I dream that it grows larger and larger. I dream that its arms grow into my arms and its legs grow into my legs. Its teeth are the worst. They tear through my gums and force my teeth to fall out so its own teeth can take their place. It becomes my body. I am trapped in it and it walks in my place and it talks in my place and no one can hear me and I scream and I scream and it is no use.
I wake in cold and sweating terror. I cry and I cry and I cry.
No one comes.
Doctor K has been with me from the start. She is in her late forties and I am her most important patient and least favourite person. I feel that she should be stern and angular and sharp featured. She is not. She is two inches shorter than I am. She is awkward and flabby and wears clothes that never fit her very well. Today she is wearing trousers that are slightly too short. They sit at the ankle of her flat, practical boots with their strangely square toe. The trousers are beige and they are fastened with a thin black belt which seems redundant. This is Dr K’s notion of accessorising, perhaps. She is carrying what can only be described as an anorak. What is left of my dignity would prefer I was attended by a witch of more traditional appearance, but instead I have Dr K. And she has me.
I know when she is coming because my mother does her very best to prepare. My mother, if she had a cleaner, would first clean the house lest the cleaner saw how dirty the house was. My mother suffers deeply from the shame of Dr K’s visits. For that I might enjoy them if I had the energy. I do not.
First we must tidy the room. We must ensure that here are no clothes on the floor and no books on the bed and that the bed is made with neat corners. My mother does this while I wash myself. Properly, my mother reminds me, as though I was ten and might neglect to scrub my dirty knees if not told to. I strip naked and stand at a sink of hot water and have what is probably called a sponge bath although I am not completely sure of that. I put clean underwear on, and my mother gathers my used clothes and underwear because they cannot be left about where Dr K might have to see them.
I sit at the desk because I cannot sit on the neatly made bed and disturb its sharp corners. I stay there while she scrubs my bathroom in case Dr K might wish to use it, or simply view it in order to judge us. While my mother is on her hands and knees, scrubbing the bathroom floor, I take a moment to wonder what judgement is yet to be delivered upon us that an unclean bathroom floor might bring forth.
Then my mother leaves my newly cleaned room and I wait. I do not hurl objects at the wall. I do not piss on the bathroom floor. I do not pour shampoo everywhere, coating walls and bedclothes with it, because the shampoo was replaced with a bar of soap after the first time. There is almost nothing you can do with a bar of soap; it will not even block a toilet. I do not scream. None of these things does any good.
Dr K, I am quite sure, has drawn the short straw with me. But then there is no expert in my field. Someone had to perform this role and Dr K has been charged with it. I believe she looks forward to the new year as much as I do.
She delivers her comments to a point that is very close to me but that is not quite to me. Our relationship is characterised by necessity. I do not believe we would choose to spend time together once a week were there any option about it. There is no option, and so once a week she comes to visit me. She asks me how I am as she enters the room with my mother, while she’s still moving and before she might have to look at me should I answer. I make a sound. It sounds indistinct to my own ears; it is an intention to indicate that I am fine and nothing is wrong, but without any effort to choose words to convey this. She nods briskly and does not return to this subject. She takes my urine sample with her when she leaves. They have never explained what exactly they test it for, but I know that is it a requirement.
I presume that most of the consultation occurs before and after her visit to me. There is not really very much point in asking questions of me.
If this was a story I would describe my dungeon cell. If this was a story I would be a princess in a tower. I am not a prisoner and I am not a princess. This is not a dungeon, nor is it a tower. I am just a girl. I am simply in a room. There is no romance to be spun from this, or none that I can find.
Rachel does not believe this.
Last week there were two flies in my room, which meant that for a little while it wasn’t a room of my own. It was also theirs. I don’t know how they happened. I do know they couldn’t find a way out either. They raged against the glass and then they trailed each other in endless circles for hours. I watched until I hypnotised myself and fell asleep. When mum came with dinner I told her about the flies. She ignored me, or pretended to. There are two flies, at the window, I said; they can’t get out. What do you expect me to do, she said very quietly. I had no answer. I cannot ask her anything I have asked her already and expect a different answer on the basis of two flies. They have germs, I said, and I started to cry without meaning to. You always said they have germs on their feet because they land in dirt and bacteria and people’s shit and they transfer it to food and they’ll hurt me. They’ll hurt us.
She made them leave but it was very complicated and I had to stay in the bathroom while she did it. Rachel visited me afterwards and she was angrier than the flies had been when they were trapped against the glass.
You can’t do that again, she said. Do not try that with mum again.
