The Way We Lied

Early morning is the best time to work, before the sun is at its height and the day is too hot. I only have two more days on this Greek island and then I will move on again. Each time I arrive somewhere new I think I will never find anything different to paint, but as I start to settle into the local daily routine, the fascinating minutiae of simple domestic detail always reveals more of the character of the people and the place.
I know I will never paint portraits or landscapes, but I feel that by studying the tools and utensils of everyday life I am still capturing the lives of ordinary people. In France I found chipped enamel jugs and grape scissors, in Italy there were baby artichokes and thickly glazed pottery. Here by the Ionian sea there are smooth olive wood bowls and gigantic radishes. I sketch and paint for much of the day, recording every scratch, every imperfection, hoping the essence of these lives will be reflected when I complete the paintings back at home in England.
Yet again I have asked Simon if he will come and join me here. He claims work is pressing, but I am not sure he even really wants to come away. He used to like holidays abroad and was quite happy when we went Majorca for several years, although we always had to return to the same apartment in the same resort. But perhaps what I am doing now is just not the kind of travelling he likes. There are no hotels, no pools, just me, my sketchpads and whatever cheap room I can find. I don’t want to stay in replicas of every hotel in Europe and America; I want to leave that world behind and capture what is left of real lives and the countryside before they all disappear in an air-conditioned maze of breeze blocks and chlorinated water.
A skinny black cat visits me in the evenings. The other night she was accompanied by two tiny, shy kittens and I fed them scraps of ham. Simon would be horrified, I am sure, as they probably have every parasite known to felines. But they are gentle and pretty and I like to see them eat so hungrily. And then I sit on the terrace, greeted politely by the family I am staying with, but left to my books as much as I wish and I see the moon rise over the sea and hear the soft swish of the waves and remember.
I remember hugging Richard as he left for his third year at university and kissing Emily in her halls at the start of term. They are both happy in their work with many friends to support them. And I then think of my own friends and remember Mary. I wonder whether I could ever have come this far without her influence. I can see now that her encouragement was a catalyst which sparked a completely new beginning for me. When the guild group first decided that New Beginnings would be the theme of our joint art project, I didn’t realise just how poignant that title would become. It marked a new start in my work and also in my life.
Four years have passed since that exhibition, more than five since I first met Mary. And I feel as if I have travelled farther and wider than at any other stage in my life. The show was a great success for everyone in the group, but for me it felt as if it was the most important thing, other than giving birth to my children and launching them into the world, that I had ever accomplished.

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The Jolly Fisherman

Inchcolm Lassie S“Ahoy Capitano. Sastimos. Shee oney bonaroo pluk boot.” The approaching figure, paddling at the water’s edge, had his trousers rolled up above the knees and a knotted handkerchief on his head, over a black and white polka dot Lone Ranger mask.

“Rocka Inglés, McGoogs. Flo, here, has no Polari,” bellowed Rotskagg Blenkinsop.

“And she’s no time for your mucking about. Get over here, Slasher.” Dark Flo turned back to Rotskagg. “Our Coldwar Spytrawler Lord Ancaster is working out of Braye Harbour on Alderney, gathering as much info as the crew can glean. We need to scupper this invasion on Jersey before it gets established. The Kronstadt sailors are a formidable fighting force ashore, but only have two lightly armed trawlers. The Polikarpovs will provide air cover and we are getting the Lady Æthelflæda out of mothballs.”

“So, apart from this Caspian Sea Beasty, what can you offer, Captain?” chipped in Slasher.

A barely perceptible scowl flickered across the pirate king’s usually amiable countenance. “IF we come in on your side, Mr Cat o’ Mystery; that has yet to be decided. I have convened a Pirate Court and we shall have to see how many Corsair captains turn up. Their whale chasers also be armed only with a single 40mm Bofors, or pair of 37mm Soviet V-11s at best. My Queen Anne’s Bounty and the Destroyer of Worlds be the only craft as can take on a battleship.” The Queen Anne was Rotskagg’s imposing black flagship dirigible. She bristled with every conceivable calibre of weaponry. “The Gilnockie of Gilnockie has dispatched a contingent of his Reivers and Moss Troopers aboard the somewhat overloaded Clyde puffer Inchcolm Lassie. As we speak they should be passing through the Caledonian Canal en route to Banff where they will swell their ranks from volunteers in the local Insurrectionary Militia. Furthermore a band of continental mercenaries be awaiting our arrival in Craster in order to negotiate their fee. They be irrepressible dandies, but hard fighters.

