I walked out I turned, and stood looking at the room.
The first thing that hit me was a sense of energy. This was not some form of heavy, ordered and irresistible force like you might see in a sci-fi film, where the vast alien craft plots an unstoppable course of planetary invasion. No, this was at the other end of the spectrum. Chaos was everywhere, and the environment screamed the word “vibrant” to me.
My eyes scanned the scene, and the product of my efforts slowly pushed its being into my consciousness. Like any other that was newly-born, it was confused and reticent about how to announce itself to the world. It was developing now, even as I surveyed it. Since my very first attempt, I had carefully tried to pigeonhole my work. Currently I had decided that they were not works of art, but more art installations.
A work of art such as a painting was, sadly in my view, fixed and infinitely finite. I saw such a thing as a moment, frozen at the last brush stroke. I accepted that there would be times where the light might change as the day dragged it across the canvas, but beyond that there was nothing.
My work was different. It lived and grew, never still for a moment. Yes, an installation was a good word to use, and to date I had found nothing better. Watching the arts shows on the TV, and analysing what others had done for their own installations, I was less than impressed by most of them.
I wrestled with the stupidity of some funding council somewhere even giving a grant for putting a pile of bricks in the corner of some pretentious gallery. I was pretty sure that I would not be offered a grant for my work.
My gaze returned to the room before me. The blood had now spread its tentacles across the wood flooring to a diameter of around three feet and growing. I smiled at the irony of the vista being alive, whilst everything in it was technically dead.
I strained my hearing for a moment, there were no rattles or wheezing, so definitely dead. I had laid them both along the long axis of the room, until their soggy scalps were almost joined. I judged that their two pairs of shoes were separated by almost twelve feet.
My inward smile progressed to a chuckle, as my observation sounded like an essay question set in a philosophical maths exam. “Four shoes, twelve feet. Discuss”. Extra marks could be gained for answers considering the potential further six feet to be involved at a later date.
Back to my tableau – is that a better word than installation? Note to self to read dictionary later. I’d known them both, of course. These were from my university days, and were finally not being rude to me anymore. I’d known all of them so far.
I do admit that, over the last decade, my hobby had developed into an obsession. Just the one in the first year, then two in the second, and so on. My little black book was thinner now, as I had torn many pages from it. The ones that had upset me.
There will be eleven this year. Maybe I won’t know them all.
Looking Back on a Life yet to be Lived
This is Eric, and this is the story of his life.
Eric wanted to make it very clear at an early age that he had certain goals for success in life, and that they would be something from which he could not be deflected. Therefore, he was born at the age of six months, having decided he really couldn’t be doing with the initial ‘getting to know stuff around him’ phase.
His parents doted on him, but were not driven by the same focus of approach. They soon gleefully acquiesced in busying themselves with doing what he considered to be his ‘biological output meets plumbing input interface scheduling’, and organising his social crawling diary.
Having only one sibling, an elder brother by a year, it was quite a shock when he discovered that there were more of his particular size and species lurking within the local mother and toddler group. His sophisticated counting system immediately expanded, resulting in, ‘One, two, and more than two’.
Perhaps life was going to be a bit more of a challenge than at first anticipated. On that front, it did not disappoint.
Education was a time of wonderment and awe, and Eric leapt at the chance to progress at the greatest of rates imaginable. He never had a problem with the work as such, devouring it greedily in an attempt to get on to the next phase. However, therein lay the issue with which he felt uncomfortable, cheated even; it seemed that there was an unwritten rule somewhere that allowed – indeed perhaps required – ‘big’ people to move the goalposts.
Just when he though he was up to speed with something, then not only were the said items moved, but a door (apparently formed by some dark art) magically appeared, and opened to reveal a new set of additional goalposts in some new playing arena.
Nowhere was this more evident than with the striking and disturbing discovery that his own mini-species was made up of not only normal people like him, but also a strange mutation called ‘girls’.
He could tell already they were going to cause a LOT of bother.
Even when his species had morphed, along with its mutants, into the ‘big’ version, girls still threatened to be bothersome. On that front, they did not disappoint.
