One day during his wanderings Harold Coke happened to pass a shop that displayed artist's materials in its window. What had first caught his eye had been an oil painting of a fully rigged sailing ship. The painting was exhibited on a small easel that rested upon a layer of black velvet. Scattered on the velvet were tubes of paint, brushes and an artist's palette charged with bright colours. Harold spent some time looking in the window. Although his attention had been attracted by the painting his imagination now began to explored the apparatus of the artist's trade. It seemed to him similar to that of a chemist's suppliers with its retorts, beakers, funnels, test tubes, pipettes and reagent bottles with the names or chemicals etched on their glass surface. It hinted to Harold of a world of mysteries and secrets known only to a handful of initiated.
Without quite knowing why Harold wandered into the shop and began to examine the boxes of pastels, the sticks of charcoal, rolls of canvas, palette knives, stoppered bottles of turpentine, linseed oil, walnut oil, varnish, palette knives and arrangements of brushes, sketchbooks and portable easels. The shop had seemed dark and deserted when Coke had entered, but his act of opening the door had activated a tiny bell which had reverberated through the shop and now, as he bent to touch the bristles of a brush, he realized that he was being observed by an elderly gentleman in a pinstripe suite.
"May one help you, sir? Is there anything you would wish to see?"
Harold, embarrassed at being caught out in this way blurted out, "oil paints, tubes and....brushes."
The assistant bowed from the waist. "Naturally, sir. Windsor and Newton? And the colours you will require?"
Now that he had come out with it Harold was relieved and filled with a boyish sense of anticipation. Indeed, he confessed to the assistant that he had never really painted before. At least, not since he'd been at school and that had only been with circular cakes of watercolour that went all muddy when he mixed them together. But oil colours, well they were what the professionals used, weren't they? They'd make all the difference.
The elderly assistant smiled in a kindly way and began to offer advice on which colours he should buy. Harold was surprised to learn that real artists did not paint with colours called red, or blue or yellow but that each one had it's own special name and there were, for example, a great number of blues to close from. It was also necessary to buy a brownish sort of colour called burnt sienna. Harold asked if he could buy a tube of skin colour, for he had in mind to paint a portrait of Emily after he had first practiced in secret.
Here the assistant smiled again, but not in a way that would cause Harold offense. He explained that it was necessary to mix different paints together and suggested that he should buy a palette, but then added that a beginner could work equally well with a piece of thick glass. The assistant then selected three brushes and counselled Harold to purchase an extra large tube of lead white and bottles of linseed oil and turpentine. Harold decided against buying canvases but as soon he arrived back home he went out into his work shed and painted a sheet of plywood with ceiling white. When he it had dried, he cut in into several smaller pieces. He placed the bottles of linseed oil and turpentine on his shelf. The brushes and paints he wrapped in newspaper and hid at the bottom of his draw in the wardrobe for fear that Emily would complain about the expense.
As soon as Emily and Little Eric had left for church on the following day, Harold packed his materials into a gas mask bag and set off for the canal. It was a warm summer day and he spread his mac as a ground sheet, took out his paints, brushes and bottles and arranged them in front of him. He intended to paint the canal, its far bank, and the sky above. Harold could also see a bridge in the far distance with a pub to its left, that would make a good subject to be added later.
Harold opened each tube of paint and squeezed little trails of colours onto the glass. He then poured linseed oil, and turpentine into two egg cups, dipped his brush into the liquid and began to work it into the snail track of blue. The smell that was given off filled the air and Harold felt intoxicated by it. There was something so very tactile about the paint as it moved under his brush, so different from the water colours he remembered at school. Before he had even placed the first stroke of blue onto the plywood Harold had begun to appreciate the way in which painting could be a physical occupation, how it could engage all parts of a person's being.
Harold realized that he must go to the Walker Art Gallery and look at the paintings again, this time through the fresh eye of an artist. There was "Faithful Unto Death" with the Roman centurion standing at his post in total obedience while Rome burned around him. "And When Did You Last See Your Father?" with the little boy being questioned by wicked Roundheads. A picture like that told endless stories, you could return to it again and again and never exhaust its meaning. Growing up his mother had a picture above her bed called "The Bend in the River." She would tell Harold how, when she lay there in sickness, her eye would fall on that painting and travel along the river to its bend. Who knew what lay beyond the bend, she would tell him. Was there a house, or a beautiful view, or maybe a man who came rowing towards her in a boat, a handsome man with a thin face and a dark beard?. Harold would try to see the painting through his mother's eyes and imagine what he would see if he too were to reach that bend in the river.
