share


Questionnaire

Thanks for joining us today. Please, take some time to catch your breath. Had you been running to get where you now are?

 

Just give me a minute. I’m such an idiot, I came this close to missing my flight. You can’t see, I’m marking a sliver with my index and thumb. I arrived at the airport well in advance, strolled towards the departure lounge, telling myself I could take my time. They’ve redone that bit when you get through the security checks, to make it just like all the other airports around the world. The long snaking path forces you to walk by all the boutiques, where shop attendants hold out trays with perfume samples or plastic cups with shots of whisky. It was 10 a.m., my stomach felt sick at the thought. I remember looking up at the sign marked ESCAPE LOUNGE, thinking to myself, escape, yes please, that’s what I’d like to do. I was drifting slowly, zoning out, under the glare of the artificial light, the clashing rhythms of the different pop songs as you cross the boundaries between the boutiques, and I was remembering you, and then I got on the shuttle train, because other people were, without thinking which terminal I needed to go to, and then I automatically got off at the first stop, because other people had.

 

Go on.

 

I mechanically followed all the other people up the escalators, thinking that because they were wheeling suitcases just like mine, they probably had the right idea where to go. But at some point the crowd started to thin out, a lot of people filtered off to gate A37, whose destination was Berlin Schönefeld, which I had no intention of visiting, though I like Berlin plenty, we should go one day. I turned around and found myself in what I only now realised was the wrong terminal, unable to get back through the one-way entrance door, alone, apart from one man with a hi-vis jacket, who looked amused when I explained to him my situation. In answer to his question, I had to confess that I actually had no idea of my gate number. Ryanair? he asked with a smile, and I nodded and asked whether this explained it all. He didn’t get my little joke, and for a brief silent moment I thought that I would have to live in this terminal like the man who was stranded for months in an airport, the one they made a film about. But then at last he pointed at another man who could, he told me, escort me where I needed to go.

 

What did this man look like?

 

Receding hairline, healed ear piercing, hi-vis jacket again, I don’t remember so well. I bounded up to him, I was beginning to get a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to find my way to where I wanted to go, but it all felt a little unreal, I was also still basking in the thoughts of you that had come to me in the shuttle train, so I said to him, in this voice of nervous expectation, I hear that you’re the man to escort me. And to my great relief he returned my smile, if anything he amplified it, asked for my name, which he then announced into the walkie-talkie before opening a door that was right by my side but which I hadn’t even noticed before, it had been so perfectly concealed in the wall that you might have taken the silver handle for some functionless ornament, it was like opening up a new dimension in the universe, and he set off down the corridor without waiting for me to follow him. He reminded me of the guide from the DIVINE COMEDY, what’s his name?

 

Virgil. I’ll ask the questions if you don’t mind. So.

 

Thank you. Virgil, only in a hi-vis jacket. I caught up with him, asked whether people did this often. No, he said, seeming more amused than his colleague. I have no excuse, I said, catching his sense of amusement, I can only chalk it up to human error. He smiled. At least you’ll get your daily steps in, he said. I felt good with him, the pair of us racing down the hidden corridor. In answer to my question, he told me that his name was Dave. I asked him how long he’d been working here. Fifteen years. I asked what time he’d gotten up this morning. 4.45 a.m. Pretty brutal, I said. You get used to it. I asked him if his conditions had changed over the years he’d been working at the airport. He said that he’d made the decision to go onto a zero-hour contract, that he liked the flexibility because his wife was a teacher, primary, he specified, when I asked him, it was all a bit of a blur now though because we were nearing the end of the corridor, I felt stupidly sad that our conversation was being curtailed. We pressed our hands warmly as we said goodbye and I told him to take care and he told me not to get lost all over again and end up missing my flight. I made it to my gate just as they were about to close the boarding.

 

What impression did Dave leave on you?

 

Surprised at the warmth that you sometimes find if you give the world half a chance. Also, I was a bit embarrassed about my leading question over working conditions, not so much by the question itself as the answer that I only afterwards realised that I’d been expecting because I’d just seen that Ken Loach movie about zero-hour contracts. Then at last I was able to feel happy that he hadn’t given me what I’d expected.

