“In Stockholm, in Sweden, there’s an art academy. It’s one of these official government academies, producing rubbish, government-approved contemporary art, devoid of any known skill. And a girl there was regarded as the star pupil of all art school education that year, because her degree showed she’d gone into the underground somewhere and faked having a fit.

“Paramedics got way down, pulled her out with her friend who was surreptitiously filming all this, she gets to Accident and Emergency, and then wakes up and says ‘This was in fact an artwork, it’s to change your perceptions about crises in modern day life.’

If I’d been the junior doctor on call that night at Accident and Emergency, I’d have head-butted her sharply on the nose and called it ‘art criticism.’”

— Alexander Stoddart FRSE

Professor John McTavish was having another difficult lesson that he hadn’t realised was a difficult lesson.

Once again, he’d pulled in two Roman busts that he’d spent eleven hours sculpting last week and was going over them in painstaking detail. And like most of McTavish’s creations, they looked frighteningly real.

In his stained apron, he showed the students how to use the brush.

“It’s not about using chisels, as they all do in the movies. It’s just light brushing. You’re not really creating the bust as much as you are slowly revealing it with patience and dedication.”

He turned to look at the classroom, expecting to see a few semi-formed faces of perhaps Augustine, or an attempt at an overly bushy Aurelius.

Instead, he turned to see 20 slabs of clay, all perfectly square and without so much as a fingerprint.

“Are you going to attempt anything today?” he asked, weakly.

From the back of the classroom, three teenage boys were playing music. A cadre of five girls were exchanging makeup brushes and swapping makeup tips. A whole swath of students were staring into their phones, nine on Candy Crush, three watching Teen Mum U.K., and four others watching Toddlers in Tiaras.

McTavish went back to his sculpting, letting the other students continue. He’d tried to put a stop to it before, on over 17 different occasions. He confiscated phones and kept them in a box until the lesson ended, and one of the students got their parents involved. Some footballer’s wife who’d threatened to sue the school because apparently one of the phones he confiscated was “worth more than he makes in a year” was the way that the weary headmaster had relayed it to him. Henry Harrison was almost as tired as McTavish, as he watched more and more PTA meetings revolve less around students and more about trivial bullshit from the governor and council on how to attract high-income households to send their kids to Denbury.

Denbury was by no means a poor district. It was a private school in a rich area. But the school had become an academy. And the school board wanted more money from the government. And the parents of children worked in the government. Go figure.

Reporting students didn’t work. Todd’s father was an investment banker, so his little progeny could do whatever he wanted. Blocking Internet access didn’t work. Alesha had a “panic attack” if she couldn’t have access to the Internet in case something horrible happened in the world and she had no way of knowing. And her mother owned a holistic beauty spa bankrolled by Gwyneth Paltrow. Setting actual tasks and even homework couldn’t happen, as Sidney had a specific “anxiety disorder” that forbade any “stress-related tasks,” and his father owned the biggest law firm in the country.

As he finished up his bust, he took a moment to wander the classroom, hoping that there was one student who was paying attention. One of the girls lowered her phone and John felt a slight spark.

“Mr. McTavish?”

“Yes, Lara?”

“Is this dumb bullshit with Greek sculpture even on the fucking syllabus?”

McTavish opened his mouth. Then he saw Lara’s father in his mind’s eye: a senior partner with Barclays.

“Well, not strictly. This is something I thought would be fun. We can do the main information about it that’s written in the textbooks, but I thought it would be exciting to do some sculpting.”

Lara laughed. “You think this kind of stuff is fun? And why would you need to sculpt anything anyway? Just use the 3D printer in the corner!”

“Because it’s art?” replied McTavish.

“Whatever,” Lara said, returning to her phone. “It’s still art if it comes out of the 3D printer, right? You just load up the design and it’ll just make it without you having to worry about messing up. Surely it’s just stupid to even do this stuff?”

“I think there’s value in—“

“I said whatever, idiot.”

A few other pupils laughed.

