ALEXANDER BAISDEN could make things with his hands, and when he was five years old constructed one day out of lego an entire human body. It wasn’t life size, of course, not even the size of a child – but it still stood so tall that when he fashioned the head Alexander had to stand on a stool to put the yellow blocks in place, his mother holding the stool all the while to keep him safe. They’d run out of lego before he’d even finished making the torso, and Alexander cried until mother found him more (and mother thought there was something unsettling about that half-finished body stood there in the lounge, she was quite eager for him to finish it too) – she went to four different neighbours and begged them for use of any spare lego their children might have, Alexander ‘was creating again’. And it took him hours and hours, but by teatime the little man was finished, and it was extraordinary realistic considering that he was made out of hundreds of brightly coloured oblong blocks with sharp edges. And Alexander had left holes in place for the eyes, and a bigger hole for the mouth, and two little ittle holes for the nostrils, you had to look hard to see them. When Alexander’s father came home from work he said he’d had too hard a day to worry about children’s games, and besides it was blocking his view of the television – so he smashed the little man up. And it was the first time that Alexander’s mother realised how much she really loathed her husband, and she began to weep, and despised herself for weeping. Alexander himself wasn’t bothered at all. And that night in bed she asked him why he didn’t care, why he didn’t mourn for something into which he’d poured so much love and attention. And he stared at her and his face was so drained of emotion, and she thought her little artist looked so much like his father after all. And said, “It was finished. On to the next.”

 Alexander moved on to papier mache, and to clay; as a teenager he began chipping at slabs of stone and making people out of it, starting at the legs and moving upwards to the head, and each statue he produced seemed real, the limbs set in snapshot positions as if they’d been caught unawares, and their faces thoughtful or awkward or calm. His mother would sometimes look for herself in those faces, but it she were there she could never recognise it. She asked her son why he had such a fascination with recreating the human form, and Alexander wouldn’t know how to answer questions like that. He didn’t know how to deal with living people – he hid away any time one of them came into the house, and if he were cornered  by one he couldn’t look it in the face, he’d go red, he’d start to stammer and sweat. His mother could understand that. She hadn’t much time for people either, not after she’d left her husband getting into the car that night with little Alexander and driving off far away where she hoped he’d never find her – men alarmed her, and women too, she preferred the ones Alexander made in the garage, they never expected anything of her, they never expected her to justify herself, they never offered sympathy. And it didn’t matter she lived alone with her grown son – he was all big now, but still such a little boy – now past his teens, now past his twenties, now forty-three and balding – he was man enough for her, he was all she needed.

 When his mother was taken to hospital Alexander didn’t know what to do. He ate breakfast cereal when he was hungry, and the rest of the time stared out of the window hoping she would soon be home. When the phone rang the first few times he didn’t answer it – he didn’t like phones – anyone could be lurking on the other end, and they didn’t have faces, why wouldn’t they show their faces? But it kept on ringing, that stubborn old phone he hated so much, and he couldn’t block it out, so he picked up the receiver, found the words to speak a hello. He was told his mother wouldn’t be coming home. Alexander didn’t know what to say to that. So he said nothing at all. And he broke the connection. And kept the phone off the cradle in case the bad woman called again, he didn’t want her killing his mother any more, and he ate some more cereal, and the milk he poured on top went all chocolatey, and his mother didn’t like it if he ate too much of the chocolatey, but he didn’t suppose she’d mind this once.

 That night he got up and went to the garage. He began to work. A lifesize statue might usually take a month to sculpt. By dawn he had made three boys, one girl, and a slightly effete lanky man. He didn’t pause. He worked through the day as well, and through the next night, stopping only for quick breakfast cereal breaks; and by now he was knocking out the main bodies in minutes flat, it was as if as he hit the stone he was merely exposing a flesh that had always been beneath, there was no effort to legs, to arms, to chest, they had all been there waiting for Alexander like long lost friends – it was only in the faces that he took his time, and the expressions he chiselled out surprised him. Some were laughing (what did they have to laugh about?), some were smiling (why did they want to smile?), one little fat boy with a face that was gargoyle ugly bulged out his eyes and let his mouth droop open in a wide ‘o’ of astonishment.

 Alexander worked four days and four nights, until, exhausted, he finished. He had no more facial expressions to offer. The statues he made now stared out blankly. And he looked about and saw that was the progress he had been making all those long hours – the early examples had faces contorted with so much emotion, and now that had all been drained away, now the statues hadn’t even got the energy to look vaguely interested. Try as he might he couldn’t get one more ounce of grief or passion into them – they were really just stone. He had sculpted fifty-seven complete statues, the whole crowd of them staring out without seeing him. “It’s finished,” he said out loud, “on to the next,” and he couldn’t guess what this next might be, but knew that he would never sculpt again. And he opened up the garage so that his children were for all to see, and he left home.

*

 Of a dark summer evening, still so warm that any breeze was welcome, when the heat of the day had been absorbed into the water and transformed into something smooth and snug and new – then, it was to the swimming pool they would go. It wasn’t a good pool, just a rubber thing bought at Argos, but it was theirs, and no one could find them in it. And it was there that they could be together, and there’d be no more arguments, in fact no talking at all; he’d lean back, and he’d feel at peace, and didn’t feel any guilt in that peace – and she’d close her eyes tight, she wouldn’t look at him, but at least she wasn’t blaming him, at least she was prepared to share the same space, the same water, same warmth. And with her eyes squeezed so tight, there was no way any tears could leak out.

