Nothing With Nothing: On Fresh Starts in Arrested Territories
An edited version of this piece first appeared at Unofficial Britain
There’s a thickness to the air when you do a geographical; it holds you not like a room but a net. Each day I moved along Marine Drive as though wading through custard. Time, too, had become treacly: an unctuous writhe which held its frenzy furtively, close to its chest. When I looked for Time frequently I came up empty; this, following even the most strenuous of forays into the blackest of nights. Only when I had given up would it reveal itself – as having been lying there all the time, slumped in a neglected corner of a forgotten room. Ticking away in the background, on the sly. That was how Time passed in this town: oozingly. There could be no talk of marching. Time was an overdosed addict. There could be no talk of control.
Something clamoured within me – I suppose that was why I had come. I had been seeking a certain aesthetic: the careening freewheel of a freelance life, the potential dignity of it, the exhilaration of its sharp solitude. Then I was here and freighted. Expectation long left unmet had taken on the dimensions of the infinite; I was pinioned by the everything that my expectation, by being expectation, was not. It was not depressing – not exactly. It only felt like I was staring into an abyss. The blank condition which I had sought to escape pressed in on me from all sides as I teetered, mad grin on my face, at the edge. There is nothing like nothingness, you see, to furnish a girl with a sense of possibility: it is conjecture’s richest condition. And what is conjecture but keenness, and what keenness, but cheer?
Here, I was to set up at last, was to put a stop to the drift which had characterised former years. Just what ‘setting up’ meant was, I knew, suspect: one set up and commenced, I thought in a laminated crook of my mind, to die. That it happened inside one’s tautly cosy, ‘set up’ habitat meant simply that one could go about one’s dying gracefully – though grace was not, I should say, something I took lightly. I had been going about, after all, vigorously wrapped in the cloak of an alleged normality as though sanity could be worn like a well-cut coat, or perhaps more like a pair of stomach-holding knickers, and it was only because the sheer exertion of irreproachability had become a performance too far, even for me, that I had proposed to undertake the difficult steps involved in moving here and giving it – the performance – up. I had not foreseen that I would actually do it. Nor had I known what would happen. I had told myself that this was OKAY. I distinctly remember doing that.
I didn’t go to the Main Sands. Most people did. The day-trippers came seeking sand and sea air, deep fried fish and swiftly liquefying ice cream; this much had not changed in a century. Some came for the Art, of which it was whispered there had been a resurgence in recent years. Unless it was of oils and sunsets however, the Art was hidden away; I couldn’t say where exactly. In back lanes and repurposed warehouses I imagined; inside the spun-out minds of those who kept their bodies bound indoors. Because one could not see the Art, because there was something extra, something other, which was there but not there, suffusing the atmosphere and conferring Reputation, this place was called cool. Cool because of the something-beyond the poky glass-fronted shops with their dappled landscape prints and wooden seagulls and promises of fudge; cool because of the something outside of the big Gallery, which had planted itself at the town’s most desirable tip with its haughty announcement that that something-beyond lay, in fact, within its spanking white walls. Well, doubtless there was something going on. Cool, I thought: such a status couldn’t have come from nowhere.
So yes, the place was fashionable – newly, sneakily so. Art’s enigma rolled along the streets, weaving in and out of the crushed cans and polystyrene. Often old chairs, browned mattresses, smashed TV sets, could be found lolling on the pavements. Because of the enigma, these looked like part of the Art too. The vision of junk ran down my glassy eyes stickily, like the albumen of broken eggs. Daily I picked my way through the shells, as though clod in velvet: a weary celebrity, holding fast to her discontent.
I didn’t go to the Main Sands, but I could see them. Perhaps it was because I could see them that I didn’t go. I had moved here for reasons of frugality – that, and to get away from all which, I felt, had barbarised me for years. No longer did I wish to get up and get out, to get out and to smile, to smile and to earn. Earning was precisely what had undone me. It had sent a message which I’d understood only obliquely; nevertheless, it was capable of unravelling me. I did not want to be straightened out, ironed into legitimacy. I wondered what it would be like to remain knotty. I had arrived with defiance in my heart.
The air! The sea! The view! These were what would heal me. Naturally however, subsequent to a week or two of marvelling, such ludicrous displacements dissolved into their more honest ambiguities. The air was too fresh, the wind too biting. The sea was simply there, day in and day out, its tides rising and falling with the same mockery as the need to shower and to eat. Time took on the mantle of repetition, replacing its old veil called Loss and Decay: where repetition is in residence nothing can be escaped, and nor does one wish to escape. Round and round went the days, and in their unwavering similitude they became encrusted with a sort of meaning. I delighted in their crispness, in the same way that the brittle edges of the overly thick pancakes I fried compensated for the stodgy centres. There was no sense to a thing in and of itself, I thought, if it was denied repetition. Repetition, I decided, was the very foundation of thought itself – and this, even if it laughed at you.
