Chapter 29 of my novel Underpainting. We move on to 1994. Previous chapters can be found on the link above or in Categories.
Peter was shown into Frank’s office.
“Mr Butter will only be a couple of minutes… Can I get you a drink Mr Marten?”
Peter declined. He sat down. The secretary left.
Peter was surprised how unassuming the office was, he expected a grand oak desk, deep pile carpet, bookcases full of leather bound volumes, perhaps a picture of Napoleon. The room was panelled in but it was workmanlike: fake dark wood panelling, two rather old computer screens, directories and reference books, a rather shabby grey steel filing cabinet. It had as feel of a back street car salesman. The desk was raised so Frank’s wheelchair would fit. Peter wondered if he had two offices, because this was very different than the one Clare had described and he wondered where the paintings were she’d mentioned.
“Peter! How nice to see you, thank you for coming” Frank said as he was pushed into the room by Sandor, who nodded to Peter in recognition, then carefully placed Frank behind the desk, and left the room.
“Did they offer you a drink?” he asked.
“I’ll ring for some tea, is that OK for you?”
Frank pressed a button, then looked through some papers on his desk. His secretary brought in a tray.
“You look awful Frank”, Peter said, Frank smiled.
“Yes… yes I know. I don’t think it is so much the attack, knocked me around a bit, that’s nearly six months ago. No… I feel drained. It’s these damned drugs they keep giving me, I seem to have to take more to take the side effects off than to stay alive. One day I’ll just stop taking the lot and see what happens!”
Peter thought about asking what exactly was wrong, but didn’t.
“Probably not a great idea Frank, but I can imagine it must get tiresome.”
“Tiresome is not the word I’d use Peter.”
They both drank some tea.
“Peter, you said on the phone you were planning to work on a portrait of Vic Williams?”
“I’m working on one now Frank, I have been for about five months.”
“Portraits are not your usual thing.”
“No, no not really, it would be hard to call this a portrait, it’s a sort of amalgam of images which together make a ‘portrait’ of the man, a bit like the landscape I produced for you…”
“…And of course they are linked.”
“Yes… yes Frank they are. I was given some drawings of Vic when he was a model for Raymond Miller…”
“… Oh those… yes, your man Henry showed me them, wondered if I was interested in buying some, not really my type of thing, though I must say they appeared very fine…”
“Ah, did he, yes he was keen to find a buyer, always likes his commission does Henry.”
“I think Henry would sell his own mother for a commission.”
“I think he already has” Peter said.
They both chuckled knowingly.
“I asked you here Peter partly because of the portrait and also to see if you would be on a group of trustees.”
“Yes, I’m setting up a trust for Philip, to make sure he is looked after properly, I will be donating enough to make sure he is, but with my health I don’t want that money grabbing mother of his, Angela isn’t it, to get her hands on the cash or that Ryan either… not a man to trust.”
Peter was again taken aback.
“Well Frank, it is most generous of you, after all he did to you, I mean…”
“I know he didn’t really mean to harm me, it’s those damned drugs, they change people, he’s a decent lad really.”
“I know” said Peter.
“I just don’t know what came over my security guard… Phillip nearly died you know, didn’t need to go that far. You know he’ll never walk again, he’ll be lucky if he has as much movement as I do, and I can tell you Peter, my life is shit, really shit.”
“Yes, I know”
“No you don’t and I hope you never will do. But I can do something for him and I hope you will help. I don’t mean financially, no, just oversee things, be at the odd meeting make sure he gets what he really needs.”
“I’ll try Frank, yes I will.”
“Now, about this painting…”
Frank poured more tea then spoke on the intercom to his secretary.
“Be a good girl Sandra and bring in a bottle of malt and a couple of glasses.”
He wheeled himself away from the desk, went to a filing cabinet and took out a thick well thumbed pale red file. It looked old and had a number of labels stuck to it. Peter couldn’t make out what was written on them, Frank put it on his knee and wheeled back to the desk. Sandra came in with a tray on which were a bottle of single malt, two glasses, a jug of water and a small bucket of ice. She poured two generous measures.
“Water or ice Mr Marten?”
“No, straight please.”
“No calls please Sandra” Frank said.
She left the room.
Frank lifted his glass to Peter, Peter returned the gesture and they both took a sip.
“Twenty year old, Rattray Longmorn.”
“Doesn’t mean a thing to me Frank, but it tastes good, very smooth.”
“Ah, it’s one of the perks of being rich Peter, I shouldn’t drink really, but this stuff keeps me wanting to live.”
Peter was surprised again at Frank being a connoisseur, he wondered who’d taught him, and if it was his father who also liked good whisky, but certainly couldn’t afford this which he guessed was very expensive.
