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by Accident

[To be read aloud]

 

I want to begin – and I hope I don’t come across as autistic or anything like that (and I know I’m not supposed to say autistic, I know, I realised that as it was coming out, but I couldn’t stop it and I can’t unsay it so let’s just ignore it, can we?) – I want to begin by saying – and I don’t want to get bogged down with trying to find a way in (which is harder than you might imagine), we’ve got a lot to get through, so, but I want to begin by saying simply… I want to begin by saying… I want to begin…

 

New paragraph. Fresh start. On.

 

What I wanted to begin by saying was this: that I have always liked it best when you touch me by accident. When you fall into me or brush past me or roll onto me in your sleep, to name but a few examples. Motiveless contact. Which is not of course to say I’ve never liked it when you’ve touched me on purpose. That has its place. But there’s a realm of experience – a realm of ecstasy – to which intentional contact allows, for me, no access. I have always found a certain kind of intentionlessness – an intentionless act which nevertheless produces the desired outcome – extremely pleasurable. Which is an admittedly unromantic way of putting it. I’ve always liked it best when I’ve known there’s been no ulterior motive for physical conjunction. Two unbidden bodies bound together in space: coming together, making contact, coming apart, unstained.

 

Does this make sense? Would a concrete example help? Here’s a concrete example: imagine the scene: you’re going to put your hand to my cheek affectionately and, walking towards me, you trip over the cat – a cat who is at my feet, our cat – you stumble, your arm flies forwards and your hand, groping for support, it lands cupped on my cheek. That your hand touches my cheek is accidental; pure chance. But it is also exactly what you intended when you began walking towards me, before your flow was interrupted. Do you see? It is both intentional and accidental. Bliss. To put it mildly.

 

I remember so well the first time you put your hand to my cheek. The first morning we spent together. I remember so well how I felt that morning, when we ate honey and blueberries. Thinking how unlikely it was that we had even ever met; and there we were, waking up together, elated (I was, at least) by the unsteadiness of it all, of love – that’s not too strong a word for it – by the magnificent unsteadiness of love, you and I, together by accident, dancing on the needlepoint of contingency. I couldn’t get over you – being there, with me, eating breakfast; I couldn’t get over how weightless and liquid your movements seemed and I felt. Were it not for the weight of our clothes – I imagine I thought – we would have floated away in water droplets. How chance and precarious that morning was but how leaden and empty my life without it.

 

Nevertheless I think I did know then that we had no future. I offered you eggs but you said we didn’t need eggs. I hate to admit it but – as unlikely as it sounds – I hate to admit it but I’d actually bought the eggs for us the day before but I didn’t want to tell you that in case you thought it was presumptuous of me to imagine you and I might find ourselves breakfasting together. And, I guess, it was presumptuous – but in this case, on that weightless morning, it was a cause for celebration that presumption and event happened to be coincident. Which is an admittedly unromantic way of putting it. So I didn’t push the whole eggs thing.

 

You rummaged around my flatmates’ cupboards and without having to look for long you produced manuka honey and blueberries and you put them down on the kitchen table with great authority – and a pomegranate. I forgot the pomegranate. (And I’d bought eggs!) Each time you put a new item on the table, it shook a little. It was not very well made. Someone likes superfood, you said. I said it wasn’t me; I said I didn’t even know what a superfood was; I said, what, did it change into tights in a phone booth when someone was in trouble or something? I’m not sure if you didn’t get the joke or if it was a bad joke. Regardless, you thought I did protest too much. That they may well have been mine, the manuka honey, blueberries and pomegranate – and yoghurt, also: manuka honey, blueberries, a pomegranate, yoghurt. I said they really weren’t mine and I really wasn’t sure if we should take my flatmates’ food but you told me to live a little. You accused me of being insufferably unspontaneous, those were your words, insufferably unspontaneous, and you didn’t even know about the eggs I’d bought the day before. (I don’t think I ever did tell you about them. So here you go, full disclosure: I bought eggs during the day before our first date because I thought, because I hoped, that we would spend the night together – not necessarily sleep together, as in have sex together, as in full penetrative intercourse, per se, but I imagined we might gesture towards it in some more or less physical way or other – which, needless to say, we didn’t, to put it mildly – and then, more importantly, wake up together the next morning and I could cook you eggs for breakfast.) Perhaps I’d doomed us from the start with my presumption. Anyway I said it wasn’t a lack of spontaneity it was just I was worried about my flatmates – I was just being considerate – or anxious – one of the two – I was just concerned that they might not want us to eat their food, which looked pretty expensive – and you told me off for being middle class and I said you’re the one assembling a superfood breakfast. You said ouch and you put your hand to my cheek a little too hard and I didn’t – and don’t – know if it was affection or affectation.

