The examination of interpersonal relationships, their systems and the use of animals in narration as part of familial education are recurring themes in Stuart Middleton’s work and his exhibition “Motivation and Personality” at Künstlerhaus. Consequently, his latest short story is entitled “Ben” and revolves around a pig.
In the windowless bathroom mould blotched the plaster. In our cramped bedroom it bloomed freakishly near our heads as we lay in bed. As if the spores themselves were puffed out in my night time breaths. Damp swelled the downstairs walls like blisters under layers of stain-proof paint and lining paper. It was worst in the room we called the skiv. Dug into the earth below street level it opened through a rattling wooden door onto the narrow back garden. Pallets laid on the floor kept its contents safe from pooling water. There was a pickaxe handle, a bucket of my father’s plastering tools encrusted with orange rust and a compressed cardboard suitcase, softened to mulch, covered in stickers from towns in America none of us had heard of. The suitcase had belonged to my uncle. A well travelled man who aimed his Peugeot at a break in the barrier and drove off the edge of the Cat and Fiddle at five o'clock one Thursday morning. A hundred foot from bonnet to boot. He'd been alive when the air ambulance hauled him out, sopping wet with dew and pale in the floodlights, he looked like a porpoise on the end of the winch. Cut from the wreckage of his little blue car by the mountain rescue, his back broken and pelvis shattered, he didn't survive the night. Dad was milking when the phone rang in the hallway. I stood next to Mum, her arms folded tightly across her chest, and watched from high up on the gritty verge as he slowly ascended. He had been round faced and chubby since childhood, but not like he became. “As fat as Elvis” Grandad said. I imagined the rotor blades straining under the pressure of the load and the pilot gunning the throttle. Later we went back to try and recover some of his things as he lay bleeding internally in hospital, shiny bald head on show for the first time in my life. Grandad, Mum and me halfheartedly knocking through the bracken like game beaters looking for his hair-piece. I sniggered imagining it carried off in the mouth of a fox or falling onto the unsuspecting head of a badger. My jogging bottoms sucked water from the bony stalks thirstily until they were heavy and soaking to the thighs.
In the skiv there was a washing machine that left our clothes smelling cheesy. A musty fungal whiff underneath the detergent. It sat on bricks underneath a single glazed window and to the right of the back door. The smallest pane of the window was missing and replaced with a piece of splintered plywood that Grandad had haphazardly drilled holes into and pinned into the frame to allow the drain hose to feed into the stand pipe. My sister and I had spent summers playing down there. Picking and pressing our fingers into the linseed putty around the glass compulsively, softened by the sun into an oily perfumed dough. Pretending we were the larvae we kept in the shoebox under our bunk bed. When my sister left for university I continued to go down there by myself. I would perch on the washing machine face close up to the scaly window and peer out at the back garden.
The back garden was Ben's domain entirely. I got up early to feed him before school and rushed home in the evening to give him his dinner. He scuttled alongside me like a puppy and lifted his ugly head to nuzzle at the orange bucket that held his feed. The coarse hair on his back scraped the bare thigh above my wellies and below my school skirt. He had a big flat snout like the end of a crushed beer can and a curly tail that wagged. Grandad had made the coal shed into Ben's house. “Sty” the old man had corrected me, “thats what you call a pig's house”. He began breaking down pallets with a maul and bar and chucking the slats in a rough pile grunting and panting. When he saw me watching he instructed me to take the nippers and pull any of the crooked nails out and chuck them in the bucket to his side. He showed me how to line the nail up in the groove on the anvil and straighten it out tapping with the hammer. Using a handful of my wobbly nails he hammered planks into place over our rotten gate, butting each prickly board up against the next, closing it off from the ginnel. After this he went round the fence with a roll of springy mesh, rusted and twanging and a foot too high for the crooked posts that we had sunk in concrete when we first moved from the farm. His hands spade like, making the wooden handle of the big lump hammer look like a toy, treading the remains of Mum's border plants into the soil as he drove fencing staples with explosive strikes, plucking them from the pocket of his coat like boiled sweets, rarely needing to deliver more than a single blow to each.
