The penultimate chapter of my novel Underpainting set in the 1990’s, things start breaking apart…
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Marianne’s phone rang, it was a withheld number and she wasn’t sure whether to answer, however when Lorete rang from her office it often showed ‘withheld’; she knew it was only 5am in Washington, so it probably wasn’t her. She pressed the answer key and waited to hear who it was.
“Marianne?” it was a woman’s voice she couldn’t place, but knew.
“Ah, good, Marianne, it’s Clare… Clare Zetzer.”
“Ah… oh yes, yes I remember Lorete Krukowska was asking about you some time ago. Did she give you my number?”
“No. I got it from Peter’s phone.”
“You mean my partner Peter? But how…?”
“Don’t you remember me? I was a student at Knype? I graduated seven years ago… Of course! Oh I am sorry… I took my mothers’ maiden name a few years ago, you’d remember me as Clare Forester.”
“Ah Clare, yes of course…”, Marianne’s voice reverted to her usual friendly tone, “Clare. Right, Clare, yes of course I remember you. How are you? It’s been such a long time… it was at Clouds wasn’t it? Mansell’s exhibition? We talked and if I remember you asked us to visit your studio. I remember, yes and we couldn’t make it, Peter had some meeting or other. Oh it’s a long time ago. And how is Matthew, he must be grown now?”
“Yes he’s twenty-one, I hardly see him… he still has a room at home…”
“But how did you get this number? Peter didn’t mention meeting you again. There’s been such a lot going on, he doesn’t remember people he meets, probably forgot.”
“Oh, I see Peter quite often.”
“Right, he’s never said” Marianne said quite slowly.
“I just wanted to say, that I know you are going to live in America, and I don’t want you to be worried about Peter” There was a momentary silence. “I wish now I hadn’t rung, sorry Marianne” Clare continued, “I feel so stupid… I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have rung, sorry…”
“No, no Clare, don’t think that”
“I just thought… it’s probably the mother in me coming out.”
“I never thought of you as the motherly type Clare,” Marianne said coldly.
There was a silence became embarrassingly long.
“Well Clare, I’m very busy, I have a lot of things still to sort out”, and switched her phone off.
She sat down in the corner of her nearly empty studio. Marianne wanted to phone Lorete but it was too early. She found some writing paper and began a letter to Peter, she knew she could ring but what could she say, after all for the past two years she’d been seeing Lorete most months and the passion certainly hadn’t subsided, in fact she felt better than she’d ever done before, certainly more confident as both a person and lover. She screwed up the paper before even getting beyond a sentence.
She wondered how long it had been going on and how she hadn’t noticed, after all they lived together, not closely for ages, but isn’t the classic thing that if a man gets a new woman they change? She’d not noticed Peter getting smarter, using aftershave, looking at himself, being evasive. She went over times he didn’t come home or changed things at the last minute, there wasn’t anything obvious, perhaps there wasn’t anything in it, perhaps they were just friends or met for drinks or tea or went to exhibitions. Peter wasn’t very communicative about the people he met, he could talk for hours about some exhibition but when it came to what tie Henry was wearing he never remembered. He wouldn’t be interested in Clare, it wasn’t like him.
Was it her she thought. Was this whole thing because she was so obsessive about her work, her mother? Was it the so called mid-life crisis, after all from what she remembered Clare was good looking, blonde, and only in her mid thirties. Then she thought about Lorete, who was beautiful and about the same age as Clare, so was she going through a mid-life crisis? Had they both traded each other in for younger models? The thought made her laugh as she’d never really thought along these lines, perhaps she needed to look at why Lorete wanted an older woman, a mother figure perhaps, she certainly didn’t fit that stereotype. And Peter, what did Clare want with Peter, he wasn’t particularly rich and she never thought of him as a great lover, but perhaps with Clare it was different, did she want a father figure?
Or had he found out that she and Lorete were lovers, she’d sort of hinted about it, but never openly told him? Marianne knew he was upset because he’d found out about her going to America from Henry, he didn’t show it, but she could tell he was. Did Henry know more and glory in telling Peter all the gossip? She wanted to ring Lorete, but it was still too early.
“Damn it!” she shouted, and her voice echoed around the almost empty studio. She thought if she loves me she should be there for me whatever time it was, and scrolled to Lorete’s number and rang. She had to ring twice, she guessed because Lorete would be asleep. Eventually she answered.
