the autogeography of a no/body
I just burned my hand, well not my hand, the inside of my wrist, and not burned, singed with steam, taking the lid off the chicken roasting tin, I forgot to turn it so the heat would come out away from me, instead it came out all over a me, but it made me sing and made me think about all those times that I survived, something, anything, just survived, like the time he came home, when I was making cheese sauce, grater in one hand, block of cheddar in the other, standing at the counter that was always a little too high for me, and he slouched up against the kitchen door, that stupid look on his face, ‘What’cha doin?’.
Why do people ask you that question when they don’t want you to ask them that question? ‘What’cha doin?’ means don’t ask me ‘What’cha bin doin?’. No, he never wanted me to ask, so instead I caught the whole kitchen on film, in little snippets, my brain winding and snapping, click, there’s the old plastic handle on the back door, dark brown, chunky, click, the bad paint slopped over the glass, no one had cut in properly, it hadn’t mattered, the place was only for rental, and poor rental, seventeen pounds a week each, except when we didn’t have it, then we’d hide in the garden or jump over the wall into our neighbour’s. The landlord couldn’t find us. We couldn’t find the money. Click, the roll edge of the stainless steel sink that was always stained with water, not rolling over the worktop, leaving a jagged edge instead, click, dirty glasses, click, a screwed up tea towel on the side, click, the lino that didn’t fit properly and rose at the corners. I took it up once, to look at what was underneath, it was sticky and black and could’ve been tiles, there were some cracks, I put it back down quickly.
‘Makin’ cheese sauce,’ I said. And I didn’t ask what he didn’t want me to ask. What the head don’t know the heart don’t grieve about. But of course I knew. I always knew. It was the grin that gave him away. The less he had to smile about the more he grinned. I wondered how much. A hundred pounds? Two hundred? Five hundred? A thousand?
I hated grating cheese, the soapy feeling against metal. The Nazis used to make soap out of the Jews. That greasy, soapy feeling made me feel sick. He ambled over, forced nonchalance, almost a swagger, and took some of the grated cheese from the pile. ‘Lasagne,’ I said.
‘Mmm, my favourite.’ He kissed me on the side of the head, non committal, a swift kind of kiss, a glancing blow. I stood my ground, if only not to recoil, if only because I typically stand with my legs crossed and any sort of sudden movement sets me severely off balance. There would be no sudden movements. It would come out later. He would cry, approximately three hours after the lasagne, four if we had cheesecake for pudding. He’d cry, say he was sorry, justify it with a logic I just couldn’t understand, try and explain it by letting me into his world. ‘I was sitting on the toilet and the third horse came in, I couldn’t believe it, so when the fourth was running I was back to the toilet, then the fifth. Twelve thousand quid, Chris, Twelve thousand quid.’ But he didn’t have twelve thousand quid. It was always nearly, could’ve, should’ve, if only. Always.
And I’d comfort him, while he begged my forgiveness, snuggled into my breasts. He’d lost, but at least he hadn’t lost me, no, he’d never lose me, I’d stand my ground, in the kitchen, against the too high work surface, grating soapy Nazi cheese, feeling sick, day after day, for lentil roasts, baked potato toppings, quiche, I’d grate and grate and grate, taking pictures in my head of knobs and badly painted back doors, never turning them or opening them. I’d grate until my teeth were on edge and my fingers were bleeding. I’d grate and smile and wait and see and I’d hope, I’d hope like only a true believer can ever hope that somehow, in some way, he’d escape.
Aye, well, I’m sitting having a smoke before rushing out to the doctors, the chemists, the world, and I’m trying to remember the poem I half wrote in my head, about the baby in his father’s arms, slung horiztonally, facing outwards, into the oncoming traffic, and how I could see the headlights reflected in the child’s eyes, but it all fell down too quickly with the line ‘the smell from a million take-aways’. Doesn’t take much to puncture a balloon or a fragile piece.
This elipsis, too flat to be a vicious circle, too one dimensional to be a sphere of experience, is the typical shape of war these days. I was reading the paper, the story of a woman and her children, mercilessly bullied by their neighbours, to such an extent that the mother, after thirteen years, took her learning disabled daughter and set fire to the car they were both sitting in. People were genuinely surprised, because suprise denotes ignorance and ignorance innocence. It’s no defence really, not in the eyes of the law, or morally, no defence at all. It happens she shrugs, they shrug, the whole world shrugs, as if a personal mini massage has been executed on a grand scale. If we all shrug at the same time will the earth shift in its orbit?
