A “Brilliant Sun”, a “Trap of Bones” – Visions of Pakistan in Moniza Alvi’s -The Country at My Shoulder.

They sent me a salwar-kameez

peacock-blue,

and another

glistening like an orange split open,

embossed slippers, gold and black

points curling.

‘Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan’

Sat saturated in an English classroom in the north of England was where I first read the opening stanzas of Moniza Alvi’s Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan’: gunmetal clouds rolling in off the rugby pitches, the whole prefab sweating sleet through the wall, the jewel-coloured fabrics of Alvi’s brand new salwar-kameez seemed a world away from the wet woollen blazer that coloured my early understanding of it. The juxtaposition seemed alien to me, the sullen and scarred face of an English November versus the stained-glass shine of Alvi’s gifts from Lahore, and the disjunct left me feeling very distant from the narrative- part of a diametrical opposition, sat at one pole and looking in vain toward the other.

When the exam rolled around, I wrote on Carol Ann Duffy instead.

Although it would take me a shameful ten years to realise it, in evoking that disjunct, Alvi’s Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan is a piece of masterful storytelling. Cautiously, carefully, born of half-histories and an almost frustrated duality, Alvi chronicles the ways in which she moves through her adolescence in gifted Pakistani clothes:

My salwar-kameez

didn’t impress the schoolfriend

who sat on my bed, asked to see

my weekend clothes.

But often I admired the mirror-work,

tried to glimpse myself

in the miniature

glass circles, recall the story

how the three of us

sailed to England.

‘Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan’

It’s a poetry born of polarities; the quiet, grey of Alvi’s Hertfordshire home and the alien shock of colour that the ‘candy-striped glass bangles’, the ‘apple-green sari’ and the glittering gold of her mother’s filigree bring with them across the sea. It’s cloying, almost, unwelcome- ‘I longed for denim and corduroy / my costume clung to me and I was aflame / I couldn’t rise up out of it’s fire, half-English’. The stark contrast of these two oppositions- the gardens and wastelands, the denim and corduroy that bleed in from the narrator’s half-Englishnessand the seemingly inescapable, vivid colours of Pakistan- are at the heart and centre of Moniza Alvi’s The Country at My Shoulder, the collection from which the poem came.

Moniza Alvi left Lahore at the age of three months old in 1954, arriving in England with her Pakistani father and English mother and no memories of the country that she was born in. The dreamlike nature of Alvi’s Pakistan in these poems is, therefore, unsurprising: surreal, vibrant wordscapes of a land remembered through histories that aren’t her own, like the clothing, the camel-skin lamp and the photographs of Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan create a strange, almost childlike vision of a place that exists only in the space between one identity and the next.

This Pakistan is a shifting conglomerate force of colour and sound within the landscape of her poetry. Like the swallowing, flaming ‘costume’ of Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan, the country seems to represent a cacophony for the senses, a world away from the ‘grimly ornamental’ English gardens she describes in Hydrangeas; the landscape of the Indian subcontinent a feast that transcends the senses. She wonders at how ‘melted ghee made lakes, golden rivers,’ and how she ‘Tasted the landscape, customs of my father’s country – it’s fever biting on a chilli’, the landscape a bold, bright, irreverent presence, almost more sensation than substance. In one poem it appears benevolent, the next, a crushing weight that threatens to overcome the narrator, their sense of identity and sense of where they belong. ‘There’s a country at my shoulder / growing larger – soon it will burst / rivers will spill out, run down my chest’, the poem for which the collection is named intones, the poet struggling to bear the weight of her hybrid identity. No matter how she tries to evade it- ‘I try to shake the dust from the country / The country has become my body, I can’t break bits off-’ the threat of her otherness appears to complicate it, alter it with her very presence as she transitions from one piece of verse to the next. The poem ends as she pictures the dam breaking, Pakistan’s rivers of the first stanza becoming something at once alien and home-grown as she foresees a shuddering end: ‘I water the country with English rain / cover it with English words. Soon it will burst, or fall like a meteor.

The allusion of national landscape to body comes powerfully and often in the latter half of The Country at My Shoulder. In the poem The Sari, again, Alvi sees Pakistan and the Indian subcontinent through the lens of its clothing, observing from above how the journey she took as a child pans out on a world map:

All the people unravelled a sari.

It stretched from Lahore to Hyderabad,

wavered across the Arabian Sea

shot through with stars

fluttering with sparrows and quails.

They threaded it with roads,

Undulations of land.

Eventually

They wrapped and wrapped me in it

whispering Your body is your country.

The Sari.

The statement is half-comforting, half terrifying- although she is swathed in the sari of her journey, carrying the landscape she was born in with her in her own flesh and blood, it is possible to read the poem’s final line as a grim caveat: your body is your country, the unknown people whisper as they swaddle the infant narrator in the fabric of the land. Your body is your country, not the clothing, not the fabric; and alienated from what came before and what came after. Whilst the body is fundamental, fabric might be shed.

These kinds of anxieties characterise Alvi’s poetry from the early 1990s as her narrators navigate the sea and the river of an unusual British Asian experience; neither being a first- nor a second-generation immigrant but something in-between. Pakistan, in these poems, is Prospero’s island- fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile- at once inhospitable and welcoming, something familiar and alien, a living presence within her and somehow cut off, unable to truly communicate except in the pictograms and glyphs she finds in photographs, histories, and a peacock-blue salwar-kameez.

And at the centre of these poems lies something else, something even more vital to Alvi’s experience, as intrinsic to The Country at my Shoulder as the elm tree to Constable or Wessex to Hardy: there is a powerful, almost blinding pull back to Pakistan that emerges in these poems. It feels inevitable, omniscient within the living histories and snapshots that she spins, despite her half-Englishness. ‘In my dreams I trawl towards a brilliant sun,’ she writes in The Draught. ‘A trap of bones is set about my neck. And the draught? The great draught is blowing me to my birthplace.’ The scorching pull of a country barely remembered, seen only in the photographs of Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan becomes a driving force within Alvi’s collection, a landscape created from personal mythology and her own ancestry- a trap of bones- made sentient, and moving to beckon across the air and sea. The oscillation from alien to familiar, mine to not mine of Pakistan within these poems displays a potent, unsubtle compulsion to find out for herself, to explore this connection in a way that cannot be complicated by issues of identity, or visions of the self: she is drawn to the Pakistani landscape physically, to experience it first-hand regardless of any preconceived belonging or not-belonging.

It’s The Country at My Shoulder as opposed to The Country at My Side; something past-tense perhaps, an amalgamation of myth and history augmented through the archaeology of gifts she receives, the letters she sends and photographs she isn’t a part of.

Alvi’s England is different. It is easy to read the collection as an enduring love-song to her own Pakistani heritage, bound about in living aunts and buried bones and dusty sepia visions of a continent half-remembered, but there is a secondary landscape within the collection that further illustrates the ways in which it explores the hybridity of the self through her narrator. If Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan, The Sari and The Country at My Shoulder are about a crisis of belonging, poems like Spring on the Hillside and The Garden are about the items and places that evoke a that duality from the other side, the perennial Englishness of the Hertfordshire town where she grew up.

These landscapes are populated by all the flora and fauna of an almost Edwardian vision of a country garden: verdant, sleepy and so different from the pull, the power and fascination of Pakistan as it exists in the narrator’s mind, they’re a strange oppositional force within these identity stories that seem at odds with the other landscape. Here we find ‘bushes alive with cabbage whites’, ‘hydrangeas massing heavy as cannonballs’, ‘mushrooms sturdy as tables’ and wastelands carpeted in willow-herb where she hides and plays as a child. There’s also more than a little dash of Ken Loach in there too, augmenting these quiet turn-of-the-century gardens and their little homeland idyll- in the poem Neighborhood we see a vision of England that moves away from the Enid Blyton landscape of plum trees and hollyhocks, focusing in on the minutiae of life in an individual neighbourhood.

Next door they were always fighting

calling each other Mr and Mrs

the names barking away

at the back of our chimney.

There were families with bitten

trickles of children

who pushed prams full of babies

junk and little dogs, smothered

and dressed in baby clothes.

Neighbourhood.

These vistas might be dramatically different from the visions of Lahore, the ‘brilliant sun’ and the breaking dam of The Draught and The Country at My Shoulder, but they’re no less her own. These are the lieux de memoire of an English childhood, hollyhocks and dogs in prams, wastelands and tawny skies, something just as vital to Alvi’s narrator as the metaphorical sari that stretches all the way from Lahore to Hyderabad as she travels away from Pakistan as a child.  

Alvi’s collection is a sea of conflicting landscape identities: the narrator in the salwar-kameez, the narrator swaddled in the sari, the narrator buckling under the weight of the country at her shoulder that threatens to burst- all of them wonder about the politics of belonging to something so unknown and yet so familiar and vital that it exists within her own body, potent and all-consuming, almost threatening to swallow her whole despite (or because of) her half-Englishness. She is constantly English and not; of Lahore and of Hatfield, an uneasy double identity that gives these works their unique character and blistering sense of hybridity.

And still, she never once threatens to dilute one with the other. There is no poem where Alvi makes peace with the experience of being both at once- or perhaps sometimes neither one nor the other. Her schoolfriend in Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan still can’t relate to her colourful salwar-kameez, each element of Pakistan is a shock of colour against England’s Edwardian gardens- and these landscapes never bleed into each other; even in The Sari they’re still at either end of the garment as she’s swaddled in it, bodily connected but always at a polarity as she moves through these landscapes simultaneously. It’s less England and Pakistan than it is an England and Pakistan of the mind, each a paracosm of the ephemera that Alvi connects with it- plum trees, voices behind the chimney breast, wastelands covered in willow-herb, and a bursting dam, the sear of a chilli and the oranges, blues and greens of her gifted clothes from her aunts in Lahore.

These two created worlds exist on the same plane, but are diametrically opposed for Alvi, two landscapes present about her body that appear never destined to meet across a distance that spans more than sea and air. The allure of the image of the Indian subcontinent is raw, seen plainly in these poems as these landscapes create an allegory for those conflicting identities, as she voices the frustration and confusion of an immigrant experience from an era where the global interconnectedness of the modern day had yet to emerge and the other side of the world was, truly, the other side of the world.

Not long after the publication of The Country at My Shoulder, Moniza Alvi visited Pakistan for the first time since she was a child. Her next collection of poems, A Bowl of Warm Air, builds on the precipices found in The Sari, Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan and The Draught, and explores what she finds in the country she was born in. It’s another candid, searing take on belonging and the complexity of a British immigrant experience, and her narrator begins to connect with a landscape exterior to her created Pakistani landscape, she begins to reach out toward what she thought previously cloying or alien, forging different connections, no less real but more earthly and tangible than her young narrator’s map of colour and silk.

An unknown country crept between

my toes, threw an ocean behind each eye…

I’d held out my arms to kingfishers and tigers

I’d sipped each moment like a language.

The Laughing Moon.




The Art of Black Humour

Can a novel about a stand-up comedian not be funny? Can a novel that devotes pages and pages to a comedian’s onstage act make you cry? This is not a riddle about novelists or comedians. It’s a question you’ll be asking if you pick up a copy of Israeli writer David Grossman’s Man Booker-winning novel, A Horse Walks Into a Bar. The comedy here is dead serious. Grossman uses it with panache to explore a range of themes including the relationship between art and pain, the dynamics of dysfunctional families, and the tragedy of failed states in the modern world.

Humour – black or otherwise – is a powerful tool in a writer’s kit. Use it wisely in your fiction and you are guaranteed to get the reader’s undivided attention. It can make the reader laugh, it can make the reader weep. Love it or hate it, readers will feel compelled to keep turning the pages till they get to the end.

Mohammad Hanif’s crackling first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a perfect example. Hanif mines the potential of black humour and makes the best possible use of it here. Laced with generous and lethal doses of black humour, the plot gallops ahead to expose corrupt, dictatorial politicians and a hopelessly flawed system. This fictional story revolving around the death/assassination of former Pakistani president Zia ul-Haq packs a punch thanks to Hanif’s mastery of the dark art of humour. The dialogue is seeped in acerbic black comedic brine; the situations that crop up as the narrative unravels are so darkly comic that readers are left with no choice but to laugh till they cry.

The venerable Philip Roth decided to take a stab at black humour in his novel, Portnoy’s Complaint. Roth relies on the power of black humour in this book to explore the modern American male’s sexual neurosis. The hero’s monologue about sex, guilt, and other discontents in Portnoy’s Complaint is black humour at its best.

British writer Martin Amis came up with a winner of a black comedy with his novel, Money. The story of a morally bankrupt Hollywood director who tries to make a film with a cast that disagrees on everything – with him, and with each other – is a hilarious read. As one reviewer eloquently put it, “Money has all the hallmarks of what makes a great Amis novel: unlikeable characters, strong attention to everyday speech, and dialogue and humour so bleak you laugh out of fear of crying.”

Amanda Fillipaci’s novels employ black humour – with skill and style – to surprise and shock and raise uncomfortable questions. Her first novel, Nude Men, and her later ones, Vapor and Love Creeps are spiced with black humour. Fillipaci chooses to write about subversive themes and her fictional take on them are funny and incisive. Her trademark black humour is more than equipped to amuse and draw readers into the heart of her stories.

All of Roald Dahl’s children’s fiction can be safely labelled black comedies. Dahl also wrote fiction for adults, which shares the same darkly comic streak. Nasty children, mean adults, an impossibly difficult world – Dahl threw them all into the mix and went on to whip up an addictive cocktail for millions of readers.

Many a critic has called Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 the best American novel of the 20th century. The story of a WWII pilot who tries to get out of bombing missions by pleading insanity is a brilliant study in black humour. Catch-22 is a clause that stipulates that a mad pilot can be grounded, but if he sees the danger in bombing missions and requests to be grounded then he cannot be crazy after all. Heller uses black humour as a vehicle to showcase the horror of war and its insanity in this modern classic.

American writer Kurt Vonnegut is synonymous with black humour. A WWII veteran, Vonnegut used social satire to paint a picture of a post-war world for readers. His razor- sharp prose questions accepted beliefs about war, absolute truth, guilt and innocence, and the existence of a divine power.

Black humour is a many splendored thing. Writers have put it to good use over time and the tradition is alive and kicking in a world that is starting to make less and less sense to many of us. It seems a fitting time to declare that there is nothing out there as potent as black comedy to capture the absurdity of life in our time.




Just Noise – The Barbarian Thrill of Noise in Music

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Riots for Stravinsky and cheers for Hanatarashi. How do you get from the tritone as “the devil in music” to an audience facing a wall of white noise with smiles on their faces?


“It’s amazing, really, how little sound comes out of something you’re smashing with all your might” – Yamatsuka Eye

The adventurous Noizu fans who came to see crackpot noise-makers Hanatarashi (meaning snot-nosed) at Tokyo’s Toritsu Kasei Super Loft on August 4th 1985 expected a raucous show. What they didn’t expect was a ferocious performance of industrial-grade destruction, with a back-hoe bulldozer as the lead instrument. Handed waivers upon arrival that relieved the band of any responsibility for injury, or worse, the audience watched as frontman and HDV operator Yamatsuka Eye burst through the doors of the hall atop the bulldozer. With percussionist Ikuo Taketani somewhat safely tucked away in the corner, Eye tore through the stage and inflicted brutal punishment on everything nearby, including the literal kitchen sink, while screaming the band’s trademark scatological and sexual non-sequitur lyrics. The beleaguered bulldozer held out until Eye put the hoe into the wall. The dozer tipped backwards and gave out, but after pulling off the dozer’s cage to hurl across the stage and grabbing a circular saw, the destruction continued with the audience now nervously dodging Eye’s fitful saw swings. Surrounded by bent metal, crumbled masonry and the squawking remains of Marshall stacks, with gasoline pouring from the ruined bulldozer, Eye produced, as his grand finale, a molotov cocktail that he’d prepared earlier. This was a touch too dangerous for even this daredevil audience and Eye, confessing later in an interview for Banana Fish Magazine that he got “too excited”, had to be violently subdued by several members of the crowd.

In the settled atmosphere, once certain that explosive group immolation wasn’t to be the crescendo, the crowd that had remained, many with smiles on their faces, slowly filed out enclosed in their own bubbles of tinnitus. The bill for the annihilation of the Super Loft tallied ¥600,000 (approximately £6000) and Hanatarashi subsequently laboured under a ban from most venues that ran until 1990, when the band, slightly calmer and more safety conscious, dropped the ‘i’ and returned to what passed as civil society in the Noizu circuit.

Hanatarashi, along with fellow Noizu bands such as Hijokaidan, indulged in the kind of audial assault that would bring most people to the point of self-induced deafness, but the Super Loft audience signed off on possible death-by-bulldozer just for the opportunity to experience it up close and personal. Extreme volume, distortion and cacophony, with a ferocity of performance that completely transgressed the normal bounds of the relationship between the performer and audience, were unrestrained musical expressions that attracted large audiences to the Noizu scene in Japan from the 1980’s onwards. It’s been argued that Noise as a genre was born in Japan at this time; whereby the noise was not a wash or flavour, but the whole. The act of seeking out sounds which most people take care to avoid seems a strange masochistic ritual, but evidenced by the brutalised crowd at the Hanatarashi gig, there is – for some – much to enjoy in noise.

“I did Noise Music because I genuinely liked noise… But a lot of people didn’t. At my concerts, people smashed beer glasses in my face.” – noise musician Boyd Rice a.k.a NON

In music, the definition of noise has changed drastically over time and is still debated today. The simplest common usage of the word noise is that of unwanted sound and, although clearly subjective, in some sense this definition also works in the context of music. Noise in music is of a volume/tonality/structure which breaks from previously held traditions of what is ‘pleasant’ to the ear of the average person, or consonant. What may be considered at the time to be noise can be the sound desired by a particular composer and, one would hope for the composer’s sake, later embraced by the intended audience. In essence, history has shown that noise in music is unwanted until a musician proves otherwise, with help from a willing audience. Noise can be a disturbance, but disturbance can be key to progression. By prodding at the edges of the normative discrimination, musicians have expanded the appreciation for sounds which previous generations would have found genuinely violative.

‘Who wrote this fiendish “Rite of Spring”? What right had he to write the thing?
Against our helpless ears to fling
Its crash, clash, cling, clang, bing, bang bing?
And then to call it “Rite of SPRING,” The season when on joyous wing The birds melodious carols sing And harmony’s in every thing!
He who could write the “Rite of Spring,” If I be right by right should swing!’

Anonymous letter to the Boston Herold of February 9, 1924

An amusing example of how dissonant prodding has been received as violative is to be found at the Paris première of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs- Élysées on the 29th of May 1913, the year that the Ford Motor Company would develop the first moving, mass-production assembly line. Stravinsky was a young and innovative Russian composer, of little renown in 1913, hired by Sergei Diaghilev’s to write for the Ballets Russes company, with The Rite of Spring being the third such composition. Prior to the première, Diaghilev had promised “a new thrill that will doubtless inspire heated discussion” and Stravinsky had written the work as a solemn pagan rite and hoped to present a “great insult to habit”. When first playing the piano version for Diaghilev, Stravinsky was asked how long the dissonant, ostinato chords would sound, to which Stravinsky replied “to the end, dear Serge, to the very end.” The newly opened theatre, designed by Auguste Perret, was as avant-garde in construction as the contemporary music, opera and dance that was to be presented inside. The geometrically strict and decoratively plain exterior of reinforced concrete mixed modern and classical architecture and made it the perfect venue for what Debussy described as “primitive music with all the modern conveniences.”

The atmosphere before the performance was lively; the 29th of May was unseasonably hot, reaching a height of 30c, and the halls and corridors of the theatre were packed with those who had bought into Diaghilev’s hype. The house was sold-out, largely encompassing subscribers for the whole season of Ballet Russe and there was a fifty-fifty split in the guest-list between the Parisian elite of diplomats, dignitaries and dilletantes, and the Modernist art scene. Patrons such as Daisy Fellowes, (née Countess Severine Phillipine Decazes de Glückberg), an elderly Countess de Pourtales, and the ambassador of the Austro-Hungarian empire represented the upper crust, and batting for the avant-garde were the likes of Jean Cousteau, Maurice Ravel and Edgard Varèse. Cousteau was quoted later as saying that a scandal was primed by the mix, with “a fashionable audience [in] low-cut dresses, tricked out in pearls, egret and ostrich feathers…side by side with tails and tulle, the sack suits, headbands, showy rags of that race of esthetes who acclaim, right or wrong, anything that is new because of their hatred of the boxes.”

Alfred Capus in Le Figaro reported that during the first bars of bassoon with discondant accompaniment in the closed-curtain introduction, there was prompt hissing and jeering. Incensed at a perceived misuse of the instrument, Camille Saint-Saëns exclaimed, “If that’s a bassoon, then I’m a baboon”, before storming out. The Countess de Pourales is recorded to have shouted “I am 60 years old and this is the first time anyone has dared to make fun of me”, to no one in particular. A back and forth between supporters and discontents followed, with the American music critic Carl van Vechten recalling “a battery of screams, countered by a foil of applause.” At the start of the Augurs of Spring section, the curtains opened and the ensuing polyrhythms, unresolved harmonies, rapid dynamic shifts, and familiar themes played in unfamiliar registers did not sit well with the patrons disinclined to experimental music. Furthermore, in an attempt to convey the agony of human sacrifice in a primitive society, choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky had his dancers land their leaps with flat feet which added echoing thuds to the music. At its worst, the din from the audience was so loud that it drowned out the music and Nijinsky resorted to shouting out counts to the dancers while standing on a chair in the wings.

