“But is it art?” Geraldinium screamed at the top of her lungs. Her chest heaved as though she’d been running a marathon, and the three sets of pearl-strands she was wearing clattered and shivered as they were thrown around. “Is it ART? IS. IT. ART?” Her voice echoed around the workshop, a vast attic space that ran the length of an entire terrace of houses, coming back to her at different times from different angles until it seemed as though there were a chorus of sycophants questioning right alongside her.
The orphan, released from hospital into Geraldinium’s very reluctant care, was tied by her ankles and wrists to a sheetless bed in the corner of the attic. Her head turned from side to side, almost as though she was trying to escape the myriad mingling of voice and echoes. Geraldinium ignored her though, as she’d ignored her mewling cries and her pleading for food. A camera on a tripod was set up at the foot of the bed, and a silver reflector sat like an umbrella left out to dry nearby.
“Is it art?” said Geraldinium, much more quietly now. She looked along the attic to her sculpture park wondering for a moment if she should go and rage at the unfeeling stone, but the thought of walking that far deterred her. She loved the space, for all that she had no idea how anyone could think that a room the length of a street was a good idea. It took four minutes to walk from one end to the other and she’d been able to set up areas dedicated to most contemporary art forms and still have space for the kitten-press, three-hundred china cups of undrunk tea, and a small still cunningly disguised as a tailor’s dummy. The exact locations weren’t based on availability of light, relative heating or even how often she used them; instead she put them over the houses of her downstairs neighbours who’d done things to annoy her. Right at the moment the sculpture park was making her floorboards (and hence his ceiling) groan intermittently over number 35, whose owner had asked her three days ago about the orphan.
“Are you a paedophile, then?” he’d said, inwardly telling himself that he was the kind of a man who called a spade a spade. Geraldinium, who was the kind of woman who called men like him bigoted racists half-smiled and told him that the Daily Mail depended on his readership.
“Is that a yes then?” he’d demanded, his little, piggish eyes screwing up tightly in his sweaty, shiny face.
“No,” said Geraldinium. “She’s an orphan, remanded into my care by the courts. I’m her saviour, in a very real way. So keep away from her, or I’ll have the police round and your picture in your favourite newspaper before you can pronounce my name properly.”
The orphan’s bed was over number 72 because the couple who lived there were both stone-deaf and shouted a lot at each other. Geraldinium would sometimes sit on the floor above them and listen to their conversations, lines of thought bedevilled by their joint inability to hear what the other was saying. She wrote down what they said, gathering the most interesting pieces together for an exhibition: she planned to write them out calligraphically on parchment ribbons and hang from the ceiling as guide-points through an ill-lit maze. At the centre of the maze would be ancient and modern hearing-aids in a glass case polished to the point of invisibility so that the audience could reach for them but not touch. Finally, the exit from the maze would be short, a brisk walk through a corridor lined with the accoutrements of the grave.
The ant farm, which she’d been preparing for an exhibition on the worthlessness of indentured labour, was on the floor over number 2, but the ants had all escaped last week and were probably ruining either a home or a garden. Geraldinium just set up an easel and started to paint the scene, seeing a perfect continuation of her theme in the departure of the slave labour for more hospitable climes.
“It is art,” she said, nodding her head. She turned to look at the orphan, whose heavy-lidded eyes rolled a little in her direction. “You are art,” she said. “You suffer, and that is just because art is all about suffering. You mostly suffer because you are deluded and believe that you are Batman, despite the obvious gender discrepancy and your plummet from the roof of this building three months earlier. But you also suffer because you are tied to this bed, which you constructed from an IKEA flatpack during your first morning back here so that I can legitimately say that it is a bed of your own making, without food or succour so that I may photograph you over a three day period and showcase the folding-in of the human soul on itself.”
The orphan whimpered a little, but in her tiny, mad mind where her thoughts fizzed like sodium cast carelessly into water she barely heard a word Geraldinium said. She was, in her dreams, prowling darkened rooftops dressed in too much leather and not enough warm clothes, hunting for imbalances to redress.
“This, too, is art,” she said, her arm describing cavernous attic around them. Everything I do is art, everything has worth, and nothing exists until I show it. What kind of life is led, unlived until the spotlight falls upon it, then only to be scrutinised by people who envy and fear it? What life is this the artist conveys, suffering in silence, brought to animation in brief bursts like angels caught in strobe lights? Is this art?”
The orphan whimpered again, her wide-pupilled eyes blind to everything but the images of violent, blood-stained retribution playing on the inner cinema of her mind. Geraldinium stared at her for a moment, then ran to the camera and took a staccato burst of photographs. Behind her, the floor creaked beneath the sculptures, and fine plaster dust rained down from the ceiling beneath onto a middle-aged man sitting up in bed, the Daily Mail crossword in his lap.