The following is from Craig Cliff’s novel, The Mannequin Makers. From a moment of calamity emerges a work of masterful storytelling, at once wildly entertaining and formally ambitious. An unforgettable debut novel about art, imitation, and obsession. Craig Cliff is the author of A Man Melting, a collection of short stories, which won the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book.
My name is Gabriel Doig. I was born into a family of ships’ carvers on the banks of the River Clyde in Scotland. I grew up at the feet of my father and grandfather in a shower of sawdust and wood shavings as they made their figureheads: bold ladies in flowing dresses bound for the grandest barques and the fastest clippers. My mother, Agnes, would often pose as a model in the early stages of a new carving, but she preferred to pass her time in the wee office that fronted Dalrymple Street, the main thoroughfare between the custom house and the shipyards. Her chief task was keeping the books, but she was seldom alone. Shopkeepers, fishermen, Evening Times paper boys, women with the finest parasols or the tattiest tartan shawls across their hunched shoulders—they all found time as they went about their business to stop in and say a word to my mother. She knew everything that was happening along the docks although she never seemed to step beyond the threshold.
The four of us lived above the workshop. The living quarters were cramped, but it was handy being only a flight of stairs from your work. From the upstairs window you could see the bare masts in the graving dock and beyond these the off-white sails of world trade coming and going. I was an only child raised in a world of adults. When I was a wean my family called me precocious. As I grew older the terms they preferred to use were: brash, bull-headed and contermaucious. I was a handful, all right. I can’t count the times I told my father I was running away, that his figureheads and trailboards and whetstones and invoices could go hang.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
My grandfather, Robert Doig, had been lured down from his croft in the 1830s by the promise of steady wages and the extravagances of kippers, salted salmon and apples. He was one of seven novice carvers apprenticed on the Jupiter and he quickly worked his way up to carving the figureheads for a dozen merchant sloops and brigantines. When my father, Duncan, was old enough he joined the firm of Doig & Son, doubling its workforce. At the time, the banks of the River Clyde were home to dozens of shipbuilders who catered for the best shipping lines in Britain and a good many European firms. Clydeside ships were taking coal, coke, textiles, tempered glass and settlers to strange corners of the Earth and bringing back to the motherland tea, cotton, flax, gum, gold, wool, stuffed birds, shrunken heads and tales of wonder.
I was given my first carver’s mallet when I was old enough to walk, though I preferred to gnaw its handle rather than put it to work. Sometimes I sat at my mother’s feet as she talked the ear off a police constable or supercargo. Her talk was constant, compulsive, as if she would die should a minute of daylight pass in silence. When it was just the two of us in the office, she told me stories about beings from the Unseelie Court: the spunkies that steal children from their beds and leave ugly changelings in their place, or the Glastig, who resembles a beautiful woman until you are up close and realise she’s made up of animal parts—goats, horses, hares. According to my mother, the Glastig liked to seduce near-sighted men and drown them in the breakers. She would laugh and slap her thigh at the most gruesome parts, as if she didn’t believe in the old stories, though she still insisted on pouring a wee jug of milk over the cobblestones on the night of Samhain for the ‘auld Hairy Ones’.
I was only a bairn and believed it all, of course. The world was a scary place, a magical place.
The only helpful beings my mother ever spoke of were the brounies, who liked to complete unfinished chores. At the end of the day, when my father and grandfather retired upstairs, she’d say, ‘All right, Gabriel, time for the brounies to pick up their broomies.’
I was five years old when my grandfather began his sudden decline and I was expected to do more around the workshop. But my head was filled with fairy stories. My father would often catch me dreaming, pausing as I rubbed crocus powder and tallow into the leather strops and taking a long, satisfied sniff, or leaning on my broom, the workshop half-swept, and inspecting my red and swollen hands, the result of another calamitous expedition to retrieve the beeswax we used to seal the carved taffrails that were left unpainted.
Around this time my mother taught me to read so that in time I could handle purchase orders, invoices and remittances, though I preferred to put this skill to use perusing Reynolds’s Miscellany for true accounts from castaways or following the fortunes of Dick Turpin in the penny dreadfuls. I learnt early on that people spoke differently on the page than in real life. If I were to open my lips right now—if I could speak—I’m sure I would sound quite different. But this is the voice I have on the page, the only voice I’ve left.
I spent my time in the workshop acting out feats of the highwayman with my band of imaginary friends, hiding behind great blocks of yellow pine or lengths of elm before leaping out, wielding a parting tool like a pistol and telling the passengers of the coach to keep still ‘Or I shall have a snap at you’.
