Well hello there, never thought I’d see you again. Are you still doing those paintings? Yes, I’ve met someone much better than you. Oh, who am I kidding, come back to me! The nights are so lonely…
Anyway…I’ve had a short story published in issue 10 of Polluto Magazine, which describes itself thusly:
“Polluto is the award-winning literary magazine from Dog Horn Publishing. Since 2008 we have been scouring the dark, twisted and just plain weird corners of the world for the kind of writing that we love.”
Can’t say fairer than that eh, and as it’s a lovely foggy day in England (hopefully it is everywhere, but somehow the law of averages says I’m wrong) I suggest you pop over here to have a look. My story is the one about a ‘human life claimed for art.’
During this series of Tales of the Slightly Unexpected we’ve had suspension parties, living in a squat, acting in a low budget horror and being an intern at Bizarre magazine. Now its time for something much more mundane…the night I set fire to my room.
I had just turned 15. My room was decorated in that 90s ‘I’m an oddball’ fashion of suns, moons, stars, Nirvana and Radiohead everywhere and a friend of mine had bought me a joke present, a book of witch’s spells.
Halloween was in the October air as I flicked through the pages one evening, never intending to enact any of the ‘magic,’ as I was far too lazy to draw pentagrams or collect leaves facing only in a south-easterly direction on a Tuesday etc. However I stopped when I reached a particular page.
Being a normal 15 year old girl I had a crush on somebody, and the ‘love spell’ was the only thing that wouldn’t require lots of effort. All I had to do was write their name on a piece of paper and burn it. Easy, right?
I eagerly wrote the name down and got out my lighter – for candles and oil burners – and set alight to the corner of the paper. I watched the orange flame flicker and grow stronger and the thought occured to me…what now? It wasn’t stopping automatically, it didn’t decide ‘Maddie’s one true love is now waiting outside therefore I shall put myself out.’ No, of course it carried on burning and began to make a frightening roaring sound.
I panicked and threw it away… in the bin. In the wicker bin. It really picked up at that point and consumed it with ease, growing taller and roaring and reaching for more. I watched it happen, doing a sort of hopping up and down dance. It hadn’t occured to me in my panic that my bin was under the curtains.
I emitted a helpless whimper as the bottoms of the material caught alight and the flame began to travel smokily upwards. I realised if I didn’t snap out of my shock I was going to burn the house down. My eyes flicked around the room…the empty glasses I was always being told off for! “Stop taking up a different glass every time you have a drink,” mum would say and yet here they were, calling out for me to use them.
I grabbed as many as I could and ran to the bathroom, filling them with water and trying to breathe evenly so as not to spill too much on the journey back. It was working…the flames began to recede and I made a scrambling dash to the bathroom with more empty glasses. I heard a voice travel up the stairs: “Maddie, I can smell smoke, what’s going on?”
“Everything’s fine!” I called like a housewife on valium, and soon the fire was nothing more than a smoking, smouldering mess of wicker and black curtains.
“I can definately smell something, I’m coming up!” She did come up the stairs, and she wasn’t happy. I did, however, point out the life saving role the empty glasses had played. For some reason she wasn’t as impressed as I was.
When I lived in Brighton, Bath, Dorset, Stratford and Salisbury it seemed as if something crazy was happening every day. It was the usual mix of youth, hormones, absence of supporting family/old friends and neglect of self-care, and the effect was similar to wandering through an episode of Eastenders in full swing. Or Days of our Lives if you’re American, minus the Exorcism scenes (just).
Anyway, I arrived at my friend’s house in Brighton to see a police car waiting outside. Helen invited me in with a worried expression and I followed her tiny frame into the front room. She and her housemate Nikki, along with a distraught and crying girl I’d never seen before, were giving statements to one very earnest policeman while their female lodger wailed to another in a different room. “Bloody Hell,” I thought, “What is it this time?”
“She was being horrible to her girlfriend again,” Helen explained, indicating the lodger making all the noise from the other room, “and when I told her not to she just went mad and attacked me!” Helen did indeed look shaken and angry.
“Oh dear,” I said helpfully.
“Right, well, she’ll be going somewhere else and we’ll be in touch,” the policeman explained as he got up to leave. Helen and Nikki’s lodger left with them and the flat fell into a heavy silence. The girlfriend of said lodger continued to weep.
“Shall I make tea then?” I offered, hurrying into the kitchen.
When everyone but the crying girl had the warm cups in their hands Helen explained that their lodger had been increasingly unpleasant to her girlfriend and Helen, always unwilling to ignore mistreatment, had had enough, leading to the attack. “You need to forget about her,” she said.
