Fiction | The Amnesty by Jen Calleja

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    Jen Calleja


    The Amnesty

    CASE STUDY 4

    Below you will find extracted responses from the writings of PERSON A and PERSON B. PERSON A is an anonymous voluntary respondent to the first Amnesty on Sexism survey sent by the government to every woman and girl over the age of fifteen. PERSON B is an unidentified male whose diary entries on the subject of the Amnesty were saved in the Drafts folder of their private email account and donated as data for research by the Lynx media corporation after liquidation.

    While reading the below texts, consider:

    1 Whose argument you find the most persuasive;

    2 What PERSON A and PERSON B might be hiding;

    3 Whether things have changed;

    4 Other questions you would have liked to have asked PERSON A and PERSON B and how you think they would have answered them;

    5 Whether this relates to your own experiences.

    * * * *

    (PERSON A)         Do you think having an amnesty is a good idea?

    ‘Amnesty’ comes from the same stem as ‘amnesia’, which strikes me as odd in this case as once all this is out it’s not like it’s going to be forgotten? Like, we’ll receive a notice of receipt and a thank you and then we’ll forget about the inconvenience and the fact that most men – but not all men – are unworthy of being called human.
              When I got to the office, I decided to start filling out this form. You’ve given us a lot of pages.
    I started thinking about the two on the train. I couldn’t get them out of my head. I stared them both down on the tube, that homogenous landscape they formed. They all dress the same.
              Two men sitting next to each other at one end of the carriage. There are four main categories: boys, young men, men, old men. One was very young, not boyish, but certainly below twenty and was wearing knee-length shorts and a short-sleeved top, both in matching silk or chiffon, pure cream. His hair was also dyed darker than suited his complexion. He wore leather slip-on shoes, which encased his feet like rounded slippers. He looked uncomfortable, perhaps regretting having so much flesh on show, and he must have been cold, thick hairs were fuzzing the line of his arms and his legs.
          Who first discovered that seeing a peak of a man’s stomach evoked a warm feeling in women? That the more of the stomach he felt a woman see, the more he wanted to give it away? Most keep it completely covered, others are more daring, using mesh or lace. When did that accidental thrill become expected, asked for, demanded, sought out, thought out, manipulated, used for a certain power against us women?
           The older boy was probably sixty and completely pointless, stylish in a heavy black sack that went just below the knee, thin white stockings, white slippers to try and promote the elegant line of his bag-of-bones feet. A black shawl of the same heavy black felt was pressed to his chest with his gloved hand. The other glove, red as arteries, poked out of his pocket. His shiny bald head made him look vulnerable. He was wearing powder on his face and a little eyeliner. He was probably the director of a company, shunted in to fill a largely silent role, and would probably get flustered and stroppy in the mornings and evenings. I stared at the young boy and imagined touching the wound of his breastless chest, the humiliating growth packed into super-soft underwear. I thought about summertime when women get on the tube shirtless: a man would always grit his teeth and remove his own shirt in defiance, but would always be shouted out of the carriage, or things could get nasty if women dared to touch him, laughing throatily.
           They practically ruined my day because I couldn’t stop thinking about how utterly inadequate they both were to me. I went over to them, hung my bag off the shoulder of the young one and put my wide-brimmed hat on his head, and lay my briefcase on the lap of the old limp thing, popped it open, took out my newspaper and started reading it, silently defying either of them to look at me.

