JACK’S SMILE By Guy Martyr, 2015
Mary wasn’t looking by now, just chucking everything in boxes. Her first forays into the den had been cautious, respectful, each item given due, sometimes lengthy consideration. But after several days, seemingly little progress had been made, and she just wanted rid of him, so it was now grab-and-stuff.
While he was alive, she had hardly gone in there – his ‘wonderful’ den, where he made his ‘wonderful’ works of art, the works of art which were going to change their life. Change their life! What had they really brought? Rejection; poverty; social isolation. Years of struggle. Spending what little money they had on expensive materials – he had to have the best, to make, well what? these tiny little, ‘bijou’ he called them, ‘things’ – paintings? sculptures? mechanisms? boxes? Most of all they reminded her of icons, with their deep reds, gold leaf, encrustations, filigree, carved plaster. But those mechanical parts? and those electronic components? What did they amount to?
She had tried to separate tools and materials from works of art, but somehow no clear distinction could be made. It was just a massive clutter!
Why had he not sold his work? Over the years she had tried to help, made suggestions about who to approach, how to try selling it, latterly using the internet. But he stubbornly plodded on, saying it would find its place in the world; it didn’t need pushing.
And then he died!
He had actually been very happy the day before, a rare event! He had told Mary about a ‘break-through’ in his art, and of finding ‘the Answer’. She had heard this kind of thing before, over the years, and had not paid it much attention. But the next morning, when she looked in on him before work, since he often stayed up all night at his art, and she perceived the stillness to be more intense than usual and had crept up and poked his shoulder, he fell forward, lifeless.
There had been a post mortem, as it was a sudden death, but no cause was found. His heart had simply stopped. The doctors were baffled, and wanted to cut him up some more, and do all sorts of endless tests, but Mary put her foot down. She wanted him in the ground. Already the dawn of freedom was beginning to shine. The coroner decided there was nothing untoward, and allowed the burial.
Only a few people attended the funeral. Mary and Jack’s two children both lived abroad, in Indonesia and Russia, and didn’t come back. She never really thought they would – after all, what kind of father had he ever been? Always at his useless art, unable to provide properly, not building relationships with them. She felt they kind of hated him, which perhaps she did too.
Jack’s only real friend, Robin Green, from art school, who had sensibly re-trained in law and had consequently lived a respectable life, came. He had been a financial prop along the way when occasionally things had got really tough, though unlike Theo Van Gogh, he had always rejected the offer of works of art in exchange.
Mary had been in several minds about what to do with all Jack’s stuff. The spectrum ranged from a skip to an auction. She had tried to present one of his works to the local technical college where, years and years ago, Jack had actually obtained a term’s part-time teaching. But no-one remembered him, and her offer was politely declined. She offered Robin the pick of his work, and he politely relented, taking two of the less-obscure-looking pieces, though managing to cut his finger on a sharp protuberance on one of them. He and Mary managed a sort of non-smile.
Robin at one point suggested a car boot sale. Mary dismissed the idea initially as too meagre, too low class for Jack’s stuff. Better the dump. But gradually the straightforwardness of the process, the quick-and-easy, once-for-all apparition, persuaded her; and Robin, dear Robin, would even provide the car and help with the boxes.
They lived in Essex, on the edge of London really, in a house bought many years ago before London houses had become the jewelled palaces of today. Although a large pub nearby held car boot sales every month, Robin suggested one he had found on the edge of Shoreditch which might provide an art-interested clientele. Mary had not followed the transit of art-world constellations since the early days, nor the trends of hip London, but since Robin was keen to help, she went along with his suggestion. Empty room, Jack-free life was her main aim.
Everything fitted in Robin’s capacious car: he had even found a trestle table to display the wares upon.
On the appointed Sunday, the sat nav brought them to a trading estate with a large expanse of car park. Early though this was, it was already quite full with traders. They were directed to a ‘bric-a-brac’ line of cars and found a spot between an old couple selling buttons from jars, and a young chap selling new DVD’s.
“Is your finger all right?” Mary asked, as she and Robin began to set the works up on the table, as best they could considering they didn’t know which way up, or which was back or front, for most of the pieces, or if a piece was finished, or even supposed to be art at all.
“Actually, it hasn’t healed that well. I’ve had to have some anti-biotics” said Robin, with characteristic sang-froid. Mary was mortified and said so. “Bloody Jack” she thought.
She brightened up a little when she finally placed the card on the table: “Jack Minter (dec’d) original works of art. Priced as marked. Reasonable offers considered.” And little labels beside each item, with some kind of description alongside the price: “Jewel-box, with ermine, brass fittings, clockwork, and gold-leaf mythical motif” “Glazed plaster relief with random pouring and metal inlay” “Crimson panel” “Solar powered laser madonna” “Organic orb, with occasional klaxon”.
