Ellroy provided my inspiration. I was sitting at my desk staring into a white void, a computer screen as blank as my imagination had become. Framed within the borders of a Word document, the display case for the treasures of my mind, was a bleached nothing. It had been like that for days, like the whitewashed windows of a shop that had not been able to sell anything, a sad sign of failure. “There’s nothing for anyone here.”
The frustration was compounded by a lingering irritation from the conversation I had heard on the radio an hour before. The winner of the previous year’s Turner Prize had been explaining the cultural significance of his triumphant exhibit, a porcelain toilet bowl with
wooden seat and cistern which had been stuffed with paper and severely worked over with a heavy duty hammer. It was something to do with the fracturing of western civilisation. He believed that it was not institutions that would break up but the infrastructure, and that we would all be doomed to wallow in our own crap.
Pretentious bollocks of course. I briefly dreamed of calling Radio Four and demanding the right to confront the bloke, tell him he was only doing stuff like this because he wouldn’t know how to hold a brush, let alone paint a picture that people would enjoy.
A rant took shape in my mind. “Conceptual art’s a fraud! It’s a giant con trick. It’s something done by wankers with no talent and lapped up by bigger wankers with no brains! You shouldn’t be giving air time to this shyster!” I didn’t try; the show wasn’t a phone-in and I guessed the best I could achieve was a futile row with a switchboard operator who had been trained to politely divert nutters. So I endured ten minutes of listening to the presenter, someone who should have known better, indulging the artist’s ego, then turned off the radio and switched on the computer.
The irritation persisted. At intervals I typed a few words, then immediately lost faith in their value and wiped them from the screen. After an hour I still had nothing to show but the white void. Just like the day before, and the day before that, and every day of the previous fortnight. My sense of superiority over the conman was beginning to crumble. Who was I to lecture anyone on their lack of genuine creativity? The guy on th radio may be a shyster but at least he had won an acclamation, even if it was from idiots, and was making a healthy living from his pretence. Better than a couple of unpublished novels and a dozen short stories that even my friends didn’t want to read. The void on the screen became more threatening. I was touched by the fear that one day it would suck me in.
Which was when Ellroy intervened. The little bugger often made a nuisance of himself when I was trying to write. He would ignore me for hours on end when I was doing nothing, sleeping at great length and refusing to respond when I stroked the back of his head or ran a finger under his chin. When I sat down to write, however, he would decide it was time to demand attention. Whiskers brushed my hand, a wet nose shoved itself under my armpit, a furry head rubbed itself against my chest and paws padded from my lap to the edge of the desk.
“Ellroy, bugger off!” I pushed him to the floor. He walked around the room, out to the kitchen, returned within two minutes and was back on my lap within five. I had learned that it was best to let him sit and type over his head until he was satisfied and slinked back to the sofa, but this was one of those days when he wanted to go walkies on the keyboard. I sat exasperated as letters and spaces appeared across the screen, a line of incoherence which meant as much as anything I had written that day. I shoved him off, deleted the mess and stared again at the white void.
Ellroy was back on my lap within a minute, apparently determined to make his presence felt. Before I could push him off again the phone rang. I tried to take him under the belly as I stood but he reacted more quickly, leaping onto the desk and circling beside the screen. “Keep your paws off that keyboard!” I snapped. As if he would understand. I left him in his little dance as I answered the phone. It was my mother, passing on plans for the family lunch the following Sunday, a thirty second message that she stretched with ease to ten minutes. She only lost interest when she changed the subject.
“What are you doing today?”
It was all she ever said on the subject, in the tone that one reserves for small children and old people, those with minds that go trundling up pointless dead ends while the rest of the world gets on with life.
“See you on Sunday love.”
I growled and went back to the desk, and found that Ellroy had got to work on the keyboard. The screen was full, not just a line but a window filled with letters, numbers, gaps, paragraph marks and tabs, scattered into a wild pattern of fractured nonsense. He sat beside the screen, looked up at me and gave us a moment of mutual incomprehension, then moved his paws back onto the keyboard.
“You little arsehole!”
