Sleepingwaking in a Sun-Hot Land

Awake.
There’s a strong wind blowing outside. Maybe it will be a cooler day. No, no, it’s Emily the fan still running. My mouth is ngh-ngh-ngh so I swallow. I move my hand from my stomach where it has left a ring of fingermarks in sweat.
Asleep.

Awake.
There’s a strong wind blowing outside that sounds like a thunderstorm coming. Perhaps a cooler day, perhaps rain, though I’m not equipped for that. No umbrella, no raincoat, just shorts and dresses. No, no, it’s Emily still running, thhhh-bwa-bwa-bwa-bwa-bwa-thhhh. It’s dark outside. I turn onto my side so that Emily’s breath can cool the sweat on my back.
Asleep.

Awake.
She is moving around the room. The door opens and closes, keys rattle in the lock. I scratch an itch on my stomach, wonder if it’s a mosquito bite, and then itches spread all over my side, my face, my leg and back to my stomach again. It’s not a mosquito, I think. It’s not a mosquito.
Asleep.

Awake.
My hair is still damp against my head and the sky is dark – there may still be hours to go before dawn. A car engine starts outside with a thack-chack-bang. Voices raised. There’s a cooler breeze coming from the open window. Perhaps the night’s heat has peaked. No, no, it’s Emily still blowing. I remember these hot nights from an August in Osaka. But actually I’ve forgotten the nights, remembering only the relief of cold showers in the morning, washing away the night’s sweat. The only time before that I’d enjoyed cold showers. At that time I was shocked my sister would leave her fan on all night – now I have Emily to spin and whirl.
Asleep.

Awake.
It’s light outside now. Then sun isn’t yet beating against the side of the building. The curtain moves in Emily’s breeze and brushes with light fingertips against my leg. What time is it? It’s not quite time.
Asleep.

Awake.
What time is it? It’s light outside and she is next to me, lying very still, her hands crossed neatly on her stomach. I crawl and shuffle over to the table and pick up my watch. It’s time to eyeball the day, dispatch the night, dirty my feet, seek wind tunnels, drink black-brewed coffee, stumble out words, sweat olive oil, walk single file in the shade, swap shorts for dresses then dresses for nothing. It’s time to wake up.
Awake.

Zero Three Two Seven

“–No you listen to me–”

“–You’re the one not listening. I’m trying to explain–”

The voices filtered through to me as I waited in the no mans land behind the ticket barriers in Liverpool St Station.

Two men stood on either side of a glass barrier, locked in their disagreement. It was impossible to gather the details of their argument because they were both talking over each other – something to do with Man 1 not carrying ID for his Oyster card. Man 2 towered above him, at least 6’6″ and clearly in a position of authority, though he wasn’t wearing a uniform.

“Give me your badge number. Your badge number,” said Man 1.

“Zero three two seven,” said Man 2.

They carried on arguing. Then Man 1 took out a notebook. “Now, give me your badge number.”

“I’ve already given it to you and I’m not giving it again. You had your chance.”

They went back and forth like this a few times before I went over and interrupted them, repeated Man 2’s badge number for Man 1. He still didn’t write it down.

Man 2 turned to me, 6’6″ of buttoned up rage.

“Can I ask you a question? What business is it of yours?”

Getting to the Heart of it II

Hello! How are you today?

I’m well, how are you? Is this two missionaries I’m speaking with?

We are doing well thank you! and yes it is 🙂 What can we help you with?

I wanted to ask about your relationship to truth. How important is it that what you believe is true?

That’s a very good question. For me, truth is very important. I’m trying to figure out how to put this into words… If something is true, I’m going to do something about it. Does that make sense?

I’m interested to know more about the importance of truth to you. Why is it so important? Is it to do with action – being active – “doing something”? What would you lose if you lost truth?

Truth is something that never changes. I think the worlds idea of truth is different than God’s- sometimes the line between truth and belief are blurred. But It is so important to know truth! To me, truth is something we can know if we have a desire and are confident in the Lord. I think sometimes it can start as belief but as we act and really try and discern the truth we can know its validity.

Do you mean God’s truth never changes, but the world’s truth does? For example, our old fashioned “truth” was that the earth was flat, but our modern “truth” is that it’s a globe?

Sometimes we are disappointed by human wisdom and, just like your example, the world’s truths do change. What sparked your interest in learning more about truth?

I’ve been thinking about truth recently as a kind of chimera – something that is very tempting to chase but, often, impossible to locate. Following this logic then I was wondering what “truths” I would be willing to abandon, and still be able to function. Like my atheism for example – how important is it to me that my belief is true? I like to think that I treat it lightly, but I think I would agonise if it were taken away. I thought you guys might have a particular take on truth that would be interesting. Is it something you’ve thought about much?

