Olga, December '76
Not so much as a postcard for three years, then she phoned me at eight one morning to say that they’d tied a pig to Battersea Power Station and would I like to come down. I asked what the fuck she’s on about. “You’ll see,” she said. I had no essay deadlines so off I went. She was there at Euston, waving at me with both hands as I got off. “It’s called Algie,” she said, hooking her arm in mine, “you’ll love him. Got your camera?” “Yes. How do we get there?” “District. We’ll walk from Putney. Let’s go!”
We ran for the tube that was waiting at the platform. “It’s like this for me all the time,” she said, “you wouldn’t believe how busy I am nowadays what with the City Farm and Mushroom bookshop. I did a frieze along the top of their window. Got there one morning and would you cop it—they’d whitewashed it over. They said they had to, they didn’t have planning permission and it was distracting drivers. Serves’m right, they should be cycling. We could change here. No, Kensington’s crap innit. Really crap. I get free eggs so I had them in me pockets once—Mike likes eggs you see—and the tube was packed, so you can guess what happened— knicker omlette. And hunt sabs. Got me picture in The Times on New Year’s Day. But in summer I do the festivals. Manage to cadge lifts from one to the other, like stepping stones. Wibble wobble. I’m applying for Art Therapy jobs. Me dad gets me trips—he’s a travel editor. I told you didn’t I?—so I fly off to places, take pictures, make a few notes and he writes it up. Club 18-30 in Crete last time. Don’t tell anyone. Saves him the hassle, and he pays me rent, the dearie. He’s shacked up with the agony aunt—yeah really! Mum thinks it’s a scream. She says she’s sent some letters in about impotence but I bet she hasn’t.”
I’d always been the quiet one, and in the years since I’d left for University I’d learnt more words and had become even quieter, but I’m sure I must have said something in the train, probably about needing a degree to do therapy. She was as unselfconscious as ever, a whirlwind giving me no time to think. You can’t be like that nowadays without being diagnosed as on some kind of spectrum even if you’re an artist. I wondered how many people had taken advantage of her openness.
By then we were out of the station, heading west. “So what’s it all about?” I asked. “Situationists I guess, but none of me mates told me nothing.” When we got there, TV crews, Japanese tourists and chip vans were flocking, but Algie had gone. “It broke free,” a guy told us, “it’s heading for Heathrow.” We hung around, joined in conversations. I found out that Algie was a pig-shaped balloon, a prop for Pink Floyd’s photoshoot for an album cover. Suddenly life made sense again.
“What now?” I said. She reeled off a list of exhibitions. I said okay. We saw Inuits at Battersea Arts Centre, took more tube trips, running up and down the stairs rather than taking escalators. On each journey she slipped leaflets beneath cushion seats: Vegetarianism, Battery Hens, a Performance Art festival—she had a canvas bagful.
“But why did they call it Algie?” I said in the ICA. “From Rupert the Bear I s’pose. Or was that Podgy? Anyroad, you know, the Pig. Capitalist power. Geddit? Lighter than air, tied to the means of production. Pigs might fly, but only if they’re naked. Let’s all go naked!” Outside the Serpentine gallery at closing time we shivered even fully-clothed, looking at the ducks sheltering against the cold. “Want to stay tonight?” she said. So we changed at Victoria for Vauxhall. In the High Street we bought some cider and a take-away, turned into a cul-de-sac of terraced houses. “We call it ‘The Squat’ but it’s not really,” she said as she undid a padlock, “Must have changed places twenty times this year. Broke into a few meself.”
We ate in the kitchen at the back of the house, looking onto a few square yards of concrete. I’d expected herbs at least. We’d bought the Evening Standard and read that flights had been delayed, and that Algie had landed in a farmer’s field. “They let it go on purpose, didn’t they,” I said, “A stunt.” “Destiny more like,” she shrugged, “Homesick. You know what? I’m whacked.”
We went upstairs. “Mike’s away for a few days,” she said, opening the bedroom door. She switched on the TV, the only light in the room, the sound turned off. A mattress nearly filled the lino floor. I looked around for any sign of me—old teeshirts, a photo—but the room didn’t even look like hers. It was cold, colder than outside. She asked if I had matches, rummaged in a drawer for a box, lit the gas fire. It didn’t warm the room. Close to, it burnt. Under the blankets I licked the salt of her neck, felt the excitement of discovery combined with familiarity, a sense of returning after a long journey. And then, when I thought we were just having a breather, she dropped off.
