A short story in response to Austin Wright's sculpture, 'Limbo' (1958), which you can see here: https://www.artfund.org/supporting-museums/art-weve-helped-buy/artwork/13160/limbo
She asked again but he said nothing because he did not know. Instead he shrugged and looked down at his feet, noticing how green his socks looked poking out of his school shoes. It wasn’t that he felt nothing towards the sculpture, more that he couldn’t decide yet if he liked it, which is what she had asked. He thought that being a teacher was supposed to be telling you things and making you clever, not asking you things and making you stupid. Maybe she’d noticed how long he’d been standing there and had thought that this time he might actually have something to say. And there were lots of things going round in his head, but that’s different from having words which will come out your mouth.
Her eyes were making lines at him, and he knew he should turn his head and look at her because that was the polite thing to do. But he didn’t want to. The last time he’d done that she’d knelt really close and said “Are you okay?” as if it was a really big question, which it normally wasn’t, but this time felt different. And it was hard because he realised that, even though ‘okay’ was an easy word, he didn’t actually know what it meant, let alone whether he was it.
The space beside him opened up and the sun from the window fell again on the floor. He dipped his foot in it. It wasn’t as warm as he expected. The teacher had gone to talk to one of the other children who would probably look at her and say the right things. For a moment he felt a strange urge to run after her and stand by her side as she talked and listened to the others. But then his thoughts came back and were muddled, and she had moved too far away anyway. He went back to looking at the sculpture, glad that he no longer had to decide anything about it.
The sign said ‘Limbo’, but that didn’t mean much because he hadn’t heard of a ‘limbo’ before. It was a strange thing to see in an art gallery. He wondered why the little men and women were so misshapen and colourless, and whether they minded. He wondered why the walls were so hard and so close, and why, even just looking at them, he felt like his breath could only get part way down his chest. He wanted to know why some of them were touching, and why some of them lay face down by themselves, and whether that mattered. And why they were all waiting, and what it was all for, and why he was waiting too. Why they couldn’t just stand up and push their arms through the slates, and why he couldn’t just turn away and move into the next room like the rest of his class. He wanted to know why his feet felt stuck to the floor but his body felt like it was floating. He wanted to know why it was all so familiar, like the things in his mind that couldn’t be words had been stolen and turned into lumps and dumped in front of him.
The figures were almost the same grey as his mum’s favourite coat. Not as soft though. She’d been wearing that coat in the morning, which had made him think it might be a special day, but it had turned out to be the same as normal. She’d been on the phone, talking about something he didn’t remember because the words had been coming out quite fast and because he’d been too busy looking at the chalk hopscotch on the playground. The colours were nice but bits of the lines were rubbing away, and today they had looked pointless and tired. His Mum had said goodbye to the phone and then sighed and hurriedly kissed the top of his head and just for a second he had felt her breath in his hair.
“I’ve got to go love. I’m meeting the solicitor and I really can’t be late, not again.”
He didn’t know what the solister was, but he did notice that Mum’s voice sounded different. Sort of like it might scrape her throat as it came out.
“Go on.” She’d made herself go soft again. “I’ll be waiting here when you get back. Come on, you’ve been looking forward to this trip for ages. It’ll be fun. Really love, I’ve got to run.”
He had let her hug him and he had closed his eyes and buried his head in that coat, his fingers lingering on the little rip on the sleeve. But then he had remembered, and remembering and forgetting all at once, his arm like his mind dropped to drift by his side. He had turned and followed his shadow into class.
Mum was sad. She was always smiling but he knew she was sad anyway. Maybe she missed the games. He knew he missed them. And he missed Dad. Maybe she missed Dad too even though the games had stopped being fun and instead had turned really loud. He didn’t know he missed Mum because he saw her every day, and how could you miss someone you see all the time. He didn’t know he missed her, but he knew he liked her old grey coat with the torn sleeve.
A tall man without any hair appeared next to him. His face stuck out from his neck like it was trying to detach itself and float free. The boy wondered if that’s the way you’re supposed to look at art, and thought it probably was because the man looked like the kind of person who would know those sorts of things. He turned to the sculpture and stretched his head forward, staring as hard as he could. It took a lot of energy to look like he was concentrating, which meant that he couldn’t concentrate very well at all. And it started to hurt too. He tried for another moment and then stopped and looked at the man instead. To his surprise the man was looking back. He was smiling slightly, as if there was something funny. Maybe it was one of those jokes that only grownups understood. Or maybe he was waiting for the boy to get the joke too. He glanced back at the sculpture for clues, which he couldn’t find, but gave a little laugh anyway.
“You like this one don’t you.” He said it as a statement, not a question, which was funny because the boy had been wondering whether he liked it all that time since his teacher had asked, and the man had just come along and decided for him in a few seconds. “It’s not Wright’s best piece but there’s something about it. Somehow swings between the hopeful and the depressing.”
This didn’t mean much to the boy but he liked swings so he gave an appreciative nod.
Sometimes he went so high and fast on the swings near his house that he thought he might become the air itself. One time he’d been pushing up through the greens in the sky and the blues in the grass, trying to decide whether being the air would be a good thing, when he had felt a tug. And then he’d been flying and stopping all at the same time with the world jolting along with him in bumps. And his Mum had been there too, right next to him. She’d been laughing, or maybe his Dad had been laughing, or maybe it was the wind tickling the trees, or maybe it didn’t matter because the swing had stopped but the world was still up up and free. His Mum’s sleeve had caught on the chain and for a moment he’d taken her into his flight. The coat ripped when they tried to untangle it, but it was okay because of the laughing. The whole world used to laugh and then they went home and they were shouting and then his Dad left and the wind stopped tickling the trees because they weren’t funny anymore they were tired. It was ages ago but he remembered it clearly and sadly and happily and unclearly all at once.
He was sitting cross-legged on the floor and feeling very sleepy when he heard his name on the speaker. The voice came through the ceiling in hundreds of little drops, and it said something about being lost and his teacher being worried, and needing to make his way to the front desk. It repeated all this slowly, which wasn’t particularly useful to someone who didn’t know where the front desk was. He stood up, thinking he’d go back the way he came. Mum said going back wasn’t always possible, but she also said it was the sensible way of searching for things you can’t find. He thought that he would at least try.
He looked at the sculpture for a last time, and knew, finally, in actual words, why he had stayed there for almost two hours. The sculpture felt like home. Not the home he remembered with windows and walls, but a place in his head where he didn’t have to explain or pretend and instead could just be.
His teacher saw him straight away when she hurried, pink and out of breath, back into the room. She stopped abruptly, her fingers lingering on the door frame, knowing suddenly that there wasn’t a rush, and that he would be ready in just a moment. And then he was. And he turned and walked towards her, thinking again that she would tell him off. But she didn’t. She didn’t say anything at all. Instead she put out her hand, and he took it, and together they walked from the room.