He flung old bikes and boxes and broken tools out of the coal shed, arcing clear over the slender garden and smashing into the ginnel. He dragged out gardening machinery tangled into a nest of cords and jammed serrated cutters until it was empty. The coal shed was brick built, stone floored, windowless and low. A sheet of sagging plywood served for a roof, sheathed against the rough weather in a patchwork of roofing felt, studded with rows of silvery clouts. It was just tall enough for me to stand in but Grandad had to crawl on all fours to get through the tiny door. Painted purple and flaking paint, the old boards were joined together by long flat iron hinges bubbling with rust. Dry and feathery with rot the door had been chewed right through by its last inhabitant; a badly behaved mongrel pup my sister named Jess. We had taken her with us from the farm but she was never able to settle to our new domestic life and ran away at the first chance. “Probably smeared down the Rochdale Road” Grandad said as if to comfort us. We had never used it to store coal but someone before us had. There were a scattering of black lumps and drifts of jet black slag against the walls. Backing out of the shed coughing and wheezing, Grandad collected up the lumps and stuffed them into his coat pocket. Dust blackened his head and face. With a hefty kick he stamped the door from the jamb. It cartwheeled away, hanging up on the fence with a squeak. Unravelling a length of bale string, he measured and knotted the opening. Out of the van he dragged a panel of corrugated tin which he draped over a couple of the pallets like trestles. After a few minutes swapping fuses from various appliances he got the grinder going and sent sparks across the garden as I sat on the other end of the tin to steady it. I dug the old hinges out of the discarded door and pummelled their twisted forms back into rough linearity. He screwed them into place with the tip of a table knife. The door scraped noisily over the rough ground and had to be hefted to close but when closed it fit tight and heavy.
We ate sandwiches out of an ice cream tub, a whole loaf of bread spread with margarine and slabs of cheese, turkey ham, gritty lettuce and salad cream. Our fingertips left black spots on the damp white bread. Quiet and pondering he got up still chewing and gestured me to the van with an inclination of his head. At the feed store we bought two half bales of straw and 3 bags of pellet feed on our old account. “This'll tide the young buck over, might take a couple of weeks until we can get some good swill going” he said. Ben galloped happily around his new enclosure like a pig possessed.
Ben was a world-class wallower. A rooting prodigy. He ate anything we threw in his bucket, toast, chicken bones, porridge, cabbage. We bulked it out with swedes and kale pinched out of the neighbouring fields. Within a few weeks of arriving he had rooted the entire garden into a mud pit. I cleared out his sty every couple of weeks and threw the filthy bedding into an ever-growing mountain behind the back fence. Grandad shovelled it into old feed bags and left them out on the road next to a painted sign 'Free Pig Muck – The worlds best Natural Fertiliser' dictated to me one night after he returned from the auction merry, throwing tiny stones at my window to be let in.
Grandad had brought Ben home as a piglet, his thick left arm flapping and flailing wide like a beloved president greeting us like crowds on a state visit, his right arm curled in a tight lock around Ben's wriggling pink middle. “Sausages! Bacon! Roast pork and crackling!” he preached passionately “all fed up and fattened from the scraps of our table!” My sister screamed horrified and buried her face in Mum's armpit. “Where’s he going to live you stupid old goat?” Mum said “There’s no space in here for people and now your bringing in a bloody pig!” “He's only small” I said quietly. “Small! Small? You silly clot, it’s a baby now but it’s going to grow into a great stinking hog, mucking the place up more than it is already” she hammered on the table with the flat of her hand. But Grandad chortled and rubbed Ben's little wrinkly brow with his knuckles. “Don't noogy him!” my sister cried in anguish. Ben spent the night in our upturned washing basket, its former contents, our school clothes, dumped by Grandad into a soggy pile on the kitchen floor. He had trapped it down with a wobbling paving slab easily prised from the loose front path and dragged two oil radiators over to warm him.
