Chapter 21 of my novel Underpainting set in the early 1990’s. Unexpected visit, trying to comprehend things, unable to work, relationships, it’s all here!
There was a knock on the door, Lizzie looked through the ‘spy hole’. It was a middle aged man, wearing a dark rain jacket. Probably a punter had got the wrong flat she guessed.
“What do you want? This isn’t one of the girl’s flats, it’s private”, Lizzie shouted.
“I’m looking for Rachel Metcalf? I was told she lives here”
Lizzie wasn’t sure what to do, Rachel was not due back for hours.
“Who are you?”
“I’m her father”
This surprised Lizzie. Rachel had never talked about parents, about anyone. She looked again through the spy hole. Even with the fisheye view he looked a bit like her. Carefully, she opened the door keeping the chain on. He was a big man, his clothes looked cheap, close shaved, hair cut short, clean and his shoes shone. He showed her a driving licence.
As Lizzie made a cup of tea Rachel’s father looked around the flat.
“D’you share this with Rachel?”
“No. I’m only here temporarily, I’ve had some problems and well… Rachel was very kind and offered me a place to stay for a couple of days, just until things get sorted out. Are you visiting London?”
“I suppose you could say that.”
He looked at some of the drawings on the table. Lizzie could tell he didn’t know what to say about them.
“My father used to teach Rachel”, Lizzie wasn’t quite sure why she’d said that.
“Ah… right. This is a strange place to live, some odd characters…”
“Oh them, I suppose you get used to them after a while. The most annoying are the callers, they keep knocking, all times of the day, that’s why I didn’t open up…”
“I don’t blame you. You thought I was a punter?”
“No, no, you can’t be too careful nowadays. When is she due back?”
“She works today, teaching. I think she said it would be about seven, something like that. You know what’s it’s like…”
“Teaching? My Rachel a teacher well”, he sounded proud, “… look I’ll come back when she’s in. Have you a piece of paper, I’ll leave a note?”
He wrote slowly and deliberately and then left as abruptly as he’d arrived. Lizzie sat on the settee and emptily watched daytime TV. There was a discussion about marital problems. She hadn’t heard from Ryan, and knew in her heart it must be over, she thought she didn’t want it to be, but naggingly just couldn’t understand why Ryan hadn’t been in touch. She’d left message after message for him at home and at the office. When she visited the studios, they said they hadn’t seen him for a few days, but handed her another envelope, which was packed with cash. When Lizzie went over to the house, the locks were changed and she didn’t have a new key, she guessed because of Philip.
As she lay watching TV her mind drifted to the long journey ‘home’ in Mark’s car with Philip and Tom. She couldn’t understand Philip, why the need for the drugs, what was he running away from? Then Queen B, as soon as she’d got there she felt she’d wanted her out of the way. So she returned to London with Mark the same day, feeling alone, rejected. She’d gone up there wanting to help Philip and sort things out, however Queen B was as she always was, self-centred. Lizzie could feel she was hiding something, it made no sense.
Lizzie rang Ryan’s number again, the answer phone. She needed to know where she stood. Was that too much to ask?
Children’s TV began. A cartoon about cats and mice on some planet. She switched off, enough was enough. This needed sorting out, life was a mess and shouldn’t be. It was obvious Ryan didn’t want her, but why? What had she done? Philip was a problem, but that was surely going to be solved now? She concluded it must be her, too young? All you ever heard was that older men wanted young girls. Boring? Perhaps, and conversation was limited. She knew her sex was naïve, she knew she just lay back while Ryan fucked her, didn’t really know how to join in, be a real partner. They had no mutual friends and people like Marianne and Peter seemed to disapprove of their relationship. But they’d said to each other ‘who cares, we have each other’, perhaps she was learning that wasn’t enough, not over a long time. She wanted to get pregnant and nothing seemed to happen, perhaps she needed to go for tests, see if she was able, it certainly wasn’t a family problem, Queen B had had five for God’s sake, and King Billy well how many more were there. This didn’t help her and she lay on the settee listening to an argument taking place on the stairway between two of the girls, it sounded foreign, she wasn’t sure what language and drifted into sleep.
She dreamt of Tom lying naked beside her. She dreamt of home when everything was happy, a Sunday, everyone was there, but her words wouldn’t come out hard she tried, they didn’t listen and she couldn’t tell them how much she loved them, they only did what they wanted to do and took no notice, a door opened and Ryan was there holding a cat, he shouldn’t be there, she kept trying to tell him not to be there, then she fell, down and down….
“Lizzie…” the light almost blinded her. Rachel picked Lizzie up from the floor. They looked at each other.
“As I came in you were falling on the floor, bad dream?”
“Oh… yes… no… you know?”
Rachel busied herself closing the curtains, it was dark outside.
