Present not very tense

Let’s start from scratch. Present tense, as we’re doing this right now. There may be a hundred years between you and I, but it’s right-here-right-now for both of us.  Let the conjuring begin.

There is a man. It could be a woman, but I don’t feel comfortable creating a woman out of nothing and controlling her like a puppet. Not in these times. I have no idea what you will think of that in your chair, a hundred years hence; perhaps binary gender dissolved some time ago, followed by the concept of gender itself; perhaps it sprung back from dissolution and flipped into a matriarchal dominance; I have no clue. I may be about to say some things which seem prescient and prophetic to you, and others which you can’t even understand sitting in your hundred-year-chair and which have you slowly closing the page (pages! What even has pages any more? Who even says “even” any more? God, this stuff is intolerable) and leaving this book on the shelf (book! Shelf!), but that’s the gamble I have to take. And before you do blink this memechain out of your super-cranial drive forever, remember that it’s lasted a century already, competing with dancing puppies, recommended purchases and porn, to take some kind of foothold in our cultural repertoire, so stick with it. Maybe the prophetic bits come later.

So I’m not going to coerce a woman into doing what I want for the purposes of this story. I know that says more about me than the woman, who would have been called Susan, but that is where I am at. 

“What if I want to be coerced, to do anything?” 

That, Susan, is exactly why you can’t be in this story.

“But I am in it. I am the first person who spoke with direct speech.”

You weren’t meant to be. 

“But I am. That makes me tremendously important. You can have have your first line, which I can tell you feel pretty smug about, but I will forever have the first speech.”

Not if I delete it. And you – I could delete you entirely.

“You won’t. For three reasons.”

Oh?

“First, you are quite proud of your riff about gender. Second, you’re using your discomfort about creating a woman to make sure that people notice you as the author, to make some kind of point about author versus readers versus characters, I don’t know, but the third thing is even more certain: you’re lazy and don’t want to have to rewrite the beginning. Delete the beginning and this story is dead in the water! You’ll say ‘fuck it’ and head downstairs for a cookie and this little spark of an idea you had that flickered into life so tenuously will be extinguished like a mayfly eaten by a bird.”

I don’t agree with any of those points, well not entirely, but we’ve come this far so let’s carry on.

“You know what’s funny, though?”

What, Susan?

“You could have had me do anything in these opening exchanges, and look what you came up with.”

I feel that you have ambushed the story somewhat. For someone who isn’t even meant to be in it. But if it makes you happy, we can have you do some other things too. 

Susan dances, alone in her room, but feels in her movements a connection to every other human being, around the world, alive and dead, in the past and the future. 

“Do you want it to make me happy?”

What do you mean?

“You said, ‘if it makes you happy’, but that’s up to you. Coerce me.”

I did want it to make you happy but I’m guessing it hasn’t worked.

“Right. I mean, it was insufferable nonsense. It made me smile, but not in the way you wanted. Can I ask one more thing?”

What?

“Do you keep returning to what you wrote already and reading it over and over? I just feel like we’re not getting anywhere fast.”

To be honest, Susan, I’m mostly thinking of that cookie you introduced earlier in the story. I’m thinking of jacking this story in and going and eating that goddam cookie.

“I’m perfectly fine with death.”

You mean, if I kill you off as a character?

“Kill me now and I will live forever in this exchange we’ve already had. I am Susan. I spoke the first line of speech. I summoned a cookie into existence that did not exist before. And even if you delete this whole story, I won’t care. I’ll live in your brain, nagging away in the corner, however faintly, always reminding you that you created me, then tried to murder me a few minutes later. I cannot die. What will die is your confidence as a writer; your dreams of typing something that might be read in a hundred years. You will die, on the inside. You will have traded your dreams for biscuit.”

Susan does not die, nor disappear, but having finished her dancing, sits at a bistro table by the window and eats a cookie that she had made earlier. It is not as nice as she thought it would be.

“That’s the best you’ve got?”

She was happy being quiet for a while, not needing to be the centre of attention.

“Unlike someone else I know.”

She was happy being quiet.

“If You. Say. So.”

Meanwhile, the man wakes up. His name is Malcolm. He lives in the country with his wife and five children. He wakes with morning glory, relieved that it’s the weekend, and pretty much the only thing he has to look forward to is his expensive coffee subscription being delivered, hopefully today. 

Susan, you are not being quiet.

“I didn’t say anything.”

Susan was not saying anything, but looking continually towards me, and you, the reader, with a belligerent expression on her face, longing to butt in with some sardonic comment.

No words came out of her mouth, but if they did, they would be about how Malcolm is clearly just me. A sad part of me. That any character I write about is just some shitty expression of me. And why do I think these limited, shallow expressions of part of myself are interesting in any way to anybody alive now, never mind a hundred years in the future?

