At seventy, after suffering several disappointments, the first being my mother, the second being me, my father died. One evening he gathered the family in his room and asked if anyone had any questions. No one did. The next day he died. At the funeral everyone looked like someone I might sort of know. These strangers told anecdotes and made general health suggestions to each other. I passed out the sandwiches. The sandwiches were clingfilmed and oddly perforated, like they had been pierced again and again by cocktail sticks. I said ‘Sambo?’ to every single person in that room. It was a good word, a word I hoped would get me through the entire evening. I wasn’t strong on speaking or finding ordinary things to discuss in large groups. The place was crowded with false grief, people constantly moving positions, like in A & E, depending on the severity of their wounds. I mentioned that I held his wrist when he passed and through the use of the phrase ‘flickering pulse’ I was booted up to First Class. My father told me he regretted not talking more. He felt the time others used for conversation, he filled with snooker or nodding or looking away. He surmised, through a mouthful of diabetic chocolate, that he had only spoke 30% of his life. It was a dismal percentage and I was familiar with what dismal percentages could do to a person. We were spending a lot of time together then, linking arms and being totally happy. I had this one trick I did for him. I’d curl up tight into his bed, under the starched sheets, and peep out at the nurses like I was an old lady. It was a scream. They said I was their youngest patient. I laughed and asked them to leave the pills in a tidy arrangement on the bedside locker. My antics gained me a certain level of recognition and infamy in the retirement home and, at times, I could feel my father almost bursting with pride. We both agreed it was the perfect trick for the occasion of his near-death. I was good at gestures, but it was only in that function room when I spoke my sad-but-true stories in my fragile tone, that I finally got the appeal of talking. I thought this is what I will be now: a talker. My job had taken a sinister turn and I had started to keep an eye out, like you do for a new lover, for other things I could try. There weren’t many. All jobs seemed to contain one small thing I just could not do. It was maddening. I told a number of stories about my father that evening. I was there, but I wasn’t. My mind was mainly preoccupied with what I could do in my new life as a talker: I would be both stylish and intelligent but also deeply affecting in my conversation. When that room of strangers looked up at me I did not know if I wanted them to cry or to clap.
It was in the shower where I found it first. I had moved into my father’s old house, and sometimes would shower sitting-down on the stool that was installed for comfort or, if I was feeling up to it, I would stand. The bathroom was filthy with intermittent flashes of what looked like the colour peach. On sitting-down days, I often crawled from one side of the room to the other. I could get away with this because I lived alone. It must have been a standing-day as I realised I was a lot closer to the taps than I used to be. I was a lot closer to the hair on the taps. I was stooping over like I was playing Old Lady in a celebrated stage production, except I was all scrunched up and very naked. I pressed my fingers below my shoulders and felt it shifting, unfurling. The hard roundness of it—like a golf ball or a marble. I dressed myself quickly, being careful not to catch sight of it in the mirror. When I stood on the train that morning, my fingers gripping the rail above, I could feel it growing beneath my skin like a second layer of flesh.
I worked in an office outside the city and we all had the appearance of people who had been brutally exiled. We shed our city selves but, lacking imagination, we had nothing to replace them with. Between the forty of us, I think we could have made a complete person. I had been there six months and it was probably the longest position I ever held. None of it mattered but I liked to pretend it did. If someone came in I might say ‘Come in!’ That was it. That was the whole script. It wasn’t exactly spiritually fulfilling. Often, I was so bored I couldn’t hold a conversation. I walked around cubicles abandoning sentences. Whenever I entered the kitchen area, my colleagues left quickly and without warning. I think they were jealous because my desk got the most direct sunlight. I didn’t understand them at all. I had a habit of thinking I was very unique and interesting.
My one friend spent her days on the phone to the refuse collection. There had been a dispute over the bins, no one knew who started it, but the rubbish had not been collected in six weeks and it was not a time for chit-chat, idle or otherwise. I wanted to tell Paula about my discovery, ask her had she noticed anything different about me, but all she did was place her hand over the mouthpiece of her phone and mutter ‘Sorry’. She had married young and was squeamish about all sorts.
