Thursday 26 May 2011

Of Common Clay

The eyes were becoming too prominent in the angular architecture of the face.

The sculptor stood back and considered the bust, and glanced at the model. She stared back at him, bored but too professional to show it except in her eyes. The sculptor didn’t like her in any way, but her face had the sharp angles and prominent planes he wanted; the high cheekbones, the line of the jaw, the slope of the forehead. He sighed to himself; this was one of those which wouldn’t work out. Lately, there seemed to be a lot of those that didn’t work out.

He wiped his hands on the towel and nodded. “Enough for today,” he told her. “I’ll see you the day after tomorrow.” Perhaps, he thought, a new start would give him what he needed.

Shrugging slightly, the model got ready to leave. The sculptor paid her fee, and looked her over again as she quite unself-consciously counted the money.  As always, he tried to see the bones below the skin, because that was how he tried to create the busts and statues he made – from the bones up.

“I’ll see you Friday then,” the model said over her shoulder, and exited into the night.

The sculptor draped a damp cloth over the bust, knowing already that he would have to start over again, and not feeling any particular enthusiasm for the task. Lately, he’d been getting increasingly concerned that he was losing the desire, the burning drive to create something akin to life out of the formless clay. He looked at the line of other, completed busts lined up on his workbench. They were all of young women, and all different; and while making them, he had thought he was doing good work. And, yet, looking at them now, he thought they were all utterly soulless, more like mass-produced factory manufactures than the work of an artist’s hands.

He decided that he needed a break. He would go out on the town tonight, take in the bright lights, and maybe take in a late show at the cinema if there was anything watchable playing. It had been years, he suddenly realised, since he’d gone out purely for pleasure. In fact, pleasure, in either the physical or mental senses of the word, was something he scarcely remembered. He lived alone, had for many years, and had long since – with relief – given up all attempts at forming lasting relationships. As he told himself, it wasn’t in him to devote himself to more than one thing in a lifetime, and he had his art.

Lately, though, it seemed that his art was beginning to desert him.

Dressing, he looked at himself in the mirror. Though he was past fifty, his hair was still thick and his face fresh and unlined. The weariness showed in his eyes, in the wrinkles around them, and the distant stare with which he unconsciously surveyed the world while not actually sculpting. He shook his head. In his own estimation, he could pass for ninety.

“The evening awaits,” he said to himself, with a humourless smile, and walked out to his waiting car.


He saw her just before the movie began.

She was standing in line at the counter for a ticket, her face calm and grave, eyes looking off into the distance, expression unreadable. She wasn’t, by any definition of the term, pretty; sturdy-bodied, short, with a broad face and prominent nose and heavy brows. From under her headband, braided hair fell over her denim-clad shoulders. To most people, she would simply have looked like another young woman; not even an attractive young woman. But to the sculptor she wasn’t another woman. In real terms, to him she wasn’t even a woman at all. She was the One he had been looking for.

How long had his quest lasted? From the first time he had ever picked up a dollop of moulding clay in his life, he had been unconsciously searching for the perfect one, the one who could be the distillation of his art, the culmination of all his efforts. He had searched, and over the years, as he had honed his skills, he had almost forgotten the search, slipping slowly into the not-quite-best that still brought him, if not quite fame and fortune, an appreciable amount of money and some name recognition. Over the years, in fact, the idea that there might be the perfect subject had vanished from his conscious mind. And yet, there she was.

In the moments left to him before she entered the darkened hall, the sculptor drank her in with his eyes. Everything about her was perfect; the set of her ears, the heavy jut of her jaw, it was all there, perfect. This would be his masterpiece. No matter if the world never recognised it; it would be for himself alone.

He scarcely noticed the movie; later he didn’t even remember what had been playing. He had guessed where she must be sitting, a few rows ahead of him, and his entire attention was on that part of the theatre, as though he could burn the darkness away. He envisioned the braids falling like snakes on her shoulders, and how he would sculpt them from the clay, how he would recreate, with infinite detail, the heavy lashes that fringed her eyes. She was dark, and he would fire the clay to give that impression of darkness. His heart was thrumming with excitement.

The only problem was – how would he get her to sit for him?

She wasn’t a model; he had a long experience of them, and knew instinctively that not only was she not a model, the idea of modelling had never occurred to her and would almost certainly be rejected by her outright. Besides, he didn’t want to see her as a model; he wanted to see her as a human, living, breathing, emoting, not posing. Posing would destroy all that made her special.

By the time the movie ended and the lights came on, he knew that he was obsessed.


Rose came out of the cinema hall feeling not particularly satisfied.

It had not been a bad movie – she acknowledged that – but it had been far less than what she’d expected from the glowing reviews she’d read, even though she automatically excluded ninety percent of all that as hyperbole. She’d watched the film with professional interest, because she was studying film making and because she had an interest in the subject matter, and had concluded that she could have – even though she was still only a student – done a far better job herself, with a lighter touch and a great deal more humour. It wasn’t conceit, she knew, it was only fact, and in the discussion of the movie she’d be writing for the class project, she would clearly describe the flaws she had noticed and how she would have done it.

