Read Life Class Online

Authors: Pat Barker

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Life Class (5 page)

BOOK: Life Class
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‘I don’t get any feeling that they’re yours. You seem to have nothing to say.’

‘I see. No, yes, I do see.’

‘Well, then.’ Tonks spread both hands on his desk, preparatory to rising. ‘I wish I could tell you what to do about it, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to thrash this one out on your own.’

‘I don’t know what to do.’

‘Why don’t you start by asking yourself: Do I want to paint? Or do I want “to be an artist”? Because they’re two very different things. And try to be honest with yourself. It’s not an easy question.’

Tonks had been kind, if not tactful, and Paul backed out of his room feeling that one day, when the sting had worn off, he’d be grateful. At the moment he felt he hadn’t been given much to go on. If Tonks had told him to go and learn anatomy, he’d have done it, no question. Ground and sweated away till he could name every bone and nerve and muscle in the body. He’d never been afraid of work. But ‘nothing to say’? What was he supposed to do about that? And as for wanting ‘to be an artist’ … Well, of course he wanted to be an artist. It was the opposite of the life he’d lived in the shadow of the ironworks that gobbled men up at the start of a shift and regurgitated them twelve hours later fit for nothing but booze and sleep. Too bloody right he wanted to be an artist. And that meant? God knows. He knew what it used to mean. Getting on a bike on Sunday morning and peddling like hell as far away from Middlesbrough as his legs would carry him to set up his easel in a field somewhere to paint trees and hawthorn blossom. Behind him, columns of black smoke, steam, spurts of flame, flakes of soot on sheets hung out to dry, the acrid smell of coke, sparks struck from boots as workers coming off the afternoon shift slurred over the cobbles.

Perhaps that was the trouble. Art had always been Somewhere Else. There flashed into his mind a memory of the back room in the Vane Arms, blue smoke, the rumble of dominoes being shuffled, knobbly hands, liver-spotted, necks like tortoises, blank, incommunicative faces, terse greetings: ‘Now then’, ‘All right?’ and the cold northern light coming in through frosted-glass windows. If he closed his eyes he could hear the scraping of dominoes on the tables. Which was also, come to think of it, the sound of the Café Royal. He’d never painted those men or even thought of doing so till now.

Leave it. Too complicated to sort out now and, besides, he had other things on his mind. Teresa. He thought about her all the time. She came between him and the page.

As soon as the morning session was over, he ran downstairs to the women’s Life Room. Most of the students had gone, but Elinor was still there, putting the finishing touches to her drawing. Seeing her like this through the open door, he was attracted to her all over again, as he had been the first time he saw her in the Antiques Room. He’d come very close to falling in love with her that day. Everything about her had attracted him, from the crown of her shockingly cropped head to the slightly pigeon toes peeping out beneath the hem of her paint-daubed overall. What can you do to resist a girl whose defects are perfections? She was so much more
alive
than anybody else.

Today she’d been working in charcoal and had black smudges round her mouth where she’d absent-mindedly sucked the stick. Ruthie Wilson, a small dun-coloured girl, like a wren, quick and secretive in every movement, was tapping the corner of her own mouth to point them out. At last, losing patience, she got out her handkerchief, gave it a lick and rubbed the marks away. Elinor stood motionless, like a small child, letting herself be cleaned up. There was so much intimacy in that action, Paul caught his breath.

How they dawdled, the two of them. Shifting from foot to foot, he waited while they got their things together and drifted towards the door.

‘Paul,’ Elinor said.

She looked delighted to see him.

‘Oh, hello,’ said Ruthie.

‘Elinor, can I talk to you for a minute?’

‘Yes, all right. We’re on our way to Lockhart’s.’

The café was crowded by the time they got there, the queue stretching from the counter to the door. As soon as he entered, Paul felt his face grow slick with steam and grease. Lockhart’s was cheap. Everything about it said cheap, from the smears of grease on the badly wiped tables to the brown crusts in the sugar where people had dipped wet spoons. Standing directly behind Elinor, he noticed how the hairs at the nape of her neck, fairer than the rest, crept into the centre, half covering the tender runnel of white flesh.
When they first met, the nape of Elinor’s neck had kept him awake at nights.

