Another place in another suburb skirting another city...
A girl, K, watches a plum rot. It rots well. She has been waiting for this one to turn. She bought it a week or so ago and put it in a bowl with some others, willing them along. She doesn’t understand the logic of decomposition, it is composition she cares about. Drawing rotting or rotten fruit is to her preferable to drawing ripe still lives. She likes the point at which they start turning – going from one state to another (the other?). When the skin starts to separate from what it holds in, it is time to draw.
She picks the plum out of the bowl and carries it to the scrap of outside. It leaves drops of semi-rancid juice on the floorboards of the second hand bookshop she works in. No one ever goes there anymore. The owner lives in Paris on a dead Left Bank dream and his parents’ fortune. He writes occasionally published poems, some of which are actually occasionally publishable. K observes the feeling of juice rolling out from between her fingers. Splash – a tiny circle on the ground. Setting it down, she begins.
Before this, she temped in an office. She was so anxious the entire week of anyone’s birthday because she knew there’d be a card to sign – and on account of the layout of the office and her being the most temporary worker, the card always got to her last or sometimes second to last. It wasn’t just the obvious hierarchy implied in the card’s progress around the office that made her anxious, it was the fact that by the time it got to her every birthday greeting from meaningful to semi-meaningful to trite had been used up, so all she was left with was a tiny corner in which to write happy birthday and an exclamation mark and scrawl her name, attempting to mask it into anonymity. She left before her three month contract was up and now works alone for just above minimum wage, five days a week. Despite hating having to work at all, this is a good environment for her. No people to have to talk to, no-one to tut and silently will her to clean up after herself, no noise or gossip, no birthday cards.
It is enough for her to hear the ongoing motions of daily life through the wall shared with a coffee shop. Plus it is, at least for now, a real enough coffee shop so when she goes in she doesn’t have to hate herself or anyone and there are no CDs by once revolutionary folk singers for sale in cardboard display cases by the till. Hearing the sound of the bell next door chime with varying frequency depending on the time of day reminded her of falling asleep as a child with the TV on and people talking and moving around her. The sweet feeling of being alone and yet still home. She knows the names of the people who work in the coffee place but doesn’t use them.
Coffee helps her concentrate. That and the lack of a computer means she can, if it isn’t raining, sit outside most days and draw, undistracted, uninterrupted – observational pencil drawings mostly, of forms found in the garden-scrap or decaying fruit she’d originally bought to eat. She’s free from obsessions and needs to check and reference, free from pussy rubbing semi-nude Russian babes who want to be her friend, free from emails from S (her flatmate) with subject lines reading thought you might be interested in this job :). She’s free from constant connection, free from seeing the faces of dead friends and relatives emerge in sidebars, do you know X? There are plenty of art books she can refer to if needed, but mostly she doesn’t because she is being careful about what to let in. Recently K finds her drawings growing increasingly intricate and taking on an abstract, alien quality. She doesn’t question why.
The small purple-red plum degrading before her, transitioning and subtly shifting, demands her attention. Not only because it holds her interest and allows her to locate herself in the world, but because it tells her that change is commonplace, ordinary, necessary and constant. To know that though it is dying (encroaching mould threatening the purple) it is also still alive, edible even. Its juice would still bead down her forearm and drip off her elbow if she bit into it. Its small spherical form sits perfectly in her palm, fitting without complaint, its weight is just enough, its texture pleasantly abject. So she draws it.
There is no future plan for this or any of her other drawings. They feel no need to live long and prosper or become prosperous for themselves or anyone. They have no value and yearn for less. They do not need or want to be seen.
To draw a line. To draw a line from me to it, K thinks, from it to me, between us. Life line. Constant edges tremoring under passing lights and shadows. Head line. Pupils shrinking and expanding with each unknowable atmospheric change. Heart line. The bliss of all that.
In the inner city flat K sub-sub lets from a name she has never met, her flatmate, S, is on the phone to her mother. Her mother lives within an expensive zone of the city in a house whose value is largely based upon its ability to channel countrified charm (the farmhouse-style kitchen!), while still being located in the centre of the city. The mother is relating to S her foolproof recipe for meringues. She is thrilled to be able to share her secret (this woman has secret recipes for everything) with her daughter who will ensure its legacy through the generations. It spreads like blood on the shirt of a just shot man. Deciding not to tell S’s father about the asked-for pie-advice is wise, he’ll only negate it through not getting its significance, then it would dissipate, diffuse as dandelion fluff. Keeping it to herself means S’s mother can return to it in a pinch, anytime she worries about S – her bank account, her calves, her... prospects.