Mini-learning completed, Eric threw himself into the world of big-learning in order to ensure his success at the earliest opportunity. Yet another unwritten law had come into play. He had decided that these types of laws were now to be seen not as “magical”, but rather as “devilish”.
His musings had led him to wonder if there was a formula for success based on the amount you put into a project and the return it gave. At university he set about investigating his theory by undertaking the study of philosophy and logic. After three years he submitted his thesis that tried to prove the fact that someone, somewhere in the world had a complete typed list of all the unwritten laws.
It resulted not only in a double first Oxford degree, but also the early retirement of his tutor due to stress, the conviction of the Dean of College for manslaughter due to diminished responsibility, sectioning under the Mental Health Act of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Professor Stephen Hawking re-naming his seminal bestseller from “A Brief History of Time” to “Just A Minute, I’ll Ask Eric”. On that front, he did not disappoint.
Feeling his work in the dreaming spires of academia was done, Eric departed on a quest to discover himself somewhere on the globe.
Living a student life, he travelled and explored varied ways of supporting himself. Dog training in Barking, washing-up in Washington, building satanic-themed kitchen equipment in Helsinki, being impresario to a drama group of exiled Australian dwarves in Oslo… (The list could go on! But happily it won’t).
His final travelling effort was his unsuccessful attempt to launch a career as a mime artist on the streets of Paris. His early performance of a man hiding behind a window failed, due to the crowd seeing through it almost immediately.
Returning to his roots, chasing the success that he knew was his by right, he took a position in marketing – a sector driven by the fact that the need for success was written into every campaign by default.
His hit rate was variable: the account he lost with a firm of funeral directors was perhaps in part due to his suggested advertising slogan of “Our clients have been dying to meet us for years!”. Even so, his verve and drive powered him at an undiminished level, and he enjoyed success as the founder of a global product placement business; his niche was selling franchises to people who could place clients’ brands in the background of news reporter footage at murder and natural disaster scenes.
He made an absolute killing. Eric wanted his success to be seen all over the world. On that front, it did not disappoint.
Success had been fantastic to achieve! It allowed him to collect knowledge from several goalposts and enjoy and learn about the widest ranges of peoples and cultures possible. He was still not convinced it was necessarily an improvement on the single, mini, uni-species of the pre-toddler plasticine era, but gosh it was fun!
Retirement had been with him for a while now, and he had decided that it appeared to be a period where the idea was to enjoy everyone else’s growth and advancement, and hope that it cancelled out any deterioration of his own.
As he looked around at his family, he realised success had been a must for him. Ah! Yes, family. It seemed he had found some form of metaphysical replacement for his paid-off mortgage, somewhere for him to spend the trappings of his success.
Years ago he would have added a porch to the house; now he adds a Porsche to the household. In a pleasingly ironic twist, his ex-wife was about to be installed as the new Archbishop of Canterbury (her therapist was still receiving therapy about that one).
Eric knew from an early age what he wanted. Planning and making arrangements well ahead was the trick. He hoped his erstwhile undertaker marketing client would one day appreciate the ironic flourish. On that front, he did not disappoint.
The Other Side
The three of them stood there, contemplating. Wondering. Imagining. There it was: the other side. It was so big, so dark, so unfathomable. How far did it go, and just what was it made up of? Not so much a black hole as a black everything. Truth to tell, it didn’t look that far away, but that was its trick; it lured you in and gave you a false sense of security.
Spike believed that it was a distant echo of the spiders, inviting you into a lair from which there is no escape. He’d watched and marvelled at the way the stupid fly struggled to its last to break free, but there was never any escape. Perhaps that was what lay beyond – a twisting and agonising end for the sins of the past.
He turned to Needles and Quilly and looked them each directly in the eye. “What do you think is on the other side?” As he had anticipated, they were both nervous of being the first to speak, worried they would stray from the group line on these matters.
Quilly drew in a breath and then she said, “Well, this is the nearest I’ve ever been to it, but it looks scary to me. I can’t imagine any reason for going there.”
