The space within us

Mainly I remember how sad she looked. She was around 50. With white hair, cut short. She wore thick black glasses and a beige overcoat, that’s about all I could tell you about her appearance. Truthfully she was unremarkable in every way and she knew it.

She made her way to a corner table and sat down, looking straight ahead. The waitress came over to her but she spoke first as if she wanted to apologise for her presence. ‘I used to work here’ she said by way of explanation. ‘Oh, okay’ replied the waitress, though you couldn’t really tell if she recognised her or not, ‘can I get you something?’ The woman addressed her hands, which were spread flat on the table in front of her, ‘The chicken pie please’.

She seemed to relax a little once the waitress had left, taking a few visible breaths, scrupulously avoiding eye contact with the handful of other people sitting in the cafe. There was something captivating about her to me. It was as if I could see this vast space within her. I mean there’s space like that in all of us I guess, but most of us manage to fill it. Friends, family, girlfriends and boyfriends. Sound and fury. In most of us it’s busy enough that it feels small on all but a few quiet days.

But hers was impenetrable somehow. It was hard to imagine anyone being able to worm their way into it.

After a few minutes the waitress returned. ‘Marco says it’s on the house’ she said as she arrived. It looked as if she wanted to add something else, a smile maybe, but wasn’t sure how to introduce it into the setting, so she just placed the plate on the table and left. The woman nodded to the space the waitress had occupied, then took a fork from a little metal beaker on her table and quietly started eating.

I realised I must have been staring for at least 10 minutes at this point, but she hadn’t noticed me. It didn’t seem as if she’d noticed much of anything really. Me, the other customers, even the food she was patiently and joylessly shovelling into her mouth. She just looked so sad and lost.

And all I wanted to do was to stand up and walk over to her table and sit down with her as she ate. Not out of pity, I didn’t want to save her or anything dumb like that, it was just…there was so much space inside of her. And I though how nice it would probably be, just to have someone with you to share it, even for a little while. Someone who didn’t do or say or ask anything but just sat there together with you. I really wanted to do that for her. But I was afraid I would scare her, and I probably would have. Even if I didn’t, I would have had to explain why I was sitting at her table which would have ruined the whole thing.

So instead I just sat in my chair and tried not to disturb her. And even though I knew it was impossible, I hoped that from where I was, she could feel me sharing the air with her while she ate.

A commonplace miracle

There really is nothing to be said about a sunset.

You sit and you watch, you think and you feel. There is colour and light, air and movement, but in the end, there is little left but a faint sense of absence. The feeling that you lost your train of thought halfway through.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t try of course. To say things. You carefully arrange your words, rattling with inadequacy, and search the eyes of your audience for understanding, for reassurance that there is a solution to the quiet problem of the sunset’s impossibility.

But it isn’t there, you lack the ability to express limitlessness after all. You are alone, plagued by the feeling that the universe itself is searching for a way to remind you of something, a long forgotten secret that you no longer share a vocabulary for. Mocked by the knowledge that even if you did, it couldn’t possibly be accommodated by your laughably finite brain.

But still you try. The universe and you. It speaks and you listen, taking in as much as you can. You both know it’s hopeless. Almost immediately, your capacity is reached and overrun, the excess spilling lavishly over the edges of your mind, thick and rich, like a heavy stream of liquid amber.

You register the loss, but only vaguely, as something incidental to the splendour before you. A tiny amnesia which you lack the capacity to really miss, much less recapture. There is nothing to do but let it overflow. To sit and to watch, to think and to feel. And as the secrets of the universe pour through you, to smile and pretend to understand.

Walk like the girl you like isn’t checking you out

'Dance like nobody's watching'.

I’ve always liked the way that this phrase captures the difficulty of doing things your own way whilst under scrutiny. Even simple things. For instance, have you ever tried walking when you feel like someone’s watching you do it? Maybe that guy or girl you’ve had your eye on is sitting on a bench, minding their own business as you walk by? You make eye contact, casually, nothing too overt. Maybe if you’re feeling particularly good about yourself that day you flash a half smile.

Then, having totally nailed the mixture of ‘interested but not too interested’ that you were going for, you attempt to breezily saunter past. Have you ever tried that? That shit’s impossible. Here is a basic skill that you perform more or less flawlessly every day, but add a little attention and it’s like you just learned last week from an instruction manual written in ancient Hebrew. Your legs are suddenly too long for your body, your knees seem uncertain about which way they’re supposed to bend, and your shoulders! What the hell are you supposed to do with your shoulders?!…or is that just me? Well anyway, I know you’re hearing me with the dancing thing. Everyone can relate to that.

Writing’s the same. Under normal circumstances I can express myself pretty well. I don’t mean to brag or anything but I’ve been described as eloquent on more than one occasion. And yet it requires constant vigilance on my part to write in a way that sounds anything like the real me and not a version from an alternate reality when I became a classics professor. Maybe it’s the knowledge that I’m creating a permanent record of my thoughts, one that can be repeated verbatim years from now, exactly as it was the day I wrote it, that produces this effect. It’s like trying to dance like nobody’s watching whilst you’re being recorded on a home video. I mean, I actually caught myself writing the word ‘lest’ the other day. ‘Lest’ for God’s sake!

