Sweetness and Light, chapter five

2005

It’s called selective mutism. There is a great deal of shame in telling you that – saying that out loud about myself. Normal people speak, laugh, dance, shout (I still can’t shout), voice opinions, push themselves forwards, take risks, meet people’s eyes, and say words.

I was not a normal child. I am not a normal adult, but I am slightly better at pretending – just slightly, mind. I have learned how to mimic normality enough to get by, but of course all that makes me is a ghost of a real person; a bad copy.

The word shy fills me with guilt and disgust. You might think it’s a neutral word – to me it speaks of failure, of being an alien.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know the words or understand how to form them, it was that pushing them out of my mouth when the world was full of terrors like bright lights, loud noises, rushing people and peering eyes just felt impossible. It’s not that I didn’t have or don’t have strong opinions. I care deeply about life’s invisible people – the children left to languish in foster care because they’re too old to be adopted, the smart, accomplished women written off as little old ladies, the dogs in puppy farms, the teenage boys who can’t admit they cry, the parents using foodbanks to keep their kids alive – but I don’t know how to express that articulately and confidently, saying hello is a victory won.

The thing with selective mutism is that you’re in a corner that’s exponentially harder and harder to get out of. When you are terrified of a fuss and a big reaction, the drama of suddenly speaking after years of silence gets harder and harder to contemplate. It also becomes more and more embarrassing not to speak. And so you’re stuck between two excruciating places.

The summer I was eleven was spent in the usual way – long weeks at home playing schools with a selection of teddy bears as my pupils or baking sand cakes in the small sand pit in the back garden, and two weeks in Wales, curled into a leafy branch reading Famous Five stories on sunny days, visiting icy seas on beaches with face-grazing sun, wind and rain, and eating fish and chips in the car.

As the summer faded, the dread got heavier in my stomach. In September I’d be moving to secondary school and, alone of everyone in my class, I wasn’t moving to the school closest to our primary school, I was going to one closer to home. I stopped playing schools with my teddy bears and started playing hospitals.

I made me way to Mum in the kitchen when she was washing up our beans on toast plates. How did you get other children to play with you, I wanted to know?

‘You just walk up to them and ask if you can join in,’ she said.

I sat down at the dining table and put my head in my hands.

‘I wish I had a brother or sister,’ I said. ‘I could play with them.’

‘We can’t always have everything we want,’ she said. ‘I wanted to travel the world or set up my own business, but I had you instead.’

I didn’t say anything.

‘You pick one thing or the other,’ she said, a little more gently.

I hadn’t picked though, had I?

The new term started with very little of the chill in the air that marked a new beginning. The days were still hot. I sweated in my new tie and blazer, watching the other kids bouncing off each other like ping pong balls, teasing each other with easy familiarity, playing British Bulldog, tag, kiss chase. The first playtime I waited politely, leaning against the wall, trying to make my face relaxed and ready to smile at anyone who caught my eye. By the Friday, I’d found a spot near the corner to sit on a wall. I tried to make it look as if I was waiting there temporarily. Just ask to join them, she’d said. I knew that was bad advice. It didn’t work like that. I watched and waited instead.

I watched the games they played, listened to the words they used, noticed how they talked to each other – casually, confidently, off hand – and I tried to commit it to memory so that I could do it myself. Like a game of Grandmother’s Footsteps, over the years that followed I eventually I found my way closer to them without them ever seeing me do it.

Now, my bag was sitting on the floor at my feet, a set of keys was in my hand and I was alone. My new life had begun. Only the day before I’d been making lists at home. And now I was here. The blank white of the walls pressed upon my eyelids. Now what?

I unpacked my few clothes and folded them, laying them on the top shelf of the cupboard. Beneath them were five empty shelves. My equipment could go there. I took my camera and laptop and placed them on the second shelf. It was fine: I’d build up more equipment over time. I supposed a proper photographer would have their own darkroom. I glanced around the bright, white space. Not in here, they wouldn’t.

The only thing for it was to explore my new space. I opened the cupboards and doors in the small kitchen. A couple of knives and forks, a mug and a glass, a small saucepan and frying pan. This was something to do: I could write a list of what I needed and use up some time tomorrow shopping. I drew some water into the bath. It coughed and spluttered, but soon enough ran warm. I realised that I hadn’t packed a wash bag. Another list. I perched on the edge of the bath, over its centimetre of luke-warm water, and loosened my limbs, relaxed my face, swung my arms; tried to inhabit the room. My body was tiny in this vast space. I was in the belly of the whale.

I moved to the fireplace. Here, perhaps, was somewhere I could make my own. The cabbage rose wallpaper either side of the fireplace already made it seem less intimidating – softer, like a retired couple’s walls. The sofa and armchair were tatty, but perhaps the gas fire worked. I could buy a few cushions and make it feel like home. After all, I could be here for the rest of my life if I wanted to be. I should breathe into the space and inhabit it. An edge of the paper was loose. I slid a finger under it and then smoothed it down. I stroked the swags of pale flowers on the walls. You’re mine, I thought, more or less. Then I looked nervously behind me at the closed door.

