“The Zimmer frame is the silent admission of defeat,” the old man paused and nodded his head back in the direction of the offending item. “It is the triumph of function over form. Aesthetics be damned in favour of this bastardisation of aluminium and grey rubber.”

      Katlin Meirs listened to his gentle voice, a hint of Eastern Europe still buzzing on every ‘s’, and glanced again at her clipboard and the unmarked assessment form. Eccentric? Yes. Mentally unstable? Far from it. She toyed with her lightly chewed biro and wondered why Mrs Hutton, the district nurse, had requested a mental health check on this unassuming old man.

      “Do you know why I’m here Mr Reed?” She asked.

      “Yes, I do,” A lopsided grin burst through his careworn but kindly face, “You’re here because Mrs Hutton is a women of immense… compassion, but limited imagination.” His pause on the word ‘immense’ a playful, if slightly obvious, jibe at Mrs Hutton’s girth. Katlin couldn’t help but quietly smile to herself.

      “But enough of my worries,” the old man said suddenly fixing her with a probing stare. “You will forgive me if I appear too forward, won’t you my dear?” Katlin did her best to keep her face impassive – always a prudent move in any assessment, “but is there something troubling you?”

      The old man’s gaze met hers and she felt an incredible urge to cry, to immediately unburden herself and tell him precisely just how rubbish her life had recently become. The souless flat, the ex-boyfriend and his heartbreaking internet dalliances, the deteriorating nature of her ailing mother…

      “Would it bother you if there were something troubling me Mr Reed?” A reflective question, and a weak one at that. It was the tried and tested tactic of all mental health workers, the hollow words simply a method of buying some time. As she spoke her fantasy of dropping out, of just vanishing one day into the anonymous crowd, couldn’t have been any stronger. Oh shit, she suddenly thought, I’m starting to unravel.

      On the outside she remained as physically neutral as she could – the tucking of a few stray strands of hair behind one ear her only external sign of unease. The old man still hadn’t broken his contemplative stare but now, maybe sensing her reaction, he looked towards the kitchen letting out a brief, “Hmmmm,” as he did so. The sound held all the tones of someone reaching some kind of internal decision.

      “Help me up my dear, and I’ll make you a cup of tea. Come, come…” He waved her over with one hand while reaching for his stick with the other.

      Once in motion, the old man’s journey to the cluttered kitchen wasn’t half as laborious as Katlin assumed it would be. As they entered, Mr Reed indicated a chair at the yellow Formica table and then, hooking his stick over the back of its partner, he busied himself shuffling between the cupboards, the draining board and an archaic looking kettle. Stooping over the oven’s gas hob, he deftly turned on a ring with one hand while reaching for a box of nearby matches with the other. Hiss, scratch, pop, scratch, whumph. The subsequent smells of the dying matches and unused gas immediately transported Katlin to numerous historic camping trips with her parents. She sat quietly and let the comfort of the room’s ambiance soak in.

      “I was in a bad place.” Mr Reed’s voice cut through her reverie. “As a claymation animator in the 80s, the work in advertising was good, very good – a far cry from kids TV and the art house shorts of the 60s and 70s, you know? It was good, well paid. But I was… how can I say? Emptied out inside. At a loss. Somehow at war with myself, and the ideas that were coming to me in the night lost their creative thrill. They were threatening now, frightening even. Can you understand this?” Katlin raised both eyebrows and nodded slightly in comprehension.

      “My training under Harryhausen on Sinbad was already a lifetime away when I moved to England, and yet here I was somehow more able to balance the seclusion of the job with my developing social life. LA is such a disjointed and lonely place.”

      Mr Reed’s tea making was archaic and elaborate to say the least. A tea caddy, a large infuser, milk jug… The accoutrements of the process quickly cluttered the work surface. He paused reaching for a tea spoon as if feeling her gaze upon him. He turned.

      “I told a similar story to Mrs Hutton and she requested a mental assessment. Would you like me to continue, or shall we call the men in the white coats now?”

