KEVIN THE KING • 2018, Long-listed
‘We was at school with Kevin King,’ said Tracy, accepting a refill of Bollinger from a passing waitress.
‘Re-ally?’ The posh-talking ‘Arts Journalist’ with outsize owlish glasses and a name like margarine – Flora, that was it – produced a pen and notepad.
Tracy wondered how many more times she’d have to explain their presence. They didn’t fit in, her and Dean; didn’t look arty enough, in spite of her purple caftan and his polka dot scarf. (She’d made Dean wear the ‘arty-farty scarf’ to Kevin’s gigs ever since they met a Mayfair gallery owner wearing one.)
Flora’s pen hovered over the pad. ‘Mind answering a few questions?’
Tracy sipped her ‘shampoo’ and nodded, fingering her VIP name-tag and trying to look cool. Really, she was gobsmacked: still couldn’t get her head round, ‘The King: Artistic Genius’.
Tracy had to smile. ‘Always the class clown was our Kevin … always playing pranks! He’d sneak back into the classroom during playtime and snap all the pencils so we couldn’t write! … Or muddle up everyone’s coats in the cloakroom. And the farm visit! The whole bus had to turn back – he’d only smuggled a penguin on board! … Oh, and one playtime, us girls was all hopping about, legs crossed. Ha! Kev had limboed through the girls’ toilets – locked every single cubicle!’
A fledgling smile flickered and died. ‘First signs of artistic talent?’
‘Graffiti!’ said Dean. ‘Kev wrote slogans on advertising posters – from other ads.’ He rattled off his favourites: ‘Welpton’s Meat Pies – May seriously damage your health. Our quarter-pounder’s all beef – It’s a bit of an animal. Blocked nose? – Finger-lickin’ good. Feminine Itching? – Not just for Christmas.’
Flora, blinking like a barn owl behind her enormous glasses, looked baffled.
‘He was brilliant with our kids,’ said Tracy. ‘Never mind reading bedtime stories, Kevin acted them!’ She winked at Dean. ‘Remember the birthday suit in “The King’s New Clothes”?’ For Flora’s benefit, she explained, ‘The suit only clever people can see? Ha! Flesh-pink rubber, skin-tight! Laugh? We nearly wet ourselves.’
Flora blinked again. ‘What do you think is the message of Kevin King’s work?’
Dean hooted. ‘Message! He’s taking the piss, love. Fancy calling himself “The King”.’
Tracy prickled at Dean’s disloyalty. ‘Well, we were a bit puzzled by his first installation, but then –’
‘Installation?’ Dean did an eye-roll. ‘A bog-bowl, a Sherman tank and broken glass from the Twin Towers? Call that art?’
Tracy fired off a look. ‘Still, it’s nice he hasn’t forgotten us. Invites us to everything – including when Biological Warfare won the Turner.’
‘Ye…es …’ Flora gazed at a chandelier. ‘Bio…logical … Warfare … Gas masks. Garden shed. Insecticide … Dead slugs. Brutally ecological, consummately brilliant.’
‘Brilliant, yeah!’ Tracy waved her glass for a refill. ‘They called Kevin, “the freshest new talent to emerge onto the art scene in a decade.”’
Dean huffed. ‘Copulating Dogs wasn’t fresh, it stank.’
Flora’s nostrils flared. ‘A fresh concept, a tapestry of plaited intestines. Vividly representing the visceral union of female and male.’
Dean grabbed a vol-au-vent from a waiter’s tray. ‘Knitted dogs’ guts? Load of bollocks.’
Tracy glared. ‘Dark Beginnings was nice.’ Buoyed by Flora’s energetic nodding, she downed her ‘shampoo’ and signaled for more.
‘Hardly art, love,’ said Dean. ‘An empty gallery with the lights off. And weird noises.’
‘That was a foetal heartbeat. I loved it.’
Flora waved her pen, declining a spring roll. ‘Oh, me, too. Desmond Scott-Sanderson called it, “a primal experience, deeply moving.”’
Dean snorted. ‘She found it moving!’
