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The postcard mocks me from the corkboard. Framed by wrinkled photos and meaningless maxims scribbled on sticky notes; by newspaper clippings and out-of-date concert tickets; by labels ripped from fancy bottles of Brunello and Viognier, and pictures of the Birth of Venus and impressionist ballerinas. Scattered odds and ends that I had hoped, once, denoted an original mind. What a lark.
It’s tilted, this postcard. Fastened by a green tack. On it, a lopsided teapot teeters:
Do I Dare Disturb the Universe? it asks.
Before, it seemed a daily wink to knock me out of complacency. In recent years, it morphed into a daily kick to remind me of my failures. Because, over the years, it has become increasingly apparent that the answer to that damn question, bathetically and depressingly, is NO.
No, I don’t dare. I never dared. I never will.
Bitterness was never part of the plan. But here we are. Here I am in my pokey little attic study with a sky light. A room of my own. I look at the screen in front of me and reach to light a cigarette. I exhale smoke rings over my pitiful attempt at an exorcism.
An adieu to words – they’ve been stolen. And it feels like they’re not coming back. Why do words sometimes flow like some [enter appropriate simile when writer’s block has abated] and why are they sometimes snuffed out before they’ve even begun to be transcribed from a whisper of an idea in your mind to the concrete solidity of characters on a word document, materialising via the keyboard magically tap, tap, tapping away?
I’ve learned to loath the click of the keyboard. Do you dare disturb the universe? Well, teapot, I used to think I dared. I didn’t want to leave a thumbprint on the world, you see; I wanted to kick the world into the stars with a post-metamodernist masterpiece.
In the end, I didn’t dare.
WHAT THE *$£ #£@ IS THE CURE FOR THIS?
I raise my eyebrows; I don’t remember typing that. I wonder to whom I was directing this odd rhetorical question. To the line-up of those “greats” I once studied? Those who harboured a grand genius, the essence of which remained elusive? It’s a truism to say one can’t define modernism and, as one who has smothered oneself in modernism, I can affirm it’s the truth.
I delete the last paragraph and I plug on.
Writer’s block, you are a cliché and yet you are what I find myself with. Now: how may you be dispelled, if you please?
I delete that too. I sit and stare. I sit and stare as the cigarette burns down until the unsmoked straight resembles a droopy phallus. I stub it out and light another. The tappety tap tap continues.
Aren’t I meant to have the bug? You know, the writer’s bug. Aren’t I meant to squirrel myself away in a room of my own and not stop the steady flow of ideas desperate to break out from the over-stimulated but under-liberated richness of my imagination, dribbling out in a delicious stream of consciousness with too many subordinate clauses and too few full stops, as some homage to the original SHE, she who was a bloody she-wolf, and who once told the world of women that they too needed a room of their own?
Only rich ones, I might add. She was a snob but one to whom I aspired. Sally Seaton and Septimus Smith changed my life.
Liberate me, please, the genius ideas are meant to scream. I want to leap from your genius mind to the blinking blank page. From your richly vivid imagination.
Imag-ination. I-magi-nation. I’m-a-Gin-at-Ion.
Words, broken up, are strange.
Now I’m just being silly. And am fully aware that I sound like an arty-farty wanker whilst writing this experimental bit of prose. “Experimental” might be a euphemism for pretentious, don’t you think? Just like “delicacy” is a euphemism for disgusting. But maybe it can win me the Booker Prize and a trip to the Bahamas.
Isn’t that the dream…?
I plough on.
