Esther’s been going to counselling near a swimming baths, so this week I packed my trunks and towel for a swim; at least then our eyes will be equally red when I go and collect her afterwards. It’s about a decade since I last went swimming, but I’m feeling positive.
There’s an old man on crutches near the changing rooms, and he directs me to the reception to pay. I thank him as I pass on my way to the lockers, and see him watching as I put all my stuff in and close the door before getting it out again so I can get changed first. Then he watches as I put all my stuff back in and wander around looking for the pool. “Over there, mate” he says with a grin.
The pool is tiny, filled with the only people with white haired people. All but one lane is taken so I ease myself in and start off with an improv butterfly (AKA Dyspraxic Flail). My muscles are already aching by the time I finish one lap, and on my return journey I notice that the OAPs are easily overtaking me on all sides. Then the man who was on crutches flops into the water and proceeds to swim past me on lap 3. On lap 5, my muscles give in and I start to drown in 2 feet of water; as I sink melodramatically, my knees hit the bottom so I simply stand up and walk out.
Getting changed again is torture because everything aches, and I’m completely red when I look in the mirror. The pool is in the same building as the library and as I walk out I see a copy of Animals on the reserved shelf. I really want to read it so I start where I’m stood but it’s 5 minutes till Esther comes out so put it back and walk over to the Continental Supermarket for a drink where they sell Rubicon in glass bottles. “Can you open it?” I say pathetically, barely able to lift the bottle onto the counter. The shop assistant looks at my red face and watery eyes and nods.
I nearly have to crawl up the hill to meet Esther.
“What’s happened to you?” she says when she sees me, trying not to laugh.
“Oh, the usual,” I say, “getting humiliated by retirees and men on crutches.”
That was a month ago; those aches lasted a full week, and now I have the flu aches but at least in the meantime I’ve finally got my own copy of Animals and I’m reading it quick smart because I’m interviewing the author next week. On Friday, I went to Canongate’s Manchester Literature Festival night to see her & Zoe Pilger read out bits of their books; these are the authors condescendingly called ‘bad girls’ by the media, clickbait for voyeuristic moral panickers.
I’d been feeling ill with a sore throat all week; now the virus had noticed it was nearly the weekend and decided to go postal. So I dosed myself up on paracetamol and ibuprofen, the dynamic duo, and managed to got to the the train station 10 minutes early. I got myself a ticket and decided I needed a coffee to keep me focused. I really wanted a gingerbread latte but it isn’t on the list so I get a caramel one and wait round the side of the counter for it.
It’s at this point that I notice it is 5 minutes to my train and instead of saying anything about that I notice that a man in the queue is buying a gingerbread latte and so I lean across and say “Is it too late to change to gingerbread?” and the woman looks at the caramel syrup she’s just poured into my cup and instead of saying “Do you think I want to serve people coffee and act all accommodating about their piggy little whims?” she says “no” and gets another cup. Now it’s 3 minutes to my train and the grounds have to be taken out and new coffee beans put in and the milk frothed up and if I’d stuck with caramel I’d already be there by now. I reach desperately for the cup as she slowly squirts cream on top; now I’m running up the stairs to the furthest platform.
The train’s not even arrived yet; I even get time to slurp my un-asked for squirty cream before it appears. Two carriages for what must be 50+ people – this is the kind of injustice that makes me want to do something and then realise that I don’t know what to do. The waiting people form bottlenecks and paw the ground waiting for the last person to alight and I manage to slip on in their slipstream and because I have no conscience or qualms, I nab a seat next to a suitcase man-mountain and the tiny student he has brought on as hand luggage. I fit myself around the cargo and zone out, reading more of Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth, who’s talking tonight, but it’s hard to concentrate because the crush has sent some people insane. I can hear a low level argument between a man and woman and then a different woman starts up.
“Excuse me?” she says.
“Excuse me? Excuse me? Excuse me? Excuse me? Excuse me? Excuse me? Excuse me? Excuse me? Excuse me? Excuse me? Excuse me? Excuse me? Excuse me? Excuse me? Excuse me? Excuse me? Excuse me? Excuse me? Excuse me? Excuse me? Excuse me? Excuse me?”
I never find out who or what it’s addressed to and it only stops because I get off at Oxford Road. The Anthony Burgess Foundation is easy to find with my iPhone map held in front of me tourist-style (I’m running too late for shame). I’m wearing a nice shirt and my grandad’s fur-collared car coat and reckon I could pass as hipster-smart but not soiree-smart.
I’m probably too ill to drink but under the influence of Animals I think What Would Tyler Do (WWTD?) and get a bottle of beer and sit next to three women with sequins and lacquered manes. As I’m looking around the room I feel an odd sensation and look down to see that the beer has frothed over and covered my crotch in a pool of white foam. Acting like it’s no biggie, I pull a wad of snot filled tissues from my back pocket and daub at it.