The boys turned to each other and sensed that they held the stronger position. It was just nature’s way to make the female feel timid and deferential. Needles took heart and chipped in, “I had an uncle last year who was curious to see what lay on the other side, and my mum told me that he never came back. Well not all of him. The family had argued with him over it for weeks, but they couldn’t talk him out of it. He set off late one night apparently, and the next day he was found just over there.” He pointed to a clearing nearby. “They knew it was him from his gammy leg, but they never found his head. The monsters had eaten him as a punishment for his trespassing on their grounds.”
All three shivered in silence, trying to take in the gruesome visions now playing in their impressionable minds. Quilly even appeared to take a pace or two back from the evil place before them. This outing was meant to be one of adventure, not depression, and Spike tried to lift the spirits of his friends.
“Well I heard that it’s not always been that way.”
Again, they all nodded like the wise old owls who patrol the woods imparting wisdom to those intelligent enough to listen. They all knew of whom he spoke. The legend had been with them since the time of their parents’ parents and many generations before that.
Scamper had been the youngest, bravest, funniest and loudest of his group. Nothing had scared him, or at least nothing appeared to. He had his run of the encampment and the pick of adoring females. He would go on forever, and yet he lived every day as if it was his last.
One day, after listening to the stories of the terrors of the other side, he announced that he was tired of living under the gloom of this threat, and he had decided to face the monsters and defeat them. He wanted to banish the threat all in his group had felt for the whole of their lives, and he busied himself through the day to carry out his plan and visit the demons lurking on the other side.
As midnight slipped past, he set out alone to realise his glory. He never needed to return, and the legend grew that he now held sway over the monsters on the other side.
Spike now also had a plan – his own destiny. He was ever so slightly the eldest in the trio of friends that had been together from the first they could all remember. He was strong and lithe, despite his lactose intolerance, and he wanted to lead his friends into the place where they would form their own legend in times yet to come. They would follow the great Scamper to the other side.
“What do you think? Shall we go together, or do you two want me to show you how it’s done?” This last point he threw out as a challenge to see if they really were serious about what they had planned over the last week.
The words fell as heavily as any gauntlet hitting the ground. Quilly stared at her feet, a pause for thought, and then quietly and calmly said, “Together. That’s how we’ve always been, and that is how we should be now. I couldn’t imagine us doing anything like this unless we were all in it.”
Needles sighed inwardly, partly with fear, and partly with relief that his two greatest friends had effectively made the decision for him. “OK, let’s do it.”
They all edged warily towards the darkness in front of them. Leaving the cover of their familiar surroundings immediately raised the noise they had to cope with. This could be distracting, and Spike had already marked out a point that he would choose to enter the other side. They surveyed the tree-free desert keeping them from the other side and waited.
On some telepathic level it was understood that Spike would tell them when they would leave. The silence was cut by the cry of “Now…..!” streaming from his mouth as he set off. Needles followed, his eyes never leaving the careering figure of his leader just in front of him. Quilly, hesitant at first, also flung herself out into the void.
As they dodged the growling bright-eyed sentries that patrolled the flat grey border, the two boys looked at each other and whooped with delight as they slipped, exhilarated, into the damp grass. Spike turned and shouted into darkness, “Quilly, you alright? Quilly?”
The departing sentry spat his bloody answer: she had reached the other side.
Harry sat himself down in his favourite armchair, stowed his cup of coffee and small pile of biscuits on the side table and switched on the TV via the remote control. As the screen flickered into what appeared to be a mass of colours, his vision processed the information, translating it into a documentary all about Damien Hirst’s dotty spot paintings. The translated version did little to impress his cultural side. It still looked like something a child would do with a magic marker.
Harry sighed, and munched through his first biscuit. A Jammy Dodger, that definitely had more taste than Hirst.
The thought of being able to produce such a work (the painting, not the biscuit) made Harry smile, and not for the first time recently. His visual acuity was excellent, even as his middle years seemed to pass at an ever increasing pace. That had always been the case: his view of life, the world, and the wonderful people in it had always been good. The processing of the things that surrounded him had been an activity his brain had apparently enjoyed since as far back as he could remember. Never any problems on that front.
