A Woman Builds A Man

Transcript from opening remarks by our keynote speaker, Professor Juniper Thrust

And now the question will always be – where to start – you see, you see? Never easy is it.  Like sponge cakes, homemade aphrodisiacs and garden furniture, it looks a doddle. 

But let’s take garden furniture.  Where would you start? No, nothing in front of you. No blueprint, no manual.  You’d know you’d need to arrive at a table and chairs but the proportions and dimensions and the joints and the adhesives don’t come quick, do they?  No, what I mean is the difference with garden furniture and homemade aphrodisiacs and whatever else I said, was it an egg sandwich? No with these things, you start with the base materials and a recipe, or an idea of a recipe at the very least to get you where you are going.

But man is the double bluff.  We think we know everything but we start with nothing.  And we know nothing.  So really, the process is about how we deal with the experience of nothing or the realisation at the start of knowing nothing when we thought we knew everything.  And that is what proves the undoing of an erstwhile creative force.  It overwhelms.  Belittles.  Taunts. Denies.

We’re not in egg sandwich territory anymore!

It was Tribbet who made a first attempt to delineate all the qualities of a man and the concomitant methodology for his creation.

I see you have your Tribbet with you.  Nice and new.  An unbent spine.  Good!  An unbent spine is how it should be with Tribbet.  Do not read.  Tribbet makes a valiant attempt to control and objectify what we are doing here but we, we are straddling the line between art and science and we will not be textbooked!

So I’m sorry if you got it for the course.  The Tribbet.  Do you have the receipt still? 

Please do not buy the textbooks.  For there is no methodology when making a man, there is only instinct and trust and perseverance.  Write that down instead, if you must.

While Tribbet arguably excelled at proportion and mental dimension (the garden furniture again), she utterly failed in the consideration and inclusion of the one of the principles of my pedagogy – you must have quirks in the organic material.

Show of hands – does your man have blue eyes?  Dark brown hair, a Celtic brogue – a good 12 of you, fans of a certain Irish Romance Writer, I presume.  Lovely stuff.  But how about wrinkles?  Acne scars? Triangulated moles? A birthmark that comes out in the sun?  I implore you to think beyond the obvious, the perfect in your incantations.  Perfection is bland.

Quirks in the organic material.  The last time I made a man, I gave him three fingers on one hand and we had a wild time coming up with the reason why, he and me together.

Which brings me to synchronicity. The first time I made a man was when I found a driver’s licence in the back garden of my little crofter’s cottage in Devon.  My son immediately assumed it was an intruder – how else could it be there – and demanded that I call the police.  I nodded, promised to do as he suggested and scurried that little card away from his purview into my private place, a turn of the century jewellery box that I’d hidden beneath the floorboards. 

The man in question –   and I shall protect his identity for he is now a mixologist of some note in the province of Bolton – rather the licence of the man in question was a provisional licence.  Immediately a brain honed in book clubs and writer’s groups sprang into action.  A man – from the photo in his forties – intense and expressive with a side cocked nose and one continuous eyebrow – why would he only have a provisional license?  I grew up in a nuclear family which went well, nuclear – but I hold onto a lot of those conditioned beliefs. The woman cooks.  The man drives.  So what caused the anomaly here?

New to this country?  Perhaps in reality an accomplished motorist at home but thwarted by his provisionality here – or riches to rags? Always previously had a driver? I would spend hours, speculating on this with the peonies, or in bed, my fat feet in the air and my throat in my ears just singing of him.

Never once did I think of investigating his whereabouts.  Yes, I have the internet, but no.  To jump into my imagination felt like diving into a deep blue infinity pool, untarnished by the turds and tourists of fact and obligation.

Regarding the licence my son asked but once, and then muttered and shuttered himself in his bedroom with the bluelight; just so I began to sequester myself.  Regarding my sanity, he commented but once that I had ‘lost my mind’.  Work had called about my absence and he didn’t see why he had to make excuses.  ‘After all’ he said. ‘I’m not dad, am I?’.  Thank god I thought to myself. ‘Thank God’ I said aloud and he shuttered and muttered himself into the blue light again.

I first noticed the milk – his milk – curdled in the fridge, untouched.  No note. 

And it was while I was looking at the curdled milk in the fridge that I began to think about turning and changing and about the man on the driver’s licence and how to make him mine or real or both.  I looked around my kitchen – the large oak table, the aga, the pantry that I kept stocked with all the chemicals and biological components specific to my profession.  And I thought – now is the time to make him, the man on the licence, mine and real and both.

