Friday, 6 May 2016

The Unkissed Artist Formerly Known as Frog (2014)

This is one of those tales where the title totally controls what happens in the story itself. Where the title came from is a different question. Titles just pop into my head for no obvious reason. Then I write the story they suggest, or add it to a list of titles for later use. This list is very long now. Some titles have been waiting to have their stories written for decades. Others are used almost immediately. This particular story appears in my MIRRORS IN THE DELUGE collection.

He was an artist by the name of Cripen but everybody called him Frog and his opinion on the matter didn’t count. The fact he was a frog wasn’t enough in his mind to justify the lazy appellation, but people called him Frog and kept doing so anyway. He was partly resigned to it.
But only partly. In his soul he yearned to be taken seriously and a start to taking him seriously would be to refer to him by his proper name, Cripen. There was no doubt about his talent. He was an excellent artist and his canvases really seemed to say something new. And yet...
His frogginess went against him. His fundamental essence of frog had an inexplicable effect on critics, who did a bizarre facial contortion when they saw his work, a shudder that wobbled up and down their faces several times, losing speed on each lap until it eventually slowed to a standstill as a very deep frown that was undiluted concentrate of shudder.
If they didn’t know the artist was a frog, this shudder never happened. So it was a reaction to the worker, not the work, and Cripen felt even more insulted when he learned this was the case. The truth is that the critics were anti-frog and it was a prejudice that impeded his career.
But art was his life and he couldn’t give up because of the ignorance of a handful of professional critics. He continued painting as always and he was still able to show his work in certain small exhibitions, but not once did he ever get a positive review, nor did he sell any pictures.
Thus he became the living embodiment of the famished artist but luckily for him he was able to eat flies, so summers weren’t too bad, though as he was a giant frog there were almost too few flies in the city to satisfy his appetite fully. In winter he had to seek less wholesome food.
So he went to the opening nights of shows by many other artists in lots of galleries and there he was able to take the free snacks on offer, mainly canap├ęs, salted nuts and pickles, generally with a glass or two of white wine. And that is how he prevented himself from starving to death.
People who knew him would sometimes come over to chat. “How goes it with you, Frog? Are you still painting?”
Yes, he would nod. How could he give it up?
“No plans to find a proper job?”
Painting was a proper job, wasn’t it? What did they mean by asking such a question in a gallery? He sighed deeply.
I was sitting on the carriage of an underground train once when it stopped at a station and he came in from the platform. He hopped through the doors as they slid open and positioned himself in the space between the metal poles that are provided for standing passengers to hold onto.
Nobody looked. Commuters hate to show curiosity.
But I was fascinated by him, and the fact that the carriage reminded me of an enormous artificial tadpole made me want to be a part of his life, to engage with him on some level. It’s not that I thought I could help him with his career or felt pity for him. It was something else.
I think it was just a case of understanding that here was a phenomenon that might never be repeated, a peculiar situation, a giant frog that had come to London in the hope of making a success in the art world and not by exploiting the oddness of his corporeal form but simply by creating paintings considered outmoded by the trendy art establishment.
“The streets aren’t paved with gold, are they?” I said.
He turned to look at me. I withered under that look and my mouth went dry and I muttered something very inane:
“If at first you don’t succeed, try and try and try again.”
He instantly turned his back on me.
I got off at the next station, burning with embarrassment, even though I didn’t want to alight here and would be late for a meeting with a friend. I was a fool to believe that my meagre interest in him would cheer him up after all the detrimental things he heard every single day.
But from that moment it appeared that a cosmic conspiracy had decided to make me part of its workings and the ultimate aim of this plot was to mock Frog. I took my place on the crowded escalator to ascend to ground level and the stranger directly in front of me began to hold a conversation over my head with the stranger immediately behind me.
It was a conversation about art. “I hear he holds the brush in his mouth, his enormous gaping maw,” said one, to which the other replied, “That makes perfect sense because he has no hands.”
“Excuse me, but Frog is a friend of mine,” I snarled.
It was a lie but I felt I was standing up for justice and yet the two men sniggered and rolled their eyes in reply and I was left uncertain if they had truly been talking about the amphibian painter.
“He is admirable and richly talented,” I continued but in a much fainter voice, and I was grateful when the escalator ride ended and I was able to rush off into the crowds that thronged the streets.
I decided that all I wanted to do was forget about art, but everywhere I went I encountered people who seemed to have some involvement in the art world. This made me rather apprehensive.
When I reached my apartment I disconnected the phone and refused to leave for several days. That broke the malign spell and the world was normal again when next I ventured out. Indeed I completely forgot all about Frog over the following weeks and then one day I was crossing a bridge when I saw some graffiti painted on the stone balustrade at the halfway point. I say ‘graffiti’ but in fact it was a picture of exquisite beauty.
It showed the view from the bridge but not as the view really was, sooty and grey and depressed, but vibrant and alive and bursting with positive energy. It was a skilful piece of work because it gave the impression that the entire spectrum of ecstatic colours had been used and yet in truth the work had been executed entirely in shades of pale green.
The signature said: CRIPEN and it was beautifully lettered.
I stood and appreciated it for half an hour.
Then I started to see other paintings around the city, all of them signed by Cripen and all done in green paint. Unable to exhibit in galleries he had decided to share his talent with the world on the streets.
I couldn’t decide if this was a wise course of action for him to follow or a sign of defeat, that he had started to give up.
So then I tried an experiment. I went along in the middle of the night with a tin of paint and a brush and obliterated his signature on a small selection of the paintings. It had occurred to me that if the works were anonymous, unattributed, people would like them better, would see them for what they really were, would finally show the appreciation they deserved.
But my plan backfired. Somehow, the rumour spread that these artworks without a signature were the work of Frog. And the fact they were unsigned was seen as proof that he even he disliked them.
In fact it soon became worse than that, for every example of street art that lacked the name of its creator was also cited as one of Frog’s latest efforts, and so the truth of his unique talent was turned into a big lie by tens of thousands of examples of urban dross and amateur scrawls.
I only saw him once more after that. He was standing in the rain outside an art gallery and peering through the window at the people inside. The gallery was a small one and the door was too narrow to permit him to enter. He gaped at the food he was unable to reach and his hunger was a palpable force. I was embarrassed and wanted to pass him without making eye contact, but he spoke to me and I stopped in my tracks. He groaned:
“If only I had a patroness, but no woman will look after me. I’ll never be kissed, cared for, tolerated and indulged because there are no giant lady frogs in this city or anywhere in the wide world.”
“The world is not so wide,” I answered stupidly.
“It’s wide enough,” he said.
“Where do you get your green paint from?”
“That’s my blood, you see.”
This reply was delivered in such a lonesome tone of voice that I shivered with the fear and repulsion that are always just beyond sympathy and this shiver undulated me back into motion and I hurried on.
In the weeks that followed I tried to forget this meeting but it haunted me. I replayed the scene over and over in my mind. I couldn’t offer him any comfort for his predicament. But then one day, while I was walking down a staircase, an appropriate thing to say occurred to me.
I knew I would never rest until I had delivered this message to him, so I went out to search for him, making enquiries among the places where artists go. Finally someone gave me his new address.
It was in the poorest quarter of the city, a dilapidated house in one of the most tumbledown streets I have ever seen. I knocked on his door to no avail, so I went to rap my knuckles on the window, and as I did so I happened to glance through the grimy glass into the interior.
I saw a room with walls and ceiling covered in murals, all of them superb and all of them green. In the middle of this room, which was bare of furniture, I saw a shape that surely belonged to him.
I shouted out my message, “Cripen is an anagram of Prince.”
But it was too late. He had croaked.

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