      Katlin smiled, “No. Do go on, please.”

      “Okay, as long as you’re sure. So, all tales of woe require a lover – that is a given. Heartbreak and mental instability are the most willing of bed fellows, ironically. Anyway, my partner at the time was one Natasha Delacouix – a contemporary artist who I met at that year’s graduates exhibition at the Slade. Swarthy, heavy of lip, voluptuous and brilliant. A catch, if you like, but one that I knew would slip between my fingers. This knowledge didn’t make it any easier when I found her in bed with another man, but… Uh, so it goes.”

      Katlin’s appreciation of the tea making process moved from the visual to the aural – the clunk of the teapot lid, the delicate chink of old bone china, the rattle of silver teaspoons. Mr Reed placed everything on the table and then eased himself into the seat opposite her with a sigh.

      “Needless to say, this was my darkest time. I’m not quite sure what happened next, but nothing like it has ever happened before or since.” The old man squinted as he took a sip from his drink and Katlin followed suit. The tea had a clean, tart taste that immediately cut through a thirst she didn’t even realise she had.

      “I’m sure the shrinks would call it a breakdown,” the old man continued, “but, for an artist like myself, the way it manifested itself was terrifying, unique and filled with revelations. I had, you see, sort of imploded.

      “My agent, Simon Pepper, came round to my studio flat in Islington… It was stagnant, a freeze frame of depressed chaos. Ah… Anyway, he walked through the door and busied himself, opening windows, tidying, letting in the light – all the time avoiding looking at the shadow I had become. Once everything was in order again, he turned to me and said, work will help you focus. I have a job if you’re interested.

      “Simon had been good to me, always supportive ever since I arrived from the States, and a debt of gratitude is a powerful thing. If anyone else had suggested such a thing, well… Of course I tried to sidestep, tried to say that I was working on some big personal opus. But he ground me down and I weakly agreed to take a look at the commission.”

      The chiming of a clock somewhere in the house distracted them momentarily. Mr Reed took the opportunity to take another sip of tea, then continued.

      “It would have been easy money at any other time, but when the creative brief arrived it seemed to me the ad company in question wanted a Cecil B DeMare epic recreated in claymation. Reading between the lines it turned out that it was actually a small job. Create a table top butler for a car insurance firm. A traditional gentleman’s gentleman that would always give you the correct advice. Clichéd I know, I know, but insurance has never been a hot bed of radical ideas.

      “I called Simon. Took the overzealous brief as a launch point and said it was too much, too soon. But, once again, he talked me away from giving up and I began to source all the materials I needed. The set was simplicity itself. Look at this location here and you get the idea.” Mr Reed pointed at all the items standing between them. “Obviously it was a more affluently dressed kitchen table – a nice butter dish, toast rack, coasters… Lots of things for the little butler to interact with. So I bought, I built, I faked surfaces to look better under the studio lights and then I started creating the little man himself.

      “There was something special about him as soon as I put him together. Something Svankmajer, or maybe a touch of Park even before Park. But something instantly recognisable and open. The kind of companion only claymation can give you. A trusted pocket confidant, like Jiminy Cricket in his coat tails. Do you see?” Katlin nodded although some of the names he was using were lost on her.

      “I was already proud of what I’d achieved and in that pride, do you know what I realised? I woke up one morning and discovered my first thoughts were about the project, not my ex-girlfriend. And with that flash of revelation, that fleeting comprehension that I’d forgotten her momentarily, I completely relapsed.

      “Ah well. Back to my familiar and well worn pit of introspection I went. Days bled into a week and finally the calls from Simon started to register on the edges of my depression, my debt of gratitude gently plucking me back towards the job in hand. It started with a request for some early approval of art direction, which was easily achieved. All I had to do was set the little butler up in a few scenes and take some high resolution stills. However,” Mr Reed tapped the table twice to indicate an emphasis, “in doing this, I seemed to open the flood gates of creativity in my mind once again. I worked up a series of test bodies and heads – all identical – and, as I began to pose the butler for the stills, I became more and more entranced by the character that was forming behind these opening passes.”

