by Anne Goodwin
The advert called for a degree in Fine Art. The best I could come up with was a school trip to the Laing twenty years since. While my friends hovered around Isabella and the Pot of Basil, I stood gawping at the attendants. Canny job that, I thought. Sitting on your backside watching people look at paintings. A uniform with gold buttons and epaulettes.
I thought I was dreaming when I got a letter from the Baltic. I had gandie round the gift shop to get a feel of the place.
They held the interview in an upstairs gallery. They wanted to know if I understood contemporary art. “What can you say about this lot, for example?”
There was an old tin bath filled with raspberry jam. I said it made me think of childbirth. There was a stepladder and a roll of wallpaper, half hung. I suggested they call it A Woman’s Work Is Never Done. Afterwards, a gadgie with a silly half-beard said, “Congratulations! Howay and get your uniform.”
Of course, there was a catch. Two if you count the uniform — just a black T-shirt with Baltic across the front. Wayne, the gadgie with the beard, explained the other. “Sylvie,” he said, “your title is Gallery Attendant. But you’re mainly here to extend the demographic. We’re not getting enough hits from the Fours and Fives.”
I looked at him, sackless.
“Bring in some punters from Byker.”
I did my best. But Auntie Mary tried to finish the wallpapering and Debbie’s twins smeared jam on the video screens. The rest were either in hysterics over paintings a bairn could do or looking out the window at the bridges on the Tyne.
Wayne didn’t seem too bothered. “There’s a Yoko Ono exhibition next month. That’ll wow them.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “My Uncle Harry’s never forgiven her for breaking up the Beatles.”
Wayne stroked his silly half-beard. “No pressure, Sylvie, but don’t forget you’re still on probation.”
Ignoring the other exhibits, I assembled my group before a pair of video screens. On one, a young woman sat silently on stage, while lads in Sixties suits walked up and cut away chunks of her dress. By the end, she was in her underwear with her arms crossed over her breasts. The story was the same on the other screen, except that the clothes had been updated and Yoko’s face had aged.
Lydia Green sobbed and hugged herself but she didn’t look away. Jimmy Benton swore he’d kill their Abigail before he’d let her take that job at the lap-dancing club. Sharon Newgate announced she was finally getting shot of her husband. Kylie Finch said she wasn’t letting hers off so lightly.
Wayne strode across the gallery towards us. I smoothed down my black T-shirt.
Bob Grainger seemed to have a tear in his eye. “I’d never trust them Japs,” he said. “Not after what the bastards did to my Uncle Ernie.”
Wayne stared like he’d never seen a gadgie in a flat cap before. “Come to my office, Sylvie.”
I’d been at the gallery long enough to know what could and couldn’t be said. I would’ve ripped off my T-shirt right then if I’d been wearing a decent bra. I followed him out, bracing myself for a lecture on racism.
Wayne’s eyes were all dreamy. “Had an idea for our next exhibition. The Noble Savage and the Enfant Terrible. You and your friends discussing Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst. It’ll be a hoot.”
Anne Goodwin‘s short fiction has been published online and in print.