Chapter 18 of my novel Underpainting which moves on to 1992. For previous chapters use the link above or in Categories.
Rachel was tired and lay on her sofa in front of a spitting gas fire, slowly unwinding, listening to cold winter rain beating on her window. She’d been working all day at The Old Horse, preparing meals.
Rachel lived in a flat that Henry had found for her, it was cheap and far from spacious but it was a base, and best of all a base in London. She was surrounded by her drawings. Her life revolved around the need to make some money to eat and to create work. Peter had given her a contact at Clapton Community College and she taught life drawing to students one day a week, then she worked at The Old Horse over the weekend which left four days to draw and paint. Henry was being very helpful and had already sold eight drawings for her, he even took a lower percentage to help out, seeing that she was an investment. The drawings were vaguely erotic contortions of herself, she still couldn’t afford a model, and the idea of using herself began to take hold, she was in control of what and how the figure became an image.
Rachel’s flat was part of a former council block in Shoreditch. On her floor from what she could tell most of the other flats were used by prostitutes, the ones who advertise in phone booths. The girls seemed young even to Rachel, frightened, and many could hardly speak English, sometimes there’d be trouble and two heavies would run along the walkways and sort things out.
The door-bell rang.
She ignored it as it was nearly midnight, and she knew it would probably be a punter for one of the girls, got the wrong flat number. It happened most nights.
The bell rang again and again.
“Who d’you want?” she shouted.
“Rachel, is that you?”
It sounded like Tom’s voice.
“Is that you Tom?” she looked through the spyhole, Tom was soaking wet, and weighed down on one side. Rachel quickly opened the door, Tom came in dragging the dead weight of another person.
“Have you got twelve quid …for the taxi? I’m skint”
Rachel sorted it and when she got back in the room it seemed full of bodies, wet clothes, bags. Tom was cleaning up a young male, who eventually she recognised as Lizzie’s brother Philip.
“Are you OK Tom? What’s Philip doing, I thought…”
“I’m soaking. Philip he’s, well, coming down I think the term is.”
“I was walking to Euston, I was going home, the late train. I saw a bundle on the floor and realised it was Philip, he was covered in puke, someone had nicked everything he had, and there was a policeman coming. Well, I thought I better do something. I used to see Philip at the Watsons.”
“Why bring him here? I’ve got no room, you can see that”
“I rang Lizzie and Ryan’s number and only got the answer phone, I supposed they were out looking for him, I know there’s been some problems, I didn’t know what else to do”
“Is he alright?”
“Well, he could be better, he’s puked about ten times! All over me as well but I think that’s over”
“He smells awful, you’re not much better Tom. Why didn’t you take him to hospital?”
“I didn’t want Angela to get in trouble”
“She’s worried that if they find him, or he gets in trouble again the other kids will be taken into care”
“I didn’t know you knew Angela? But why?”
“He’s only fifteen, still a minor, she’s worried, I’ll tell you about it later. Can we stay here?”
For Rachel there couldn’t be much later in it, she was dead beat. She took a deep breath, “I suppose so, there’s only one bed, I suppose Philip better have it. It’s only for one night though” she insisted.
With some difficulty they moved Philip to the bed, Rachel and Tom undressed him, he was covered in bruises and sores.
“He really should see a doctor Tom”
“Tomorrow, let him be for now”
When they’d settled him down they sat and drank coffee.
“So how come you were down here again, I thought you’d gone home?”
“I came for an interview, teaching course at Goldsmiths”
“Teaching! You must be mad Tom!”
“Oh I want to do it, that job at the city farm after the set, I loved it. I found I could work with kids, they responded to me.”
“But Tom, school kills all that, great on a city farm, but in school, its all league tables, jackets and ties…”
They sat in silence staring at the gas fire.
“You’ve been busy” Tom said looking round at the pictures.