      “Why multiple bodies?”

      “I’m sorry?” The old man gave Katlin a quizzical look.

      “Why did you require multiple bodies? All identical, you said.”

      “Ah, to save time my dear. When you’re deconstructing a complex series of movements into their principle parts, it’s much easier to map these out beforehand. Getting everything exact is tricky – you can’t have your character getting fatter and thinner with each frame. Master this, though, and you can have a sequence all mapped out in front of you. When it comes to filming, swapping bits in and out of shot generates a better flow than having to perpetually work ‘live’ so to speak. Do you see?” Katlin nodded and went back to her tea.

      “Now where was I? I’d just created the stills, and… Ah yes, back at the project but still pushing the darkness to one side rather than examining it head on.

      “On the strength of the stills, I was given the green light to start filming and began to put the first test reel together. The problem was my work schedule was erratic at best. A day and a night of solid manic work, then Michelle would call on one of those whims that ensure you’re never quite free to properly move on. I likened it to a cat toying with a mouse at the time, but perhaps her motivation wasn’t so malicious. Either way, the result was the same – crashing depression and a retreat to my bed. But somehow, somewhere between these peaks and troughs of creativity, my little butler began to take shape.

      “I’d be given a basic script by the insurance company’s ‘creatives’ – a misnomer if ever there was one. But there was no wit, no life in anything that was written there. It was up to me to provide the scene, the visual gags for my gentleman’s gentleman to react to.

      “Finally, after a painstaking series of late night film sessions, I had some opening rushes of how things were shaping up. It was then, one morning over coffee sitting at my meager editing suite, that something truly bizarre happened.”

      Mr Reed paused and rubbed a hand over his brow. The action seemed to electrify his already bushy eyebrows in to a new tableau of waywardness.

      “Are you okay?” Katlin asked.

      “Yes, yes. All okay. I didn’t tell this story as well to Mrs Hutton, which is probably why she called you in. I jumped whole sections, rambled about the important bits… It’s weird telling everything properly now. I’ve never wanted to before. The last time everything had this level of detail was when I actually lived it. Ah, most strange.

      “Anyway, there I was about to record my own voice across the test footage, to gauge lip synch you see. The scene was set as I’ve explained,” again the old man indicated the space between them as a point of reference. “All the props on the table were as I’d positioned them and here, entering on the left of screen, came my little butler. I looked down at the script as he plodded over to the butter dish and sat down upon its lip. I looked up and the little fellow said, Good Morning sir, is there anything I can assist you with?”

      Mr Reed looked across at Katlin in wide-eyed amazement and was slightly abashed when he didn’t see it reciprocated in her face.

      “I’m sorry,” she said with a placatory smile, “I don’t really understand. Why was the butler talking to you remarkable? Weren’t you recording his dialogue?”

      “As I said,” the old man replied, a thin tone of exasperation in his voice, “I had just started the process. There was no dialogue on the sound track, his words were not in my voice and what he said wasn’t part of the script.”

      “You were under a lot of stress…” Katlin’s rational mind immediately began to look for explanations.

      “Yes, that is true. Initially I thought I was mistaken, a trick of the mind, the ears… But he just kept talking. Time is bit limited sir, he said, but if there’s anything you need, anything at all, you know where to find me. I turned the editor off and sat at the desk in a cold sweat. My mind was racing, folding in upon itself like a kaleidoscope in reverse. I drank, I smoked, I prowled the flat and yet not once in that ramshackle day did his voice return.

      “My fear slowly dissipated, and by the evening – my usual time to film – a new level of curiosity had taken its place. I warily approached the set I’d built and there he was. Static, silent, just molded clay. A golem awaiting my word of command, my illusion of life. Somehow the compulsion to create, the pointless drive of it all, swept over me and I set to work. Move, capture a frame, move the mouth, make him blink, capture a frame, move a finger, capture a frame, on and on into the night. By the time I’d had enough, the sun was rising and I withdrew to my room for an exhausted and fitful rest.”

