It's my wedding day. I'm dripping with glamour. I'm iced to the gills. I'm sucked in at the middle and powdered on the breast. My hair wouldn't move in a wind tunnel. My nails wouldn't crack under a toffee hammer. My eyelashes are longer than any desert-dweller's. I can hardly breathe, I'm dead around the eyes and my left hand keeps itching like a bug lives under the skin.
All of that saying “yes” was never a good idea. All that business. All that fear of the embarrassment. Imagine what those lip-biting people in a quaint little faux-Mediterranean eatery would have thought if when I looked at his bleeding tears begging face, down on his knees, catalogue ring shoved between me and my stuffed mushroom trout, I'd yelled “This is the stupidest fucking question you ever asked me.” They would have pushed me in to the kitchen and set fire to it. He looked that pathetic and hopeful and full of comedy, pushing love. I was pressured in to saying “yes”, by them; those people I would never see again and by my own sense of pity and shame.
They all stopped to see him grind the gold-plating on to my finger. When I picked up my fork to continue with my fish, they were still applauding. He had poured himself back in to his chair and was glowing at me, a setting sun on the horizon through a curtain of candlelight. I looked at him with a mouthful of grilled fungus and that's when the itching started. A twitch at first, only ticking away at the useless end of the cutlery. I only swiped at it, brushing the irritation away. And I smiled at him, knowing well that a bit of rocket leaf hung from my teeth. I hoped this might induce him to snatch back his proposal, but no, far away in the dim recesses of his loving soul, he had married me already and for better or for worse was the now the order. And indeed the worse was upon us as he beamed and reached for my mouth, trying to pick the criminal salad from my smile. And I let him. My kidneys rang with shivers as I realised the marriage fans still watched us and sighed at how trusting and comfortable we were. God, what an awful night.
And now that night has been bettered in terms of crass humiliation and insipid loving stares. It has been eighteen months since that night. For eighteen months, I have been the only bride-to-be who has tried to put on unflattering amounts of weight. I stuff hamburgers and cakes, sometimes both at once in to my crazed gullet and force peristaltic waves with banana milk from local supermarkets. I am doing everything but melting chocolate and taking it intravenously and I am actually losing weight. I have been since this stupid business began. My recommendation at this point is to ladies who join the weight loss clubs – don't bother. And don't bother with aerobics either. Just get engaged to someone when every capillary inside you screams that it's a shit idea. He thinks I have been starving myself and has warned me, as if I care, that my ever-decreasing body mass is unhealthy. He doesn't want to see tendons and blades. In which case, I'm sort of pleased that now I have got this lousy dress on that he will be able to see my collar bone from the altar.
There's a bridesmaid hovering close to me. She's married already and she tells me that she and others have been waiting for my big day for a lot of years. It matters not that marriage has been a slow crawl through a muddy cave for her. She thinks this is what I want. A name at last. A bit of security. I want to tell her that I was born with a name, one that is my own. I don't want to borrow one. She says that it's all finally come true for me, that the biggest day of my life is finally here. Meaning that life gets smaller after marriage. In her case, this is true. Later today she will be watching her husband drink the free-bar to a crumb and stand next to my sixteen-year-old cousin, trying to smell her skin. After that she will not say anything, because if she does, he will explain to her in concrete etching that she is wrong and he is right, because she is an idiot and he is slumming it.
I won't ever suffer that sort of talk. The husband I am about to have would never fling it at me. I know that., but it doesn't matter to the bridesmaids and the mothers of this world though. A crappy husband is better than colliding with forty years of age with the name that you were born with. The name that is your own. I like my name.
The bridesmaid notices a strand of eyebrow that wings out of place. No room for imperfection today. She rustles off to find some tweezers and I am left alone, staring at my own reflection. She is all so white, this doll in the mirror. Everything is white. Skin white, probably through sheer horror. The dress is all white as if purity was something I even knew how to pronounce. And there is white, pearly jewellery dancing from my ears and around my neck. I don't remember choosing all this stuff. It doesn't seem like me. The lips are red though. A flowering pout in all this pillow-case blandness. I look like a Disney villain. I think the idea was that it's supposed to be regal and crystalline-delicate. I think chalkiness is fairly unsuitable for someone bursting with never-ending love. It suits me perefectly.
The bridesmaid is back, sighing from behind me at how beautiful I look. Her bare, serpent arm, needle-nose pliers in hand (the tweezers are AWOL) squirms over my shoulder, nearing my eyebrow and I fight the urge to seize her forearm and pull so that her solar plexus sits perfectly behind my bony elbow. I wonder if I could bring it back hard enough to wind this woman so she doesn't talk for a while. She is supposed to be my friend. They all seemed to pile in to this idea, all of them squashed in shouting directions as if they were in a mini driven by a fool in a white dress.
No one knows that I don't want to be here. I have smiled in all the right places and turned all the right corners and still I don't know how I got here. Maybe all the pearls have cut off the circulation to my bride's brain. My face may turn grey, peel away the swan-feather pallor and turn ashy, dirty and my head may fall off. He couldn't marry me if I had no head. They wouldn't say I looked pretty with no head. I would feel a lot prettier. Nobody knows that I want to keep my name and want to live by myself. Nobody knows that I want to go and sit in the mud in this frilled up nightmare. Nobody knows that I just don't want to be married. It's not even him. I just don't want to be married. The only awareness of this other than the growing green pool in my mind is the ratty, agonising tickle in my hand. It got worse you see.