“Why don’t you just go stand up there and read out of the textbook you’ve been given? You’re supposed to teach us out of those, as the textbooks are for the exams and school teaches us for exams.”

McTavish watched the clock as he recited the history of the Byzantine Empire, the use of Roman and Greek sculpture, and waited, patiently, until the bell rang.

He carefully packed up his sculptures and tidied the rest of the room. After that, he powered down and cleaned the 3D printer and erased the history, which had mostly been phallic objects that students had printed before becoming bored with the entire machine.

The sun cast an orange glow across the classroom as Henry Harrison poked his head into the classroom.

“A word?”

As John followed him into his office, he had some idea that it was all over.

Henry took a seat in front of the giant plaques, trophies, and medals that the school had been given from Ofsted.

“I heard you were talking back to a student.”

“Sir, I was just responding to one of their questions.”

“John, you’ve worked here for nearly ten years. And whilst you’ve generally had a good track record, you’re a loose cannon when it comes to certain students. Like when it came to McKenzie.”

“You can’t be talking about last year’s exhibition?”

“Oh, I am,” replied Henry. He looked tired, old.

The art exhibition had happened the year before. A few students had attempted some misshapen fish and a few paintings, but the main attraction, on a giant Roman plinth, had been Elizabeth McKenzie’s “Untouched,” in which she’d taken a packet of clay…and had done nothing. She hadn’t marked it, scored it, opened it, or even wrote an essay on it. She’d just put the unopened packet of clay back on the table.

It won first place.

McTavish had a single glass of champagne and had admitted, quietly, to a few of the parents that he thought the piece “wasn’t as good as the others.”

Tawny Rose, the other art teacher who was also a holistic coach and a seller of incense and essential oils, caught wind of this and had reported him immediately. McTavish had been removed from the room for being “unable to contain his masculist and patriarchal energy in a place of feminine mysticism and spirituality.”

And he was reported yet again because McKenzie had been signed up by the most prestigious art academy in the U.K., backed by the royal family.

After both reports, McTavish was kicked from most sculpting circles and known as “the bad egg” who had repressed one of his most notable and famous students.

McKenzie had, of course, hundreds of worldwide gallery performances, and even a TED talk where she’d personally criticised John McTavish. This had been a year later, and he had been reported for that as well.

“This is your fourth warning, McTavish. I’m afraid I’m going to have to let you go.”

McTavish simply nodded. He had no desk to clear out, and so he simply podded down the circular stairway into the car park. Several of the other students were still milling around and a few jeered at him unpleasantly.

He climbed into his battered Ford Fiesta, started the engine, and drove away into the evening. He tuned the radio on and heard a public interview on an artist who had been commissioned two million pounds by a Wall Street trader to make a large coat out of bloodied tampons.

He flicked the radio off and continued driving.

The semi-detached cottage stood at the end of the lane, surrounded by a few rows of hawthorn and briar. He’d inherited the cottage from his father, who had inherited it from his, and so on.

It wasn’t much, but it was his. Had been his.

When he’d married Sharon Burbesh in ’89, he’d signed a contract allowing her to take half of his house if the wedding was annulled. Which it had been, a week after their matrimony.

She hadn’t taken the house, but had taken most of his private collection of aboriginal artwork and pieces from Zulu tribes, which had been sold to private collections and the money split.

John had tried to argue for his own possessions, but it had been overturned on a repatriation bill, despite the antiques being fairly modern and sold directly to him by the indigenous people.

He later learned that the judge hadn’t understood the words “indigenous” and “repatriation” and had ruled for the sale because he thought it would be the safest course of action, just in case not doing it was offensive.

John found this out from his Instagram captions, where the judge regularly posted due to his second job as an Instagram model.

Sharon lived in his house, as she hadn’t been able to find another husband. As it turned out, John had been her 16th husband on Sharon’s continual quest to take half the possessions of others, liquidate their assets, and send the money to an offshore bank account in the Cayman Islands. Untouchable.