 

Anyway I did; we did. Live a little. We lived a little. Too little. And a fig. I forgot the fig. I think that’s all of it. I went to the supermarket and I bought: manuka honey, blueberries, a pomegranate, yoghurt and a fig. (Except I didn’t. I went to the supermarket and I bought eggs, presumptuously. A plan which would remain unhatched. Ha.)

 

When I walked you to the tube station that morning – at your insistence of course – I knew then, I think – though this may be retrospective insight – but I think I knew then (I do remember the sensation of knowing (and of course burying) it, at least, but, hey, memory is a fickle mistress, which I think is a phrase) – I knew then, when I walked you to the tube station that morning at your insistence, that we had no future. You see, for me – and this is something else I never told you – for me – and let me try to explain why – for me, the thought of you on the tube in rush hour was too much to deal with. And I knew if I couldn’t deal with that, with something as everyday as a tube journey, there was not much hope. Let me try to explain why, though it may sound a little perverted, a little autis- well. A bit weird. You see, the thing is, what I – actually, I think this is going to need a new paragraph.

 

I’ve already touched upon how, for me, the unintended touch is the most stimulating touch. And you know yourself of course from years of experience how I struggled to respond to your erotic intention, not for lack of desire, not for lack of trying. And you know how I would go out of my way to contrive accident, to engineer any kind of chance stimulation that might then lead to – to – you know – some kind of response. And you know about my rage, what’s more, to govern the contingent. Well. Walking back in the rain to my flat from the tube station that morning, with my hair plastered onto my face and the pomade you’d made me put in it running into my eyes and making them water and my mind journeying in that tube carriage with you, fixed on the closeness of strangers; on the accidental and uncomplicated intimacy between you and your fellow passengers, breathing each other’s air; on all the unintended contact between you and your fellow passengers, damp with each other’s sweat; on the simplicity and the beauty of the bodily union between you and your fellow passengers moving as one in that tube carriage on the morning we ate honey and blueberries and pomegranate seeds and yoghurt and a fig but not eggs; and the resulting erotic opportunities which I, as now your designated carnal partner, an agent now sexually involved with you (that was the hope, at least) – bringing the whole botched and illusory domain of human intention into the game – the erotic opportunities which I was therefore painfully locked out of, and the clammy jealousy I felt toward your fellow passengers that morning: walking back to my flat was such torture that I let myself in and – well I’m not wholly convinced you need to know what I did but let’s just say it gave me no pleasure. Which is an admittedly unromantic way of putting it.

 

What else?

 

Remember when we met? Of course you remember when we met but others might not so bear with me. Do you remember we were at a therapy group for – what would you call us? Car crash survivors? Sitting in a circle on those grey plastic chairs in some school gym in Haringey, maybe eight or nine of us, going round the circle and introducing ourselves and talking, briefly initially, as advised (though how many people took that advise on board?), about the experiences, the accidents, that had brought us here, together. Hi my name’s David and I’m a survivor. Clap clap clap clap clap. This is my story. Mostly bland, predictable stuff, nothing to get one’s teeth into: dim memories of tumbling through the air, of life support machines, morphine drips, near death experiences. An amputation; a paralysis; a coma. Boring. To put it mildly. (Remember that one guy who was actually a driver who’d escaped unharmed. Said he had survivor’s guilt and was nervous about coming here today. No-one expressed any hostility towards him. Didn’t need to. It was palpable.)