That night, the night of my engagement, it began. Just a whisper, but it started to burn. When I took the ring off, later that night in distaste – thrown at my bedside table, I saw a thin white band around my finger, like a scar. I scrubbed it with disinfectant and it calmed down. I left the ring until three days later when I went for a sushi lunch with my misintended. I put it back on so he could look about him proudly with a “we're grown-ups” expression. And any other times I saw him, which I kept to a minimum, I wore this glittering magpie-fodder and he would pick my hand up and kiss it as if I were Papally heightened. Every time he did that, the skin beneath would almost bubble.
One day, he took me to his parents and I wore the ring. I offered to wash up merely so I could take the bloody thing off and dump it on the tiles. Whilst I scraped clingy remnants of a gateau from cool blue plates, my mother-in-law to be stood, leaning in the doorway chatting about that one great big day. I struggled to keep my left hand below the bubble line as by that point, the line around my bare finger had become an ugly red-brown stripe that lessened the longer the ring remained on the dresser. She chattered, carrion-feeder constant about flowers and photos and grew teary-eyed as she mentioned her own wedding. I munched on a giggle as I wondered how she could be nostalgic about the day that manacled her to the vicious cretin who sat in the living room barely communicating with his son. He didn't even speak to her on a good day. He was non-moving, non-speaking, but he did give her another name. The one I would have.
So in the last hours of having my own name, I stand and look at myself. Me as I know me now is not the real me and will never be me again. I am bride, I will be Mrs whatever-his-name-is. Bridesmaid has pulled out my stray eyebrow whilst I have been thinking and everything looks perfect to her now. She keeps asking me if I am nervous and wishes me the best of luck. What luck do I need to do a bit of walking and nodding? The worst thing in the world would no doubt be my falling over this stupidly long dress and crushing my explosive bouquet beneath my uplifted tits. I would never recover from such a tragedy, surely. They would feel so sorry for me, even the groom, but he would have to think twice about marrying me after I'd made such a catastrophic fuck-up. I'm considering sawing one of the heels down on one of the satin slippery excuse for shoes I wore. I'd have to wait until she was gone. Off to the venue in the bridesmaid's car. They have their own car. And I have one of my own. Me and my Dad with his name. My name. It'll be a different car for the new name I guess.
She is still here, sipping bubbling orange out of a plastic flute and generally being pink all over. Another one in matching garb comes in to the room and they squeal at each other a bit. She is married too and I can see the golden sparkle through their little lace gloves. They clap their hands together, gazing in to each other's eyes as if they were the happy couple, then they turn to me as if I am a paid photographer. Both are brimming with foolish emotion and both, though one is fair and one is dark, both look exactly the same. Wild, overwhelming terror grips my bouquet and throws it in to a sea of snapdragons as I realise I shall look just like them in a few hours. The itch in my hand has become insane and I am rubbing the flat of it against the rough tongue of my veil.
They talk of magic time and go chirruping off down the stairs. Their butterflies are gigantic man-eating (woman-eating) moths. They flutter in to a shiny car and wrap the door around them. I haven't moved but I can see the car pull away with dignity and menace. And I am back to looking at myself in the glass. There is no chance to stare for much longer because my father is looking at me with a resigned smile. I want to tell him that I don't want to get in to the car, but the words have turned to confetti in my throat. My hand spasms though and throws down the bouquet. It lands at my feet and one of the white white roses loses its head. Now my hand feels scalding all over and vibrates as I try to shake away the pain.
My Dad is smiling. Poor worn-out Dad. My mother would be at the church already, wearing a garish hat made of pasted roses and a look of dismay. It wouldn't be good enough for her, I'm sure, even though she had the biggest hand in arranging it all. Nothing is ever good enough for her. Always someone has lifted the tray of teacakes just out of her reach as far as she is concerned. She never quite gets to have her marshmallow chocolate and eat it.
Dad picks up the bouquet and puts it back in my china hands. Its feels very heavy and the itch is blistering to beyond tolerable. I think that in a minute, I will start screaming and Dad will make me sit with a glass of water. He won't make a fuss, he never does. I haven't started screaming yet, but I am keen to excuse myself and be alone properly. He warns me that I have less than five minutes. I feel like I have had less than five minutes since the whole sorry mess started in the restaurant. I should have known that it was coming then. In a way I did, but like a pigeon in the road, I sat and stared at the oncoming splattering.
I pick up the hem of the dress and gather it all in two hands, holding it all above my knees as I take a step of the staircase one at a time. My father follows and utters something sad and beautiful before he wanders out of the front door, heading to the waiting car. He leaves the front door open.
I go and stand in my mother's kitchen and run my burning hand under the cold tap. I lose feeling in it as the water fills it with colder blood. I can see my father sitting, head bowed in ancient thoughts, slumped in the back seat of the car. He has a spray of lily-of-the-valley jumping from his lapel. My mother will be straightening it as soon as he takes his assigned place in the pew, not affectionately. He looks miserable and saggy. And yet he got to keep his name.