    (PERSON B)         As I haven’t been asked to write anything I’m going to open this non-email with a question. When we look up ‘how to introduce a cat to living with a dog’, what is it we are actually doing? Trying to avoid a violent confrontation between the two animals? Hoping to see examples of ways to approach the meeting in order that neither of the animals gets distressed or suffers long-term trauma? It could be that we’re trying to understand the animals more deeply and see if such a combination of animals and this kind of situation are recommended, or even possible, right?
           Whatever the motivations are for such research, what we are actually doing is being comforted by text. If the thing we fear and don’t understand is written down, then it can be studied. It is an answer. A fear with an answer, logical or otherwise, cannot be so fearsome. We write about what has happened, could happen, and is happening, to make us feel like we have a plan for the future – that when the time comes, we know what we must do.
          In truth, one cannot pin down how x feels about y and vice versa and know why it is they feel that way, how they will act, what they will do, what they are capable of, even if they tell you everything.
           One thing is certain – and we know this without any report drawn up from this survey: the hatred of men is epidemic and the centres for the treatment of misandry are full. And I don’t know if asking women to write what they think about men in some confidential survey makes me feel safer. I feel like I can hear a million marks being made on a million pages, and it feels like laughter filling the void we’re being forced to guard.
           I honestly think that this amnesty on private fantasies, thoughts and fears has made the situation worse. I don’t know. It’s possibly just brought everything out into the open. The endless arguments in parliament, the heated panel discussions, the polarised newspaper articles, the sour conversations down the pub, attacks in the street and in public places on the rise. I go to bed, but I don’t sleep. Yet I feel compelled to write.
            I’ve been working two full-time jobs to get by since I had to leave teaching. During the day I work in a café, in the evenings I renovate old houses. From 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. I froth milk, toast sandwiches, scrub toilets, wipe tables; then I walk across town to the… I suppose you’d call it a mansion? Get there for 4 p.m. and leave around midnight. Walking is the only time I have to think, but I choose not to; I pay attention to walking not too fast, not too slow. Sometimes, if I feel anxious, I pay the twentyfive pounds to use the smooth chrome super-shuttle that takes me from the building job straight to my door in under a minute. I can barely afford it, even once a month. I often think of those men that can’t ever afford it.
             Every day for the last six months I’ve made an extra-hot latte for a woman who never looks me in the eye and is careful to always touch my hand for too long when I hand her the cup. It’s the same woman whose house I’ve been renovating and reinforcing with concrete and bullet-proof glass for the last three months, and she’s never acknowledged this. Maybe she hasn’t noticed. I noticed the pale green amnesty forms in her bag last week, already partially filled out, and the few words I saw, and the ruthless heavy crossing out, made me feel sick.

    (PERSON A)          Do you think there is a fundamental problem with men?

    Men don’t get to bleed pith every month, they are just shrivelled and ageing permanently. Shame and vulnerability and responsibility from when, as the Bible says, the baby chose the woman for the first pregnancy, and it has never gone any other way. The primal denial of the receptacle.
               To father something dictated repulsion, an escape, a near miss. To mother something was to be the saviour, to be the everything. A child should only be allowed to see their father with female supervision, just in case they’re jealous of the mother’s status as the chosen one, or in case they influence the child too much. In my opinion.

    (PERSON B)         When my partner and I were assigned a son in the adoption lottery after nine years of waiting to reach the minimum fathering age of forty, someone left a card of condolence in my rucksack and a camouflage romper that said ‘I’m a little trooper’ with a picture of a soldier’s helmet on it.

    (PERSON A)         Do you think men are weak?

    When I give my talks at female empowerment conferences I like telling the story I call ‘My Forty-Year-Old-Virgin Thinks of My Kiss’. It had taken so long to get enough interest out of myself for this boy in his forties – so coy and silent, he took convincing in tiny steps. Finally I took off his clothes and realised that I had not changed the way I regarded him or any object associated with him; he received the same lack of real attention as the door I had opened, the floor I had trodden on, the lightbulb at the moment of combustion. I didn’t think of his self-consciousness and started undressing once he was wholly naked, slightly curled on the bed looking up at me while I talked about how tired I was after a long day, all without any real thought. How I gripped his pinned-back arms and stared. I have this trick where boys think I’ve kissed them. The follow-up messages I would never reply to would peg a story up on the kiss as the remarkable proof of some hopeful impression, when I in fact never kiss. They just think I must have, after all the things I do to them. Everyone laughs at this point.

    (PERSON B)         Even though I’ve been working on her house and giving her coffees every day, every evening I feel like I’m invisible to her, though she absolutely must know I exist as a unified entity. She passed me in the street once, taking me by surprise and, without stopping moving, asked if I had seen her email. She half heard my answer that I thought she’d mistaken me for someone else, said pardon, acknowledged the pronunciation of the first letter with a lolling double nod and set off on the other foot, not once looking at me but gripping my upper arm roughly for not even a full moment. I might not have had a face.
                   She didn’t speak to the new project manager for a week because he had addressed her using her first name the first day she was on site. It was obvious that she was older than him, and in the hierarchy pyramid in the staff office (nine steps high) he was one level below her – one plus one equals title and surname.
                 She enters conversations as if she had started them and everyone else was interrupting her. It didn’t even really matter what the conversation was: she says thank you twice as loud, pours out sarcasm and unfunny jokes constantly. No one would expect her to react in any way other than with a single word or a long monologue-like point without taking a breath.