He began to type again. I moved forward to pick him up but was stopped by a tilt of his head to glance up at the screen, creating a moment in which he apparently found meaning in the characters and spaces he had placed. Creation of a cat. The idea provoked a chuckle. I didn’t believe it for a moment, it was just a scrap of whimsy given a tangible form for as long as I cared to leave it on the screen. Just what I had always thought about conceptual art.
Inspiration came. No piddly little bulb above my head but a flare exploding above a darkened battlefield, casting light upon the wriggling bodies in no man’s land.
“Brilliant!” I muttered. “Fucking brilliant!”
Machine guns out. Show no mercy. That was the moment I became a conceptual artist. I let Ellroy continue his work, and when he tried to move away I grabbed him by the sides and hauled him back.
“Keep those paws moving,” I said. “There’ll be a can of tuna when you’ve done enough.”
He kept moving, encouraged by my fingers running down his back, under his chin, around his tail, little gestures of affection that assured him he was more important than whatever I did at this desk. His paws pressed down on chains of letters which strung into two, three lines of unbroken text, space bars which left spots of empty space, carriage returns which opened gaps of four or five lines between the mess. At one point a rear foot rested on the ALT button and threw the work into the realm of alternative characters, a scrawl of hieroglyphs which added a new dimension to the feline wisdom.
I let it run for seven pages, until Ellroy bored of the game and struggled clear of my hands. He trotted into the kitchen and sat, waiting for me to make good the promise. I followed, opened a can of tuna flakes and spooned half of it onto his saucer. Then as he ate I returned and saved the document in my workfile. I named it after Ellroy.
Two days latter I borrowed a neighbour’s dog, a shaggy, knot haired mongrel named Heseltine that greeted me with a slobbering tongue then took fright at Ellroy’s first hiss. I had to throw the cat outside for half an hour while I placed Heseltine on my lap and urged him to imitate the feline padding.
At first he just wanted to sit and smother my face with his germ infested drool. I tried to guide his paws to the keyboard, produced a couple of tentative jabs, then watched as he dropped his chin and rolled his face from side to side. Fur, saliva and muck from his ears slipped into the gaps between characters, prompting a cringe at the thought of my fingers following; but the screen filled with a dense slab of text which, thanks to the rolling motion, created a vague pattern in the distribution of letters and numbers. I called him a good boy, rubbed his head and jaw, and was rewarded with a backward twist that sent his shoulders wriggling over the keyboard.
We kept at it for ten minutes, filling four pages worth of screen space. More text, more breaks, another expression of wisdom from the animal world. I followed the session by placing Heseltine on the sofa, practising a firm voice which told him stay still long enough for me to take a couple of snapshots with an old Instamatic. Then I received another faceful of slobber.
Over the next two weeks I borrowed pets from anyone who didn’t dismiss me as mad or dangerous. A female rabbit named Beckett nudged gingerly with her nose and stepped onto the keyboard only when lured by a leaf of lettuce. She produced a smudge of text at each end of a page, separated by a blank space where a foot had settled on the carriage return. It was a weak contribution from an animal I’ve always regarded as soppy, whatever I may think of Bugs Bunny.
A hamster named Fang trotted dutifully over the keys long enough to produce three pages ofnonsense. Then Ellroy appeared and, cupped in my hand, the rodent froze and deposited a small pile of hamster shit on the desk. The cat was thrown out again but Fang was too scared to do anything but sit rigid with fright. I gave him back before he died on me.
Branston the budgie was a failure, hopping over the keys so lightly that only two characters, an l and a t, hit the screen before he took off for the ceiling. A lizard named Frank was more productive, producing two pages in response to a collection of dead flies dished out around the keyboard. A mouse I bought from a pet shop and named Van Gogh hit the CAPS LOCK key then scurried about to collect crumbs of cheese placed one by one on the desk. He gave me two pages of bold words from the mouse world, before I made the mistake of turning my back to collect the camera. When I looked back Ellroy was on the desk, a small tail wiggling from his mouth. I prized Van Gogh free, breaking the couple of bones the cat had missed, and took the photo just before his terminal twitch. I defied Ellroy’s greedy sniffing to give him a makeshift burial, wrapped in toilet paper and dropped into the bin. It left me with a twinge of guilt, but I excused myself with the thought that at least Van Gogh’s sacrifice had a cause: his life would amount to more than that of most people.