Ruthie went off to join some friends, while Paul and Elinor found a table near the kitchen door. Paul had to squeeze himself close to the table to avoid being jolted by waitresses going in and out, but at least they were alone.

‘So,’ said Elinor, ‘what did Tonks have to say?’

‘I should stay to the end of term.’

‘Was that all?’

‘More or less.’ He didn’t want to tell her about having nothing to say, it hurt too much. ‘Common sense, really. I’ve paid the fees.’

‘Do you
want
to stay?’

‘Now, yes.’

‘Hmm.’ Her face was alight with curiosity. ‘How did you get on?’

‘With Teresa? Very well.’ He hesitated. ‘In fact I saw her home. She lives in a basement, did you know?’

‘No, I’ve never been. She always comes to see me.’

‘Mad, really. Anybody could get in.’

Elinor took a sip of her coffee and emerged with a line of foam on her upper lip.

‘Elinor.’ He patted his upper lip, aching to be allowed to do what Ruthie had done a few minutes earlier. Instead, he passed a white, folded handkerchief across the table. Elinor wiped the foam off on the side of her hand and handed his handkerchief back to him, still virgin.

‘Have you known Teresa long?’

He tried to keep the question casual, though just saying her name excited him.

‘Two years? She modelled for me when I was up for the scholarship. Free. It was very good of her and well, you know, it makes all the difference.’ Her eyes darkened. ‘She’s had a rotten life.’

‘The husband seems to be an absolute brute.’

‘He put her in hospital twice.’

‘Didn’t anybody do anything?’

‘No, of course not. He got off scot-free. Surprise, surprise.’

She sat back, withdrawing her warmth from him as if he too were tarnished by the universal male stain.

‘I’m surprised she doesn’t go home.’

‘He’d still find her.’

‘Yes, but at least she’d have family.’

‘An auntie. What’s the point of that? She needs six hulking big brothers. Besides, the work’s here.’

‘Modelling.’

‘Well, there’s not much call for it up north. I know it’s not much of a living, but –’

‘How much does it pay?’

‘You really do like her, don’t you?’

‘Ye-es. Yes, I do – only I’m not sure she’s actually finished with her husband.
Finished
finished.’

‘’Course she has, the man’s an absolute nightmare. No wonder she’s suspicious of men. And being a model doesn’t help.’ She stared at him. A lot of men think models are fair game.’

‘Neville.’

‘For one.’

He was remembering Neville’s story about the baby with a dozen possible fathers, though it had suited Neville to say that. ‘He seems to be an interesting chap.’

‘Oh, he’s that all right. Have you seen his latest paintings? They’re on in the Grafton Gallery.’

‘No, I haven’t. I’ll have a look.’

‘I don’t like the new stuff particularly, but there’s no denying it’s powerful.’ She was making patterns with the coffee dregs in her cup. ‘He knows exactly what he wants to do.’

‘I wish I did.’

‘So do I. Wish I did.’

‘You’re doing all right. Everybody seems to think you’ll get the scholarship.’

‘Yes, but it’s all schoolgirl stuff, isn’t it? There’s nothing there.’

So perhaps they were all dissatisfied with their work? Perhaps that was an artist’s normal state?

Elinor pushed her cup away. ‘Shall we get back, then?’

He said goodbye to her at the top of the basement stairs. She was a good friend. If he’d learned nothing else at the Slade he’d learned that men and women could be friends, even intimate friends, without sex intruding. But then, halfway down the stairs, she turned and looked back, and there he was again, a rabbit caught in the light of the gig lamps, unable to move or look away.

No, it was impossible. He couldn’t still be attracted to Elinor, not now, when all his thoughts were focused on Teresa. What on earth had possessed him to say Friday? He could equally well have said today or tomorrow, at least asked if she was free. As it was, he’d condemned himself to three whole days without her.
Fool.

Five

He didn’t have to look at the leaflet to know which paintings were Neville’s. They leapt off the wall. He’d done three studies of the Underground: streaks of light, advertisements, perpendicular lines that suggested strap-hangers, blurred heads and faces of people, everything fragmented, explosions of noise and speed. The sensation of noise surprised him, but it was the right word. These were very noisy paintings. Did he like them? He didn’t know, but he saw at once that this was fully mature work, streets ahead of anything he could produce. So far ahead and so different in its subject from anything he would ever want to paint that he was protected from envy. He got Neville’s address from Elinor and wrote a warm note of appreciation.