There is actually a really good devotional about truth that I watched a few months ago. It can give you a perspective on what truth is and if it is possible for anyone to find it. I think there has come a point in my life that I definitely knew I needed to find out for myself if the things I believed were true or not. Example: the Book of Mormon. It is a book that knowing whether it is true or not is important because if it is true then it is truly words from God that can give me direction. I now know that this book is true and it has blessed my life so much!! Here is the link to the talk called “what is truth?” [deleted]

Can I ask a bit about your set up? Are you in an office somewhere, like a call centre? Or do you work from home?

We are missionaries that spend some time each week in an office area helping people over the internet 🙂

I assume you have a few different chats on the go at once?

It depends how many people are online and how many people are asking questions so sometimes.

Do you have a script to follow? Or various ideas that you need to introduce at certain stages? Or signposting, like that link you sent me?

No we just study a lot to be prepared and every person is different! I just remembered I really enjoyed that talk I sent you because I had watched it a few months ago and it really stuck with me. We are just guided by the spirit on to what to say and sometimes I may not know everything so I just share what I do know and love.

Some people must be unpleasant to you. Can you leave whenever you like?

Like leave the chat? If someone is being vulgar or crude or playing a prank we can leave the chat.

I hope that doesn’t happen too much. I’m curious about your set up because it’s a very strange thing to offer! An open invitation to chat about anything, for any length of time. And you don’t know who you are connecting with our where they are (though I’m assuming you’re in the US).

I know this gospel of Jesus Christ to be true and it has given me so much hope and happiness in my life and I love sharing the message with others! This chat is another opportunity to spread the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ through technology, especially for those that have questions but maybe aren’t quite ready to meet with missionaries in person yet. Every person is worth it.

Getting to the Heart of it I

Chat.

Hello! It is Virginie from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. How can I help you?

I wanted to know if this is a free service?

Unfortunately I have no idea, but if you would like we also answer questions to people over email. If you would like you can share with me your email address…

That’s OK. What do people normally ask you?

That depends what you want to learn about us… What would you like to know?

Does it matter to you that what you believe is true? How important is truth to you?

I believe that I’m following the truth. That is the reason why I’m following Jesus Christ’s teaching. Have you heard about the Book of Mormon before?

Rope and Pearl [work in progress 2]

Here’s another version of Rope and Pearl, possibly a section that will form a larger piece.

Dear Rope and Pearl *

Thanks for coming to the joint meeting on XXXXXXXX and talking about the problem we named ‘the secret’.

The secret has been going on for about 40 years, though it has escalated in recent months during which you have been forced to have more regular face-to-face contact under observation. As you both declined to describe the origin of the secret, I will focus instead on its current effects on you both.

Rope, you told me that the secret sometimes makes you mistrustful of your sister. You described your fear that she would behave irresponsibly by disclosing information that could put you both in danger (though it was not possible, you said, to disclose the nature of this danger to me). Other effects on you include some difficulty sleeping at night and occasional ‘outbursts’ during which you ‘snap at’ or ‘stare down’ your sister. You said that these outbursts make you feel guilty but that you think they are an inevitable effect of being ‘on a knife edge’ in your sister’s company. You said that the secret’s effects on you were more difficult to bear when Pearl speaks about your shared history, even when these anecdotes are unrelated to the secret itself.

Pearl, you also spoke about the effects of the secret on you. You said that you were living in a state of anxiety and paranoia. You have tension headaches that you associate with the times when the secret is most difficult to bear; these headaches can leave you bed-bound for several days at a time. You also described how the secret upsets you because it causes your sister to act towards you in a way that is ‘unsisterly’ or ‘hostile’. You described how the secret causes you pain and that you try to alleviate that pain by speaking with Rope about what happened 40 years ago.

You both described a time, not long ago, when the effects of the secret were much easier to bear. This was a time of ‘collaboration’ – for example, when Rope was first arrested and Pearl went to visit her. I feel that we made some progress during our meeting when we spoke about this time of collaboration, though I realise you will need to have a more detailed conversation in my absence.

In advance of our review meeting, I encourage you to consider the following questions:

– Pearl, you seem to have strong ideas about what a ‘sisterly’ relationship looks like. Where do you think these ideas come from? What different ideas might Rope have about a ‘sisterly’ relationship?
– Rope, you said that sometimes you ‘over-react’ to things that Pearl says. Which things, in particular, invite you to respond in this way? Are there times when it is easier for you to not ‘over-react’?

