(A tale told by Tony Burton)
"Be VERY careful what you wish for! .."
If you look at the spaces between the older buildings in Stevenage High Street you can make a guess at what used to be there before time and urban disturbance altered the landscape, and if your memory goes back far enough (or you collect old post cards) there’s also a remembrance of times past. What I am going to tell you should not be taken as gospel truth or a basis for local history studies after all there’s rarely a complete good tale for the telling in one spot and a decent story teller has to cobble various strands together, not mention covering traces of some of the more colourful characters …. well be that as it may there was once a rather shabby and down at heel cottage backing on to Middle Row, or it might have been Green Street, and it was taken by a very optimistic art student. Ex-art-student would be more accurate, as he had graduated from Art School and was now trying to support himself through his artistic skills. He actually rented the top floors of three adjoining properties, thus creating a quite reasonable studio space, as long as he didn’t tread on the bits of riddled with woodworm or walk too close to the eaves and dislodge the rickety tiles that clad the roof. He rented the downstairs portion of the last and tiniest cottage in the row and ate and slept in a state of Bohemian grace …. all he needed was a commission. He’d settled on giving freelance work a go, and currently his lance was free and so was he!
Into this little world of dust cobwebs and hope came Luigi, an Italian hairdresser with an eye for the main chance. He masqueraded under the name Mr Teenie Weasy, a deliberate copy of the well know west end stylist, and not a man to be gainsayed, he had in fact investigated the world of deed polls and fraud, and after making a few affidavits was no longer Luigi Bocca, but Alberto Teenie Weasy. He had a previous history of failed attempts at businesses, and the only one that had lasted for any length of time was hairdressing. It soon occurred to him that the real profit came, not in cropping and landscaping hair, but in the little bottles of pomade and the special lotions that people could be persuaded to stump up for in addition to the trim. It was only logical then that his businessman’s brain should start to look for short cuts, he tried just selling the lotions, but ‘Boots the Chemist’ had beaten him to that lucrative trade, so little by little he began to experiment with making his own preparations, and was more than startled by the cheapness of the ingredients and the demand from barbers’ shops and salons in the area who wished to buy cheaply and sell as high as they dared. It was working really well, but the big boys started to sniff around and after a while a well-known national brand was sending its local agent hard Luigi’s heels with some glittering baubles to tempt customers back to the world of advertisements in the national papers and not poorly printed postcards pushed under the shop door. Luigi had been very successful with a unique blend of gloop that could hold curls in place with draconian rigour, but which gave way to warm water and a gentle massage to become a gentle detergent rinse once the party was over and Madam wanted to shed the current Grecian style and adopt the good old curlers for the night.
The representative from …. well we won’t say who …. was showing the potential customers a beautiful Greek bust of an elegantly coiffed lady modelled in purest white marble, taken a classic piece in the British Museum no less, and a very good example of just what Whatdoyermaycallems Grecian Setting Lotion could achieve. Customers willing to commit to a regular purchase of this, and the company’s other products, might well find that they received a copy of this magnificent bust! An artefact (good word that!) guaranteed to be light and heat proof so that it could be placed in a prominent position in the shop window for all to gaze upon and to envy!
Luigi was livid! But determined to fight he at once took positive action. Which is why Barnabus Bunce, our starving (or at present just hungry) artist found his door knocker being over exercised by an agitated and red faced Italian gentleman.
“You an artist? Yes? It says so on your door! You want to make money? Yes? Lots of money? Yes?”
Barnabus all but grabbed him by the throat and dragged him over the threshold.
It seemed that the gentlemen wanted a bust making, and then fifty copies, they had to look like marble, they had to be good, and they had to be done FAST!
Barnabus was, when you really came down to it, a pastels, paint and paper sort of artist. Oh yes, he’d done the term of modelling in clay, and he was in fact pretty good at making plaster moulds, in fact his final piece had been any wiser. The Italian was telling him it had to be an ‘original work of art’, not a copy. He, Teenie Weasy, would commission the piece and so he would have all artistic rights to it, and for this he would pay handsomely, yes, he really would.
Barnabus pushed away the doubts he was harbouring and his own skills to create an original bust and just thought about the money. The amount mentioned would clear all his arrears of rent, allowing him to propose to Ellen, and even fund a year of living in Montmartre with Ellen, after which something would be bound to happen for the good and he’d be made! Yes, a heaven sent opportunity. Mr Teenie Weasy, or whatever his name was, was pulling out bank notes, the nice big folded up white ones that were for higher denominations, not the grubby green ‘Bradbury’s’. he was giving Barnabus one, two, three, four of them. ‘Just a little to get you started. Get yourself a decent meal first of all! Then get to work!”
And get to work he did, but it was so dispiriting! The clay refused to behave, it fell of the armature, and the sketches just didn’t give that elegance and beauty that the Italian had hinted should be there, and as for the curls! Oh! No way did they look like curls, old rope more likely.
Barnabus went round and spent the evening being miserable at Ellen, who in turn, being a practical lady with an agenda of her own, wound up her Embryo Epstein with a suggestion that there ought to be all sorts of ancient busts out there, ‘just look in the junk shops’ she said, ‘if it’s from ancient times and it isn’t in a museum yet, not one’s going to know it’s not your work …. think about that bust you did for college?’
Which Barnabus did, remembering that Ellen alone knew his finals piece had been far from his ‘own work’.
The local junk shops, and even the more refined establishments who thought of themselves as antique shops or even ‘fine art’ dealers, were not, once you really and truly got down to it, that brilliant, and mostly only had plaster copies of well-known museum pieces. At the end of the week Barnabus was getting desperate, when, in a very decayed and wood-wormy shop in a turning off of the High Street, they told him about a man who lived in the road leading to the railway station that had a bust, a very old one, he wanted to sell, and yes, it had lots and lots curly hair. No, they didn’t know how much he wanted for it, just he was more than a bit odd and was always looking for a buyer and the turning them down because they ‘weren’t the right sort’. But …. you never know, they said, you being an artist and all, it could be just what the old boys looking for …. you know …. somebody who will respect his lady and give her a good home!