“So, it be down to you, cat and barmaid, to make a compelling case for your cause.”

“No pressure, as usual,” grumbled Slasher as the trio headed back towards the cramped harbour of Craster. Roistering and squabbling from within the tavern drowned out even the incessant squawking of the gulls. Herring barrels were stacked at the roadside. In the little garden, kept neat by the landlord’s daughter, were piled halberds and pikes, cutlasses, flammenschwerts and beidhänders, many a sawn-off shotgun and every mark of Kalash assault rifle confiscated on entry to the Jolly Fisherman. When Rotskagg held open the door to the bar and stood back to let the others in they were met by a sight and sounds of utter pandemonium. A group of weasels in flamboyant garb, slashed and puffed sleeves, striped hose, massive floppy ostrich feathered hats stood together on a long oak table roaring out demands for ludicrous amounts of what they were calling ‘Gelt’, preferably in Euros; the throng of angry corsairs that surrounded them looking almost sombre by comparison, in their spotted kerchiefs, cropped Levis and hearts and roses tattoos.

Rotskagg turned to Dark Flo, “Would you like to do your thing, dearie?”

“Time gentlemen, Please. Let’s be having you now.” Her gently melodic voice sliced through the furore like a freshly honed stiletto. The company froze. A dread silence descended, punctuated only by the tick-tock of an age-darkened act of parliament clock marking the passage of the moments above the open fireplace.

“Good. Now come to order. Sit,” Rotskagg turned his single, ice-cold eye to the weasels. “…all of you.” Then, “Mine host, lager for the Europeans and strong ale for my hearties here. Smartly does it.”

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The Way We Lied

And it made me think how I always put other demands first and never allow myself to have a fixed time for my work. Even yesterday, when I knew she was coming and should have been working here, I was running down to the post office to send off some packages for Simon, though it could have waited. And the day before that I had to suddenly run to the chemist in town to pick up prescriptions that he could easily have collected in his lunch hour.
Then, after I had apologised for not doing much work and explained how busy I had been, Mary said she thought I had taken an important step forward in creating my own private work place, by which she meant the shed. She said it would mean I could leave my other life and travel – well, walk down the garden – to my office and enter my working life. She thought it was good to have a separate space which was devoted just to me and my work and that I should even think of making a timetable to give myself targets. But she said that even if I sometimes came to the shed and didn’t draw or paint, that would still count as work time as long as I was thinking. She said so much of our creative work comes from the time we spend daydreaming, as other people would put it.
And then finally she suggested I show her the half-finished painting and my sketch books and she really liked the drawings I had done of Granddad’s old garden tools, especially the battered spade. She said they were gutsy and honest. I think I could see what she meant and I was pleased she liked them. Then I said I felt that this shed was a new beginning for me and that was the only thing I had thought of that was relevant to the project and she seemed to quite like it. She said it was an emotional and creative turning point for me and that she was sure it would be strongly reflected in my work if I wished to pursue it. And as she said this I began to see that this could be my response to the theme and I started to talk with great excitement about drawing seedlings and the transformation of the shed and painting cabbages with caterpillars and tight buds opening.
It was a revelation that I could move on from where I had been and yet not be afraid. It was a departure, but not a radical or frightening one for me. I want you to feel the strength in those tools, Mary said, experience the sap rising and the earth crumbling. Use cracked mossy pots and let there be soil scattered around. I knew what she meant. I had been too clean, too tidy before. This had to be real and earthy.
And then we arranged that she would come in another two months to see how I was getting on. When she came I was still a little apprehensive, but this meeting was even better than the first. I have been doing a lot of sketches and I have just started a large painting of an old boot – the sort I imagine my grandfather might have worn – thrown on to a table next to a tool that I think is called a dibber ( it is a pointed fat stick with a handle, for making holes for seeds and small bulbs). I found some old seed packets when I was clearing out the shed and I had kept them because I liked their bright colours and simple designs, even though the paper looked as if mice had been chewing them. I like the contrast between the polished wood with its strong grain, the cracked leather with eyelets for the laces and the creased paper. There is lots of texture and shape there.
And I was so pleased when Mary appreciated what I was trying to do and liked it. I was beginning to wonder if I was getting it wrong, as Simon had looked at my work at the weekend and asked if I was sure I wanted to paint all this dirty stuff. I could tell he didn’t like the arrangement on the table and was dying to grab a dustpan and brush and sweep all the soil up and scrub away the caked mud.
But Mary loved it. She said even at this early stage she could almost smell the hard work and sweat wafting from the boot, as if the gardener had just kicked it off after a hard afternoon on his allotment and was now sitting back with a strong mug of tea to read his paper. And then we laughed about what paper he might be reading – Mary thought the Daily Mirror – and whether his wife was expecting him back soon for tea, as we thought he would call his evening meal.
By this time it was early evening, so we had a glass of wine while we talked instead of cups of tea and watched the sun sinking and the damsel flies flitting over the pond. We talked about how much I could expect to produce before the spring show next year and whether I should continue in this vein.
And I felt happy and fulfilled.

