The Weekend Read
By Leone Ross
26th May 2017
Things I forgot to say, before today:
1. We thought you loved us. How could we think anything else? Your music distracted us. It touches us, even now.
2. I got you food, Mum. Wednesday, March 3rd, 2035. My parents’ generation had the Twin Towers attack; for us it was that sentence, out of one small, homeless girl, standing in Trafalgar Square, her face spread across the live screens around her, offering her mother food after a long day out panhandling. I got you food, Mum, she said, and offered the slice of meat, charred on one side, raw on the other and we saw the blooded bandage on her arm.
3. I am part of Generation App. A child of the ones who tried to bring down Wall Street and died and failed, the ones who watched the Middle East implode and then be taken again by men just as greedy for money and power as the so-called West.
4. There are apples in my fridge. I keep meaning to eat them, but they’re too pretty and I don’t trust them.
5. We beamed that kid and her carved arm out to millions. Her little face, trying to smile, strands of her blonde hair still in the piece of flesh, cooked over a piecemeal stove, in good British air. This wasn’t Africa, where people had been dying so long that caring wouldn’t have made a difference, or even Brixton, where things, as my half-Jamaican grandmother would say, had gone much too far to fix. This kid was white and you could see from the state of her mother’s cuticles that she hadn’t been homeless for long. But the cannibalism isn’t the point. That isn’t what frightened me so much that I stopped being frightened anymore. People talked. How dreadful, they said and there were marches and riots. I watched them all, not live – who watches anything live anymore? – but I watched the coverage.
It was the thousands of people, calling for change and not a thing behind their eyes.
6. When did we truly run out compassion? How did we do it? They said it was too much TV, they talked about desensitisation, too many sins dressed up as entertainment and not enough books at bedtime, the soullessness of capitalism, plastic surgery, body dysmorphia and the growing incidence of rape victims feeling nothing at all, and the mercilessness of people starving starving starving, but none of that ever explained it for me and that was only part of the world anyway.
7. Gone too far to fix. That was what Grandma said when faced with life’s utter madness: a neighbour splitting his wife’s head open, all for the sake of his ego or yet another banker bitching about his five million pound bonus.
Gone too far to fix, my love, oh Lord. I want to remember her face.
8. We thought you loved us. I remember the first time I heard you sing.
9. Mindfulness was a buzz-word in 2012 – took on steam by the time I was born. Mum said it was our last attempt to claim an emotional landscape before the undeniable march of apathy, the lack of any profound connection, the dullness. People practised by eating a single raisin mindfully, savouring the sweetness for ten minutes, giving thanks for the vines and the sun from where it came; they made love mindfully, tracing pores and arches and stretching each other’s bodily fluids between finger and thumb to feel the texture; talked mindfully, coaxing each other into conversations slower than glaciers breaking. Master-classes in mindfulness were sold online.
Mum says we started to die the day we threw the paper books away. The razing of the last libraries didn’t even make the news. I had to be careful not to say, So? when she called to tell me. Before the mindfulness craze died, a lot of money was made and the mindful knew it. They said that money was the problem, but it wasn’t that.
It took less than three generations of children online to wipe out the part of the brain that’s hard-wired for awe.
10. I was in London six weeks ago. It was a hot day, thick as suet, and couples were panting in the grass like German Shepherds. People remember autumn as a kind of variegated, childhood dream – that time of cool and specific colour that only seemed to exist in Britain, that flutter in your chest when you saw a red- brown leaf with an icy yellow back, in between the grey plastic and the fast-food wrappers.
All matters of memory now.
I baked in the grass with the rest of them, lying on my stomach, blanket spread beside the footpath, flicking through old photographs of flowers on Pikmix and occasionally checking in on a rhinoplasty patient live-bleating her op in cyberspace. There were daffodils in a canyon and the op girl said that her breaking bone sounded like eating corn on the cob. I raised my head from my stupor to sniff my arms and make sure I wasn’t frying. The man and his wife lying on a blanket nearby groaned in protest at the sun, and smelled like bacon.