“Mari… do you know what time it is? Are you alright?”
“I thought you got up early?” Marianne’s voice was sharp and she immediately regretted it. “Sorry Lori, I didn’t mean…” she tried to suppress a sob.
“What’s up babe?”
“Oh, it’s nothing, not really.”
“Is it leaving friends, is that it?”
“No, no… I had a phone call, from that Clare Zetzer…”
“I remember that name” Lorete intervened.
“Yes, you asked me about her when we first met, about her work”
“Ah yes, of course, but how…?”
“Oh, she was a student at Knype, she had a different name then… That’s why I couldn’t remember her. Anyway it appears that Peter’s been seeing her …”
“It’s stupid of me isn’t it, but I’m jealous.”
“No, Mari, no it’s not, it’s natural. I remember seeing one of my ex lovers with a man, she’d been really nasty to me, tried to take all sorts of stuff from my apartment, and I was glad to be rid of her. But when I saw them together, so happy, I felt, well jealous, that’s the only word for it, don’t get upset Mari, it will happen, after all you and Peter have been together for what twenty five years, it’s a long time, he probably thinks the same. He does know about us doesn’t he?”
“Well, I’ve never actually spelt it out, I just thought he’d realise, there didn’t…”
“Mari, I think it’s best if you do spell it out, someone is bound to tell him, are you ashamed of me?”
“No oh no Lorete” Marianne was panicking inside, “Oh no, there just never seemed the right time…”
“Marianne, it’s nearly two years.”
“I know Lorete, I know… its hard, don’t you see?”
“Oh I know, look it’s very early here, let’s talk later… Think about it”, Marianne knew that she’d not be thinking about much else, “…perhaps this Clare has done us a favour.”
“I suppose so Lori, but oh I wish you were here. I’ll talk to Peter after the show, he’s got some bad press, so I’ll sort it out when we’re back from Bradford.”
“We’ll be together in two days time, I just want to hold you all night and not think that we only have a few days… we’ll be together as much as we want.”
“Yes I know, I want that so much.”
“Look I must go, I’ve sent you a contract and a letter, a very special letter. You should get them today or tomorrow.”
“OK. I love you.”
“I love you.”
Both were silent holding on for the extra time together, then Lorete’s phone went dead.
Marianne stood up and went around her studio one more time. All that was left was rubbish and she filled three black bags, tied them up and put them outside her door. She switched the lights off, locked the doors and on her way out dropped the keys into Greta’s pigeon hole.
“Peter, I’ve just been overseeing the final hanging. I really wish you’d talked to me… you know I will have to talk to our legal department, it’s not what you promised, is it Peter?”
It was Henry. Peter knew this conversation had to happen and was glad it was on the phone.
“Well I did say Henry there would be something new, a new direction, after all…”
“But Peter… no, no don’t interrupt. You have been paid, and well paid I must add to produce a series of landscapes. I know Constantine for some godforsaken reason isn’t around, but we’ve had great interest from people wanting to buy your landscapes, not a portrait of some unknown man from your past. I left you alone at your studio, because well, I trusted you to come up with the goods. Don’t you see Peter, you’ve put me… and the Gallery in a predicament… a very awkward situation… no no, let me carry on”, Peter for the third time had tried to intervene. “The board have said we may even have to sue you to be reimbursed, just a formality of course, but it doesn’t look good for any of us…”
“Henry, this is the work I want to show, you can’t expect me just to work to order.”
“Peter, we are dealing with a commodity now, you are known for landscapes, that is what the buyers, the gallery, and the public want from you, not some psychological delving into your past, which really is only of interest to you, don’t you see Peter? Things were going so well, well until Constantine disappeared.”
Peter didn’t want to talk about Constantine and quickly ended the phone call. He was at home getting ready to go to Bradford. Henry was fussing about the central piece at his one-man show at the Woolmarket Centre, it was a portrait of Vic, made up of ten layers of fine mesh in front of a vast stretched canvas, covered with images developed from the drawings Raymond Miller had made of Vic, interweaved with symbols and images important in his life, close-ups of landscapes, streets and objects. A new departure. Lights were set up so each layer was brought to life when a sequence of colours matched those of the picture. It was unsellable to a private collector and Peter knew full well it broke their contract. However he also knew that The National Portrait Gallery were interested in it, but at nothing like the price Henry wanted to sell things.
