Perhaps to compensate for my expanding consciousness, I began to lose time. It was hard to realize that anything had happened at all because so much had stayed the same. My spreadsheets were still open on my computer. Candice was still on the phone, making the little, overly high-pitched laughing noises that told me it was a work call, not personal. My coffee was colder, the clock forward, I had some new emails. But this very thing happened to me so often. It truly felt just the same, afterwards, I told myself.
My brain had seemed to find itself in another room whilst my body sat still. It was an identical room, only there was more of it. My eyes adjusted like binoculars, or a microscope, seeing each fibre in the carpet, each brush stroke which had painted the wall a white which was now a rainbow, as my eyes became prisms, kaleidoscopes, seeing each colour at once whole and separate. Each item left an afterimage like the sun, imposing itself onto each newly seen thing. I knew the physicality of the air in itself, each sound wave, the teasing hint of suspended water. The room bent around itself. I felt other people as distortions, as vibrations at the edge of my vision, terribly alive, as I then knew everything else to be, as I could feel myself to be, as I watched myself, and I saw before I felt the blood at the base of my skull.
When I walked to the tube that evening I plugged my ears with music and I kept my eyes on my feet and I willed myself into a state of emptiness and elsewhere that I could understand, comfortably erasing the familiar surroundings, so that I found that my body had made its way to the right platform, nestled amongst the other bodies, bodies also forgetting, and I found myself already back at home, my hands busy adjusting the settings on the microwave.
It is odd how terribly flat our bodies seem. We walk around as faces, and fingers, and feet, and without pain would hardly know the rest of ourselves. In the morning on the tube at the first few stops, or in the evening the last few stops, when the crowd has thinned and I can sit down at last and see myself, my concavity in the window doesn’t seem surprising. The curve in the glass is just right to double me, one self growing outward from the original, and I melt my dual reflections together, until I am two bodies with one head, or just joined at the hair-parting. Until I have nothing like a face at all.
The morning it happened I was too tired to find myself amusing. On the nearly empty carriage, a woman sat just opposite me. Her eyes were wide and widely set which made her seem like prey. I try not to stare at people on the tube, not at their faces. So before I saw her eyes, and her dull blonde hair, I saw her clothes. The few other woman were wearing either a black suit of some kind or a dress with a half-interesting pattern and a motherly cut. It was that time of day, and they wore trainers they would soon swap for heels, and frowns they would swap for resigned smiles.
But she wasn’t going to work. She couldn’t be in velvet. A distressingly patterned and garish velvet jumpsuit, flared, abundant trousers barely joined to scraps of fabric forming a warning X across her torso. Her yellow, plastic platforms were open-toed, and her toenails wore chipped green varnish. I could feel my face moving in undisguised distaste and tried to arrange my head to suggest to this woman that I had thought of something completely unrelated to the pressing bodies as more and more people got on, the close air, the daily embarrassments of the commute, to her.
The woman was looking at her phone anyway. Her head bent so that I could see through her hair a small patch of red on one side of her zig-zag parting. I stopped my fingers creeping up towards my head and stayed still as I saw her own fingers mirror mine and then keep going, finding the sore patch of skin and picking at it methodically with hard fingers. She worked at it, all whilst staring at her phone, not looking up at the new stations but staring and picking, her elbow somehow avoiding the man sitting next to her. My face scrunched and unbundled itself, and I could feel every tooth in my mouth as surely as if they were my blood-filled fingers, my shins were tensed and my head itched in mocking sympathy. I remembered suddenly how I once awoke to find my head caught in a web of dead skin. Huge flakes were breaking up under my hair, coming to the surface. My mother was delighted. My mother’s own picking was evident in the ravished brows, the broken lips, and even her eyelashes. We spent the morning before school engrossed with my head. It has only happened that one time and yet I feel like we are both waiting for a resurgence. I often traverse my skull with my fingers. I’m keeping track of it. And when I visit my mother she reaches to tuck my hair behind my ears, the better to see my face, the better to trace the skin.
People imagine their heads as a globe. A perfect sphere shaped and smoothed, yet we, and the earth, are misshapen clay. Lumps arise, creases sink, skin and tectonic plates crawl. And I pick. I pick at my dandruff, at what feels like small blisters on my scalp, a texture not unlike the small clumps that form in a sugar bowl when someone unthinkingly puts a wet teaspoon in it. So when I saw her, I saw myself, I knew that somewhere there must be a patch of red upon me, a mark, the red spot on my Jupiter skull, and when she got off the train, still picking, my hands went unasked for into my hair and they found a hole. A hole in the back of my skull. There at the bottom, near my nape, slightly to the left. Not quite big enough to put my little finger into, yet.