I was very quiet because I do not think Rachel is on my side. Nor do I know what that means anymore. Rachel, like mum, wants to protect me, but the me she wants to protect is not really me. I cannot explain that to her in any way that will make sense.
This is not just about you, she says very sternly before she leaves.
That is something I know perfectly well.
Afterwards, after the afternoon of the flies, I heard her and mum arguing. I pressed my ear against the door; Rachel’s voice rose sharply, falling and then becoming shrill in upset and anger. Mum’s was quiet. Perhaps it was defensive, or perhaps she was crying. In any case, only Rachel’s voice was raised in anger and hers were the only words I heard.
Stupid, storytelling, romantic nonsense.
That is what she said.
That is what I heard.
That is what Rachel thinks.
Rachel is wrong.
If I was going to make up stupid storytelling romantic nonsense I would make a different story entirely.
This is what is really happening: I am just visiting home to pack up some things before moving back into Mercer Road with Kelly and John and Dave. I stored my boxes and black sacks of badly-packed belongings here over the summer while I spent two months in Barcelona. And tomorrow I move back to real life. First Mercer Road, then uni.
We have gotten through the traditional series of summer’s-end, pre-term catastrophes, starting with John’s decision that he’s in love with Caroline Carter. Caroline rented my room for the summer while I was travelling. It always seemed like a bad idea, but we are forced to admit that even we didn’t see this coming. Because he’s now in love with her, John announced that he might just move out of our house since her new house has a spare room. And of course Dave declared his last minute intention to drop out of uni because there is no point killing himself to get a degree when the economy is this bad anyway – why throw good money after bad? He’s only going to end up with a II-2 in sociology and he’ll probably never make enough in his lifetime to even cover the amount it cost to do the degree in the first place. And if he’s destined to spend his life on the dole for the good parts and working behind a bar for the bad times, then why the hell put it off? This is what we hear, over and over, despite our best attempts to ignore him.
Kel and I have spent the week drinking heavily. I have been falling home in a taxi each night at what my mother regards as ungodly hours.
We have managed to talk Dave out of quitting uni, yet again. He has said it before every term, as I remember, complete with a dire economic forecast in which the value of money will be reduced to the warmth it provides when it is burnt. He gives this ten years. Although he can be very convincing, we get around his rhetoric by not paying terribly close attention, and by reminding him that the quantity of both work and bureaucracy in his life will increase sharply if he abandons his degree and throws himself upon the mercy of an ungrateful world.
We talked John out of his latest and stupidest plan in much the same way. He might think he wants to move in with Caroline, but does he really want to live with her brother? Or with her incredibly irritating friend Lisa who always has parties where everyone has to dress up as a character from the 1980s? He has agreed that it might not work out, and remembered that he hates packing and that moving house is a bloody nightmare. And so all four of us are going to live together for one final year of university before we presumably have a series of similar but subtly different crises this time next year.
Caroline is already moving her crap out of my real room right now, and John is helping her. Dave and Kelly are hiding in the pub because they have secretly hated Caroline for the last three weeks at least but haven’t dared share this fact with John. He thinks they’re just being lazy. I have been warned that my room will probably bear the lingering mark of her new-age detoxifying candles of crazy, but Kelly thinks I can probably drive that out with cigarette smoke in a couple of weeks. The best way to do this is to have an end-of-summer party to celebrate my moving back in or Caroline moving out, depending on which of these events makes you happier. That’s tomorrow night, once all my things have been moved in but probably before I have unpacked them. We started off with the idea of having a night in, just the four of us, but Jacs and Aurora are back from their Cambodian odyssey and no one has seen them yet, so we told them to come around. Of course, they hadn’t seen anybody else yet either, so it then became a ‘welcome back, Jacs and Aurora’ party, which will be closer to sixty people than six. There will be no lingering mark of hippy good health after that.
And I am in my old bedroom in my mother’s house, where my belongings might stay occasionally but I do not. I’m finding stuff I’d forgotten I even owned and considering just leaving it in storage here but then deciding it might come in handy. And yes, I’m taking the kitchen sink, as they will all say when they have to help me carry boxes upstairs.
Tomorrow, Dave brings the car around to help me move. He’s had about three hours sleep and smells as though they took place in a vat of beer. I try very hard to keep him from my mother, who watches the process fretfully from the window as we carry things out of the house and rest them carefully in the garden and occasionally on plants that were not designed for this purpose. There is no earthly chance that he is legally allowed to drive in his current state, but beggars can’t chose moving hours, or, apparently, the sobriety of their drivers. Nor can they point out that the driver might have had a shower and found some cleaner clothes. He’s doing me a favour. He’s carrying my boxes. He’s taking me home.
