Dolerotica

David entered the job centre building and looked around, trying to get his bearings. It had been five years since he’d last been here and everything had subtly changed. Amidst the crowds of people it was hard to see where he was supposed to go for his appointment.

Having located what appeared to be the reception desk a single lectern with a well dressed woman standing beside it, her hand resting on what appeared to be a glossy travel brochure, he made his way through the milling throngs toward it.

“Hi, I’m Margaret, how can I help you?”

Margaret (36-24-36, with bountiful DD breasts) stood approximately 5 foot nine (two inches of which were her heels) and wore a smart pale blue blouse and a navy blue brushed nylon skirt. Her hair was a lustrous red and tumbled down over her shoulders in waves.

“I’m here to, er.. I’m supposed to sign on, at, er…” David looked at his appointment letter. “…at 9:30.”

Margaret stared at him.

“You’re late,” she hissed.

“But it’s only 9:15,” David said.

“The appointment is at 9:30,” she said, carefully intoning the word appointment so that is sounded almost lewd. “But you have to be here at 9. So as to make sure there’s no delay.”

“Oh, sorry. I, I didn’t realise. It’s my first time,” he said. “Today,” he added, uselessly, into the terror of her silence.

“This was all clearly laid out in your ‘Welcome’ package, along with all the other rules and regulations. It’s part of your agreement with us that you will have read these before arriving for your session.” Margaret looked down at his shoes (a fraying pair of red dunlop tennis shoes that he had bought from Sports Direct for £12.99 the week before, and which gave his overlong feet a strange resemblance to those of a circus clown’s). “And, well, I can see, quite clearly, you didn’t even get to the dress code section.”

“These are the only shoes I’ve got,” David said.

“Indeed.”

Margaret drummed her well-manicured fingers on the top of the lectern, her nails clacking against the lacquer. The book that rested there, David could see clearly now, was entitled “Job Centre Plus: For You, From Us” and on the cover there was a number of well dressed people, all of them beautiful. All of them smiling. David looked away, vaguely embarrassed. He was, he thought, probably frightened of smiles.

When he looked back at Margaret she was holding two red cards out for him to take.

“Your appointment is at lectern #7,” Margaret said, in her clipped, precise tones. “Hand these tokens to your overseer when your name is called, along with your letter of introduction, two forms of photo ID, and a reference from a professional associate, such as your doctor, solicitor, or pastor, or a member of the House of Lords.”

David took the cards from her hand, his finger momentarily grazing hers. It felt smooth, clean, and he jerked his hand away, embarrassed at how his calloused claws must feel to her.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, but she had already turned her attention to another, and his apology went unacknowledged.

At lectern #7, at precisely 7 minutes past ten, David’s name was called and he stepped forward.

“Hi, I’m Margaret, how can I help you today?”

Margaret, 27 years old, 5 foot 4 inches tall, (26-46-86), cupsize: HH, wore an off-brown cotton shirt above on-brown cullottes that hung just below the knee. He could not see her shoes. Her hair was brown in a style the name of which he did not know, but that he had definitely seen before somewhere.

David handed her his letter, his identification documentation and the two red tokens.

Margaret looked at the red tokens sadly, shaking her head and tutting and sighing simultaneously, somehow.

“Now that’s not a very good start to your claim, is it?”

“What’s wrong?” David asked.

“Two negative actions against your account already. Very disappointing.” She shook her head again, her hair swaying as if in slow motion. “Very disappointing for you.”

“But I haven’t even…” David trailed off as Margaret put her finger to her lips and shushed him.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I’m here for you.”

She patted him on the arm.

“Now, just tell me your details. Name?”

“David N. Guy.”

“Date of birth?”

“The 16th of June, 1978.”

“Height?”

“153 Conduit Ro-”

Height!

“What?”

“Height.”

“Oh. 6 foot 2.”

“Very good. Weight.”

“I… What does this have to do with… Do I have to tell you this?”

“Yes. It all needs to be filled in. Look!”

She turned her ipad round so he could see the screen. On it there was a picture of him in his underwear. Well a picture of someone in their underwear. It was a sort of indistinct blob mostly. A number of text fields down the side were still waiting to be filled with information.

“I’m about 20 stone.”

“About?”

“20 stone 7.”

“Very good.”

“Bust, hips, waist?”