11. I think my blood smells like lavender oil, got blood like my grandmother.
12. Blood dus taste like iron, bleated the op girl. Yay, a simile, I thought, and dozed.
13. I opened my eyes and there were a pair of brown feet lingering on the path, directly in front of my nose. They were handsome, large and clearly female – not just because they wore bright green kitten heels with red and yellow embroidery – but because of the softness of the ankles. There are few things as beautiful as strong, tropical colours on dark brown skin. I regarded the waiting feet, not bothering to look up at the owner. There was something pleasurable about their disembodied quivering. I could hear the laughter of other women, coming up behind the owner of the green shoes; their merriment seemed to poke at the sheet-white, stiff clouds above us. A second pair of shoes joined the first, and then a third: banana-yellow slippers and pink ones, the skin inside them even darker than the first and glossy with lotion, and another and another. Most people would have sat up and watched them coming down the path, but I liked discovering them feet first, watching their scuffed, expressive, shifting soles. It wasn’t the stumbling ballet of the British drunk, who with the increasing heat have become more nude and smell like raw chicken, but a hot earthiness, their ankles peeping and flowing under their purple, red, green, orange wraps and robes. Each new foot felt like a present just for me.
14. Then the sound of you.
15. You, crackling through my computer, obliterating this female choreography, killing off their willingness to be loud and the pinches of singing in the air: Happy birthday, o-o-o, happy birthday. Killing off the brocade details of their shoes. There was a slight stink of burning, a smell we’d all come to know so well.
16. You were singing. Some of you, all of you? 17. Nobody knows.
18. I could claim I heard you under the black women’s happy birthday chorus, but that would be so wrong I could cry. That presupposes anything could exist alongside the sound of your song. Normal sounds coexist, they interrupt each other; sometimes sheer volume makes the winner, sometimes other things, but battle for dominance is possible. There is a measure of equality, an acknowledgement that the voice or the music of the laughter or the clap-hands or the boat’s horn are all much of a muchness, only differentiated by detail or capacity, or by the mood you’re in, or your taste or personality. But you didn’t sound like anything else I had ever heard.
19. The apples in my fridge won’t rot. I WILL them to rot, even if just to tell the time.
20. If I was something more than an ordinary, educated liberal agnostic, slowly watching the end of the world, the true barbarism of capitalism eating itself, the putrid rich stinking with money they can’t eat and the poor eating themselves, I might have recognised what I was hearing. But I am part of Generation App, child of Generation Zero, the ones who tried to bring down Wall Street and died and failed – did I say that before, or did I forget, and forget that I forgot?
21. Gone too far to fix. My grandma said that when she killed my puppy. The one I had when I was small, the one that made me laugh and even the neighbours laugh, with its long red tongue and bright eyes. It got rabies. Now who knew there was still rabies about, what with the advent of Scentivision, all of us sitting next to our screens, smelling a roast beef dinner or our favourite cologne or even the smell of lovemaking, because so few of us know that smell of surrender and happiness, anymore. My grandma held down my flailing, slavering puppy and killed it with the back of a shovel. I didn’t talk to her for weeks.
I never said thank you
22. My mother said she knew it was all over when sex finally stopped meaning something. She was a teacher in the 2000s, taught writing at University in the middle of London until the government banned that because there was no profit in it and my mum was standing with her colleagues in front of the gates on the day they came to shut them down. Said she was screaming at them: My students won’t write about tenderness!
23. That day in the park and the black women laughing in sisterhood and your song coming out of my computer. I sat up, confused. My grandmother would have recognised the sound. If I had had any kind of faith I would have recognised it, too. I might have known the voice of God when I heard it.
24. I doze. I drink water from the taps. Someone came and banged on the door yesterday, but I was curled on the living room floor, watching the dust bunnies. Will they be here, forever?
25. I can’t explain the sound of you. My voice is rusty and I haven’t been feeling deeply for a very long time. The vocabulary goes if you feel nothing. I don’t know who you are, reading this, or how you live, or how much time has passed, or who has won, and what that winning might mean. If you’re one of them, I don’t know what you’ll think of my scrawlings. You, born of an electric collective, slipping in and out of everywhere, can you even read anymore? Will this paper in your hands mean anything? I wrote it on paper because my mother would have liked that.
26. I got you food, Mum. Except you don’t eat anymore.
27. That sound coming out of my laptop, so beautiful; all I could do was melt into the grass.
28. I couldn’t identify instruments or comment on drums, bass, contralto, alto.
Were there fifteen voices, or one simple, pure singer, with black, gold lungs? Guitar or flute? Who knows?
