1st Prize (2018/19) - The Woman in Pieces by Jenny Pierpoint
The Woman in Pieces
by Jenny Pierpoint
Angie rested her head against the mirror, waiting for the tumult of the morning to break in her ears. For a minute, there was only her breath, misting the glass in front of her. The tasks of the day tumbled through her head. William would be awake soon, again. He slept in fits and starts, even now, eight years after his traumatic birth. Broken nights were part of Angie’s routine.
“Mum!” Her daughter’s voice called. “Can you be quick? I need to wash my hair. I’m walking with Eddie. We’ve got band practice before classes start today.”
“Why can’t you have a bath later?” Lydia huffed. “It’s not as if you’re doing anything else.”
No, not doing anything else. William wouldn’t need feeding and changing and taking to school, and then physiotherapy later. Food wouldn’t need to be bought and cooked, the house cleaned, clothes washed.
The toilet roll needed changing. Of course it did. It always needed changing. A brown cardboard roll, the paper all gone, just the skeleton of the own brand extra soft tissue left. A brown middle finger. Screw you Angie, it said. I know you’ve asked so many times you’ve worn holes in your tongue.
“And I need money for lunch.”
“Ask your dad. I’ve got nothing in my account until Saturday.”
Angie could see the eyes rolling, even through a closed door. Lydia had a particular skill, born of long practice. She fired her irises skywards, seemingly right into the frontal lobes of her developing brain. Then she released them back down with an almost audible thud. The process reminded Angie of those fruit machines, where you pulled a lever and the lemons, cherries and oranges whirred around before coming to a juddering halt. Usually just out of reach of the jackpot.
Paul would give her cash. He would grumble about it, but he’d hand her a tenner to last until the end of the week. He and Angie argued often about finances. It was one of the few things that kept them communicating.
“Why don’t you get a job? Contribute something?”
“I already have a job, Paul. It’s called looking after William.”
“A job has a salary.” His tone was dismissive. “You’re lucky you know.” He spoke with an arrogant tone, as though Angie were one of his students. Someone who needed to be lectured.
“You’re lucky you have a disabled child to hide behind, so you don’t have to work.”
Words scythed from his mouth, cutting her down in front of Lydia, in front of William. Not that the boy understood the meaning; but he understood the bitter place they came from, and he understood Angie’s crumpled expression.
Lydia’s room was guarded by a fug of body spray and a tangle of tights and phone charge cables. Fishing for dirty clothes and towels, Angie found a shiny pamphlet. It had been folded and discarded. It was for an art competition.
Family – what does it mean to you? Get your ideas in front of our acclaimed judges. Brighten up your life with a first prize of a holiday to one of three sunshine destinations! Several exciting runner-up prizes. Days out, cash, jewellery! Open to all, mixed media, let your imagination run wild!
If it hadn’t been for her pregnancy with Lydia, she would have gone to art school. There had been a place for her, she had a portfolio of work, been to an interview. It was on the bus on the way to her first day that she’d been sick. The driver had asked her to get off two stops early. And that had been that.
“You could have still gone,” Lydia said, with the throwaway confidence of youth. “You could have got a grant. Our college has a creche. I don’t see why you couldn’t have done it.”
“It wasn’t the same back then” replied Angie, “there wasn’t the support.” But maybe she was making excuses. Maybe. No time for wondering though, she had to get William’s shoes on, and get him out of the house. Just time to put the clothes she had collected in the machine. As she shoved everything in the gaping mouth of the machine, something fell out of a jeans pocket with a clatter. A lighter. Battered, well used. A Zippo. Angie flipped open the lid, watched as the blue and orange flame leaped out of it, as though it had been just waiting, held in abeyance until this moment.
“Fire!” chirruped William from the utility room doorway, “Fire!” He clapped his hands in delight. Quickly, Angie snapped the lighter closed. It felt weirdly exciting to handle the forbidden object, and secretly she felt a bit like William. Thrilled at unleashing such potential, right there in the palm of her hand. Although of course, as the thing had fallen out of Lydia’s pockets, it meant Lydia was probably smoking, which meant Angie would have to give her the talk. Again.
Angie didn’t speak to her about the lighter. Partly because she wasn’t sure what to say, and partly because she thought Lydia might bring it up herself. She did ask her daughter about the competition, wondered if she might enter. Lydia gave a scornful shrug.
“No. I’m doing music now, with Eddie. How do you know about it anyway?”
“I found the leaflet in your room. When I was picking up your used towels.”
“Oh my God!” Lydia screeched, making William startle and starfish his hands out in surprise. “I’ve told you not to go in my room! No wonder I’ve got trust issues!”
The Zippo nestled inside Angie’s handbag, until she became used to the weight of it.
If Lydia wasn’t going to enter, she decided, then she would. Why not? The thought of it grew like a summer plant, each day unfurling a little more.