Zoe Pilger reads first, selecting the terrifying bit from Eat My Heart Out where Ann Marie is locked in a recording studio by deranged second-wave feminist Stephanie and forced to sing the top 3 songs on her iTunes playlist until it hurts. It’s bloody funny and bloody petrifying too. It’s been my favourite book for some time and I’m a bit starstruck. Read out loud, the prose is perfectly pitched between clever, arty, and funny. It seems what feminism has always failed at was a sense of humour; now in all it’s post-ironic OTT glory it’s a weapon to be reckoned with. Pilger’s confident enough to even do a passable American accent. If I ever get into this position I think I’ll even struggle with an English one.
Next up is Anneliese Mackintosh who reads a poem from Any Other Mouth. (When I’m queueing for my next drink I run my mind over those words ANY-OTHER-MOUTH and realise I haven’t got a clue what it means, before settling on ‘probably vagina’). I’m not a fan of poetry slams and get ready to disapprove as her words come out pre-cut into verse but the effect is cumulative and I end up being carried along by how her soft speaking and simple language falls away suddenly into the blackest pits of humour.
After the intermission, Emma Jane Unsworth is up and the audience has loosened up, guffawing more for this local talent. I forget which bit she reads out, but they’re all equally good; unexpected veins of insight visible through the laddered tights of too many good nights.
Finally, singer-songwriter Karima Francis. There’s only one thing I hate more than live poetry – acoustic singer-songwriters. My ironic core squirms in discomfit as the tiny female Marc Bolan takes the stage. I thought it was the artifice of being laid bare that I resented the most- the more earnest you are, the more you fetishise what appears to be real. But as she sings and I see an upper- middle-class woman a few rows ahead wipe away unselfconscious tears, I realise that I’m scared of the absence of artifice because it is the furthest from being funny you can get, and if you know me at all, you’ll know I always like things to be funny.
I didn’t sign up for this, I think, as my eyes glisten too; I want my honesty in the sugar pill of farce and fart jokes please. It’s like ‘the feelings’ in Animals that Laura and Tyler try to avoid – those unwanted emotions that come flooding in after a night out. You can see them coming and what they’re going to do to you but you can’t stop them. If I was someone else with a less well-developed metaphor palate, I’d say that feelings are the children from our relationships with others and seeing as how I can stage-manage my encounters with the exes that I conceived them with, I want to restrict seeing these kids to every other weekend. Or something.
It’s the end of the night. I interviewed Zoe Pilger last week and now I really want to introduce myself, but my mind has gone blank, so I go to the toilet to give myself time to think of something to say. Oh yes, I forget to tell her I actually liked her book last time, I’ll do that now. I join the lane system that leads to the signing table and as Zoe looks up all I can do is mutter, a mutter she must recognise as she says “Alex, from last week?”
“Yes, ” I say. “I thought of a question I wanted to ask you after we spoke. Your PhD was about the possibility of Romantic Love…?”
“Sort of,” she says.
“What was your conclusion? Is it possible?”
I realise this sounds like a terrible pick-up line.
“I don’t think a PhD can tell you,” she says.
Phew, she didn’t slap me.
“So, onto a Post-Doc then?” I joke tipsily.
“No,” she says “I think only real life can tell you. But I’m onto the second novel now…”
As I talked to her, I had absentmindedly been pushing my copy of Eat My Heart Out towards her, confusingly playing the role of both critic and fan, and now she takes it and signs it.
As I thank her and retreat, I realise she still doesn’t know that I bloody love her book.
I speed walk back across a city brimming with girls and boys falling in and out of meaning, embarrassed of myself as aways but also a little confused. This bad girl stuff is great, but does it offer more than simply doing it like dudes? I mean I’ve learned to diss blokes on TV for being ugly just like we’re taught to judge the women up there, to condemn everyone by equally harsh standards, but what then? Surely everyone loses in that game? Should feminism ask more of its members than mere mimicry?
I’m distracted from this by seeing a mammoth queue snaking its way from under Piccadilly Station. Teenagers in 90s clothes, four deep, hundreds long. “What’s going on?” I ask a tout. “It’s a rave, mate” he says and I grin, for this is the scene I always imagined as a Mixmag reader growing up in Macclesfield, my imagination shucking off its environs to envisage a fluorescent smear of fun across the City that points the way to possibility. It’s so utopian, even the police seem to be having fun:
And now of course I really am ill and I sit here in my sweaty, snot-smeared bed and think when am I going to stop reading other people’s novel and write my own?
Sometimes I wonder if I ran away for a while whether someone could piece together several novels from all the nonsense I’ve written. I could come back just as they’ve finished and pat them on the back because it’s something I sure as hell can’t do by myself.
Oh yes, I remember now, those people do exist don’t they?
It looks like I need a live-in ghost writer who’ll work for free.