Words. Now that was another thing altogether. Perhaps he had suffered some unfortunate glitch in his development in the womb, but he had always had problems with words. It seemed to matter little whether it was to do with individual words, or phrases that grew into complex and sophisticated sentences, they just seemed to cause him grief. Even when he had problems in other areas of his life, he could always trace them back to being a product of word mishaps.
His earliest recollection was from the onset of basic history as a subject in his first year at school. Learning about England and its valiant attempts to remain free of invasion led to perhaps inevitable challenges. For almost four weeks after studying the Battle of Hastings and 1066, Harry luxuriated in his ability to impress his family, friends and other relatives with the fact that he knew that King Harold was slain with an arrow shot by a large-nosed French chap called “William the Conk”. Somewhat confused and crestfallen at the frankly pitying response he received, he went back and carefully re-read the text books.
Harry started in on a Custard Cream, and his thoughts drifted forward towards the present day.
He had been invited to a foreign restaurant by his soon to be wife when they had first met. He had expected the main course to arrive as a cuisine classic, with a robust and heavy white wine sauce. When it was placed before him, he sighed, and asked to see the menu again. No, indeed it did not say “Chicken, Thicker Marsala”
Time for another biscuit. The Malted Milk put up little resistance, and was washed to its noble death with a final swig of the remaining coffee.
How cruel life can be. There had been many occasions on which his words had changed his demeanour, fortune and even long term plans, but the one that sprang to mind now was perhaps one of the worst. Having negotiated the initial “franco-indian” meal with his intended, they had gone on to produce a wonderfully rational and settled family. Their youngest daughter had shown a flair for languages, and this worried Harry to such an extent that he spent several weeks casually interrogating the milkman on the doorstep as he delivered the daily pinta. (It turned out thankfully he had never been anywhere further than Crewe on a daytrip.) Imagine the delight he and his wife felt when their girl had become engaged to a barrister whilst teaching in Milan. However, the first meeting of the future in-laws did not go as scripted, when fiancé Mario explained that he had indeed worked as a barrista serving drinks in some of the best coffee shops in northern Italy. Never mind, the young lovers were poor, but happy.
Harry smiled and chuckled to himself. Words are great. How could anyone live without them? Would he ever get the hang of them?
He looked to where the biscuits lay, and decided it was time to pour himself a Bourbon.
Hero Hit with Tragedy by Anger of the Gods.
Yesterday a terrible wrath was visited upon an innocent local community as a result of upsetting the gods by the actions of its prosperous residents. Our on the spot, eye witness reporter at the scene, Pliny the Younger, 28, gave a full account of how the tragedy unfolded.From his view point, aboard a boat only several miles from the disaster, he detailed how for a period of six hours the massive destruction rained down on the trendy town of Pompeii, and its up and coming near neighbour Herculaneum. Questions are already being asked of the local officials as to why the authorities had not acted sooner and taken more steps to protect the community.
Coming the day after “Vulcania” – the festival of the fire-god immortal – surely the signs were there for all to see. It would have taken only six or seven generations to build a covering shade over each town – why the hesitation? Not one regional imperial employee has come forward to explain matters, and this is currently rumoured to be due to the fact that they are all dead. Sources close to the event declined to comment.
Two survivors, Sharonus and Traceyus, 22 and 23, merely in the area by chance to attend a friend’s wedding celebration the following day commented, “It was like totally amazing. We had just ordered a third amphora of wine from the tavern landlord, and had begun dancing around our belongings holders when, whoosh! – we were left in only our singed tunics and no hair to speak of. It was awful; we had just spent 10 denarii each on plaits.”
Triggerus, a returning-from-being-branded street sweeping slave, 34, was found crying near the edge of the scene. He had put in a request for new equipment over a week previously, and had not yet been issued with anything. “I’m never going to be able to clear up all this ash on my own, well, not without a bigger broom. I need to speak to the union about this.”