The girlfriend seemed to digest Helen’s advice. As I sipped at my tea she threw herself bodily against me and grappled me in a hug I wouldn’t give to my closest friends. Her tears dripped onto my shoulder. What could I do but hug back and stare fearfully at Helen, who bit her lip?
The hours passed, the sun rose high and soon she seemed to feel better. When she left we were all assured that tomorrow was a new day, that all would be well, and that she would begin a new life. That evening Helen got a call saying they’d got back together.
I lived for a year in Brighton where everything always felt like it was happening at once. The pace of life is much faster than anywhere else I have lived and often frayed my nerves. From watching junky catfights to jugglers in a park known as the Level, it’s a place always full of surprises.
At the time, end of Summer 2005, I had just moved to Brighton with my then boyfriend Matt. The only person we knew in Brighton was my ex-boyfriend Dave, who lived in a bed-sit. It had been quite an unplanned move and we hadn’t thought as far ahead as finding somewhere to live. Our living arrangements were a little odd: unbeknownst to us, also staying in the bedsit was another ex-girlfriend of Dave’s – Lauren – and her border-collie dog Henry. Thrown in to the mix was his current (soon-to-be ex) girlfriend’s lizard.
Strangely enough Lauren and I got on very well. We were quite similar, and not just because we were both short and slim with dreadlocks. The day started off innocuously; I awoke to the sound of seagulls screaming viciously, the smell of sea salt and the sensation of something landing heavily on my chest. It was the lizard. Matt and Dave were laughing. I was not.
We decided to wander down to the seafront and Matt dragged his tall, skinny frame out of bed, bed being a floor covered entirely in two mattresses. I have weird nostalgia for this uncomfortable time, though I’d hate to be back there in reality.
After breakfast we wandered past the cartoon-colourful shops along the lanes which I loved the way a magpie loves shiny glass, finally making our way onto the stony beach. As always the walkways, restaurants and bars along the seafront were alive with tourists. In the distance you could always see the two piers, one clean and shiny and the other broken and stooped, half of it having burnt and fallen into the sea many years ago.
I let Henry off the lead and watched him race towards the sea and then back away when he remembered being frightened of water. I stuck to the walkway, occasionally throwing a toy for him. Eventually we reached the Fortune of War pub and its benches sprawled outside. Only something was different.
It was the noise that hit me first; it wasn’t the usual level of noise from people at a party, it was something far bigger. Putting Henry back on the lead as we neared, I saw it. The place we had arranged to meet a friend was swamped by pro-foxhunting protesters, and I was wearing a green tie-dyed top, baggy jeans and dreadlocks. They were swarming across the beach, onto the benches of the pubs and congregating over the pier, the logos on their blue jumpers and signs blazing proudly. “Maybe they won’t discriminate,” I thought hopefully.
As we sat down I overheard a livid debate on the table next to us as a local and a protester argued their different perspectives on hunting. We made a point of talking about crisps. As we discussed the shrinking of Monster Munch from the days of old Henry began sniffing the older couple on the table next to us. If I’m looking after a dog I’m always conscious of whether they’re bothering people and I called him nearer to me. “We don’t dislike animals” said the lady. I struggled to hear them over the drunken shouting, but I could see their blue jumpers.
We got into a discussion about dogs, something they’re always handy for. As I chatted with the white haired couple, several protesters lurched off to another pub further down the seafront asking Matt if he wanted a fight. “No, not really,” he replied to a crash of laughter. Turning back to my conversation I saw something I knew I wasn’t going to like; a policeman and woman, making their way through the crowd towards me.
“I’m really sorry,” said the policewoman genuinely, “but we’ve had a report from someone that you’ve been seen doing drugs.” I laughed. Then I stopped.
“Oh, you mean really?”
They apologised again and said they’d have to search me. “We’ll just take you a way down the beach away from the crowds.” The older couple defended me and offered to look after Henry. I handed them the lead and got up, much to the enjoyment of several protesters nearby. We I wandered down the beach, trudging over the pebbles. I chatted to the police about the protest while I emptied my pockets, all to the sound of raucous laughter.
“Yeah, haven’t really had any trouble from them apart from this” said the policeman as he filled out a stop and search form. “You keep a copy of this form to show we didn’t find anything,” he explained, handing it to me. ‘Searched for illegal substances’ it said. I decided to put it on the wall of my new flat when we moved in. I said goodbye and meandered back to our bench, deciding to get another drink.
I remember the night I looked as though a rainbow had thrown up on me. I was transformed into a Gorgon and ordered to hide in the forest, frightening visitors. It was a good weekend all round, during a warm August in 2006.