The documents were printed, the photos developed, and all were stuck with Blu-Tack to large slabs of chipboard painted white. Above each collection of pages and alongside the photos I wrote the name of the relevant animal in thick black felt tip. Then I thought about a title for the work, and after five minutes settled on something simple, touching and thoroughly pretentious – THEY HAVE SOULS. The creation was complete.
The next stage was ensuring that the public would be able to appreciate my genius. I knew no-one in the art world, but I had read enough to know that the critics, the curators, the collectors were impressed by acts of audacity. Why else would anyone be impressed by an unmade bed soiled by cigarette ash and menstrual fluid? And I knew that there was one collector, the Collector, who all revered, the man who turned obscurity to fame with an approving nod and a signature on a cheque. Best of all, I knew someone who worked for the company he owned. All it took was a phone call, a tip that he was in the office on a particular day and at some time between twelve and seven would emerge from the main entrance.
All I had to do was wait, holding one slab of chipboard wrapped in two bin liners. I waited through the afternoon. After an hour I began to worry that I looked suspicious, that a man with his money and power would fear for his safety and have people who watched for strangers. But if I was seen I was left alone. After another hour I began to feel the cold and worry that the drizzle could find a gap in the PVC and smudge the type. By late afternoon I felt vaguely stupid, and had to remind myself that it was an act of genius which had brought me to this point.
At four-thirty the Collector appeared, accompanied not by a team of minders but by a slender young woman in a blue suit. They paused at the kerb, looked around for a car which hadn’t arrived, and gave me the moment to seize. I approached quickly, ripping the cover from the top of the board and called the Collector’s name. He looked towards me, an expression of mild surprise quickly turning to curiosity.
“I know you appreciate works of true inspiration,” I said, tearing off the rest of the PVC. “This is just a sample. The whole work is named THEY HAVE SOULS.”
The Collector’s eyes dropped to the board, took in the photo of Ellroy and the seven pages from a cat’s paws. His curiosity was sustained, his mouth twisted into a wry smile.
“You say there’s more of this?”
“Another half dozen.”
“No. Think of it as a menagerie of art.”
“Where can I see it?”
I made the arrangements quickly. My brother-in-law had an empty room over the top of his mini cab office. In a day I had it filled with paints, glues, more chipboard and a pile of kitchen rubbish I could pass it off as raw material for work in progress. Most importantly the chipboards which made up THEY HAVE SOULS were propped along one wall, each of them a testament to the creative powers of household pets.
The Collector arrived half an hour late, apologised and moved immediately towards the exhibit. For five minutes he was silent, repeating the few paces from the first to last chipboard with eyes fixed on the displays. When he finally spoke it emerged as a satisfied purr: “Remarkable!”
I played it cool, allowed myself only a tight smile.
“You like it.”
“I do. How much are you asking?”
“A hundred and twenty-five thousand.”
I knew the figure was outrageous, but I wanted to match the audacity of the work.
“So what’s your valuation?”
“A round hundred and it’s yours.”
“Grand. So tell me what else you’re working on.”
The Collector’s approval quickly turned to art world adulation. Within a week THEY HAVE
SOULS was on display in his Highgate gallery, within two the first rave notices had appeared. Inside a month I had done half a dozen interviews, affecting the role of creative innocent struck by inspiration and allowing the writers to make a virtue of my lack of training. Who needed three years at art school when you had raw, unfettered talent?
I received the invitations to openings and receptions, suddenly the person everyone wanted to meet. I was even befriended by a rock band guitarist and a TV actor who took me on
prolonged drinking binges, smashed up a bar, got me into a fight and my face in the tabloids. It was easy, all I had to do was talk loud, show no manners and be rude to those who didn’t understand my work.