In a cruel twist of the gods’ humour, the reporter’s uncle, Pliny the Elder, 56, was also killed in the aftermath of the catastrophe. Being Admiral of the Fleet, he had ordered ships of the Imperial Navy across the Bay of Naples to assist with the rescue of stranded victims. His intended heroic act has been questioned by officials on duty at the time. A spokesman, Morethanmyjobsworthus, 42, said, up to this point, they could find no record of any assessmentus riskus being carried out.
Not only people were injured and killed. Other property was damaged over a wide area, believed to be more than 2 leagues at the very minimus. Local merchant Insureus, 22, said there was nothing that could be done about the destroyed homes and businesses, but he had thought of an idea for any future occurrences. He declined to elaborate on this, but entered a nearby temple to consult a soothsaying oracle, ancient, on recent water levels.
The remaining community is pulling together however, and one newly self-made local shovel and wheelbarrow magnate, 33, was heard to complain about the hooligan element already causing problems; “It’s all well and good with a bit of looting, but those obscene murals and graffiti they’ve put up are a step too far. Mark my words, it doesn’t matter how pretty they look, they’re going to cause offence for many years to come.”
(Further details and panoramic carvings of the aftermath available inside on tablets ii. iii. iv. v. and vi)
Antigonus: Well, is that the fastest you go? Am I about to be “ambled” to death over several years?
Bear: Listen, my friend, it’s not easy being a bear. Especially in winter. I’m supposed to be asleep now. My bedtime is a thing of distant memory. Can’t you just stand still and we’ll get this over with?
Antigonus: Here’s an idea: how about we take a break? You stop following — I mean chasing — me, and I’ll stop strolling — I mean running — away?
Bear: Sounds like a plan. Where shall we sit? Near some food perhaps? At least find somewhere comfortable.
Antigonus: Look, there’s a nice mossy bank over there. After you?
Bear: Many thanks. (Sigh!…) Do you know that my heart really isn’t in this game anymore? For the last several hundred years all I’ve done is exited. I never seem to be getting anywhere. The times I’ve wished that, just once, I could enter somewhere. I think I’d feel a real sense of achievement if that happened. Progress. Something to look forward to.
Antigonus: It’s not really that great to be honest with you. One entrance is much the same as the next. They all become boring after a while.
Bear: I’d love to be bored with entrances. New boredom every day! Fantastic!
Antigonus: Careful what you wish for. Some places you enter are not very welcoming. It can be terrible if you are not where you should be. People become uncomfortable with things they do not expect or agree with. They feel themselves entitled to be at ease in their chosen environments. Do not upset the status quo.
Bear: I can see how that might turn out. I ran into a bloke a few years ago on a previous exit, and he was not happy. Seemed he was off to see his mates Vladimir and Estragon, but kept exiting to the wrong place, never getting entrance to where he wanted to be. Poor Godot, he seemed so confused. At his behest I ate him to relieve his pain. I still wonder if his mates ever went home, or are still just hanging around?
Antigonus: That rings a bell, actually. This time we spend exiting is draining, I admit. What could we do if we were sent in a different direction? Play? Write? Sing? Love?
Bear: No time for any of those. All I think about is food and hunting. My in-bred feelings tell me that the world is better with more bears and fewer humans. My rumbling stomach confirms this regularly.
Antigonus: Stomachs and gut feelings are never what they seem. Bad system to rely on for hard facts.
Bear: That’s okay for you to say, but I’ve got a lot of hibernating to catch up on after all these years.
Antigonus: You seem to be looking at me a little differently. Has this rest affected you adversely?
Bear: Not in the slightest. I feel it is time for us to return to our main activities. Enough rest for both of us. Let us return to ambling and strolling.
Antigonus: Okay, are you ready? Do you want to give me a start, or should I put some real effort in to build up a lead?
Bear: Don’t get smart with me, sunshine; I may feel a surge of trotting coming on.
Antigonus: Sorry, I didn’t mean to upset the status quo. Shall we go?
Bear: I’ll be right behind you. What’s that over there?
Antigonus: It seems to be a way out. A signpost. What does it say?
(Exit, for a final time, pursued by a bear…)