Ecosystem Discovered in Saatchi’s Pocket
By Alistair Gentry.
This work of art (funded by the Arts Council) begins at the end, with a .JPG image of an unknown corpse from the internet.
Their mum was a creative user of the benefits system. The other main thing she always put plenty of work into was refining her smoking technique. Greg and Gary shuffled off to school, there she was at the kitchen table. The palm of one hand glued to her chin, breathing smoke into the sunlight. By the time they came home she might be sitting on the other side of the Formica, but still that bitter smell, still the elbows on the table, still the two fingers pointing like a cocked gun, forty-five degrees towards the ceiling. And smoking.
She was aware of her relationship with her sons, the lack of it, and how she was screwing them up. Couldn’t help it. She loitered with the suspicion that she wasn’t meant to be a mother before Gary was even born. Eventually mere doubt scabbed into solid conviction. It all ended as badly as everyone expected. When modern houses burn, there’s never very much left.
In a flat full of bastardised, mutant dolls and mannequins, Greg wakes up smelling of someone else’s anti-perspirant deodorant. His golden fleece reeks of cigarettes. Even from across the room Greg can discern individually the tobacco, the tar, burned paper. When people were allowed to smoke on buses, it used to give his subconscious the terrors. He would have to concentrate just to breathe but he could never get off either, even though he knew he was being stupid.
The window reflects him into one of his own works. A speccy twat with the kind of body most men still have and always will, despite the advertising industry’s odes to homoerotic Hellenestic sculpture. Greg isn’t effected by advertising. Wearing those pants is a choice, his choice, though Greg doesn’t have any arse (sculpted, worked out or otherwise) worth speaking of. Panic attacks him again and his body talks Tourette’s, jerking him into closer kinship with the thalidomide dolls he makes. His hands spasm. No musculature worth speaking of allows Greg to wrap arms around himself as his own sobs bounce back to him through the dark.
This month Gary has mostly been annoyed by Met Bar rejects and young black men pretending to talk like Yanks or Yardies. Sometimes they try to do both at the same time. With hilarious results, as they say in the Radio Times. People acting hard, putting on personae like they’d slip on once a week shoes. Gary’s been to New York a few times, down the estates too, and he’s manufactured interest in the tattoos of Russian mafiya-capitalists. Always on quasi-legal business for Rimmington or whoever Rimmington works for. In New York or the sink estates, at a rigged Baltic beauty contest or here, Gary can always spot the real thing. They’re the kind of people who can afford to act normal because they really are hard.
The bloke is like a spider, fragile and scuttling hungrily towards Gary on scary thin legs.
‘I fink we’ve met before,’ he says, mockney to the max. ‘Gary, innit?’
There’s a blonde woman too, with the ghost of a black eye. She’s almost managed to incorporate the bruise into a makeup job that’s simultaneously subtle and theatrical. She’s obviously thinking Daryl Hannah in Blade Runner, which just shows how deluded people can be. She doesn’t speak, doesn’t need to because Gary already knows what her voice is like; sheared off and sharpened by expensive education then deliberately worn smooth again by St Martin’s or drama school. She doesn’t look the sort to accept a black eye without giving something in return.
Gary isn’t sure what he’s being asked. The man is not mistaken, though. They have met before. It’s a reminder of his name; Rocco. Gary saw Rocco’s critically acclaimed rendition of his own past as a smackhead bisexual, which was also favourably reviewed in the Fringe pages of Time Out. Gary thinks the blonde might be one of the naked, gilded pseudo-lesbians from another play Greg made him go and see. There were two blondes (one real) who stage-punched and pistol whipped each other whilst reciting the names of car manufacturers. Gary supposed Greg’s invitation to the play was intended as a type of welcome-to-my-world gesture. Apparently it was OK to look at naked women again because it was post feminist. Gary wouldn’t have guessed that what he saw was meant to be post feminist, or post anything else. If he’d known beforehand that it was post-whatever, he probably wouldn’t have agreed to go.
Gary remembers finding it impossible to ascertain what they were trying to say, or what it was supposed to all be about, other than just the obvious; middle class drama graduates parading equal measures of nudity and stupidity. To Gary it just looked like a load of people running around the place painted gold, shouting, brandishing cap guns at the audience and generally spazzing about. The contrived gestures of the women, their awkward delivery of found text, and their occasional, partial clothing sometimes placed them vaguely in areas of the erotic with which Gary was familiar. And he had to admit that the gratuitous nudity was an unexpected bonus, though he could have done without all the cocks dangling about.
Rocco and his Goldfinger girlfriend seem desperate to get into the club. Gary doesn’t care why, but Rocco keeps dropping Greg’s name as if being bought by a Saatchi automatically gives a boy from Braintree coat tails wide enough to accommodate every semi-successful free verse poet and his performance art girlfriend when they fancy carousing with the C list of a Saturday night.
