The Man From Vermont

As I walked with Natasha, along a shortcut in north London, I heard a scuttling sound behind us. A man ran anxiously across the road, his shoulders hunched into his not-quite-run. It was a non-committal kind of run, seemingly heading towards the pub that at that moment belched cheers into the dark January evening. A football game?

We continued, chatting our way along the cut-through to the station that Natasha had used so many times before. As we crossed another street, a voice behind us:

“Excuse me!”

We turned. The man with the not-quite-run was not-quite-running towards us.

“Is this the way to the toob?” American. Glasses, wild, grey hair.

We told him the way as he caught up with us. Yes, he could continue along this path. No, he didn’t need to take the High Road. It would take him ten minutes or so.

“Will it be safe, walking this way?”

I shrugged. “Yes, at this time of night.” We turned to leave.

“May I take a photo? Of you two.”

We exchanged looks, uncertain.

“Photos of my travels…”

“Uh, OK…”

He lifted a small digital camera to his eye. A strange tourist snap…

“Where are you travelling from?”

“From Vermont. The States.”

I could tell Natasha was uneasy — I could feel her arm, tense, at my side.

FLASH.

“And, just one more…” I readjusted my face into a smile.

FLASH.

With the second flash, I had a vision of this photo: the two of us in our heavy coats, lit harshly against the London darkness. Puzzled, suspicious eyes. Either a printed image pushed around on a tabletop or a digital file on a screen. Look, those two. You can tell from their clothes. Evidence.

The man from Vermont nodded his thanks and then lunged awkwardly towards us, gesturing to the book in Natasha’s hand.

“What are you reading?”

Natasha tilted the cover towards him — I could tell she wasn’t going to give him anything more that that.

“OK, well, thank you.” And he motioned for us to walk ahead of him.

A few minutes later, Natasha turned to me. “I thought Vermont was in Canada…”

Street Encounter

I walk along the street after dark has fallen, feeling its emptiness around me. The pavement glistens from just-stopped rain, and is peppered with leaves. My step is brisk and echoes off the flats to my left, disappears into the wood on my right. Sometimes the emptiness of this street feels comforting, secure; at other times it is a bunched fist.

Footsteps behind me – so I’m not alone. I am made aware of my back and my hunched shoulders, in a too-big coat, braced against the cold and the reputation of this part of London. The footsteps pick up, gaining on me, and I speed up too. I tense, aware of my hands stuffed deep in my pockets, sweeping my eyes around for anyone nearby.

“Whooooooooaaaaa-baba-hacha!”

The shout makes me jump and I twist around to see a man behind me, his hand to his mouth, his head angled up towards the block of flats. A second too late, the information reaches my brain that his voice had been directed away from me. I realise I have taken my hands out of my pockets in fight or flight.

The man notices my reaction and apologises. I tell him Don’t worry, you just made me jump.

“It’s fine now,” he says as he catches me up, brisk. He puts his hand to his chest. “It’s fine now. You were feeling threatened but you’ve had your scare. The fear’s gone; it’s out of your body now.” He motions with his hand, moving his palm away from him. As he does this I feel a lifting in my chest, as if this tangible thing – fear – were indeed passing through my skin and dancing away into the air. You’re right, I say, and I walk away, no longer aware of my back or my hands deep in my pockets.

Enter the Coliseum

As soon as I arrived, S said she thought we would be the only ones down there. We grimaced. “Should we leave?” We watched the door but no one else was going downstairs. How to explain? It’s just research! We’re not real punters. We’re more likely to take notes than laugh out loud. We decided to stay but that we’d need a cover story.

Searching the room for inspiration, we spotted the man at the door who had spoken to us as we arrived. The function room was double-booked, he said, so the council meeting about the drains is just around the corner – there’s a comedy gig happening here. So that was our cover: we’d arrived for the meeting about the drains and decided to stay for the comedy gig instead.

Thus bolstered, we went downstairs. It was immediately obvious that we were indeed the only audience members there. An odd assortment of characters huddled together in a pack, managing to be both nonchalant and nervous – the comics. We felt observed. The compere nicknamed us ‘the genuine audience’.

The first act came on with his guitar, looked us in the eye once and then spent his whole set avoiding eye contact and singing to the rest of the room. Why? Because his set was aggressive and sexist and badly matched for an audience of two women in a quiet room. Here there was no group hysteria to rely on, no social lubrication that would mean we would, despite ourselves, laugh at jokes about violence to women. He made no adjustments to his set, in tone or content, and we watched him in silence. The compere shot anxious glances our way. The first act finished, giving an embarrassed wince and retreated to the side of the room.