Sometime, I couldn’t say when, but after that, my dreams started. The content was the same usual grab-bag of images, never nightmares, or rarely nightmares. But I dreamt every night. I never knew what it was to be unconscious, I went to rest knowing it would never come and that I would simply be there but with less control than usual. I was hounded by my dreams, and often suffered from sleep paralysis. There were no demons on my chest, or there rarely were, and often I was unaware of even being asleep. I would hear conversations that I wanted to join, only to realize that I could not move my mouth. How strange, I would think, I must be so tired, so very tired, I cannot even close my hanging mouth. I can’t even move my little finger. I could go through my whole body and feel it alive and heavy but unyielding. I learnt to force it back to a kind of consciousness. And the muscle memory would come back in other dreams. My reality would shift so I could see and inhabit the dream and feel my sleeping body as well. I could save myself, sometimes. So I kept the wound open.
I tried meditation. Sophie suggested it during a rare office lunch as we complained about sore backs and distracted minds. Around ten people lay down on the carpet of the meeting room. I was supposed to be feeling – really feeling – all of my body, starting with the toes, sweeping up to the head. At first all I could feel were small crumbs pressing into my back like I was the delicate princess of the fairy tale. I could smell the fresh coffee-stains soaking into the carpet. The carpet was that shade of deliberately anonymous blue which is always coming up under your feet somewhere you don’t want to be, from school corridors to the police interview room. Sophie was guiding us around ourselves, calling out body parts like a soft-spoken butcher. The room pressed in on me and I wondered where is everything and what is missing. The major limbs are easy. As are fingers. Toes are less compliant. Inside I felt my lungs and yet I still can’t believe they take up space, that they aren’t like plastic bags, forgotten, scrunched away behind my ribs.
Liver, bottom right of the stomach.
Kidneys, two – presumed – bottom and more towards spine than stomach.
Guts – everywhere.
Womb…a tricky one.
If I was pregnant I’m sure I would know. It would expand with another body. More liver, more kidneys, womb and all its eggs – and it would press into my bladder and crush everything around it. But it’s hiding. The most alarming thing about getting a pap smear was the sudden awareness, my lower body had seemed a desert place and now something was scraping inside me, my unknown nerves were there, signalling to my brain “this is your body, it is in pain” but I had no words to express the sensation, no map to point to, and afterwards when I could breathe again the nurse said “See, not so bad”.
My children’s books showed me I was full of little men and machines, grinning blobs, and faceless cells. The falseness prepares one for the truth that your body is not your own. It is host to separate entities, inside your gut, crawling over your skin. They recognize you as another part of the world. Inhabitable. Open and mostly unprotected. Inviting. Mingling our breath with the trees, shedding our skin and hair, taking and returning nutrients, not a separate and particular kind of thing, but indistinguishable from other organisms, useful to the world in simply being organic matter.
At the end of the session we all went back to our desks, and our work, and I noticed that the hole was getting wider.
Candice introduced the company cleaning lady to me on my first day there as one of the key people to know.
“This is Tonia, she keeps this place running,” she lifted her hand, and I believe would have patted Tonia’s hard shoulder if she had known how. I laughed too quickly.
“Hi, good to meet you,” I said. She did not reply and neither of us held out our hands.
Tonia proceeded to ignore me with a force which made me doubt I existed.
For a while, I did not.
I was shifted from desk to desk during my time on the graduate scheme. I did not even have my own company email account. So Tonia and I moved around each other, existing on parallel planes within the company.
Now I was permanent I had a desk and I had my own personal mess. Now I was paid more I ate lunch in the office. Now I had my own key-card on a branded lanyard around my neck I was allowed, expected sometimes, to leave last. As Tonia tried her best to vacuum under the chair I was sitting on I thought I must be watching this from the kitchen. I must have got up, as I usually tried to do when I saw her approach. I am not being jutted into the desk. I can feel my hands sorting through the cupboard, getting the milk from the fridge.
As I inhaled I found myself a shape around smoke, something harbouring toxins, wearing an inner coating of tar. We must have something in common if we both need a cigarette now, if we’re both outside. I reach out a hand to Tonia as she turns her back to me to return inside the building.
“Sorry –,” the word brushes the back of her head, “sorry do you have a light?”