      “It’s another overpowering cliché I realise.” The old man caught Kaolin’s eyes and a warm smile lit up his face.

      “What is?”

      “The notion of creativity being an outside force imposed upon the creator. Something intangible – a muse if you will. Or of course, as far as you’re concerned, I could have been having a nervous breakdown brought on by excessive stress.”

      Katlin considered the old man’s statement carefully, “Did he talk to you again?”

      “Oh yes.”

      “A second, a third time?”

      “Many more. Every time I sat down in the afternoon and viewed the footage from the evening’s filming, there he was. Dapper, courteous and receptive.”

      “And none of this struck you as odd? You said you were afraid.”

      “You’re always afraid of the unknown my dear. Then the unknown becomes familiar and you learn to feel differently towards it. Do you skydive?”

      “Sorry?”

      “Do you jump out of planes for pleasure?”

      “No.”

      “Do you assume that those that do remain as frightened as the first time they jumped?

      “I don’t know. I expect they don’t. I expect they feel excited, cautious… A bit scared, yes.”

      “But less than the first jump, and a little less with each subsequent jump?”

      “Yes, I suppose…”

      “So it was with me. The fear was on the back burner after about a week and I was genuinely listening to what the little chap had to say to me.”

      “And what did he have to say?”

      “It was more that he listened. Can you hear me? I asked early on. Yes, perfectly sir, came the reply and so off we went. I asked him some opening questions about his nature, what he was, but he was always gently evasive. It’s you I’m more concerned about sir, he’d say. Then I asked, are you divine? Something celestial? And he laughed and said, are you asking me if I’m a god or an asteroid?” The old man chuckled.

      “Ah, there you go. If this was a hallucination, a figment of my imagination, then it was something that was good and right for me. Do you see? We talked and I excavated down into all the emotional detritus that had made me what I am. The early poverty grinding my predilection to dream day after day, and yet somehow enhancing it. My mostly absent alcoholic father. My elder brother and his sadistic displays of love… Ah. Boris. Ah well. Jung would have been proud of me. I’d created my own archetype and was conducting my own therapy.” Again the old man laughed. “Did you know that whenever Jung was stressed he would make cities out of clay on the riverbank near his house?”

      “No I didn’t.”

      A brief silence followed and Katlin looked again at her clip board and still empty assessment sheet. She’d fill it in later with something that would hopefully ensure Mr Reed would be left well alone by the community psychiatric nurses. The old man looked at the empty sheet too and smiled.

      “Come.” Mr Reed beckoned with his hand, “Help me again. I’ve got something to show you.”

      The cupboard was large. Large enough for Mr Reed to shuffle into, his frail form immediately swathed in shadows. He reached above his head, one pale hand beating in the gloom like a startled dove. Finally it settled. There was a small rattle and the plink of a chain operated overhead light that suddenly put the cramped space into perspective.

      The walls of the cupboard were lined with shelves and these, in turn, were jam packed with video tapes. Katlin peered at a few nearest her. Each was a uniform brown grey and they all sat minus the large and garish video boxes she remembered from car boot sales.

      “It’s a dead format, my dear.” The old man gestured with a tired wave as he turned.

      “I’m sorry?” She’d been reading some of the neatly printed spines, names like Alexeieff, Avery, Barbeara all sounding exotic and otherworldly.

      “Video. It’s a dead medium and there’s no one to transfer this collection to a digital format. A lot of it does exist elsewhere, but this section,” he indicated a full shelf at about waist height, “is me.”

      He turned his head fractionally and smiled a smile that seemed to be threaded with both understanding and regret. He looked back at the shelf.

      “One mustn’t dwell eh? I came here to fetch this for you.”