The Way We Lied

I’m feeling so much more confident now. Meeting Mary has made the most enormous difference to my work. I can’t believe now how worried I was before Mary came to see me at home for our first one to one session. I’d done hardly any work on the project since we had all met at her place, because I had stupidly been concentrating on turning the shed into a studio. Well I say stupidly, but I am pleased that I have done it and it does look lovely now. I painted it white inside and pale green outside. I was tempted to hang pretty curtains too, but as I need maximum daylight I have left the windows bare. Simon was not too pleased when he realised what I had been doing, but I think he has forgotten about it now, as I cleared up all the garden tools, chemicals and sprays and managed to create a very neat area for them in a corner of the garage.
So as most of my spare time had been spent on the shed, I had done very little research for the project or even thought about it. All I’d done was start a painting of how the shed looked before I emptied it and some quick sketches of garden tools and rubbish I found, because I thought they looked interesting as I was clearing up. I pinned a couple of these up on the shed walls so it didn’t look too bare and I also hung up some old forks and trowels which had belonged to my grandfather. I like the feel of the wooden handles, which are smooth and polished from his years of hard gardening. They remind me of him, his old corduroy trousers and his smell of tobacco. They make me think of happy times, playing in my grandparents’ garden, feeding their hens and collecting the eggs.
I suppose I was also feeling apprehensive before Mary arrived because I was expecting her to say right then, what have you been doing, show me everything, I want to see lots of progress otherwise I’ll think you are wasting my time. But of course it was nothing like that. It was more like a friend visiting and just showing genuine interest in what I’d been doing. It was a lovely sunny day for April. One of those days when you are fooled into thinking summer has arrived already. Our cherry tree and magnolia were in flower and had not been damaged by frost and down the bottom of the garden where the shed is, there are loads of bluebells, so it looks very pretty, set there in a sort of flowery glade. Mary said it was just like coming to visit Hansel and Gretel and we walked down the garden together, with me carrying a tray of tea and biscuits. Then we sat in the shed with the door open and the sun coming in and we just talked for ages.
It was funny, because at first we didn’t talk about work or the project. She just asked me about my family, about Simon and about my life. She asked me how much time I was able to spend painting and I said how difficult it was to find regular times to work because of the children and my other work. And she said I had to make it a priority and give myself a rigid timetable. She said so many people make the mistake of thinking that creativity does not need boundaries when in fact it requires massive discipline and that the most productive artists have always been hard working, driven people.

The Nuns of La Hougue Bie (Part Two)

Adepts peered into the muzzle of Kiki’s light machine gun, black and cavernous as Cthulhu’s rectum, shimmering vaguely as hot air rose from the still scorching metal, and a hint of uncertainty rippled through the ranks of lesbian brides. The tension was palpable; a passing lumberjack could have cut the atmosphere with a chainsaw.

“Hold on there young pussy cat.” The mother superior was advancing at speed and holding up her right palm. “It would appear that we share a common cause.”