As an adult Harold had taken his own son, Little Eric, to the Walker Art Gallery. He had pointed out to him the way in which a Dutch painter had portrayed lace around a lady's neck, how when you looked up close her pearls were nothing more than white brush marks but when you stood back they all came into focus. He explained to Little Eric how clever great painters were to be able to produce the illusion of reality.
But now, when Harold attempted to do the same thing on a piece of plywood, everything seemed to go wrong. Water was blue, everyone knew this. But so was the sky. And when the two were painted together, one above the other how was it possible to differentiate between them, to tell which was water and which was sky and, indeed, to know which way up the painting was supposed to be? Harold began to look more closely at the canal and realized that the water wasn't exactly blue. It was more black really. He tried adding some black paint to the puddle of blue on his palette but the result came out as a sort of depressing, muddy non-colour. He stared at the water again and realized that it was not really a colour at all. To begin with he could reflections, ripples on the surface, and beyond that there was a sort of inside darkness, a pulling; something that seemed to be drawing him down into the water and welcoming him to its cold depths.
Harold turned his attention to the sky in his painting. After covering the plywood with a uniform blue he tried to paint in some clouds. But now he found that the white paint was not quite working as it should. As he moved his brush across the already painted surface, the white and the blue began to move and push against each other as if they were living things, mixing, bulging up, the one seeming to slide under the other to appear somewhere else in the painting. Harold tried adding a little turpentine but now the cloud dribbled down into the canal. Harold tried to turn that into an artistic reflection but this only made things worse.
Maybe he should have waited until the paint dried so, picking up an apple, he set the plywood aside and went back to studying the canal. After some time he picked up the painting but the blue had refused to set, even when he tried to blow on it. Clearly the man in the shop had not told him everything, or maybe he not used the turpentine and linseed oil properly. Indeed, he was not at all sure why he needed both liquids when one would surely do.
Harold placed his first effort face down on the grass and started on another. But by now a crowd of small boys had gathered behind him and were talking to each other in loud whispers, occasionally making comments and offering advice. One of them stood, quite cheekily, in front of Harold and demanded to be put into the picture. Another told him it was better to take a photograph because that was dead fast. Someone nudged him from behind, quite hard, and asked for a cigarette.
Harold shooed them off and the boys disappeared behind some bushes, laughing and swearing. He could hear them fighting amongst themselves and then they started up again, saying indecent things about one of the boy's sister that how she would be willing to pose for Harold. This time Harold ignored him and, putting his paintings away, finished the apple and began to enjoy the peace of the afternoon.
After a time he found himself staring at the water again and trying to understand it. How had real painters done it? He must borrow some books on painting from the library. After all, he thought, in a way water is not actually there - you can see through it and put your hand through it. Then Harold stared at the surface of the canal and wondered why you could not see the bottom. That had never really struck him before.
Time passed and Harold realized he had must have been staring into the water for a considerable time and that all the while his mind had been totally free of the troublesome thoughts and images that tended to beset him when his attention wandered. He looked up and realized that the sun had moved some distance across the sky. Harold shifted his position to stare at the tree opposite. It was magnificent, reaching high into the sky and spreading out its branches to create a cool dappled greenness. Coke stared at the trunk, and the mottled thickness of its bark, and slowly he found that his eyes were being drawn upwards to where the first thick branches left the trunk and began to divide. That upward movement reminded him of something else, something earlier, a lifting upwards, eyes traveling. And so he looked up into the tree's infinite detail, trying to remember, trying to capture something of it was like a forgotten name that it remained elusively on the tip of the tongue.
After a time Harold's consciousness freed itself from the highest branches of the tree and he realized that none of it really mattered any more, that while the nature and location of the memory evaded him, the time and the place, the feeling itself was present and that it gave him a kind of joy. And so Harold continued to stare upwards with the hot sun on his back. The boys had long ago left him, yet he heard their shouts and laughter in the distance as they played on the swing bridge that traversed the canal.
Still keeping his eyes focussed on the tree Harold Coke reached down for a fresh piece of plywood. This time he did not look at it but, selecting a brush by touch, began to paint on its surface. As Harold painted he barely looked away from the tree at what he was doing, pausing only to clean his brush on an old handkerchief, dip it into linseed oil, and select a fresh colour and then go back to staring at his tree again. How different the sensation was from what had gone before, and from those paintings done at school with tongue held between teeth, peering down at the paper, desperately trying to correct his mistakes.
All this no longer concerned him, after all, there would be no one to see this painting; now there was only the gesture of his hand, the smell of the paint, the enveloping greenness, the moving of, the sweeping upwardness of the trunk, the curving under the weight of, the energy pouring out of his chest and the enveloping, stretching, enfolding him.