Soon enough, my imaginary friends took up residence in the figureheads my father was producing. I gave them all names—Betsy, Mirabelle, Rosanna—and could not hide my tears when they were carried out of the workshop, laid flat on a cart and shrouded in bed sheets, to ascend to the bow of a ship and never return.
My memories of childhood ring with four sounds: sandpaper on wood, steel on wood, steel on slipstone and my father’s voice berating me: ‘The workshop is nae place f’dreaming!’
Just as you have many questions for your father, Avis, I am left grasping for answers when it comes to mine. I look back now and wonder if he was so eager to put me to work simply so I could pick up the slack left by my grandfather, or if his father’s demise had affected him in other ways. Did he ever stop and think about the trade into which I was being ushered? As he passed me my first carver’s mallet in lieu of a rattle he must have had an inkling that a ship’s carver mightn’t fare as well over the next two decades as he had in the last two. My father was not unaware that the steam engine had already changed the world. He called the steamers that ran along the Clyde ‘puffers’ or ‘toy shippies’. He claimed they were no good out on the ocean and couldn’t match the grace and beauty of a sailing ship (he was right about this last point, at least). Perhaps he really believed that sailing ships would endure. That he was offering me as good a life as the one he had led. If this is true, all I can say is that he was subject to the most human of self-deceptions: that he and his profession were necessary and infallible.
Whatever grudge I bore the man, it has long since dissolved. But as a child I ignored his remonstrations and continued larking about the workshop. As I soaked the day’s paintbrushes in turpentine and massaged the last traces of pigment from between their bristles, it was hard to resist the urge to think about the places to which my figurehead friends were travelling, out in front of their vessels. I imagined myself cast below the bowsprit and cutting through the waves, through the pea-soup fogs and icy storms of the world’s wild oceans, the eyes of the ship, its proud mascot, clutching my breast and staring defiantly at all who sailed past.
My mother was fond of telling me how much I resembled my father and grandfather. That even at the age of six or seven it was apparent that I would grow to the same modest height, would share their stocky build and square, paw-like hands. I already had their thin auburn hair and would no doubt grow a fine rust-coloured beard in time. I did not like to hear this. I wanted to grow up tall and blond, a fitting mate for whichever of Doig & Son’s Nordic beauties miraculously returned to the workshop, animate and amorous, after being struck with lightning out there on the ocean.
Though I found enough wonders inside the workshop of Doig & Son, the town back from the docks seemed a dull place to spend a life. I dreaded the days my father sent me to collect scrap leather from the back of the saddlery or buy paintbrushes from blind widow McTavish, errands that led me into the network of narrow closes and lanes where the walls of the buildings were rough and uneven, the paving stones small and jumbled, the air thick and close with smoke. The tenements struggled to conceal the lives they contained: washing hung from wooden poles fastened to walls with guide ropes; rough rugs were draped over railings for beating; solitary old women wrapped in cloth and blankets as if they were bandages stood sentry every few yards; children huddled in twos or threes fast against walls, sheltering from the rain or the bucket of suds likely to be tossed by the upstairs neighbour. They would always break off their chatter or pick up their ball of tightly wound rags and stare at me as if I were a ghost. I suppose I was looking at them the same way.
Despite the yellow bills plastered to the side of some of these tenements proclaiming, ‘Town Improvement Bill: These Premises Coming Down’, the closes never seemed to change. Time refused to pass. All the movement and enterprise seemed to be around the docks or on the water: the constant stream of carts around the huge brick cone of the bottle works; the chugging chimneys of the sugar refinery further along the river; the puff of white from the paddle steamer that puttered up and down the river like a gosling that has lost its mother; the derricks of the shipyards, the masts rising in their midst.
I began avoiding the lanes and closes, taking circuitous routes along the river and the major roads to accomplish my errands.
On reflection, such actions scream of cowardice and timidity and run contrary to the image I held of myself at the time as some kind of brave adventurer trapped in a life of drudgery. But if there is one thing I have learnt in the course of my life it is that proximity seldom improves perception.
Time passed and I graduated from tales of highwaymen and pirates to Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the Odyssey and the Aeneid. But my father did not give up on me.
‘If you want to daff with gods and goddesses,’ he said one day, ‘then you had better learn how to make them.’
He drew the rough shape of a figure in pencil on four planes of a block of yellow pine and instructed me to rough it out.