“I, don’t know. I wear a 44 inch per of trousers usually.”

“I’ll just put, 44, 44, 44 for now, is that okay?”

“I suppose.”

“Cup size.”

“I don’t wear a bra.”

“But if you did?”

David looked down at his shoes and mumbled, “A B cup.”

“See that wasn’t so hard now, was it?”

“No,” David said. “I still don’t really understand why it’s necessary, though.”

“All information is necessary,” Margaret said. “For our records.”

There was a moments silence. David wished he was dead at least three times.

“So it says here,” Margaret said. “That you wish to sign on because you’re a failure of business.”

“My business was a failure,” David said. “The letter says my business was a failure.”

“Do you have the necessary documentation to prove this?”

“Only that letter,” he replied. “I didn’t consider my business a failure.”

“Was it a small business?” Margaret said. “A very small business.”

She held her finger and thumb an inch apart and tittered slightly.

“Anyway,” she continued. “You know the rules.”

“What rules?”

“The rules on the size of a business,” she winked. “Your business was too small.”

“Well, I don’t agree, obviously.” David was shocked by his momentary moment of assertiveness. “But anyway that’s why I’m here. Because my business was too small-”

Margaret interrupted with a giggle.

“-my business was too small to qualify for working tax credits,” David concluded. “And also the new rules state that any business too small for working tax credits is too small to register as a business at all. So they sent me here.”

We.”

“What?”

We sent you here. The Conservatives,” said Margaret. “You’re not a Conservative. So here you are.”

“How do you know I’m not a Conservative?”

“Are you?” she asked.

“No.”

“See. I knew it. Our detection system is foolproof.” She paused a moment and then said in a singsong voice, “We’re the party of workers, not shirkers.” She pointed her crimson-nailed finger directly at David’s heart. “You are a shirker.”

“But I was a worker!”

“A very small worker,” Margaret said. “Barely even profitable.”

She scraped her nails down the screen of her ipad.

“Now, let’s find you a job!”

She clacked at the screen as if she was typing on it, an elaborate and pointless charade on its capacitive screen.

“Well, there’s only one job. You’ll have to have sex with everyone.”

“What?”

“It’s the only job available.”

Everyone?

“Everyone here. It’s the only role available.”

“But… Well, isn’t there anything else?”

“No.”

“Surely there’s a-”

“There’s nothing else.”

“Well, I’m not going to take it.”

Margaret gave him a long hard look and then slowly pushed a red token across the lectern towards him.

“That’s three now. You know what that means.”

“I don’t.”

“It wasn’t a question.”

“I still don’t know what it means.”

“Your account has been suspended, and sanctions placed upon it. You will have to contact your local job centre every Friday to see if they have been lifted. Sanctions usually last from between 4 weeks to 26 weeks. Failure to enquire as to whether your sanction has been lifted is a sanctionable offence. Once the sanctions have been lifted, you may re-apply to the job centre within 28 days to receive an application to apply form, which may take up to six weeks to arrive.”

“But…”

“No ifs, no buts,” Margaret said. “But…” She winked at him, in a sort of sexy way.

“I’m not taking that job,” David said. “It’s against my beliefs.”

We’re the party of florals, not morals,” she sang.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” David said. “It doesn’t even rhyme.”

“It does.”

“It doesn’t.”

“It looks like it does.”

“Well it doesn’t,” David said. “Just listen to yourself saying it.”

Margaret soundlessly pushed another red token across the desk.

“Four,” she mouthed.

“I suppose that means you’ll have me killed now?” David sarcasmed.

“No,” Margaret replied. “It means I’ll have to call my supervisor on you.”

Margaret pressed a button on her desk and a klaxon started blaring and all the light sin the room went red and smoke rose up from the floor and suddenly a supervisor apparitioned out of the murk.

“Hi, I’m Margaret, how can I help you?” said the supervisor, who was 4 foot 8 tall, with KKK breasts and a cloak made out of ermine. Under that she might well have been naked, or possibly she was wearing a smart black trouser suit from Debenhams.

“Four,” Margaret mouthed at her, and shook her head. The supervisor looked at David, a ferocious fury blazing in her eyes.

“It’s people like you who ruining it for the rest of us,” she said, picking up David’s passport, his driver’s licence, and his signed letter of acknowledgement and approval from Lord Puttnam and ripping them slowly and deliberately into thin strips, each one exactly 0.25 centimetres wide. “We’re the party of citizens, not clucking hens.”

