by Aliya Whiteley
In 1992 the lead singer of the New Fast Automatic Daffodils sneered along with the university graduates, the last of the grant-given wasters, to the song It's Not What You Know. There was a line that we all loved back then. We spat it at each other on the dance floor with a delight divorced from experience:
I could get a good job if I tried, but what's the point?
I sang it too, even though I hoped—well, suspected—that there was a point. And now I know what the point is.
The point is to make yourself indispensable so that, twenty years later, when it all falls down, you're the one with a tick next to your name rather than a cross.
I wish I had known this. An inkling wasn't enough to straighten me out, to put me on the path of a decent degree: mathematics, the capital Sciences. I carried on applying myself to the applied arts, and I should have known better. It's hard, now, to remember those roads filled with cars, those skies filled with smoke. The Magnet Trams took the place of the motorways in less than five years. It was an amazing feat of engineering, given that there were hardly any English engineers. They'd all run off to China.
"What are you working on?" says Isla.
I don't want to give away my title. I've found that once I name a piece, anywhere but in my head, it becomes set in stone. I know, that sounds ridiculous, given that it's literally made from stone, but it's true. Possibilities are lost when names are given.
"I'm calling it 'The Horrors of Transformative Society'" I tell her. I put down my hammer and chisel, and step back from my work.
"He's not going to like that, Min," says Isla. She dips her brush into the water, and it clinks against the glass as she shakes the colour magenta from its bristles.
"I know. That's why it's also going to be called, 'Squirrels Collecting Nuts in an Untouched and Unlikely Wood'".
Isla sighs. "Don't you know that irony died in 1999?"
"That would explains why my sense of humour stinks."
She doesn't laugh.
I don't get on with any of the women here, but at least it's better than Magnet work.
I worked on Magnet One, from London to Manchester. I was born and raised in Shepton Mallet, and went to Exeter university. I'd never been further north than Birmingham before. The greyness of Manchester amazed me. It was a different country up there. I found myself humming The Smiths continually with a new understanding. Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now.
I met him at the last wrap party for Magnet One. He's an engineer, of course, one of the new ones from the Scottish universities. He's so much younger than me. He says that doesn't matter.
Although I had to report for work every day to get our living allowance, the company liked to pretend I was there willingly. Part of their commitment to keeping the workers happy was the wrap parties at the end of every fifty kilometres of tramlines. Every worker was given a voucher for a can of Strongbow and there was always live music. They formed themselves into bands, groups, duets, quartets: rock, pop, indie, banghra, whatever. The musicians waited for their chance to perform, queuing for one of the five-minute slots, and then they'd squash in as many songs as they could, Mozart to Motorhead, none of it making us feel anything other than the sad and sweaty desperation wafting from the makeshift stage.
He introduced himself to me as Kyle halfway through a rap version of Big Yellow Taxi. He was wearing a tee shirt and jeans, but still I could tell right away that he wasn't one of the workers. His boots were too expensive. Caterpillars. He said he loved live music and he heard this was the best place to find it. I'd had my can of Strongbow, so I didn't think of the danger when I told him that he was crazy to think there was anything of worth here.
He told me he'd been to the operas and concert halls of the world and had yet to hear something real. This idea of real has always been a strange one to me. As if one type of experience means more than another, as if performing for food is more worthy than performing for money. He provoked a reaction in me, and for the first time since I graduated I had something to say: not in words, but in stone.
But because I had no way to do that, I told him instead. I told him I loved to sculpt, needed to sculpt, needed to explain the world to itself in a way that could be touched and handled, that could survive beyond us. He listened with an intensity that surprised me and nodded along, encouraging me to say more, until I had exhausted the topic and the cider had gone cold in my stomach. The musicians played on, but the party was beginning to break up. It would be an early start tomorrow; every day was an early start.
I said goodnight, suddenly embarrassed, wondering how much I would regret having spoken to him, to anyone, that way.
That's when he told me about his Collective.
He offered me a provisional place for three months—enough time to produce a piece of art, to his reckoning. If it was any good, I would be allowed to stay permanently. A meeting of like minds—that was how he described it. I didn't realise until he arrived that the kind of like minds he liked only belonged to women.
Isla says, "How much longer will it take? Your squirrels piece?"
"Three weeks," I predict.
"For the ball? Mine will be ready for then too."
We would be foolish to not meet such arbitrary deadlines. In three weeks' time Kyle will choose the best pieces and those will occupy his famous arena for the summer ball. He has a theme in mind, of course, but he never tells us what it is. He says he would hate to influence our creative processes.
The double doors at the far end of the studio open, and I can tell by the way the other women go quiet that Kyle has arrived. He drops in every now and again if he gets the time. He's working on a hydroproject—something I could never understand, something to do with wave generators—and it keeps him busy, but he says just a few minutes in the studio revitalises him.
I turn to my work in progress, my back to the doors, but I feel him approaching. I pretend to sculpt, trying not to think about how old I'm getting, how lines have been scored on my face. I'm sick of it all. The desire to create, to be special, to communicate my unique vision: these are ideas for the young. The old among us just want the world to keep ticking.
"Hey, Min, that's looking great," he says. "Have you got a title?"
I pretend to concentrate on the lines of the sculpture; I purse my lips, and wag one finger at him.
"I know, I know," he says. "Listen, I'm really sorry to interrupt, but I really need your expertise. Can you walk with me to the house? It will only take a few minutes."
I put down my chisel and look up. Isla's expression is priceless; I wish I could capture that tight, pinched jealousy. I can't help but smile at her as I agree, even though I'm suspecting the worst.
