PICK’S MODEL by DF Lewis
Self-exorcism was tantamount to suicide, but Pick really had no choice. Unable to shake off the sounds, he allowed them to ring inside his head. Echoes garbed in bone. Meaning beyond what was actually heard - each blown-up ratchet of noise being a relentless ritual he could not escape. It was as if he were a child castigated for not forgetting the poem which had been learnt too painstakingly.
One way or another, Pick was determined to proved he existed. His girl often tried to comfort him by whispering sweet nothings in his ear. But, lacking the conviction of her actions, she failed to put her mouth where her words were. To Pick, she was a ghost pulling invisible shrouds around him like hissing silk. Pick's youth, although never-ending at the time, was now too many years in the past. He still recalled, however, when he and his mates sneaked into the local flickering Fifties fleapit ... with the assistance of Pick's Uncle Bob which entailed releasing the ratchet bar from inside the emergency exit - to reveal, yes, an X Certificate film! A film for adults only! The blood began to race as the body took fire from the horror that stirred the brain. The forbidden nature of the activity was probably responsible for such excitement, rather than the prospect of the film itself but, whatever the case, Pick felt literally more alive ... as if he were a vampire awaiting a friendly ghoul to release him from the confines of childhood's tomb.
The mask was identical to the face Pick wore beneath it.
"Masks are intended to be uglier than your own face. No point otherwise - especially at a Hallowe'en party."
I once said this to Pick with a tongue in my cheek, as I knew he knew I knew his real face was nothing to write home about - and it would probably scare strangers a rather shitty green - particularly those strangers of the gatecrasher persuasion.
It wasn’t Hallowe'en, in any event.
"OK, OK, joke's over," insisted Pick. "You'll be laughing the other side of your own face before the evening's finished."
If I hadn't known Pick better, I'd've suspected something sinister in that loosely veiled threat. I could've even believed he wasn't joking.
The garden shed leant towards the house. Pick’s weekend guests had departed, leaving him nothing but time ... and a large rambling edifice of a house that he could not ever hope to fill with merely his own meagre existence.
The newspapers were still delivered, each too much to read. One organ boasted a headline too tasteless for belief: "FOOTBALL FANS RECALL THEIR DEAD." Pick had crazy, unforgiveable visions of corpses between those still alive, hanging like filled washing: pitiful puppets jerking amid the swaying chants.
The older Pick threw the paper into the fireplace, wishing it were not such a sticky spring.
The actual images on the cinema screen were always a disappointment to the young Pick. They were unconvincing, blurred, one-dimensional and, above all, not horrible enough. Mental arithmetic at school was far horribler by half...
Despite the woodenness of the acting, Pick could live with the disappointment. After all, he was with his mates (of whom I numbered one), all of us wrapped up in horseplay and bubble gum, chatting through the tedious 'marrying-bits' on the screen, pinching each other's bottoms to see if life was really a dream and, finally, the bursts of raucous laughter threading this Fifties' version of GROSS-OUT and SPLATTER
We had parties at other places, too. Pick and I, let it be said, were not gatecrashers, but, admittedly, it was a friend of afriend of a flatmate thrice removed who was holding the party in King's Langley and was doubtless not expecting us. We'd heard at least the smidgeon of an echo of a rumour that "everybody" was invited. So here we were, climbing off the great M25 ringway in Pick's jalopy. Neither of us had been North of Watford before and we were eager to discover whether there was indeed life up there - as the saying went. We knew there would be a soupçon of a shred of dubious evidence that there would be life up there, but it didn't stop us chortling on the joke beyond its rather tenuous funniness, whilst the elastic band inside Pick's jalopy finally unwound, bringing us to an unceremonious halt in the car park of the Rose and Crown pub, where many of the guests would be tanking up in readiness for the long night's party ahead.
I turned to Pick and kidded him about all the badges he was wearing on his Albanian Flapjacket. I think he must've belonged to every club and society going, including both the Foxhunters and the anti-Bloodsports association.
