Allison Rowan’s life had taken a turn for the better.
She had never seen herself as a starving artist in a garret. She had always managed to find food, shelter and a place in which to paint. She was streetwise and secure in herself. But it had been hand to mouth sometimes and she was relieved that all seemed now to be changing, changing for the better. She watched with an increasingly detached interest the exaggerated mannerisms of Karelle her new found and oh so eager agent. Karelle toyed with the lettuce leaves, pushing them round her plate and only occasionally nibbling at one in the manner of an anorexic rabbit. She was much more concerned with how she appeared to others than with her new protégé and her narrow, sea green eyes darted here and there as she spoke and seldom settled for more than a few seconds on Allison’s. Despite the glances of unsympathetic diners close by she deliberately screwed a cigarette into an ebony holder and laid it threateningly on her side plate.
Although Karelle was speaking continuously Allison heard only snippets. Her thoughts were with Adam. Adam who had encouraged her. Adam who had constructively and consistently praised her work. Adam whom she had initially regarded with ambiguity, an ambiguity which still puzzled and confused her even though her emotions with regard to him had matured. He was much older than her, close to twice her age, but his eyes continually smiled and his interest in her work was so sincere that she had never thought of him as anything other than a friend whom she had known all of her life. She had sometimes wondered if he ever thought of her sexually. She doubted it, although when they had been discussing one of her ‘fellas’ he had joked that at his age all he could manage was to ‘think about Allison and wank’. That was Adam; totally outspoken, not giving a damn if he offended. But he had said ‘think about Allison and wank’ and it had startled her momentarily. She began at that time to look at him differently. She began at that time to set up small and fragile barriers although looking back they had been totally unnecessary. For whatever reason he had never made any advances towards her and seemed to regard her simply as a friend, as a friend he had also known for years although in fact, and the thought jerked her back to reality for a moment, in fact she had known him less than a year and had considered him as a friend for mere months. Something about their mutual and almost instant attraction to one another had made her momentarily afraid, although within a short space of time she had allowed the barriers to fade away, the barriers which he had never even been aware of. But the fear had returned following that totally unexpected outburst and it was then that she realised that she had to let him go.
‘...and what about the asterisk darling? I feel that the decision should be entirely yours, I do see the point of it from an artistic and aesthetic perspective but it really is ambiguous is it not? I mean this is the Turner Prize we’re talking about darling, the pinnacle... Allison?’
‘Sorry.’ Allison arrived back in the present with an embarrassed smile half forming; ‘The what?’
‘The asterisk darling, your potential, ahhhhem; trade mark? Signature?’
That had been his idea. He had been amused intensely when she had phoned him late one evening to ask him where the asterisk was on her word-processor keyboard. The next day he had painted a tiny asterisk in the top left hand corner of her painting, a much earlier one - for this was before he had seen ‘Truckers and Waitresses’. ‘The asterisk is there to remind you’, he had said, ‘to remind you how much you need me for even the smallest things.’ They had drunk too much wine over dinner and she had insisted in ‘signing’ all her works with an asterisk before she passed out on the settee with a feeling of overwhelming well-being and contentment enveloping her. God, the intensity of just the memory of that happiness washed over her like a kitten’s tongue on bare flesh. Yet when he left in the morning without so much as kissing her cheek he said something which again alienated her for she wasn’t sure how serious were the words he spoke. She had been in the kitchen pouring coffee when she heard the front door and realised he was leaving. She had called to him and his voice came back half serious half mocking; ‘You young girls of today,’ he had said, ‘you’d have your Grannies blushing with the things you get up to.’ And then the door closed and she saw him a moment later crossing the pavement beneath her and although she had knocked on the window and raised her hand to wave he never even looked back.
Tolerance was his most endearing trait. At least he was tolerant until she unveiled ‘Truckers and Waitresses’.
