day he came back with a huge gash in his head, the other sailors had set on him with shovels, made him stay in the cattle pens, his right arm was broken… So I put my foot down, told him I did, that was it, damn the sea. I had a sister who worked in a big house down here, Cunnigham’s lived there now, they needed a driver and someone to do cleaning, cooking and things, so we came. There was a cottage. Victor grew healthy, the locals they called Ali ‘Golly’, you know after the marmalade, those badges. Anywayd life quietened down for a few years. But then Ali died, of exhaustion I think, all those years of shovelling, cold and wet, doctor said it was pneumonia. Victor and I had to leave the cottage and he was growing quickly, always getting into trouble at school, fights and things. Council found me a flat. So I took him to the boxing club at the navy yard over in Dartmouth, won some medals, area champion at fourteen”. She stood up slowly and went to a drawer, she took out some medals and handed them to Peter, who made appreciative noises. “…I got jobs cleaning in hotels and houses, to tide us over, that’s how I got to know Mr. Miller. Victor would sometimes come with me and Mr. Miller would draw him. I knew Mr. Miller liked, well, young men, so I kept an eye on what was going on. As you can see Victor was a handsome lad, Mr. Miller was a professional artist, he could capture a likeness…”
Peter opened the portfolio of drawings of Victor, Mrs. Williams looked at them.
“Oh these are later, when Victor came back, after he got married”
This bold statement shocked Peter. Should he say anything, he’d got himself into an awkward position, he wanted to know more about Vic, not Raymond Miller.
“Yes, Victor got a job with a removals and haulage company, Massey’s, he moved to their depot in London for a while, carried on boxing a bit, also when Mr. Miller was in London he introduced him to other artists, and Victor started to earn quite a good living as an artists model, you see he had good muscles, kept himself fit. He left Massey’s and went to Paris for a year, modelling for artists, then one day I got a letter to say he was back in London, he’d met this girl Jean and was going to marry her! Well I was happy until I met her, hard bitch. Slatern, you know what I mean Mr Marten, all made up, sort that can’t get their knickers off quick enough. Sorry Mr. Marten, I don’t mean to be… I get a bit carried away. It’s good of you to listen”.
She poured another cup of tea.
“Anyway, soon they moved back down here… moved in to Mr. Miller’s house. She was a lazy cow, mess everywhere, I was always having to clean up after her. Both of them worked for Mr. Miller as models, but he, Mr. Miller, used to say that she was no good, couldn’t stand correctly, you know. Then came all that trouble, she soon skedaddled when that blew up, didn’t see her for dust! Never seen her since.”
Peter wasn’t sure what she meant. She spoke as if he should do.
“What trouble was that?”
“Oh that” he said as if he did, “…well how did you see it, you know, from your point of view?”
“Well it was Mr. Miller really but Victor took all the blame. Two boys told the police that they’d seen Mr. Miller doing things with another man and they’d wanted them to join in, he was always inviting boys there”, she shuddered, “You must remember that it was illegal then, nineteen fifty nine. The police looked into it and the long and the short of it was Victor took the blame, was prosecuted and went to prison somewhere up North, they moved him around. Victor said that prison would kill Mr. Miller, I think it nearly killed Victor. Mr. Miller gave me money for Victor and helped me out, he knew I knew he was the guilty one and Mr. Miller told me Victor wasn’t involved, never had been.”
“But why didn’t you say something?”
“Victor didn’t want me to, he said how good Mr. Miller had been to him and that this was repaying him, some repayment.”
“Never seen her since, never wanted to, don’t know if she’s alive or dead.”
“…and Victor?” Peter knew of course, but wanted her side.
“Died two years after coming out of prison. An accident the police said.”
“But…” Peter almost told her what he knew, then thought perhaps better not. Mrs. Williams waited for Peter to finish, Peter quickly made up a question, “…didn’t Victor and Jean get back together?”
“No, as I said disappeared, and good riddance”
They sat in silence. The small room was quite dark now, the gas fire glowing and outside the last of the day was wrapping itself up for a windy chilly night.
“I better go Mrs. Williams”
“I’m sorry I’ve hardly talked about Mr. Miller”
“Perhaps another day, I’ll write to you, you’ve no phone?”
“No one to talk to”, a blunt all too true statement.
As Peter left she looked lonely.
“Thank you Mr. Marten for listening, and thank you for showing me the drawings… you forget.”
The phone was ringing as Peter rushed through his front door
“Hello Peter” it was Marianne, “Where’ve you been? I tried a couple of times earlier”, Peter could see the answer phone light flashing. “Tried your mobile…”
“Batteries dead… I was in Devon… it’s nice to hear you, how’s Washington?”
“Yes, some business, sales, you know, Henry and so on, you sound very clear?”
Peter felt bad about lying.
“Actually I’m at Heathrow”
“I thought you weren’t coming home ‘til Monday?”
“I felt like coming back, too much to do, you know?”
Marianne felt bad about lying.