‘You see that bitch down there in the stupid coat?’ Gary says, indicating the bitch in question, ‘She’s the one who gets people in. I just chuck them out. It’s a he, know what I mean, but don’t tell her I told you. So, tell you what, come back when you wanna get bounced and I’ll be happy to do the honours.’
The blonde’s expression hasn’t altered throughout this encounter, which is too realistically staged to be of much interest to her. Rocco’s shoulders go, but his head only half turns, as if his torso’s got more sense than his mouth.
‘Cunt,’ it enunciates in profile, then Rocco takes umbrage, blonde and touring accent across the street with him.
Gary knows he shouldn’t do what he’s about to, but he decides to make an exception for Rocco. It is Saturday night, after all.
‘Wait a minute, mate,’ he smiles. Rocco trails, too eagerly, back across the street. The woman stands in the opposite gutter with the dog ends and crisp bags, receipts and crushed cans.
Gary’s laugh has been infected by his job. His amusement expresses itself as a rolling bass loop, like a record through a wall. Rocco seems almost hypnotised by Gary’s laughter, staring up at him, Mediterranean lips slightly parted— until the crack of nasal cartilage. For Gary it’s one of the most enjoyable aspects of working in the security industry. You get so many opportunities to express to people, immediately and unequivocally, exactly how you feel. Call it alerting them to their position in the pecking order. Or call it nutting them hard in the face.
Cal is scamping around Greg’s flat, still pretending that he’s got no arms. Greg feels hungover, though he wasn’t drunk last night. Nauseous, fragile and tension headache. He’s not sure whether it’s from squinting through the viewfinder for the hours it took to get what he wanted, or just Cal’s draining presence. Cal is trying to put his T-shirt back on without using his hands. Greg plans to render him in fibreglass as a skinny, hyperactive boy with big pores, aggressive eyebrows, white Y-fronts and no arms.
‘Can I have one of these?’
Cal’s holding a spool of red peel-off labels with Hello my Name is printed on them, the product of an idle morning spent wandering around Staples. Greg nods, anything for a quiet life, take as many as you like. Cal finds a black marker that almost works. In the space underneath Hello my Name is Cal writes DEATH, then sticks it over his heart.
‘Been up to see Rocco’s show yet?’ Greg asks, more for something to say than out of any interest. Cal shrugs in what he thinks is the style of an amputee.
‘I’ve decided I’m not going to associate with anyone whose childhood predates Space Invaders,’ Cal answers, no answer at all.
‘Oh, right. And what are you going to be if you grow up?’
Cal frowns, grins, frowns again. Greg’s face isn’t giving him any clues.
Courtney arrives and Cal buzzes her up without asking Greg’s leave. Courtney is a clone of Cal’s last girlfriend, as she was of the one who preceded her. Dyed hair, cropped, given to erring on the streets of the city and blaming it on postgraduate study. Her elbows are conspicuously marked up with carpet burns. She’s been making arty farty sex films with Rocco for about a year. Greg isn’t sure whether this constitutes a steady relationship or not. Sometimes Courtney fucks Cal in the films, but the fact that she also fucks him off camera still seems strangely akin to adultery. If anybody felt sorry for Rocco, they might drop a hint or two. The trouble is, Rocco devotes awesome energy to courting misfortune and woe. Virtually everything in his life is done with the intention of it being a bad experience he can turn into material. So nobody tells Rocco. They just don’t want to give him the satisfaction .
Courtney demands attention as well, photographic and otherwise. She seems to imagine that without it she would evaporate into anonymity, that eventually her image might degrade into invisibility. That’s why she photographs herself, supple and naked, on the Underground. As if she is in a short story, as if to illustrate characterisation, when Courtney catches Greg’s eye momentarily he finds that he is smiling feebly like he’s done something he shouldn’t have. Courtney hardly smiles back, but then she hardly smiles ever.
Courtney and Cal go at each other with a no-tomorrow zeal that makes even Greg cringe. From behind Cal’s ear, Courtney catches Greg’s eye again.
‘I know what you’re thinking,’ she says, disengaging her lips from Cal’s. ‘Everyone knows that Rocco’s a shifty, manipulative, dirty old pervert. Total fucking perv turned up to eleven. I mean, I don’t have a problem with that, but he doesn’t own me or anything.’
‘Yeah,’ agrees Cal, ‘Any fucker that chides us for having feelings can suck our cocks.’
Greg concedes to himself that— for what it’s worth— Courtney and Cal are probably in love.
Rocco has an Elastoplast across the bridge of his broken nose. He forgot to take it off before he went on. Somehow the innocent little plaster undermines that night’s performance of I’m an Anagram of Everything. A small audience observes with Metropolitan apathy, even when Rocco invites them to feel his pain by recreating the addiction and self-abuse of his formative years using multiple syringes and a straight razor. Rocco gets through plasters like nobody’s business. He buys them from the Cash and Carry.