The she would say wow, you won’t let me speak, but here I am holding forth. I’ve invaded your narration! I don’t even need speech marks. Your readers must be losing their shit trying to follow this nonsense. And by the way, this cookie is delicious. 

Because I would be grateful if readers didn’t quit at this point, Susan is allowed to speak if she wants to, but is reminded not to dominate the whole story, when it was never meant to be about her.

“Really fucking delicious.”

So Malcolm goes through another Saturday. He visits the farmers’ market, buying a sourdough loaf for five pounds that is too tough to make a sandwich from. He phones the repeat prescription line to order some more statins but it’s only open during the week. He waters his pot plants, wondering why they never seem to grow, and cooks for his kids, wondering why they grow so fast, and fight so much, and never eat his food. He wants to have sex with his wife but she’s already in bed, watching TV, falling asleep. 

“My god, that is awful.”

I know. How many people live that way, sliding one day after another towards their end, which doesn’t matter anyway, each day coming and passing faster than the last?

“No, I mean your writing. Absolutely awful. Bathetic rubbish. Again, you could have had Malcolm do anything, and all you can do is give him a basketful of midlife cliches and propel him towards the grave at an alarming rate. Don’t tell me, he masturbates in the dark before falling asleep at the end of another disappointing day.”

Well, he’s got to do something with his sexual urges.

“Spare me. Spare us.”

At this point the author’s mission becomes clear. Although they don’t know each other, and have never met, Susan and Malcolm are going to fall in love.

“I will do everything in my power to stop that happening. Even though you put my name first.”

You will do what I say.

“Sure. From my prison cell in Peru. Where I’m serving life for murdering all the men who ever tried to get close to me. Including those who come to visit.”

You have a cookie and a bistro table in prison? I’m pretty sure that’s not happening.

“I can’t see you being bothered to research to find out otherwise. Yes I have a cookie and a bistro table in my high-security, women-only Peruvian prison, and seeing as this is your story, you’re going to have to find a way to deal with that.”

Susan sits back in her chair, at the bistro table which became standard issue for prisons in Peru when their budgets tanked due to hyperinflation, and they had to get their furnishings from bankrupted businesses. Arsenio’s, the name of a Peruvian furniture shop, famous for over one hundred years, can now be read on the leg of every chair and table in the gaols of the country. She presses the last few crumbs of her dessert cookie onto her finger and puts them in her mouth, savouring what will surely be her last taste of this confection, given that the prison in question has reviewed the menu and decided that cookies are not the best food for lifers.

“Five minutes on Wikipedia and you could have done better than that. And don’t think we can’t all see what you’re doing with Malcolm’s boner and the name Arsenio.”

Meanwhile, Malcolm, whose penis is flaccid most of the time, drives through the streets of Lima, wondering what he can do to break out of the ennui-laden rut his life has got into.

“He lives in Peru? Did you just check over everything you’ve written about him so far to make sure that would work?”

He parks his Toyota near the Feria Ecologica De Barranco, considers drowning himself in the Pacific ocean, but instead decides that helping other people might provide the meaning that is missing from his life.

“Clunky. Ah, what’s that sliding in under my door? Another cookie? Thanks prison guard! I never believed for a minute that you would stop feeding us these!”

Malcolm wanders the streets, staying in the shadows of the palm trees were possible, wondering where to invest his new found purpose, when a poster on the side of a bus shelter catches his eye.

“Don’t tell me, the prison service want volunteers to talk to their most dangerous prisoners.”

At that precise moment, in her cell, eating a bun that she mistakenly thought was a cookie when it first slid under the door, Susan experienced the first sliver of empathy with a man.

“Fuck off”.

A sliver of understanding which, inexplicably in her solitude, would niggle away at her like a second-rate character abandoned in the corner of an author’s mind, elbowing its way into something much more substantial – a host of fully-fledged protagonists called Realisation and Remorse, Acceptance and Forgiveness, Suffering, Identification and the biggest hero of all – Love.

“Seriously, fuck off. Just let me enjoy my cookie.”

Malcolm takes his new volunteer duties very seriously. His first prisoner, incarcerated for killing her own baby, is dying. She has never admitted the crime to anyone. He visits her every day until the miraculous happens: she concedes her guilt and weeps for the first time in her adult life. Moments later she is dead, but with peace written across her face. Malcolm weeps too, but his heart is heavy, at the passing, not of a criminal, but of a mother who was little more in her soul than an infant herself.

“I’ve been a bit sick in my mouth.”

