Underpainting 31 – the last chapter


The final chapter of my novel Underpainting where we reach 1997. For all the previous chapters use the link above or in Categories and look out soon as I will be ‘publishing’ it on ISSUU. If you’ve been reading this from Chapter 1, thank you and I hope you have enjoyed it.



Rain pattered on turning leaves.

Under the umbrella of branches it was still quite dry. Bracken was turning brown, berries were blown to their fullest, and the last remnants of summer were fast disappearing.

Feeling a little tired from his climb Peter stopped and leant against a pine tree. His shirt was damp but not wet. He was pleased it was beginning to rain, the radio had said there should be a wet October, it would help the oak seedling he’d planted about an hour before, which completed French Corner. The hole he’d dug with some effort had shown that the ground was still dry from a dry summer, even though it had rained most days during the past week. Water had become a bit of a problem and some of the trees he’d planted in June and July were wilting.

Mist had hung onto the hills until lunch time and he couldn’t see more than half a mile even now. Under the canopy of trees it was gloomy. Peter knew his way around the hill well and that about a hundred yards further on there was a sheltered seat Malcolm had constructed from logs, where you could sit and watch the mosaic of fields change in the light.

As he set off again Peter looked round and was pleased to have completed French Corner. For nearly five years nothing had happened, no questions, nothing. Some days he was on a knife edge thinking that someone surely would put two and two together.

Peter continued Malcolm’s tradition of planting a tree each day, but increasingly he was having to cut back, clear, maintain; to keep the woods in good growing condition, to allow saplings space to grow and light to get to the ground below. He stopped at a densely overgrown area, took the slasher from his bag and began rhythmically to cut at the overgrown ferns and side shoots from saplings.

Marianne stood on a manicured lawn at the heart of Juliet Farrow Women’s College and listened to the choir rehearsing Jean’s work to be premièred that evening in the newly built concert hall. She felt there is a sadness in the sound of a choir practising in the distance reminding her of finality, of leaving safe places, of becoming detached. The music sounded interesting rather than beautiful, but she had little in her experience of contemporary music to judge it against. Jean’s position in music at the college was similar to hers in art and they’d started at around the same time.

Surrounding the lawn were white colonial style buildings, so clean they looked just decorated, dark brown brickwork sides contrasting with the stucco and wood fascias; the Stars and Stripes fluttered to one end of the lawn, with a North Carolina flag on one side and the College flag on the other. The morning sun was bright and felt warm, even though the leaves were beginning to turn golden browns, yellows and reds.

As she walked, Marianne listed in her mind the students she had to see that day, pleased that she would be able to get on with her own work by mid afternoon. She had already abandoned the Monument, the idea sounded great, but the first parts of it looked laboured and more like some exhibit in a charity shop window than the work she’d envisaged, there seemed little intellectual merit to it. Now she was working on a series of pictures in greys and brick reds based on her memories of childhood streets. She was reasonably happy with them, Lorete, who visited most weekends, loved them, felt they captured the true gloomy and desolate heart of England. The College were not so happy.

Marianne entered the computer suite housed in a building which always reminded her of the house in Psycho. She was still, after nearly three years, amazed at the incredible equipment and facilities available. She longed though for the students she’d left behind, the young women at Juliet Farrow were too earnest, everything had to be deep and meaningful. She often thought Bill would have been in his element. Two days earlier she’d had to sit in on a committee listening to a long rebuttal of the soccer team who’d won the State Women’s College Bowl, beating nationally ranked Duke; in celebration they had all lifted their shirts flashing their breasts for a photographer, who’d printed the picture in student newspapers all up the East Coast. That was not what young women at Juliet Farrow got up to, the principal and committee had vehemently protested! Her defence of the team was frowned upon, but forgiven because of her being English.