She moved one of the newspapers which lay on the chair at her side, the Independent, nodding and smiling at Karelle as she did so. Karelle barely caught the smile and of course she never returned it but continued with her high-pitched chatter observing always everything around her yet never once making eye contact with anyone. Without picking up the newspaper Allison read again the review;
“Allison Jennifer Rowan’s ‘Truckers and Waitresses’, which seems likely to carry off the Turner Prize tomorrow, has been described variously as ‘pricelessly post modern’ and ‘pure pornography’. I have no doubt whatsoever that it is the latter and have no doubt either, considering what the Turner Prize has become, that this offensive and ultimately violent depiction will carry off the money. I have to tell Ms Rowan however that it is not something most ordinary people would hang above the mantel shelf; the two surly, grotesque and unbearably ugly waitresses who confront us from an unsettling centre stage stare with bulging and over-painted eyes whilst the rake-like one is apparently caressing her minute nipple and the tubby one with the auburn hair and the over -pregnant belly is deliberately picking at her nose. The twelve bearded and unkempt truckers behind, each with his trousers in various states of disarray are apparently masturbating unseen by these sluts of the transport cafe. If this is art....”
And there was more in the other dailies, she quickly flicked through them. On the inside pages the Guardian had reproduced it in colour but the colours annoyed her with their amplified vibrancy.
‘Never mind what they say daaarling no one will ever understood your work until it’s been explained to them, oafs, all of them.’
‘No explanations!’ She was surprised by the tetchiness of her own voice and immediately reached out and took Karelle by the hand. ‘Sorry, but I really don’t want to explain anything, it’s just another painting Karelle. You and I know that.’
‘That is exactly what it isn’t daaaarling, even that tame chimp that you call your mentor realised that.’
Allison lowered her head then raised it and stared across the scattered lettuce leaves at her agent; ‘That tame chimp is no more, he’s a dead chimp, a deceased chimp, he’s a Norwegian Blue of a chimp.’ She smiled deeply but inwardly at Karen’s total failure to comprehend the allusion, recalling at the same time how Adam had laughed uncontrollably each time he saw or even spoke about his favourite Monty Python clip. ‘I’m not seeing Adam again, not ever, but you’re quite correct, he did see something in it which was different to all the rest of my work, something which I think others, so far, have failed to see.’
‘Well I’m so glad to hear that darling! Good riddance! His reaction was totally ignorant, what right had he to so severely criticise your art? A washed up poet?’
But in fact he had not criticized, not previously. He had encouraged her more than anyone had ever done. He had believed in her work, had sat in front of a painting for hours smiling, sometimes talking softly to himself, stroking at his beard and in one instance even sitting on the floor close to ‘North of November’ and crying. All that had ever stemmed from Adam had been praise, which she never doubted was sincere, together with encouragement to progress and experiment. Until the day she unveiled the waitresses in their working environment and he had flown into a red-rag rage, actually screaming at her that she should either ‘finish’ it or throw it in the bin where, in his opinion, it belonged. He did something which he had never done before, he criticised her technique, her technical ability, her use of fragments of cloth under the heavy oil. And he had insisted, incorrectly, that the pregnant waitress was a self-portrait, an observation which had annoyed her severely as she had in fact based it partially on a photograph of Myra Hindley. His final words as he stormed out for the last time had been; ‘Change the fucking thing or ditch it, you can paint but this, this is juvenile pornography, it’s an insult to everyone, a calculated insult and it’s pornography!’ With fire blazing in her cheeks she had telephoned Julia, his current ‘friend’, Julia, whom she scarcely knew but whom she poured all of her bewildered rage out to. Afterwards, tearful and alone, she had defiantly signed the offending painting with an orange asterisk.
She touched the newspaper at her side and caught the word ‘pornography’ reflected. How could it be that he, who had seen everything which she had intended in her previous work, was so blind to this? But it did not matter. He was gone. It was probably better that way. And almost immediately he had apologised anyway, the letter which she received two days later spoke again of his deep respect for her work and for all that she was exploring in her art but it ended with a curt phrase; “...however ‘Truckers and Waitresses’ is one of your lesser works, patently thrown together in haste, and in any case it is technically inept; and that is the real point I’m making.”