Ad this is where synchronicity led me – the discovery of the driver’s licence when I was at what my sister called my ‘lowest ebb’, my general malaise with the industry’s refusal to embrace my views on the potential of science, art and witchcraft, plus the abandonment of my adult son, these conditions gave up the terrain and desire for my experimentation.

Does that sound callous about my son?  Well you’re here and you wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t made the choice to be societally a ‘terrible mother’.  So how do you feel about yourself now?

Right.  So we have quirks in the organic material, synchronicity and lastly and briefly, mystery.  As you will know, there is a fairly sizeable chunk in all of my collected works which is just blank pages.  Deliberate – you need to accept the unknowable.  Granted, you need to have a very clear backstory for your man as gaps are terribly embarrassing later when you are attempting to pass at a party.  Please ladies – decide in advance if he understands Scrabble!  But beyond that – I cannot teach you – you have to trust in the alchemy, be of university standard across all three academic sciences and have an openness to the fourth science, a woman’s wisdom.

And access to fresh meat.  Lots of it.  More than you think.  Befriend your butcher.

I thank you for your time and interest and open the floor to questions.

St Martin’s Day

NIGEL SIMON’S MEMORY LANE

Shooting Script: “Accidental Tourist”/Asturia (Episode 1)

  1. GVS:  THE FARMHOUSE, SHOTS OF NIGEL EXITING VAN, WALKING UP DRIVEWAY, GREETING OWNERS IN YARD, VIEWS FROM TERRACE

NIGEL (VO)

It’s been twenty years since I stumbled upon this beautiful spot in the Asturian countryside.  Indeed,  ‘stumbled upon’ is the right phrase; it was a broken van and even more broken Spanish which led us here in the first place.  I remember that we were a crew of rag tag, sweaty English blokes in rugby shirts and jeans, grumpy and hungry from one too many wrong turns, but, despite our appearance, Xurde and his family welcomed us in to their home for the night and served me one of the most memorable meals of my life…

  •  INT: VERANDA

NIGEL (TO CAMERA)

 Sitting here on the veranda, the word serendipity comes to mind. (Raising glass)

I’m in the old kitchen. The fabas are steeping in a cream plastic bucket with a cracked rim, which I find on the sticky shelf behind the old deep fat fryer. I give it some attention, folding kitchen paper in to an arrowhead to scrape up the mealy brown glue which rimes its lip.  Then in go the beans and water from the tap.  And that’s it. Fabada isn’t cooked under heavy, black skirts in silence; it’s made wearing jeans, sound-tracked with fuzzy jingles on the radio, rasping men with opinions who phone in to shout at the DJ. I smoke a cigarette. A hair clings to the thick surface of the bean water – one of mine – and I push it under.  The water is silky and I think of the cloudy surface and what my face would look like from beneath. 

They wanted to film me preparing the dish but I said no – and something in my voice at that moment made my grandfather nod and close his eyes and smile, nod again. Then he took the man with the clipboard and the headphones away, away to the orchard, the farmhouse extension and the little blue tiled, kidney shaped pool which is to be used only by the guests, because they paid for it, after all.  Everything we do now is for the guests, including that new kitchen, which is all metal dials and silver chrome and reminds me of a robot lying down on its side, dead to the world.   It’s not like the one that I’m now in, which is our kitchen, where I am thinking of my face from under the water. This one is small and square and dark and the shelves under the scarred old counter top are crammed with twisted vines of tomatoes and aubergines that contort and gleam like bodybuilders, onions bound to one another with twine. Knives cling to a metal strip on the tiled wall in front of me – the handles, some blue, some oak, some rubber – show their allegiance to different masters and times.  This is the kitchen where I will cook, where they will not film me. 

Even so, I want to be just like our special guest, so I’ve laid out the ingredients in little bowls; the garlic in an olive dish, pimenton in a saucer, black pepper in the pestle. I pick saffron strands, crisp and brittle like a mummy’s hair, and rub them hard and slow between my thumb and forefinger.  I feel the alchemy of heat, pressure and my own essence, distilled in the oils from my fingertips, as I wear those threads down, down to a biddable dust.

There were so many rules when I first moved to the farm, and most of them were about St Martin’s Day and the pigs. My grandfather kept me away from them, told me not to feed them, play with them, name them, because it would make it harder when they were slaughtered. I followed his advice because I was a good girl and I was five, so the idea of betrayal was vivid to me then. But I risked encounters wherever I went on the farm because they, the pigs, had license to roam as much as me.   Even now I remember one time, one time which has come to stand for the whole, when I looked up from the rigours of a day shift as chief surgeon at the doll hospital I had established underneath an acorn tree into the keen eyes of one of our sows, in close up. I stood and walked away on bamboo legs. And I never went back to get those dolls. 

