The Return of Waldo Jeffers

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Waldo Jeffers had reached his limit. It seemed inevitable he would go all the way, as if his death had somehow meant to be. Waldo was the kind of student who slips under the radar. After three years he finally surfaced from the group when a name, a face and a so-so essay had to be connected together. Waldo was a long thin soul dressed in black at the back of the class, slumped with his feet up on a chair. He didn’t match the name on the register. Waldo Jeffers, a name American and epic, here brooding on the edge of visibility.


A presentation on his art practice brought him into focus. Waldo was to talk to the other students about his work over the first term. He was collecting discarded clothing found on the side of the road. He wandered along the North Circular Road, the kind of place where it was rare to find pedestrians. He picked up various items of clothing he found on the hard shoulder and put them into plastic bags saved from the butchers for the job. The clothing was sodden and caked in grit. Jumpers and woollen hats were common, t-shirts more so. He found this curious. Clothing is usually dispensed from the outer layer in. There was something comical in the idea of the city’s mobile folk removing their t-shirts as they made their way from A to B. It was comical and inexplicable. Boxer shorts were a rare find on a ring road. Bras were pure treasure, he said.


Waldo took the clothing back to his studio. He laid them out to dry and, when ready, worked their newfound stiffness into shape. He told us they were to be strange ghostly forms but, as art, they were dead. Waldo figured there would be drama if he filmed himself lifting sodden pieces from the side of the road and putting them on there and then. ‘The location will add edge’, he said, ‘so I took a camera out with me’.


The lights in the room were dimmed as Waldo lined up his film piece. Light flickered from the projector onto the screen and Waldo sat back. The piece filmed the roadside at night. The camera had been set on a tripod with a sharp light cutting through the darkness. A single still image filled the frame. The frame captured the hard shoulder and thick overgrowth on the other side of the metal crash barrier. A piece of clothing lay next to the road.


Cars swished by off camera, their headlights yellowing the screen for an instant. A bitter wind woofed and ruffled on the mic. Waldo appeared out of the blackness of the bushes, his bony white ass turned to the camera as he bent over the clothing to put it on. Powder blue running shorts. He stood in front of the camera before the film fell silent and blacked out, fading back in to present us with a fresh location.


The same again, out of the overgrowth ever so slow and on with a tartan scarf. Waldo stood deadpan in all his oddness and then a fade to black and back again.


Waldo failed to appear on the screen this time. A car roared by in too low a gear and came screeching to a halt. The drama was happening off screen. The camera didn’t flinch. A bunch of lads were calling out obscenities, threatening to kill the freak. The camera was upended quickly, its light catching sight of the red gravel before cutting to black. You could sense movement through the muffled sound, branches snapping, Waldo panting.
‘We’ll hunt you down, you paedo fuck. You fucking wierdo’.
And then snap, the film ended.


Waldo turned on the lights in the classroom and stepped forward to loom large before the group. This was awkward. You’d think he would have cut out the last sequence, to save face at least, but no, he threw it straight at us and took us on.
‘Ach, I feel all icky’, said one of the students, setting her colleagues off in nervous giggles.
Waldo didn’t expect laughter. I shifted the mood.
‘You’re pushing boundaries, aren’t you?’
‘Everything was too artificial, too contained. I wanted to break it down, make it more real.’
‘Did you know the lads?’, a student asked.
‘No. I ran like fuck’.
Laughter. Waldo still did not expect laughter.
‘I wanted to experience things for themselves’.
‘Did it work?’
‘Yeah, if you follow a thought and, like, really follow it through, life becomes kind of strange’, he said, ‘curiosity becomes perverse’.
His last line hung in the air. I didn’t get it but he did.
‘So what’s next?’
‘I dunno. Back to the studio. Back out there, I guess’.


No one saw him over the next term. Photography equipment filled his studio and he kept it locked. Waldo worked at night. Some talked of camera flashes lighting up the 3.00am blackness with a crazed silhouette framed in the top window of the building. It was hearsay of course.


He appeared on a dim March morning, tall and gaunt in a thick overcoat. The class was half-filled. They had lost interest in him. Waldo was a loner, that was for sure.
‘You’re always asking for research, so here it is’, he said as other students drifted in.
He clearly didn’t give a shit about them either.


Waldo flicked through his slideshow, giving brief descriptions of photographs sourced from books and archives. A scratchy black and white photograph of a hooded figure in an electric chair. A postcard of a seventeenth century Japanese fan with tiny painted flowers in green and red. An image from police archives of a dismembered body lying in wasteland, bloated and oversized. An LAPD cop in shades looks on. More hooded figures. These images were dark, real dark.


