Figure XIX

July 20, 2006

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Through streets bordered by London Planes, the morning radio show burbles onward like an electronic stream. Occasionally, the harvestman seated in the back will speak, comment on the traffic, mention the unbearable heat within his costume, but mostly they are quiet, buoyed along by the cheery-voiced weather report and songs from the speakers.
The creature driving – what was it? A grasshopper? A praying mantis? Ernest doesn’t like to ask – is also the convenor of the event, the lead player of the troupe, as he had referred to himself at the audition. Now peeping from the mouth of the enormous insect’s head, he seems even more serious than he had done then.

“You have to imagine that you are a worm, Ernest. Can you do that for me?”

Ernest had nodded. They were standing in an empty room above a kebab shop in Islington, empty apart from the costumes that hung in the corners like discarded skins. This was the audition.

“Are you sure that the pond-skater suit couldn’t be adjusted?” he had asked hopefully.

“The thing is, we need a nematode worm. Can you do that for me Ernest? Can you show me your best worm?”

Now?

“Yes, if you would.”

Ernest had shuffled half-heartedly from one foot to the other. He hoped this might be taken for a wriggle.

“Excellent!”

“Really?”

“Oh yes, excellent… I really see your inner worm.”

“Hell.” Ernest had murmured under his breath.

“You’ve been the best we’ve had all day.”

Ernest was disconcerted by this man’s persistence in referring to himself as ‘we’. He looked nervously at the giant insect faces and hoped that these were not the others in that imagined group.

Now above the line of cars in front, the top of the museum draws its head. Ernest feels his stomach turn over deep within the worm.

Figure XV

July 10, 2006

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In the history of evolution, the nematode worm never adapted itself to the crossing of roads or the opening of car doors. Though a million such species formed themselves on the earth, each suited in their separate ways to aquatic or subterranean life, the creature’s conveyance across an inner city street never came to light as a necessary specification until this moment in time. Neither had Ernest in his 76 years of life adapted himself for hurried progression whilst entombed in such thick rubber casing.

How curiously things turned out. He had been up for the role of Serebryakov in a touring production of Uncle Vanya the week before, but his agent had worried that he might have found the work tiring at his age. Might he not prefer this job instead? Just a small company, no lines to remember, just a bit of improvisation, only a few days work but the money wasn’t bad. He had auditioned for the role of pond–skater, but had been too tall for the costume.

His whole life was diligently spent on the margins. A lead star in radio light entertainment on the Home Service, there had once been some talk of him getting his own show, but he took to the theatre instead. He once shared a taxi with Lawrence Olivier. And now this. Spending every moment regretting one’s past, watching others succeed and going in fear of death –

Figure IX

July 1, 2006

 

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And there he stands in the doorway, six feet seven inches of grey silicone rubber. Had he known his career might come to this, perhaps he would have done things differently, but right now he just hesitates, trying to locate the position of the breakfast table from inside the suit’s bulbous head. The room is silent. With his limited vision he wonders for a moment if he hasn’t perhaps entered the sitting room by mistake. He cranes his neck backwards in order to see under the creature’s upper lip, and makes out the outline of feet in the shadows beneath the table. He shuffles towards them blindly, feeling for the point when his body will make contact with the back of his chair. Without arms a great many things have become impossible to Ernest this morning. As he reaches the table he feels some unseen figure assisting him, the shuffling of feet, a chair is pulled out for him and he is guided carefully into it, and then and only then does anyone in the room dare to speak:

“Do you want Grapefruit, Ernest?” asks Nancy from beyond the darkness.

“I think I’ll just have tea, but you will need to pass it in to me.”

He listens to the sounds around him shift. Liquid passes from one vessel into another. The dull thud of the pot being returned to the table, the clatter of a spoon, and then through the wide letterbox of the mouth an arm appears holding a cup and saucer. Tentatively, after a few minutes have passed there comes a voice:

“Ernest…?” begins Laura.

“Nematode worm.” he replies, predicting the question.

“Right.”

“Community outreach project. Bringing science alive at the natural history museum, ironically by representing living organisms by artificial rubber characters.”

“I see.”

“I might be wrong,” says Rupert after a pause, “but these worms… I expect they don’t have faces, and hair and the like in the real world.”

 

Figure VIII

June 30, 2006

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Above the coffee cups and crumpets, between the chimes of the half hour, through the hazy scent of flowers cut from the garden; conversation is exchanged. Nancy brings the teapot through from the kitchen. Rupert, the salesman, describes a consignment of ladies wigs that has just arrived at the depot;

“Beautiful styles, they are Nancy, really tip-top–”

And the artist, Anita, awaits the arrival of an envelope of bad news as she has done all the week. It is through these vignettes of life that our story shall be told. Through the snatched glimpses of incident and waiting, through the momentary struggles and unimportant meals of tea and toast; all shall be documented, recorded, reported and sketched.

“And for the first time they’ve produced the Enchantment range in bruised apricot. I’ve always said that the Enchantment was deserving of bruised apricot.”

“Do any women really still wear wigs these days?” asks Laura, one of the students.

“Wigs never go out of fashion.” Rupert replies and is about to enter into his sales patter, ready to dive into the pool of familiar rhythms and rippling cadences, its proud boasts of how another look might be achieved in a matter of minutes, and these wigs are an investment – classic styles that will never look tired… when the attention of the room is taken from him by the sudden appearance of Ernest in the doorway.

Figure VI

June 27, 2006

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…and the once popular, 1950s entertainer Ernest Sturt-Sissons.