‘technically inept’, how could he judge that? And in any case; sometimes an apology was not enough. What she had intended with ‘Truckers and Waitresses’ was to express her loathing of pregnancy initially and humankind in general, not the individuals, but the pack-animals who changed from men whom she could manipulate into wife-beaters and rapists. Pregnancy too really disgusted her; a tiny unwanted animal planted inside of her by some filthy and unkempt male, gnawing away at her life blood like some parasitic homunculus. Ugh! She shook the image from her and flicked the pages back until she found Truckers and Waitresses in the Guardian confronting her again. Maybe there was something of the self-portrait in it after all.
Consciously but with some difficulty she placed his image in a dim file within her mind and forced herself to listen to Karelle.
‘...I do understand the symbolism of that asterisk darrrrling, I really do; a footnote is expected, something else which the viewer must search for elsewhere, but is it in keeping with post-modern and progressive art to even lend anything which may be seen as a signature? Surely the anonymity of these disciples leering at their objects of lust should be reflected in the anonymity of the artist? Don’t you agree?’
And she did agree. She really did. But on the other hand it had not been her idea and perhaps she owed something to Adam, something which would say a simple ‘thanks’ for all the time and love he had shown towards her? The word suddenly startled her. What he had given unselfishly was love. It was there in the poetry which he had dedicated to her and in all the time which he had so unselfishly given. She shook her head to remove the image which was resurfacing but as she did so another image forced its way into her consciousness; a simple photograph of a young blonde woman smiling outrageously into a camera lens but it came with such clarity that it forced her to giggle out loud.
‘Ahhh, well, of course it is only a suggestion darrrling. I do see’
‘No. Sorry. I do agree. I was thinking of something else. The asterisk is dead. Like a Norwegian Blue. Like Adam.’ She laid her hand on Karelle’s arm as her face screwed once more into failure-to-comprehend mode. ‘Come on, let’s go for a real drink eh? Let’s go down the dock road, drink Guinness and pick up a couple of truckers or a medallion-man taxi-driver and get thoroughly drunk.’
Karelle physically recoiled and Allison could not stifle the laughter which erupted from her throat. Karelle suddenly remembered that she had another appointment and gathering up her bag and her cigarette holder, she spotted an old friend at the bar. Reminding Allison to be ready when her car arrived in the morning and warning her that dockers were ‘unsafe’ she glided gracefully but vigorously between the tables and the waiters, pushing each aside, gesticulating with her cigarette holder and calling to her prospective victim with that thin, irritating voice which sounded like the squabblings of caged mice.
Allison suddenly felt depressed. The newspapers were pushed from her view and she waved to a passing waiter; ‘Pint of Guinness please.’
‘Guinness mam? We do not serve beer of any kind. Some more of the Grandchamps perhaps? A half bottle?’
The taxi-driver was the stereotype which always attracted her. All youth, impertinence and bravado. A brazenly horny devil. He dripped with nine carat gold rings and chains. She inhaled his scent deeply and imagined she caught a whiff of brimstone; she made her decision and asked him would he like to join her for a drink. ‘You aint got the fare then lady?’ He queried but she waved the tenner in his face and smiled; ‘It’s just that I need some company, can’t you finish up? Now?’ She was aware that she was not unattractive and her long eyelashes fluttered as she spoke. The taxi driver, Robin-call-me-Robbo, weighed her up and then spoke into his radio.
They danced in the Oil Can and later she climbed on stage and sang a Billie Holiday number in the Green Knight to the thunderous cheers of a group of dockers on a redundancy-spree. She made love to him on the kitchen floor in her flat and again in the bed which she had never shared with Adam and he was gone and forgotten when the stretch limo which Karelle had insisted upon drew up in the street below to be immediately surrounded by the neighbourhood kids.
