A Safe Space

Two artists consider the town they've chosen to make their home.

Image Credit: 
Public Domain

“A sharps bin?” said Leonie

“A sharps bin,” said Fenella.

The arts director of Margate’s creative collective Zealous gave a small plaintive groan, and, needing a moment, turned to gaze out over the windswept landscape. Against the muddy sky and dilapidated splendour of old Victorian townhouses, crumbling shabby into the sea, the comic book natives seemed almost camouflaged. Lumpen, misshapen, grey-faced, hunch-backed, broad of hip and squat of neck, yelling, spitting, breeding, cackling, and now, seemingly, setting fire to sharps bins, right in the doorway of their own bastard gallery.

“On opening day, too!” said Fenella, twisting Palestinian olive wood beads around her dainty, painty fingers, a nervous gesture which indicated she was coming mightily close to the end of her leash. “How could they?”

“I doubt they even knew it was opening day.”

“Yes, but that’s worse! Why don’t they know? There are posters up in all the cafes!”

“They don’t go in cafes.”

“And it’s all over twitter!”

“They don’t go on twitter either. And they’re so accustomed to things burning down, I don’t think the prospect of another shabby building buying it bothered them particularly. It was probably ten minutes entertainment, no more, no less.”

Fenella joined her at the window. Fresh from university, thin, brittle, stamped through with angst and inherited wealth. “Sort of like – performance art? Street theatre?”

Leonie frowned at this untimely effort at humour, and Fenella’s guts curdled. She looked out towards the slippy, dog-turd, beer-can coated street, wrinkling her nose. All her features were perpetually wrinkling into one another, as if they didn’t have the strength of will or presence of mind to stand alone. Eyebrows into nose, lips into chin, an anxious, melting waxwork.

In her nine month sojourn at Zealous, Fenella had developed a crush on Leonie that had burnt and grown in her shrunken breast and now threatened to spiral out of command and into the self-destructive. Her gaze sought the lean, dreadlocked figure in every bean-bagged brainstorm, to the point where others in the collective were beginning to notice and whisper. The more she tried to control her anxious, plaintive gaze, the more nervous she became, and the more she sought the calm, efficient presence of her mentor, a wretched, horny circle. She reached out for Leonie’s hand, which was gripping the windowsill, paint-spattered knuckles still visibly white, and gave it an awkward pat.

“It’s not your fault, Lei-Lei. Don’t blame yourself.”

“I’m not,” Leonie began, furious, but her crisp tones were promptly smothered under the noise of a young man being ejected from Poundland, while his chums stood round cheering. “He weren’t even fucking banned mate! You’re a fucking nob entcha!”

As one, they tried to rush the doors, while the sole chubby security guard – why are they always so chubby? – tried vainly to restrain them. Much laughing and screaming. Leonie groaned again.

“There are – so many of them. Nine, ten, in that little gathering? Might have been one of them that set the sharps bin alight, who knows? Might have been any number of others. I can’t tell them apart, can you?”

“They all look the same,” Fenella agreed, with indecent haste. “They all dress the same. They all sound the same. And yes, they might, any of them, have thought it a lark to set fire to a bin on our doorstep. We could check the CCTV, but there are no police, and anyway, as you say, they all look the same.”

“Like rats. Or cockroaches.”

“Um – well … ” Fenella thought back over her equal opportunities guidelines handbook and worried that perhaps they were venturing into unfortunate well-trodden waters. But the chance of a moment’s intimacy with her beloved was too tempting to besmirch with policy talk. Discreetly, she moved a little closer, until she could smell – was it – jasmine? Hummus? She took a great deep gasp of Leonie, inches from her ear, disguising it as a tortured sigh. Leonie twitched as her dreadlocks rustled in the resultant breeze, then slammed her glasses further up her nose.

“After all we’ve done for them. This town was a dump before we got here. A dump. Sinking into the sand. Nothing whatsoever going for it. All saggy benefit mums, arcades and KFC, not a single shop, not one. We bring culture, art, money, and what do they do? Set fire to it. I’m going.”

“No, no! Don’t go! Please! They’re not all like that, in fairness. Think of – think of Michael!”