    (PERSON A)        Have you ever harassed a man in the street?

    I suppose you mean, have I ever tried to hook up with a man in the street?
    Sure, this happened this morning:
                            ‘Hey, where are you going?’
    ‘Sorry, I don’t know you.’
    ‘I know you don’t. Where are you going?’
    ‘I’m not telling you.’
    ‘Why not?’
    ‘Bye,’ and he tried to walk faster, hopefully upset, his bent shoulders protecting the back of his neck. I think I shouted ‘Pathetic dick!’ at him because he was rude. There’s nothing worse than bad manners.

    (PERSON B)         Only wealthy men can afford to act like women; they can do theatrical sighs, ask endless questions. Their parents allowed them to forget the general status of men in the world.
                        They’re making fools of themselves. What a childish make-believe world they live in while all us other men laugh furiously and hysterically in the wake of their stiff, punctuated walks. Some men are louder: laugh longer and louder, agree louder and with repetition. Unnecessarily, superfluously compensating for conversations not in their abilities to manage. Introduce, hold up. Even if they started, they would probably give up halfway through and let a woman with no better point than theirs take over. What’s the point? Fuck, what am I saying.
                   The whole world exists so that women can receive leisure and comfort and have all their ideas put through, chosen only because there’s no other option, creating more pleasure-receivers and more pleasure-givers, and if that were to change, no decisions would ever be made, right, no one would know who was giving and who was receiving, nothing could be agreed upon, every sexual session would end in the melancholy of the unachievable and resentment at over-sharing.
                     Winner-loser, giver-taker, upper-lower. To have been born a woman, though, would have been a miserable fate.

    (PERSON A)         Can you control yourself around men?

    Walked to the cusp of a boy’s personal space as we went down the stairs into the underground and barked ‘move’ so loudly and so forcefully I only realised what the noise was a beat after I’d done it. I walked in a curve to a young man waiting against the station wall and said something to him, turning my back on him straight after and stood barely an inch from his folded face to look at my phone with his confused breath on my neck.

    (PERSON B)         There are low stools in all shops because it is a gaze of power to look up at someone, as if from hell, or as if from the body, rather than from some non-existent holy being from above. I always have to serve from a raised step so the customer will have to force themselves to strain to look upon the horror of me and to give them the power, to form a contract in performance that there would be no rudeness, purely a transaction. Many men far chirpier than me give the impression that they enjoy working in such places; they are brazen, flirtatious, a boldness that soon fades once they are back out in the street after their shift has ended, surrounded by women about their shoulders, looking up at heart height, making them feel conscious of their flat chest and twitching penis.
                         When I end my shift, I feel exposed, high and easy to topple. When I’m looked at, I feel like hot meat. I’ve recently transitioned to wearing a shawl over my shoulders that goes down to my ankles, even though I feel hot and like the look of my body in my bedroom mirror.
                        Most women wear tights and leotards, or one-pieces, and show everything, with gloves and short, long or no hair, wire headdresses and shoulder extenders that would stick in your exposed skin, like getting prodded by the prongs of an umbrella. They’re well-exercised, show off their vocal coaching, endless resources, everything sized for them, smaller than a man could bear as their cumbersome, overlarge bodies spill over the edges of the toilet seat, over the end of the bed, squeezed in the bath, in the lift. Looking down and away like young children.
                            After a certain time, the body begins to die. The perfect moment runs for a second, and then suddenly clothes appear like the cover to protect the shame of a corpse. Clothes get newer, but the body gets older and older; clothes become ugly, like a joke or a disguise. I am disguised as youth and jealous of the truly young.

    (PERSON A)         Have you ever attacked a man?

