Chapter 22 of my novel Underpainting set in the early 1990’s, and it becomes Hitchcockian in tone. A death and burial, people saying the wrong thing, people reviewing their past, even The Third Ear Band appear!
Bartolph’s was almost full by the time Henry, Peter and Constantine sat down to lunch. This was a pleasant change for Peter, not one of Henry’s trendy haunts, but a solid dark wood panelled cave close to Westminster Abbey. Waiters glided around silently and only a murmur of conversation from the other diners could be heard.
Peter ordered roast beef, Henry the duck, Constantine went for the lamb with a tarragon sauce. Constantine ordered wine without consulting the others, he knew a good wine as well as the restaurant knew him.
They received and finished the soup, a thick potato and celery broth, then Constantine went straight to the point.
“Now then Peter, when are we seeing some more paintings?”
“Well, that ballet set put my plans back a bit…”
“Constantine asks because he now has the first option on your next five works, how about that Peter?” Henry was delighted, it was a deal he’d spent many hours working out and Constantine was the sort of person he wanted as a client, someone with lots of money and willing to be guided by the gallery.
“I’m, well…” Peter was taken aback, as his life was being mapped out by others, “… well, what if I never paint again, what if I… lost interest?”
“No, no I know that will never happen!” the other two laughed. It struck Peter that this may well be the case, he hadn’t put brush to canvas for more than six months. “… No Peter, you’ve got that one man show up in Bradford, and you know after that with this sort of deal you could move down here, really get down to work, Constantine is most keen to see you more often aren’t you?”
“Of course”, Constantine said now cutting deeply into the lamb, “I see your work becoming central to my collection. It seems such a waste to be working at that second rate college, it’s now the time for you to move on!”
“Well it isn’t second rate, just not in London… and Marrianne, she’s happy there, ”
“But I thought she was going to Juliet Farrow College, as artist in residence?” Henry stopped dead, he saw from the expression on Peter’s face that he knew nothing about this, “…ah, oh dear, have I put my foot in it?”
“Who told you this?” Peter asked sharply. He didn’t know where the hell Juliet Farrow College was.
“Lorete Krukowska, but I thought you’d know?”
Peter felt hurt.
“Well I didn’t. I’m afraid I’ll have to go” Peter stood up, he couldn’t face food now. Immediately a waiter silently took command, organising Peter’s coat and bag and escorted him to the door.
Marianne was pacing up and down the kitchen with a glass of red wine in hand, and her diary open on the table.
‘Time’s getting on…’ she thought, as she was trying to juggle all the aspects of her life. She stopped, looked at some letters, the diary again, took a drink, then paced up and down. She knew she had to tell Peter about going to North Carolina. She decided that today would be good, he’d be back from seeing Henry and full of his one-man show, he’d realise the importance of continuing with ones’ own work.
She went over things in her mind, sometimes speaking them out loud.
Was this the end of their relationship?
She didn’t think she’d be at the College for ever, and knew Peter had thought for a long time of moving down to London. Perhaps it was she who was stopping him? She’d often said how she loved London in her student days, how she liked to visit, not to live. So her going to the States would free Peter to move down and become the great artist.
Did she want to be with Lorete?
She’d gone over it so often in her head. Of course she did, but like London, not all the time.
She filled her glass, then went to a cupboard and got a larger glass, poured in the wine from the first glass and the rest of the bottle.
She paced up and down, through the hallway, the living room, the kitchen, the dining room, going over her life, Marianne drifted back to when she and Peter first got together, nearly twenty five ago!
“Twenty five years!” she shouted out loud, “…shit that’s a long time!”
She remembered how they met, in a kitchen, searching for drink at a party at a student house. The party was packed with people dancing, drinking, talking about great ideas, trying to pick up girls, trying to get rid of blokes, smoking whatever was going. They were in the same year at college doing Fine Art Dip. AD’s but had different friends and were in different studio areas. The party was a celebration of a strike supporting a fellow student kicked off the course for demonstrating on the roof about Vietnam. There was great excitement amongst the students. Strangely the thing she most remembered were the posters on the wall, Che, Barbarella, Mao, SWAPO, Hendrix, Ho, but couldn’t remember if Ryan and Luke had been there.
