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Confluence and Conflict

by NMott 

Posted: 07 December 2008
Word Count: 1990
Summary: I've had two writing exercises set over the Christmas Hols, so I've combined them into one. I had a list of things to include: Set in a Museum, involving a scent bottle, and including the words 'spineless' and 'carapace'.

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The invitation to the Exhibition coincided with my birthday, so I treated myself to a first class rail ticket and a taxi-ride to the entrance. As I bounded up the steps of the Tate Modern, I couldn’t help feeling light and happy. It reminded me of the times my wife, Ella, and I had visited the art galleries, seeking out new artists, acting as their patrons – their works now tucked away in secure storage, piling on the pounds. The thought suddenly struck me that she must have arranged it, a present from beyond the grave. She had been such a thoughtful companion, a carapace against the cruelties of this world, a soul mate to the end.

As soon as I entered the exhibition area, something caught my attention; a scent trail wound like a serpent through the various interconnecting rooms. I followed the maze, ignoring the oddly spineless plastic statues, the crescendo of music and flashing lights, moving on past the lone chair surrounded by barbed wire, pausing once to read the words of a love poem scrolling down the walls, until the trail led through a narrow pair of doors and halted at its head: a window, or more precisely a window sill, narrow and swathed in aeons of gloss paint. And in the corner sat a glass bottle, opaque white, like a squat and narrow necked bottle of milk, swathed in cobwebs and missing its stopper. Old and neglected, a bit like me.

I raised it to my nose and sniffed, and the musky, lemony scent filled the orifices. Memories of a long hot summer of thirty years ago came flooding back: Lazy days at college, sweet nothings in the library, shared cocktails at the bar.
I hardly needed to read the label. I glanced around, wondering who had left it, but the bottle and I appeared to be alone, occupying a small gloomy space along with the window, clogged with security bars, and a wardrobe, its doors hanging slightly ajar. Another installation. I wondered what this one was trying to say. I slipped the bottle into my pocket and pulled out the guide: Out of the Closet.
Oh dear, I thought, how pathetic. If Ella had been here, she would have cheered the place up with a joke. Funny that I should think of her at a time like this. The memories intermingled: those of my soul mate with those of my first love. How dissimilar, and yet how familiar they seemed to me now. Warm skin, shared loves, companionship, and both now lost to the past.

I pocketed the guide and turned to go, pausing to search for the door. At first I couldn’t see it, and then I realized it was the wardrobe - a strip of watery light shone though the narrow gap between its doors. I opened them and found myself looking at a burly man in a tight grey uniform.

‘I’m sorry,’ I muttered, and stepped back to allow him to come through. But he remained blocking the doorway.
‘Sir, if you wouldn’t mind turning out your pockets’
‘Pockets?’ I repeated in confusion.
‘Yes, Sir.’

I patted my jacket and removed the guide, the invitation, a handkerchief, a tube of polo mints, and an assortment of coins. My hands now full, I was unable to take out anything further.

‘If you wouldn’t mind..’ I said, and motioned to the guard to hold out his hands then piled the objects between them and added a few more. Last but not least I pulled out the bottle.
‘Thank you, Sir,’ said the man, and we managed the awkward exchange so that he ended up with the bottle while I restocked my pockets.
‘Would you mind answering some questions, Sir?’ It wasn’t really a request. God, we were being so bloody polite; our little English dance of manners.
‘May I ask why?’ I asked it anyway.
‘It is necessary, Sir - I’m afraid my superiors will insist - before we can allow you to leave the building.’
‘Leave of my own accord, or in the company of a police officer?’ I asked, playing along, not really believing the man’s implicit threat.
‘That would be entirely up to you, Sir. We would like to ask why you felt it necessary to steal one of the Turner Prize entries.’
I stared at him in puzzlement before the penny dropped.
‘The bottle?’
‘Exactly, Sir’
I started to laugh. ‘This like that cleaner who threw away a piece of modern art, thinking it was just a bit of rubbish.’
‘No, Sir, it is not like that at all,’ he said in all seriousness, which made me laugh all the more. ‘I’m sorry, Sir, but I really must insist. These installations are worth many thousands of pounds, and it has taken the staff several weeks to set them up to the artists’ specific instructions – there is liable to be a heavy fine for your act of vandalism.’
That wiped the smile from my face.
‘Vandalism?’ I repeated, hardly believing he had just used the word, ‘I only picked up a bottle of scent – it looked as though someone had left it behind – that can hardly be described as an act of vandalism. Here, I’ll put it back,’ and I plucked the bottle out of his unresisting hand and returned it to the window sill. ‘There’, I said, ‘all sorted. Now we can both get back to our-‘ but my words were cut short by the arrival of what appeared to be a posse of museum curators – I recognised the type, young, keen, and eclectically dressed. In the centre was an older man, one who could pass for the museum director himself were he not smiling and spreading his arms wide enough to engulf me in a bear hug.

