God in the bin, of broken things. Leftover clay. Fossil paper towels crushed into grey flowers, grey failure. Cuts and remnants. For you I have loose pigment in a dustpan, which I knock into your belly with the small side of a brush. Watch it settle for a second, blowing space for breath, fine particles exploring my face. A plane of off-scrape, iffy pots in forgotten evening classes. Temples of wrapping to burn and mourn.
At seventeen, I wrote to a sculptor and I asked her what Brighton College of Art had been like, since I was considering studying there. She kindly replied. I think I wanted to hear someone say “Do it”. Everyone around me was saying “Don’t do it.” In a way they won because I dropped out. Every year I quietly attend the graduate shows. Partly, I think, to pretend that I’m the one graduating.
I cross the studio floor to wash my hands. I keep meaning to have this mirror removed. The ugly narcissist has two options to appease the paradox and give him some hope of reflection. Fake beauty or fake empathy. How did he get here?
The wheels of paradox swallowed him whole and young. When pride should arise in a teen he retreated into sneer. Admired extremists. Anyone fashioning the world by force. He read of killers and occult practices. Internal war machinery on the landscapes of opinion, over trenches, under pillar boxes. A humiliation at defeat, sitting on the edge of your empty edgelord bed.
Achievement was a blind spot for a boy of meagre background (a literate mother with nothing whatsoever). Mundane service, serving those who didn’t see him. Something snaps and he has no option. Re-school. Self-improvement. Style. Aim high. Travel. Sleep in depots. Get lost. Meditation, activism. He’ll rebirth.
Still, even today, he feels like he’s shaping at an endless now. Time passes, growth never comes. To find the root of alienation he needs to step back into the self and what self regards itself to be.
I. Need to step back. Into the self. Paradox again. Eventually, he’ll lose everything in art, whether art wants him or not. He becomes one with wet clay turning from touch, looking down at slips of light through his fingers. The endless motion is motionless.
“That’s really something.” A student at my studio complimented me on a coronado bowl in pearl graphite.
“It’s nothing,” I replied, pleased with the boundlessness resting on the bench. I even talk in cycles. The more the work comes from nothing and keeps nothing at its core, the more it takes of the wheel, then the more it will be.
With my back to the inadequate street light that washes in across Bouverie Mews, I lock up the studio for the evening. It’s on the first floor, above a run-down quadrant of 1930s garages, with old doors in racing green. There was a vintage motorcycle servicing company below me at one point. I think they became a new media start-up and kept the faded livery. There are buckets of flowers under the upstairs windows, pinks, and reds in the daytime.
I hear a voice and look around. Three of my new Saturday students have reversed back under the streetlight.
“We were tempted by drinks if you are.” A woman, but not the refugee, says.
I free my bike from the window bars and wheel it towards them. “Drink takes me all the wrong places. Thanks, though.”
“Something we can eat.” The refugee says. “Do you know. A good place?” She did not know London, she told me last week, with a short laugh, as if that made her a liability, as if leading up to a confession.
She is opposite me at a table for four. Beyond her, a false wall of diffused lights and lattice work. She sits forward and serious, watching each of us, returning to me. Perhaps there is a culture of respect for craft somewhere, or perhaps their young are more respectful than I have been.
When disengaged, her eyes walk back and forth along the ceiling. She doesn’t completely take in what we’re saying. The obligatory retiree sitting to my left. A youngish northern male to the right. Their tutor forgets names. He rarely uses them and usually talks to the work.
The girl told me she was fleeing a regime and that she wanted home. She examines my hands, large and out of keeping with my body. I withdraw them beneath the drape of the tablecloth and feel like a child thus seated. She looks to my face, directly. I replace them on the table again, fingers folded.
Drinks and mezze arrive. Two of us on water. The retiree asked if we’d find her particularly rude if she ordered a bottle of decent wine and didn’t share. A Saturday night tradition but if we wanted to join in she’d happily go house. The northerner laughed, approving of the brass, and confirmed that he was a card-carrying pale ale man till they got over-hopped, leaning towards clean pilsners but good with a Brooklyns.