She thought not.
They got talking, what was it about? Sartre, oh God, yes Sartre! Neither really knew anything about him but for all of them he just had to be read. Peter enthused about Kerouac, who Marianne hadn’t read. Peter bored her as he waffled on about the relationship of Kerouac’s experience to Jackson Pollack’s work. They’d returned to the candle lit throng and Dylan’s ‘Outlaw Blues’ got stuck on the record player, replaying the line ‘..on some Australian mountain range…’ over and over. It was a magic moment.
Before she knew it Peter’s arm was around her, and they danced, then she remembered how as they stumbled around the mud pile garden, and under a starlit, moonlit sky, they kissed. Peter went back to Marianne’s flat for ‘coffee’ and they spent the rest of the weekend in bed.
For the next six months they went to films, were together a parties, spent nights at each others flats, went on demos. Then at the end of their second year, the third year students at Peter’s house moved out, leaving Peter with nowhere to live. They sat in a pub and decided to live together, well at least share Marianne’s flat, they agreed why waste money on two rents? He moved in the next day, and that was it. No romance just practicality, and yet here they were twenty five years later. She remembered how many of the same books and records they shared, and how the corners of the flat were piled up with their belongings, like their house was now.
Marianne found herself in the living room, surveying the chaotic bookshelves, staring at two copies of Nausea sitting next to two Technicians of the Sacred. Below them in the dog eared record collection she noted two Highway 61’s, two Third Ear Band albums, and there were many others. Of course they’d always meant to sell doubles, but never quite got round to it. She put on the Third Ear Band, and wondered why they’d thought they were so good. She lifted the arm, and replaced the disk with Sweetheart of the Rodeo, that was better.
She opened another bottle of wine, filled her glass, and settled in to the soothing sound of The Byrds. Yes, now was the time to tell Peter about Juliet Farrow, their life together was strong enough to take such a break.
Peter sat in a dismal noisy pub near to Euston Station, going over and over why Marianne hadn’t told him about moving to the USA. He looked at his watch, seven forty five, about half an hour to the train. He drank up and left.
As he was walking in the fine drizzle to the station his phone rang, he looked at the screen, Clare’s number, before he could answer, a panic stricken voice blarted out –
“Peter, I need your help, you’re the only one who…”
“How did you get this number? You know…”
“Peter, I’ve got a real problem, I don’t know what to do, please, please come over, please Peter”
“Clare, I’m just going for a train, if it’s money, I’ll send you some tomorrow, I’ve got to…”
“No, no, it’s not that. Please, I don’t know who else to ask. And come to the back, I’m scared Peter, so scared!”
Before he could reply the phone went dead. He knew he shouldn’t go, he knew Clare could be a drama queen, something he liked about her, this episode could just be that the kettle had blown!
He headed for Wardour Street station.
Twenty minutes later he was knocking on Clare’s back door.
She looked pale, she was half dressed, make-up had run down her face in lines of tears, she looked older than he was used to seeing her. As she let him in, she stepped outside and looked around. She was shaking. Without speaking she took Peter upstairs, the house felt stuffy, but today it also felt chilled, and there was a nasty smell. They stood at the door of the bedroom, the curtains were closed, lights on, the bed had been pushed aside at an angle and beside it was the body of a man, a man he knew. He was naked; there were red marks etched on his back and neck, his clothes were spread across the bed, and the belt that Frank had pointed out at the party was lying like a snake across the white rug.
“Have you called a doctor?”
“I didn’t… I didn’t mean to, he asked…” she sobbed, “…harder he kept saying, harder… until I…”
“How did he? I was only with him a few hours ago”
“What! You know him?” Clare sounded shocked.
