Sex, drugs and dead birds
The birds kept dying. They kept dropping out of the sky and splatting onto the pavement. They were a Sign – of what, I didn’t know: I just documented them on my phone in the hope they would make their meaning clear, if not to me, then to one of my friends.
It was to this end that I showed Julie the video of the dead magpie and its mate screaming from the branch of a nearby tree. The scream was the kind of terrible that cannot be squashed into words. I was premenstrual and a few seconds of it was enough to cover my face with tears.
Tears? Julie wrinkled her nose. Then she pressed my phone to her ear. Traffic, she said, was the only noise she heard, and even though she knew, intellectually, that it was part of the slow violence that was late capitalism that would eventually destroy this planet and all the ideas in it, she could not quite feel it. She may have said more words. Or she may not. All I know is that at the word ‘planet’, she made the face which meant she either wanted to slap me or screw me, and my body emptied of everything besides the question: which?
Then Carolyn arrived, expelling one of those long, tremulous sighs we believed was a reminder that she was a mother and thus higher up the scale of legitimate suffering than us. Have you made any progress on the next Change?
Alas, said Julie, catching my eye, We have not.
Carolyn shook her head. You know, I joined this group as a way of developing my identity outside of motherhood but – and don’t take this the wrong way – you all act like children.
Ed, Ben and Mags sidled up to us, wielding a huge banner between them.
I had to admit that with their colourful backpacks, rosy cheeks and self- satisfied smiles, children was the first word the sight of them brought to mind.
But we agreed, said Carolyn, We were a Post-Banner Action Group.
Did we? Mags flicked through her notebook ostentatiously. There’s no record of it in the Minutes. Mags only minuted suggestions she personally agreed with; everyone knew this, yet no one could be bothered to do it themselves, not even Carolyn.
Julie made a face at the banner, one I was sure she would not be capable of making were she not doing a PhD in – something. It filled my brain with images of the ways we could screw each other.
This banner, she said, communicates the joy of the radical child. It is the sort of visual information that affectively transports the observer in the direction of fun.
Carolyn looked up from her phone and said, this might be news to you but life isn’t all about fun.
But fun, said Ed, is what capitalism promises –
– And the patriarchy, chipped in Ben, looking pleased with himself.
– Yes, said Ed, looking less pleased, and the patriarchy. The point is, the only way we can convince people is if we promise more fun than they’re already having.
Carolyn shook her head. This isn’t the point of our Movement. I thought we weren’t calling ourselves a Movement?
A long argument ensued.
I’m not sure what it was about.
I’m not sure I’d have sat through it had Julie not looked me that screw-you-or-slap-you look three more times.
Mags minuted ‘promise more fun’ and ‘also the patriarchy’. When Carolyn ended things by signalling that it was time she pestered her daughter to feed the guinea pigs her partner – he was actually her husband but she didn’t call him that – had bought her for Christmas, not understanding that she, Carolyn, would do the real work of caring for the dumb fluffy creature, Julie poked my arm. Do you want to go for a drink… Somewhere else? She was looking at me like she wanted to screw me, definitely screw, not slap. But the me who’d imagined all the ways I could screw her was gone. I walked around the corner from the bar and, when I was absolutely sure no one could see me, I called an Uber.
* * *
I did not see any dead birds for ages after that, not even on the day I lost my job, which was also the day of our next meeting. You would think something serious like losing your job would shake your mind free of frivolous thoughts, e.g. birds falling out of the sky and what that might mean. But no. My eyes scurried all over the pavement as I walked; the pavement, but also the gutter, the curb, garden walls, those random patches of grass outside office blocks. When I found only empty cans and ‘screw the EU’ graffiti and empty crisp packets and ‘screw you for screwing us over’ graffiti and empty baggies and illegible graffiti, I tried not to feel disappointed.
Julie didn’t understand why I was more bothered by the absence of dead birds than the presence of anti-EU graffiti.
It was then that I told her about the job. What? They can’t get rid of you for no reason.
They can, and they did.
You could take them to court.
But I’ve got to pay the rent, and even if I didn’t, it’s a hassle.
She looked me a look I did not care to analyse.
So ironic, she said, a charity treating its employees like shit. But you could at least write a letter to The Guardian.
I checked her face for signs that she was joking; she was not.
Carolyn extended her neck in my general direction and said, Julie’s right. I’ve at least three friends who have direct debits with that charity; they’ve a right to the truth.
By this point, not only Julie and Carolyn, but Ed, Mags and Ben were throwing sincerely sympathetic stares in my direction. For years I had dreamed of this moment: the one when my suffering was externally verified as legitimate. I had imagined it would make me feel real. Well, it didn’t. It filled me with a despair so compelling, I went at least three hours without looking at my phone.