And it was with performative interest that we angled around the incoming label of some Bekaa red being presented. The retiree noted it under raised varifocals but didn’t appear moved by the aroma. She smoothed the tablecloth to allow the plum-black bottle a permanent home, lapping a tooth after tasting.
“You’re so Stokey.” A toast, then the northerner dips into big green olives and homespun pickles.
“What is So Stokey?” asks the refugee.
“Here. Where we are.” He explains. “Breton shirt. Workers jacket. Organic leeks in his string bag. Community principles. Design for life.”
“So back end of Dalston.” I turn my head to discourage him. Once I might’ve been happy to be Mr. Church Street, honorary sister of some lesbians with dreads, but “It’s lost a lot of its radical nature.”
“Even saying that. Even that. That’s so Stokey. I’ve saw you about many times. Nice here, but half of them don’t live in the real world.”
“Good on them,” says the retiree.
“Not sure how they do it. A hippy landlord ballocksed on breathing, somewhere in fookin’ South India. Pardon the language.”
“It’s absolutely fucking Stokey to swear.” Since the retiree’s second mouthful, she looks more at home in her extended self, like a bird in a nest of feathers.
“Thinking of more innocent ears.” He nods at the refugee. “If the convo flags I’ll teach her some rare Scouse.”
She considers. “This. I would like.”
He sighs and chooses another olive, checks the neighbouring table. “The thing about pottery is it’s going to be something in my hands. All I do is push sales through and see no end to it. Bar the key performance indicators it’s no result, no end to it.”
“I think it is about the ‘to do’” The refugee twists something as she speaks. “The doing of it.”
“Very profundis. But I need to Etsy off the fuckers.” The retiree looks at me. “Yeah, I know. Can’t compete with a machine on costs but leave a girl to dream.”
I smile. “We’re niche. Always will be. But do come back next week!”
The refugee starts pointing her lips at the origami. “What else is Stokey?”
“Villagey atmosphere.” “Alternative.” “To what?” “Bloody Tories, man.” “A personal history of middle-class recreational drug use.” “Formerly radical politics.”
The girl looks at her, happily. “My favourite politics is formerly radical.”
“Less beheadings.” The northerner gargles.
“You’ve seen the skatepark recently?”
“I have seen beheading.” She widens her eyes. “I was not allowed. But I saw.” She looks like she is deciding something, and then begins anyway. “The antiques dealer. They tie his body in a tree. Knees bending like he is running. Dogs play with his blood. Then the head. It looks around!”
She gestures at her feet, for some reason, and it is the northerner who steps into the silence. “Yay, the obligatory fookin’ train crash in the convo. Usually smut but that’ll do. To Lovejoy.”
“Lovejoy.” The refugee looks uncertain of the salutation.
The retiree goes on. “Radicals. They’re the dreamers. Everything’s wrong. Unclean. Un-this. Dreams. Just the shittiest reality.”
“Idealism.” I tut.
“What is Lovejoy?”
“To Brexit.” The retiree grits her teeth, easing the tines of an upturned fork into an aubergine.
The reach for a handrail on rough seas. Life sparking at touch points, pain points, vectors that linger forever. Haptic forces. I am spatched by gravity on a cold place, an inverted back and a throat sticking to itself. A thin, earthy odour. Gloss dirt between demarcated floorboards to greet my opening eyes.
I slept in the studio, apparently, right on the floor. I try to correct till my side howls and I retract an arm and push around. The lights are on. I don’t remember drinking and this is why I stopped.
I rise up in phases. Above me on the central workbench, where something odd watches over me. I bend into a ball, trying to counter the protest, to and fro in some unknown yoga. Then I stand, watching a pyre of clay, slabbed and squared, like an Easter Island blockhead with a rough crown. Detail tried to give him life but was smeared and scraped flat. By the pits of knuckles sticking in the chest, I may have punched him.
The thing refuses my look, as defiantly as he refused to live. I used to fight, way back.
I make for the sink, for sick. Some there already, pre-rinsed on one side. I splash my face and slurp mechanically from the tap. There’s a late place, off-sales. Closed circuit evidence. Homebirds and urban spooks draw their pain to mother night. “Hey, boss. It’s been a while. Thought you didn’t love me.” “Absolut.”