“Thank Crimbo for that,” said Kiki, throwing away her Bren in disgust. “Bloody thing’s useless. Overheated and jammed up solid just as I was down to my last two rounds.”

There was an uneasy silence before the venerable nun continued:

“You are Kittens of Chaos. Who has not heard of The Kittens of Chaos?”

“Well, we sure as hell haven’t heard of you.” Replied Kiki.

“We are a silent, and consequently somewhat secret order.”

The young brides nearby were babbling excitedly, picking up and dusting off Kitty and Scarlet and bombarding them with questions. The mother superior sighed.

“Our silence is, for the most part, conceptual. But our ‘out reach’ chapter is scrupulously clandestine. Please, accompany me to our humble stronghold. You can freshen up and we can talk some more.”

The monastery-fortress of La Hougue Bie perched on top of an ancient earth mound, 12.2 metres (45¾ feet) high, that had been constructed entirely by human hands. The mound covered an 18.6 metre long passage chamber situated directly beneath the chapels at the heart of the nunnery and its significance will be revealed later in the narrative. As yet our heroines were unaware of this tunnel.

The climb was steep, the entrance to the fortress small and heavily guarded. In the courtyard ranks of warrior nuns were practicing a form of martial art unique to the order.

“We are inspired by the teachings of Master Mao Tzu, combining ‘explosive energy’, or Fu Quo, with the aggressive cynicism of Nepalese Zen.”

“Well I’ll back the Zen of the .762 Rimless any day.” Kiki responded.

The mother superior smiled:

“But not today, dear. Your gun’s buggered.”

Destroyer of Worlds“Bugger me, that’s impressive!”

Dark Flo and Rotskagg Blenkinsopp watched the first trial run of the upgraded Destroyer of Worlds from a beach below the castle of Dunstanburgh. The mighty Ekranoplan MD-160 klasy Lun skimmed low over a churning North Sea. Gone were the paddle boxes and Bolinder diesel. Patching and riveting had restored the ravages wreaked by the Kittens’ thermal lance. Flame and choking black smoke belched from eight recklessly souped-up and scaled up HeS1 turbojets. The muzzles of six 18.1 inch Type 94 naval guns bristled along its spine.

“She be fast, and she be manoeuvrable. And she be scary. Should work a treat,” observed Rotskagg.

“Have you tested the artillery?” Dark Flo wrinkled her nose inquisitively, “Is recoil going to be a problem?”

“Can’t spare the ammunition. And there be a risk factor. Health and Safety be on my back as it is. ‘Have you completed an assessment? What’s the error margin on the power curves for the engines? Are there separate and clearly marked male and female toilets?’ What be the world coming to?”

“Do they know you’re taking it into a war zone?”

“Byt’ Virgin’s Armpits! Not bloody likely, they’d crap ‘emselves!”

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The Way We Lied

It’s funny how this time a deadline doesn’t frighten me. At college I always put off working until the last minute and then spent the final few days in a frenzy of drawing and painting, knowing that I hadn’t done enough.
I suppose that is what I couldn’t cope with in the end; that’s what drove me out of art college and into primary school teaching. I hated having to justify my work, explain its meaning, pretend it was something it wasn’t. For God’s sake, it’s just a vase of flowers, I wanted to scream! Can’t you all see that? And in the end I knew my work wasn’t good enough for them and when we all had group tutorials and had to talk about our work, I would listen to some of the other students prattling on about the subliminal context and some such pretentious rubbish and wonder why I was there. And now here I am, working under the guidance of a world famous artist! I can hardly believe my luck!
I can also hardly believe how privileged we all were to be given an insight into the way she works. She has an old outbuilding, well a barn really, which is her main sculpting space, where she models clay and prepares her sculptures prior to casting. But she also does loads of preparation and research and she stressed how important this is if the work is to have gravitas, as she put it.
She showed us the small books she uses when travelling, all crammed with little sketches and observations and souvenirs, like tickets, scraps of fabric and pressed flowers. She is interested in so many different things and she picks up ethnic decorative objects and textiles on her journeys because she says although she might not incorporate these into her work, they give her context.
I found that very revealing and it made me think that perhaps I should change my working methods, maybe even paint in a different place. And on shelves around the studio she also had things she has come across around her home in this country, like birds nests and even a deer’s skull with little tiny vestiges of horn on top. I have nothing like that as Simon wants everything to be very tidy and gets most annoyed if I even leave yesterday’s papers lying around.
I suppose it would be a great help if I could have a working place where I would be undisturbed and where I could leave work in progress, instead of always having to clear it away at the end of the day. Nicky uses her garage, but the light is not very good in ours. But now I think about it, I could perhaps clear out the garden shed. Lots of artists and writers have been creative in their sheds, haven’t they?
I could move all the gardening stuff into the garage, which we never put the cars in anyway. I could clean the shed up and by the summer it wouldn’t be too cold to use. I could use that little old folding picnic table and there’s room for my easel. I think I could make it really cosy and conducive to work. I might even paint it inside, just to make it feel like home. I can’t see how Simon can object to that. It would keep my mess out of his sight and if I clear up the garden stuff at the same time, he ought to be pleased. A new beginning, that’s what it will be!