After posting the letter, he tramped up and down the streets around his lodgings, so absent that a scrap of paper blowing across the road startled him. Every time he thought of Teresa little flickering flames ran along his veins. In the end, because he couldn’t help himself, he went to her street. All around him, in the long mean terraces, was a sense of furtive, scurrying lives, of people living in one room, alone, cooking their suppers on a single gas ring. Walking down the street, he touched each railing as he passed, as a small child might have done, until he stood gazing down the basement steps at her front door. There was the familiar reek of rotting vegetables, but no red glow from behind the curtains. She was out. He was shocked by that. But then, why shouldn’t she be out? She had a whole life that he knew nothing about. He ought to go, but still he lingered, hoping she might somehow, miraculously, come round the corner. He was behaving like one of the peeping Toms she complained about and saw, abruptly, that the chasm dividing him from those pathetic, little men was no bigger than a crack in the pavement.

Back home, he wandered between the two rooms of his small flat, pausing to gaze out on to the railway lines through net curtains stiff with dirt. He sat on the edge of his bed, staring down at his clasped hands, and wondered where she was, and who she was with. This obsession grew like a tumour. One of those spongy excrescences that grow on the throat or the side of the neck and choke the life out of you. He was living his whole life, minute by minute, breath by breath, solely in the hope of seeing her again.

By the time Friday evening came he was exhausted, but kept going by the energy of his desire for her. They went to the Coliseum and sat in the front row of the balcony. He sat as close to her as he dared, aware of the curve of her shoulder and arm, of the vibration of laughter in her chest, far more conscious of her than of anything happening on stage, where a couple of grotesquely made-up men teetered about on high heels warbling like prima donnas. Normally he loved the music hall. What he liked best were the ‘turns’ – comedians, acrobats and jugglers – but most of all he was fascinated by the men in wigs and make-up and outlandish female costumes and by the young girls swaggering up and down, immaculately clad in white tie and tails. They seemed to turn the whole world upside down, to suggest anything was possible. In the music hall it was Twelfth Night every day of the year.

After the interval there was a one-act play with a complicated plot about spies. One-act plays always struck him as being rather pointless – you’d no sooner worked out who the characters were than the curtain came down – and tonight he was even less inclined to pay attention than usual. But Teresa seemed to enjoy it. As they were leaving, she chattered about the play, and he smiled and assented and expressed opinions, but really he had no clear idea of what it had been about. In his inside pocket, burning a hole, as they say, was a packet of sixpennies. As he stood on the kerb trying to hail a cab he was remembering the first packet he’d bought. Three visits to three different barbers before he plucked up the courage to ask for what he’d wanted. By the time he’d managed to get some he looked like an ex-convict. A cab pulled up at last and he gave Teresa’s address.

They sat in silence most of the way. They might have been a middle-aged married couple returning from their weekly night out, though he was so intently aware of her he could have counted the blonde hairs on her forearm where they caught the light. He paid the driver, and exactly like last time went down the steps first to check that it was safe. Nothing felt safe. His heart throbbed in his throat. Turning the key, he heard a rustle in the cavity behind him and spun round, fists clenched, only to see a naked tail trailing through rubbish before the creature whisked away into the dark.

‘We get a lot of cats,’ Teresa said.


Cats
? That wasn’t a cat.’

Once inside the dingy hallway, he stood and stared at her. All his carefully prepared speeches deserted him. And then they were kissing, a long hard kiss that seemed to drain him. He pulled away, holding her at arm’s length, searching her face. In the dim light her eyes were more violet then grey. They went into the bedroom hand in hand, like children. With other women, he’d always felt rushed, even as he’d checked and held himself back. This was different. A slow, peaceful progression. He helped her undress and she stood in the lamplight, rubbing the pink stripes the corset had left around her waist.

‘I’m only allowed corsets on my days off. Saracen’d have a fit if I showed up looking like this.’

She was a tall, pale lily rising from the dark foliage of her dress. He knelt before her, his lips moving over the gentle curve of her belly where a few silver stretch marks rose from the bush of hair. The imperfection reassured him because it seemed to bring her beauty within reach.

BOOK: Life Class
12.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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