Barnabus took the address and, these being the times before universal telephones and such like, he wrote respectful letter explaining his interest and enclosed a stamped addressed postcard inviting an early reply. He posted the letter at the post office to avoid the unmannerly informality of just popping it through the man’s letter box.
The reply was speedy and positive, and (the post was quite amazing in those days) later the next day he found himself ringing the doorbell and nervously hoping that the two surviving bank notes would be enough to cover the cost of the bust.
The sound of the doorbell had died away and from deep within the house footsteps could be heard. Slow dragging footfalls and occasional grunts and dimly muttered expletives. At last a shadow appeared behind the stained glass panels in the door (A view of the Parthenon), fingers fumbled with a key, a bolt then finally a latch and the door swung open.
“Good day to you Mr Bunce! Good day!”
The householder had a grey face and a fixity of expression that was at odds with his bright mischievous eyes and chirping voice. His hands and the exposed skin of his neck were equally grey, almost stony in appearance, and his breath laboured and oddly whistley.
“I’m so glad you came! We get few, very few, visitors, me and … no … it’s only me. You must excuse me, the doctors say if only I can move to a sunnier climate I may recover, and … do you know … I believe them! But, enough of that, do come in, mustn’t keep you on the doorstep like a shoelace salesman, must we … we … I!
The house was a treasury of Greek and Roman antiquities, portions of statues, glass topped tables filled with seals, rings, bracelets. It didn’t quite feel like a museum, more perhaps like a strange kind of temple. Barnabus almost felt that he could smell incense, and a strange half imagined sound of bells, or cymbals or something that seemed to almost sizzle or hiss in a musical way. The oddness was quickly dispelled by a door opening and the man ushering him into a large squarish sort of room with a glass roof into which the sunlight streamed. The room was dominated by two distinctly different features. Firstly, stood on a low plinth an alarmingly lifelike statue in pure white marble of a young woman in a style of dress popular some twenty years earlier. She had been captured by the sculpture in a moment of alarm, raising her hands defensively in front of her face. Barnabus recalled that there was a school of thought that at one-time white marble statues had been tinted with pigment to resemble flesh, if this process had been applied then there would have been very little indeed to distinguish the statue from a live person. The man seemed mildly annoyed by Barnabus’ interest, and hurriedly flicked a dust sheet over the figure. He at once directed Barnabus to a small table which was backed, in the manner of a dressing table, with a large and very elderly plate glass mirror. On the table, facing the mirror stood a life sized bust of a strikingly elegant woman with luxuriantly curled hair. There was a coldness to her expression that invited you, nonetheless, to chance your luck and, had she been real, to have struck up a conversation.
Barnabus stretched out a hand, but at once the man snapped.
“Please don’t touch! Not until you own her, that marble is amazingly pure, I’ll not have greasy fingers prints on it!”
Then he seemed to soften his tone.
“Sorry, we’ve … that’s to say I’ve been the custodian of this artefact for many years. Will she do? Is this what you are after?”
It was perfect, and without taking his eyes off the stone face in the mirror Barnabus nodded his head.
“And what do you propose to use this priceless bust for?”
“Artistic inspiration! Pure and simple! She shall be the “(he rummaged around in his mind for suitable words, recalling what the dealer had said about a ‘suitable owner’) “She shall be the mother of a whole new generation of beauties that will astound the world!”
The man gave a deep and heart felt sigh, and the face in the mirror appeared to Barnabus to take on a kindlier shade, then without warning the man swept up a heavy black velvet bag and slipped it over the bust, drawing tight the strings at its mouth and tying it tight shut. Then he scooped up the bagged up stone head and pressed it into Barnabus’ hands.
“She’s all your lad! All yours! And now I’ve found her a good home I can get about my business. You’d better be getting on your way I guess!”
“But what about payment! I can’t just take it like that!”
“Oh yes … I suppose some sort of payment would make it all legal … and I suppose you should really have a receipt, just so no one brings it back to u are a me, you know … thinking it was stolen or anything like that! Ummm, yes … that would be most unfortunate. But … I can see you are a busy young fellow. So, this is what we will do. I expect you will need a little time to gather together the money. Oh, don’t fret, it’s not going to be much, oh no, not at all! Yes, let’s see. Today is Thursday, tomorrow is Friday, and nobody should be asked to do business on a weekend. So, please be here on Monday morning, when you will be able to collect your receipt, and you will be able to give me the purchase price, which will be … ummmm … five pounds! Is that agreeable? Excellent, now off you go, and make sure you don’t drop her!”
Barnabus suddenly found himself being pushed out of the front door and into the street outside. There was the sudden sound of a motor car and the smell of petrol and the strange interior of the house was almost a dream. Barnabus walked home clutching the bag and let himself into the narrow cottage and up the stairs to his studio. He opened the black velvet bag and placing it on a table he untied the strings and eased the bag off the head.
She was indeed very, very beautiful, and he was as certain as he could be that she did not appear in any catalogue, text book or museum publication. Unique! Just what he needed … but. She was so, so beautiful he felt he’d need to apologise for the indignities he intended to put her through. The application of a mould, smearing her face with Vaseline so it did not stick to the Plaster of Paris he would encase it with strip by strip, and then what would she think of seeing an army of identical copies of herself. He stopped and gave himself a telling off for such sentimental, such ridiculous ideas, but nonetheless he places her carefully and even reverently on the table, and remembering how she had been arranged in the old man’s house set up a small vanity mirror in front of her face so that she could admire her own beauty. Then he took one if the remaining bank notes and placed it in an envelope, sealed the envelope down and put it on the mantel piece if his kitchen cum bedroom. Next he went round to the hardware shop before it closed and spent the next banknote on plaster and other artist’s materials. The last note he used on a bumper bundle of groceries and two bottles of whiskey. Then, dusk beginning to fall he went home and got gloriously drunk!