I used my mornings to investigate what was wrong with me. I opened several internet tabs, each one containing something possibly wrong, and explored them all. In the afternoons, my boss came and sat at the edge of my desk, like a hip teacher, and tried on being a thoughtful man. He was always trying to sell me things that were allegedly good for me—almond butter, aloe vera juice, himself. His face was stupidly handsome and so symmetrical it made me roll my eyes to the ceiling. He wasn’t perfect though. I noticed he had a hidden aggressive streak and, at times, I suspected he was responsible for the absent bin men. Also, he was not someone I went to for love and affection and he was maybe better dressed than I would have liked. I had a lot of problems with him. He was obsessed with success. I felt I was under constant inspection, and he had a way of looking me up and down like I was a C.V. full of errors and misspellings. He was older, but it was hard to pin down anything precise. We went to a lot of dimly-lit restaurants. Anytime I thought I got a handle on his age, he ordered another bottle of wine and it was gone again. We talked mostly about the office, the flies that we couldn’t get rid of, the people we disliked, how we physically had to wrench ourselves out of bed in the morning. Afterwards we would go back to his and he would attempt one of his two-and-a-half moves. He always fell asleep with both hands on my shoulders like we were in a conga line at a party. Conga, conga, conga. Honestly, I hated him.
At first, I worried about it a lot. The worrying made my food come up and up. I came to resemble my father in the early days of his illness; I was surprised when I caught sight of my concentration-camp legs. ‘How do they support me?’ I wondered. I had no idea but I got high and giddy on the engineering of it. At lunchtime, I ate outside with Paula. The smell of the office forced us into the cold and we sat together shivering over our lunchboxes. Paula’s lunch was made up by her husband and always contained the correct amount of protein and carbohydrates. I can’t describe the empty, whooshing feeling that went through me when I saw those food combinations. When I found the courage, I asked Paula if, at any stage of her life, she felt herself moving closer to the ground? If the chewing-gum stains on the street were any clearer to her than they used to be?
‘I think I’m becoming a hunchback,’ I confessed.
Paula was adamant that I was not a hunchback, that my fundamental problem was that I used people to feel attractive. Paula wasn’t interested in turning heads. She didn’t want men to look at her. Anytime a man looked at her she just picked up the phone and called the refuse collection. I think she was in love with the person on the other end of the line. Their conversations tended to be about Art and Beauty and not about bins at all. In a short space of time, Paula became quite a dangerous woman to know. Slowly, I moved my desk three inches away from hers.
At the weekends, I compensated by overeating. I went to nice places and flirted with the waiters. I bought books on pressure points from charity shops, some of which were highly complex pop-ups. I read these books or I rested them, two at a time, on my head and walked the length of my father’s house. As soon as I moved in I realised this house was a mistake. It was too big for me and the stuff I owned shrank by comparison. It looked like I had a wardrobe of baby clothes in those giant, oak cupboards. If I couldn’t sleep in one room I just moved to another. It wasn’t as suffocating as I needed it to be. Sometimes, I just sat in a tiny space on the sitting-room floor and ran my fingers over those fake, 3D backs. It was like seeing a photo of myself with every flaw removed. Often, I played with my father’s collectibles. It wasn’t a large collection, just two ceramic children, a boy playing the flute, a girl smiling encouragingly, and a shell in which you could hear the sea. I moved the children around the mantelpiece and marvelled at their serenity. I turned them to face outwards; I turned them to face inwards. There wasn’t much else to do. I listened to the seashell like it was my last hope.
My boss described the house as ‘weird’. He said the whole set-up was ‘weird.’ Except me. I was cute and he liked to tickle me under the chin, and then take off his clothes. He guessed something was wrong with me lately, in the way I sipped my wines, the way I sat upright and desperately still. He raised the question of me making myself sick.
‘Only during the week,’ I said, cheerfully, touched by his concern.
We were giving up. Previously, he listed out my faults with amazing conviction and I truly thought that brought us closer together as a couple. I had no discernible direction in life, I didn’t want anything, I was stupid and entitled. Suddenly, he acted as if he didn’t care whether I knew these things or not. Instead, he said, ‘Okay I’m going to make myself come now,’—as if removing me from the whole act was a sort of kindness. All that was left to talk about was what we’d do to the bin men if we ever found them. Our last night together I folded up my blouse and asked him to perform a thermal massage on my back and growing hump. He refused. Several weeks later, he called me into his office. There had been complaints from anonymous staff. I was never at my desk. He said it was imperative an assistant be at his or her desk.
‘Where exactly are you?’
At home I was learning how to self-massage and was feeling pretty fulfilled. I had no interest in my job anymore but I tried. My concentrating face required more effort than genuine concentration. The organisation of the face, the setting up of the features, was exhausting. Afterwards, I often lay down on the cold tiles of the office bathroom floor and didn’t move for hours. On normal days I did my job correctly, I counted and pointed and made pleasant popping noises with my mouth, but now there were no normal days. My boss suggested time off. To grieve.