James Joyce did a whole chapter of Ulysses without any punctuation and if he can do it so can I although I can’t help but think he was just saying a big f*ck you to the reader you think you’re so clever don’t you that you’re reading the most enigmatic novel that has ever been written but haha you don’t realise that my sole purpose of writing it was so that pretentious gits like you could be exposed as idiots while being simultaneously smug at your lofty self-dubbed erudition and it might just be because it’s on the syllabus of your literature degree but you might equally be reading it just because you want to throw it in at a dinner party when someone asks what are you reading and you casually say without being completely able to hide the smugness in your voice with its received pronunciation oh you know I’m reading Ulysses and the silence afterwards says without needing to be said because I’m clever and you’re a philistine that’s right I’m clever and you’re a philistine because I’m reading Ulysses that’s right I’m a GENIUS and you’re a stupid bloody philistine
Even if when reading it I understood sod all
I take it back. It’s just as confusing to try and write without any punctuation as it is to read it. I look over at the shelf where, to highlight my sparkling hypocrisy, there gleam three copies of Ulysses: one Oxford edition; one Penguin Modern Classics; and one beautiful green hardback– a birthday gift from my deceased mother a decade ago. Un-deceased when it was given, obviously.
Well, hats off to you, Joyce, you enigmatic genius. You dared disturb the universe. You dared expose the intellectual snobs before they took their toast and their tea. But I still think you’re unnecessarily, self-consciously… esoteric. Maybe that’s what I’m trying to be now… Maybe that was your point.
Not in all your novels. I love your short stories. But when I was forced to read Ulysses, once for my undergrad and once for my post, I did hate you. Just a little bit. I did think you sounded like an arty-farty wanker. Just not enough to throw out three copies of your arty-farty novel, apparently. Those gems are for the eyes of my dinner party guests. Pride of place, middle of the fourth shelf, sandwiched between The Complete Poetry of Marianne Moore and Collected Essays of George Orwell.
Of course, I didn’t say I didn’t rate the “epic one-day novel” in seminars, for fear my fellow students would look down at and denounce me, declaring, “How dare you call yourself a literature student? Don’t you get it??” And, internally, still hypothetically, I’d respond, “Of course I don’t bloody get it. And if you do, you’ve missed the point.”
Eliot got it. But the rest of us?
We had the experience but missed the meaning.
… or did we have the meaning but miss the experience?
Which is worse, I wonder?
Drag in, drag out, new smoke ring.
Well, now. What has this little torturous exercise achieved? Has it cured me of my writer’s block? Hell no. Has it shown me that hammering out words on the painfully white screen helps?
Now the white screen isn’t so white but has little marks on it. Little marks that make up letters that make up language. How the hell can these little marks on the page carry so much meaning? Meaning elusive to me.
Liberate us. Scream the words. Liberate us from the depths of your messed-up imagination.
Eliot was in his early twenties when he wrote Prufrock. And me? Shit…
I slam the laptop shut.
Bartock, my French Bulldog, is barking by the door. The door to my one-bedroom-fifth-floor-attic flat in South London. I’ve lived alone for years (excluding canines, of course, and I’ve never been one for felines). I’ve lost count of how many (years, not dogs). I used to be able to say I was smart and, if a woman is smart, she never needs a man. But then all my friends got married and had babies. Being smart is no longer enough.
On the bright side, I’ve been a bridesmaid ten times and am a godmother twelve times over. If anyone needs gift ideas for babies, I’m your walking, talking catalogue: I know, for example, that while new mothers might say they favour wooden toys, they quickly discover the destruction they wreak and so plastic ones, while initially earning a sigh, will later earn you a thank you. And I am a pro with empty baby compliments. “Isn’t he an angel?” I can coo when, in reality, he’s an ugly little pumpkin head. Or I deflect: “I could just guzzle up her toes; they’re like cute little jelly babies” to avoid slipping out with, “heavens, please don’t make me look at her face much longer.”
My friends used to be capable of intellectual conversation. And then they got knocked up.
Bitterness was never part of the plan but, while we’re on a role with embittered rants, I still live in a state of indignance over the injustice, the imbalance between the labels of “bachelor” and “spinster” – the former so frivolously positive, the latter so overwhelmingly pathetic. They said it would all change after hashtag me too. It didn’t. It’s just better disguised.