S believes in birthdays, a work life balance and her five a day. She counts them up and everything. Her body has been tested for all possible loitering infections, diseases and potential mineral deficiencies. She is not deficient in a single thing. She’s got it all.
The meringues are for the lemon meringue pie she is making for the surprise birthday party she is throwing tonight for K. Cakes are too predictable. Pies are fun. In accordance with her own private vocabulary, this is a ‘special’ birthday, the one which marks K’s ascension into her mid-twenties. A party was called for. A surprise party. S wants to be the person to throw this party because K and S will have been, by this birthday, friends for twenty years and this means something very specific to S. In the same way K knows that S’s symmetrical face means something in the world but is not sure what, she knows this twenty year relationship means something but is not quite sure what. K suspects that S still holds in her mind an ordered list of friends, from who she loves most to who she loves least. S suspects K thinks of friends as a consolation prize. Both are saddened by these suspicions. K has never had a surprise party thrown for her and S thinks she might like it, the element of surprise may alleviate any doubt.
Once, when S was a child, standing at the top of a tower looking down, she was overcome with a wonderful sense of calm, as though her insides had finally settled, found their place and function. They fit in her body as she did in the world. Watching the patterns of people from above, tiny as ants, hazily swarm and move in groups or as single dots she was able to track their evolutions and dissolutions into crepuscular Escher-esque designs. She related this story in the school playground once to K, who was so taken with her vision and strength, that she attached herself immediately.
S is ever expanding – widening, adding, multiplying herself, creating new selves for new purposes, for new modes of engagement. She can adapt and copy herself, tweak, master the new. She is able to step back and accept more and somehow not lose anything in the move. She is quite sure about life. She has her own systems and a strong, diverse internet presence. She has been publicly documenting her selected selves for such a long time that she has, from the outside at least, meshed into coherence – a wax seal, a signature. (But she knows its strengths and weaknesses.) People call her a ‘people person’ and ‘people person’ people can make things happen – facilitate, host. And a good host throws a good party. It’s important, S thinks, for anything to be able to happen at a party, within reason of course, she adds.
S prepares the flat, tidies, distributes ashtrays, text-reminds the guests. S prepares herself, exfoliates, plucks her eyebrows, shaves her legs, scrubs the dead skin of her heels, combs her hair, files her nails, paints her nails, applies layers of makeup, rubs her body with slightly iridescent moisturising cream, accessorises, highlights. Behind her eyes flash magazine images of new kitchen units, vintage tiles and unthreatening taxidermy. When she couldn’t sleep she’d plan her perfect home, designing every detail of every object. When she could, she’d dream of being inside an egg or swimming in a good bit of sea, warm hollows, cool clear water.
S has been preparing all day, and planning for longer. She is excited and can’t wait to see K, still her favourite person.
K stops in a park on her way home from work. She watches the long shadow of a brown butterfly on the grass creaking its wings. The shadow’s border keeps shifting on account of the subtle sway of the grass holding it. It is made of two motions: the butterfly’s and the grass’. Its ephemerality stops her from sketching it; that and she is busy laying out a picnic for herself in a small homage to Denton Welch whose In Youth is Pleasure she is just about to start – a birthday present to herself. She eats cheese and bread, she reads, that’s all.
When the sky turns and it’s too dark to read, K bikes home. S had told her she would be out and they would celebrate at the weekend so K is looking forward to having the flat to herself. She is lost in the pink sky caught in squares through tower block windows, she is keen to maintain her quiet reverie.
Perhaps objectively her building is not beautiful, but K likes it: people leaning over brick balconies smoking idly, ambitious geraniums precluding brick with their crimsons and corals, sometimes she even secretly enjoys the smell of urine in the lift. Before she goes in she watches for a moment a tribe of ants carrying leaves of what should be proportionally unfeasible weights. Occasionally she wonders if she envies them, their roles and relations are so clear and simple, ritualised and efficient, but she doesn’t know how to find out, it’s not the sort of thing you can ask. Still, knowing there are life forms far, far, far smaller than even ants made her feel like maybe she stood a chance or something.