She threw the strips of his identity up into the air and David watched, mesmerised as they fluttered off like paper butterflies across the room, caught oddly in the unpredictable eddies of the air conditioned atmosphere.

“If you want an identity, you’ll have to take this job,” the supervisor said. “Then, you’ll be one of us, a worker not a shirker, and we can assign you a new one. Otherwise, you’re no-one, nameless. Nothing.

A strip of David’s passport fluttered down and landed in the supervisor’s hand. She looked at it and read the name written there. “And you had such a nice name, a Conservative name. A pity.”

She shook her head and vanished back into the smoke.

“Now, you saw that Margaret there wasn’t very happy,” said Margaret. “And you’d like to please her, wouldn’t you? Please her very much. She would… make it worth your while.”

(The salary met precisely all National Living Wage requirements.)

“How come you’re all called Margaret?” David asked, in an attempt to change the subject.

“It is government policy,” Margaret said. “The only women’s name on the list.”

“What list?”

“The list of approved names.”

“So, every woman here is called Margaret?”

“Yes.”

“So she’s called Margaret, is she?” David asked, pointing at the woman working at lectern #64.

“Yes.”

“And her?” he asked, pointing at the woman at lectern #1.

“No, that’s Winston,” Margaret said. “Transgender women are considered men for the purposes of naming. And marriage. And most other rights. In line with government policy.”

“What about her,” David asked, pointing at the short-haired woman working at lectern #846476382. “I know her, and she’s definitely not called Margaret.”

“You’re right, that’s Harold.”

“But she’s not transgender. Her name’s Angela. We used to do some art shows and stuff together.”

“The arts.” Margaret rolled her eyes. “She doesn’t do that sort of thing anymore. Also, lesbians are now considered men. For the purposes of naming.”

“She’s not even a Conservative,” David insisted.

“She works, therefore she is,” Margaret said.

“What would you call a transgender man?”

“Margaret, obviously.” Margaret said. “Transgender men do not exist, according to government guidelines. And they are forbidden from trying to claim an official designation of lesbian, before you try and think you’ve found a loophole.”

David tried changing the subject again. “So, you’re working for the state. Surely that’s the least bloody Conservative thing you can do. You should all be ashamed of yourselves.”

“We’re destroying the system from within,” said Margaret firmly. “So, about this… opening.”

“I don’t want it.”

“You can’t not have it. It’s the rules. Our rules,” Margaret told him. “You have to take a job. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

“But I don’t want it,” David said. “I don’t. I can’t. I don’t want to have to have sex!”

The entire job centre fell quiet at this outburst. Margaret looked disgusted.

A bare chested man at the lectern next to them turned round and said, “What the fuck, mate? What sort of fucking gay sort of thing is that? The fucking state of you.” The man turned back to his overseer and said, “This is Essex. We shouldn’t have to put up with that sort of shit round here. It’s disgusting. There’s kids round here.”

David crossed his arms and said, “I’m not taking it. I can’t. I have a phobia.”

“I don’t see any medical exemptions listed on your form.”

“Look, I have a letter, from my Doctor.” David removed it from his trouser pocket and passed it across the lectern to Margaret. “See. Ubbtophobia. A fear of breasts. I can’t possibly take this job. I’d be too scared.”

“I’m sorry, but Ubbtophobia isn’t on our list of medical exemptions,” Margaret said. “The current list of accepted phobias, in line with government policy is as follows: islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, pedophobia, arachnophobia, xenophobia, and taxophobia.”

Margaret put down her ipad and looked at David lasciviously.

“Is it true that, well, the things you’re scared of look bigger to you, when you see them? My sister’s scared of spiders and she’s always saying how huge they are.” She thrust her breasts forward and David drew back, nodding.

“How much bigger?”

David started stammering some fucking nonsense, and she cut him off by saying, “How big do you think my breasts are, David?”

“Don’t. Please, don’t.” David wept.

Margaret pushed her breasts closer to him, closer and closer, until they knocked all the red tokens off the lectern and came perilously close to touching David’s belly and he pushed out with his hands in a panic, as if he thought he could swat them away. But they were too hefty to be moved aside.

“You touched them!” Margaret said. “You touched my breasts.”