“What’s the time?”
“I’ve slept for hours…”
“You must have needed it, you look done in”
“No, no I’m OK… you had a visitor”
Rachel stopped what she was doing.
No-one ever visited her.
“Your father, he left this note…” Rachel picked up the piece of paper.
“He said he’d call back, he seemed OK? I didn’t… you’ve never said anything about him?”
“We haven’t… we’ve not been close, you know?”
Lizzie went to the bathroom. Rachel sat down and read the letter.
I hope my appearing after so long is not too much of a shock for you, I know it has been many years and a lot has happened to both of us. I can see you are busy and have new friends. I would like us to meet, I won’t get in your way, but things have started to get better, I’m not very good at explaining. I said to your friend I would come back, but I won’t, not tonight. Please will you ring me at 9 tonight and we can arrange things. If you don’t want to see me again, don’t ring and I will not bother you again.
With much love, Dad.
‘Well’ she thought, ‘what on earth do you do?’
“And then you had to discuss the relevance of Ken Loach’s films to English landscape painting?” Marianne asked as she sat down with Peter at the kitchen table.
“No, no that was the day before, we discussed the emancipation of the artist in society against the needs of the workers, I got a bit lost with it, my French isn’t that good, perhaps I should have prepared a bit more. It all got a bit heated at times … Bill would have loved it, he’d have been in his element. There was this really pompous ‘intellectual’, everyone bowed and scraped to him except for the anarchist students who ripped up one of his books and threw the pieces all over him like confetti!”
“As I said it got heated, I wish some of our students felt so passionately, you know this lot I’ve got, I don’t know… I think they should have gone in for accountancy, they really are… I don’t know…”
“It’s good to have you home”
“It’s good to be back. You must have had a really shitty time, Ryan and Angela… I wonder if he’s told Lizzie?”
“I don’t know… she rang, I forgot to tell you that bit, while they were still shagging… Angela had to go, Mark brought Philip home..”
“Mark?” Peter asked with a surprised expression.
“Yes, they were at Rachel’s and didn’t know what to do, d’you see?”
“I suppose so. How’s Philip?”
“I don’t know, Angela’s not been back in touch”
“I’m not surprised, poor old Lizzie”
“What about poor old me for having this flaming soap opera going in the house!”
At a few minutes past nine Rachel phoned the number her dad had left using Lizzie’s mobile.
Three rings. Then an answer.
“Hello is that you Dad?”
“Hello Rachel… thank you ringing, I wouldn’t blame you if you hadn’t”
“I got your note”, Rachel sounded matter-of-fact, deadpan.
“Yes, I am sorry I called, I bet it was a shock for you?”
“Can we meet, I can come round…”
“No, no please don’t do that…” Rachel said.
“A café or somewhere?”
“Yes. There’s a small café opposite London Hospital on Whitechapel Road, it’s got a bright orange sign”
“I’ll find it. In the morning?”
“No, the day after, I’ve got to see someone else, about work, you know. I’ll be gone all day…”
“At about 10 to 10.30? Where are you coming from?”
“I’m staying in Wood Green, but I’ll be there, near the tube isn’t it?”
“Yes, I’ll see you”, Rachel switched off the phone, no more to say. Lizzie emerged from the bathroom, her blond hair in dark wet rattails.
“Was he in?”
“Right. When he comes round I can go out if you want to talk?”
“No… He’s not coming tonight. Fancy a drink? There’s a band on at the Nelson”
The sun flooded into Peter’s studio. He sat on a paint splashed chair in the middle of a pool of light, the wall usually covered with drawings was empty, there was no painting on the easel, nothing mapped out. He knew there should be. A train rumbled into the distance, someone nailing a stretcher together in another studio, someone else walked along the corridor outside his door, then silence. He knew he should be working, paintings were expected, money had been invested in his ideas and concepts, but it was nice to sit, sit and think of nothing much. This must have been the first time he wasn’t working on at least one painting, he picked up a sketch book, he studied a page written during the train journey back from Paris:
A series of paintings of places in London – underground places – the tunnel to Greenwich, the bar at Kensington Underground station, the Irish pub in Piccadilly Circus, the market in Dalston – each 6ft square, strong basic shapes with overlays of varnishes and dripped paints like maps.
Huge water-colours, have some paper made ten foot by 8, massive areas of colour washes in the shapes of the cliff faces at the Orme (look in sketch books from 1988, drawings of rock formations).
Walk in painting, (have chat with Veronica about Virtual Reality) use shapes and colours from drawings of steel works (1991 sketch books), a pavilion, get Henry onto Venice.
Peter knew he had the ideas, but he didn’t want to do any of them at present. He needed to find out more about Vic. It made no sense he couldn’t believe what sort of life he’d led, how many more wives would he find! All that stuff about going to prison in someone else’s place, Vic was not that generous, surely, perhaps he was paid, like in Paris.