Flashes in cold water, at right-angles. Flashes of retiree, falling and falling, still spouting stingy vinegar, back at one point against a betting shop window, coming to conclusions. “God is a cunt. God hides in his work. God hides. Superstar.” I think it became a game to shock the refugee and one I didn’t like.
I fill the mirror. Drooping bulb in the lips, through a greying beard, an incarcerated stare. The throb gaze. A low voice tells you not to trust that face. I once imagined it had a rough nobility. They’re all just weak or cowered, secretly attracted.
“Yo. Guess who’s wearing his hypnotic bow tie. So there’s suburban white boys playing intellectual jazz at the Vortex. For a change. Just so you’re comforted.” There is one message on my handset, with nothing else received or attempted. An underwater voice in a nightclub. “Tenor guy doing jerky rapper hand jives, pattering to himself. He’s street. You’d hate. Later.”
G-man’s in a wheelchair. I wheel him around for jazz.
I need to feed my cat. I need to lock up. There’s a bike chain and lock, a blowtorch but no bottle. Another stool over there. A glass expecting water. Morning light shining in it. Ten, almost ten.
I look at the Island King, swept and plumped, avoiding his own decrepitude. I nip one of his cheeks. I try to pick him up but he is surprisingly heavy. I try to rock him off the table.
I’m going to have to clear space to sling him in one run through the studio at a bin or straight for the stairs. With a foot I slide a stool against the wall. Yesterday morning I rearranged this place. I set recent work along tall shelves, rather proudly. Curated plates across each wall to give the presentation some narrative. Series, serial. Circles of coloured glaze acknowledge one another from opposite walls. A sense of resolution. Then I wished that I hadn’t, for I miss the mess, the happenstance. When did I become a gallery?
To facilitate the removal of the head I begin to clear the floor, and I reach down to pull an unzipped sleeping bag up from it, cast like a butterfly. And then I stop, for I did not sleep in any sleeping bag. And then I notice two shoes, waiting neatly above the open fleece.
I stand up. “Hello?” I call through the empty studio. I stare at them again. I curse myself for I cannot remember. The head seems to laugh. Whatcha do on her? Somno ambling. Wouldn’t put it past ya. I check the toilet again, the rear window over the alley.
Through the studio, completely. I look for clues. That blowtorch. The bike chain and lock again. When I get to the ground floor and open the door there is an empty space, nothing chained to the window bars. But there is a black utility vehicle parked at the garage doors, but no bike.
I sit on the stairs, unable to move, facing my hands. I need to feed the cat.
“Shite.” With a beer in one hand, the northerner steers unevenly into a standing position and pronounces over our heads. His eyes are determined, his jaw forward. “This is fookin’ shite.”
He is demonstrating something he proposes to do on Monday, in some rented open plan along the intestine courts of the City. The meal, I think, is over. My third or fourth pint.
“This. Sitting here. It’s not life. It’s a blink on the surface of fookin’ life. It’s purgatory. A row of rotten cabbages have more goin’ on. And don’t do another hand shandy round the Andes for muscular dystrophy. Stand on this desk and shout ‘This is fookin’ shite.’ Just do it.”
“Bravo.” Gurgles the retiree. “You won’t, you coward git.”
“You’ll be black sheep for a week and then people will come up to you bit by bit in the kitchenette and say ‘That thing you said, I feel the same’. And they’ll say ‘He’s real’ and ‘Someone like him should be running the ship’ and then the CEO will pull you to the side and sayhe’s been looking for an Acting Director of some bullshit and you’re a motivator. Seriously. Stick your neck out. We’re all done minding our pints and quarts.”
The second bottle of chutzpah sits in front of her. The refugee is sobriety.
“Pints and q..”
“What is. What is.”
“Is he asleep?”
“God is meditating.”
“He has God’s sex life, haven’t you? Look at the face on him. And she’s drowning in her own yawn spray.”
“Just being the metropolitan elite. For your delectation and entertainment.”
“What is yawn spray?”
“I can do it.” The retiree opens her mouth wide and pauses but nothing comes.