But then I found out who I was when I was twelve and since then I’ve looked forward to St Martin’s Day.  My grandfather holds the animal still, but I bring my knife to its neck. I offer no words of consolation or comfort.  I offer nothing. In that moment I’m a butcher, not a priest.

In my small dark kitchen, I unwrap the meat for our special guest. I can tell that it came from a good pig because the chorizo is the colour of my lips and spattered with beads of fat which weep in the heat.  And the morcilla gives itself willingly to the pressure of my blade, revealing a face so purple that it’s black to me.  I place my hands on the chopping board, either side, just for a second, then I switch off the radio.

I have only seen the programme twice, on a video cassette that I found when I moved in to my mother’s old room.   In it, there’s a young woman who looks like me who crosses the veranda carrying a terracotta dish. Her head shakes and dips like she is singing a song to herself and she smiles at the floor.  She stands next to the special guest while he eats.  Then he starts to make big eyes, still chewing and, dabbing his mouth with a blue silk handkerchief, he pushes back his chair. Wow, he says.   He looks at her hair when he says it.  This is what he does in all his programmes, I’ve watched him. 

Six months after that day, that moment, that wow, that smiling nodding girl left Asturia to stay with my aunt’s family in Murcia.  Five years later a little girl, me, returned alone.

But the dish is ready now.  The man with the clipboard and headphones comes in with my grandfather, who is wearing a maroon cummerbund under a black jacket which has faded to green at the shoulders.  I place the cazuela dish in his hands – it is hot and his hands tremble and drop a little under its sudden weight. I think of him standing next to his ‘friend’, nodding like my mother did, watching him speak to the camera, but I don’t dwell.  There’s cleaning up to do.

That night I go to our special guests’ room.  I ask him if he enjoyed the dinner, my dish, but his eyes are looking at my hair (he doesn’t see the him in me) and his mouth is smiling and he is already pushing closed the door to his room and pouring a second glass of wine.

‘That isn’t what I came for’ I say. 

‘Well, now.’ He replies softly and his light changes again and he sinks to the bed and pulls me close.  It’s the one thing I let him do.  I pluck off his shirt and grip his hair.  It’s crisp and brittle like a mummy’s.   His eyes are the colour of my lips.  I take the knife from my apron and sure enough he gives himself willingly to the pressure of my blade. He reveals a new face then, and it’s pure black.

I offer nothing.  I’m a butcher –  not a priest – and every pig must have its St Martin’s Day.

Trina Belmont Takes a Break

Dr Bart floats past, two nurses in pursuit. 

Mother is reading Photoplay and wants me to know this; she sniffs and shifts in her seat. Then I see why – it has Ava on the cover in mink, meaning that I’m p.32, one column including headshot: ‘Trina Belmont Takes a Break’, between adverts for Drano and Mandel’s stilettos. 

Stilettos.   I think about borrowed heels. My first audition.

‘We need to see your upper torso,’ said the man behind his paper behind the bar.

 ‘Why?’

‘So we know you’re not cheating us.’

Dr Bart reappears. I think about Ava in mink and part my lips, lift an eyebrow. A nurse sees me and gives a little heart shaped gasp; she looks better for it, as do I.

‘Would you come through?’ she says.

I smile the smile I honed in ‘Evergreen’ and follow her.

‘Lie down, Miss.’

I do as I’m told.  Mother is talking but it’s two jigsaws at once –her voice and then that make-up girl on set that time, who’d talked about pomades and hair- loss. Why do I remember? I don’t know.  I was tired then, too; I’d been stood on a plinth and given roller-skates to hold.  Without a thought for why, I bared my teeth and plumped my lips. Then I was holding a cheetah cub, and the very liveness of this thing slapped me round – I didn’t knowwhat to do, to be with it – but I bared my teeth and plumped my lips.  The photographer nodded, set up.

 I never saw that photo and I doubt that it’s anywhere now.

Dr Bart arrives. He whispers to me from somewhere down his throat, about rest and dressings, dressings and rest. I’ve seen him before, buying groceries, with his wife, who was round and ashen and looked forgotten. I was unpacking the eggs when the studio called: Mr Braunstein was unhappy. ‘Stars don’t buy tuna-fish, not in slacks’, apparently. So Dr Bart had seen me, too. 

