The sheeted clay head stood on the workbench Leonard called his own and to which he would allow no student access. He had set himself a deadline, and in truth the head was nearly completed, but he couldn’t face working on it yet. It had been a strenuous day. The enthusiasm of the first year students had not permeated the remnants of the weekend’s frenzy. The initial euphoria of Clare coming back into his life seemed to have dissipated as quickly as the bubbles in her expensive champagne, though it was barely three days. The nightmare of the forest nymphs was still uncomfortably close, and felt, if anything, more real. He had hoped to be able to work the dread from his system, but it lingered.
Another cigarette was lit on the stub of the last, and he walked round the untidy studio seeking physical labours to occupy his hands and his mind. Bins were emptied into waiting black sacks; discarded artcard returned to the paper chest. He rewashed brushes, sharpened pencils. The tall glass window overlooking the sports field dimmed through deepening shades of blue, camouflaging the last of the rain-washed mud on the outer surface. He was pleased to see it fade. The work of drunken yobs, without a doubt, but the smears had pulled at his attention throughout the day. It was as if someone, something, had been trying to get into the studio.
The cigarette finished, he again pulled the pack from his shirt. Only one remained. He held it in his fingers, stuffed it back in the pack, the pack back in his shirt.
This was ridiculous. What was he playing at? The head was nearly ready: the face-mask, the jaw-line, the classical nose. The curls had refused to hold, but the clay should be drier now. Why hadn’t he done as he’d first intended and completed it over the weekend? Clare would have understood. Clare would have brought her wine and her damned smoked salmon and made a picnic of the enterprise.
He brought forward the life-size head, patting its winding cloth with his palm. Too dry. He should have wrapped the entirety in clingfilm. Sweeping up the spray bottle, he pumped a light mist over the cloth. The last thing he wanted was for any of the clay to be transferred to it as the head was unwrapped.
Tentatively he caught a fingernail beneath the leading edge. The cloth lifted at his touch and he grasped it between thumb and forefinger, gently teasing it from the layer beneath. The cloth was long enough to enshroud the head three times, keeping the clay moist despite the centrally heated studio. He sprayed again, the fine mist chilling the back of his hand. The cloth unwound steadily, its once white threads blotched a fungal red-ochre as if covering a bloody wound.
Leonard caught his lower lip between his teeth as he concentrated on the final layer. Another misted spraying. A tentative separating of cloth from clay, sticking plaster from skin.
It was free. He breathed again, depositing the soiled cloth on the workbench beside the plinth. The head was facing away at an oblique angle, giving him an almost full sight of the rear. There was something very wrong with the hair, but he’d known that when he’d enclosed it in the cloth at the end of the previous session. The classical finger curls had been straightening as he’d worked on them. Dried out they looked as stiff as a hedgehog’s spines.
Even as he released the catch he knew the sculpture was rotating under its own weight. Instinctively his hand reached out to steady the plinth. He faltered. The hairs on the back of his neck were starting to rise, mirroring those of the sculpture.
It wasn’t just the hair. There was something wrong with the cheek. A long gash had been etched from eye to chin. As more of the face came into view he recognised the swelling of a bruise over one eye. A scream built in his chest, a pressured pain, but his throat constricted and would not let it pass. Birds pecked at his face and head, and his flailing arms careened into shelves which fought him in their turn, loosing canisters and palette knives to bounce up from the tiled floor and attack his shins. Bags of powdered paint followed, splitting on impact to scatter autumn colour underfoot.
Through its own weight, or will, the head kept on rotating. There was nowhere in the littered studio for Leonard to flee its searching eyes. On hands and knees he scrambled into an alcove, pushing aside its contents, until his nails were tearing at the plaster wall. He collapsed on one thigh, whimpering from a cramped chest and aching arms. There was no escape.
The eyes, the carefully crafted eyes of sightless smooth perfection, had been torn away. In their sockets were carved the bulbous spheres of a seeing youth hell-bent on his destruction. He knew who it was, knew beyond a doubt, but could not draw his gaze away.
When a moustache began worming from the clay to cover the upper lip, Leonard could not believe what he was seeing. When the lips drew back from gritted teeth, Leonard screamed.