    Once the house is ready everything will be normal again. I like walking from town out to the gated community with the long, curving driveway, where the house is half hidden behind a labyrinth of hedges. I was about twenty minutes away, strolling along, whistling, when I saw a hot man walking in the middle of the street with his head down. I clapped my hands together, rubbed them for luck, walked up to him and put my hands on both his shoulders.
                  ‘Hey, hey, it’s OK, how about you come home with me?’
                   He opened his sleepy blue eyes wide and stepped back and said, I couldn’t believe it:
                  ‘What the fuck did you say to me?’
                  I was gobsmacked to be honest.
    ‘Look, cock, how much? Stop messing me about otherwise you’ll lose your chance.’ I could see people looking, I smiled and opened my arms out wide. ‘Who do you think you are? I’m on my way to work and you think you can talk to me like that? It’s pathetic!’ he shouted, almost laughing as he shoved me in the chest.
               I started slapping him on his arms and legs, punched him in the face, grunted at him, leant over and stared at his crotch grunting and snuffling, then carried on walking

    (PERSON B)        She had stormed in without saying a word. She was obviously in a bad mood. I was painting a low part of the coving.
                   She walked in, spat on the concrete floor, threw her coat over a stack of boxes and stood in the corner of the room facing out, shouting her questions and replies from her vantage point. She pulled up her shirt to scratch her chest.
    She started lifting and chucking half bags of unmixed cement into another corner, and then stopped and looked at me.
                    ‘This is more your job really, isn’t it hulk?’
                     I looked down and across from the stepladder and paused for a second.
                    ‘Well, I’m painting right now, Sir, maybe I could do it tomorrow…’
                    ‘I can’t hear what you’re saying, mutt, speak up.’
                    The other men looked at me.
                 I opened my mouth, closed it, lay the brush across the rim of the pot and descended the three steps very carefully.
                   She approached me quickly, she was really close all of a sudden. I half turned my face towards her while wiping my hands and felt her spit with its sour milky coffee tang land warm then cold on my eyelid, cheek and neck.

    (PERSON A)         Do you think girls and boys should mix?

    I’ve told the girls to stop hanging out with boys so much; it will dumb them down, weaken their future networks and make them less appealing.
         They got back from a band practice – two boys with them – and I said while pouring them orange juice that it wasn’t normal for boys to play in bands; maybe an all-boy band – that would be cute. When I told them, they looked at each other and laughed and each hugged one another like they were related. They’ll grow out of it once the hormones kick in.

    (PERSON B)        My six-year-old son came home today and said that at school they held their own amnesty and I asked how he felt about it and he said, ‘Being good friends is more important than stuff like that dada.’

    (PERSON A)           Should the age of participation for the amnesty have been lowered to thirteen?

    My thirteen-year-old daughter came home today and said that at school they held their own amnesty and I asked what she said about boys and she said, ‘Everyone is different and an individual with different strengths and weaknesses and we shouldn’t place expectations on anyone or treat people differently because of their role in reproduction or resort to biological essentialism to classify somebody.’
         They’re not being prepared for real life.

    (PERSON B)         When I started writing these emails, I wanted to send them to someone in the temporarily instated amnesty department. Or to her.
         To her? I opened a new email and in an apoplectic hurry started typing ‘Women’, but instead of beginning to type in the body of the email the ticking cursor was in the recipient space, where what I wrote was flagged up as an invalid addressee:

    women x

    To write an email to all women. I kept writing. I spent over an hour editing it. I pressed send in a rush of excitement. It warned me about doing this, refusing to comply. I guessed a possible extension:

    women@women.com x

    I clicked send, knowing it would return moments later, but I did not feel disheartened. I carried on writing them regardless. They can just sit here in my drafts folder, growing in the dark, waiting for their time to come.

    (PERSON A)         What is the future of gender relations?

    I came downstairs last night to get a glass of water and found my eldest daughter reading my amnesty forms in the glow of the open fridge. She looked up at me, but she didn’t seem inquisitive or proud or afraid. The look she gave me was mysterious and I couldn’t explain it. I felt stifled, small in a bad way, and I didn’t have any explanation for her expression.
            She offered to let me read her forms tonight. I said to her, but I suppose more to the TV: ‘Four words, Frances – old, dog, new, tricks.’

    Discuss in your groups.

    ________________________

    Notes:

     

    ‘The Amnesty’ by Jen Calleja, from I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For (Prototype, 2020). Reproduced by permission of Prototype.

    _


    Jen Calleja
    is the author of I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For (Prototype), Serious Justice (Test Centre) and Hamburger in the Archive (If a Leaf Falls). Literary Translator from the German of Marion Poschmann, Wim Wenders, Kerstin Hensel, Michelle Steinbeck, Gregor Hens, among others. Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2019.

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