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Murray Maclean now lived in Edinburgh reinventing his Scottish roots. He had opened another gallery there, mostly for young Scottish painters. He still had the gallery in Bath but he showed only an indifferent attitude towards it, like he showed towards other left-behind projects. And Tessa was another project, she knew that. His letter was like a public relations handout, with a list of all the artists who would be exhibiting that summer, what cafés he had visited and who would be coming up for the Festival. His letter was like him, smart and to the point. Murray was in his fifties now, tall and elegant with thick grey hair. At the end he said, ‘If you’re up for the Festival Claudia and I would love to see you, that is if she isn’t too busy buying clothes at Baby Gap.’
Tessa stabbed at her painting again with red paint as thick as a placenta. Right from the start she had said to Murray, ‘I don’t want kids. Kids drive you mad.’ They had stayed with that but when he turned fifty women of child-bearing age became more attractive. Claudia was twenty-nine and had just had his baby in March. He met her some months after he split up with Tessa but that didn’t make it any better. ‘We’ll still be friends,’ he said, but he meant, ‘I’ll still sell your paintings.’
The other letter she had received that morning was from her agents and in an hour’s time she had an appointment to see them. Murray had introduced her to Wessex Artists so at least she could be grateful he had given her a living.
She left for her appointment on her bicycle and in her cycling gear. Her lodger in the basement, whom she had nothing to do with apart from collecting the rent, referred to her as ‘that dyke’; but what did she know, she was a chirpy English student, what did she know about sharp-looking forty-six-year-olds?
Tessa was sleek and wiry. Her hair, if it had been long, would have been corkscrew curly but she kept it short. It was dark brown, nearly black and the strands of grey at the front she dyed bright red. She wore black or grey, Trousers never skirts. Boyish casual clothes and sometimes a red velvet scarf. Her appearance was clean-cut and unadorned. She looked like she would prefer a day’s cycling to a morning in front of a mirror. She had the taut sun-touched skin of the very fit.
Some women might adopt the boyish look as a tease, ‘Guess what, I’m a real girl underneath,’ but with Tessa it was more complicated. Her appearance said, ‘I’m a woman, but I’m independent,’ or more usually, ‘Clear off’ – but Tessa was not a dyke.
Wessex Artists were on the eleventh floor of a block in the centre of Bristol. The view was panoramic. Tessa waited, watching squalling, reeling seagulls and rain clouds gathering. ‘They’re ready for you now,’ said the secretary.
Coral and Pumpkin looked Tessa up and down. Pumpkin sniffed as if Tessa had arrived fresh from a pig farm.
‘Do sit down,’ she said.
They were misnamed. Coral was round and squashy in voluminous florals. She had fuzzy hair. It was Pumpkin who more resembled a calcinated sea-creature. They were at least ten years older than Tessa, preserved perpetually in a mould made sometime in the fifties. Nice gals. Pumpkin’s suit was tweed-grey like her hair; she was small and neat.
‘Did you read the letter?’ Her voice reminded Tessa of metal tinging.
‘Sure.’ Tessa crossed her legs.
‘Well, what did you think?’ Pumpkin tapped her desk with a pen.
Pumpkin’s tapping became louder, her mouth pursed.
‘I don’t know what you expect me to say,’ said Tessa after a while; ‘I’ll do it, you know that.’
‘Yes, yes, of course.’ Coral was becoming agitated. ‘It’s just that,’ she caught Pumpkin’s eye, ‘we had a little talk the other day, and eventually, after some time … it was a long talk, Tessa …’
Pumpkin glared. ‘It’s your attitude I’m worried about.’
Tessa laughed. ‘Come on, Pumpkin. I’ll do the work. What is it? Six Christmas cards, the suspension bridge at night, bunny rabbits?’
Pumpkin was silent. Coral fidgeted nervously, wobbling.
Pumpkin patted her skirt. ‘You see, Tessa, you’re good.’ She paused.
‘You’re very good.’ She picked up some papers for emphasis. ‘You’re in demand and yet …’
‘Your watercolours are lovely, Tessa, so sensitive,’ interrupted Coral, ‘… and yet, you treat it as though it were—’
‘Rubbish?’ suggested Tessa.