I keep running the water and watch the continual splashing. In every drop of bouncing fluid, I see a tiny reflection of an unhappy bride. It's probably not even possible to see such a thing, but I see it anyway. I can see it coming, all of it, years and days and comings and goings and all of it the same because all of it will belong to someone else. Not to the waiting groom. His days will be the same. Our lives will belong to marriage and not to us, not even to each other. I'm not going to cry.
Dad must have done the washing up last night because the knives and forks point upward in the rack and my mother will berate him when she notices. There aren't just mundane eating implements. There are big, exciting serrated edges in my mother's kitchen. An old-school cook with antiquated aids. Sharpened, glistening silver and big powerful wooden handles that can give you splinters. An enormous chopping board of thick, wood lounges at an angle by the sink.
The horn sounds painfully loudly and I'm startled from my cloud of dizzy nausea. My steps toward the front door are timid and wobbling and I could go right down at any time, but I feel so happy now. I can get married now. I hold the bouquet in my right hand, in front of me and walk like a bride should down the garden path.
My father is scrabbling at the inside of the car door and shouting, but I cant hear a thing. I just smile back at him as my legs threaten to buckle with each coming footfall. I have used a tea towel to wrap around my forearm, but it hasn't stopped the flow to much effect and my dress is now a brand new colour. Drips are already drying on my face
My father pushes the door open in time for me to fall in to the car and he slides backwards in horror. I am face-down on the white white leather turning red red and I am aware that the driver is screaming. Like I wanted to. But I am not. It's trumpeting out of me now, turning everything a living shade. And I am gasping for some air. My laughter doesn't help. Seems to require more oxygen. My right hand reaches for my father and I wave in the direction of the house.
“I'm ready now, Daddy. It's all behind me.” I say, losing focus. “I can say it. Listen: 'I do'. Good huh?”
I am now set to go. Happy, blissful and definitely blushing bride. It was only my hand that disagreed with them all, after all. Dumb, itchy hand. Unfortunate ( I feel very sleepy), unfortunate that he will have nowhere to put his new ring.
So I sat there on my time and a half minutes. I sat in garish light and cool colours waiting for the night to end and the year to begin. It was misery, but there was nothing else to do. I thought to myself, I thought, that if I were to be doing nothing on this night when everyone does something, that I might as well be paid for it. And my little strings of hope that told me I would be appreciated for this in the long run had not yet been gurgled down by festive cynicism.
Yeah, so what I was alone. Not everybody had the thrill of a jazz mag hidden under his paranoid little desk that night. Not just anyone could knock one out and chase the thrill of moving just so, so that the CCTV couldn’t catch them, not that night. And no one else, or very few other people had the smug knowledge that they had wiped their own winding evidence over the kit kats they would later serve to the stoners who thought it was dead funny to ask for “reality” in the deathly birth cries of the New Year. No one else had my seat and no one else wanted it. I just had to find ways to make myself feel better.
It wasn’t that I had no friends, I guess. It was that I hated all of them. And I felt my fingers growing thinner every day and somehow this made me not want to be seen in a social situation. You won’t understand. You’re not all like me. You wouldn’t give up the chimes and the flares and the foghorns for a caked little window with a grille, now would you? I would. I didn’t want it anymore. I was nauseous with tradition. I’d had it crawling all over me for the last ten days. I’d been paralysed pissed all over the holiday season, alone, with people, alone with people and so on and so on. I loved, I hated, I felt used, vindicated. I was lover extraordinaire, I was wishing I was dead. Christmas as usual.
So, how did it start, that night when you were vomiting in to the party hat offence and drooling on the one you wanted for 364 days before? For me, it started with a “thank you”. Most New Year’s end with “thank you”.
1. “Thank you, Mr Taxi Driver…ahahahahahaha”
2. “Thank you for taking me home”
3. “Thank you for letting me take you home”
4. “Thank you for holding my hair”
5. “Thank you, but no Thank you”
You recognise all of the above. I know you do. But mine started with “Thank you”. Mr Tinhat of Fool Street gave me the keys, all of the bellowing keys spooled in to my hand and said “Thank you” as he left the forecourt. He even turned and waved and mouthed it as he got in to his car and pleasantly pissed off. His garage it was. He knew he’d get some local chimp to serve his crap throughout the night and I was that gormless body. No petrol of course. Who’d be driving? But those cute little muffins wearing nothing in the bitter winds of the south coast would stagger across the open light to get their fags at my hatch. There was a pub just across the road. They’d wander up from there. He knew they would. And he’d give me just a little extra cash and I wasn’t doing anything anyway. He knew that too.