This, I thought, is exactly what’s wrong with you. Living in fear. Unable to take ownership of something you’ve rightfully inherited. A better person would rip this wallpaper off, redecorate; own the room.

There was a tap at the door. Halfway across the room to the door, I realised that this could be one of the artists. I looked down at my shapeless sweatshirt and jeans. Scruffy enough to be messy; not messy enough to seem artful. I mentally flipped through the clothes in the cupboard. The tap again, more insistent this time. I wiped my hands on my thighs and made my way to the door.

‘Hello.’ He held out a hand. No paint splattered on those hands, I noticed.

‘Hi,’ I said. ‘I’m Rose.’

‘I know. I’m John. I dropped by to welcome you to the fold.’

My first meeting with John. I try to go back, to see him again for the first time. His habit of pushing his bottom lip out after he finished speaking, when he was waiting for you to reply. His eyes – paler blue than you’d expect in a grown man, the dense blue of a cat’s eye marble.

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Thanks.’ I hesitated. He pushed his bottom lip out. ‘I’m a photographer,’ I added, justifying my presence or maybe existence.

‘That’s good,’ was all he said.

‘Yes.’

‘Can I come in? I haven’t seen this studio. Supposedly, it’s the best. You’re honoured.’

‘Is it? It is nice.’ Nice. Did artists use words like ‘nice’? ‘I can’t see why I’d have the best one. I’ve only just arrived.’

‘Let me see it, then.’ He didn’t exactly push past me. I stepped aside. ‘Well. Yes, I’d say it definitely is the best. Congratulations.’

‘I’m sure it can’t be. Though if it is,’ I realised, ‘that must just be because I inherited it? Not because I’ve been singled out.’ I blushed. Of course he wasn’t suggesting that I was singled out.

‘Who knows?’ he said. ‘I don’t think it’s that black and white. You inherited the right to a studio here. I don’t think it matters which.’

‘So, who decides?’

‘The committee.’

‘Oh. Right. Of course. Yes, the committee.’

‘Shame about the wallpaper.’

I glanced at it. He was right. It wasn’t friendly. It was old-fashioned.

‘Yes. It’s a bit grannyish. Never mind, though. I don’t mind it.’

‘I’d take it down if I were you. Look at these beautiful, tall white walls. All this flat, cool, northern light. Why ruin it with this stuff?’ He jabbed a finger at the wallpaper. ‘See, it’s coming off anyway.’ He tugged at the loose edge. ‘Get rid of it.’

‘Can I?’

‘Are you always so timid?’

‘I’m not timid. I’m just…’

‘… a worrier?’

‘Yes. I suppose.’ I wasn’t entirely sure this conversation was going well. ‘Do you want to sit down?’ I gestured at the scruffy beige sofa behind us.

‘Why not?’ He had an air of great confidence and ease, like a general in a oil painting leaning on his rifle.

‘I don’t have any tea,’ I added. ‘Or coffee.’

‘I’ll just sit down for a short time, then,’ he said with a not unattractive smirk. ‘Until my need for tea or coffee becomes too great.’

He made a neat package on the sofa. He looked well put together; well thought out. There was nothing rangy about him – he was all compactness. I felt untidy.

‘So,’ I said. ‘What are you?’

‘What am I?’ he said. He was kind enough not to look amused.

‘What kind of artist are you?’

‘Oh. What kind of work do I do, you mean.’

‘Yes. That.’ I filed the phrase for later.

‘I’m a painter.’ He tossed it at me and waited for me to toss it back.

‘What do you paint?’ I regretted it immediately. I hoped I hadn’t blushed.

‘Faces. Figurative really, but of course elements are partially abstracted. I’m capturing them in extremis. Oil on canvas.’

‘Oil!’ I said, as if this was a revelation, then blushed again.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Oil.’ He glanced at me, legs awkwardly tucked under my body, inhabiting the red chair like a stick insect on a branch. ‘Does that surprise you?’

‘These days…’ I said, hoping that it sounded knowledgeable.

‘And you? What do you photograph?’

 ‘Anything and everything.’ He pushed his bottom lip out. ‘Secrets,’ I said. ‘I photograph secrets.’

‘Are you working on something?’ he said. My mind was blank. ‘An exhibition? A book?’

‘No,’ I said. I couldn’t think of any way to sugar the pill.

‘Well. You should. Make a project up and put on an exhibition. In my opinion, of course. Just my two penny’s worth. But I think it’s good to have a focus.’

‘Okay. I mean, that is worth considering.’

‘It is.’ He tucked his feet together, pushed his palms into the sofa and stood up. ‘I’ll leave you to it. Leave you to your secrets.’

‘I don’t have any… Oh. Yes.’

‘See you around.’

And he pulled open the heavy door and was gone. A painter, I thought. He must consider photography to be far beneath him. No craft in it, no toil in it. Just the click of a button. I stared at the closed door for a second, breathing in the thin air, the silence of the room, my aloneness. Then I went back to the wallpaper and pulled at a jagged edge level with the top of the fireplace. It ripped slowly and haphazardly, like a stepmother’s blessing leaves a sliver of raw, bleeding skin by the side of the nail.

I went back to my unpacking.

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