All Away

November 1, 2009

‘She was an actress, she acted it all away.’

The declaration is definitive. Mr and Mrs Smith talk animatedly about an absent third party, who remains unspecified. She is less a particular individual than an absolute form of fallen person-hood, and their conversation is a testament to human suffering in the abstract.

Both are enjoying their anxiety enormously. Their eyes a-light, their voices are on fire, and the rapid flame of conversation dances in the margins of their words.

‘She was the best I ever saw,’ Mrs Smith enthuses, ‘Such passion, such talent, and that voice. Oh, that voice! There was something about that voice; a rich velvet, a purple voice.’

Mr Smith nods sagely,

‘This actress,’ he repeats, ‘This actress, she acted it all away,’

and shakes his head. Feeling the matter treated sufficiently Mr Smith is prepared to move on. He reflects on his own sadness, the day he couldn’t face getting out of bed. He hopes for a springboard to discussion, but Mrs Smith’s reflections remain fixed.

‘She parked her car in the woods to take the dog for a walk,’ she says. ‘Let me tell you about the black dog,’ he urges, ‘It follows me everywhere.’

‘No,’ she says, and resumes her course, ‘She went into the woods to take the dog for a walk. And she was never seen again.’

‘Let me tell you about the morning I stopped brushing my teeth,’ he chimes in, ‘I was thirty-three years old.’

‘Don’t be revolting, darling.’ She continues:  ‘Her last appearance on stage was a week previous,’ she sighs, and Mr Smith’s small admonition of despair goes resolutely unheeded.

Mr Smith grows impatient with this once potentially fruitful exchange. Has he not suffered too? Does he not feel? Why must she disregard the theatrical qualities of his unique tribulations? He snaps –

‘Quite frankly, my dear, I think you are being a bit previous.’

‘She was the best,’ she continues, ‘The best I’ve ever seen. Her Ophelia, her Goneril, her Lady Macbeth -’

‘Did you know her well?’

‘I met her at a party once,’ she murmurs.

Mrs Smith’s conversation has been defeated, and Mr Smith knows it. A small victory  has been secured.

The train pulls into the station. He lowers himself slowly from the step to the platform and holds out his hand. She ignores it and gropes her way from the edge of the door to uneven footing behind the yellow line.

A million miles away, or so it just as well might be, the actress dreams she is made of words. She bites into the sponge to silence the involuntary cry of the nightmare, waking.

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The boy in the torn T-shirt tattoos a red flower onto his wrist using a needle and a red ballpoint pen. He hunches over himself, perched on the old woman’s wall – the house opposite the supermarket – from which she heckles the traffic every dole day, reeking of whiskey, paint and peonies. But today she isn’t here – because today is Monday.

The boy’s expression is grotesque with concentration: his mouth is stretched wide in unwavering dedication to his task. He is a gargoyle on a high cathedral wall and the supermarket door is a portal to a hell lit with neon strip lights.

Their constancy is really a fast-flickering, a high frequency sound which screams in my ears, though those inside do not seem to hear it. It is the voices of the dead, who laugh at the living and their cut-price purchases: all those who have perished on this ignoble plain, a spillage in the cereal aisle.

The supermarket gargoyle has failed as anathema. People come, people go, but I try not to judge him too harshly.

His eyes roll back in their sockets and he slips from the wall, blood thick with red ink.

I shut my eyes tightly and step over the threshold. I remember her. The last time I saw her she was propped up in boots with holes in the soles, and a purple puffer coat on top. Her hair was falling out, she swayed. The history of her madness is well-documented: she likes sponges, they are all she ever buys.

She stands before me, her basket full of fibrous yellow fruit.

‘Do you eat it?’ I ask her.

She doesn’t reply and continues filling her basket.

‘Do you actually eat it?’

She stops. I lean forwards and press down hard on one of the sponges, my finger’s weight impressing. We hold our breath, and the roar in the aisles is still.

Centuries pass, empires crumble, and anticipation stretches between us like a current of electricity. It holds us fixed, magic. We wait.

The sponge springs back against the transparent plastic packaging, and the spell is broken. She smiles, a fine line drawn in red-ink.

‘Sponge cake,’ she says.