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All my friends have a fucking book deal on the go and are releasing records and doing MAs and getting married. I want to be as skinny as them and have all that they have, for everything to be as easy for me as it is for them, and if singing opera and publishing books and having important jobs is what it takes then I’ll do that, even if I don’t even like opera that much, even though I don’t want to work for anyone. It doesn’t matter what I do, as long as I’m doing better than everyone else.
It makes me want to
and without capital letters
because that’s what they do
the ones who get book deals
But most of all I want someone to hate me, and hide my status updates from their feeds because watching my fun, meaningful life hurts too much.
I invite all my friends in London, but they are all busy. When I was 14 all my friends claimed not to be able to come to my birthday party, but when I came home there they were, with cake, shouting surprise because the norwegian word for surprise sounds awkward, and because they loved me. I go to the shops and get way too much food just in case, I take my time, but when I come home everything is quiet. I check all the rooms, behind the shower curtains, but there’s no one there.
I make a cocktail that looks like poo (pinterest lied to me), but my hair looks amazing and my eyeliner is even. All the guests are paired up. I drink all the champagne and all the pinterest cocktails (they don’t taste like poo) and throw an empty champagne bottle into the canal at midnight, almost hitting a swan. Someone gets the gin out, so I drink the gin. At 3am I insist that I’m going to Camden to fuck a stranger, fuck anyone, but I’m told to go to bed instead. So I do, and I wake up sick and horrid, and nothing is different just because I woke up and it’s a relatively new year, nothing changes just because 365 days go by, and tonight will be the same as every other new years eve and tomorrow will be the same as all other fresh, new years.
A THOUGHT THAT OCCURS TO ME WITH SOME REGULARITY
I wonder if my grandmother had the same sick sensation at the base of her spine when she escaped to England in the world’s smallest plane during the war, that I experience when I have to do equally dangerous things (get on the tube, go to work). I’ll ask her about it when I shuffle off (this presumes that there is life after death), about when she became an anxious old woman, if it happened suddenly or whether it came on slowly and unnoticeably, if it passes when you die (I hope there is no life after death).
IN WHICH OUR HERO IS SUBJECTED TO A PUNISHMENT FOR A CRIME OR OFFENCE
Notting Hill Carnival is often referred to as a festival, but festivals take place in big fields. When you have to walk slowly in line or you’re squashed by Iron Maiden fans at Roskilde, you can lean your head back and look at the sky. In Notting Hill you see rooftops, men in bathrobes playing guitar from their fifth floor balconies, power lines. On my way there the festival is folded up and placed within a train carriage, it can fit all the noise and smell, ordinary people and the people who are competing to scream the loudest, take up the most space and for the prestigious title MOST READY TO PARTY. They’ve installed shelves in the ceiling of the tube especially for this day, and I’m shoved into one by a conductor with a rainbow coloured afro.
«Are you ready to party?»
«That will be a fine of £50»
«Just kidding, of course I’m ready to party.»
After 13 hours, 44 minutes and 19 seconds we are allowed out, I unfold the leg I’d put in my handbag in order to take up less space, and re-attach my left arm approximately where it used to sit. I find my friends. «Are you ready to party,» they ask. I don’t have £50, so I say nothing. We walk and drink beer (I don’t drink) and dance (I dance a little bit). The dancing feels awkward, I’m clearly not as good at re-attaching arms as I had thought. Luckily you can use the native’s toilets for £2. A young girl takes the payment. She starts talking to me through the door, I hear her say «are you», but I’ve already started peeing and can only hear the sound of liquid on porcelain.
Then a new religion is introduced, or new to me. People flock around a man with a larger-than-average CD collection and larger-than-average speakers. They gather around him (I can’t see what gender the person is but I assume it’s a man, it is usually men who have larger-than-average speakers), he has removed their need for personal space and oxygen and their desire for autonomy through mass hypnosis. We try to walk past, but that’s against the commandments, we have to dance. We dance in a line like everyone else, I’m sure I’ll be busted but my friends are very convincing, even the fanatics let us through when they see us dancing and drinking beer. «Are you ready to party,» a woman asks, but I’m already on the other side. I take a deep breath and inhale a whole roast chicken through my left nostril.
But we can’t escape these religious meetings. Human mass density increases until it is impossible to tell individuals from one another, I can see my friends but they have melted into a single being, a six-legged mongrel with one head. «Ready to party, ready to party», they chant, and everyone is walking in the same direction. Behind me the mass is the same as in front, I look down at my feet and pretend they are the only feet in the world. I step on a pigeon who has been pulled into the crowd like Simba in the Lion King, I hope it was dead before I stepped on it. I look up instead and gaze directly into the guitar playing man’s boxer shorts, I’m surrounded by balls and death. I turn to my closest friend, his head is less firmly connected to the others’, I can see a bit of beard and an ear. I jump up and tell the ear, as softly as I can, «I don’t think I’m ready to party, I think I want to go home».