I look forward to meeting you both again at our review meeting on XXXXXX.

With best wishes

XXXXXXXXXX

 

* As requested, I will use your nicknames in all future correspondence.

 

Rope and Pearl [work in progress]

Here’s the start of something that I might rework…

Rope sits in her room, gazing out of the window as a late spring breeze ruffles the curtains. The breeze is a little cool for her, but she’s glad of it in this airless place. She pulls a blanket over her knees.

There is a gentle knock at the door and then a member of staff wheels in Rope’s sister. Another staff slips in behind them, and swaps a drooping vase of flowers for a revived one.

‘Thank you,’ says Rope, then she turns to her sister. ‘Hello, Pearl, I didn’t know they were bringing you over today.’

‘It’s a Monday – hadn’t you noticed?’ says Pearl.

The sisters relax into silence for a while, both glancing out at the well-kept lawn outside. The staff sits in one corner, leafing through a copy of today’s newspaper.

The other staff returns with a tea tray and places it on a table between the sisters.

‘How are you then?’ asks Pearl. ‘Are they treating you alright?’

‘Oh, you know, you get used to it. The loss of dignity, the constant surveillance.’ The staff turns a page of her newspaper. ‘The problem is, nothing changes. I’m bored again –’

‘You’re always bored.’

‘And you always interrupt me.’ Rope had spoken harshly, quite unintentionally, and a bruised silence settles between them. Footsteps pass in the corridor outside. The honk of a train, passing at some distance, carries through the open window.

‘You know,’ says Pearl, ‘as they drove me over here we passed a train track and a train sped by – so fast. Do you remember those slam door trains we used to take?’

‘Mhm.’

‘And that time I got embarrassed and couldn’t open the door?’ Rope nods. ‘You were sat opposite me next to that old woman. At least she seemed old to me then – she was probably about the age we are now. And we pulled into our stop and I tried the handle to open the door, but it was sticky and I couldn’t get it open. I rattled it and rattled it. And somehow it made it worse that this old woman was watching me, young and strong, and yet I couldn’t open the door. So you reached across her and opened the door but in our panic to get out at our stop we both tumbled onto the platform. Do you remember?’ Rope nods. ‘And we collapsed into giggles. Until the station guard tapped us on the shoulder and pointed to the train, and we both looked up just as the train pulled away and the old woman was staring at us holding my hat in her hand!’ Rope gives a weak smile. ‘Sometimes I think I haven’t changed a single bit, since then – I’m still that young girl inside. Do you ever think that?’

‘It feels like such a long time ago… It is a long time ago…’ Rope brightens, ‘Tea?’ Pearl nods and watches as her sister pours the tea. She notices the drift of time on Rope’s face, the white hairs – wayward, where their younger sisters were dead straight. She observes the shape of Rope’s hands, inherited from their great aunt and revealing this inheritance more with every day that passes. Her sister had kept her excellent posture somehow, and, Pearl notices with a grimace, she’d also kept that dreadful blanket.

‘You’re lucky, you know,’ says Pearl.

‘What?’

‘You’re lucky to get flowers in your room. They must like you more than me.’

‘Or they think they can bribe me…’ says Rope, flashing a look at the staff reading the newspaper.

‘If there’s anyone they can bribe, it’s me!’ says Pearl, grinning.

Rope leans in to pass Pearl her tea and whispers, ‘You shouldn’t joke about that.’ Her eyes say the rest. As Rope leans back, the staff clicks her biro on. On her lap is a blank crossword puzzle and she carefully writes something in the blank squares.

‘I heard something on the radio last night,’ says Rope, briskly. Pearl reaches into her bag and takes out her crochet things, spreading them on her knees. She untangles the wool and gestures at Rope to go on.

‘It was an astronomer talking about our night sky. He said that everyone used to think that the expansion of our universe had been slowing down. That, after the Big Bang, all the stuff of the universe had been thrown out…’ Rope gestures with her hands, but Pearl’s attention stays on her crocheting. ‘Are you listening to me?’

Pearl looks up, hurt. ‘Yes, of course. The universe is getting bigger, the Big Bang. I’m listening.’

