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author bio | spanish translation

noose and cardSTILL LIFE
by Deirdre Heddon

WORKING HER WAY DOWN THE PRESS LIST she carefully filled in the blanks on the invitations. The silver looked good against the deep black of the card. It looked expensive. It was expensive. But if not now, then when? Her twenty-eighth birthday. Fourteen days from now - the perfect length of time for the critics and their cohorts to schedule it into their events diaries. She's learnt that much over the years. Almost eighteen of them, to be precise.
      Dear Ms Robertson...
-Martha Robertson. The critic of the Scottish Tribune. She'd met her many times now, at various events, but for some reason Ms Robertson could never remember her name. It had become embarrassing. 'Yes, of course I remember you. It's...' Jane. - Jane. Jane. Jane. Hardly a difficult name to remember. But maybe that was the problem. Maybe she should have changed it a long time ago. To Xavier, or Carmelita or Dominique. Or at least Jayne with a y - then she could have said 'It's Jayne - with a y.' Maybe that would have made all the difference. Still, what she was about to do was far more radical than merely changing her name.
      Dear Ms Robertson
      You are cordially invited to celebrate...
She remembered that tenth birthday - an extra special day because it heralded her entry into double numbers and her first step towards independence. With five pounds in her purse and a five pee piece tucked into her coat pocket, (telephone number written on the back of her hand - just in case), she'd been sent off into the city, unaccompanied for the first time.
      A whole five pounds. She'd never had so much money. She'd always thought it was unfair having a birthday so close to Christmas, but this year she could probably buy presents for her mum and dad and herself. Struggling with her arithmetic she saw a large circle of people forming in the centre of the street, and pushed her way through the legs to the front of the group. She couldn't believe her innocent eyes. Above was a dark, grey sky threatening to soak her. Around were tall menacing buildings waiting to gobble her up. But here, right here, was a square of green grass, covered over with at least a thousand potted plants - more plants even than the Botanicals. And slap bang in the middle of them was a woman in a red rocking chair, wearing a huge purple dress. Like a film star. 'Christ, ah hope ma tax's are no payin' for this crap.' 'Aye, wouldn't we all like tae sit in a garden of bloody floors instead of haem' tae work in a proper job?' 'Is she famous?' she asked one of them. 'Famous? I would doubt it. She's an artist. Apparently.' Dismal dreich Sundays spent in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery flashed into her mind, the dead eyes of Highland Chiefs and aged stags staring down at her. 'An artist? She's not painting though?' 'Exactly. Bloody con-artist.' She looked at the blooming rainbow in front of her. The woman rocking in the chair. It was all so beautiful. An artist! Splashing real, live colours around. Here, in the middle of Sauchiehall Street, in the middle of December. It was a miracle, that's what it was. A birthday miracle - made just for her. And she knew at that moment that she was going to be special, different, with the world at her feet looking up in awe.
      'Blow out all the candles and make a wish,' her mother had coaxed her when she'd returned laden with packets of flower seeds and a watering can. So she had. And she'd been making the same wish ever since. Suffering was what being an artist was all about. She accepted that. But she already had seventeen 'I wish to be an artist's, and wondered how many more she had to collect? And how many more sacrifices she was expected to make? Some sacrifices, it's true, were accidental. But all, every single one, were gained in the name of art. Her bald head gleamed as a testimony to her 1994 piece 'Hair Palette' - when she'd dyed her hair a different colour each week, for a year and then, of its own accord, it had died completely - with an i, not a y. Her eyebrows, or the empty space where they used to be, issued a feminist statement about leg shaving. The scars on her arms evidence of the fact that 'We All Bleed' - a message presented during her brief dabble in razor art. He'd lost his ear, she'd lost her pinky - fodder for the chain saw when she'd tried her hand at wood sculpting.
      The suffering wasn't only physical though. There was her criminal record, for a start. All she'd been trying to do was brighten Glasgow up a bit. The logo said 'Glasgow's Miles Better', so where was the harm in painting big yellow smiles on all of the otherwise grey and humourless statues that populated the city? The judge didn't get the point though. Obviously not a judge of aesthetics. City of Culture, indeed! Six years later and she was still suffering financially for that piece - four pounds a week at the means tested court. And the smiles had been wiped off before anyone had even noticed. That was the problem. No one noticed anything she did. Acceptance was surely just a matter of time though. A lot of the great artists weren't even discovered until they were already twelve feet under. Her day would come.

