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.
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.
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.
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, and 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.