She had actually cried while she wrote these the night before. The frustration of the days of packing now gone, a little of the tenderness of their early years settled upon her, as she recalled his early idealistic and optimistic demeanour. That had been nearly thirty years ago – how many times had he been rejected over those years? Every rejection a little dent in his soul. His intensity of sending out illustrations of his work to galleries, exhibitions, exhibiting bodies and anyone else they could think of, had waned from the rush of the first five years, to, at the end, a trickle, then nil, until his last mantra, ‘It will find its way into the world’. ‘The artist’s job is to make the art’ he had said, ‘it’s for others to buy and sell it’.
Her tears welled and fell as she walked among the boxes, like the lady with the lamp, on that last night, picking out a piece here, a thing there, recalling a moment perhaps, and writing another label.
On the same day as the car boot sale, the staff of a nearby commercial art gallery, one of the galleries of the moment, had gathered to prepare for the opening that evening of a show by an artist of the moment. The owner, Montague Fisher, was there to oversee every detail. The all-important hang was this morning. It remained to confirm the position of each work of art, to be decided between himself, his exhibition director, and the artist. Jessica was here, but where was the artist? People were talking determinedly into mobile phones, but the artist could not be found. He was American. He had stayed in a hotel last night. Montague knew he should have kept him at home, but the American had wanted to stay in a hotel. According to the hotel staff, he had left early that morning intending to walk to the gallery. That would have given him plenty of time to get here by now. He must have got lost. ‘Everybody out, go and find him!’ ordered Montague.
Jay Walker had a map of London with him, and knew how to use it; but he didn’t want to go straight to the Gallery of Mist. Sure, he had a big exhibition, in a swanky gallery, but that was not the moment he was in. He was in this – London, early morning, Spring. It was practically a work of art on its own! He needed the River Thames. He needed to see the flow of history. He needed to track the footsteps of Dickens, the prat-falls of Charlie Chaplin, to tread the shores of the east end, where his folks had come from way back when.
He followed the streets as they beckoned him. The river warmed him. The buildings, in their variety, stimulated his buzz-centre. The people, in their endless vivid colour, paved his way with spice-petals. But strangely enough, what he wanted in all this paradise of stimulation, was the sublimeness of open space: open space, with its tiny punctuations of meaning, of uncertainty, of possibility. This kind of openness fed his art – perhaps it was only the yearning of a New Yorker for the West he never knew, with its promise of fulfilment.
His random direction-finding brought him to ‘Steerforth Retail Park’, with its massive car park, today occupied by ‘Massive Car Boot’.
The public were admitted at 9. Indeed a slow trickle started at this time. At first all walked past Mary’s boot uninterested. One or two people picked up and put down one or two objects. No-one read the labels. Someone rummaged in a box beneath the table and pulled out a small hacksaw, but didn’t buy it at one pound.
Robin was game, but eventually took to the tail gate and the Telegraph. Mary started to think of the skip again.
Where was the arty crowd Robin had suggested might be here? Everybody seemed to be dealers of some sort. She did however notice the tall young man ambling down their row. He looked like Mary’s teenage brother back in the 70’s, with his denim flares and denim jacket, and oh so long 70’s hair spraying out from beneath a woolly hat. He showed scant interest in any of the stalls, until . . . hers!
He approached with calm purpose in his step: he began to pick up each item, to consider it all round, to re-position some the other way up, to pick out some and place them to one side, imposters perhaps, to get one or two items from the stacked boxes of odds and ends, not hitherto denoted as works of art at all. He read all of the labels, and the brief historical note Mary had penned.
Robin had perked up, and started to fetch things from the far boxes that the newcomer had indicated. A small crowd gathered, aware of some kind of sensation-in-the-making. All the time, Jay did not speak. Mary had tried “This is all my husband’s work” but Jay had kindly shushed her.
When it came to the part where Jay said to Mary, quite quietly, “How much?” and she said “Each piece is priced separately” and he said “No, for the whole lot”, the crowd burst into applause.
Jay insisted that Montague give over half of his exhibition to Jack Minter. Montague had actually seen Jack’s work years before, and had half-considered showing him, but for some long-forgotten reason never had, so was not too put out by this request. Some of the critics at the opening were sniffy about some parvenu muscling in, but others were actually glowing. Mary found more of Jack’s works in the attic, and more in the shed. She paid for the kids and their families to come back home for a family party, and they even toasted dad. Robin came too, and stayed actually. His finger has a little scar, which Mary calls ‘Jack’s smile’.