The orphan girl was sat at a table eating porridge. Her grubby, thin ankles were manacled to black iron rings set into the floorboards, and though she could stand up and move a little way away, she was restricted to an ellipse with a major axis of about six feet. Her hair was limp, grey, and hadn’t been washed for over two weeks, and her face had little dried patches of porridge spotted here and there. The porridge she was eating now was cold, as Geraldinium was worried about her trying to wear hot porridge and burning herself. The orphan finished eating, put the spoon down, and put the bowl on her head. A small amount of beige porridge dribbled down her temples.
Geraldinium came out of her enrobing room and saw the orphan sitting there, porridge-bowl-bedecked and staring vacantly into the long space of the attic room and sighed very faintly. She’d only taken the girl back under pressure from the courts who had insisted that she was the closest thing the girl had to a real guardian. There was now a social-worker who came round twice a week to check on the orphan, and Geraldinium suspected the pretty young woman with the earnest demeanour and arthritic fingers of having her own agenda.
“Take the bowl off your head,” she said, snapping her fingers to make sure that she got the orphan’s attention. For a moment there was no reaction, and then her eyes slowly slid inwards and she blinked.
“But it’s art,” she said, her voice whiny and slightly nasal.
“It isn’t,” said Geraldinium. “I should know. I did something similar, but more original, for my A-level art studies and photographed it. I had a row of my teachers lined up wearing bowls of custard, porridge, tapioca and wallpaper paste. The bowls were all copper, and had cables running from them, as though there were hooked up to an electric chair. I called it Does justice require intelligence? and my examiners wept when they saw the picture. That was art. What you are doing is retarded.”
“My hat is cold,” said the orphan, her voice sing-song and her eyes starting to diverge again. Geraldinium snapped her fingers at her, and the orphan’s eyes stopped moving.
“Take the bowl off,” she said. “I am going out, and you can either have crayons and paper circles while I’m gone, or you can be tied back down to the bed of your own making.”
The orphan shuddered a little, and as she pulled the bowl from her head with shaking hands her head turned slowly so that she could see the bed in the far corner. “Not the bed,” she whispered, and Geraldinium wasn’t completely certain that she’d heard her. “Where are you going?” she asked in a slightly louder voice.
“Out,” said Geraldinium. She adjusted her straps: she was wearing a blue denim shirt and jeans with a utility tool belt strapped around her waist. Her brown jacket was canvas and covered in pockets and straps. Out of a side pocket poked an A-Z of London, and on the other side balancing that was an A5 sketchbook and a couple of pencils. A tiny camera dangled from one strap and a water-bottle was held firmly in webbing at the back of the jacket. She looked a little like a survivalist caught out in the city. “I have a mausoleum-hospital to photograph.”
The mausoleum-hospital was in fact an abandoned hospital out in the East of London, slowly falling apart behind the high walls that had once made sure that the patients were kept in, but to Geraldinium’s mind its steady architectural senescence made it tomb-like, a mausoleum for the ghosts of lives that had been lived there. She had stumbled across it mostly accidentally while researching UrbEx, wondering if there was art to be made out of the assault on the dangerously-abandoned and things only interesting because they were forbidden. When she’d seen the first pictures on the website, taken by a 14-year old UrbEx – Urban Explorer – her imagination had been captivated.
She grabbed a slim transparent plastic wallet from a wormy dresser and dumped in on the table in front of the orphan. Inside were white circles of soft paper and some crayons. The primary colours looked almost new, while the autumnal colours were worn over half-way down, in some cases almost to stubs.
“And no more self-portraits,” she said. “You’re not Batman, and drawing yourself as such is pure cargo cult.” The expression on the orphan’s face was so blank Geraldinium found herself expecting the girl to moo. “I’ll be back,” she said. “Try not to get hungry before then.”