You have way too much crap, he tells me, after we have spent twenty minutes trying to pack boxes and bags into his mother’s car. The television has been put in and taken back out again three times, and I am only glad the weather has held. My lamp is still sitting on the garden wall and my free-standing mirror is standing freely in the garden, and neither is going to fit, even if we find a way of packing the television on the fourth attempt that involves it taking up no space at all. A lecture on commercialisation and western greed seems inevitable.
He goes over his familiar theory about how people would reduce their carbon footprint and improve his weekends if they took a different approach to moving house. “When you move house you’d just pick up your own clothes and books and personal stuff and leave all the basics for the next person. And then you’d move into your next place and all the basic stuff would already be waiting for you. No one would lose and some poor idiot wouldn’t have to waste their Sunday moving all this crap for the third time this year.”
There is no point in explaining to Dave that people often don’t want to use someone else’s towels. That they don’t want to sleep on someone else’s sheets. That it isn’t Sunday but Saturday. This is the price we pay for the free man and semi-van delivery service that is Dave. I can finally appreciate that it is a very small price indeed.
But that is tomorrow. This evening I’m bringing boxes down to the hall, although my mother is convinced someone, a mysteriously ill-defined someone, will trip over my boxes and hurt themselves. But I want to see visible progress in the moving process, and that means the boxes should be as close to the door as is reasonable.
After all, I wouldn’t stay here a minute longer that I had to unless there was a fucking court order forcing me to.
And this is why I do not make up stupid romantic storytelling nonsense. Because it makes the back of my throat hurt and my eyes ache. Rachel has no idea what she’s talking about.
Kelly and John and Dave are not moving back into Mercer Road this year. They will have a new house with someone else in it, or they will each have different houses. I cannot make up a story in which I move into their new house. I wonder if they make up stories about me.
Each day is laid neatly, routine and regulation. Meals arrive at nine and one and six o’ clock, and I have a watch so I know this. Since picking up my green pen, I have a new ritual: three times a day, before my mother comes, I shove the paper and the pen under my pillow. It is a strangely childish gesture and a familiar one. It triggers the sensation of having this this very thing a thousand times, and I try to think what I have hidden in this way over the years. The sense of déjà vu is off, very slightly. Is that because people used to knock on the door just before I slid secrets under my pillow? Chocolate before dinner time, Rachel’s toys, Rachel’s teenage books with illicit tales of boys and sex. Rachel’s diary, once. Novels, when I should have been doing homework. My own diary, when I kept one, when I was young.
For a moment today I wondered where my old diaries are, and then I didn’t. Could there be anything worse than meeting my fourteen year old self? Than introducing her diary to this, which exists not to document but to siphon off the part of my brain that would like to think and corral it instead into a very small and controlled portion of my physiology. All of my thinking is now directed though my cramped right hand. That is what this is. It is not a diary. A diary is what I had when I was fourteen.
But I will admit that it is strangely effective. Along with all the other facts I can’t remember or never knew, I have forgotten what automatic writing is. This is what it feels like. The creation of shapes on a page that resonate gently with a vacant, angry space in my head, a space that would otherwise boom and crash. The shapes I make on the page soothe the space and everything can be quiet.
Was this ever an approved treatment method for the mad? They did so many things to mad people that even I can remember some of them. They beat them. They beat them to drive the demons out. There is a primitive logic there, I’ll admit, although it would be amusingly contradictory in this case. There was basket weaving, a simple, manual task – it’s where the term basket case comes from. That’s probably more like it. That’s what they should prescribe here. There was art therapy and talking therapy, but did they ever give someone a pen and a room of their own and let green words fill pages until the person was no longer afraid of what they might think? Automatic writing was to do with ghosts and stream of consciousness was about poetry. This is something else.
This filters the sound in my head and the silence in the room. The silence makes me sing songs when I don’t know the words, and hum constantly, and talk the conversations in my head out loud. The sound in my head makes me scream. I can yell and I can shout but that doesn’t work. Perhaps this will. I think it does, but then my throat is sore and so options have been narrowed. Perhaps my hand will hurt instead soon but perhaps my voice will be better by then.
Perhaps this will end.
This is what I can’t think and shouldn’t write and why I slide this under my pillow in preparation for prearranged times. Because firstly I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to write here yet and secondly I am not entirely sure how it would be interpreted. “Perhaps this will end” could be interpreted as suicidal ideation and although I could plead before a jury that it is not, I don’t believe I’ll get a jury.