Ellen came round and admired the bust (and drank a fair amount of the whiskey). The landlord came round (hearing that Barnabus had money) and suggested that now commissions was coming in perhaps the rent might go up, and Barnabus started to lay out his equipment. Since Stevenage at that date only stretched to limited Bohemianism Ellen had to go home at nine, and so after another glass of whiskey Barnabus retired to bed determined to be up and about early and to crack on with the project, after all he’d need some sort of advance to keep old Bickersnike the landlord happy, and there was still the problem of just how to make Plaster of Paris look like marble.
Dreams that night were decidedly odd, and Barnabus felt, in the morning, that this Freud chappy might have a thing or two! Firstly, he was back in the old man’s museum/temple house, and speaking to the statue of the young woman, who seemed in an odd sort of wat to be Ellen, … but then again not. Some kind of warning, then it seemed it was Ellen, except he couldn’t quite see her face, and her voice was cold and distant. Then it clearly wasn’t Ellen, and since he wasn’t in the business of ‘two timing’ even in a dream, this upset him quite a bit, but no, it wasn’t quite like that. Still he couldn’t make out her face, but she was embracing him, though if he allowed his hands to wander downwards they never quite reached her mid-rift. He recalled Ellen’s (occasional) modesty, and the limerick she recited.
There was once two young people of taste
Who was perfect down to the waist
So they limited love
To the regions above
And so remained perfectly chaste!
This summed it up admirably, the lady in the dream was certainly going to remain chaste, unfortunately she seemed to think as an artist Barnabus should do the same. It wasn’t fair, a high class potentially erotic dream with all the best bits left out, still made it easier to concentrate upon being faithful to Ellen, but this seemed to annoy the lady even more. All in all, he was quite grateful to find it was morning, and he made a hasty but substantial breakfast and started to organise a studio long bench that would serve as a production line, he also visited the bakers and arranged to make use of their ovens after a Friday baking to dry off the plaster castings when the time came. A long weekend in the cooling kilns would cure the plaster to perfection!
Ellen said she had to visit her uncle on the Sunday, and would not be back till Tuesday, so Barnabus double checked about the correct release agents to use for a quality plaster mould from a valuable antiquity and after a trip up to town and returned late Saturday night with a collection of waxes, greases and unguents, all warranted against harm to porous surfaces.
He mixed these up in the studio, and placing the bust on the small table set to work. He still had this odd feeling of there being something irreverent in the process, and to salve his feelings he spread to a towel around where the shoulders of the bust would have been, set up the vanity mirror in front of it, and working from behind did his best to generate the sort of patter a stylist does as he or she begins work on the customer’s hair.
“Now Madam, before we start on those oh so glorious curls a little preparation for you skin! Yes, it’s a wonderful concoction. I understand Madam is from Greece? The cradle of civilisation? And this cream, a blend of purest spring water and finest wax is in fact a Greek invention! Yes! From a certain Mr Galen…?” he rattled on, having found from his reading that a simple smear of cold cream would be enough to spread an indictable waxy layer across the marble and protect it from the investment plaster that was to follow. He looked at the face in the mirror, its cold beauty bathing him in an icy light, as he ran his fingers across the cheeks he fancied he felt a shudder of indignity, but as his fingers swept upwards and smoothed the cream over the wide open eyes the feeling ebbed away a little, and when he tipped the bust forwards so that the face was immersed in the tray of plaster he felt almost embarrassed at his feeling! This was it! First station on the Gravy Train Line! There would have to be at least another four sections to the mould, and each would have to wait until the preceding section was thoroughly dry and greased up and made sure it separated when the time came. A little hung over, but not that much (it’s good to be young) he went for a short walk. Despite it being the weekend Pickford’s Removals were very busy in the town, and in addition his landlord was standing in a prominent position looking avaricious. He decided that on average he’d be best getting out of view and so went and say un the bar at the Yorkshire Grey until he reckoned the next pour of plaster was due.
By Monday morning the bust was embedded in a strangely shaped mass of best quality moulding plaster and Barnabus was constructing the outer cradle that would hold all the parts together when it was used to cast the first copies. Now, even if the old man went back on his word, he had the bust. The starting point for his fifty look-a-likes!
Barnabus took down the envelope with its bank note inside and strode out towards the railway station, as he did so a sporty little open top tourer whizzed past and the young man and woman inside yelled and waved and then were lost in a cloud of dust. He had no idea who they were, though the woman’s face was oddly familiar.
The house, when he got there, was deserted. The front path and open front door were strewn with packaging straw, and an out of breath man in a bowler hat was just completing a form attached to a clipboard, he looked up from task and gave a smile.
“You’ll be the artist I suppose. The gentleman asked me to take your money and give you this receipt!”
“But … will it be alright … I mean how will I know I’ve paid?”
“Oh bless you sir! He was quite confident you’d be along. Even asked us to collect the money from you and put it towards his bill. Here’s the receipt, and he’s even asked me to witness it!”
From a pocket of his dusty and stained jacket the removal man took out a sheet of paper.
Receipt for sale of one antique bust to Barnabus Bunce. Payment witnessed and received by Pickford’s agent etc. etc…..
It all seemed in order and somehow frighteningly final.
“Where did he go?”
“Oh you just missed him, him and his girlfriend, in that little sports car. Hoping to catch todays ferry to Dover and then a swift run down across the Alps to Venice. Good luck to them!”
“But the man I met could hardly walk! Are you sure its them?”
“Sure as my names in the Bible! We’ve been doing business with him for years, and I’ll grant you the change is remarkable, but it’s the same man I met ten years ago … swear on it!”
“Has he taken it all with him? Had it sent on?”
“No, not a single potsherd or pithoi! Everything gone up to London for the auction.”
“Really, I’d have liked another look at the statue of the young lady.”
“Oh! That one” wouldn’t we all, quite remarkable, each time we’ve made a new delivery the men have been that determined to tell everyone about it! But, no, I guess it was a bit personal somehow, ‘cos it certainly wasn’t there when we came to pack everything up. Bit of a mystery, but there we are. I’ve got to clear off shortly, the land agents coming to secure the premises and put a for let board up, so if you’ll excuse me I’ve got to finish these papers! Nice meeting you!”