The Nuns of La Hougue Bie (Part One)

A bullet ripped into the tree trunk inches above Kitty Fisher’s head.

“I think they’re getting closer,” wheezed Scarlet.

“I know they are,” gasped Kitty, “We must keep running.”

“I’m not a tree.”

“What?”

“I’m not a tree,” replied the tree. The Kittens looked on in disbelief as the lower portion of the stunted conifer began to wriggle alarmingly. All of a sudden, out burst Kiki la Berserker. She was wearing a red and black paisley bandana round her forehead just below a bizarrely unfashionable parting where the bullet that opened this chapter had ploughed a furrow through her fur. There were black camo-paint stripes below her eyes and she had on an extremely grubby singlet, belts of ammo over her right shoulder and a Bren gun slung by a webbing strap from the left. She rushed past without another word and some yards down the forest path, screaming her bloodcurdling battle cry, opened up with the Bren. The barrel kicked and writhed, a stream of spent cartridges pirouetted from the breach, shattered branches and mortally terminated wood pigeons rained down from the canopy.

“Should we help?” asked Scarlet.

“You’re joking!” replied Kitty as a couple of stray rounds of .303 whined past, “I’m not going anywhere near her. Anyway, by the time she’s emptied her magazine into the undergrowth you won’t find a Corporatist Insurgent within a mile of here. They’re not suicidal.”

“OK, I suppose. Do you know where we are?”

“Nope, hopelessly lost. Looks like there’s a track up ahead though. If we can get clear of these woods perhaps we can find our bearings.”

And thus the two diminutive kittens, separated temporarily from their comrades fighting a guerrilla war behind the British front line, walked out of the wood into the fresh clear air of a sunny Jersey afternoon. Ahead was a large barrow shaped mound topped by a fortified chapel complex. Surrounding them was a circle of heavily armed Shaolin warrior nuns.

The mother superior waved the dangerous end of an AK-47 at Kitty.

“Drop your weapons. Face down on the ground, both of you. Paws behind your head.

“Now, who are you? And what are you doing at La Hougue Bie?”

“We’re lost,” sounded a bit pathetic coming from Kitty.

“Who are we? Who the hell are you?” mumbled Scarlet into the dust.

“We,” it was still the Mother Superior speaking, “are The Lesbian Brides of Our Lady of Perpetual Self-Doubt.”

“Actually, we’re not all lesbians,” chipped in one of the shaven headed acolytes, only to fall silent under the withering glance of her commander.

“Well, Corporal Fisher and I are soldiers of the Battailon Durruti, under the command of Generalissimo Starcluster and loosely affiliated to the Résistance Crapaud.” Scarlet risked raising her head a little and glared up at the nuns. “We demand to be treated with dignity, as prisoners of war.”

“Perhaps it is a little premature to assume who is the prisoner of who.”

“Whom.”

“Shut it!” Kiki la Berserker stepped from the woodland cover, aiming her Bren from the hip, fresh notches carved into its butt, dried blood smearing her face.

As one, the nuns turned to face Kiki. With a ringing “Hrraaah!” they adopted the aggressively defensive Fa Jin Pregnant Paws posture.

“Really?” Kiki spoke scornfully.

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