But the ear and the air are a megaphone, and everyone can hear me. «FINE!», they scream, «SHE HAS TO PAY THE FINE!» They come towards me, but their progress is slow, it’s too packed. A man breathes on my face and rubs my face like an apple, but I’m still dusty and matte. The man hits me on the shoulder as hard as he can, disappointed. «Dance», he says. Then I start crying, stinking tears that everyone can smell, it attracts the festival goers like blood in the ocean. «FINE! FINE HER!» I tear the ear and the beard from and the rest of the man from the lump, and make sure that all necessary body parts and belongings came with. That turns out not to be the case, but we both have arms and legs. «I can’t afford to pay the fine, and my eyes stink», I say. He understands immediately and we create a shovel from pigeons and arms and legs that have been left behind, and he holds his hands over my eyes to prevent the stench from spreading further than it has. But being with me is less than popular in this context. «Let me see your hand», a tall man says, and tears it away from my eyes. «It’s full of goo! Boring goo! You don’t seem very ready to party». He stares at us so hard that it hurts to watch him. The man doesn’t hit me, but I still die.
You don’t have to pay fines when you’re dead, so it was a pretty fortunate outcome, really.
And seeing as I’m dead, we can fight our way through the bodies, or the body, it has become completely unified. We run and discover a new gait, somewhere between a gallop and a saunter, we move an inch a minute until we find an air pocket. His fingers are still covered in goo, I dry them off on my hair so he won’t feel lonely in his grossness. «We didn’t have to pay a fine!» I say. And by the time we’re home I’m barely even dead anymore. We don’t remember anything and we look at my hair and his hands in confusion, shrugging carelessly, we practice our new gait and make it into a dance move for future festivals.
AND YOUR MA’S SO GOOD LOOKING
I stretch and something rouses. My nose is cold, and the green snot that has been floating on the canal is gone. A hard little child knocks on my spine, is there anyone home? Let me out. Three rounds of chills. Enlarged pupils (it gets dark at 8 now), maybe the veins expand, as passers by can hear a low, intense humming. The child climbs out, sits on my shoulders. It likes the canal when it is black, and sharp eyes and brain activity, and it hibernates in summer. Nobody remembers a coward! Do you remember that? Barely, I say. If you tell me about all the things we’re doing, I’ll take you to the canal. The child smiles and puts on a pair of enormous sunglasses.
SHORT AND SHARP
I start a one way argument with the man trying to sleep next to me. My eyes lock onto the reflection of my shoulder in the metal lamp, that shoulder is unexpected, I thought for a moment I was a seagull. As the only participant I win the argument. I always win, I’m really good at arguments, come back, we’ll do round two! No? I often win by default.
A woman leans her belly on the railings of a bridge so the kid can see where it came from. The middle, she says, look. The kid watches as seaweed and rubbish float south, it can see through the taut skin. Babies float around the body unrestrained like jellyfish. It’s true, I remember it well.
I always have uneasy dreams when I don’t sleep alone, I sleep like an actual baby: lightly, restlessly. How can people live together, how do they sleep together every night without becoming insects? When I wake up for the eight and last time, when I’m not yet human, I press my palms too hard against his back. I’m not trying to be mean, I’m just confused because it’s early, and I want to feel what he’s like on the inside, what the inside of his ribs are like. He sleeps, he dreams of nothing, he touches me with blunt fingers.
I NEED NOTHING, I’VE EVERYTHING I NEED
I can’t wait until this goes tits up, until it’s over, so I can go through the piles of evidence I’ve collected, without feeling guilty. Look: here are clear symptoms of indifference, my paranoia was justified, I knew this would happen. I’m looking forward to being cheated on for the first time, so I don’t have to wait any longer for it to happen, I’ve waited eight years. It’s one of many events for which I’m well prepared; I have a list of possible choices, situations, positions and methods of confrontation. A list of albums and films I’ll need to get rid of, mp3 files to delete, I’m ready, don’t you fucking tell me I’m not efficient, I’m bloody efficient, I’m the best holiday partner you’ll ever meet. I’ve written my will. My handbag holds, at all times, painkillers, lozenges, plasters and tampons. It has come in handy so far; I have headaches and bleed, more proof! I can’t wait to have a reason to be so angry all the time, it’s tiring to have to justify myself, to have to nod and agree when I’m told it’ll be fine, that I need to stop imagining things, imagining the worst possible outcome. I hope I’m right, I really like being right, I’d rather be right in thinking that everything is going to shit than for something unexpected to happen. A violent anger, and then the lovely feeling of I told you so. Didn’t I tell you this would happen? Didn’t I do everything in my power to make this happen? Haven’t I achieved something now? And then a period of adjustment where I stop waiting for anything or anyone, and I’ll become slightly more water resistant. It’ll be great, being waterproof, down to 40 meters! It’ll be great to repeat this over and over and over. I can’t wait until all the skin on my body becomes hard, like a foot.