Was life becoming simple? Not quite. Every day I was faced with a truncated set of options: too few and too many, at once. Certainly I was liberated from the tyranny of fulminating alternatives which had dogged me in other cities, and which had achieved little more than my propulsion into a trough of deep inner inactivity, a stasis which my former busyness had been designed to obscure. The new facts – for what do we live, if not facts? – were that, upon descending daily in the grumbling lift, nerves prodded into liquidity by the staccato jolt of its perpetual, stentorian rattle, I had nowhere to go but either right, or left.
Such is the absurdity of human existence! Right or left: everything boiled down to this, this was the decision which one was obliged to make, the choice which could not be wriggled out of. Being a coastal town, the ocean – immeasurable, wet and roiling – expunged a giant swathe of potential terrain from consideration; of what was inland, however, nothing remotely tempting had been made, at least not when it came to a car-less, single woman with little money to spend. Roads made out in poorly laid, ill-maintained tarmac etched a potholed griddle over what must once have been farmland; one still saw the odd rows of cabbages about, but these too appeared feebly done, their number scant, their leaves limp and pallid. In the middle of it all, at the place at which all these roads met, lay a shopping centre, built in the sort of cosmic proportions which ensured that one was obliged to drive between its extremely discrete outlets in spite of one’s having arrived at one’s destination; I had cycled there once, confronted the concrete and the cars and the disjunctive, overegged colours of each store’s blustering signage, and resolved never to go there again.
Marine Drive. Sometimes I would want to do Nothing and sometimes I would want to do Everything and there was nothing in-between. I was reflecting on this as the sun went down. It had been what people called a Pleasant day and because of this many had gathered on the steps which had been erected at one end of the beach, making of the sky a stage, of the steps an amphitheatre. It was charming in a black kind of way to see them, dotted over there – mere specks from my vantage at the other end of the Main Sands – and it was blackly charming, too, to find myself weaving amid the drunks who had had a rather heavy session in Wetherspoons. Everything was as it should be. I looked at the others, and in looking at others, I was where I was not.
Every day I did the same: I could do no other. I went along Marine Drive because there was nowhere to go but along Marine Drive. This route took me past the Main Sands. Because I could see the Main Sands from my flat I did not look, when I walked along Marine Drive, towards the ocean. Apparently even nature’s Majesties had become old news. Instead therefore I looked to the right. What was on the right was not at all majestic: Marine Drive was home, you see, to a long line of arcades, which blared onto the pavement rather too soon after my setting forth from the flat. I had only to pass the car park and the shut-up casino – whose mirrored doors continued to command that one go ‘THIS WAY’ in spite of smaller signs which thanked in a concluding manner former customers for their business – in order to reach, or rather be assaulted by, the arcades. Many fingers had rubbed FUCKs and GO HOMEs into the grime which caked the casino’s untended doors (just who was to Go home had always, by the time I saw it, been overwritten so many times that the original object was indecipherable) and so, having by the time I arrived at their carnival of sound and colour taken in the strength of the ire which the people of this town saw fit to broadcast, I would discover that I was in no mood to observe others, or possibly the very same, of their number, engaged in the tumultuous pursuit of electronic, competitive glory.
Whilst I am not one to deny a person any such means as affords him expressive catharsis, it was nevertheless the case that the observation of these messages cast a shadow upon my walk. I was not, I believed, one of the despised ethnicities. Nonetheless I was ethnic – a shade beyond the range of whitenesses alone deemed acceptable by many who live upon this oh-so-pleasant land – and consequently they stung. I was ethnic, and I had come from somewhere else, which meant I could go to somewhere else, as instructed – whether that somewhere else was home or not. I could go home, they would say, regardless of the fact that what had been my home was no longer my home and perhaps never had been. When I had gone to Malaysia a decade prior I had been leaving, not going home; now that I had returned to the UK, however, I found that it was the not-home I had left which was calling me back. In other words, I had no idea where I was at all.