‘The key thing is that they thought the expansion of the universe was slowing down. The man compared it to a ball that had been thrown into the air. At the beginning it goes up fast, then it slows and slows before it falls to the ground again.’ Pearl nods. ‘But apparently this isn’t the case: the expansion of the universe is getting faster, not slower. It’s something to do with gravity repelling as well as attracting – something like that. Anyway, here’s the interesting bit. Because everything’s moving away, and at ever increasing speeds, in the far future the stars in the sky are going to go out. They will be too far away for their light to reach us. So they’ll go out one by one until there’s just blackness up there. And this astronomer said that a future scientist would look at the sky and see nothing around us – just our sun, our moon, the other planets in our galaxy. Beyond that, nothing.’ Pearl looked up at Rope and observed her. ‘So then the question is, would this future scientist believe whatever records have been passed down from our time – whatever remains of our observations? Or would they draw their own conclusions, based on the darkness in the night sky?’ Rope lets silence return to the room.

‘So?’ says Pearl.

‘So what?’

‘So what did your astronomer think?’

‘He thought that the future scientist would be more likely to believe the emptiness they could observe rather than the records from our time.’

‘Bloody hell, that’s bleak.’

‘Bleak? I thought it was rather poetic.’

‘What, all human endeavour, all our science – lost to oblivion?’

‘More like… If such a significant thing can be lost to the future, what else have we lost from the past? Like the library at Alexandria – all that knowledge gone, and only bits of it rediscovered, perhaps. I like the idea that as hard as we try to hold onto this knowledge, there’s no guarantee it won’t be completely misinterpreted generations down the line.’

‘This, coming from a scientist!’ Pearl laughs, but stops when she catches Rope’s expression, dark and stormy. The staff discretely jots something down on her newspaper.

‘So, Pearl, tell me about your week.’

Pearl sets her crocheting to one side. ‘Do you mind if we close the window? It’s freezing in here.’

A Pair of Hands

[wpcol_1half id=”” class=”” style=””]

I was visiting my parents’ house and my sister was complaining of some unusual activity in her swollen, pregnant belly. My dad got up and walked to the sofa. He laid his hands on her belly and began to feel it, to probe it.

Here? Here?

Here? Here?

In that action of laying his hands on her belly he had transformed from a father into his alter ego: the doctor. There was something so unfatherly and so doctorly in the way he probed the swollen belly. Not too much contact, a functional amount of contact; nothing overstepping the mark. So discrete. Distance, boundaries, a code of ethics.

[/wpcol_1half]

A doctor on the radio described walking through a hospital at the height of the AIDS crisis, surrounded by dying people. He went to check on a patient who was nearing death. As the doctor approached, the patient caught his eye and lifted up his top to reveal his chest. The doctor laid his hands on the patient’s chest.

Here? Here?

Here? Here?

Decades after the event, the doctor described how this revealed to him the importance of ritual in medicine. He didn’t need to touch the patient’s chest, just needed to tell the patient – with his touch – that he was not alone.

Take Me Out

Jack was sitting in the Green Room, slouched into a half-comfy chair. One ankle rested on his knee as his fingers tapped against the other knee. He stared at one corner of the room and a succession of images came into view. He was lounging in his bed with stripes of cold, winter light moving slowly across his bedroom walls; pulling shirts and trousers out of his wardrobe; phoning his mum to wish her a happy birthday; blowing steam off a cup of coffee; rubbing his hands together as he stepped out of his house; sweeping crumbs from the passenger seat of his car; misreading a road sign that he thought had said ‘Pet Bottom’; drumming his steering wheel in time to a song on the radio; feeling a sweep of nerves as he turned off his car’s engine. And then, as if from nowhere, he saw a face.

The head was surprisingly tall, with brown hair and a serious expression that occasionally erupted into a childlike grin. 1990s glasses, intelligent eyes, full lips. The man’s face was in motion and Jack noticed dimples on either side of his mouth. He frowned, trying to get an overview of the face away from these details. The man looked familiar and now, as he began to speak, Jack realised his voice was familiar too. The man said:

Many of my evenings in the theatre resemble a hen night.

‘Five minutes to go.’ Jack’s head snapped around to look at the Production Assistant peering round the door, her hand poised on its frame. Their eyes met, then hers slipped down to his chest, the top buttons of his shirt having been provocatively left open by someone in the Costume Department.

Jack cleared his throat. ‘OK. Thank you.’

‘You OK?’

‘Yes.’

‘If you need anything, now’s your chance.’ A twitch of a smile, then she swooped back out of the door again, closing it gently behind her.

Jack gave a long exhale, leaning back in his chair, and then forced himself to his feet. He jumped, short hops back and forth, and flapped his arms, trying to revive some interest in what was going to happen over the next hour or so.

