Chapter 24 of my novel Underpainting, set in the 1990’s. Previous chapters can be found on the link above.
Rachel pressed the buzzer as she’d been told to; glass doors opened automatically and she entered a fluorescent bright chrome and carpet world. She walked along a corridor of locked doors, close circuit cameras following her movements, her footsteps silent on thick carpet as she passed empty rooms and water dispensers, sealed up photocopiers and filing cabinets. In the lift she pressed a button for the third floor which she reached without a feeling of movement. She followed another silent corridor towards the core of the vacant human anthill to room 3112.
In the middle was a table with a shabby portable black and white TV showing football. The far wall was a bank of large monitors displaying an empty world. In the corner was a camp bed, surrounded by posters of naked women, legs apart, arses in the air taped to the wall; an old wooden table with a kettle, jam jar of sugar, brown mugs, and bottle of milk. The inane football commentary fought against the hum of air conditioning for attention .
Her father was stationed in front of the monitors. He flicked zoom switches and adjusted lighting. He wore a cheap uniform that didn’t fit well.
“I watched you all the way, see… each part is under surveillance, look I recorded you at the front door…”
She saw a person she knew and yet from the high angle didn’t look like herself. She realised how much thinner she’d got lately shuddering at the thought of being spied on.
Her father had asked her to come to Tottenham Court Towers, a vast empty office block near Oxford Street, where he worked as a night security man. The doorways and covered areas streetside were taken up by rough sleepers, shelters built of cardboard and rubbish bags. Her father flicked some switches and zoomed into a man drinking from a can.
“If I had my way I’d let ‘em in…” he gestured to the building , “…bloody criminal keeping this place empty.”
“Were you ever on the streets?”
“The odd night… it’s shit… and so many ex squadies, it was like being back in the regiment… hard to fit in, no discipline not in civvies, jumped up jerks telling you what for, no respect.”
The monitors changed again to the empty corridors
“I saw your mother last week.”
Rachel hadn’t thought of her mother for years, she’d left them at Caterick Camp when Rachel was seven. There was no love loss. Even when she was there she had ignored Rachel, the odd slap, but mainly ignored. Rachel felt pleased when she left. Her memory was of a woman who was never dressed lying on the couch watching TV or in bed smoking. She also remembered her locking the bedroom door when other men visited when her Dad was away; and being hungry, always hungry except when her Dad was there.
“Had to go and sign some papers, you know we’d never got divorced. She’s on her own again, her bloke went off with some seventeen year old.”
Rachel was pleased and felt bad to be so.
“Did she ask about me?”
“Why the rush now to get divorced if she’s on her own?”
“It’s not for her, it’s me, I’ve met someone. Her name is Paulette and we are going to get married”
Rachel wasn’t sure what to say. Wasn’t sure if she was pleased, why should she be and why shouldn’t?
“Come and meet her, Sunday. I’m off Sunday.”
“Yes. I don’t see why not, it’ll have to be after lunch, I’m working Sunday lunch, the pub gets busy.”
Her father flicked some switches and all the pictures changed but there was still no life in the anthill.
“I saw some of your drawings.”
“At the gallery?”
“Yes, snotty place that. They’re a bit strange?”
“They’re about feeling and being a woman confronted with a world of invasive males, the distortions are about the way others see your sexuality…”
She looked at the pictures on the wall. Was her work pornography like these but in fancy frames?
“Bit heavy that. At least you may make some cash from it. Some queer asked me to leave.” Rachel knew that would be Henry he didn’t like people coming to the gallery unless they were well dressed or rich.
“You should have introduced yourself.”
“No, I didn’t want to let you down. What’s wrong with painting scenes, you know, landscapes, like you used to.”
Rachel never remembered actually doing ‘scenes’ she’d drawn people, always people. She realised she had grown far apart from this man.
“I must go.”