So, “Thank you” was how it began. And nothing happened for an hour. Except my quasi-expensive self-abuse that shimmied me up to nine o’clock. Then there was some noise across the road. I hovered myself in to the corner of the hatch pressing my right eye to the metal slats and chewing some vinegary crisps. There was a fight happening. Excellent. Now whoever said that working on a night like this would be boring huh? Some shorn meatburger was just shoving a smaller guy. Now why do they do that? They never seem to punch do they? Just do a lot of enthusiastic shoving and shouting of course. I heard many “YEAH? YEAH? YEAHS?” and I felt my nose grow cold and start stinging as I pushed my face harder to the view. Then the mother of all things. The little guy in his happy basket of abuse leapt and smacked the guy down. Beautifully done and I heard myself applaud and whistle. I could even make out a black peacock feather sprayed on to the wall of the boozer and could just about hear the wet cackle as the ape hit the ground. If nothing else happened on that night, I could have always just been happy about that.
The little guy was suddenly guilty of a lot of cuff straightening and I had to look away, realising that gobbets of crisp were lodged in the grille. Initially making me pissed that I would have to clean the bloody thing, I then realised, I would have to clean the bloody thing. I would have something to do. So, woollenly intoxicated by my recent sight, I unwrapped a brand new, pink toothbrush from the shelf and gave the old girl a good going over. She came back black and I realised Mr Cracknut would bollock me the next for this little indiscretion. I hid the toothbrush in my solemn backpack along with the rumpled girl-littered pages and half a bag of maltesers.
We had a little stereo in the kiosk and it was only when I looked at it on the shelf that I knew the silence. It was easy to turn it on. So I did. And there was noise. Noise like you don’t want to hear. Not like a man’s head cracking on a newsprint pavement. But I kept it. Maybe the tradition of noise was wanting to reclaim my sad act night. There were girls singing on the radio about someone they loved. There were at least five girls singing and I wondered if they all loved the same person or if they all loved each other. That thought kept me going until the end of the bile-swelling song. And then I heard a man’s voice telling me I only had two and a half hours to go. I thought about how he would know that. I thought if he really knew I only had two and half hours left, that he would come and see me. Then there were some sleighbells.
“Ching, ching, ching-ching” I sang to them as I ferreted a Christmas hat out from the box under the desk and dumped it on my stupid head.
“La la-la la la ho ho ho” I sang swaying my head towards the window to see if could see any more. There were blue lights now and the little guy was looking so smug that his protesting of innocence was something of a pointless process. I thought he caught my eye for a second. And for an even briefer time as they shoehorned his arms in to manacles, I thought I saw a wink. And I winked back.
Ten o’clock. I wished the night would go faster and I wished I had a customer. I felt even more useless without customers than I would sitting in the back of a bar hiding from the girls and drinking to smother my inadequacies. I tapped my skinny, god they were skinny fingers and sung to The Big O on the radio, laced up by his voice. Now there was a man who must have known love. Could you sing like that without love and purpose? It was my excuse anyway. Never try anything creative unless you have love and purpose. That was my motto. And it sucked. Because I had neither and I had no creativity and no inclination. But damnnit, I had chocolate in all its many colours balanced all around me. I had enough fags to line the walls of the fallout shelter, although I hope you realise that you cant smoke in a petrol station so you should feel even sorrier for me now.
Then, the first one came and it was a man. He was one of the goons who gathered underneath the heady mixture of violence and scotch to watch the main attraction .
He came over to the window, tripping over his own floppy shoes and scratching his eyeball. I braced myself expectantly and even gave myself a smile….my first seasonal gift. Now I wasn’t that young, but..
“All right, Son. ‘Ow’s it going?” Molecular man said to me. I just looked at him. My eyes were grey and confused people. Pissed people were a popular target. He tried again.
“Mush, ‘ow are you?”
“What can I do for you this evening, Sir?”
“Silk Cut, if you have them.”
Course I had them. I think the “sir” confused him more than my eyes did. Plus I’m not sure he knew if I was a boy or a girl. Oh he did call me “Son”, didn’t he? Yes, he knew. And Silk Cut, Jesus. If you are going to give yourself leg amputations and death masks, do it with some class for fuck’s sake. Or just go to Leeds.
I fingered some mushy air sticks off the rack for him and asked for the money. Quite a lot of money as it happens. Do you think we just rip you guys off for juice? Or charging you to go the cesspool we call the gents? He whistled at the mention of lowly pounds and pence and started slowly, very slowly to clamber through his coat. As he did so, he changed the topic from that of coin.
“D’you see that over there? Did you?”
“Bugger me, never saw that one comin’. I fought I’d see that midget take a pasting…..one, two, two-fifty….so you know obviously, you gotta go look aintcha? Human Natcha.”
I wondered what he could possibly know about human natcha. But he seemed to. Maybe his bluesy eyes knew the secrets of life and death whilst I was walled up in cans of overpriced fizzy belch cans.
“Did they arrest him?” I asked casually, knowing the wink and the answer.
“They took ‘im away.”
He had piled some change and bus tickets on to the counter and some of it was wet. I found myself looking at the sky which was fuzzy with unfortunate cloud.
“So, this is a bit shit, innit?” He looked at me with some degree of sopping clarity.
“What is? The Mi-, the bloke being arrested?”
“No, you, YOU!” He gibbered a finger at my slatted face just in case I didn’t know who he meant. “You’re doing err…this”
“Yeh, what the chuff is that all about.” It wasn’t a question. “Tell you if I was your boss, you’d be over the pub with us. Tell me where he is and I’ll tell ‘im”
“He’s at home, I think” I said hoisting an eyebrow and looking my most macho sophisticated whilst accepting globulous payment from a piss artist. There was a seashell in the handful he gave me, but I didn’t mention it. The right money was there at least. On receiving his cigarettes, he seemed to forget my plight and wandered away, meandering in the thunderous end. Although I thought I heard him say as he shook his head..