And as autumn draws in, scattering itself on the ground, we face another winter of discontent. But imagine for a moment that those leaves are people, each one a casuality of nature versus nurture. One pile is the shape of Africa, another resembles Brazil, yet another … and another … and another wait to be sucked into the oblivion of a street sweeping machine. All tidy now. All gone. No more. And the baby in his father’s arms knows that it’s finished ’til the next time, when the same platitudes will be served on the same plates and we’ll swallow it all down as if, somehow, this idea of peace is digestible.
‘J’ow know why they call it the Black Country?’
I shook my head.
‘It’s cuz whun Queen Victoria came through, on the train like, she took wun look out the window an’ shut the blinds. The blinds wuz black.
John’s fingers were curled around his empty tea mug. I refilled it from the pot on the kitchen table. Ayisha, my baby daughter, grizzled in her bouncer.
‘She’s a right bobby dazzler,’ John said, looking at her. ‘Yoam a right bobby dazzler. Yoam. Yoam.’ Her little legs flexed excitedly like a mad frog. A bubble of spit formed on her now grinning lips. I watched her hands clench and unclench, wondering what she was trying to grab, what imaginary thing she kept catching hold of and letting go.
I smiled. He just needed some company for a while, and so did I. The hospital let him out on a kind of day release scheme. He’d been really bad when he was admitted. Up all hours of the day and night. And when I say ‘up’, I mean UP. Like, he’d offered to refit my kitchen. At first I was delighted, until he arrived, at six in the morning, a tool box in each hand, good God, and a smile on his face as wide as the Cheshire Cat’s. Shiny, shiny, far too shiny. By eight he’d ripped out all the old units, replaced the skirting boards, fitted a new work-surface and was ready to start on the painting. It was as if I’d been hit by a hurricane. Six weeks of intensive drug therapy and two sessions of electric shock treatment later and he was back to normal, John shaped normal.
‘An’ what j’ow think of the blokes from Tippon and Wolvo joinin’ the Taliban, eh?’
‘If I lived in Tipton, I think I might join the Taliban,’ I said.
John was always picking things apart. He taught me how to break into a car, his car, once when he’d locked the keys inside. You have to bend a dry cleaner’s metal coat hanger into a hook and slip it between the window and the outer door frame, until you find the lock mechanism, then you pull upwards, to release it, bit of a fiddle, but it only usually takes a few attempts.
‘Says summat, that they’d rather be in Afghanistan,’ he said, ‘cuz I mind whun it wuzn’t shithole round ‘ere.’
Tipton is a pretty bleak place, in parts, as are Tividale, Smethwick, Oldbury and many others. In Victorian times, the Black Country was the industrial heart of England, with its iron foundries and steel mills. I don’t know when it all started to go wrong, but in Cape Hill, where I lived, the only factory still working was the brewery, which spewed Marmite smelling fumes into the air every day.
‘Whun I wuz a kiddie, it wuz different. Me fertha wuz a drayman, an’ ‘e luved ‘is osses. Sumtimes, early in the mornin’, e’d race ‘em, in a trap like, alung the Odebury Road. Ah, an’ down at the stables, whun the brazier wuz gooin’, it wuz right toasty. ‘E’d plait the osses manes with ribbons, took ‘im hours, an’ groomed ‘em ’til they shone. Beautiful.’
‘It used to be like that,’ John said, ‘a bloke could ‘ave real pride in ‘is wurk. The gaffer wuz an arsehole, but gaffers always are.’ He laughed. ‘This wun time, me dad ‘ad to geld an oss. ‘E lopped the bollocks off and slung ‘em in the pot on the brazier, boiled ‘em up, they wuz smashin’ with taeters, a poor man’s stek an’ chips – not that we ever ‘ad stek mind.
John was one of those rare breeds, a working class man with a brain. It’s the big secret no one ever tells, that the vast majority of the working class are thick as two short planks and happy as pigs in shit about it. Intelligence, aptitude, creative flair, is generally frowned upon.
‘What are you doing?’ my father said to me.
‘Reading a book,’ I replied.