 

And then there was you. When it was your turn to tell your story, briefly initially, as advised, the lights in the room got brighter, the colours more vivid. You said you got drunk. You looked down as you spoke, stroking, in little circles, the tip of the forefinger of your left hand with the tip of the forefinger of your right hand. You got drunk and you went to a party in some rich old man’s garden where everyone was drinking home-brewed cider out of those large plastic petrol containers, the sort of square translucent ones with a little inbuilt handle. Strong, sharp cider; dangerous stuff, you said. You don’t remember much but someone had a guitar you remember and you remember singing a Johnny Cash song in a doorway framed by coloured lights while someone else beat – or tried to beat a rhythm on an overturned paint pot and others danced. You talked about the sweet smell of burning wood and weed on the warm air. Something I think about the rush of a fast flowing river nearby? It sounds to me like you were in some kind of barn or garage at this point. I imagine hay bales and open spaces, crackling fires, excited voices. A clear night, a bright moon – but I imagine it had rained not long before, as there was a layer of luminous silvery wetness over everything, a kind of vernix caseosa for the newborn world.

 

Someone – David – I presume it was his house, his party – he spoke out of the darkness. ‘People,’ he said quietly, with what seemed like a feigned and impish benevolence, ‘a little surprise.’

 

And then he said, ‘People,’ again, louder (though not too much louder; his natural authority carried enough weight) because people hadn’t heard and were scattered, ‘gather around.’

 

And then he said, ‘A little surprise.’

 

He was sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree. People gathered around, formed a circle on the grass, and he said, ‘People, a little surprise. Gather around.’

 

You asked him what the surprise was because the cider was pepping you up and frankly his deliberate mysteriousness had become, by now, rather tiring.

 

He said, ‘Yesterday I hatched a plan. It’s Easter tomorrow, as we know, and it’s about to turn midnight. Think about it.’

 

Now I think about it, if it was Easter tomorrow, the air couldn’t have been warm, could it? It must have been cold, now I think about it, so maybe add some of the following items to the scene: jumpers, mugs of tea, hot chocolate, chattering teeth, rugs warn as shawls, blankets over knees etc.

 

‘Think about it. It’s Easter tomorrow,’ David said, ‘so a little surprise: I have a plan, a little Easter surprise for you all.’

 

Orange and brown shapes cast liquidly on his face by a nearby fire. The visible world becoming a cider-coloured liquid.

 

‘A hunt. An Easter egg hunt.’

 

He was a prematurely ageing man with loose-hanging, heavy skin, but still by far the oldest person present by probably something like 30 years. People liked him.

 

‘But mark,’ he said, ‘it’s not chocolate we’ll be looking for. Okay? Ready for the hunt? On the count of three, do lose yourselves in my garden.’

 

Someone said how could you hunt if you didn’t know what you were looking for?

 

‘A clue,’ David said with slightly less feigned and impish benevolence: ‘It’s round, it’s white, you can eat it. Got it?’

 

‘…’

 

‘Another clue: it comes in pill form. Got it?’

 

‘…’

 

With rising anger: ‘Another clue? Really? Okay then, another clue. I’ve hidden six plastic eggs filled with ecstasy tablets around my garden. Okay? Got it now?’

 

‘Uh huh.’

 

‘Finders keepers, people. Are we ready for the hunt? I said people are we ready for the hunt? Okay then. On the count of three? Okay then. One. Two. Three.’

