Chapter 25 of my novel Underpainting set in the early 1990’s. Previous chapters can be found on the link above or in Categories.
Paulette opened the heavy metal door on its chain.
“Hi, I’m Rachel”
Paulette smiled. She was much younger than Rachel expected, hard to tell, but not that much older than herself. Rachel heard a baby crying inside.
“Oh hi”, Paulette closed the door, undoing the chain and opened the door fully, “I’m so pleased you could come”.
Rachel entered the flat.
“Dave’s… sorry… your dad’s gone to get some milk, I thought you might have passed him on the stairs?”
“Oh I got a bit lost, so many flats here”
“Yes took me ages… OK Jessi, I’m coming!” she turned towards a small bedroom, “Sorry about this, I must go and deal with her”
Rachel followed her and saw a baby girl in an obviously second hand cot. Her face and clothes covered in food.
“Jessica what a mess you’ve made” Paulette took a long intake of breath, she looked tired. She turned to Rachel, “…this is the third set of clothes she’s gone through this afternoon”, she was almost crying, “…God how we need a washing machine and Dave… sorry… sorry that isn’t what you came for is it?”
Rachel left them and went into the living room, babies weren’t her thing. The bare essentials were all there. Damp washing hung on clothes horses steaming up the window. The table was set with an assortment of cups and plates, a cheap chocolate cake in the middle. Rachel looked out of the big windows onto the estate a long way below. In the far distance you could see the towers of the City of London.
The front door clunked open.
“Is that fucking child still crying! Can’t you shut it up!” her father’s voice boomed.
There was some hurried whispering. Rachel’s father came in, he was carrying a six pack of lager.
“Sorry about…” he gestured towards the baby’s room, “…never stops crying”.
Paulette came in the room carrying Jessica and placed her in a playpen. She looked even younger than before.
“Please, sit down. Tea?”
Paulette went into the kitchen. Rachel and her father didn’t speak. She noticed an old school photo of herself over the electric fire, there was one of her father in uniform and bad studio one of Paulette and Jessica.
“Here you are” Paulette poured the tea, “cake?”
“Dave’s told me lots about you. You’re an artist?”
“Yes, I’ve only recently left college, but I’m trying, you know, it’s hard to get started”
“I bet it is. I was good at art at school.”
“Paulette’s in show business”, her father said quite proudly.
“That’s a bit grand, I’m a stripper!”
Rachel wasn’t really sure how to answer that, and decided not to.
“We met when I was a bouncer in a pub, in New Cross”
“He saved my life and Jessica’s”
“No, I only…”
“My boyfriend then, the baby father… was a dealer… stole cars… you know, sat around with his mates all day… took all my money… anyway one day I wouldn’t give him some cash and he came after me, went at me when I was on stage with a knife, and your Dad stopped him”
“Show her your scar”
Paulette lifted her t-shirt, there was a three inch scar on her taut stomach.
“It was lucky Jessica wasn’t further on, just missed her by less than an inch the doctors said”
Rachel breathed in hard and drank her tea.
Jessica started crying again and Paulette went to comfort her and took her back to the bedroom.
“Beautiful isn’t she?” Rachel’s dad said.
“Yes, she seems very nice”
“I’ve asked her to marry me, she said no at first. You don’t mind?”
“Me? Why should I?” Rachel said
“Well, she’s not much older than you, I thought you may think I was wrong in some way?”
“No, look dad you go ahead. If you and she are happy then do it, it really is no concern of mine”
“Will you come to the wedding?”
Rachel didn’t really want this. This was getting in the way. She wanted to be alone and doing her work in her own way.
Paulette came in again.
“Rachel will come, see I told you she would! And Rachel, will you do a portrait of us?”
‘Oh god’ Rachel thought, no! No! NO!
“I’ll see, I can’t promise, I’ll see, it’s not my thing really”
“Rachel draws nudes” her father said to Paulette, “you ought to model for her, yes, you ought to model, it’s only stripping by another name eh!”.
Peter’s phone rang, a withheld number. It was Clare. They’d agreed that she wouldn’t phone him, so Peter was a bit taken aback when she spoke. Clare told him that Frank Butter had been to visit asking if Constantine had been there as no-one knew where he was. It appeared he had a large loan with Frank to develop some property. She’d blanked him. He didn’t appear to have any clue about what had happened. Peter assured her that no-one appeared to know anything, he told her that Henry was frantic as Constantine owed the gallery money. The police had been in touch with Henry, but not with him. She seemed calm, almost cold about it all. To his surprise Clare ended by telling him she loved him, and for some reason and even more surprising to him, Peter told her he loved her.