She turns around. I mime lighting a cigarette. Tonia watches me as I have to act my hands around my still-lit, half-smoked cigarette. She continues to watch once I have stopped. Ash gathers helplessly, precariously at the end of my cigarette. I can’t move, I can only see.
Tonia’s eyes are a rich darkness that hide her irises. Everything about her face is familiar to me and I know she feels the same about mine.
She takes a lighter out of the back pocket of her jeans, tosses it to me, and goes inside as I miss the catch and lose my cigarette in the process.
She literally doesn’t clean shit. We have a unisex bathroom out of necessity not, as a pink sign claims, from inclusivity. So I’ve seen the shit. But Tonia does vacuum, she takes great care in spending as long as possible at every desk. The machine roars and she catches my eye when it’s wandering. I feel she knows my browser history. One day she is waiting at my desk. I’m wearing headphones, as everyone here does apart from Candice, and her tapping foot becomes part of the rhythm of the song, the noise of incoming emails reminding me of their unwanted presence. She eventually rapped a tight knock onto my cheap pine desk.
“Can we? Over there?” she said extending her arm, her curled fist releasing a finger to point to the kitchen. Some colleagues speak to her loudly and slowly, as if she can’t speak English, but I know it’s brusqueness, a choice. I rolled back my chair as slowly as possible and followed her. She stops in the kitchen, and is silent. I look around for clues. My unwashed mugs in the sink. A carton of milk left on the counter, lid missing. A new chip in the rim of the sugar-bowl from Tim dropping it that morning. Coffee grounds on everything. Tonia waits.
“I won’t do it anymore.”
I wait, but she gives me nothing.
“I’m sorry, is something wrong?” I spread my hands before me in ignorance. She cocked her head.
“I won’t clean the bin – not that bin,” she adds as she sees my eyes go to the stained and overflowing kitchen bin, “In the bathroom. I won’t clean that bin.” She looks me up and down, telling me she knows my body is currently making a mess for her. My monthly cycle of growing and shedding blood for Tonia. The clots I pass for Tonia. I nod, and she nods in return, as if we understand each other.
The coffee I make before returning to my desk burns my tongue as I try and compose an email to Candice, who is sitting a few meters away, oblivious.
Hi Candice, Just a quick note…
Dear Candice, Sorry, Tonia just…
Candice, The fuck?
I wait until she is on the phone before sending it.
She’s such a professional. Her eyes don’t widen and her tone remains even as I see her reading her email, and next week it is Candice who silently begins to empty the bin of the collective rubbish of her employees’ wombs.
It made me wonder how long it took parts of me to decay. I thought about it as I stared at the snot smeared on the ceiling of my bedroom – not mine I was sure of it, I would remember the effort it must have taken to spread myself so far – which my eyes would return to unwilled when I was in bed, hoping it would hold fast. I thought about it as I bit my nails. When I could feel the rush of the tube whisking strands of my hair away with it. I had always thought my skull would be the kind to stay intact. The kind an archaeologist could discover with pride. My body standing for thousands, an unwitting witness and representative of our times. But the hole was now wide enough for me to place my fist inside. This is a trick I could never do with my mouth, watching girls at parties distend their jaws like snakes for half-interested men. I couldn’t feel anything inside my skull, just warmth, the deep warmth of cells responding to sunlight.
From them on, Tonia’s ire became the anchor of my days. She needed a new vacuum cleaner. I must tell everyone that coffee grounds are to be put in the compost. Someone (Sophie, we both knew) kept microwaving fish and it was making her gag. All the communal forks had been stolen. I must tell everyone that coffee grounds are to put in a separate bag for Candice to use in her garden. She would talk to me during breaks, she would call me out of meetings, catch me in the lift or the stairwell. I could go days with her voice, nasal and low, being the only one I heard, beyond the sound of the morning “hellos” and evening “byes” from the surrounding desks. I thought the next hire might take over my Tonia duties as she had already taken over some of the filing, but we were sharing her with another floor.
“Bella doesn’t quite know where she wants to be yet,” Candice would say. “I told Rob she’s a natural at marketing, but I think he wants her with him in sales.”
And Bella would turn around when she reached the elevator to go upstairs for lunch with her father, and smile apologetically at our backs.
“She’ll last six months and then go back to sailing. Or skiing. That’s what Candy’s did,” Tonia told me.
“You can’t ski all year.”
“That’s what you think.”
My mother must have noticed something was wrong right away, because she only mentioned it when I was leaving. We had spent most of the monthly visit in familiar silence. She had always told me and my brother that the best part of being a hairdresser was chatting to all sorts of people, and if she had something to say she would store it away from us, until the right client for that particular piece of news came along.
