I’m not a huge fan of writing-competitions. However, because I often use artwork and sculpture as a source of inspiration, one competition I have felt compelled to enter is Inspired? Get Writing! – run annually by the wonderful National Galleries of Scotland.
For the final assignment of a Creative Writing course I took several years ago, I wrote a sequence of poems, Walking on the Water, based on the Antony Gormley statues along the Water of Leith This earned me a distinction from the OU. In the following year, one of the poems, ‘The Paraclete,’ was awarded Special Merit in the National Galleries competition.
The full sequence is due to be published by After Nyne later this year. Sadly, some of the statues of Gormley’s installation, 6 Times, have been removed for the time being; but the one behind Ocean Terminal is still there, being regularly sat on and shat on by the gulls that feature in my poem.
The following year, I received another Special Merit for a poem, also with religious connotations. ‘The Virgin’s Song’ was based on the La Vierge d’Alsace which stands in the gardens of what most people in Edinburgh still call the Dean Gallery. The poem was first ‘published’ as part of the Inky Fingers virtual Open Mic, and can now be read here.
This year, I went for ‘third time lucky’ and entered a short story. With the trams now trundling along Princes Street, I wrote a darker take on the theme of ‘traffic.’ For that reason, I used a female point-of-view to illustrate what could be seen as a ‘women’s issue.’ As well as the painting which inspired it, 'La Rue du Tramway' by Paul Delvaux, my story was based on a video produced by Stop The Traffik.
Many might say that, for one reason or another, I have no right to even comment on such things. But I am a writer and, without wishing to sound pretentious, an artist. I believe implicitly in the importance of exploring and expressing deep and sometimes dark truths about people and society.
There is a fine line between banging a drum and creating a piece of art that gives people the space to get inside the narrative and create their own reaction or interpretation. I hope this story, when it is read at the Galleries today, does the latter.
The Women in the Window
For the women in the window, it felt as if the trams would never come. The lines leading to the Docks (where their predecessors had plied their trade) had long been scrapped. Now they waited on the link to the modern Port. They were part of an industry that had, in recent years, become acceptable. There were also the “private” places in the new part of Town, although these had seen some major clamp-downs lately.
‘Damned amateurs,’ the first woman said, downing her espresso.
Lilly (not her real name), seductively tonguing the froth on her cappuccino, agreed. ‘It’s a profession without protection – literally. A boom-and-bust economy.’
‘More bust than boom,’ said Tyger (another blatant pseudonym) chuckling into her hot chocolate. Still a student, she naïvely thought herself above the other two. Vera, who went by her own name, was inevitably wiser. In their game, experience ranked above knowledge and wisdom.
‘It was ever thus,’ she quashed the student’s humour. ‘Their licences get withdrawn faster than a Catholic’s cock, but they always come bouncing back.’
‘Like protestant balls?’ Tyger enjoyed her own joke, but Vera remained dour.
‘They come and go – like their clientele. They rely on occasional bursts of activity: sports fixtures, festivals, summits, delegates from various assemblies.’
‘Don’t forget the Church,’ added Lilly.
‘I wasn’t. Without Jesus, we’d be even less legitimate.’
Tyger blew the steam from the top of her mug as she stared out of the window overlooking the gardens. It seemed to mingle in her vision with the mist that lay like a soft sheet over the city. The street rumbled sotto voce. ‘Do you really think he’d hang out in our sort of joint if he was here today?’ she asked, dreamily.
‘I know it,’ asserted Vera. ‘The Bible’s full of victims. Anyone tells you this is the oldest profession is talking bollocks. Pimps have been around longer.’
Tyger had never considered this job in the light of Vera’s implication. To her, it was pocket-money, a nudge up from what most students earned. She remembered how Vera said she’d never let her own daughter degrade herself by working in a coffee-shop. Minimum-wage-slaves, she called them. Tyger was also told that nobody would make her do anything she didn’t want to in the club, although it only took a fortnight for the floor-manager to get her to remove more than she’d first agreed.
‘I’ll tell you the truth,’ Vera continued: ‘When these damned trams are back on track, those Eastern Europeans will take your job quicker than you can take your knickers off.’
So the trams were less about transport, more about traffic. Being from the West, Tyger had heard stories of people trafficked into her city; girls as young as thirteen or fourteen – although these days it was hard to tell. Surely this was different? She asked Lilly, what drew her to the job.
‘Self-esteem, I suppose.’ Vera shot her a withering look. Lilly ignored her. ‘I had lots of body-image issues when I was younger. Flat-chested, pizza-faced, depressed. I got into dancing and – well, one thing led to another.’
‘Huh,’ snapped Vera: ‘The classic rapist’s defence.’ Tyger wasn’t sure what she meant by that. ‘One thing always leads to another: that’s how we got here in the first place. Sweetheart, don’t tell me you’ve never been propositioned, spat on, followed home or offered substances for favours?’ Lilly admitted she once had a stalker but he was harmless, just a bit sad. ‘And what did that do for your self-esteem?’ Lilly didn’t answer. So Vera started on Tyger. ‘And I bet you’ve been groped at least once since you’ve went topless?’
There was a strict “no touching” rule and, when it came to drugs, the floor-manager took a zero-tolerance policy. Tyger saw this as an indication of ethical standards, but as she concurred with Vera’s candid assessment, she wondered what else was in store. Through the panoramic window, the mist had dissipated, replaced by a thin, grey light. How had Vera stuck it out for so long – she was at least twice the age of most of the girls? ‘What about you?’ Tyger asked her.
‘It’s a job…’ Tyger waited for her to elaborate. Vera opened her bag, removed her contact and began applying lippy. It was clear she had finished the conversation. Vera’s job, to recruit, was no worse than a pimp, but based on the right to choose. To work in a regulated industry, unlike the other “sectors.” And earn decent money, provided you gave what it took.
But what did it take? And who took what?
The gentle patter of middle-class conversation continued elsewhere in the café. Three young girls in high-heel platforms tottered in. Tyger would’ve called them scrubbers at school, but who was she to talk. One of them removed her stilettos, put on her flats, and took her place behind the counter.
In their silence, the women became aware of a commotion on the street. A crowd had gathered below the window. All three took up positions in each pane. Tyger was reminded of a video she’d seen on youtube, where dancers in red-light windows were cheered on by gathering crowds. Then some kind of caption about being promised a dancing career was projected above. At the time, Tyger had thought: slags. But where had she ended up?
A tram trundled by to the sound of sarcastic applause. ‘Thank god for that,’ said Vera: ‘We might get something decent to work with.’ It was clear that this was the sign for all of them to leave. Tyger watched as Vera scanned the room and clocked the girl behind the counter. ‘What the…’ and before she added an expletive, Vera marched over and dragged the girl, by her hair, out of the coffee-shop.
‘Her daughter?’ Tyger suggested.
‘Reckon,’ said Lilly: ‘Come on.’
‘You go on – I need the loo,’ Tyger finished her cold chocolate and made for the ladies, sensing there might be a better job going behind the counter.