Marianne and her mother sat in a shiny corridor of The Queen Elizabeth II Court. There were huddles of people whispering, well-dressed men and women would move smoothly along the corridor carrying files and disappear through doors, policemen hung around bored, reading through notes, women with children looked lost and fed up.
They’d been there for two hours, the case was late starting. Marianne’s mother was dressed in her Sunday best, her hands kneading the handles of her black handbag. Marianne needed a coffee, her mother had refused one and it felt more than her life was worth to go and get one for herself. They didn’t speak to each other. Marianne felt sick, she’d never given evidence, she wanted to make sure she didn’t defend Colin, although that was what she was supposed to be there for, she wanted to be clear and fair.
There was a noise at the far end, some official looking men were escorting a group of women from a court, they were shouting at the judge.
“You bastards! You bastards! You bastards!” resounded through the clean lines of the building over and over again. More officials came forward and a reporter at the far end of the corridor for a moment looked interested, but before he could be bothered to move they’d been escorted out into the bright sunlight. Calm returned.
An hour later a smart young man in court attire stood in front of them.
“Mrs. Maddox, Miss Maddox?”
“Yes” Marianne’s mother feebly said, nothing came out of Marianne’s dry throat.
“I’ve been assigned to defend Colin…”
“But I talked to a Miss Matthews…”
“She’s on another case now…”
Marianne’s mother turned to Marianne.
“She was so nice, I thought it would look good if a woman…”
“Mrs. Maddox” the man said sharply, “there’s been a change”
“Oh no, it’s not adjourned again is it?”
“No, no. You won’t be needed now. Your son, on our advice, has decided to plead guilty”
Marianne’s mother went white and sat back.
“But he’s not guilty, he told me” she said.
“The evidence is overwhelming, it’ll be much better for him, the court wouldn’t take kindly…”
“But he’s innocent, it’s all rubbish”
“I’m afraid it’s not, not really. The prosecution have very good eyewitness and photographic evidence, there really is no case…” the man said.
“But why didn’t…” her voice faded, suddenly she looked twenty years older. She was silent, no tears. Marianne put her arm round her, she pushed her off.
“No… you never believed him” she said bitingly.
Marianne couldn’t protest, she didn’t and was sorry Colin wasn’t going to have to explain himself.
“This really is the best way Mrs. Maddox. He could easily be out in two years”
“You mean he’ll go to prison?”
“I’m afraid so, the charges are serious”
“But it’s only her word”
“No, there’s more, this problem with the prostitute. Didn’t Miss Matthews tell you? She really should have”
“She said something, but Colin said that they’d got the wrong person. I told her”
“No, it’s certain, but he is going to help the police catch the others involved”
Marianne pushed in here. However much Colin deserved what he got, her mother didn’t need this. She could see she was in shock.
“…Mr. Dobson-Smythe, I think my mother’s had enough”
“No, no. I’m all right” they both stood up, “When will he be in court? I’d like to see him”
“He’ll be in Court number 3, in about… thirty minutes, it will be a quick procedure. Sentencing will take place in about a month after some reports are received”
“I want to be there…”
Marianne silently protested to her mother.
“…no Mary, I’m not leaving. You can go, I know you want to. I’ll be all right”, the stiff upper lip took over.
A cool breeze whipped off the Irish Sea towards Snowdonia. Families on the sands sat with their wind breaks set northwards. Pearl was wearing a light jacket and was wishing she’d worn her winter coat, Peter wished he’d not left his jacket in the car. They walked arm in arm along the quiet sea front at Rhos-on-Sea.
“You know, I’ve almost forgotten what your Dad looked like. Isn’t it funny, nearly forty years together and I’m forgetting.”
“It’s easy Mum, someone leaves you soon forget. I remember Bill’s voice but I’ve forgotten the colour of his hair, silly isn’t it?”
“How’s Angela getting on?”
Peter didn’t actually know the latest goings on, he and Marianne had been so busy sorting things out, Angela had slipped their minds.
“Oh she’s OK, you know Angela…”
“I only met her the once. I didn’t like her, something false about her”
“She’s OK, she’s had problems with Philip, her eldest son, drugs, you know…”
“So many, you read about so many, even here, what do the young get out of it, a whole generation, makes you wonder…”
They reached the shops. Peter remembered them from his childhood, there used to be a posh café, an ice cream parlour, a shop that sold model trains. White glass covered awnings, those luckily were still there, the shops long gone and forgotten. They entered a new ‘posh’ tea shop, the waitress wore the standard black and white uniform to make you pay more, tables were set in pink and white. Pearl objected to him spending so much but Peter insisted, ‘what’s the use of it if you can’t enjoy it’ he argued. They had ‘high tea’.