“Right. See you Sunday”
Peter and Marianne sat in bed. Graeme was now safely tucked up in the spare room. They had gone for a drink at The Jolly Bargeman, the beer had been cold from the cellars next to the water and a huge fire created a relaxed atmosphere. They’d talked about old friends and places. Marianne had told them how she’d made a rubbing of Luke Berenson’s name in Washington. Graeme had shared a squat with Luke and told again stories of demos, burning the squat down, and drinking sessions. Graeme told how years later he’d visited Luke’s parents, how they lived in a huge house in Kansas with a veranda, how Luke’s mother had become an alcoholic and his father had stopped talking to anyone.
“It was good to see Graeme, I wasn’t all that pleased at first to see him, I wanted us to talk”
“Yes I thought so… have you still got that rubbing?”
“It’s in the studio, you seemed to want to tell me something?”
“What did you want to talk about?” Peter knew of course, “I wanted to talk about the show and some ideas I’ve had”
“Well, I’ve been asked to become Artist in Residence at Juliet Farrow Women’s College, near Wilmington…”
“In the States?”
“Yes, North Carolina. Lorete recommended me. They offer this huge studio, good pay, a house to live in, about ten hours teaching a week and being a representative at conferences. Oh, and there’s a show every other year, paid for. What d’you think?”
“Well, what can I say? You’d be mad not to take it. Is it permanent?”
“Five year contract”
“Do you want to do it?”
“I think so. I wanted to see what you thought?”
“It’s hard to say no really. How long have you known about it?”
“A few weeks, I wanted to find out more before committing myself, you know?”
There was silence for a moment.
Peter looked at a picture in his book on Stanley Spencer ‘Christ entering Jerusalem’, quite apt he thought, the beginning of the end? Or the end of the beginning? He wanted to shout and scream and plead with her not to go, tell her how much he loved her. But if he loved her he should let her go, shouldn’t he? He thought about Clare, about Constantine in the box on the hill, he had begun to fear rain in case the soil washed away, and then put them out of his thoughts.
Marianne picked up Nausea, the words swam across the page. She wanted Peter to shout and scream how much he loved her and didn’t want her to go, but she did want to go, she knew he would be reasonable, he always was. She thought about Lorete, and then put her out of her thoughts.
“I was going to put a proposition to you as well”
“I thought it was time to move, go to London, so I can work on painting full time, before I regret it, or we regret it.”
“I thought you might” she said.
“Ah, you realised too?”
“Yes, ever since your time doing that set college seems secondary to you, I think the students realise it too.”
“That bad eh?”
“What do you think?”
“Yes, good idea, and you know this Juliet Farrow thing isn’t forever.”
“No, I suppose not.”
“We need to sort things out don’t we?”
“Yes. It’ll be nice to hand in my notice” Peter said.
“Won’t it just. It’s not the same since Bill died, so many new faces. Just not the same.”
“Is that it then?”
“I suppose it is” Marianne said.
“You’ve got to go to court next week haven’t you?”
They switched off their reading lights and both lay back thinking. Peter about whether he’d ever paint again, Marianne about her mother, she knew she had to tell her, that would be much worse than Peter.
They both wondered why they hadn’t shouted and screamed pleaded with each other.
Too late now.
Lizzie and Tom lay in bed feeling warm, safe and happy together. They were in Lizzie’s new flat, Tom had called to see if she was OK and what had happened to Philip. Four hours later they knew they’d never part. Lizzie had told Tom about Philip’s disappearance. She felt he may turn up at the flat, or more likely at Rachel’s. She realised they couldn’t do much for him. She was sad for him but happy for herself.
She’d loved Tom since she was fifteen, and now he was here and hers.
The next morning Peter woke early to find Marianne sitting looking out of the window. It was only just getting light. He sat up in bed, he saw she’d put a mug of tea next to him, and sipped it.
“I’ll miss the squirrels”
“I’ll miss the park”
“You never go in it”
“We’ll have to sell the house”
“We’ll have to sort out all these belongings”
“We’ll have to tell the mothers”
“We’ll have to give our notice”
“We’ll have to tell our friends”
“We’ll have to clear the studios”
“We’ll have to keep in touch”
“We’ll have to visit each holiday”
“We’ll have to have a going away party”
“We’ll have to clean the house”
“We’ll have to”
“Yes we’ll have to”