‘Edward, you came!’
‘Uh?’ was all I managed to say before the pair of Armani clad arms grasped me round the shoulders, and I was soundly air kissed for the first and hopefully only time in my life. ‘Long time no see, eh?’ said the man, loosening his grip and allowing me to come up for air.
‘Uh, yes,’ was all I could think to say as my mind turned to jelly from the shock of the meeting.
‘It has been too long,’ he said
‘Has it?’ I asked.
‘Thirty years. And yet, you remembered,’ he gestured at the bottle, still sitting on the window sill, before sweeping it up in an expansive gesture and waving it under my nose. ‘Old Spice’ he added a little un-necessarily. I could read, after all.
I nodded and then wished I hadn’t as a nostril plunged towards the open neck of the bottle.
‘And how do you like my little Turner Prize winner,’ he said, sweeping an arm around the small room and almost batting my friend the security guard in the face. He apologised and then passed the bottle of cologne over to the man.
‘I thought this was only the shortlist’ I said. A little mean of me, I know, but I couldn’t resist; the man had no humility.
‘Ah, you have no faith,’ he boomed, ‘and now, with your help, it is complete.’
‘Mine?’ after a moment’s pause I remembered to close my mouth.
‘But of course, Edward. Only you have followed the scent to its origin. Only you have picked up the bottle. Only you know what it truly means - and it means a lot to you, does it not?’ and he looked at me and winked.

The full horror of the moment dawned on me. The bottle of scent – his scent - those memories of thirty years ago, the wardrobe-cum-closet. I had been set up.
‘But Barry, I’ve got my reputation-’
‘Brendano, please’ he admonished.
‘Uh-,’ he held up his hand.
I gave in, my voice now little more than a hiss, ‘Brendano, I have my reputation to think of.’
‘But you are retired, and a widower, are you not?’ he turned to one of the curators, or maybe it was his personal assistant, and raised a crafted eyebrow, ‘Michael, you did the research-?’
‘Yes, Mr Brendano,’ said the gilded youth, ‘You are correct.’
‘But-’ I protested, only to be cut short again as he swung back to face me.
‘Then what is there to be concerned about?’ His tone dropped an octave and several decibels, ‘My dear Edward…’

He gazed at me with what I always thought of as his ‘sit up and beg’ look - a look that suited his dark eyes and the smooth olive complexion. ‘Bedroom eyes,’ Ella would have called them. I felt myself sinking into them as though they were the extension of the soft downy quilt we used to lie upon in my old college rooms - until an embarrassed cough from the security guard pulled me back to the present.
‘No, Barry,’ I deliberately used his real name with the aim of slapping some sense into him, ‘I don’t want this. That was all in the past. You can’t use me again-’
‘Use?!’ The olive skin turned a mahogany red. ‘When did I ever use you, Edward? It was mutual affection-’
‘Not love?’ I cut in. Now it was my turn to be angry. ‘Affection? what do you mean by affection? It was a love affair – first love - not some dirty little fling’.
His face palled and he turned apologetic, placing a hand lightly on the back of mine and causing the hairs to tingle in anticipation.

‘Yes, you are right, my love.’ He said those last two words softly as though savouring some fine wine. I had the distinct feeling he expected me to kiss him in gratitude, and thirty years ago I would have planted a kiss on those soft, full, lips. Oh, how I had longed to hear him say those two words, but Barry had always held them back. Now here he was, using them in front of an audience as though they were simply lines in a play. Maybe they were. Maybe he had written out the whole script in the months leading up to this moment – even the security guard seemed little more than an actor playing dress-up - all part of his ‘installation’ for the Turner Prize. Well I was damned if I was going to keep to the same bloody script.

‘Fuck off, Brendano,’ I said, and wrenched my hand from his grip – a hold that had been tenuous at best. My arm rebounded onto the nearest elbow - that of the faux-security guard - knocking the bottle from his grasp. The sailing ship on the front transcribed a lazy arc while the beefy guard flailed in its wake. The attempted catch failed to materialize and the glass shattered on the marble floor, sending out a slick of oily liquid. The enclosed space was immediately filled with an overwhelming and acrid scent; unfortunately vintage Old Spice does not keep as well as a fine wine.

‘A-ha!’ cried Barry, and I wheeled around to see him clap his hands in excitement. ‘Glorious, Edward. That was simply glorious,’ and his face split into a broad grin, then he turned his assistant and whispered, ‘did we get that in the shot?’

I’m afraid to say it was at this point that I lost my temper and swung a right hook at his carefully coiffured jaw-line. My knuckles connected with the designer stubble and they made a satisfying thud as I installed him firmly on his Art.

I may have minced out of the gallery, I don’t recall. I hope I strode out in a manly way, but I didn’t really care. Barry was right, I no-longer had a reputation and a position to uphold. Over the past thirty years, and with the patience and understanding of my darling Ella, I had become my own man.

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Comments by other Members

Emily Lockhart at 21:10 on 07 December 2008  Report this post
Oh I really like this story - you used all your words as well! It was very clever - I never dreamed that Edward would have a secret like that in his past; you kept the suspense going and then just introduced the drama matter-of-factly - it was brilliantly done!:-) I'm here taking a break from study, so thanks very much for entertaining me! Em

NMott at 09:10 on 08 December 2008  Report this post
Many thanks for your comments, Emily.

- NaomiM

penpusher at 09:29 on 06 April 2010  Report this post

This says it all about the Turner Prize, doesn't it? I really enjoyed your send up.

so that he ended up with the bottle while I restocked my pockets.

made a satisfying thud as I installed him firmly on his Art.

And I loved these two bits!

It kept me guessing almost to the end. Great.

NMott at 10:18 on 09 April 2010  Report this post
Thanks, glad you enjoyed it.

- NaomiM

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