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Authors: Pat Barker

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Life Class (4 page)

BOOK: Life Class
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Whore.


Now, now, Nan. Rest in peace.

‘It’s not done him much harm, has it?’ she was saying. ‘He’s doing rather well.’

‘Painting trains.’

‘Not just trains.’

‘He’d like the view from my window.’

‘Oh, where do you live?’

‘St Pancras.’

‘I live there. Victoria Street.’

They looked at each other, registering that when they left the restaurant they would be going in the same direction.

Over coffee he asked about her husband. He was afraid she might think the question intrusive, but once she started the words streamed out.

‘I was seventeen. I can’t even say it was a mistake, I had to get away from home. Dad left when I was eleven and three years later Mam took up with somebody else.’

‘You didn’t like him?’

‘That wasn’t the problem.’

‘He didn’t like you?’

‘Not that either. I couldn’t tell Mam, I dropped one or two hints and she just –’ Teresa hunched her shoulders and crossed her arms over her chest. ‘She wasn’t well. That was half the trouble – she was always in bed with poultices on her chest – her skin was raw, you used to have to put mustard on them. I couldn’t see they were doing her any good, I used to hate putting them on, she used to scream, but the doctor would have it. He was costing that much you couldn’t disagree with him. So anyway I was downstairs making these bloody poultices and he used to come up behind me. What could I do? I couldn’t shout. And he wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Oh, and I wasn’t allowed out, he was always saying he didn’t want me running round with any of the local lads, getting into trouble. It’s laughable really, all the trouble I had was at home. So in the end I ran away.’ She pulled a face. ‘Not very far – I went to me auntie’s in Redcar. She’s a dressmaker, so I used to help her with that and then I got on with Jack. He was a mate of Dave’s – that’s Auntie Nancy’s lad. He was in the army and, oh, he was smart. I couldn’t see the drink was a problem, but even if I had seen it I’d probably still have married him.’

‘Were you in love with him?’

‘God knows.’

For a while she sat in silence, looking down at her glass.

‘You don’t have to talk about it, you know.’

‘No, I want to. It lasted about six months. I mean, before things started to go wrong. I fell pregnant and he was over the moon. Came out of the army – big mistake, but it didn’t seem like that at the time – and he got a job in the ironworks. Labourer, but he was making good money. And then I lost the baby. The horrible thing is I was quite relieved.’

‘Because you knew it was a mistake? The marriage?’

‘Yes, I knew. Soon as he come out of the army. He was like a bloody sergeant major. Least little thing, his shirts weren’t ironed right, I used to get belted.’

‘You could have left him.’

‘You get cowed, you can’t do anything. Always being told what an ugly, useless slut you are. And then I fell pregnant again and he totally changed. He even stopped drinking. Only I lost that one too, and he got it into his head I’d done summat to get rid of it. Me auntie used to help women out, you know, and I think he thought she’d told me what to do. I told him I never did anything, but he didn’t believe me and that’s when it got really bad. I ended up in casualty twice. The second time me auntie says, “Don’t be such a bloody fool, our Teresa, he’s gunna kill you.” So I ran away again, this time to London. She lent me the money for the fare – every little bit she had put by, it cleaned her out – but it didn’t last five minutes here. I hadn’t anybody I could turn to. Then I got on
with this artist and he says why don’t you try modelling? The lasses at home, you know, they’d laugh their heads off, me being a model. I used to get called Chinkyeyes and Flatface at school.’

‘But he followed you?’

‘Yes, I don’t know how he found me but he did. He needs me. Always did, that was the problem. You know, he’d be effing and blinding one minute and the next he’d be sat on the floor with his head in me lap.’

‘My heart bleeds.’

‘That’s what me auntie said.’

‘And now he’s back?’

‘Yes, but he’ll drift off again.’ She nodded towards the far end of the room. ‘I think the waiters are wanting to be off.’

Paul looked over his shoulder, realized they were indeed the only two people left in the restaurant, and raised his hand for the bill.

Pushing open the door of the restaurant, he was surprised to see the world going on as usual. ‘Shall I get a cab?’

‘No, let’s walk, shall we? It’s not raining.’