Before my parents had lived in different countries, they had lived in different houses, and so it was that in tenderest youth I had commenced to go from home. I had gone each day between the homes of my parents and, by these Goings, these Goings back-and-forth, I had discovered that it was entirely possible to remain gone even upon one’s arrival. My arrivals had, at any rate, been short; my stayings had been eclipsed by the impress of the Going just completed and the Going shortly to come, which is not to mention the impossible-to-ignore duration of the Goings themselves, which had taken up a great deal of time in their own right. Mondays dad’s Tuesdays mum’s Wednesdays… That I was ‘parcelled about’ would not be an accurate representation: parcels make a trip once, towards their proper owner; that I was ‘ping-ponged’ might be closer, but the cliché of being caught in the middle, bookended by the wills of others’ games, had never appealed to me. Perhaps it was delusion, the result of that perhaps peculiarly human necessity to believe in her own right to and ability of freewill and self-determination, but I had never felt passive when it came to the question of my Goings. Going was my chosen home. It was my favourite landscape.
Doubtless, I reflected each day as I moved with excruciating sluggishness along the despised Marine Drive, my having in my life thus far occupied in the main a no-man’s land, which is to say my having been the product of, and subsequently most comfortable upon, its in-between topography, had made me predisposed to seek out prospects which were most closely capable of emulating its void, of echoing its glorious depression. Yes, it was entirely possible, I thought, that I had become in the end actively inclined to seek out geographies which mimicked, in near or nebulous fashion, the woolly complexion of its anonymous territory. If Marine Drive was anything you see, it was a line. I went up and down it, and felt miserably happy. Everything was silence inside the noise, or vice versa – I no longer cared to say which was true, and which was not.
On Marine Drive nothing had to be done. Oh yes, something had to be done, but this something was the something of the Going, the something of the coming back; the somethings demanded inside Going were not the sorts of something which people counted, they were the somethings that they overlooked. But I came to believe that it was the overlooked – that which was overlooked precisely because it was too much looked at, that which had become unseen because it had become mundane – which was where the life was. Marine Drive, detested Marine Drive, unavoidable Marine Drive, was affording me a living.
On Marine Drive, people eyed me and I eyed them. It was a small town and so, being inflected in spite of recent regeneration with the sort of intense snobbery specially reserved for the provinces, people looked you up and down. As I walked past the arcades I looked back at them; I looked at them looking at the arcades, and I looked at them playing in them. My looking, naturally, had been designed to circumvent their looking at me, but the most unabashed examination could do nothing to put these inspectors off. They appeared to love nothing so much as assessment.
People played all sorts of Games. ‘Games’ was, I supposed, what one called them, though for the life of me I could not see how a single iota of enjoyment could be garnered from immersing oneself within the flashing lights and glowering plastic which made up the exoskeleton of each stocky amusement. In prime position at the front, and inching presumptively into the street proper, nosed several cumbersome machines, of which two commanded particular esteem in the eyes of passersby. One was replete with a complex-looking platform, upon whose surface women – for they were uniformly women – threw their weights; this machine played loud pop music, not quite the latest songs, and upon its screen flashed neon arrows, pointing up or down, right or left. The women would hurl their feet at the corresponding arrows on the platform, arms at their sides vaguely bent, like cowboys ready to draw weapon from holster. As soon as their feet touched – hammered – into the specified arrow, however, a new arrow would flash, and their bodies would jerk, wireless puppets, to chase the latest, usurping, instruction.
Back to back with what seemed to me this most sardonic contraption, was one for the boys: a screen at which two enormous guns had to be pointed and shot. The guns were machine guns, near two-foot long and attached to the device by thick snaking ropes; frequently the plastic mock-ups dwarfed the weedy, sun-starved teens who would grip them, their brows furrowed and legs splayed beneath their torsos, which would be slanted towards the screen in eagerness. There was no sarcasm here. Only, I thought, the hardest and most adhesive variety of rage. The boys would stare into the screen, enchanted.
People eyed me and I eyed them. On Marine Drive I was alert for the slightest indication of a lurch: the players of Games tended to pitch suddenly either forwards or back, and it was not unusual for me to only narrowly miss outright collision. Though such moments of impact were entirely their fault, should one occur I was the one liable to be yelled at: Ferfuhkssay, they’d holler, towards my shrinking back. I would will invisibility. At those moments my eyes would flick towards the clock tower, which loomed diagonally opposite the arcade. I could see it from my flat’s window. The hands had stopped a few weeks after my arrival, and the council was taking its own sweet time about restarting them, meaning that the clock tower posed merely as a redundant relic. Yet still it chimed, thrumming out a number of resounding dongs corresponding to the hour – but without hands, just what hour it was could only be told if one was willing to take the time to count.
On Marine Drive persecution drifted around me: that ought to be said. I wore it like Saturn does his rings; I believed viciously in the transformatory capacity of its blurred cocoon. I held fast to the generative nature of its punitive ambiguity. Everything came from the void, I thought, and absence made the heart grow stronger. The days went by; contempt was alluring. I only wanted to be left alone.
‘It will be resolved by walking’. A Latin phrase generally attributed to Saint Augustine.