According to Stravinsky, his friend Florent Schmitt shouted an insult to a group of elegant socialites, “taisez-vous, garces du seizieme!” and the various reactions and counter-reactions shared between the conservative and avant-garde sections pushed the battle onward. Diaghilev ordered the house lights to be flicked on and off in either an attempt to quell the uproar or, perhaps, sheer excitement at the press-baiting pandemonium he’d created. Stravinsky was horrified by the furore, leaving the auditorium to watch at the wings (it has been alleged in tears, but to claim so seems to kick a man when he’s down) saying later that he had “never been that angry”. At the intermission, the theatre proceeded to eject forty of the most troublesome, but it was not particularly successful in restoring full order.

Stravinsky and Nijinsky were devastated by the negative response and embarrassed by the spectacle, but Diaghilev took delight in the publicity of scandal, expressing complete satisfaction at a celebratory dinner after the show. Mainstream reactions in the press to “Le Massacre du Printemps” were not great, with Giacomo Puccini damning The Rite of Spring as “sheer cacophony” and Adolphe Boschot in L’Echo de Paris claiming (pejoratively, it should be noted) that the composer had “worked at bringing his music close to noise”. The performance immediately made waves internationally with The New York Times reporting under the headline: “Parisians hiss new ballet: Russian dancer’s latest offering, ‘The Consecration of Spring’, a failure”. However, there was strong praise from some publications and subsequent performances were far more successful.

“No doubt it will be understood one day that I sprang a surprise on Paris.” – Igor Stravinsky

Dissonant music wasn’t the sole cause of the chaos, with the angular and provocative dancing, anti-Russian sentiment, reactionary morality, and hype all part of a melting pot. However, the premiere was a key flashpoint in the debate over modernism, in which noise in music was a rapidly expanding form of expression. Arnold Schoenberg’s drive to “emancipate the dissonance” and expand the possibilities of musical expression lent dissonance a cultural cachet in the early 20th century. Schoenberg’s music was noteworthy for the absence of traditional keys or tonal centers and, although he faced a similar reaction to The Rite of Spring on occasion, his music and theories had lasting influence throughout the 20th century.

While composers such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky were experimenting with rhythm and harmony, the Futurist Italian Luigi Russolo, in his 1913 manifesto The Art of Noises, was arguing that the public, accustomed to the sounds of industry and traffic, were hungry for “the infinite variety of noise-sounds” regardless of whether they knew it or not. For the Futurists, the explosion of mechanical noise in the 20th century evoked the activity, speed and progression that they celebrated in modern society. Russolo’s revolution was for music to no longer be a canonised system of notes, but rather understood as a structure of non-periodic complex sound. Russolo categorised these noise-sounds into six groups:


1. Roars, Thunderings, Explosions, Hissing roars, Bangs, Booms
2. Whistling, Hissing, Puffing
3. Whispers, Murmurs, Mumbling, Muttering, Gurgling
4. Noises obtained by beating on metals, woods, skins, stones, pottery, etc.
5. Voices of animals and people, Shouts, Screams, Shrieks, Wails, Hoots, Howls, Death rattles, Sobs
6. Screeching, Creaking, Rustling, Buzzing, Crackling,
Scraping

In order to produce these sounds, Russolo constructed 27 varieties of noise machine called intonarumori, each named after a different sound. The device was a crank-operated wooden parallelepiped box with a speaker at the front, the pitch being controlled by a lever on the top. The lever would modify the tension of a metal or gut string, wrapped round a wheel, that was attached to a drumhead inside the box.

Russolo introduced the public to these devices with a concert entitled Awakening of a City and Meeting of Automobiles and Airplanes in Milan in April of 1914, and, continuing the trend of violence in response to noisy spectacle, a riot ensued. Futurists in the audience responded to booing with fists, and eleven audience members ended up in hospital. In 1926, influenced by Russolo’s machine music, and anticipating Hanatarashi’s use of machines of industry, George Antheil produced Ballet Mécanique, which called for 3 airplane propellers to accompany the pianos, bells and siren in the orchestra. The reception to the piece was as mixed as that of the The Rite of Spring or Russolo’s Awakening, and the Paris première ended with – you guessed it – a riot in the streets. Despite the early negative reactions to these modernist experiments in noise, by 1940 The Rite of Spring was accompanying the extinction of cartoon dinosaurs in Disney’s Fantasia and the following decades would see avant-garde composers such as Harry Partch, John Cage and Karl Stockhausen produce music that would have presumably killed the Countess de Pourales on the spot. These experimental composers would eventually find their ideas pushed into pop music by the likes of Sonic Youth, who managed to straddle the seemingly incongruous worlds of MTV and the art music underground, with the benefit of an audience of noise-primed Gen X youth.

“We believed that music is nothing but organized noise. You can take anything—street sounds, us talking, whatever you want—and make it music by organizing it. That’s still our philosophy, to show people that this thing you call music is a lot broader than you think it is.” — Hank Shocklee of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad, Keyboard Magazine, 1990

From the purposefully consonant compositions, within strict rules of tonality, of medieval religious music to the chaotic noise of Tokyo’s Merzbow or Detroit’s Wolf Eyes, dissonance has moved from something to be avoided to become an all-encompassing driving force. What was an imperceptibly gradual change before the 20th century has now become rapid. The relationship between an experimental composer and his noisy environment and the advances in music technology have led us to the point whereby people will pay for a MP3 of almost pure white noise and call it music. Cued by Willie Kizart using a damaged amplifier on the recording of the Kings of Rhythm track Rocket 88 and furthered by Dick Dale’s work with Fender, the electric guitar turned distortion and feedback into an art-form, driving music more towards timbre than harmony. Experiments with synthesisers, from Elisha Gray’s basic single note oscillator in 1876 to Hugh Le Caine’s Electronic Sackbut, engendered real-time, precision control of volume, pitch and timbre. Rather than Russolo’s acoustic noise generators, noise could now be artificially created in exact and varied ways. With the development of recorded music from tape to digital memory, sampling became a new form of replicating and altering environmental noise. Just as Russolo and Antheil would take from the sounds of the modern mechanical world, musique concrete would mimic the electronic age with the use of tape loops and purely electronic-produced sound. The digital revolution would lead to the hip-hop sampling of Public Enemy, which took the sounds of New York streets and media soundbites and reconfigured the noise into dense music, punctuated by sirens and drills, that articulated urban conflict.

There are many ways of conceptualising dissonance. The term consonance comes from the Latin consonare, meaning ‘sounding together’, and has become synonymous with particularly harmonious intervals in Western music. However, there is a psychological aspect to consonance and dissonance which is subjective and has changed throughout history. Psychologists would describe dissonance as a negative valence emotional response, meaning that it conjures feelings such as anger and fear; emotions that relate to suffering. In harmony, consonance and dissonance refer to specific qualities an interval can possess but, although consonance relates to mathematical constants, musical experiments outside the acceptable ranges of the time attuned the human ear gradually to more dissonant sounds. In the Middle Ages, the tritone musical interval (the interval between, for instance, F to the B above) was once prohibited by the Roman Catholic church due to its dissonant qualities and perceived ties to the Devil. Nowadays, however, this very interval is one of the main building blocks in jazz harmony, especially in the music of Duke Ellington and Art Tatum; music considered completely palatable to today’s ear.

Differentiation in ability to determine pitch, timbre, volume and time between tones could account for more or less appreciation of complex music. When two pitches are played together the mind appreciates the combination while also picking apart the unique pitches. More distortion or dissonant intervals will lead to added overtones and sum tones, creating very complex waveforms, which will force the listening brain to work harder to decipher it. These complex waveforms are what people would be hearing in music they consider to be difficult. The reason why some people react so poorly to modern classical music that delves into dissonance is that there are no easily discernible patterns. Philip Ball, in The Music Instinct, writes that “the brain is a pattern seeking organ, so it looks for patterns in music to make sense of what we hear.” The lack of predictability of tone sequences in the music of Stockhausen, for example, can confuse the brain, but the mind can learn to appreciate the complexity. We learn to appreciate this through listening to more complex music but, as the noise in our environment has increased, it is our adaptation that further enables us to enjoy what previously was rejected. The music mimics the noise in the environment and, in turn, the environment programs us to accept more noise as music.

Who are these loud and noisy people? They are like fishermen hawking fish.” – Buddha

How much has noise increased in the past few hundred years? Statistical comparison is a struggle, but noise appears to have been a concern for every society throughout history. The Buddhist Digha Nikaya, committed to writing in 29 BCE, records some contemporary noises of concern:

“Ananda, was neither by day nor night without the ten noises,—to wit, the noise of elephants, the noise of horses, the noise of chariots, the noise of drums, the noise of tabors, the noise of lutes, the noise of song, the noise of cymbals, the noise of gongs, and the tenth noise of people crying, ‘Eat ye, and drink!’”

Allowing for the unknown volume of an ancient Buddhist toast, the loudest sound on the list is that of the Asian elephant, trumpeting at a maximum of 90dB. The decibel level of the loudest sound in a city environment would increase as time went on, pacing more rapidly in the decades leading up to the 20th century. In an 1896 article entitled The Plague of City Noises, a clearly irate Dr. John H. Girdner called attention to the “injurious and exhaustive effects of city noises” from such sources as horse-drawn vehicles, bells and whistles, animals, persons learning to play musical instruments, peddlers, and that most infuriating member of late 19th century street-theatre, the organ grinder. What Dr. Girdner and the Buddha share is a concern for largely natural sounds of animal and human activity. However, the industrial and urban development of the 20th century altered the make-up of street noise and a poll of New Yorkers in 1929 issued an updated list of ten sounds to break a Buddhist samantha, with every one a product of a mechanisation.

The everyday noises of Girdner and the Buddhists pale in comparison to what the modern ear has to contend with, especially baring in mind the logarithmic nature of the decibel scale. Rule of thumb: the sound must increase in intensity by a factor of ten for the sound to be perceived as twice as loud. A car horn (120dB at 1 metre), a jet flyover at 1000 feet (103 dB), a power mower (96 dB), a food blender (88 dB), and a car driving at 65 mph (77 dB at 25ft) could conceivably occur simultaneously and for extended periods of time, albeit in a particularly poorly-situated home. Even the average lowest limit of urban ambient sound today is 40 dB; a constant hum that crosses the frequency spectrum.

“Natural sounds generate a sinusoidal wave, with rounded peaks, which is easy on the ears. Many mechanized sounds are square or sawtooth shaped or have jagged edges. If you see them on an oscilloscope, you’ll know why they’re unpleasant to listen to.” – Gordon Hempton

The increasingly urbanised and industrialised modern world has become a place of almost constant unnatural sound. The American acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton contends that in the whole of the United States there are just 12 places that could be considered naturally ‘silent’. By measuring average noise intervals at various locations over time, Hempton demonstrated that in the state of Washington there are just 3 places that are free from anthropogenic noise for longer than 15 minutes, compared to 21 places in 1994. In the UK, research by Sheffield Hallam University found that Sheffield City Centre was twice as loud in 2001 as it was in 1991. With this increase in the spread and intensity of noise there has followed a general adaptation and acceptance of noise, but accompanied by some very negative consequences.

The word noise is derived from the Latin nausea, meaning seasickness, and noise can have many physiological and psychological effects that are deeply unpleasant, even causing permanent harm. In addition to the obvious hearing damage that can occur from repeated exposure to loud sound, diverse research over several decades has uncovered a variety of problems related to noise exposure. Fatigue, irritability, insomnia, headaches, anxiety disorders, depression and an increased prevalence of stress diseases have all been shown to be possible negative consequences. A WHO report from 2011 estimated that Western Europeans lose over one million healthy life years annually from noise-related disability and disease. Noise could also be making us less kind to one another, as research into noise as an urban stressor has found that a noisy environment can increase anti-social behaviour.

A series of studies at Wright State University in the mid-seventies found that noise interferes with social cues from a person in need of help and reduces helping behaviour. Further study in 1979, at the University of Washington, into noise and social discrimination found that noise may cause people to distort and over-simplify complex social relationships. Key to these outcomes, both physiological and psychological, appears to be our primal response system. Studies of blood chemistry have shown that exposure to noise causes an increased production of epinephrine, a central component in the fight-or-flight response. The more ‘unpleasant’ a sound, the more the amygdala, which plays a role in processing fear, is activated and therefore the stronger the emotional response.

The only rational reactions to an environment that threatens are either to escape or to adapt. However, even if one can ignore it, there is no physiological habituation to noise; an auditory assault affects us even when not consciously registered. Furthermore, it appears that the adaptation to noise that modern life requires is leading to an increased fear of silence. In 1999, the BBC accountancy office was refurbished with noiseless air-conditioning, double- glazed windows, and silent computers.

The makeover was effective in abating noise, but the employees were uncomfortable. They complained that the silence was stressful, leaving them feeling lonely and paranoid that others were listening in on their phone calls. In response, upon consulting noise expert Yong Yan from the University of Greenwich, the BBC decided to buy a noise machine to combat what Yan calls Pin Drop Syndrome. This covered the silence by producing a continuous 20 dB murmur of unintelligible voices, with the occasional snippet of bottled laughter, and the accountants relaxed into their faux-hubbub soundtrack. In a world of noise, silence equals exposure. The noise can fill in spaces that separate, cover up the sounds that bring attention and can blend individuals into an amorphous group. Perhaps it was this comforting, masking relationship with noise that the BBC accountants were found to be craving when absent.

Our ears have an inbuilt hypersensitivity to sound that was invaluable in the days when humans were hunter and hunted. We can hear a pin drop in a quiet room because our auditory system enhances the volume of a sound to several hundred times louder than the source volume before the brain itself registers the sound. While humans have transformed their relationship to environment and the conscious perception of noise, the brain and auditory system are still somewhat stuck in the fight-or-flight world of pre-civilisation. We tune out the noise in our daily lives but the physical and psychological forces are still present, pushing up blood pressure and promoting the release of stress hormones behind-the-scenes, even when we aren’t consciously aware of the sound.

“Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating” – John Cage, The Future of Music: Credo, 1961

Today there is no firm basis for a distinction between music and noise. With the abandonment of traditional, harmonic definitions of consonance and dissonance, the distinction is entirely subjective and particular to context. There is no such thing any more as the ‘non-musical sound’ that John Cage wanted to highlight in his compositions; everything is fair game. We are born into noisy environments and the necessary adaptation means that the normative level of acceptable noise has been rising exponentially with each generation. But with musicians of today using white noise, the entire range of audible sound-wave frequencies heard simultaneously, where is there left to go?

The Austrian anthropologist Michael Haberlandt claimed that the more noise a culture could bear, the more ‘‘barbarian’’ it was. Hanatarashi’s bulldozer performance was nothing if not proudly barbarian, but the violent expression was peacefully received – unlike the riots that followed the performances of earlier noise music. Noise has found its audience and the Noizu crowd at Tokyo’s Super Loft were purposefully escaping any sense of tranquility, seeking out that dangerous thrill that the body provides when the fight-or-flight response goes haywire. Like skydivers and train- surfers they were after the exhilaration that comes from hacking the body’s primordial response mechanisms. They were all freaking out together, each body screaming to run but with safety in numbers and the perversely comforting wash of noise connecting and concealing everyone. The enjoyment of the performance came from the transgressive destruction on not just the venue but the audience themselves. They were pushing at the biological limits of their minds and bodies, going against the grain like the boundary pushing experimental music, in order to feel a rush. In earlier decades, or centuries, that rush could have been achieved with less. The charge of a herd of elephants or the clattering and cheering of a horse race might have once been at the upper limit of common noise, but with the constant, and constantly increasing, cacophony of noise in our environment today, the level of acceptable noise has been dragged further up the decibel scale and further out from consonance. The result of this trend is that the noise music listener will always be like a heavy drug user who requires an ever increasing fix. The Hanatarashi fans amongst us are bathing in extreme noise to induce the fight-or-flight response; musical adrenaline junkies looking for a high that the body and mind will continue to adapt to over time. Only, unlike drug use, everyone is taking noise everyday, whether we like it or not, and we have to choose to either embrace it or escape it.

But where to escape to, when silence is disappearing? Perhaps noise music highlights how people are too accepting of the damage and social alienation that the daily exposure to noise is producing. Are we all barbarians for living with noise that would have driven our forbears crazy? Noise is now presented by health authorities and scientific studies as a pollutant but, unlike with oil spills and insecticides, some people inure themselves to this pollutant through choice. By choosing to embrace the constant noise of modern life, with all of its negative effects, they are like the BBC accountants, a symbol of the slow death of silence. If a solution isn’t found, there might come a point where the silence on Earth is found through noise-cancelling headphones rather than a trip out of the city, and natural silence will have truly vanished. And what will the music of that time sound like? The Rite of Spring sounded like noise, even Beethoven sounded like noise to the ear of the day, so in a few hundred years time will we be looking back on Hanatarashi with a feeling of quaint nostalgia as we wonder how anyone could have considered such classics as Boat People Hate Fuck or White Anal Generator to be noise?




One Noble Truth — Japan Snapshot

Suffering. All life is subject to it. The first of the four Noble Truths, the shisho-tai. It is the only one of the four that I readily embrace still today. The desires which are said to cause the suffering I just can’t seem to annihilate, and hence I might not make it to that state of eternal peace we all seem to be running away from. But long ago I did embrace the fourth Noble Truth, or the attempt to efface selfishness by following the hassho-do, the Eight Fold Path. These include the rightness of belief, speech, action, effort, livelihood, resolve, thought, and meditation. And this is what led me to Japan the first time, long ago. Fate again had me placed in the Land of the Gods: Some bureaucrats placed me there in a small town in the board of education.

I left behind (planning to return, of course) a life in Paris, a future of great cheese and wine, and, well, Paris, to live in the countryside of Japan, two hours from Hiroshima, in a town on the Japan Sea coast that smelled of fish, a town of less than 53,000 (officially), in a place someone like the writer Alex Kerr would lovingly label “Lost Japan”.

The Lost in “Lost Japan”

Mr. M: “Remember!”

Me: Uh…What?

Mr. M: “My name!”

Me: Uh…OK. Uh…could you tell me your name first?

Sometimes teaching English in Japan can seem like you’re teaching in a madhouse. In this case the metaphor was reality; I was teaching in one. And, of course, my student-patients were more sane and pleasant and interesting than those in the unofficial madhouses labeled schools.

I can’t recall now how I ended up visiting N Hospital for the Mentally Ill a few times a month to join a therapist running an EFL class attended by people diagnosed with schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, and depression. Probably as a favor to someone. Certainly I was trying to follow the Eight Fold Path at that time.

You may think it strange that someone would propose it therapeutic for people especially prone to the negative impact of stress to study a second language, but someone would and did. So people who, almost by definition, have trouble with language, with social relations, with things like appropriate conversational turn-taking, were gathered in a circle for our twice-a-month English conversation class. The idea appears to be grounded in social skills training therapy. And I was very moved and happy to see that it seemed to be a positive thing for many in the group over the one and a half years or so I was able to devote to it.

I and Mr. M, who was the first person to speak to me on that very first day of our class, enjoyed those days of sticking to our rightness of effort. He didn’t speak much, but would often give me sincere questions with an earnest though at times malevolent scowl, followed by, after what he felt was an appropriate response from me, an impish grin. For example, during our second class we had this exchange:

Mr. M: “Do you have a complex about it?”

Me: Uh…about what?

Mr. M: “Being short.”

Me: Uh…now I do.

I looked forward to the two Saturdays a month I would spend at the hospital. Walking along the river in the morning and watching the fish jump and the sagi (heron) trying to catch them. My main work teaching at the town’s junior high schools was not generally something to be looked forward to, so this was my chance to enjoy my profession.

Some of the students were in a torpor at times, heavily medicated, and the others were garrulous. I couldn’t help, like any teacher, taking a liking to certain students. There was the one who promised to marry me in five years if no one would have me. And the woman who launched into her original song while playing guitar the first time she joined the class. There was Mr. D, who couldn’t come to a class because he “had been a bad boy” and wrote me a very in-depth report in very good English tying in the use of bad words in the pop culture to the economic decline. And Mr. K, an outpatient and former English teacher who played a great guitar. I sometimes saw him at a local restaurant where we chatted and both enjoyed some akaten, a kind of fish paste with some togarashi. But my favorite may have been Mr. Y, a young man who suffered from bullying in high school, partly for being smart. He stopped going to school and suffered from severe depression. I later learned that his father was in the same hospital, also depressed. He had a sweet disposition and loved to chase after information about anything. He wore unstylish glasses and a bad ponytail. In our group picture you would be forgiven for guessing he was the sensei and I a patient.

At some point my regular job teaching at six junior high schools burned me out and all I wanted to do was sleep on Saturdays. Maybe I was depressed. And so I arranged for a friend to take over the Hospital classes.

A year or so later I met Mr. Y (now without ponytail) again near a small rundown market close to the sea and we chatted briefly. He was off to his job at a fish-packing place and beginning his new life with a radiant smile and seeming confidence.

“I’m enjoying my days now. Day by day finding some moments to smile at the world instead of frowning at it.”

We shook hands and he wished me well, maybe sensing that it was I who was starting down my path of frowning at the world.

DM Zoutis is a farmer and writer in Hiroshima and Shimane Japan.




Oyster

You wonder if she’s dead. The girl in that photograph. The well-known one—photograph, that is, not girl. She’s lying at the centre of a caved-in car roof, buckled metal ripples out from under her. It’s a perfect composition; a delicate balance of soft flesh and sharp steel. You see it a lot. Replicas, mostly. Music videos and haute couture fashion spreads, that kind of thing. And there’s a particularly famous silk-screen print. It’s old. The photograph that is. And the car. Not the girl, though; she’s very young.