“Tell you, if I was ‘is boss”. And I watched him go as he seemed to dive horizontally back in to the pub.
I spent the next half hour counting how many girls had gone in to the pub wearing pink. Why do they all wear pink on New Year? As if you are going to forget they are girls when their boobs are pushed to breaking point in to the air. They all went for the cutesy thing on that night. I wished that I found them interesting. I wished I had something in common with them. But cutesy, sweet and darling was nowhere near what I wanted out of, well anything really. I’m not sure I wanted anything out of anything. Oh yes, love and purpose and we are back to that so soon are we? I think I was getting philosophical. You can’t help it when Tommy Boytoy is raving in your ear about making next year a great one and kissing that special someone at midnight. I wanted to switch the radio off, but I knew it would mean making noise myself and my throat was hurting from not smoking. I left it on.
And then, salavation. A customer. I know, another one. And it was only ten to eleven now. Ten to ten to ten to, my mind clicked with her heels as she arms-folded skittered in to my kingdom. Covered in fluff and spangles and lipgloss and not that drunk and not that eighteen either. And hallo, princess, I’m sure Daddy got you a pony. I giggled to myself and shook my head at the impropriety. I could see them coming from so far away. So very far away and they always went back there.
“Sumfing funnay?” The child whinnied at me.
“How can I help you?” My tone was bore hummish, but I was looking. Human natcha innit?
“I need a big bag of sweets, we’re playin’ pass the juicy fruit”
Now what does one say to that?
“Ok, anything specific?”
“Spasss? What? Just anything, as long as it’s big enough to pass around.”
Oh yeh? And how do 17-year-old girls get to do innuendoes these days? In my day, which was only 7 or 8 years ago, they just giggled and sat in the corner, much like me. I’m sure once upon a time I was romantic and tousled. Now I’m just sour like the crappy sweets I plan on giving this nauseating bloomer. That’ll make her nice and unpopular with the other kids.
“Here we are.” I said and splashed a big bag of suck your face in sugars at her. She touched my fingers as she fingered the plastic bag away from me.
“Hmm,” she turned the bag over in her underaged hands and I knew she had taken no notice of what they were. She handed me a whole pound. “Aren’t your fingers thin?” She said, turning in a swish of bouncy hair and sparkles, not waiting for her change.
Yeh, look, I thought, raising the middle one at her as she trotted off across the road. Alcopops are the work of the devil. Or the dirty old man. It’s hard not to look. It’s just, you know, some of us have the good minty fresh grace not to touch and if we do, then we apologise like giants who trod on the model village. And touching with skinny fingers, well, who even knows you’ve done it?
It was coming now. That moment that everyone all over the world waits for. Even though it happens at different times as you pop countries. There could have been so much beauty in the world right at that moment and people were choosing to gather in sweaty bands on the street in open skips poking each other to remember the words of some song that pre-dates the alcopop. What do they really care about, these people? Are they wanting to bond? Are they hoping to make the crash that will enable them to live through the rest of the year? I have never known. It’s not just another date like some people say. It isn’t. There is something special that happens. And I know that even from my pit of jade. You know, you could feel lonely on New Year, but think of me. I’m the loneliest of the lonely. Not even The Big O can touch me.
But I’m still living and that night I was still working. I saw the shivers eeking themselves out on to the street in front of the pub, glowing slugs in their trembling hands. And I saw couples together. Families even. It was gruesome. I told myself that I was jealous and confused. I think I was. It was so cold and I kicked my fan heater to blast and stared dully at them all as they smiled and froze. I looked at the lit and empty station with its pumps standing advertising. I looked at the little criss cross barriers that blocked cars from coming in, but like I say, who would be driving right? I looked at the barriers and I realised I had put them there and that I had done that every day for many years of my life and I looked back to the green glow of happiness holding itself together and holding each others hands.
I always saw them coming, but I didn’t see her. I heard someone yell “TEN!” and I realised that I was not alone. She was there in a big wholesome coat and startled hair. She looked at me through the grille and I looked back at her.
Then they all yelled “NINE!”
I had always thought and mused and self-sympathised on myself being the loneliest person in the whole world and when I saw a huddled heap of woman standing at my window, I knew I had elevated myself to a level I could not possibly attain whilst this person existed. She had grey eyes too and they were beaten and broken and collapsed.
“EIGHT!” It was louder now and they were almost screaming. There was laughter in there too. Why did they have to be so frickin' happy? Why couldn’t they all just go and live in Narnia? I could hear them wheedling away at the big night, but I didn’t see them anymore. She stood in the way. And she was holding herself like all the other girls did, her arms wrapped right around herself in the big coat, but at least they had the right to be cold in their Winter bikinis.
I couldn’t even ask what she wanted.