She put the ipad down on the lectern and said loudly, to the room, “He touched my breasts.”

The supervisor rematerialised and said, “You touched her breasts.”

“Ubbtophobia my fucking arse, “ said the Margaret from reception. “If you can touch them you can’t be that scared of them.”

The three Margaret’s stood round him in a circle, the Supervisor’s incredible breasts having already knocked the lectern onto the floor. Margaret’s ipad screen shattered as it crashed to the floor.

David tried to turn away but everywhere he looked breasts pushed in towards him. Closer and closer and closer and closer. He screamed.

“Join us,” said Margaret. “Take the job.”

“Become a worker,” said Margaret.

“Become a Conservative!” said the final Margaret. “And never worry about anything again.”

David felt a nipple brush against his beard, and then push further and further in, down into the tangle of it, deeper and deeper until it almost seemed to be inside of him. And then the pressure of it against his skin, the caress of it against his cheek.
_______________

David took the job, and was assigned the name John. He has recently set up a campaign group devoted to the abolishment of the European Convention Of Human Rights. He lives in Chelmsford.

__________

Notes:

1. Written in May 2016
2. Obviously, every word of his is completely true
3. And now, two years later, even more true
4. Although I suppose the list of acceptable female names has now doubled in size

__________

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Front Door

I got home yesterday and we had a new front door. Not a replacement front door but an additional front door. Two front doors.

None of the other houses had a new front door. Also, none of them had no front door, which I thought maybe was a possibility, as if front doors were migratory and one of them might have decided to stay here for the summer instead of somewhere colder further up the road.

But front doors don’t work like that, I understand that now. Then again they shouldn’t work like this really either, whatever this was.

I entered the house through the old front door, but when I turned round to look at the new front door it wasn’t there, even though it should have been there, according to all the usual rules of doors and walls and space and sense. I went back outside and the door was there and then went back inside and the door wasn’t there and so on for half an hour or so, just popping in and out and staring at the door and staring at the no door, all the while a look of bogglement spread across my increasingly perplexed face.

I wondered what my neighbours thought of my behaviour. I could see one or two of them around, possibly watching while trying to look as if they weren’t watching, which is how I would have watched one of my neighbours if they kept popping in and out of their front door for half an hour in the middle of the day without letting them realise I was watching, which would have been rude.

Maybe they thought it was normal, for me. Maybe they couldn’t care less. Maybe there was no subterfuge to their not-watching stances at all, because they really weren’t watching me at all.

Maybe they were jealous of my two front doors.

All the while I was wondering about appearances, I was also thinking of ways to test the existence or possibly non-existence of the door. My main avenue of thought was of erecting an elaborate series of mirrors so I could stand outside and see inside (or stand inside and see outside), enabling me to look at the door and the no door at the same time.

Perhaps this simultaneous observation would cause the paradoxical door to collapse down to a single consistent state of either two doorness or one doorness, but I didn’t hold out much hope. If a paradox exists unobserved than surely it would also exist while observed. Otherwise it wasn’t so much a paradox as an unprovable delusion.

Anyway I didn’t have any mirrors handy, or at least any mirrors which weren’t attached to walls. And although might have been desperate to solve this mystery I was not quite desperate enough to enter the shed where the screwdrivers lived. You never know what you might find in the shed, nor, more commonly, what you might not find, and how long it would take to not find it.

Eventually I tried using the key to the old front door on the new front door. I’m not sure why this plan took so long to formulate but it did. When you’ve discovered a new door on the front of your house maybe I’ll accept your criticism but until then you should just accept that this whole door adventure was strange enough to slow even the sharpest of minds let alone my near useless heat-shrunk brain.

Also this plan would have been a good plan if the new door had a keyhole exactly the same as the old door, but it didn’t. It didn’t have any keyhole at all. It didn’t even have a door knob. All it had was one of those elaborate knockers you see in horror films where a big round ring made of some impossibly heavy metal is held in the mouth of some grotesque mythical beast, which in this case was a lion, if lions can be considered mythical, or beasts.

I knocked. The knocker made a heavy thudding sound that sounded like someone had banged their head on the hull of an ocean liner and then banged it again and again but slightly softer each time as the echoes vibrating through the door and the house and my heart and my skull eventually faded away to nothingness and left behind them a moment of silence as profound as a epitaph.