“Mi man doit.” Mumbles the northerner, threatening to tumble beer from his mouth and down his chin.
“You’re a Wirral village idiot.”
I ascend the stairs and assess the sleeping bag, a thing which fell to earth. I pick up the shoes, which could be the kind of objects found sitting strangely on a wall.
Something happened, the refugee went back into her shell. By the end of the meal she was examining spoons and singing to the ceiling. And I was watching her, wanting to talk more about home. Home becomes a figment. Soul, rare tastes and the smell of burning. Talk of turtles as big as old tables moving out across a beach at night. Talk of fear and desperation, eyes always open. Describe the suitcase. The one that fell in the water. Tell a mutt he might be rescue for you.
Behind me, on the table, the Island King has quietened. I feel his face. Imagine I hear the latch of the door and bare feet on the stairs. You are snoring. I am cycling.
Stool again. Try to dig some more. Dig in.
“I says that’s blackface. That’s racism. She said it’s not blackface, it’s a charcoal face pack from Debenhams. And the door went. I said You can’t answer the fookin’ door in that, Diane, and she said Watch me.”
“Do you say grace?” I ask the refugee.
“She said I just sang ‘Mammie.’” Laughter.
“No. Yes. Just bismillah”
“‘I’d walk a million miles for Amazon Prime.’ You think I’m mad, wait till you meet Di.”
We were talking about other halves when the main course was served and the retiree took a pair of skewers laden with shank, ruby inside, seared peppers, forked-off into rice. A kind of rhubarb and celery summer salad.
“Went AWOL, the bugger. No idea. Another crook on the Costas. Bouncing Bitcoins off the dark web. Who knows.”
“Yup. Had one.”
“We’re hoping for some.” The northerner’s flow seems to cul-de-sac. And, eventually, he bothers asking me the same question.
“Ah, it’s been a while. They say you get more fussy as you get older, not less.”
“Too busy massaging clay.”
“More jugs than he can handle.”
“Something like that.”
“Adults are fucking awful for love. You get it from kids and dogs.” The retiree tells the lamb. “We’re all briefly beloved. That’s it. The rest is memory. Up until about seven or eight. Then they go to school and that’s it. Real life and they change, and they begin to compare themselves, and then they start to compare you.”
“One night, they take off your glasses when you tuck them in and they watch your aging eyes and around your old face, and they know you’re not the God they thought you were. And they know the magic rush was a passing phase or just their innocence. They see it clearly. And you’ve not lost them, not yet, but it’s very different.”
It’s an odd thing to talk about but I notice how no-one seated around the table seems shocked or embarrassed.
“I think I can pretty quickly put myself into that world, though. That mindset. Magic.” They all look at me when I say that.
The refugee looks moved and she makes a single cough, unsure about eating.
“You close your eyes and will yourself back there. Sometimes.”
“Instincts, isn’t it?” The northerner chips in. “You worry about bikes, then mates, then you worry about girls, then mortgages. Then it’s over and what was there to worry about?”
The refugee begins to sob. And it feels like some quintessential dinner party moment as we comfort her, or wonder what we can do to comfort her, or watch helplessly and say that we’d be crying too if we had to talk to us lot sober. Have we been torturing someone at right-angles? My drinking started.
I am turning one of her cups in my hand. It’s lumpy and childlike, with a dainty handle, daubed kobalt blue except for the edges. Spacey and inward. Defiant, autistic, or something, like she can’t be taught.
The King and I in silent throb, a far-off rev. People walking past Bouverie Mews in minor fits of laughter. A stack of plates to my left. I pick one up and let him examine the flawlessness. “Think I reached my peak with this. I’ll call it ‘My Peak’. ‘Summit 9’.”
I take another and set it down. Revolve it minutely to inspect the quality of outline. “This is called ‘Sometimes I Turn On People’”. I smile. “‘Sometimes I Turn On People In Strange And Inexplicable Ways’. It’s dedicated to love. Romantic period.”
I try to name everything in the room, my voice shifting through degrees of pretension.
“Up there. That’s called ‘Duck Breast, Fiver For Two.’ Thought I was Brit Art. Critics all over it, dear boy. Never recovered. In many ways.”
