Chapter 20 of my novel Underpainting set in the early 1990’s. For previous chapters go to the link above.
The next morning Peter sat at an outdoor table of a café, drinking black coffee, he had a mild hangover after a long meal with students who’d attended his lecture.
The lecture had been organised by his old friend Eduard. In their conversations Eduard told Peter that he’d known Victor when he was a student at the Conservatoire in the late 1950’s and drew him when Victor worked there as a model. He’d given Peter a name of someone who may have some information. Madame d’Angers had taken a bit of finding through the telephone system and peter was pleased to have what may be a tenuous contact but at least something to go on.
First he phoned Marianne.
“Hi Peter, where are you?”
“Near the Musee Marmouttan, going to visit the Monets for a couple of hours. It’s a bit chilly today. How’s things?”
“Oh God Peter, you really wouldn’t believe it”, she told Peter the story of the previous day.
He was confused about exactly what was going on, Ryan and Angela? He knew there’d be things to sort out when he got back.
He was pleased when the line went dead.
Second Peter rang Clare, but there was no answer and left a short message to tell her he would be in London soon and would get in touch. Peter ordered another coffee, looked in his notebook, and tapped out the numbers.
“Allo, la maison de Monsieur et Madame d’Angers.”
“Madame d’Angers please.”
“Une moment Monsieur. Who shall I tell madame is telephoning?”
Peter could hear the phone being switched.
“Excusez’moi, parlez vous anglais?”
“Ah oui…. Yes I do. Do you wish to speak to my husband?”
“No to you. My name is Peter Marten, I am an artist.”
“Ah oui I know your work.”
“You do! I am surprised Madame d’Angers.”
“My husband and I went to the opening of the exhibition at The Royal Academy, we were in London, my husband is in the Ministry of Culture.”
“Perhaps we met.”
“I think we did.”
This intrigued Peter, he’d already met her and didn’t know.
“Would it be possible to meet, today?” Peter asked.
“Mais oui, but why?”
“I’m interested in Victor Williams, I understand you knew him?”
There was a silence.
“Madame d’Angers, I hope you can help?”
He heard an intake of breath.
“It is a long time ago, I don’t know? You are not writing for a newspaper are you?”
“No, no. This is personal. Please, I’m only in Paris for a couple of days.”
“Can you come soon then, I have appointments this afternoon, and we are going away in the morning.”
“Of course! Right away.”
She gave him her address which wasn’t far away.
The d’Angers house was an elegant grey and white stone, early 19th Century town house, set back from the road with a wheat coloured pebble forecourt. It was situated in a quiet avenue, trees shading an endless line of parked cars. Today the light was pale and shadowless. The door was answered by an Asian maid who showed Peter to a very elegant sitting room. Around the room hung good quality paintings and drawings. He noted what looked like a Bonnard. There was a piano next to a window, the lid covered in framed photographs of children, families, groups of friends.
Madame d’Angers entered the room. She was elegant, fine featured, she looked what she was, a high ranking government official’s wife, used to dealing with people, organising dinner parties and being interested in people however boring they were. She was taller than he expected.
“Monsieur Marten, you gave me quite a surprise, I hadn’t heard anyone speak of Victor for many years”
“I am sorry I didn’t mean to cause any inconvenience”
“Oh no, it was just… well out of the blue. Strangely I have been thinking of him lately, then you rang…”
“I brought these, perhaps you’d like to look?” Peter handed her a deep red folder. Madame d’Angers opened it, she took out the three drawings of Victor, placed them on a table, side by side. She took her gold rimmed glasses from a tiny handbag that Peter hadn’t noticed, and carefully inspected each one.
“He was good looking” she said slowly and deliberately, “I think these were drawn a little later than when we knew each other”
“How can you tell?”
“Look, there” she pointed at a shoulder for Peter to see, “…there is a… how do you say? … a scar. When I knew him he was perfect, his skin was a beautiful olive brown, it shone. That must have happened later.”
“I hadn’t noticed”
He noted this in his notebook, something to look into, perhaps from his time in prison he thought.
“Please, Madame d’Angers, please call me Peter”
“Merci, I am Beatrice, please call me that. Peter, what do you want of me? Is Victor wishing to see me?”
There was a soft knock on the gilt and pale green door, the maid entered with a deep red Chinese lacquer tray, on which were paper thin tea cups and an elegant tea pot, and a plate of delecate dark brown biscuits. At the knock Beatrice put the pictures back into the folio, and stopped talking until the maid left.
She poured two cups without asking, and sat opposite Peter.
“Beatrice, you don’t know?”
From the reaction in her face he could tell she didn’t know Vic was dead.
“Ah, I see. When did Victor die?”
She stood and went to the window overlooking the garden. She stood for a couple of moments in silence, wiped her eyes with a handkerchief, then returned to the table and studied the drawings again.
“I didn’t know.”
“I’m sorry, I thought you must have known.”
“After he left I heard nothing, until you rang. He was so young, how?”
Peter knew he shouldn’t tell her how, it was too gruesome, even at this distance.
“An accident I think.”
“And why are you interested in Victor?”
“I knew him when I was a boy, he inspired me to become an artist. He told me tales, I didn’t believe them, but the more I look into his life, I see they are true”, he realised he better get to the point, “… I understand that you were married to Victor?”