‘Your other work won’t sell, it won’t ever sell.’ Pumpkin’s voice was steely. ‘Especially now that Murray’s in Scotland,’ she added.
‘I … don’t … care,’ said Tessa like a two-year-old. It was a manner guaranteed to irritate Pumpkin.
Pumpkin sat up straight and smoothed her skirt again. She threw Coral a look. ‘Tell her about the assignment, then.’
‘Oh, yes, well, it’s really nice … last summer do you remember The Historic Houses of Oxfordshire? Well, of course you do.’ She smiled, regarding Pumpkin with caution. ‘They liked your work, said it really made the book … so this time they want …’
‘Seven more books to make a series? Eight more? Fifty more?’
Pumpkin made a hissing sort of noise.
‘Er, no, no, Tessa,’ Coral said, ‘just one more book actually.’ Her eyes were on Pumpkin. ‘They would like you to do six out of fifteen, so you’ve got the lion’s share. Pumpkin, she’s got the lion’s share, hasn’t she … Pumpkin?’
‘Yes,’ said Pumpkin suddenly; ‘six houses, three sketches of each, pencil and wash, there’ll also be photographs, you know the format. So you’ll do it?’
‘Oh, Pumpkin, we didn’t say where, did we? Oh, silly us. The Historic Houses of Suffolk.’
Tessa’s face became uncertain. ‘Suffolk?’
‘Yes, you know, in the east, Ipswich, Norwich …’
‘Norwich is in Norfolk, Coral.’ Pumpkin took a sheet of paper out of a drawer. ‘Choose the ones you want, there’s a description of each, ring us tomorrow when you’ve decided.’
‘I’ll do it now,’ said Tessa briskly; ‘I know Suffolk.’
‘Oh, do you?’ Coral said. ‘I went there for a holiday once, years ago, to a pretty place, it was, near the sea. Well, it was on the sea, actually, there was a lighthouse, I think.’
Tessa scanned the list without paying any attention to Coral. It was taking her a long time. Pumpkin looked at her watch.
‘Suffolk’s lovely,’ continued Coral; ‘Constable country. Well, I didn’t actually go to that bit, but I’ve been told it’s lovely. Where I went it was rather flat …’
Tessa handed the list back.
‘We’ll send you the brief,’ said Pumpkin. ‘Fleming Hall, Bedingfield; well, I thought you might choose that one. Hengrave, yes … Kentwell Hall and Long Melford – don’t forget to see the church … Lavenham, well, there’s plenty there … Heveningham … wasn’t that bought by an Arab? … St John’s Hall? Oh, I am surprised, Tessa, I thought you might have chosen Ickworth, or Alston Court, or Glenham. It’s the smallest one, you know, of minor interest.’
‘But it’s terribly old,’ said Coral; ‘actually it’s the oldest, isn’t it?’ She began to look through a folder.
‘It’s twelfth century,’ said Tessa, ‘but was enlarged in the fourteenth and then again to its present size in 1585. The windows of the great hall came from a nearby nunnery and are in two different styles, decorated and perpendicular.’
‘Oh, I say!’ said Coral.
Pumpkin studied the list. ‘It doesn’t say here about the windows. You know the place, then?’
Tessa stood up to go. ‘Actually, I used to live there.’
She cycled back across Bristol in the rain and up the slow climb to Totterdown. She kicked open her front door and clattered the bicycle in the corridor. Why the bloody hell did I take that on? I don’t want to go to Suffolk, and go to St John’s. Shit! She was soaking wet, and as she threw her wet clothes across the bedroom was confronted with an image of herself first arriving in Bristol after hitching in the rain. She had left Suffolk with nothing, not even a rucksack. She pulled on dry clothes. She was so angry she was close to tears, but it was a long time since Tessa had wept.
I left it all, I left the whole damn lot!