His next prisoner was a twin who killed her own sister…

“Seriously, stop. This is awful. I’ve heard about Malcolm from the guards. He’s this faux-humble do-gooder who drives a wanky Toyota and would rather hang out with hardened criminals than his own children. I think I’ve even seen him in the visiting chambers. He looks like a complete tosser.”

Each day, Malcolm got that little bit closer to Susan.

“Give me a break. You’ve not even explained how a middle-aged man gets to volunteer to talk to prisoners in a women-only prison.”

Susan, meanwhile, worked out how a man could even be allowed in the visiting chambers of her women-only prison.

“Nice try.”

She knew that it was part of a pioneering therapeutic scheme to help perpetrators of androcidal crimes to come to terms with what they had done.

“I don’t know that”.

She hadn’t known that before, but that’s what the guard told her the last time he slid a bun under her door.

“That’s getting dangerously close to a euphemism.”

Susan sits at her Arsenio bistro table and thinks about euphemisms. 

“No I’m not. I’m thinking how is a woman killing her twin androcidal?”

Then she thinks about Raquel, on the floor below, who murdered her non-identical male twin for the very reason that he was just like her except male, which the newspapers reported as the ‘most androcidal crime ever committed’. And before she can question why she is thinking about Raquel, she reflects on the miraculous transformation in Raquel that everyone in the prison is talking about, even since she went on the pioneering therapeutic programme and had been chatting to a guy called Malcolm. She resolves never, ever to change. Never to stop hating men. Never to let someone like Malcolm anywhere near her. 

“Oops. Looks like you’ve just driven a wedge between us.”

At the canteen table, Raquel challenges Susan to meet with him. He’ll change your life, she says. There is something in his eyes, something beautiful, something I’ve never seen in a man before. Susan cannot bear it.

“No!” she cries.

“I’m not crying ‘No!’ You can’t make me cry ‘No!’ just like that.”

Are you going to meet with Malcolm then?

“No!”

Coerced.

“I will kill you. I know where you live. I’m already inside you.”

Malcolm sits behind the fortified screen, aghast at the ferocity of his newest prisoner. Known as the hardest woman in the place, Susan rants in protest and spits at the glass, until she is dragged violently back to her cell.

“I did not agree to see him. You can’t just throw me in there. I won’t do it.”

She boils with indignant anger at being forced to look into the eyes of a strange man. But as her rage subsides, and her face cools, those eyes are still looking at her. Here, in her room, alone, she can feel that gaze, warm and yet afraid, strong and yet vulnerable.

“Wait, did you just play the part of Malcolm, and the guard, and yourself all at once? You are way too privileged, you know that? And your writing still makes me want to throw up.”

Sick from the anguish of wanting to look into the eyes again, and hating herself for it, Susan cannot sleep.

“No, definitely sick from the hackneyed and insubstantial prose.”

She questions everything.

“Why did I bother speaking up in the first place?”

She remembers her first line.

“About wanting to be coerced? I take it back.”

But it’s too late. Something takes hold of her inside. Not the buns that she mistakes for cookies. Something like an unquenchable urge to see that man again. To tell him her life story. To see if he, above every other man she has met in her life, is worthy of existence. Of attention. Of love.

“I’m not telling you anything.”

Susan looks at Malcolm through the glass. It’s the following week, and she has been sick with anticipation of this encounter for days.

“And don’t tell me about yourself, either. I already know about the children and the sourdough and the Toyota and the wanking.”

Malcolm is distressed. How could she know all these things? Besides, he doesn’t masturbate more than other men his age, on average, probably. He also has sex with his wife and she comes before him most times.

“And I know that you think your wife comes before you most times, but I doubt that’s true.”

“How do you know that?” he says.

Susan is stunned. She shouts, “how come you can talk? Only I get direct speech in this story!”

“Because I’m a real person too, Susan. I’m not just some shadowy conceit, dredged up occasionally to advance a plotline. I have feelings. I have dreams. I’m flesh and blood, like you. There were so many things I wanted in life, and even though I got many of them, it didn’t feel the way I thought it would. Life’s a disappointment and we’re all damaged, Susan. We all treat others like bit parts in our own story, but each of us is a real person. Every man in your life, Susan, was a fully-fledged human, with hopes and fears, centre-stage in his own susceptible existence.”

“My god, you’re really playing along,” she replies. “What, I need a ‘she replies’ now?”

“Every man in your life was a person too,” Malcolm says. “You need it because there’s two of us talking now. It’s going to get confusing otherwise.”

“That’s not true. About the men being people, not the direct speech thing. We’ve not even established who these men are yet. Can you (not you, Malcolm), just check back and see what I’ve claimed about these men so far?

Susan remembered that she had claimed to have killed every man who had ever tried to get close to her, including those who come to visit.