The only hard bit was the few hours I spent in the studio – there had to be work in progress – encouraging Ellroy to disembowel mice and budgies from the pet shop so I could embalm their torn bodies and stick them to new chipboards. I named it NIGHT OF THE HUNTER.
When it was complete I allowed the Collector to visit. He told me it was wonderful and gave me another hundred thousand. Around the same time he leant THEY HAVE SOULS to the Tate Modern for a special exhibition named Burning The Barriers. I told him I was flattered and appreciated his help. He smiled and told me it was a sign of more prestige to come.A few days later I was nominated for the Turner Prize.
I admit that for a few weeks I was tempted to continue on the path. The cheques from the Collector were an incentive, paying not only for the drinking binges but a couple of Armani suits and as many books and CDs as I wanted to buy. Other collectors began to contact me and ask if they could see other work, and it only made them more excited when I told them nothing was ready, but if they gave me their phone numbers I may allow them to see future creations before the bidding began. I had enough stupid ideas in my head to see money coming for a year or two, maybe longer, and the nest egg may grow big enough to keep me comfortable for life.
Then one morning when I had planned to go to the studio I decided that I would rather sit in front of my computer. I turned it on, looked into the white void and felt an aching desire to fill it with words. Nothing came. The following day I went to the studio, played for a while with soiled nappies and puke stained babies bibs, but went home early to stare again at the white screen. After two weeks of less time at the studio and more at my desk I was preoccupied with writer’s block. There was only one to way to break it. The time had come to own up.
At first I thought about contacting a journalist, an ageing traditionalist who spat contempt at conceptualists, and spilling my guts. It would have been effective, embarrassed all those who swore the game was real, and been quick enough to give me a new kind of integrity. Then I thought of the Turner Prize and realised there was a possibility to take my audacity just one stage further. So I kept quiet and rented a dinner jacket.
They were all there on the big night. The Collector, London’s curators, half a dozen previous winners, the critics and dealers who mattered, all of the loosely knit gang which decided what was good for the public taste. Everyone was full of bonhomie, complimenting the artists and each other on their disdain for the boundaries of conventional art. As the announcement drew closer the jollity was mixed with a little tension, the moments of anticipation before all learned identity of their brightest star. Even I felt a flutter as they read the list of nominees. Then I glanced across the table at the Collector, caught a wink and knew the result. The envelope was opened, the announcer spoke my name and a cheer swept across the room. As I rose the Collector called my name, he was so eager to be the first to shake my hand, then I walked to the stage surrounded by applause. I accepted the award with a big smile, along with the cheque and the handshake from the presenter, and allowed the clapping to subside as I stepped up to the microphone and looked across the room. All of the faces were in awe; at that moment I was their hero. I kept smiling as I began to speak.
I let the words hang out there for a few seconds, long enough for the audience to realise that it wasn’t a joke.
“You think you know anything about art when you’ve given the biggest prize of the year to me? I’m not an artist. Nothing that I’ve done is art. I’ve played a few silly games with little furry animals and stuck the mess on a bit of chipboard. That’s not art, it’s whimsy. Sensible people might smile at it for a second, but they know that’s all it’s worth. Give them any longer and they turn away and occupy their minds with something that has more substance, like the ingredients on a sauce bottle or whether to hang their toilet paper from the front or back.
“But you lot take it seriously. You go around pretending to each other that it’s got some deep meaning you can all comprehend and looking down your noses at those who won’t play your silly game. You pretend all these frauds who cook up this stuff have some great talent, when everyone with half a brain knows that a retarded three year old could do it just as well. And the worst thing is that you ignore the real artists, the ones who paint and make sculptures, create visions that stir emotions and entrance people when they come back to look again and again and again. You call them second or third rate because they create work that ordinary people enjoy. Well I can tell you that their work brings far more pleasure to a lot more people than the kind of nonsense you patronise. And what do you do? You give a prize to me. I can’t paint, I can’t make sculptures, I can’t create anything that passes as art, and you’ve just decided that I’m the best visual artist in the country.
“History’s going to point at all of you and piss itself laughing. You’re a bunch of pretentious wankers!”