Still, we all serve a purpose, don’t we? Years later, I’m in the chair, getting made up to be ‘Mother’ in ‘Fireside’. I remember Bart’s wife and her twilit eyes.  But when I’m tilted upright, it’s not Mrs Bart that I see in the mirror. It’s Trina Belmont, who took a break – and still got old.

Sunday, 1st January, 1978

This time 44 years ago, my mum was very pregnant and probably annoyed with all of that kind of stuff. She would still look immaculate, mind – she would have shot herself rather than give in to the spread of me across her hips and round her middle – I imagine her in a belted, sunchair-patterned jumpsuit, spraying her hair up and slicking it on, whatever it is. What were they told to eat and not eat back then? Were they told anything? Did she ignore? Or follow strictly? And herein lies a big cavity in our relationship – she never said, perhaps out of guilt. I think she drank a bit, smoked a bit, and none of these things would have bothered her until the day that I, aged 5, came into her room and told her that my breathing was funny and all the subsequent days spent in hospitals with a plastic mask on my face, staring at the kind of psychotic bunny-rabbit murals that were a speciality of Children’s Wards in the 80s. I think she always blamed herself a little bit after that.

The nearest my mum would get to admitting to a fault would be a kind of sarcastic, righteous indignation, a sort of ‘how could you even think of that?’ attitude upgraded with an imperious eyebrow and sucked in cheeks, loaded with so many layers of connotations that I was never sure what I actually felt, what she actually felt, what actually happened or how I was supposed to actually respond.

I’m surprised that more women didn’t explode in the 70s. The combination of nylon and polyester fabrics to be worn, sat upon, walked upon and laid under, combined with flammable cosmetics and electric heaters, must have made them as hot as the sun . Especially pregnant women, carrying little heatsacks within them, generating the kind of heat only rivalled by an oven baked cherry tomato.

But still, despite the smoking, drinking and combustible elements that she surrounded herself with, she’d made it this far. To Sunday, the 1st January 1978.

I hope she was putting her feet up. I doubt it. My dad was not the most attentive soul – though I hope that he had at least noticed that she was pregnant by then. I’ll never know – my mum died in September and with her went a wealth of details and memories that even the most talkative and generous relationship (which is what we had) doesn’t always yield up. This is something that I’m realising now, almost every day as my mind pelts me with trivia questions that I have no way of answering. What was her nursery teacher called? Her favourite skirt? How did my mum feel that first morning in 1978?

These are not the worst things of living without my mum.

But I suppose, the best I can do, as a writer, is to change the tone at the start of this New Year for both her and me, 44 years apart.

I’m going to write her in a moment of peace. Sunday, 1st January 1978. She’s up, she’s dressed, my sister is playing with a doll, or eating a sugar sandwich in another room. And my mum is sitting on our flower-patterned settee with a cup of tea in her hand. Her other hand strays onto her bump and rests there. It’s the first time that she’s thought about the reality of me and not the laundry or the Tan-Sad or the Sunday Dinner. It’s one of those insignificant moments, a flashpoint – the settee, the tea, the bump and her – and it stays with her for years afterwards, forever in fact. It’s a moment of contentedness, of stillness, of not trying and she thinks about the me in her womb and what I’ll become. I flicker then, a tail across the ocean.

And she smiles.

Vol-Au-Vents

We were right about the seesaw.  The bolts holding the plank in place on top had turned  scab orange with rust and the paint, light sky blue, had been driven off by the rain and hale, only residue trails left behind in curls..

I pushed back on my stiletto heels, sending the big ache up my calves and into my thighs.  Jamie flung a stone at the seesaw and missed.  The seesaw bobbed.

‘Time to go’ I said as statement-ly as I could.

‘We should try it.’ Said Jamie.  ‘Jim Snr wanted us to try it.’

‘Get on it then’ I said and then I turned my back on the seesaw and  looked over at the swings and the roundabout and the climbing frame, all of which were rusty but not warped and split and splintered like the seesaw.

When I turned back, Jamie was crouching over the seat of the seesaw, his white knees shining up past his elbows, his feet splayed and rolling inwards with the effort.  His eye was trained on the seat opposite and he looked like nothing more than a dog, shamed and dignified, avoiding my eye.

‘I will not sit with you, Jamie’ I said.

I moved towards the other end of the seesaw and the plastic green panel that served as a seat.  I sat abruptly, side-saddle, dumping Jamie lightly into the blue air above.