Marianne was at the IT department to learn scanning from Veronique who seemed to live in the building, she’d never seen her anywhere else in the college and her lights were on at all hours. As she was waiting she looked at a monitor, a student was working on a document about successful ex students, Lorete’s picture had drawn her notice, but the list was incredible. Seven Senators, the second woman to enter the Senate was an ex-JF (JF was the proper way to call the college), women running major companies, three ambassadors, university lecturers by the dozen, a bishop, three police chiefs, endless doctors, judges, lawyers and research scientists and rather oddly a murderer (success? Marianne thought to herself) who’d once been a sea captain. But no artist. Art was a relaxation, something important to life, but not vital, part of a whole, not the summation, not like money.

Some days she yearned for messy studios and messy untidy students.

The young women here were mainly from good God fearing middle class families, 95% white. However, this was no ‘finishing school’, you had to have very high grades to get in. They were the pampered daughters from small southern towns that make provincial seem interesting or smart suburbs of the vast cities on the east coast.

They were all beautifully dressed in that American casualness that only they can do, what hung loose and shapeless on Marianne fitted like a dream on these young women with their perfect teeth, hair and muscle structure. The most interesting students were those, despised by some, who’d gained scholarships, like Lorete had done, they usually came from poorer areas, some were even single mothers, and many had triumphed over great adversity to gain a place, a foot up the ladder.

Veronique was late, she always was, usually a problem with a database. Marianne looked in her diary, Lorete was due in tomorrow, that was twelve weekends in a row, they’d talked last weekend, which was so hot, about decorating the veranda overlooking the sea, sleeping out there in summer, collecting shells and driftwood to make a mermaid’s grotto. However today, before the sun burnt through, it had started very gloomily, sea mist rolling in was a sign of a major change in the weather, but what Lorete wanted she usually got, Marianne always had to remember that she was an old JF’ian. She also noted that she must phone Peter later, it was her turn.

Marianne left leaving a note to say she’d call back later. As she walked she heard a phone ringing and it was like a recurring bad dream. Her mother refused to talk to her again, or meet her when she was in the UK, she said that she hadn’t got a daughter anymore. Whenever she rang Colin answered.

Peter sat on the rustic seat contemplating a job well done. He listened to the rain pattering, in the distance the sky was clearing, and he could see Clun church, which was always a good sign. There was a patch of sunlight travelling towards him, following the melodious contours of the Shropshire hills. In his bag he carried a watercolour pad and some paints, he laughed when he thought of what Henry would have said, English landscape watercolours were an anathema to him. But Peter enjoyed the fluidity, the immediacy. No-one saw them, he hadn’t even shown them to Marianne when she c visited and Clare didn’t seem interested.

‘A year ago already’, he thought, and Peter realised she hadn’t visited this year. The first time she returned she’d stayed at his home, and they’d been like a brother and sister, chatting, catching up on things, not lovers, but friends. After that visits became shorter each time, but he felt both of them enjoyed talking on the phone.

Peter took out a thick piece of bread, some local cheese made on a neighbouring farm, and a bottle of water. It tasted good. He wondered how Henry was doing. He and Mark had split up, fourteen years together then a quarrel over a silly boy. Henry was now in New York, Peter wondered if Marianne had anything to do with him, he guessed not. A low flying jet pierced the silence. When he’d finished his meal Peter got the paints and pad out, put a grey blue wash on the strong rough paper, his brush stroke followed the contours, showing the beautiful handmade finish through the colour. He put it down to dry.

Marianne sat in her bright airy studio, the large glass roof light framing scurrying white and grey clouds against a bright blue sky, the wind was getting up. She sat in an old arm chair with a cup of herbal tea, contemplating a newly finished grey and brick red painting, thinking over what Sherry Lee and Georgia Gail had talked about. The two students had spent an hour discussing why they’d used an image of a 12 foot high hot dog as the background to a dance piece they were creating, they couldn’t see how so obviously phallic it was, they were quite shocked at Marianne’s interpretation.

They had spent considerable time telling her about the meaning of their lives and the relevance of hot dogs in their youth. Marianne had caught herself yawning and had been pleased when the phone rang and it was Lorete.

