Figure XX

July 21, 2006

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In Nothing Happens, Jo has a system. Nothing is labelled with its actual price, but a little paper tag is hung from it, marked with a code of letters: PO, SI, NR, AK, etc. Quite what these letters mean, only Jo can say. Not even Laura is permitted an insight into their complex cipher. For a while she attempted to crack the code. Perhaps the numeric value of the two letters added together… perhaps it merely indicated where the item was bought… but then she realised that when one customer asked “How much is the…” it did not mean that the same answer would be given, when another would ask the same question. So now, as the young man with the shaved head and stubble asks her:

“How much for the figurine of the crying girl?”

She is left with no option but to shout to the back of the shop:

“Jo, how much for the figurine of the crying girl?”

A pause. Laura smiles, flicks her eyebrows upward as if to say “this usually happens”, and finally a reply is shouted out from the darkness

“Twenty pounds.”

The man looks at the figurine more closely. He stoops forward, bending double, inspecting the glaze and poorly executed painting.

“Will you take fifteen?”

Jo appears from the gloom, interested now in who wants to buy the item.

“We’ll take eighteen. For a new customer.”

The man takes the money from the pocket of his jeans and hands it to Laura. She takes it from him with an air almost of apology. “For a new customer” is a common phrase of Jo’s, one that seems to accuse the purchaser of wilfully not visiting the shop before then.

“Do you want it wrapping?” Laura asks him.

“No it’s okay,” he says and puts the figurine into the record bag that hangs from his shoulder.

“What did he want with that?” says Jo once he has left the shop.

“Jo, you could ask that about pretty much anything in the shop, if you had a mind to.”

“But it’s such an ugly-looking thing.”

“Okay, but,” she picks up a framed photograph of a woman reading that had stood beside the figurine on the counter, “I mean this; why would anyone want to buy this?”

“Well it’s pretty.”

“It’s a bit sentimental though. It’s not as if anyone who buys it is going to know who she is, they’ll just buy it because it’s old.”

“It’s my mother actually.”

Laura jolts slightly. This has happened before. Quite often objects in the shop would be revealed to have some apparent emotional connection to Jo; her father’s wristwatch, a cameo containing a lock of her grandmother’s hair, all now sold off for a couple of pounds. So she speaks slowly, more carefully.

“Okay… well why would someone…” (she means to say “someone other than you” but it is clear that not even Jo wants a photograph of her mother) “want to buy a photograph of your mother?”

“Well at least it’s not ugly, like that other thing. It’s all going like that. People seem to want to buy tat rather than pretty things.”

“Well it’s ironic isn’t it? It’s kitsch.”

Jo whistles through her teeth, shaking her head. “When did it happen? Pretty thing like that; woman reading in the sunshine, it’s lovely. When did it happen that folks started valuing irony above sincerity? That photograph, it’s felt. There’s real emotion in it. The way she’s sitting, the way the sunshine’s landing on the book. You can sense the feeling between the photographer and the subject–”

“But I guess it’s just a bit ordinary, it’s not immediately clear what it’s about.”

“But it’s real. It’s what really happened.”

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Figure XVII

July 13, 2006

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“Did you see? We sold the Pinball machine on eBay at eleven o’ clock last night.” says Jo, her face lit up with momentary enthusiasm.

“Really, wow!”

“Four seven five.”

“That’s great, Jo!”

“We’d have got more for it in the shop, but you know, it’s not bad. They’re collecting it at the weekend.”

“Do you want me to be here?”

“No, it’s okay, I’ll be able to manage it. No interest in the china cabinet.”

Laura checks the item off on her paper list.

“Any of the clothes gone?”

“No, no just the pinball machine.” Jo takes a sip of her tea, “I see the future of course. I see that the shop’s the thing holding me down at the end of the day. Cheaper to hire a lock–up somewhere and do all my sales online really.”

“Do you think so?”

“Oh yes, it’s changing the world, this thing. It’s just down to me to bite the bullet and decide to make the move.”