I left the trophy on the stand but held on to the cheque and walked out of the room in silence. As I passed the Collector I winked at him. His face was frozen in the horror of betrayal.
I became a national hero. The great silent majority had been sick of the conceptual fraud for years and burst into laughing applause at my act of humiliation. I was feted in the press, appeared on chat shows, invited to even more receptions and parties than in the days I was part of the fraud. People came up to me in the street and shook my hand, told me I was a wonder and urged me to keep on spitting bile at the art world elite. One of the broadsheets paid me twenty grand for the exclusive story of how I had deceived characters who had spent years creating an illusion of superior taste. I gave Ellroy his due, told the world how a flakey cat had provided the spark for the explosion, but I also blew my trumpet. I had seen the chance to caste a lethal light upon the frauds of the art world, and felt proud that I had done the public a great service. The newspaper ran the story under the title LET THERE BE LIGHT.
People kept laughing even when, a week after the Turner Prize bash, the Collector walked onto a footbridge over the M1 and took a headfirst dive into the traffic. A couple of media wags commented that it was a wonderful way of expressing his despair, that any conceptualist would have been proud of the gesture. The only dissenting voices were those that grumbled over the twelve mile tailback that lasted into the evening.
The events gave me the opportunity to declare my true calling, that I was a writer with half a dozen great novels ready to gush from my imagination. Eight publishers and fourteen literary agents contacted me within a day, all of them talking big advances and telling me what they could do for my career before they had read a word.
I sat in front of the computer screen for a couple of days, stared at the white void, then told myself I needed the stability of as publishing deal. I spent the next six weeks allowing the literary world to buy me big lunches and raise their bids into six figures. Life was very good to me.
My temporary colleagues in the conceptual art community were not doing so well. Their downfall began in the days after my revelation, when commentators throughout the press competed in their rage at how much public money had been wasted in sticking rubbish into public galleries. One of the curators responded with the biggest mistake of his life, went on TV and declared that the ignorant philistines of the press had no right to tell anyone what was good art, even if the public agreed with them.
That night a mob stormed his gallery, ripped out everything created after 1980 and burned it on the adjacent lawn. The gallery’s board of trustees complained to the police, and the local chief constable told them go away. A radio journalist asked me what I thought of the incident. I told them the characters who created such works always said they wanted to provoke emotions and that was just what they had done. They should feel fortunate, I said, the ultimate expression of public emotion would be if they did something ‘conceptual’ with the artists.
Whoops! My place in the public esteem was so high that they took me at my word. That evening a crowd gathered around the house of the Outrage Man, the lad artist with the shaven head who had begun the fad for doing nasty things to dead animals, inspired disgust in the press and blasted the movement into the realms of celebrity. According to rumour he called the police and asked for protection, but they told him to go away. The mob smashed the windows, battered down the door, and dragged him screaming to the local park. Some of them wanted a quick, simple lynching from the branch of an oak tree, but one far sighted character had decided it would be fitting to make his end fit the style of his work, and persuaded the ringleaders to make use of an abattoir hacksaw and a vat of embalming fluid. It was an untidy job; they were unable to keep internal organs in place as they dropped the two halves of his body into the tank, and it resulted in a sludgy mess which the park keeper had transported to a landfill site.
The next morning the Outrage Man’s wife called the police. They told her to go away.
A TV journalist asked me what I thought of the incident. I shrugged, said the Outrage Man had died amid the emotions which he had sought to provoke, so no-one could really complain.
“Fair enough,” said the journalist.
That night a mob took the Bed Woman. They wrapped her in a pile of dirty linen, broke into an industrial laundry and programmed one of the washers for soiled whites.
“It was a joke!” she screamed.
“So’s this,” said one of her killers.
They all laughed as they pushed her in, and laughed even louder when they saw what the spin dryer had done to her body. The website with the video took seven million hits over the following week.
Someone asked a question in the House of Commons. The Minister of Arts and Culture was quick to point out that he was on record, even when the party was in opposition, of saying that he disliked conceptual art. It was true that he had allowed curators of public galleries to go on spending money on the works, but it would have been dictatorial to put a stop to it. The most he could do was assure the public that none of the curators would retain their jobs when their contracts ran out.