Lorete had found the perfect thing for that room overlooking the beach, an old cupboard from a dry goods store, still with some of the original enamelled labels on the drawers. Only eight thousand dollars. Marianne swallowed hard at that, but Lorete could afford it, and it would make her happy. She’d explained she was able to come up early this weekend, she had to see a potential donor in Wilmington on Thursday, and would stay on. Lately she often talked about moving her office to Wilmington.

Marianne was pleased she was coming, but was not sure if being together all the time was what she really wanted, but they had fun together, Lorete had arranged Marianne’s fiftieth birthday party, it had been a wonderful and magical event (Marianne was actually 51 but didn’t want to upset Lorete). Lorete could talk for hours and was genuinely interested in her pictures. It was pleasant to be wanted and to be so close to someone.

But… she did miss Peter for being so diffident to her, for his smell and not being so ‘understanding’, she could shout at Peter and it didn’t seem like the end of the world. With Lorete one cross word and it had to be analysed for hours, on occasions, days.

She had become to look smarter with Lorete. Peter never noticed what she’d worn or what she looked like, it hadn’t mattered. Lorete noticed everything. Marianne had lost a bit of weight, got new smarter fitted clothes, had a new hair cut, and gained more confidence. And Lorete was so Lorete! A woman with burning ambition who needed a foil. Marianne fitted that role, Laurel and Hardy she joked, but only to herself.

She sat musing and then noticed the clock.

“Oh damn!” it was her turn to phone Peter. She was late.

Peter put his painting things away and sat watching as distant yellow light underlay deepening grey clouds. Clun church was etched in late sunlight and house lights stood out against deep grey green fields and woodland. Birds were almost silent and wind rustled drying leaves. He could see at the bottom of the hill that the timed outside light had come on, a beacon to guide him in the gathering gloom of the valley.

Peter felt more content than for years, which was hard to admit to Marianne. His phone ringing pierced the air. He switched on to answer.

“Hi Peter, sorry I’m late.”

“You aren’t, there are no set times, not between us I hope?”

“No… luckily there aren’t. Where are you?”

“Up on the hill, you sound so close it’s almost as if you were standing next to me…”

“It’s a new phone, Lorete got it me. You know I can hear the leaves rustling…” they were silent for a few seconds. “I had some students in they looked at the new paintings…”

“How are they going?” Peter asked.

“Not bad… I think they are a bit ‘English’ for some tastes here, but they are working out. And you, how are the watercolours?”

“Oh, you know, I can’t get used to not being able to cover things over, but I love adding washes, working in layers…”

“Yes, I must see them one day. The piece I’ve finished is all sorts of layers of colours that mix and join together in parts, others are diffused…”

“Sounds like you’re enjoying doing them…” Peter said enthusiastically.

“No, I don’t think enjoying is right, perhaps needing.”

“I know.”

“By the way have you seen Rachel lately?” Marianne enquired.

“She came up only a couple of weeks ago, I think she said something about doing some work with a theatre company…”

“Well there is a two year artists placement here, you know, bit of teaching, studio, exhibition. I felt she could be just the right person, and God we need some life here, have you her number?”

He looked it up on his phone and read it out to her.

“What about Clare? How’s things going with her?”

“Oh she came up last weekend, she’s good, we’re fine. And Lorete, how’s she?”

“Fine, coming down tomorrow.”

Peter had started down the hill.

“Are you walking now?”

“Yes, I thought I better start back, it’s getting dark. How’s things with you anyway?”

“Oh you know. Lorete has all these ideas about the house, she’s a determined woman…”

“But you’re OK?”

“Yes, we’re OK, I’m OK. You seem concerned?” Marianne said very lightly.

“Well you know, being up here makes you think…”

“And you?”

“Oh, I’m OK. The cottage is coming on fine, they fitted out the store room last Tuesday, it’s nearly done now.”

“Bet you are glad to be out of the old caravan” Marianne intervened.

“I don’t know how he lived in it for so long, you know we wanted to build him a cottage when he was alive… I think he thought it too permanent. Yes everything’s OK…”

“How was Angela’s visit?”

