There was a woman who would sometimes find herself alone in public. On one such occasion, she found herself in a pub, drinking a pint of beer and reading a book. It was quite a good book, and it was a pretty nice beer. Even the pub wasn’t too bad.
“Look at her,” one of the arseholes on the next table said. “What the fuck’s she doing?”
“She’s reading a book?”
“In the pub!”
“On her own!”
Shrieks of laughter, incredulous, a hint of disgust.
“Why would you do that?”
“You think you’d do it at home.”
“Hey! HEY! What are you reading?”
“Is it gooood?”
She looked up, just a quick glance, then back down to the page. But it was too much. It had been seen.
“Let’s have a look then, love. Let’s have a read.”
Out of his chair and in her face, snatching the book from her hands, “Let’s see what’s so bloody good about your fucking book then.”
And then he began to read, right there, in the pub. She could follow his progress by watching the movement of his lips.
the woman who was sometimes on her own in public there was a woman who would sometimes find herself alone in public on one such occasion she found herself in a pub drinking a pint of beer and reading a book it was quite a good book and it was a pretty nice beer even the pub wasnt too bad look at her one of the arseholes on the next table said what the fucks she doing shes reading a book in the pub on her own shrieks of laughter incredulous a hint of disgust why would you do that you think youd do it at home hey hey what are you reading more laughter is it gooood she looked up just a quick glance then back down to the page but it was too much it had been seen lets have a look then love lets have a read out of his chair and in her face snatching the book from her hands lets see whats so bloody good about your fucking book then and then he began to read right there in the pub she could follow his progress by watching the movement of his lips i dont get it he said whats it about i dont know i havent finished it yet are you taking the piss is this taking the piss he waved the book in front of her face before throwing it contemptuously back onto the table i dont get it was it about me was that me he shook his head and wandered back down to his table sat back down in his chair dyou read her book then what was it about i think have you ever have you ever thought about what were doing what were saying what why we do what we do are you okay mate why do we do what we do its just a bit of banter mate a bit of a laugh are you sure youre okay yeah its just that book she was reading i think it might have been about us you know like fucking us and that the dirty cow nah about how we act about how awful we look to her i knew she was a fucking dyke he laughed no wonder shes on her fucking own they both laughed anyway its your round mate hurry up when they started throwing peanuts at her a few minutes later she decided to leave
“I don’t get it,” he said. “What’s it about?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t finished it yet.”
“Are you taking the piss? Is this taking the piss?” He waved the book in front of her face, before throwing it contemptuously back onto the table. “I don’t get it… Was it about me? Was that me?”
He shook his head and wandered back down to his table, sat back down in his chair.
“D’you read her book then? What was it about?”
“I think… Have you ever… have you ever thought about what we’re doing? What we’re saying?”
“Why we do what we do?”
“Are you okay mate?
“Why do we do what we do?”
“It’s just a bit of banter mate. A bit of a laugh. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, it’s just that book she was reading. I think it might have been about us, you know?”
“Like, fucking us and that? The dirty cow.”
“Nah, about how we act. About how awful we look to her.”
“I knew she was a fucking dyke!” He laughed. “No wonder she’s on her fucking own!” They both laughed. “Anyway it’s your round, mate. Hurry up.”
When they started throwing peanuts at her a few minutes later she decided to leave.
1. Written on June 17th, 2014
2. An amalgamation of events
3. That occurred
4. For me
5. And for others
6. At various times
7. That week
8. And every other week, no doubt
10. And since
11. While we were on our own
13. In public
15. To exist
One of our cats was stolen once, by the old woman who lived across the street.
It was a slow crime, committed by kindness day by day for months, maybe even years. Leaving food out in her garden, calling him over, petting him, letting him into her home and out again when he wanted, his body squeezing itself through the gap as her front door opened a crack, his tail flicking back and forth as he paused half in, half out, deciding whether to go forward or retreat. Curiosity always compelled him forward, and only on its satisfaction would he leave.
But then, eventually, curiosity claimed him completely, and he didn’t want to come out again. Or was it satisfaction that stole him? Was it kidnapping, or a divorce? Who can tell.
When I told the police she’d taken him they thought I was mad, or an idiot, needlessly wasting their time, pointlessly, hysterically. They never called me back. Never, as far as I know, even spoke to the old woman.
Even if they had she would have denied it. She did whenever I asked her, and when I shouted, when I pled.
And yet of course I could see him, sometimes, sat at her window, the net curtains rucked up awkwardly around him, looking out. Looking at me.