She is thoroughly surprised when she opens the door. People leap and yell and smile and K is only still and terrible.
My body’s filling this room like a bad smell, she thinks. So much of it. Everybody’s looking at it, waiting for it to react, willing it to visibility. Some faces I know, some I don’t. Their expressions are paused, eyebrows struggling to stay raised, smiles faltering just slightly. I am molten and spreading. I am obvious as an adopted child, lacking the mannerisms of the rest of the family. Stillness, drinks levelling in glasses after the initial surge. People willing themselves not to start looking askance at each other.
Eventually K reacts, dispels the smell, opens a window. There is only one reaction. Anything apart from it would be savage, inarticulate. She regurgitates, only slightly off cue. Her body approximates girl-form, her voice gone but speaking.
Palpable relief. Dancing commences, sweating continues, stalled conversations restart. People nestle back into their seats, into wherever they were, into each other. The room swells and lives again. Nicknames are bandied, private jokes, each with their private history, come public. Banter replaces conversation, a ball thrown back and forth, to drop it would be suicide. S says ‘mingle!’ to K, a word that’s never sat well with her – germs mixing with other germs combining to make supergerms. Breaking in from the outside instead of breaking out from inside. Why must she talk at all? People are needy and insistent as mosquitoes. Bloodthirsty too. A duty to be coherent, to make sense, to express inevitable secrets and shames, to be intelligible, to be at all. Where she is there is nothing, no insides, no chatter. Soft as snow. Quiet like after a disaster. A dream to live without even the embellishment of a body, to know the territory and relate to it. Nothing more.
In the moment before she reacted she hated S. K knew S would have spoken to her mother and asked for special people to invite. She knew her mother would have loved S for it and willingly emailed a list of names and numbers with a desperate little note at the end emphasising the importance of inviting men, nice men. S would have pretended the hint was subtle and emailed something funny and tasteful back. K’s mother would have closed the laptop and sipped her coffee and had precisely one moment’s peace before allowing the next thing to worry her. S would feel, through some cosmic force of femaleness, K’s mother’s pain at having so barren seeming a daughter.
Tripping, tumbling, hugging, always someone crying, kissing, gossiping, dancing, bottles, ashtrays, rolling laughter, music, abandon. Someone asks K whose party this is. Faces flip from young to old, she imagines these people ageing, no she sees them ageing before her eyes, certain lights, certain expressions, the beginning flecks of grey, widow’s peak, crows’ feet. All these landscapes. A girl bent backwards in a dance. Lines white and straight as the centre of a road. Smoke. Suddenly the sofa has room for six, everything is possible. Vertiginous stacks of records, precariously balanced cans, cups, glasses, surfaces rising to catch inch long bodies of ash. Slips and slides and smiles, what is meant and unmeant. Their acrobatics are admirable. S is a fantastic drunk – practically Roman with it. She watches and merges, somehow through merging she sees.
K feels stupid and maybe she is, maybe she has become stupid, stupefied. Fingers find no pulse. Inside a shell, under the sea. Pain and love and pleasure throb and retreat, always throb and retreat. Arhythmic flows. Too much outside, clamouring, demanding, fascinating, repulsive. Infinitely multiplying contemporaries. Seeds sprout, hairs grow.
S catches her eye from across the room. K smiles. It’s obvious for a brief moment what is happening and K is ashamed. When they were teenagers riding the bus to school together K would watch S’s eyeballs flicker as she looked out the window. She knew her own eyes were almost certainly doing the same thing and that it was natural and reflexive but still, it made her want to comfort S somehow. At those moments she felt most separate from her. And now, sometimes S’s energy made K nervous, uncomfortable. S would bustle about the house, constantly moving, cleaning, replying to emails, cooking, working, never seeming relaxed or content. To S contentedness was synonymous with apathy. She crackled in a way that set K’s teeth on edge, like she ought to brace herself for something. K senses S trying to get close. Seeds sprout, hairs grow, things always push themselves out.
K’s room. She stripped it herself. Nothing now but bed, desk, chair, drawers. But what, she wonders, does my liver taste like? Her brain a fat maze full of jingles. To be delivered from waste. The pleasure of the crowd next door accumulates like pressure compacting her brain into fossilised lumps revealing no ancient secret – this thing could never fly, we were right, pack it back into the earth. Airless spaces. But what, she wonders, are my insides brewing?
