by Deirdre Heddon
WORKING HER WAY DOWN THE PRESS LIST she carefully filled in the
blanks on the invitations. The silver looked good against the deep black of the card. It
looked expensive. It was expensive. But if not now, then when? Her twenty-eighth birthday.
Fourteen days from now - the perfect length of time for the critics and their cohorts to
schedule it into their events diaries. She's learnt that much over the years. Almost
eighteen of them, to be precise.
Dear Ms Robertson...
-Martha Robertson. The critic of the Scottish Tribune. She'd met her many times now, at various events, but for some reason Ms Robertson could never remember her name. It had become embarrassing. 'Yes, of course I remember you. It's...' Jane. - Jane. Jane. Jane. Hardly a difficult name to remember. But maybe that was the problem. Maybe she should have changed it a long time ago. To Xavier, or Carmelita or Dominique. Or at least Jayne with a y - then she could have said 'It's Jayne - with a y.' Maybe that would have made all the difference. Still, what she was about to do was far more radical than merely changing her name.
Dear Ms Robertson
You are cordially invited to celebrate...
She remembered that tenth birthday - an extra special day because it heralded her entry into double numbers and her first step towards independence. With five pounds in her purse and a five pee piece tucked into her coat pocket, (telephone number written on the back of her hand - just in case), she'd been sent off into the city, unaccompanied for the first time.
A whole five pounds. She'd never had so much money. She'd always thought it was unfair having a birthday so close to Christmas, but this year she could probably buy presents for her mum and dad and herself. Struggling with her arithmetic she saw a large circle of people forming in the centre of the street, and pushed her way through the legs to the front of the group. She couldn't believe her innocent eyes. Above was a dark, grey sky threatening to soak her. Around were tall menacing buildings waiting to gobble her up. But here, right here, was a square of green grass, covered over with at least a thousand potted plants - more plants even than the Botanicals. And slap bang in the middle of them was a woman in a red rocking chair, wearing a huge purple dress. Like a film star. 'Christ, ah hope ma tax's are no payin' for this crap.' 'Aye, wouldn't we all like tae sit in a garden of bloody floors instead of haem' tae work in a proper job?' 'Is she famous?' she asked one of them. 'Famous? I would doubt it. She's an artist. Apparently.' Dismal dreich Sundays spent in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery flashed into her mind, the dead eyes of Highland Chiefs and aged stags staring down at her. 'An artist? She's not painting though?' 'Exactly. Bloody con-artist.' She looked at the blooming rainbow in front of her. The woman rocking in the chair. It was all so beautiful. An artist! Splashing real, live colours around. Here, in the middle of Sauchiehall Street, in the middle of December. It was a miracle, that's what it was. A birthday miracle - made just for her. And she knew at that moment that she was going to be special, different, with the world at her feet looking up in awe.
'Blow out all the candles and make a wish,' her mother had coaxed her when she'd returned laden with packets of flower seeds and a watering can. So she had. And she'd been making the same wish ever since. Suffering was what being an artist was all about. She accepted that. But she already had seventeen 'I wish to be an artist's, and wondered how many more she had to collect? And how many more sacrifices she was expected to make? Some sacrifices, it's true, were accidental. But all, every single one, were gained in the name of art. Her bald head gleamed as a testimony to her 1994 piece 'Hair Palette' - when she'd dyed her hair a different colour each week, for a year and then, of its own accord, it had died completely - with an i, not a y. Her eyebrows, or the empty space where they used to be, issued a feminist statement about leg shaving. The scars on her arms evidence of the fact that 'We All Bleed' - a message presented during her brief dabble in razor art. He'd lost his ear, she'd lost her pinky - fodder for the chain saw when she'd tried her hand at wood sculpting.
The suffering wasn't only physical though. There was her criminal record, for a start. All she'd been trying to do was brighten Glasgow up a bit. The logo said 'Glasgow's Miles Better', so where was the harm in painting big yellow smiles on all of the otherwise grey and humourless statues that populated the city? The judge didn't get the point though. Obviously not a judge of aesthetics. City of Culture, indeed! Six years later and she was still suffering financially for that piece - four pounds a week at the means tested court. And the smiles had been wiped off before anyone had even noticed. That was the problem. No one noticed anything she did. Acceptance was surely just a matter of time though. A lot of the great artists weren't even discovered until they were already twelve feet under. Her day would come.
She swallowed the first bitter taste of rejection before she'd even digested that tenth
birthday cake. 'An artist!' her mother had shouted, when she'd found the birthday girl
sowing seeds into the bath filled with buckets of soil dug up from the communal garden.
'The only artists in your family are piss-artists. There's a long tradition of them. And
it wouldn't surprise me if that's where you end up.' After that blow she'd kept her dreams
to herself, harbouring a secret future that consisted of more than whisky bottles. Until,
that is, the day her headmaster had suspended her from school when she'd turned up with a
safety pin through her nose. Raising the issue of individual expression he'd responded by
saying his expression was more important than hers - his expression being 'Go home and
don't come back until you're fit to be seen.' As a graphic protest she'd covered her
entire school uniform in safety pins until it resembled a coat of armour and adamantly
refused to remove the one from her nose, thus forfeiting her education. Cutting her nose
off to spite her face, her mother had said. 'Anyway,' she'd tried to reason with her
parents, 'for an artist, the University of Life is the more appropriate place to study.'
At which point she was told to go and live in the halls of the University of Life. Eleven
years later and still no degree in sight. But this was to be her finals piece - her pièce
|© 1998 Deirdre Heddon
This electronic version of "Still Life" is published by The Barcelona Review by arrangement with the author. This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.
|Deirdre Heddon was born in Oban, Scotland but has recently moved to Devon where she is a lecturer in Drama at the University of Exeter and is currently completing her PhD on women and performance art. She has previously written two community stage plays which have toured in Scotland and in 1995 her short story, Laughing Matter, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as part of the 'First Bites' competition. Still Life was a winner of the Ian St James Awards. You can e-m@il the author at: D.E.Heddon@exeter.ac.uk|