mhairi corr


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Once upon a time, before discovering paper pulp, I worked with wood. I salvaged planks from skips to make wooden toys. The planks would be hefted up the stairs to the attic flat of the Glasgow tenement where I worked, my bedroom doubling as a studio.

The downstairs neighbour had been growing increasingly impatient with the banging and hammering above her. Mrs Akhtar was not fluent in English, but the message was clear when she appeared at my door, pointing to the ceiling plaster sprinkled through her long black hair. Apparently each time I bashed a dowel peg through a piece of wood, a snowstorm was caused down below.

Persevering with the wooden toys, I attempted to deaden the sound and ceiling-shifting vibration by tying foam and rags over my mallet. I became tentative and hesitant, sneaking down the stairwell to confirm Mrs Akhtar's departure, then bounding back up to my flat for a frenzy of hurried hammering before her return. In my haste and anxiety I was producing work of less quality. Oblong shapes morphed into haphazard parallelograms, wheels were positioned off-centre and my toy buses started to roll with a limp.

Something had to give; Mrs Akhtar's ceiling or my modus operandi. Mrs Akhtar's ceiling was also my floor-we would both lose out. My way of working had to change. The band-saw, the jig-saw, the drill, the hammer and the mallet were packed into a box, to remain there until I had acquired a house in the country or soundproofing.

Subsequent weeks were spent twitching and pacing, smoking too much and gazing slack-jawed at daytime television. Then there was a flurry of cake baking. This went some way towards satisfying the urge to create in three dimensions. A surfeit of cakes were baked. Not good enough to press on friends, neighbours or Mrs Akhtar, I devoured them all myself. They provided soporific accompaniment to a bucket of tea and an afternoon of telly stupor. Then one day as I was sliding a batch of fat gingerbread homunculi out of the oven, I recalled as a child, baking a papier- maché mask.

  Paper pulp was the solution ! No need for machinery, tools or expensive equipment. In fact, I already had all the ingredients required. It was as if the flour, water and newspaper had been waiting patiently for me to arrange a rendezvous in a plastic bucket.

  The first batch of pulp hurled me into a frenzy of excitement, despite its similarity to grey porridge. I slapped it over a rudimentary wire armature in great dollops. This was wonderful material. It had the consistency of mud pie. The creature I was working on was taking the shape of a large crocodile, so I coaxed it along, teasing out a long tail and sharp pointed teeth bordering a thick fleshy tongue.

  I was a novice then. It hadn't occurred to me to let each layer dry before adding the next. The pulp was just walloped on with gusto. I was impatient to paint lovely shades of reptilian greens and yellows over the wet grey pulp but the paint wouldn't adhere. Ten minutes with the hairdryer and the surface was dry enough to accept paint. The crocodile was splendid. Dizzy with success, I didn't dwell on the fact that it weighed a ton. I couldn't lift it.

  Every now and again over the next few days, I would make a fresh attempt to budge my reptilian lodger. I could not understand where his weight had come from. Newspapers were surely not this heavy even when pulped in such a substantial quantity. Some strange alchemy had taken place.

  After a week, a blanket of thick stench filled the room. Some tentative sniffing around the crocodile confirmed its source. By now the reptile's presence was growing sinister. My first reaction was to shut the door, tip-toe into the next room, turn the television on and eat cakes. My second reaction was to breathe deeply and face facts; I had a crocodile in the bedroom that was too heavy to move and was beginning to stink. If I didn't take action, the smell would have Mrs Akhtar at the door, gripping her nose and arranging her eyebrows into question marks.

  I had to reclaim my bedroom or I would find myself starring as the victim of a horror story, squeezing myself into progressively smaller spaces as the crocodile took over my home. The only way to diminish the monster was to confront it.

  I opened the bedroom door and approached the crocodile. It was basking in a shaft of sunlight coming through the window, its heavy belly flattening against the carpet. Our eyes met. It moved.

  It did...it moved.

  My eyesight is weak, not to be trusted. I urged myself forward, until I was kneeling on the floor, my face against his stinking jaw.

  There was movement. I was close enough to his putrefying flesh to see the surface of his tongue rippling. An army of tiny worms choreographed into a Mexican wave. The tops of their bodies had burst through the tongue's surface while their bottom halves were still held tight in the pulp.

  A heaving disgust sent me on an upward trajectory, launching me onto my feet. I grabbed the pulp-mixing stick and thrashed the crocodile's head. The stick cracked through a dry crust to lodge in sucking sodden pulp just under the surface.

  Curiosity replaced distaste as I examined the mushy interior of my first born. I could see how the thick layers of pulp had remained wet beneath the top layer which had formed a dry skin from the hairdryer treatment.

  Perfect conditions for a larvae nursery; damp, dark and rotting. This also explained the crocodile's weight; pints of water were used to make the pulp. It couldn't evaporate through the dry surface layer but lay trapped, stagnating and fetid and bog-like.

  My mind was clear as I shovelled portions of crocodile into bin bags. I would begin again with my new knowledge. Creating with paper pulp was a process to be executed in stages. Let each layer dry before adding the next.

  Prior to the forced gestation of the crocodile, I had been used to the immediacy and obedience of wood. But planks were dictatorial in their limitations. As I continued to work with pulp I fell in love with its flexibility and the process of reduction and regeneration, of transforming newspaper into beings.

  The wooden toys were phased out and pulp people started to evolve. No more moving parts, no more rolling wheels, swivelling heads, quacking beaks, flapping wings.

 I learned a lot from the gruesome autopsy of the crocodile. He was sacrificed for the good of his descendants who continue to thrive happily ever after. As does Mrs Akhtar, who never met me on the stairs the night I carried pieces of rancid corpse to the bin.