He took a notebook from his pocket and read through notes he’d made after visiting Beatrice. A child, even more avenues to explore. How old would she be? Thirty five, mixed race. It may not be a girl, that was only a feeling of Beatrice. Maybe a subject for a painting?
Peter also knew he had to go and see his mother, it had been too long and he’d promised to do things. Then there was that ‘reporter’, whatever happened to her, she said she’d contact him again, he’d had no word from her, surely Frank wouldn’t get rid of her, and yet he’d said, well. He shuddered at the thought.
Peter took another look at the list he’d written. He wrote down a plan of action, gave himself deadlines, but no, if it wasn’t there it wasn’t, and he had to see Henry soon to discuss the show. It all came down to Vic, before he could settle he needed to know what happened between Devon and coming to the estate, and why the estate, his estate, it made no sense. Nothing could happen until that was sorted, he knew that. He took a thick black pencil and crossed out the plans. That felt better.
Marianne sat in her sun filled studio looking at a cardboard maquette she’d made of the ‘monument’. Was it such a good idea or a whim? She didn’t like the idea of too much planning, she’d lose the freshness that she felt she had in her work, but this was on a large scale, money would have to be raised. She realised some of the techniques were like Rauchenberg, but the overall concept was very different and some new very different ideas were already creeping in. She’d thought of including texts written by some of the women photographed, varnished to the surface, maybe some sound, like a museum where you press a button and you hear information, women talking about their lives.
She sat back, she knew soon she had to tell Peter about going away, she wasn’t sure how he’d take it, in some ways she didn’t want to split forever, she loved him but perhaps didn’t need him, she was not sure what that meant, she certainly didn’t want another partner. But she missed Lorete and thought about her most of the time. She knew that really she needed some time on her own, she’d only had one year between leaving home and getting together with Peter. Peter could come and visit her in America, she would come back here, perhaps their time together would be better, more intense, it was all getting a bit comfortable. So she had to tell him, when he was back from London after he’d sorted this one-man show out, a good time. Lorete, she wished she was with her now, stupid she kept thinking, it just can’t work with Loret
The market was in full swing as Rachel walked along Whitechapel Road. Was she going to be first, she looked at some fabric, at lemons, at bagels, heard music coming from a reggae record shop and stood outside looking at album covers. The clock on London Hospital read 10.29, and calculated that by the time she’d walked to the café it would be just after 10.30, he’d surely be there by now. Hard to clear the army out of your system. He was. He looked older but then so did she, it was seven years since they’d last met. He raised his hand in recognition. She went to the counter and bought a dark orange coloured tea in a thick white cup and sat opposite him on the dark red seats.
“OK?” she said to him.
“Yes, it’s good to see you, I’m pleased you came”
There was silence.
“I saw some of your drawings”
“Did you like them?”
“I don’t think I understood them”
“They sell quite well, I’ve sold some through a fancy gallery, I’ll be in an exhibition soon”
“You’re doing OK then?”
“I’m getting by… I do some teaching and I work in a pub, but I’m finishing there soon, takes up too much time, they don’t pay much”
“Right… I’m pleased you’re getting on”
Someone dropped a plate. They both jumped.
“I’m sorry I disappeared like that” he said quietly.
“I was frantic not knowing what had happened”
“I thought it best. Greg, you remember Greg at the circus, he got a job on an oil rig, asked me if I wanted to try out, so, well I was on there for three years… good screw”
“You could have written”
“I could. But before you know it a year’s gone by then, well…”
“What are you doing now?”
“When I got out I was in a hostel in Hendon, they got me a job doing security, you know sit in a building all night”
“What do you mean ‘got out’?” Rachel asked.
“I was sent down again, a misunderstanding on the rig, I lost it and someone got hurt… I’m doing all this therapy at the hostel, getting rid of my temper, knowing when I’m going to be violent, understanding myself. You know the army taught me how to kill and it was all controlled, but outside no-one’s there to stop you”
“You look tired”
“I am, I’ve been up all night, it’s not very exciting, but it’s a job”
Silence, both had finished their tea.
“Do you have to go anywhere?”
“Not really, I’ve got to get some food in and I was hoping to do some drawing, it’s hard with Lizzie there, she’ll be gone soon”
“You OK for money?”
“I can’t lend you any, it’s tight”
“No, no please I didn’t mean that. No, I’ve saved a bit, I wondered if you needed any”
“Ah… I’m sorry. No, I’m fine, but thank you”
“Can we meet again?” he asked.
“I’ve got your number, I’ll ring”
“I’ve got a flat, not much, but it’s somewhere, here I’ll write the address for you”
He wrote on a napkin then they stood up and left the café.