“I read how you are selling your businesses Frank.”
“Some, I want to pull back, just keep things that interest me.”
“I don’t blame you, you’ve worked hard for a long time.”
“Yes and your dad was a big influence on me, taught me a lot… I learnt a lot from George about investing, what to look for. He used to show me all those column of figures in the paper, tell me which shares were going up and or down, how to look for trends, how to read the units, stocks and bonds. Sort of stuff they never teach you at school, stuff some of my overpaid staff need to know. Mind you I wasn’t much for school and I don’t think they were much for me. If only your dad had had a better education, could have been someone. Instead he skimmed off the top, don’t blame him, they really took advantage of him, they knew how much he loved the Club. I think he never quite got over being in the war, missed it… D’you remember when I first met him?”
“No, not really, it felt you were always there” Peter said, sitting sat back in his chair as the whiskey soothed his spirits.
Frank continued “I was twelve, you must have only been five or six. I’d been riding my bike around the Highlands, doing odd jobs for a few pennies, fetching shopping, delivering letters, walking dogs. One day I went to the Club with a message for… now who was it, Eb Driver, that was it, something about a job on at a building site, anyway, George asked me if I could deliver the minutes for the next meeting of the committee. It was no problem and George paid me well, two and six!” Frank laughed to himself, “half a crown eh, hmm. After that I did jobs almost everyday until I was as much a fixture at the Club as your dad. D’you remember when I came to your house? Pearl always fed me well, whatever you were having, my mum never cooked, she was lovely to me, Pearl. And if it wasn’t mealtime she’d do me beans on toast, with cheese melted on top, I can still taste it, thick cut white bread…”
“D’you remember chasing those lads off?” Peter asked.
“Saved your bacon that day and a few other days I can tell you. Anyway, I think you wanted to know about Vic, if you’re doing a portrait, you need to know, don’t you think?”
“Well, it was one of those days when nothing was happening, it was hot, I remember how still and hot it was. The Club had the regulars in, silent, looking into their beer glasses. They started talking about that ‘darkie’ Vic, one of them told the rest how he’d read in The News of the World that Vic had been in prison for buggering little boys. They called him a queer, a nancy boy, a bum boy. They all agreed that it wasn’t right, that they didn’t need his sort round there. Beer flowed and they went to his house and threw a brick through the window, shouted things and left …a couple of days later I was on my bike, picking up the money for the pools, when I saw you coming out of Vic’s house…”
Peter looked up from his glass.
“…You didn’t see me. You looked around making sure no one saw you, but not me, I knew how to be invisible. You then hurried away up Meadows Lane. At that time I didn’t know I was gay, I knew my feelings and from all I heard and knew, thought they were wrong, all those blokes at the Club what they used to joke about, well I couldn’t talk to them could I? I really didn’t know what to do. I was sure you didn’t feel like that, didn’t think anyone did. I’d quite often been to Vic’s myself, he used to do the pools and often paid me to go and pick up fags, he liked Senior Service, expensive in those days, and bottles of Whitbread IPA I remember, strange how you remember little details isn’t it. I’d get the tuppence for the empties… When I got back to the club and for some reason, I don’t know why to this day, I told George I’d seen you. He didn’t say anything, but I could tell he was angry… I could tell that. All night he made nasty jokes about queers and niggers. He told of what they did in them during the war, he gloated on the details, about how they cried for help, about the pain and humiliation he and his mates inflicted. He kept handing out free drinks, then started on about Vic, how they should deal with him, it was their duty as soldiers, show him they were decent people, ‘no room for pervs and niggers in this estate’ he said. By now he’d whipped them up into a frenzy, and at about ten they went off to fight the good fight. I went with them, didn’t dare do otherwise, God knows what they’d have done if they’d known what went through my mind …Unlucky for him, Vic was coming down the lane, George led the charge, Vic was tough, he broke Harry Hollis’s jaw… floored two or three of them, but he couldn’t take them all on. Soon he was down on the ground, in the mud, his face was a mass of red meat, his body limp. The rest wanted to go, but George carried on, and on, and on. Like that security man of mine. The others stood back in the darkness, watching. Then Vic stopped moving, limp he was and you could feel a chill in the air, and you must remember that smell of shit and piss, it was there for weeks. The others slowly slunk away into the night until only George and I were left… I didn’t take part, whatever everyone thought. I watched and learnt. I took George back to the Club, he was covered in blood. We had a washing machine in the back for the bar towels, one of the only ones on the estate! I washed the clothes and George went home in an old army coat. And it was while I was doing that George said I should go, it was obvious I’d be blamed, I couldn’t see it, but I knew your dad knew how things worked. He went to the Club’s safe and got out nearly five hundred quid, a fortune, almost a year’s wages for some people back then. I was fifteen and he gave me my start. After that I never went back, the coppers questioned my mother but she covered for me, I knew she would, she was used to doing that for dad… I came down to London, used the cash well, bought and sold things, in two years I’d made a few thousand! You know the sort of thing, Beatle wigs, flick knives, Italian shirts, anything going that would sell quick…”
“Those payments to Mum? Peter asked “…were they to keep her quiet?”
