This is not a story, this is a sequence. The sequence describes human indignity, indifference, callousness… weary subjects, to be sure, and I feel weariness. The sequence is about the distance between good and evil, which is a short distance, but steep. Not in the way you might hope, either; to do evil is simpler than ever. It is a downhill motion. This concept has long been theorised, but this is not about theory.
This is about feeling.
When E was asked to describe her first five years ‘as a refugee’ in Sweden, she responded with weariness. She told her interrogator that her experience taught her, like nothing before had taught her, the laws of gravity. It was the first time she understood that the world was not flat. She saw the earth clearly as a sphere, where the abyss above was the same as the abyss below. Some bend some break at the sight of this, but none forget it. No surprise that, in the stillness, her body ached as her mind did. The mind and the body exist, not in opposition, but in parallel.
I am not E, the husband I loved did not become a soldier, a soldier who by definition could only be my enemy. That is not my story. But I know the distance between a man and a soldier, and it is a short one. I have seen the distance on trains, I have seen the distance in night clubs. I woke up to the distance this morning. I woke up to the sound of screaming. I do not mean this is a metaphor: this morning I woke up to the noise of a woman screaming.
Maybe there is no world without cruelty, maybe there is no world without power. Our bias towards a cure leaves out this kind of data.
Fireflies existed for the generation before mine but they are long gone now. Like language. All corrupted.
At this point the narrator begins to speak in tongues. The subtitles read: Mania & Mimesis.
I watched a young man be hypnotised, as a performance. The instructions were in Dutch, so I can’t tell you what was said, but the young man appeared to submit easily. I was certain that he was acting, how quickly he fell. I too can close my eyes, allow another to handle me.
The artist claimed that his only instructions to the four assistants working with him were to make him dance. Can a limp body dance? A body is a heavy weight. He did not dance. He was carried like a burden; or a sacrifice. Later, the hypnotist said that only those who want to be hypnotised can be hypnotised. And who is that? Everyone who comes to see me.
When the artist returned to consciousness he was light, jovial even. I felt only violence. The act seemed to make apparent a lack. It was invisibility the artist was looking for, or so he told us. He did not achieve it. His assistants were otherwise trained dancers. One dancer said, politely, it was she who felt invisible. If this were true there would be nothing unusual about it; now, it seems, a labour force must necessarily be marginal. It took all four assistants — lean, disciplined — a further two audience members to lift the artist over their heads, christ-like. A sign forbid the use of mobile phones; common in this city in places of reverence, i.e. in nightclubs.
On the train home from the performance, like on any train home, in any modern metropolis, a man entered, asking for money. He was young, limping, in visible crisis. I often note that the response of the first or second person approached dictates the pattern of the entire carriage. But I had no change either.
‘You know, we don’t have much free will,’ a former lover once told me. This is the only conversation of ours I recall. I do not know, now, how or why we were together. It appears evident that we never had anything in common. The only explanation is that this was not apparent, then. As soon as it was over, the relationship seemed distant and impossible. When we talk about desire we talk about something we seemingly have no control of.
Last summer I told a young friend – a student at a Kings Cross Institution who could rarely afford rent, never mind lunch – what a young girl I fleetingly met advised me. Pret has a no chase policy. I know, I used to work there. I told my friend, who told a few more and later it was reported that packs of students were engaging in the eros of quotidian disobedience, hosting bountiful Pret picnics between classes.
Did the anecdote imagine the students out of a set of relations, regulations? Was something revealed about the social construction of reality; after all, who could confirm that it was really true, or still true? In Outline of a Theory of Practice, Pierre Bourideu wrote that the apparently superficial reformation of manners is one of the most powerful methods by which a culture insulates its moral, political and meta-physical hierarchies. I tend to agree, and so it is that I spread this piece of counter factuality.
Grabljivica is a word in my mother tongue used to describe one who takes that which is not theirs; who takes more than their fill. It is used to suggest a vulgarness, a spiritual greed, a decay. This word does not exist in English, a language that assumes that everything is for the taking. Grabljivica literally translates to a bird of prey; but when I think of it I just think of a little girl.
In my Grandma’s favourite story of me I pick all the raspberries from her bush, and I eat them out of my two hands clasped together. My face is tinted red from it, when she tells me to share I say no. No, these are my raspberries. It is worth noting that the word is feminine; I have never heard the male form and I don’t think it exists. One can assume, then, that language considered the impulse feminine.
These are the particulars, I am told: a 19-year-old girl at a redacted rappers concert in Birmingham is approached by his security. She accepts an invitation to the redacted rappers after-party. At the party, she is approached by his associate, who offers to fly her to Toronto. She accepts the invitation once more. She doesn’t turn up to her shift at Top Shop the following day, she doesn’t bother calling. She is moving toward glamour money power; or at least she is moving to a city where they speak with a different accent. Almost the kind you hear on TV, almost exotic for a young girl from a small town, same as a million minor metropolises. Same cafes same bars same people you’ve always known, you stay the same if you stay there for ever, better or worse when you leave but at least there is the possibility of difference.