 One day she said she wanted to buy a ‘feature’ for the pool. Something that would make it grander, disguise that essential rubberness. He protested a bit, saying that people never bothered to dress up swimming pools – but she used the word ‘feature’ a lot for days whenever she spoke to him, and he remembered what the doctor had said, that any new project she might latch on to would be a positive thing, that he should be encouraging. So they went to the garden centre. They bought two stone statues. She chose them. One was a gargoyle, his ugly mouth carved open as a quizzical little ‘o’. The other was a Greek goddess; the shop assistant didn’t know which goddess, one of the pretty ones.

 She had him position them at either end of the pool edge, so they’d be staring at each other. “Good,” she said. “That’s good, that’s lovely.” And she thanked him. And then went back inside, back to the bedroom, back to where she could close shut the door on him and keep him out.

 She cooked the dinner, and he did the washing-up. And they waited quietly for the sun to set. Then they got changed into their bathing costumes, and went out into the garden.

 She clicked her tongue in irritation.

 “The statues have fallen in,” she said. “You probably put them too close to the edge, look. Get them out before the water ruins them.” He reminded her that they were designed to stand outside in all weathers, the water wouldn’t harm them. “The chlorine, then, what do I know? Just get them out.”

 The goddess was on her plinth, staring out into the middle distance. It looked as if she’d turned her back on the gargoyle, whose quizzical ‘o’ mouth looked both surprised and hurt.

 The water made the statues heavy, it had soaked right in. It was hard for him to get a grip, he had to put his fingers right inside that quizzical ‘o’ to gain purchase. By the time he had lugged the goddess out of the pool as well, his wife had given up waiting, she’d gone back inside.

 The next day, when he came home from work, she was waiting for him. She didn’t do that any more, and his heart leaped at the sight of her. She was angry, true – but that was good too, because she didn’t show anger any more either, she didn’t show anything.

 “I think it’s the bloody kids next door,” she said. She took him straight out to the garden. This time the statues were in the pool side by side. The goddess was turned to the gargoyle, her hands raised either in rebuff or welcome. The gargoyle couldn’t tell which; the gargoyle looked confused; that ‘o’ of his giving away his poor male stupefaction.

 “I’m going to have to complain to the parents,” his wife said. “The chlorine is damaging them. Look.” And he had to agree, you could already see where the stone was discoloured, it was getting pinker. She went indoors to telephone the neighbours, and he stripped down to his underpants, he got in to the water. It was so cool, and yet so warm – so refreshing – and he wondered why they never bathed in the daylight, this was great, what were they scared of? Once again he heaved the statues out into the dry. It seemed easier this time. Maybe his arms were stronger with all this exercise, he thought. Maybe it was because the stones seemed softer, and yielded under his grip.

 That night, as he slept next to his wife, he felt her toss and turn. She’d never move, usually she lay there like a dead weight. She got up. She went to the window, looked out on the garden and the night. He pretended he was still asleep. He didn’t want to disturb her.

 *

“It’s disgusting,” she said.

 They stared down into the pool. The statues were wrapped around each other. The gargoyle was so excited he didn’t know what to do with his hands, the goddess had to steer him. They’d both found a use for that ‘o’ of his, her tongue fitted inside just right.

 He didn’t know what to do, but it was a hot evening, so very hot. He got into the pool.

 “I’m not going in there,” she said. “Not with them.”

 “There’s plenty of room for all of us,” he said. She shook her head. But it really was so hot. She harrumphed and got in too.

 She tried her usual trick, she closed her eyes tight to the world. But now they were all in the pool together, she couldn’t help but look. The gargoyle wasn’t a gargoyle at all – he was a teenage boy, not a handsome lad, but his new girlfriend didn’t care, his girlfriend made him feel handsome, he snogged away at her with such pride. And she, she wasn’t such a goddess. She was better than that.

 The man took his wife’s hand. He pulled her closer.

 “I can’t,” she whispered. With her pleading eyes. “Not with them, watching.”

 “They won’t care.”

 “But she looks.” She fought out the words. “She looks just like.”

 “I know,” he said. “But Angie’s gone.” And then, contradicting himself. “Angie’s watching, but she doesn’t mind.”

 And they kissed. And she closed her eyes tight, but this time it wasn’t to shut him out – it let him in, he was let in.

 And I would tell you that they made love then. Right under the stars. That he took her, and she responded – or, better still, that she took him, suddenly realising she had such hunger in her, a hunger for closeness and passion and all the things she’d become numb to – that the water splashed about them softer than any bedding – that they said they loved each other, cried out their love – that the gargoyle and his goddess girlfriend watched, applauded them, egged them on. But they didn’t – and they didn’t. But there was kissing, and kissing was a start.

 The heat of that night blazed away all the water, every last drop of it. And by the morning the two statues were left clinging to each other in their nakedness, and they didn’t know, they didn’t need to know anything.

 *

All fifty-seven of Alexander Baisden’s statues were sold by a local garden centre. Fifty-five of them have behaved themselves, and their owners are very happy with them.

 

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