Through the rectangular window across the rectangular courtyard, over the painted rectangles and curved lines of the basketball courts, she looks in through the windows of her neighbours which checkerboard across the face of the rectangular building comprising the opposite block. Some lights are on, some off, disrupting the regularity, some windows are open, some closed, breaking the image of solidity. Sometimes she can see straight through their flats, the windows align depending on her position and she sees through to another sky, another world on the other side. She sees them, their screens, their computers.
Life insurance advert starring a once famous and relatively subversive male comedian. He plays the ghost of a dead white suburban father helping his family pack for their holidays. He says things like don’t forget your goggles Jack. The punchline is you only realise he’s dead at the end when the homely teenage daughter says it won’t be the same without dad to the mother who has never once hated her children or doubted her life.
Woman at a computer, only eyes and forehead visible, furrowing and relaxing between problem and solution.
Teenage girl dancing maniacally in her room, a window open filtering Oh Bondage Up Yours! mixed with Britney’s Piece of Me.
One person at a computer, another leaning over to see whatever it is making the first person laugh so hard.
Hands open to show honesty, eyes wide, imploring us to save something.
Animated blue capsules floating above the mouth and crotch of racially non-specific animated woman – curved shoulders, round hips – a promise of relief.
Pulling open a drawer a woman’s hair tumbles over the side of her face, obscuring all but the tip of her nose.
Heterosexual white teenagers at a house party enter an empty bedroom and start making out on the bed. The boy forces his hand down the front of the girl’s jeans, she tries to stop him but is overpowered. From behind a glass screen another version of the same boy bangs on the glass with his fists screaming don’t do it.
A beautifully laid table. Across it one man cups the cheek of another, they kiss.
The obese opposite neighbour in pink string vest sitting outside her front door smoking cigarette after cigarette.
A group of young men playing a trick on one of their friends, another young man who looks exactly like them.
The reflection of a well in the teardrop rolling down the cheek of a starving African infant.
Yogurt in tubes.
Stretching to draw a curtain.
Animated neon monsters colonising a toilet seat.
A man on the telephone beckoning his wife over to hear the good news about their debt consolidation, she in an ecstatic fervour.
Lettuce bouncing through air.
K is connected to everything, without metaphor. To imagine a line into the air and it be fire.
The dancing teenage girl sees her, they lock eyes, she laughs and waves, K returns both. She continues dancing. K smiles, looks away. Her room again. Stripped. S said, this is a sign of moral madness. S said, compose yourself.
One picture left hanging on the wall among the oily blue tac marks and pin holes (a pockmarked face). It is of her own reflection taken in the mirror of a steam filled bathroom. For reasons she will never know, some ghost inside the machine, the photo looks nothing like her, it does not even look human. The almost-face appears in the right hand side of the photograph but it is greenish. Where the eyes should be are neon yellow slits. Everything else is black.
The wall breathes at her. A vulgar open pore. The windows see. To be sealed is to be beautiful. Beyond this room, taste and touch. Sweat on a lover’s lips. But what then of that occasional florescence that blurs the edges of her skin? Evidence of absorption and emittance. Detection of a song from next door – a beacon, a call, a beam.
Inside the song a voice that is more than a voice, and inside the voice a world that is more than a world. The world swallows the voice, the voice removes the world, the voice becomes the world. The singer has connected her spine to her lungs to her brain to her throat to her cunt, bending them beyond their elastic limits into a new plasticity. All moving in one ecstatic yes.
K’s nerves rise to the surface of her skin – a semblance of heat.
The voice sings her insides out and draws the outside in, it cannot resist her nor she it. They entwine until there is no difference, until she is so much with it and it is so much with her that (at least for the duration of the song but always in a way) it becomes hard to tell them apart. Although this kind of union always necessitates a departure, a break that has to happen to avoid total subsumption, a trace will carry through, the trace will become a scar, the scar will build toward new flesh. A ring inside a tree, a star.
The plum disconnected its skin from its flesh, its flesh from its stone. And yet. Composure. Dissipation.
K gently tears the drawing of the plum out of her sketchbook. She sticks it to the wall. She knows exactly why.