At this point it became clear that, aside from being awkward, this was actually a situation where we had a lot of power over the room. We could decide to withhold our laughter and everyone would hang on that decision like the crowd in a coliseum waiting for the emperor’s thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

The compere burst back onto the stage with energy. This time he made great play of asking us questions, engaging us, trying to win us over. Because he wasn’t one of the acts, he had some distance from the success or failure of the night (as conventionally measured in laughs-per-minute). This outsider’s position meant he was the only person who could say how crap the gig was. He asked us why we had come and we gave our story about the council meeting. The compere blinked, obviously startled that the only audience members were ‘accidental’, but quickly incorporated it into his narrative.

The next few sets were very patchy. Another aggressive misogynist act with a central rape joke was a lowlight, but there were one or two good moments, and whenever we responded with the smallest smirk, the whole room noticed it.

About two thirds through the line up, a woman began by saying she was throwing her set out of the window. She brought the mic with her over to the audience and straddled a chair, facing us. She spent some time asking us questions, quipping and improvising, with mixed success. But her act of joining us in the audience was striking. Suddenly we were surrounded on all sides by the comics, facing us – the subject of her set. There was a power shift – we were no longer Roman emperors and there wasn’t so much at stake in our laughter alone because the comics were more at ease. It made me consider the role of domination in stand up comedy. How much of a comic’s act relies on power shows and domination? The content of this comic’s set wasn’t amazing, but her simple adaptation to the situation was, at this moment, radical. I realised that if the room’s not laughing then there’s an opportunity to do things differently that most comics can’t, or won’t, take.

Dream Bag

A dream last night about my bag being stolen. It had one of those typical dream contradictions – first, the bag had been stolen and then I was reunited with the bag that hadn’t been stolen after all. I was aware of this contradiction live in the dream, and did a double take when I saw the bag. It seemed to hum and pulse with some meaning that I couldn’t quite grasp; I knew that these two events were contradictory, but not that that contradiction itself was wrong or impossible. I continued to look at the bag and turned it over in my hands. Then, the dream’s narrative took over and I realised that it was my purse that had been stolen, not the bag, and that I’d better cancel my debit card. The urgency of taking this action – cancelling the card – forced me away from uncovering the dream’s sequence and pulling the whole fabric of it down around me.

Patriarchy in the Pool

Slow Guy
His body, suspended and lopsided, tilts and sends shoots of bubbles either side. His trunk rolls at a different pace to his legs, which lag behind and act as brakes to his front half. His head rotates upwards as more bubbles are pushed into the water, bobbing around, clinging to a hand and then dancing up to the surface. His legs go slack and sway, like the movements of a doll shaken in a dog’s mouth, played in slow motion. His hands move stubbily, searching for (but not finding) an elegant arc. At the surface he slaps and sucks the air, but underneath all is quiet – just the gentle fizz of bubbles against my face and the irregular motion of wavelets that reach me.

I have a lot of time to think about patriarchy when I’m swimming in my local pool. Sometimes it’s when I’m stuck behind Slow Guy, amazed that he can struggle and pummel the water so much with so little forward movement. I try swimming with just my arms, pulling my motionless legs slowly behind me, pondering the forces that play on him as he reaches the end, fails to notice he’s holding everyone up, and turns to complete another length inefficiently.

Sneak In Front Guy
He waits at one end, quietly observing the lane. He works on the correct positioning of his goggles, takes a sip of water from a sports bottle, sometimes does some stretches. He settles so that he seems completely still, a groyne which bears its tide mark. Then, just as I’m nearing the end and preparing to turn, Sneak In Front Guy flies away in a funnel of water and swims off, slightly slower than me, a hand’s breadth ahead.

There’s a lane etiquette that seems written and upheld almost exclusively by women. It involves observing the swimmers before getting in, choosing your lane to match your speed, noticing if anyone is close behind you and – if someone behind is faster – pausing at one end so that they can overtake. Sometimes men use this etiquette too, and sometimes women break it, but it’s rare.

Overtaking Guy
His body is equipped with a watch and timer and he always does a neat underwater turn at each end, sleek as an otter, head over heels. He has a beautiful front crawl which is at its most efficient when he’s under a length behind me. He sprints at the overtake, pushing waves of water diagonally across the lane, then seems to relax and slow until he spots another person to pass up ahead.

Patriarchy is a force on the women in the pool too, causing us to position ourselves as overly submissive. We make a show of our lack of speed, using slower strokes, or ostentatiously allow slower people to pass us to set a good example. Either that or it pushes us into sudden bursts of competition, racing others with violent jerks of our legs, or it leaves us to froth quietly, imagining the water around us boiling with suppressed anger.