‘What am I doing here?’ He thought, ‘This just isn’t my thing. I’m not going to be able to strike the right tone, to be sexy-and-funny, not sexy-and-creepy. How did I let myself get talked into this? I’ve come to this stupid industrial park in the middle of nowhere and wasted my whole day waiting around. What’s the point?’

Jack glanced over at a muted TV monitor in front of him, showing the mid-stages of the TV show. Andy, who he’d met briefly in one of the waiting areas, was undergoing a ritual humiliation in costume. Was that meant to be a barbershop quartet? The camera cut to a line of women, each stood at a podium with a button in front of them. The women were hitting their buttons, turning their spotlights off and signalling they were out of the dating game for that round. Andy was not doing well.

For example, I’ve walked through an office in the summer — not my own office — and a young man came in wearing shorts because it was hot. There were wolf whistles and people commented how nice his legs were and teased him in various ways. In another case, a female film critic wrote recently that the plot of a rom com made no sense because the male actor was so fat and ugly that no-one would want to go to bed with him.

‘OK, Jack, it’s time.’

Jack followed the Production Assistant down a corridor, his eyes following the line of her back and settling on a walkie-talkie that bounced against her hip. He was led into a large, open plan room filled with people criss-crossing, busily trying to look busy. Wires snaked across the floor. Jack was manoeuvred into a make up chair.

‘Beth! Over here a second…’ Jack saw a man, dressed entirely in grey, reflected in the mirror in front of him and watched the Production Assistant stride over.

‘Hello there. I’m just going to give you a bit of a dusting for the lights,’ smiled a young woman as she leant over him. ‘Close your eyes, please.’

Jack relaxed into darkness and let his mind wander.

When Jack opened his eyes again he glanced briefly at his reflection in the mirror, then took the opportunity to watch the scene playing out over his shoulder.

The Production Assistant was stood with her arms crossed, frowning, and Jack observed her properly for the first time. He noticed she had that knack of dressing in a way that was practical for hands-on work, while somehow making it look classic. Her hair was worn long and unfussy and she seemed at ease with herself in a way he couldn’t quite pinpoint. She was having a conversation — no, a disagreement — with the man dressed in grey. He was animated, gesturing his hands, while the Production Assistant watched him in silence. Jack could tell that the man in grey was her superior, and trying hard to persuade her of something. They seemed to reach a stand off, then the man in grey said something that made her raise her eyebrows.

Jack jumped at the hand on his shoulder.

‘Bit nervy?’ A young man smiled at him. He guided Jack into another room, his fingers hot and damp on Jack’s arm. As they walked together they avoided the intimacy of falling into step, causing the young man’s bag to bump uncomfortably against Jack’s side.
‘Here you go,’ said the man, ‘just stay here — on this spot. I’ll be right over there.’ He retreated to a glowing monitor, staring at it in silence.

Jack stood feeling very much in the centre of the room as a bead of sweat made its way down his back. One of the criss-crossing workers left a distinct smell of toast in her wake, and he realised with a twinge that he hadn’t eaten for hours. He concentrated on trying to catch someone’s eye as they walked past. Jack could hear a clock ticking somewhere but couldn’t locate it in the room. Time seemed to disappear.

The question is, are they made to feel uncomfortable? Watching that young man in the office I felt he was uncomfortable…

The TV show was starting up again below. Jack felt vibrations through his feet and could hear the muffled sound of laughter.

…I think the answer lies in the fact that female sexual responses are, in most cases, more benign and therefore they can get away with it.

Then, from below, the Host’s voice.

‘So we’ve got a space now and we need a new girl. Meet Elizabeth, a tele-marketing saleswoman from Sussex!’

More applause rumbled through the soles of Jack’s shoes. The young man raised his hand, pointing to the ceiling, then, after some minutes had passed, he counted down from five with his fingers.

Jack felt a judder as the circle of floor at his feet began to move down and now, as the seal was broken, the noise of applause and whooping from the floor below crashed into him. A wave of adrenaline travelled through his body, from feet to head. It started with his toes squeezed into newly gleaming shoes, rising through his legs, crossing his tibia, patella and thigh, moving past his hips, his shirt (still provocatively showing his breast,) travelling to his neck and finally his head, his chin, his long nose, his beady eyes, his dark hair with early shots of white at the temples.

*

‘So we’ve got a space now and we need a new girl. Meet Elizabeth, a tele-marketing saleswoman from Sussex!’ Beth felt the eyes of the audience sweep towards her and gave a wide grin. The Host walked over to her.

‘So, Elizabeth, you’ve got an interesting hobby…’

(‘Play nice, now,’) the man in grey said through her earpiece.

Beth looked around the studio, her eyes falling on a stripy top worn by someone in the audience.