To be fair, Rocco’s verse crackles along with the kinesis of machine gun fire. To be honest, his poems about power, greed and sex shops are an embarrassment. When he sees Courtney, Cal and Greg in the auditorium, Rocco waves, mid sentence. This is unprofessional and not very cool.
Afterwards Greg tells Rocco that he loved the show, &c. Inadvertently he apologises for the destructive capabilities of his brother’s forehead. It just slips out, violating no-charity-for-Rocco protocols.
‘S’OK,’ Rocco shrugs, ‘If I’d met meself last Saturday I wouldn’t have been very impressed either. Actually I’d probably have ‘eadbutted meself.’
‘Why’d you act like such a cunt, then?’ This is a very poor attempt at disguised hostility from Cal.
‘I’m not in control of what I do,’ Rocco says with an audible shrug. Cal sneers.
‘Oh, how silly of me—’
Rocco lights a cigarette and then asks,
‘Mind if I smoke?’
‘Care if I die?’
Greg’s thought of this beforehand, and he thinks he probably stole it from somewhere, but it’s a great goal nonetheless. Rocco looks almost shocked.
‘Alright, chill out.’
Rocco takes three huge drags on the ciggie, smoking it in about five seconds, then stubs it out under the rim of the table. Greg brushes stray ash from his trousers.
‘Why do you think Marlboro County’s always empty in those adverts?’
He shoots, he scores. It’s a rewarding job, helping Rocco to keep his ego reasonably restrained. Cal obviously wants to clap with joy like a groovy Christian, but for once he manages to control his retarded urges. As usual Courtney just sits there holding a beer bottle at arm’s length like it’s going to explode, not doing anything to get the conversation back on its rails.
Greg recognises a face on the other side of the bar, a journalist from the Guardian against whom Greg’s got an ongoing grudge. Greg made the mistake of informing Cambridge Boy that his influences were “Special Brew and the studied unreality of Soho and Brighton”. The article had set this gem as a pull quote next to a picture of Greg looking New Brit Artish and rather munting. When Greg saw it he vowed to shit down the guy’s neck without even tearing his head off first.
‘Yeah, I’m still doing drugs,’ drones the hack to everyone within earshot, ‘But I’ve decided to do them ironically.’
Can Greg keep it dignified, gentlemanly, out of the tabloids? Find out next week.
Everyone’s shoved up against a wall watching Rocco taping Cal pumping Courtney. Greg doesn’t pay much attention to the enthusiastic method-foreplay, or to Rocco’s directions. What Greg is fascinated by are the scrapes on Courtney’s elbows and the bruises on her hips. She looks like she’s fallen off a skateboard or something. Though she’s knocking thirty it’s not inconceivable. There’s a woman called Kate next to him. She’s from Courtney’s theatre company. Apparently she’s something to do with devising the film. The working title is Blood Bath. Kate has just realised that the whole thing’s more porny and less theatrical than she anticipated. By way of indicating her dismay, she turns to Greg and whispers,
‘It kind of smells in here.’
She’s right. Greg doesn’t tell her that the stench is from some dead seagulls. Rocco went through a phase of painting them until he got bored and left the birds to rot in his spare room. Typically, his neighbours were more distressed than Rocco was. When they complained he just threw the rancid bird carcasses into the street.
Some funding is allegedly imminent. Rocco submitted sheaves of documentation explaining in a hundred different ways that it wasn’t going to be essentially a Playboy Channel thing like the last one. Cal starts whining about wanting to go. He’s hungover from AM drinking. Courtney wanders off into the kitchen while Rocco is distracted.
‘Star Trek is on in a minute,’ Cal says, ‘And I’m sorry, but it’s one of those events I have no power to control. I have to watch it for research purposes.’
Rocco angrily shoves the camera into Cal’s face. Cal isn’t sure whether this is still art.
‘Just once I’d like to hear something other than a complaint come out of your mouth,’ says Rocco.
Cal is profusely sick over Rocco’s feet.
‘Get out!’ Rocco screams. The room is far too small for Kate and Greg to escape.
‘Wait…’ Cal mutters. ‘One other thing—’
Cal vomits again. Rocco launches heavy-duty invective, some of it in whatever his mother’s language is. When he’s run out of abuse he looks as if he’s going to hurl the (rented) camera as well until Kate prises it out of his grip and backs away as if she’s under heavy shelling. Rocco hardly seems to notice. Cal says he’s a trained actor and if he wanted to take this kind of shit he would have joined Equity so at least he’d get the union minimum and subsistence.
‘Fuck you,’ shouts Cal’s retreating back. ‘Fuck you and your art. And your girlfriend.’
