A fiction inspired by Eva Rothschild’s film “Boys and Sculpture” (2012) shown as part of Week 23 of fig-2
All the way there the eleven boys sang and threw crisps at each other over the seats on the coach. The stuffing had long ago been ripped out by the older lads from the big school, and the seats were hard as church pews. As the coach came into the town the boys sang Bun’ Dem Batty Man, a catchy homophobic dancehall number Bene’s older brother had taught them over a shared cigarette round the back of the school.
“What’s a batty man?” asked one of the younger boys.
As the coach neared the art gallery, Mr Beuchar tore his attention away from his colleague Miss Eldon for long enough to give the boys a pep talk before the Big Event.
“Now boys, boys! Lads, this is a really important day. Don’t forget you’ve been personally selected for this. It’s a great privilege for both you and for the school. What I mean is: don’t screw up.”
The boys booed.
“When we get to the gallery I want you all on your best behaviour. On no account are you to be yourselves. Be absolutely anyone other than yourself. If I can tell who you are while we’re in there and I don’t see a complete transformation into a perfect ambassador for the school, you will have double detention every week until you are grandparents.”
The boys booed and blew raspberries.
“And I can’t believe I have to say this but we will not have any and there will be no, I repeat there will be no turdboxing. Right?”
The boys erupted into unbridled mirth.
“Any turdboxing today and you will all go to jail. I mean it. Jail!”
The bus bucked on its 1970s axels, throwing everyone into the air like a fairground spectacular.
“I feel sick. I’m gonna chun.”
“Sir, Bene says he’s gonna chun!”
“Nobody is going to chun. Bene, what’s wrong?”
“He accidentally ate some poop!”
“I didn’t know it was poop!”
“I bet he did. His brother drank a pint of piss for a bet. I saw it! I had to give him a quid for it.”
“My life! Twenty years for murder and I get you lot.”
There was a pause while Mr Beuchar’s life sentence settled in the bus.
“Sir, Mister Chocksy says you’re a bender, are you a bender?”
Callum was a tough one. Good as gold, but a bloody nightmare. He’d been expelled because he had cut a chicken’s head off and put it in another boy’s lunchbox. When the kid opened the box and saw the chicken’s head in there on top of his sandwich bag eyes open he screamed and the older boy had filmed the whole thing on his phone. It was pretty funny.
He had a face that only a mother could love, except she didn’t. Not really. Not like lifting-up-a-car love, not even Heinz Spaghetti Hoops love really. He fended for himself and to be honest he was better off.
“I’ll swap you.”
“What have you got?”
“Cheese sanwich. What have you got?”
“Ham. I don’t like cheese.”
“You’ve got salmon and phil!”
“You can have my ham.”
“I don’t want your ham, Ty wants your ham, I like salmon and phil.”
“Charlie give the cheese to the Callum and then Ty can have the ham.”
“No! I won’t!”
Sandwich diplomacy usually ended like this.
“Mister Bewker, how do you spell cup?”
“Well you shouldn’t be looking!”
The boys who get the boy’s funny joke laugh, both of them.
“Very droll, Callum.”
The teacher thinks Pretty clever really. He makes a mental note to think about whether they could build on the boy’s apparent comic lexical facility for academic purposes. Maybe get him to do an Ofsted report or something.
“This is boring.”
“Boys, did you ever consider that it is you who might in fact sometimes be boring?”
There was no answer.
Callum sucked at his straw and cola fizzed down his throat. He looked round at the other boys and released a commanding burp.
Noone seemed that bothered, and Mr Beuchar had interested himself in some big small talk with Miss Eldon. Mr Beuchar was keen to push his opportunity, having heard a certain rumourette about her relationship status. She was probably crazy, that could work in his favour definitely.
“Sir, Bene ate all my caramel cups.”
Mr Beuchar gave a distracted response, his hand still next to but not quite on Miss Eldon’s thigh, “Is that true? Bene, did you eat all of Callum’s caramel cups?”
Miss Eldon caught his eye and both teachers blushed slightly.
“Mister Bewker, have you ever been in love?”