What did he think when he saw me. What did he think about everything he looked at out of that window, not just me or my mum but the street, the gardens and the green, the cars, the kids on bikes, the birds in the trees. All the world he used to love. That he used to rule, in his way.
Did he still mewl at the birds as he watched them through the window, imitating their cries and imitating his own, his cries of victory and pleasure at his imagined captures and conquests? Did he still purr so loudly – too loudly – in the mornings, just to let you know he was there, that he was happy to be there with you? Did he miss the summer and the sunlight, lying out in it in the dirt until he was hotter than the sun itself?
Did he miss me?
I tried to break in to her house once, when I saw that she’d gone out.
I edged my way up the side of her house, climbed over the fence into her back garden, tried the back door and found it locked. I looked around for something to smash a window with – a brick, a branch, anything really – and found a stone tortoise half-forgotten under a bush. I stood there, holding this absurd thing in my hand for an age, gripped with inaction and indecision. And sorrow, the sadness of rejection, of a baffling terrible jealousy I couldn’t quite understand or control.
I put the tortoise down and went home and cried and left him there in her lair.
We all know how it would have ended, anyway, if I had broken in. I saw it clearly through my tears. She’d have returned, found me searching in vain through her immaculate, eerily empty house. I would have stood there awkwardly before her, making my excuses and my apologies and my threats and she would have said nothing, perhaps even smiled.
And then she would have opened up her handbag and out he would have come. Him and a thousand others, a wave of cats, a torrent, raging over me and onto me, claws and teeth, fur and fury, ripping away at me, at everything I ever was, until there was nothing left of me but bones.
She picks them up one by one and puts them in her bag and no trace of me is ever found by anyone and I am as forgotten as my cat and as unmourned.
This was over five years ago now. I never saw my cat again, although I saw others, at her windows, in her garden, peering out from behind her legs as she answered the door to the postman or whoever.
And in my mind he slowly ceased being whole, became this memory in two parts: his tail disappearing through her front door into the darkness beyond, the door slamming shut behind him; his head staring down at me from a window as I pass by on the street below, his mouth opening in an unheard cry.
Did I ever actually see either of those things? I don’t know. It seems doubtful, in hindsight.
But they are as real in my mind as any memory of the truth.
Last week, the old woman died. I asked some of our neighbours about her cats, about what had happened to them, or what would happen to them, whether they needed homes or anything, but nobody knew a thing. Nobody even knew for sure if she even had any cats, if she’d ever had any.
Her house was still a council house, and she had no next of kin, or at least none that cared enough to come and take away her things. So the council have been sending people round to clear it all away, putting everything into black bags and flinging them into skips, day after day, skip after skip. A lifetime’s accumulation of things that nobody wants, nobody needs, nobody remembers.
I wonder what I would have found if I ever had gone inside. I wonder what I would have learnt if I had ever really spoken to her, ever listened, ever cared.
I wonder where my cat went and I wonder if he was happy.
I used to dream about him at least once a week, then, slowly, less and less.
In the dreams all those nameless, imagined cats surge forth from her handbag and overwhelm me, strip the flesh from my bones and leave me lying there on the carpet. I’m nothing more than a skeleton with a chest full of organs, a skull with eyes, a tongue, somewhere, and, somehow, still, a brain. Then they retreat and he climbs up onto me, lays down on my ribcage, looks me in the eye, purrs.
I try to lift my arms to stroke him but I can’t move, my muscles all torn away, these bones useless by themselves. My cat just sits there, a king on his throne, a dragon on his gold.
And he lazily dangles a paw down between my ribs and hooks his claws into my heart.
Last night some foxes got into the skip and ripped everything apart and now the wind has picked it up and blown it all around. Letters, old newspaper clippings, clothes, flannels, teabags, yoghurt pots, tissues, medicine packets, shampoo bottles, christmas decorations, chicken bones, photos. A single slash across the swollen belly of one black bag reveals it was filled entirely with scrunched up supermarket carrier bags, and now they blossom forth from the wound like roses, caught by the wind one by one and blown tumbling down the gutters towards my front door.
1. Written (mostly) in March 2016
2. Probably the origination of the name of this website, although it’s possible I’d used it before somewhere, too.
Yeah, I’ve never done this before. I‘m fucking terrified. I was terrified before, for weeks, and I was terrified earlier, out the back, waiting, trying to relax. And I’m terrified now, standing here on stage behind this mike. Holding on to this lectern as tightly as I can for courage and trying not to look any of you in the eye. In case I see your disgust, your anger. Your boredom. Or possibly worse, your delight and amusement. So I’m going to concentrate as intently on my notes as I can, pick them up, and start to read.