I had been asked to come along to an outdoor charity event to be dressed up as a “sexy Medusa,” so said the lady on the phone. It was part of a Dante’s Inferno theme in a hidden, forested corner of some private land which the partygoers would be lured to after dark. Why the hell not? I roped a friend into driving me there and back; it wasn’t too far and there’d be free drinks. On the Friday night my friend Angie showed up in her small black Ka, which suited her personality well as my half Fillipino friend is also small and neat. She was dressed elegantly as we were both under the impression they were very rich and very posh.
They were too posh to give us good directions, but eventually we arrived at the entrance to a field. It looked just like a festival, with tented bars and dancing areas overlooked by a many bedroomed monster house. We were greeted at the front gate by a blonde lady who explained my role for the evening. My body was to be painted and I would wear a clinging dress with a headdress resembling snakelike hair. I was excited.
Angie and I drank Cosmopolitans with our little fingers raised and at 9 O’clock I received the bat signal summoning me to the mansion. The first thing I saw indoors was a curly haired young man whose skin was painted like tree bark. “I’m one of the lost souls in the trees at the gates of Hell,” he introduced himself cheerfully. He had twigs in his hair for extra effect, and to show maximum tree skin was wearing nothing but shorts. I slipped into a tight pink dress and took my place in front of a sweet lady with a shaved head and rainbow top.
The painting was laborious but the tree-man, or Hugh, entertained me with camp excitability and Angie became my PR, answering my phone and fetching us drinks. As well as us there were two other girls dressed as a lost soul and a Gorgon.
Eventually every part of my visible skin was pink, blue or yellow. My face was painted toinclude small fangs and huge eyelashes, and then the headdress went on. It was made of felt and snaked down to my stomach. Now I was a real Gorgon, and I preened in front of the mirror before a girl in the doorway said, “Oh, you look like a giant prawn!”
We were ushered to our hiding spot through a tunnel of trees. Red streamers hung to the ground at the entrance, in the dark it was like entering a dream. My bare feet padded on the soft grass until we arrived in Hell – a pleasant open woodland with tall trees, a band and a bar. Several mannequins painted up like Hugh were dotted about for good measure. I always knew Hell was more fun than Heaven.As we waited we were joined by a dark haired girl in a purple fairy dress balancing on stilts. We excitedly chatted and waited, and waited, until it was 1am and I had begun to believe I truly looked like a giant portion of seafood. We waited some more, and at 2.30 am it finally happened.
I was handed a mega-phone as we invaded the tent and soon a very British orderly queue had formed. As it disappeared we floated after them, the tree people taking up positions amongst the foliage, the Gorgons drifting in and out of the trees and the girl on stilts picking her way through the crowds as they danced to the band.
People stared at me in wonder as I slipped past them. It was a very odd feeling and quite nice, validating my delusions of grandeur. After a few hours we felt we had done our duty as ethereal beings and it was time to enjoy the party. We danced about until I noticed the sun had crept into the sky. A man I had spoken to once was obviously feeling the ever ticking pressure of time and asked if he had ‘pulled me yet’. I decided it was time to leave.
I’m always amazed by how much smaller everything seems in daylight. When you’ve been lost in a dark, private world it’s easy to feel that it will stretch on forever, but the ‘gates of Hell’ had become once again a tunnel of trees and, beyond that, a very ordinary car park.
I changed into my clothes and called Angie. I was impressed with the way she had managed to sleep in the car, it’s not an easy thing to do. I slipped into the seat next to her as she woke herself up properly. “Did you have fun?” She asked as she began the drive home.
What would you consider to be a good job whilst studying for a degree? At the tender age of 20 I found out. Cleaning, bar work; all these things I did, at least for a while. I was terrible. Cleaning wasn’t so bad, but bar work was something else. I enjoy pubs, I still like being in them even though drinking is no longer one of my main pastimes. I like talking to people. However, I did find out that these are not necessarily good things for being a barmaid. You need an ability to add up, for one thing. An ability to remember drink orders for another. One member of staff thought I was so bad she asked me in all seriousness if I was on heroin, so it was clear I would have to do something different.
But what? A shop? It was possible, but again my lack of numerical skills made things difficult. I was living in Bath whilst studying, and managing to find a job in a shop was like looking for gold dust. Every student was making the same searches and all had got there first. However, none of that mattered. One day I managed to find the perfect job, in 2002, and it happened in a pub.
“I’m off to New Zealand, but I just can’t find anyone to cover my classes.” This was Teff, a lady who lived in a boat along the canal. She had striking, angular features and a shaved head. Her clothes were almost as colourful as mine. We were sitting in the beer garden of a pub called the Bell; a friendly relaxing place that often played reggae. Sipping on my cider I asked what she did. “Life modelling” was the unexpected reply. Life modelling? Without asking anything further the words just came out of my mouth.
