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Authors: Pat Barker

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Life Class (3 page)

BOOK: Life Class
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Two

Three hours later Paul was pushing open the door of the Café Royal. Lying in the bath at his lodgings, he’d almost changed his mind about going, but the moment he walked into the Domino Room his mood lifted. The tall mirrors in which the heads of smokers, drinkers and talkers were endlessly and elaborately reflected, the laughter, the bare shoulders of the women, the pall of blue smoke above the clustered heads, the sense of witty, significant things being said by interesting people – it was a world away from his poky little rooms in St Pancras. A world away from home, too.

People glanced up at him as he passed, their faces illuminated by the small candles that flickered on every table. Everywhere, moist lips, glimpses of red, wet tongues, gleaming white teeth. How sleek and glossy they all were compared to the creatures who lived in the streets around his lodgings, scurrying about in their soot-laden drizzle, the women so tightly wrapped they seemed to be bundles of clothes walking. This was another England and, passing between the two, he was aware of a moment’s dislocation, not unlike vertigo.

At last he saw Elinor, sitting at a table directly underneath one of the mirrors. She had her back to him, but then caught sight of his reflection in the glass and raised her hand. It was a moment out of time, their two reflections gazing at one another. Then noise, laughter, movement rushed back, as he threaded his way between the last few tables to greet her. ‘Elinor.’

‘Paul.’

She raised her face to his and for one mad moment he thought he was expected to kiss her, but then she turned away. ‘Teresa, this is Paul Tarrant. Do you remember I said he might be coming? Paul, Teresa Halliday.’

The girl held out her hand. She was dark, with short, shining
hair, high cheekbones and red, painted, pouting lips. That mouth still had the power to shock, though he’d noticed that many of the women here wore make-up. She was wearing a high-necked brocade jacket that made her look … Russian, Chinese? Anything but English. He was instantly attracted to her and thought she was aware of him, though once the introduction was over she said nothing further, merely leaned back against the plush seat waiting to have Elinor’s full attention again.

‘And this is Kit Neville.’

He’d seen Neville once or twice at the Slade. He was starting to be famous, a circumstance that some people attributed to a talent for painting and others to a talent for self-promotion.

‘Kit was at the Slade.’

Neville looked uncomfortable. ‘I left two years ago.’

‘But you’re always coming back.’

‘Oh, we all come back.’ It was said easily, but he was obviously nettled by the observation.

‘Not everybody.’

Paul was trying to recall the stories he’d heard about Neville at the Slade. Hadn’t he been expelled?

‘What’ll you have?’ Neville asked, raising his hand to summon the waiter.

‘Whisky please.’

‘I think the ones who keep coming back are the ones it didn’t work for,’ said Elinor. ‘It’s like turning a key in a lock. If it turns you forget about it. If it doesn’t you go on rattling away.’

‘Or move on to something else.’ Neville was flushed and miserable-looking. ‘So,’ he said, turning to Paul, ‘Elinor tells me you walked out on Tonks today.’

‘He said he thinks I’m wasting my time. I didn’t see the point of sitting there after that.’

‘He can be wrong, you know.’

‘How long were you at the Slade?’

‘Two years. And I didn’t walk out.’ Neville’s eyes were alight with a blue, dancing truculence. ‘Probably should have done, mind you, but I didn’t, I stuck it out, and in the end he more or less said,
Go.’
He grinned, adding in a mock Oirish accent, ‘Never resign, mister. Get yourself fired.’

‘Why?’

‘Why what?’

‘Why did he throw you out?’

‘He didn’t like my work. I didn’t like it much either so I can’t hold that against him. And …’ With a sidelong glance at the girls he lowered his voice. ‘He disapproved of my relationship with one of the models. She got pregnant and I refused to be fathered.’

Paul was startled and a little repelled by so much intimacy so early in their acquaintance. ‘Oh.’

‘I said, Why the hell should I pay? There’s at least a dozen others who could be the father and if you believe everything you hear Tonks was one of them. But of course he got on his high horse. What was it? For a long time he’d believed that nothing could exceed his contempt for my work, but in the light of recent events he now realized his contempt for my moral character was infinitely greater.’

What an extraordinary story to tell against yourself. It argued either unlimited egotism or a talent for self-destruction, or both perhaps. It was difficult to know what to say. Trying to lighten the tone, Paul said, ‘Are all the models like that?’