“Haven’t I spoken to you since then? Well she brought up a coach load of her ‘clients’….”

“With Ryan?”

“Oh yes, Ryan was there. Well they all go in for this ritual shaving the body first, then in twos and threes search for an appropriate site, somewhere where as Angela puts it ‘the spirits of the earth are touching the spirits of the air’…”

“Did you join in?”

“I certainly didn’t. But you’d have loved it. Most of them were late forties to well into their seventies, all sorts of shapes…”

“And then what?” Marianne giggled.

“Well, she found a site, luckily the sun had broken through, I thought some of them might die of the cold! It was a clearing and they stood arms outstretched, then lay on the ground chantingthen stood again”

“And you said they are going to come regularly?”

“So she says, and they pay a good fee!”

“Well… and we think our lives are empty”

“No, mine’s not….. not now” Peter said quite quietly.

“Nor’s mine, no, nor’s mine” Marianne said gently.

There was silence again for a few seconds.

Peter was in near darkness but he knew the way well, the wind was getting up and dark blue grey evening clouds threatened rain. He stopped and looked over to deep black hills winding away into Wales.

“Have you stopped again?”

“Yes… I was looking into the distance. It’s quite dark now but the sky is still a different colour to the hills, the wind’s getting up…”

“It’s still quite hot here. But heavy rain will come soon.”

“You get it all of a sudden don’t you?”

“Yes… that’s one thing I miss…”


“The seasons. Fall is beautiful, almost too beautiful, all blue sky and deep golds, but short. And spring comes and goes so quickly…”

“Oh to be in England…”

“I suppose it is, anyway, did Angela talk about Philip?” Marianne inquired.

“No, never mentioned him”

“How’s he doing at Franks’?”

“Frank rang last week, still the same, it seems he can understand people and has learnt hand communications, Frank’s set up some computer system so he can type out words, he’s been very good to the lad…”

“Especially after he tried to murder him”

“Well yes… I think he sees something of himself at that age, what could have happened to him had he not…” the words faded away from Peter “you know?”

“I suppose so, but still…”

“The trust fund’s put in all sorts of equipment for him, Frank’s money seems endless… That’s what he rang for, wants me to take an even bigger role, he’s worried about how long he’ll last.”

“He’s been like that for years. Did you agree?” Marianne asked.

“Oh yes, it seemed appropriate, gets me away for short periods, after months on the hill it’s good to go to London.”

“Did you sort out those things in the Will?”

“No, they’re still pending, so the solicitor says, he seems to be hanging about charging even more, Mum really left things a bit of a mess, I thought it was all OK, but all those little bequests and favours, half the folks are dead… it’s funny I never really think of her as gone… still think she’s  sitting there in Rhos waiting for me to visit… to paint a door or move the fridge… how’s your mother?”

“Still won’t speak, Colin does but I won’t speak to that creep. She’ll go on for ever, probably outlive me just to get her own back. So…”

it’s no better?”

“No, I can’t see it being either”

Silence again. They realised there was not much more to say.

They’d said most of this last time and the time before that. They both knew that soon one of them would be too busy to call one week and calls would go fortnightly, then monthly, then…

“Well I’ve got a concert to go to, a World premier

“I will sit in front of the stove and read, I’m a bit stiff, it was hard work today”

“Look after yourself”

“And you”

Peter looked up at dark clouds which were breaking up a bit and continued down the hill towards the welcoming light of the cottage.

Marianne switched off her phone. She walked over to the open studio window, deep black clouds were building to the north, hot afternoon sun had broken through. Some students saw her and they waved in recognition, the choir began rehearsing their shrill song in readiness for the evening’s concert.

Peter sat close to the warmth of the black wood burning stove, he took up his journal, something he’d started keeping in the last two years, a suggestion of his therapist ‘think of it as a sketch book of your thoughts’ he’d told him, and wrote a quote from the end of 8½ that he’d been thinking about all day, he wasn’t sure if it was correct, but he liked it:

“Any artist worthy of his calling should make one vow: to learn how to be silent”


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