‘That’s right — I’m learning to sail!’

The audience applauded as two of the cameras shuffled back for a wide shot.

(‘That’s the spirit. Now you can sit out the rest of the round. We’ve told Paddy to leave you alone…’) Beth’s eyes flicked up to the control room. (‘…I owe you a cocktail.’)

As Paddy walked away from Beth, she exhaled a mixture of anger and boredom. She had worked at Fremantle Media for three years and felt like she had flatlined — no change, no promotion. But up until now she had been spared the humiliation of actually appearing on the mediocre TV shows she had been working on. Beth looked along the row of women to her right: heavily preened, rehearsing the lines given to them by her production company. The level of artifice was extraordinary. This didn’t bother her so much — she was used to artifice — but this show had something extra that niggled. By presenting a line of women with a single man to observe and criticise it managed to be both subversive and utterly mainstream, both progressive and ultra-conservative. One step forward, one step back.

Paddy was busy setting the scene for the next contestant. Then: ‘Let the ginger see the nut. Single man, reveal yourself…’ And the man came down in the lift, his feet showing first. Beth watched the shoes she hadn’t noticed before as they appeared, followed by the legs she didn’t care about, the torso that had some slight interest for her and then, finally, the face of the man from the Green Room.

The man hopped out of the lift and gave an awkward strut in front of the row of women before retreating to his spot. Paddy clapped a hand on his shoulder and asked him to introduce himself.

‘Hello, ladies. My name’s Jack and I’m from Leamington Spa!’

Beth noticed Jack’s little gulp of nerves after introducing himself, which he tried to hide by smoothing his shirt.

After Paddy’s prompt, a cascade of lights turned off — women who, for whatever reason, didn’t like the look of him.

‘…Not a bad start, Jack,’ said Paddy. ‘Now, a few girls have turned their lights off so I’m going to get a feel for the mood out here.’

Paddy picked out various women and asked them why they had turned their lights off, or why they had kept them on.

‘I want a man to have less cleavage than I have!’

‘I like that you’re from Leamington Spa. It sounds exotic.’

Paddy passed in front of Beth to speak with a woman just to her right who had kept her light on.

‘He’s fit, isn’t he,’ she said, before collapsing into giggles, her hand in front of her face. Then, direct to Jack, with a note of apology: ‘I’m sure your personality’s nice too.’

A video played in which Jack introduced himself in a narrative constructed by the TV show producers. He spoke about working for the RSPB (prompting women to turn their lights off), was shown standing in a hide with binoculars, birdwatching (lights off), then eating a meal with his family. He was presented as a sociable man who was looking for someone to settle down with. Beth watched Jack as the video played and the lights went off around her. He was wearing that distant expression she had noticed in the Green Room. He seemed to swing between that dreamy look and self-conscious bouts of twitching, smoothing his shirt, touching his hair, shifting his weight from foot to foot.

(‘Wake up. Turn your light off, Beth.’)

Beth glanced again at the control room and clenched her jaw.

(‘Come on, stop playing around. This guy’s heading for a blackout, can’t you see?’)

Beth looked down at the button in front of her but it was too late, the video had stopped playing and Paddy was congratulating Jack on staying in the game. There were only two women left with their lights on so there was no avoiding it — he had to talk to her. He walked over with a curious look.

‘So, Elizabeth, this is your first round. Tell us why you’ve kept your light on.’

(‘Say it was a mistake.’)

There was a silence. Beth looked from Paddy to Jack and back again. Jack had that distant look, but then he twitched violently and his eyes fell on Beth.

‘Uh… I don’t know, really, there’s just something about him. How can I explain…?’

(‘For fuck’s sake, Beth. Say it was a mistake. Can’t you hear me?’)

Seconds dragged on. Paddy was starting to look bad tempered through his smile.

(‘Beth, I know you’re up to something. If you don’t behave I’m getting you escorted off.’)

‘OK,’ said Beth, ‘Can I ask him a question?’ Paddy nodded. ‘Jack, what’s making you so distracted? What were you thinking about in the Green Room?’

There was a mixture of laughter and stirring in the audience. This was not going to formula. Paddy looked out towards them. ‘It seems,’ he said, ‘these lovebirds have met before!’ Some whoops. He turned to the other woman with her light on. ‘Sorry, love, this is a bit awkward.’ Laughter. ‘Well, Jack, do you want to tell us what’s gone on between you two?’

Everyone in the room looked at Jack. He seemed to be making a dramatic effort not to twitch and tremble. Sweat could be seen beading on his forehead and running down his face through the make up. He opened his mouth to speak.