On that basis, a sensible person would tear these pages out as she writes them. Tear them out one by one and eat them, maybe. That would produce the same effect as invisible ink. But that sensible person would have to consume them as she produced them, because no sensible person would sit down to eat an entire notebook in one sitting.
Would it hurt me? I assume it would do no lasting damage. I base this assumption on the fact that things that can do lasting damage are not in this room. Only me. I am the only dangerous thing allowed here: therefore, I could eat these pages. But I don’t. I’m growing used to the green.
I continue in green, although I briefly considered alternating purple and green with the days. What has bothered me most since yesterday is why ink does not come in brown. I cannot get away from this question. Brown: the traditional, conservative colour for coats and bags and boots. But not pens. Ink must be black or blue, but not the other colours of bruises: purples and mauves fading to ochres and ambers. I today I want to use the internet, just to find out how the colours of ink became so firmly fastened within so small a world. A room of their own would be black and it would be blue, and it would be red when they were bad. It is undoubtedly all down to what dyes were available at a particular time, or the fancy of some king or scholar. There is undoubtedly a reason I cannot know. I miss knowing things. I miss knowing there are answers and that they are available just as and when I wish to fetch them, arrange them, admire them, forget them.
It worries at me, that I might have already have wondered about brown ink, that this meaningless question was already the subject of thirty seconds’ contemplation in a previous moment of my life. It is the sort of conundrum we used to sit about and contemplate in first year instead of going to lectures. It disturbs me that we might have looked the answer up and understood, fully and temporarily, why blue and brown ink hold their respective positions in the world. If we did, and this happened, then it is as though it never happened because I have no memory of it.
That’s what I think about.
I think about what I have forgotten.
For my eighteenth birthday my godmother sent me a copy of A Room of One’s Own. Something every woman should have, she wrote inside the cover. I read the book because I always read books that people gave me. It seemed rude not to, like ripping the paper from a present instead of opening the card first and thanking the person for their thoughtful wishes. I read the book but it did not affect me the way I think it was supposed to. I read the book but I had a room of my own and I never expected to be without one.
I have a room of my own now. I sit in this room that is my own and I try to remember what happened between that first room and this, because I am meant to be thankful for this space and instead I want to set fires that will consume it until there is no room at all. Perhaps until there is no me. This is the reason I cannot have matches. You cannot give someone a room but let them keep matches. That wouldn’t make sense.
The room was for writing, the first room of one’s own. Perhaps the room does not have to be for writing; perhaps writing can be instead for the room, to fill it, as a fire could if I did have matches and a can of petrol. Instead I have paper, and there is a packet of pens, each in different, odd colours: green and purple and pink along with a more traditional blue and a chastising red. I toyed with the blue, but there is no reason that I know why blue ink should be sedate and proper while purple or green are outlandish. If I dyed my hair green, no one would say, oh dear, why couldn’t she have gone with the traditional blue of a bic biro?
When I was sixteen I gave myself purple streaks. They were nothing like the brazen bright indifference of the purple pen now at my disposal. If I am truthful, neither were they much like anything I’d had in mind when I started. The experience put me off purple. In order to consolidate my position as hardened, wanton and wrong, I have begun to write with the green pen. I cannot say I find the effect entirely pleasing. It is possible that I expect too much.
When I was seven and my sister was ten, we read books about children who solved crimes at the expense of both criminals and police. Following the lessons laid out in our stories, we wrote important notes to one another using lemon juice as invisible ink. The message was supposed to be revealed when the recipient heated it, in our case using a hairdryer because candles were much too dangerous. It never quite worked but that didn’t stop us. What stopped us was the night I held the dryer too close and too long, distracted from the work at hand by the TV before me, and the paper caught fire. I would have made an awful detective.
Perhaps I’m just filled with thoughts of fire today. But I don’t think it’s to please the little pyromaniac within that I would like to write this in lemon juice instead of green ink. If I wrote it in lemon juice I wouldn’t heat it afterwards to watch the words reappear, even to court sparks and flame. I would write in invisible ink and the space in my room of one’s own would sink along with the words into the page and I would no longer have to see it. That would be better than green.
From now until Christmas, this blog will be undergoing some minor changes. These will principally involve ‘regular updates.’ These will also not really take the piss out of politicians.
Speculative gothic fiction. That’s the genre, should it exist. If it doesn’t: this is the story of a girl in a room. Because that’s how these things always go, isn’t it? A girl in a room.