* * *
On the second day of my temp job, I saw a dead rat. I did not photograph it. I texted Julie to tell her. But, I added, the good news is, I’ve checked with Derrida, and it’s NOT a Sign. Five and a half hours later – hours which, since no one had given me any work, I mostly worried that Derrida wasn’t the one who wrote about Signs, but some other French theory bro, maybe Lacan or Barthes – she replied with a laughing emoji. It wasn’t sincere though; the part that knew this was the same part that knew the dead rat was not a Sign in the way that the dead-but-not-dead magpie definitely was.
* * *
Finally, it was the day of Change. It was a Saturday. We circled our city’s pedestrianised shopping street. We had no banners. We did not stamp or shout. As we walked, we muttered ‘other ways’. We had spent at least one whole meeting debating whether or not to have microphones, deciding, in the end, not, because microphones would make us look deliberately performative, causing the shoppers to place us in the category of buskers or protesters, whereas our aim was for us to stretch out the category in which they placed themselves – a category whose aimless hollow core we had made literal and which they would, as a consequence, have no choice but to confront. What we had not considered were the real buskers, how many there were, or how loudly their amps projected worn-out renditions of Hey Jude. Nor had we considered how dizzying it was to actually walk in circles vs. talk about walking in circles whilst sitting perfectly still.
A few people walked into us or shouted at us for walking into them before hurrying into the nearest shop. Julie spotted some teenage boys filming us from the doorway of JD sports. They probably think we’ve escaped from an institution.
That’s a stereotypical and quite frankly offensive thing to say, said Carolyn. But she did not look offended; her mouth was threatening to smile with relief at having something to correct. Her daughter, Skye, shot Julie a knowing look, which she missed.
Are we nearly there yet? asked Ben.
Mum banned us from saying that, said Skye. Ben said he was joking.
Ed said he was going to throw up.
Carolyn said we’d stop when we knew we’d made a Change. Ed said, again, that he was going to throw up.
Julie asked how we would know when the Change had been made, and whether or not it was Capitalised.
I wanted to suggest we ask the Jehovah Witnesses, who were shooting us pitiful glances from the doorway of Debenhams, but Carolyn said that being facetious was not going to help anyone.
Julie said she wasn’t being facetious. Her eyes lingered on the mannequin in the Topshop window, whose thin legs and baggy trousers I had already wasted a lot of effort trying not to want. It was time, she said, making her Deep PhD face, to accept we had, on this occasion, failed.
Ed threw up.
Carolyn sighed. You’ve really ruined things now. She tugged her daughter away from the sick. I better get going. Skye’s got an Expressive Dance competition.
When they were a few steps away from us, Skye said, Mummy, that wasn’t fair, he couldn’t help it if his food wanted to come out of his belly!
The silence that followed Carolyn’s departure was thrilling, vomit or no vomit.
Ben suggested we go for a drink.
No, said Julie’s mouth, whilst the rest of her face said screw-me-screw-me, and her mouth: let’s shop.
You two shop then, said Ed, we’ll see you in the pub.
You’re really going to drink? I asked.
The Change, said Ed, is within. I’m a new man. His cheeks were green.
Then, it was just me, Julie and Topshop’s pumping techno. She marched up to a rail of sequinned Bodies as if they had been her destination all along. Then she narrowed her eyes at my body. Unzip your coat.
I unzipped my coat.
This would look good at you. She pressed the Body against my chest.
Are you. Actually. Kidding.
We stared at each other for as long as we ever had, and I thought: maybe she’s right. Maybe I can live in a body which wears sequinned Bodies.
Then she burst out laughing. Course I am.
By the time we made it to the changing rooms, I had nine clothing items to try and little memory of my past life. I saved the mannequin’s trousers to last, as did Julie. We stood, side by side, in the changing room mirror, frowning.
Maybe they’d look better if we swapped sizes?
She pulled off her trousers, revealing two perfectly shaved legs and a pair of lacy pants, whose borders were pube-free.
Come on then.
I pulled off my trousers to reveal two legs that were dotted with stubble and in-growing hairs and patches of raw, red skin I could never be bothered to moisturise, just as I could never be bothered to trim my pubes, or replace the M&S pants my Mum had bought me three years ago, whose elasticated leg holes, the mirror informed me, were fraying.
These look wrong, too, she said.
It saddened me to admit she was right. But I didn’t move from the mirror. Neither did she. I looked at her looking at me looking at her looking at me looking at her and hoping – even though I knew this was as pointless as buying new clothes or walking in circles to stop other people buying new clothes – that I would one day find out what her looks meant and that, when I did, they would mean what I wanted them to mean, and so would begin a new era of inner and outer peace.
Then she bent down and pulled her phone out of her own jeans and a shiver ran down my spine as the window of opportunity in which we might have screwed, slammed shut.
Clare Fisher is a writer of short and long fiction. Her first novel, All the Good Things (Viking, 2017) won a Betty Trask Award and her short story collection, How the Light Gets In (Influx Press, 2018) was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas and the Edgehill Short Story Prize. She teaches creative writing and is studying for a PhD in Leeds.
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