Then Harold looked down and saw what he had done, and he was shocked. Not disturbed because of some fault he perceived in it, or for the want of talent. As he stared down at the plywood he did not even see it as a painting, or as a failed attempt at portrayal, but for what it revealed about himself. For the painting was an explosion, a burst of colour and line. It was something that flung itself outward in all directions from the central burnt sienna brushstroke that was the trunk, it thrust outwards, accelerating across the white surface of the plywood and beyond, beyond its edges into a world that existed only in Harold's imagination.
Unlike a copied tree, this explosion of colour was not linked to the trunk by the mechanical connection of twigs and branches, yet the more that Harold Coke stared at it the more he realized that it possessed a reason of its own, that the form and colour of the painting was governed by some curious internal logic that had emerged from his own body, that its connections were internal and spoke of his own state of mind, of what had been happening to him over the summer and of some pattern, some process, of which he was only a part but which held him in its sense of rightness.
And so Harold walked home from the canal to his afternoon tea. His first paintings were confined to the bottom of the dustbin. The brushes and paints were returned to the bottom of his draw. But this painting of the tree was hidden, like a lover's guilty secret, behind some wood in his tool shed. And from that day on the images and thoughts that had tormented him since the news of the Palace murder left him and would never disturb his sleep again.
Wherever Marge went nowadays people seemed to know Cullen. He was so famous that people talked about him making trips to London to work on the really big jobs. Marge once even overheard two old biddies in the fish queue talking about "The Cullen Gang" and how they'd murder anyone as soon as look at them. When Marge told Cullen about this he grinned and made her repeat the story and do all the voices for him. Terrance clapped Cullen on the back and said. "What der yer think of dat, boss? You made the big time."
Of course they still had good times now and again but Terrance had become more serious since the hold-up. Marge didn't see him except when Cullen was home. Terrance was spending more time with his wife and he'd even taken up ballroom dancing again. It was strange but Terrance was a swish dancer, he took it very seriously and knew all the latest steps and everything. And it was real dancing too, not just bopping and stuff, it was the Quick Step, Waltz and Foxtrot. He'd won all sorts of prizes in Dublin when he was younger.
When they were out on a job Cullen was always been in charge and Terrance would do anything he was told. But on the dance floor, Terrance was masterful. He looked so strong sweeping his missus along. In fact, with his suite and black tie, Marge even thought he looked handsome. Of course Cullen pissed himself laughing when he saw Terrance in his monkey suit. Cullen'd come up behind him and put on a posh voice, like a colonel in an English film, "Whaa...taaarrrr! Whaa..tarrr! Bring me a Braaandy."
Marge sometimes wondered if Cullen was jealous of Terrance's dancing. For instance, he'd grab her and dance up real close to Terrance and then bump into his missus and laugh. Or sometimes Cullen'd make Marge do a bop right in the middle of the waltz and throw her up in the air and catch her. Terrance tried to laugh it all off but she could tell he was really embarrassed in front of his wife's friends.
Cullen told Marge that Terrance didn't go to Mass anymore, on account of him not being willing to confess to the priest about shootings. Cullen didn't mind all that himself. He said IRA gunmen couldn't go to mass neither, but they were heroes all the same because they were fighting on the side of the church. And in America all the Mafia bosses had their own priests and big funerals and everything. But, it did seem to worry Terrance a lot.
One night when Cullen was come back from a big job in London he'd come round to see Marge. Afterwards the two of them had gone out drinking with Terrance. It was just like the old days, laughing and talking until this bloke came over and stood beside their table. He was a dirty looking bugger in a cloth cap and smelly old raincoat.
At first Cullen pretended to pay him no mind. The bloke shifted from foot to foot and then coughed. "You Mr. Cullen?"
Cullen just nodded and went back to drinking his beer.
"Bloke told me you'd pay half a quid if I told yer something good."
Cullen winked at Terrance and sat back in his chair, all smooth like James Cagney, and gave the bloke his special look; the one where he dropped his eyes like he was bored and half asleep. But Marge knew that he was dead proud when people sought him out in pubs.
"Well, that depends...What yer've got?"
The man in the cloth cap looked at Marge and Terrance, but Cullen nodded, "Don't worry about those too...I said, what've yer got?"
The man sat down at the table all hunched up and started whispering at Cullen.
"That fat girl, yer know the one? The fat girl with the long black hair.. a pro she was, with the stupid bloke dat couldn't talk proper?"
Cullen shrugged, not letting on.
"I thought you had something to tell me?"
"She's been seen, she has. Seen on the streets near Picadilly."
Terrance started to speak but Cullen put his hand on his arm and looked across at the man. "That's not worth ten bob. You'll have to tell me more. For a start, who saw this tart?"