‘Ooh, that!’ Tracy giggled, still glowing from Flora’s, ‘Me, too.’ ‘Ha! While we stood there in the dark, Dean started stroking my bum! Hadn’t done that in years! So I wiggled around a bit. Hic! Oops, hiccups! I was sorry when the lights came on. Then I spotted Dean – hic! – propping up the wall, and this lecher beside me, leering!’
‘No way is that art,’ said Dean. ‘Even that breakfast telly lot didn’t know what to make of Kev.’
‘I presume,’ said Flora ‘you mean when they asked about his “overall message”? “Everyone sees what they want to see”? So esoteric.’
‘Crafty bugger! His prices shot through the roof!’
‘Predictably,’ said Flora, ‘following the cataclysmic announcement that this oeuvre will be his finale.’ She peered over her owl-glasses, surveying the crowded gallery. ‘So…Here we all are, waiting for the promised, “clear message any ‘kid’ can understand.”’
‘Tickets were like gold.’ Tracy winced, hearing ticketsh. ‘But Kevin gave us VIP pashes. Hic! Fanshy aaall –’ Her circling arm knocked someone’s drink. ‘Oop-shorry! All thish for our Kev!’
‘She’s gone, love,’ Dean whispered. ‘Unveiling time. Better find our seats.’
Tracy looked around. ‘Hmph! Not even goodbye … HA! Jusht melted away!’ She nudged Dean. ‘Get it? Hic! Flora melted! Margarine!’
Both sniggering, they took their seats with the arty-farty VIPs. Sir Oswald Something droned on, ‘… unprecedented worldwide interest, blah, blah, blah … great privilege to unveil …’
He pulled the cord. Cameras flashed.
Gasps accompanied a lot more flashes.
There, on a plinth, stood Kevin, gold paper crown lopsided, holding a loudhailer, absolutely starkers.
Tracy had an instantaneous, gasping-like-a-goldfish hot flush. Oh, Kevin love, you’ve made yourself a laughing stock.
Silence turned to little titters, titters to blatant belly laughs. Glancing furtively behind, Tracy saw folk doubled up, clutching their ribs. The arty-farties looked befuddled. Sir Oswald What-not looked fit to be tied.
Someone called, ‘Where’s this “clear message”?’
Kevin shouted through the loudhailer, ‘It’s me! Look at The King! Look at The King, The King, The King!’ He began singing, brazenly jiggling his man-boobs and beer belly. And his bits. ‘The King is in the altogether, the altogether, it’s altogether the very least The King has ever worn – BA-BOOM!’
Dean tore off the arty-farty scarf. ‘I knew he was taking the piss! Clever old Kev!’ He could hardly speak for laughing. ‘Read the title, love – on the plinth.’
Spray-painted like graffiti: ‘The King’s New Clothes.’
BECKY’S BEADS • 2017, Short-listed
Finished. Six thousand crystals … Won’t I shimmer!
A shimmering Roly-Poly … Sighing, Becky snips the thread, closes her velvet-lined bead box and plods downstairs, rubbing the bridge of her nose where her sewing spectacles pressed. After locking the shop door, she sets off for Joe’s café.
‘Evening! You’re working late!’ An elderly gent, friendly smile.
‘Only for myself!’ She blushes, conscious of her unwashed hair and cold sore. And her size.
He cranes his neck, reading the shop sign, ‘“Samuel and Rebecca Taylor. Clothing Alterations. Made-To-Measure.” You’re Rebecca?’
‘Uh-huh. Becky. Samuel’s my dad. Just finished my wedding gown.’ She’s smiling, picturing her sparkling creation.
‘Wedding gown! Well, my dear, your fellow’s a lucky man. I hope he’ll treasure you.’
Treasure? He’s mocking me. Like Joe. Joe calls her Roly-Poly. Or Dumpling or Pudding Face. Like a fool, she keeps grinning. She’s good at it: grinning outside, shrivelling inside.
‘Don’t be embarrassed, my dear. He is a lucky man. I knew straight away, from your smile. You can tell a lot from a smile. Yours is gorgeous, a hundred-per-cent genuine.’
Glancing up, she sees he’s not mocking. Gorgeous? Smiling back, she feels herself soaring into the summer-evening sky, over the shop, over the carpark, over the church spire.