      He reached out and plucked a tape from his personal selection. Its spine proclaimed Reed – Hornwic Union.
“It’s the rushes from the insurance job. I want you to have them.” He pulled a contemplative frown, “I wasn’t completely myself when Simon called again. I tried to explain what had happened. How my little creation had talked me down from a precarious position. We watched the tape together and neither of us heard his voice, just mine having this bizarre one sided conversation. Simon said there was more than enough material here for a competent editor to finish the job but suggested I erase the audio track. I was to say that it got lost in duplication or something.

      “Then we talked into the night, I drank a lot and maybe cried for a while. I don’t remember. What I do recall is that he eventually said that he knew someone I should talk to. A therapist. I agreed and then he helped me to bed. Ah…”

      “I never did go back to my little butler after that. The tape you have there is one of the duplicates with the wiped audio track. It’s no use to me any more, but it was good work, such good work. I want you to see it, to see what he was and how he helped me when I was at my lowest point. Or, if you prefer to think that I helped myself and all this is just the rambling of a crazy old man, then perhaps you’ll have me committed and I’ll spend the rest of my days staring at the same view through a wire meshed window.”

      Mr Reed shuffled round on the spot and moved towards the door. He paused, frowning as if he were chastising himself internally, then reached up to grab the light’s dangling chain.

      “Do you still own a video recorder?”

      She nodded. It was gathering dust under her television – superseded by her thinner, sleeker, younger and ultimately more sexy DVD. Somehow she still didn’t have the heart to throw it out.

      “I don’t really mind what you do my dear.’ He said, “I don’t mind at all. Just keep the tape and watch it yourself at some point, yes?”

      And with that he pulled the chain in a theatrical manner and disappeared into the darkness with a click.

      Katlin’s departure wasn’t a hurried affair, but she felt a definite shift of emphasis between herself and the old man. Everything was slightly cursory now, polite, not as poignant as it had been moments earlier. She reached the door and was surprised at the level of reluctance she felt at leaving his company. He smiled, waved her off and the instant the door closed behind her she was back, out in the world with all the pressures of her life a short car journey, a call, a thought away. She pressed Mr Reed’s video into her crowded shoulder bag and walked away from the house and its untidy front garden.

      Katlin had meant to look at the tape that evening, but a call from her ex boyfriend threw all her plans into a muddled heap. In fact a month slipped by before she even remembered the video sitting where she’d left it on top of her recorder. It had been a hard month for her too. Her mother’s health had taken a turn for the worse and her ex was becoming increasingly reliant on her for emotional support. So it was a drained and red eyed Katlin that took her largest wine glass for company as she curled in the corner of her sofa. Only then did she catch sight of the brown grey oblong sitting slightly askew on the sliver of her video recorder.

      She immediately got up, walked over to her TV stand and, after checking there was nothing already in the player, pushed the video cassette home. It was then that the realisation hit her.

      He’d known. Mr Reed had known that that this would happen, had somehow foreseen all of this played out before. Her legs felt suddenly awkward as she half staggered back to the sofa, her arms moving but leaden as if she was no longer in control of them. She sat down heavily and reached out for the remote control. Control, she repeated to herself, control. Then she pressed the play button and there he was. He plodded onto the screen from the left, slow deliberate steps, his blinking eyes looking out into Katlin’s living room, his slicked back hair a glossy sheen on his head. He saw her, found her location in the room and smiled an open, warm smile that instantly reminded her of his creator.

      “Good evening madam, is there anything I can assist you with?”

      Katlin stabbed at the pause button with her thumb and missed, the video’s clock appearing on screen instead.

      “We don’t have a lot of time right now, but if there’s anything you need, anything at all…”

      This time she hit the right button and the little butler blurred and skitted across the monotone bleed of interference. Katlin shook uncontrollably, her eyes locking on her white knuckled hand – anything but the screen. She concentrated on the molded form of the control, willed it to be solid, a rock, her touchstone. And yet, the more she did, the more malleable and moist she felt it become, as if it were made of clay.