‘What do you want to do that for?’
While it may be impossible to find the answers to every question within the pages of a book, it’s damn near impossible to find any answers if you don’t even look. My Uncle Frank was different: Scottish, a miner, down the pit by the age fourteen in the late 1930s. He told me every miner had two books, Das Kapital and the bible. They used to go to night school. Something prodded them onwards, the idea of better, because this was worse. The thought that one day it would change; it never did.
After the First World War there was the Second World War. The brief haitus of communism in between was a dream, corrupted, degenerated. It didn’t matter whether it was lions led by donkeys or donkeys led by lions, the same outcome always threatened. And then there was introduction of mass media, via the radio, in England the British Broadcasting Corporation with its motto ‘The nation shall speak peace unto the nation’, tried to out do Hitler’s propaganda machine, pumping homes full of homilies, until television arrived, at which point the whole population cluttered around screens to watch the coronation, mesmerised by patriotism.
‘It’s an urban myth,’ I said to John, ‘It was called the Black Country because it was filthy. All those factories pumping crap into the atmosphere. At night it glowed red. It was like a huge furnace.’
He started to trace his fingers across the rose pattern on my plastic, kitchen table cloth. ‘What would yoam know, yoam a Brummie?’
It wasn’t the time to pick a fight. Pride is a very fragile emotion, you’ve either got too much of it or you haven’t got enough. John didn’t have a lot left. Enduring manic depression had meant he’d been jobless for years. His wife had left him and he lived in a pokey flat on an estate where there was only one road in and one road out. ‘J’ow know what that feels like?’ he once asked me. Yes, I did, but I was pretty near the exit, on my way, it wouldn’t be long now. I could have quoted Oscar Wild at him, something about stars and gutters, instead I said, ‘Do you want another tea? I can put the kettle on again?’
‘That’d be smashin luv.’
‘So what are you plans then?’ I said.
‘Wull, I’m up for discharge next wyke, still fiddling with me medication, sumthin’ about levels, but aer Sharon sez she’s got sum wuk needs doin’ at wum. That minds me, I go’ this picture fu yow.’
He took a small parcel out of his holdall and passed it to me. ‘I med the frame meself.’ It was brown wood, lightly varnished, the corners joined perfectly. Underneath the glass were dried flowers, arranged on a grey silk. ‘Sharon did the flowers.’
‘Oh it’s lovely, John,’ I said, ‘really pretty’.
‘Wull, I noticed yow didn’ ‘ave much on yourn walls by way of pictures.’
‘No, it’s a bit bare,’ I agreed.
‘Me fertha, he used to mek ‘em, after me mother died. Started with ‘er funeral wreath. ‘E couldn’t stand to leave it on the grave. Wun gilded lily, got a painter mate of ‘is to do it in gold leaf. She always wanted a diamond. Wuzn’t tae be. ‘E saved up ‘ard fu that lily. ‘Ad enough time. She ‘ung on forever, rotted all the way thru’ from the inside out, like a banana she wuz, her skin wuz black. ‘E went quicker tho’. Bladder cancer. Didn’t say ’til ‘e wuz nearly dead.
The baby had fallen asleep, her head resting against the side of the bouncer, dribble making her bib all wet.
‘I never told anywun this before, but me fertha, he died in bed, propped up on his pillows like. Me sister wuz meant to be lookin’ after ‘im, but she’s a right cow, an’ went out to get blathered, left ‘im on ‘is tod. I goo round, and there ‘e is, stiff as a board, bolt upright. I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. No wun should ‘ave tae die alone. So I med ‘im flat. I leant on ‘im, forced ‘im backwards, down into the mattress. ‘Ard it wuz. ‘E didn’t wunna goo. ‘Is ‘ole body rigid. An’ I’m leanin’ on ‘im. Took all me strength. I ‘eard ‘is bones goo, wun by wun, in ‘is chest, ‘is ribs, ‘is back. I must’ve bust ev’ry fuckin’ bone in ‘is body.’
He took a gulp from his tea. ‘Stupid thing is, I found out later, rigamortis wears off after a couple of hours.’
‘I just couldn’t bear the shame of the ambulance men thinking ‘e’d died alone, that no wun cared; cuz you should care, about ye fertha, sumwun should be carin’.’