Before heading off to the parking lot, she bought herself a cup of cappuccino at the stall in the lobby of the movie theatre. It was exorbitantly expensive, but she decided she needed it. It had been a long day, and it wasn’t over yet. Besides, she wanted to let the crowd clear first. She detested crowds.

Afterwards, stopping briefly on the way to the car, she lit a cigarette. She’d begun to dislike the habit acutely, but couldn’t make herself stop. Either she’d have to kill the fags or the fags would kill her – but not yet; not tonight. Tonight she could still drag the harsh smoke of cremated tobacco into her lungs and she wouldn’t die of it.

The parking lot was empty but for a few vehicles probably belonging to the staff of the theatre; it was almost midnight now, and they’d be closing down. She’d successfully avoided the crowd. Her car, which had been hemmed in by other vehicles earlier, now stood all by itself, a dark blob in the shadow of a huge leafy tree. She thought wryly that the birds in the branches had probably been relieving themselves on it.

Squinting through the puff of blue smoke, she noticed a man watching her. She thought she’d seen him earlier, at the coffee stall, too, He was middle-aged, quite distinguished-looking, and somehow familiar. She may have seen his picture somewhere, on TV or in the papers. He didn’t seem threatening in any way, and the only reason she even noticed him was that he was quite unmistakably looking at her. She glanced over her shoulder – no, she was alone, and he was looking at her and no one else. This was unusual for Rose, who had no illusions about her own appearance, especially when there were a hundred other women, pretty ones, all around for men to ogle.

With a mix of mild curiosity and amusement, she watched the man take half a step towards her, and then step back again, a telltale twitch of indecision in his hands. She wondered what he wanted and briefly considered waiting to hear him out. But she hadn’t the time, and was tired, and when she got back to the flat she shared with two other girls, the place she called “home”, she still had to transcribe her observations about the film while they were fresh in her mind.

No, she had no time to spare for some random man who might well be some kind of creep who got off on ugly women.

With a final look at the man over her shoulder, she turned away to her car.

As she drove away, she checked in the rear view mirror.

He was still watching her.


Over the next few days she began to see him everywhere. She would come out of her class, and before heading home would head for the grocery, and there he would be. Or she would decide on a night out with her friends, a rarity as far as she was concerned, and somehow he would be there, on the far side of the restaurant, always watching. At times she wondered whether she was somehow losing her mind, imagining that several different men were the same. But that particular worry was laid to rest when her roommate asked her who the old guy was who’d been hanging around each time they went out these days.

Every time, he just watched her. After the first night he never even showed any signs of wanting to approach her again, directly, but he was always there, with an avid gleam in his eyes. Slowly, he began edging closer and closer; at first he would be right across the cafe or grocery store, but by the end of the week he would be sitting at the next table. Always watching.

She began to dread the prospect of seeing him. Each time she went out, her eyes would rove around, and seek him. It became so bad that by the end of the second week she could only relax once she saw him; until then she would be tense, dreading his appearance. And still she couldn’t do a thing, because he had never even spoken to her, or approached her, or done anything at all that anyone could call illegal.

He was just always there.

She even began to dream about him. In the midst of trees swaying in a gale force wind, with shadows whipping back and forth as though the moonlight was being whirled about, he would be there, standing outside her bedroom window, staring. Sometimes she dreamt that she would go to him, walk up to him and demand who he was; but he always melted away when she opened her mouth. And, when she thought of doing it in real life, she could never, for some reason, summon the nerve.

One night she went for a drive, out on the highway where the road was straight and empty, jamming the accelerator down until the trees and lights blurred, until she grew dizzy with her own speed and finally slowed to a stop before she could lose control and crash in a heap of mangled metal and broken flesh. She sat there in the car, just leaning back, breathing, her eyes closed while she waited for her pulse to return to normal. And when she turned on the engine and opened her eyes, right in front of the car, in the beam of the headlights, there he was. Staring at her, his eyes black in his white face, his hands hanging limp by his thighs. Just staring.

Later she even tried to rationalise what she did in the next moment, but failed, except to tell herself she’d gone momentarily crazy. Her foot slammed down on the accelerator as she jammed the gearshift into first, and the car leaped towards the figure in the headlights, engine howling.

He didn’t even try to get out of the way. There was an explosion of noise and pain, and everything went dark.


Just sit and talk about whatever interests you,” the sculptor said.

Rose looked around the studio, moving her head carefully. Even now, almost two months after the accident, her neck hurt. She’d grown weary of being told she was incredibly lucky not to have broken it.

“You’re good,” she acknowledged. “I remember now where I’ve seen you before; I mean before this. You had your picture in the paper a while back.”

