Collecting artworks. And gross old men.

Monday wasn’t too bad as far as Mondays go – the phones were being gentle on me, I hadn’t had any taxing customer enquiries and there hadn’t been any neighbour disputes to mediate, which left me plenty of freedom to start catching up on the paperwork from the weekend’s exhibition.

There were certificates to mail out, prize winners to chase up and couriers to arrange so I could forward the winning artworks to the next stage of the competition.

I am not, as you might think, the curator for a gallery, a school teacher or an artist. I am, in fact, the Secretary of the Planning and Environment department at my local Council.

For some reason – probably because we take care of the landfill – my department runs the Recycled Art competition; a program designed to encourage people to use rubbish to create art – functional, wearable or purely visual – to challenge the ways we generally see rubbish in our society.

I get to organise, curate and sometimes officiate the competition – which would be wonderful, if I didn’t have to do it whilst still being the secretary for six people in a busy planning department.

This particular Monday had been kind to me through the morning, but just before that glorious lunch hour commenced, disaster struck – a flood of phone calls from irate townsfolk, annoyed that their bins hadn’t been collected or the neighbour’s dog had kept them awake at night. Some were concerned that the tree next door was dropping berries onto their lawn and wanted us to fix it. Others wanted their neighbour’s lawn mowed because it looked horrendous and some wanted to know whether they were allowed to build a shed in their backyard without getting approval because old mate next door has done it and they thought you needed approval for that sort of thing, so why is he allowed to do it?

This flurry of calls became an avalanche after lunch and I had a constant stream of people coming in to pick up their art works which hadn’t made it to the next stage – I would just get upstairs to my office when the front desk would phone again – someone else was here to pick up their works.

Back down the stairs I would trudge and wander out to the Town Hall, where I would repeat the same smalltalk I had undertaken with the six or seven people who had preceded this one, while they collected the egg-carton monsters and pipecleaner people their son/daughter had put together.

At the end of that exchange I would return upstairs to sit at my desk and try and remember where I was up to – and then the phone would ring again – a dog was running around someone’s street, could the Ranger please come and get it?

By 3pm, my patience was wearing thin but my smile was just as plasticly plastered across my face as I greeted each and every person I had to speak to.

Even the drunk old man who refused to leave my side during the exhibition.

He arrived late in the afternoon, on his way from one bar to another, to collect the non-winning cereal box creations he had entered in the competition. These were extremely important to him and he needed to show them off to his friends – and why wasn’t his picture in the paper yet?

My plastic smile might still be plastered on, but my patience wasn’t deep enough to humour his monopoly of my time – I hurried him through the collection and told him I didn’t have time to stay and chat.

He told me another terrible joke and once again said we should have a beer together at the pub.

Again, my non-committal reply: If I see you around, I will say hi.

When I walked back into reception, one of the women standing there asked me how I can stand to even speak to that horrible man. She made a disgusted face and said she refuses to serve him when he comes into her shop. I wished I could do the same.

Especially the next day, at 3pm, when reception phoned me to advise he was standing in the foyer – he had come to pick me up, to take me to the pub.

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The spiders you find in old buildings

It was a confident thought, the way it strode through my mind expecting no opposition.

“Well. At least that’s the day’s weirdo done and dusted” it said, as the former jailbird made his way out of the Art Exhibition, leaving me alone with the pipecleaner families and garden sculptures made of rusted farm machinery.

I was replaying the encounter, wondering what would prompt someone who hadn’t spoken a word the entire time he’d been in my presence, to suddenly, and seemingly urgently, reveal that he had been incarcerated.

When I couldn’t reach a conclusion, I began concocting my own.

One theory proposed that he was an imprisoned soldier, who, in an attempt to escape his confinement, accidentally time travelled to that week in May 2013 – approximately 87 years too late – where he had hoped to evade capture by hiding among the crowd who had congregated in the community hall for a night of dancing.

While I found that theory to be quite possible, there was an alternative explanation.

He wasn’t speaking to me. He was speaking to a ghost standing behind me. A ghost I couldn’t see. A ghost I couldn’t hear.
A ghost who had challenged him to a game of truth or dare, where the only option was truth.

My eyes were glazed as I chewed the little slit on the lid of my throwaway coffee cup, absentmindedly sipping the lukewarm caffeine I was not enjoying and only drinking to help pass the time.

I was wondering what the ghost would look like when I was interrupted by an old man standing at my side, grinning from beneath a cowboy hat and a crooked spine.

I jumped in fright. I hadn’t seen anybody come in.

“Off with the fairies, you were!”, he laughed. It was a rattling laugh, a wet phlegm laugh, the kind you hear in retirement homes filled with lung cancer and emphysema.

“I was”, I laughed through a saccharine smile that hid the disgusted thoughts vying for attention in my mind.

I knew this man. Most of the town knew this man, though not by the name inked onto his birth certificate. This man has an ugly name, a nickname, the origins of which are as cobwebbed and dusty as the stories he would spend hours telling if most people didn’t walk away from him the moment he opened his mouth.

He had been the bane of my very existence, from the moment this exhibition had been announced – weekly visits to find out when he could bring in his art works, phone calls to ask questions he’d been given answers to only the day before, and constant pestering – even after he’d been given a prize – about when his picture would be in the local paper.

He was grinning at me, eyes glazed with booze, his hands balled into fists and wedged on either side of his ribcage, just under his armpits – which also happens to be just above his pants.

His rank breath made my stomach churn as he wooed me with his wit.