‘Like what? Oh, loose, you mean? Yes, a lot of them are, thank God. But …’ Nodding towards Teresa, he raised a finger to his lips.

‘She’s a model?’

She was so unlike the generally rather battered ladies who modelled for the life class he could scarcely believe it. At that moment she glanced across and met his eyes, smiled a slow, incommunicative smile, and immediately turned again to Elinor. The two girls were focused on each other in a way he found provocative.

‘What are you two getting so intense about?’ Neville asked.

That was clumsy, and he wasn’t a clumsy man. Too sure of himself for that.

‘Teresa’s husband’s been snooping round again.’

Husband. Paul’s eyes went to her left hand, but she wasn’t wearing a ring.

‘Caught him out the back last night trying to see through the
window. Least, I thought it was him. You know, I pulled the curtain back and there was this face squashed against the glass, didn’t look like anything on earth, but then he stepped back a bit and of course I could see it was him. Anyroad, there’s me screaming blue murder and the chap upstairs ran down to see what was going on – only by that time he’d gone.’

‘He’s left you alone quite a long time, hasn’t he?’ Neville said.

‘Going on a year. But that’s what he does.’ She flicked a glance at Paul. ‘He starts getting on with his own life but then the minute things start to go wrong he decides it’s all my fault and comes looking for me again. And it always does go wrong. He can’t hold a job down. I don’t think it’s ever going to end.’

‘It will,’ said Elinor. ‘He’ll drink himself to death.’

‘That’s a slow process,’ Neville said, gazing down at his empty glass.

Paul took the hint and summoned the waiter. Elinor shook her head – she’d scarcely touched her glass – but Teresa nodded. With a stab of excitement, Paul realized she was tipsy.

As he gave the order, he heard Neville ask, in his blunt, authoritative way, ‘What are you going to do?’

‘Move, I suppose.’

‘Oh, you
can’t,’
Elinor said. ‘Not again.’

‘Well, I can’t stop there. Even if he’s not outside spying on me I always think he is. And if he finds out I’m modelling …’

‘How could he find out?’ Neville said.

‘He’s only got to follow me. I thought I saw him the other day just as I was leaving Tonks.’

So she modelled for Tonks. Paul saw her slipping off her robe, mounting the dais, Tonks’s hand on her arm adjusting the pose. The image produced such a rush of desire and envy he missed part of the conversation.

‘Look,’ Elinor was saying, when he was able to concentrate again, ‘he’s got to eat, he’s got to sleep, he can’t be following you round all the time.’

‘What else has he got to do? Except drink.’

‘Doesn’t he have a home to go to?’ Paul said.

‘Well, you know you’re always welcome to stay with me,’ Elinor said. ‘There’s a sofa in the living room.’

‘I know, and it’s kind of you, but you wouldn’t have anywhere to paint. I’ve got to get it sorted out.’

Neville’s gaze on Elinor’s face had become even more intent. ‘You should go to the police,’ he said to Teresa, roughly, not looking at her. ‘That’d frighten him off.’

‘I’m his wife. I could go in with a couple of black eyes and a broken nose wouldn’t worry them.’

‘Has he hit you?’ Paul said.

‘’Course he has.’ Incredibly, she laughed. ‘Blames me for that too, he was never a violent man till he met me.’

‘Then Neville’s right. You should go to the police.’

‘They’re not interested.’

‘You have finished with him, I suppose?’ said Neville. ‘
Really
finished? There isn’t a small part of you still feels sorry for him?’

She looked away, resenting the question or made uncomfortable by it. ‘You can’t be indifferent to somebody you’ve –’ She shook her head. ‘No, it’s over. I couldn’t go back to him now.’

The conversation lapsed, though after a while the two girls started whispering to each other again. Paul sensed they were getting ready to part.

A few minutes later Elinor stood up. ‘I’ve got to go, I’m afraid.’

Instantly, Neville was on his feet. He was going past her lodgings on his way home, perhaps he could drop her off? She seemed about to refuse, but then nodded.

‘Teresa, are you sure you don’t want to come back with me?’

‘No, I’m all right, really. Don’t worry about me.’