UT MED HAVET (By the sea)
I have one leg on each side of the North Sea and bend to pick the bits I like, a luxury afforded to me as a foreigner. As a foreigner I can cry because Jerusalem is a beautiful song without having to cry from shame over India or Ireland, I can be happy about the pleasant pastures, how beautiful the lowlands are, the highlands, the east midlands. We’ve marketed ourselves as the good guys for a long time now. Recently I met an American who thought the Vikings were fictional, a bunch of bearded cartoon men who worship Anthony Hopkins. That’s how long it’s been since we’ve led an invasion.
And as part of my privileged, wide legged position, I get to be foreign in Norway, too. I don’t have to be ashamed of our tendency to walk casually past blue-faced heroin addicts because no one asked you specifically to call an ambulance, or how we are frightened of new people, like villagers. The law of Jante doesn’t apply where I live, in its place there is a class system that I, accentless but an outsider, can laugh heartily at. In Britain, the only thing more expensive than going to university is not going to university, and I can shrug at that and say ”well what can you do” because nothing here belongs to me. When this untiring indifference makes me explode in anger, I can explain it by saying that we don’t do it like this where I’m from. In the old country. I can pretend the reason I left wasn’t this exact lowering and rising of shoulders, and the fear that it might be contagious.
Having left, I can laugh at the fact that even in Oslo, the capital, we stare at people who hiccup, who sneeze, who walk funny, who breathe loudly, I walk freely around London where there is no eye contact. I’m free to reject two monarchies and I have no prime minister, but both Woolf and Ibsen belong to me. In London I inhale Bangladesh in the stairwell, Afghanistan in the park, England’s green and pleasant lands in the north, through train windows. They have trams in Croydon, I close my eyes and pretend, it’s never really necessary to leave.
If I’m too direct I can pretend it’s a cultural thing, like a mother tongue, not something that has become ingrained as a response to a vague culture, a desire for eye contact. If I want to feel clever I can explain a whole culture and a whole language to people who can’t question anything I say. I am the leading expert in this field, at least the leading expert at this table. Yes, 5’3” is the average height for a Norwegian woman. Yes, we have gangs of polar bears wagging through the streets of Oslo.
But sometimes I forget Norwegian words, I look them up in the dictionary in secret. Sometimes I read about how the welfare state is being systematically destroyed and I look at all these people shrugging in time as if to a beat only they can hear, and I check how much a return ticket to Oslo costs (£31.89) instead of crying because I can’t vote, comfort myself that it’s not my welfare state, because nothing here belongs to me.
Even though I have a first class degree in English Literature, I impress people with my ability to express myself using words with more than one syllable. When I go to the bank, they correct my pronunciation of my own name, when people ask if it’s Joanne Joanna Johanna I shrug, I’ve become better at shrugging. The day after the 22nd of July no one met my gaze in the streets, no one even stared, sometimes the middle of the north sea is bloody lonely. I’m asked which language I speak to myself, which language I swear in when I fuck, where my inner monologue originates. I’ll tell you; when I’m in England I think in English, in Norway I think in Norwegian, but I dream in Pig Latin, in Esperanto.
RIGHT UP FROM YOUR LANDSCAPE PAINTING
I want to make you breakfast so that you can tell your friends and your family that I’m the sort of woman who makes breakfast, so you can tell the national newspapers that I make pancakes with strawberies, boil eggs for exactly 5.34 minutes, the kind of woman who gets dressed in the morning and stirs and sorts out and does dishes. But when I wake up and you’re naked next to me I’d rather rub my cheek against your penis, even though your friends and your family and the readers of national newspapers don’t want to hear about how I’m the sort of woman who has soft cheeks, well-polished cheeks.