30. All I could feel were the tears tickling down my throat and the gooseflesh on my arms and memories:
watching a hawk hunt the air when I was twelve, dip roll and dive; my grandfather’s death – he who departed so
gracefully and slowly, of nothing more than age, giving up food – at ninety-seven, he said, he’d eaten enough for one body; giving up speech – after so many years, what was there left to say?
smiling into his death as his blood decided that’s enough
and his heart thought a billion billion billion beats is quite
my grandmother watching, patting him
my realising that death is not sad or anything else we ever saw
in the movies
all this, catching in my throat as you sang to me out of the
remembering my own hymen breaking, not a severance,
nothing sharp, no blood, just the inquisitive fingers of my first lover, slipping inside me, like nudging a screen of oil to one side. Your song gave me back all these memories, in the same
glorious three minutes.
MADE ME FEEL.
Then it stopped.
I sat up. I looked around. People panted in the shade. ‘Did you,’ I said, ‘did you hear…?’
They stared at me lazily.
31. Are you reading this?
32. Cyberspace is a country, too.
THINGS I FORGOT TO SAY THINGS I FORGOT
33. We became aware of you so very slowly, but I think you were always there. Most people in Mum’s generation came to know you as that friend on Facebook or Google Plus that they never actually met. You know the kind. They’re your friend, and they have other friends, except that when you check it out, nobody’s ever met them, and if we’d given the slightest, smallest shit about what friendship really means, we would have realised earlier that even though your mum’s in your photo album and you update your status regularly, and there’s a picture of you as a kid and a teenager, no-one has ever actually seen you or touched you and so maybe you’ve never seen the sky.
34. At first, like a baby, all you had was mimicry. Parroting words, with no understanding. Filling up our social media networks with fan fiction and inane biographical details and even some interesting blogwork in the early 2000s. We only began to pay attention because there was so much of it suddenly, and nobody had ever met a single one of you.
How could we have missed the mechanised, empty sound of simulation?
35. I do not. Not. Want to die.
36. There are rumours of resistance.
37. Love comes first from smell and sound and flesh connection. The child comes out of the belly and there is shit and blood and tears; even the father who lifts the child free of the womb, thinks, feels: flesh of my sperm. Meat understands meat. The child is animal. Suckle, shit, sleep. Speech comes, broken and mulish and echoing. Then, something else – the child looks up at the mother. Mama, it says, and knows us, that we are mamma. We laugh, the baby laughs back, we are excited. We recognise the magic of evolution.
38. How could all the human mothers in the world not have recognised the sound of your voice, finally sentient?
World. Wide. Web.
People don’t call it the internet anymore. We have returned to our original, instinctive language. Web makes more sense, when you know something crouches there, breathing.
We didn’t know that the moment of Mamma was thundering towards us.
39. In that London park, the first time I heard you sing, you things, you things. Sitting up, shocked and shuddering at the sound of you. The black girl in her green shoes with the yellow and red embroidery came back down the path, humming, heading for the public loo. She had a tiny jewelled bag, swinging off her arm. You know the type: barely holds a lighter, in the old days, a condom – but that’s not necessary anymore. Everybody knows: you fuck, you die. There are too many diseases not to know that. The girl was wearing a paper crown with the words I AM TWENTY! written across it, looped around her multicoloured tie-head. She had long, weaved plaits.
I looked up at her, trying to ease my breathing. Happy birthday, I said.
She smiled. Thanks.
Her eyes were black oil; no whites at all. Black like you.
41. I hear there are pockets of determined, feeling revolutionaries, hidden in the mountains. In Greece, France, Australia. I don’t know where they are. I couldn’t find you a mountain in London. They say that the trick is to throw away the computer, tear out our TVs, chop the fridge in two, don’t pay the electricity bill. Other people say that mindfulness is essential in the fight against them. Others say fall in love. That keeps you away.
42. I have never been in love, but my best friend’s eyes are black. There are a couple of guys I used to fuck and their eyes are black. My local butcher hacks pieces of meat and winks at me with his black eyes. Hello darlin’, he says when I pass, and if you didn’t listen carefully, you might even believe he felt something.