“No… don’t know anything about any payments. If your Mum had ever asked I’d have helped out. But no nothing to do with me…”
“Oh, I just thought…” Peter said as Frank broke in again.
“I talked to Pearl around that time that journalist was after a story, nothing in it. Someone got the stupid thought some business colleagues and I were going to take over the dole, if only! I’m not that rich, no we were putting together a tender to supply security staff at some of the offices, that was all. But I think I know where any money probably came from. Your dad, as I told you he used to read all the financial pages, while the others were reading about dirty vicars he studied figures, looked at the best options. I told you he was taking a percentage from the club. No-one else knew, didn’t spend it like most of them would have, probably invested it in long term bonds, yes I bet that’s what it was…”
Peter thought how sad Frank looked in the gathering gloom of the office, the desk light etching out the marks of illness, and how back then in Highlands, they were good days for him, at least two people cared about him. Now he had to pay for that care, Sandor was great looking, muscles toned, did everything expected but he was a paid ‘friend-companion’.
Peter believed what Frank said, it fitted, even though no-one could corroborate what he said. Then Frank continued “…I know you’ve been looking into Vic Williams’ life. So have I. There became a sort of need to know, you know exactly what I mean, especially after that painting of yours. You know of course about his wife in France and the one here, bigamy of course, but who cares now. I’ve found his wife here, they had a kid, the one in France lost hers didn’t she?”
“So I understand “Peter said, even though he knew different.
“The one in London, Jean I think her name was, she was a barmaid in Clapton for years, then worked as a ‘maid’ for some tarts. I think on the game herself most of the time, had a rough time, never found a steady relationship one bloke after another, ended up in Hackney General a few times. You met his French wife, I know that. Very different woman, I haven’t met her, felt it best not to… but it was why he ended up in Highlands, that’s what really fascinated me and that prison sentence for something he didn’t do. You know about the case I assume, you know he took money to take the blame.”
“I met Vic’s mother, in Devon” Peter said.
Frank looked surprised, “Ah…well”, then continued “… you know in those days they didn’t separate men who were in for sex crimes. Vic was regularly beaten up, screws didn’t give a toss, ex-army most of them anyway not much of a time for civil rights in those days. He had a tough time, but he was a boxer, he took it out of them in the ring, was prison champion, even fought against other prisons and forces teams. One bloke I talked to said he wanted to sign him up as a pro. Then in one bout he knocked out an opponent who died, I think they let it go on too long, but it put an end to his boxing. They moved him about a fair bit after that, stuff like that gets around, felt he could become awkward, from the old lags I’ve talked to it sounds like he went through chronic depression but in the early 60’s prisoners didn’t get depression. He ended up in Swaleville and with the little cash he had when he was released, Highlands was as far as he got. The council was duty bound to house him and gave him the dampest rottenest house on the estate, and there unluckily for him he met you. You know I didn’t miss much on that estate. Who notices a kid on a bike? Your Dad, he was so determined, so full of hatred. He used to talk about you, how you’d get on, get away, be something. He couldn’t understand why you were interested in art, ‘a pansies game’ he used to call it…” Frank stopped and laughed to himself, ironically, then carried on, “…and now look at you. One painting earns more than he did in his whole life. Did Vic ever do anything to you?”
“No!” Peter said emphatically .
“….I thought not. All those little bastards tormenting him, throwing things at the house, shouting… but he didn’t dare do anything, they’d have locked him up and thrown away the key. Poor bugger, he had a rough life.”
Frank looked tired, exhausted. He took a sip of whiskey and coughed deeply, trying to find his breath.
“Frank, are you OK? Do I need to call anyone?”
“No, no. But I better get my next shots. D’you mind Peter…”
Frank pressed a buzzer under his desk and Sandor entered with what looked like a small black doctors’ bag.
“I’ll go Frank, and thanks.”
“Yes Peter thanks for coming. I’ll phone you…”
Peter looked at him quizzically.
“…about the Trust”
Peter left and went to Dover Passage where Henry had some initial designs ready for the show catalogue.