She moved to a vase of roses in a window. She adjusted one to show better.
“Yes for a short while.”
“I understand there was a scandal?”
“Ha”, she laughed, “when isn’t there in French politics Monsieur Marten? It was such a petty scandal, so silly.”
She took a pair of scissors from a writing desk, went back to the roses, cut a dead head, and dropped it in a waste bin hidden behind a heavy curtain.
“Sometimes a journalist or political biographer will ask questions, I never tell them. You are the first person I’ve met who knew him… I don’t see the harm, not now.”
Peter assured her that it would go no further, and as Beatrice began her story, it felt to Peter she had rehearsed it over and over again, but never told it to anyone else. Throughout she never looked directly at Peter. As she talked she moved, almost danced around the room, moving a figurine a couple of inches, adjusting a picture, picking up a letter then putting it down, sorted some papers.
She told Peter that her father was Minister for North Eastern Canals, a pompous bourgeois man, for whom everything had to be correct, terrified of a scandal which could ruin him. She was sixteen and life was getting exciting again after the privations of the post war period. She described the jazz clubs and how she and her friend sneaked out at night to dance and live life.
Peter wanted her to hurry up, but knew like Victor’s mother, there was no-one but he who could be an audience.
Beatrice met Victor at a party, she saw him dancing with a sophisticated, married, woman. He had been paid to attend by the hostess, and later Beatrice had walked into the wrong room where he was giving her his ‘services’. Something she had to live with later on when they were together, as Victor always seemed to need money.
Two or three times she stopped and asked if he understood her English and he in turn complemented her on her accent. There were times he felt he may be going to sleep, the effects of the night before still working on him.
Somehow she told him, they got together at the party and Victor asked to meet her again. She told him she couldn’t pay him, and she remembered how he laughed and said that was only for rich old women.
Peter wanted to ask why her? A young girl? But she already had the answer, she felt Victor was lonely, his French was poor and her English good, he wanted someone to talk to.
She remembered how he talked about his mother, about boxing, about Devon, about an artist called Miller, the one who did the drawings.
Somehow after a few meetings they ended up in a bed, and Beatrice got pregnant the first time she had sex.
There was a long pause, Beatrice walked to the window and looked at the trees swaying in the breeze.
When she told Victor he was happy and they sat in a park planning their future together. He wanted to marry, to meet her parents! But she knew that couldn’t be, her father would probably have shot him, he didn’t trust black people. So they planned to elope, go to England. When they arrived in Brest they got married. But for some reason decided to go back to Paris. Beatrice wasn’t sure why, it just seemed the best thing to do, what could anyone do now it was official?
There was another long pause, Beatrice went to a drawer, took a tiny notebook out, then returned it unopened.
By now the police were involved, her friend had told them and her parents everything. Her father refused to let her back home, and after sleeping on the floor of a friend of Victors they got a flat, one room above a butchers shop, which stank. Beatrice got a job washing dishes at a local café. Victor carried on modelling and giving other services. It was a strain, she was used to having money, it was difficult to be poor. This lasted for about three months then one day he didn’t come home. Beatrice waited three days, as often he would be away for a night, even two. Then she went home, to see if they had heard anything.
When she got there my father looked gloatingly satisfied. He said that Victor had gone to him and asked for money on the promise he’d leave Beatrice. She found out later that he’d had Victor followed and they’d found out what he’d been doing. He was threatened with all sorts of things, Victor needed money, she never saw Victor again.
“And the baby?” Peter asked, this was a new strand to look into.
Beatrice looked into her hands. She was close to tears.
She explained that she was sent to a convent on the coast of Brittany, where rich people sent their unmarried daughters to have babies, as terminations were out of the question in those days. The place was hell. They made her work scrubbing floors and in the fields, and gave long sermons on sin. The idea was that through hard physical work you would lose the child naturally, and for many girls it happened, but Beatrice had got stronger. On the eighteenth of February she had the baby. She stopped and looked at the photographs on the piano.
“I never saw, but I’m sure it was a girl, I’ve always had that feeling. I don’t know what happened to her, I’ve made enquiries since, nothing, the church doesn’t like the past dragged up. I heard many babies went to Australia or America” Beatrice spoke very bitterly, “… I’d love to see those nuns go through what I’ve been through, only for an hour, then they’d see, they’d see Hell, they’d really know suffering. I thought I’d go mad, I became depressed, wanted the child, wanted Victor.
“I was locked away for ages, out of sight, and when I came back home my father handed me an official form annulling the marriage. I never spoke to him or to my mother again. They are both dead.”
“Does Monsieur d’Angers know about this?”
“He knows some of it. We met a year later, I was still only eighteen. I have three sons, seven grandchildren.”
She gestured Peter to go to the piano to look at the photographs.
Beatrice proudly explained who they were and what they all did, the successful family. From behind all the other frames she picked up a delicate silver empty one.
“This is waiting for when I meet my daughter.”
It was time to depart, Beatrice showed Peter to the door.
“Thank you Peter, I am pleased to meet someone who knew Victor, I think in different ways he was an important part of both our lives. Perhaps one day I will find our child, we can live in hope can’t we?”
“Of course Beatrice, I wish you luck, and please let me know how you get on, I really mean that. If I find anything out, I will let you know.”
Peter started down the drive, then turned back and handed Beatrice the folio of drawings. No more was said.