There’s a painting of Ironforge, ‘Coalbrookdale by Night’, showing the Bedlam Furnaces. It’s a vision of hell, flames against a blackened sky, a ruined landscape falling away from industrial buildings and a big, old horse shackled to an overloaded cart. The few men visible are minuscule, entirely dwarfed by their surroundings. When I first saw this picture, I couldn’t help but remember ‘The Fighting Temeraire’, which used to hang on the wall in my parents’ lounge: a majestic sailing ship being pulled into harbour by a tug, a ribbon of flames coming out of the tug’s stack, melting into the air, and a sunset of biblical proportions lying down on a calm sea, lighting up the whole scene of serene, glorious victory.
‘An that wuz the first time I went doolally,’ John said.
Men can be driven to madness, as sure as a horse can be beaten to death.
‘I’ve always thought it funny, not funny haha, but funny strange, that the furnaces were called Bedlam.’
How j’ow mean?’
‘Cos that’s was the name of the first lunatic asylum,’ I said. ‘They charged a penny so visitors could watch the freak show.’
John bowed his head.
‘I didn’t mean …’
”S’all right, I know what you meant, luv,’ he said.
‘Do you think you’ll ever get better?’
‘I dunnow, can’t see it ‘appening, too far gone now. Maybe if things ‘ad bin different sumwhere alung the line. But it’s like a train, wunce it gets gooing, with the momentum an’ all, it’s ‘ard to stop. I wuz drivin’ down the motorway, nut lung back, ‘ad the car on cruise control. Anyway, I’m comin’ into Brentford, on the M1 like, an’ I goo to disengage the cruise control, but nuthin’ ‘appens. I know I can’t put the breaks on, cuz I’m gooing so fast the friction’ll burn through the pads straight away.’
‘What did you do?’ I said.
‘I ‘ad to rip part of the fascia off and yank the cruise control wires out. That’s what gooing doolally’s like. Wun minute yoam speedin’ alung, the next yoam gooin’ to crash.’
And I remembered another picture my parents had, hanging at the top of the stairs, ‘The Last of England’. A woman and man on the deck of a ship, the white cliffs of Dover receding behind them as they make their way towards a new life, in Australia most probably. Her one hand, wearing a dark, leather glove, pokes out from under her cloak to grip her husband’s, and they both stare forwards, stony faced, into their future. Her other hand is bare. There’s a distortion in her cloak, the bump of a baby’s head, in utero, beneath the fabric. Through a gap the tiny infant’s hand is visible, curled around her thumb. It would’ve have been cold on that boat, a wet, unrelenting journey. They were going to the other side of the world. People do. Working class men are notorious for it. They join the military and pledge allegiance to the queen. Some of them join a different army, the army of unemployed. Some more still find an army they can believe in, one that’s fighting for their principles, which I suppose is how they end up in Afghanistan. Very rarely they read Keats or Yeats or Eliot and find themselves in university, except they don’t find themselves there, instead they find out they don’t fit anywhere. They can’t go back into a factory once they’ve been educated. And the chattering classes don’t want them, not ever.
John did none of these things, instead he tried to follow in his father’s footsteps. What he didn’t know was that it’s trench warfare, whether you think it’s a battle or not, so he slid about in the mud, in the filth and the shit, in the big fucking Bedlam furnace of it all, getting burned, getting wasted, getting eaten alive, fed to the fire of industry and then spat out again, as slough and slag, some waste product needing to be buried or recycled. Round and round he went, unable to fully disengage the cruise control. Didn’t matter how many times he’d ripped the fascia off and yanked the wires out, or how many bones he’d broken in his father’s dead body, it couldn’t be fixed, it could never be fixed.
‘Oh,’ I gasped. The sharp sensation made me take a quick breath. I put my hand on my belly. I was six months’ pregnant and the bump now reached my ribcage. ‘The baby’s kicking. Do you want to feel?’
John smiled shyly as I guided him to the right place. He became silent and attentive.
‘There! Did you feel it?’
‘Ye,’ he said, withdrawing his hand. ‘Ave yow thought of any names?’
‘If it’s a boy, John.’
He blushed. ‘An’ if it’s a gel?
‘Aurora, after the Russian ship that fired the starting shot for the revolution,’ I said.
‘Yoam a strange wench.’
‘And you’re a great bloke, John. Don’t forget that, will you? You won’t forget that?’