But is she dead? It’s important that you know this. And no, you don’t mean dead outside the photograph. No. That would diminish it, wouldn’t it? Lessen its beauty. Admit it. You’d be disappointed if, after the shutter snapped, a male voice shouted “that’s a wrap”, and the girl sat up, stretched her stiff limbs, and stepped down from the car roof into a long, unremarkable life that ended one distant night in silver-haired sleep. Yes, you would. But if death were closer… to her, to the photo… If, minutes after this final flash, perhaps as she dashed to meet her beau at their favourite seafood restaurant, she was rammed to immediate death by an overzealous squad car, then the photo retains some value. But it decreases, doesn’t it, the longer death prowls the edge of the frame. Even if it’s only for a day or two, or however long it takes for bacteria lurking in undercooked oysters to kill an otherwise healthy human. There’s a ratio to these things: beauty, time, death. So, you concede, a final photo of a soon-to-be-dead girl is all-well-and-good. But for it to be beautiful, you need to know.

For it to be beautiful, you need to know that the car, a limousine, is parked on New York’s 34th street, a little after 10 on the morning of May 1st, 1947. You need to know that the observation deck on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building is 1,040 feet high and that a ticket is required to access it. You need to know that she purchased a ticket. For the photograph to be beautiful, you need to know that it was taken about four minutes after her landing. You need to know that she was twenty-three when she jumped.

Can you look at it? Do you flinch? It’s bloodless, after all. No bones piercing skin, no sign of solid turned to liquid–although reports say that when they tried to move it, the body was little more than mush held together by clothing. A meat scarecrow. But you can’t see any of that. And perhaps this disappoints you a little. But the body hadn’t settled long enough to dissolve when photography student, Robert Wiles, snapped its image. He’d be drinking coffee in a local diner when he heard whatever sound is made when human meets steel at top speed. LIFE Magazine’s Picture of the Week. Page forty-three of the May 12th issue. “The Most Beautiful Suicide.”

Her name was Evelyn McHale.

She wasn’t beautiful.

Only the photograph is beautiful.

An exquisite shot; as artful an arrangement as you could expect to see in an edgy advertising campaign, the kind found only in those thick, heavily scented magazines. The slightly elevated camera eye allows us the full length of the upside-down body and the wrinkled steel spreads from beneath, as if she’s simply flopped backwards, after a long day, on to a bed of black metal. About her head and to the right of her feet are white dots, glass fragments that give sound to the image. The sound of calamity; the smashing of a million, million cells in a single instant. The sound of hysteria. These same tiny dots give it movement; a bounce-less energy of down, of plunge, of end. Delicate and devastating. Like one of those slow-motion films of a water drop crashing onto a leaf.

At the top edge, there’s the blurred suggestion of people. They’re very close. All men, it seems. Trench coats and cigarettes, fedoras at cocky angles. Officials perhaps? The type called to deal with situations like this. But then you remember: four minutes. There’s been no time for police or tape or procedures or statements or questions or identification or loved ones. So, these men are just there. De-mobbed veterans, stormers of Normandy, liberators of Belsen. They’ve seen worse. Perhaps these fuzzily rendered Joe Publics turn to each other, and silently decide: Let’s start at the top. With her feet.

Shoeless. Though shoes seem to be the only item of clothing lost during her free-fall. A flayed stocking drapes her right foot, and the elasticated top of its partner is visible under her left knee. Of course, we wouldn’t normally be able to see this—her knee that is, but in this prone position, her skirt is hitched a little higher than usual. Her ankles are demurely crossed. There is a suggestion in some reports that this was done by the first police officer on the scene, Patrolman John Morrissey. To preserve her dignity.

Moving our eye down the photograph and up her body … her legs are solid. Strong calves, meaty, not fat; brimming with mid-western vigour. Travelling up the curve of her thigh, the suggestion of fullness, of sturdiness is again apparent. The phrase “good stock” comes to mind. But then the curve streamlines, cello-like, to the hips and what was robust becomes voluptuous. And not just because of those Mansfield-ian proportions. No. See the hole? Just above the crotch? A missing button. A burst of sex. Like water gushing from a ruptured pipe. 

Strangely—and we’ve arrived at the breasts now—this sexual surge doesn’t continue. Maybe they’re rendered flat by the angle of the lens, or perhaps her bra is not engineered to prop them up. Maybe it’s her “Thursday” bra; thrown on without thought because it’s comfortable and, well, who’s going to see it? Or perhaps her breasts just are small. Now is not the time, the Joe Publics agree, to consider such things.

But lifting our eyes to the throat, we note a different sexual charge. Not overt, like the burst button. More vulnerable, exposed. The slight incline of her chin suggests she’s offering it, her throat that is, inviting it to be kissed, bitten, or licked. And her lipsticked-lips feel wet. Open, mid-pant, a response to a mildly erotic dream. Then there’s the pearls. Perhaps it’s because they’re so close to that meaty lower lip that they too seem so wet and fleshy. Or maybe pearls are always like that. Brutal too. Snatched. Rewards.

A gift, maybe. Let’s suppose they are. From the beau. His name is Barry Rhodes. Barry Rhodes of Eastern Pennsylvania who, at the second this photograph is taken, believes that in one month, Evelyn McHale will be—as she has agreed to be— his wife. Barry Rhodes, who first saw Evelyn at a New Year Party. Who—we might imagine—watched her from his own empty table. Watched her laugh too late, too loud, too soon; watched her square-peg-self search for a way into an invisible round hole; watched her eager smile grow evermore desperate; watched it freeze, then thaw, melt and drip from that round, heavy chin. Every time she tried to talk, drip, to dance, drip, drip, to sit, to do, to be, to fit drip, drip, drip. Perhaps Barry Rhodes, engineering student, living at home with his mother, watched Evelyn McHale struggle into an ill-fitting coat, and stumble on ill-fitting shoes and then, certain no one else was watching her, thought to himself: This is the ill-fitting girl I’ve been watching out for.

Let’s imagine him, kind, colourless, Barry Rhodes, presenting his girl with this string of pearls at their favourite seafood restaurant. Let’s imagine he thought it witty. And let’s take the liberty to reanimate Evelyn McHale. To sit her upright, alive and unremarkable, her knees covered. In her hands, a velvet box. There they are, sumptuous and white against red fabric.

“Y’know, the way these things are formed, Evelyn… so interesting,” white-bibbed Barry explains, “They’re these irritants. Like a splinter, or a spec of grit in your eye.” He picks up a shell from his plate, points to the pink, lip-like animal inside, “so this little guy, he needs to protect himself, right, from this infection. So, he—or she, I guess—secretes this stuff from its glands. Layers and layers of this mucus stuff. All around this infection. To isolate it, y’know?”

She tries to hide her distaste, her instinct to recoil from the strangely obscene animal that disappears down his convulsing throat.  

“So when they prize the shell, the oyster’s shell, open,” his chin glistens with exquisite juice and she focuses her eyes on the contents of the box, “they find…”

Tiny balls of mucus, she says. Then she lifts them, dangles them in the candlelight, and she fancies she can see the source. The piece of grit, the splinter, the cut, the ache, the pain at its centre. Tiny balls of infection, she says. Then she notices his open mouth and the familiar jolt of shame makes her eyes water and her fists clench, because she tries, she does. She tries and tries and tries but still… …I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…

He chuckles then, ‘No, no you’re right,’ he says, because he loves her and is happy to retune his pitch to hers. “Pure Timeless Chic is how the sales girl put it! Ha! Whatever that means!”

She puts them on to please him, and feels their sickness against her throat. He smiles. ‘The girl said they’re the same type Lana Turner wears.’ He pays the bill and places her ill-fitting coat on her shoulders. ‘And y’know Evelyn, every woman should have a set of pearls.’

Gentle, well-meaning Barry Rhodes, who we have to imagine didn’t immediately the recognise the elegant beauty in the photograph as his Evelyn. Barry Rhodes, who’d rolled out and off her the night before she jumped; who then re-adjusted his flannel pyjamas, and planted a brisk but tender kiss on her cheek, before scuttling back to the twin bed made daily by his mother.

“’Night, Evie. Early start in the morning.”

Barry Rhodes, who can’t recall their parting words because she’d had to dash to make the 7 am train from his home in Eastern to Grand Central station, or else be late to her bookkeeping job in Lower Manhattan. Barry Rhodes, who saw no signs, and had no clue, who told investigators that she was as happy as any young girl about to be married. Barry Rhodes, who spent the remainder of his eighty-five marriage-less years, wondering just how happy that was supposed to be.

She’s clutching them – clutch is the verb used with pearls. In a white gloved hand. Turner-esque elegance with a smatter of Davis-ian melodrama. And, could we venture, a soupcon of Monroe’s innocence, mixed with a hint of Baccall-ian cynicism? Yes, there in the combination of raised chin and parted lip. A naiveté and a seductiveness. The virgin and the whore. Or maybe it’s confusion we see. Maybe she’s wondering why her descent is so rushed; why she’s hurtling like a brick and not billowing like a leaf. Why she doesn’t feel light, doesn’t feel relieved of her cumbersome mass like she expected. Because for god’s sake, that’s why she opted for this method! Why she hasn’t slashed or swallowed, gassed or garrotted. Maybe she’s wondering about why the windows of this, the tallest man-made structure on earth, this mammoth feat of engineering and imagination, watch her fall with such icy disregard. Will they remain closed? Will no one try to catch her?

Maybe she’s surprised at just how easy it is to die. 

Turns out all you have to do is buy a ticket.

It’s in her purse. The ticket to the observation deck. In her purse, next to her carefully folded, ill-fitting coat, 1,040 feet above the limousine roof. They’re given to a Uniformed Man who rifles through them to find the answer. The note isn’t addressed to anyone in particular, so perhaps Uniformed Man feels that he is as entitled to read it as if his name were on the envelope. He reads:

I have too many of my mother’s tendencies

At this time, Uniformed Man doesn’t know about mother. He doesn’t know that mother is the former wife of father; that father’s name is Vincent McHale, that mother’s name is Unknown; that Unknown mother is mother to all seven of Vincent McHale’s children, the sixth of which was named Evelyn; that Unknown mother called her Evie; and that one day something happened and Unknown mother was gone. And when she left, she left all seven of her children. But her tendencies, these she left only with her sixth born. Tendencies: tender gifts wrapped in complex codes, in cells, in blood, in hair, bones, and proportions of hip, thigh, and breast. Little hidden infections.

Let’s suppose one day, before Unknown mother disappeared, she invited her little Evie into the dark, smoky boudoir she seldom left and which stank of her unwashed illness. Perhaps Little Evie was nervous to enter this room, perhaps she sensed its danger. Imagine Little Evie. Number 6, hand-me-down, unnoticed. Imagine Unknown mother, tangled in grey sheets on an unshared bed. Imagine Little Evie’s round face held fast against Unknown mother’s bony chest. And now imagine Unknown mother apologize for being:

‘a little late… I should have told you a while ago… about the things that happen….to young girls… about what will happen to you…’

Picture Little Evie, watching the wet drops that fall from Unknown mother’s face landing on stiff sheets with an audible plop.

‘… but I’ve not been very well and… Plop, plop…things are going to happen … to you…Plop, plop…and you need to be…prepared.’ Plop, plop.

And Evie wants to wrestle out from Unknown mother’s grasp, to run from her rank body and poisoned breath. And she wants to tell Unknown mother that Big Sister Helen has already explained everything. That she did so after finding panic-stricken Little Evie stuffing red stained sheets into the garbage like she had been for months. And now Little Evie wants to tell Unknown mother to save her foul breath, but then Unknown mother’s voice tolls, cold and clear.

‘…I worry about you, Evie…plop, plop…You’re just like me.’

Perhaps around Unknown mother’s neck, there are a string of pearls. Perhaps she says to her Little Evie, “Do you know why they make them, Evie? Do you know why the oyster makes pearls?” Perhaps Unknown mother bestows these pearls, along with her tendencies, upon her sixth born. And perhaps Unknown mother, flipping idly through the May 12th, 1947 issue of LIFE Magazine, is arrested by the image of “The Most Beautiful Suicide” on page forty-three, but doesn’t recognize her not-so-beautiful daughter until she reads her name in the accompanying caption. Perhaps Unknown mother clicks her tongue knowingly. Or perhaps where she is, she doesn’t have access to things like magazines.

Perhaps Uniformed Man, note in hand, imagines a scene similar to the one you’ve just imagined. Maybe he nods and thinks; That explains that! Imagine him reading on, deciphering hasty blue scribbles, doodled whirls, pressed hard into the paper. Imagine the note is covered in them, these inky tornados, mini storms surrounding a polite request for cremation, and an emphatic plea for no one in or out of the family to see any part of me. Of course, Uniformed Man has no idea that it is far, far too late for that. 

Too late because Robert Wiles had the presence of mind to grab his camera from the lunch counter he was sitting at when he heard death’s unmistakable smash. Robert Wiles who had simply raised the Kodak Six-20 above his head at an angle that was either instinctive or accidental, and depressed the exposure button; who was, for our imagined purposes, an indifferent student of photography in whom his instructors discerned no flash of remarkability; who entered his bath-cum-developing room with no visual memory of the dead girl on the car. Robert Wiles, who stood in the chemical darkness, congratulating himself on his fine artistic eye, as the image emerged in fluids and became memory.

Yep, the Joe Publics think as they sit at kitchen tables and snip a rectangular hole on page forty-two of the May 12th issue of LIFE Magazine, That’s what I saw, exactly as I saw it. Then they stick it into books scraped with other things they saw at Iwo Jima and Omaha Beach. Yep, that’s what I saw.

It’s left to Big Sister Helen to identify the messy remains with her own eyes. She has to hurry because the neighbour watching Little Bobby has to go to work at 3 and she couldn’t very well let a small boy see his aunt’s dead body now, could she? Perhaps Big Sister Helen is shocked. Perhaps she is not shocked. Perhaps she always knew that she, Evelyn, that is, had too many of their mother’s tendencies. Perhaps she’s distraught at the site of her sister’s pulverized remains. Perhaps she’s seen worse.

Perhaps she is given a bag. Plastic, transparent: Items Found About the Person of the Deceased. Clothing has been incinerated of course; nothing to be gained from the fibres that held Evelyn’s innards in. The stockings too. Her shoes, well there’s a bit of a mystery there, ma’am, Another Uniformed Man explains. He hands over the bag of Evelyn, and Big Sister Helen thinks: Shouldn’t there be some sort of ceremony? Turns out she just needs to sign and date here, and initial here and here.

Let’s imagine Big Sister Helen as the type of person who waits for the privacy of her own home to go through the belongings of a deceased sibling. That she removes a pearl necklace from the see-through bag on her kitchen table. Maybe Big Sister recognizes Unknown mother’s pearls. Maybe she holds them up to the light, watches them blink with tired lustre and thinks: These really should’ve be mine, anyway.

Or maybe she assumes they’re a gift from Barry Rhodes. Will he want them back? she wonders? Or would it be in bad taste to…

And no, she never once wonders how these creamy mucus balls are formed.

But let’s also think practically; it’s very likely that the necklace had to be cut from a stiffened clutch or pulpy neck. So maybe unfettered pearls spill from the bag onto the table. Maybe they bounce, scatter and roll and Big Sister Helen scrambles to retrieve them before Little Bobby one shoves one in his mouth. But still, maybe for weeks, for months, for years —long after Big Sister and Bobby are gone from that kitchen in that house—tiny balls of grit are found lurking in dusty corners and crevices.

And now you know. The girl on the car is dead. Indelibly so. All you need to do is purchase a ticket to see for yourself.  Yes, for the bargain price of $20 (plus tax) —$10 on Good Friday— you can examine every inch of Evelyn McHale’s beautiful death. And you think about it. About buying a ticket. Of sitting there in front of huge silk-screen prints, and absorbing this piece of art. And while you do, you might think about Robert Wiles, and you might wonder if the money he made from his photograph was enough for him never to have to publish another one ever again. Or was he too overcome with guilt for having foiled Evelyn McHale’s one desire for self-obliteration to continue as a photographer? Maybe. Or maybe he just wasn’t any good. And then you wonder if Barry Rhodes ever spent $20 to see his Evelyn in her pearls? Or Big Sister Helen, or Little Bobby. Maybe even Unknown mother. And then you wonder: what did happen to those pearls?

And so maybe you go there. Maybe you spend $20 to look at her for as long as you want —between the hours of 10 and 5.

Please make sure no one in or out of my family sees any part of me.

Could you look? Would you flinch? There’s a joy in it, isn’t there? In the flinch. Because she really is dead, you know. In the photograph. And out of it. Can you see them? Her mother’s tendencies? Maybe in the burst button at her crotch, or in the wet, parted lips? Perhaps in the string of tiny infections around her neck.

She is not beautiful.

Only the photograph is beautiful.




HOW I KILLED MY SISTER : CONFESSION OF A CHILD OF GOD

Me, at Thirteen

I have just returned from school. I check Blessing in my parents’ bedroom where my mother has stationed her, to keep a close eye on her. She is writhing in pain and sighing once in a while. I sit at the foot of the bed, offering silence and nothing else.

“Sorry.” I say when I become uncomfortable. Embarrassed as I lock eyes with her pain cold and naked.

Hmm.” Her fists clench and she turns, holding her leg, crying. “Pray for me. Deborah, pray for me.”

I sit up slowly, amused by her request: what will my prayer do? How can I be the one to pray for you, and you’ll get well. Just like that? No, no, you can’t be serious! I nod my head slowly and slip out of the room, maybe I’ll pray for her when I am about to sleep; a rushed Lord, Heal My Sister kind of one.

 I do not know that prayer when placed on the same side with love, on one side of the tongue, yields healing. I do not know prayer is the master key.

Blessing died two days after I refused to… Two days after.

*

When Blessing came home from school that Monday, I noticed frailty in her usual deliberate and precise walk. She looked older than my mother when she knelt to greet her, eku’le ma. Their bus was detained for the whole day because a bridge close to Minna rent itself after the heavy August rains. She and other passengers had to waddle across the    water for hours. It was too much for her. A journey that should not have been more than forty-five minutes took close to seven hours.

Her cornea had never been clear-white like mine (Or other people’s), but today, they were a darker shade of lime that had my father worried and rushing to the junction to get her glucose and folic acid.  The eyes that always spoke louder than her voice: a quick drop of the eyelids was a final warning. A swift sideways look was a-mind-yourself. A long deliberate look was a contemplation of what punishment would best suit your present state of foolishness. Today, those eyes held no light or vigour.

I didn’t sleep that night.  I sat by her bed and checked her temperature. I told her I was now a Children’s Sunday School teacher, I told her my result in school, that I was a prefect now, and that I had been good since she left for school. I used aboniki balm on her legs and talked her to sleep

My parents could sleep because they thought well, this is like one of the others.  She will be fine.  She was not fine.  She died three days later.

“How do we forget her now?” We are running home. Auntie, our oldest sister asked Comfort and I to get something for our mother at the junction. It is about to rain. The wind raises sand and pours it with relish on us. I spit as I speak. “If I didn’t follow you people there, I wouldn’t have believed it.”My words are broken as my feet pound hard on the ground. Abandoned train cargos appear like spectators, watching me and my sister run home.

Ever practical like our mother, Comfort replies, “we don’t. We can’t forget her, let me not lie to you.”She is sixteen.”Do you know my plan?”

We take a turn and I slow down when I see two dogs considering us.

“Come, jor!” She snaps and slows down too. “Let’s not scare the dogs.” We move closer to each other and begin to take measured steps home. She continues, darting her eyes around to monitor the dogs’ movements. “My plan, enh, is to pretend she has resumed school and won’t come back for a really long time. Try it, you’ll see.”

One month after her death, I asked my mother (or was it my father?) if she would have married my father, had she known it would end this way.  She understood what I meant, so she took her time before answering.”We didn’t know better, then but if we knew, we would have stopped before things got serious.”She paused and added on a lighter note, “but we wouldn’t have had you either.”

A wave of panic rose in the pit of my stomach when the weight of her words sank into me. What if I had been born into another family? When my parents offended me, I used to play a game where I would imagine a cool father I knew and picture what it would be like to be his daughter. The game flashed through my mind as I sat there with her, perhaps, it was the timing, a deep hatred welled in me as I remembered that game.

I love this family; my father with his friendship and humour, my mother with her strength and energy, Comfort and Auntie with their drama and Samuel with his music. Still, I don’t know how we are supposed to be complete without one part. Who’s going to fill this mold?

More than once, I catch my mother sitting in her room, going through photo albums and telling whoever is close by, stories about Blessing’s childhood. More than once too, we forget, and offer the family photo album to visitors. They see Blessing’s pictures and ask questions, where is this one? Who does she look like? Your grandma? Oh, where is she now? Soon her pictures start disappearing from the walls and photo albums. I see that it is too much for my mother; the burden of seeing her daughter everywhere and seeing her nowhere at all.

No Longer Thirteen

I have tried to use all the Behavior Modification techniques and coping mechanisms of psychology I know on myself. Perhaps, if I tried hard enough, I would find a reasonable explanation or even a relief for what troubles me. For years, I have lied that I am okay, that I do not see her in her friends and the children they have now, that I do not see her in every pointed nose and tiny lips I pass, that I do not see her in myself when I look in the mirror. And every time I see her, her eyes tell me she is not happy she died. I know this because I was the one she shared dreams and thoughts with. We would sit on the threadbare brown cushion in our sitting room and talk about what we would do and places we would visit. How we would raise our children better than our parents were doing. (Not that our parents are bad parents, we just knew that if we were in their shoes, we would do better.)

The threadbare brown cushion chair is still in our house, offending me. Reminding me. Mocking me every time I sit on it.

From her, I learnt a Yoruba version of Avocado’s Law. A secret weapon that made me shine for a minute when in chemistry class, I was the only one who knew Avocado’s Law and the formula representation! But other laws came up and I sank into myself, searching for her notes, hoping she would appear and lead me on. Assignments came up and I imagined how I would have bribed her with a foot rub while she solved away the misfortunes and problems of Maths, Physics and Chemistry. Soon, the weight of living her dream became too heavy for me. I became the science student who passed her SSCE in one sitting and decided to re-sit for literature to study English, but ended up studying Psychology.