“Yes. I’m also doing some teaching, but at a college. Tom, teaching in school seems like giving up, a giving up of all you held dear…”
“It’s not Rachel, it really isn’t. I know I’ll never be like you, it isn’t there, you’ve got something to say. I can paint, but what for, it’s not important, what I have to say is only, well, more of the same, you have an eye, you can put down what you feel, these are you, my paintings were not me, I can’t put down what’s inside me.”
Rachel knew what he meant and felt he was brave and honest to realise it. She also knew that some of her most recent work was produced because she knew Henry could sell it, was that keeping to an ideal?
“And what’s all this about Angela?”
“Yes. I’m not too sure where to begin. I used to go round sometimes to the Watson’s, with Peter, to do odd jobs, I remember we knocked down an old garage once, and I painted a room and the staircase. Bill never thought he should do decorating… it was a bit of cash. Anyway it was while I was home I had a phone call from Angela, she asked me to come round and help her out, some floorboards were loose upstairs. Well while I was doing the repair, she came out of her bedroom in a dressing gown, took it off and was totally naked. She’s a good looking woman…”
“Old enough to be your mother!”
“…suppose so, but well I ended up in bed with her. She seemed lonely and I was sorry for her, Bill dying and Lizzie going away like she has…”
“And I suppose you fucked her out of the goodness of your heart, typical male!”
“…no it wasn’t like that. She was very nice to me”
“I bet she was, and that’s when she told you about Philip and her fears”
“Well, that was the next time, but around then”
“So you went back for more!”
Rachel remembered with some unease and disgust the time she had sex with the manager of the circus she worked at, he was around sixty five, eighteen stone and she had little choice, her dad was in trouble and they owed him money, she was only fifteen, it paid off the debt. After what she’d had to do she’d no appetite for sex. She knew in her heart that Angela wasn’t really old, why shouldn’t she have a young man good luck to her, she thought.
“That wasn’t all. I heard a rumour that she was pregnant…”
“And that she was saying it was me…”
“Well you did…”
“But it couldn’t be, something to do with sperm count, I can never have children”
Rachel was dumbstruck.
“Oh I am sorry Tom, I didn’t mean…”
“Don’t worry, it doesn’t bother me. Something happened when I was a baby, some sort of effect of the drugs they gave pregnant mothers, you know the sort of thing, at least I’ve got my hands and legs”
“Is she really pregnant?”
“No, only a story to get Lizzie back home. Angela’s like that, that’s why Philip’s probably like this”
They heard a moan from the bedroom and they went and checked Philip, he was sweating, but asleep. A knock on the front door broke the silence.
“Is Astrid there?” a male voice shouted.
“Next one along!” shouted Rachel.
“It really is good of you to put me up at such short notice, odd that booking going wrong”
Ryan sat at Peter and Marianne’s kitchen table, a bottle of dark French beer in his hand.
“This is good”
“Mari will be back home soon. I’m off to Paris early in the morning. A lecture…” Peter said.
“That’s good, you’re getting famous, who’d have thought eh?” Ryan took a long drink of the beer “…Weaker, they brew weaker beer for the Brits”
There was a couple of minutes silence, they had little in common.
“Is Lizzie visiting Angela?” Ryan asked.
“No, she’s still in London”
Another minute of silence.
“That was a good do at Constantine’s?”
“Yes, I’m not too struck on that sort of thing, but Henry insists” Peter said.
“You seemed to be enjoying yourself. You seem to know Frank well?”
“Well? He came from our estate, did bits of work for my dad” Peter could see Ryan was very interested, “… when he was about fifteen, then went…”
“You sold him some work didn’t you?”
“Yes, that’s why we were talking, you know?”
“Yes, I sold him a building. That one you were in to do the set, I’d bought it for a studio complex, well you know… things change…”
They sat for another minute in silence.
“Good looking girl that Rachel you brought with you”
“She said you’d been in touch” Peter replied.
“Ah, well not really, Lizzie and she get on well, Lizzie needs friends… especially with that damn brother of hers… we could do without him”
They heard Marianne coming through the front door.