The door swung open and reflexively I stepped through.

It was my house inside, but this time with this new front door in the porch rather than the old front door. And also it was haunted.

You could tell because it was haunted in all the ways you’d expect a haunted house to be haunted. The curtains were closed and everything was gloomy and the air was still and cold and dusty and dead. The flowers were rotting in their vases. The eyes of the people in the photographs on the wall followed you as walked past them, and the people in the photographs were older than they should have been, gaunter looking and much more obviously dead, and even beyond that somehow more horrifying than you remember even your great-grandparents ever being.

Blood seeped from the radiators in the hall and it leaked from the fridge in the kitchen and it bled straight out of the taps. I picked up an orange from the fruit bowl and it burst like a water balloon in my hand, but a water balloon that was filled with blood and also possibly some bits of flesh and I think perhaps half an ear.

On the mantelpiece in the living room there was an eerie faceless doll that nevertheless watched me as I approached and then stretched out its arms towards me like a grotesque parody of a baby. A baby that was sat on the mantelpiece and was wearing a dress and had been left in my house for some reason that was impossible to fathom.

The stairs creaked as I climbed them and carried on creaking even after I’d stopped climbing them and was stood on the landing, the floorboards of which also creaked and moaned and undulated slightly as I stepped on them. The walls here were so thick with cobwebs they might actually have been made entirely out of spiderwebs I don’t know I didn’t touch them.

The bathroom was even more blood-filled than the kitchen and worse than that there wasn’t any toilet roll left or I suppose technically there was a toilet roll left but none of the paper, and someone had left the cap off the toothpaste and the toothbrush was on the floor and the soap was all broken and embedded with teeth.

I really needed the toilet and had done for a while but I’d been held up due to the door conundrum and then the haunted house experience, and I probably shouldn’t have tried going while I was in a haunted house even if it was still my house but I only needed a piss and so I had a piss and then almost immediately wished I hadn’t.

The blood in the toilet bowl was completely clotted and the piss started filling up the toilet and considering the rate it was filling up I was sure I was going to keep pissing until it spilt over the top and onto my shoes but luckily in the end I didn’t piss as much as I that and the toilet didn’t overflow at all but that was the only lucky thing because the toilet wouldn’t flush possibly due to the clotted blood but also definitely because it didn’t have a handle to flush it with and when I took the top off the back to manually manipulate the levers within I discovered that there wasn’t even any water in the toilet, just even more blood.

Always, everywhere, blood.

It was kind of monotonous really.

Also I’m sorry for going on about piss so much.

When I went back on to the landing there was an old lady floating away from me and through a wall and some red eyes glowed out of a dark corner and growled at me and a bat fluttered about and scratched at my hair and when I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror on the wall my reflection was out of sync with reality and also the writing on the t-shirt I was wearing in the mirror was forwards rather than backwards and said “FAT” on it in big letters in a really terrible font, even though the t-shirt I was actually wearing didn’t have any writing on it at all, it was plain, like all my t-shirts, because the idea of having writing on a t-shirt disgusted me on some level I could never really hope to explain.

The door to the airing cupboard swung open all on its own and inside I could see the towels in there writhing with maggots. The thermometer on the boiler said the water was still cold even though I’d put the water on before I’d gone out and also anyway, although I couldn’t tell for sure, I expect the boiler was filled with blood rather than water, filled to the brim with thick, cold useless boring old blood.

You couldn’t have a shower in blood even if it was nice and hot.

I closed the door and walked towards my bedroom. The radio was playing and the DJs spoke backwards and their words were like screams and the music they played was music I didn’t really like and slightly out of tune.

The display on the radio flashed like it did when there had been a power cut and so the time was all wrong. It said it was 00:00 (it wasn’t 00:00) and also I realised that that’s what it says when the power has gone off and only just come back on again but as the radio was on all the time the power couldn’t have gone off and I suppose perhaps the idea was that the radio had been playing powerlessly and that was supposed to be scary but to be honest it wasn’t particularly scary at all.

On my desk there was a suicide note written in my own hand detailing what a pathetic man I was and all the reasons why I deserved to be dead and from the light socket in the ceiling a noose hung down but on closer inspection you could see the rope was all knotted and frayed and which would, if I’d used it, definitely have snapped before I’d died, no doubt leaving me lying there weeping on the floor, not just alive but even worse deeply ashamed that my inadequacies extended now to a failure to kill myself and this shame I expect would have been even deeper and more encompassing than the shame I already felt during every moment of my life so far.

