Blue bedroom, Grandma’s house, Aigburth, Liverpool
I gave birth to one hundred thousand words. Tessellated, affectless, still.
I was in a pair of stirrups, draped in black. Behind me were cascades of water and municipal marble, people sitting inanimately. I printed me out on acetate for the overhead projector.
Vagabond pronunciation, vigilant renunciation, off with her head.
Brashness and redness and badness and rudeness and leaving and wasting and
Fat lowly bearable extrapolation, fine gradations of change.
Grandma came in and turned the big light on, offered photographs. Women in terracotta silk, cars parked outside garage doors, Mum shoving an apple in Jeremy’s mouth. She put a cup of Douwe Egbert’s on the side. Was I sad because I wanted a boyfriend? I turned away, rinsed in salt.
Matthew was in the kitchen, glancing with accusation at a Bolognese tidemark in the sink. His grey jogging bottoms were tucked under his heels, nestling in his arches. He switched off the little lights underneath the kitchen cupboards and turned it into the sort of conversation that is a prelude to an unlit room. I don’t like those sorts of conversation. He wished me luck.
On the train a little boy was talking at his dad, who was thumbing his screen with maniacal grace. They started a game of what five things the little boy would put in his supermarket basket. Cucumber, ice cream, tomato, all the puddings, and trifle.
Lunch with Paul. He kneaded his sandwich with his fingers. It was doughy and airless at the perimeters and the butter and salmon fattened into triangular pouches, a sophisticated solution to refrigerated bread. His teeth were translucent.
We spoke for ninety minutes, the foetus on my lap. He gave me a gift, his book. I asked him if he wanted to sign it. My cheeks were hot. Let me look at it. No. I need to see it. No. Can’t you blog it?
We went to a café in the rain. Children ate sausages from Falcon enamel. The goats at the petting zoo had their horns zapped off. If Rose were an animal she would be a fox. Not the same thing as her being vulpine, and the fox is not her spirit animal. I don’t assign spirit animals. James is Parsley the Lion. I am the broken Christmas tree light in the year four nativity. I am cannon fodder gnome, denied my Collector badge. My buttons are many.
Rose made dinner in a pair of black velvet leggings and some purple and lime exercise trainers whose pores were blocked with Columbian dust. I came into the kitchen where she was chopping mushrooms. From the door I thought they were chestnut but it turned out they were ordinary. I am scared of women who travel in Columbia and play the cello, except and including Rose. When she chops onions she doesn’t worry if a bit of the brown shell gets in the mix, and she always overloads the chopping board so that bits go onto the worktop. I eyed her stray parts. She was defiant.
She told me how she was feeling, directions from a map to a place she had already been. I told her I was alone and impervious to platitudes. She felt bad, always having considered me to be a dynamic sort of a thing. Not untrue. I was inflating. I made plans for sweat, wit, and perpendicularity.
I went to a bar with perspex walls. Beyond there was a room for dancing. I ordered some water with Robinson’s pink grapefruit cordial in it, served in a sports bottle with the label peeled off. Rose arrived with a man in a suit. She bent his legs at the knees and sat him down on a barstool. He was made of straw. She put one of his hands on the bar and wrapped his fingers around a pint glass. Then she sat on a barstool opposite him and tilted her head to one side. I left.
In Welwyn there was a diamond wedding. There were cousins and second cousins and overly oxygenated vol-au-vents and there were relations for which we didn’t have words. The dominant colour was burnt orange. There was art made of sage and lilac and there were pineapples. On the windowsill there was a plastic yellow Mummy duck trailing several other plastic baby ducks with string. I caught myself on a whim of daisy-printed self-possession. I was antenatal, percolating.
Julie made cups and cups of strong milky tea. There might have been more than could have gone down but they all went, except for one, nestled under a nest of side tables. On top of the tables was a NARANJAS cardboard palette on its side, on top of which was a board of photographs.
Dad had his hands on his hips and was stood by the edge of a swimming pool on an overcast day, 1992. He had neon pink striped swimming trunks with Dory fish and butterflies on them. He was neither fat nor toned. Dappled with acne, espadrilles bang on the floor, arms of tinned salmon. By his feet, my decapitated head in a bonnet.