Well, Pick was once born into a Northern industrial town, from a family whose babies already emerged from the womb with coal-black faces. He soon learned to fade into the background; the school blackboard was suitable for such self-denial. The family had so many upturned faces yearning for the food ladle, just one child was never missed: and that one never missed was Pick. The teachers, too, could hardly keep control nor count, by rule or under thumb, so one child less was neither wholly here nor there.
Although budding child artists drew chalk around Pick's shape upon the blackboard, as if investigating a whodunnit, the teacher soon rubbed it off; thus, the period became double history where all that was important was the fading past...
Now, "grown-up", Pick is amused and intrigued by memory of the far-off Fifties. He had been a right pondweed, then. But, he should remember at least one particular film, from which even Uncle Bob had to run out in sheer fright.
The day had started cloudy, with just an inch or two of dawn squirming along the far edge of the sea, like a giant orange tape-worm. Kites tried to tug kids upwards from the cliff-top. Pick walked along the promenade, weaving between the crippled deck-chairs, his mates no doubt already congregating around the fleapit's backdoor.
Amazing how daft the cinema manager must have been. What was the manager’s name? Oboff?
Pick and I went straight to the party north of Watford, one which started out a rather drab affair. Even the strobe lighting in the room dedicated to disco dancing was about as limp-wristed as my next door neighbour's dead mother.
Pick and I carried out a few desultory jigs together, a preparatory jab of the hindlegs, but the hotel foyer muzak was not exactly conducive to a real shake-out. On top of this, there were next to no birds. Even Alfred Hitchcock's film had that Tippi Hedren going for it. Unless, of course, there was a room upstairs into which any chicks had packed like kids in a Sardines game to escape Pick's ugly mask.
Every guest at the shindig wore trousers and hugely dated floral kipper-ties. Not one badge between them. Not even one backslapping howdyado from a hale and hearty host, eager to make his guests feel less ill at home.
Eventually, Pick gave me the nod. Back along the M25, to see if we could catch up on a bit of real nightlife in more familar territory. We felt like fish out of water or rats without tails, or at least I did. Pick, well, he was just Pick, as inscrutable as ever. We walked off the dance floor and thus from the limelight of the small torch which the DJ was flashing upon us from his console plinth.
Another day, another world. There had been a girl staying with Pick in that large house with a shed. Pick was sure she must have left her spirit behind, to test him with taunts. He had criticised her enjoyment of modern paintings. In fact, he must have fancied her, because he felt the uncontrollable need to monopolise her company, even if it were to argue the toss about Mondrian and Klee. Munch's Shout. Jackson's Pollock. And episodes painted in words.
Her face was blotched with too much sun - the garden here getting it the whole day round, as if on some shuttling equator. Perhaps, at night, Pick dreamt the vertical sun...
Pick told her that a blown-up colour photograph of her face would not look out of place on one of the Tate Gallery walls, between a Bacon and a Braque. Equally, she would have been the ideal model for Picasso in his more cubist period. Needless to say, she had not relished his chat-up line.
Pick recalled the face of Mr Oboff quite well, someone who was often to be found playing the amusements in the pier arcade or chatting with the flat-capped man in the booth who sat behind copper-penny towers of loose change. The amusement machines included "Allwins", where silver ball-bearings rattled round a vertical display in the hope of slotting into the "win" hole rather than those "lose" ones which outnumbered the "wins" - a bit like life, really, Pick mused. Spindly cranes that, despite all the skilful jiggery-pokery in the world, could never grip the pack of cigarettes with a ten bob note wrapped round it. The penny slot clockwork ghost-houses where skeletons popped out of various cupboards to scare the pants off you.
Suddenly, at that almost forgotten party north of Watford, Pick and I were accosted by a bright young spark who called himself Aretha Franklin.
"That's a funny name for someone who looks as if he's just walked out of one of Hitler's gas-chambers."
In saying that, Pick did not make it clear whether he meant a victim or an usher or even an usherette.