Don had kept sending her things in parcels, and then the money, but she sent it all back. She had bought this house herself with the money she earned from painting and knew every inch of it intimately, since for the last eight years she had scraped and peeled it down to its bones. The house was hers, absolutely hers. Murray had never lived there. Nothing here is yours! She had given up sharing things.
She sat on her bed staring at another of her bleak canvases. Ring up those two bitches, tell them to stuff their assignment! But the hard forms of the painting gave her inspiration; ice and steel, rock and stone, bone. Stone blunts scissors, scissors cut … what’s scaring you? she thought. It was not part of her present self to be emotional. Murray leaving, Claudia’s baby, she had coped with that. It’s a job. Paint the damn place then sod off. She thought how completely she had created her environment here, all hers, bare wood furniture, plain walls, cream, white. She knew everything in her house down to the furthest corner of the most hidden cupboard and her mind scanned these places.
Then she remembered the box she had not sent back. It arrived unexpectedly long after the other parcels and she kept it in her last moment of sentimentality. Under the stairs, seven years ago. She searched it out and took it up to her studio, which was the place she felt most inviolate.
Dusty, a letter – ‘Dear, dear Tessa, please keep these. One day I hope you will forgive us, Don.’ Soppy. Rubbish. She screwed it up. The box was full of photographs. She tipped them on the floor, her life in one heap. There were she and Dee-Dee, spades in hand, smiling in front of the vegetable garden, long hair, wellies, Peruvian jumpers and floppy skirts, stupid clothes for gardening. Don in the orchard in his dressing gown with a basket of apples, smiling. The dressing gown was his coat … St John’s in the snow and all of them outside, smiling. ‘We are the smiling revolution.’ A pile of happy people, summer fairs, winter bonfires.
It wasn’t like that, thought Tessa … And here were she and Don again, in white because that was their wedding. Shit. And she and Dee-Dee swimming in the moat. Tessa felt herself slipping again down the embankment. There were older photographs too; Swinging London, she and Dee-Dee in mini skirts, and now one in black and white, two little girls in a suburban garden, Theresa and Deirdre, puffed sleeves, buckle shoes, arms round each other, smiling …
CHAPTER TWO (#)
It was late August, the Saturday before the bank holiday. The weather throughout the summer had been indifferent, some might even have called it rotten, but Tessa did not care for sunshine for with it came droves of people, in summer clothes, soaking up the day like pink sponges, with noisy children, grandmothers, dogs and radios. And at the moment Tessa did not care for people.
She had now been in Suffolk for ten days. The rain had slowed her work, for although she preferred damp landscapes, it was more difficult to sketch satisfactorily under dripping trees. At Heveningham she tried for two hours to draw the ribbon wall, but spent most of the time in the orangery avoiding a thunderstorm.
She was in her hotel room in Bury St Edmunds surveying her work. She was quite pleased. They were rough sketches on rain-blotched paper, but she could see how they could progress. Remember, light on stone mullions, indigo shadows under cedar trees. She scribbled notes on the paper. Remember, wet skies, big clouds. The light, pale gold, could be pale green. Sienna-ripe wheat, barley’s softer … Tessa had travelled right through Suffolk, from the rolling willow-banked fields of the Essex borders and the Stour valley to the bleaker wheatlands of what is called High Suffolk, which is almost a joke since nothing except church towers are really high in Suffolk, to outside Bury St Edmunds, the hedgeless fields, agribusiness wheat deserts, no weeds, no poppies, no cornflowers. But it’s not got worse, thought Tessa, remembering exactly what it was like to be in the middle of a wheatfield, when the far end of it was ages away, and the trees by the ditches seemed tiny. And Tessa paused with this image of herself, ‘walking away from the Hall’, and as she saw herself becoming tiny in the distance, she felt uneasy and uncertain, for she had yet to go to St John’s.
I’m slipping, she thought, and she was tired, for she had worked hard, concentrating on forms and colours and angles and light and the present, always the present, the now of the image in front of her, nothing at all to do with memories. And Tessa felt sad and vulnerable. Ring up P. and C., said one part of her; oh weak, weak, where’s your steel? Where’s your ice? said another. And she thought of her stark canvases, but they were miles away on the other side of England.
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