YOU ARE NOT YOUR BODY THIS WORLD IS AN ILLUSION
I found this little gem of philosophy scrawled on the wall outside my local chip shop one evening. The sprayed capitals struck me as the work of the desperate or the insane. I remember that they annoyed me more than anything. It was vandalism; existentialist vandalism maybe, but vandalism nonetheless. It was in this frame of mind that I bought my haddock and chips (salt, no vinegar) that evening, as I tended to most evenings at the time.
The proprietor of 'Vivian's Plaice' was a scrawny, balding man by the name of Tom Vivian, with the mandatory greasy apron and fat, greasy wife to match. Every night they worked the counter together, Tom serving the fish and the wife doling out the chips. If it hadn't been for the Vivians, I would probably have starved; in 1988 I was in the final year of my BA in Fine Art, I couldn't cook and when I wasn't unconscious I was trying to scrape together my degree show. At the time it was rather fashionable to do the whole urban alienation thing, and I was doing these huge semi-abstract oils of gaunt looking women standing on street corners. I thought I was making a statement.
"Alright are we now, Neil?" asked Tom, as he did every night. He seemed to have become rather protective of me during our three years' acquaintance; he and his wife had no children, I learned, and I seemed to fill the void. As a result, I received special attention: larger portions, a sympathetic ear and an interest in my affairs.
"Not too bad", I replied. "Got the Corporation Street one finished this morning. Just your road to go now."
"Hear that, Nell?" Tom called at the greasy wife, who was cleaning out one of the fryers. "Our Neil's going to put Katie Road on the map!"
"Your shop I thought, actually," I interjected. "You don't mind, do you?"
"Mind?" he spluttered, spilling the salt he was shaking over my chips. "I'd be honoured! Don't you think so, Nell? Good for business, I'd reckon; and," he chuckled, "it can't be bad for the old ego, neither."
"That's good. I was thinking of doing just outside the door, you know, with someone sitting on the steps, after closing time or something."
"Whatever you think best."
"It's a pity about the graffiti though."
"Isn't it?" cried Tom. "Bloody vandals! I tell you, that wall was clean as Christ's conscience when I shut up shop last night, and this morning, what do I find? Sodding spray paint all over the place. Me and Nell had a go at it earlier, but it wasn't much good. I'll ring the Council when I've got the chance." He shook his head. "Vinegar on this one?"
"Yes please. It's for Chris," I explained.
"Ah. Lots then. He getting along alright these days?"
"I think so; he's being all secretive about his project, so I haven't seen that much of him lately, but then again that's probably a good sign."
Tom laughed. "Here you go," he said, handing me the warm paper parcels.
I fumbled in my pockets for change. "How much do I owe you then?"
"Leave it, son. You've got enough on your plate right now."
"Now Mr Vivian, I can't just…"
"Of course you can. Now be off with you before it all goes cold."
"How much do I owe you then?" asked Chris, polishing off his last few chips as we vegetated before the box.
"Nothing. Vivian wouldn't charge me."
"Ooooh! Taken a shining to you, has he?"
"Sod off Chris. He's a nice bloke."
"If you say so."
"You got a free meal out of him, didn't you?"
Chris shrugged in reply.
I glanced at the telly. On the American cop show a car collided with a bridge, bursting into flames before toppling into the river below. I decided to change the subject.
"How's your project coming along?" I asked.
"Why so defensive?"
You'll see soon enough. How about yours?"
"Not too bad, I suppose. Just the one painting to go now."
"What's this one of?"
Why should I tell you? I thought. Much as Chris was my housemate, he could be bloody annoying when he felt like it, and the veil of secrecy with which he had covered his recent escapades had hardly done much to endear him to me of late. He was into performance and video, I remember, whilst I was an old-fashioned painter, a fact of which he never tired of reminding me. Chris had an ethereal beauty, so fragile-looking, which didn't do him any harm as far as other people, in particular women, were concerned. In fact, he enjoyed success in every way that I did not.
I told him anyway. He laughed, as I knew he would.
"Some vandal's sprayed graffiti all over his shop front," I said, hoping to induce some sympathy for the man. "Some existentialist crap or other."
"Really?" shrugged Chris, disinterested. "Should make for interesting reading."