In 2018, Auntie’s sonwas six, sitting on a chair in front of his cake, and dozing. The party was set for 4 pm, but he was already dressed and waiting by 3pm. I told him to sleep for a while. He laughed at my stupid suggestion and said softly, “if I sleep, how will I be six? My birthday will pass!” He was sure life would not hold any meaning if he didn’t hold his party, sharing with friends, the cake his mother had baked, specially for him. It is then I realise that he is happy to be alive. To be born into this family filled with love. Like Blessing was. She may have died at nineteen, but she would rather choose that life than no life at all.

When the news of Blessing’s death came to me, it ran to me like a rushing wind on the lips of my mother. My mother who is ever strong, rarely ever showing a tinge of weakness, walked home, crying from Gilead hospital. A fifteen or so minutes walk from our house.

I heard her voice and ignored it, that cannot be my mother; ever dignified and practical. I did not know then that grief is the mother of all madness. A friend’s mother followed her home, trying to hold her. She burst into the sitting room and ignored all the chairs. Her legs were splayed in front of her, her back to the wall. She began to sing Unquestionable, You Are My God, a song that held no meaning to me then, since we all suspected she would die before the rest of us. She was the only one always falling sick.

I was angry at the mourners who turned our house into a help center, finding comfort in the gravity of our loss.

Oh, my own sister’s daughter died before she was nineteen, Blessing even tried. That girl was a fighter.

Oh, wouldn’t it have been better if she had died in Primary or Nursery School?

Oh, University girl. Very brilliant. They said she topped her class.

Oh, ah, eh!

And like a sound record player, my mother’s voice did not fail to give their talks a solemn soundtrack.

When you lose a thing, you don’t blame the thing for being lost, you blame yourself for being careless among other things. Like the day Auntie’s son, at three, tricked his mother and me. He made me believe he was with her, and made her believe he was with me. One hour later, I returned to my sister and ask her where Israel was. She jumped up and we began to search for him for close to four hours. When I see him trailing a group of children to our side of the camp ground, I do not scream or scold him. I do not remember any of the harsh words I had rehearsed in my head. I was overwhelmed with guilt: how could you? You know how smart he believes he is, why didn’t you make sure? How could you allow this fine boy go missing? What if and what ifn’t?

On this eleventh year of her anniversary, I still feel guilty, knowing if I had prayed, I could have bought her more time: one day, two weeks, three months. Maybe three years, but certainly, she would not have died the following day.

Today, I tell myself that when you have carried a thing for too long, you either get used to carrying it or you get tired, and let go. Today, I tell myself I am letting go. I forgive me.




On becoming a border

On the estate where I grew up there was a woman who delivered the free newspaper. She had stubble all over her chin and on the rolls of neck beneath. She walked from door to door, pushing the newspapers in a brown shopping trolley. When I was sixteen, I worked in the greengrocer’s shop and she came in every Saturday morning – early. She smelled so bad I had to turn away when I took her money. It wasn’t a human smell. It was earthy and rotten, like the smell the old potatoes made when they decayed and leaked tar-like liquid in the bottom of their trays. I was sure the smell leaked like tar from her vagina. The cracks in her hands were filled with dirt and I dropped the coins into the till as quickly as I could.

It was my job, every Saturday afternoon, to clean all the mirrors in the shop. There were mirrors lining all the walls behind the double decks of vegetables. In the mirrors, in the fluorescent shop lights, I bared my skin. I noticed three dark hairs above each corner of my top lip. I also had one dark whisker that grew from a mole on my jawbone and another that sprouted under my chin. My face and my hairs were multiplied across the shop

and by the hair of my chinny chin chin,
I headed straight home
for mum’s magnifying mirror
and plucked at my skin –
hunting for more.

I begged my best friend to lie under a magnifying glass and I scanned every woman I met, especially the beautiful ones. I couldn’t look at the free newspaper lady.

I ran my hand along my chin – my fingers worried for whiskers. The bristles pierced my sleep. I saved up and booked myself into a beauty parlour. My friend asked if I needed a beautician or a psychiatrist. I started to think I might need both.

In Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, the poverella is the abandoned woman who loses everything, “for everyone she became the ‘poverella,’ that poor woman.” The poverella is abject, “I was ashamed for her, she no longer took her children with her, she no longer had that good smell.”[1] Always on the periphery of Olga’s vision, “I saw the poverella of so long ago, who said to me in a weary but serious tone: ‘I am clean I am true I play with my cards on the table.’”[2] If these things are not enough to remain loved, then those of us who fall short have even smaller chances.

Between childhood and adulthood, the newspaper woman drifted on the border of my vision – her chin and mine became one – a pubic mound.

Women grow whiskers during hormonal imbalances, most typically during puberty, after childbirth, or during the menopause. After childbirth the newspaper woman returns to me and my skin can no longer be trusted to contain her.

“In the first place, filth is not a quality in itself, but it applies only to what relates to a boundary and, more particularly, represents the object jettisoned out of that boundary, its other side, a margin,” says Julia Kristeva.

When I gave birth, they cut my vagina with scissors. Five snips turned my flesh into five fronds. My uterus repulsed the baby. My vagina sucked the baby back in and the fronds closed over his head. My uterus contracted again and if the doctors had not caught the baby’s dark crown in their plunger and pulled him out, I expect my body would probably still be there. My vagina would still be pulsating on the birthing table like a sea anemone.

“She is the ‘abject’ who threatens the tenuous boundary between the not-yet-subject and the not-yet-object,” writes Marianne Hirsch.[3]

After the birth, my borders would not close easily. The doctor stitched me up, joining the five fronds together, but there wasn’t a part of me that didn’t leak: eyes, urethra, vagina, nipples, arse. In the first few days, I bathed as often as I could bear. Letting out pathetic whimpers, I crouched in a bath and paddled water into my crotch. Flinchingly. Quickly – in the time I snatched from the baby. Then I’d hear him wail.

Prising the baby off was like tearing away a strip of skin. I was too squeamish, and instead, I held him most of the time. Constantly holding a baby made washing my new vagina difficult. When the community midwife did her rounds, she ordered me upstairs to inspect my stitches. I lay on the bed, skirt hitched past waist, legs spread, panting for approval. She winced, then said, “Done a good job, whoever did it. Must’ve taken a while. Try to keep it cleaner.”

“It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order,” says Kristeva.[4]

On the subject of vaginas, a physician called Jean Palfyn wrote, in 1708:

“There are none in the body that are uglier and more subject to several very loathsome ailments, often infected with contaminated blood and much filth. They are soiled and soaked each day by urine and emit a stinking and sulfurous odor, and they are relegated by the Author of Nature to the most contemptible place on the body, as if not fit to be seen, right near the Anus and its Excrements; they are themselves the main sewer for all elements. It is here, I say, in these bodily parts, into which all nature’s filth flows and accumulates like a pit, that the Author of Nature nevertheless wanted Man—”[5]

Palfyn seems to be channelling King Lear,

Beneath is all the fiends’; there’s hell, there’s darkness,
There’s the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding,
Stench, consumption! Fie, fie, fie! Pah! pah! (4.6.121–26).

Both Palfyn and Lear fear the monstrous place that women hide; and they fear that, from this monstrous place, men are born.

Teratology is “the study of monstrosities or abnormal formations in animals or plants”.[6] After childbirth I started to think of my vagina in teratogenic terms. The blood and mucus that leaked from the uterus clogged with the pus and scabs from my wounds and matted with my stitches and pubic hair. A teratoma is a rare form of tumour, containing hair, blood, bone, muscle (and sometimes teeth).

It is like human pelleted by an owl.

A uterine teratoma should not be confused with a molar pregnancy, although both are growths of abnormal cells. And a molar pregnancy has nothing to do with teeth (“molar” comes from “millstone”). I’ve also heard that moles have no teeth, but a quick search of the internet reveals they do. The have some very small ones.

My vagina seemed 
a teratogenic
toothless mole.

A teratogen is a drug that causes “malformation in the developing embryo”. Thalidomide is a famous teratogen – a drug originally intended as a sedative.

In Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child, Harriet is heavily pregnant when David tells their four existing children a story. In the story a young girl looks into a pool:

“But she saw something that she didn’t expect. It was a girl’s face, and she was looking straight up at her. It was a face she had never seen in her whole life. This strange girl was smiling, but it was a nasty smile, not friendly, and the little girl thought this other girl was going to reach out of the water and pull her down into it […] As for Harriet, she was wanting to cry out, ‘Stop – stop it! You are talking about me – this is what you are feeling about me.’”[7]

Throughout the pregnancy Harriet fears the that she’s carrying a monster but she also fears she is becoming a monster. The baby kicks her so violently that she begs the doctor for sedatives (teratogens?) He prescribes them – believing she’s having a breakdown. She administers them to the foetus as a form of restraint, “The drugs did not seem to be affecting her much: she was willing them to leave her alone and to reach the baby.”[8]

Ben, this fifth child, is monstrous and Harriet understands that her monstrous “throwback”, her “goblin” child, reveals her own monstrosity: “Even David, she believed, condemned her. She said to him, ‘I suppose in the old times, in primitive societies, this was how they treated a woman who’d given birth to a freak. As if it were her fault.’”[9]

Childbirth leads to Harriet’s abjection from society. The doctors, who Harriet consults over Ben, also suggest it is Harriet who is the monster, “I’m going to come straight to the point, Mrs Lovatt. The problem is not with Ben, but with you. You do not like him very much.”[10] 

Ben’s violence (as a toddler, he kills the family pet) means that he must be constantly watched by Harriet. She has no time for the other children and the extended family conspire against Harriet to have Ben locked in an institution. Harriet is told he will be sent away – for the safety of the other children – and the next day a van arrives for him. No one will tell Harriet where he’s been sent and, initially, she doesn’t ask. Just like the Minotaur, he is locked in a labyrinth – straightjacketed and drugged until Harriet breaks under the guilt and breaks him out.

Freud theorised that all young boys fear castration and they view their mother as a castrated male. When my eldest son was three, he asked me what was inside my “underground hair”. I was stumped, having not yet decided what I was going to name it; having not yet decided how I was going to describe it.

“A hole,” I said, unable to think of anything else and ashamed about this inadequacy.

A few days later, with friends in the park, I crouched down and my son kicked a ball between my legs.

“I’m sorry, mummy, I nearly kicked you in your hole.”

“Of course you encounter opacity and resistance in her, as well as the repellence of matter, the horror of blood, the ambivalence of milk, menacing traces of the father’s phallus, and even the hole we left behind us when we came into the world. But she – at least – is not nothing. She is not that vacuum (of) woman,” writes Luce Irigaray.[11]

A mother who clings too hard is often seen as monstrous. She is gum. The child has to escape the mother’s sticky hands in order to see the lines that delineate themselves. The child needs to wash the mother’s blood from their hair and filth from their skin. As a mother, I became the excrement that my children must wash away to create their clean and proper bodies. However, when reading this paragraph, you could interchange mother and child. It is stickiness that threatens the sense of self and leads to abjection.

Sartre said, “I remain a solid. But to touch stickiness is to risk diluting myself into viscosity. Stickiness is clinging, like a too possessive dog or mistress.”[12]

In Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, Olga sees her daughter, Ilaria, dressed up in her makeup and her clothes:

“…she looked to me like an old dwarf… When she became aware of the revulsion that must have shown on my face, the child smiled in embarrassment, and eyes sparkling, said, as if to justify herself:
            ‘We’re identical’
            The sentence disturbed me, I shuddered, in a flash I lost that bit of ground I seemed to have gained. What did it mean, we are identical, at that moment I needed to be identical only to myself.”[13]

This child is abject.

Becoming a mother opened my borders and made me border. The sperm stabbed my egg, but instead of yolk dripping from my vagina, the sperm disappeared.

The embryo is uncanny. Fragments of me
joined fragments of another
and became other.

“Birth is not merely that which divides women from men; it also divides women from themselves,” writes Rachel Cusk. [14]


[1] Elena Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment, (New York: Europa, 2005), p.16.

[2] Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment, p.87.

[3] Marianne Hirsch, The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), p.171.

[4] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p.4.

[5] Jean Palfyn ‘Description anatomique des parties de la femme qui servent à la génération, avec un traité des monstres, de leurs causes, de leur nature et de leurs différences’, quoted in Huet, Monstrous Imagination, p.59

[6] “teratology, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2020. 

[7] Doris Lessing, The Fifth Child, (London: Harper Perennial, 2007), p.54.

[8] Lessing, p.53.

[9] Lessing, p.74.

[10] Lessing, p.124.

[11] Luce Irigaray, The Irigaray Reader, ed. Margaret Whitford, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), p.54.

[12] John Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. H. E Barnes, (New York: The Philosophical Society, 1956), pp. 606 – 607.

[13] Ferrante, p.120.

[14] Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, (London: Fourth Estate, 2001), p.7.




Old Haunts: On Halloween, Houses and Home

I have always been haunted by houses, which is fitting – it’s nearly Halloween as I write this. There are seasonal gourds in the shops, pumpkin patches in the fields, gruesome masks on display at the newsagents.

By some cruel irony I live not far from one of the country’s reputedly most haunted houses, Ham House, whose windows look toward the River Thames. Inside it is dark and unnaturally chilly, with a chequered floors and oil paintings bearing the faces of long-dead ancestors whose dour expressions do little to inject any less foreboding.

It is said that as many as thirty ghosts reside there, one of whom is thought to be the Duchess of Lauderdale who pushes visitors down the stairs. Having toured the house the ambiance is undeniably eerie. There’s the presence of a fourth dimension, a strange distribution of atoms in the air, the sensation that something else is trying to edge its way through. If you want to believe in the supernatural – a house like Ham makes it easier to do so.

My own experience of the paranormal is limited to a singular event but the memory is firmly written and with it, my fate as a believer, sealed. When I was a teenager I lived on the Isle of Wight and once spent a night babysitting my boyfriend’s sister. She lived with her mother in an old cottage, deemed to have links to Carisbrooke Castle where Charles The First was held before his execution. The cottage was rumoured to have an underground passage beneath it, leading to the castle dungeons. I have always found such stories irresistible. The thrill of rediscovering a buried past, a tunnel lost in time – especially something that seems impossible. Because one way or another, we all want to believe impossible truths.

His sister occasionally mentioned seeing a woman in the garden wearing traditional clothing, her hair pinned onto her head. But his sister was just a child. Six years old. Children like stories, attention, magic. I was intrigued but disbelieving when she said she’d seen the lady again when I put her to bed.

It was a warm July evening. Still light. My boyfriend and I were sat on the sofa when the room became icy. The television turned itself off. The cat who’d been sleeping in a corner scooted out of the house as though being chased by a demon, and clouds of our breath began to fog in front of us. We puffed into the air, incredulous, thrilled, a little anxious. Something Was Happening. My skin tingled and on cue, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck.

There was the sound of the front door being opened and slammed shut and the brisk clip of footsteps along the hallway which stopped abruptly when they reached the door of the room we were in, as though the person arriving had been startled by our presence, scared to see us in their home. A wanderer lost in time, repeating their life beneath the surface of this one and finding themselves mistaken, having drifted too far forwards.

The house took a while to warm up after. What had we experienced? We had both heard, seen and felt the intrusion of an entity beyond our knowledge. We had to ask ourselves if we would believe the unbelievable, or dismiss our experience – deny what we knew but couldn’t explain.

*

It seems the commercialised fears which pervade around this time of year, when Halloween calls, are fundamentally related to this membrane between what we know and that which we cannot comprehend. For a few weeks of the year, we are subjected to a proliferation of zombies, vampires, skeletons, ghouls. And while such things reside, for the most part, firmly in the world of fiction, some of them permeate our everyday existence – we can see their shadows superimposed onto real life. The skeletal bodies of the elderly. The monsters that govern countries, the living dead that we pass in the street.

Most often, it is from the belly of houses that we contemplate such fears, before we fall asleep, when our ears attune themselves to the exhalations of the brickwork, identify mice in the walls, or catch the unexplained movements of neighbours leading their own nocturnal lives beside our own. Within our houses we ruminate on what spectral dread may exist outside, as well as face the fears that lurk inside the home; the rift in a family, the face of loneliness or darker desires we wish to pursue.

This Halloween there will be no cloaked figures at our doorsteps – no seasonal threat of teens trick or treating, synthetic blood at their lips. In many ways this Halloween will be a quieter, altogether more disturbing affair. In the age of coronavirus, the idea of the haunted house takes on new meaning.

We rattle around our homes while an invisible danger creeps through the population, invading chests and taking the breath from unsuspecting lungs. It is a horror story out there; businesses boarded up, streets silenced, cities stoic. An unspoken mistrust of the other percolates; poison breath, every utterance a possible death sentence for someone vulnerable or unassuming. Yet this demon is one we cannot see or hear unless we are “frontliners” treating zombified patients in hospitals or listening to its hacking splutter in our homes. And what gross irony that such fear and death has reached us via horror’s favourite mascot – the bat. And so, we find ourselves indoors, estranged, dependent on the alchemy of technology to summon the spectral voices and apparitions of those we love.

*

At its origin, Halloween is concerned with remembering those who have departed. Such macabre topics are regular fixations for writers who are drawn to melancholy the way moths circle candlelight. It’s no wonder ghost stories have become an oral tradition, sating as they do, our appetite for answers beyond the grave. More often than not such narratives originate close to home and take place in familiar settings, giving rise to generic tropes; the madwoman in the attic, the proverbial skeletons in the closet, the basement you dare not enter.

Writers have always treated houses as pseudo characters, and as staying home becomes a national past time, I have found myself drawn to books that deal with the home and the stories that unfold therein. From Daisy Johnson’s Sisters taking place in a neglected cottage, Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House – a compelling examination of domestic abuse – and Ann Patchett’s novel, The Dutch House, where a brother grieves the loss of the family home; the house as alive, as a device for memory, for fear, as a vessel for secrets, is enduringly effective. As Virginia Woolf explores in “The Mark on the Wall,” houses and their contents provide a context for us to strengthen our grip on reality, as much as they take us to the edges of what is real.

“Thus, waking from a midnight dream of horror, one hastily turns on the light and lies quiescent, worshipping the chest of drawers, worshipping solidity, worshipping reality, worshipping the impersonal world which is a proof of some existence other than ours. That is what one wants to be sure of…”

*

As restrictions structure our more isolated existence, we are becoming hidden between brick and tile, living and working between walls, under roofs, behind doors. Our houses have become more fundamental to us and I wonder how this will cut across the canon of fiction in years to come. Whether stories will be somehow imbued with the sense of entrapment as we are made to pace the same boards and repeat the same actions, each day layering on top of the one that came before until we are the spectres that cannot escape our own homes.

For many, the lockdown and new lifestyle limitations have created time for introspection, allowing the ghosts in our individual haunts to bubble through our consciousness and ask questions of ourselves. Who are we now? Who were we then? What matters? What, in essence, is truly real? Before vanishing back behind a wall.

*

Even without the instruction to stay in more, go out less, the idea of home has always been of interest to me. I’ve felt haunted by home for as long as I can remember – striving to understand what it means and where it truly is. When my parents divorced, for while I was ferried from houses spending alternate weeks with each parent. My life was divided – two homes, two houses yet predominantly I seemed to inhabit the space between them, the fractured line that existed between my parents, my past, my present.

I have tried to elude the need for home, that comfortable yet claustrophobic concept, but throughout my life I’ve had visions and visitations of houses, homes and rooms – the places in which I have left episodes from my past. In the house of memory there are many floors, many rooms, many doors which will always remain ajar.

*

Presently, I am on the cusp of a return. Moving from London back to where I grew up, a move prompted by a desire to be closer to family as they get older and my children grow faster – a way to close the social distance opening between us – but this desire to move predates coronavirus. Fundamentally it is a desire to feel rooted. I want to feel a deeper belonging that has eluded me in all my years living away, in Brighton, in Paris, in London, but I do not know if when I get there I will feel settled. It won’t be the same place I left and I am no longer the person I was. Yet I am lured back to my old haunts without knowing what I’m expecting to find – who I am? Or who I was?

I believe we leave an imprint on the locations in which we live. Our psyche and experiences saturate a place and, in some inscrutable way alter the atmosphere which exists within them. And it’s like that now as I tentatively search for a new abode. I am not looking for bricks and mortar. I am searching for a feeling. A distribution of energy. Somewhere that feels super … natural. A fit.

Perhaps this roving rootlessness and the inexact nature of home is one of the reasons why I’ve always had an appetite to hear about fictional houses. To me, they’re the literary equivalent of property porn, offering adopted lives and homes through which I can journey and grow. From the faded decadence of Tessa Hadley’s Victorian houses to Ian McEwan’s prime real estate in Bloomsbury, Zadie Smith’s North London estates in NW, to the disturbing quality of 124 in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, in every book there is a house, in every house there is a book, but perhaps it is within words that my writer self feels most readily at home.

*

Like the Duchess of Lauderdale jolting people on the stairs in Ham House or the footsteps that echo in the cottage hallway, whether you believe in ghosts or not, we are all revisited in our homes, haunted by pivotal memories that we can’t help but return to.

If Halloween requires us to remember those we have lost, it seems that as well as the dead, it is natural to reflect on those selves we have left behind. They trail after us like lengthening shadows cast by fading light, existing between the partial layers of time; we echo and repeat, becoming the shorthand by which we define who we are and how we have lived.

Wherever we find ourselves, our personal ghosts – sometimes ghoulish, sometimes forlorn, sometimes sweet or mawkish, play amid life’s light and shade, pacing the corridors between living and dying. We are walking through walls, forever passing between one house and another, between this life, and maybe even the next.




A Name Is What You Want It to Be

My grandmother was named after Adolf Hitler. A fact I was not aware of until five years after her death. I was nineteen at the time and all my life I’d always called her “Oja”, which meant “old woman”, just like my siblings and my older cousins before me did.