The fire was still a blue, muted roar. Maybe I extinguished it hoping the clicks as it cooled would wake her. Friends had never understood what kept us together. I think it was a simple matching of her excesses with my deficiencies and vice versa—the things I remembered, and what she forgot. She was as oblivious to consequences as she was of the past.
Three years before, we were welcomed a few days at a time at HQs and camps, ever the willing volunteers. I did press releases and pamphlets— “Intensity in Tent City” was my idea. She made rainbow Union Jacks and Union Jills. They were suspicious that I always kept a camera with me—they thought I’d been paid by the police to collect evidence—but even then I reckoned momentous events were taking place that were worth recording. All the same, I could never believe that there was any point in their protests. Our protests. If a new law was made, they’d break it, thinking they were being political, fighting for freedom. Personal hygiene as oppression. It seemed to me that the government had tricked the Brew Crew and Peace Convoy into isolating themselves in fields miles from anywhere, miles from the masses. Their rebellion served only to reinforce the status quo and amuse the tabloids. I grew cynical about Olga’s heroes too—the Ecowarriors were first to volunteer to lie in front of bulldozers, but vanished when there was washing up to do. And it’s strange how unisex fashions were always male ones, how the Ego-warriors bee-lined for the cute chicks. Even then I was using the past (usually American—they were years ahead of us) to interpret the present, and that made me regressive in their eyes. A Tory.
Well fuck that, I thought, and gave up fighting—fun for a summer but not a life.
Her arm was still round my neck. I lifted it by the wrist and elbow, placed it by her face. They’d teased her about her hair. She didn’t spend long on it, it just looked that way. I took the weight of her knee and rolled from under it. On the TV, cowboys were riding together, shooting in the sky. I collected my clothes, dressed on the landing, and let myself out. The tube was still running so it couldn’t have been that late. I took a photo as the train arrived. I still have it—no ads, no “Next train in 3 minutes” displays, no “Mind the Gap” announcements to joke about.
Looking back, it’s easy to see Algie as a pretext, but even if she was going through a bad time, she was incapable of pre-meditated scheming. Something needed recording, that’s all. My name must have popped into her head that morning and one thing led to another until she fell asleep.
If I’d have stayed the night we’d have been up early next day to see them try again at Battersea. They patched up the pig. This time a marksman was ready in case it broke free. They got good pictures but the sky was boring blue, so for the album cover they combined the pig with the previous day’s clouds. The pig, designed by Roger Waters, appeared at Pink Floyd’s concerts. When he left in ‘85 he let them use the design only if they paid £500 per concert. The rest of the band added balls and a prick to it to get round the copyright.
But I didn’t stay. I never stood in front of bulldozers like a toreador or did my shift in a tree-house to block the construction of a bypass. After completing my studies, I lectured at the same University on “Contemporary Sociology: Alternatives and Lifestyles”. Later I built a tree-house in the garden for the kids, posted letters in their letterbox to make it real.
Tim Love lives in Cambridge, England, having lived in Portsmouth, Norwich, Bristol, Oxford, Nottingham and Liverpool. He works as a computer programmer and teacher, and is married with two bilingual (Italian) children. His prose has appeared in Panurge, Dream Catcher, Journal of Microliterature, etc., and has won prizes run by Short Fiction and Varsity. His poetry pamphlet, Moving Parts, was published by HappenStance in 2010. He blogs at litrefs.blogspot.com.
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Tim Love's By All Means is a collection of short stories that find people in transit; between places, relationships, states of mind and different lives. Sometimes these are stories of moving on, leaving the past and the characters populating a point in personal history lingering in memory's rear-view mirror. At other times, these stories ruminate on lives only half-full and half-lived, where the characters are stuck forever in either first gear, or worse - in reverse, terminally pondering but never quite settling on a direction of travel.
These are gently tragi-comic stories laden with subtle, beautifully-observed everyday miracles and mistakes. Tim Love has an exacting ear for the voice of characters; he captures their travails and their unwitting shedding of truths and half-truths in irresistible style and in concise detail.
‘Tim Love wields words with the precision of a surgeon, or a sculptor. These stories are clever, poignant and memorable - but above all they are hugely generous.’ – Vanessa Gebbie