 

You saw that Ken Loach film recently, didn’t you?

 

Just yesterday. It made me so sad that I literally thought I would throw up. It’s awful, you feel as the film goes on that all the little acts of human kindness and generosity and love that it contains are in the end just ways to make the inevitable tragedy all the more unbearable, these waves of sadness flooded over me, each more powerful than the last, until finally I had to hold onto the wooden back of the empty seat in front of me. When the lights came up, I felt irritated by the people talking and laughing and switching on their phones and standing impatiently until I twisted my body to let them get out, when I wanted to just sit there and recover, stare stupidly at the white credits on the black screen, the actors had names, the music had titles. But what can you do, life goes on, the people pushing past all had things to get to, on the way back from the cinema I also thought of going in to that new cocktail place, whose tobacco Old Fashioned is supposed to be pretty good.

 

Did you learn any kind of broader truth from your airport experience?

 

Maybe you need to be suddenly fearful that you’re going mad, having gotten on a shuttle train without any sense of your proper destination, in order to appreciate the kindness of strangers.

 

If you could be an animal, what animal would you be?

 

A pine marten, in large part because I’m not entirely sure what it entails.

 

Tell me about a dream that you had recently.

 

Okay, so I had this very strange dream the other day, which has stuck in my memory. It was a creative reimagining of Michael Jackson’s life. He was being tried for paedophilia, was found guilty. First divergence from the real world. But the sentence was very strange. Instead of giving him jail time, or a fine, or even so much as a suspended sentence, the judge, speaking very slowly and clearly, pronounced Michael Jackson to be Bad. It was thought to be far than a custodial sentence, to be judged in this way, and forced to remain free under the public judgment. It’s at this point that  I  enter  the  dream.  I’m  floating  downstream  in  this  sort  of  gondola,  passing  into  an underground cavern. It’s dark all around, water is dripping off stalagmites, or stalactites, I never remember which is which, and MTV is being projected onto the walls. The host is talking disapprovingly about Michael Jackson. Because it turns out that he hasn’t taken his punishment lying down. Far from expressing remorse, he’s just recorded a song that openly mocks his sentence. You’ve guessed it, the song is ‘Bad’, which MTV then plays: the host makes it clear that we shouldn’t enjoy it, that they’re playing it only as a moral example. I’m still drifting in my gondola. The song comes on. Only it sounds nothing like the actual ‘Bad’. I realise, as I’m listening to it, with the video projected onto the cavern walls, that it’s incomparably more beautiful than any other song I’ve ever heard. And I hate myself for finding it so beautiful, this song that’s laughing at the verdict that’s been handed down for the terrible things that Michael Jackson has done. It’s at this point that I realise, when the song comes to an end and we go back to the studio, that the host of MTV is you. I didn’t recognise you at first, you’re buried under black eyeshadow that I imagine the producers have made you apply, you’re recognisably yourself, beautiful, but you also seem tired and ill. In fact you’re struggling now even to stand up, and then you fall back into a stretcher that some of the producers behind the camera have pulled out just in time, the camera pans all over you, I’m really concerned for your well-being, but the situation seems to be under control, or even to have been anticipated, the camera is up close to your leg and panning now over your thigh in this disturbing way, and I realise with alarm, stuck in my gondola, that you’re a pornographic actress, and I look down at my body of which I’m only now conscious, and I have these heavy period clothes on, a frilled collar, an obscene hat, and I understand that I’m not who I thought I was, namely myself, but rather Swann, from the Proust novel.

 

I see. What do you think that says about you?

 

Very funny, psychoanalyst. I don’t know, the gondola drifting down through the cavern is clearly some symbolic intrauterine fantasy. Maybe it says that I’m jealous. You tell me.

 

What are you planning to do when your plane gets in?