The next set of photographs was his own. Abandoned clothing and other found paraphernalia were assembled into bizarre get-ups. Waldo photographed himself wearing these against a black backdrop as if emerging from primal darkness. In each image he stood with his legs parted and hands raised slightly from the sides.


The clothing was tattered and rotting away in one photograph. A rancid leather insole was tied with blue frayed cord around a foot. The cord coiled up the leg holding layers of ripped plastic bags in place. Gaps exposed flesh reddened by restricted circulation. His hands were covered with mismatched industrial rubber gloves. Lichen and fungal growth spread over half a shredded denim jacket worn over charred remnants of a burnt cotton jumper. His face was shrouded under a cowl of cream satin smeared with grease marks.


Another photograph showed Waldo in a quilted undercover stretched around him. A soiled ruby cloak was draped over his shoulders and trailed on the ground as if he were lord of a future empire.


‘I never knew what the night has to offer. I spend my time wandering by the canals, through underpasses. I settle in undergrowth near lay-by’s and watch cars come and go. I’m watching, picking things up, just watching.’
‘That’s fucking weird’, said a student.
‘It’s more weird in the daytime. Everything dies in the light, loses its energy. It’s grim.’
‘No, I mean, dressing up like that.’
‘If you want to capture the life of the city, you’ve got to take on its life. Not just photographing it. I don’t need to do that anymore. The photographs are for college. I’m done with that now.’
‘But you’ve another term to go’, I said.
‘I’ll spend it out there. That’s what it’s about’.


The students had no more questions and left the room. Waldo closed down his presentation on the computer, I turned off the projector, stalling Waldo before he left the room.
‘All that stuff, all those unknown stories coming to life again. You’re like an incarnation, a figure of retribution. They’re good photographs. Strong. You should think about an MA.’
‘I told you, I’m done with that’.
It was the last thing I heard him say.


***


I really was done with that. I hated the place. The students in my class were dull. There was nothing going on there. I barely spoke to them. The lecturer was no better. Trying to live through the work of others. It’s sad at that age. Voyeurs and phoneys, every last one of them. They didn’t get it. It was time to go it alone.


It’s out there that’s real. The law is frail in abandoned space. Outsiders lurk beyond its scope. Everything out there is on the grounds of the freak. You negotiate on their terms. That’s the edge I’m after. It’s in the material I find. Each item is a story of an infraction. Clothing caked in blood. A woollen jumper unthreading along a disused path as if it was trying to get away. The stories are violent and perverse. I love it when I just can’t fathom them.


I started to live outside when I left college that day. I had a tent and sleeping bag I used once for a festival. I discovered a patch deep in the undergrowth I knew I could rest when needed. There was an old mattress there in the clearing. It was ripped and rusted springs broke through. Tealights had been placed inside glass jars around the mattress. As a love nest, it was long abandoned. The greening of the jars told me that. Someone had hung a square patterned sheet between two trees as if closing off a window from the world. I always sensed someone might return. Some teenagers or a sex monster, I never knew quite which. The tent was pitched on the edge of the clearing with its opening facing the mattress. It spooked the hell out of me at first to be honest.


I spent the nights wandering, sleeping most of the day and sneaking back to the flat for something to eat when I knew no-one was there. I would often settle in the bushes and watch people walking home from their night out, listening to their laughs and screams. It was thrilling to watch them pass close by in all their innocence. I was no freak, mind you. I just wanted to watch, savour the forbidden moment. I walked about when I got cold and drank coffee from a petrol station to thaw out. I felt disorientated under its white light, its white heat.


I fell into a routine with ease. I collected found objects and worked them into sculptural pieces. Even the coffee cups had character. I had possession of the world around me. One evening I found a pool cue which was cracked at its thicker end. I drew my knife down its spine splitting it neatly in two to the blue metal tip at its end. The tip end was then buried in the ground next to the tent. The cue swayed like two giant antennae in a rhythm quite beguiling. I also collected old two-litre coke bottles, half-filled them with water and hung them with cord from trees around me. They would catch occasional light in the wind and shimmer like grey stars. I would lie in the tent looking out at them, listening to the hum of the city and the occasional patter of drops on the roof of the tent. I would drink tins of beer and smoke roll-ups well into the morning, just looking out, watching. It was special.


My get-ups were getting more fantastic. I had tools to make bigger models. Old wiring could be shaped into a frame extending out from the body. High-viz vests were sewn together with their white strips at angles like a Vorticist dazzle ship. I stretched these over the frame. I wore soiled fisherman’s overalls underneath so my legs hung below like chopsticks. I was merging with the night on terms of my own. I could barely move in this rig-out. If my get-up was to work, it had to be seen in the right time and place. I needed to be mobile though. I had to get away sharp if needs be.