‘Leave plenty of fat on the banes,’ he said. ‘It’s for me to find the final shape and there’s nae way to fatten her up if you go too far.’
The final figure was to be a full-length female with a long dress trailing down below her ankles. Other ships’ carvers formed their blocks by laminating several smaller lengths of timber together—sometimes they even carved heads and limbs separately before affixing them to the trunk—but the preferred approach at Doig & Son was more akin to that of a carver working in marble. This new figure was cast diagonally on a great block of yellow pine that was much taller than I would ever be. I pulled up a stool and began by knocking off the four top corners with the hatchet and was soon immersed in the fantasy that there was a woman trapped inside the block and I was working to set her free. Was it Circe or was it Dido? The pleasure I felt as the form slowly took shape and the woman emerged from the wood was better than any burst pimple or whiff of treated leather.
When I came to the lower half of the figure, I had to hold her blocky chin with one hand to keep her from toppling forward as I chipped away down below.
‘You’ll be wantin’ to lay her down,’ my father said, chuckling. I dropped my hatchet and placed my other hand on the figure’s chin, but could support only the weight of the wood and nothing more.
‘Aye, you’ll need to work on those muscles if you’re to be much use to me,’ he said and drew out two sawhorses from beneath the far workbench. ‘You mind her head.’ He ran one end of a chain under the wood and pulled it up until he could slip the final link over the large hook hanging from the ceiling to which the other end of the chain was already attached. He pinned his right hip to one of the block’s remaining flat planes, pulled the leather strap that hoisted the chain with one hand and directed the figure with his other hand until it came to rest on the sawhorses. ‘Just hoy when she needs turning.’
When I had done all I could safely do with the hatchet my father gave me a large gouge and took up one himself. ‘You take the backside and I’ll take the front,’ he said and gave me a wink. The figure became slimmer as the day wore on, but was still more golem than siren at day’s close. As I swept up our shared shavings, I revelled in the glow of my father’s good mood and admiration.
‘A good day’s work, my son. And about time you did your first.’
After another day of roughing out, I had to lay down my tools and look on as my father set about removing the last of the woody rind to reveal the raw grain of the figurehead’s hair, skin and clothing. I’d never seen anything so beautiful and he still had another week of work feathering the hair, bringing out the veins in soft relief and detailing the lace and brocade on her dress, before sanding and treating the wood and painting the figure in polychrome. While my father worked, I copied acanthus scrolls onto a length of mahogany that would become one of the trailboards.
When a cart arrived the next week with three more enormous pre-dried, square-cut blocks of pine, my father translated a sketch that was attached to a purchase order onto the first block and asked me to start roughing out, beginning the adventure anew. Except it was less of an adventure the second time around. By the third, it was just another chore. Anyone could slough big chunks of wood off with an axe. I wanted to keep going, to feather the hair and sand the skin, but instead I was stuck practising my gouge work on decorative panels while my father carried out the master strokes he had learnt under his own father and perfected in time, but seemed unwilling to share.
I’d badger him as he worked. ‘How come I cannae do that?’ ‘I’m nae going to learn anything this way.’ ‘You’re just afraid I’ll be better than you.’ He told me I was going as fast as I could expect, that it was not a race and he couldn’t afford to waste any timber.
‘It might grow on trees, Gabriel, but wood doesnae come cheap.’
I was surprised my father did not come down on me harder — if I couldn’t get my way, the least I could do was make him lose his temper — but I think he was pleased that I was showing an interest in his craft for the first time and this must have softened his mood.
Time passed. My father was true to his word. With every new figurehead, I took on another task: treating the wood, painting the base coat, colouring the clothing and finally the skin and eyes. In the months leading up to my fifteenth birthday, I learnt how to make larger blocks for stock figureheads by laminating three-inch-thick lengths of pine together with linseed oil putty. On the day of my birthday, my father removed the clamps from a five-foot-high block and handed me a pencil.
‘There you go,’ he said. ‘Your first figurehead from scratch.
There’s enough here for a bust, possibly a full torso.’
I had been waiting for this moment. A piece all of my own. I stared at the laminated block, pencil in hand, but could not imagine the shape of the figure submerged inside.
‘Dinnae worry,’ my father said, ‘it’s just for stock. Take your time.’
I spent the entire morning and most of the afternoon sketching and resketching on a piece of paper and then on the first plane of the block itself until the surface was a grey, indecipherable map. ‘Come on, lad,’ my father said. ‘I said take your time but you cannae take forever.’
