The Storey's Apprentice
Built in 1887 to replace the Lancaster Mechanics Institute, the Storey was created to promote science, art, literature and technical instruction. The building has been used as a school, a gallery, an art college, a creative hub and many, many other purposes over the past 140 years.
There was once a mechanic’s apprentice at the Storey Institute with hair the colour of wood shavings and small black eyes which blinked too fast or not at all. Stiff legged and gangly, you might think the boy clumsy until you saw him with a paring chisel or sliding bevel, his fingertips precise to a thousandth of an inch.
The young Apprentice spent his days loping between the workshop, the laboratory, and the Mechanic’s Library. If a wandering lecturer of particular prominence was to visit, a caretaker might shoo the boy out of sight for a few hours but never further than the crawl space beyond the boiler room where he’d made a nest of sorts from broken tools and crumpled blueprints.
His father was a Master Mechanic. That was for certain. Though the boy’s origin, along with his mother, were more obscure. Some speculated that he’d been crafted from spare-parts in the mechanic’s workshop and sparked into life by a strike of lightning in the Storey tower. Others said that he’d been found as an infant on Meeting House Lane, mortally wounded by the wheels of a runaway cart. They said that the Master Mechanic had spent three days and three nights hunched over the broken body laid out on his workbench, replacing with brass and vulcanised rubber that which could not repair itself. However the boy came to be at the Storey Institute, he was loved by his father, fed by whoever remembered and bathed once a year by a stern matronly woman who ran the laundry.
The Apprentice was unkempt, half-starved and as content as any child ever was or ever could be.
It was obvious the boy was different. As those around him changed, aged and ultimately departed, he stayed the same. By the time his father was stooped and grey, the Apprentice hadn’t grown an inch, but his genius for mechanics had certainly flourished. He built a clockwork brace of gleaming brass for the old man’s crooked back. It ticked quietly as the Master Mechanic strode about the corridors of the Institute. Seeing his father squint hopelessly at the markings on his slide rule, he devised a contraption of whirring spectacle lenses and telescopic glass which allowed the old man to see nearer and further than he ever could before. The Master Mechanic used to chuckle that as his colleagues grew old and blind, he only gained more strength and sharper eyes. But as his heart weakened and his mind fogged, he knew that soon he would be departing his beloved son.
In time, his father departed and the apprentice stood by a grave in Golgotha cemetery, surrounded by the mechanics of the Institute but for the first time in his life, completely alone.
He retreated from the workshops and labs. Many thought he had left the Storey or perhaps even the town but the Apprentice remained. He sat in the dark rooms of the building’s attics and pondered. He watched the dust motes bobbing in the evening sunlight and imagined a counting machine co-ordinated by the movements of particles dancing in the air. He observed a spider spinning its web and devised a language consisting only of knots tied in dangling threads of silk. Finally, he saw a woodlouse scuttling busily across the dusty floor and the Apprentice decided that he too should be busy. From the scraps of metal and screws and springs in his pockets, he built a creature, a tiny scuttling clockwork thing which joined the woodlouse amongst the dust. He created buzzing things, slithering things, things which skulked in the shadows and things with claws and teeth which preyed on the weakest or slowest of his creations. At night he would sneak down to the workshop for fresh supplies and in the day, he would watch his creatures battling to survive and thrive in that dusty ecosystem.
Alone in the attic, he was a god of sorts… until the winter came. One-by-one, his creations died; their gears frosted, their metal skeletons weakened. Then, one bitter January morning, the apprentice awoke to a silent attic. No buzzing. No slithering. No stalking in the shadows. Ice had reached into the most inner workings of each and every creature and crushed out their spark of life. It was a clockwork apocalypse. The Apprentice was alone again.
But the Apprentice survived that winter, and the next, and the one after that. Season after season, year after year, the Apprentice sat in the lifeless attic. In the Storey below, the Mechanic’s Institute withered and died.
Schools and galleries came and went and so did all memory of the young apprentice. A College of Art took up residence in the grand old building. With the bustle of art students, life returned to the far reaches of the institute. In the dusty attic, the Apprentice heard their chatter. Creaking as he unfolded himself, he wandered the corridors of the Storey once more. And he fell in love.
That year, he would fall in love a hundred times, with the vitality of the students, with the tufty eye-browed lecturers but more than anything, with the art. He discovered that art was just mechanics with fewer rules. Whatever his imagination and the laws of physics allowed, he could create. He welded sculptures of steel into shapes which seemed to carve the space around it. For the first time, he collaborated. A knot of young artists became a set and imagined a new generation of art. The Apprentice sat up late in the over-lit studios with these shaggy haired dreamers, promising to re-forge the entire world.
Then graduation came. The young artists boxed their dreams and pursued careers. One-by-one, they were swallowed up by advertising agencies and grammar school art departments. All that talk had been no more than a game, a joke. Only the young Apprentice remained, alone again.
He returned to the attic. Some say he’s still there, tinkering with scraps of old metal. Some say the young Apprentice no longer dreams, no longer dares to create.
Some say that this final betrayal, the loss of his friends, turned his heart to iron. But perhaps it had always been that way.