“SEVEN!” There was so much urgency now, I could feel them wanting to yell about six before a second had elapsed. So much tinsel pleasure. So much plastic joy. So much love and purpose. No it wasn’t love and purpose. That over there that I had avoided for so many years could not be the thing I was wanting. It just couldn’t be. I still stared back at this girl and I knew my mouth had fallen embarrassingly open. If all the stoners in all the world had come and asked me for “reality” at that moment, I could have given them her. There was reality like a wet leaf in the middle of Bing Crosby’s whites.
“SIX!” Someone had gotten carried away and shouted five at this point. And someone had dropped their trousers. I knew this because I could hear the aching screams of the old dear who celebrated with sherry.
I still looked at her and watched her fall apart on the forecourt. It was a dreadful physical sensation. I hadn’t felt the open wetness of the man splitting his head or felt the fumes off the money counting drunkard or joined in the excitement of a little girl and the impending craze of her first beardy kiss. But I felt this girl and she felt me, through a grille, through midnight.
“FIVE!” Some people had stopped shouting and started kissing. And at this point, the lonely girl put her gloved hand flat on the window next to my face. And I saw quartz in her paintless face. Time ticking by, all life not flashing, sidling away.
“FOUR!” They were too excited by now and the numbers were coming quicker and quicker and quicker and I didn’t know what was going on.
“THREE!” I felt tickers stream and unspool in my head and glasses chink and unbearable noise, always this unbearable noise and just her hand flat on the window. Her bottom lip was shaking and looked like it had been bitten.
“TWO!” Two.Why always this number? Like being two people will help you get through life. Or a moment. Or a midnight.
“ONE!” HAPPY NEW YEAR!!” And they all screamed like breakage.
Her hand was still on the window and she breathed so that the glass steamed up. Her other hand rabidly hit it a second later undoing her breath. She smeared away the fog and looked at me again.
“I wanted,” She said through the grille “To speak to someone at midnight.”
I didn’t speak. I just looked.
She took her gloves off and slid them under the window to me.
“Love and purpose,” she said. “Hide your hands”.
And she went away. Her hair didn’t bounce. It sagged with her dragging heart and she was gone and I didn’t know in which direction.
“And you won’t feel a thing.” He lathered. “Not a thing.”
I was one of the first to have the operation. I have a scar six inches long which, far from being ugly and a source of ridicule, makes me a minor celebrity. I wear shirts missing the top buttons to show the fat white centipede that crawls down my cleavage. People stare at it all the time and even though they are still nervous because they haven't had the surgery, for a minute they can see what it would be like to own one of these markings and they can see what it would be like to realise peace when they finally raise their eyes to my placid, flat smile.
Not everyone can afford this procedure though and so their situation is much like mine was a few years back. I was an hysteric a while ago and now I find it difficult to care about anything. Complete bliss. I'm extraordinarily lucky to be like this, you see, most other people are in a complete state of panic for their entire lives. The world threw itself a great big hissy fit and it still hasn't calmed down. The only way to calm it down is to take away the source of the panic hence the operation.
Hysteria took hold in the mid twenty-first century and nobody is quite sure how it came about. There are several theories concerning the origins. If you ask me, it was a long time in the coming. People in offices using the internet all day and having “YOU ARE A WINNER!!” screamed at them in assaulting green and red stripes. Gutter press headlines bawling “THOUSANDS DEAD!”. Coffee by the gallon. The threat of disease and going to hospital and getting a NEW disease from the unclean sheets. The threat of attack by hooded vipers in the street. The threat of sandwich bags full of explosion. Men with beards, Mugging, car accident, hurricane, virus, computer virus, faster faster, cycle-by shootings, more more, repossessions, colours, neon, bullying, phone ringing, dance music from the neighbours, pound, pound, POUND, paedophiles moving in to the attic, overindulgence, glass in sweets, crash smash, wallop, PANIC!!
You might think that people who avoided technology and newspapers would be safe, but Hysteria proved to be contagious. A housewife who abstained from the trappings of modern day life could only go so long before her husband or kids returned from daily life wide-eyed and shivering. It would panic the caring mother so much to see her child that she would never come back from that terrified state herself. Mainly though, Hysteria just became. It wasn't an evolution. It just became.
The average heart rate for a resting human rose to over 110 beats per minute and got worse every year. Seatbelts were introduced to armchairs to remind people that they should relax and it didn't do any good. I myself used to clip and unclip the catch until the sound panicked me even more and I would have to get up and pace the room. Every person had the same look, that of two-week-old kitten – the surprised speedfreak look. The streets became slightly dead as everyone peered through their curtains, horrified by the prospect of tabloid promise. Newsreaders were taking so many drugs to steady their hands that two died of opiate overdose during a live broadcast, a smug, serene grin passing over them as they were stretchered away.
The hysterical state of the nation had spread by plane, train and automobile to around the world. The panic surrounding foot and mouth and bird flu had a lot faster wings than the actual infections. The worry over gun crime shot across the world faster than a bullet. The world was permanently illuminated because everyone was afraid of what might happen when you turned the light off.
Of course it wasn't all bad. Obesity was practically eliminated. When people could find the stomach to ingest something and hold it down, it was burnt off immediately by the strange mince that we all developed to keep us constantly moving. A lot more work got done in the world. Well of course it did, no one slept and everyone was so scared of what might happen if we didn't do the work. The sensationalist newspapers were abolished which so many had wanted for so long, but it didn't do much good. They had already done their damage and the eeky writers we had call come to hate had nothing to do, but go home and panic.