She gathered her materials, sectioned off a corner of the bedroom, laid them all out. In her head, she had a When William woke in the night, she would add to her creation, using the hours when no-one else was awake, when the darkness spread out around her like water. Silence thick in her ears, the small hours having a feel all of their own. A quiet treasure, fading swiftly with the approaching sun. The sculpture took shape, took form in the corner of the room, in the middle of the dark and the silence.
“What’s all this?” Paul asked, looking for a shirt one morning.
“It’s for a competition.” Angie replied. And that was their entire conversation about it.
Any technical issues were solved with the help of Youtube, watched with earplugs on her cracked phone screen.
It was a struggle, getting it to the car. William cooed and reached for it, chattering to himself. Out of the bedroom the sculpture seemed different, with more weight to it than before. Daylight made it shimmer, brought angles and curves to life.
At the town hall, she had to hand in forms, get the piece tagged, set it up in the exhibition space.
“The judging happens this afternoon,” said the receptionist. Manicured hands slid a slip of paper across the counter. “This is your entry receipt please don’t lose it, you will need it if your piece is shortlisted.”
“Shortlisted?” Angie echoed. The receptionist fixed her with a stern gaze.
“Yes,” he said, with a quick adjustment of his shirt cuffs, “all the pieces will be judged this afternoon. The shortlisted ones will be put forward for the final this evening. Seven pm.” He flickered his eyes over Angie’s crumpled blouse, William’s sticky fingerprints visible on the collar. “Sharp.”
Okay okay, she thought. It’s not as if she would be needed anyway, her piece wasn’t going to make the final cut. Perhaps if it did though, by chance, maybe if the other competitors withdrew or the judges suffered a visual malfunction, well maybe she could bring William with her. He normally stayed up past seven anyway. Perhaps Paul would be home? It was Friday though, and that meant he would be out till late. Or Lydia? Maybe she could watch him? The last time she had asked Lydia to babysit, William had opened the freezer and eaten a pizza, half a packet of peas and some fish fingers before Angie came home and found him. Lydia was on her phone, and simply looked exasperated when Angie remonstrated with her.
“Well, he’s not dead is he?” She snapped. “I can’t see the problem.”
William would have to come with her. She wanted to see the results anyway. Her piece wouldn’t be chosen. Everyone else seemed so confident, chatting with friends, making educated comments about the art on display. Several women were gathering around a large painting, a sunburst of colour and shapes.
Warmth radiated from it, as if it were lit from within. They chirruped in their approval of it, rattling gold bracelets and clicking expensive heels. All of them had matching hair, expertly streaked and styled blonde, shades of money and privilege. Angie’s phone beeped, reminding her it was time to leave to collect William. At the door she glanced back at the crowded gallery. The blonde women were looking at her piece now. Would they appreciate it? Could they understand what she wanted to say? Did they care?
Williams’ teacher told her about his day, how he had played and counted and recognised shapes and taken part in music and water play. She hugged him and he gave her a hot embrace back. Holding him a moment longer than usual, she felt his chubby little body nestle into hers, his fingers twine around her hair.
At home, Lydia was on the sofa. She’d been crying.
“I dumped Eddie,” she said, surprisingly fiercely.
“Oh? Why?” Angie set William down, and he wobbled over to Lydia, holding out his arms. For once she didn’t shoo him away.
“He spoke to me like I was an idiot. Told me I’d never be any good on the guitar. He doesn’t even know three chords. He said it in front of the class as well, everyone heard it.”
A small flame of admiration warmed Angie’s heart. Her daughter at least had spirit.
“I’ll make us some tea,” she said. Lydia’s tear stained but defiant face, reminded her of when she had been tiny, resolutely refusing any help to climb the steps to the slide in the park.
Reluctantly, Lydia agreed to come to the final judging that evening.
“May as well,” she shrugged. “At least I won’t see Eddie there.” Then, suspiciously, “How come you entered? You don’t know anything about art.”
“No, well. I just thought I’d give it a go. Don’t know unless you try do you? You can see it this evening. I’d like to know what you think.”
The hall buzzed with a nervous tension that had been absent before. Artists stood by their pieces, pretending not to care about the results.
“That’s it, there. That’s mine. It’s called ‘Woman in Pieces’ What do you think?”
The sculpture rose up in front of them, commanding attention. It was a deconstructed figure, held together with pieces of wire, twisted to look like bones. Limbs dangled, hips were rounded and plump, the face had eyes made of coloured stones. Lydia walked around the figure, reached out to touch the hair that was constructed from slivers of paper.
There was also, Angie noticed, a blue sticker that announced this was a shortlisted piece. Nerves clutched at her stomach. Shortlisted! She felt queasy, the sticker made her feel excited - and suddenly inadequate. Would it be worse, to fail now, having got this close?
“Are these…receipts? They’ve all got bar codes on them. And she’s got…oh my God, she’s actually got eyes in the back of her head. And her legs are made of…”
“Yep” Angie nodded, smiling, “made of toilet rolls. And yes, those are supermarket receipts, mostly. Some from garage of course, and some are bills, I like the way they add a streak of red to her colouring. I made her navel from William’s playdoh, see the way it stands out. And her stretch marks from thread. But mainly she’s toilet rolls, receipts, nappy wrappers and bits of plastic toys. With a wire frame, mostly coat hangers. See her heart?”