‘But I dinnae know who’s inside,’ I said. ‘Ach, it’s nae hard. Will it be a lad or a lass?’
‘Aye, good choice. Dinnae waste time on a man unless it’s a commission. Is it a bust, or will you go for everything above the waist?’
‘Long locks or a bunnet?’ ‘Long locks.’
‘And what’s her name?’ I hesitated. ‘Penelope.’
‘Och, that’s nae good.You cannae give her a lassie’s name, you have to give her a ship’s name. Venus o’ the Seas, Perseverance, Faith, Valour, Glory.’
‘But Pa, there are plenty of Marys.’
‘Aye. And this lass’ll end up on a ship with a name like Big Ben but that’s nae the point. Think of a virtue and bring it to life, that’s the secret, Gabriel.’
I thought about Penelope being bothered by all those suitors in Ithaca, holding out hope that her husband, Odysseus, was still alive and might one day return. How he did return, disguised, and won Penelope’s hand by stringing his bow and shooting an arrow through twelve axe heads before turning his arrows on the suitors.
‘All right,’ I said. ‘What about Vengeance?’
He chuckled. ‘You’ve been reading more of them stories. But aye, Vengeance will do. You dinnae have the wood for a raised arm, but will she have both arms crossed or by her side?’
‘Crossed in defiance.’
‘Good lad. That’s your figure there.’ He grabbed the block of wood and rotated it a quarter-turn so that a fresh plane faced me. ‘Now sketch her profile and get roughing out.’
I worked slowly the rest of the day and all of the next, careful that there were no rash strokes to limit my future choices. Vengeance emerged from the wood, her shoulders square to the world but her head turned to the side, demurring in unsanded pine though I’d make her cheeks burn once they were painted. I was able to change the position of her arms so that they were no longer crossed: one rested on her ribs as if she were about to make a low bow, while the other was positioned behind her back.
At the end of the second day, my father paid Vengeance an inspection.
‘Is this the neckline of her dress way up here?’ he asked. ‘Aye.’
‘Och, she’ll need to show more flesh than that. One breast at least.’
I felt my face redden. I knew that sailors believed a naked woman could calm the seas—I’d sanded and painted dozens of bared breasts that my father had produced—but I was hoping to avoid carving my first breast entirely by myself this time. I hadn’t seen or felt a real breast since I was a bairn.
Before I could respond my father had turned the figure and asked, ‘What are you doing around the back here?’
‘She’s clutching a knife.’
‘Aye, but her back’ll be bolted to the bow. Dinnae waste time on the back, lad.’
‘But Pa, if she’s for stock, willnae a shipowner give her a full inspection?’
He brought a hand to his beard. ‘Aye, perhaps. But it willnae do to spend a day’s work for a ten-second keek.’ He picked up a veiner and his carver’s mallet. ‘The story needs to be told out front. This arm needs to say,“I’m holding a chib ’gainst me back,” but you dinnae need to carve it.’ He set in a faint line with the veiner on the outside of the arm, making the angle at which it protruded from the shoulder more dramatic. ‘Aye, that’s an arm with something to hide.’
‘Thank you,’ I said begrudgingly.
‘A carver doesnae makes mistakes, Gabriel, only adjustments.’
I took his advice, lowering the neckline of Vengeance’s dress to reveal one breast and leaving the back blocked out while I worked the final layers of wood from her flesh and got to sanding her down. I was back in familiar territory now, having painted dozens of my father’s figureheads, but the blank back continued to bother me. It was true that when Vengeance was pushed against the wall she looked as if she clutched a knife to her back and as soon as she turned her face to you she’d strike. But pull her out from the wall a couple of inches and it was too much not to peek around the back and be disappointed.
‘She’s nae a bad first effort,’ my father said, inspecting Vengeance the morning after I had applied the final coat of paint. His hand ran over the folds of her dress and up to the smooth mound of her exposed breast, coming to rest as the webbing between his thumb and forefinger pushed up against the slight rise of the areola. Still gripping the breast, he turned the figure around, paused and turned her back.
‘She’s a bracing design all right, and may nae be to many tastes, but a good first effort.’
I may have spent my childhood separate from others my age, shut in the workshop or off on some adventure with Dirk Turpin or Captain Nemo, but I see now that I was typical of most fifteen-year-old lads in that I thought myself deserving of more praise than my father granted. I could see a few imperfections in my handiwork, of course, but I felt that I was only one or two figureheads’ practice from equalling the skill of my father.