We toured the exhibition together – for he wouldn’t do it alone – spending most of our time admiring his own entries – buildings made entirely out of cereal boxes and animals made of car tyres.

Half an hour passed, then an hour as other visitors trickled through the doors. Some asked me questions – questions I was unable to answer immediately because my VIP was in the middle of another joke. I would wander off to speak to them, only to find him standing at my elbow again, moments later, hot, filthy breath spilling out of his mouth.

I was taking surreptitious glances at my phone, desperate for the time to reach a point where I could extricate myself from his presence without causing offence. Just when I feared my teeth would be ground to powder by the force of holding my thoughts inside, he took a breath and announced that I really must let him go – he has things to do.

I took the opportunity to hurry him out the door, thanking him for coming to the exhibition.

“We will have to have some beers together, you and I”, he said through the shrinking gap I was making in the doorway.

“If I see you at the pub, I’ll say hello”, came my non-committal reply as the door closed and the lock latched.

Relief flooded my body as I leaned against the wall. Over. All over for another year. For twelve glorious months, I would have no reason to hear his voice, to smell his breath, to be polite to a creature that makes my skin crawl simply because he exists.

That too was a premature celebration.

The perils of hosting a community art exhibition

He wandered around the makeshift art gallery set up to display the children’s art works.

His gait was uneven, though any injury he had was hidden by his long overalls pooling over the top of his unblemished workboots. The sound of his footsteps bounced off the walls of the unpopulated community hall, a hollow sort of thud-THUD, thud-THUD that made the space seem even more cavernous than it was.

I felt awkward, standing off to the side, torn between walking with him to explain the processes the children had taken, and giving him the time and the space to inspect and appreciate the art in his own way.

Hands clasped behind my back, I rocked back and forth on the worn soles of my mary janes, wishing – not for the first time – that I was one of those people whose throat didn’t close up when they had to make smalltalk with strangers. Or people in general.

I checked the time on my phone. 11.04am. Three more hours of this. We had been open for 55 minutes and he was the first person through the door.

He had threaded his way around the desks, past the toilet roll sculptures and cereal box structures. He had appreciated the paper-plate faces with their crepe paper strands of hair and was making his way towards the more sophisticated “flowers” made out of paint-covered soda-bottle-bottoms when something made him stop in his tracks.

He looked up at me, sharply.

I smiled my most welcoming “how can I help you” smile, waiting for his question.

“I’ve been in jail”, he said before immediately resuming his walk.

Moments passed as my feeble mind attempted to process not his words – I heard those – but the purpose for which he uttered them.

He wasn’t looking at me. He wasn’t making any attempt to come near me, or engage me any further.

“I bet you’re glad to be out now”, I replied, what felt like hours later.

“Yeah” he mumbled, his back to me, his head nodding slowly on his thick neck.

He began shuffling past the last exhibition, no longer interested in the items on display. “Well, seeya”, he said in the dull monotone I had become accustomed to, throwing his hand up to give me a wave as he made his way out the door.

“Well. At least that’s the day’s weirdo done and dusted”, I thought to myself.

Oh so incorrectly.

The stories told by silence

Silence comes in many forms, and for many reasons.

There’s the teeth-picking silence between companions who have shared a large and delicious meal.
There’s the unnoticed silence of two souls blessed with the knowledge that their hearts are secure in each other’s hands.
There’s the mournful silence of a friendship being killed by a cold shoulder dressed in excuses.
And there’s the frustrated silence of a voice that no longer has anything to say.

I have experienced all of the above, but it has been the last on the list that has kept me from dropping words here.

The internet is making the world a smaller place and having spent nearly half my life documenting my non-adventures on one blogging platform or another, I am beginning to feel the walls closing in.

More than that, I don’t really feel that I have anything of great note to share anymore. I think there are plenty of voices out here, shouting opinions and feelings and memories into the ether, and now that particular kind of skin doesn’t feel as comfortable draped over my bones as it once did.

I no longer feel sentences tapping from the inside, begging to be rolled around my tongue before they are sighed across a page. I don’t feel the call of a story asking my fingers to dance, and I don’t hear the voices of fragmented people, aching to be pieced together and shown to the world.

I do, occasionally, feel their absence, but the frightening part, when I realise it, is that more often than not, I don’t.

I’m hoping that somewhere within this new silence, I will one day hear a voice which has historically been drowned out by all those others who clamoured for my attention. Perhaps we will be able to spend a lot of time alone together, cloistered in a room, spilling secrets onto pages as their history comes alive.

I’m not sure if there’s anyone in there anymore, or whether I lost them all when I went searching for the answers to myself. I’m really not certain as to whether the trade-off has been worth it. It’s lonely and boring inside me now, with nobody else to play with. I liked all those friends I had, whose names I didn’t yet know, whose personalities I grew to love or loathe.

I liked writing their stories and disappearing inside them for awhile, but, a little bit like those friends whose icy shoulders are all I have been privy to, the only thing I’m hearing from the voices is mournful silence or fancy-dressed excuses as to their absence.

Now life has placed me on a path that I have no past experience in treading.

There are pitfalls and panics I am about to encounter that leave no room for these, the sad sort of silences that fill up all the corners I have with their dark self-loathing, their constant unanswered questions – they consume far more energy than their happy counterparts do and energy is one thing I need to spend wisely now.

It’s time for me to try on another of the silences, one I am very unaccustomed to wearing – the resigned silence of one who knows when to stop chasing control and simply let whatever will be, be.

I’m sure my internal tantrums will very quickly put an end to that silence.