LAFFERTY’S LAST SWAN (2)

To his surprise, he found he was successful as a tramp. He had never really been successful at anything before. Of course there had been a lot to learn, but there was a long summer ahead of him and so time to learn it. He had found food, by the simple expedient of being constantly on the lookout for it. He had found it in the fields, on the trees, by smiling politely at kind-looking ladies in baker’s shops; and this was the country. How fortunate that they put places like St Asaph’s as far away from other places as possible.

When forced to enter a town he found extra clothes at charity shops. He helped out with the sorting and pricing (upstairs, out of sight), even ironing newly-laundered stock, in exchange for a few bits and pieces. He managed to keep himself more or less clean by washing in streams when in the country, in gents’ toilets and courtesy of the Salvation Army when in the town; in the sea when he happened to be at the seaside, in a charity shop ladies bathroom, once, and once in a public fountain, though briefly and after midnight, and he’d kept his y-fronts on so as not to embarrass himself or anyone else who might be passing.

At Christmas he was surprised to see a picture of himself on TV, in a chain store window. He pressed his ear to the glass and listened. The TV informed him that the corpse of a man had been found in a drainage ditch not far from St Asaph’s Hospital. It had not been possible to make a positive identification, due to the length of time the body had lain there, but it was thought to be that of the missing artist T L Lafferty. He wondered who it actually was, this man who had accidentally gifted him his freedom. He looked up at the starry sky and said a little prayer to Nothing in particular, for the soul of whoever it had been. Tomorrow he would observe the direction of movement of the sun. It was possible with the moon, of course, but she was more fickle. Both crossed the sky from east to west, but the moon varied considerably, both within its twenty-eight day cycle and with the seasons of the year. He had decided to go to Cornwall: it would be warmer.

He was happy, but after a while his new life started to feel ever so slightly unsatisfactory, as if something was missing. He found himself building piles of stones on the beach, and then arranging them, this way, that way. One autumn, in a wood near Peterborough, he sat in his home-made shelter and for something to do began to weave broken branches and vine. Then he plaited other things into the framework he had made; acorns, dead leaves and grass. He stayed there several days and added to it. At last he discovered he had made some kind of dragon, a wood dragon. He was happy. He had made something out of his surroundings; the dragon had not been there before, and now it was. But it was time to move on. He left the dragon behind.

Because it had made him happy, he did more of it. On Beachy Head at midnight he carved a modest skull-and-crossbones by hacking away at the turf with a broken dinner knife to expose the naked chalk. He did quite a succession of chalk sculptures, but when he came to the Long Man of Wilmington braced between his two sticks, which might perhaps be staves or crutches, he stood in awe. A sacred place, he decided. He would return here once a year, to give thanks. Everyone should have a place to go to, once a year, where they could know themselves to be alone in the universe and feel how small, and how vast, they were.

But he was not destined to return to Wilmington. He got sick, and when the pain began to get to him he realised it was time to return to the city of his birth one last time; the proverbial falling leaf. He had not stopped making his objects, but as time went on and the pain got more debilitating he began to limit himself to those small, easily obtainable objects, beer cans. He had watched a black kid doing it in London, cutting the cans with a strong pair of scissors and then peeling back the light steel fronds, twisting them. You could make anything out of a beer can, and it was a good excuse to keep drinking. He obtained, in fact, to be honest about it, he stole from a hardware shop, a couple of pairs of tin-snips, one straight-cutting and one right cutting (right cutting had red handles). It didn’t seem such a bad thing to do; they were only cheap ones.

He experimented with beasts of all kinds; went through an arctic phase for some reason, making polar bears and seals, and then a spell of elephants and tigers before settling on swans. He had no idea why swans, except that they were intricate, and beautiful; a real challenge to the beer can artiste. They could have their long necks lowered, or raised in a triumphant ‘S’; they could have wings spread as if for flight, folded for serene swimming, fluffed to carry cygnets. He had realised that he loved swans. He had never known it before, but had loved them, even before. He made them better, and now he made them exclusively. His life was narrowing to its final point: the city, cans and swans.

AT LAST Sylvia appeared in the top left hand pane, the missing piece in the jigsaw. He had guessed that she would be there. Her hair had become blonder, and he noticed that she was a little lined now about the face and neck. Why did this make him sad? Maybe it was the fact that even Sylvia, that most determined of women, could not by force of will alone keep herself young.

He drained the tin, shaking the last few drops onto the pavement. Removing the snips from his bag and gently unwinding them from the oiled rag he kept them in to protect them, he set to work. The laughter and the chink of glasses continued from across the road. Night fell in earnest and yellow light from the Gallery cast itself onto the road in four neat squares, slightly elongated. Somewhere in there Sylvia would be enjoying herself as the widow of the Late T L Lafferty, RA, the value of whose work, in the five years since he had died, had soared. She would probably marry again. Maybe she had done so already.

The swan, when he had made it, was his best ever. He wondered what should be done with it. He could take it with him, of course, but he didn’t have far to go now, and where he was going they would take it from him anyway; throw it away along with his plastic bag and the precious tin-snips and the spare y-fronts. And more than that, during his time on the road he had realised something about art, which was that you had to leave it behind. You made it and you loved it and you left it behind, knowing that the world was infinitesimally different because of you. Art was love, in the end, whether it had been made out of oils and canvas, from bronze or stone or from beer cans with tin-snips.

HE STRUGGLED to his feet, clawing at the wall for support, and walked across the road to place his last, and finest, swan on one of the antique gold finials of the black wrought iron fence outside the White Rose Gallery.

It was love, most powerfully of all, when you left it behind.

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