 

Wander aimlessly around a city that has had you in so recently that it must have retained your warmth like a bed I can jump back into. Maybe walk up the hill by the library, where on the day before I met you for the first time this band of young girls was jogging, and where from a slight distance I suddenly saw a frail old man fall from an upright position backwards slap onto his head, I ran to him, only I didn’t know the language or even the number for the emergency services, and in any case the running girls were far quicker on the scene than I would have been able to be, they were stroking his thin hair as a trail of blood trickled down the hillside. Chasing the ghosts of you, hurrying into alleyways with ears cuffed for the muffled echoes of your pink boots. I could get loquacious if you let me.

 

What’s on the inflight TV?

 

Nothing.

 

What’s your deepest and most unrealisable fantasy?

 

To switch off and go home early and sit alone and eat bland food and have no thoughts, not even of you.

 

Have you done anything interesting on the plane since it took off?

 

Nothing much, beyond thinking about your questions. A little while ago this big skinhead man whose legs were spread wide and touching mine until finally I gave up and crossed my own asked for ten scratch cards, only he was eighty pence short of what he needed and they wouldn’t let him pay by card. He was getting quite audibly irritated with the transaction, so I leaned over and asked him if I could give him the remainder and invest in his gambling venture, on the understanding that I’d receive an 8 per cent share of any proceeds. He looked at me as if I were insane and bought nine scratch cards and won nothing and I felt all the love for humanity that had built up since Dave begin to ebb away.

 

What’s your favourite colour?

 

Fuchsia. I think you already knew that.

 

Tell me more about one of the photos you sent me earlier.

 

Okay . . . the one where that kitten is nestled into my neck. It was there when I arrived at this Turkish resort that I’d stayed at a couple of times previously. It was pretty rudimentary, log cabins, no running water. The owner, Fatih, handled the cooking himself, and he cooked wonderfully. He rescued the kitten only reluctantly, under pressure from the sentimental European guests who were staying there. It didn’t even have a name, so with the blessing of the others staying there I christened him Marvish, because ‘seawas the only word I had learned in Turkish, when one day I was looking at it glinting in the sunshine and told Fatih I wanted to know how to say that it was beautiful, in his language. One of the other guests had a water bottle, with which we started feeding him milk. We sterilised it in the kitchen, despite the evident irritation of the old Turkish lady who was the only person who helped Fatih, she would look at us as though we were out of our minds. And in ten days this kitten went from being this malnourished shaky thing to the makings or beginnings of a real cat. The foot gave him an appetite. He grew energy. He was ferocious, half feral, half tame. He would slash with his little claws at the woven rugs on the wooden benches overlooking the sea. Then he would nuzzle into my neck, just like you see on the photo, after I’d fed him the bottle, like the baby I never had, never have had. I set his sleeping body on the cushion each evening before I went to bed. Two days before leaving I’d started preparing our farewell, because I knew how difficult it would be. Perhaps I’ll see him next year, I thought, though I knew that my schedule almost certainly wouldn’t permit me to return next year, and in any case Fatih and his family were unlikely to take care of him. In the night I was trying to sleep amid the mosquitoes and the rustling in the undergrowth and the gurgling of the water pipes. I heard this terrible scrabbling sound. Stones were being kicked up, there was a flurry of limbs, a beginning of a cry that then for some reason was silenced. I sat up in bed. I thought about getting up, but I would have seen next to nothing with the torch function of my phone. And if it had happened it had happened. The next morning Marvish was gone. We turned around the small garden, even the guests who at first were sceptical or bored by him helped out, combing every inch, looking for some kind of sign, a trail of blood, even a mangled body, which would have been better. Fatih watched us from the kitchen where he was preparing the cucumber and tomatoes and fresh honey for breakfast, like every morning. We looked until the bus arrived, left our breakfast uneaten, and we promised to remember Marvish.

 

Why have you suddenly fallen silent?

 

I don’t know, maybe thinking about Marvish. Remembering all over again the scrabbling noise in the dark. I’d completely forgotten about him. But maybe because I’m learning to deal with the way that you throw these random questions at me. I guess that in a way that’s what you’ve done from the beginning. I’m trying to fight the temptation not to join up dots.

