Quarantine rules, and…. quarantine rules. Isolation regulates interaction, even where isolation is not the rule. During this phase of the COVID-19 pandemic when, in the south of England, autumn’s fiery leaves are guttering from the seaside-smelling trees, I miss having conversations; not so much chance conversations, or conversations with strangers, but the conversations with people who can interpret life. I generally can’t.
How often do people read a poem and ask, “What just happened?” instead of “What does it mean?” Life is unlike poetry. Where possible, I bring happenings back to Edinburgh, and ask my friends both what happened, and what it meant. Attaching meaning to what happens to me, or becoming present to what happened, often requires reconstruction, less because I am (still) an immigrant, but because sociopolitical shifts have been accompanied by individuals shifting away from their normal, social selves. Neighbours looked shifty after the ‘Brexit’ referendum in 2016, when half the four nations in Britain declared for leaving Europe and the other two did not count as half. Four years later, everyone seems to be undergoing shifts unpredictable for their personality, as if some kind of fracking is being applied to our conscience or innermost sense of self. This would be a little true, virus or no virus.
Who would have thought that verbal replay could claim so much mental space? Just as, under the initial lockdown, I was not assailed by yearnings to leave the house, but visited keenly by memories of beloved places, so that I felt both as if were in exile from them, and as if I had received the gift of an interior miraculously inhabited by them, so conversations come back to me, and encounters, much less likely to happen now, and textured with the quality of time-before and time-after; time before plague, time after referendum…
Here is one. People were hurrying along the narrow concrete plateau with a stripe painted down the middle that was part of the (to me, exotic) design of the railway station in England. Steep staircases, like old-fashioned metal slides, led down from this higher level. Their sides were enclosed at banister height. Beneath, on the open walkway, passengers waited to board, and trains pulled up. Silver-white light asserted that it was winter. So did the wind that blew through and through. What a way to construct a waiting place in a cold climate.
I could not hurry. A heavy suitcase was in one hand, a heavy overnight bag looped over the other wrist, a hot drink in the ‘free’ hand. Proud to cope, as a smallish person, I stepped with my good boots on to the top stair. My feet slid out from under me. I caught my balance, stepping down to the next stair. My feet slid out again.
The silver-white light wavered and trickled to a halt, like a drain swirling. Suddenly I had a lot of time to think. My thoughts presented themselves to my mind in the style they used to take on when I was a teenager in a bad house: via an instant transcription service into the third person and a serif font, as if I were not myself but the reader of the living story of someone else. Let go of your bags. Let them kill somebody else, then. Your arms will break if you try to hold on. I let go of the bags, though not of the drink, as that command had not appeared in the mind’s eye’s prose. A few more times I tried to step and skidded. Then I loosened my limbs around a core that curled into a ball. I let go.
The steps fled before me at all angles, like piano and keys and piano hammers from a mouse’s terrified view. They shone. The light played on them, passing in quickness, so they looked black and white. The sky seemed to gather and turn a maternal gaze towards me. I felt held in my loose, curling shape as I fell many metres, landing at the foot of the staircase, arrived at the right platform.
I landed but experienced no inclination to uncurl. A man’s voice overhead asked if I was all right. I assured him that I was, though I had no sense of my body or its condition, only of being a shape like a mini croissant or part of a tumbled acorn that the squirrels had already got at, nibbled, and broken open. Having spent more than half my life in the UK, after the first while of making fusses, I had practised for two decades not to fuss.
Then a woman spoke. Her voice was rigid. She stood tall, with her silver-blonde hair, in a candy pink coat. That coat meant she was fun. She was turned three-quarters away and her syllables shook, but the tune of the sentence remained rigid. “Now would you do me the honour of cleaning my jacket.” The command floated from the mouth facing the opposite direction. It arrived over her head, into my brain. I got up and began dabbing with a napkin – did she give me one or was one in my pocket? – all over the bright padding.
I realized three things: that on the way down my drink had splashed on the lady; that the splashed lady was wearing a fine quality coat that had repelled the liquid; and that I must be shaken, as I was cleaning inefficiently. My hand moved in an irregular pattern and I became aware of the embarrassing warmth of her torso long before I could sense my own. Did I say something, or did I just stop without a word, board the train, sit on the floor, stretch out my legs, and unzip my boots to check the damage to my black glitter fishnets, and the bleeding?
Anyway, I left, and while this may seem like the memory of an accident, it is in fact the memory of a linguistic occurrence; by which I don’t mean the non-conversation conversation. What she said to me was nothing new. In her eyes, I was dirty and in the way. Proximity to me had dirtied her. If I had been dead at the foot of those stairs, I would have been dead, dirty, and in the way, and additionally administratively inconvenient.
The linguistic occurrence was how much I left in wordlessness. I couldn’t describe what had happened. There was the sheer lack of vocabulary. “Was there black ice on the stairs?” my friends in Scotland asked me. “No,” I said. I knew what black ice was. In my imagination, it was glossy black, like an obsidian mirror. Why not? I had seen green and blue polar ice on television. In real life, I had seen seas like white clay and topaz, rock faces the colour of brickwork, and the rising of the red moon. Why would you call black ice ‘black ice’ if it…wasn’t black? My friends were gentle. They asked me to describe exactly how the stairs had seemed to slide away; how my good boots found no grip; what was the temperature under the bright sky. That was black ice, they said. That was what you call ice you can’t see.
Now I knew what had happened, but not what it meant, until I told the funny, shocking story (black ice! I had no idea!) to a tall poet in a very bright coat. Their eyes became huge and the curls fringing their face danced. They were shaking slightly, feeling what I felt, what had happened to me without my being able to feel it.
“That is very violent,” they said.
The way the splashed lady spoke to me, apparently…
“It’s the most violent thing I’ve heard in weeks,” said my poet-activist friend, frequently the object of gender violence.
Somehow the splashed lady’s violence had used me as a conduit. Now it was hurting my friend, who did not seem to care about being hurt, but about taking care of me.
Without friends to take care of the sense of self, who are we?
The secret of Narcissus is that when he looked into the pond, he did not see his reflection. He saw the reflection of the people following him, the ones left behind by the story. From the watery shadow of their faces, he knew that he was beautiful. From the pain clear in each other’s faces – from nothing in their too-shaken hearts and trembling limbs – they realized that he was cruel. But until then, not until then.