My bed was neatly made and completely empty but the quilt heaved slowly up and down as if there was something under there breathing or pulsing or both breathing and pulsing all at once. I thought it would probably be my own head under there, severed and eyeless and dead, or perhaps another one of those faceless dolls from downstairs, or maybe a tidal wave of rats would come spilling out, or there’d be a torso of some sort in there, or a coconut (I’m quite scared of coconuts), but when I finally pulled the quilt back there was nothing under there, not even a bloodstain or a piss stain nor one of the more shameful stains. There wasn’t even a cat under there, which would have been nice, and what I was secretly hoping for, as finding a cat under a quilt is one of life’s purest pleasures. But then this was a haunted house and a haunted house isn’t the place for nice things it’s evidentally the place for tiresome things and tedious things and terrible things and also blood and other seepages.

I went back downstairs disappointed at the lack of a suitably climactic denouement and went to the front door but now there was no front door and a hollow laugh emanated from everywhere in the house and laughed on and on but the back door was still there so I went out that way and climbed over the fence and went round to the front. The haunted front door was still there but I ignored it and went through the old front door and sat down in the living room and watched the end of the tennis, which wasn’t very good and went on forever.

Today when I got back from the shops I found four front doors, two garage doors, seven new windows, a couple of extra drains, and 43 new recycling bins, one for every possible variation of drinks carton, and a couple for discarded hats and old abandoned shoes.

__________

Notes:

1. Written on on July 13th, 2018

__________

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shoes

I was walking in the park with my dad when my shoes broke. The whole heel just snapped off. I picked it up and it was made out of bread. Really dry stale bread.

“Why are shoes made of bread, daddy?”

“Why are your shoes made of bread?” he said.

“What?”

“No one else’s shoes are made of bread. Only yours.”

“What?”

“We thought it’d be funny. We can’t believe you never noticed.”

“What?” I was almost crying now. “Why? I don’t understand.”

I sat down on a bench and pulled the rest of the shoe off. It was all bread. The whole thing was bread, except for the laces, which were made out of liquorice.

“I bet your shoes are bread as well,” I said.

My dad just chuckled and pulled off one of his shoes and showed it to me. It wasn’t bread at all it was leather on top and rubber underneath and laces made of lace or whatever it is laces are made of.

“Didn’t you ever wonder why your shoes came from the bakers in a brown paper bag rather than from the shoe shop in a shoe box like everyone else’s?”

“They sell shoes in woolworths.”

My dad just look confused and I was too distraught to explain why that was a justification of any sort and then he laughed and there was a crowd around us now and they all laughed too.

“He’s only just noticed he’s been wearing bread shoes all these years!” someone said and more and more people came over to look.

I jumped off the bench and tried to run away but the crowd pushed me back and I fell to the floor. My dad stood over me and started to crumble my broken shoe over me and then he pulled the other shoe off my other foot and crumbled that over me as well until I was covered in bits of shoebread. The crowd started shouting “BREAD! SHOE! BREAD! SHOE!” over and over again, and some of them started throwing bits of bread at me that they’d brought with them in bags to feed the birds on the pond but the birds would just have to go hungry today there was more important things going on.

I sat up. I looked at my dad and wept his name as he strode toward me. He picked up his shoe from the bench and hit me with it, right across the cheek. There was a cheer from the crowd and then they started taking their shoes off and throwing them at me as well and I collapsed to the floor and gave up any attempt at resistance.

In the distance like a dream I could hear my sister saying, “Mummy, mummy, come and look David’s just found out his shoes are made from bread!” and I heard my mother laugh and the pair of them hurried over but by the time they got there I was buried beneath a great tomb of shoes and there was nothing left to see.

__________

Notes:

1. Written on February 8th, 2017
2. This never actually went on the undex because it was dead by then
3. But it was supposed to go there

__________

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The Reading, or Performance Anxiety

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

not

laugh

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?”

EVERYONE!

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.

“And now his tears flow.”

__________

Notes:

1. Written on March 19, 2016
2. This was performed at a liars league event in London on November 8th, 2016.
3. Where it was performed by the wonderful Peter Kenny, as can be seen below:

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