My time was spent making the necessary gear. I planned a scenario of how I would make my first appearance. I already knew the right location. A thin path down by the railyard had enough overgrowth surrounding it and light from the yard to navigate the thicket for my getaway. I knew the terrain well by now. I had to be considerate though. I couldn’t just leap out of the bushes in front of anyone. I figured drunken revellers making their way home were fair game. And there was the perfect trickle of them on a Wednesday night for me to isolate a couple, yes, a couple, that seemed right, and to freak the pure shite out of them.


I was ready when my get-up was ready. I chose my shredded suit, the one with the cord and plastic bags. I wore it for a few hours beforehand to make myself comfortable. Then I settled in my spot in the bushes and waited for the perfect couple to pass by.


I could sense they were arriving. I placed a white hood over my head with ripped slits to see and breathe. I could hear them laughing and whooping in the distance. They were veering from side to side on the path. I had an unopened tin of beer with me. I pierced a hole in its side with my knife, put my finger over the hole and shook it up real hard.


I threw it ahead of them when they passed me. The tin cracked and fizzed on the tarmac. I acted before they could figure it out. I stood out on the path a few metres behind them and let out a deep guttural rasp. I did not move. Confused by the commotion in front and their newfound horror at their rear, I knew I had control. The path ahead of them was free. Free for them to flee.


I kept my eye on him. His gestures were flailing and unformed. Her movements quickly cohered. I had got to her. She recoiled, lifting her left leg up as if to curl into a ball, spread her fingers wide and screamed. Really screamed. Barely reaching for breath she screamed again. It cut right through me. I still did not move. Her boyfriend had turned towards her and stretched out his arms, swaying from side to side as if to block a tackle but with his back to me. It didn’t make sense. She screamed again. She would not stop. I was losing control. He moved closer to her, turned his head towards me, jerking it back and forth between the two of us. I could see he was beginning to fathom what had appeared behind them.


Time was up. Time to act. Time to get the fuck out of here. The screaming came now in short breathy bursts, totally frantic. I wanted it to stop. My head was throbbing. I had to move slow, fake control. They were gaining momentum. He had his hands on her arms and, turning her round, I could hear him saying, not shouting, ‘Run, fucking run … let’s get the fuck out of here’. Together, they made their way up the path. Together they were out of sight.


I was gone too. I was tearing through the undergrowth, snagging on branches, senseless in the dark as I veered from my path. I was out of control, shaken to the core by her screams. I ditched my hood half out of panic, half in disgust. It seemed to calm me down even if it was careless. It was evidence now, or a story for someone to pick up on. I was a good distance from the tent though. A safe distance. For the time being at least. People would now be on the lookout. Not like vigilantes tracking the undergrowth in wide lines, flaming torches and dogs straining on leashes. I shouldn’t be so melo-fucking-dramatic. Word would get around though. I needed to be safe.


I was walking by now, my heart still raw, my senses blitzed. I was calming down. I was beginning to think again.


She had really lost it and I had lost it on the back of that. A scream as an instinctual act of self-preservation. I had never really thought of it like that. It’s so damn obvious really. This was not how it was meant to be. I hated myself for what I had done to her. I hated myself for losing control. It was not going to end like this. As I lay down back at the tent, exhausted, I knew I had to give it one more go. Better planned and better prepared. I snapped open a tin of beer and slurped from it. Yes, I would think it through properly this time. I took a draw from a roll-up. No more fucking screams, that’s for sure.


I was going to give it a week before I even thought of taking things out there again. To let it all calm down and be sure that no-one was on the look-out for me. I couldn’t help myself. The cowardly way I fell to pieces out there. I had to banish the demons. The weekend was coming so it was time to act. My impatience wouldn’t be a problem. It upped the game if the police were scouting the path by the railyard. I knew the routes and there would be an obvious pattern to their movements. Thinking about it, it gave me a timeframe in which to act. The point after a patrol passed was best for me. If there was even a patrol out there of course. It was worth a look. I would do it tonight. A night of watching, surveying a changing terrain.


I have to credit myself sometimes. There was a foot patrol on the Friday. They worked a large circle, coming up the path every hour. There was two officers. There wasn’t much talk from them as they passed close by. I got a real buzz as I crouched there in the undergrowth. I lay there silent. It wasn’t power I felt this time. I felt nerved and furtive, on a border of my own making.