After an unsatisfactory length pursued by Overtaking Guy, I froth. The entire pool evaporates and all the swimmers drop to the ground, gyrating their hands and legs in positions that seemed natural just a few moments ago. They look around at each other, suddenly embarrassed by their tight, lycra hides and aware not only of the differences between their bodies but also their uncomfortable similarities. They remove their goggles, dust themselves off (though they are perfectly clean) and, with the assistance of a confused lifeguard, struggle their way out of the pool.

They march one by one to the showers before looking down and realising that they are already perfectly dry. Some decide to shower anyway, others frown and head to their lockers, noticing the dry rustle that replaces the usual slapping noise under their feet. They all leave separately, having covered themselves with cotton, polyester and wool mixes, shod themselves and arranged their steam-dried hair. It’s only when they arrive home that they wonder what strange event could have suddenly evaporated the pool, and whether it will ever happen again.

Rebecca

Four boys as I leave the entrance to my estate. Four boys, two on bikes, one missing his front teeth – milk teeth, probably. As the door slams shut behind me, one kicks at the row of Boris Bikes. A rehearsed kick, stamping down hard, eyes on target, trying to knock off the rear reflector – adding another to the plastic debris littering the road nearby. Another red gem that refracts the light of the sky or streetlights, made a redundant distraction, making no-one visible, protecting no-one.

What I should have said:

“Hey.”

They would have tried to get away.

“Hey, wait a second. I want to tell you something.”

They would have stopped at a distance, wary, tensed for fight or flight.

“Look, I don’t care about the mayor or Barclays and their stupid sponsorship deal. I don’t care about these bikes. But if people are going to use them I do care about those lights. You know why? Because I lost a friend cycling on the streets of London. She died under the wheels of a lorry. And so anything that helps keep cyclists safe is important. OK? Understand what I’m saying?”

Surprise Midwife

I carried our drinks to the table where I’d left Brown and found he’d gained a neighbour: David. Three piece suit, floppy, salt and pepper hair, dark-rimmed glasses. I’d noticed him before, a few inches taller than everyone else as we made our way from bookshop to pub. Closer up, there was something wrong in the way he talked with Brown that I couldn’t place at first.

As I settled into my chair and Brown spoke I noticed David’s eyes flick up and down, taking him in. For what? What was he hoping to gain from this? It was uncomfortable and David either didn’t notice it or chose to transcend it – or exploit it.

Brown: “How do you know the author?”

David: “We went to college together.”

Brown introduced us. As we traded hellos I noticed his posture – his arms spread, leaning back, or peering over the rim of his glasses, with a conspiratorial look. He moved between these poses fluidly and often, and showed complete ease in conversation. Then:

“What do you do, Emma?” (Leaning back)

“I work with artists on their projects.”

(Conspiratorial, eyebrows arched) “An artist’s assistant?”

Brown: “She’s a curator.”

“Sounds very… fulfilling.”

This guy’s an arsehole, I thought. “It has its moments. And you?”

(Slight flicker of the eyes) “I’m a lawyer.”

He doesn’t like admitting that, but he’s proud too. “A specialism?”

“Yes, I’m very good with technical detail, so I chose the most difficult type of law. I’m a tax lawyer.” (Leaning back, more at ease now)

“The most difficult? What’s easy law?”

“Family, corporate…criminal. Too easy. So I went for the hardest thing – I love the detail. The only problem is, you’re dealing with motherfuckers all the time.”

“Motherfuckers?”

“Rich people avoiding tax.”

There was a pause. I traded looks with Brown.

David spoke very fluently about his dissatisfaction with tax law and something built up inside me.

“It sounds like you need to change your career…” A pause. A word forced its way out of my mouth before I had the chance to consider it.

“Midwife!”

Brown laughed. David blinked, then recovered quickly.

“Actually,” (Sincerely, eyes down at the table) “I’ve got experience in that. I’ve delivered two babies and I’m really good at it, I just understood what needed to be done. I absorb technical detail. Most people take in 30% of speech, but I absorb 99%, it’s what I do. So in antenatal classes I just took it all in, understood the mechanics of it. Because the baby’s one shape and a woman’s pelvis is another. There’s only one way they fit – it’s obvious. So the mother of my children was giving birth and I was with the midwives, and I just stepped in and said, ‘This is what we need to do.’” He gestured with his hands, rotating an imaginary baby in the air. “They looked at me after and asked me, ‘Have you done this before?’” A pause. “So it is something I’ve thought about.”

Violence and the Queen

A collage of conversations around the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee weekend

Are you doing anything for the jubilee weekend?

No, I couldn’t. I’d get too cross.

Are you being a grumpy old woman?

Well, I can’t stomach it. It would be like… riding a roller coaster on the Gaza strip. All that jollity and celebration, but something rotten at the heart of it that I can’t get past. I can’t put the context to one side.

I’m just going to see the boats – you never get to see a show like that.