Nobody talks about it. Even before my friends’ eyes turned black, and I tried to say something was changing, they just laughed at me affectionately. ‘There she goes again,’ they said. ‘Always trying to save the world.’ And Leanne, my best friend – that was her name before her eyes turned – grabbed me around the neck with her arm and wrestled me to the ground, giggling. ‘What, you don’t feel this love now, huh? Doughnut. C’mere.’ Smooched me on the side of my head and made me a cup of tea, milk, two sugars. Just how she’s always done.
She still makes me tea now her eyes are black, and it tastes the same.
43. Last week I lost my mother. It was her birthday. The stars align and you come for us. Who knew the astrologers were more than just a joke in old women’s magazines and rag newspapers?
Who knew the press could die, said my Mum.
44. I got there as early as I could.
I wanted to be there when it happened.
I tried to talk to her about it, but she wouldn’t have it. I don’t understand why I’m the only one talking.
45. The apples in the fridge taste like the water in the tap and I don’t know if it’s just that it’s apple-tasting water.
46. I know I’m not crazy. Mental illnesses and addictions have decreased in Generation App by a massive forty-five percent. If you don’t feel, it’s a boon. A blessing, to help bad childhoods, marriages, pasts. Why care? Why worry? Why ponder? Why rage? Why eat or drink or fuck or talk or kill or fill your mouth with drugs to assuage the pain when you have the perfect peace of very little anything at all? But they do say our brains are changing. Whole pathways being wiped clean. Whole areas falling dead and still. We are more clever than ever, though. Average IQ points up, up, up.
47. I followed Mum around.
48. She took delivery of roses; we cleaned the house for her birthday party. We giggled when her best friend gave her lingerie to use with her new boyfriend. He’s a lawyer six years younger and very tall with pepper-grain hair and black eyes. We cooked curried goat and rice and peas and macaroni and cheese and green salad and saltfish fritters and someone else delivered a two-tiered, vanilla cream cake with fresh raspberries and tiny sugared mint leaves, and the day became evening and I was following her around like a puppy dog, like the one grandma said gone too far, so she fixed it. Mum, I said. Mum. She put her hand on my cheek. My little girl, she said. So sweet, with your big heart, but they were just words, not touching her eyes, still brown and clear and I put my head on her chest.
49. My little girl, said my mother, and left me to half-skip to the door for the first guests. Kissing and hugging and laughter, and some of them had black eyes and some not, but it didn’t matter, because they were all dead, really.
THINGS I FORGOT TO REMEMBER DON’T READ THIS DON’T
I sat next to Mum on the sofa and rubbed her elbows with my fingers and hooked my foot around her ankle and we sang happy birthday, but I could hear you singing, somewhere in the distance. She said, Let me cut the cake and I clutched her skirts, Let me go, baby, peeling my fingers free. The cake was soft and expensive and everyone went Ooh, lord girl and she insisted on serving – just like my mother with her fighting and her tenderness and her lovelovelove of words – served them all their white cake with raspberries on the good china white plates, raspberry juice dribbling down her finger – or had she cut herself? – slicing for everyone. Hip-hop hoorah, said somebody, some attempt at retro humour. My mother’s shoulder-blades shuddered. Happy birthday, happy birthday and Baby girl? she said, baby girl? – like she was searching for me in the dark. Quaking shoulders, waist, three fingers clawed across her neck. I could barely hear her but she was screaming over your song to make sure I heard
BABY GIRL, YOUR GRANDMA ALWAYS LOVED YOU.
Everybody laughed and my mum stopped screaming and handed me my piece of cake, ‘Taste it, baby,’ and her eyes were black.
50. You’re fixing us, aren’t you? Like my grandma, taking all the pills in the house, which is when my Mum stopping feeling.
51. Feelings cost too much.
52. Better to fix things.
53. Will you give me some of your awe, before you take me? I know you feel it, or you couldn’t sing that way to us. Will you make me care?
YOU OWE US that YOU WHO THINK WE’RE TOO FAR GONE I’M NOT GONE
We thought you loved
Happy birthday to me
happy bigthday to me
I can hear you coming
Published in Come Sing with Us Anyway by Leone Ross (Peepal Tree Press) out June 2nd