“Scalp itching love? If you wait a second, I’ll get you some special shampoo.”
“That’s alright mum, I’ve got plenty of shampoo at the flat.”
“But this is special shampoo. Reduces itchiness. I was just telling a woman who came in today –”
And she carried on chatting, suddenly animated, whilst she ran her hands through my hair, taking it sections at a time, slipping from mother to professional. I left for the tube weighed down by four bottles of shampoo I knew my flatmates would end up using.
Screens, Tonia, my hands, the hole, Tonia, the desks, laughter, red flashes, Tonia, I’m holding all my teeth, Tonia, escalator, screens –
Hypnagogia. The spattered images half-dreamt, half-thought, in the space before falling asleep. I was on fifteen different sleep studies at different times during university, because they’re the ones that pay the best and have the largest, most anonymous teams. No having to tell some near-acquaintance, scratching his greasy beard, about your menstrual cycle, or how regular your shits are, and then being given a fiver in return, and having to avoid him in all your lectures ever afterwards. One of the best-paid was about inducing the hypnagogic state: listening to guided meditation, or white noise, holding buzzers to administer a slight shock to stop us falling into a deep sleep. I never saw anything of any use. No sudden creative insight. Just the endless recycling of my life, my fingers trained to double-click even in sleep. I try not to close my eyes but they keep flashing. I’m blinking hard in the light of the park.
“It is so important to develop a company culture, you know? And when we all just sit at our desks it’s so –” Sophie waved her arms around her, “so depressing. Just depressing.”
The park is empty space, filled with grass, and people on their lunch break. Three of us were sitting on a patch of muddied ground. Sophie was sitting on her denim jacket and I had resigned myself to dankness. Five people had taken the bench, each hoping someone else would get off. These were some of the desks closest to mine at work. I couldn’t see them at all, behind the large Mac screens. When I tried to picture them, I could just see hands moving. I sensed innately that the group consisted only of ex- or drunk-only smokers, and I tried not to pick at the grass. I pushed my fingers into the mud. I had presumed it would yield more easily. A waiting, sucking snare. It was cold. As we sat there in silence, until the walk back to the office, I wondered if I could shape myself a new skull from the mud. It was essentially the same as clay, I reasoned, it could harden over the gap. I could grow new hair in it, like a primary school experiment, crowing cress into an eggshell with a crooked, felt-tipped mouth.
I couldn’t break it. I tried. I pulled at it, coming at myself sideways, trying to take myself unawares, like a child does, when it first tries to see if it can suffocate itself. But you always lose your grip. You have to.
The edges were sharp. And I kept pulling. I thought there might be some kind of horrible sucking noise, as my skull came loose from the membrane around the brain. The tough mother, the tender mother, and the spider mother. These mother-membranes, I found out, cradle the brain.
One of the many late night, last resort, sleepover stories that have stayed with me is the one of the man who complained of headaches. A scrabbling sensation in his skull. Tenderness. And they cut him open, and inside they found a spider, a living spider, raising its young in his skull.
“And he got that way because he swallowed a spider in his sleep. We all swallow spiders in our sleep. And I know you do because you snore with your mouth open.”
I didn’t know about the arachnoid mater then. But I found it oddly fitting that we all have a spider in our skulls, of sorts.
As she lit the cigarette of her strictly timed 15 minute break, both of us feeling the tick of the small, diamond-encircled watch that Candice wore with the face resting on her inner wrist, pulse on pulse, Tonia instructed me to stop smoking.
“You don’t want this,” she said, baring her white, uniform teeth at me, “A gift from my husband. I lost at least a stone because I couldn’t eat right for months. That bastard.”
My mouth hesitates from smile to frown, either way, I’ve failed her, because she asks,
“Do you have nits?”
“You’re scratching. I see you at your desk.”
“I don’t have nits. I’m not a child.”
She nods, but not in agreement.
“It’s disgusting,” she finishes, and she spends longer than usual crushing her spent cigarette with her heel before going back inside.
“It really is disgusting to watch. Maybe you should go wash your hair or something.” In any other place, Tom and I don’t know each other well enough to have this exchange. But in the flat, where we can not only hear but smell each other through the walls, it feels futile to protest.
“John’s in the shower.”
“Yeah, okay,” and Tom left the flat’s small kitchen, eyebrows raised, leaving me watching over my dinner, hand still in my hair. Hand still in my head.
The first test started when I lost my pencil. I had taken to pretending to have a normal itch, just scratching the nape of my neck, nobody was watching, why would they be, and then seeing how far I could get it in. Then I dropped it.