“Yes, they did a feature on me.” The sculptor’s fingers, long, tapered and delicate, worked at the clay. “I’d like to apologise...again...for scaring you like that. I never knew you’d be so disturbed.”

Rose laughed, her voice still a little shaky. “If you hadn’t actually been there that night when I crashed, I’d have died. I ought to be more thankful than I am.”

“It was just luck that I happened to be there. I was hoping to see you, but you’d driven off too fast for me to follow. I saw your wrecked car...” He bent close over the sculpture, a knife in his hand, shaping the clay. “I didn’t know it was you until I looked in the window. I’d already phoned the police by then.”

“Should I hold still?”

“No, keep moving and talking as you want. There’s a dynamic quality about you that I’ve wanted since the first time I saw you. What was the reason behind the accident? I never asked you. Did you lose control?”

“You might call it that.” Even now, she wasn’t ready to talk about the hallucination in the headlights. “I don’t remember much about it.”

“Thanks,” he said when he’d finished for the evening. “A couple more sessions and it will be done. Thank you very much.”

“I wish I could say the pleasure’s mine,” she told him, smiling slightly. “But, I just owe you.”

He smiled back at her. “I know.”


Once she had gone, the sculptor sighed and massaged his aching shoulders and neck. He had not yet fully recovered from the days and weeks of sleeplessness and starvation when he’d followed her about, watched every move of hers he could, and tried to commit them to memory. Those nights, he’d stayed up till the early hours of the morning, making effort after effort to commit the tilt of the head, the rise of the eyebrow, to clay – and failed. He’d lost count of the number of times he’d destroyed the work, and begun over again.

At last, driven to the edge of endurance, he’d known that if he had to wait any longer he’d break. He didn’t know what form the breakdown would take, but was terrified that it would include violence; that he would destroy the very thing he was seeking. He’d begun to have fantasies of kidnapping her, tying her to a chair and sculpting her, and these fantasies frightened him most of all.

Finally, gaunt and hollow-eyed, he’d given in and gone to the old woman. He’d known all about the stories that went around about her, and – unlike most people who heard those stories and passed them on, embellished – he knew something of the truth, from certain things that had happened many years ago. And it was because he knew the truth that he hesitated until he could no more, before he went to her.

The old woman lived in a small house in the oldest part of town, hiding behind a high hedge and a weed-choked garden. It seemed to the sculptor that neither the hedge nor the garden, nor, indeed, the house ever changed, down to the rainwater stains on the windowpanes. It had been just like this when he had come here, desperate, twenty years ago.

She’d known him at once, without him even needing to identify himself. She’d looked the same too, the years seeming to have had no effect on her at all. She’d stared at him expressionlessly as he’d explained what he wanted.

“This is what you want? You’re sure?”

“I am,” he’d confirmed.

“This is an unusual request,” she’d said, her eyes boring into his. “Most men would want the woman herself. I’ve never come across this particular desire before.”

“But you can fulfil it?” he’d asked, anxiously.

“I can. It will cost you, though. And it involves risk.”

“Risk? The money is not important...but what risk?”

“I can arrange it so you will have an opportunity to get what you want from her. But it will be a fleeting opportunity, and once only will it come. If you miss it, you will lose her forever.”

“I will keep a close watch on her.”

“Good,” she’d replied. “She will be yours. But there will be blood, and pain, and fear.”

And so it had turned out, in the end.

He never knew what she’d done, in that tiny house with the heavy wooden beams and the small grimy windows that hardly let in any light. She’d taken his money – up front – and shooed him away. The night after that he’d found the crashed car, and there had been blood, all over the dashboard and the seats. And, oh yes, there had been the pain, when she’d begun gaining consciousness. He’d heard her whimpering, too hurt even to scream, as they had loaded her into the ambulance.

But the fear – the fear of losing her, that had been his own. He still remembered that terror, when he cared to think of it, and how he’d turned into a kind of ghost haunting the hospital, waiting for word of how she was doing. Over and over, he’d decided he’d lost her for good.

But he hadn’t lost her. No.

Before he put the wet cloth over the bust, he looked it over. It was, quite without a doubt, going to be all he’d expected. It would surpass, in every sense, anything he had done before. The brows, the nose, the jaw, the braids falling over her shoulders; they were all as he’d visualised them. Nothing he’d ever done before came close to this; nothing he’d ever seen anywhere came close to it.

The rest was statuary, he thought, but this was life.

Two more sessions, and the sculpting should be over, and he’d be able to fire it.

He knew, now, that he would never be able to make anything again after this one. Nor would he ever show it, or sell it. He had given it all he had, and once it was over, there was nothing more.

All for art, he thought, and smiled. If there had been anyone to see it, they would not have thought it a pleasant smile.

Draping the wet cloth back over the bust, he left the studio for the night.

Copyright B. Purkayastha 2011

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