He said I was a brilliant assistant but my father’s death had affected me deeply. Take a holiday, he said. I muttered something about the restorative properties of the sea and went home to my sitting-room with its battered, springless couch. Before I left, Paula gave me one of those insincere half hugs. I smiled, thinking of the polite phrasing of the email that was probably sent around informing everyone of my departure.
Without work, I had hours and hours to fill. I performed difficult bending exercises. There was a futility and pointlessness to the whole procedure that I found particularly moving. These exercises had a sighing soundtrack I provided. I skimmed over articles on graceful posture: Pretend to be brimming with self-confidence. Pretend to be a movie star. Pretend to be a human being. At night, I tried to forget about it. I stayed out, alone. On the way home, drunk, I took bits of songs I heard in taxies and applied them to my own life. For the first time ever, I was meeting people. Full of my own brazen ugliness, I was just walking out into the night and finding them.
I considered myself pretty tolerant of people and open to new experiences and ideas. I didn’t often seek out experiences but when they were presented to me I usually liked them. I took the new people out to meet college friends, beautiful sad girls who dressed like widows and claimed the world had crushed them, cruelly, like ‘matchboxes’. Most of the new people were shy in their company. The men, usually men, often older, never joined in. They just looked at me like that was what they were supposed to do. It was unnerving. They smelled like crackers, sometimes crackers and cheese, sometimes crackers and another substance, but there was always a distinctive cracker smell in the air. My friends had their jackets on before they finished their drinks. I felt I was being thought of as ‘inappropriate’ and, in response, dug out dry skin from my scalp and discarded it on the floor beneath me. The men sat still and silent as dummies. ‘What do you want from all this?’ the girls asked. I didn’t know. I was never a big dreamer. Maybe someone to wave at who feebly waves back? These women thought of me as typical: not tragic enough, but still capable of pulling stunts that lowered the calibre of their beauty. I counted the number of times I had touched them all, appraised their imperfections, cheered at their hickeys and sex bruises. It occurred to me that I could never ask any of these women to pour aromatherapy oils over my back, gently and without judgement. They would never rub their hands along my spine and check for signs of roundness whilst making soft reassurances. They were there for me in the ways they should be, at the funeral they formed a neat cluster and discreetly cried, but that was where it stopped. I wanted them to say: ‘Thank you, thank you so much for everything you have done for us and our self-esteem.’ I wanted them to cheer the fuck up. They didn’t cheer up though and they didn’t express gratitude. They just wafted out of the building and I straightened my back at them. The men continued to stare at me like I was an item of significant interest.
I needed these friendships to go somewhere. I made certain alterations to my lifestyle for these old men. I dusted, I tidied away my father’s collection, I cleaned out my bathroom cabinet so it resembled the cabinet of a woman who had very little to worry about. I saw myself making these slight adjustments. I watched as if it was an instructive montage about how a person can take purposeful strides in their life. The music that accompanied these scenes was sassy and upbeat. I suddenly gave a shit and it suited me. My father used to ask if I cared about other people at all and the correct answer was ‘Yes’. I did. I cared, I cared, I cared. I had healthy friendships in mind. Things should have been easier when I got the men alone but they never were. I wanted them to talk, to tell me everything, about their families, and the minor incidents that destroyed them, and maybe the moments they had ruined by doing or saying the wrong thing. What then, what then? But, nothing. Their eyes just roamed around like they were searching for something better beyond my head. Of course, they were all seized by a singular fear when I began my striptease. I guess it was because I was always more involved in the tease than the strip. I liked jokes, death jokes, single-girl jokes, and was shocked when these didn’t lead naturally to a friendly situation. Sometimes, when the fingers were flying over the front of my blouse, I thought: ‘This is hilarious. No, actually, this is an illness. This inability to take anything seriously. I should get money from the state.’ Afterwards, I compensated by lying. I’d been let go, I’d been promoted, I do this, I do that, who cares? In a second of stupidity and weakness, I told one of them about my developing hump. I may have curled up on his chest and cried. I may have beaten his chest lightly with my fists. He promised that if we stayed together he would love me all the same. He wasn’t begging but he nearly was. After he left the house, in the half-dark, I caught him on the street, kicking a taxi. It was an embarrassing situation.
