The joy and frustration of writing! I started a short story to put out some new material while I work on the next novel. But it turned into a long and now I’m tempted to make it even longer. It’s the story of how I wrote my first play: Trial of the Living Dead. I hope to have it finished this week, but deadlines and me are on very bad terms.
Here’s another short, also unedited.
There’s a tremendous sculpture in a Dublin park, and it began when Mick (it’s a name) needed to dispose of a plastic bottle; I don’t know why he didn’t hang on to it until he found a bin. As he walked along the path beside what we’ll call The People’s Park, swinging the bottle and watching the attractions of the distant carnival, he wondered what the lights would look like through the green plastic. He removed the label and held the bottle to his eyes, giving a green tint to the world. The coloured lights of the carnival now seemed to pulsate and shine brighter. When Mick removed the bottle from his eyes, the world seemed a less interesting place. He became bored again and threw the bottle up in the air; when it came down, the bottle bounced against the railings and slapped Mick in the side of the head. He jumped away, turning and shouting at the bottle for attacking him. He stamped on the bottle with such force it burst in a loud bang. Mick’s heart jumped, his body weakened by the shock of the unexpected noise, he ran away, like a criminal leaving the scene. He will not return to this story, but he left behind the green plastic bottle, and that’s what we’re interested in.
Early next morning, the street sweeper passed with his cart. He swept up the leaves and litter and had started to pick it up with the shovel when he noticed the bottle. He lifted it from the shovel and after dumping the rest of the little into his cart, he held the bottle up to examine it; turning it around in his hand, he found beauty in the distortions where it had been squashed. He put the bottle into a black bin liner that was slung between the handles of his cart, and then continued with his work, and occasionally wondering about the lives of the people who passed by.
He recalled a woman who, one night outside a pub, announced, ‘I work at Tesco head office,’ after she had asked him what he did, and he had answered, ‘Amongst other things, I sweep the streets.’ As soon as the recollection came, he realised that the woman had just passed him by without recognising him, well, maybe she did recognise him. Maybe she remembered that when she had made her announcement, he had asked what she did at Tesco head office, and then listed off all the jobs he could think of, from CEO to toilet cleaner. When she asked what he did, he replied, ‘I make sculptures out of rubbish.
‘Oh wow, that’s so cool. I love ‘found objects’. And what compels you to do that?’
He shrugged his shoulders. ‘I don’t know. I just started doing it. I found interesting looking rubbish at work.’
‘What do you mean, ‘at work’? I thought you said you were a sculptor?’
‘No. I said that amongst other things I make sculptures out of rubbish.’
‘So where did you study?’
‘For making sculptures? I just stuck things together and work on them till they look nice, that’s all.’
That ‘Oh’ had been expected. It was usually followed by a polite, and sometimes a not so polite exit. It was sometimes followed by assurances that ‘so you’re not an artist.’ But he couldn’t remember it ever having been followed by her next question.
‘So what do you do for a living?’
Never having encountered this question, he didn’t know how to answer it, not that he was ashamed or embarrassed by his job – and then he realised that he was a little embarrassed, and he didn’t know why, it was honest work, and probably more necessary to the world than whatever it was she did at Tesco head office.
‘I sweep the streets,’ he said, and waited for the inevitable attack. But it didn’t come, instead she said, ‘Oh well done.’ And he had no idea what she meant. He felt it should have been sarcasm, but she seemed sincere, and he wondered if maybe she thought he had deliberately chosen to sweep the streets in order to pursue his art, instead of taking it because it was all he could get; indeed, he had been sweeping the streets for a year before he realised what an important job it actually was.
Thinking of her now, he realised that she had just walked past. He turned to look at her and saw her head turn away. He watched her for a moment before getting on with his job, laughing and thinking again of their meeting. She had promised to promote his art amongst her friends and colleagues at Tesco; nothing ever came of that, but he hadn’t expected anything.
That evening he took the day’s collected rubbish to his shed and sorted the various bits and pieces. Aside from the bottle he had some batteries, the stem from a wine glass, a champagne cork, a dog lead, and a cuddly toy. Not a big haul, but the cuddly toy had burn marks on it and he thought he could make some kind of statement about… something. He wanted his work to make a statement. At the opposite end of the shed, under canvas, was the sculpture he was currently working on. He went over to it a removed the canvas to reveal a mess of rubbish superglued together. He stepped back from it to take it in, and for whatever reason he decided the piece didn’t work; this happened so often he didn’t worry about it anymore. He removed on piece, then another, and another; searching for the art within the rubbish – if Michelangelo could find something of value inside a block of marble, then he could find something of value inside a pile of rubbish. He just had to trust the process.
Two hours later he was still carefully removing pieces and standing back to consider what was left. Finally something told him to stop; the little voice he always obeyed, even though, thanks to that little voice, he had never completed a single sculpture. He stood back now looking at this thing that made no sense to him. He wanted to add something, maybe if he put the plastic bottle on top, like a Christmas tree, of the cuddly toy. He’d pick up one of his pieces and approach the sculpture with the glue, but every time that little voice stopped him before he added a new piece, and he stood back again, feeling defeated.
He thought again about all the people down through the years who had told him to stop wasting his time. He used to think they were just saying that because they had given up on their dreams and didn’t want to see him succeed. But now he wondered if they were right. Maybe he wasn’t a sculptor who worked as a bin man to pay the rent; maybe he was a bin man with delusions of being an artist. After all, he had been turned down for the Outsider Art exhibition a few years earlier because he wasn’t a mental patient or ex-con, this was the organisers stated reason for saying he didn’t qualify as an outsider artist. He didn’t qualify as an insider artist because he hadn’t been to art school.
He sat back, depressed, looking at the pile of rubbish before him. He thought of all the days as a child he had spent putting things together while his classmates were out on the street playing football. He had some regrets now about not joining in; maybe he could have been a footballer, nothing fancy, but it might have been nice to play for his county.
He went to the house and returned with a sixpack of lager. He pushed open the door of the shed and stepped inside, then he stood there looking at the rubbish, trying to see it with different eyes. He turned the light off and stood looking at it in the moonlight to see if that would change it; this was because he had once been at an exhibition where one of the rooms was dark and he looked at the paintings like that for 10 mins before one of gallery staff came in and asked him why he had turned the lights off.
Looking at his own artwork in the dark, a line from a poem he tried to write ran through his head – the sun is shining silver from the surface of the moon. Now adrift on alcohol, he began to wonder exactly what he was trying to achieve. He knew he wanted to create a masterpiece but hadn’t given it any thought beyond that. By the time he had finished the sixpack he realised he had spent his creative life trying to please other people; what would get him into an exhibition? What would sell? What would make people say nice things about him? At no point had he ever simply followed his own sense of beauty. Of course he had realised this before, had argued with himself about it, but always when he sobered up he came to his senses. He went to his desk and wrote on his sketchpad ‘What if you don’t come to your senses?’
The following night, he came home from work, put his sixpack in the fridge, sorted out the rubbish he had collected that day and picked up his sketchpad. It was ripped where a page had been torn out and there was a drawing of a collection of shapes that no sense to him, but that he liked. He went to the sculpture and removed the canvas. It really was a terrible piece of work; six months down the drain. And then he noticed the burst, half-flattened bottle. There was a message inside. He picked up the bottle, took the message out and read it. He had a new idea, probably no one would like it, but so what?