“Yeah, I’ve never done this before,” I read out loud, word for word from the page. “So, um, sorry. If it’s, you know…” I give you an amiable shrug — at least I hope it’s amiable — and then finish my sentence… “if it’s a bit shit.”
A couple of you laugh. Not many, and not for long. The audience equivalent of a polite smile.
“So anyway,” I say, “I hope this is okay.” A slight pause before the next line. “I’ve been dreading this all week.” And I try to say that, I mean to say that, with a laugh, but at best I manage a sort of forced unnatural looking smile.
Do I tell you, I’m wondering, when I’m practicing this at home, how at first, even in an empty room, I can’t speak. That I’m so self-conscious I can’t even overcome the horror of public speaking in private, to no-one. And not just on the first day of practicing this performance, but every day. Every time.
But I decide it’s probably best not to say a word of that to you. It’d sound needy, pleading. So I go back instead to hoped-for charm of admitted first-time incompetence instead.
“This is…” I start, looking down at my script, flicking through the pages nervously before putting it back down. I start again: “Sorry, I should have said thank you all for coming. And I hope the book’s not a disappointment. Well, I hope tonight’s not a disappointment either, as you’ve all made the effort to come down here and everything. But especially the book…”
Is this silence that follows as uncomfortable for you as it is for me? Is my voice as inflectionless, as emotionless, as I always fear? Does it sound as awful to you as it always sounds to me when I hear a snippet of it on tape, in the background of some video I’ve recorded on my phone? Or in my dreams.
I read some advice somewhere about how it’s best to never, ever, think about the sound of your voice, not when you’re speaking, when you’re giving a speech, but I’ve started now and how to stop? It’s like being told at the dentist or wherever not to swallow — you’re told not to swallow and you think okay, I won’t swallow, and then, only then, do you realise how desperate you are to swallow, how you’ll choke if you don’t, and you can feel your tongue absolutely huge in your month and if you don’t swallow you’ll fucking choke you’ll choke on your own tongue you’ll forget how to breathe you’ll fucking die.
I’m trying not to think of the true sound of my own voice and yet I have to speak. I have to just close my mind to it and carry on and read.
So I go back to my notes. I read. I speak.
“This first story — it’s not the first one in the book but it’s the first one tonight — it’s called The Reading, or Performance Anxiety.”
I’ve printed these stories out quite big, so the letters are nice and distinct and the lines are all clearly separated and everything’s nice and easy to read, but now this massive font I’ve used gives all my words the appearance of a children’s story, some sort of Ladybird learn to read book. Or the eyesight test lettering in the opticians.
Actually I think they probably most closely resemble the look of a note in a film, with everything printed in big sparse letters and held in shot long enough so even the slowest readers in the audience can read them. Now I’ve seen this similarity I can’t stop seeing it, and it gives my words a weird and unwanted sense of unreality and artifice, undermining everything I’ve written.
And without belief in what you’ve written your words are nothing.
But finally now I’m on to the story, past all my introductory messages and the title and onto what you’ve come for. Onto what you’ve paid for. I discard the first page, place it neatly to the left, and find my place at the top of the second page. And finally now move onto the first story.
“The Reading, Or Performance Anxiety,” I read out, word for word from the page. “Yeah, I’ve never done this before. I’m fucking terrified.”
It all sounds so hollow, limp and dead on my tongue, disconnected from any real feeling. Not just from feeling but disconnected from each other as well, as if they weren’t even sentences, but instead a collection of unconnected words in a line, and now, as I say them, everything begins to fall apart.
“I was terrified before. For weeks. And I — sorry — I was terrified… I was terrified earlier. Out the back. Waiting. To relax. Wait — I was waiting, I was trying to relax. I…”
I turn the page and during this tiny pause someone shouts ou-
—GET ON WITH IT!
Er, yeah, thanks, like that. Exactly like that.
So I say, “Yes,” back to them. I say, “Sorry.”
But now when I look back at the page I can’t even read the words. My heart’s pounding like I’m afraid I’m about to get hit. I can feel the tears at the edges of my eyes. Not quite tears actually, not yet, but that hot feeling across my face and that… that pricking sensation you get when you can tell that they’re just about to form, when you know that you might still be able to hold them back but once they start they’ll just flow and flow.