Barnabus went back to his studio and found that Mr Teasy Weeny would be visiting him on Wednesday to ‘view progress’. He tapped the outer plaster cradle and it seemed to be almost there. If there was one thing he’d learnt at art school, it was that plaster needs to be bone dry before you attempt to touch it. He took the whole massive lump down to the kitchen and put it next to the range so that the heat from the oven might speed up the process, then noticing that there was a good two inches of whiskey left in the remaining bottle he had a good strong noggin and nodded off.
The woman with the overly beautiful face was back again. Railing on about ‘traitors’ ‘betrayal’, once her back was turned off they went to their vile old ways, and so on and so on! It was a very boring dream, but towards the end it got claustrophobic as well. You know the sort of thing, when you go down a deserted corridor in some gloomy building and the door you’ve gone through isn’t there when you turn around, and when you try and open the next one, the handle comes off in your hand, and you just know there’s something horrific behind you, and you can’t speak, and you almost dare whatever it is to reveal itself and then you wake up drenched in sweat. Yes … we’ve all had them.
He awoke with a start and an insincere decision not to drink in the day again, then decided that come what may the bust should be taken out of its mould today, this very minute in fact!
The outer cradle was perhaps not quite as crisp as should have been, but because its job was to hold the five segments of the inner mould together that wasn’t as bad as all that.
The inner sections were perfect, dry, hard, crisp … almost as if they had been fired … although you can do that with P of P.
The old feeling of a fear of irreverence had returned and he wiped clean the face from its release compound with a lover’s tenderness, crooning over it and promising such fame once the bust became the starting point for whole generation of beauties. As he worked a warm glow began to replace the hurried fearfulness with which he had stripped away the investment of plaster. Finally, he felt that the lady needed some time to recuperate, out of the public gaze, and so along with the vanity mirror he placed ‘the lady’ in a small corner cupboard that had once served to house a former resident’s minor treasures. As he closed the door and left the bust in darkness a certain calm returned to both himself and his surroundings.
The Patron would be around on Wednesday, and no doubt eager for action. He’d want to see progress, and what Barnabus had achieved was not really legitimate progress, this was to have been a prima facie original piece, not a copy, and anyway Barnabus didn’t want to hand the bust over to Mr Teasy Weeny, it was too special. So … first and most important job, get a copy out NOW! A good copy needs at least two days in the mould, but with a little good luck starting now it might be presentable for midday on Wednesday. It had to be worth a try!
An hour of ‘smoking’ the mould, using an over-wicked candle to deposit sooty smoke all over the inside of the mould to stop the incoming plater adhering to it, and then the whole caboodle held together with wire and set, upside down, ready for the pour. In goes the plaster, it sits until it almost sets, and then the surplus is poured back out!
Barnabus had stoked up the fire in the kitchen range and prepared what a cook would call a cool over and in went the contrivance. Heaven be praised, it all worked, and when the door knocker did its stuff Wednesday lunch time the bust was sitting on a narrow podium in the middle of the studio, the mould was safely concealed and Barnabus, clothed in a very artistic smock was to all intents and purposes putting the final touches to a magnificent work of art!
“Is a brilliant!” Luigi stated. “Only one-a-problem! Now I wanta … I demanda … one hundred! Can you deliver? Twice the money!”
Twice the money! Ellen would jump at that and who knows, they could go to Greece and live on that amount of cash for years! Of course he could do it! Though after carelessly saying it was going to be a doddle he started to estimate production times. A mould needs two days to set properly, if the panels get damaged you’ve got to start again … so … make extra ones to begin with … the more moulds the more casings …it’s just a matter if hard work … not time … like the thing with a chessboard and getting one grain for first square, tow for the second and four for the third … what was it they were calling it … exponential growth … of course he could do it!
It would of saved him a day to reuse the original, but somehow or the other it didn’t feel right, so it wasn’t until two days later that there were two busts in the studio, then two days after that four, then eight, and so on until very suddenly after a day of hectic cutting wires and easing of mould sections apart with worn out sore and bleeding fingers that a hundred faces of identical but astonishing beauty looked out from the long bench that Barnabus had created from scrap woodwork, old doors and stolen fencing planks. The original stayed in darkened seclusion inside its cupboard, and although Barnabus slept the sleep of the physically exhausted the few dreams he did have were fill of somebody going ‘tut-tut-tut’ and expression like ‘I hope I’m not going to be let down!’
Ellen came and bought him sandwiches and nourishing pots of beef stew and brochures for steamer companies running from London to Italy. She also let slip that she had bought a suitcase and applied for a passport.
“You look terrible!” she said “There’s so much plaster dust on you, you look as if you’re turning yourself into a statue yourself!
And so tired, you can barely put one foot in front of another!”
“It’s alright! Just a few more days, that’s all, and then we sell all these beauties and it’s all done with!” he was amazed at the sense of vehemence he injected into that final ‘done with’.
Ellen left feeling that the bust was worse that ‘another woman’, once this was done with she’d get him back into doing nice paintings as covers for paperback books … she knew somebody in the line of business and if B would only climb down off his high horse about being a ‘freelance’, they’d have a brilliant time together!
The next day, just when the traces of dampness were vanishing from the last bust Mr Teasy Weenie came knocking at the door. He was a very worried man.
“Isa terrible! I am betrayed! The man who told me about You-know-who and their busts has lied! They are not to be in white marble … they are to be silver! Silver! I ask you! What chance do I have now!”
“Hang on! You asked me for plaster and now its metal? What do you mean silver? Aluminium or something?”
“Oh no! They can’t run to that sort of budget (the Italian accent had slipped, but it did when Luigi got upset, after all he was Italian, but a Soho Italian, born and bred). “Something in the plaster perhaps? Little metal granules?”
“No! Nothing like that! Painted I expect, but if we had known sooner it’d have been a lot easier! The fine-ness of the features and so on, and the surface of the plaster could do with being less smooth, rougher!” as he said this he caught a sound more in his mind than his ears. It sounded like a gasp and words ‘disgusting’, but the matter was soon pushed to the back of his mind.