He got up from the table. ‘It’s time I wuz gooin’ anyway. They like us back fu dinner, or else they send a search party out.’
I kissed his bristly cheek.
‘Mek sure you tek care of the babby,’ he said, nodding towards Ayisha asleep in her bouncer. ‘They’s the best of us.’
I opened the front door and he walked out into the street. It was winter, very cold, one of those clear nights. He looked up into the sky and said ‘Can yow see the stars?’.
‘There’s gooin’ tae be a bad frost. Yow’ll need a scraper fu yow windscreen in the mornin’.’
I would. I waved goodbye and retreated back inside, away from the brewery Marmite smell, back inside where I heard my baby stir as I shut my curtains against the black country.
I saw a log cabin in Brighton, Vermont, eleven acres, right out in the middle of nowhere, and I thought of you, because that’s where you want to be, right out in the middle of nowhere. You can’t stand people and the way they intervene in your life. In former times you’d have been a monk. I guess it’s no accident that one of your favourite books is ‘The Vatican Cellars’.
And I’m wondering why I haven’t got a rum and coke in my hand and why Thelonious Monk isn’t on the turntable, then I remember, I hate jazz and I don’t drink rum, even if it sounds sexy, Cuba Libre, but Castro and Guevara had to catch a cab to Havana, gaps in planning; they came ashore forgetting it’s not just about landing, more what you do after, how you get to the place you need to be.
Whiskey, yeah, we could go to a bar and drink whiskey, straight up, no ice, and afterwards I’d steal the shot glasses, put one in each coat pocket, and we’d walk home, weaving a path somewhere between your place and mine, a hundred thousand mile walk, not running out of conversation, because it’s rare that we do, except when we say something we shouldn’t, at which point we simply run out.
But there’s this thing I’ve been meaning to tell you; I elected to have open heart surgery, to replace my old heart with a complex device, made of titanium, the usual four chambers: two on the left, which fill up with grey blood, sending it out to the lungs, and then two on the right, receiving red blood back, before pumping it round my body. Sixteen hours battery life, my waking day, it’s meant to recharge when I sleep. But there’s the problem, I don’t sleep.
There are wires coming out of my chest, earth, live and neutral. Where my skin meets the copper, there are already signs of infection. It feels sore. It hurts. And I don’t know what to do. Without sufficient charge my new heart won’t work, but I can’t plug it into the mains, because all that electricity, well, it burns, right across my chest, scalds my skin off, leaving my bones on show.
I never knew I was this skeletal.
I didn’t understand that the functionality of survivability was so brutal.
And I can still hear you, talking to me about brains and accidental evolution. I was mistaken to think the heart, with its simple pump mechanism, could provide anything other than a tic-toc flow. If I wanted precision I should’ve bought an expensive watch.
So, here’s the thing I’ve been meaning to ask you, can I have my old heart back? The one you keep in your pocket? I know you’ve still got it, wrapped up in black tissue paper, because sometimes I see you unwrap it, when you think I’m not looking, while I’m half hitching empty shot glasses and you’re tut-tutting at my ridiculous thievery. Can you put it back in me and then can we steal away, to that log cabin, in Brighton, Vermont? We could go by boat and catch a cab from the dockside. I finally think I know where I’m heading. One day I might even learn to like jazz.
The last time they’d fucked, as she lay on her back, while he was inside her, he looked right into her face and asked ‘What colour eyes do you think our kids will have?’. It wasn’t such a funny question, between them they had the full range, one his being green, the other blue and both of hers being brown. Afterwards, when he’d gone, she curled herself foetal; and under the duvet, where it was hot, she fevered away, forgetting how to breathe.
It was late. She and a new he sat in the lounge, watching television, rolling spliffs. On the coffee table there was an unremarkable paperback, it’s spine broken. Around them the detritus of a lazy day, scattered across the floor and crumbled into the carpet. She was slouched in her pyjamas, eyes on stalks, hair all over the place, smiling, laughing, at new him, as he sat shoeless, legs stretched out on the sofa, right hand tucked into the waistband of his jeans. Outside it was raining. Inside the cat was curled on their unmade bed.