I had a get-up I had been working on for some time. Two different pieces of curtain were cut up and sewn to make two contrasting trouser legs. One had large red roses with their thorny stems twisting against a once-white background. The other was vivid orange with yellow psychedelic motifs. Roof felting was joined in strips and stretched across my torso. One arm was covered in the remains of a leather biker jacket, the other with chain mail I had found in a skip. I had mismatched army boots. I tucked one of the curtain legs into the higher of the two boots. My crotch was an enlarged triangle cut out from a light blue shaggy toilet mat. The fronds had faded from years of talcum powder settling into them. All of this was topped with a large teddy bear’s head hollowed out and placed over my own. Its tufted ears stood pert, a button eye hung from a thread and the mouth was hollowed out to make a strange orifice. It was weird, real weird, even by my standards. I dipped by hands into a tin of red paint I had lying around. Once dried, the paint flaked but enough held to make it work. I was a kid’s walking nightmare, suitably perverse for the occasion.


I made my way towards the railyard. I settled in and sat back from the path drinking beer, my head gear by my side. I moved closer to the path when it quietened down after closing hour. Two lads, slightly out of it, were my prime target. I had a decoy ready to faze them. Not a tin of beer this time. No, much better than that. A flare. I had found it a few days back and the seal was fully intact. No dampness in it. It would light straight away. If it didn’t I would disappear back into the underworld. If it did, I had a shimmering red grotto in which to perform some pure fucking theater.


Here goes. Two lads. A bit of shouting, a bit of banter. Young enough, lean enough. No-one else around. They were pushing each other, messing about. They were getting closer. Christ, I was fumbling with my lighter. It was damp. I used two hands. One to release the gas, the other to flick the flint. It worked. The fuse, held between my knees, was lit. I threw it up ahead. They were near me when the smoke started to bellow and the red metal light whitened the path. The stage was set. I put on my bear head. The lads fell silent and stood slightly apart scouting around them.


I stepped out and stood in the middle of the path, still and silent. Seconds passed. They were silent. I was silent. I held my space on the path. The red light flickered behind them framing them in silhouette. They were looking to each other, facing me, looking to each other again and then they began to move. They did not speak as they started to move around each side of me. They were calm, curious even. I must have faith in my get-up.
‘Hey, what’s your name?’, the first lad said.
‘Tell us your name’, said the second.
One of them tried to get behind me. I moved. They moved too. Still calm. One to the front, one now getting behind. The holes in the bear’s head were too small. It was hard to see, it was hard to breathe. I was clamming up.
‘Tell us your name’
‘I know you’
They were freaking me out. They alternated between each other. The voice in front. A voice behind now asking questions.
‘Tell us your name’
‘We know you, don’t we?’
They couldn’t know me. One of them tapped me on the back, then retreated. Fuck, he moved fast. The other moved forward, tapped me on the front, then retreated just as quick. They were nimble. They were syncing. Testing me. Probing me. I didn’t expect this. I had to play this out. Find a gap. Distract them. Run.
‘Who are you?’
‘Tell us your name’
My get-up didn’t faze them. They were circling me, darting forward and back. They were smiling, circling again, nipping in and out. They were hunting me – like a bear.
‘You can speak. Tell us your name.’
‘You can tell us’
The flare fizzled and dazzled. I was confused. I twisted and turned, never catching sight of the two of them at once.
‘We know you’
‘We’ve seen you before. Don’t you remember?’
How could they know me. They can’t see my face. They sure didn’t look like students. They were mean, slick, hunched and ready to pounce. Little mean midgety fuckers. Grinning. Snarling. Not giving an inch. Circling me again in the other direction, darting in and out.
‘We know who you are’
‘Tell us your name’
The questions were killing me. Sweat was stinging my eyes. I swiped my arms to protect myself. One nipped in from behind again, tapping me harder. I swung around. The other replicated the move. I swung round. They were in control. They were beginning to laugh, to taunt me. Christ, they were nasty little bastards.


I growled and lunged forward towards the first lad. He sidestepped, swaying low to the left. I followed him and swung round to get to his back but he moved so quick he was facing me once more. They were in front of me once more, spreading out, grinning.
‘It’s not long now’.
‘You’re safe’.
One of them was behind me. This was menacing. Real menacing. I was spinning and saw myself outside myself, looking back to my get-up and all that I am. It wasn’t going to end like this. A glint, a sharp flash of the teeth and another dart from the front. I step back sensing a grunt and whoosh from behind. I see myself again. I raise my arms towards a knife coming down, right down through my reddened hands, right down through a shredded bear and right through the back of Waldo Jeffers’ head, with blood blackened by the light of the flare flowing gently to a dark pool on a path which will fall silent before it will be warmed by the morning sun. It sure as hell is not going to end like this.