That was a relief. He had just about enough money left to pay for a cab, but it would have been a worry.

She took his arm and they set off. It was exciting just to be walking down a street with her, to match his strides to hers, to feel her hand nestling in the crook of his elbow. He asked who she was modelling for at the moment.

‘Saracen. I’m supposed to sit for him tomorrow, but I don’t know if I can.’

‘Why not?’

‘Jack. He might follow me.’

‘Won’t he just get fed up and go away? You say he drifts off again after a while.’

‘Yes, but there’s generally a pretty big explosion first, and I can’t afford to lose work.’

‘Has he hit you? I mean, since you left him?’

She lifted her face to his and he saw the light of the street lamps
in her eyes. ‘Yes. Once. I’d been out and he was waiting for me when I got back.’

If Paul had been settled in life, if he’d even been successful as a student, she couldn’t have moved him as deeply as she did at that moment, but he had nothing to dilute this, no busy humming core of purposeful activity to protect him. He was mesmerized by her. That flat northern accent, so familiar to him, coming out of that scandalous painted mouth. But it wasn’t just her looks. In spite of her bitterness, her evident cynicism about men and their motives, he sensed a capacity for passion in her greater than anything he’d so far experienced.

The swish of her skirt both soothed and disturbed him. He hardly knew what they talked about. As the streets became greyer and meaner and the air began to smell of smoke and oil, she fell silent, looking down at her feet swishing in and out under the hem of her skirt. He touched her arm to get her attention. ‘Whereabouts do you live?’

‘Just along here.’

Twenty yards further on she stopped outside a tall, narrow house with cracked and blistered paint on the front door and skimpy, no-colour curtains drawn across the ground-floor windows.

‘I’m in the basement.’

He unlatched the gate and looked down the steps. In the small yard at the bottom were five dustbins overflowing with rubbish. Behind them, a low door led into some kind of storage space, perhaps intended to hold the bins. As far as he could tell it was empty, but the light from the street lamp didn’t reach all the way to the back.

He sensed Teresa was frightened. ‘Would you like me to open the door for you? Check everything’s all right?’

‘Please. If you wouldn’t mind.’

She gave him her keys and he went down the steps ahead of her, his nostrils assailed by a smell of rotting cabbage. A few leaves, thick-veined and gross, their stalks yellow and flabby with decay, littered the ground. He turned the key in the lock, but the door, swollen with damp, resisted him. All the time he was aware of the
dark cavity behind him. Anybody could hide in there after dark. No wonder she was frightened.

The door gave before a more determined shove.

‘There we are.’

She’d stopped halfway down the steps. Now only her head and shoulders were lit by the street lamp. Gradually, as she edged further down the steps, her face fell into shadow. Then she was standing beside him. He caught her scent, sweet and dark, above the stench of rotting vegetables.

‘He got inside once.’

‘I’ll have a look around.’

He went first, walking ahead of her down a long passage, which bent sharply to the right in the middle. The lino was black with grey blotches, perhaps intended to suggest pebbles, but looking rather as if somebody had spattered paint across it. She had two main rooms – big, but dark. A tiny kitchen opened off the living room. The bathroom was squeezed in next door to the bedroom. He looked in the airing cupboard, inside the wardrobe, under the bed – feeling, as he pressed his cheek into the musty-smelling rug, like a ridiculous old maid – then returned to the hall. All clear.’

‘Good.’ She laughed on a sharply exhaled breath. ‘Would you like a cup of coffee? After all that.’

‘I’d love one.’

He had no idea what the offer implied and daren’t think. He told himself there was no hurry. Most of his sexual experience so far had been kisses and cuddles and worming his way into the drawers of girls whose sights were firmly set on marriage, always feeling a bit of a bastard since he had no intention of marrying anybody. That, and a series of rather unsatisfactory commercial encounters. They should have been easier, since both sides knew where they stood, but they hadn’t been. In fact, the memory of the first time could still make him cringe. The woman, beside whom any one of his aunties would have looked like a mere slip of a girl, pointed him towards a bowl of water and a bar of carbolic soap and towel on the dresser by the bed. Obediently he started to get washed.
Hands. Face. Neck. Ears. Even now he felt a hot blush of shame prickle his chest, as he remembered her laughter.