Kyle is kind. He talks to me of an exhibition he recently attended in Paris as he leads me out through the double doors, under the noses of the twenty-four other women who currently make up our Collective, and across the garden to the big house. It's a warm spring day with a fresh breeze, and the flowerbeds are beginning to come to life with the purples and whites of the crocuses. Ahead, his house, his mansion: Corinthian pillars made from one of the new materials, black, alternating with long thin windows that reflect the sunlight.
"So few people work in stone any more," he is saying. "Lots of recycled materials, old fridges, circuit boards, all sorts of statements about our terrible past, but nothing about our present, or our future. Why is that?"
"Do you think stone would represent that?" I ask him. "The present, the future? It's a surprising idea."
"Well, it represents permanence, doesn't it?" He talks about solidity and atomic structure, and I try to pay attention; I wonder if he's aware that I'm really not taking in the conversation. As he takes me into the amazing house he had a part in designing, through the grand hallway, up the staircase, to the west wing and the arena, he says, "I loved your last piece. I think it really captured that sense of timelessness that I so admire about your work. I stood next to it all night—at the summer ball—and it kept me company. I don't know, sometimes these events can be so lonely. I feel like I'm looking for something, and I never find it. Is that how you feel?"
There's a party, would you like to go? You might meet somebody who really loves you.
I find myself singing, "So you go, and you stand on your own, and you leave on your own, and go home, and you cry and you want to die."
"Exactly!" he says. He's too young to know that song. He's just being polite.
"But my statue kept you company?" I ask Kyle. We stand side by side in the arena, that enormous empty white space, waiting to be filled. I wonder if he feels about my statues how I felt about the lyrics of How Soon is Now? Have I touched him that deeply? It would go some way towards making it all worthwhile.
"Warmth emanated from it," he says. "I felt warmth."
A smiling tortoise. That's what it was. With a silly little cartoon grin poking out from the intensely detailed, hard, perfect shell. I can't remember what public name I gave it, but inside me it was "Blue Peter says check the bonfire before lighting".
"Thank you," I tell him. "That means a lot to me."
"Listen, Min, if I tell you my theme will you promise not to tell the others? I know I can trust you." He doesn't wait for my reply. "I want to do something really special this summer and convert this whole space into a church of art. A British temple. But I can't see how to transform the space, and I thought maybe you can look round and see if you can come up with some ideas. I want to make it feel personal. These white walls and high ceiling; it's not religious, is it? I'm thinking tiny churches on the edge of the moor, the needy gathering on a Sunday, the hard work of the bellringers. Not Catholicism. Methodism. You know how much I rate your vision. Give me a hand with this one, yeah?"
So this is not being sent back to the Magnets. This is a promotion.
"Of course," I say. "Yes. I get it. It'll be amazing. Let me have a think about it."
How eagerly I grasp at his tired suggestions that do not speak to me. I would hate myself if I wasn't so relieved.
"Okay, well, I'll leave you here to have a look round for a bit, and we'll have lunch at twelve, yeah? I'll come and get you." He pats me on the shoulder and goes back to his latest project. No doubt he will sit at his antique desk in the east wing and congratulate himself on my enthusiasm.
After he is gone, I walk around the white space clockwise, trying to feel inspired. A church. My parents were never religious. The last gasps of Christianity were soft, silent breaths, unnoticed by me in my twenties. I had more important things to think about than God.
I need a great idea about a subject that does not interest me.
I walk to the back of the room and look out over the garden once more through the floor to ceiling windows, giving long slots of light. The bushes have been trimmed and the high hedges give a privacy that should have been impossible in a west London home. The separate building that houses the Collective is a large, grey, utilitarian shed. Isla and the others are working inside it. They would beg to know the theme of the party. Shall I tell them? I haven't decided yet. It's too late for them to change their pieces anyway.
The high fence at the back of the garden is a solid line. From my raised vantage point I can see over it for the first time. This estate is truly enormous; where I imagined there must be other houses, belonging to other engineers, there is in fact a patch of open scrubland, stretching away to what looks like a copse of trees in the distance. I can see two men in red overalls feeding a small fire from a pile of wood beside it. They are taking their time, breaking each rectangular piece of wood over their knees before feeding it to the carefully regulated flames.
Not wood. Canvas.
I recognise one large piece in pile, stacked against the others. Isla created a ballroom scene, from the Regency period, many women in wide dresses and men in long coats, and she gave every one of the figures Kyle's face. Even the women. Why she thought it would appeal to him, I'll never know.
A man breaks it over his knee and throws it into the fire.
A little way from the bonfire is a heap of broken stones and rubble. My tortoise sits there next to it. From this distance his smile can't be seen. Propped up against his shell is a sledgehammer.
I turn away and start walking around the clean and empty arena again, this time in the opposite direction. Counterclockwise.
All art is quite useless, according to Oscar Wilde.
The worst part is that seeing that fire, that pile of rubble, has given me an idea. I know how to turn Kyle's ball into a church. I know that I have to start work on a new piece, right away, to act as the centrepiece in his temple. If I work day and night I might just be able to finish it in time.
This is what I am. I give myself away to those who don't understand, or don't care. I will continue to give myself away, whether people want me or not. Art is, after all, both useless and endless. I could have had a good job if I'd tried, but what would be the point? Is this not as good a job as any?
I sit in the centre of the white floor and wait for Kyle to come back. I run through how I'm going to explain my latest vision to him. And I wonder what's for lunch.
Copyright © 2014 by Aliya Whiteley