John didn’t get out of the car but waited, patiently. Eventually, the three men left his house and he moved towards his home.

Three was fairly low for Sharon.

He opened the door. Microwaved himself a meal. Ate the meal. Opened the sliding backdoor and headed out to the garden shed.

Malcolm was already in there, drinking a beer from the shelf in a rattan lawn chair, and John pulled one out for himself.

John was halfway through his beer when he started to cry.

“Don’t worry man, it was only three,” replied Malcolm. “And as you say, she’s not really your wife anyway.”

“I don’t care about that. I lost my job.”

His neighbour chuckled into his beer. “You hate it anyway, why do you even care?”

John looked up, his doleful red eyes searching the shed for something. Maybe there had been something once, but he was 45. Maybe he couldn’t grab it now; maybe he never could.

“What’s up?”

“I don’t know anymore.” John said, looking around his shed. The books on ancient antiquity and classic sculpture that propped up his beer fridge were covered in dust. His framed degree was cracked from that time Malcolm had stumbled into it whilst drunk. Part of the paper was ripped. He could have sent off for another one, but somehow never bothered.

“It’s just…”


“Do you ever just feel like it’s a fucking race to the bottom? Like nothing you do matters? Like your actions have absolutely no value because nothing’s valued anymore? And the more you succumb to being worthless, the more people just praise you?”

Malcolm sucked his beer. “First time I’ve ever heard you swear.”

John sighed and pulled out a beer from the mini-fridge. He clinked it and drank heavily.

After an hour or two of chatting amiably with John, almost forgetting his sadness, they took a picture with the Polaroid camera and added it to the board, now full of their Friday beers.

The first one was yellow with age and John looked at it. He must have been 35. He could tell because he was smiling.

“Cheer up, John,” said Malcolm, as he wobbled out of the shed into the chilly midnight air. He climbed the fence, flopped onto his begonia patch, and headed back into his own home.

John smiled as he pulled the corkboard off of the wall and gently placed it in the bin. Then he reconsidered, placing it over the window of the shed. He placed the beer cooler in the bin after drinking the rest of the beer.

It was about three in the morning when he was finished, and he looked at his set of books with fresh, if slightly drunken eyes. He read until seven, where he fell asleep in a pile of them, halfway through a chapter on the Parthenon.

He awoke at ten o’clock.

Sharon didn’t hear as he headed to the kitchen, ransacked the shelves, and headed back to the shed. Ten was her “Real Housewives of Jersey” time, this week featuring a very orange woman screaming that her “weekly treat” from her husband was a necklace worth $3,000 when she was used to getting necklaces worth $4,000.

John headed back to the shed, thinking privately that perhaps Bravo deserved some artistic credit for stretching that kind of dreck into an hour’s worth of content. There had to be something in that, he supposed.

He sat down and chewed through three cereal bars and a carton of orange juice and booted up his phone. There wasn’t much battery left and so he plugged it into the extension lead.

He felt strange as he loaded up the shopping cart. His wife’s credit card that rested on the kitchen counter top not a few moments prior sat in his sweaty palm and he keyed in the number.

In a few minutes, it was done, and he returned the card to the countertop, snuck back into the shed, and had a nap.

It was afternoon when he awoke to a banging on the door. Sharon was screaming angrily, and he could hear the click and clack of her nail extensions as she hammered.

‘What the fuck did you order? You can’t use my card! How dare you!”

John snuggled back into his pile of books, working on a section about the Apollo Belvedere. He had a permanent marker cap in between his teeth and had marked sections on his arms and legs.

Sharon had always used his card. For clothes, for jewellery, for garbage glitzy tin accessories you’d find in a surprise toy egg that cost upwards of 100 pounds.

In fact, all he had was debt. And sometimes it’s worth returning certain favours, he thought curtly.

“You better not have ordered more art supplies or fucking pens and pencils, you fuck!”

“I haven’t.” John called.