They kissed goodbye. Paul watched as Elinor and Neville left together. At the door Neville put his hand between her shoulder blades, guiding her. They’d said nothing all evening to suggest they were more than acquaintances, and yet now, suddenly, he saw they had a close, perhaps even intimate, relationship.

Teresa had gone quiet. There were purple shadows under her eyes and he found himself wanting to touch them. He moved closer. They chatted about this and that, the conversation sputtering like
a cold engine – on, off – until a shadow fell across their table and Paul looked up to find no less a person than the great Augustus John towering over them.

‘Teresa,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you join us? And your friend too, of course.’

She looked across him to a noisy table at the far end of the room. ‘Thanks, Gus, but I was just leaving. I’ve got a bit of a headache coming on.’ She was reaching for her bag as she spoke.

Another few words and, with a nod to Paul, the great man moved on.

She’d chosen to stay with him. Perhaps. More likely the headache was genuine and she was longing to get home. But that didn’t seem probable either with a potentially violent husband prowling round her backyard. He looked at her and saw how the purple shadows had changed the colour of her eyes from pale to smoky grey. The blood was thickening in his neck. ‘Shall we go, then?’

She nodded at once and stood up.

Three

A light rain had fallen. The street was busy, people hurrying to restaurant and bars. Women’s scents, as they walked past on the arms of husbands and lovers, mingled with the smell of leather and dung from the cab horses that stamped and jingled in a long row by the kerb. For no better reason than the freshness of moist air on his skin, Paul felt suddenly full of hope.

Teresa was pulling on her gloves, pale grey cotton, pressing each finger into place. She barely reached his shoulder but was so slim and held herself so erect that she struck him as a tall woman, and how beautiful that dark, warm colouring, those cheekbones that caught and held the light.

‘I suppose you’ve already had dinner?’

‘No, I came straight from modelling.’ Her voice had an unexpected rasp to it, like fingernails dragged across the skin. ‘I’ll have something when I get back.’

As she spoke her pale grey eyes darkened, and he realized two things: she was hungry – that must be why the wine had affected her so much – and she was afraid.

‘Perhaps we could eat together?’

She looked up at him. A cleft in her chin, he noticed, rare in women. He struggled not to touch it, the side of his thumb would rest there so sweetly.

‘That would be nice.’

‘There’s a place over there. Shall we try that?’

They ran across the street and pushed open the heavy door of the restaurant. Steamy heat, a smell of onions frying. The waiter showed them to a table by the window where they could look out at people walking past. Paul was delighted, particularly since the couple at the next table were engrossed in each other. They were virtually alone.

‘Would you like some wine?’


More
wine?’ She blushed. ‘Yes, go on, why not?’

Her accent was very strong when she said that. He’d kissed and cuddled girls like her, standing with his back to the factory gates, pausing and pulling them deeper into the shadows whenever anybody walked past. But then he looked at her again and thought, Who are you kidding? You’ve never had a girl remotely like this.

They ordered soup and roast beef and talked about their mutual acquaintances. Had she known Elinor long?

‘Two years. She was only seventeen, you know, when she came to London. She’s always saying what an old stick-in-the-mud her mother is, but when you think of it … letting a seventeen-year-old girl come to London, unchaperoned. Most mothers wouldn’t do it.’

‘Would your mother?’

Her face hardened. ‘I was married at seventeen. No danger of that with Elinor. Though it’s not as if she hasn’t had offers. You must have seen how men react to her?’

‘I saw how Neville did.’

‘She keeps trying to get him interested in other girls.’ She looked at him mischievously. ‘Do
you
think she’s attractive?’

‘In a boyish sort of way …’

‘Isn’t that what men go for?’

‘Not all of us.’

‘Neville does.’

Perhaps she felt she’d said too much, because she immediately raised her glass, using it as a shield against her mouth as she gazed round the room.

‘Do you like Tonks?’

Her eyes widened. ‘Yes, I think I do. He’s a very kind man.
Underneath.’

‘Tell that to Neville.’

‘Henry didn’t like his work. But I think he always thought he had talent.’

‘Not the way Neville tells it. Tonks told him he despised his work – and despised
him
even more.’

‘Oh? I didn’t know that.’

‘Henry’, he noticed, and she’d called Augustus John ‘Gus’. She was no more than a girl from the back streets of some northern town, and yet she assumed equality with these men. A fragile sort of equality, based, ultimately, on sex.

BOOK: Life Class
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