 

What’s your top book of 2019?

 

I really liked the new Sally Rooney. Can’t remember if it was this year though.

 

I’m not here to answer questions. Two strikes; one more and I’m out. Tell me about a thing that you did in my absence.

 

I did nearly nothing at all other than dwell on your absence. At one point I was sat in a cramped country pub. Lots of posh people in wellingtons and with big dogs. I’d told myself that a walk would do me good. So, after a ploughman’s lunch I was all set to get to this walk. Only there was this big dog stretched out in the way. I’d overheard that it was only six months old, but it was already enormous. I don’t remember its breed, I never do remember that kind of thing, even though the proud owners repeated it on at least four or five occasions to admiring walkers who asked nothing else. I’d finished my beer some time ago. The dog wasn’t budging. It was weirdly sedate for a puppy. There was nothing to do other than step over it, like a huge black puddle. The dog’s owners turned to me. Sorry about our dog, they said, she’s out for the count, do you mind having to jump over her, we can squeeze over if you’d rather. I would consider it, I replied, bearing in mind all the compliments that the other walkers had offered this creature, an honour to jump over your dog. And I did. The owners laughed happily. I was happy too, even though what I had said had no truth-value, it had no necessary or even possible relation to any truth in the world. It was just a thing that I suddenly felt that I had to say, because otherwise it would never have been said, it would be an honour to jump over your dog, in this or in any other context, and because by saying it I could repeat it to you at a later stage.

 

Do you think we’re going to work?

 

Well that is just the question, isn’t it.

 

Okay, point taken. So, what are your plans for the rest of the flight?

 

In a moment I’m going to combat my dread and look down and discover whether I’ve been able not to spill my beetroot salad all over my magazine, like I did the last time. Other than that, I don’t feel like I have a lot to contribute to the business of the plane being landed.

 

Have you seen LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER?

 

That’s a weirdly direct question to ask out of the blue. I’m going to try not to think what you might have in mind in asking me it. You know I’m afraid to admit that I never did read that book. I did see not one but two film adaptations, though, if that redeems the situation. The second was this long French version. I was going to see it with my mother, in the city where she raised me, in what used to be the smallest cinema in the country, before it shut down. It had something like twelve seats. The heating had broken just before the film was set to start. The woman at the desk, who I knew was volunteering, told me we could watch the film for free if we liked, but that the theatre might be very cold. All the other cinemagoers decided that they’d rather grab a drink or whatever, it was just before Christmas, but my mother and I decided to give it a try. I love her sometimes. We both had our big coats. So that’s how I found myself in the smallest cinema in the country, watching a languorous French adaptation of LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER, shivering into my big winter coat, with my mother. I see exactly what you’re doing, by the way, using this, to get these little confidences out of me.

 

Make up a joke on the spot. It has to be new.

 

Euh . . . how do you describe a very enthusiastic jester? Present and with bells on. Sorry, best I can do.

 

Are you religious?

 

There’s a philosopher who said that every statement that expresses the external world should have ‘I think’ in brackets. I’ve never been to church in the correct manner (not counting that service we attended), but I think that ‘God’ is there in brackets every time we try to express something that exceeds our understanding. That’s enough for now.

 

Will we bathe our feet in the sea, off the Asturian coastline?

 

Yes.

 

Are you scared of flying?

 

No, never, though just a moment ago we went through a lot of turbulence and I allowed myself to indulge the alarming and pleasurable thought that perhaps my unpardonable happiness would cause the plane to crash. Then I thought about it a little more, the wings were still rattling somewhat, and I thought how unfair it would be for these other people to have to die just for me to be punished for being a smiling Icarus. Even the skinhead didn’t deserve it. Did I escape narcissism in the end? You tell me.

 

Two-and-ahalf strikes. How do you feel about the political situation in your country?