My grandmother’s name was Etila. (Pronounced A-tee-la). She was born in 1941, at the beginning of the Second World War. Her mother, my great-grandmother had been sick during her whole pregnancy. During the war, she’d lost her two sons and a pregnancy due to famine. My mother had said that my great-grandmother knew this was her final chance at procreating. She knew nothing about the war in the West, but felt the reverberations and shared the tragedies just the same in her little village where one word … one name continuously echoed. Hitler. There was no food because of Hitler. Her children died because of Hitler. She might lose this one because of Hitler.

So, when she pushed out the little waif of a girl, alone and delirious from hunger in the forest, she named her after the faceless person across the ocean that knew nothing of her existence but had tried to kill her anyways.

My mother said her mother had told her that, for my grandmother, it was the equivalent of inviting your enemy to the peace table. Because when you feared something, you befriended it. So that on the day its true nature emerges, it might remember the friendship that you both once shared.

I question my great grandmother’s logic almost as much as I admire her sense of humor.

*

I was twenty-two when I developed enough curiosity to ask my father about my name. And the only thing he could remember of it was that I had turned seven days old on a rainy morning and he couldn’t get to the mosque. So he had paid the token money to a freelance brown-toothed, dirty-turbaned, old Mallam to whisper a name in my ears before time ran out. He said I’d howled the entire time and the Mallam had looked at me and said, “This one should be called Zainab.”

“What did that mean?” I’d asked my dad.

And his answer was the same as it had been when I had asked what my name meant when I was six years old.

“I really have no idea. It just seemed fitting, I guess.”

I shrugged. “What is a name, anyways? Like being born, you have no control over it.”

“Of course, you do. If you wanted a name bad enough, you’d pick one for yourself,” my father retorted.

I thought of my aunt then, who had changed her name when she became a Christian. Grandmother had named her “Alikeju” which meant “I have seen horrors and my eyes are full”.

When my aunt was baptized, the pastor asked her to pick a name. She picked “Grace”.

“My eyes shall not be full from seeing horrors. Instead, it shall be full from beholding grace,” she said.

Grandmother neither acknowledged nor adopted this new name. Alikeju, she continued to call her and my aunt responded. So when grace-less things began to happen to her, I wondered if it was because she had betrayed the name she chose for herself.

*

My grandmother, up until her death, called me “Ojonupe” – the name she’d whispered to the wind to carry to my ears when she heard of my birth. It means “What God wants”.

Everyone else called me Zainab. But to grandmother, I was Ojonupe – her daughter’s daughter. She made music from my name and we danced around her compound beating on sticks with it. And I loved it as a thing so uniquely ours. When she died, I wondered what a name was if there was no one to call it – it was just another prayer with no one to say it, another word with no one to make a meaning of it. A language that nobody speaks, a house that nobody lives in. Abandoned. Empty. Forgotten.

The older I grew, the more names I collected, determined to keep them all safe on the lips of people who loved me.

Some people say that the most important thing a person owns is their name. Some say that your name shapes your future.

My grandmother believed that a name is only as important as the bearer decides it is.

*

Where I come from, a child is not just born, he is brought forward … guided through. Reincarnation. Rebirth. Metempsychosis. These children take up the names of their ancestor guardian, their own names fading into oblivion.

My father was born on the night the chieftain of his little village died and everyone agreed the old chieftain had gone to bring my dad forth.

Onuh”, they called him, which meant King, from the moment he was born, whatever name that had originally been intended for him slipping slowly from their minds.

Sometimes I wondered if he missed his real name, his first name – the one his mother had called him deep within the confines of her mind when they were connected by an umbilical cord, the one she’d whispered when he slipped out of her, the one she’d called when he latched onto her breasts for the first time.

“What is dad’s real name?” I’d ask over and over when I first discovered his name, now a part of mine was not even originally his … ours.

“I’m not even sure he knows. If he does, he probably doesn’t remember,” my mother once said.

I thought that it was incredibly sad.

*

Days before grandmother’s death, I visited her in the hospital. The nurse was changing her sheets and I stood in the doorway for a moment, watching my grandmother curled up on the couch, wondering just when she became so small she hardly seemed to make a dent on couches.

“Zainab is here,” the nurse said to her when she noticed me standing there.

“Who’s Zainab?” grandmother asked dryly and I shook my head slightly as I entered the room: “Should we be worried about your memory now, grandmother?” I teased.

She scoffed, “Your name is Ojonupe. I don’t know a Zainab.”

“I’m both Zainab and Ojonupe, ma’am,” I replied warily as I sat next to her.

She sighed then, shaking her head slightly, “I don’t know who you are when you’re Zainab,” she insisted. Just before I started to voice my protest, she continued, “Your accent changes and I barely understand a word you say,” she smiled sheepishly as she scrunched up her nose , mimicking me: “Hi, ma’am, my name is Zainab. How do you do?” she drawled.

“Grandmother!” I protested.

She laughed then, her big belly laughter, wiping tears from her eyes with the edge of her wrapper. “That’s exactly how you sound.” She paused, peering at me intently. “But when you’re Ojonupe, my Ojonupe, you’re softer. Your voice is clearer and even when you don’t say a thing, I understand you.”

As I curled up on the couch next to her, my head on her shoulders, she patted my hands softly. “This moment, you’re Ojonupe.”

“What does it matter, oja?” I asked, “A name does not define you, does it?”

“It doesn’t. But people do. When people call you by a name, there is a version of you that is created to answer to it.” She paused for so long I wondered if she had fallen asleep, then she continued, “When I call you Ojonupe, you do not even know when you drop off the part of you that is Zainab. But the change is so palpable a person who knows Zainab would hardly believe that you are the same person.” She nudged my shoulder slightly, “Through the different versions of yourself that you would create and recreate to fit into a name that others call you, you must remember that none of them truly defines you. You live up to no name except that which you call yourself.”

“Yes, grandmother,” I said softly.

And as I moved through schools, through cities, through friends and lovers, I was more than grateful for grandmother’s wisdom.

Tonight, my lover plants a kiss on my lips and calls me Zai. Tomorrow, my friends would call me Nabs and the girls at my Pilates class would call me Zee. When my father is happy, he would call me Jimmy. And my mother would call me Zainab-de to express her displeasure.

I have hundreds of names. The only one I live up to is the one I call myself. Zainab. O jonupe. Ajú Etila.




Shalimar

…neither the term Orient nor the concept of the West has any ontological stability; each is made up of human effort, partly affirmation, partly identification of the Other.
Edward W. Säid, Orientalism

…When we reflect on the vast diversity of the plants and animals which have been cultivated, and which have varied during all ages under the most different climates and treatment, I think we are driven to conclude that this great variability is simply due to our domestic productions having been raised under conditions of life not so uniform as, and somewhat different from, those to which the parent-species have been exposed under nature.
Charles Darwin, The Origin of the Species

A monastery garden in Rangoon, Burma, 1948.

A frayed red ribbon in a pocket. Small, nimble fingers turn the ribbon over and over.

A fair-haired boy of about twelve years old is looking through a thicket of foliage and branches. His bowed head, framed by a crown of yellowing leaves burnt by the sun, shudders a little as he arches his back and stretches his bare feet over the flaking trunk of a tree; he climbs high into its branches, light and dust particles shimmering at the periphery of his vision. He moves slowly, dodging the glare of sunlight. He slips a hand into the wiry branches of the tree, angling himself so that his entire body is taut and narrow in the canopy of foliage. He clasps his fingers around a small object at the outermost edge of the branches: a perfect mango tied with a red ribbon. He draws his hand towards himself, slowly, cupping the mango. For a moment, the boy holds the mango instinctively to his nose, its skin just touching his upper lip. He cradles the mango in his shirt pocket and then drops down, lightly, patting the parched earth with his unfurling limbs, steadying himself as if the entire weight of the fruit had tipped the scales of his body, unbalancing his being.

The boy takes out the mango from his pocket and unties the sacred gesture of the ribbon. Light settles over the thin skin of the fruit and reveals a beautiful patina of pink, yellow and amber. Somewhere higher up in the trees, bronze-winged Jacana birds and bulbuls steady swaying branches. The boy presses the fingernail of his thumb down on the resistant epidermis of the fruit, dimpling the ripe fruit.

Another person might have stored up this memory of the colours, the weight of the fruit in the palm of the hand, but all this has evaded the sensibilities of the boy. Right now, the boy is thinking about hunger.

A few nights ago, the boy’s uncle had stood at their veranda with a drink in his hand. He spoke softly, as if he were removing a spider from its web.

“Without a knife, it is difficult to peel the flesh of a mango. One can push into its flesh and scratch it with fingernails, but a sharp object is always required. Ripe mangoes are easier to tear; they yield, with patience, to the uneven surface of stones. Hunger invites improvisation.”

The boy works the fruit with a knife and turns its skin inside out so that it resembles a three-dimensional tortoise shell. Messily, he rips into the skin of the fruit.

Accompanying the sense of hunger that has brought the boy to the orchard is a small, anonymous feeling of joy.  This buoyant feeling is vaguely familiar to the boy, but long since forgotten until now. The only thing the boy does know is that the fruit is a symbol; he knows this because of the red ribbon in his pocket. The boy realises, now, that he is also a kind of symbol. He knows this because he has eaten the fruit.

The monks that tended the mango orchard had not counted on this particular boy’s lack of interest in authority, or ritual. The ribbons were a warning, a threat to the mortality of any human interested in eating the precious fruit that they had adorned, but the boy had felt the threat of death before, many times in fact, it held no power over him. He had grown to become familiar with his own personal set of symptoms which amounted to fear: the rumble in his chest like icy hands turning inside his ribcage, the sudden lack of saliva in his mouth, the hairs standing on end just behind the back of his (unusually) small ears.

It occurred to the boy that a strange immunity from fear now plagued him. It had first approached him gently, whispering into his ear at night, tempting him to patrol the house at midnight, hold his breath in the depths of the outdoor swimming pool, and then it led him towards more risky endeavours, lingering towards the edge of the tracks at the train station, jumping over neighbour’s fences and worrying their ravenous guard dogs. Recently he had taken to climbing trees.

Seconds, minutes pass, but there are ribbons, still, in the boy’s pocket.

Sloping down the back of his throat, another piece of mango flesh sinks into the pit of the boy’s stomach. Then, just as quickly as the feeling of hunger had arrived, his eyes search beyond the ruins of a wall. His gaze traces the contours of a courtyard where several other children are playing. The boy drops the ribbons and heads towards the shade of the stone cloisters. He runs, feet pounding against the dry earth, mud fissuring under the summer sun. The boy’s thoughts turn towards afternoon tea, arrowroot biscuits and jaggery, the slabs of golden, raw cane sugar sold by street wallahs in cellophane jackets.

Just as he turns on his heels, the boy senses the mango inside his stomach and imagines it there, curdling with this morning’s milky chai and porridge. A momentary stomach ache rouses his suspicions, unsettling his nervous system. Now, the red ribbons feel as if they are burning a hole in the boy’s pockets. He brushes a feverish hand across his face and he hears himself make a noise similar to twigs snapping, a snatch of shallow laughter.

If what the monks say is true, the boy thinks, then I am dead now and I am a ghost running towards my friends. If what the monks say is true, then I will soon turn to stone, like the ruins of the walls of the city, like the monument to Queen Victoria in the botanical gardens. My skin will always to cool and I will be still and silent, while others breathe on my frozen face. Or, I will be a ghost, haunting this spot forever.

He is suddenly aware of the fading, warm sunlight on his skin, the wind in the trees. In this short moment, the boy contemplates the sudden speed of his breathing, the feeling of air rushing through his lungs. As the boy enters the shadows of the courtyard, a question nudges him:

Do ghosts breathe?

Then, someone in the distant courtyard catches the boy’s eye and smiles. Another child, smaller and with long, dark hair tags the boy, tapping his shoulder. The boy is relieved at the evidence, the contact which must mean that he is not a ghost; even more delicious that the fruit itself, he calculates, is the thought that the threat of death is vanquished.

He does not know why he does this, but he points to the mango trees in the garden and dares the others to eat the fruit, taunting them, grinning, bragging.

Later, piles of ribbons are scattered throughout the monastery garden. A boy’s hunger has undone centuries of tradition.

*

Years on, the boy will think about the mangoes again when his daughter is all grown up and he is seven decades old and dying of cancer. He will know that his lungs are failing and he is unable to cease the muddling of time and space, the drifting through little corners of his unconscious. Waking moments are filled with snatches of gauzy vignettes fuelled by morphine. Childhood memories swim up inside him like protective armour, luring him into shallow sensations.

Armoured, he whispers: “Do ghosts breathe?”

He enters the drift again: light breaks through branches and curling leaves. A small hand pushes back the foliage and touches the mottled, mossy bark of a tree. Somewhere else, a figure turns in a metal-framed bed, dreaming of the weight of water against his body, a dream of swimming in India.

*

My father fell ill while I was writing my PhD in London. My husband and I were living with my parents in Hayes, Hillingdon, in their modest house on a street with a chemist and a petrol station at the end of it. It started when my father became very restless at night, up in the early hours of the morning in his armchair. Then, everything just slowed down.

We decided to move out of the house and I found myself leaving for a rural destination, packing books into supermarket boxes and rucksacks. As his only child, it was my responsibility to care for my father, but it felt better somehow to enter the orbit of his existence as a visitor from a slightly separated world. My mother would care for my father, and we would visit. I deliberately started to force a gap between life inside the house in Hillingdon and the life my husband and I were belatedly beginning together, after six years of living with my parents. Of course, I had not expected the end of that life with my parents to be so abrupt, but I should have known that it was never going to be easy.

My father had told me a story about his climbing up into the mango trees while he was a schoolboy in Rangoon, soon after the war had ended and the Japanese had retreated from their occupation of Burma. He had been a prisoner of war as a very young child and had experienced most of those fraught years in Burma under house arrest, while my grandfather was ordered to retain his responsibilities as the chief of the Burmah Oil Company. My father was largely silent on the subject of his internment during the war; he talked about the latter part of his childhood with extra emphasis on nostalgic tales of school life, friends he had made, cricket matches and the food he had eaten. But the trauma of his internment crept into daily life, it was quietly there, like ivy twisting its way through a hedge. Most revealing were his agoraphobic tendencies, which he never acknowledged; he preferred to stay indoors and he enjoyed the safety of routines.

After the war, school days began again, but the picking of the sacred fruit led to my father’s expulsion from the local monastery and he was immediately sent to an American boarding school in Darjeeling, a last resort which became his cherished paradise. The eating of the mangoes seemed to take on a magical significance, granting my father wishes rather than bringing about any kind of curse of death. In England, so many years later, I wished he could vanquish death again and prove that the cancerous cells dividing inside his body were just a collective, benign threat just like the ribbons tied around the mangoes by the monks in Burma.

*

We decided to move nearer to where my husband worked as a music teacher in the Home Counties. I was still a student so our budget was small. I found a surprisingly cheap, small studio flat in a large house on an estate; it had a stream with trout in it, gated walls, a marble fireplace in a communal room and a roof terrace overlooking ancient oaks and drifts of conifers bordering agricultural fields. Although our flat was in the cramped eaves of the house and its windows were too high to see out of, I felt I had found a good place to work and, really, its magical beauty brought some momentary happiness. I have since come to think that the experience of a place can change, unsettle, the balance of emotion, thought and time, even, especially if it is encountered at the right moment. I had thought my identity was rooted in the place I grew up in, but now I know how ambivalent those threads are that connect us to the exterior world.

My father was Anglo-Burmese, with a complicated ancestral heritage. While his paternal grandparents had left Coulmain, County Clare in Southern Ireland in 1885 for India via Nepal, his maternal grandparents were an unusual coupling of Austrian and Shan lineage, an ethnic minority referring to the Hill people settled on the borders of Burma, Laos, Thailand and China. (Shan people are pale, unlike the olive-skinned Burmese, they are known for their basket-weaving skills and climbing prowess). While my father had been born in Rangoon in the late thirties, he had also lived in England most of his life, arriving at the age of eighteen in the mid-fifties. He had worked at a factory in Southend on Sea before settling in West London. But home was always Darjeeling, the paradise-school. It was always in his pocket when he left for work, or turned the pages of a newspaper.

We lived in many different houses as I was growing up and I think that my father’s troubled sense of displacement, homesickness and his inability to really feel at ease in England was linked directly to his desire to keep moving; it was only when I was around ten years old that we settled and he began to busy himself with painting and minor renovations.

Yet, if there was a compass point, a destination with which all coordinates in my father’s life were pointed towards, then it was his sister’s simple oblong dining table in her Ealing semi, positioned just in front of the boiler in the crimson-coloured chimney breast. We had all sat around that table and watched my aunt move between the galley kitchen and the dining room, serving tea out and ham sandwiches. Always, at the edge of the table was a glass pirex dish with a strange combination of Anglo-Indian and Burmese food my aunt had prepared from recipes her mother had left her; Sanwihn Makkin (pronounced sinna-makin), a Burmese semolina cake made with bananas and cardamom, Country Capon, a chicken curry made with saffron, or mince pasties (pustols) and stuffed aubergines (brinjal bake). My favourite was the Sanwihn Makkin and its dense, rich squares of slippery, pale banana flavoured semolina. My aunt’s apron was always stained with saffron and her hands were often scented with lemon.

My aunt was ten years older than my father and when she married at the age of twenty-one in Calcutta, my father went to live with her during the school holidays. My aunt and uncle had forged a surrogate parental bond with my father after he became ill with typhoid fever. My uncle’s wages as an engineer at the Shalimar Paint Company meant that he could afford my father’s medication. The arrangement of the table and the furniture in my aunt’s house must have comforted my father, recalling the configuration of homeliness in Calcutta and reminding him of the love of his sister and brother-in-law which saved his life.

*

It was a bizarre thing to move from London to the old house with the stream; I had never lived outside of Hillingdon, an industrial county with arterial roads bisecting strips of factory buildings, gas towers and retail parks. Suddenly I was learning about hedgerows, shooting seasons, village politics. I could walk to the village shop and I would not meet a single person. This rural England, the England I had read about in books like Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield and the nostalgia of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, was entering my life sideways, across the vertical constant that was my family and, back then, the writing of my PhD. I began to think about the journeys my own family had taken, and the routes they took, crossings which encompassed southern Ireland and Nepal, Calcutta to Rangoon, and the most significant one for both my parents, Rangoon to England by boat via Egypt. England was, for them, the Royal family, Earl Grey tea, Marks and Spencer woollen blankets and Imperial Leather soap. The greenness of England and its rural palette of auburn and dirty emerald hues must have been a shock for my family as they peered through train carriage windows on their way from Portsmouth Harbour to London. They would have seen trees continually sodden with peripatetic sheets of rain, mud irritatingly clumping under patent leather shoes.

Before we had left Hillingdon, my own notion of the English countryside was only felt as a residual or fleeting presence, either suggested through the appearance of my husband’s shabby wellington boots, incongruous in the local, carpeted pub in suburban Hayes, or as a flattened image behind the windscreen of our car when I accompanied my husband to work sometimes, reading about semiotics and psychoanalysis in a school car park. Now the mud was on my boots, I was in that place he had often disappeared to and I had become a new figure in the landscape of his world, even though we had lived together for years.

An England very different to the suburban one he had experienced for the past five decades, entered my father’s everyday routines through my discussion of trees, animals and fields while he drank tea, played with the dog and shared the television remote control with my mother. I would tell my father about the pheasants I had seen nearly run over, as if they were alien entities, found objects. I described the shape of the bricks in the building I lived in, the stained glass in the Saxon chapel. My father listened. Of course, he already knew about sacred ruins, and trees, and fowl, he had experienced nature and all kinds of pastoral vistas as a child, not as exotic pleasures, but as the very fabric of life in Burma and India. We talked about the birds I had seen.

One morning, I saw my father looking out at our garden from his chair. He had turned his entire body so that he could see without getting up. A sparrow had circled the garden path and was resting by our plum tree.

“What are you looking at?” I asked.

“That bird over there. It looks just like a bulbul.”

“A what?”

“You see them in India.”

The Oxford Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan (1996) describes the bulbul as a small bird belonging to the Pycnonotidae family. They have long, notched tails and they can appear in colourful variations of olive-brown, yellow or brown to black. They are songbirds, keen on lively harmonies. A.L. Lintoch’s entry in the 1922 edition of The Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society describes the discovery of bulbul bird eggs in the Nelliampathy Hills, Kerala, comparing his notes with the writings of the Victorian naturalist Frank Oates. The bulbuls, or Otocompsa emeria fuscicaudata, had laid eggs in a coffee tree during December, a month not usually associated with the bulbul’s mating season, according to Mr. Oate’s Fauna of British India, including Ceylon and Burma (1889). Lintoch writes excitedly about his discovery of the bulbuls in Nelliampathy, commenting on the sizes of their eggs and the frequency with which they have been laid. The birds nest in the hills, returning in November; the migration habits of the bulbuls seems unpredictable, but then they are songbirds, as Oates also notes, they make musical sense out of the strangeness of the new.




Hanky

As we head into hanky season, this piece feels timely. Of course, we are always heading into, or residing inside of, hanky season, so it’s always timely. Between summer allergies and winter flus, there exists an exclusive group who appreciate the eternal utility of the handkerchief. These days we are a group often maligned, but stoically devout in our belief that a petite piece of fabric can change one’s life.

At my grandmother’s funeral, as friends and family waited to enter the church, my uncle pulled out a hanky to blow his nose. My cousin was quick to jump at the easy opening to ridicule him – carrying around a snotty rag etc. – to gain an easy snicker from those in the immediate area. And my uncle wasn’t doing himself any favours. He revealed a crinkled, stale, rolled-up wad with obviously zero strategy put into how he was using it. He so shamelessly shunned hanky etiquette that I feel he should be banned from ever owning one again, lest he, like his personal handkerchief, stain the collective’s name.