 

You said you don’t remember anything after that, really, except what you called a feeling of expansion and rhythmic transcendence, those were your words, a feeling of expansion and rhythmic transcendence. You remember nothing else, you said, until the next morning waking up in a bed on your side with your breasts pressed – sorry, I should say, naked in a bed on your side with your breasts pressed sorely into someone’s back, someone’s naked back I should say. Skin on skin. When you woke up you moved and when you moved a tight crust pulled at the hairs on your inner thigh, pinching the skin, and you saw your clothes neatly folded on the floor by the bed and you got out of the bed and you picked them up and you put them on and you left the room without looking at his face, which to this day you regret, you said, stroking the forefinger of your left hand with the forefinger of your right hand in little circles. These kinds of Dorset communities, you said, they’re closed and small; everyone knows everyone and even if you didn’t know him then you may well know him now. You would like to know who he is. You looked up for the first time when you said that.

 

It wasn’t until – what was it, two, three months after that night – I’m sorry to go into it in this kind of detail, by the way, it must be hard, it must be painful. And I’m sorry to speak for you. I’m not trying to give you a voice – but – well, I’m not trying to give you a voice. I’m sorry. I’m really not trying to give you a voice. So. Sorry. I’m losing myself. Try again. So. It wasn’t until – what was it, two, three months after that night that you thought to – two or three months after that night you – and then you – and then you – and then – and then – well, to cut a long story short – although we’re basically at the end of it now anyway – but, to cut a long – well, needless to say, when you were walking home from the clinic – and, needless to say, your mind was on other things – and you know what those Dorset lanes are like – winding, steep, tall-hedged – and needless to say, when the car – and the driver was never identified – but needless to say the force of the impact lifted you as if from behind off the ground and if you hadn’t – needless to say, if that tree hadn’t been there to stop your fall and cradle you in its branches – well, needless to say, you are a survivor.

 

And whether you believe in God or not – and I don’t, perhaps – but whether you do or not – and it’s not something we’ve ever talked about but I’ve always imagined that perhaps you do – don’t ask me why – just a feeling I’ve always had – but whether you believe in God or not, whether God exists or not, more to the point, whether God exists or not there’s no doubt, to my mind, that what happened that morning in June was a miracle. That’s not too strong a word for it. It was clear to everyone in the room as you spoke that your presence in that school gym in Haringey that evening was miraculous. That’s not too strong a word for it. Just think about it. The car hit you as you turned a corner, sending you 20 feet into the air, and the arc of your flight happened to be proportioned exactly so that your descent happened to be interrupted by a tree which happened to have stood in that place for thousands of years and which happened to be densely-branched and foliated enough for you to land in it as softly as a new born baby being laid on a pillow. Now, right now, I don’t give a fuck if there’s a God or not, to put it bluntly, but I know for a fact that you are a miracle. And that makes you, for me, without exception, the most beautiful thing in the world.

 

Pause. Hold the frame. You are in the tree, nestled, and moving as its branches move in the wind like encased water folding around and over itself as its container is rocked gently back an forth. An overcast day but a gap in the clouds above you and a ray of light pouring through the gap and illuminating your miraculous continuation. Caught, arms outstretched, like some kind of bulging Christ knitted into a fat man’s jumper.

 

I feel I’m losing control of my imagery at this point. This image of a ray of light pouring down onto a fat man’s jumper is just not very good, is it? And I’m trying, really trying not to, but I’m struggling and I’m sorry, but all I can think of right now as I try to put together some more meaningful imagery is that the fat man is actually vomiting down his jumper, that the ray of light is a gush of bile and semi-digested food – which is a potent image, I guess, in it’s way, but it seems, to put it mildly, a little insulting to compare the miracle of your life to a fat man vomiting down his jumper; and, by extension, bearing in mind the themes I’ve been exploring, to connect the act of creation to a fat man vomiting. And now all I can think about is why is our fat man (who, in this instance, let’s face it, probably represents God) vomiting? What has he eaten? What accident – because I’m guessing our fat man isn’t some kind of bulimic, I’m guessing his belched emission isn’t intentional, but quite frankly who knows at this stage – what accident has caused him to throw us up?