RARELY HAS A GAYER, OR MORE INTERESTING, SPECTACLE PRESENTED ITSELF TO THE GAZE OF A RETURNED TRAVELLER
The toilets in St Pancras are surprisingly nice, but despite this fact people on the Eurostar have tired, english faces, and they all look constipated. In Paris we go to a gig like we live there, and we meet the gaze of that kid from Home Alone on our way out. He looks tired, maybe he took the train as well. Mara and I meet a film maker called Anthony, whose cousin liked to look down from a hundred floors up until it looked as if the ground were moving up towards him. One day he fell off a balcony and died, Anthony tells us, and after this Anthony’s father became much kinder to his son. Anthony is kind, he buys us a ticket for the carousel and waits patiently as we spin.
My next train journey is lacking in tired englishmen, but there are americans who talk about crisps and health reform. Last time I travelled this distance I shared the limited air supply with illegal immigrants. I don’t miss the noise or the strong smell of their food at four in the morning, but I do miss the idea of these men, the story I told when I returned.
I never know where I am in Bologna, everything is terracotta coloured and all the students look the same. I do my best, when I’m not alone I manage to have fun or at least to envy the free spirited students their extremely slow progression from A to B. It’s all about the journey, a handsome dutch man tells me. Journeys make me anxious, I say. In Italy, everyone lives in the now without me, and no one needs to pee and no one wants to go to bed. I try to enjoy life, but I’m from the north, I walk fast, I do well because I’m strict and harsh. Linda does very well too, even though she walks slowly between the piazzas like the others. But I try not to think about that.
I charm Linda’s bearded friends with my extremely limited Italian. One of them has a red beard. It’s called ginger, I say, like me, but real. I find myself smiling at him from underneath my fringe, but he looks me straight in the eye, we’re the same height, I’m used to looking up men’s noses from underneath my fringe. I sober up, talk about subjectivity in rapid English until his eyes wander off, I hide from his triangular smile. The other girls compare men from different countries, the efficient dutch versus the italians. (I’m not sure what qualities are ascribed to the italians, I assume they’re leisurely in all ways.) Though no one asks me to, I try to defend the allure of the pale, cowardly poet with fishbelly skin, to these people with much more exciting preferences. But they’re so scared, I say. You’ve met the wrong englishmen, you haven’t picked the ones that are scared of everything. Have you slept with a spaniard, Johanne? No. I’ve slept with a few danes, does that count?
Then I go home. I put my earphones in for the first time in a long time, and listen to ice cold electronic music with literary references, I pick up on the references, I dress myself in a clammy kind of scepticism, it feels like putting on tummy tuck tights in July. I swear when I miss the bus though there’ll be another one in fifteen minutes. In the airport, a sign says it’ll take eight minutes to walk from terminal 1 to terminal 2, it takes me three minutes and four seconds.
I haven’t been gone long, but I haven’t been present in a while, and now I’m watching St Paul’s, standing still on Blackfriars Bridge. I pretend the bridge is a boat. I always stop here to look at the cathedral and the buses, like a bloody tourist. But tourists aren’t so bad, the americans on the train told me they didn’t mind the tube closures on weekends, because walking is free exercise. And they never swore. The river, which has been tar-black and inviting this long bloody narnia-winter, has gone grey while I was away. Soon it’ll be sun-white and smelly again, soon I’ll cycle here just to smell that the river is smelly.
JUST LIKE A DOG I WAS BEFRIENDED
It’s so fucking cold at night. John and Lilly sleep in the same bed under the same cover, so they turn the radiators off at bedtime. I’m freezing cold under two duvets, in flannel pyjamas and thick woollen socks. In November I pulled myself together, put on mittens and a hat, rigid upper lip. Now I give in, turn the central heating on while they sleep. The boiler makes a lovely humming noise, like a living creature. «Do you sleep well when you sleep next to him?» Lilly asks when I sleep next to a human being. No, I guess I don’t. But I don’t sleep well on my own, either.
As a child, my father had a black dog, a labrador retriever. When it was a puppy my granddad put a clock in its basket to calm it down. It reminded him of his mother’s heartbeat, granddad said. I don’t think dogs’ hearts beat every second like a clock, but the puppy took what he could get, and I turn on the humming boiler every night.
(Something must have gone wrong with that dog, because I wasn’t allowed to have one when I was a kid. Maybe it was hit by a bus, and my parents wanted to protect me from that. Dogs get run over all the time, it’s better to just leave it.)