We settled at the midpoint.  My knees gripped on to nothing.  Jamie said nothing for the longest time.  Two minutes we sat there. I was thinking almost the whole time about the vol-au-vents they’d served, the ones with the chicken and mushroom filling and how special a vol-au-vent always made me feel.  And then I thought about eating more vol-au-vents, on a regular basis,  because what’s to stop me?  Why are they seen as something for a special day only?  I think vol-au-vents would be excellent at breakfast, especially.  I would fill my vol-au -vents with creamy, creamy is best.  And prawns.  Why shouldn’t I have prawns in vol-au-vents? At breakfast? I will have prawns in vol-au-vents at breakfast.

‘Thank you’ said Jamie, who had been crying.  He started to rise up.  I sunk deeper and the ache moved from my knees to my calves again, like lava lamps filled with big pain bubbles.

Jamie held out his hand.

‘I mean it.  Thank you for coming to Jim Snr’s Seesaw with me.’

I took hold of his hand, let him lead me away from the park; I would have vol-au-vents everyday, if I kept this up.

Spoetify #17 Piece of Me (Britney Spears, written in a lively mood with an excitable dog)

If I opened you up

Lifted the hood

And took a look inside

I would find a valley

Of stones, crushing water

A rolling sky-feel inside you.

Or thin stretched flat sand

The impossibly taut tight string of ocean

Still and cruel

I don’t see city

Paper cups and heels in pavement cracks

For you

I see violence in your landscape

Below the line

Something off.

About you.

I like it of course

I’d like to falter on those stones

Slide beneath sheets of water

Feel the music of the world change and darken

But know that I will emerge

Further down the stream

Above the line.

Spoetify# 16 The Ballad of Dorothy Parker (Prince, written in a day after second jab mood with a giddy dog)

What do you do

When the voices in your head

Are louder than the here the now

When the things she said

Are out of proportion

A paperclip

In a hot air ballooon

Through mist but clear they land

She can’t hear how words chime on the other side

Rolls of thoughts like

Fog like fear

One day: let’s do this

Let’s meditate/elongate/radiate

Positivity

Do better avocado yoga

Tofu -na-na-na

I’ll have brighter skin

My son will only like wooden toys

The dog will play in the sunshine

And we’ll all wear white muslin

It tires her.

And the smallest fragment of the beyond fog

Hurts her

A blank calendar

Inbox filled with corporate cheer.

Silent walls.

A no-one to anything.

So the fog drifts down again

And good-looking ghosts leap up

Surround her

With comical dilemmas, emotional struggles, intense connections.

A full to the brink life lived.

She chooses to not think for a moment, a year,

A no-one to anything.

Spoetify #15 Not Today (BTS, written in a sleepy mood with a sleeping dog)

A head explodes with

A thousand thoughts

And I wish they were flowers

And riverboat cruises.

A good tracksuit, really comfy.

Gravel paths,

The perfect eyebrow on the right occasion.

When your kid

Tips their head back to laugh

And for a moment you see the

Baby again.

When frames are straight and solid

In a cool, tiled gallery.

A basket of something. Delivered.

Royal blue fountain pen ink.

The completion of

A long planned surprise.

The anticipation of a friends face.

These are the thoughts that should.

Can wishing make it so?

I will step carefully into those too tight, too cheap ruby slipper knock offs.

And defy/reverse/obscure/evade logic.

Spoetify #14 Knives (Bullet for My Valentine, written in a hopeful mood with a lachrymose dog)

I remember now the lady

Behind the desk

Who picked up a pen

with the pads of her fingers

to use as a missile

to launch at the dialpad

Of her phone.

This was done to protect the sharp points

Of her tapered fingernails

True red, true shiny

More explicit then any other

totem of intent –

Be it sports car or thong bikini.

Those nails were weaponised feathers,

The pencil there to shield your beauty with a DIY defence.

And for me, aged 7

Carrying always the linger of pee.

This was when I understood what it was to be impressed.

Spoetify #13 Survivin’ (Bastille, written anxiously today with a confused dog)

This morning

a bastard magpie

thin, oil skinned,

flew into a perfect blackbird nest

and flew out

dangling a purple chick

in its beak.

Briefly the chick’s wing

spread like fingers.

Its first flight.

The parents came out and

I felt their hysterical no-no-nos

As clearly as my own.

But I am not being honest.

This is not the first time the magpie has done what it must do.

And the blackbirds still return

With worms and twigs and hope each time.

And I still watch

And keep my desperation to myself.