 

I wanted so much to tell your story and look at me. I’m not going to say I’ve failed, but.

 

Here’s something weird: your birth is an accident. (By which I don’t mean uniquely your birth – I mean one’s birth – which of course necessarily includes your birth as part of the broader gesture). Your birth is an accident. We know that; we know our births are accidents. We know our parents met by accident and we know that the whole chain of cause and event leading to their even being alive on the same planet at the same time was far more likely not to have existed than to have existed (and far in this context seems something of an understatement; if we’d never met and I was asked to assess the odds that you exist I would have no choice but to conclude that you don’t). This is not news to anyone. But let me develop the idea a little, and bear with me. Okay, so your birth is an accident, you are an accident, but let me develop the idea: the continuation of your life is also unceasingly accidental. (And by your again I mean one’s, though of course we’ve seen that this is particularly true of you). That one moment in your life knits neatly into the next is an accident. Life, moment by moment, is accidental. It was accidental that the sun came up this morning; it’s accidental if it does so again tomorrow. Everything is an accident. Right? I hope I’ve made the point that everything is an accident clear enough by now (don’t want to leave anything up to chance lol). Except – here’s the thing, the turn if you like – death is not an accident. In that death is the one necessity of life. You know that, right? We all know that, right? I’m not breaking any exclusive news stories here. Death is the inevitable outcome of birth: its intention, if you like? But, okay, excluding suicide and murder – which, fortunately, most of us can – death can only be brought about by accident. Death is, 99 times out of 100 (not an exact figure), accidental. We die because something hasn’t worked the way it should have done, because something has malfunctioned: our bodies; our machinery; our hands; the hands of others; our minds; the minds of others; our society; the society of others. And yet death itself is inevitable and unavoidable. But can only be brought about by accident. Death is the necessary accident, if you like, the accident waiting to happen, latent in our lives like the sculpture in the block of marble. Look, I know this all sounds like grandiose and blah blah blah, but it’s really important for you to understand this, if you want to understand me. Which is what this is all about, right? Why do I feel like I’m talking to myself?

 

When you looked up and you said you would like to know who he is, you – I think I’m right in saying this – you looked that guy in the eye, the driver who claimed to be experiencing survivor’s guilt. I don’t if it was by chance that it was his eye you happened to catch or if you meant something by it. I never asked. But it seemed – it felt significant; I’m think I’m right in saying that your eyes locked. Wouldn’t it be a neat bit of narrative if he turned out to be the driver of the car that hit you? Well, I certainly can’t say he wasn’t that man, and the thought did occur to me at the time, as I imagine, and I think I’m right in saying this, it occurred to others in the room, simply because of the sudden electricity in the air when your eyes met (and not the good kind of electricity, not the kind that makes things happen and gets things done; the bad kind, the threatening kind, the kind with a mind of its own, the kind that goes off script, the kind that leaks out of old wiring and sets things on fire that shouldn’t be on fire). We never got to find out because the facilitator, and say what you like about him but he was doing his job, at that point he jumped in and said, ‘I’m really sorry guys,’ – remember him? Weirdly I can’t remember his face but I recall with such clarity his chest: red and white, vertically striped shirt; one button undone more than would have been comfortable in that temperature; wiry grey hair clawing ivylike over his collar; gold chain sunk into the thick flesh around his neck. – ‘I’m really sorry guys,’ he said, ‘but we’ve gone on too long, we’ve overspilled. Someone else has the room booked now. I’m sorry to those of you who didn’t get the chance to tell your stories. Next week is your week. Until then.’

 

Needless to say, we never went back and I never got to tell my story. Which is okay. I’m not complaining. It happens. It was too late. That’s how it goes. It was too late. Which is okay. I’m not complaining. It happens.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


is currently working on a PhD about the ethics of revision at UCL. He writes when he can.'Pylons' was shortlisted for the 2017 White Review Short Story Prize (UK & Ireland).

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