Matthew invited me to a leaving party. We had been living in the flat without reflection or remorse for a number of months and I didn’t wish to leave. Our belongings were everywhere. I had left them in a state of neglect, that they might accrue a sense of belonging. That had been the point except for now the point was that I was not ready for that to have been the point. I was distressed by the blurring distinctions between things intentionally forgotten and intentionally lost and choicelessly left behind. I could not recall what I needed to ask for and what I was owed. Matthew started to do that thing where he puts Marvin Gaye on and clicks.
People came. There was elephantine polyester, pelvis.
The next morning I opened the front door and there was a thin tree trunk stretching across a ravine. Matthew called me from the other side. I looked at his tree and thought about how to get around it.
When I first met him my hair came delivered by a woman tyrannical to her Saturday girl. He said he was soothed by how little I seemed to care about how I looked. It was too much like what I would want somebody to say. He had mushrooms on toast with additional bacon and I had three Americanos, the third against my will. I coerced him into asking for a small tin pot of HP, impressed when he left it unruptured. My coffee filled out the palm of my hand. There was more room in me and I was clean and I was at the correct temperature.
We took Max for a poo on the common. It was hot and we were excessively sexed. Max did a poo and then came back and sat very still. Matthew walked over to the poo to put it in a bag and then he walked to the bin. His legs were too short. I encouraged him to call me a narcissist. I made us tapenade. I made him Hugh Grant walking through Portobello Market.
The ravine. My mouth moved.
There was a man on Argyle Street. It was wide and desolate and percussive and emotional. There were holes in the ground and chutes, with mud pouring out the density and tempo of fibrous shit. He had bare ankles and a navy coat with a drawstring waist, a perky bum and a crop of toffee hair in Shirley Temple curls. It was a dry day without being crisp, adequate for bare ankles. The feathers on his hood were feathers, not fur. Woozy. I followed him to Camden. On the bus I rolled my shoulders back so that the blades cut a set of tracks down the upholstery. My hips were wide. There was an uneaten Braeburn at our feet. He said the word Shakespearean.
Matthew was pacing, the height of my palm.
There was a man in a Herringbone scarf. He was silver. He held cut flowers wrapped up in purple. There were four in the bunch. It was twenty past five. The flowers were mathematical and expensive but it was too early for them to be on their way to a date. I stood in front of him with my bottle of water. Regular swigs, orifices, aubergine nail polish. I cupped the ledge of flesh below my naval. He happened to be French.
There was a man whose hair had turned white, a corollary consequence of crippling intelligence. He wore a coat. His coat was fastened all the way to the top with duffel fastenings made of little tusks and nautical ropes. I spied a black turtleneck. The last time I danced to my intellect it was Matisse and I was the one who loses the grip in the right hand corner.
He made his way over to me. We went back inside. I started to shake my head. He locked me in and turned on the oven. He pretended we could eat our respective halves of pizza. I hate pizza.
He ate his pizza. I scraped mine down and rolled the dough into a baton. I yelled at him to let me out. I WILL CALL THE POLICE, I said, at an affirmative volume. We fucked. It smelt of Max and Aesop hand wash. I blushed. He gave me a piggyback. I ran.
I got on a train, caught my breath. A yellow toad spilled out in a seat next to me. She had long, dark, thin hair gathered in a bobble at the nape of her neck. She had round glasses with steel rims, a Matalan t-shirt, and a crucifix. I congratulated myself for my Oxford comma, my Breton stripes. I left my Mac at her feet.
I called a telephone number to report the incident but I couldn’t get through. I started to shout hello in all of the regional accents of which I am capable, which does not happen to be many. Rucksackless, my parka was impeccable.
A function room above a pub, Peckham, London
There was a do. I wore a man’s cashmere jumper I found in a bin bag in Highgate. The women behind the bar had shaved heads, high-waisted jeans and Rubenesque tummies. I had an All Bran pregnancy, which wasn’t quite the same thing. September is when I have ever arrived anywhere and my tongue does not like it.
I went upstairs to an abandoned television set saturated in white. Everything was made of glass and acrylic. There was a crash mat on the floor and two women, fleshy but strong, thwacked against it. I brought myself low to the ground and closed my eyes.
I woke in a bedroom in the hour or so before the sun. There were two single beds and the door was slightly ajar. I stood flush to the radiator, waiting for the nerve to get dressed. The wallpaper was flocked, a crude mahogany.