Luigi pushed his hair off his brow with both hands and gave an exasperated snort. “Alright, itsa all or nothing! I pay you regardless, as we agreed, twice the money for twice the busts, but the matter of making them silver! What’s it going to costa!”
Barnabus paused and took thought. One of the very useful things about constantly visiting the big hardware shop on the corner of Green Street was you got taken into the warehouse and shown all sorts of useful things. They just loved talking about the stock and describing to anyone who’d listen. He knew now all about ‘acetate paint’, the wonderful colours it came in and the way it clung even to glass and polished metal.
“I think I can see a way out of our predicament. Silver you say? How about the busts you give away being in gold?”
The studio stunk, the cottages below stunk, and the street outside was downright objectionable. To get the speed of drying required Barnabus had first sloshed the busts down with gallons of acetone, that the residents of the row were still conscious and not hallucinating was a marvel and possibly only due to the windy weather. The acetone had driven out the last remains of the water from the plaster and now each bust had a uniform coating of golden acetone paint drying to create a taught, metallic gleaming skin. The wondrous curls and the high cheekbones stood out in high relief, and the eyes now concealed beneath lenses of gold had a blankness to their gaze that made them so much less threatening, almost benign. Each bust had been carefully raised up and placed down upon a small disc of card which even now was adhering to the residue of the golden paint. There were at least a hundred, the extras have come from the spares Barnabus had planned in to cover breakages.
“Aren’t you going to keep one of those back as a sample?” asked Ellen. “You know, … as part of your portfolio?”
“Sorry, but I’m losing affection for this project. I’ll be happy when I sign them over to Mr Teasy Weenie and get the money. I’m not doing sculpture again!”
“Jolly good!” thought Ellen, “He’s been like a man possessed.”
Still, in the background that voice! It must have been the work, or the fumes, or too much whiskey, but it was always there. “You’re mine! That hussy will have to go! Like the other one did! Don’t you try and pass me on! Ill not have it! Oh no I won’t” and then the leaden-ness in his legs would get worse, and despite the fact that he washed and washed away at the plaster on his hands and face it never seemed to go away. He got stiffer and stiffer.
“Come on now, he’s going to be here in a few minutes! And I’ve got a surprise planned! There’s not much here that’s in need of packing … apart from the artists supplies and all your stuff would go into a kit-bag. You’re not the only one to have a spoke of luck!”
“What do you mean?”
“That old uncle of mine, the one I had to go and see? Rich as Croesus, and a decent sensible fellow. He told me there was no sense in my inheriting his fortune when he’s dead, because he’d not be able to the expression on my face, so he’s given half of it to me now to use as I think fit. So … once Mr Tinky Winky shows up and gives you the boodle you’re running away with me to Florence (so much classier than Venice). Don’t say no! I’ve bought some really exciting Parisian nighties!”
Barnabus was struck dumb, he couldn’t move, all he could do was to nod, and in his head the voice that had haunted his sleep and even his waking moments rose to a crescendo “No! She shall not have you!”
He was still immobile when Ellen strode across the studio and pulled open the cupboard, “We might as well take the old girl with us, after all she’s the cause of all your wealth!”
Barnabus spun around and saw Ellen stiffen as her gaze engaged with the vanity mirror in the back of the cupboard.
“No use moving her?” said a slow slithery sort of voice in his head “I can see her in the mirror, and while it’s a slow business petrifying by reflection, it’s a sure one all the same. Touch me and you are stone too!”
He turned left and right, flustered, his hands starting to flap, when his gaze settled on the open tin of golden acetate paint, the brush left dipped in where he left it only an hour ago. It was the work of a moment to grab the handle and splash the thick sticky liquid across the staring eyes of the stone face. The paint clung closely and effectively, without offering even a pin hold of vision. Ellen started to move again, stiffly and with difficulty, but movement nonetheless. Barnabus’ thoughts went back to the statue in the old man’s room, the odd stone-like nature of his flesh, and the transformed couple in the sports car. Ellen was slowly regaining her composure, Barnabus was busy painting, spreading a layer of the liquid evenly and densely across the antique white marble. It seemed a hideous ruination of something that had been around since before the days of Troy, but it was the only thing to do. As soon as the last brushstroke was complete he carefully moved it on top the long table and plonked it down on one of the cardboard circles. Then he wiped his fingers and carefully rearranged the existing busts to create a space and placed the newly painted bust into the gap. The surface of the acetate paint was already beginning to skin-over and the colour already matched that of the busts he had coated just an hour earlier. Ellen was alright, but disorientated.
Luigi was suddenly striding in through the door at the top of the stairs.
“Isa miracle! Isa wonder! You are a Leonardo, a Michael Angelo!”
“Oh I wouldn’t go that far Mr Teasy Weany! I’ve actually given you a few more that the hundred, so you’re good for breakages … no extra cost. Could you just sign a receipt though? Just a formality, here I write it out now ‘I (fill in name here) take ownership of all Mr Bunce’s stock of golden busts, having paid the sum of (fill in the amount)’ … brilliant, they are all yours now … though I’d give it an hour or two before you load them, the gold surface needs a little while to harden up properly you know” as he spoke Barnabus felt his legs become a little more mobile, and it did seem that after all the extensive session with soap and a nail brush had finally got the plaster out of the skin of his knuckles.
Luigi was ecstatic and gleefully gloating over his new stock. He called his workmen up the stairs to view the busts, and then sent the off to get some lunch to allow the paint a while longer to set. When he turned back, Barnabus and Ellen were deep in a private conversation, they noticed his attention and broke away to speak to him.
Barnabus helped up the package of bank notes that Luigi had given him.
“Thank you sir, thank you. I won’t bother to count it; I know I can trust you. Please take as long as you like to package and remove your new property. I won’t be needing the studio again.”
“Why? Where are you going?”
“I’m not sure yet! The sun figures greatly and so does Firenza!”
Being a Soho Italian comes with a few problems, especially not always speaking Italian!
“Where’s that?” said Luigi “Somewhere foreign?”