As she dressed, that memory which had caused her to giggle unforgivably whilst lunching with Karelle, resurfaced. Adam had embarrassed her by telling her earnestly that he had taken photographs of Julia while they were screwing. She considered herself to be unshockable but had flinched and felt her face suffuse with heat as he had reached inside his coat and produced a sheaf of photographs. But they were pictures of a young and beautiful blonde-haired girl’s face, a face wreathed in smiles and whose eyes laughed into the camera; photographs of her pleasure which he captured, she had then realised, with Adam inside of her. Funny, her happiness did not seem sexual but it was filled with intense and liberated pleasure and Allison had felt instantly envious, a thought which caused her to blush again in the privacy of her own flat, as she recalled it.
The decision of the judges was unanimous and she felt a thousand eyes upon her as she ascended to the stage to receive the plaudits, the envy and the cheque. Behind her, as she addressed the crowd, was the twelve feet by five feet collage with oils entitled ‘Truckers and Waitresses’. She clutched her Gucci handbag close and snapped open the clasp out of sight beneath the podium.
I have only one person to thank for this award,’ She paused and gazed into the darkness beneath her; ‘myself.’
The applause and accompanying laughter unexpectedly annoyed her so she hurried on peering intently at the groups of dinner-suited men and evening-gowned ladies who were gradually coming into focus as her eyes adjusted to the lighting.
‘I have no doubt whatsoever that all of you out there have not a clue what this is all about,’ and she gesticulated at the portrait behind her. She laid her handbag on the podium. Again she searched the crowd beneath her; ‘To be honest neither had I until this moment although I tended to lean towards the view expressed in yesterday’s Independent that it could be interpreted as pornography.’
A soft stirring and an almost inaudible whispering came to her ears as she clutched tightly at the object, out of sight, in her hand. ‘If it is pornography then it shouldn’t exist, it should perhaps be aborted, surely it would be my right so to choose. Wouldn’t it?’
Someone at a table about thirty feet away began to rise, she focused and recognised Adam. Her hand appeared above her crocodile-skin hand bag and other people rose to their feet too as it revealed the stanley knife with it’s razor sharp angular blade. People began to call out as she moved towards the painting; negative words, pleas, entreaties. But as she held the blade above her head close to the canvass, above all the clamour behind her rose a single voice calling for her to destroy it.
She turned again to her audience. ‘Pornography, if that is indeed what it is, has never been acknowledged by its creator, it is always a bastard art, it is created not by an artist but by lust and should never be allowed to spring to full life.’ She paused, turned and raised her hand; ‘This will be no exception, no work of mine…’
Then she stopped and paused again before an audience which had grown hushed, she looked directly at Adam, ‘At least that is what I had always believed but now I know that art, if it can, should stand on its own and is, if it has any worth at all, of itself. It owes nothing to either its creator or its most vociferous critics whether they be acknowledged masters or mistresses of their art or mere reactionaries who see only what they desire to see, who see pornography in everything which disturbs them. A pornography which in the end is within themselves, never within the creation.’
The stanley knife penetrated the canvas and carved a triangle from the top corner, she gathered the orange fragment in her free hand and turned again to her audience who were by now attempting to climb on to the stage. One woman was close to the edge, half rising, begging her not to disfigure the creation. Allison held the fragment aloft to reveal the asterisk daubed upon it. ‘This is the sign of ignorance, of vanity, of possession, without this,’ and she gesticulated at the painting behind her, ‘this stands alone, without identity, without sign of recognition, with no acknowledgement of anything but itself.’
The silence which greeted this brief speech hung ominously in the air for a moment and then a gradual ripple of applause and general murmurings of agreement gave way to an ovation and in the midst of it all stood Adam, a half smile on his lips. They held each other’s gaze until someone took her by the arm and someone else smothered her with a crushing hug and when she eventually pulled herself free and looked back Adam had gone. And a great weight fell from her for it was as though he had never existed.