Michael, their token local, was often held aloft before press and public as a prime example of the restorative power of sculpture. Having learnt to combine dressing ironically in top hat and cravat with his own delightful Thanetian twang, Michael was often found giving interviews about how Zealous had saved him from a life of dole handouts, tracksuits, and mediocrity.

“Michael would soon have found London if London hadn’t found him. Michael has the soul of an artist and gentleman. As to the rest of them – they wreck everything they breathe upon. And they hate us. Yes, they do! Taking over their town. As if there’d be any town to take over if it weren’t for us. How can we make them understand we did it all for them?”

Fenella made a sympathetic cooing sound and tried to think of a conciliatory vaguely political remark.

“It’s – it’s not their fault, though, is it? It’s the chronic underfunding in the arts, their shameful neglect in comprehensive education – they think art isn’t for them, it frightens them, makes them feel impotent, ashamed, so they seek to destroy it. In many ways, it’s quite an artistic response. And – and – there are more and more interesting people arriving every day, you must admit! I mean – ” as Leonie turned a steely eye upon her, “more arty, interesting sorts, you know. Who want to see the town succeed. Who’ve understood how art can – console.”

Leonie had, of recent months, become uncertain how much of a consolation art could be. Usually, on an average weekday, Leonie never doubted her own absolute importance. By being Leonie the world owed her everything, and even though the world generally paid up very little, simply by remaining Leonie she stayed perpetually its bitter, expectant creditor. While she waited, Fenella paid her reverent homage, and up to now, that had compensated somewhat for the world’s indebtedness. But a fire laid under her arty nose had sent her introspective. A failure in London, a failure in Brighton, she’d imagined Margate, surely, would yet remain in awe of her. For what was Margate but a shabby seaside backdrop for Leonie’s splendour? But Margate seemed more contemptuous than anywhere else. It wasn’t her, God knows. Her art and leadership had grown if anything more profound and lustrous over the years. Her last exhibition, Courage Creates Heat, had received numerous charming reviews in the zines, some of them hailing from as far as Folkestone. The Margate Mercury had called it a ‘timely, important response to the twin scandals of refugee camps and trafficked women’. And they should know if anyone should.

No. It was them.

And yet, she had managed to make a life here, of sorts. She turned away from the bastard town and took a deep breath of her studio space. Purple throws over ethnic wicker chairs, a home-woven rug on a polished floor, theatre posters on the walls, a large table covered with paintbrushes, bits of card, pots of glue, an easel, pieces of fabric; an ironic lava lamp, an orange chaise longue, whose erotic possibilities Fenella had spent many happy hours contemplating. And better yet, awaiting her at the end of another distressing day, her six bedroom Cliftonville home, its Victorian gate once sagging open, tongue-wagging gargoyles aloft, now clanged and stayed permanently shut, only to be accessed by remote control from inside the kitchen, its value doubled in five years. There, at least, unanswerable progress.

She muttered something about leaving pigs to wallow in their own shit, as Fenella gave a tentative, soothing stroke to her bony shoulder. How paradoxical that the young should be so annoying and unnecessary just at the time they feel their lives to be of maximum significance. Drat the wretched girl, bothering her with her feelings just as her heart and career were imploding. Fenella, unperturbed, crept closer and tried for a back rub.

“We’ll push on. You and me. We’ll make them understand. We’ll pour in more money. We’ll take over the places they go, schools, Gateway Plus, Dreamland. Yes, we will! We can and we will. We’ll bring our friends down on the weekend. We’ll begin to outnumber them. We’ll outpace them and outprice them. We’ll make them ashamed. Until, eventually, we’ll feel safe to create art here. It will be a safe space for us. That’s worth fighting for, isn’t it?”

“It’s a lovely idea, Fen.” She arched her back under the girl’s oddly powerful press. “But where do you imagine they’ll go?’

Fenella shrugged. “Where do they go? I don’t know. Who cares? Somewhere else. Back to their holes and dens and burrows, I guess. They’ll give up. They’ll get civilised or die resisting. It will no longer feel safe to be vile here. That’s when we’ll know we’ve won.” She felt Leonie’s shoulders yield a little more tension, and, confidence boosted, moved in to give her clavicle a tiny, exploratory lick. “You and me. We’ll have won.”

Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.

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