Barnabus didn’t even stop to pack, the bundle of bank notes would mean that whatever he needed he could buy. Ellen had parked her brand new suitcase in the kitchen and had thoughtfully found Barnabus’ passport a few days earlier (forward planning is such a good idea) she’s also discovered a local aeroclub that had some members with halfway decent machines for charter, and after a short taxi ride to the airstrip the troubled fields of Stevenage dropped away below the wispy clouds and the journey south began. What happened to them? I have no idea beyond Bunce & Co being a very successful firm of commercial artists (they don’t do statues or busts!)
Luigi aka Mt Teasy Weeny (he never did sort out the spelling) had no real luck with his new setting lotion, for some reason it lost its ability to wash out and many a lady was left calcified concrete-y locks! His next enterprise (after he went bankrupt and had to sell all the stock, fixtures and fittings), went much better and used a cheap readily available bust of Julius Caesar to advertise scalp polish for bald men!
A cautionary note is needed however to end this tale. Hairdressing memorabilia and Art Deco art is a very fine thing to collect, a very fine thing indeed, but if you ever come across an exceptionally elegant bust of a lady with Grecian curls, and painted a rather vulgar golden colour, you might just like to give it a miss!
Some years later
The old barn where the auction room kept its unwanted stock, boxes of ‘not too bad’ stuff, that no one bought, the owners never reclaimed, and nobody ever got around to throwing away. Weather proof, but not insulated against the winter frosts or summer heats. Burglar proof, but not mouse proof, or protected against lost bluebottles and hopeful (though ultimately doomed) spiders, and of course open frontier of woodlice.
People who worked there at first felt the seldom visited building had a calmness about it, but after a while realised so does a burned out building! There’s calm, and then again, there’s calm … and this sort became unpleasant in next to no time.
One day, shortly after the annual tax demand, the owner of the auction house, Ahab Trotter, made a decision that the ‘old stock’ would have to go, and the barn rented out to his next door neighbours bot, who had an idea for business importing vintage scooters from Italy and doing them up and selling them on. Not that Ahab had a particular love for the boy, or felt it was especially a good idea, but mostly because the lad had just won half a million in the premium bonds and was lavish with is cash.
Not wishing to lose out in anyway whatever, and having a very sharp and unexpected tax demand still to pay. Ahab took his least able porter (the one he could always pay the least) and set him to catalogue the contents of the barn, with special orders to log everything, even the stuff that was to go straight into the land fill site behind the barn. Ahab wanted shot of the contents once and do all. So ‘Froggy’ Willis was sent off to the barn with lots of pencils, a clip board, lined paper and a four pack of cheap bitter and told not to come out until he had finished.
After setting himself up in a draught free corner and finding a couple of empty tea chests for the junk and an old trestle table for the ‘better stuff’ Froggy started moving the boxes of stuff out from the stack at one end of the barn. It took quite some time, and he had to negotiate for another four pack and some sandwiches when it looked like taking all day.
Mostly it was the usual stuff, chipped and cracked china (straight in the dump pile, electrical equipment that was now out of date (dump pile) and some things that when they had first come up for auction were unfashionable, but now would sell! (Keep pile and show off at the end). There were some surprises, one large cardboard box was half full of little stone mice! Exquisite detail! He’d mistaken them for the real things at first, but each beautiful little sculpture was indeed stone, and not fur. The box next to it had a 1930s hairdressers advertising bust, a lady with dense writing curls … some sort of artificial stone, he though, and it had been painted a terrible golden colour, still anything from that date, you just called Art Deco and off it went. He put the bust on the trestle table, along with the box of stone mice, and carried on working. After a while he felt uncomfortable about the stern, slightly disgusted look, on the bust’s face, and turned it around to face away from him, then he got back to work. It was a good job he’d nearly reached the end of it all, he was thoroughly chilled through and it was July and all! Be glad when he’d had enough of this!
Ahab Trotter was more than pleased. Mrs Trotter had insisted for years that the old stock was a virtual retirement fund, while he’d not been so sure … but the box of stone mice looked a nice little earner, and Froggy had sensibly consigned all the dodgy stuff to the dump pile (which even now was being moved to the open trench behind the barn), so he could quite legitimately tell Mrs Trotter that they’d salvaged all they could, and get on with collecting rent.
He took a long and careful look at Froggy’s Art Deco find. Yes, it’d sell, not for that much, but he remembered that Mrs Trotter had said it was a good piece all those years ago when it first turned up. Pity it didn’t sell at the time, some sort of accident he recalled, a client falling down with a sudden paralysis of the legs, and the auctioneer getting a frozen back. Odd! He couldn’t recollect, for the life of him, where the stone mice had come from … such realistic postures and poses and such detail. They’d have to go up-west to get a decent price!
The bust seemed to look at him in a disapproving fashion, like Mrs Trotter did if he stayed down at the White Horse for too long after work.
“It’s alright old girl!” he said “We’ll find you a good home.” He didn’t know why he’d said it, he didn’t usually do that sort of thing, talk to inanimate objects.
Ahab Trotter was reckoning on adding his own stock to a very profitable but small collection of antiques he would be auctioning later in the month. The really good stuff, like the stone mice, he bundled up and sent away to a London auction house where prices would be better that his own little provincial establishment. The catalogue he put together would start out with some of his client’s items, just to get the appetites flowing and accommodate late comers, then he’d slip in his own ‘tat’ and conclude with the client’s goodies as the bidders’ purses and wallets started to empty. In view of this the bust was put as the first of his items, lot 101.
Art Deco Grecian Bust. And, being of a cheerfully cheeky disposition it had a starting price of £20, further more old Snodgrass the auctioneer had been told to ‘give it a good old go!’
As it happened this was not necessary as it was at once apparent that lot 101 had already attracted considerable interest, so much so that Ahab was kicking himself for not setting a higher starting price.
Snodgrass, after directing a porter to show round the bust, and knowing that the boss expected to see it have a good run, started his patter. He was a little reluctant at first, mostly because as the porter slowly turned around to give everyone a decent sight of the bust he was caught by its disdainful glare and felt his tongue cleave to roof of his mouth, but as the porter rotated a little more he regained his composure.
