I know this story well, as it started in the little Welsh village where I grew up. They talk about it there still, though more as a part of local lore than in the hushed whispers of scandal or the cackle of current gossip. I came to be there because my parents had moved to the country from the nearest big town not long after I was born. The locals were friendly enough, but, as is typical for such places, by the time we moved away twenty years later we were still looked upon as outsiders
One of those locals, Mr Jones, was an eccentric character whose artistic leanings, had they been given free rein, would have turned the village into a fairytale world of badly planned parks and massive graceless follies constructed with amateurish solidity and replete with dangerous decorations and random objects of ridicule. He single-handedly planted flowering herbs and bulbs on the public green, fencing it off with a barricade of railway sleepers so that the plot became inaccessible and the grass waist deep. He would place strange homemade concrete pinnacles onto pre-existing and often ancient walls, fixing them with an unreliable orange or pink cement of his concoction. This recipe defined much of his work, and gave a wedding-cake character to his masterpiece; a draughty open-plan 'museum' built from and filled with stone objects plundered from the locality. The county planning department despaired, along with a number of regional historians and archaeologists. No record survives of where all those milestones, millstones and other markers came from, but the monument in which they are now encased doubles as a bombproof bus shelter to this day.
One summer the old man died, and a small coterie of the curious gathered to see what strange objects would emerge when his house was cleared. The archaeologists and historians were disappointed, as were the local magpies and freeloaders. The afternoon's yield was a pair of steel containers filled with scrap metal and rotting, nail infested wood, some grotesue and badly carved wooden animals and masks, a few flimsy sticks of furniture and a number of unidentifiably anonymous stone slabs and boulders. Twilight came and everyone was already in the pub when the curator of the big town's municipal museum and library, released from office hours, finally drove up in his 4x4.
His was an experienced eye. He had a background as a dealer and agent in art and antiques, and had been good at spotting gems amongst the dross and taking advantage of the ignorant both as a buyer and seller, until marriage and children had obliged him to seek the security of a steady income. Anyone with an interest in the subterranean pulse of the region might have guessed why he was there, but he himself hadn't expected to come away with anything more interesting than some masons marks of overlooked Roman shards: uncommercial, but possible museum fodder. His late arrival paid dividends however. The last rays of the sun, skimming parallel with the ground, reached under the wooden planks in the first skip and illuminated its interior like a burial chamber aligned with some prehistoric solstice. An uneven form wrapped in a rough material lay there like a malformed mummy. It invited investigation.
He couldn't quite pin down the feeling, but knew it of old: something of interest or value was calling out. Forgotten or ignored by its owner, covered in layers of neglect, he had sensed it many times before. Lifting the splintered wood with groans of unaccustomed effort, he hefted the planks onto his back and felt down blindly inside the metal wall of the container until he gripped canvas. Heaving and straining with muscles and tendons which would remind him of the moment for months afterwards, he managed to prise his prize over the sill intact.
The canvas bag dropped at his feet with a solid thump, its contents making the sun-dried ground sound hollow.
A quick look inside revealed a stone object. It was a little difficult to evaluate on the spot, but the curator's eye summed up its sinuous lines and graceful curves in an instant. He bundled it into the boot of his car with furtive haste, and was gone.
Almost a year passed. Village life carried on regardless, but the annual summer circus surrounding the national awards for contemporary art was in full swing in the capital city, and the usual arguments between craftsmen and conceptual artists raged harder than ever. The controversy over who was to be crowned as being the most controversial had been diffused somewhat, much to the irritation of the conceptualists, by the unexpected success of a conventional piece of sculpture. It was nothing more or less than a piece of stone carving just over a metre high, which invited the usual caustic and catty remarks about Sunday roasts and chiselling.
Controversy need not have concerned itself. The stone sculpture came third. Second prize-winner was 'Conversation Piece', a giant fibreglass representation of a used nappy, partially folded and looking like a huge odious fat white snail oozing ordure. The first prize was a rusty steel cage in the shape of a tent filled with metal scouring pads and called 'Fire Hazard VII'. Nevertheless, the stone work had been widely admired by the general public, and had caused considerable comment in the press. Its presentation was interesting. The artist (who remained anonymous) insisted that the object should appear in its own room, isolated from natural light, and sharing the space with no other work. This had necessitated building a separate enclosure within the exhibition hall in which the prize show was held, heightening the sense of mystery which already surrounded the sculpture. Inside the space, velvet black walls threw the beautifully lit object into sharp, jewel-like relief.