By Nadia Kingsley
ISN’T it curious, I say as I close the Ali Smith book of short stories for this first final time, that it’s really difficult to tell a happy story… Why is that?
You say nothing. I don’t know if this is because you haven’t heard me, or because you haven’t got anything particular to say. You have always been like this. Sometimes I find it an honest way to be, and envy you… But then sometimes I just feel invisible.
I hadn’t realised that he actually sewed his mouth shut, you say. You are looking at your tablet.
We both like a mug of coffee in bed in the mornings. You read out loud without warning, and though it bursts the bubble of anything that I’m reading I don’t ever tell you this. I also don’t tell you that I’ve woken up anxious again. You’d ask me why, exactly, I’m feeling anxious – and although it’s a very good question, I don’t know the answer and this will frustrate you and I will feel worse about myself. So I just think about the possibilities: It could be because of that one email, but really? Or perhaps because I have finally finished my project which filled both our lives up for a solid year and went so well I’ve now earned this time off, but I don’t do time off very well. This leads me to thinking about Strictly Come Dancing. I don’t tell you about this either, because you hate the programme – though still manage to derive occasional amusement from listening to Frank Zappa through your headphones while couples flounces round (your words).
Instead, I ask you about the man. He’s a Russian artist, you say. He sewed his mouth shut in protest at the arrest of Pussy Riot. You start reading from the article. I love you reading to me – and I always get a flashback to the bedroom in the Windmill, after my near fatal car accident when I felt really safe, and about five years old.
He nailed his scrotum to the cobbles in Red Square, and wrapped his naked body in barbed wire. They’re beautiful, I say to the photos. He was arrested for burning tyres on a bridge. He’s been sentenced to a year in prison.
Thing is, I think, Strictly Come Dancing is kinda like the post-apocalypse or war: it is all-consuming – life is very simple for as long as you survive – just one goal; everyone else around you has to make allowances – no wonder they all find it so transformative and the single hardest most rewarding thing they’ve ever done other than childbirth. It could be anything. As long as it’s a skill and all-consuming, and with some kind of jeopardy built in, I guess. Gosh, I say to you, that’s harsh. You say nothing. You must be reading something else.
I say Do you remember that winter, back in our old house, when the temperature got down to minus thirteen and the roads were ice and snow and our days reduced to making sure we were warm, and fed, and nothing else? Those were good simple days. You don’t reply. I don’t know if that’s because you’re thinking of all that wood you had to chop, or just didn’t hear me.
The anxiety, of course, could be all because of global warming. Or because how I’ve just discovered how I’ve been burying my own personal fear about it so deep, and under so many complex layers of justifications and soothing unfounded beliefs – that I am now questioning who I am. I’d built up this self-belief that I was an intelligent curious person, ready to face fear, and reject self-delusion at whatever the cost. And the really odd thing about the Climate Change conference was just how positive things are looking – I had no idea about the thousands and thousands of worldwide initiatives that are already in place. It’s like whenever I go to London – I am particularly surprised by the small kindnesses strangers constantly show each other, exactly when I’m wondering whether to take a thirty pound taxi ride back to my friend’s, just in case the tube’s not safe on a Saturday night.
I think about last week at Birmingham Waterstones – my first time there. They have a single copy of each book, so the floor of fiction is extremely well stocked. You can look for the author you want, alphabetically, or they offer you the choice of about twenty books – all on a theme – on a table that you can stand and look down at. There is a suitable witty or thoughtful quote on a spike, so you know what the theme is, though I don’t remember the short story one. I picked the Ali Smith up because of its title: Other Stories and Other Stories. I thought it was clever – and funny, and I still do – but having read it all now I also know how appropriate the title is – because there are always stories within a story isn’t there?
Are you getting up first, or shall I? you say. And although many might think our relationship curious, I am reminded in that moment – about just how much I love you, and so I say you.
©Nadia Kingsley 2016