Okay, folks. Here’s round three of the writing challenge I’m working on with performance poet Simon Hart, also known in certain Mafia circles as BigCharlie Poet. This is how it goes: we take it in turns to choose a picture, both of us write a response around it, and we post the results up here. Round one was Cathedrals. Round two was Libraries. For round three, it was my turn to pick the image, and I opted for this doozy from my Pinterest short story board:
Although I had some inklings, I didn’t entirely know where to go with this at first. I was also embroiled in a marathon redraft of The Visitors, and so the challenge slid by the wayside a bit. Simon was finished in two days, the swine. Anyway, when I had a chance to work on it properly, the ideas came fairly quickly. My first story was well over a thousand words long and barely halfway in when I decided to put it on ice. It’s going to be a good piece, when I’ve time to finish it, but it’s not right for this. My second attempt was finished in a single session, plus a few tweaks the following day. As with my Libraries story, this feels like it could be the start of something much bigger; since finishing it, I’ve been brewing on a full novel about the characters and their situation, and I have some exciting ideas starting to spark. I think I’ll be taking it a lot further in the future.
It’s interesting, as well, that Simon and I had fairly similar responses to the picture. Our work in the first two challenges was quite diverse; I don’t know whether this image is more specific, and therefore limiting, or whether it actually offers more themes, and we simply happened to choose the same one.
Here’s what Simon has to say about the picture:
“What a difference an image makes! Last time out I (we) struggled a bit under the weight of a well-mined seam of creation for us with my choice of a library pic… I’m glad to say that the responsibility of the choice for this challenge came from Mr Sylvester, and, from my perspective at least, I think he should pick them all! To say that the creation of this piece contrasts with the last process would be underselling it somewhat… I also know that despite the complexity of trying to describe this picture to an audience, I really want to perform this.
This poem came about very quickly and with a very clear idea of what I wanted straight away, and I think it has delivered what I wanted from it. Seeing the image for the first time, I was struck how old monsters are never really old monsters, and they always find their way back somehow. They may change their locale and era, but they continue on…”
With that said, here’s Simon Hart’s response to the picture:
by BigCharlie Poet
I started my life as a hasty scrawl
Daubed in white paint on a houses side wall
An innocuous way for me to be born
Not really planned, just hurriedly drawn
Against the time constraints of another coming dawn,
The sun creeping almost afraid of my form
And boy did I grow!
There was no way that they could ever know
What i would become, the strength i would show
And each feed of paint gave me a new glow
Though my home was a wall, i still reached for the sky
Never once did i ask for the reason why
I became a creature that makes young kids cry
Which the ancient greeks locked in a maze to die
That people turn their heads away hurts, i won’t lie…
But soon i was so big that single cans of paint didn’t suffice
When you’re twenty feet high, with the head of a bull, who do you turn to for advice?
I couldn’t exactly stroll into a restaurant and say “give me whatever’s nice”
So i had to come up with a solution of my own making
And because i couldn’t do any great british baking
I looked around and saw souls, ready for the taking…
I mean, it’s not as if you lot even notice they’re missing
You still stumble through each day like you’re barely living
Not looking away from what your tv is giving
So now, when you try to open your mind
And use your soul for guidance, you suddenly find
Yourself empty, and you don’t know the reason
But you convince yourself it’s because you watched another season
Of “I’m a Celebrity, get me out of here!”
Or you drowned your brain cells in far too much beer
That i am the culprit will never be clear…
So thank you for giving me what i really need
A simple, quick and nourishing feed
But i won’t let myself give in to my greed
I’ll satisfy myself with the odd soul waiting for a bus
The business professional in too much of a rush
The guy who’s become a 3pm lush…
Just enough to keep me going
After all, this wall doesn’t leave much room for me growing…
…and here’s my response:
by Simon Sylvester
We assembled at dusk and waited, scanning the skyline, binoculars flitting between the sunset buildings. Half the squadron wore night vision goggles, for all the good they’d do. It was only my third year with the division, and I was already the oldest. The kids were tense, but they struggled with all-night shifts. By two in the morning, a couple of them had dozed off. Dew glistened on their spray suits.