"Hark who's talking. With a face like that..." - Aretha pointed at Pick's mask - "I bet your face wouldn't win a beauty contest against my arse."
I looked quizzically at Aretha's backside, but could find no clue as to why he (Aretha) had made such an outrageous statement. Pick’s arse was a sight for sore eyes in its own right.
Pick was standing no nonsense from the likes of the Northern upstart and he immediately swiped a hefty kick at Aretha's arse.
"That'll change the odds somewhat - I hear judges don't like bruises on the merchandise."
Or that's what Pick would have said, given half the chance, since, in the event, his leg was left stuck up at right angles, the foot sunk to its ankle between Aretha's buttocks where the trouser seat had disappeared with the merest ripping noise, leaving the weltering cheeks literally to munch up towards Pick's calf. I tried to steady my friend as he hopped precariously on his free leg.
As the others watched this amazing fandango in which we were participating, I noticed the arrival of the Bad Crowd. Every bash has got to have one, even those further South have their fair share of Bad Crowds. But this lot was the worst I'd ever seen. Plug Uglies to the bone. Undergrunts to the letter. Pick's real face was not even in the same league. They seemed particularly horrendous from the contrast with the the female gender they actually wielded. Fresh from girl talk, no doubt, in that Ladies Room I'd imagined earlier, they waved red-stained panties as if this were some preliminary to a mating-dance.
As soon as Pick was old enough in the tooth to leave his family home, he left a note in the ticking parlour: 'Never coming back - Pick.' He never questioned the fact. Nor did those who managed to read it. How could they mourn the passing of one who had never arrived in the first place?
The school closed its gates with a resounding clang. Not enough teachers. Not enough pay. Those who remained, they huddled in the staff room like old dufflecoats. Some even crawled into the dark mine tunnel at the blackboard's maw. Absent kids clambered back through the barred windows and marked themselves into the mouldy registers. Then snuck under the desks, rather than have to watch the black-turning wheels that lowered their fathers and elder brothers to the coal-face: golden sunshafts spinning, slicing slowly between the spokes from the sky's screaming edge. Coal-mine cranes and pleasure piers were not the closest of bed-fellows. I wondered if Pick had concocted those tales of his youthful days by the seaside...
Meanwhile, dark infant shapes imperceptibly silted into the floorboards as spilt ink would.
Mr Oboff often chatted to young Pick about Life, the Universe and the future arrival of electronic games to the arcades. Little did he know that Pick was one of those kids who infiltrated his theatre to watch X films. Mr Oboff was a big man, with a beer barrel that squatted in his belly and with a beard even bigger than Uncle Bob's tussocky one. Mr Oboff loved his picture house. He showed Pick his green worms, which he used in fishing from the pier. And another worm which he didn't.
To come clean, Pick's really my alter ego - despite his face. And I'm his. Onanism made manifold. My jalopy could only carry one person at a time, in any event. Aretha Franklin wasn't all that bad looking, despite my earlier misgivings - and most of the Bad Crowd eventually skulked off churlishly, a trifle crestfallen, back to the Ladies Room where they could exercise feminine logic and exchange sanitary pads for face-packs.
I had a tinge of a fling with Aretha, but I soon trundled South alone, guided by the stars and the M25 lights.
Pick found us already mustering at the back door of Oboff's cinema. I was listening to a wasp I had trapped in a matchbox. But then the emergency bar slipped and Uncle Bob ushered us in with a finger pressed to his lips. We scuttled on all fours to the front row and slouched in the tip-down seats so that our heads could not be spotted from the back.
The lights dimmed, as if on cue. Excitement was keeping the bellowing laughter inside. The wrinkly custard-yellow drapes slid sluggishly aside to reveal a towering off-white screen, still bearing the faint blotch of a thrown ice cream from a generation before. We were so close to the screen, our necks ached with peering up at the gigantic black and white faces.
Now she has gone, along with all the other guests, Pick moved from room to room, only to find her spirit had gone to the next room along. The sounds lived on ... in the cellar ... in the attic ... in the boarded-up rooms ... even in the shed. It was as if he were his own past. He could not shake off its fading clutch. And sounds meant more than words.