A hanky should exist as a neatly folded square set flat in the pocket to avoid bulging – as for whether it’s back or hip or breast pocket, that’s personal preference. Use the hanky in segments, and afterwards, fold it back into its square, with the most recently used area slotting in as the core layer. This effectively places that segment at the back of the queue, preserving hygiene, and helping the user remember which areas have been used. Keeping a mind map is key to knowing what real estate is vacant, and what is out of commission after an exploratory mission into an itchy nostril.

Sneezes and coughs, allergies and illness, are only surface-level uses. A hanky allows you to keep your dignity during a meal, wiping marinara sauce from your mouth after you’ve exhausted your napkin supply during a messy meatball sub. On a bush walk once I rushed off to a long drop, did my business, and was saved by my hanky when no toilet paper presented itself. And on another occasion, during a searing summer’s day, I came across a blackbird doubled over on the hot footpath. I wrapped it in my hanky and carried it under the shade of a bush. Sneaking onto a nearby property, I soaked the hanky in water from a garden tap and wrung it into the bird’s mouth in a last-ditch effort to save the poor, heat-stricken thing. It reacted with abhorrence, spluttered, and died, possibly drowned. But my heart, and my hanky, were in the right place.

After the funeral procession, as our grandmother’s casket was lowered into the earth, my cousin wept. I watched him wipe his nose on a sleeve as slick as a snail orgy. He was red in the face, ashamed as he tried to hide his mourning. I gripped my clean hanky close to my thigh, and turned away – after his earlier words, he did not deserve its mercy.




Mondegreen

Soup for fifty in the MKZ, a vegan squat-restaurant half a kilometre from the Vondelpark. It was a recipe I’d tried before – avocado and lime – but the avocadoes I’d just bought from the Albert Cuypmarkt were hard, and the lo-salt I was adding had the effect of making it taste bloody. My reputation as a good soup-maker, earned by cooking up a meatless mulligatawny a few weeks before, was now at stake. I added things frantically, trying to balance out the flavours, but they just wouldn’t gel. Sharon, head chef of sorts, was hastily eating a cream cake (“it’s freegan”) and paying not a shred of notice.

And then there was the girl, of course there was a girl, Laura (pronounced L-OW-ra!) from Spain. She had blonde-brown curls, looser than mine, and eyes like the sky in a summer storm, occasional dark clouds and all.

She grabbed another would-be-escapee avocado and stabbed it with one of our many blunt knives. She eyed my mint-green mixture but said nothing. If this was a test of our friendship, she had passed it.

That morning we had watched the sun come up, sitting on the forbidden roof of my block of student flats, drinking warmish beer. The sky was the blue of a half-sucked Smarty. The ankles of my jeans were wet following an unsuccessful attempt to commandeer an empty houseboat on the Keizergracht, and there were two dark pink crescent thumbnail marks on my right hand from where she’d pulled me back onto the pavement. Then we slept for two hours under our jackets when daylight really struck, and cycled here via the market, where I’d insisted on buying the twenty unripe avocadoes.

One of the perks of working at MKZ was the free booze. Only able to afford beer or, at best, strong sweet port at the supermarket, we were spoiled for choice with the vodka and rum behind the bar. Technically Sharon was meant to keep watch over the stock but, having finally noticed how stressed I was about the now frothy soup, she opted to turn a blind eye to its depletion. We were opening in thirty-five minutes.

Unable to watch customers chew their soup, I went to stand at the back door. It was cool outside and my head slowly began to stop spinning. Laura came to stand by the door too. Elbow to elbow at the fire escape, we watched the sun draining back into the earth. There was a second where we might have kissed but it faded fast.

When it was finally dark and everyone had eaten their seitan curry and started moving from the bar towards the door, Laura made her way back inside and I followed. We got onto our bikes less steadily than we’d dismounted them just hours before, and made our way down towards Trut! another squat, transformed into a grotty but glorious gay club. We danced, although I hated dancing, and for a while forgot about who liked whom or why anyone would put limes in soup or whether we would ever be happier or what life would be like when we left this city and went back to our homes.

An old hippy in a hat came up to me, and said it was the best soup he’d ever eaten. I decided to believe him.

There was a song we listened to a lot in those days. I misinterpreted the lyrics, and thought they went: this is boring me, this is paradise. As I walked along the Keizergracht to a class; or up the Prinsengracht to meet a friend and dangle our legs over the edge, dangerously close to the canal, and drink copious amounts of red wine from one of the small bars; or even through the red light district, that time we had an assignment for the Gender Studies class – at these times, I recognised the city as a paradise I never wanted to be kicked out of.

I thought back to Edinburgh. Edinburgh was a slim, camp man with an air of pretension and a sharp-edged beauty, defying the clouds that threatened to blur his contours. Amsterdam was gentler, feminine, with all her waterways and the narrow buildings standing close together like girls sharing a cigarette on a night out in December.

Yes, Amsterdam was paradise, but I was never bored.

We were smoking a rare joint, stretched out on my rooftop, each with one headphone in, listening to the song on repeat. My little iPod was gathering heat in the early sun.

“Aiiiii,” she screamed. “It’s just so beautiful,” she said, “everything, so beautiful.”

I looked out across the rooftops and below, at the trams like vessels snaking through the city’s veins, and the bicycles with their spinning wheels catching the pale sun. My head was hazy with smoke and light.

“You’re beautiful, too,” I tried, the words nervous in my mouth.

“Becky,” she said. “BeckyBeckyBecky.”

“I mean…”

“Let’s change the song!”

She fiddled with the iPod. Another song went on: happier melody, more miserable lyrics.

“What does that cloud look like?” she demanded.

Caught off-guard. Rorschach response. “A hot-air balloon.”

“Whaaaat? You want to fly to the clouds. Aiiii, aiiii, aiiii.”

“Why, what do you think it looks like?”

“A pregnant woman.”

I squinted. Couldn’t see it. Realised she’d succeeded in distracting me. Resigned myself to forever holding my peace. Minutes passed, I was either stoned or sulking.

“Becky?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, okay. Okay. What do you think is so beautiful about me?”
Shit. “It’s— uhm— your, it’s your, eyes.”

“Oh come on!”

“What?”

“My eyes.” Flatly stated. “My eyes?”

“Yeah but not just…”

She leant down, hands at her face. Jesus. Had I made her cry? When her head came back up, one of her eyes was no longer sky coloured but a pale, autumn brown. She lifted her index finger, held the contact lens to the light.

“My eyes,” she said. Tiny smile. “Aiiii, Becky, Becky. So sweet, you are.”




Museums, Museums, Museums

A Story in Three Parts

Museums, museums, museums, object lessons rigged to illustrate the theories of archaeologists, crazy attempts to co-ordinate and get into a fixed order that which has no fixed order and will not be co-ordinated.[i]
—D. H. Lawrence

When she was young a museum visit was a treat. Rows upon rows of things she didn’t understand, things she had never seen before, and things she had – but they looked different there. Combs and scissors and pots and tools, proud and protected by cases of glass, and hoisted up onto miniature plinths, exuding importance. The small labels inside the cases told her what things were, how old they were, and what they were made from. She recited facts to her father as they wandered through walls of white, text jumping out from every angle, information to be taken in, consumed. Her brother liked to visit the science museums, where they were encouraged to interact with things, but she didn’t like to interact. She liked to look, nose pressed up to glass vitrines, fogging the surface with hot, contemplative breath. Besides, things that could be interacted with weren’t real museum things – you weren’t allowed to touch those. That was a rule.

Now – less young – looking back on herself, she sees an enthusiastic child with blonde, shoulder-length hair, pink shorts, jelly sandals, a yellow t-shirt, and red sunhat. This might be an image from a photograph that she has seen of herself, or perhaps a mental image patched together from her love of bright clothes, and her mother’s inability to colour coordinate anything. Precocious. That was a word she first learned in relation to herself. Aloof was another. She learned how to spell them in case anyone asked. According to her mother, at the age of four she particularly enjoyed impressing people with her ability to spell “Mississippi”. “Em, ai, double ess, ai, double ess, ai, double pee, ai.”

The museum was a prime place to learn the facts and figures with which to impress people, reciting information to make herself look smart. And, she supposes now, that’s all education was, then, really. She had no idea, sat at her wooden desk in school how “eight-times-eight-equals-sixty-four”, but she knew that it did because they had chanted it over and over on Tuesday and Friday mornings. This flair for recital, for repetition, got her far; exams calling for the remembering of dates, facts, figures, and formulas – and who knows, those early visits to the museum might have helped as well.

*

In 1954 police raided the London home of John Nevin, a backroom assistant of the Victoria and Albert Museum. John had been an employee of the museum for twenty-four years, was well liked, and generally cheerful, despite the peculiarity of his gait and posture due to injuries sustained during the war. He was part of a team that retrieved artefacts from storage once the war was over, and returned them to their rightful place in the museum storerooms.

A museum stocktake in the summer of 1954 revealed the loss of hundreds of artefacts, and quickly the search was narrowed down to Nevin. Police were informed, and a raid was issued on his three-bedroom Chiswick council house. The officers could not have been prepared for what they found there, and discovered, upon entering the property, that almost every inch was decorated and adorned with priceless items that Nevin had stolen. Reports of the raid, which were finally released from embargo in 2009, tell of ornaments and trinkets hidden in the toilet cistern, underneath floorboards, and in the chimney breast, eaves, and vacuum cleaner bag. Nevin’s wife is reported to have used an Italian leather and tortoise-shell handbag for her shopping, and a three-hundred-year-old tapestry hung on the living-room wall. In all, over two thousand stolen items were recovered from the couple’s home.

Nevin, it transpired, had been systematically taking things from the museum since 1944. His general modus operandi was to put items down his trouser leg on his way out of work, and he had successfully taken, among other things, twenty Japanese sword guards in this manner, and had even managed to dismantle a small table and smuggle it out in parts. Though there is no evidence, it seems reasonable to suggest that Nevin did not sustain injury during the war, and that his unusual gait was, in fact, due to the artefacts he had posited in his trouser legs. On his arrest, his wife expressed her relief that whole thing was over, whereas John’s only defence was that he couldn’t help himself – “I was attracted by the beauty”.[ii]

*

I started volunteering in the social history stores of a museum in 2011, when I was twenty-four years old. Though I was interested in the objects there, the ephemera collection quickly became the area in which I invested my time. Paper documents, letters, and diaries fascinated me; a small transient piece of someone else, someone long gone that I could never meet, never know. Yet for a while I felt like I did know them, a little bit – I had been given a glimpse into their life. Museums and archives are full of these traces, not just in the object itself but in the information that surrounds them. Often a statement is taken from the person that donates something to a museum about the providence of the item; where it has come from, a little about the person to whom it belonged, and their relation to the person donating it. Stories are as important to social history as objects – people are as important as things.

On the run up to the centenary of the outbreak of World War One I pored over letters home from soldiers, ration books, and diary entries, transcribing each with the care and the attention I supposed that they deserved. I dug out the catalogue card that accompanied each item from the type of old archival drawers that one imagines when thinking of old archival drawers, and cross-referenced it, making sure it had been filled out correctly by a previous volunteer. Another small snippet of someone’s life contained in the filling out of a device used to denote a small snippet of someone’s life. And the exhibition came and went, and my name was printed on an information board in the museum, my work recognised and thanked, and I went back to diligently transcribing letters from different time periods.

A few weeks later, while walking through my local flea market, I saw a bundle of letters and postcards that I recognised as from World War One. The rain was dripping steadily from the tarpaulin covering the stall onto the postcards, distorting the fragile pencil in which they were written. I moved them to safety, and asked the market stall holder about them, did he perhaps know of their provenance? For a moment he looked as though he may have something interesting to tell me, and replied: “Not a clue, they’re ten a penny, love. The lot’s yours for a quid”.


[i] D. H. Lawrence, D. H. Lawrence and Italy: Sketches from Etruscan Palaces, Sea and Sardinia, Twilight in Italy, ed. by Simonetta De Filippis, Paul Eggert, and Mara Kalnins, London: Penguin Classics, 2007, p. 435.

[ii] Chris Hastings, “How a modest council house was furnished with thousands of Items from the V&A”, in The Telegraph, 3January 2009.




Say Something Japanesey

The Border Control officer rouses himself from boredom as he flicks his eyes from my face, to my passport, back to my face.

“Su Lin Leong,” he enunciates, lips peeling back from his teeth on the second syllable.

“Chinese name?” he guesses. I nod.

“You don’t look Chinese,” he says, squinting at me suspiciously, angling his head from this way to that, as if I am trying to trick him in some way.

*

I have grown used to this response to my face–name mismatch, the result of a Chinese father and an Irish mother. I grew up in 1980s Ireland; multiculturalism happened somewhere else. Learning to construct my own ethnic identity against the backdrop of a racially homogenous Ireland was like being given a box of jigsaw pieces, except the pieces were from two different sets, and not all of them fitted together properly. I was surrounded by people who never had to think about ethnic identity – their jigsaw puzzles had already been built and handed to them, crafted by generations.

*

I was reminded of my own difference at the start of every school day, which began with An rolla. The dusty ledger was opened, and names were read out in Gaelic translation: Caoimhe de Búrca, Eimear Ní Bhuchalla, Aoife Ní Cheallaigh, Maire Nic an tSionnaigh. The teacher intoned the throat-catching consonants, up to Clíona Uí Dhálaigh, and finally – almost apologetically – Su Lin Leong, the staccato syllables a sharp full stop.

*

A name comes with expectations, a lesson I learned at my first day at school.

“Aww, does she speak Japanese-y?” Sinéad squealed, bending down to look into my face. She was one of the older girls from sixth class, in charge of escorting me to the junior infants’ room. I recognised her from my neighbourhood.

“Ah go on, say something Japanese-y!” she said as she poked me gently in the stomach, as if I were some kind of life-sized Baby Talk doll. I stared up at her blankly with no idea of what she was talking about. I had never heard of Japan and it didn’t occur to me to respond to a request as odd as this one. I said nothing while Sinéad twirled her blonde ponytail around her fingers and looked at me expectantly. I didn’t know it then, but there will be a lifetime of Sinéads that I will disappoint in some way, without even trying.

*

Back at Border Control, my new friend studies my passport photo, lips compressed into a tight line.

“Well, maybe about the eyes,” he concedes eventually.

*

“Now, pinch your nose like this,” Chinese uncle pinched the tip of my nose as if stemming a bleed, “every night to make it go pointy.” Uncle’s glasses slipped down his own squat nose as he peered at me over the lenses. Chinese auntie clucked him away.

“At least she’s nice and plump lah, plenty of meat,” she said, massaging my forearm with gold-ringed hands. My six-year-old self was doubly confused now. Was auntie calling me fat? I searched Chinese uncle’s face for a clue to explain his strange instruction.

“To make it less Chinese-looking,” my mother later explained as I rubbed my smarting nose. “But don’t mind your uncle, he’s talking rubbish.”

*

“You speak Chinese?” Border Control asks, throwing down this question like a challenge.

“No, I’m afraid not,” I say automatically (I have been apologising for this deficit all my life).

‘Huh,’ he grunts. As he squints at my visa, he says something to his colleague over his shoulder in his native tongue, the words teeming and flowing and winding around each other.

*

“But you can understand Chinese, right?” my friend asked, in fourth class in primary school, her nose crinkled in confusion after my father dropped us off at dance class. From the back seat, she had listened to my father’s clipped rhythms and intonation and heard foreign. She had written her own conclusion to the puzzle in her mind, and assumed I was responding in English to his Chinese. My father speaks perfect English, though he favours silence over speech as a general rule. He has never lost his accent, however. He also has trouble with certain sounds, in particular the sps sound. He cannot say crisps for example. He has come to quite a clever workaround for this one, and calls all crisps Tayto. Luckily, in pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland, the brand ubiquity of Tayto means that it is practically the Irish word for crisps, and this lack of product diversity makes his life a little easier.

*

It was in the language of others that I learned to see myself as the world saw me. “So you’re half-caste then?” asked another kid at my friend’s ninth birthday party. I felt wholly myself and not half of anything, so I didn’t know what to say to her. She said it without malice, more in curiosity, searching for a label for me in her mind. Even though political correctness hadn’t been invented yet, I knew this was rude.

“No, tell them you’re Eurasian,” said my mother later when I relayed the day’s events. This was no use to me at all. I had never heard of that word, and I was pretty sure no one else I knew had either. I may as well have introduced myself as a Smurf for all the good that would do. I decided to keep the race questions to myself from then on.

*

It must have been just a year or two later, when I went to the garage with my mother to pick up my father’s car. I was at that in between age where I was considered too young to be left home alone, but old enough that errands like these were a bore. I was loitering at the garage entrance, wishing I was at home watching Zig and Zag, while my mother rummaged for her chequebook.

“Oh, it’s the car belonging to the little foreign fella,” the mechanic called across the forecourt, gesturing at his colleague to get our newly repaired car. I was embarrassed; I knew there was something wrong with that description of my father, though I didn’t understand what. It felt like when I went red overhearing my uncle tell a dirty joke, not because I understood it but because I didn’t. My mother said nothing but snapped her handbag shut aggressively.

“Cheek of him!” she said when we were alone in the car. In the back seat, I ran my hand over the upholstery, first with the pile of the fabric, then against, my hand turning the shade from light to dark to light again. If Eurasian was meant to protect me from half-caste, what protected my Dad from foreign fella?

*

Eventually, Border Control and his pal wind up their conversation. I can hear the impatience of the queue rising in tuts and sighs behind me.

“Purpose of visit and where are you staying, please?”

*

I was a teenager when we took a family trip to the East to visit the Chinese side of the family. I was finally considered old enough to be taken out alone by my cousin. She shared my father’s affection for American fast food, and she took me to the mall for KFC. At twenty-three, Sarah (the irony of her having an English name was lost on me until much later) seemed impossibly glamourous. When she drove, she wore a white sleeve that fitted snugly over her arm, elastic biting the flesh of her upper arm before flaring out to cover her hand. It was the first thing she put on when she got in the car. I was transfixed by it but tried not to appear rude.

“To stop my arm from going brown in the sun,” she explained in answer to my sneaky glances. I didn’t understand – going brown was the main goal of summer holidays in Ireland. Tan lines were proudly compared between me and my friends; watches were kept firmly in place all summer for this very purpose. A tanning baseline. Compare and contrast, as our essay instructions told us. In the back of the car, I slid down in the seat a little, newly conscious of my swimsuit-striped shoulders.

*

Back at school that September, I was idly picking at my fading tan, mostly peeling now, when a prefect came to get me from religion class. I was wanted in the Assembly Hall. Just me. Suspicious but delighted at any distraction, I followed her down the main stairs. Aiko, a Japanese student from the year above me was standing waiting, looking equally nonplussed.

“Stand there, girls,” said Mrs O’Reilly, as she arranged us in front of a cardboard cut-out of a globe, Race Awareness Week printed on a banner on top.

“Right, now smile!” she said from behind the camera. Click.

“OK, back to class girls, no dilly-dallying!”

It was all over in minutes, no explanation, no discussion, no context. I was back in front of the New Testament before my brain had caught up. I forgot about it until the end of the year, when I came across the picture in the school yearbook, underneath an article about increasing diversity in the school.

*

Border Control grants me passage with the definite thud of a passport stamp.

“Have a good trip,” he says mechanically, curiosity spent. He waves me on, still disappointed with something but I don’t know what. I join the press of nationalities heaving towards planes and destinies.

*

As an adult, I moved to London and found relief in blending in with its sweaty soup of ethnicities. But as multicultural as it is, I learned that this comes with its own set of rules. There is a new language now: Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic or BAME for short. Any form I complete asks me to tick a box if I come from a BAME background. Do I? I don’t know. I leave the box unticked.

Along with some friends, I go to see a film about race, ethnicity, and identity. In the pub afterwards, I proffer an opinion and link it in some way with my own experience. My White British friend is openly dismissive. “You’re White, come on,” he scoffs, as if I’m trying to claim membership of some exclusive club on a technicality. As if the fact that we share the same skin colour means that my experience of navigating the world of identity must be just like his. Once again, there is no space for me. Anger burns through my cheeks, anger at a lifetime’s worth of other people trying to tell me what I am: half-caste, White, a tick on a diversity box, too Chinese, not Chinese enough. Now, I’m not different enough. The irony of it thickens my tongue and renders it useless. I revel in this unexpected twist as I leave, pushing my way through the crowded bar, making a space for myself in the flow of people.




Dog in a Frame

Headlights are returning to the streets, drifting across the hall from the living-room door; two cats fight in the back-court – screeches, clatters, slinking whines subside to the bin-shed.

In the dark kitchenette, used masks laze over the edge of the microwave.

You just moved in – having spent three months stooping round the slanted box room in your parents’ house, it’s good to have space again – and there are still a couple gawping suitcases tucked around.

A pair of dark, impassive eyes watch from the windowsill. A heart-shaped photo of a golden retriever, set atop a frame shaped like a stiletto, lined with soft, leopard-print bristle.

Tiny faux-zirconias are set around the heart, crested by a plastic topaz.

You found the photo in a dusty charity shop in Dunkeld, where you picked items from the shelves and turned them over till the sleet battering the windows subsided. Before you noticed the silica jewels, the ornate metal tongue at the picture’s edge where the dog’s paws erupt into filigree flowers, you saw the price – 50p, scratched in biro on a torn post-it strip and slapped over the retriever’s eyes like a half-arsed super-injunction.

Of course you bought it.

The shopkeeper eyed you as you passed the coin across the till – almost seemed hesitant to make the sale to someone so clearly buying in bad faith, and you were.

How could anyone buy something like this without irony? If he was unprepared to part with it glibly he shouldn’t have stocked it.

You were already rehearsing the conversations it might provoke with amused guests before the rain had stopped.

There have been no guests – state-mandated solitude and everyone has found a new shared loneliness, and the conversations never moved past rehearsal.