The old man got cagey at this, so Cullen slipped him a dollar and said that he'd get the other half after he'd answered some questions. In the end he found out that someone had been talking in a pub in Bootle, the old bloke had listened in and come and told Cullen. Everyone knew that Cullen was after news of a Vera so he wanted to be first in with the goods. It looked like she was on the job again, walking as bold as brass up and down London's Picadilly.
Cullen paid the old fella and told him to bugger off. "Fuck it. I thought she was living with Stutty...if she's back on the job again we could all be in dead trouble."
It was Marge who had worked it all out at the time, that night when they'd come back to the pub and found that Vera and Stutty had gone. At first Cullen was pissed off, thinking that Stutty had taken Vera out for a curry and chips. But when Marge got home she realized that Vera had done a bunk. Most of her rubbish was there all right but she'd taken Marge's suitcase, the real leather one her grandmother had given her, and Vera's bras and underwear had gone.
"She must have had it all worked out" she'd told Cullen the next morning. "The crafty fat bitch."
Cullen had made a few discrete enquiries and discovered that Stutty had not turned up at the library on the following day. The girl at the desk didn't seem to know where he was, but someone else said he was away on sick leave.
"You see, Cullen, Vera must have seen her chance. Stutty was dead scared about getting caught. He even said that the police had been round to see him at the library."
Cullen looked worried at this.
"You reckon he was telling the truth?" Terrance had chipped in.
"It's hard to say. He sounded if he was, but then you can't tell with Stutty can you? I mean, he was all confused and acting daft. And I thought Vera was on our side. She even said that she was getting sick of him." Marge was really angry now. "She must have been playing her own game all the time and not letting on."
Cullen shrugged. "So what d'you reckon happened?"
"Vera must have scared the wits out of him, said that they'd got to get away together. She may have told him that you were going to shut him up for good."
"She's dead right there, anyway", Cullen said with a laugh. "Where d'you reckon they've gone?"
Although she was mad at Vera, Marge couldn't help feeling proud at being the centre of all this attention. "She was always talking about how she'd wanted to see Buckingham Palace. She must have made him to take her to London. I bet she got him to ask his mother for money - the old bag was supposed to have been dead loaded."
Cullen sat thinking for a long time and then looked across at Terrance. "I don't like the sound of this. We don't know were they are and he could start talking any time."
"No, Cullen." Marge was really sure of herself now. "That's the beauty of it. Vera'll keep him scared. She's going to live off him, this is her big chance. She'd never let him talk to the police. Don't you see, once he's done that she'll have no hold on him. While she's keeping him on the run she can just sit back and spend his money. God, she must be laughing, the crafty cow."
Even Terrance grinned at this. "Trust our, Vera, to land up in clover."
Cullen still didn't like sound of it. "Yeah, well you may be right, Marge, but things don't last forever," he said. " I'll have a word we a few of me mates in the smoke. It shouldn't be too hard to track down a fat tart with a soft lad in tow."
And now it looked as if Vera was back on the job again.
"This is dead serious." Cullen said as the man in the cloth cap slunk out of the pub.
Terrance smiled across at his friend, trying to look encouraging. "How d'you mean, Cullen? She's just tarting, that's all."
Cullen glared at him until Marge stepped in. "If Vera's on the job then she can't be living with Stutty, can she? She wouldn't go back on the streets if he was keeping her."
Terrance shrugged. "You mean she got fed up with him and moved out?"
Cullen shook his head. "Vera'd never walk out on a free meal. It must have been Stutty that got fed up with her."
Marge looked across at Cullen with a puzzled expression on her face. "That doesn't seem right either. I can't see Stutty doing that."
Cullen shrugged and didn't say anything. After a bit Terrance chipped in again. "Well, Vera's back on the streets. What's so bad about that?"
Cullen raised his eyes to the ceiling and looked across at Marge. "God, you're thick some times, Terrance. Can't you work it out? If Stutty's on his own there'll be no one to keep control of him. He can't keep his mouth shut. He's going to let something drop. And don't forget Vera. There's nothing to stop her turning King's evidence now. She'll do a deal with Taylor and make some money out of it into the bargain. I never trusted that fat tart more than I could throw her. She's got a gob on her the size of the Mersey tunnel. The two of them were liabilities from square one."
Terrance looked really upset and got up from the table to go to the Gents. At this Marge screwed up her courage and took a big chance. "Cullen," she said pointing at Terrance's departing back. "You may have to worry about him one day, too."