Mr Beuchar remembered when he was about their age or slightly younger and he had tripped over the back step going out of the kitchen and broken his nose. He remembered being in hospital and seeing himself in the hospital bed with his nose strapped up. Except it had been his brother in the bed who had tripped over the back step and broken his nose and gone to hospital. He remembered it as if it had happened to him but it hadn’t. He felt like most of the things that happened to him in his life actually happened to someone else. Here he was taking eleven six to twelve year old boys to participate in a glorified corporate presentation in an art gallery, probably contributing to the destruction of the public education system.
“Don’t touch anything.”
“This is boring. I’m bored.”
“Can I touch the dolphin?”
“Don’t touch the dolphin! What if it breaks?”
“It won’t break. It’s a dolphin.”
“It doesn’t look like one.”
“Yeah it does.”
They looked at the dolphin sculpture. It didn’t look either like or unlike a dolphin. But you couldn’t really describe it as anything other than a dolphin. So maybe it did look like a dolphin. The lads had seen dolphins on telly, presumably.
Ty hadn’t been to an art gallery before. He gawped around at the huge brightly lit clean space, the gallery, gleaming and clean and expensive. So much space! He kind of needed to go to the toilet but he felt it would be better to wait until later. He couldn’t go here.
The white gallery reminded him of the morgue in Police Copter, when the one in the metal suit wakes up because he isn’t really dead, and he cuts off the hand of the dead guy so he can use the fingerprints to open the master vault. Except in the morgue there was more silvery metal and dead corpses.
The boys gawped up at the sparkling dustless vallances and gleaming white fixtures of the gallery. Outside the chimneys’ black smoke drew the city into its darkness.
“Where’s Ty gone?”
“He’s talking to a woman with hair in her mouth.”
The eleven boys dawdled around glancing at the sculptures in the main space of the gallery. The pieces varied in size and approach, some solid and squat, some spidery and long, some delicate and frail, some chunkily robust. A mixture of plastics and metals and plaster painted in all colours, the varied work had garnered reasonable reviews. The boys regarded the work, without engagement.
“Miss, are you having your period?”
“That is not a question you ask a lady. If there’s any more of that…”
The boys sniggered. Callum whispered “I bet she is.”
“How d’you know?”
“I can smell it. It smells like the ribs at chicken cottage.”
Miss Eldon hadn’t always wanted to be a teacher. She used to write, and now she barely had time to do the quick crossword in the Metro. Performance targets, monitoring, appraisals, reporting, Tier 4 engagement, league tables, frameworks. Why is it that on the incredibly rare occasion that teachers (or anyone) went on strike they stopped services of benefit to the kids rather than refusing to do the bullshit admin foisted on them by Management? Even the mistargeted action of striking was seemingly set up to benefit Management rather than the teachers or God help us the kids. It really angered her and she was still outspoken about it, at a palpable cost to her career. She could feel the fire burning less brightly, her sharp corners being worn down. She looked on as the kid Ty tried to slide up the banister from the toilets. She didn’t feel like telling him not to.
Charlie bitch-slapped Ty. It was pretty funny. Not hard. Ty protested, “What’s your damage spack-monkey?”
Callum gazed into space. It didn’t seem to matter, art. Even at his age Callum was already unsure of whether it meant anything. Whether it was important, but in a different way to the other boys, who might have found it boring or incomprehensible. It just lacked reality. He couldn’t put it into words, but felt it. You know. That little baby in the pram. It felt like years ago. He had watched while the two women talked and watched as the pram started to roll, unnoticed by the two women, slowly at first then picking up speed on the incline toward the main road. The traffic was roaring and busy with the rush hour. Trucks and lorries used this route, and the air was grey with their smoke. The pram raced toward the open road and at no time while the two women talked heedless of what was happening did the boy open his mouth to alert them, if he could have alerted them, if there was anything he could have said, if there had been time.
“Look at that one” said Mr Beuchar, the teacher pointing at the hamburger sculpture. “What do you think of that?”
“What’s it supposed to be?”
“It doesn’t look like anything.”
“Boys, it’s abstract. It’s not supposed to look like anything except itself.”
The boys weren’t having it. “It doesn’t look like that either.”
“Lads, come on. Look at the artwork please. Concentrate.”
“How long do we have to do this, sir?”
“Yeah, when do we get to do the thing?”