Youth used to be on my side. And all the positive trappings along with it: innocence; optimism; hope for the future; readiness to spatter colourful paint across the calling blank canvas we are told is our future potential. A glimmer in the eye that told the world I was ready to take it on, just try and stop me.
In the end I stopped myself.
It was a fear of failure when all is distilled. Fear that, two decades on, I would turn back and be filled with ominous and all-consuming regret. Life’s short, so we hear over and over again. But, in the swell of the moment, in the hiss and thick of it, it doesn’t always feel short. When we’re young; when, proportionally, a day counts as a much bigger fraction of our lives. When youth is on our side…
So, I turned down numerous dates when I had the dewy-skinned freshness of youth (skin so dewy, one boyfriend said he wanted to eat it; he didn’t last long). And when my hair glowed with that youthful lustre, I flicked it over my shoulder and told the Kens of the world that I was no Barbie. Who cared about beauty? I had brains.
I threw myself into writing.
Two decades on, my hair is straw, my skin, sandpaper, and the brains are still there, only with nothing to show for them. Well, ten mediocre novels, only three of which published and none critically acclaimed. The room of my own, once a source of pride, contracted until all I felt was alone. I scrape by from one month to the next. I would’ve starved long ago if my brother weren’t a QC. The support doesn’t come free, though. The invoice: a debt of eternal gratitude. And stand-in childcare support at a moment’s notice.
The room of my own has shrunk. Who cares about freedom when all one feels is loneliness? And that all-consuming regret, once a past fear, has become a present reality.
Only a creator can comprehend the terror of a blank page. It stares. It calls. It mocks. It leaves you questioning your validity as a writer… as anything of worth. And the older you get, the worse it becomes. Until, one day, it’s no longer a blank page. It’s your life.
I didn’t dare, you see; I didn’t disturb the universe.
It’s extraordinary the speed with which past habits, so ingrained, so seemingly unforgettable, can fall away. My habit was that I used to believe in myself.
Bartock’s still barking.
All right, you beautiful mutt, give me a moment.
I retreat to the shower and wash the stale tobacco away. It’s easy to indulge in the arbitrariness of thoughts occasioned by a hot-water stream in a box. If I’d paid attention to that mindfulness course Mia signed me up to, I’d be losing myself in the steamy dream of heat on my skin; I’d be lost in the blush on my thigh as the water gets hotter and hotter; I’d be zooming into the individual droplets on the peach fuzz of my arm…
The water’s gone cold.
I can’t afford to get my boiler fixed.
I sigh and grab a once-white-now-grey towel.
That is not it, at all. That is not what I meant at all.
About what, you ask, as I plagiarise Prufock?
Life. This was not what I meant at all.
There are so many expressions, aren’t there? That iterate our need to detach any personal agency over our lives. What will be will be. Que sera sera. Che sarà sarà. What’s done is done.
Bugger that. I want control back.
When I was a cub, I wanted to rule the pride. Instead, I shrunk to a pussy cat. It’s too late to be the goddamn lioness I was always meant to be. Che sarà sarà…
I pick up the lead. Bartock, still by the door, is so excited his whole body is oscillating from his wagging tail. Oh, to have that pure, concentrated joy over something in life – anything. The curse of human consciousness. Of the conscious consciousness. The one that D.H. Lawrence complained about in a poem about a fish.
My scarf is drawn, my hat pulled down, but the cold is heavy. I didn’t take him out yesterday so Bartock is owed a longer walk. The ice crunches as we approach Battersea Park.
Yummy mummies seem to multiply here. They advance in packs, hysterical in their neurosis, fixing their tiddly toddlers with their Tippee Tommees of formula milk. Or is it Tommee Tippees? Who gives a shit? They do, of course. With their baby sensory classes and organic baby food. With their playdates and their fear of processed sugar. With their vacuous existence…
Bitterness was never part of the plan.
And this has nothing to do with the fact that, approaching my fortieth year, the likelihood of my procreating is slim. What would the world want with another me? Any precious thing to bring into this world would only be chewed up and spat back out by it. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.