“Yes its Constantine… Constantine Levy-French”
“He called himself Harry, I thought he was a politician..”
“How long? How long has this been going on?”
“Have you called the police, an ambulance?”
“I daren’t… Mr Butter… I don’t know what he’d say… he just started to shake, he couldn’t get his breath, he shook and shook, then rolled over, he was talking in words I didn’t know… then… he made choking noises, then everything just stopped. He lay, there, didn’t move, I went downstairs to try and find smelling salts… by the time I got back upstairs he was gone… Peter… I tried Peter… I didn’t do anything he didn’t ask me to do, you must believe me Peter, he just kept asking for more and harder. It wasn’t my fault, he kept asking. I didn’t know what to do…”
They sat on the bed, Constantine at their feet. Peter didn’t touch him.
“What can I do Peter?”
“You should tell the police, you won’t get blamed, this sort of thing I’m sure happens… it’s not your fault, just be honest with them”
“No, no I can’t, it would all come out, they’d want names, you’d be involved and Mr Butter, I know he wouldn’t like it. The papers, they’d be all over this”.
“I know, but what the hell do we do? What a bloody mess, what a fuckin’ mess, shit Clare, you should have rung the police ages ago, the longer you leave it the worse it looks, don’t you see that? Don’t you see that eh?”
Clare was in shock. She was shaking, Peter could smell her sweating, and could smell the drugs she took. He knew he was in shock as well, and knew he didn’t want to be involved. He kept asking himself why he’d come and why he was there. He ushered her out of the room.
They sat in the kitchen, Peter made tea.
“Did anyone see him come? I’m sure I saw someone in the alleyway”
“No… He was always very careful, if anyone was around he’d walk on. You probably just saw the tree trunk, it looks like a person standing, at night, it still shakes me up sometimes. He always comes… came to the back, no-one uses that alleyway”. Clare’s house overlooked a cemetery to the rear, “I know Mr Butter saw people coming in at the front, but that was ages ago, I don’t think he watches now, I’m sure he doesn’t.”
Peter went out and through the garden and looked up and down the alleyway, it was empty. He could see what she meant, there was a tree growing out of the back wall three doors up, in the darkness its shape was like a person, the glow of the city highlighting parts of the trunk. He heard a noise and jumped, it sounded like someone walking fast, but there was no-one to be seen.
“I see what you mean. Nothing there. D’you think Frank’s ever seen me coming?” he asked when he returned to the warmth of the kitchen.
Clare shrugged, “Don’t know, he bought a few houses in this street, I don’t know. He can’t stay here can he? Can’t we just dump him…” Clare pleaded.
“With those marks, and all the evidence. Perhaps Frank would be best…”
“No, please, no. He’s got enough of a hold on me”
They sat in silence, slowly an idea came to Peter.
“Right, OK… have you a box, big enough to put him in?”
“I’ve got a big old metal trunk in the loft, it’s a bit rusty, must have been left there ages ago”
“This is so stupid, it really is… we ought to tell the police”
Peter set out a plan to her. They would put Constantine in the trunk, with all his things, he’d hire a van, as he still had to take paints and things home with him from the temporary studio, so it wouldn’t seem odd, then drive to Shropshire with the trunk and bury it amongst the trees on Malcolm’s hill. It seemed simple and it was all he could think of, it was stupid he knew, and if it went wrong they’d both be in trouble. He knew he should just ring the police, so why, he kept thinking, wasn’t he doing it?
The loft was a mess. The trunk looked just about big enough and was very heavy even when empty. Getting it down created a mess, but eventually they dragged it to the bedroom.
They stood beside the body for a few minutes, building up their courage. It was difficult to place Constantine in, and they worked at it grimly and silently. The body fitted, except for his left leg. Whatever they tried it wouldn’t fit in. Clare pulled a baseball bat from under her bed.