It had taken him nearly eleven months of work, ever since he and Marianne had returned from Spain. The sale of the house had fallen through, however there was a new buyer, contracts were signed, and the house was full of boxes and crates, two rooms were set aside for rubbish and a skip was waiting outside yearning to be filled.
Marianne was out, the house was quiet. Peter’s voice echoed when he was on the phone and he wanted to get all the rubbish sorted out so he and Marianne could leave the house for ever at around the same time. He’d arranged to stay temporarily at Mansell’s house in Notting Hill, while he was away for six months as a sculptor in residence in Brisbane, and a van was coming to pick his things up in two days time.
Peter couldn’t settle and had exhausted himself on the portrait, it was the most personal thing he’d ever done and it felt the culmination of his work and had no idea where to go (artistically) next. He sat on the floor looking at the piles of what they’d both agreed was rubbish. Long discussions, arguments and soul searching had taken place over what was rubbish and what they wanted to keep, eventually it had felt that nearly everything they had was deemed rubbish and yet there were still loads of boxes, even after Mariannes belongings had been shipped off to Wilmington. They’d begun to listen to old records they unearthed, remembering the people associated with them, read through catalogues from long forgotten exhibitions they’d been to, shared opinions on books they’d read more than twenty years before, and pictures they’d forgotten about stored in the loft. Both had realised that even though it seemed easy to part they had a shared history that would always live on.
Peter’s mobile rang again, it was Marianne.
“Peter, I’ll meet you up at Bradford, I’ll never get back in time for us to go together, sorry!”
“That’s OK. I just had Henry ranting on the phone about the picture.”
“Told you so! Did the Mail get in touch with you? It seems that the Portrait Gallery has turned down that bloody awful picture by Harold de Hague of The Queen Mother to buy yours, so be careful who you talk to! I thought Henry would have told you?”
“No, they were round the gallery taking photos, and one of them was asking me about Vic, they’d found his police records from somewhere.”
“Poor you, looks like it could be a bumpy ride. Is there a letter there from Lorete?”
Peter flicked through the pile of unopened mail near the front door, and found a long cream envelope with US stamps on.
“I think so, there’s a letter postmarked Washington. Shall I bring it?”
“No, can you open it, it should be the final draft of the contract”
Peter opened the letter, he could hear Marianne talking to someone from what he could hear she was in a café. Peter scanned through the letter and realised it was not a contract but a very personal and highly graphic letter. He folded it up and put it back in the envelope before he could take in all that was written as he knew he could become upset. This confirmed what he already realised and Marianne had indicated through actions. He saw a larger envelope with the same postmark which he opened, it was a contract.
“Yes Marianne, it’s come, do you want me to read through it and mark anything up for you when I see you?”
“Yes that would be good of you, it’s just a formality, but you can’t be too careful.”
“There was another letter, sorry I opened it, a personal one from Lorete, sorry I thought it was the contract…”
“Ah… OK Peter, well… I’ll see you at the opening…. By the way Clare phoned me.”
The phone went dead before he could say anything else.
He wondered what Clare had said, he knew he’d find out soon enough, and went to the kitchen to see if they’d had the sense to leave any drinks out of the packing. There was a can of Guinness, which was odd because neither of them drank that at home. He opened it and a creamy brown froth rose from the can, he looked for a glass and realised they were all packed, he poured it into a mug which still had coffee stains in the bottom.
By the time Peter reached The Woolmarket the tabloids had inflated the cost of Peters work by adding two or three noughts. The cover of that day’s Daily Mail demanded whether public money should be used to buy pictures of perverts or of the best loved figure of the royal family, the Nation’s Grandmother. At the main door there was a knot of journalists and photographers, and two television crews, Peter walked past them sure they wouldn’t recognise him, when a voice shouted out “Peter what are you going to do with all that money?”, another voice, “Mr Marten, is it true you used to know that paedophile?”, the rest of the questions drowned each other out and Peter dived into the relative calm of the Gallery. A delighted Mitch Greenstreet, the Centre Director met him.
“Well Peter, this is good isn’t it? We’re front page news in the nationals, and on television, did you hear me on the Today Programme? Of course…” his voice lowered and became serious, “…I had to say that the content of your show was out of our control, and we didn’t condone or promote paedophilia. But still… I knew you’d understand?”