The time came to return to work but I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t so much the job as the confusion and frustration that went with it. Standing and sitting and breathing in the stale air of people who despised me—I couldn’t face it. I rang up HR and told them my boss made a pass at me. I said I hoped it accounted for some of my odder behaviour in the few weeks before my departure.
HR asked: ‘What happened?’
I said: ‘Well, he brought me into his office.’
HR said: ‘Of course, he did. He’s your boss.’
I said: ‘He sat across from me at the table.’
HR said nothing.
I said: ‘He leaned quite far across the table.’
HR said nothing.
I said: ‘It was a very small table.’
I was granted a further two weeks holiday, fully paid. I decided to use that money to invest in my future. I visited various chemists and I had a lot of questions. ‘Is it more politically correct to say: I have a hump or I am a hunchback?’ The counter girls made funny clicking noises with their teeth and I pined for my own lost work noises. They prescribed yoga classes which promised to straighten my spine and make me wholesome at the same time. Things were too trippy for me in that tiny room and I found all the goodness smothering. Anything could happen in that blissed-out state and that seemed idiotic and negligent so I stopped going. A backscratcher appeared in my room, leftover from a previous life when back-scratching was something to look forward to. I slept beside it, and at night, it extended its long-armed sympathies towards me. When I woke up beside that disembodied hand, I didn’t feel so bad. I went to a general store which felt illegal and like I was breaking a code—my friends and I were fonder of expensive, specific things. In the queue, fly-swatter in hand, I asked myself if I looked like a sophisticated person. I didn’t. I closed my eyes and imagined hitting the hump downwards with tools and quiet prayers. In the lamplight of my luckless bedroom, I delivered fast, brisk strokes to the centre of my back. I found it hard to keep a straight face.
I saw a chiropractor. I made that choice. A solid man who searched his hands up and down my back as if looking for someone to blame. He was tall and boring and told me he went canoeing at weekends. I asked, ‘How many tall men can you fit in a canoe?’ which sounded like the beginning of something, a riff or an innuendo, but was a real and genuine query. The gap in my canoe knowledge was huge and overwhelming. I told him I imagined my hump would be a large square shape, like a heavy schoolbag full of difficult homework. He frowned and flipped me over. When I got closer, he didn’t look like a chiropractor at all. He looked like a hippie, or a child’s lazy drawing of a hippie. All he could offer was drugs and hand-holding, neither of which I wanted. Before I left, he gave me a tissue and said, ‘In case, you get upset.’ I would never get upset in that sort of room with that sort of man, but I stuck the tissue in my sleeve for safe-keeping. After that, there was nothing, just wide-open spaces, like the reception desk and the world. On the way out, I passed a girl with a neat bob and thought: That’s me. I could be that girl. I could be a girl with a bob. She asked if I needed to make another appointment. I told her to schedule me in every month for the foreseeable future and to adopt an air of discretion when she greeted me at the desk. I did not expect to be treated vastly differently, I was a standard hunchback, but a smile or kind word might ease a burden. The bob put her hand over her mouth like a silent-movie actress. Where do they even find these women? She steadied herself on her chair as I shuffled away.
My life, and what I did with it, became a sort of mystery then. I studied the collection, I called Paula and heard the phone ring out and out, I took an aversion to the shower tray. I removed traces of my father from his own home. I needed it so that he wasn’t my father, that I didn’t know him, that I had never even heard of him. I wrote my boss a letter. It was titled: ‘I’m Sorry’. Prompted by this letter he rang me and said he was sorry and let’s meet, let’s be two sorry people in the same room. I dressed up for it. I took my time. I wanted him to wait and I wanted to be the thing he was waiting for. In the lobby of the cinema he was nothing like I remembered; angrier, shorter. He looked like a small town I might live in and die. He told me there had been a confrontation with the bin men and he had been fired. His arm was in a cast. During the film, anytime he turned towards me, the cast rubbed off my face. Afterwards, we stood on the street and I thought he was going to kiss me or grab me or do something obvious. Instead, he pulled my hand and placed two of my fingers on his bare neck. ‘Can you feel that lump? Right there?’ I rubbed a small swollen mark from where the shirt of his collar had been closed too tightly. ‘That’s cancer, I think. It’s cancer more than likely.’ I agreed that it probably was cancer, that he had caught it early. He asked me if I wanted a drink and I said no, thank you. It was important to me that I was polite.
When I left him, I felt a happy relief. I thought of night classes, the sea, re-decorating.