An oval shape hung behind the xylophone key ribs, shaped and covered with faces.
“It’s William” said Lydia, quietly, leaning in to look. “And me.” Photographs of the children had been photocopied and mosaiced over the heart, varnished into place.
William wriggled, distracted by the people, and the lights and the atmosphere. Angie set him down, put her bag next to him and rummaged for a box of raisins.
“I really love her.” Lydia said. “She’s weird, but she’s actually like, a real person. But made of bits of things. Bits of us.”
“I’m glad you like her. I do too. I used your old phone chargers for veins, see? They’re just the right size.” The left hand was outstretched, palm up, the white charging cable planted under the papier mache skin.
Up on stage, the head of the judging committee stood behind a microphone. He began to speak, welcoming everyone, explaining why the town needed to nurture the creative spirit, and what a hard task it had been selecting the winners. He would be announcing the runners up first, and then lastly the very worthy winner. The lights dimmed, and an excited silence lay over the crowd. The judge reached inside his jacket, pulled out an envelope.
“Fire!” William shouted, “Fire! Fire! Fire!” He had the Zippo. Orange bursts of flame danced from his hands. He screamed in delight.
“William, no!” Angie darted towards him, reaching desperately for the lighter. Why hadn’t she picked up her bag? Been too distracted, as usual. “William, give Mummy the fire,” she tried to keep her voice calm, but tendrils of panic wound their way from her throat. “Give it to Mummy.”
“That’s where that lighter went!” Lydia cried, “Mum! You had it! Where’d you get it?”
“Really?” Angie shot Lydia a furious glance, “you’re really going to start this now? We’ll discuss this later! When your brother isn’t about to burn the bloody place down!”
Suddenly grasping the possible consequences, Lydia also tried to coax the Zippo from William. The crowd realised what was happening, formed a helpful circle around the flame wielding child. He grinned, giggled, held his arm aloft like an Olympian with a torch.
“Fire!” he said again, and this time the flame kissed the outstretched hand of the ‘Woman in Pieces.’ Following the line of the charger wire, the fire leaped and danced, feeding from the varnish and lacquer and paper and cardboard that formed her outer shell.
“Oh God!” Angie threw herself at William, wrenching his fist towards her, pulling the lighter free, wrapping her arms around him and holding him tight. But it was too late. The heat began to rise, the energy held inside the flammable materials burst free, throwing itself in to the air, hissing and crackling. For an un-ending moment, Angie, Lydia, William and everyone around them were transfixed by the sight of the burning figure. The flesh, constructed of the everyday items, melted away, revealing the wire skeleton beneath. Slender bones that glowed in the heat but did not fail, still solid, still holding. The faces of the onlookers were painted orange and red by the fire, an ancient light radiating its power under the roof of their new civilisation.
The woman burned and shimmered for a few magnificent, terrifying seconds. A primal creature; unleashed and defiant. Then she was out, doused with white mist, sprayed from multiple fire extinguishers. Alarms rang, people shouted and held hands, rushed to see the charred remains of the sculpture. Everyone was ushered outside until the area was made safe.
“That was amazing, Mum,” Lydia said, breathlessly, reaching instinctively for Williams’ hand. The street was bathed in dusky evening sunlight. “It was just so…beautiful. I never thought you could do something like that.”
“I know” replied Angie, her whole body shaking from the fear and the thrill of the last few minutes. “It really was, wasn’t it? And, no, neither did I.”
Performance art, said the judge, after everyone had filed back into the hall, wasn’t allowed. It broke health and safety rules, it was a reckless act. A pity, because they had liked the original piece, in its un-combusted state. They thought it was original.
The three of them turned for home. It was past William’s bedtime anyway. As they got to the door, a voice called out. A voice that was clear and soft, that belonged to one of the women from this afternoon. One of the expensive blonde group, with the shoes and the magazine hair.
“Excuse me,” she strode towards them, holding out her hand to Angie. “I hope you don’t mind me approaching you. I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your work. It was stunning, really. The way she went up like that, such a strong statement.”
“Well, it wasn’t really meant...” Angie began, before Lydia broke in.
“It was incredible wasn’t it?”
The woman nodded.
“I’m from the Curtis Gallery,” she continued, “you might have heard of us?” She gave Angie a card.
“We’d love to see more of your work. Give me a call. I think you could be very exciting.”
With that, she was gone. Angie tucked the expensively scented card into her smoky handbag.
It was late when they got home. Lydia went to bed, the subject of the lighter to be brought up tomorrow. William was already asleep.
“Where’ve you been?” Paul grunted from the sofa.
“I’ve been in a daze,” she answered, her fingers touching the card in her bag. “But I think I’ve woken up now.”