He hadn’t, as Sharon found out the next day as the crate of clay arrived along with the giant, glistening package that the UPS driver refused to allow Sharon to open.

“Nah, it says tracked. I have to give it to a John McTavish and yes, yes, you’ve spent the last ten minutes telling me you’re his missus but the rules is the rules. I need to get his signature, not yours, and yes, I understand you can forge it, but this John fella paid protection on the packaging. I have to deliver it directly to him.”

And with that, an angry and screaming and red-faced Sharon followed the UPS man as he walked through the house, to the shed, as John unlatched the lock on the shed door, took the crate and glistening package, and dropped back into the gloom, latching the door as he went.

“I dunno what he’s doing, but it must be a pretty serious hobby. Could I trouble you for a quick cuppa, by the way. I’m on my break and—“

“Get the fuck off my property.”

“Righto,” replied the delivery driver. He smiled, shrugged, and returned to his van. As he drove off, Sharon went over the shed. She pressed her ear to the door and could only hear a thin squelching noise.

There was a gap next to the corkboard covering the window and Malcolm popped ‘round to peer in, a beer in his right hand as the other rested on his prodigious belly.

The corkboard shuffled and Malcolm stepped back onto the grassy lawn.


“Naw, nothing really. He had some sort of weird press thingy. Looks like the thingy you put mummies in, but really weird. Like, angled funny.”


Malcolm snapped his fingers. “Yeah, sarco-something. Anyway, I wouldn’t worry too much, he’ll have to come out to eat at some time.”

“He’s ransacked the kitchen cupboards,” Sharon replied. “He’s got enough food for a month at least.”

Malcolm nodded despondently. His friend had isolated himself, possibly forever.

Then his sunken face lifted as he remembered that his taped show of Egyptian Ancient Aliens was on, and headed back over the fence.

John had almost had a show on Roman History, but it was cancelled when he refuse to add an episode on the ancient aliens which had riddled Caesar with laser bullets. Something to do with historical accuracy or something.

Sharon headed back inside.

John was left in his shed.

After a month, he ran out of food, but he kept working.

He rubbed the clay onto every layer of the mould. He found a flower on the windowsill and found a literary reference on how to use what was inside the glistening package.

He had tried to hand crank, but it hadn’t worked as he’d hoped. He didn’t have the bravery.

But then he found it, two months into his work, whilst searching through his phone. He had already put together a car motor covered in grease, some copper wiring, and the crank, but the app was the real enabler.

Once he’d got the mould right, the clay right, added the contents of the glistening packet, and struck the pose inside of the mould, he activated the app on his phone, dropped it, picked up the flower, and held it aloft.

He didn’t cry or shake, just held perfectly still.

As the motor revved, the copper wiring hummed, and the electrified crank turned of its own volition, the mould closed in around John McTavish. His last words were not ones of worry, concern, bitterness or envy.

His last thoughts were golden.


Sharon moved out sometime two year later. John was filed as a missing person and their marriage naturally annulled.

Malcolm moved after ten years. He found a nice partner and is more or less the same. He thinks of John sometimes.

20 years later, four owners later, a young teenage girl found the spare key to the latch of the shed that John kept under the nearby pot plant. The latch cracked open.

The teenage wasn’t particularly interested in anything in the musty shed. There was a golden statue of an emaciated man holding a flower, but it didn’t particularly interest her. The craftsmanship was almost perfect, perhaps, but who made statues anymore?

It would be an interesting picture for her Instagram, though, and she snapped a picture.

She checked it. It looked nice, especially with the golden sun rays going through cracks in an ancient corkboard filled with photos that had long since been bleached to white by sun exposure.

But it didn’t have her in it, and so she moved to stand next to the statue.

In doing so, she tripped over a toolbox and grabbed the statue’s head for support.

The 24-carat gold leaf and clay smeared off the body of the horrifying figure inside and she screamed. The face dripped off, revealing a grinning skull behind putrefying flesh, clay, and gold.

The girl threw up in an empty bucket of paint.