Along the Thames, the runners fly. Ahead is the Pagoda. Behind it, Albert Bridge. One of my favourite places in London. Even in the cold, when my breath plumes in tobacco-less puffs, when the trees are skeletons and the path littered with winter’s debris.
The lead pulls.
Bartock is frolicking with a golden spaniel.
“Looks like they’ve made friends.”
A lady with a cheery face nods over at them. If only it were so easy for humans, I want to add but something stops me.
The lady’s arm is entwined with an elderly gentleman. He has cloudy eyes and a stick. But it’s the expression that draws me. The lines in particular. They are no furrows from pain; they are crows’ feet from laughter. His is a face that has known and that radiates joy.
“Tell me what they’re up to, Jilly,” he commands, amicably.
“Crumble’s made friends with a French Bulldog.”
“Has he now?”
“Indeed. Play bows all around.”
“What’s his name?” the man asks, smiling.
He’s looking around expectantly.
I tell him. And, on hearing my reply, his empty eyes fix on me. We exchange the mundane pleasantries of strangers while I, London born and bred, want nothing more than to extricate myself immediately. Yes, it has got chillier recently. No, I didn’t know that they were playing Jazz at the bandstand later. Thank you, Crumble’s very cute as well. Bartock? He’s nearly three.
Extrication is at my fingertips…
“Cheer up, love,” says the man, finally. “It might never happen.”
I assure Jilly it’s fine; Bob hasn’t offended me. Even though he has, a bit. And I leave.
But I want to tell Bob that it already had happened; my life had passed without having really been lived. I’d mocked the yummy mummy and their middle-class worries and called them vapid. But it was my own existence that was empty…
He’s trying to bonk a Jack Russell.
On the other side of the riverfront path, a man is running. Eyes that smoulder, and that know they smoulder, try to lock with mine. He’s handsome but expels the air of a jerk who works in a bank. At one moment looking so smooth, so suave, he trips over his shoelaces the next. It’s cruel to derive joy from someone’s discomfort. I can’t help it; I bite my lip.
Cheer up, love, it might never happen.
I exhale and my semi-opaque breath unfurls like a mushroom cloud. Reminiscent of an A-bomb or an exploding volcano.
Across the murky river, I can see the distant buildings kissing the gritty skyline. And I can hear one of the feral parrots that perversely populate London parks. And I can smell the depths of winter clinging to the air, intermingled with woody coffee grinds from the booth nearby.
What is life, I ask myself, but a bouquet of senses? This is Mrs Dalloway’s London. An endless sequence of moments of being, stitched together at their edges. A quilt to make life full. And, surely, with all of those at one’s disposal, anything is possible. Mia should get her money back. Who needs mindfulness when one has Mrs Dalloway?
The banker wanker, albeit with a little less swagger, is up and running robotically again. Maybe it’s a sign.
Back at the flat, my laptop jingles on and down I sit, as Bartock curls up by the fireplace that no longer functions as such.
And out they come. Out they pour; out pour those words, like a chirruping skylark riding the wind; no, like a tiller of earth ploughing the fields; like gems gleaned from a golden harvest; like ballerinas pirouetting over the stage; like mounds of clay sculpted to perfection; like a hammer forged for the hand of a giant… no, no, no. All contrived shite.
So, then, come on, I ask myself: words as what? What are words to you?
Words as the only consolation for one with a lonely heart and a room of her own.
Words like a mushroom cloud to fill the dreary abyss.
There it is. There’s that damned simile.
Hannah De Giorgis
Hannah De Giorgis is a teacher and author based in London. A life-long Italophile, she lived in Florence before moving back to the UK to finish her studies. Hannah completed an MA in modernist literature from UCL and BA in English literature from Birkbeck, University of London, where she graduated with first-class honours and won the John Hay Loban prize. Her debut novel, Threads in Time, was published in 2019. To learn more about Hannah, visit www.hannahdegiorgis.com or follow her on Instagram @hannahdegiorgisauthor.