“It’s a pity Marianne couldn’t come”
“She had to go to court, remember, she told you about her brother?”
“Ah yes. I forgot” they filled the pot with more water, Pearl was going to get good value out of this extravagance, and asked the waitress for another jug. She whispered to Peter “I wonder if they remember, they asked Florence and I to leave once because we were eating our own bread and butter” she giggled.
“You weren’t! Well the stuck up bunch of….”
“Oh don’t say anything. Oh look there’s Mrs. Pritchard and Captain Grainger, you must meet them… we go to Wednesday Friends together”
Peter didn’t want to, but they came over.
“This is my son, the artist” Pearl said proudly. Peter had to explain what he did, Captain Grainger said he didn’t like the modern stuff but supposed Peter knew all about it. Peter could see they looked down a bit at his mother, he didn’t like that, so he threw in a few names and places which suitably impressed them. His mother glowed with delight.
When they’d gone Pearl explained in a voice so no one else would hear, “Mrs. Pritchard drives me to the club, Captain Grainger used to drive but you saw his arm…” Peter hadn’t, “… he was wounded in Italy and it’s got worse lately, he can’t use it any more, his eyesight’s not good either, poor chap. His wife, Gwen, was so nice, first person to welcome me to Rhos, he’s been so lost without her.”
They sat and eat the last of the cream cakes.
“When are you off to London?”
“Oh not till the end of the year. We’ve got to sell the house, I need to find a studio and somewhere to live, you know…”
“It’ll do you good” The bluntness quite shocked Peter, “…life at that college is too easy, you need a challenge, you’re getting like your father!”
“Was… am I?”
“Self centred, happy with your lot. No wonder Marianne’s off to America!”
Peter hadn’t looked at it this way. It disturbed him that his mother could see what he couldn’t.
“She’s not off forever, we are still together” Peter insisted.
“Well if I were her I’d get on, make my own life. She’s got a lot going for her”
“And I haven’t?” Peter wasn’t sure if he said this out loud or to himself. His mother didn’t answer, perhaps it was to himself.
Pearl began a long story about some friends of hers, Peter drifted off. He remembered the days after Vic was killed, not the innuendo and lies, but his father. He remembered hushed rooms when he entered and being asked quite often if he was all right, it was only coming back to him now. He remembered being told to go out and play when the Police came round. He’d hidden under the window to try and listen but didn’t hear anything…
“Peter! Peter were you listening?”
“Oh, I’m sorry Mum. I was thinking about when we came on holiday here”
“It wasn’t we, Peter, it was you and I”, yes he remembered now “your Dad didn’t like holidays. That damned Club! His two weeks were usually spent decorating the Club. You and I came here, do you remember it was so hot one year and do you remember the puppet theatre, it’s still here” Peter had had nightmares about the puppet theatre.
“Ah yes” and shuddered, “…do you remember Frank Butter, who used to help Dad?”
“I think we better go, we’re keeping them waiting” she looked at the waitress hovering over them. They stood up and were soon back in the cold north wind.
“I met him recently, he asked after you”
“He’s not someone I’d want to know”
“He remembers you with affection, how you used to give him meals and so on…”
“That was a long time ago, best forgotten”
Marianne watched a barge slip by, a little girl in blue waved at her from the stern, she waved back. A gust of wind sent a willow scurrying through the water like a paint brush. She felt good to be out of the court building. Her mother was right, she hadn’t wanted to stay there.
Marianne was annoyed that Colin appeared to be getting away with this, not having to stand up and face people, be humiliated like he humiliated others. Yes he’d go to prison, or would he after all the judge was probably a man what did he know? His bullying and violence to Shirley disgusted and sickened Marianne, he deserved all he got for that. As the facts came out it was all so carefully planned and concealed. If her mother had heard all the facts it could well have killed her.
From what she could work out Colin was part of a group of men who worked together to find younger and younger girls to exploit.
She was sick by a hedge, she felt awful. But it left her clear headed, she decided to go back to the court, she better make sure Mum was OK, it was only fair.
Colin was given six months for the assault and a two years for intercourse with a minor, both were suspended because of his previous good record and help given to the police. His name was placed on the register of sex offenders. He was referred to a centre for support and counselling.
Rachel splashed treacly dark varnish onto thick paper, black chalk pastel drawing convulsing in the goo, almost disappearing. She looked hard and critically at it.