She swallowed the first bitter taste of rejection before she'd even digested that tenth birthday cake. 'An artist!' her mother had shouted, when she'd found the birthday girl sowing seeds into the bath filled with buckets of soil dug up from the communal garden. 'The only artists in your family are piss-artists. There's a long tradition of them. And it wouldn't surprise me if that's where you end up.' After that blow she'd kept her dreams to herself, harbouring a secret future that consisted of more than whisky bottles. Until, that is, the day her headmaster had suspended her from school when she'd turned up with a safety pin through her nose. Raising the issue of individual expression he'd responded by saying his expression was more important than hers - his expression being 'Go home and don't come back until you're fit to be seen.' As a graphic protest she'd covered her entire school uniform in safety pins until it resembled a coat of armour and adamantly refused to remove the one from her nose, thus forfeiting her education. Cutting her nose off to spite her face, her mother had said. 'Anyway,' she'd tried to reason with her parents, 'for an artist, the University of Life is the more appropriate place to study.' At which point she was told to go and live in the halls of the University of Life. Eleven years later and still no degree in sight. But this was to be her finals piece - her pièce de resistance.
      The last invitation - Dear Mr Tipton - the curator of SAD (Scottish Art and Design). She couldn't wait to see Mr Tipton's face when he realised he'd let a modern day genius slip through his greasy fingers by returning her last proposal with a blood red rejection stamped across its title.
      For fourteen days she worked unceasingly on her project, utilising all the skills she had amassed over the years. Waking with the dawn on the morning of the twelfth, she showered and cleansed her body. Then she stepped into the black velvet gown made entirely by hand - simple lines which accentuated her artist starved figure. It was time to begin her journey. She started the ignition of the hired black car - which had cost an arm and a leg and a good many lies to procure. But it was worth it. It felt just right. And at twenty miles an hour it drove like a dream. Fixing her facial expression to suit the solemnity of the occasion, she resisted the impulse to wave at anyone who, out of respect for the passing hearse, gave her the right of way.
      At George Square she opened the boot of the vehicle and carefully pulled out the black, oak finished coffin, depositing it underneath the twenty foot Christmas tree. It was a beautiful coffin, lined in a plush red velvet that matched her lipstick. Dead centre of the lid was a gold plaque, bearing the engraving 'Jane McDuff'. Next, she retrieved the aluminium stepladders from the hearse and opened them out in front of the tree. Lifting the lid from the coffin, she removed a dark, wooden frame and suspended it around the trunk of the tall fir. Finally, she uncoiled a long, thick rope, climbed up the ladders and threw a ready-made loop over the star crowning the Christmas tree. Standing on the top step of the ladder, she tied the other end of the rope around her neck.
      The City Chambers clock struck behind her. The anointed hour. She looked down from her perch. No sign of anyone. Better give them at least ten minutes. They wouldn't want to appear too keen. Most likely they were all snuggled up in the Coppie Hotel across the way, sipping festive Bloody Marys and Virgin Nectars. She looked around from her vantage point up high. The fairy lights on the leafless trees attempted to disguise their nakedness, as if a few lights could magically brighten up the dark winter air. Their winking on and off was more like a flashing of their private parts.
      She looked down again. This time there was a solitary figure sitting on a bench in front of her, staring up. Not a reviewer, she surmised, unless the torn, mud-caked jacket was the latest in street vogue. She glanced at the tower clock. 9.2Opm. Bloody hell. Not even an invitation to her deathday brought them out. What did they want? Bugger them. She'd had enough. She'd do it for herself. Taking a deep breath, she kicked the stepladders from under her and felt her body fall down the length of the tree then stop with a sudden jerk. Her calculations had been spot on. The frame framed her perfectly. The coloured bulbs decorating the branches lit up her face and body. It must have looked wonderful. She wished she'd organised a photographer. The rope around her neck was getting tighter. Not long now.
     She heard a noise. From below. About ten people looking up. More joining. Fifteen. Twenty. Clapping. Shouting. Nodding their heads. Pointing. Smiling at each other. It had cost her her life, but she'd finally done it. She'd been taken seriously. Getting tighter. Her mouth could no longer sneak any air into her body. The rope had sealed off her lungs completely. She felt the blood pumping around her brain. Her eyes were beginning to water. She peered at the people below. Tried to recognise faces. None. She saw no one she knew. She blinked her blurring eyes. Shabby hair. Clothes worn and ripped. Thin, pale faces. The odd bottle protruding from bulging pockets. Then voices struggled up, seeping into her ears. She closed her red eyes. Tried to block out the sound of her own trapped blood which was threatening to drown her. 'Exactly how I feel. Rain. Snow. Cold. There's nothing bloody merry about it.' 'Season of goodwill my arse. Too busy spending it tae part wae it.' 'Loneliest time of the year. Nae faimly, nae home, sod all.' 'She's good, eb? Says it like it is.'
       Christ! This was it. She was actually saying something important. Something universal. From her heart. Her self. Communicating. She realised she suddenly had so much to say. And hear. She couldn't die now. 'Not yet, please, not yet.' Her starved lungs were telling her otherwise. The thudding in her head a descending death march - D-dead, D-dead, D-dead. Her brain was going to explode. She forced her eyes open. Not critics. People. People applauding her. She wanted to laugh. To breathe life. Keeping her eyes on the faces below she told her foggy brain to move her arms, willing her muscles to work. 'A little bit, a little bit, come on. For me. Work for me.' She felt the rough rope between her numbing fingers. 'Please, please, don't give up.' She tensed her arms and pulled. Her body moved, slowly, but enough for the rope to slacken off slightly. She opened her mouth and gulped deeply from the damp air, sending oxygen rushing through her body, defusing its state of emergency. She slackened off the noose, removed it from her neck and let go, the interior of the coffin cushioning her fall. The crowd gathered around her to shake her hand.
      'You must be cold hen, hanging around out here in yer fancy dress. Hae a wee snifter.' She lifted the proffered bottle to her lips, sending the burning spirit to warm up her limbs and free her circulation. Hah! Piss-artist indeed.
      'What's next?' an old woman questioned.
      'What would you like to see?' Jane asked her.
      'The art of survival,' the woman said without any hesitation. 'How you've just got to keep on going, in the hope that tomorrow will be better than today.'

© 1998 Deirdre Heddon                                             spanish translation
This electronic version of "Still Life" is published by The Barcelona Review by arrangement with the author. This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.
Deirdre HeddonDeirdre Heddon was born in Oban, Scotland but has recently moved to Devon where she is a lecturer in Drama at the University of Exeter and is currently completing her PhD on women and performance art. She has previously written two community stage plays which have toured in Scotland and in 1995 her short story, ‘Laughing Matter’, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as part of the 'First Bites' competition. ‘Still Life’ was a winner of the Ian St James Awards. You can e-m@il the author at: D.E.Heddon@exeter.ac.uk

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