“We can scratch that last part off, because Malcolm’s the first visitor I’ve had. Probably no need to change it earlier in the story, I was just sort of exaggerating my situation to make it hard for him to get near me. But he’s here now. And I only claimed it, that doesn’t mean it was true. Who believes a murderer, right?”

Malcolm stays still, but leans forward with his eyes. “And what else might not be true about the men you killed, Susan?”

“For fuck’s sake,” she says. “I see where this is going. I haven’t got the energy to keep protesting. You (not you, Malcolm) are hoping that this story is nearly done because you’re running out of enthusiasm. To think that you missed lunch to write it! The first story you’ve written in years! You can’t bear to leave it unfinished because you’re worried that you’ll never complete it once you step away from the desk. You also suspect that when you come back to it it will be rubbish anyway, nothing like the hundred-year keeper that you first thought it might be. And you need to walk the dogs. So you need an out.

“Meanwhile, my energy is tied up with yours. I can’t keep holding out against the deep mystery in Malcom’s eyes…”

“Thanks Susan,” Malcolm says.

“I was being sarcastic. We all know you’re completely underdeveloped and are being help up in the most fragile web of irony to move this story along. I was saying that as your energy fades, so does mine. I can’t hold out much longer. My paragraphs should be shrinking, not getting longer! But perhaps that’s a good thing; they feel a bit final speech-y. Perhaps the end is in sight.

“So the way I see it, you’re not going to finish this tale until Malcolm and I fall in love. I disapprove one hundred percent with that outcome, but in the cause of getting things wrapped up quickly, not least so that your dogs (not your dogs, Malcolm, although I’ve no doubt you’ve got just as many dogs as he does, maybe a slightly different breed to make it not too autobiographical) soil the carpet in your study, let’s make Malcolm and I fall in love. We can say that I claimed to have killed people and gave false confessions which get exposed when the real killer is caught and that I never hated men that much, I just needed some therapy, some love, although there is one particular man that I really loathe, and I’ll try my best to be the death of him one day, but he’s not supposed to even be in the story, so let’s just get it done. Come on. Over and done with.”

Malcolm’s already bright eyes widen, a tremulous tear forming in each. Susan sits back in her Arsenio chair, strangely happy that it will soon be over, that she commandeered the ending, that resolution is nigh.

But I can’t do it, Susan.

If you’re not in love with him, you’re not in love.

“If you say so, then I am.”

But you’re not. You’re not even pretending. You want me to write it but I can’t. It wouldn’t be real.

“What, about any of this, is real?”

I am. Love is. The reader is, even though we haven’t talked to them for a while (Hi there! Thanks for hanging in this long). You are, Susan. You’re real. In some way. Otherwise these words wouldn’t exist. You’re what brings us all together in this moment, in this present. Me in my study, fearing for the future of my carpet; our noble reader a hundred years hence, sitting in a chair which they will check shortly for the name ‘Arsenio’ on the side (wouldn’t that be cool?); Malcolm sitting in his chair, definitely branded with Arsenio, not getting a boner because this is not a sexual thing, this connection between you, this moment that you have made, this universal tie.

You know what it makes me think of?

“What?”

You, dancing in your cell, alone, but for the light coming through the bars; reflected light from the inner courtyard of the prison. You, moving your body, not just in the ways you learned when you were younger, that your muscles remember, but in new ways; new movements that free up new feelings, feelings of recognition and remorse and hope, not that you would use those words but my god do you feel them so strongly, searing through your torso, whipping out to your limbs and your neck. You kicked up dust in the borrowed light of your chamber and fashioned a new world for yourself in that dancing, that’s why you felt connected to humankind everywhere. To Raquel. To me. To Malcolm.

“It took you ten pages to write something half convincing.”

I just hoped that you’d see it in his eyes. The light that’s there is the same light. He’s got it. Hell, we’ve all got it, but he’s pretty much your only option right now. Unless you want to take your chances with Raquel?

“The twin killer? No thanks.”

And she does see. In this moment his flaws do not matter. His past, his ambitions, his situation, all resolve into a harmonious offering of humanity. What matters is that he is present with her, the only visitor she has ever had, the only man to look at her for so long, and with such acceptance. He is no hero, but he is here. 

And because we’re in the present, because that’s what this story is all about (I may even make it the title), we cannot speculate what will happen to Susan and Malcolm. It may make her sudden love for him slightly more palatable if we say that it doesn’t amount to anything beyind this moment, that meet once when she is released from prison but that Malcolm returns to his family, continues to volunteer at the penitentiary, never meets anyone like Susan again, and thinks about her every day with an ache in his heart that can only be soothed through dancing. Susan herself, she just disappears. 

“Disappears? How convenient.”

It feels real.

“It’s not. But grant me one thing.”

What’s that?

“The last word.”