The carpets were red and heavy to tread and I opened the door to Mum’s wedding. I cried at the strawberries, the way their tiny needles jam in the gaps between teeth. I kicked off my satin shoes, turned my white tights black. Mum was tipsy and accommodating. We went on a strawberry-free expedition.
Haringey Arena Superdrug, Haringey, London
I was in Haringey Arena Superdrug attending to my extremities when Dad’s heart went. I gesticulated to the lady behind the till. She said I like your hair and I mouthed thank you, like a goldfish. I spoke for Mum of pathology where the sadness might have gone. I cried for Welsh Nicola on the downstairs landing, an impersonal and tactless movement of water. Her cellar flooded. She was marginally cross.
On the train to Leeds, two men sat on my right. One zoomed in on a photograph of a woman dressed in a black lamé playsuit. His fingers stretched at her vagina as though she might burst. Look at that, he said to the other. He was quick but he was not furtive. Another photograph of a braless woman who had two breasts with a cavity in the middle. Hung out. Done with being good and bad and thinking. Nobody needs to see that, he said.
A mother of two across the aisle bore her concentrated heat with panache. Her older boy tried to nick a bit of fried chicken from his brother. She slapped his hand with the precision requisite to swat a fly.
Leeds General Infirmary, Leeds
Dad was broad and tanned. The room was cold and smelt of yeast. On the side were a Valentino Rossi hat and a bottle of Davidoff Cool Water. His hand was hot and dry and taut. I turned to face the wall and wrote hello in the visitor book. The day before, Uncle Simon had written out the results of the Moto GP qualifiers, As Promised. Someone had missed a page. THIS PAGE INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK.
I went to my narrow room, my black drapes. A ringmaster cradled the two of me, one of us in each of his arms. He put us down and handed each of us a basket, the sort that snake charmers use. In the rehearsal I had achieved a kind of spontaneous perfection. Now I was clotting and unavailable.
Otley, West Yorkshire
The next day I went to Nana and Grandad’s and watched This Morning. It smelt of almonds and the heating was on. Grandad was wearing his peppermint cream golfing polo. Nana was nursing a bowl of Weetabix with milk and honey. Her spoon was too big.
Phil and Holly interviewed Alan Titchmarsh about his new novel. Nana said he was a bad writer. He was baked in studio light in a velvet navy jacket with a red trim. He had a Paisley shirt. His loafers had red tassels to match. There used to be something more homegrown and containing about ITV. Less orange. Less violent. Simon gave me the eye.
Is it right that when you begin to write you don’t know the ending? Well Holly, I choose my characters first. I might have a couple with three children and one might be a hen-pecked lawyer, and one might be a junior doctor, and one might be on a gap year, and then I set them free and I just see.
I made sandwiches with skinny white Danish bread and melted Lurpak and grated cheese and tomatoes. I sliced the tomatoes a millimetre thin and mopped up the seeds with Bounty. I threw two in the bin because the back of the fridge had turned them frosty. Grandad came in and read the bottle labels from the open cupboard above my head. Kitsch Cherries. Kirsch Grandad. He grabbed me by the waist and called me a Herbert. The only cure for a Herbert is to put her in a bag and shake her up.
I put on silverskin onions and Judge Rinder.
We had chicken Kiev on trays for tea. Nana asked me to bring the butter through and added a tablespoon to her potatoes. Mandolin Wind started to play. We lowered our heads and convulsed. I kissed them a garlic goodbye.
Otley was stale beer and metal barrels and damp stone and iced buns and pork pie juice. I sat with the remnants of Mum and waited for the kettle to boil. The fat from the burgers she had eaten last night had congealed in the tray, chubby bulbous clouds, brain. I put on my marigolds.
We buried Dad at the bottom of the garden under the weeping willow, next to Ben and Penny and Silky. It got late. I went for a wee in the night and the air was rheumatic and the pottery duck with the Roger & Gallet soaps in it was blue under the moon. At the end of the corridor, Nana sat with a whiskey and a packet of Silk Cut. The sky was not missing all of its light. I sat with her. Soon she would have a bath and make bacon.
There was a rustling sound. A series of butterflies came crawling out of the carpet. One of them was bigger than my hand.
She lit up.