“For protection” she said seeing Peter’s surprise. She lifted it high and with a huge crack it slammed into the knee. Peter winced, after many more swings the leg went limp, and dangled from the lip of the trunk. She pushed the leg in with another cracking noise. Peter had never seen her so determined, and made sure everything went in, including the belt and bat, and a small framed photograph that had got pushed under the bed.
With Constantine inside the trunk was much heavier than Peter had thought it would be.
“I just hope Matthew doesn’t come home” Clare said coldly.
“I thought he hadn’t been home for weeks?”
They struggled with the trunk on the stairs, stopping at each step.
“I’m worried about him Peter, he’s got money, I just don’t know where from”
“Perhaps he’s got some work, you know Frank Butter seemed to always have money when I was a boy”
“God, I hope he doesn’t turn out like him! Watch out for the wall, I’ve only just finished painting it”
When the trunk was safely stowed next to the front door, they had to spend a couple of hours cleaning the carpet and stairs. The box had left a deep brown red stain from the rust. It was hard to remove. Where Constantine had been lying there were stains, which were easier to remove, though Peter knew that if the police came they’d find evidence, however hard they rubbed.
It was now far too late for Peter to go home. He rang and left a message for Marianne that he’d stay and sort out a van to bring the equipment home. He didn’t mention America, in fact he’d quite forgotten about it.
He tried to get to sleep on Clare’s settee, as she slept deeply in a chair. He kept thinking why he’d done something so stupid. In the morning he rang round and found a van to hire. With great difficulty they had loaded up the trunk and went to the studio to load some paints. They didn’t do much talking, only what was necessary. By late afternoon they reached Malcolm’s hill. Peter knew he wouldn’t be there, as he was at Shrewsbury hospital for a couple of days for some tests.
He parked behind the caravan. There was no-one to see them, no houses were anywhere to be seen, and there were trees between them and the lane. But still he was nervous just in case.
Peter found the trolley which he knew was in the shed, and they manhandled the box from the van, it fell hard to the ground, slipping from their grasp. They held their breath in case the box burst. It didn’t. They worked quickly and got it balanced on the trolley, then started up the pathway towards the densely planted trees. Clare was at the front pulling, Peter pushing. Every ten or so yards they had to stop for breath, the wheels dug hard into the soft ground. There was a fine drizzle making the grass slippery. Peter knew of a good spot for the burial, it was one of the well-established areas which Malcolm would hardly bother about, except to cut some branches down in the autumn, so the ground would have many months to settle. Just a few weeks before Peter and Malcolm had already dug a hole, to bury an old seat so the ground was already disturbed and would be easy to dig again, with little to show afterwards. After about an hour pushing and pulling they reached the spot, it was dark under the trees, but the drizzle had relented.
They both dug, often hitting the metal seat which made clanging noises that seemed to echo all around the hillside. Eventually it was deep enough for the box with a good covering of earth; they manipulated it from the trolley to the edge of the hole, pushed hard and it fell in on its lid.
“Damn” Peter said, “it’ll have to stay like that”. Peter covered it over with earth, Clare was now too exhausted to do any more and sat on the trolley. When it was finished, Clare asked if they should say some words, Peter looked at her amazed.
“Just pray no-one finds him, or we’re in deep shit” he said.
They made their way down the hill in silence, above stars were glinting and luckily the moon had risen lighting the way.
It wasn’t until they got to the bottom they realised how dirty they were. They had showers in Malcolm’s caravan, but their clothes were caked in mud, there wasn’t a washing machine, so they washed them in the shower. As their clothes steamed in front of the electric fire, Clare fell asleep. She looked peaceful, as if a weight was taken from her shoulders. Peter couldn’t sleep, he was tired but his brain was over active. He couldn’t think clearly what to do next, but knew they had to leave soon, before anyone came. He saw there were three calls from Henry on his mobile, which he hadn’t heard on the hill, he guessed they may be about Constantine. What would he say if the police questioned him, after all he and Henry must be some of the last people to see him. Could he handle it? He hoped he’d wake up soon and find this was all just a bad dream.