Cullen looked at her sharply and she realized that she'd gone too far. Well, maybe only too far for tonight. At least she'd planted a seed. And anyway there was something worrying her, something at the back of her mind. After a bit, when Terrance didn't come back, she tried again.
"Look, Cullen. I've been thinking. I mean, none of it really seems right, does it?"
Cullen glared at her. "What do you mean?"
"About Vera and Stutty. I can't see him throwing her out and she wouldn't leave on her own."
"Well, she's back on the streets, isn't she?"
"I've been thinking about that. You know Stutty's a bit weird. I never really liked him. He used to give me the creeps some times - the things he'd ask me. About what Vera did with blokes and that."
Cullen looked perplexed. "What're you getting at?"
"What if he's really kinky? I never knew what the two of them got up to. Maybe she is on the streets but he could still be living with her"
Cullen brightened up, "He's pimping her?"
"Not that. Not taking money from her. He wants her to do it with other men. He enjoys it."
Marge waited a few moments before it hit Cullen, then he reacted with violence. "God, you're sick. That's disgusting. No bloke'd want to do a thing like that. Pimping's one thing, that's business but... that....that's filthy."
Cullen stood up. "I've got to make plans about them too." At the door of the snug he turned back to glare at Marge. "God, you've got a dirty mind."
But for once Marge did not feel put down. Although Cullen was mad at her now she realized that she's put a few ideas in his head. She knew there really was something fishy going on. For a start, there was the way that bloke had come up to them in the snug and told Cullen. She couldn't put her finger on it, but she knew something was up and that it was too all deep for Cullen. It was if he was being set up for something. It needed a woman's mind, someone who could think their way round corners and see more than one possibility at a time.
As Marge began to think about it she realized how much The Palace had changed things for her, how Cullen had started paying attention to the things she said and was treating her more seriously. He may still be living with his mother but one day, Marge knew he would come round and this time he'd stay forever.
And so Marge began to do up the flat in anticipation. She'd never really been in a place of her own before. Even if she had paid the rent some one else would take over and chose the best side of the bed, or use all the space in the wardrobe. Marge never managed to get the last ciggy in the pack, or the final bit of sugar in the bag. But after the Palace things were different and there was no one to throw a coat down over the chair or put their dirty undies on the floor for Marge to pick up.
Thus Marge became domesticated. To start with, she threw thew out everything that had belonged to Vera in a big clean-up. She even tore down the old black-out curtains; she wouldn't be needing them anymore because she was getting up at a respectable hour now. It took her a whole weekend of scrubbing and polishing just to get rid of Vera's smells but in the end the room looked dead nice -- even if it was a bit empty.
After that she went down to Wollies and got herself a job. It wasn't really difficult, a bit hard at times doing all that standing up and having to deal with pushy customers, but she soon got to enjoy it. She was able to lift a few things from the shop, a dead swish table lamp that looked like a woman, a Sacred Heart with a red light behind, two pictures and a really nice tea tray with a pattern on it made of butterfly wings.
Because she worked on Saturdays Marge was allowed to take Wednesday afternoon off and then she'd go round town, looking in the shop windows and pretending to be buying things. To tell the truth she had a silly dream. It was daft really, but she pretended she was married to Cullen who was away on a business trip to New York. She'd even bought a cheap wedding ring from Wollies.
Some days she'd pretend to go round town shopping for him in the men's stores like Watson Prickard. But best of all she liked strolling down Church Street and along Bold Street planning for their new home. They were going to live in a semi-detached in Blundelsands or Childwall. She'd stand outside Stoniers for hours looking at wine glasses; like jewels they were, reflecting all colours in the light. Then she'd go into expensive furniture stores and pretend to pick out a suite.
When it was raining hard she'd visit the Bon Marche where she could spend the whole afternoon looking at each floor. On the third floor there were baby things, little shawls, and bonnets, and booties with pink or blue ribbons. Which sort would it be? She'd hold her hands loose over her stomach and pretend, looking at the tiny clothes, and the cribs, and cots, and then pick out a teddy bear or a golliwog. Oh, the baby section was the very best of all.
One Saturday there was a mix-up with the staff so they gave her an extra long dinner hour. Marge ran across to Nanettes and imagined that she was getting married in September and asked to see the Bridal gowns -- she said it would be a white wedding with posh guests on account of her fiance being a rich American. Then she went to Fishlocks and chose the flowers for herself and her bridesmaids. God, how proud Dad would have been of her, walking up the aisle arm in arm, her in her long white dress with the beautiful flowers and Cullen standing at the altar in his American uniform, all medals and polish. But then she thought of Ma Cullen bobbing up and down on the other side of the aisle in her filthy black shawl and with her stockings rolled round her ankles.
Contact F. David Peat
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