That shout, that one single shout.
It feels like being told off at school, never wanting to admit it hurts but it hurts. Being shouted at, being mocked, bullied, abused. And the years of hardening yourself to it, hardening your face so it’s a case of studied blankness even though inside you’re in fucking turmoil.
Please let me still have that control.
“I’m. I’m…” I stammer. “And I’m terrified now, standing here on this stage — ”
— WELL GET THE FUCK OFF IT THEN!
You all laugh. I can hear it and I can see it and you don’t even stop even though I’m looking at you, pleading with you with my eyes, my face, my slumped shoulders, to just
— YOU’RE FUCKING SHIT AT THIS YOU KNOW!
“I’m sorry you think that,” is my, well, my rather lame reply. I’m defeated and I know it, but I try to hold it off, if only for a second. “Sorry, the lights — I can’t see anything — who am I talking to here?”
You laugh and you laugh. The whole room full of you laughing, at him, at his words. And at me, and mine.
“Can you just… Look, can’t you just let me finish. Look, I’m sorry, sorry everyone, maybe it’ll be better if I start again.”
I turn the page back.
“The Reading,” I repeat. “Or, Performance Anxiety.”
I see him getting up, the heckler, out of the corner of my eye. Hopefully he’s leaving and we can all get on with this.
Get through this.
“Yeah, I’ve never done this before. I’m fucking terrified. I was terrified before, for weeks, and I was terrified earlier — ”
— Give that here.
A hand – that hand, there, this hand, his hand – reaches over the lectern and grabs at my papers.
— I bet I can do this better than you anyway. I could hardly be worse, could I?
He laughs. You all laugh.
I look up. There’s a spotlight — that one there — that’s shining directly into my eyes and I can only see this person, this heckler, this intruder, I can only see him as a shadow. The audience, I can’t see the audience anymore, I can’t see them at all. It’s only you now, whoever you are, you. A silhouette, a suggestion — you’re everyone and no-one, you’re looming aggression and dominance and contempt and
I shove him out of the way, two-handed in the chest and he stumbles backwards and, in his surprise, trips. People behind me cheer and I take his place on the stage, turn my back on him and turn round to the room and look at all of you here in the audience. I can see the relief on your faces. The anticipation, the strange vicarious joy.
I begin to flick through the pages of his story, discarding them one by one, passing through the words you’ve already heard and the things you’ve already seen, until on the fourth page I find my place, find the here and now.
I begin to read.
“He sits there at the back of the stage for a moment, too dazed to stand, and listens to me speak. I read his words, shout them out confidently as if they were my own. And I speak them with a clarity, with a conviction, that he could never match. As if the words are mine, now. As if they have always been mine, always will be mine.
“He can’t bear to watch, can’t bear to watch me, my performance, my… usurpation, and he crawls behind the curtains, gets up and stumbles his way down the passages to try and escape. To get away. Away from the stage. Away from all of us. Away from his embarrassment. His failures.
“He opens the fire escape and there’s a sudden rush of silence as the freezing cold air hits his face and he imagines me stopping, triumphant, as I reach the end of his story. He pictures me bowing slightly, taking his applause, the pages of his words littering the stage around my feet. I step around the podium and I hold my arms wide and I bow again and smile and wave and your ovation grows and grows and then finally begins to subside.
There was a hole in the tree at the end of our nan’s garden. We used to love shoving our arms into it, me and my sister, pretending we were Flash Gordon, pretending we might get bitten and die.
No matter how old we got, no matter how long our arms grew, we never could reach the end of it. We stuck the garden hose into it once, lowered it down slowly into the depths as if we were dropping a bucket down into a well, or a bathysphere into the sea. And even when we’d unspooled it all we still could have gone deeper.
My sister said it must be coiling around in there like a snake, or like the tape inside a cassette, tightly wound round some tree-ish spindle deep down there in the dark.
All I could imagine it as was guts. But then at the time all I could imagine at any time was guts, stomachs slashed open, intestines bulging out from the gaping wound like a colony of bloated worms, all this the consequence of some surreptitiously watched forbidden video, rented out on our behalf from the shop by a friend’s older brother or an unconcerned uncle.
And every day since, these visions of mutilation and evisceration. I’d sit in the bathtub and stare at my ever largening belly, horrified and fascinated about was was within, what was straining to get out.