Write like nobody’s reading. That’s what they should teach in writing classes. Actually, maybe they do. But even if they do I’m just saying, this should be a more well established piece of advice. Write like nobody’s reading, or better, as if the only one reading is you.

Fragments of marble

'What do you want to say?'.

Every now and then Alex would ask herself this question. Usually she’d be lying on her bed, frustrated, her mind swollen with ideas that refused to be moulded into words which meant something.

Well…of course they did mean something. Words have an inescapable tendency to mean things after all, but the point, illustrated neatly by her question, was that too often she worried that hers didn’t really say anything.

And sometimes that was fine. It’s not as if she was striving for profundity every time she wrote. Sometimes she was perfectly happy to simply be clever or crass or poetic, to make herself laugh maybe. Sometimes she just wanted to feel like a child again, building colourful towers with words.

But sometimes she would be after something more. From some unknowable point at the centre of her being would come a voice, urging her to produce something honest, something heartfelt, something pure, regardless of whether it was clever or funny or poetic. Regardless of whether it revealed more than she wanted it to.

It was this voice that frustrated her now. Telling her to focus. She took a few deep breaths and closed her eyes, visualising the tension that had accumulated within her moving through her like a wave, travelling from the base of her neck and out through the soles of her feet. The same path each time like a pilgrimage. When she finished she let her attention rest somewhere amidst the words in her head and waited.

It always worked. There was a moment or two of quiet, as if something inside of her were holding its breath, and then the words built steadily into a great torrent, flooding her mind so abruptly that she had to scramble to write down as much as possible, as quickly as she could, before they overflowed and were forgotten.

When it was over, she read through what she’d written. It was pretty rough; beautiful in its way but not quite satisfying. Not quite presentable. She read it over a couple more times and then begin chipping away at the text like a sculptor working to reveal the form hidden within.

She mourned the words as they were cut away, battling the urge to spare a pretty turn of phrase or clever aside that distracted from the as yet unseen point of what she’d written. She’d done this work hundreds of times before, but fore some reason, this time a sullen anger welled up within her on the behalf of these lost fragments. ‘Why does no-one ever think about the pieces of marble that Michelangelo left on the floor?’ she grumbled to herself as she continued to hack away.

The question rattled around inside her. ‘Wouldn’t it be better to just embrace the messiness and the noise and the imperfections?’, she asked herself. ‘To revel in the unbufferedness of it all?’. ‘Wouldn’t we be better?’. Her resolve faltered further but her fingers continued, scything away great lumps of words now as if compelled by a mind of their own. As unstoppable as the flood that had produced them. Delete, delete, delete.

It continued in this way until only a single line remained. A question. She looked at it and chuckled despite herself, unable to decide whether she had finally made her point or elegantly refuted it. Either way, there was nothing left to add, nothing else to remove. This, finally, had been what she wanted to say, or at least what she’d wanted to have heard.

She decided to let the work stand as it was. A clean page with only eleven words remaining in the centre.


"Wouldn’t it be better if we edited ourselves a little less?"

A particular shade of yellow.

The yellow of her dress seems to revel in its elusiveness, an effect which is only amplified by the delicacy of its material. I search for a suitable metaphor as I follow her movement but it’s difficult. At one moment I’m reminded of a bright early morning sun shining through linen curtains, the next, a field of wheat dancing in a summer breeze. Neither of them are right. The word diaphanous comes to mind, but I’m unsure whether it’s appropriate.

The sleeves are just the right length, finished with a softly frilled cuff at the point where the shoulder becomes the arm. The gentlest touch of white lace here. A simple, round neckline caresses the tips of her collarbones. It’s high but playfully cut. Inviting the imagination. Its maker clearly understands how alluring a woman’s neck can be when allowed its rightful place as centrepiece.

From there, the expanse of yellow continues uninterrupted except for a simply executed gathering at the waist, before coming to an end just below her knee. The faint outline of her body afforded by the translucent fabric contrasts the slightly conservative length. Modest and yet flirtatious.

As I watch her, I try to decide whether it’s the way she moves or the fabric she wears which is responsible for the near hypnotic effect she is having. At least four other heads have turned, transfixed as she cuts a path through the warm sun-thickened air. She, however, appears to be oblivious, walking quickly and lightly with a half smile playing across her face. A curious mixture of purpose and pleasure. A few more steps and she is around a corner.

I close my eyes and watch the after-glow of her dress fade against my eyelids until, like her, it’s gone. I open my eyes again and smile to myself, wondering what the beautiful girl in her sunlight yellow dress does with easy summer afternoons.

Copyright © 2011–2014 — SteveQJ