“‘Ex Nihilo’. Righthand snub to the haters. Look at the lacquer. My comeback, this. Silky as ramen.”
“Controversial vase. ‘Untitled’ but a triumph. ‘Wherever you stand in the room the Mother’s Day card seems to follow you’.”
And the refugee was crying like she’d never stop and all we did was pat her shoulder and make like we were about to do something, and stand up, and sit down.
“I am crazy. I am.” She waves one napkin away with another, looking up and thinking into mid-air. Home, getting to her.
From behind hands she says something I cannot make out. Says it to the northerner. And then she takes his hand and holds it. She sets down the napkin and reaches her other hand out to the retiree. “Please hold hands. Please. Close your eyes.”
The retiree doesn’t take her hand, initially, but she doesn’t seem surprised. She looks at the northerner and partly at myself. “Hold hands?”
“Yes, please.” Her chest falls under her embroidered dress.
I want to leave, slip out behind the retiree’s sigh, but she sets down her fork and takes the girl’s hand and without looking at me lays her knife upon the table and unfolds her palm. The northerner and I examine the waiting lifelines. I put my left hand through it and lock thumbs but neither the northerner nor I know who should offer first. We narrow our eyes at the same time and split the endeavour, knowing that this would be better, lightly admitting a hold but wary of what it might demonstrate.
Fuck sake. I close them, feeling I’m in some bureaucratic order, descending a corridor, monochrome and endless. I pass door after door thinking about hate. Their hands feel like bruises. People I hurt and made me feel like dirt. I want revenge on whoever sent me here. You need Room One, sir.
Paranoia but not. Akin. Let the ghouls in. Unloved strangers’ skin. Fear of commitment. Hit and run relationships. Fear of contracts. Flesh and bone motionless in mine. Deathly relative. I jerk like I’m hit. I measure the wait. A noble wait, walking this bureaucratic corridor, which rolls under an unmoving me. Schoolroom doors pass. Pudgy hands I don’t love. Minds I hate. Part snob. Small but aggressive voices behind a door. No commitment, me. No contract required.
Across the table, the refugee has an emptied look. Something absorbs the faraway restaurant sounds. Her eyes are more, less beautiful. An unstable breeze over sunburn as I close my eyes again. A motionless cruise ship hanging in the distance, filled with hopeful day-trippers.
Mum is above me, darkened in a hat, and she says something flat. Seems happy, a book between her face and sun. My head descends down onto sand and when I return, I’m watching the retiree and grinding my teeth. Bemusement or sarcasm in her mouth, holding out for some punchline. The dentist told me I grind at night. Now I do it in the daytime. Day is night. Age is bleed.
The lock clicks and I finally secure the studio.
She approaches me while I am looking for my bike in the voluminous bushes behind the garage. Perhaps I crashed there. She has car keys in her hand and looks at my overalls and into the large bag under my arm, heavy with dirty clothes.
“Tremendous morning.” She decides.
“It is.” I note the tapered tweed pants and polo neck, the slight madness in her reactive eyes as they seek mine.
She sighs a lot between pauses. Generous silences. She tells me her name but I’m blank. Tells me that she owns this and points along the wall. We discuss her mother and health. I ask about the media start-up and she tells me they moved on quite some time ago. We discuss the changing neighbourhood. She wonders what to do with it. It?
She sighs slowly. We’ve run out of things to say and she stays there, and I too.
“I lost my bike.” I move to suggest that I need to leave. “I lost someone.”
“Can I drive you somewhere?” She asks. “Let me.”
“Course it’s history. Lucky to have survived this long. Square footage is off the hook. Not on the main drag but I reckon with some crafty signage the drag will overspill. Whip it into a godawful Café Twice.”
“Where you have to say everything twice. Just a black Americano to go. Milk? Black. Tray? To go. Anything el-? Just.” Her irritation grows as she jerks from Church Street towards Dalston. “What’s that asshole doing? The word is Just. You are so Stokey, by the way.”
“I know.” Familiar windows pass quickly. “I can be pretty Dalston too. Let me know if you need cups.”
At the Persian I check every bike stand, the betting shop window and the corner where we tried to recall more Lovejoy.