‘…Mark Lawson. On Radio 4…’

The Host frowned. ‘What was that, Jack?’

‘What was that, Jack?’ said Jack, in a mocking imitation of Paddy’s voice. Jack gulped and flapped his arms at his sides, hopping about like he was on hot coals. He tugged at his collar and snapped his head to the side. Again he opened his mouth to speak and his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down but no sound came out. He shuddered as a single black feather drifted slowly to the ground. There was muttering and some laughter from the audience, then a single, piercing scream. Security guards appeared from either side, aiming for Beth, but at the sight of Jack they paused, uncertain. Jack continued to flap his arms vigorously, and as he did so his black shirt seemed to blur and distort, until suddenly it was obvious that his arms were in fact the wings of a giant, black bird. His head jerked and a beak appeared; his eyes became more beady and dark as he blinked away their whites. He doubled over in pain and the security guards advanced towards him, forming a circle, stepping tentatively. Then he sprang away from the ground, flapping his wings and careering at speed towards the ceiling. He crashed with a heavy thud into one of the lighting rigs and fell back to the ground, a leaden lump now, barely a foot long.

*

When Jack woke he winced in anticipation of a headache. He lay for a time with his eyes closed, gradually letting the rush of each sense wash over him in turn. The smell of toast, a sensation of gentle rocking as if he were on a boat, the cool feel of metal against his feet, the sound of voices playing from a radio. Then, slowly, he opened his eyes. He was lying in an unfamiliar room with long, grey cylinders running from roof to floor. Directly beneath him was a bed of words which, after some scrutiny, he realised was newsprint. Jack was having some difficulty understanding the distance between objects and everything seemed to be out of proportion. He lifted a wing to rub his eyes.

From a room nearby there were the sounds of movement and a woman humming. She must have turned the radio up because the words came to Jack now, clear and distinct.

Good afternoon, welcome to Weekend Woman’s Hour. Now, on the show this week…

‘Woman’s Hour!’ said Jack.

There was a cry of surprise from the other room. The woman from the TV show walked over to the cage with a smile. It was a kind smile, but for some reason it made Jack shudder. She was utterly grotesque.

‘You’re talking,’ said Beth. ‘How are you feeling, Jack?’

‘Feeling Jack,’ said Jack. He stood up and pressed himself against the bars of his cage, looking at Beth’s enormous form and the way her lips seemed to balloon from her face as she drew closer to him. She returned and held his look. From the next room the radio continued to chatter, and formed itself into that familiar voice again — the voice of Mark Lawson, a cultural commentator and a regular on Radio 4.

…Well, it’s a similar thing. Phyllida Lloyd referred to a hen night without alcohol. Many of my evenings in the theatre resemble a hen night with alcohol. In Viva Forever when the guy takes his clothes off there’s this huge whoop from the women in the audience; a similar thing happens in The Bodyguard when the same happens there. I’m mildly perplexed by this, what could be seen as a double standard…

Jack watched Beth frown as she shot a glance at the radio.

…For example, I’ve walked through an office in the summer — not my own office — and a young man came in wearing shorts because it was hot. There were wolf whistles and people commented how nice his legs were and teased him in various ways. In another case, a female film critic wrote recently that the plot of a rom com made no sense because the male actor was so fat and ugly that no-one would want to go to bed with him. Now, I just think it’s interesting that if in all those cases you’d reversed it — if you had a bunch of men whooping when a woman took her clothes off, if a male film critic wrote that about a leading film actress, if men in an office commented on a woman’s legs… These are things they’ve learned, correctly I think, not to do. So I’m just interested that there does seem to be a double standard in these issues…

Beth was still frowning, her attention torn between Jack and the words coming from the next room. Jack could see a deep frustration play across her face, mixed with sadness. As they considered each other her breath played against his feathers, ruffling them gently. Jack took a step back and tucked his head down, finding a comfortable position, and considered his predicament. He was aware that his life had undergone a great change but he was struggling to remember what had come before the TV show and waking up in Beth’s home. Strangely, it was a pleasant amnesia, a sensation like lying in a warm bath. He felt a great swell of relief: he no longer had to decide how to navigate his way through life, all decisions had been taken out of his hands. He felt a strong connection with the woman in front of him and a desire to know her thoughts on subjects that bothered him. He felt he could be happy here. He would practice his new voice and find a way of speaking with her and then they would sit together, in this room, discussing the world.

Jack blinked and cocked his head.

‘Such empty eyes,’ said Beth, to herself, ‘like black jewels.’