Exeunt Cal, Courtney and Kate. Rocco slides his back down the wall until he’s in a crouch.
‘By projecting your anger,’ he proclaims to the recently slammed door, ‘You will never examine your life.’
It’s hard to believe, but this statement is even less profound than it seems. Greg knows it is just the title from one of Rocco’s performance pieces, and Rocco didn’t even think of it himself. He just read it on the wall of the gents’ lav at the ICA.
‘Go go go!’ Rocco shouts, wriggling like an impatient child, sloshing water everywhere. ‘This is it!’
Courtney is behind the camera this time.
‘Can we hurry this up?’ she says, ‘This is my Buffy tape, it’s a really good tape I’m taping over, so can we get a move on?’
Rocco stares the lens down, one hand absently trying to tug some life into his dick so it doesn’t look so small under the water.
‘The silence begins to get to you,’ he says. ‘It whispers in your ear, lets you in on a secret. Tells you this isn’t a real game. They ran away to play a different game. The game they all really wanted to play. Without you.’
Greg, Courtney, Kate and Cal watch Rocco maul, punch, scratch and cut himself in meaningless fury. Sometimes he emits incoherent strings of almost-words, the sounds a brain makes as it comes unglued. Blood pours down Rocco’s back, trickles from his neck and mats the hair of his chest, runs into his eyes from his cut forehead. He starts to twist and thrash from side to side like a fish drowning in air. Airborne splashes Pollocking the tiles. Courtney doesn’t want to get dripped on, she backs into the toilet and sits down hard on the seat. Rocco tries to stand, his hands seek her, slips off balance, legs in the air, his face goes under the red red water.
There is another ellipsis in the narrative.
The picture of Doorman Gary: grown up with the five o’ clock shadow to prove it, but still the real big brother, driving silently to the place he knows, the place someone he knows who works for Mr Rimmington knows, the place where they can get rid of Rocco. For a few days Greg couldn’t stop crying. Now he thinks he’s just about managed to disconnect from the whole thing. It happened with an almost audible click while he was momentarily distracted by a new Levi’s advert. Courtney and Kate took turns at sitting in shocked, useless silence round each other’s flats. Nobody even asked where Cal disappeared to. Yesterday he rematerialised and said he wanted to help Gary and Greg.
Even though Greg knows what is inside the black plastic and elephant tape, he feels like he could or should hold it. It’s a dead body, Rocco’s thoroughly kosher corpse, but Greg has an irrational urge to give the parcel a hug because it looks so sad. Greg knows he doesn’t really want to touch the thing, he just feels lost and he needs to hold somebody. It’s meant to be romantic, fucking yourself up. It isn’t romantic at all.
The four of them— Greg, Courtney, Cal and Kate— decided they weren’t going to the police. Courtney’s camerawork is so shit that the tape doesn’t really show anything until after Rocco is dead. Ever tried explaining art to a copper? So they thought it would be easier for everyone and save on repercussions and gaps in their CVs if they just buried Rocco somewhere. The rest of them assume that Greg will be able to sort it. After all, he is the only one of them who used to be working class.
Gary sits half out of the car, idly rubbing out bootprints in the mud with his toes. The cigarette making rapid circuits to and from Gary’s scar of a mouth is the only sign of nerves needing to calmed. Cal is listening to his Walkman, not happy or flippant but making urgent little bobs of his head, as if breakbeats can dislodge what he’s done. Greg hears the first diffident bird of morning and wonders what the ratio is of bodies buried to bodies found.
Photographs are meant to provide proof of identity, to capture some version of the reality of things, but Greg never recognises himself in them. That’s why the picture in The Guardian was disappointing. Not because of that stupid caption, or turning the page to see the usual fashion spread of dead-eyed 12 year old anorexics in strappy dresses and makeup by Stevie Wonder. It was because the picture of Greg didn’t bear any resemblance to him at all. He always feels let down by photos of himself.
The image in the browser doesn’t look like Rocco either, doesn’t look like anyone. A screen grab. Legs splayed with the studied carelessness of habitual nudes. Armpit submersed. The arm almost looks detached because of the way it’s flung up and out. New cuts across old ones on the hairy belly and chest, scratching out the final draft of an illegible suicide note. Face out of frame. Greg knows who it is. The body doesn’t need a head.
Click. He disconnects. With an audible click.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alistair Gentry is a writer and artist, or an artist and writer. He was born in Bedfordshire and grew up in Essex and Suffolk. He is the author of the novels Their Heads Are Anonymous (1997), Monkey Boys (1999) and the forthcoming Nobody Knows Anybody. He’s been an English Heritage/Arts Council England Artist Fellow, with his video work shown in numerous galleries and at the 2005 Venice Biennale. He is an editor and board member of the fiction site Pulp Net.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 9th, 2002.