Variations on a Process

And once I had finished writing down a list six-long, I added at the top—‘Life’, feeling as though I was making strides towards something. These were things—only six-long, mind—I was certain would straighten me out. Hmm, six…! Holding my thumb just so that it floated in mid-air, angled upwards to March rain and textureless clouds, that I might conjure a seventh, lucky number seven, but could not; so slouched uncomfortably in the chair and tapped my index knuckle gently against the glass. Perhaps, I thought, not yet ready to put the phone back in my pocket, I could put them in order. There was no order, nor was there chaos, there were just six and the word—‘Life.’
    The appointment was a Wednesday morning, ten-fifty, and halfway down a familiar London street. The dermatologist would know what to do, so that I would not—as I had read—have to abstain from caffeine, alcohol and spice. The lady on the phone asked for fifty-quid, and I gave it to her, calling out a long line of numbers, and I would pay the remaining one-thirty upon arrival. So much money, but it has to work, it has to. Yet the day before, they called to postpone; and I slouched uncomfortably in my chair and tapped my middle knuckle against the radiator. In front of a full-length mirror I rub the moisturiser into my face and then another moisturiser, then an antiseptic cream, then a salve—or variations on the process—and I convince myself that, once I have cooled down, the skin will not be so red, so just calm yourself, and for the rest of the morning I do not look at myself until I catch sight of my face by accident, and I stop myself from crying that I am so unsightly. The dermatologist will see me on the twenty-first, the turn of spring. What will they look like? Will they be so exceptional and exemplary? Will they take their cool dry fingers to my face? I will purr. I will be so tired I might fall asleep in their arms. When it is all over and I am cured, I will think of writing them a thankyou card but the card is not enough, and so I will blush. Their cool dry fingers dance across my face in dreams.
    It is only a small blade like half a tweezer, and up its length a series of measurements. The blade is pushed up between the tooth and the gum; an instrument for measuring recession, like public spending or unemployment. By the end of it, a perfectly uniform sheet of blood has descended, and dried, upon one’s teeth. The wash is electric blue; rinse; the wash is brown; the tiny sink, operated by a dentist’s pedal, gurgles it away, violently, towards the sewer.
    The immeasurable effort of just maintaining! How many calories does one burn just trying to maintain, not to elevate or exceed, not to course, but to maintain? And, when it all goes to plan, how sweet it is not to have descended or surrendered, but to go to bed with the slimmest of grins—
    I allow the cat out of the door, and when she comes inside, I take her in my arms and tell her how much she is loved. I sit down in my dark armchair against the city lights and drink a cold beer. It is late and all of my work is done when I am in bed; my boxered body kind of bulbous above the sheets, book in hand, and the cat walking back & forth, across my pillow, my throat, my chest, my thighs. The day is at my feet, not happy or quivering, but unravelled. I am a victor, of sorts, and tell myself so. The cat sleeps in my arms. No sooner has one day ended than another is begun. Seabirds crow in dawn’s meagre light. If it is so, I exclaim—‘What a beautiful day!’ as I stumble into the kitchen and northerly views. Dew on the lead roofs pool and shimmer; a chimney speaks its name out like a ghost and the railway lines catch the sun whichever way you look at them.
    Everything tested has an exotic name, like a Mediterranean town off the tourist’s map, banked into the cliffs, shaded, a cuisine all its own, two-foot of pebbled beach on a low-tide, narrow streets on a steep gradient. I can push my blood into a vial, where it waits like wax in a burning candle. The pin went so deep into my finger that I felt it for days. Blood on the outside tickles much more than it swims on the inside. Be still! On my way to work, as I strode beneath the Barbican, I pushed on where the pin had been, on where my inside closed around the outside. There looked to be a shadow moving over my skin.
    Yet I cannot leave these isles, cannot flee. I ask—‘Why do passports expire?’ and a voice returns—‘Because it has your photo in it.’ Ten years gone, have I really aged that much? And this time it is not the colour of Europe but an alien navy, to the tune of a correction in the Sunday edition. I will have to slide my face there, between boxes in a referendum. What if I leave it there? I put all the things I enjoy aside for a life that is a life inasmuch as it is bearable. I started a game of chess against the computer; it played the Albin countergambit; I threw my hands up in a flurry of exasperation—‘This isn’t what I need right now!’. If it seems like my identity is in the balance, as if it whispers and fragments, then hold my arm aloft and pierce the tip of my ring finger; that is where the estuary meanders and to which my body runs.
    At primary school there was a girl who lived at the top of the hill and beyond the hill the village disappeared. Even as a child, I knew that she lived somewhere up there, not the exact house, not the number but a feeling, some stucco and lead windows, just her mother, in a small cottage overhung by a tree, the gravel in shade. Her lips were puckered, hair like straw and beautymarks around her lips. Now her name is a mortgage advisor. ‘Send me the latest products,’ I say. There was something in the news about this, but I stopped watching the news back in twenty-twenty when the numbers were going up and eventually lost their meaning. It cannot be the girl who lived at the top of the hill, no, not her. It is not possible. Her name came read off the register, Mrs. Davis and the white stink of PVA glue, the frayed edges of coloured paper, the waxed skin of Granny Smith; I called out, embarrassed to the headmaster on the spelling of whole.
    And finally, there is the structure of my spine. My mother ran a cord through it and I followed. It is a jagged conduit that mystifies. Its shapes are sharp enough against the air. In the early hours, I twist until it I am a bit more comfortable. The cat scratches exactly twice on the edge of the bedsheets. She waits because she will only enter when I am resting on my left. She gets in. The spine, of animal, human or otherwise, is so beautiful. The mattress has sunk where I lied and from where I did not move. The blessing of this question mark is it carries my organs and consciousness, and thus it is overburdened as I see it. On my walk to the office, I know that the mattress is faraway but I know that it is expanding, returning to its original and intended shape. It does not have my weight upon it. Just in time for me to go to bed, the mattress is returned and my spine too, its small sculpted by the day. There goes the cat-cow, the bidalasana, small pressures of blood & feeling. The sheets are cold, the book too. The cat smells about the room and tramples across me. I tell her I love her. I am so happy that another day came & went. Still, the list is only six-long.