Unfortunately though, the suicide rate did rocket out of all recognition. Not that anyone went on country walks anymore, but the country park up the road from where I lived was like a macabre Christmas tree decorated with the breezing, noosed bodies of the hopeless. Then the car park had filled up because people had driven there, seen the bodies hanging, panicked some more about what that might feel like and gassed themselves in the cars.
Hysteria did have a balancing effect on some people though. They were scared enough to want to die, but so scared of death that they struggled on. I was one of those. I tapped and tickered my way through ghastly days and flickering nights, my ribs rising ever closer to the surface and scratch marks littering my skin. I'd had money, the result of a high flying career in management consultancy before people gave up all hope on managing, before Hysteria throttled the nation and there was no one to take it from me. It sat unused and waiting for a good cause.
The curing procedure was dismissed at first as a hoax. How could one live? However without scorcher writers to label scientists with boffiny put-downs, it wasn't long before the possibility became a real one. Weeks after the first tentative mentions, I knew I had to go through with it or drive off Beachy Head.
I sat in a stuffed leather office with a remarkably calm, white-coated man. He was reassuring and
reclining and oily and obsequious and I longed to be him. He showed me his scar.
“All that fear gone” He treacled. “We can take it all away and you'll be normal again. Remember what it felt like to sleep? To eat? To walk in the rain? To walk in the street?”
“I don't remember.” I spittered.
“Yes you do.” He smarmed. “And you want to have it all back.”
I knew from the way he was talking that I was going to have to sign over a massive amount of money. The thought horrified me, but every thought horrified me.
“One question.” I twitched. “Who performed this operation initially? I mean, how did anyone stop having Hysterics long enough to perform it?”.
“There is an answer, but trust me,” He oozed “And I swear that when you wake up, you really won't give a shit”.
I almost went in to a blind seizure over hearing the doctor use such vulgarities, but I swished a jagged signature on to his form and I tore a cheque from the book, giving him pretty much every pound sign I had ever sweated for.
There's an awful lot of romantic connotations attached to the word “heart”. It is used as a pseudonym for love, for a deep commitment, for the embodiment of the being, when in actual fact, all it is, is a muscle. It's wet, red pump that assists the living process and so it's really not all it's cracked up to be to own one. The cardiectomy was not a hoax. It was a delightful reality.
As soon as I had signed, I felt a sting in my arm and I knew that someone had administered an anesthetic. My mind was shrieking and I started to fight, but gooey unconsciousness swept me in to a cushioned cuddle and from then on, I forgot what it was to feel afraid. I woke up to a world without sirens, without insomnia and without danger.
I don’t understand how it works so don’t ask. Every week, I plug a small rectangular box in to the wall and stand next to it. The doctor and his eyebrows had explained to me that the battery I charge keeps the chip in my chest receiving signals from a worldwide computer network and that all my basic living functions will be as they were before. I really don’t care how it works and I can’t worry about what happens if there is a power cut. I am not just free from the dreaded hysteria, I can’t bring myself to care about those who are still trapped. Sounds heartless, I hear you say? Good.
I myself wouldn't be seen dead with a heart, but then again, I'm not the sort to be seen dead. I'm one of those survivors that you read about. I'm the hero. I'm the hero without the heart.
GOLF BALL HEAD
I'm only my mother's girl right now. I stretch and yawn and I'm patted every morning and I grow a little more eyelid every day. It took more than my mother to make me. It took more than her hostessing skills and my father's casual donations to make me and I know this because I can hear her talking. All of the voices on the outside. She thinks I can't tell. She thinks I'm a fish, a limpid splat with big, black alien snooker balls planted on the sides of my veiny cantaloupe head and she rubs me through tissue and skin when she shouts at him and she braces me from pushing crowds, but nothing can touch me now. I exist. I am fish-alien. I am me and she thinks I am her. In my humble opinion, I am only catching a cluttering bus to my debut.
So today I grow a bit more, roll over and burp. I feel flutters of conversation and giggling disturbing my posture and I can only punch a fingerless stump at the roof of my room. Some people are trying to relax. Oh no, not today, Mother is catching up with her so-called friends. She has been stretching shiny fabric across my outside wall and I can see a turquoise type sheen in the darkness. Lovely colour, Mother. It doesn't suit you one bit, I am sure. She is on high heels. I can feel myself hanging precariously over a shocking two and half foot abyss and she totters under the weight of a glass. I know I will be able to feel the contents of the glass in half an hour or so. Bubbly champagne-flavoured amniotic fluid. It must be a special occasion. Though not that special. Champagne is cheap and even a foetus is able to detect that. Maybe I am too judgemental and feisty when my mother drinks. There may even be a period later where I get all soppy about her and tell her she's my best mate. Thankfully she won't be listening. Good thing too. I'd regret it in the morning.
