Black Box Gallery, Manchester, England, 7.34pm, Friday, 26 November 1999
I didn’t relish this assignment. The thought of another opening night at an arty event, surrounded by sophisticates, bobos and hipsters all trying to out-pseud each other, filled me with despair. And, sure enough, the usual crowd were in attendance with their Dahrlings and butterfly kissing, clinking their glasses and daintily nibbling hosomaki. The exhibition was called ascending | descending and was the work of one Johnny Rembrandt, a lesser-known member of the YBAs. Some of his earlier work had been brilliant, but of late he seemed determined only to épater les bourgeois; a noble aim in itself, but tiresome when the work was otherwise devoid of substance.
I wondered where Rembrandt was; usually, he loved to be the centre of attention. The crowd entered the exhibition and were greeted by Rembrandt’s controversial self-portrait: a priapic version of the Vitruvian Man. I tried my best to keep a straight face, while the intelligentsia remarked on its form, its composition – everything except the picture’s most striking feature. I realised I was not alone. An attractive blonde of about 23 was looking at me and similarly trying to stifle laughter. She gave a conspiratory smile, and I thought it was worth a try.
‘Hi, do you come to a lot of these events?’ I said. Not particularly adventurous, I confess, but I thought it best to take the subtle approach.
‘No, it’s my first time,’ she said, in a manner that I can only describe as coquettish. ‘But I’d nothing else on tonight, so I thought, “Give it a try”. And you?’
‘I’m writing a piece for a magazine. These events can be…’
‘Yes. Very. Though sometimes they’re brilliant and—’
‘Well, look who it isn’t!’ said a familiar voice behind me. It was David fforbes, presenter on the TV arts programme Chiaroscuro; a former colleague, and one of the most repellent people you’re ever likely to meet.
‘Are you still working for that dubious publication?’
‘If you mean Maulstick, yes.’
‘That’s good. Only joking, of course, in fact we’re thinking of doing a feature on it sometime next year. Well, aren’t you going to introduce me to your lady friend?’
‘She isn’t my “lady friend”, as you so quaintly put it, we just happened to be discussing the exhibition together.’
‘David fforbes. It’s very nice to meet you Vicky. Do you like Mr Rembrandt’s oeuvre?’
‘I haven’t seen much of it yet. But your friend is going to show me round and explain all the subtle nuances and po-mo allusions to me.’
He looked disappointed. ‘Well in that case, I’ll leave you in his capable hands. Enjoy the show’. He set off in the direction of a Japanese woman, who was seemingly on her own.
‘Has he come here from the nineteen-sixties?’ said Vicky.
‘I know what you mean; he is a bit of a relic from a former era. Were you trying to shake him off, or do you really want me to show you round?’
I introduced myself and told her about my reporting work at Maulstick as we carried on round the exhibition. The next room wasn’t particularly controversial, more downright bizarre. It was full of gigantic Liquorice Allsorts, scattered about as though dropped by some clumsy Brobdingnagian. The crowd greeted it with a series of Ahhhs and Goshs.
Vicky sat on a pink-black-yellow-black-orange striped oblong and crossed her legs.
‘What do you like about art?’
I wasn’t expecting this. ‘It’s difficult to explain without sounding…’
‘Like I said, pretentious?’
‘Yes. There is a lot of pretentiousness when some people talk about art, but it’s greater than that. I think it’s all about us, Homo sapiens, how we communicate with each other about life, death, love, hate, etc. And how we try to create order in a chaotic world.’
‘So, what great truths is this communicating? How is this bringing order to a disordered world?’
‘Well, sometimes it’s just about fun, I suppose. There’s nothing wrong with that. Art should be able to laugh at itself, shouldn’t it?’
Vicky smiled sweetly. I’d passed the test.
David fforbes was still with the Japanese woman. He spoke in A LOUD VOICE, so everybody would know how clever he was.
‘Of course, the Stuckists know more about what they don’t like than what they do.’
Vicky linked arms with me. We walked into the next room and were confronted with a giant egg. The ovum was three metres high on its side, and had four cracks running part way round and all meeting at a small hole. I found it strangely unsettling.
‘What d’you think’s going to hatch out of that?’ said Vicky.
I laughed. I felt like I had known Vicky for months, not just an hour. She was intelligent, funny and very easy to get on with. I really liked her company. The rest of the crowd wandered in, and milled about the egg – yet more Ahhhs and Goshs. David fforbes looked at the egg and made a jokey reference to Ai No Corrida to the Japanese woman (who obviously wished she could be somewhere else).
After some time, one of the attendants led us into another room. We all sat on hard chairs. There was a television and video recorder at the front. The TV was switched on, but the screen was just snow and white noise. We waited. Then Johnny Rembrandt appeared. He was smoking a cigarette and carrying a brown paper bag. The crowd clapped, but he didn’t respond. With a practised insouciance, he stubbed out the cigarette and pulled a video cassette from the bag. He inserted the tape in the slot, and invisible hands took it and dragged it into the bowels of the machine. Cogs whirred, and an image appeared on the screen.
The 90-minute presentation consisted of Johnny Rembrandt, dancing to Aqua’s Barbie Girl, wearing only an ‘I ♥ Tracey’ T-shirt.
After about five minutes, Vicky leaned over to me and whispered.
‘C’mon, let’s get out of here.’
So we stepped out into the wintery night, and thus began our fiery affair. Vicky and I spent the next few weeks eating out, visiting the cinema and the theatre, discussing art and life, and making love until the early hours. I thought it would last forever but it ended as quickly as it had begun. She simply stopped replying when I phoned her. When I went to her flat, I found it was empty. Nobody knew where she was. She had disappeared completely. I saw in the new millennium alone, with a bottle of Pinot Noir on the hills above Manchester.
Catbrain Hill, South Gloucestershire, England, 8.31pm, Sunday, 28 July 2058
It is a warm summer evening. I am sitting alone, looking down at the village. The orange disc of the sun is just about to touch the horizon, like God and Adam’s fingertips. There’s a ghostly half-moon. Tiny flies spin wildly. I hear my two granddaughters; they are running towards me. One of them has her hands cupped together around something.
‘Grandad! Grandad! We’ve caught a fairy.’
I fumble for my glasses.
‘It’s beautiful,’ she says. She opens her hands, just enough for me to see. I see the iridescent wings, and I recognise Vicky’s face.
‘Can we keep it, Grandad? Can we? Can we?’
I look again. The wings are already losing their glow and starting to fray. That face seems paler.
‘No. That would be cruel. Give it its freedom.’
‘Set it free.’ I say, kindly but firmly.
She steps back, opens her hands, and it is released. It soars upwards, higher and higher, until it is lost in the blue. I smile sadly.
I shiver at a cold wind. My granddaughters are running away. I call after them, but they don’t hear. There’s nobody else around. I want someone to take me home. It’s starting to get dark now. The only warmth I feel comes from the urine flowing down my leg.
About the Author
Stephen Albones a northern writer based in Burnley. He writes mostly short prose and poetry, and I have had pieces published in Pennine Ink magazine. However, he has plans for a novel, and he is currently working on a radio play.