Art Pact 27


A drumroll for the performer, and then he is on stage. Not what the audience expected, of course. He shuffles on, bathed in the bright blue light of a follow spot that tracks him from ahead, causing his already pained expression to be contorted further by a squint that creases up his face into a thousand black valleys. His back is bent, his trousers tatty, his coat is poorly patched at the back, threadbare on the left elbow, open in a ragged wound on the right. After the effusive volume of the drums the theatre is hushed - all breath bated, the only noise the shuffling of the two shoes as they are dragged across the polished wood of the stage.

He stops, turns. The audience can see that his right eye is swollen. Livid, unthinkably grotesque, it weeps a fluid that is only visible as a shining reflection of the harsh spotlight. He looks around, although blinded by the blue halo that marks him out, peering desperately into the dark masses in their plush chairs. As his unseeing gaze sweeps over them, each member of the audience thinks for a moment that he is looking at them personally. They shift uncomfortably in their plush velvet seats, wondering how much that infected eye must hurt, wondering if they should stand, offer their seat to the poor man. But to their left and right no-one is moving (although they too are thinking the same thing), and the inertia of the crowd and of doubt keeps them in their place. It's all part of it, they remind themselves. He's fine, he's fine.

"I was a rich man," croaks the performer. His voice is raspy, as though his vocal chords were rusted and jammed and are now tearing themselves apart in order to form those few words. The audience waits, but he says nothing else for a minute. Someone coughs, up in the gods, and from the boxes on the right side of the stage a sudden nervous giggling, just as quickly muted. Neighbours look at each other uncertainly, not sure what to think. Then: "I was a rich man, so rich that I might have bought this theatre and everyone in it a dozen times over."

The audience are confused.

"You may not think it now," he says, "but these clothes were made by hand by the most prestigious Italian tailors. This patch"--he indicates the ragged piece of cloth covering some hidden failure in the jacket fabric over his left hip--"was part of a nine-thousand dollar suit. Imagine that - this suit cost more than many men were paid in a year. Now nothing - just an ugly swatch that doesn't even match the rest of my clothes. I glued it on, and fixed the rest with staples. With staples!" He laughs, although the audience do not recognise the single ugly bark as laughter, but recoil from it as they might step back from the grinning scream of a chimpanzee. "The stitching on the original - so exquisite. Staples, ha!"

He looks around for somewhere to sit, but the stage is bare. At the front of the audience, one young woman is so stricken with guilt that she almost gets out of her chair, but her companion, seeing her slender manicured hand begin to press into the armrest, puts his own hand over it to restrain her. She sits back again, blushing, and plays with the diamond cascade dripping from her earlobe. She thinks about her own clothes - a dress that is a silk sheath extruded from a machine in the boutique this morning, shoes she made herself from plastic-steel and painted with red gloss from a can. On stage, as if guessing her thoughts, the performer hitches up one leg to show the ruins of his own footwear. The sole flaps freely beneath the toes, like a loose tongue letting slip the secret terrible state of the ruined sock within.

"I never walked," the performer says. "Cars everywhere. I had a driver. A human driver, not..."--he waves his hand, airily dismissing autopilots and robots--"who waited for me during my business meetings, my trysts and lunches and whatever it was I did. I forget now - it was something to do with money. Making it, or perhaps destroying it. I don't remember the numbers, you never do, but I remember the people. The men I stepped on have no faces, not anymore. The ones who stepped on me, they're carved in here like stone"--he stabs at the side of his head viciously with a rigid index finger--"I'll get them. I will."

"I will," he repeats softly.

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