There's a big, belly laugh and for me that means a spin-cycle. Thanks, Mummy. Glad you are enjoying yourself. I can hear you speak to another woman and she apparently looks beautiful. Insincere womanhood is something in which I will never take part. I'm beautiful, you are not; deal with it. I will be beautiful. I won't be dipping in to too much of my mother's DNA or my father's for that matter. I'll be stealing from the ether and arranging my face and my personality myself. I will not tell other people how great they are when I don't mean it. I can feel my mother's bile building and backing up. Just because she doesn't want to lose face, I have to take an acid bath. The talking woman doesn't seem too beautiful from here. She looks like a mountain from where I'm listing. They do have their set pieces to recite, though, don't they?
There's the voice of the woman. The "beautiful" woman and she is giving my mother a host of congratulating pats, pokes and dripping-fat words. Rising tents all around me and I lash back with all my might. I did not give my permission to be mauled by strangers. And the stranger is seems, takes it personally, in altogether the wrong way. Thinks I am excited to be touched and bombarded with her meaningless words. I even hear her say that "he will be a bruiser". They didn't want to know I was a girl. They thought of themselves and their own surprise when I face them with my gender in a bed of blood and forceps. So my mother doesn't correct her. How could she? My mother knows nothing about me. Not even that I'm pink, not blue.
She's been laughing for a while now and I am starting to feel queasy. The lack of control when being held prisoner is surely the most crawling sensation. Like an aeroplane passenger, like a hostage. Shoved in to a space with God knows what to accompany you and no choice of darkness or light, hot or cold, intelligent conversation or odious giggling. My mother sighs and the tides settle. There is a serious moment in the air, but the other woman doesn't know what it is and starts to move away still holding up a happy hum. My carrier is holding something back. I feel the stale breath shuffling around me. She holds some words under her tongue that only I can hear as the shadow of the bride grows smaller. She wishes her "Good Luck". And it is the crunchiest phrase she has ever uttered. She turns back to the shape of my father and expresses her next wish. To leave.
Later, I wake on a an array of cushioning organs and kick my legs towards the light. My mother has no belly-clothes on now and lies on her back. I am skewered by the shadeless beams above her bed and I hear her chewing complaints about her sickness. Hersickness? Does she regret the cheap champagne? Yes she does. Does she regret the chicken legs melting from the bone in to her gullet and by proxy, in to mine? Yes she does. She doesn't regret it on my behalf. Just on the poor, sweet swimming nausea that she lies in, in her pants, in bed. I will never do this myself. I will never hold a person in my gut and subject it to all the humiliation and the hold-ups. She never thought of me once, not while she was selling off her sweet nothings to the bride and the minglers. She took me to a church without bothering to find out any beliefs I held and she ate the spicy chicken not caring that I would be marinated in orange sauce. She is complaining to my father as he sits hunched next to us. I can see his head bowed and his profile in silhouette as he wilts like a vine. There he is laden with unborn fruit and no one ever asks a question about him anymore. He's not even looking forward to my star entrance. He's waiting for the day when he can run away and forget these nights and days. Be young again. Like I will be. I have sympathy with him even though he's not my biggest fan. I have more care for the comic figures around me than the carrier.
My mother's dark-shaped arm lifts above my head and reaches for the man sitting beside her. Her hand brings something back with her. It's his hand and she places it above my head. Now I can see nothing. I am umbrellaed by parental affection and it's not only smothering, it's blinding. She says to him that they will be happy and that maybe they should do what the slow-dancing shapes did today. That maybe they should stand before a mixture of once-met uncles, corridor colleagues and floppy hats and declare an eternal commitment. My father agrees with a hand pat and a slick drop of enthusiasm that will drain away once he realises that the honeymoon will include me in my human form. She feels a little bit more comfortable now. I can tell because there are less bubbles. She feels like there might be one less thing to worry about. I'm the one to worry about. I'll be out soon, squawking over every degree of change in my surroundings. And I won't even look like her.
Having listened all this time, I knew that the wedding was the last place my mother wanted to be and that my father, clueless as ever was vaguely grumpy about having to wear a tie, but otherwise didn't really care where he was. The wedding today was just another reminder that there is a life planned out for everybody. The talk of a wedding in the future was going to be the sickly realisation that it would never change. The parents and the world and the rules and the armies say that little girls should wear their lipstick, grasp their babies, wear a band that cuts of circulation to the living heart. I knew all that, but I knew as well that my mother was sick with fear about seeing the ring oil its way on to the happy couple's fingers and the lurch was so strong that I was sure that really the man who walked beside my host was not the man who lost his fluids for me. I was sure that the man who did was the man who nodded and smiled at the front of the church. He might be for all I know. For all I know, my mother is in love with the bride. For all I know, my father is in love with all three of them. The problems don't matter because there will be problems whatever. It's surely one of the above, but nobody tells me anything. I am unimportant and am supposedly all-important.
It doesn't matter, it will be difficult to ignore me one day. I won't do what they do. I am a speck of life and I have already learned from their stumbles. I am more than just a bit of her and a bit of him. I am pieced together by mistakes and accidents and educating falls. I have heard them talking, shouting, whistling, bitching and lying. I'm a mixture of all that, poured in to the mold of my choosing and shaken up by insipid wedding bells. I will not fake it. I will not force it. I am me. I am unborn.