A knock at the back door called their attention. She stopped, mid three-skinner. He rose, long legs, big feet, a loping gait, and she watched his skinny backside disappear into the kitchen; she heard the door rattle against its frame, some mumbling, and then he came back into the lounge, his hand no longer in his waistband, instead it was passing through his hair and she could see his forehead and his frown.
‘It’s for you,’ he said.
‘Who is it?’
He didn’t look her in the face.
It was her turn to rise. She was barefoot. Her pyjama bottoms hung around her as if they were too tired to make the effort to cling. In the kitchen, right next to the door, stood the man who was still inside her. He held out a small package, something lumpy contained within a brown, manilla envelope. She took it.
‘What is it?’
He was crying.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,’ was all he could say.
But she had heard it all before. The first time she thought it was an aberration. She didn’t understand. He explained. It didn’t help. The second time his father told her off and she felt like it was all her fault. The third time it frightened her, because he was so high, so massively high, and vital, full of adrenaline; he scared her.
She fought to remain impassive, the lumpy brown envelope in her hand.
He hunched his shoulders and turned away, opening the door into a flurry of rain, and she realised those hadn’t been tears on his face.
She stared after him, immobilised, trying to find focus, her gaze shifting from the wet footprints on the linoleum to the round handle of the back door. It was a strange maroon colour, too dark to be red, too light to be nearly black. She had bled once. With concrete feet she walked into the lounge. ‘They used to make plastic like that,’ she said, ‘brittle.’
New he was bent over the coffee table, licking another cigarette loose. ‘Yeah, out of formaldehyde, same stuff they pickle body parts in.’ He dislodged the tobacco from its paper case.
‘Why would anyone want to keep part of their body in a pickle jar?’ she said.
He looked up just as he twiddled the end into a perfect cone, ‘Because some things you can’t throw away’.
It was late. They sat in the lounge, watching television, rolling spliffs. On the coffee table: a book (paperback novel, unremarkable), two cups of stale tea, an empty packet (crisps? biscuits? cigarettes? condoms?); and the carpet needed vacuuming, and she was slouched in her pyjamas, eyes on stalks, hair all over the place, smiling, laughing, at him, as he sat shoeless, legs stretched out on the sofa, right hand tucked into the waistband of his jeans. Sunday. It was raining. The cat was curled on their unmade bed.
A knock at the door called their attention, their back door, their kitchen door. No one came through the front door, not ever, because the front door actually opened into a bedroom, a student bedroom, because this was a student house, deep in the depths of student house land, where all the walls were decorated with posters and all the gardens were a mess
She stopped, mid three-skinner. He rose, long legs, big feet, a loping gait, and she watched his skinny backside disappear into the kitchen; she heard the back door rattle against its frame, some mumbling, and then he came back into the lounge, his hand no longer in his waistband, instead it was passing through his hair and she could see his forehead and his frown and …
‘It’s for you,’ he said.
‘Who is it?’
He didn’t look her in the eye.
It was her turn to rise. She was barefoot. Her pyjama bottoms hung around her as if they were too tired to make the effort to cling. In the kitchen, right next to the door, stood a man she recognised but had given up trying to know. He held out a small package, something lumpy contained within a brown, manilla envelope. She took it.
‘What is it?’
He was crying.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,’ was all he could say.
But she had heard it all before. The first time she thought it was an aberration. She didn’t understand. He explained. She still didn’t understand. The second time his father told her off and she felt like it was all her fault. The third time it frightened her, because he was so high, so massively high, and vital, full of adrenaline; he scared her. The fourth, fifth, sixth and sixtieth times, ‘Well, it’s amazing what you can get used to,’ she told her friend over a coffee one day.
She remained impassive, the lumpy brown envelope in her hand.
‘Aren’t you going to open it?’ he asked.
And she realised those weren’t tears on his face. It was still raining outside. ‘I don’t know,’ she said.
‘It’s a present.’
‘I don’t think so. I think it’s just something else you want me to have,’ she said.
‘Open it, you’ll understand.’
‘I don’t need to any more.’ She handed the package back to him. ‘I’d like you to leave.’
He left. For a long time afterwards she stared at the round handle on the back door. It was a strange maroon colour, too dark to be red, too light to be nearly black. She went into the lounge. ‘They used to make plastic like that,’ she said, ‘brittle.’
‘Yeah, out of formaldehyde, same stuff they pickle body parts in.’