“Delightful and highly collectable hairdressers advertising bust in the art deco style, who will start me off at twenty pounds? Twenty … thank you sir, at the front … twenty-two, twenty-four …” And so it went on until a pause at fifty, which Snodgrass was not going to let be the end of it … “Come on! Come on! This is a very desirable, very beautiful piece, it’s with the gentleman in the front row, come on ladies and gentlemen, come on, for just a little bit more it could be yours!” and the bidding resumed, much to Snodgrass’ relief, since he could now imagine the bonus he’d get. At last it was knocked down to the first bidder, the gentleman in the front row, who Snodgrass recognised as the owner of the new hairdresser down the way. “All yours sir! Well done!”
“And I’m glad to see the last of you, snooty bitch!” he added under his breath, the bust had really got up his nose, then as he reached down for the list to check on the next lot his fingers seemed to seize up and his tongue started to go numb. The assistant looked at him in an enquiring manner, an after a few gestures announced that there would be a short break … most unusual!
The gentleman in the front row scurried off to the cashier’s desk, and very shortly the porters brought across the bust, a wad of notes was exchanged for a receipt and man and bust departed. Back at the auctioneer’s rostrum matters seemed to have suddenly returned to normal and old Snodgrass was calling out “Lot 102!” loud and clear.
Outside in the car park Nikos Poselemi was settling the bust into the folds of a car blanket on the back seat. The bust was absolutely what he wanted for the new shop! Of course the flaky gold paint would have to go, once he’d found out the safest way to do it without damaging the plaster… He stopped for a minute and ran his finger tip over an exposed section of the surface. It wasn’t plaster … no … more like real marble! Well, well, well! He was sure that pre-war plastic wasn’t that sophisticated, so perhaps he’d got the artists original model, made from genuine marble, rather than one of the plaster of Paris copies! Hmmm! His opinion of the bust (already high) began to soar. He finished making sure it wouldn’t tumble to floor if he stopped suddenly, and then sat in the driving seat, put on his seat belt, and started for home.
Somewhere, though exactly in which dimensions or out of it, there was an intense burst of glee, of pride, and possessiveness! “He is the new worshipper! He has paid the tribute! He is mine!”
Meanwhile in the post room of a very well-known and prestigious auction house the stuff was puzzling over a parcel of fairly reasonable pieces from a provincial establishment which included a cardboard box, filled with bubble wrap and very little else, it had several holes nibbled in it which appeared to have been made by mice. Of the nibblers themselves there was no trace!
There is some confusion over the best way to describe the premises where hair care is carried out. A Salon? Hairdressers? A Barbers shop? Lots of choices, but this was definitely working its way up to a salon, and a salon needs refinement, class, sophistication, which is why Nikos had his heart set on an overall theme which harked back to the gentle elegance of the inter-war period, hence his determination to win the art deco bust at the auction. It clearly represented an advertising feature from the wave (no pun intended) of setting and curling products that sought to take over from heat setting via tongs and likewise devices.
The bust was of an elegant, if somewhat severe, lady with a luxurious crown of deep Grecian curls. It was, indeed, spoiled by the thick coat of gold acetate paint, which deprived the bust of its more intimate detail and made the eyes sightless and just a little eerie.
To get the very best out of his business Nikos had taken advantage of a scheme with the local college, and there would be two ‘apprentices’, learning both the basics of hairdressing and following an elementary beauticians course. He hoped that this ‘youth employment’ would also support him against the local planning officer, a particularly aggressive and unfriendly person who had taken against the Salon description and wanted to see the premises revert to their former function of Estate Agents.
The far end of the shop had a small curtained off area that Nikos had intended could house odds and ends and a ‘training’ corner, with practice heads and such like. He thought that, for the time being, he could place the bust there until he had time to research just how you strip off acetate paint, and if paint stripper damaged marble, and so on.
If Nikos had been of a psychic disposition might have heard a sigh and a voice that was more like a thought really, saying “At last, my own sanctuary again!”
Nikos, however got on with the problem of making sure the sink traps were working properly and that the electricians had really and truly installed a separate power supply to the dryer sockets, and not just run a spur from the lighting circuit.
After a while the bell on the shop door rang and Chrisoula walked in carrying two large workboxes. She walked down to the shop to the curtained off cubicle and pit down the enormous plastic boxes.
“Ooo! That’s classy! Where’s it from?” she called out as her gaze fell upon the gold painted bust.
“The auction, good isn’t it!”
“Brilliant! Our own Greek Goddess!”
Again, just beyond hearing the almost voice and part thought.
“My own hand maiden!”
Then Nikos called out “I’ve already got a Greek Goddess!”
Chrisoula smiled and replied “Well, there’s two of us now then!” and again in the background a voice saying “Blasphemy!”
Chrisoula opened her workboxes and started to sort out the contents. The first box had an immense silver foil wig that she kept for trainees to practice parting tresses on, it was more than a bit OTT, and always got in the way, but it was so, so useful for clumsy beginner’s fingers. There was nowhere to put it, and after a moment or two looking around she dumped it down, back-to-front, on the painted bust. She at once felt a lot more settled, and the tiredness of her journey up from London fell away as she got busy distributing equipment and preparations and products around the salon.
Nikos looked up from the floor, where he was laid down trying to find out just where the electric cables ran behind the sink units. For a while he’d felt a bit hung over, which was odd because he’d had nothing much to drink, and that radio or whatever it was that had been going on all day in the background had finally stopped. Just let him deal with that evil minded planning officer now and all his troubles would be over … especially that now Chrisoula was back again!
Things went on happening, and after more than a few days the trainees showed up and the sink traps finally worked properly and the dreaded planning office (who still insisted that the change of use application was invalid) was due to call.
“He can’t close us down Nik, can he? Surely he can’t?”