The more money I earn, the more I want to use on central heating. I want to be able to afford to never have cold feet. I want to invest in a bed that shoves me in the ribs a couple of times every night, a mechanism that pulls the duvet off so I wake up with cold shoulders. A machine that makes snoring sounds, that snuffles into my neck, I already have a vibrator so that part is sorted. An extra pillow for my knee, for my head, preferably one that ticks or hums. I have no interest in human beings, I have the internet. I want the illusion of a person. I want a long distance relationship, a little man or woman who lives in my phone like a tamagotchi, someone who cares massively about everything I do. I’ve seen the future on TV, it looks so appealing on Black Mirror, I cannot fucking wait. It won’t be too long now. I’ve started saving up for a combined sex toy, heater and snoring machine, I put all my coppers in a jar so that I can be first in line when they’re launched. You can say a lot of bad things about me, but I am an optimist, I have a bright view of the future.
“But maybe I’m just a sad person.”
“It’s chemical. Everything that happens in your brain is a chemical reaction.”
“And now I’m chemically imbalanced?”
“Yes, today you are, anyway.”
“But not forever?”
“Well, your brain could be pe–”
“No. Just today.”
“All right. Just today.”
When I discreetly inhale through my nose and exhale through my mouth, she notices. I cry on the inside because she bothers to use her powers of observation on me. She’s the detective, she knows everything there is to know about us. She’s going to ruin us all if she ever writes it down, she has so much shit on all of us, we should be shaking in our boots. I don’t know anything about anyone, but yesterday a man said I was docile so I do have some secrets.
All I want is for someone to draw me. I try to remain calm and cool, but I’m not calm or cool, I try to remain calm and cool and like I’m not trying very hard. I consider it a victory whenever I ignore someone or something, this is because it is a great victory. All these calm and cool people I love and look up to, they’ve accomplished something I never will. They’ve ignored thousands of texts! They’ve declined invitations! They have lives of their own! They have the ability to appear strong, which is really just the ability to shove arms off their necks firmly and without hesitation. They don’t need anyone, they wait for no one, they’ve rejected touches! They have grudgingly let me draw them, without blushing under the pencil.
I don’t believe in anyone or anything, but I do find Jesus handsome, the way he dangles up there. I like men with beards, men who dangle from walls, it’s one of my many weaknesses. Hurry, write that down, I’m keeping a record of all my weaknesses.
I hide inside eloquent statements, my honest and eloquent statements. Look, everyone, I am so fucking open and honest, I don’t care what you know, I am so fucking honest. So fucking open. Everyone I know has seen me naked. Raise your hand if you haven’t, and we’ll see to that right this minute. I have a tattoo on my arse, do you want to see it? Do you want to know how many people I’ve slept with? Do you want to hear a joke about my alcoholism? Do you want to hear about all the times I’ve been rejected? Do you want to see the scar on my knee? I have no shame, I am open and honest, I’m not ashamed of anything apart from– so do you want to see my arse? Do you want to see the bruises on my thighs? Do you want to hear about the time I vomited in Hoxton because I was so ashamed of myself? When I vomited in Kent because I’d had too much rosé? Do you want to hear about the time I pissed behind a car by Dyveke’s bridge, by Mile End Hospital, in Torggata? Do you want to hear about my visit to the gynaecologist, do you want to know what my counsellor says about my mother? I’m menstruating. I’m ovulating. Look, I’m so fucking open and honest and free.
HUNGER IS THE PUREST SIN
I don’t care who looks at me and when, because there is always someone looking at me, I’ve made sure of it, I’ve worked at it for many years. I dream in public, I shout out all about the dreams where I rape children, where I kill my parents, where I apologise without meaning it. I talk loudly about these things in public places and online, and my poems are being auctioned off. There is nothing that belongs to me, everything is sold below market price and I earn six quid an hour to smile and say yes, sir. I spend all my money on food, I eat it in bed with a spoon, I’m eating myself out of house and home. A man I know jokes about prostitution, but I’m not joking, I just want to get paid and to cause an erection. All I do is test the waters, I insult all my friends and press my hipbones against their hipbones, just in case. It’ll be my birthday soon, and as a reward for having survived for 23 years I would like to own something, to leave in the middle of a conversation, to not answer when called. To win a little, maybe at bowling, maybe we can hit each other in the face, maybe you can call me while I’m asleep. Once I won at this game called university. Once I won the silver medal in a local karate championship. Sometimes I want ordinary thing, a drivers licence, to live with a man. I want to be able to leave the house in a straight line, take the tube without ducking for cover as if I were 6’5″, as if I were haunted by my tallest of my uncles. I’ve never said no to anything or anyone. Once someone made a joke about my short straight hairs, and now they belong to her, all of this grey triangle is available for six quid an hour, or a joke, or a song, or just covetousness. When I turned six my mother gave me a little brother made out of balloons, and when he inevitably collapsed I sat with the wrinkled rubber in my hands for days, mourning the absence of air.