“After the art.”
“Art’s boring though! It’s like watching dry paint.”
Mr Beuchar paused, and smiled. “Yes, I suppose it is. Callum, what do you think people did before they had video games?”
“I don’t know.”
“They made things.”
“They made them though.”
“They must have been really bored.”
“Maybe. Do you think they would have been bored while they were making them?”
“But maybe they wanted to make the things because there was something they wanted to say, and making the things allowed them to say it.”
Time passed in the gallery. The boys dawdled. The boys got bored.
Following on from a remarkable conversation Mr Beuchar and Miss Eldon had just exchanged, Mr Beuchar directed an eyebrow from Miss Eldon towards the exit sign, and slinked toward the door. She followed in such a way as to look like she wasn’t following. He exited, and a moment later she joined him. The oldest person in the main space of the gallery was now twelve years old.
Charlie gives the stacked heads an exploratory nudge. They wobble against each other and straighten out again. He punches the stack experimentally. They bend to the side and wobble and straighten. He looks round to see who is looking, and then smacks the stack while looking in the opposite direction. The stack bends off to the side then smarts back and knocks his head. This angers Charlie and he punches the stack again, this time intently. It stretches back and returns across itself, only missing Charlie’s head because he ducks to the side in time. The stack wobbles back and straightens again.
He wondered what it felt like, whether the metal was cool or warm, and wanted to touch it to find out. He noticed that Charlie was already caressing the football shaped bit of sculpture.
“Don’t touch it! What if Mr Buchar comes back?”
“He’ll be ages. Anyway, it’s already broken so what does it matter.”
“You broke it!”
“I didn’t break it!”
“Jack! Gimme my chewy you twat.”
Jack threw the last pad of chewing gum at the younger boy’s forehead. The gum was idly thrown but it hit its mark because in trying to duck out of the way the lad ducked into the way of it. Jack didn’t see this but Charlie did and sprayed cola out of his mouth.
On the other side of the space an argument started.
“Yeah but your neighbours are chavs.”
“They are not chavs. You can’t afford to be a chav.”
“They threw dogshit over the fence during the barbecue.”
“That was cos the outside pipe burst all over their kitchen extension. It wasn’t the barbecue.”
“They’re still chavs.”
Forgetting it was part of an exhibit, Ty picked up the length of metal by his feet and raised it before him like a sword, or a rather a fencing iron.
Jimmy had taken to spinning round and smashed into the older boy’s back and, while Ty was whirling round to whack Jimmy, Bene picked up another sword and thwacked him across the arse.
“Hey! That’s not fair! You have to hit the sword.”
“Cos that’s what they do.”
“How do you kill anyone?”
“Oi fatboy, kick it to me, to me!!”
“Not like that you butt-wonder.”
Bene fell backwards onto his bum and the fibreglass cheese string carried on into the air, then shattered against the wall.
“It’s okay, they’re not real!”
“I didn’t touch them, I only pushed the ball cos otherwise it would have broke.”
The balls scatter in all directions, bouncing with hefty thwacks. The boy hits the cheese sculpture and skittles it.
“Haha! He’s wet himself. Oof, I think he’s followed through.”
The boys are in stitches, crying with laughter. So much crying. I should have gone earlier, he thinks. Now it was too late. He runs full speed into the remains of the Indian and it crashes to the ground, flattening under his feet, reforming into a misshapen jumble of metal. There is no paper.
Charlie is wearing the red spaghetti. Three of the boys are constructing new pieces from the pieces of the pieces. The others are still chucking things around. Bene comes over to Charlie.
“I’m making a new one. If you stick this to that, then, you see? It looks like a helicopter.”
Bene pulls at part of the spaghetti sculpture. Charlie cries out.
The space echoes with the crack of bone and the kid’s head splits just above the temple. His body crumples flat into the floor.
“Hey Charlie, look!” says Ty, pinching the air so from the right angle it would look like the banana sculpture was in his hand. Like a nob. Charlie didn’t respond.
“Charlie, catch the ball!” The ball sailed past him unregarded and bounced off one wall then another before coming to rest underneath the green triangle.