One or two figureheads became four or five, yet I was still spending days on the fingers of each hand or perfecting the nostrils. My father seemed resigned to the process, which did little to improve my mood.
‘It took me a few figures to get to where I am now,’ he’d say. ‘Your scroll work is barrie and your figures are getting there.’
‘I’m sick of carving for stock,’ I told him one afternoon when I decided this was what was holding me back. ‘When can I do a commission?’
‘When you’re ready.’ He cast a purposeful glance at the far wall of the workshop where Vengeance stood alongside Fortitude, Courage, Lightning and Passion, all awaiting a second-rate shipowner to select them for their latest bow.
Enter Agathos Rennie. He came in through the workshop’s large back door, which we left open to Drummer’s Close to let in air. Rennie was well known along the docks as an upstart who had inherited a one-third share of his father’s shipping business and, thanks to a campaign of half-truths and intimidation, had managed to unburden his younger brother and mother of their stock and claim control of the firm. On the afternoon he entered Doig & Son, his first big commission, an unnamed two hundred-foot clipper, was nearing completion.
‘Hard at work, I see,’ he announced stiffly, in the kind of sanded-down accent that frequent visitors to London seemed to acquire. He was tall and lean but a wee bit stooped, as if he’d crammed himself into a coat two sizes too small. Rennie pressed a finger to the bridge of his pince-nez, despite the fact it appeared to be pinned hard against his face as it was. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-five years old and I questioned whether the eyeglasses were necessary or an attempt to seem older.
‘Mr Rennie,’ my father said, ‘I wondered when you’d stop by.’ He laid his rasp down but gestured for me to keep working.
‘Aye, Doig,’ said Rennie. ‘Tis a figurehead I’m after.’
‘Your father was a good man but you’re cutting it fine if you want his likeness,’ he said, ‘or your own.’
‘I’m aware of that. What have you got,’ Rennie paused and made a show of inspecting his fingernails, ‘in stock?’
‘A fine selection.’ My father placed a hand in the small of Rennie’s back to guide him to the wall where half a dozen of his own figureheads stood.
‘I don’t fancy spending much on what is, in the end, a trifle to please the crew and nothing more.’
‘In that case,’ my father said, wheeling Rennie to the left and directing him to my figures, ‘we have a selection of busts and torsos. Perfect for a clipper. Keeps the weight down and,’ he slipped into a whisper that was still audible to me at the back of the workshop, ‘easy on the pocketbook.’
At this I placed my gouge down on my piece of inlay and crept forward. I saw Rennie bring his hand to his chin, appraising my feisty maidens.
‘Are they all the same price?’
‘Aye. We can work something out for a firm such as yours, Mr Rennie.’
The shipowner ran his eyes along the row once more before stepping forward to inspect Vengeance. I wished he would not peek around the back, but so he did.
‘She’s all ready to be fitted,’ my father said. ‘Perfect size for a clipper bow.’
‘What is the meaning of this arm?’
‘She’s clutching something back there, in’she?’ ‘But what?’
‘It’s best left—’ he began.
‘A knife,’ I said in my loudest, clearest voice.
Rennie and my father turned, one face a mixture of surprise and derision, the other all vexation.
‘And who do we have here?’ Rennie asked. ‘That’s my lad, Gabriel. A fine carver hisself.’
Rennie pulled his pince-nez from his nose and squinted at me. ‘Did you carve this, boy?’ he asked, flicking a thumb dismissively at the figurehead.
I didn’t like the way he had spoken to me, so I said nothing.
Rennie turned back to survey Vengeance. He stepped forward and ran the back of his fingers along the cheek of her turned-away face. I liked how she refused to meet the shipowner’s gaze. It was easy to imagine that she bore a grudge against this snoot. That she would creep into his room when he was fast asleep and slit his throat.
‘I see you are trying to foist your seconds on me, Mr Doig. Bup!’ Rennie raised his hand to silence my father. ‘Whatever you were going to charge me, halve it and we have a deal.’
My father looked down at the long-fingered hand that was offered him. For a moment I imagined him clamping his hand down on Rennie’s wrist and telling him that he’d not stand for a body treating any of Doig & Son’s wares with such disdain. But he took the hand and shook it firmly.
I had sold my first figurehead, though the circumstances left a lot to be desired.
From The Mannequin Makers. Used with permission of Milkweed Editions. Copyright © 2017 by Craig Cliff.