 

Totally despondent. I feel bad that the next best realistic thing that I have to hope for after the incumbent not winning is the opponent losing so badly that he’s forced to go away. I feel a burning desire to tell you something more interesting than these generic remarks, or to stop talking about politics altogether. I feel like there’s something naïve or unserious about the fact that instead of the incumbent losing this election I fantasise about taking him into a darkened movie theatre where the Ken Loach film is playing so as to see if his body registers shame in some way, maybe through small suppressed twitches. You probably know the politician I mean, the blonde mop. I want to tie him to the chair while the film plays, like the scene in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, only this time for good reasons, like that phase in my adolescence where I was convinced that if I could just get my mother to listen to the full twenty-five minutes of the Sonic Youth song she would see the error of all her ways.

 

Here’s a question from a viewer at home. What was the last book that you loved?

 

Well, reader at home, first of all thank you for taking such an interest, and second of all, I really dragged out the last volume of the Proust, at first because I was fighting it, then because I was fighting not to finish it too quickly. Come to think of it, it must explain the Michael Jackson dream.

 

And?

 

Well that’s kind of an open question. As strongly as anything that actually happened in the narrative, I remember the places in which I struggled and failed to read it. This humdrum pub in Cornwall, next door to the dingy hotel that my work had booked me into, which suddenly seemed so vivid when I let it float in and corrupt and mingle with the endless sentence, the flickering gaslights, the dumpy but not altogether charmless woman who was eating Yorkshire pudding alone, and I realised that the point of reading was to actually see the thing that was distracting you from what you were reading.

 

Put your hand on a part of your body, leave it there for ten minutes. When the timer rings, tell me the thoughts and feelings that you experienced while your hand was on your body.

 

Not right now. I’m in public. What’s acute aortal syndrome?

 

Well now you’re just teasing me, because we both know you’re the only one that knows this and that if I don’t remember exactly what an acute aortal syndrome it’s through no lack of desire or capacity to know but because when you told me about it something vital was distracting me.

 

What’s a stent?

 

It’s that beautiful fine woven golden thing that you stole from your hospital because it was slightly damaged, so your surgical team couldn’t use it, and that costs three hundred euros, even though it’s the size of a baby’s thumb, and which even though it looks like it’s spun from gossamer is sturdy and supple when you bend it over in your hands like one of those slinkies that you used to send propelling itself down the stairs when you were a kid, or maybe you did. I do, bend it in my hands. I’m afraid that I’ll puncture it, though I know its resistance. Now I’m fighting the temptation to ask you about your childhood stairs.

 

What is love?

 

The rhythm building up again even now.

 

What do you mean?

 

The letting yourself fall into the gaps between the Qs and the As.

 

Elaborate.

 

{. . .}

 

Tell me another thing that you did while I was away.

 