“Right–”

“It’s okay, it won’t be for some time yet, Laura. But I notice the change. Twenty–five years I’ve been here. I’ve ridden the rough with the smooth, but it’s just not the shop that’s making the money any more.”

A mantle clock deep within the mass of clutter lets out a tiny peel of bells to announce the hour. Suddenly, as if a flock of birds awoken by this shrill alarm call, other clocks around the shop burst forth notes from their roosting spots; boom and cuckoo, boom and cuckoo. Tiny, tinny versions of the Westminster chimes, chorus like anguished blackbirds in the forest of coats and furs, then all is still again, all is calm.

“It’s becoming a different game. Suddenly everyone knows something and everyone’s a seller. I don’t complain; it’s just different. I think of my own parents. Never sold anything. Just bought. Filled their house with stuff. I’d go and visit them and every surface had an ornament. Every drawer filled with the most useless of objects, that just stayed there, just gathered dust. But this–” she says, pointing at the laptop, “It makes people look at the things they have differently. Things aren’t just things to them now, they’re capital. It’s the reinvention of portable property; something you put your money in for a while to free up at a later date. And now, now you can get anything. Anything. Anything you want at the touch of a button, and it’s there.”

Figure XVI

July 11, 2006

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Laura changes trains at Victoria amid the brooding grey suits and pastel flashes of summer cotton; onwards, north up to Notting Hill Gate. Jo has already opened up when she arrives, the metal grills removed from the windows and taken inside to display the ramshackle stock of bric-a-brac and retro fashion. Nothing Happens. She has worked here for a month now, but has never questioned Jo on what the name means. Steve suggested that it was a reference to Samuel Beckett. Laura is not so sure. Jo does not seem given to literary allusions, instead she imagines that the name is literal, a comment on the slow trade that the shop appears to cling to. People rarely seem to need a 1940s cocktail dress, or record player cased in fake crocodile skin first thing on a Thursday morning. Steve thinks that the shop is in the wrong place; that it would do much better if it was in with the other antique and second-hand shops around the market. But Nothing Happens is in the wrong part of Notting Hill.

Orange Pekoe in the morning, suffuses the shop with a dim glow of reason; sitting bright as marigolds in the steel leaf-strainer, then red as blood against the cups’ delicate white. Putting her bag down, Laura sits aside Jo at the Formica table salvaged from a motorway service station outside Stevenage, one staring into the cup as if it were some spy-glass to another world, the other glancing first to the window at the blotchy grey sky, and then across to her friend, awaiting a response. Neither of them speak, but there is something in this act of sharing tea, the simple stillness of their being that suggests unity, agreement, something understood; but nothing happens.

Figure XIII

July 6, 2006

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“So what are you up to today?” Laura asks putting her things into her bag.

“I thought I might go down to the library, maybe see Richard in the afternoon.” replies Steve from over the top of his book.

“You will ring about that job?”

“Yes, of course.”

“It looks good, doesn’t it?”

“Yes–”

“Right up your street.”

“Yes, probably.”

“I think it looks great.”

He puts the book down in his lap and smiles at her. “It’s okay, I am going to ring them.”
She smiles too.

“Do you want me to drop you off some lunch in the shop when I’m done at the library?” he asks her, picking the book up again.

“If it’s not a problem.”

“It won’t be. What would you like?”

“Oh I don’t know… you pick. You always know better than me.” She laughs, it has become a running joke between them, but there is truth in it too. Sometimes she feels that Steve knows her far better than she feels she knows herself. “Right… I’m going to be late.”

She walks over to where he is sitting and kisses him on the forehead glancing down to see what he is reading, and then she is gone, out of the room leaving him alone in the quiet attic. He sits there for some minutes, having listened to her feet descend the staircase, the front door slam, the words on the page not moving, not making sense. Then he lays the book down on his lap and gets to his feet and prepares to leave the house himself.

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 V

June 26, 2006

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…two students…