As the radio crackled into life, slumbering officers stumbled to their feet. I checked the chamber on my gun. It was clean.
“Where are they, Jenkins?”
My voice was calmer than I felt.
“Corner of Gresham and Moorgate.”
I could hear her panic.
“Stay calm, Jenkins. We’re on our way n-.”
Even as I spoke, her scream clattered in my earpiece.
I gestured to the others. Grim-faced, we lined up and marched out, trooping along King William Street at a jog. At Bank, I gestured for the squad to slow and break formation. They fanned out, torches sweeping beams of light across the deserted road. I took point, and we stepped in silence through the Old Town.
Halfway along Prince’s Street, prickles ran down my spine. The feeling turned my bones to ice, but I knew better than to ignore it. That feeling had kept me alive for three years. I raised my fist, signalled to freeze. The squad halted at once. Nothing moved but sheets of paper, cartwheeling through the night.
On the wall ahead was a perfect, life-sized painting of Jenkins, caught mid-scream. I grimaced. She’d only been in the division three weeks. Some animal instinct made me raise my torch and scan the buildings above. The cone of light crawled up the wall into darkness.
I peered into the gloom at the edge of the light.
The top third of the building was graffitied with a gigantic white minotaur. It loomed above the street, unmoving, and for a heartbeat, I thought it was already dead. But then the minotaur grinned, and a fist clenched in my guts. Behind me, Stevenson shrieked and loosed a burst of fixative. The minotaur was too quick for him, melting back into the bricks even as the web of glue spattered across the wall. The beast darted around the corner of the building, pouring across the stone, the molecules of paint sliding from brick to brick. Splashes of fixative showered the empty wall.
“Hold your fire!” I bellowed.
The squad gathered closer together. In my earpiece, someone was hyperventilating.
“Shit! Jenkins has gone west.”
“He’s big. He’s big, sir-”
“I’ve seen worse, son. Be calm. Keep your wits about you. He’s somewhere close.”
There was another yell behind me. I spun round to see the minotaur reach out of the building, pour onto the pavement and swing his vast arm across the road, knocking half my squad to their knees. Redmayne lay closest to him. In two dimensions, his paint poured across the tarmac, wrapping around her ankle. She screamed and kicked, but the paint held fast. The minotaur yanked her to the ground, and began hauling her towards the wall. The rest of the squad were firing indiscriminately. Wherever splashes of the fixative caught the minotaur, fragments of paint were trapped within the brick, but he was big enough to shrug them off, leaving patches of himself behind. Redmayne was almost at the wall when I found a clear shot. I raised my gun, aimed and fired off half a tank. The glue showered across the beast in a net of spray, pasting his entire head. He juddered to a halt, mouth fixed in a permanent, silent roar. His painted hands continued to sweep across the bricks, scrabbling for purchase, but his head was stuck fast. One by one, my squad found targets, and soon every part of the monster was stuck to the wall. Redmayne scrambled free, sobbing, and backed into a knot of her comrades. We gathered together and looked up at the beast.
He was easily four storeys tall, made with gallons and gallons of paint. His creator had been a talented artist. Even fixed fast to the wall, the minotaur wriggled with life. His horns came to wicked points, and despite the fixative now coating his body, veins and muscles still pulsed on the brickwork. He must have taken weeks to make, back in the day. In a sense, he was even beautiful.
It was hard to remember a time before the paintings came to life.
The Cleaners arrived within the hour, all dead-eyed and paint-smeared with their mops and detergents. We watched them scrub the minotaur from the building, watched him dissolve into suds and drip into the sewers. Then they washed Jenkins from the wall, too. I didn’t watch that part. When they were done, we walked back to the depot. The new trainees looked shellshocked. The older squaddies looked harder, meaner. Redmayne wasn’t talking. She was one of my best officers, but this would be her ticket out. Poor Jenkins hadn’t even made it this far.
Every step of the way, ghosts watched us from the walls. The Cleaners worked hard, but every day, new faces stared out from the brick. And no matter how hard they worked, they couldn’t wash the faces from my nightmares.