You left them in that box room but the photograph is now a companion.

In stowing up with you, this leopard-print, stiletto enigma has become a refugee – a transplant from someone else’s life that – now that you have missed the window to mock it – you’ve got no choice but to acknowledge and – now the conversations have expired – you’re left with questions, but no capacity or context to support an answer.

You have turned over quite a few of the routes through which a leopard-print, stiletto-shaped picture frame of a golden retriever came to be and are yet to come to any conclusion which bridges the many gaps in the explanatory fabric of its existence.

If you see a tree, even if you have never seen that tree before, you know it grew; if you see a ghostly jellyfish in a deep-sea crater, you know you are in the wrong place, but it belongs; you see this – this monument to accidental pairings – and you start to wonder whether the trees outside have roots, and whether you know anything even about the things you have watched grow from nothing.

The photograph can’t have come with the frame, although you don’t want to imagine the two ever having been separate.

Scramble then for meaning in the person who brought the two together – who sought to combine their favourite things: streetgrate fashion, exotic prints, and what you can only assume was their dog. Perhaps they housed the photo here because it was the only frame they had that fit, meaning they bought this frame knowing something would one day fit it.

Digging too deep into this identity is a painful process. Although the mystery of how the photo in the frame came to be is beyond your capabilities or energy to solve, how it came to be in a charity shop is no mystery at all.

One of the things that puts many people off these places – aside from dust allergies and snobbery – is the tacit understanding that the owners of many of the items therein did not, to put it as delicately as it can be when the coarse side of death has scoured us all a little rawer, donate them consciously.

No owner would leave an item this explicitly personal to charity. Pair this with the inescapable idea that while curios such as this always attract the eye of young, irony-clad ghouls like yourself, the people who make them – with a sincerity that leaves you ashamed of your hollow reasons for picking it up to begin with – are older, and you can’t kid yourself you’ve affected anything other than a personal effect.

This makes you all the more resolved to love it, imagining adult children tired of mourning boxing up everything of no monetary or sentimental value to themselves – the sighs and necessary jokes about what a hoarder their mum was: “Oh God, look at this”; “Jesus, there are more photos of the dog here than there are of us”; “She sure loved it”; “Do you want it?”; “Christ, no. You?”; “Chuck it in the box” – and the raised eyebrows of all the tourists who browsed the shelves till the rain had stopped, the surreptitious camera snaps when they thought the shopkeeper was looking away.

If you break it open, pry the photo from the glass and turn it over, you might find a note – Archie’s 8th birthday! June 3rd, 2005 – and maybe you’ll have more insight in what this photo meant and came to mean before it reached the shop, that before the owner ever fell ill or fell asleep and didn’t wake up it was already a monument to something lost.

You won’t break it, won’t grab for any insight that belongs to someone else. This seems respectful, but your real fear if you do so – and you still might, if the headlights leave the streets again and the news relocks the doors – is that there will be nothing written on the back, or even worse that something might be printed: Golden retriever, Getty Images – © Party Frames 2004.

Then, even hypothetically, you’d be alone.

Best stick to questions.

You cannot know the dog or its owner, but you will look after it, let it sit on the windowsill in your new home, and when guests point it out – fairly, as half your possessions were bought as a joke – you hope you will remember to be generous.




I Finally Tried Popeyes’ Spicy Chicken Sandwich

I was in a bit of a pickle, because I had originally wanted Chick-fil-A, but time had become so meaningless that I forgot it was Sunday—and that’s when divine intervention in the form of a holey orange roofed institution shown through—I remembered that I had yet to try the face of God which was supposedly found in a painstakingly lab created sandwich.

Like waiting for a movie to come out on DVD, I kept my eyes on the prize, swallowed my pride, and stuffed down my monoculture FOMO until my face was warped worse than a beak mouthed Momo’s, as I crouched down on my overstuffed couch and Joe Bidened my time for the perfect moment to pounce on the social media momentum marketing campaigned spicy chicken sandwich from Popeyes, which was aggressively pandered to African-Americans, and went viral a couple months before the outbreak of the pandemic.

Some say to strike while the iron’s hot, but I’m a J. Wellington Wimpy-like late bloomer who likes to strike while the olive oiled pan is cold.

I wanted the chic status symbol that the internet breaking chicken product brought, but without breaking my back, or the piggy bank—like people were doing on the black market—as some of the sandwiches at the height of the hype were being sold for stimulus checks.

I had waited this long for the cholesterol curve spiking sandwich (which was supposedly to die for) because people were literally out there getting stabbed to death for fast food while trying to cut ahead in all-day wrap-around lines.

I was not interested in joining the rest of the sheeple that were being led to slaughter. I decided instead to take a page out of the red herring orangutan’s voter suppression book by staying in my White House.

So I figured I’d get the home-cooked pop culture community taste from the comfort of my couch (#alonebuttogether), and let some sorry DoorDash delivery guy do battle with the non-figuratively poor front line employees of the chicken wars.

Before he set out across town and into the Louisiana “food swamp,” he texted to see if there was anything he could do to make the experience more memeable.

He must have known that this was my first time.
I thought about putting on some CeeLo to set the mood. Does that make me crazy?

While he was on his way to Popeyes, a woman called from there to tell me that they had sold out of the sandwiches, but that she’d be more than happy to sell me a tender meal made with love, and encouraged me to bring my own bread to the table.

So I called her a sell-out, and said, “My anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hun.”

I think she was just teasing me for foreplay purposes, because she eventually gave in and said that she had found a sandwich in the back.

I checked the contactless delivery option on the app and gave special instructions for my man to leave it outside my entrance (#popeyesgate), but he texted back, insisting on giving it to me by ungloved hand.

He must have been lonely.

When he came through, the sodium-rich sandwich delivery driver was in an Uber Black Mercedes Benz with a Buckethead face mask on, and as I came out of my quarantine cage, I started getting turned on. I could smell the fun cayenne pepper cajun sauce, and became more than hot & bothered.

I brought it in, sat down in my Sunday best, put on some Black Sabbath, took off its tinfoil hat, and when I put the buttermilk breasted think-piece of meat to my pouting mouth to take the first bite, I screamed, “Sweet Dixie Kitchen!”

Even though the overly crispy breading was like biting into the bark of a cypress tree, the 2-piece chicken sized patty’s juiciness was like that of Omar Epps’, and the brioche bun was so fluffy that I decided to save a piece of it for later to be turned into a pillow for my ninth nap of the day.

It tasted like my grandma had made it. That is, if my grandma was black.

The sweet and sassy flavors coalesced perfectly, like that of Popeye’s pale male founder and ebony female mouthpiece. A perfect Deep South Darth Vader voodoo melting pot cauldron concoction.

When the bird hit my belly, it was like my solar plexus had been suplexed by flavor, which is how I’m sure the woman who got body-slammed outside of Popeyes felt.

Although, it had enough salt in it to choke a chicken.

The sauce made my tongue tingle, and the overall mouthfeel was that of numbness, like the drumsticks of an overworked chicken war entrenched employee.

The bottom line is, as always—the bottom line—and is a line in which my buttcrack will cross if I keep eating deep fried chicken sandwiches which I send people across the town’s roads to get.

So, even though Annie the Chicken Queen’s sandwich may be king, if y’all looking for a non-homophobic, non-racist, non-capitalist, spiritually wholesome sandwich on any given Sunday—look no further than Church’s.




Hackney Kisses

“Hackney Kisses” is a series of graffitied wedding photographs. In 2010, photographer Stephen Gill stumbled upon a collection of photographs taken by an anonymous photographer in the 1950s of couples kissing each other on their wedding day in Hackney, often by their three-story wedding cake. I have taken these photographs and added sketch-graffiti to them, giving them a vibrant, surreal, and sometimes intimate feel.




A Strange Companion

The trees were our gods where I grew up. At the bottom of our garden there were no heavens, no judgment from above, just a dark canopy of high and mischievous lime and beech. They were the primeval narrator of spring, summer, autumn and winter. They were our theatre and our audience in a place where no one watched you, not God, not even your parents, no one except the trees.

It was customary for the trees to throw things down to earth for their amusement, just to see what we would do with them. Sometimes it would be a broken, blue speckled blackbird egg, other times it would be a large moss-covered branch, sometimes it would be a newly hatched chick, killed the moment it hit the ground. A dead fledgling jay was thrown once, whose electric blue feathers I coveted until my parents told me it was time to bury it. It was attracting flies and the maggots would be swift to follow.

There weren’t pet breeders like there are today – whose waiting lists, in the UK, have gone up on average from 100 to 400 since lockdown. Sure, you could get a pedigree Labrador or Golden Retriever if you were chichi. But more often than not, where I grew up, surrounded by farms and beyond that, moors, you got a sheepdog, a horse (if you were lucky), a cat (if you weren’t), or a mongrel being given away for free from a litter of unwanted pups. I wouldn’t get my mongrel for another year or two. So, during a petless summer holiday the gods threw me a bone.

The trees threw down a baby raven.

The high lime and beech boughs were thick with rook nests. At least, we thought they were rook’s nests, which was why, initially, we thought this fallen raven chick was a rook. Whatever it was, we knew to leave it alone. If we touched it its parents would smell us on it and might not take it back. Animals know the smell of humans and dread it. So I watched from the old glass in our front door. I watched from the window of our bathroom. I looked on from any window I could see the drive to check on the chick’s progress, or lack of it. And while I watched I wondered how its parents would even get it back up into the roost if they were to take it back? The chick couldn’t fly. Only flap and hobble about helplessly. But patiently, we waited. We watched it hop up and down the drive, as the trees watched us, waiting to see what we would do.

“Ignore it,” the gods rattled. “Turn your back on it. Let nature fix this with its heavy hand.”

Humouring the trees, we had to leave it for a night or two, at least give its parents a chance to come and retrieve it. The next morning when I looked out, the chick had gone. Staring down the empty drive that lead out on to the open road I prayed to the dark canopy that it hadn’t hopped out into the winding country lanes. A chick wouldn’t last a second out there; it would join the sweet smell of decay that haunts summer verges in the country.

I went out searching the garden, which back then had a decrepit, ivy-covered ammunition hut where the old boys of the village had sat and polished their rifles and played cards and drunk homebrewed cider in WW2. (Due to pretty extreme financial difficulties we were forced to sell the house a few years later. Among many refurbishments carried out to make the house less eccentric, such as repainting it cream from the dusty red like the iron-rich clay it was built on – my mother inspired to paint it that colour by a Jimi Hendrix song – the people who bought it from us knocked the old ammunition hut down, for which I hope the ground hexed them). There was a rustling from behind the ammunition hut. I went around the other side, preparing myself for the disappointment of a squirrel, or a blackbird, but there it was, the little raven chick. Its hopeless hobbling was becoming unbearable to watch. And it saw me, watching. We stood watching each other for a few moments. And in those moments I became determined to look after it.

After sprinting back to the house, I put forward my case: we’d been waiting all day and all night and its parents still hadn’t come. They were probably just looking down on the chick from their roost. The trees creaking in their ears, “Leave your child. Leave it down there. Let the foxes fix this mistake.”

Of course, my parents knew this was the easier option, to leave the chick for the foxes. But my dad is the sort of man who will avoid a bumblebee while driving if it’s safe to do so. And my mother’s much the same. So, it was agreed. We would wait until dusk, and if its parents still hadn’t come to the rescue, if the trees persuaded them to abandon their chick to the earth for entertainment, I was allowed to take it in.

We still had an old rabbit hutch from a very scratchy, aggressive and sickly rabbit that I had loved unconditionally and with complete disregard for my own safety. He’d died a few years before (an event that I’m sure was, if not a cause for jubilation for my parents, a cause for quiet celebration). So I prepared the hutch for the chick, I covered it in dried leaves, bits of twig, dried grass, moss, my own hair, everything I could find to make the it feel comfortable and at home.

Dusk came down thick in the West Country, especially in the summer: lilac then blue then black. The chick was still shuffling about on the drive, looking pitiful. There was no sign of its parents and it was wailing now too, only increasing the likelihood a fox would come – the neighbour’s cats were too fat and lazy. It was wild beneath the impression of “English countryside”, and the cats knew they were no match for what lived out there. For whatever bit the heads off all my pet mice leaving only their bodies. The cats stayed where they were princes, on their porches playing with mice and flies. But foxes, stoats, ferrets, and big fucking rats too, they would have the chick in a pounce.

I picked it up – pre-pandemic, I had no fear of diseases from animals. I had no fear of diseases. I’d caught a lot of chickens in my time and birds and bats frequently flew into our house, and it was always my job to catch them because I could do it so it didn’t hurt their wings. So catching a raven chick was not a big deal. You just have to make sure you grab the wings so it doesn’t hurt itself. Whisper, “It’s okay. It’s okay. You’re safe. I’m not going to hurt you. You’re safe.” Whisper louder than the trees that tell it to fear you. They still pant and blink but you can feel them calming with your reassurances.

Placing it carefully in the hutch, making sure it looked as comfortable as possible, I filled a little tray of water. It also needed to eat, so I went and looked under logs and rocks and stones and pots and collected a feast of bugs for my new raven chick. I put a slug on the edge of the open hutch, which after a moment’s inspection it ate. Then it was easy: I put my hand in the shape of a beak, and passed it another slug. After a couple of days, my parents pointed out this was not a sustainable means of feeding the chick. Who, thinking it was a rook, I had imaginatively named Rookie. We investigate: what do rooks eat? Pretty much anything, we discover. They like meat.

The trees smile. Good, very good. Take him in. Give him your heart to eat.

We were a largely vegetarian household, save for the monthly Sunday chicken. But the next time we went to the supermarket we were buying mince. I had to feed Rookie regularly and my parents were right, it was a struggle to find enough bugs, and birdseed certainly wasn’t enough to sustain it. I had no disgust in picking up a slug, no guilt as I would now in catching a bug, a beetle and feeding it to it with my hand-beak. But I did have to relent and supplement this with a little mince, which was the only thing that did make me grimace when I fed him.

Soon the chick and I had a bond. And after a few weeks, he was starting to get the hang of flying. He would fly from my arm and on to the ground. And then, the most magic bit was, he flew back again. He was getting big, and I knew that before long, if all went well, one day he would just fly away. But he didn’t. He flew to the ground and came back. It was a humbling feeling to have that bird’s trust and I wouldn’t have done anything to break it. I cared for him with all my heart while trees watched on and laughed.

“Maybe he will never leave you.”

Rookie had started pecking around on the ground, looking for his own food, but still relied on my slugs and the occasional bit of minced meat. He was able to fly further and further. Soon I found Rookie could fly from my arm all the way to the other side of the garden. But he would still come back to me, with my arm outstretched for it.

To get Rookie out of the hutch I just held out my wrist and on he hopped. My dad, who had been watching this from the kitchen window one afternoon, came out filming Rookie flying away and back again, away and back again: everyone was quite surprised at the bond we had created. Everyone was surprised except me. I grew up an only child in a village where there weren’t many children, not many I spent much time with. My time was spent with animals. With toads and frogs and butterflies and bats and birds. I was an animal. The woods next-door weren’t ours, but they were only a ditch-jump away and nothing was going to stop me spending my days in there and treating them as if they were my own. I climbed the trees that watched me. I ate all manner of poisonous things – one of my favourites were baby acorns in the farmer’s field next-door. I only found out in my twenties that they’re poisonous. I drank the nectar from honeysuckle.

I didn’t feel the separation.

But then I felt the break.

That day was the same as every other day, as those days always are. Another sunny day in the eternity of summer holidays. I was proud of how far Rookie could fly now, encouraged that he wasn’t totally reliant on me for food any more. Relived that if there were a daytime fox or a chancing cat or a fucking big rat he could lift himself above the earth from which he had fallen and cackle at his would-be killer. Most of all I was honoured that he kept coming back to me. If I held my arm out long enough he would fly back to it. I knew not to pet him too much, so I’d just let him sit there as I held out my arm, mimicking the trees that had thrown him down. I was a god for a time.

You can feel when a bird’s about to take off. Rookie would push down a little on my skin with his feet, then raise his wings, and then he would push harder and pull down his wings and then he would leave me with just one beat. As always, I watched as he flew over towards the edge of our garden that rolled into the hill and down to the neighbour’s epic field, the pond there, the willows, the ducks. I watched as he didn’t stop at our hedge. I watched as he flew up and over it. I watched as he flew out over the field. I watched until I couldn’t make Rookie out in the bright sunlight anymore.

I stood there with my arm out waiting for his return. I stood like a tree waiting for him to come back to me, as the gods chuckled in the breeze. “This feeling of abandonment,” they whispered, “this is our gift to you. Embrace it. It will come again and next time, you will not be a stranger to it.”

The writer Percivel Everett had a similar experience to mine when a baby crow fell from a nest on his ranch outside Los Angeles. Everett took the crow in, named it “Jim Crow”, and raised it for a couple of years. “I kept wanting him to fly away and have a crow’s life, and he finally did when I wasn’t there,” he told Creative Capitol. “Crows are really monogamous. He wouldn’t let my dogs come near me, or anyone come near me. He would just scream at them if they did. As much as I loved him, I would never have another crow for a relationship – it was too intense.”

Maybe I was lucky to have such an independent raven. Mozart’s pet starling stayed with him until its death on June 4th 1787, and Mozart was devastated by it, so devastated he held a funeral ceremony. “He arranged a funeral procession, in which everyone who could sing had to join in, heavily veiled – made a sort of requiem, epitaph in verse,” writes the contemporary historian von Nissan.

Here rests a bird called Starling,
A foolish little Darling.
He was still in his prime
When he ran out of time,
And my sweet little friend
Came to a bitter end,
Creating a terrible smart
Deep in my heart.
Gentle Reader! Shed a tear,
For he was dear,
Sometimes a bit too jolly
And, at times, quite folly,
But nevermore
A bore.
I bet he is now up on high
Praising my friendship to the sky,
Which I render
Without tender;
For when he took his sudden leave,
Which brought to me such grief,
He was not thinking of the man
Who writes and rhymes as no one can.

 —Mozart’s funeral poem for his starling

There are reports that Virgil, in what can only be described as either a test of the limits of human compassion or suspension of disbelief, reportedly adopted a housefly. When the fly died, he forked out an exorbitant amount ($2.6 million in today’s money) for its funeral and burial.

I suppose I was lucky to be left this way rather than another.

The origin of Life is chaos, but sometimes Life finds ways of making you believe there is an intelligent organization to it, or at the very least synchronicity, meaningful coincidence. As I write this piece I take a break and go for a run (a new, post-lockdown activity). Turning it over in my mind, I think about Rookie and how, in spite of the risks of doing a bad job, I did a good job by him. I think, I would do the same again, if I had to.

I turn the corner on the road leading home and notice that there’s a black shape ahead, sprawled out on the dusty lane, gleaming in the midday sun. I’m very short-sighted and it takes me a while to work out what it is: it’s a fledgling raven. Its wings are splayed out either side, and it’s not moving. What’s immediately evident from its position is that it’s in pain. I leave the track and run slowly on the grass verge beside it. I stop when I’m close and stare in disbelief. It’s panting and I’m concerned about the heat. There’s a woods on the other side of the lane and I wish it would hop in there, where the trees will shade it. But it stays in the hot sun, preening one of its outstretched wings repeatedly. I look up at the oak trees. This raven, this new raven, was it thrown or did it jump?

“Is it hurt?” a large old man calls over to me as he bounds his big legs down the hill.

“I think so. It looks like its wing.”

“Looks like he’s a bit knocked out, doesn’t it? Oh!” he exclaims, “I hate to see any animal suffering.”

“So do I… I hope it’s just a bit stunned, I don’t know, but I wish it would go in the woods where there’s some shade.”

I barely take my eyes off the raven as I speak to the man, watching it panting. From up the top of the hill, two joggers are running straight towards it. They don’t decide to go in single file so as not to scare it, they just keep running in tandem towards it until the fledgling is forced to hop out the way. It doesn’t go for the woods but on to the grass a few feet away from me.

“It’s funny,” I mutter, almost to myself, “I’m just writing about a raven I looked after once…”

“Is it a raven?”

“It’s a rook or a raven – I can’t tell from here and I don’t want to get too close.”

“Why don’t you pick it up and take it into the woods?”

“It’s best not to touch it. I could try and shoo it towards the woods but I don’t want to scare it.”

“I’d think it’s better to pick it up and take it over.”

I shake my head.

“Maybe we should call the ranger,” the old man says.

 I stand watching the bird, willing it to fly, but it just stays there in the midday sun, one wing splayed out, preening it.

“Have you got a phone? Can you call the ranger?” I ask. “I thought it might be stunned but … it looks like something’s wrong with that wing it keeps preening.”

The old man immediately gets on the phone, and gets through so quickly he must have the rangers’ number in his address book. “Hello? Yes, hello. There’s a raven in great distress, I’m wondering if you can do something about it? Can you call the RSPB?”

With some difficulty he describes our location and is then put on hold while I stand guard against predator, sadist or another careless jogger. To get to the raven, they have to come through me. We watch over the fledgling for several minutes, waiting. It hobbles about a little, but mostly tends to its wing. I stare at the bird and question whether, if it came down to it, I had it in me to look after a raven again. I do, but to my disappointment, the difference is I no longer want to.

After about fifteen minutes, without warning and with the old man still on the line, the fledgling takes a few clumsy flaps and flies up into an oak tree just above our heads. The old man calls up to the raven, “Oh my goodness! Are you alright up there, darling?”

Thank fuck, I think, waving my goodbyes as the old man shouts happily down the line, “He’s okay! He’s alright! He’s flown up into the tree! … Are you there?”

That same night, the copse of trees opposite our flat that acts as a roost for a hundred-odd ravens suddenly comes alive. I don’t usually pay them any mind. But something’s spooked the birds and their black bodies – huge above us under their full wingspan, almost buzzard size – cackle and caw and bark and scream and wheel around and above our building for half an hour or so. It’s an awesome spectacle, and as I watch the ravens fly from the trees and over the buildings and back again, I think of all the abandonments that followed my first.

