haunted by a puppet

This time last year my friend the novelist Kathe Koja asked me to write a short story for a guest post at her blog, Under the Poppy. Kathe posted it on December the 15th, and I included a link to it from this site so that friends of the Artlog could read it there. But a year on there are a lot of new readers at the Artlog who won’t have seen the story, and so I post it here for the first time, with a new collage made especially to illustrate it.

Dec 2011

I have a mystery in my life… a ghost story if you like… that is ongoing. It has un-spooled in episodes of hallucinatory clarity across the years, but awaits… or more precisely I await… a denouement! It started with a prologue that to date has been followed by two acts. Now a two-act drama is always unsatisfactory, so of course there must be a third, though in this case decades have elapsed since the second, and still no sign of the last. Three, why is the magic number always three? When I paint a still-life there must always be three objects in it. Two unnerve me. Though the present interval in this ‘drama’ has now been going on for nearly forty years, I knew with complete certainty once the curtain had come down on the first act, that the story would not, could not be complete, until the end of a third.

When I was a boy of six living in South Wales, I made my first glove-puppet. It was a green-faced witch… probably echoes of Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West underlying that choice… though it was intended to be the Witch from Hansel & Gretel. The puppet had a head modelled from papier mâché. I made a steeple-hat for her from a page torn out of one of my mother’s magazines. The paper had a full-page advertisement on one side in which most of the background was black. I cut and scrolled it into a cone and taped on a wide brim snipped from the same sheet. It was black all over, but the under-brim and the inside of the hat were covered in print. Interesting that I left it so, making the aesthetic choice there should be a cache of cut-off sentences hidden in the crown and barely visible in the shadows under the brim. I’ve always loved stories, poetry, text. Maybe I thought the oddity of a hat lined with words was apt for a witch versed in spells.

I was mightily pleased with my puppet creation, but at some point she went missing, as things made by children so often do, or did back then, when there was less sentiment about the fledgling skills of the very young. Parents weary of clutter threw juvenilia away. My mother threw away plenty, so it would come as no surprise were I to find that the green-faced witch had been discarded by her when she’d thought I’d outgrown it. The truth is I’ll never know what happened to the puppet. It just disappeared, and I’m not entirely sure I even noticed at the time.

Act 1
Some years have passed. I’ve forgotten about the witch. I’m perhaps nine or ten and I’m walking along the street where we live. I’m on the opposite side of the road from where our house is. The weight of my school satchel is against my hip, but I’m heading away from the direction of both school and home, though why I’d be doing that I can’t imagine and don’t recall. I’m passing sombre red brick terraced houses with narrow strips in front of them hemmed by walls of varying heights, some low but some as high as my shoulder. Few plants in these ‘front gardens’. Most are paved and used as spaces to park bicycles. Ahead of me I see something small, dark and conical perched on the top of one of the higher walls. My step slows as I draw level. l look up and down the street to scout whether anyone is about, stare at the blank front window beyond the wall to see whether anyone is looking out. This isn’t a house where anyone known to me lives, so I must be careful about picking up anything that may have been put out on the wall for a purpose. I reach out my hand to the witch’s hat, still pristine as the day it was made years before. I turn the brim toward me to see what I know will be inside, the odd, disjointed, random text I’d memorised, my witch’s words of magic. I place the steeple-hat back on the wall and walk away. I don’t look back, even though I dearly want to. Nothing will ever be quite the same again for me, because now I know there are mysteries, and this one is mine and will always be with me.

Act 2
I’m in my twenties, a choreographer living and working in London. I’m rehearsing dancers in a dingy hall at the Elephant & Castle. Things are not going too well and I slip away in my lunch-break to walk the empty, shabby back streets while I try to think my way through the problems. It’s chill and I’m wearing a dancer’s flimsy rehearsal clothes, regretting already that I didn’t grab a coat on my way out. I’m striding with my head down, preoccupied, arms folded against the wind. The gutter is full of litter blowing about. Something there catches my eye, nails me to the spot, peels back time and makes the hair of my scalp crawl.

When I return to rehearsals I’m twenty minutes late. The dancers, so recalcitrant, loud and ill-tempered that morning, have grown quiet with unease because I am known never to be late. I carry on where we left off, working now at speed and with renewed focus to shape the choreography to the music. Everyone is exhilarated, relieved, smiling. But roiling around in my head are the remembered words of magic I’d read while hunkered at the pavement edge, having prised apart the fragile, crushed-though-familiar paper steeple-hat to find them hidden within.


16 thoughts on “haunted by a puppet

  1. Thank you for re posting. What a weird wonderful world you inhabit, Clive! You are obviously in tune with other forms of energy. That fairy world that can be so dark at times.
    I too do not see the third sighting as an ill omen. Fascinating as always!

  2. Pingback: Evolution (or how stuff happens) | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

  3. Brilliant collage and story – is it complete fiction, complete fact, or a bit of both? Why didn’t you take home the *two* ghost-witches that turned up to see if there were really two, or if it was the same one you originally lost? I can’t stand waiting to hear of Act Three!

    • OK, in answer to question one, complete fact, and in answer to two, on both occasions I felt so shocked that it didn’t occur to me to remove the hat from where I found it. In fact I believe it would have been wrong, like capturing the unicorn, or taking the rose from the Beast’s garden, or… and as an unbeliever I hesitated before using this analogy… needing the proof of having put my finger into the lance-wound.

      My feelings about the expected third sighting are complicated. Part of me wants it…. because it’s expected… and yet I fear it too, because I sense that when the hat appears, then the game will be up. The circle of creativity completed. Good story, eh?

      Peter knows this story, and once scared the shit out of me by pointing at something I couldn’t see while he whispered in hushed tones ‘It’s the witch’s hat!!!’

    • Hello Kathe! How lovely to see you here. Funny that I didn’t think to make an image of the witch at the time you posted the story at Under the Poppy, but here she is, a year late!

      Come to think of it, it was probably because I was so busy writing the story, I didn’t leave time for making an illustration, which is why I sent the photograph of me instead.

  4. Great to be reminded of this Clive. Can’t help reading it with that image coming unbidden to mind of you as a child intently cutting away with the scissors at something. Brilliant collages. I think the colour production in magazines can yield some great collage fodder, used here to magic effect!

    • Thank you Lesley. Yes, there was clear evidence of my obsession in the photograph with the scissors. Behind the camera was my Uncle Leonard, who took most of the photographs I have of my parents, my sister and me. He was a professional, and there are studio photographs of us in best clothes with shining faces, though the ones taken informally are my favourites.

  5. Wowwww! Just sitting at the computer and this image pops up and stops me in my tracks, it’s BRILLIANT, that head reminds me of Otto Dix’s paintings of war survivors – and a great story too, what a wonderful post

    • Made from papers cut from a fashion magazine. I selected fields of colour, but with interesting if subtle elements. I’ve never worked in this entirely ‘found’ manner before. The thoughts started percolating when I used some paper snipped from the magazine while making a couple of the Alphabet Soup images.

      Thanks Phil. Glad you like it. Dix? Dix is a GOD!!!

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