A kind of horror then to be greeted not by the rapper nor his associate but by multiple young women, just like herself, but with plastic bags over their feet. Redacted rapper is very particular about hygiene, she is told.
She is surprised by her compliance. This is a kind of motion but perhaps it is the wrong one.
3 months go by in the house. The rapper never comes. There is some fraternity between the young women though disappointment and humiliation negate feeling. Her mother works over time to fly her teenage daughter back across the Atlantic.
– So redacted rapper has a teenage harem in his home?
– Well, I wouldn’t put it that way.
The man who tells me the story about the girl and the rapper doesn’t find it sad, he seems amused by my reaction. The next story he tells me is of a redacted Hollywood actor walking into a hotel room where another girl from Birmingham awaits him. He has headphones in his ear, he doesn’t say a word, he does not touch the young woman except to place her body into position. He thrusts a few times, he walks out of the room. According to her Non Disclosure Agreement nothing at all has happened.
When I was seventeen a man at a pub gave me a copy of Lolita. He wrote his phone number in the opening page. Lolita is a novel about a serial paedophile who competes with another man for the attention of an only just pubescent girl. The full horror of the novel is in the glimpse we receive of an ever greater, wider and more depraved world existing as it were elsewhere but also always right among us. The fact that these men are perceived as sophisticated enough to impress the towns they temporarily inhabit does not make their desires less violent, or the lengths they go to satisfy them less monstrous – quite the reverse.
When I was seventeen I did not call the man who carried copies of Lolita, I was neither charmed nor surprised, I thought the gesture pathetic, but not unusual. I was sat at a pub across the road from American Apparel.
I would leave this town, but I would meet this man all over.
When Yugoslavia fell – which is a polite way to describe what happened when genocidal regimes were elected or designed, depending on how you view things – my grandmother found god. Because of her own kindness and her training, as a woman and as a mother, she could not become what the time favoured. She did not profit, she did not plunder. She suffered for this; her morality was not in keeping with her host country either.
She became a vegetarian not long after she began praying. What the UNHCR labelled beef, the population claimed was cat food. Later it was noted as pork. The population did not eat that either.
In the winter before that summer, when I first moved to London – a city I could not afford, a city made up of strangers and exactly three acquaintances – I spent my days walking, and composing minor studies of my new surroundings. One particular study involved the Camden Bench. A bench in name only, it was designed to slope in a manner that made it uncomfortable to sit on and impossible to lie down on. Built in a cold concrete, it was an object diametrically opposed to its alleged intentionality. It was, in short, the perfect assassin of public space – it allowed the Camden council to spend public money on architecture designed to intimidate and cower. This reversal of public space through duplicitous means was thoroughly modern, and something I was familiar with. In my home town of Adelaide, Australia, the council did not declare a war on the homeless. Rather, they replaced all wooden benches with metal ones, in a city so hot on one in summer was to burn immediately. The people said how useless and stupid the council was, how mismanaged, how they lacked foresight. Stupidity can provide excellent cover.
In London, myself and a friend posed as council-workers, asking passer-bys to lie on the bench, fill out a form, and have their photo taken. I thought there was no way to convey the absurdity of a human body upon this structure with language; it had to be expressed in some other form. I was wrong; some feelings defy representation.
Somewhere around this time that I began following a trial. The Metropolitan Police Service was deporting European rough sleepers to their home countries. It is reasonable to assume that the officers understood they were defying European law when they did so; their defiance suggested a deeper antagonism.
On the first day, I entered the court room in a leopard print coat I had bought on Depop – millennial eBay – over layered Uniqlo Heat Tech sweaters (black, dark grey, ice grey, like London) my sister had left me. Entering late and flustered, I sat in the enemies quarters; which is to say I sat on the side of the home secretary. An older man in a suit – a lawyer, I presumed – turned around to wink at me. I had broken a code by entering the court, as an observer, and as a woman in a leopard print coat, as the wink reminded me. Animal print was vulgar in the gilded topography; but I had no other clothes, so on the second day, I remained so.
The judge ruled against the home office, but we were already in the No Mans Land of Brexit. European law had had its day, and its day was short. The ruling would apply for as long as it took Britain to leave the Union – a period both long and short.
Recently, I’ve been waking up in a kind of temporary amnesia. I don’t remember what room I’m in; what house, what country. I don’t know where the door is – whether the bed I lay on faces the window. It feels warm and I forget that the warmth is artificial; I forget that I now live in the cold. I feel confused and the ground shakes.
I caution myself against panic. I go through the details.
At Loudon in 1632, the Ursuline nun Sister Clara ‘fell into strange convulsions… exposing her person in the most indecent manner, without a blush and with foul and lascivious expressions and actions.’ Sister Clara was possessed, it was said, as was her whole convent. Loudon had recently suffered from an outbreak of the plague; a sense of unreality sets into any place and psyche following death and violence.
When mental illness is feminised, it is often depicted as tepid and lifeless. What if madness were a communication – a way to give form to that which we cannot say?
And what couldn’t they say. That they were fucking the priest, among other things.