‘Are you all right in there?’

He roused himself. ‘Yes.’

‘You’ve gone very quiet.’

‘Just thinking.’

While she finished making the coffee he looked around the room. Her taste was good. She’d used deep shades of red and blue and positioned small lamps to cast golden arcs of light over the walls, so the effect was of being in a dark, rich cave. The dustbins and squalor outside were easily forgotten.

She came back into the room carrying a tray.

‘The trouble with this place is everybody comes down here to empty the rubbish, so if I hear somebody moving about I don’t know if it’s him or just somebody from upstairs.’ She put the tray down on a table. ‘Or a peeping Tom. You get plenty of them.’

‘You shouldn’t really be living in a basement.’

‘I know, but it’s got a garden. And it’s cheap.’

Taking the cup from her, he sat down on one of the sofas, feeling the sharpness of worn springs under the velvet cover. ‘Are you getting a divorce?’

‘I’m not sure I could. It’s a lot harder for a woman. A man only has to prove adultery. A woman has to prove adultery
and
cruelty.’

‘Do you think he’d divorce you?’

‘Never in a million years.’ She forced a smile. Anyway that’s enough about me. I seem to have been talking about meself all evening. What about you?’

‘Oh, what about me? I think we come from the same part of the world. Middlesbrough.’

She shook her head. ‘Grangetown.’

‘It’s only a few miles. Just think, we might have walked past each other in the street.’

‘So how did you get to the Slade? Scholarship?’

‘No, my grandmother died and left me a small legacy. I was working as an orderly in the hospital at the time, but I decided to use the money doing this.’

‘Is that what she’d have wanted?’

‘Good God, no. She wanted me to be a teacher, I think, or a solicitor’s clerk, something like that. Good, steady money and a pension at the end of it.’

‘But you didn’t fancy that?’

‘I thought I had talent.’

‘Thought?’

‘There’s not been much sign of it recently.’

‘Do you think you might be trying too hard?’

‘I’ve got to try. I’m not like Neville. If I make a mess of this there’s no feather-bed for me to fall back on.’

They talked for a while longer, but she was obviously tired and after a few minutes he drained his cup and stood up.

As she was opening the door he said, ‘Would you like to go to a music hall?’ When she hesitated he said quickly, ‘But I don’t suppose you feel much like going out at the moment?’

‘No, I think it would do me a power of good.’

‘Friday at seven? I’ll pick you up.’

As the door closed behind him, he was amazed by the boneaching pain of the separation. He’d known her only a few hours, it oughtn’t to be possible to feel like this. He lingered, hoping she’d part the curtains and look out, but they remained closed, with only a strip of light to show she was still inside. How totally his life had changed in the space of a few hours. Fizzing with excitement, he set off to walk home. As he turned the corner of the street, a man walking fast, head down, hands thrust into his pockets, slammed into him. No apology. No acknowledgement even. Paul turned to stare after him as he strode away, the street lamps passing his shadow like a baton along the pavement. He half expected him to disappear down Teresa’s basement stairs, but no, he went straight past, his hunched figure dwindling rapidly into the dark. Relieved, Paul turned and walked on.

Four

The following day, Paul went to see Professor Tonks to apologize for walking out of the life class. The incident loomed so large in his mind it was salutary to discover how little importance Tonks attached to it. As for leaving the Slade …

‘What’s the point of going now? You may as well wait till the end of term at least.’

‘But if I’m wasting my time?’

‘Are you?’

‘You seemed to be implying that.’

‘I told you your drawing was bad. I don’t remember saying you were wasting your time.’

‘I don’t seem to be getting any better.’

‘Technically you are. Only …’

‘Only?’

‘Most people who come here are bursting with something they want to say, and the trouble I have with some of them is that they can’t be bothered to learn the language to say it in. Whereas with you it’s almost the opposite.’

Paul would have liked to defend himself, but didn’t know how. This wasn’t the criticism he’d been expecting.

‘I
do
have a problem with life drawing, I know that. But I thought my landscapes were … Well. A
bit
better.’

‘There’s no feeling.’

‘Perhaps I’m not managing to express it, but –’

BOOK: Life Class
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