Someone asked the Home Secretary about the implications for law and order. He told the House it wasn’t easy to identify the ringleaders in the mob, the police had a lot of priorities to juggle and they had been unable to establish who had produced the hacksaw or tipped the Bed Woman into the washer, and that there were difficult legal issues involved. Apparently it was unclear whether the incidents had been crimes or conceptual works of art. All the MPs laughed.
Someone asked the Prime Minister what he thought of it all. He smiled and said: “I wouldn’t want my kids to be conceptual artists.”
The rampage continued. Curators were torn from their museums and marched through the streets wearing sackcloths and large pointed hats, forced to confess to their rabid misuse of public funds then stripped and lashed. Some died, others were left to wriggle into the gutter in the hope that their families, friends, anyone who could brave the overwhelming shame would drag them to sanctuary.
Those who had passed themselves off as artists had it even worse, pulled from their homes and subjected to a makeshift process of people’s justice. It wasn’t enough for the mob to punish the offenders, it sought the need for a rough sense of legitimacy, especially when the process began to extract a few snivelling confessions of guilt. A guy who had done strange things with cutlery and used contraceptives pleaded that he had learnt the error of his ways and promised that he would stick to landscapes and portraits of people’s pets. He was sentenced to death and disembowelled with the steak knives he had used in his work.
A woman who had filled a pitch black room with the recorded voice of an old woman incessantly nagging had pleaded that she only did it to make her name as an artist, that she was far more interested in animal sculpture. They dismissed her plea, tied her up and placed her in a large coffin with a mobile playing a repeating audio file of the voice in her concept, then buried her alive in Epping Forest.
Others were crucified, burned at the stake, torn apart by cars with tow hooks tied to their limbs. The bloodier the better: as far as the forces of justice were concerned, the punishments had to match the extremities of the criminals’ creations.
The TV cameras appeared, operating under the guise of news but providing what soon became the nation’s prime source of entertainment. Twice, sometimes three times a week the bulletins were filled with recordings of that night’s execution, backed by brief biographies of the artists and slow motion replays of the moment of death. The viewing figures passed thirty million every night.
My celebrity began to get out of hand. I noticed on TV that some members of the execution mobs were carrying enlarged photos of me on placards, or wearing badges with my name against the backdrop of a rising sun. It was nice to be popular, but I didn’t want my name forever associated with an act of genocide.
Then a couple of newspapers, the mid market tabloids that dress up violent rants in the language of measured comment, published features on my place in the public esteem. Both were getting fed up with the Prime Minister, both suggested that someone of my, and I quote this, “vision, courage and contempt for the myths of the liberal elite” would be far better equipped to lead the country.
Over the next couple of days the press was filled with reports that the Government was rather miffed with me. I decided it was time to retreat from the public eye, at least for a while, and concentrate on filling the white void on my computer screen. I would return to fame when I could prove my true talent.
At first it went as I had planned. I resolved not to give any more interviews, not to make any public appearances and drop the round of celebrity parties. Instead I sat in front of my screen, and to my delight I found that the words began to flow. The story took shape in my mind, a tale of a man in a future world who saw through the exploitative illusion created by the ruling class, exposed it, led the people in its destruction, then returned to happy obscurity. I wrote, wrote and wrote, twenty thousand words in a couple of weeks, confident that a masterpiece was being created.
Then one evening I switched off for the day, poured a glass of wine and turned on the TV. Ellroy was beside me, pushing his face into my armpit. He had become much more willing to show affection away from the computer screen since I had acknowledged his role in my achievements. The news came on, the lead story another impromptu execution, this time with a shock development. As it began I felt a mild curiosity – surprising as I had begun to find the process boring – noting that the offender, despite having exhibited publicly, was a women just out of her teens, with a northern accent and a glowing terror in her eyes. She cried through the ten minutes of the trial, pleading youth and inexperience, that she hadn’t even graduated from art school, that she had been led astray by the myths perpetuated by her teachers. The work for which she was being punished, a collection of torn toilet paper around a portrait of the Royal Family, was her only conceptual work.