‘When’s the big day, Becky?’
‘May the sun shine on you, always.’
She almost called it off – in spite of the gown, the hours sewing on beads. Joe doesn’t ‘treasure’ her. For Joe – as for her – this wedding is a last resort. ‘The Marriage of Two Puddings,’ he calls it. Always joking, Joe. ‘Joe’s priceless,’ say his regulars. Meaning corny but goodhearted.
Saturday is cloudy. At the church door, Becky hesitates. Doesn’t everyone deserve to be treasured?
The church is packed. Joe’s waiting at the front with Father Ted.
Chubby, joke-a-minute Joe. Who doesn’t treasure her.
Why would he? Why would anyone?
Count your blessings, girl. He’s a good man. Becky blinks and sniffs, then tugs her dad’s arm and strides forward. The hem of her gown swishes along the aisle, racing the organist’s Wedding March.
When she stands beside Joe, sunshine – sunshine! – streams through the stained glass windows – striping the air in rainbow colours, transforming Becky’s beads into six thousand sparkling stars.
Joe’s face lights up. ‘Wow, Becks!’ His grin is gap-toothed and gawky. A hundred-per-cent genuine.
‘You look …’
She squeezes her eyes. Don’t say like a Christmas tree.
‘… gorgeous!’ He stretches his neck, tortoise-like, above the stiff-collared silk shirt – hand-sewn by Becky – and swallows. ‘Becks.’ He’s blushing, red as ketchup. ‘I … I’ll always treasure you.’
Father Ted steps forward, smiling.
‘A question, padre: seamstress marries cafe owner.’ Jokey Joe’s back. ‘What’s on the menu?’
Father Ted rounds his eyes, drops his shoulders. ‘Jo-oe.’
‘Jacket … … potatoes!’
Becky’s dad and Father Ted share an eye-rolling groan.
Joe is priceless.
Becky blows a kiss. She’ll treasure his blushing words for ever, kept in her memory like priceless beads in a velvet-lined box.
RIPPLES • 2017, Short-listed
The sky over the wood is turning crimson. Soon, it will be dark. Beverley feels a stab of guilt. She promised Mummy she wouldn’t come here again. Besides, on the padlocked gate, there’s a sign saying, ‘Keep Out. Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted.’ But the river hidden among the trees draws Beverley like a spell. It’s a magic place, the most enchanted place she knows, the perfect place to find fairies, if they exist. Anyway, she’s not the only naughty person. Someone else has climbed in. They’ve left big footprints in the mud.
She hides her bike and schoolbag behind a bush, climbs over the gate and searches for the secret track. Where is it, the path she and her friends trampled through the bushes last summer? A little breeze rustles the treetops. A twig snaps. She jumps, looks over her shoulder. Something flutters inside her chest, like a dragonfly. The wood seems different, spooky. Must be because her friends aren’t here.
There it is! In thick shadow, almost hidden by the new spring growth. Mummy would be so cross. But Beverley’s dying to use her camera, her tenth birthday present, hoping to photograph a fairy – they’re supposed to come out at dusk. Or at least a dragonfly. There were dragonflies last summer, iridescent blue flashes, darting and hovering above the water on diaphanous wings, as dainty as fairies.
The fading light is no problem: her camera has a brilliant flash. Just one pretty picture, and she’ll hurry home before Mummy gets in from work. She scrambles forward, snagging her socks on brambles and scratching her bare knees.
Deep in the wood, the river flows silently, a sheet of glass, the water beneath dark and secretive. The last rays of the setting sun cut through the trees, tiger-stripes lighting a swarm of gnats. On the mirror-surface, a cigarette packet sails by.
Beverley unzips her camera case and kneels on a cushion of emerald moss. It feels like damp velvet. Overhanging willow branches snag her hair. Don’t move. She holds her breath, watching her still reflection: blonde hair, white blouse, dark blazer. Waiting.
Click. In a flash, the fabulous, ephemeral creature is captured.
There’s a rustling of leaves. Movement on the mirror-surface. Hoarse breathing. She gasps. Drops her camera.
It makes a splash that shatters Beverley’s reflection. And ripples the other one.
The ripples roll on and on…