Ty remembers when his dad took him to see the chalk pits. They’d gone under the ground in a metal wagon, he had to sit on his knees to see out properly, and looking down at the line into the gorge he had been afraid. How would the wagon get back out again? He felt like that now, rolling faster into a gorge and how would he get back out again?
Bene kicked. He kicked, and kicked again. It felt good. He kept kicking, and it felt better, each kick felt better than the previous one, and so did he. The meat sculpture didn’t want to break. His trainies scuffed and discoloured with the black acrylic paint, but kicking wouldn’t break anything. He knew it wasn’t bad. Just fun.
The meat sculpture had cracked. Along the concealed rivets on its upsided underside a line cracked open and then the two parts split and fell apart.
“I dont want to do this. I dont want to.”
As he said it his fingers drew themselves closer to the metal frames.
“Go oN!” urged the older boy, “Throw it! Lob it!”
“I don’t want to.”
“Throw it you pussy.”
The boy sat on the floor and held the two pieces in his hands and examined them. They were largely intact but he noticed that if he turned them through ninety degrees they could fit together and make a new shape, a new sculpture. It was like magic! Things that without themselves even changing could become something new just by putting them together a bit differently. It seemed amazing.
“What’s that, gaywad?”
He scooped it out of the boy’s hands and carried it above his head, weaving between the boys.
“Give it back!”
He chased Charlie and tried to wrestle the piece from him. The two boys lost grip and it fell to the ground, splitting again.
He didn’t know why but when it hit the floor he burst into tears. Nothing ever happened. Just things, things breaking. The plant pot in the fireplace, the spaghetti and the kitchen wall. He didn’t want to be seen crying, so he pulled off the big red pepper sculpture off its long spindly legs and placed it over his head like a mask.
Immediately one of the other boys started tapping on the boy’s red pepper head with a long spindly metal stick, producing a pleasing clang. Another boy grabbed one and joined them. Inside the red pepper his ears were ringing but he didn’t want to take the thing off so they’d see him crying. He flailed his arms about blindly trying to stop his abusers.
Why are you doing this?
He saw his father’s face in the ball. He screamed and raised it above his head. Time slowed as he first crouched slightly before stretching up, mounting on the balls of his feet, extending his torso and stretching out of his arms so his hands were as high as they could possibly be. Clasping the ball tightly between his hands he then brought his hands down with all of his strength to smash the ball into the ground with furious force. As he brought it down a vehement syllable escaped his mouth, primal and unknowable. The ball smashed apart into countless pieces. He saw his father’s face again and then he clutched at his eyes, blinded by the cloud of tiny pieces. Clutching he sank to his knees, and rolled over.
Why did you push the spider sculpture over? He could hear the voice in his head. What did you do to the hamburger sculpture? You’re going to pay for this. We’re going to send you to the oil rigs. The oil men will chop your head off like they did your older brother. And all the blood will spray up into the sky.
Callum was chasing Ty with a snake made of one of the long metal juts from the coil sculpture on which he had put one of the balls like a head. He shouted for Mr Beuchar but the kids were alone in the space and noone was coming, whether they could hear the rising racket or not. There should have been a guard but there wasn’t one, whether it was short-staffing or something more pressing than the wholesale wanton destruction of a bunch of expensive art objects. It’s all insured.
He fell on top of the boy and now the two were wrestling, the younger boy biting and pulling the hair of the older boy pummelling his chest with his fists. He managed to get some purchase with his feet and sprang on top of the other boy, reaching out and finding something like a plant pot, black and hollow and metal, and he grabbed at it, then raised it above his head, above the other boy’s head, ready to bring it down with some force as the boy pushed to unbalance him. In the air, it took on extra weight, different possibilities, good and bad futures. In that split second this was clear intuitively. He sees the pram rolling toward the road and he doesn’t know if anyone will stop it.
Mr Beauchar burst through the fire escape, shirt-tails flapping over his open belt. He stands there open-mouthed, stops, beholding the carnage, the wreckage of every single sculpture in the room, and the boys chasing around after each other and fighting.
“WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON.”
The boys freeze. Each boy looked around at each of the other boys, each boy suddenly sprung dazed as if wrenched out of a dream, each boy looks at each of the other boys, frozen in the white space of the ruined gallery. For a long time noone speaks.