I waited for it to hurt me, to choke me, to pierce some organ inside.
Then it became a challenge.
“Oh, let me get those for you Tonia,” I would say, because that’s how a helpful person would say it, it’s what she hated me to say, and once she assented I could simply filter it into my skull. Teabags, private documents, cigarettes. They all went in. Let them come back out.
“Tonia – Tonia, I need a favour.”
She took off her rubber gloves and washed her hands without question. I wasn’t sure if she had heard me. She looked as if she was expecting some kind of apology, and I tried to keep my features still, until she came closer, and I took her hand and I pushed it to my skull, I tried to push her hand into my head as mine did, a knife into butter, a knife into nothing. Her own hands felt rough to mine, and I was surprised at how easy she was to overpower, or maybe she let me do it. Perhaps she was glad to get the chance to slap me round the head, her palm thudding into some invisible solidity that just wasn’t there, it couldn’t be there, I didn’t have a back to my skull anymore. I was in my bedroom, I was in bed, I was in the office, I was in the tube, I was holding Tonia’s hand toward me and then I was pushing my mother’s picking fingers away and now Tonia’s face seemed to settle into that of a stranger. As I grasped at her, I couldn’t tell if it was her pulse I was feeling in my fingertips, or my own. This acquiescence, as if she had quieted her heart, her softness, made me angry. Her uncomprehending face slipped before me.
“Maybe you should go home,” it was Tonia’s voice. “Maybe call someone to look after you. Do you have a boyfriend? Parents close by?” This Tonia was leaning forward into nothingness, only to snatch backwards as Candice came, reliably the same, her heels somehow clicking on my bedroom carpet.
“Oh dear, you do look poorly!”
“Can I go home?” I asked, “I can turn on ShareTop if you need me,” and I left my laptop open by my bed, but I fell asleep to the sound of incoming messages, and Tonia vacuuming the hallway outside, noises that didn’t stop as I fell asleep.
“Feeling better?” Candice asked, stroking my arm in tight circles, as if she was trying to follow a diagram she had studied. I had come in early, only to find that she was there even earlier, and so was everyone else.
I nodded, although my head felt a painful calmness, caught in the eye of a storm, and I willed myself to stay still and endure the contact.
“Let’s just have a quiet day then. Maybe focus on the customer support. Save the new campaign for tomorrow.”
“Oh, one of her daughters is sick. Becky, I think. Dreadful nuisance, really.”
Hey Lunch in the park at 12 if anyones interested
Would be up for that ☺
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Guys I’m having to finish off the newsletter during lunch, maybe tomorrow!
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Do you reckon Candy can see all this???????
It keeps happening. I keep seeing. But now I feel too. The supposedly tangible world is lost to me. I feel phantom things. Hear phantom words. Someone once told me not to trust the world, because of things like phantom limbs. I wondered if it only applied to amputees. I felt a whole phantom self, a whole body of mine separate from me and it was now trying to return.
I think, if I tried, I could get my arm in up to the elbow.
Ew have you seen this?
FLATMEETING NEXT THURSDAY IN LIVING ROOM ABOUT THE DISH SITUATION
Special offers for this week include a free tote bag
When are you next coming home? Love Mum. X
Someone else told me we rewrite our memories on top of the old ones, we get further away from the originals the more we try. My memories, my life, feel like retreating thunder, and I can count the miles it moves from me.
Can I see you in Room 304 in 10 mins? Nothing serious, don’t worry! Thanks – Candice.
ATTENTION COMMUTERS, SEVERE DELAYS ON ALL LINES
I’ve been trailing blood around the office and no one seems to notice. Not even Tonia. But when I put my hand to the wound – the hole – it seems dry.
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Dear Alan, I am sorry. I will be forwarding this to our IT team. As an apology, I can offer you a free tote bag
Um is anyone else having trouble connecting to ShareTop??
I am filled with space, the empty sound of a seashell pressed against my ear, the solemn droning of nothingness.
I can put my hand into that space. I can reach in. And it seems to stretch on, until I feel my hand returning, it pulls the rest of me and my body in, lovingly, hastily – I have returned to myself, and I am now whole.
Olivia Claire Payne
Olivia Claire Payne is a librarian working in a North London school. She is a proud member of the Write Like a Grrrl community, and is currently working on her first novel. She has been previously published in Litro Magazine.
If you enjoyed ‘Noumena‘ leave a comment and let Olivia know.
You can find and follow Olivia at:
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