Horsey crisps, anyone?

An observation. At the height of the horse meat scandal, I walk into a corner shop near Angel and there is a bargain bucket filled with packets of crisps being sold for 30p. Every packet, including a couple of different brands, is steak flavour. Just an observation…

Embleton Road

A still image. The exterior of a house with a red front door and an estate agent’s sign outside it. A hedge demarcates the front garden and is neatly trimmed. Two young men are outside the house, both with pixellated faces. One is striding away from the house; the other stands at its threshold and looks towards the camera. Belongings are heaped on either side of the front door, including a carved wooden giraffe.

*

A community centre room with a circle of chairs around its edges. Emma is sat on one of these chairs. A man and a woman are at one end of the room, next to a projector and some piles of papers stacked on a table. The projector is on a tilt, propped up by a slim book under one of its legs. The man and the woman are facilitating a training day. The woman, Anna, has just spoken and is looking around the room for a response. A line of faces, thoughtful. Then back to Anna:

“Anyone?”

“The angry boss?”
“Yes, that works. Any others?”

“The moody teenager.”
Anna nods.
“The nightmare neighbour.”
“The kind nurse.”
“The martyred mother.”
“The passionate artist.”

“Good, good. All of these are ‘stock cultural scripts’. They are descriptions we reach for as a kind of shortcut. They limit our choices when we use them because they bring to our minds an idea that is pre-established and doesn’t leave room for information that contradicts it. We already have stories in mind that feature these characters, and think we know how these stories end.”

*

Three women, including Emma, are walking along a street. They consult a piece of paper and then knock on the front door of a house. It is the same house that was in the image we saw before, containing the two young men with pixellated faces. A woman dressed in a skirt suit, Mina, arrives behind them.

“Sorry I’m late. I’ll let you in…”

Mina struggles with the key in the lock and opens the door, then shows them inside. The walls are bright white and everything looks scrupulously clean.

“Here’s the ground floor bedroom… Original fireplaces…”
Emma sniffs. “It’s freshly painted.”
“Yes, it’s been completely redecorated. The carpets are new, too. Let me show you the living room… Sorry it’s a bit cold – the house has been unoccupied for a little while.”

The group moves around various rooms, opening cupboard doors and inspecting the furniture. Natasha opens the door to a bedroom and it drags heavily across the carpet.

“The landlord can get the bottom of that door planed for you – it’s because the carpets are so new.”
“Is the landlord nice?”
“Oh yes, he’s very nice. Always responsive. Though they had nightmare tenants before so they are a bit cautious.”
“Nightmare tenants?”
“Yes, you know: shouting, arguing in the street. They kept two dogs in the house – not allowed – and they actually tore up the carpets, tore them to bits. There was a sofa downstairs – ruined. And you see here, this chunk of wall? The dogs actually took a bite out of that wall. Terrible. They wanted their deposits back after that and we said, ‘Not a chance.’ We had so many complaints from the neighbours. Apparently their dogs would fight in the street. They got quite a reputation. And then, when we got them out, the threatening phone calls started.”
“They phoned your office?”
“They did – demanding their deposits back. But the cost of replacing the carpets, repainting the whole house… No way.”

The group move to another bedroom.

“Are these double glazed?”

*

An older woman, Emma’s mum Jane, is sat in a family living room with a computer on her lap. She looks up at Emma.

“What’s the house number?”
“Forty-eight.”

Jane taps at the computer’s keyboard.

“White front door?”
“No, no – a red one. Google gets the placement wrong sometimes, let me have a look.”

Jane passes the laptop to Emma, and we see its screen. As Emma clicks the camera travels along a tidy street.

“Here you go – it’s the one with these guys outside. Red front door.”

Emma zooms in on the front of the house and we see the two young men with pixellated faces, the heaped belongings.

“Oh my god, I think these are the nightmare tenants our estate agent was talking about. Apparently they had two dogs that fought in the street… It looks like they’re just moving in.”
“You can see a dog there, peeking over the gate!”

Emma zooms in on the front gate and we see two dogs – one looking over the top of the fence, and one poking its nose underneath. The image is dated May 2012.

“May… That seems about right. The estate agent said they were only there are few months before they evicted them…”

Emma explores, moving the camera back and forth, getting different angles on the house. The changing still images create a sense of movement. The dogs move towards and away from the gate and the man at the threshold turns to face the camera. We see he has a cigarette in his hand.

“I wonder if they smoked in the house, too? What a coincidence that Google went past on the day they moved in…”
“Your estate agent mentioned these people?”
“Yeah, apparently they were a total nightmare.”