The judge, if that was what you could call the shaven headed bruiser who led the mob, declared there was a case for mercy, and that instead of being dropped into a glass tank full of concentrated sulphuric acid she would be given the relatively painless death from a firing squad. His mate appeared with a sawn-off shotgun which was pressed to the back of her head. In the seconds before the sentence was carried out she screwed up her face then wailed in a confused, agonised valediction.
“It was him!” She screamed my name and pointed a shaking figure towards one of the placards bearing my mug shot. “I only did it because of him! I thought it was inspiration! I didn’t know it was such a bad thing!”
A hush fell upon the crowd. Hundreds of eyes stared at the condemned girl, ears waiting for a confirmation of what she had just said. The judge moved towards her.
“What does that mean?”
“I was a painter,” she whimpered. “I painted people, landscapes, scenes of city life. Then I
saw the thing with the animals and words, Le…Le….Let There Be L…….Light.” A fresh wave of tears cascaded down her face. “I thought that was it was all about. I would never have done what I did if it hadn’t been for that.”
For a moment the mob exchanged glances, all confused at the implications of what she had said. Even the judge looked perturbed. Then he nodded to his mate and the girl’s brains exploded over several pairs of designer trainers.
The TV news team had called in a couple of commentators, a retired cabinet minister and the editor of one of the broadsheets, to talk about what the girl had said. The politician said I would have a case to answer. The editor began to talk about motives and the grey areas of guilt, but I switched off before he made himself clear.
I spent an uneasy night, the first time I had been troubled by one of the executions, my sleep spoiled by a recurring vision of mulched brains splattered over gleaming white trainers. The following day I decided not to go out, not to turn on the TV, but in an innocent lunchtime moment I turned on the radio and heard the lead story of World at One. The Culture Minister was talking about a public enquiry, saying that at the least I ought to be made to explain my motives. I remember the reports of the Government being
jealous of my popularity and knew it was the time for a quick escape. A quick inventory of my financial assets showed I was well placed to disappear. I had a wad of cash running to four figures stuffed in a pillow, my credit cards were good and I could probably get access to my bank account from overseas. There was also a Cartier watch and a couple of rings I had bought with my earnings, good for an emergency source of cash in any city which had pawnbrokers.
I guessed that the quickest route would be a tube journey to St Pancras then Eurostar to Paris or Brussels, whichever train had the first empty seat. I found my passport, copied the work from my novel onto a USB stick, packed a large suitcase and threw a pullover, toilet bag and my iPod into a shoulder bag. There was space for more but I decided to keep it light, not knowing where I would end up and what I might collect on the way. I had opened the front door and unzipped the bag to double check that I had a razor when Ellroy came creeping around my legs and rubbed his face against my shin, a last gesture of affection before parting. I felt a twinge of guilt and went back to make sure that his bowl was filled before I deserted, then scrawled a note, PLEASE FEED THE CAT, with my name below.
Ellroy had disappeared. I guessed that he had taken off in an early search for a new home, and suddenly felt a dreadful sense of loss. For the first time since he had walked onto my keyboard I had to force back a tear. Then I zipped up the shoulder bag, dropped the note with a spare key through a neighbour’s letter box, pulled up the collar of my jacket and put on a pair of shades. I made it through the tube journey without a hint of recognition from the other passengers, and walked quickly through the crowd at St Pancras, grateful that the shades removed the possibility of eye contact. I feared that the ticket window might be a problem, that I would have to give a name and attract unwelcome attention, but the clerk was disinterested and nobody in the queue was paying attention.
The next train to Brussels had spare seats and was ready to leave in twenty minutes, long enough for me to get onboard, short enough to reduce the risk of being caught. I went straight to the passport control. By my reckoning it was a potential problem, I would have to show the passport and enough of my face for the officer to nod me through, but I calculated that he or she would have procedures to follow and would be too busy to go denouncing anyone who, according to the law, had done nothing illegal. What business
would they have interfering with my escape?