In the weeks that followed Chris and I saw even less of each other as we pressed on with our projects. He was forever arranging countless photomontages, whilst I worked away at the painting of Tom's shop. I placed another scantily clad young waif on the doorstep, bathed in the yellow of a sodium street lamp, a crumpled chip paper between her knees. Some nice scarlet drips for good measure. Things weren't going too badly, I thought.
As for the shop itself, however, something odd was happening. The Council had been in to remove the graffiti, with limited success. However, exactly a week after my first sighting, there was more. Under the patchy first piece there was a second message:
EVERYTHING IS FOR NOTHING IN THIS LIFE OF SIN
Tom was angry when I entered the shop. "Have you seen this one then?" he shouted. "I don't know what they're playing at, but it'd bloody well better stop. I mean, what's it on about? 'Everything is for nothing'? You'd think they could write something sensible if they're going to write anything at all. And it doesn't come off. At this rate I'm going to have to repaint the rendering. Do they think I'm made of money or something?"
I didn't know what to say. Or the next time, because sure enough, a few days later the vandal struck again with this nugget of wisdom:
GIVE UP NOW TO AVOID DISAPPOINTMENT
ONE IS NOTHING WE IS ALL
YIELD TO DEATH TO SEEK RELEASE
The graffiti began to cause something of a stir, and the local paper ran an article about it. The headline read 'VANDALS TARGET LOCAL TOM'; they interviewed the Vivians and showed a picture of the damage. However, in spite of myself, the messages began to fascinate me. I still recognised that they were acts of vandalism, but it seemed as though some degree of thought had gone into their creation, from an individual walking the fine line between genius and madness. I incorporated them into my canvases, the doomsday prophecies juxtaposing nicely with my pallid figures, and yet I felt that somehow I was betraying a friend. As the graffiti mounted up, Tom fell into despair, growing thinner and balder with every sentence. Three weeks after the first message appeared, I went to the shop as usual, but there was no one behind the counter. Instead, Tom sat alone on a lurid plastic chair near the window, his head in his hands.
I closed the door behind me as gently as I could, but he heard my footsteps.
"Oh Neil, it's you. Sit down." He motioned towards the chair opposite, and I obeyed.
"What's the matter?" I asked, stupidly. "Where's Mrs Vivian?"
"Oh, she's upstairs. No point her being down here. No one to serve. You're only the second person who's come in all night." He sighed, and looked away. "I don't know what to do, Neil. I shut the shop at night, and in the morning there's another one. It's turning people away. I can't afford it any more. I'm throwing away more than I'm selling. What's the point?" He started to sob.
"Oh Tom," I said, reaching out to him. I tried to say something comforting, but my words sounded clumsy and insincere.
"I just feel like giving up. We've worked our fingers to the bone for twelve years setting up this place, building up the customers and everything, and someone can knock it all down overnight." He sniffled into the plastic cup of tea I made for him. "Maybe all these bloody messages are right."
"Look, you mustn't think like that. Whoever it is will get caught, and it'll all stop. You can repaint. People'll come back."
"Yes, but how long will it take? I don't know if I can hold out much longer."
"Take every day as it comes. You can start by getting me my dinner."
I paid him with a ten pound note, and a promise to return the next day.
Return I did, but the shop was closed, and the lights out upstairs. I shrugged, and pulled my jacket closer against the night air. As I turned to leave, I noticed a new message had been left on the wall, but this time the writing was different, larger. It said:
I GIVE UP
The next morning, Tom made the headlines. 'VANDAL VICTIM GIVES UP', it read. It seemed that Tom had hanged himself in the back kitchen the previous night whilst his wife was visiting her sister. There was a picture of a Tearful Nell Vivian, and a pitiful account of this Fatal War of Words.
It was with a heavy heart that I finished Tom's painting. It was my best work; the glassy shop front and its defaced wall, the gilded figure on the doorstep. The 'closed' sign. It hung in my final show, a white card beside it reading
War of Words - Neil Carr
Oil on canvas (100 x 154 cm)
In memory of Thomas Vivian 1936-1988
In the next room was Chris's show. He used everything: lettering, photography, projection and sound. On the walls were hanging giant mounted photographs of the Vivians' shop at every stage of damage; the first sentence, the second, right up to Tom's own final message. Collages of the newspaper cuttings. Sound recordings of the Vivians themselves inside the shop. The centrepiece, though, was the film. All these elements combined into an abstract documentary, projected onto a white screen ahead. The final frame, in the familiar sprayed letters, read
THIS IS MODERN ART