“I’ll do it.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
“Yes, I don’t mind, I’ll do it.”
She seemed understandably skeptical. I was a young undergraduate who probably didn’t know much about life, let alone life modeling. However I eventually convinced her otherwise, possibly through desperation both on her part and mine. It was for the art and design section of the same college I studied at. ‘At least I’ll be amongst friends’, I thought.
The day arrived. It was a crisp morning in November, the kind that makes you feel as though it’s spring even though it’s quite cold. I had to be there for 9 AM and I made sure I was up early to have a bath. Forty minutes and a lot of moisturiser later I was ready. I felt excited rather than nervous, although in hindsight I was terrified. I made my way across the picturesque hills of Bath to the life drawing room. The first thing I noticed were the enormous windows. It was a spacious, airy room, with a wooden floor and a number of easels surrounding a long block on which a mattress was placed. I noticed with relief that there were curtains waiting to be pulled.
The teacher arrived first and was very friendly and welcoming, with soft brown eyes and mid length brown hair. Her overall impression was warm. I realised I didn’t know the process, the little details of what was to happen. In a very low voice, as students poured noisily in, I muttered that I hadn’t done it before. I was a nudity virgin. She smiled reassuringly and seemed a little surprised, but lent me a blanket to wrap around myself whilst I made the journey from changing area to mattress. ‘Thank God,’ I thought, I wasn’t ready to sashay amongst the students completely and utterly naked.
I went behind the tall changing stand, which reminded me of cartoons and films from the 40s where you could see the outline of the changing person as they flung undergarments over the top. I didn’t do that, I flung them untidily on the floor. I wrapped myself in the blanket, told myself to stop thinking about it and stepped out as confidently as possible towards the block. A chair had been placed on the mattress. Without catching anyone’s eye, I stepped through the gathered crowd who waited with charcoal in hand, onto the block and into the chair. ‘Ok’ I thought, ‘First part over, weirdest bit yet to come.’
The soft spoken teacher gave me a brief description of how she wanted me. “Sit facing towards the back of the chair with your arms resting on the top,” like some tough guy from American films. Just what was I supposed to do about the fact that I was wrapped in this blanket? I felt I wanted to be absolutely certain I was supposed to be undressed; at this stage I didn’t feel I could cope with the embarrassment if I got it wrong.
“Um…naked?” I asked stupidly. She nodded her head. I breathed in and whipped off my protecting layer. This was it, I had done it. I was nude in a chair, surrounded by people. They were just drawing. They were listening to long descriptions of angles and lines and proportion, and they were just drawing. No one shouted “Oh my God she’s naked!”
I deliberately hadn’t worn my glasses or contacts so that the students would be a distant comforting blur. After a while I began easing into the role, listening carefully to instructions on posture and positioning. I became so at ease that I dozed off during a lying down pose. I was awoken by the sound of my own snores. As I drifted gently back into consciousness, I became aware of three things. Firstly, it was a bit cold. Secondly, I was nude. Thirdly, I wasn’t at home. The jolt back into reality wasn’t as much of a shock as you would expect. It was more of a subtle surprise.
As I twisted myself into several more poses, daydreaming and running entire songs and films through my head to pass the time, my thoughts wandered onto the subject of art and nudity. Why was it acceptable to be nude in front of art classes, even though it’s as much about being paid to be naked as stripping or porn? Maybe the difference was that this was not intentionally to incite sexual thoughts – not that there’s anything wrong with that in my opinion. The naked body is certainly supposed to be one of the hardest things for artists to draw so therefore it makes sense that they should do it. However, how did it come about that public nudity was wrong, and those who decided clothes were too inhibiting were arrested? I myself admit I think the man who liked to ramble up hills naked must have been mad, or at least a bit cold.
Is it because we are so basically self conscious of how we look without the protection of clothing that we think if you’re happy to show off your lumps and bumps you must be a bit bonkers? There are things about my body I’m very unhappy with, and Teff had things about her body she dislikes I’m sure, and yet in this particular situation we were willing to not care. Why was that, I wondered. Perhaps it’s the strength of a civilised society. After all, if everybody decided to fling their clothes off at every opportunity, where would we be?
So as I lay there, pondering on all these questions, I realised I actually was quite comfortable with my body the way it was. Once the fear of exposure has been removed you just…get on with things. No one is looking at you as critically as you look at yourself, and that in turn made me regard myself differently.
So, after an eventful day, I was thanked by all the students and scheduled to make an appearance the week after. I started collecting other classes as well, and thanked whatever lucky thing it was that I would get paid ten pounds an hour to sit around for three days a week. Nude.