I went down first thing in the morning, breathlessly past the rumpled sheet thrown back from our brown turd of a settee. Grandad's taped together reading glasses were on top of an open pig husbandry book and a tattered stack of farmers weekly that served as his bedside table. Turning the dial on the cooker with mole-grips and holding the stub of a taper flickering in the feebly hissing gas, I warmed a saucepan. The pan contained a special pig milk recipe; a beige mix of blue-top cows milk into which Grandad had messily cracked two hens eggs, separating the white and using only the yolk, then upended a crusty bottle of cod liver oil above stirring frantically. He finished it with a spoonful of sherbet lemon powder from a sachet which he returned to the inside pocket of his jacket. Using a funnel of grease-paper I poured the steaming feed into our old baby bottle and stuck the denatured teat through the plastic mesh. Ben's squealing was stifled as he sucked desperately at the warm milk, snuffling his little nose and draining the bottle. In a few moments he squawked madly around his tiny prison kicking his trotters, “like a spring lamb” my sister said wistfully as we watched him. Grandad had been up long before us. Silhouetted by the security light his shadow loomed on the back wall. In his coats and cap he was bulked out and hulking, hunched over labouring, steam rising out of his collar, he looked like a troll.
The week before he had turned up from school stating “family emergency” to my perpetually nervy teacher who began helping me into my coat, pale with distress. She gave me little pat on the head and rushed me out to the idling van tears welling in her eyes. I hauled myself up into the filthy passenger seat and we revved off sending burning oil smoke belching into her face. I watched her coughing in the cracked wing mirror. After about three miles we pulled into a yard of towering wooden pallets. Whistling through his false teeth he walked into the cabin that served as an office, after a few minutes he came back to the car and nodded me down to help him load up. At home we hauled them down the ginnel. From behind the front door I unhooked my tattered red all-in-one from a nail and pulled it over my long suffering school uniform.
We kept two cobs and an old pit pony called Ned on the common tethered on a long rope to the football posts. In the winter they lived in a groundsman's shed that Grandad had co-opted and modified into a rough stable behind a stand of conifers at the back. Ned was a short stocky welsh. White, long-haired and scruffy with a short sticking up mane and forelock like a buzz cut. He had broad dished feet and was studded with blue-black welts from old scrapes. His tail was cut off completely to a stub. Ned was a hero to me and my sister. We would sit on his strong back two-up and he would shuffle around the football posts good naturedly as we imagined stories of his bravery; guiding a methane blinded man to safety holding onto his tail stub! Holding back a rockfall with his stern forehead while the frightened miners escaped! We stroked his scars and explained to each other how he had come to have them “This one is from when the tinkers tried to steal the boys’ football, but they hadn't accounted for brave Ned to rush in whinnying and raising his front hooves to stamp down on the bonnet of their pickup leaving big twin horseshoe dents, but as the cowards reversed Ned was clipped by some shrapnel from the shattered headlamp for instance”. I curried Ned's neck and legs, cooing in his ear, scraping bits of dried mud from his hair and scrubbing his skin with the round plastic comb. Grandad went around to the others with a builders hard-hat that he used to take scoops out of the barrel of nutty feed. I put a big handful of bright yellow turmeric into Ned's food, mixing it in with the oats and pellets to help his sore joints, staining the cuff of my school blouse bright yellow and making the skin of my hand look jaundiced. The smell reminded me of the delicious spiced and buttery curry that Grandad brought home for us once in foil containers, flicking the grease soaked card lids aside and spooning us big steaming chunks of chicken in a luminous creamy sauce that stained our fingers and mouths. There were big flat pieces of charred bread that came in a foiled pouch. Spread inside with almond paste and tiny flecks of dyed red and green coconut we used the bread to wipe first our plates, then the tray, then desperately at the undersides of the lids we retrieved from the bin. I sifted the nuggets of poo out of the straw bedding with a big plastic pronged fork as the cobs stood sheepishly in the corner. I forked urine drenched clumps into the barrow, the ammonia made my eyes stream. I jogged to the midden and tightrope walked up a bouncing rotten beam to tip the barrow at the top. The water was iron coloured rising in the impressions of my boots. When we got home it was dark and Mum's shift had already started. Grandad made us mugs of tea and beans on toast while I cleared the chainsaw parts off the table and we sat and ate. The sounds of our knives and forks scraping was the only noise in the house.
Stuart Middleton, untitled, exhibition view, Künstlerhaus, Halle für Kunst & Medien, Graz, 2018
Photo: Markus Krottendorfer.