Ellroy. I had removed the shades, shown the passport open at the page with my photo, received the upward glance and the polite nod, just steps from freedom. Then the shoulder bag began to wriggle. At first I thought the strap had slipped, but then I realised a presence was contorting itself into a series of protesting shapes. Something was in there demanding to be let out. I remembered my disappointment that the cat had disappeared and realised that feline curiosity had taken him into a dark, warm place. I told myself to pretend it wasn’t there and quickly calculated the chances of keeping Ellroy wrapped up through the journey. Then a quizzical voice came from the behind me. “Hold on a minute sir.
The passport officer laughed as Ellroy leapt out of the bag then gave me one of those looks that said: “Did you really think you would get away with that?” Then his expression changed, the look of recognition I had dreaded, and the passenger who stood behind me exclaimed loudly: “That’s him! The one they’re looking for!”
At least three pairs of hands were on me before I could say a word in defence. Ellroy recoiled from the scuffle and darted. My last sight of him was sprinting up the stairs into the station concourse, reacting with blind panic to the alien world in which he had been dropped. I hope he found refuge somewhere, that someone took pity and gave him a home.
Nobody was in a mood to show me pity. There was a nervous discussion between the passport officers as to whether it was actually within their power to hold me, but within a minute the news had spread around the station and a stream of excited, angry people began to flood the departure area. It didn’t take long for the officers to realise it wasn’t in their interest to separate me from the mob, all they could do was call the transport police. Two constables arrived, and torn between a duty to the law and the pressures of self-preservation quickly realised the best they could do was negotiate with the crowd, allowing its more aggressive members to accompany them as they took me into custody.
From that moment I was a legal aberration. The Government made a show of subjecting me to the due course of law, but they were aware that the thousands of citizens who bayed for blood outside the jail were supported by tens of millions around the country. In a day they drafted a bill which, amid language so obtuse that it could pass for a work of conceptual art, effectively declared me guilty of treason, witchcraft, gross immorality and taking the piss. When it came to Parliament, the day after it had been drafted, Her Majesty’s Opposition were in no mood to do any opposing and it was passed with one vote against, a Liberal Democrat, and the abstentions of the handful too ill or too drunk to turn up. I could expect no more mercy than those I had condemned.
So here I am, in a cell eight feet by twelve under the eye of two prison officers, scribbling the last lines of this memoir on a sheet of ruled A4, finding consolation in having finished minutes before they come for me.
Writing has been a slow process. Maybe I had become too used to a computer keyboard, more likely the thoughts of the void which awaits were too heavy on my mind. I was able to finish because I was given much more time than the other artists – sorry, criminals – before the sentence is carried out. They decided on something special for me, something which fits the nature of my crime, and it has taken time to arrange. I’ve been told that it won’t take place in public, but the TV cameras will be present and I understand that Sky has paid a lot of money for the exclusive broadcast rights. An evening’s entertainment, maybe longer if my death is slower than expected, packing out the pubs and the living rooms of homes with satelloite dishes for the whole evening.
It was decided that seeing as how a cat was the instrument of my first foul crime a cat should be the implement of my execution, or to be more precise a couple of dozen cats. They have been held in cages for a week, a bunch of vicious, unneutered toms, well used to killing for their food, captured in back streets and rubbish dumps around London. None of them have been fed for three days, they’re all hungry and mean. I’ll be tied down to the floor, legs and arms apart, face up to the camera and stripped naked. And in case the beasts feel any hesitation in tasting human flash I’ll be sprinkled from head to foot in cat nip. Little bites, ferocious little bites that will rip the skin from my body then eat into my muscle and organs. It will take time, hours if I’m lucky, days if I’m too much for their appetites.
I feel fear but I accept my fate. I created a beast which has killed many, and it was inevitable that it would ultimately turn on me. There are just two things for which I hope. One is that I lose consciousness and the ability to feel pain before one of the cats sinks its teeth into my testicles. I know that people will witness that indignity, but I don’t want to be aware as it happens. And I hope that amid their ravenous feeding the cats will appreciate the meal.
It was all I ever really wanted, that someone would appreciate me.