We turned the hose on, in the end, while it was in the hole, and counted out the seconds until it overflowed, so that we could work out an approximate volume of the expanse within the tree. But it never overflowed. The hollow was obviously infinite, a void unexplainable by science. (My sister had more prosaic explanations).
Our nan asked us what we were doing out there, when we’d gone back inside in the afternoon for a glass of watery orange squash and a biscuit, most likely a rich tea but, if we were lucky, perhaps one of those with the cow on them, whatever they were called.
“We were putting our arms in the hole in the tree,” said my sister, rather guilelessly.
“You shouldn’t put things in holes, dear,” said our nan. “You might not get them out again.”
And she chuckled to herself as if it was funny, both what she’d said and what we were doing. But after that she never let us play in the garden much again, or at least not on our own.
That summer extended on forever and we forgot about the hole. Moved on to other mysteries. Then there was school, again, eventually, autumn, winter, christmas, snow.
In the half term we stayed there, and we got snowed in. It was quite exciting. The roofs of cars protruding out from the drifts like polyps. Icicles growing down from the gutter so far when you looked out of the window it felt like you were behind bars.
I woke up one night, a gap in the curtains letting the moonlight through. The house was silent. Outside the snow glowed as if lit from below.
I heard the screams of foxes, far away, nearer, near. Then out into the garden one ran, each footstep an echo of its passage through the snow.
My nan burst out from beneath the picnic bench, galloping across the snow on all fours towards her prey. A silent leap, up, up, down onto the back of the transfixed fox. Then an explosion of noise and movement and screaming.
My nan rose from the snow, up on to her hind legs, the dead animal hanging from her mouth, blood dripping from the holes where her teeth were submerged in the poor thing’s belly, splashes of red on the white of her nightgown, and more behind her in the hollow in the snow where her footstepped path and the fox’s converged.
She walked across to the tree, bent down towards the hole, and pushed herself into it, fox first, then face, her shoulders dislocating behind her as the rest of her slithered inside.
Silence, then, and stillness, for a moment. Then clouds obscured the moon. Snow fell in darkness. Sleep eventually took me back to bed. And in the morning no trace of footsteps in the snow, no stains of blood on the ground, nor on the tree. Even in my mind, the memory was softened out by the possibility of it being a dream.
For breakfast there was toast and jam, thick and red and spread too strong. Everyone eating it, except for me and my nan. No one believed me about the hole and what I’d seen go in it, and later when we went outside to look it was frozen full of ice, so thick and clear you couldn’t see it, you had to touch it to know it was there, to know it existed in more than just your mind.
Your girlfriend asked you once if you’d help her out with her training over the park one evening, because her usual training partner was away somewhere, or ill or injured, maybe, you can’t really remember.
Anyway she asked you if you’d help her train – it wouldn’t involve much, she stressed, just standing around mostly – and you’d said yes, and you went to the park and she did her drills for the best part of an hour, which involved sprinting away from you to the fence and back, and then her punching away at your raised hands for a minute or so, you holding them up unsteadily, your hands absurdly huge in the sparring gloves she’d given you to wear, this short routine repeated, turn, sprint, turn, sprint, punch, punch, punch, until she could barely stand and your hands were numb from the contact.
As she got her breath back at the end, towelled her face, gulped down her water, you took the gloves off and threw them down with her gear and said, “Man, christ, my wrists really ache now,” and she said, “Your wrists ache? You just stood there,” and you laughed and said, “Yeah, I know,” and laughed again and she laughed too. And then while she was getting changed, sitting down, leant up against a tree, she looked over to where you were standing and said, “You didn’t have to come if you didn’t want to, you know,” and you said, no, you wanted to, it was good, you enjoyed yourself, it was fun, it was a lovely evening.
And it was great and you did enjoy it, but she didn’t ask you to come next week when she went and she never asked you again and a few months later you weren’t even together anymore and these days to be honest you’re surprised you ever were.
But you find yourself thinking about it sometimes, remembering that night over the park, the hazy summer dusklight, your bags of clothes by the trunk of the tree, the cars passing by on the road just behind the fence, windows down, music strobing as they passed.
And her face in front of yours, the intensity of her stare, the joy and the pain as she pushed herself harder and harder, the rage of her fists against your padded palms, the thud of glove on glove, the jolt of every blow in your wrists, in your shoulders, trying to hold yourself there, trying to stand firm.
She turns, sprints away. Turns, sprints back.
1. Written in January 23rd, 2016
2. This was going to be published in a book this year, but in the end it wasn’t published in a book this year
3. So here it is instead