“Look at them all,” the gods chant above the racket. “They never left you.”

Hallelujah.




Writing in an Atmosphere of Glass

In March 2020, the world drew to a halt. An unprecedented stasis. Many grasped for metaphors. Weathered trenches, invisible enemies, barricades of N-95 masks. But analogies keep falling short. Instead, let’s start with an image.

Image no. 1:
Day after day, my Grandmother, P, emails me photos of the tree blossoming outside her bedroom window in Long Island. She is 89 and too scared to go outside to take the photo from street view. She, like many of us, fears becoming the positive space in public health models of catastrophe. So instead P remains locked behind tall glass windows, taking pictures of the neighbor’s backyard, and stitching angles of branches together in Photoshop. Each doctored image resembles a photograph of a cherry-blossom tree in a snow globe. Pale pink flowers enclosed within an atmosphere of glass.

Then, in the United States, being locked indoors meant live on one side of the biopolitical coin of life and death. Incessantly checking the news, “working from home,” distracting from grief: we find coping mechanisms that shut away a pandemic. For the privileged, shelter in place might be the most mundane articulation of biopolitical care. Shut away from an increasingly lethal world – made to live – as so many others are left otherwise: the essential workers, the incarcerated, the houseless, the elderly, the refuse of a gig economy. But unless you were losing kin, it was difficult to sense a state of emergency.

And yet were told that the air is more lethal than usual. A virus was filling the atmosphere with sharp shards of glass that will, depending on your life chances, lacerate the alveolus wall, scar the respiratory track tissue, and block oxygen from entering the blood flow. It seemed the whole world has become an atmosphere of glass. If you listened closely you might hear someone gasping, repeatedly, for air.[i] But for those of us at home, the noise was usually blocked out by the newly thickened particles.

This silence was misleading. Outside war proceeded noisily apace. Every nation claimed to be battling the same combatant. “We must defeat an invisible enemy,” men in suits announced to millions clutching their screens, “we are stockpiling ammunition.” Such proclamations were unsurprising: biopolitics has always been a war, if not an outright massacre. And it is not the first-time disease has served as its battlefield. Rather than decrying such comparisons, we might try taking metaphors for their word.[ii] What follows makes a case for apprehending disease as war. And in so doing, urges for modes of representation that can more carefully account for this violence.

Image no. 2:
When P is not languishing with her camera pointed out the window, she calls her sister, my Great Aunt S, in Los Angeles. S cannot leave her room in the nursing home she lives in because upwards of 20 residents have died from COVID-19 in recent weeks. Instead she nests amidst knock-off Louis Vuitton handbags, faded black and white portraits, Persian carpets, hair, and clothing. P and S talk for hours on end – together they tally the dead. A ritual kind of mathematics the sisters, having confronted mass death 75-years prior, are practiced in. Phyllis distills their daily accounting in her emails to me, as if to remind me that springtime’s life impulse is fertilized with the ashes of the dead.

Biopolitics is a lethally anonymous form of care, in so far as such “care” only cares for life as if it were not the singularity of human life at all (Stevenson 2014). The life biopolitics makes live is the stuff of abstraction: points that stretch or flatten population curves. History shows that staying alive is quite different than living. Liberal regimes of governance have long fought wars in the name of preserving life. The frontlines of colonial public health functioned, also, as the expanding imperial or settler colonial frontier. Climate, land, and native were discursively collapsed into a single diseased and inhospitable substance only the White Man’s alchemy could transform (Comaroff 1993, 307). Contemporary warfare remains as humanitarian as ever. Medical metaphors subtend counterinsurgency doctrine: a drone’s surgical strike likened to a tripartite medical procedure aiming to save a diseased body without leaving too much collateral damage (Gregory 2008) A few miles away from the moveable trailers housing drone operators in the American Southwest, the semantic structure of disease abets the continuation war – by other means (Garcia 2014).

If biopolitical care is a form of war, then disease often figures as its most lethal battleground. To be made to live is to exist, not as an individual life, but as a specimen encased in glass: an anonymous archive of government efficiency. You may struggle endlessly to breathe, but noise cannot travel through solid atmosphere. In such hostile environments, war metaphors simply exacerbate the lethal obfuscation of the biopolitical state. The dead enumerated as the collateral damage of unending battle rather than the singularity of a life. So rather mobilizing the same discursive formations, we might attend to biopolitics’ causalities differently.

Image no. 3:
My father calls me from the other side of the country to tell me that S is in the hospital. Something about too many sleeping pills and falling off her bed breaking her hip. He says “She’s stable, she’s breathing.” I ask more questions. “It sounds like she tried to kill herself,” he offers, “she was out of it the past few months.” The words sound hollowed out by their own inadequacy. In the silence that follows, I picture S finally giving herself over to thousands of images of death collected over a lifetime. A surrender as simple as taking a handful of pills. P does not answer the phone when I call her. Nor does she send me pictures of the cherry blossom tree outside of her window.

How might one represent biopolitical war reparatively?[iii] Image as method offers an immediacy that cuts through numerical abstraction. Like turning the pages of a photo-album, gazing carefully at each picture, sitting with the lacerating emphasis of a detail, getting lost in time. Rather than discursive certainties, images offer the possibility of taking you hostage, captured by the minor elements that sabotage accurate stories.

In times of warfare – epidemics, pandemics, and other forms of slow, intractable violences – writing that takes image as its method challenges the lethal forms of care dictated by the biopolitical state. Picture and text offer up precipitates of experience; an imagistic register delivers life in its singularity.[iv] “Every photograph,” Roland Barthes (1981) once observed, “is a certificate of a presence” (87). The image as method is a refusal to reduce living to a matter of enumeration, a refusal to traffic in the same language as the biopolitical state. To write of biopolitics’ causalities with images is thus to preserve the irreducibility of a life: it scrapes away at accretions of anonymity. It is, above all else, a kind of care (Stevenson 2014).

The image as method thus offers as much a biopolitical as an onto-epistemological provocation. Life and death are not simply matters of adding or subtracting to population registries, not simply lines peaking as public health crises or flattened into ordinary crises. Images of biopolitics’ causalities enliven social forms.[v] Images, Walter Benjamin once wrote, “are that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.” In other words,” he wagered, “image is dialectics at a standstill” (1969, 462). Writing that takes image as its method presents scenes which explode the dictations of metaphors. The past interrupts the present to posit a different possible future. To write of biopolitics with images is to write worlds into being.

Image no. 4:
A few days later, P sends me a photo of Aunt S. A nurse in the hospital sent it over iMessage since no one can get inside to pay her a visit. S’s impossibly platinum blonde is hair faded into grey, her usually painted lips a pale purple, and her eyes roll back into the darkness of her cranium. This time there is no tally of the dead beneath the image. The caption simply reads: “S is Doing okay. In for Hip Surgery. A little out of it.” The edge of the nurse’s finger, a smudge of pale-pink cherry blossoms slightly mars the composition.

Biopolitics justifies war by monopolizing metaphors. Life and death are stripped down to a matter of calculation: immense violence obfuscated as collateral damage or rationalized as the price of a future well-being. Such abstractions kidnap perception, enclosing our senses in atmospheres of glass. Our capacity to apprehend the scope and scale of life sacrificed, let alone offer up a form of care, is stifled. Today our social worlds are suffocating for want of breath.

An image, I have argued, collapses the space between original and referent so that there is no room for analogies let alone abstraction. “In photography,” Roland Barthes writes, “the presence of the thing is never metaphoric” (1981, 78). You are confronted with the plenitude of a subject or a scene that refuses to be made into something else. The image holds the viewer in its irreducibility, demanding they keep looking.[vi] Attention indexes not only a form of intimacy but also a dependency between observer and observed. To be held by such images is to be held by life itself.[vii]

Today, as death is all around us, metaphors of war threaten to efface the lives slipping by outside. To present the images of these scenes of loss is to refuse to think of those already taken from this world, as well as those forced to put their wellbeing on the line, as anonymous points in a population curve. Enumeration is no form of care, let alone mourning. Instead, we might allow ourselves to be held by certain images. Gripped by the intensity, and singularity, of life itself.

Image no. 5:
The last time I saw Aunt S we flipped through the photo albums stored in my Grandparent’s basement before Passover Seder. A ritual handling of those faded images that function as a requiem to past lives. After one gin martini, everyone gets tired of the ceremony. “Put those away” my Grandfather muttered, “what’s the use of looking at those anyway.” Today, however, the only way to tend to the dead or dying is to care for their images. We witness ourselves paying homage to the deceased on glass screens – wakes, shivas, and funerals broadcast live on facetime, zoom, shiva.net, and viewneral.com. Amidst a saturation of images, it becomes ever more imperative to sit with particular ones, getting lost in the details, which also contain the fullness of a life lived.

*

Works Cited:

Anderson, Warwick. Colonial Pathologies: American Tropical Medicine, Race, Hygiene in the American Phillipines. Durham and London: Duke University Press. 2006.

Benjamin, Ruha. “Catching our Breath: Critical Race STS and the Carceral Imagination. Engaging Science, Technology, and Society 2 (2016), 145-156.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. London: Penguin Books, 1969.

Foucault, Michelle. The History of Sexuality. London:Routledge Press, 1978.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.

Comaroff, Jean. “The Diseased Heart of Africa: Medicine, Colonialism, and the Black Body”. In S. Lindenbaum & M. Lock (Eds.), Knowledge, Power, and Practice: The Anthropology of Medicine and Everyday Life. (pp. 305–329). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Garcia, Angela. The Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and Dispossession Along the Rio Grande. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

Gregory, Derek. “‘Rush to the Intimate’ US Counterinsurgency and the Cultural Turn.” Radical Philosophy. 2008.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Mbembé, Achille. & Meintjes, L. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture 15(1), 11-40. 2003.

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[i] The intimacies between long-standing forms of structural violence and the contemporary pandemic might be apprehended through the rubric of breath. Indeed, Christina Sharpe (2016; 2017) frames the afterlife of slavery as a condition that withholds breath from those Black communities who live in its wake. Sharpe (2017) frames Eric Garner’s famous last words “I Can’t Breathe” as an eventful manifestation of the quotidian experiences of unbreathability, “where really the ability to fully live in a Black body is continually curtailed, foreclosed, so that you can’t breathe” (52). Ruha Benjamin (2014) echoes this assertion, reminding that breathing is always an epistemic and political problem as racism and capitalism suffocate Black life (147). Beyond the visible forms of police brutality that take the lives of those like Eric Garner, there are the invisible, slow, and structural violences. Violences that manifest in the preventable deaths by asthma that take the lives of thousands of Black Americans each year, and today, a higher COVID-19 death rate among Black communities.

[ii] Lakoff and Johnson (1989) famously describe how metaphors function, not simply as poetic flourishes in everyday language, but structure how subjects perceive reality. To decry using military metaphors to stand in for COVID-19 risks overlooking how warfare has and continues to quite literally structure how disease and is perceived and treated.

[iii] Stevenson (2014) attends to the effects of past and present biopolitical regimes of public health among Inuit communities in the Canadian artic, using images as a method that refuses “discursive certainties,” foregrounding instead those scenes when “facts falter and when things (and selves) become, even just slightly unhinged.” In so doing she show how Inuit communities resist the dictations of the biopolitical state, caring for the living and the dead in a way that preserves the singularity of an individual life. If hers is an ethnography of care, it is also exemplary of how ethnographic representation can sustain forms care and community otherwise effaced by biopolitical rubrics of life and death.

[iv] Stevenson 2014, 184, 11

[v] Confronted with the existential quandary of representing the intense suffering she observes among heroin addicts in Northern New Mexico, Angela Garcia (2016) grasps onto images (34). Citing Ludwig Wittgenstein, Garcia provides a mode of “seeing life itself” by documenting the scenes of death she encounters (2010, 155). Garcia quite literally sets these scenes – Scene 1, Scene 2, Scene 3 – as if inserting a still shot from a movie into the text. Enlivening each scene of death with imagistic detail, the singularity of the life at stake in each case is fully apprehended, as are the kinds of intimacies and socialites sutured in the wake of loss. Neither glossed as statistic nor ventriloquized as ethnographic sign, made to stand in for something else, the death she documents is also a form of life (181).

[vi] Barthes describes photographs as having the capacity to take “hold” of him, as the force of the image – what he calls its third meaning – eludes intelligibility (52). Stevenson characterizes this “hold” as that which remains after the symbolic and informational registers of an image have been exhausted: “that which makes you look and then look back again” (213).

[vii] Here I draw from Stevenson (2014) and Garcia (2010), who both cite Ludwig Wittgenstein, in their call to “see life itself” through ethnographic representation (Garcia 155, Stevenson 212). For both, images communicate the intensity of life as such – instilling ethnographic description with a generative capacity.




Bareback Biking

Our journey would be recorded. We could see the headlines already: “Transport for London freezes bicycle hiring after moon-worshippers break lockdown rules.” We had no recourse to anonymity. No stolen keys, no fake documents, no Villanelle kickass moves, just really cool outfits that rarely anyone saw any more. Citymapper tells me that the ride from Haggerston to Barbican takes 12 minutes at 2:17am. There is no traffic. No, this is not like any other night when you can say that and it means something specific. “There is no traffic” would have meant that you were not stuck in the rain with people of different shapes and sizes huddled under a poorly sheltered bus stop. That you were not waiting, impatiently looking beyond the interminable rows of cars for your bus number, too anxious to notice the dozens of window wipers moving left and right to the slow rhythm of engines, the fumes, the handbrake noises, all carriage click-clacking between neutral and first gear in a very dysfunctional parade, breaking and clutching, on repeat. Cyclists whizzing between the lanes, through the fumes with their masks, zigzagging, avoiding the motorbikes, the pedestrians who clumsily run across the street when the traffic lights are about to turn green, the aubergine that rolled out of the street market stand and onto the road, right there by the pavement of the bus stop with fourteen other bodies completely indifferent to what is otherwise a synaesthetic experience that all the technique and trickery of Dziga Vertov could not fully capture.

No traffic used to mean that the journey from A to B didn’t make you bite your nails, scratch your face and rub your eyes, look at your phone incessantly for alternative routes, light another cigarette, because the bus arrives every time you decide to light a cigarette, even in the rain. Now it means just that: no traffic. No cars. No bicycles. No humans. Sometimes, no noise, save for a couple of double-decker buses every few minutes looking like rusty gigantic souvenir magnets floating around from a London we once knew. The clinical LED lights on the top deck glared outwards like radiation from some forgotten passenger carriage in a sci-fi film. There was nothing in them, nothing but the ghosts of late-night debauchery, memories of drunken trips, lost keys and phones and those text messages that you should never have sent. We waved at the bus drivers and they flashed their headlights back at us. It’s the first time in my life that I have greeted a bus driver while walking down the street.

We were startled by some movement and rustling that came out of a bush. A scruffy ginger cat. A cat is always a good sign, ginger’s even better. We leaned over and gave him what he needed, all five fingers sinking into his back, fur in electric delight, he laid on the floor and opened his belly to us by the gate of one of those Edwardian houses sardined together. Giggling at the spring needs of this pussy we noticed a sign attached to the gate of a house that read:

PLEASE DO NOT STROKE THE CATS! IT CAN LIVE ON YOUR HANDS & THEIR FUR! THANK YOU.

That very morning we had come across the British Veterinary Association’s post that “There is no evidence that animals can pass the disease to humans.” What counts as animal in this case? We thought about writing the BVA message on a piece of paper and attaching it next to the sign for the owner to confront. We thought about all the information we’d been reading about bats and civet cats and pangolins. We thought that we should compose a series of statements about animals and string them across the rail with all their contradictions on display and perhaps hang a bird feeder somewhere nearby too for the cat to entertain itself since it cannot be stroked.

There is very good evidence to think animals are the reservoir and the way the disease gets started.

COVID-19 is a zoonosis, a human disease of animal origin.

There are no known zoonotic (harmful to humans) coronaviruses found in UK bats.

It is humans that transmit COVID-19 to other humans, not bats.

SARS-CoV-2 (2) has been found in a single species of bat (Rhinolophus affinis) in China.

Chickens, pigs and ducks are not likely to catch the virus.

Dogs are not really susceptible to the infection.

We banked this idea in the ever-expanding list of lockdown activities that will later compose yet another archive of immaterialized projects. A list in the present that somehow carries a future within itself, even if the word “project” has lost all its professional gravity, unable to attract the type of interest that once made people attentive to such keywords in the hopes that they would plug into their own utilitarian desires. Right now, we had more important business to attend to. At 2:17 am, beside the park with metal props longing to be touched, every single one of the bicycles was docked, waiting for us to conduct our “essential” travel to Barbican. We inserted the bike key and with an Atari-like beep an unlocking sound was made that was so magnified it was like the “Access Granted” scene in Charlie’s Angels (2000). I lowered the seat, hoisted my skirt up and sat on it, my panty-less cunt and thighs making contact with the gel-like cushioning protruding out of my crotch. I recalled the email from Transport for London that morning:

We’re cleaning the service daily with anti-viral fluid, including the screen, payment device, docking point numbers and bike handlebars. Although the cleaning fluid kills viruses and bacteria on application and retains effectiveness at killing any viruses it contacts for up to 30 days, we’d recommend you wash your hands before and after hiring a bike.

I didn’t wash my hands before gripping the handlebars. I imagined the mysterious anti-viral fluid conducting a microscopic Ju-Jitsu on my flesh. I wondered if there was someone in a room full of monitors waiting for the precise moment when a red button somewhere on a console starts to flash as an indication of unusual lockdown activity. Aren’t we always monitored? Or is that just what they want us to believe? That’s what they told us when the CCTV went up around our estate – “For Residents’ Safety.” They wanted us to feel special, that we were being cared for. That the CCTV is for us law-abiding residents and not the rabble of students and teachers, keyworkers and bankers, grandparents and children, junkies and dealers, Europeans and Africans, artists and figuring-it-out people or people who will never figure it out, that make up the 102 flats on a hectare of land in Dalston. The cameras made our next-door dealer’s life even more creative, while we discovered new deposits of fear that we thought our adolescence had long since defeated. That same fear is ever-so-present now. It bears a bitter-sweet familiarity. Like buying alcohol when you were too young according to either law or convention.

I don’t know exactly what rules we were breaking, but doing this, cycling, bareback, no masks, no gloves, fists around the bars, flesh rubbing up and down the saddle, so late at night, bore the mark of adolescent transgressions. The silence, the amplified noise of pedalling, noticing the tall buildings around us (when did that happen) with most of their lights still on, being able to breathe without holding your breath through smog – damn this breathless city and the years it took from me. Look at all this space, this openness, this energy circulating uninterrupted. I felt the wetness between my legs moistening the saddle and I laughed out loud thinking about the next person’s butt rubbing against this exact same spot absorbing my pleasure. I hoped they too would notice how handsome London is but that they wouldn’t fall into the trap. Tonight, London feels like an abusive lover that you bump into years later and you remember exactly what it was that made you fall in love with them in the first place. The sparkle in their mysterious smile and their confident posture that you would slowly come to hate when other people remarked how wonderful and charming they are. People who had no idea what it was like indoors, what it was like to feel weak, sometimes worthless, occasionally crazy, but always unfree.

This lover seems to be waiting, giving you the silent treatment, when in fact, they are calculating their next move. It’s not the first time that they have begged you to take them back, and after many break-ups, you know that each time it just gets worse. London will not change. They will become more terrifying in their manipulative strategies to isolate you, to cram you into ever tighter spaces and make up excuses about why this is necessary, to ensure your economic dependence on them and then tell you that your debt is due to you not working hard enough even when you are already working 60 hours a week. They will use every means possible – evictions, redevelopments, gentrification, rent hikes – to push your friends out until they are too far away to visit you, or they will ensure your days and nights are so preoccupied with survival that you don’t have time to visit anyone. Abuse happens gradually, small cuts here and there, barely noticeable at first, until a massive EXIT strategy is presented as a logical action to solidify your already fractured relationship. You can’t believe what’s happening and while you’re trying to make sense of it all, your friends have already left.

We arrived at Barbican, slamming the bikes into their locking docks with a combination of mischief and exhilaration. Tonight we can see clearly. Now that all the seductive traits of London’s artifice are no longer able to ensnare us, now that we finally have a little time and a lot of outdoor space, our shoulders have straightened out, our once-shallow breaths fill up all of our lungs, pressing against the cage of our torso, feeling once again that we have a torso, that we have a body, a sensual palpitating moist composition of bacteria and fluids circulating in perfect harmony and potential danger. What is there to risk any more when this city has left us with so little? It took a global pandemic to get us to tune into the small pleasures of existence, breathing, immersing our hands in the soil, sitting in the park when we are not allowed to sit down, cycling at 2:17 am to Smithfield market for an “essential” crate of strawberries so that we can make jam for the first time. Yes, it’s exactly what the final break-up feels like, you know, when a few weeks have passed and there is a moment when you start to feel the tiny particles of an unknown but exciting future swirling inside you once again. You imagine yourself, months later, waking up in another place, still adjusting to being single or in a happy relationship, occasionally looking over your shoulder (out of habit rather than fear), wondering how you once had ended up so unrecognizable to yourself. You start to notice that there are aspects of yourself that are becoming familiar to you again and that you perhaps even like. Cycling, or making jam, will remind you of who you are in that way that you like. On some rare occasions the fear you had once known, will be awakened by completely random and unrelated events – like a sad peanut bowl on a table or a black coat hanging off a chair – but it will be hard to discern if it is fear or excitement when it is all mixed up with the many other thrills you experienced on empty streets and forgotten cities. You will not have much, but at least, you will be free. Sometimes, you will even forget to wear panties. The last thing you will remember from those days, would be the large billboards that read, “Please believe these days will pass.”