“Yes” she said aloud, no-one heard because she was alone. She took up a thick brush and delicately dripped a lighter and thinner varnish in lines following heavy marks on the paper. The surface bent some more as the dry powdery surfaces absorbed the oils. She looked at herself in the long mirror, she was almost naked and splashes of the varnish had gone on her legs, she noticed that unwittingly she’d wiped her hands on her face and big black marks of pastel looked like war paint. She’d been working for six hours and lost track of time and felt hungry. She put a towelling robe on and went to the bathroom for a wash.
When she’d finished the varnishes were starting to dry and soak into the heavy weight of the paper, some of the charcoal marks had dispersed making the contortions, contractions and convulsions even more marked. She was reasonably pleased with this but knew there was a lot more work to do to make this technique work for her and not for itself. She and Henry had had a long talk about taking her work in a more experimental and painterly direction, these pictures were the first steps forward.
In the kitchen Rachel put the kettle on, got a bowl of salad, cheese, bread and milk out of the fridge. An over decorated thank-you card from Paulette had fallen on the floor, she picked it up and read it again.
Thank you for coming. I know it couldn’t have been easy. My Dad got himself a new woman and I never came to terms with it. I want to make Dave happy and be a good wife to him, he’s been good to me. Please come any time you like to, I’d like us to be friends. Dave was so pleased you came, he hasn’t stopped talking about it. Could we meet sometime?
Paulette was very pleasant and it was good to see her Dad again, but she didn’t want to meet her on her own. She didn’t know what her Dad had told her about? The rape? The circus? Prison? Then her phone rang.
“Hi Rachel!” it was Lizzie.
“So, you’ve got out of bed at last”
“Oh I am sorry, I really did forget about it…” Rachel had made a date with Lizzie to go to an exhibition in Camden, when Rachel arrived Lizzie was still in bed.
“Don’t worry, I told you. Tom and you are great for each other. You have some fun, you deserve it. Is Tom still there?”
“Come up for air!” Rachel broke in impishly.
“No! He’s gone to sort out something about this course he’s going on”
“Two students together then, very cosy”
“Ha, ha… I know what you think really” Lizzie said.
“No. I really am happy for you. Have you heard from Ryan yet? Has he asked for his money back?”
“Far from it, it keeps coming! There’s more…”
“Well, he’s sold everything and gone to live in Cornwall…”
“Yes… in a huge house by the sea and set up a ‘New Person’ therapy centre with Queen Bee” Rachel couldn’t think what on earth to say, “…they’re living together”
“They all shave everything and stand naked against the sea breezes, finding themselves”
“A bit bloody chilly” shuddered Rachel.
“Well that’s what I thought”
“And what do you think? Ryan and your mother?” Rachel asked.
“Well, I was a bit upset at first, I don’t know, it’s not the sort of thing that happens everyday is it?”
Rachel thought about Paulette, she hadn’t said anything to anyone and wasn’t going to.
“I suppose not. Why Cornwall?”
“It was Queen Bee’s idea it appears, that thing she went to in California, same idea, but here. They’ve asked me to go, make ‘one with them’ as they put it…”
“Bit hippyish isn’t it?” Rachel said critically.
“Oh I couldn’t stand it. We’d be expected to join in wouldn’t we?” Lizzie said almost howling with delight.
“Well, I suppose so. Urghhh… Have you heard from Mari lately?”
“Well it appears she’s going to be artist in residence at some women’s college in America and Peter’s coming to London to set up studio” Rachel said.
This time Lizzie was silent for some moments.
“So they’re splitting, she and Peter, have they had a row or something?” Lizzie asked.
“Well I suppose it looks a bit that way. I’m not sure, you know what Henry’s like, the way he told it, it was like some episode of Dallas …”
“Why didn’t she say?”
“Are you OK Lizzie? I’m sorry…”
“Oh, no, I wish she’d told me. Mari has been often… more of a mother, really, you know, than Queen Bee…”
“Ah… I’m sorry I didn’t realise”
They were silent for a few seconds. Lizzie spoke first quite businesslike.
“I also rang to ask if Philip has been to see you?”
“No, he’s not been here. The lads on the stairs notice most things, they’d have told me if he’d come when I wasn’t here, why?”
“He left a note but hasn’t been back, I thought you must have told him where I live. I’m worried about him, if he doesn’t sort himself out soon he’ll be dead. I’ve had enough of change, I can’t take much more”
Rachel heard her crying.
“Oh Lizzie. Look you’ll be OK with Tom, he’s good, he’ll be good for you…”
Rachel heard a knock on the door, she was expecting Fiona, an old friend from college.
“Lizzie I’ve got to go, Fiona’s at the door…”
“OK, can I talk later”
“Course you can, bye”
The phone went dead. When she opened the door Fiona stood there with a huge strawberry gateau.
“Look what I got from work!”