Young Pick was off to the Big Smoke, becoming a silent cog in a vast meaningless machine. Shining face bobbed behind a new desk, one with screens and buttons, speaking-tubes and filing-clips. Known as a clerk: inadvertently discovering viral blanks in programmes and enigmas in aborted dreams.
Pick speaks to her now, in the same voice as she spoke to him: the timbre raised one notch: the meaning down: the passions dulled. Her cutting-edge is only to be expected, following his ill-considered remarks about her pointilliste face. He meant them kindly, however. But the words come out in cruel order. He thought she liked modern art. Its challenge. Its unstickability. Its collage of nightmares. Why was she so upset, then, about her face being compared to modern art?
Pick looked down at feelers and saw them drip: so much melting flesh and bone. Pick's father had chipped inside the Earth to pay Pick's keep: simply for this?
Whether an even younger Pick dozed off in the cinema that day because his mates were unusually down in the dumps, or because the X film was especially lack-lustre, he cannot now recall. But he woke up with a start, to discover the screen still flickering. He squinted to make out where the tenuous story-line had led. Incredibly, he was shocked to decipher the hugefaces of Uncle Bob, of Mr Oboff and of his mates - faces that reached from the littered floorboards to the high angel carvings of the mock-gilt auditorium - faces that were groaning slo-mo orders at him - faces with slimy green worms crawling over them. But, surely, the film was in black and white.
Pick never returned to Oboff's fleapit. Uncle Bob slid from his life without making it too obvious. His mates (me included) grew up faster and quickly vanished on ventures that were quite beyond his own ambitions. And the grown-up version of Pick is hooked on electronic amusements, juddering with the joy-sticks - with most of his skull engulfed by a pure blackness whence not even a lobotomy could free the mind. He remembered those huge faces on the screen when he saw, many years later, the Bad Crowd and a white-bottomed simian calling itself Aretha Franklin.
The grey matter of his brain had by now turned a noxious green colour ... with a stench, thankfully, to which the nose was noticeably immune. Some say Oboff is every filthy creature in every modern splatter film. Of course, he is now shrunk within televisions and home videos, arcade games and computer screens, these having taken over from street amusements like hopscotch & hide-and-seek ... and taken over, too, from those wondrous black & white days of childhood when fear was delicious and even one's own cinemascopic dreams had X Certificates. But Pickarso, who was he?
Pick shrugs. Reaching the top of the house - or the nearest to the top without removing shutters - he gazes down into the garden where she once prettily sat ... amongst all those others whose names he now forgets. The garden shed's shadow moves. The sun stays still, like the moment.
Underwear he’s hung on the line: it twitches sporadically, as if gathering for some form of life as lift-and-separates.
Hearing another's fumble at the shutter, he leaves for yet another room. The sounds are joy, the sounds are pain, and who can hope interpret them? Like all modern art, the meaning is lost and so, thankfully, purged. Forgotten like the shapeless world.
Pick would force himself back into existence come hell or high water. He had lost the pretty girl with the sweet way of whispering to herself of ghosts and lost love. If only she'd had her wits about her at that strange weekend house party, she might have learned why he called her by my name. Even the address was a blur, although he hoped I'd recognise the leaning shed - if I happened to pass it in the street - or if I felt that peck on the cheek once more - or the brushstroked pubes.
The screen on my office desk was a pointilliste dream of evil green pixels. Insurance or accountancy data tracing an electronic audit trail to form the cubist outline of Oboff's face. I then dashed to the loo to change my mask as well as my pad - a sanitary place where soul musak in the pipes was worse than silent - and always there like white noise.
North/South and Past/Future are the coordinates of sleep ... but Night has hidden cranes to pick us, pluck us from our beds.
"Life is a cross of pleasure piers in surrounding black seas..." Rachel Mildeyes (OF ALTER EGOS AND ALIBIS)