“There’s a non-existent peace in the uncertain quietness”
– Fernando Pessoa, Poems of Fernando Pessoa
To understand the body, it must be dissected; each nerve and vein studied, connectivities considered. But it is only a lump of flesh then, and a cold one at that stage. What is it that gives its walking warmth meaning? It is not just a beating heart, blood pumping here and there in its one lifelong errand. To truly know the person who inhabits it, we must observe the hiddenness of things, and sometimes that quality is best noted by the ones who are themselves hidden from the world at large. The protagonist of Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett (Fitzcarraldo) exists almost as a secret; she is nameless and specifically placeless. There are a few scattered references left like clues: London, France, LA, Brazil and Ireland, but they could be real memories or fantasies; she could be anywhere. When place is obscured, your markers come from the objects that surround you and your memories; that is how you find yourself. Vilém Flusser, in Gestures states that, “to be an object means to be sought, and to be a subject means to search… No one can search without wishing and suffering.”
Time is likewise blurred; it is unclear if the stories follow an order, or if they are plucked at random from her memories. What feels like the present occurs mainly in a small rented cottage with a thatched roof, full of down-at-heel romanticism and almost magical disappointment in the mundane happenings of her life. In “The Gloves Are Off”, the excitement of the re-thatching of the roof wanes on her discovery that the reeds do not come from the River Shannon, but instead from Turkey:
“Where they from, I said. Turkey, he said. Turkey, I said. That’s right, he said. How come, I said. It’s cheaper, he said. Really, I said.”
In “Control Knobs”, a fruitless search for a replacement knob for the Salton cooker becomes an extended ode to the discontinued appliance; ‘Salton of South Africa’ is invoked like a spell, the country itself seems a far-off fairytale land. This is alternated with musings on an apocalyptic book she has read, the protagonist of that story keeping careful track of her stores, knowing that the end of them will soon bring about her own. That last working control knob is the equivalent of the waning store of matchsticks in her mind. Even though we know that all she needs to do is step through the door of reality and ask her landlady to replace the cooker, there is a disquieting quality in the fantasy she indulges in that it is somehow an end. Not of course, The End, but all endings are just practice for the final one.
There is a sense of detachment, a kind of loneliness that comes from being removed from large cities and social groups. It is not quite the same thing as being lonely, but rather the distinct awareness of how small a space you occupy within a greater geographical emptiness. Interactions with nature and people feel as if they are imbued with more important meaning due to more focused observations. You analyse and over-analyse, consider all paths an encounter or conversation can take all at once, fantasise wildly. “Morning 1908” finds the protagonist disheveled, clad only in nightgown, coat and boots on a walk, gripped almost to the point of paranoia by the unusual sight of another person amongst the cows. The hooded young man sparks a runaway train of blackly humorous alarm; the initial fear of assault moves into slightly surreal territory then the blandness of reality:
“Perhaps on the contrary it might seem fairly recreational, like dogs are, and not in the least bit vile… after a moment of blank thought it occurred to me that I would very likely wet myself. I surmised it would be unavoidable, really, because… of all the rainwater that entwined in a lithe stream along the side of the road, which surely I would not be able to take my eyes off… What do you care, I thought, if you urinate on him during? Nothing happened, of course. I stood at a gate and a young man passed by.”
The person who lives alone is prone to thoughts that do not normally occupy those who have others living under the same roof, or who are inundated in their daily lives by the regular noise of crowds and never-ending responsibilities. They are odd, to say the least, the words that creep into the silence of solitary minds. They may be only said to oneself, or maybe they are repeated into the quiet that follows constantly like a shadow, if for no other reason to remind ourselves that words exist outside of thought, they have a distinct shape and sound that we feel and hear when we push them out of our mouths and into the world. “Oh, Tomato Purée” is such an example. It feels almost ridiculous to read, because most of us would think, who says things like this? But some of us know: these are the secret mantras we chant under our breath when there is no one around to have the oft-repeated dialogues of life with: How was your day, Did she really? Remember we’re meeting them next weekend. To speak words, no matter how small or odd they are is to remind us of our existence.
“Oh, Tomato Purée – let me lay you out and pummel those rigid furrows and creases!”
Solitude has a way of magnifying and distorting everyday actions, but sex — not only the act, but the memories of it, and any sensation it is attached to renders it impervious to those particular changes. Its very nature, life-affirming and wild, temporarily brings noise where there was silence. Even when the words are not spoken, another person’s sexual voice in your head is akin to a joyous shouting. Recollections of this sort, as in “Postcard”, shine brightly and differently to the others; they jolt. Not simply because of the subject, but because memories like this seem to trigger a Pavlovian response: recall a wonderful and vivid sexually longing memory and see if it does not physically fool the body into thinking you are with that person in the flesh, at that moment. Flusser, again in Gestures says, “… the gesture of loving cannot be described as a body movement at all… you have described the sexual gesture instead. Conversely, any attempt to describe the concrete experience is equally doomed to failure. For if you try this, you suddenly notice that you have described a mystical experience instead.” The protagonist understands this even if she does not realise it; gestures of love and sex only exist ephemerally: an exchange of explicit emails, sexual sounds transferred into nature:
“It is raining now and a bra strap has slipped down which is perfect. The sound of frogs now seems completely perfect at last. Like the sound of a vagina, because after all, we would be cavorting now. It would be one of those times when I luxuriate completely and drew out everything – it is strange to absolutely know this, to feel this absolutely, and to do nothing but watch somehow as it goes by so very closely.”
The stories in Pond deliberately take something whole and fracture it; all the better to understand the shards that make up a life lived in relative solitude. Each one resonates with emotion, beautiful and yet strange. They convey the truth that sometimes the hiddenness of things is in plain sight; even when we think that turning over rocks is where we find our meanings. ‘She’ is reflected in everything that is around her: a dying cooker, a rain soaked hedge, a glass of wine, two thousand sexually graphic emails, a notebook scrawled in by the dim light of a fire. Pessoa, critiquing Heraclitus in his Philosophical Essays says, “All is change. True. But if there is change, this change must take place in something. This something is what we call substance, Being.” Here is feels as if her changes take place not within her, but in the objects of her immediate material world and the memories they conjure. They take in her life and act as a kind of automata as she observes and muses on them. We all are the same, even though our objects and memories are different; it is only when we are alone that we finally notice.
Claire-Louise Bennett – grew up in Wiltshire in the southwest of England. Her short fiction and essays have been published in The Stinging Fly, The Penny Dreadful, The Moth, Colony, The Irish Times, The White Review and gorse. She was awarded the inaugural White Review Short Story Prize in 2013 and has received bursaries from the Arts Council Ireland and Galway City Council. Pond is her first collection of stories.
Tomoé Hill – lives and writes in Kent. Her pieces have been in The Stockholm Review of Literature, Open Pen, and LossLit. She is reviews editor at Minor Literature[s]. @CuriosoTheGreat.