It was the lowest point of my life. Out on the streets, nowhere to stay, nowhere to go, nothing to my name but a bottle of Stolichnaya I had lifted from the convenience store on the corner. The only thing to keep me warm on a cold night out in the city.
How I managed to survive that night I will never know. It wasn’t so much the cold as the open hostility I faced in the small hours of the morning.
“Fuck off you tramp!” One guy had shouted at me for no reason. I didn’t ask him for anything, I hadn’t got in his way or bothered him at all. He saw me sitting on the bench and came over just to abuse me. I saw someone else piss on another rough sleeper who had tucked himself into a shop doorway to try to stay out of the biting wind. I vowed I would not go to sleep that night, staying awake until the safer hours of daylight to take a nap.
Morning found me wandering along Milbank, thinking I might find a place to get an hour’s sleep in Victoria Tower Gardens. Leaving behind the noise and bustle of Vauxhall Bridge, I walked past the tall columns of the Tate Britain building and, on a sheer whim, thought I would take a look inside. The security staff gave me a funny look but didn’t say anything, just let me walk by them and into the warmth of the galleries inside. As I entered the cloistered interior, I could smell the welcome aroma of coffee rising up the spiral staircase from the Djanogly Café below and wished I’d had a couple of quid for a cup. Tearing myself away, I walked through the galleries, taking in the wonders on display, momentarily transported into the world of the artists. Just seeing the vivid colours and dramatic lighting of the Turner canvasses warmed me inside far more than the building’s central heating could ever do.
Eventually I found myself in a room with little more than an unkempt bed on display and a few ink sketches on the wall opposite one or two paintings I guessed were by Francis Bacon. I checked the information panels to confirm my assumption.
Standing there by an abstract image that looked like a dog chasing its tail I looked again at the bed. A grubby white sheet barely covered the torn and filthy mattress beneath. Crumpled blankets fought for my attention with a discarded pair of tights, the toes pointing to a half-drunk bottle of vodka on the stained rug beneath. Unlike the empty bottle I had discarded earlier that morning. Cigarette butts piled in an ashtray, condoms, soiled knickers, newspaper, worn slippers and other detritus made for a very uninviting scene. How was that art?
“Why is there a messy bed over there?” a little girl asked, pointing at the bed, as she looked up at her mother’s uncomprehending face. Why indeed? I thought, smiling at the mother who glanced over in my direction before averting her gaze and walking away hand in hand with her daughter. “Can I jump on it?” Her mother bustled her away before the little girl had the opportunity to try.
Alone again, I started to walk slowly around the bed, looking at it from every angle, trying to work out what it all meant. How could anyone live in such a state? I thought. I stopped thinking of it as a pretend artwork and started to think of it as a mirror image of a lonely person’s messy life, presumably the artist's. I read the blurb for the piece that suggested My Bed was a turning point in the artist’s career. The more I looked at the bed, the more I thought how sad its owner must have felt, how demotivated, strangled, caged, how utterly useless she must have seen herself. Pretty much how I felt at that moment.
I stopped walking around the bed and just stood there, staring at it. Tears started to well up in my eyes as I thought about the bed’s owner.
“Tracey,” I whispered. I wished I could give her a big hug and say “It’s alright. This is the end of it. You are going to go on to become a famous artist, to realise your dreams. This is just a brief moment in your life that will soon be over.”
Oddly, the tears, the whispering to someone who was not there, could not be there because she had moved on in her life, restored me to a sense of calm about my own life. It was only an episode, I told myself. I would find somewhere to live, a job, a life, maybe someone to share it with. It didn’t matter if it was a pipe dream, it was enough to keep me going.
I left the museum at that point, desperate for some fresh air and daylight. I carried on with my walk along Millbank to Victoria Tower Gardens, within sight of Parliament. As I entered the gardens from the West side I saw the children’s playground to the left. There was a woman sitting on a park bench watching her daughter play with the other children. She looked vaguely familiar. I must have stopped and started to stare because when she looked over her shoulder she could see me there looking at her. I was about to look away but she smiled at me, a warm friendly smile of a kind that I had not seen for a long time.
“Hello” she said, in a very gentle voice, friendly, sociable. I still couldn’t place her.
“The Tate,” she said. “The room with the bed.” At last it clicked, and at last I was able to smile back in recognition.
“Oh, yes!” I said. “Your daughter asked if she could jump on the messy bed.”
She laughed. “I don’t think that security guard would have been very pleased if she had.”
“No,” I agreed, laughing with her. “I don’t think he would.”
The woman held out her hand to me, offering a very formal handshake.
“I’m Tracey, by the way.”
“Really?” I said, taking the proffered handing and feeling the light pressure she gave to mine.
I am not a believer in coincidence.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I wrote this story for the Painted Prose challenge on Vocal Media before I realised the rules required a story about a painting, not an installation. Ah well! I was pleased with my efforts so I thought I would enter regardless. I hope readers like it even it it does not qualify for a prize. Although an entirely fictitious story, I have spent a few days when I was homeless, relying on a friend's floor to sleep, and it was a dreadful feeling having no guarantee of a roof over my head. Unlike the subject of this story, I made several trips to Tate Britain trying to understand the meaning of Tracey Emin's My Bed when it was displayed there some years ago alongside (at the artist's request) some of Bacon's works as well as her own ink sketches. Tracey Emin's My Bed brought me to an appreciation of Emin's work, as well as Bacon's. You could say I grew to love Emin (and Bacon) through My Bed. On one such visit I saw a woman and her daughter (I presumed) looking at the work. The little girl remarked about it being a messy bed and I incorporated this very honest and preceptive comment in an online (Zoom) presentation about My Bed to a group of colleague volunteers at Tate during Covid lockdown. I am grateful to Tate for providing me with the opportunity to volunteer at the wonderful Tate Modern and to make that presentation and other presentations.
About the Creator
Author based in Kent, England. A writer of fictional short stories in a wide range of genres, he has been a non-fiction writer since the 1980s. Non-fiction subjects include art, history, technology, business, law, and the human condition.