Is this microphone amplified? I suppose by now it’s too late to care. Well, the other night I saw EYES WIDE SHUT for the first time in around ten years. I know, it’s the not the best thing to start watching at 11 p.m., whatever state you happen to be in. There’s been all this anniversary stuff about Kubrick. It was actually a really weird experience watching it. I can’t even remember whether or not I saw it previously. I had the feeling that maybe I switched on the TV when I was stoned as teenager, without really watching it all the way through, because I had this really uncanny sense of familiarity. I think that if I’d actually bothered to watch it when I was sixteen, I would have tried to take it really seriously, because it had big adult themes and artistic cinematography, and what would have seemed at the time like adults having sex, rather than going through the motions of having sex. Anyhow, this time I watched it giving it no respect, and finding its pretentiousness tiresome and irritating, and then at the last surprising myself by being weirdly moved by it. I realised that all the terrible things – the cringing dialogue where the Cruise and Kidman characters just repeat whatever the last person said with this vapid look in their eyes – are part of the film’s power, intentional or not. It’s a film about male insecurity, wrapped in some totally implausible fantasy about high-stakes erotic experimentation. I don’t know if you’ve even seen the film, but Tom Cruise undertakes this absurd detective quest-cum-erotic investigation. It’s just ridiculous. Every single woman that he comes across proves magnetically attracted to him. And yet the poor guy is always interrupted as soon as he’s on the cusp of getting laid. And you realise that he’s doing all this, this heavy flirtation with every woman in the diner or the fancy dress store, not because he understands or even has any desire, but because his wife Nicole Kidman has just told him that she finds other men attractive, and the idea is so unbearable that he has to become the cardboard cut-out of a man. That’s the only explanation for this otherwise inexplicable scene where just after having nearly consummated a relationship with the latest chick on the street he runs into these young virile men who knock him out of the way and call him a faggot and tell him to get back to San Francisco. He’s so passive that he has to let the unattractive daughter of one of his clients (he’s a doctor) kiss him without really protesting. He’s so scared of being made to strip naked in public, at this stupid masonic lodge, that he’s prepared to let a woman who is already naked offer herself up for sacrifice. That’s a pretty amazing parable of masculinity. The only scene where Kubrick really fucks up is when Tom Cruise crawls into bed one morning at 6 a.m., and weeps to Kidman that now he’ll confess her everything. The next morning, her eyes are red, she’s been crying. But the film has gone wrong. It’s converted its story into the typical tale of the philandering male confessing his desire and his erotic excess. When what he should really have told his wife is, I’m scared of your desire, because it exceeds my own.

 

Do you identify with him?

 

That’s a characteristically smart question. Yes, I do, in part, I mean I must have, to have felt these things. Let me put it this way. When I’m away from you I find half my time worrying that I’ll get an involuntary erection like an adolescent boy in the most inappropriate places, the sauna for example, and then when I’m with you I worry that I won’t be able to get it up, only one version of a buzzing swarm of background fears, that I’ll get ill and lose my appetite, the slope towards middle age will commence, that my clitoris will lose its responsiveness or get over-stimulated, that I’m starting to die. I don’t want to get too dark for your readers, I’m not entirely sure what kind of publication this is. But the thought often strikes me that because I’m finally living that means that I’ll die. That because I’m going to die it must mean that I’m actually living. I know these things are really trite and obvious. But you can keep on repeating them as rational truths without them meaning what they mean when your body takes them on for itself.

 

Did you just say my clitoris?

 

I did.

 

Interesting. Do you think this reaction to the film reveals anything larger, beyond yourself?

 

Point taken. Yes, I do. It was good to watch it all these years on. I think we should have a moratorium on reaction. Our culture is drowning in a sea of hot takes. The things have barely sunk in before we’re posting our wordy reviews of them. We don’t just react to something immediately after it has happened. We react to it before it has happened. Our mouths start frothing before the bell tinkles. We hear a song through the grimaces and the grins of the YouTuber. We don’t need to come because we’re anticipating in the pornography an event that we think we might just about remember. We should fight against the instantaneousness of the world by only letting people review anything only after a ten-year interval has passed. Maybe they’d be making half of the film up. But that would be okay; it might even improve things.

 

Can you update a famous quotation?

 

I think it was Freud who said that we wouldn’t need the new technology of telephones if we hadn’t been separated from one another by the new technology of planes. Replace on-flight wireless connectivity for phones.

 

In a moment we’re going to move on to some questions from the audience. What was the last song you listened to?

 

‘Run your Hurt Away’, Ruby Johnson. Solid gold Motown classic. I never understood why she said that she wanted to run the guy’s hurt away at six o’clock in the morning. Has she not gone to bed? Is she just waking up? These aren’t questions for you to answer. I hope that was a joke, about the audience.

 

Is there anything that you would like to add to any of your previous answers?

 

That even if in the absence of wireless connectivity, I would have made this conversation up to be close to you. Fantasy, oldest technology.

 

Tell me a thing you hate.

 

The power of the questioner.

 

Tell me a thing you love.

 

The power of the questioner.

 

Describe the touch or texture of an object that has meant something to you in the past. Don’t explain or psychologise it.