‘Why would anyone want to keep part of their body in a pickle jar?’ she said.
‘Because it’s difficult to know how to throw some things away.’
There is a terrible stagnation in the park,
where the homeless man sleeps
in his army surplus body bag,
dog gently guardful against
all those people who have,
more or less,
failed to understand the nature
of daylight robbery.
An other man,
awake in the supermarket,
cruising the sardine aisle,
asks ‘How old do you think I am?’
and I hazard a guess -
dangerous business this talking
He whips his hat off his head
to show me a blizzard of white hair.
Yes, there is a victory in that.
‘They put me in an x-ray tube
and my lungs lit up like Christmas trees.
Asbestosis they said.’
We talk for a while
about the relative merits of
ketchup verses lemon and black pepper,
where he can find the bread rolls,
how he can still score a triple top.
He tells me his first wife died,
but not what of.
The homeless man is still
sleeping in the park,
his boots set neatly under a tree,
his dog snuggled in for safety,
and my husband’s walking towards me.
Hello, goodbye and everything in between.
Addicted to coke again.
Quite fond of her.
A consumer whore.
Quite granular, almost sandy.
Very envious of you.
So terribly blonde.
Impatient and snappy towards my fiance.
Extremely stressed very quickly.
Dissatisfied with our sex life.
Wetter in Delhi.
Vast and beautiful and very very hungry.
Scared this year.
Convinced I will live forever.
She doesn’t know, she could’ve read it wrong, but she swears (while sitting at the breakfast table gulping down her coffee) that the whole lot of them, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, only got published because someone died, someone was murdered.
“Huh?” he says.
“Kammerer, Lucien Carr stabbed him and threw his body into the Hudson River.”
“It was a big story. They wrote little stories and then they were involved in a big story. Carr got two years, Kerouac did some time, Burroughs went on to shoot his wife in the head.”
There’s a brief pause.
“And Valerie Solanis,” she says.
“Solanas,” he corrects.
“Was the Scum Manifesto published before or after she shot Warhol?”
She looks it up. She can’t tell. She thinks perhaps she should learn the first line by heart: ‘Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.’ What does that mean? Does it matter what it means? The most important thing, the defining thing, is that Solanas shot Warhol. This is what she’s remembered for. If she hadn’t shot Warhol, chances are the ‘Society for Cutting Up Men’ would’ve have remained, by and large, in total obscurity.
Obscure is good. Obscurity maybe not so good.
“So I have to kill someone, or at least try and kill someone,” she says.
He glances at her, the imprint of last night’s pillow still visible on his face.
“It has to be someone famous.”
He gets up and heads off towards the shower.
Or someone infamous, she thinks, or someone completely irrelevant. A cause célèbre. Perversity works. I could crucify someone, leave them on a hill outside of town, wait for the full horror of the situation to sink into the public consciousness. They like horror. They like things they can’t understand. They like to think it’s a complete aberration. Not children, though, no blonde haired, blue eyed little girls.
And then, when it comes to court, I’ll represent myself. They’ll ask me questions and I’ll give them answers, wild answers. I’ll ask even wilder questions. Oh yes. And they’ll want to believe me mad, seriously, because they need to have a big gap between what’s normal and what’s abnormal. They’ll love it, me in my box, the ultimate freak show, a zoological justice. Afterwards, once the judge has done the whole guilty bit and sentenced by ass off, it’ll take some time for the fascination to fade. They’ll have their own questions. Words such as ‘monstrous’ and ‘brutal’ will get bandied about. And they’ll want to KNOW, because people always want to know, it makes them feel safe if they think they know, so they’ll read my stuff, they’ll try to digest it, voluntarily choking on some aspects. They’ll have to choke. Things’ll have to stick in their throats. Insanity has to be swallowed like whiskey. And they’ll come across this, stupid little this, and they’ll wonder how a woman, sitting at her breakfast table, gulping down coffee, could ever come up with this.
‘The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.’
Yes, yes, I was talking to my lover, a man I have spent nearly twenty years of my life with, and he is away, breastless, breathless, without the comfort of my nipple. Oftentimes my arm is crooked under his head, in that space between his neck and his skull, while he suckles, drawing me into his mouth, indicating his desire for relief against my outer thigh. Of course, it is always a half question, his erection, re/questing an entrance, a seclusion, against this dark world.