“Of course our role is to promote contemporary art, but I feel public pressure will mean we will have to close the gallery where that portrait is hung… after the private viewing of course, except, I’ve advised my Board, for people who apply for a special pass, I mean it may become a target. My Board have specifically asked me to apologise to you, in private, but we do get public funding, and there is a local election coming up, there are a lot of councillors who oppose the grant they give us. I know you’ll understand”, but before Peter could answer he continued, “…after all you did say, or rather your agent said, it would be an exhibition of landscapes, had we known the real content our offer to hang the show may have been very different. But I must say we’ve had more interest in the work of the Wooly than for anything we’ve ever done before. I appreciate that, and it’s not all been negative.”
Peter nodded to him and continued on into the gallery where hung a series of his large landscape sketches. At the end of the room were double doors and in front of them were two chrome posts with yellow and black tape hung between, and a notice on the doors reading ‘Controlled Entrance. Passes Only’. He ripped the notice off, pushed the posts away, and walked into the second Gallery.
The huge portrait loomed in front of him filling the far end from floor to ceiling, dull because the lights were not illuminating it. He went to the rear and switched them on, the picture awoke, a sea of images intertwined, familiar to him because they were an integral part of his life. He stood at the far end of the Gallery for ten minutes, it felt like days. As he studied his work, his mind went through the process of each element of creation – how the paint was applied; fabrics stitched; what source material was used; how colours were mixed; what decisions were made of what to add or leave out. Images swam in front of his eyes. One minute he could see the whole, the next minute a few square inches. Vic’s calm voice echoed around his mind, his dad’s shouted, Frank’s staccatoed. For probably the first time in his creative life he was content with a finished painting.
He left the room, Mitch was waiting for him.
“Peter… the press, they’d like to talk to you, interview you in front of the picture. I said OK for you. Three o’clock? So they can get it out for the six o’clock news? OK?”
“Tell them to fuck off Mitch, I’m sure they’ll understand.”
Peter turned and returned to the portrait, he shut and locked the doors and could hear Mitch shout “Peter!? Please…”
For another five minutes he stood at the doors and watched his picture. Then he walked towards it, took a Stanley knife out of his pocket and began to rip the canvas, at first methodically then as it became further and further damaged his actions were controlled but furious. Faces, arms, legs, walls, trees, houses, disintegrated under the blade. Thick layers of paint cracked and fell to the floor. When the main canvas was in shreds he pulled at the layers in front ripping them until all that was left was a pile of rags on the floor and empty wooden frames.
Peter stood back from the carnage.
He felt calm. He debated whether to burn it, but no, he’d made his statement.
Peter turned through the doors, past his landscapes, down the stairs to his car.
Four hours later Peter was sitting in bed with Clare drinking a bottle of red wine.
Marianne had packed the last of her belongings, and was ready to go to America. She’d got back from Bradford the night before after having to field endless questions from friends and the press. She had been worried about Peter until he’d rung and said he was in London and OK. They’d not talked about the exhibition, or Clare, or Lorete, or why he’d done what he did.
Marianne made sure for the tenth time she had her passport, work documents, and information to retrieve her belongings when she arrived in Wilmington. She knew Lorete had all of them, probably in triplicate, but she required the reassurance.
Marianne heard two beeps from the taxi that had arrived ten minutes before to take her to the airport. Two bags were already in the boot, she took one last look around, over twenty years in a few glances – damp patches where she didn’t know there were any; dark shapes where pictures had hung; rooms that echoed which for years had been stuffed full of… junk? No, she thought, not junk, life.
Marianne’s hand was on the front door handle when the house phone rang, she was about to pick it up as the answer-machine kicked in. She waited in case it was Peter.
“Hello, I hope you can hear, I don’t know… this is Mrs. Rogers… your mother’s next door neighbour… can you still hear? Your mother is in the Infirmary, or whatever they call it nowadays, she’s had a fall… they say you should come over as she’ll need looking after. Could you ring as soon as possible? I hope you can hear this?”
This stopped Marianne in her tracks. She put a finger on the phone, lifted it, then put it back down. She walked across the hallway, went out, slammed the door, pushed the keys through the letter box and got in the taxi.
At four in the afternoon local time her plane was touching down in Atlanta, Georgia.