 

At night as a child I used to rub my fingers along the circular pad and undone and fraying stitching where one eye of my bear Tom had come out. It felt so different from the glass eye that remained that it got me to wondering about the world more generally. I’d called the bear Tom, because I had a friend with the same name, who once told on the playground, with that juvenile melodrama that children have, that I had to choose between him and my other best friend, Nick. So I chose Nick but gave Tom the consolation prize of naming my bear after him. There, no psychologising.

 

Are you a proud person?

 

I left our discarded dirty T-shirts on the floor for four days after you left, cleaning around them with the vacuum cleaner, as if they were a shrine left on the floor to appease demons, like in Bali, where the ants crawl all over the bamboo trays of rice, leaving them untouched because they reminded me of us in the casual way in which they had fallen at random and seemed to twine together. You can judge from that just how much pride I have left.

 

Are you scared that my period is five days late?

 

I’m honestly finding it hard to be scared of anything at the moment, except for the bursts where I’m scared of everything.

 

Tell me about a formative experience.

 

When I was nine, I got my period, and I was suddenly this tall dark hairy creature around all these blonde English girls, who gave me hell for a couple of years. One evening I called my mother into my room in tears, and said mother, I’m really sorry but I’ve done a stupid thing, and she asked what, and I said I’ve shaved my leg, because I’d only shaved one, I felt really guilty, because for some reason she was absolutely emphatic that it was too early for me to be shaving and worrying about all that shit, and she looked at me with a tenderness that both surprised me and didn’t surprise me and said well we’ll just have to shave the other one properly together, won’t we, and now all these years on I confess that before I deleted my social media account I looked back with some satisfaction at how large and unattractive all the blonde English girls had become.

 

I get it, very funny, you’re appropriating one of my stories. Seeing how I don’t have one, how’s your sister?

 

She’s fine. She just got a cat. It’s not used to apartments, so it’s fallen into a stupor.

 

When did you first realise your father was growing old?

 

We were going to a football match, our mediocre team versus another mediocre team, and it was a miserable day, and we stopped to get fish and chips, which a gang of thugs supporting the other team kicked out of his hand having moved towards us from outside our field of vision. He stood there for a minute trembling with impotent rage, and I shared the impotence but strangely none of the rage, I felt that I had left my body, which continued to stand under the grey sky.

 

Would you prefer it if I left you alone for a moment, to answer your own questions?

 

No.

 

Tell me a lie about yourself.

 

After my grandmother had died a slow and lingering death, we cleaned out her small flat in the sheltered  community  where  we  should  never  have  taken  her.  I  found  that  I  was  cleaning excessively in a bid to make up, too late, for not having been there enough during those years, when my mother had to take on almost all of the burden. I just showed up from time to time and talked to her about childhood memories from a very long time ago, which she recalled with weird precision given that she couldn’t remember what you said three minutes ago. When I asked her my mother confirmed that she’d never heard some of these stories before, the ones with men before  my  grandfather,  balls,  who  knows  whether  they  were  true  or  confabulations,  but  I remember my mother looking at me sadly when I asked her whether she wished she’d talked more to her mother, as if to tell me that deep and meaningful conversations were all well and good but try refilling the digestive biscuit tin three times a day. She had a point. My grandmother by that stage lived on a diet solely composed of digestive biscuits. Most of our cleaning was in reality the opposite of cleaning. We couldn’t throw anything away, it all piled up. Old photo books, strange cobwebbed items that we took down from the loft, and whose function remained obscure long after we polished it. In the end we threw away things almost at random in a mad dash before the estate agents wanted to show the spotless house to other frail old people. We rolled up the rug into whose weave a week before her death she’d hallucinated cats. We kept finding these post-it notes.  My  grandmother  had  left  them  everywhere.  Most  of  them  just  said  DIGESTIVE BISCUITS. Or MORE BIRD FOOD. There were shopping lists that trailed off into nowhere. But sometimes they were more enigmatic. Names of children, her other children, it was strange how her handwriting got spindlier and more illegible when she wrote about them. Anyhow we thought that we’d cleared away all these postit notes. Then one day, when we were giving the house a final sweep, I bent down right by where she’d fallen for the last time, and there was one last very small post-it note. We’d been superstitiously avoiding that part of the front room. It gave onto her small but well-tended garden. The note simply said DON’T FORGET AGAIN TO LOOK AT THE FLOWERS. Judge for yourself where the lie begins. Maybe the seam shows, I don’t know.