Yeah, it’s true… I was going to go to my friend’s event, called Incitement. He was going to screen films that incite people to violence.

That’s nice! How fitting, this weekend.

Exactly! It’s very much planned for the jubilee. But he rearranged it. The problem for me is that whenever you get near the queen you have something at stake in behaving well, something you’re you’re meant to thank her for – like if she’s giving money to your charity or something – so you can’t be violent. Normal people don’t get to meet her unless we’ve got something that could be jeopardised.

You want to be violent to the queen?

Yes, I’d find it hard to stop myself.

You want to hurt a little old lady…

She’s more than that.

I know, but… Seriously, you want to be violent to her?

If that’s what it takes. When I say violence, I don’t necessarily mean hitting someone or setting fire to a building, more like an act that punctures or disrupts something. If I was in a room with the queen, I’d find it really hard not to push her, or shout, or chuck a glass of water in her face. Something that punctures the… fawning and admiration, I suppose. And something that doesn’t allow her to feel comfortable in this situation, wielding power supposedly over a population who consent to it – however passive that consent is. I don’t consent, I’d want her to know that – I think it’s really important. I want her to feel her position’s at risk, which it should be.

Why don’t you like her?

She’s a symbol of the massive social inequalities in this country. And theocracy, inherited entitlement rather than democracy. You know, the Guardian did a survey after the riots and one in 12 mentioned the queen – not all said directly that she was the reason they were rioting, but she’s a symbol of these inequalities, she reinforces them. It sounds vague, but I think arguments on the other side are vague too. Someone on the radio described her as “cultural glue holding our society together”. I have no idea what that means.

I guess I have nothing against the queen as an individual. You know, she’s been trained from an early age to do this role – she doesn’t know anything else. If there’s going to be change, I think it needs to be cultural, or political.

Yeah, that’s true, there does need to be cultural and political change. But I just can’t forgive her for being complicit in her situation. She doesn’t have to sign up to it. She could abdicate any time, say, “Actually, I’ve just realised this is all really silly, let’s put an end to the whole thing.” But she doesn’t, she carries on. She visits charities or whatever, but that’s the least she can do when she’s participating in a situation that’s causing harm to this country.

Mediating the Tube

Walking along the platform of Tower Hill tube station with C we became aware of a man ahead. He was tall and well built, obviously drunk, and muttering aggressively. As he passed us he shouted, “Fucking [something]!” A few steps later he turned and tried to pass me, shouting abuse at C – criticising his hair, his clothes, his glasses.

At this point things moved quickly for me. I took him in, saw the way his eyes were locked onto C, noticed his anger, which was absolutely tangible. I saw I had a brief window to interrupt him before he reached C and that he threatened violence – not that he would necessarily be physically aggressive, but I judged in that moment he was capable of it.

I stopped him with a hand on his arm and he looked at me, surprised. I said, I can tell you’re angry, but I don’t understand why. He made some attempt to explain this to me, almost spitting with rage, and I forget the details of our exchange at this point – I just remember feeling my heart pounding in my chest. I was aware of how tall he was – a full head above me – and how close we stood. But I kept him talking and noticed he looked at me more, at C less, and that he seemed to be calming down. I thought, he’s just looking for someone to fight, a man, and I don’t fit with that. I saw that I wasn’t in danger and that the fear I felt wasn’t from a real threat but just from my proximity to such intense anger. He still directed this anger at C, but became friendlier to me. “You’re listening to me, you’re talking to me, but look at him just standing there silently…” Well that’s probably because you’re being really intimidating. He seemed to accept that. “But I like your coat, I like you’re hair, you’re beautiful.” You know, it’s hard to trust what you say after all you’ve said about my friend. He seemed to accept that too. Finally, as a train approached, he held out his hand to me and said, “Pleased to meet you.” We got on the train, him on one carriage, C and I on a different one.

Paramedic

When I moved into my new flat, its aesthetic was what I described as “bleak chic” – bits of it were crumbling or peeling, or just didn’t work. It’s on an estate with security doors and our flat had a yellowing plastic handset through which you’re meant to be able to speak to people outside and buzz them in. This had never worked from the beginning and we improvised – parachuting keys off the balcony – so the handset became one of the ambient features of the place.

One day my housemate and I were eating breakfast and heard a strange, persistent ringing sound. We searched the flat for its source and found it coming from our yellowing handset. Jabbing at buttons, we got the sound to stop. Some minutes later, there was a rap at the door and there stood a paramedic, looking as if he was in a hurry. He looked at a number scrawled on his hand and said, “56 Ackroyd Drive?”

“Yes…”

“I’ve got a patient for you.”

But it was the wrong house – I told him we weren’t expecting a patient and he walked off with a shrug. He may have got the wrong house, but he did heal our door buzzer – it’s worked without fail ever since.