“I’m sure he can’t Chris, but it’s still a bit touch and go. His assistant is all for us going ahead, but old misery guts is proving a bit more troublesome than I expected. Still, let’s just do our best. I’m sure it’ll all work out! We can always appeal to his boss!” but secretly Nikos thought ‘We’ve got to start taking customers soon, the bank loan was never meant to cover all of this, and that bust was more than I could afford as well ……’
The two trainees were still frantically busy and Nikos was trying to get the new till to function properly when the bell rang on the shop door. The immediate thought was that the planning officer had arrived ahead of time, however it wasn’t Mr Misery Guts, but a prosperously plump American gentleman that Nikos recognised from the auction.
“Good day Sir! It’s taken me weeks to track you down! Do you realise that the you bid for is an original Barnabus Bunce? Now looky here! That bust would mean a very great deal to me, it’d com-plete my collection. One of the very few bits of sculpture that Bunce ever did. I won’t play it down Sir, I won’t! I re-gret absolutely not goin’ all the way and bidding out all comers, but I got nervous. Now … see here … I can see you are just settin’ up. So … see this en-velop? Ther’s five thousand British pounds in there! And … see this …? I’m a puttin’ it here on yer counter, and then I’m walking out of here an’ comin’ back in an hour’s time … an hour fer you to make up yer mind! When I return you can take the money an’ give me th’ bust … or jus’ hand me my en-velop back an’ I’ll walk away an’ stay out of your life for-ever. Jus’ spend an hour thinkin’ about it will yer?” and with that he walked out of the shop and most unfortunately straight under the wheels of a bus!
The planning officer followed hard on his heels in the shop, so there was little opportunity to discuss the matter.
The assistant hovered in the background and gave commiserating smiles and grimaces, but Mr Misery Guts dedicated himself to finding something to complain about at every turn. Fortunately, Nikos had done such a good job on the electrics, the sink traps, the volatile spirit store, the chemical store, the fire switch, the fuse box and goodness knows what else that the man was foiled at every move. At long last they came to the ‘training cubicle’.
Inside the curtained off cube Chrisoula was keeping the two trainees busy and out of the way. The planning officer swept in, leaving Nikos outside along with the apologetic assistant.
Everything was in order, and the planning officers tiny weasel-eyes scanned everywhere for some final fault that he could use against the salon. He pried into corners, and suddenly fell upon the gold bust, still shrouded in its reflective silver wig.
“Ah ha! What have we here! Do you realise how dangerous the gold paint is on these old things? Full of lead … and mercury … and asbestos. Ye gods it’ll take weeks before this place is safe for the public to use!”
In a fit of evil fury, he tore off the wig and picked up the bust in both hands, staring straight into its half gold-painted visage.
“Disgusting! Something as blatantly unhealthy, illegal as this, it’ll be months … “and his voice trailed off, his hands and arms stiffened and an awful rictus seized his face, a rattling choking sound came from his throat.
Chrisoula saw the two trainees frozen in horror, and from her own view point from behind the bust, she felt sure that the tight Grecian curls of the busts scalp had begun to writhe and twist, portions of the fold paint started to fall away, and in the big mirror behind the planning officer she saw the eyes on the bust flex and their hooded, paint encrusted lids flicker!
The planning officer’s face had tuned a pale stone while colour and his whole body had become as immobile as a lamp post!
In her mind Chrisoula could hear the childhood stories from her village in Crete, the legend of the gorgons, of Medusa, and the air around her was full of a sibilant hissing snakes in a kind of chorus. She grabbed the silver wig and stepped forwards to block the gaze of the two trainees as they stared, petrified at the bust, and then she dumped the wig back, once more, onto the bust. The trainees suddenly recovered and fled into the salon sobbing and crying. Chrisoula kept the bust covered, and then wrapped a towel around it, bandaging the silver foil of the wig ever tighter. Finally, she slipped the whole bundle into a small kit bag that a new dryer hood had arrived in.
The planning officer still stood, rigid, cold, barely breathing and with only the faintest of pulses.
Nikos and the assistant were busy with the telephone, one of the trainees had been sick and her companion was helping to comfort her and sort out the mess.
At long last an ambulance arrived and Mr Misery Guts was removed to the hospital, where his condition remained a mystery.
Nikos found that once the assistant had contacted his head of department the forms needed to complete the planning application were authorised and signed without delay. It seemed that opposition to the salon was not a departmental necessity!
All in all, Nikos felt that the salon had had enough excitement for one day and was just thinking about pulling down the shutters when Chrisoula reminded him about the envelope with the five thousand pounds.
They broke the seal, and indeed there was five thousand pounds inside, and testing them with the new kit they’d bought for the till, they were all genuine.
“What if,” asked Chrisoula, “What if he was telling the truth and the paint on that bust is poisonous?” (she had no wish to tell Nikos just what she thought she had seen in the cubicle, and the paint seemed a good reason to lose the bust).
“I don’t know …” (Nikos didn’t want to tell Chrisoula just how close to the wind they were sailing).
In the end they agreed they’d sell the bust, but the American didn’t return, even after several hours. They did find, written on the outside of the envelope in pencil ‘Room 9, Roebuck Hotel’, so the following morning they wrapped the kit bag containing the bust in thick brown paper and bound it up with string. On the outside Nikos wrote ‘For the American Gentleman, Room 9, Roebuck Hotel … to be called for.’ Inside the wrapping he also included a receipt for five thousand pounds and a bill of sale. Then they went around the corner to the hotel and waited until the receptionist went to the loo and left it on the desk. That was the last they ever saw of the bust. Mr Misery Guts made a complete recovery the following day, left the employment of the local council and became and Inland Revenue debt collector. Nikos and Chrisoula now own a very successful salon and are thinking of setting up a chain of business across Hertfordshire. The two trainees have graduated as stylists and can’t remember anything about it all (which is perfectly normal).
Now, this may all seem very fanciful, but if you ever go to a lost property auction and bid for a brown paper package, tied up with string, containing a kit bag with the logo of a well-known salon equipment firm, that opens to reveal a towel swathed bundle holding a gold painted bust with a silver foil wig … well … I’d advise you to look the other way!