“Look who’s come to visit” shouted Peter.
Marianne walked into the kitchen, the air seemed to lighten.
“Ryan, how nice to see you. Is Lizzie here?”
“No… no she had things to do in town, I was passing through and I hadn’t been to see you here, so… Peter said you can put me up…” Marianne glanced a dagger at Peter, “I’d have found a hotel, but he insisted”.
“Oh, of course not, it’s good to see you Ryan” Marianne was disappointed, she’d been planning how to tell Peter about Juliet Farrow and most of everything else, this spoilt it.
“Look why don’t I take you both out for a meal, OK?”
“That would be nice… Angela’s coming over tomorrow, will you still be here? I don’t think you’ve met yet?”
“No, we haven’t, Lizzie’s kept her at arm’s length. I may be, I’ve got to see someone at ten, then I was heading back, I’ll see, anyway, where’s the best place to eat?”
The morning came slowly. Rachel had slept fitfully on the two seater settee, Tom in a sleeping bag on the floor. They’d both been woken in the night, first by the heavies sorting out a client who wouldn’t paid, then by Philip needing a drink and some food.
It was only 7 o’clock and they’d been up for an hour. Tom and Rachel sat eating the last of the toast and black tea, as the milk had run out hours before. Tom said he’d go and buy more but he had run out of money, all he had was a train ticket and that was now invalid. Rachel had used most of what she had left on the taxi.
“What shall we do, we can’t go on like this?” Rachel said while scraping the last of the marmalade onto a crust.
“Perhaps we need to ring Lizzie again”
Rachel went to the phone box next to the block of flats. No answer.
Back at the flat they sat in silence, then the doorbell rang.
“Not again”, Rachel shuffled to the door, “Yes” she said angrily.
“Is that you Rachel?” she looked through the spy hole, it was Lizzie, she opened the door.
“How did you know Philip was here?”
“I didn’t” Lizzie walked in, “Oh… Hi Tom”
“Anyway what are you doing here so early?”
“Ryan and I have split up… you said Philip’s here, how did he…?”
“Tom found him at Euston… So, what happened? I suppose it was Philip was it?”
“Oh partly. I don’t know, I think I used Ryan as a bolt hole from Queen B. He was nice, gave me things, he gave me a thousand quid! Look…”
Tom and Rachel looked in her bag, there was a thick wad of tenners.
“Philip got in the way. All that stealing, the drugs, then his so called friends started coming round, they wrecked the house, Ryan called the police, I couldn’t handle it, and well…. Is Philip OK?”
“He’s a mess”
Rachel was overwhelmed by the overcrowded flat, and just wanted everyone out and her life back to normal. The three of them sat trying to work out what to do next. Tom felt they should take Philip to hospital. Lizzie didn’t want that, she said they’d put him in care or prison. Rachel suggested they take him to a doctor and kept telling herself ‘this isn’t my problem, just kick them out’, however she couldn’t, she remembered how people had helped her when she was in need. They went over and over the same ground. Philip was getting worse, he was sweating and cold, thirsty then sick.
Lizzie had her mobile and started ringing people. Ryan was still not answering, nor was Peter. Rachel suggested ringing Henry, Mark answered and told her he was away. She explained what was wrong and that she couldn’t get through to anyone, Mark said he’d do what he could.
Mark came to the flat. Henry had never told Rachel that Mark worked with homeless people, many of them had drug problems, he was used to cleaning people up. Rachel saw a different side to him, to her he was a light hearted joker, someone to gossip with, to bitch about people, to go shopping with, but Mark came into the disorder of the flat and within half an hour all was sorted.
It was decided that the next day Mark would drive Philip home to Angela and there he would organise some proper help for him. Tom would go with them. Lizzie would stay at Rachel’s for a couple of days and see if she could iron things out with Ryan, if not she’d find a flat of her own and get back to playing with the band.
They said their goodbyes and the sun broke through the grey clouds for the first time for days.