 

Do you lie often?

 

Only through selfdeluding wish fulfilment, or in a doomed effort to avoid upsetting people. Tell me about the first time we met.

 

I turned up at an expat night, tired and already wishing I hadn’t bothered, but I’d ordered the expensive beer without thinking, so I moved over the table at which you were sat, you were the only one on a stool and therefore perched oddly higher than all the other people in chairs, and you were abrasive at first when I asked you whether this was the expat night, I didn’t know anyone, and as we started talking I realised that you weren’t abrasive, only direct, and as our conversation continued I was struck by the sickening fear that you were quite a bit taller than me, there was this whole part of the conversation when you were describing your residency and I was trying to pay attention but I was also wondering what it said about me, that I didn’t want to be with a woman who was considerably taller than me, I started doing the maths, how many men were with shorter women, was it statistically noticeable given the natural tendency for men to be taller, and if so what did that say about codifications of gender, anyhow fortunately then we moved tables where we could sit closer to one another and at eye level, I was beginning to realise that it wouldn’t have mattered if you had after all been taller, and you told me about how if you couldn’t go on finding your life and your career as interesting as you had to date you would simply move out to the mountains on the outskirts of Barcelona, your friends had a place, you would become a mad old cat lady, get into hallucinogenic drugs, I thought of you, with your hair just as long only by now brilliantly white, in the mountains.

 

I’m growing sad. Tell me something silly.

 

When my sister and I were young, we used to play what we called the arse game. To play the arse game you needed to find a pop song with the word heart in it, and replace it with arse. It sounds stupid, and it is, but it is also wonderful. Take Madonna: open your arse to me, baby, you have the lock and I have the key. Or the Backstreet Boys: quit playing games with my arse (you know you gotta stop), with my arse (you know you gotta stop), etc.

 

If you could improve my appearance in one way what it be?

 

Sharpen the focus of the camera.

 

What would be the first thing you would say to my mother?

 

Quiero . . . I’m sorry I don’t know a word of Spanish. Quiero take care of your daughter. How long do you think we can go on like this?

 

I don’t know. I hear that little capsules can be projected rapidly through space for quite some time. How have you been spending the nights in my absence?

 

With my snout crushed against the T-shirt that in a sudden fit of inspiration I picked off the floor and carried into my bed, inhaling its scent like somebody who needs an oxygen mask. I didn’t even know that I had a snout before.

 

Can you hear me even in these questions?

 

I can hear you particularly in these questions.

 

Do you want a bite to eat?

 

No appetite.

 

You must be scared of something.

 

That this reveals an essential truth about us, even when we’re not speaking in this contrived Q&A format. That it exposes the distance, the asymmetry.

 

Do you have a final message for our readers?

 

Stop eavesdropping. Vote. Go see the Ken Loach movie. Resume eavesdropping, with care and attentiveness, someplace else.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a writer, critic and teacher based in Cambridge.

READ NEXT

fiction

April 2014

Spins

Eley Williams

fiction

April 2014

Spider n. (Skinner thinks this word softened from spinder or spinner, from spin; Junius, with his usual felicity, dreams...

feature

November 2015

Anatomy of a Democracy: Javier Cercas

Duncan Wheeler

feature

November 2015

20 November marks the fortieth anniversary of the death of General Franco. And while the insurrectionist’s victory in the...

Art

March 2014

Amy Sillman: The Labour of Painting

Paige K. Bradley

Amy Sillman

Art

March 2014

The heritage of conceptualism and minimalism leaves a tendency to interpret a reduction in form as intellectually rigorous. If...

 

Get our newsletter

 

* indicates required