From Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities: Sheffield, edited by Emma Bolland. Sheffield is the latest in Dostoyevsky Wannabe’s series of ‘Cities’ anthologies, alongside Paris, Los Angeles, Berlin, and more. This anthology moves between fiction, poem and essay form: an experimental coming together of writing and the city. Join the editor and seven of the fourteen contributors: Helen Blejerman, Angelina D’Roza, Louise Finney, Rachel Genn, Pete Green, Joanne Lee, and Brian Lewis at this launch for readings and discussion. Buy it here
Standing with her drink, she watches him ignoring her, then ignores him watching her.
She chooses a table farthest away from the one the bookshop has set up for him because she’s not here tonight to talk about books. Luckily, she has her notebook with her and the first thing she writes when she sits and opens it is: Stop trying to be understood.
Her new mentor said that writing was not about trying to define the fog but about making your way through it and leaving a trail so that others might make their way. Stories are more about questions than answers, he divulged in low tones after class.
Her writing is large enough that it may be read over her shoulder and without looking up she can feel him moving through the room, sharing his warmth fairly amongst the others.
‘I am not a fire burning so that you can stand there and warm your hands’, was what she’d said. Now she writes:
Do you believe I could burn you?
She neatly forms the boxes to be ticked before she checks his whereabouts again.
Yes, square, No, square,
Someone pinches the rim of the glass in front of her— ‘this done with?’
She nudges the glass forward. Yes, square. Another full glass appears.
When you find someone who won’t give you answers, don’t try to change that.
The grand statements are a recent thing. Since the decision to end it she feels compelled to deal in truths. Aphorisms and rules bob up into her work; the word ‘only’ appears a lot. Secretly she hoped the grandness could get confused with purity.
At a children’s party amidst the screaming lawlessness she had whispered to him, ‘I think about you more than I should’. She would do well to keep in mind what she felt when he hadn’t quite heard. Tonight would be more the right time, perhaps after the reading to say, ‘I’m writing about how people become important to each other’.
What was wrong with that?
Playing it out she saw that he’d know immediately she was drowning. His eyes would say— ‘you can swim can’t you?’ Her expression would blab straight out that she had never learned.
Sometimes in her room alone she’d stand, stiff with indignation that she had no right to talk to him intimately, instead she spent hours in the enriched atmosphere where that right should be, imagining infinite interactions, thus lengthening their predicament. She had wanted the opposite of grand; simply for him to understand her without words and had never really got over that this wasn’t the case. At first, she had not been attracted to the physical aspect of this person but through him had learned about essence and getting nourished by it. She frequently googled an article by Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s wife describing her exquisite feelings when she knew he’d be at a party. She could never quite remember how the wife put it.
How would the story open were I ever to write it? she asks herself now.
We are desperate to hate each other.
It is difficult to pretend you don’t care for a long time.
So he’d kept in his wallet a scribbled note that she’d recklessly inserted into a book. It was not enough to live on and she became increasingly resentful that the effort she had made to keep quiet had gone unaccounted. Not even she had made full record of it. No-one will ever know or care how much I haven’t said, she thought and it hurt her to try to recall all the opening lines, the lines that might give support to the nuanced nothings. These thoughts had not been noted because somewhere she imagined that she would get to say them.
We keep secrets when we are scared we won’t be believed.
Now he’s laughing falsely and is embracing someone at least his own age. She picks out a novel she’s brought with her thinking—what drugs could I take that are not alcohol but will slow the thinking and siphon off some of the longing—something other parents can’t report me for? He is most charming to new people, but she can tell from his body, how it moves, insisting how little he knows about how love works. That he’s oblivious to signs. He has his hand on a man’s shoulder but she can only take note of parts of him, there is never time to contemplate the whole anymore. He hails the arrival of another more parochial writer that she knows he hates and still, she leans into him like high corn in a wind. What did I mean to you? He has his hand on her table and knocks into a chair trying to embrace another stranger.
Gone were the daring days of declaration. Or accusation.
‘When you feel sorry for me you come up with a book I should read.’
There were the texts in which she’d got giddy.
‘I crave correspondence!’ and ‘Always have!’
She’d waited eight days between the two.
Love is about begging to be understood whilst being wilfully unclear.
They are being rounded up by staff to the make-shift stage with its backdrop of dust-jackets stapled into a fan. She blushes not because she’s heard the quips in his introduction before but because he doesn’t care that she has. To survive it, she imagines she’s giving the Q and A.
How do I keep myself quiet? (Laughter—cut short— interviewer’s face says it’s a serious question).
Why did I think this was what I was looking for? Now that’s a good one…
When did I become sick of helping him clear the air?
She had stayed because she got a taste for dangerous feelings though she already had a wealth of them that she couldn’t cope with.
She loved the search. He didn’t want to be found.
The rest of the audience is already clapping when she joins in, thinking just how far from the heights of their silent but mutual exuberance they have come. He takes an almost imperceptible bow and the first row stands to encircle him.
After a couple more free drinks the crowd dwindles and she goes to buy her book and he isn’t the slightest bit uncomfortable with her payment in change and he thanks her sincerely, shaking her hand with both his, saying Look After Yourself with the forthright goodwill of an oncologist.
When she gets home she feels outraged but able and writes and writes about the meddling books he’s given to her, what they have done to her, scratching through notes about their discussion of them being airlocks for us to breathe in before moving under the waters of real life again. She can use this. Fuck it, she is burned but purified, then her excellent start tanks at the realisation that there’s nothing worth more than those books they have known together. There’s no picking this apart: no simplification that will yield something salvageable. Before she clicks off the light she writes, certainty is never quite as satisfying as you imagine it will be.
RACHEL GENN is a lecturer at Manchester Writing School/School of Digital Arts. Formerly a Neuroscientist, she has written two novels: The Cure (2011), and What You Could Have Won (due 2020). She was the 2016 Leverhulme Artist-in-Residence at the University of Sheffield, creating a quasi-institute, The National Facility for the Regulation Of Regret, employing installation art, VR and film (ASFF 2016) presented together at SXSW (2017). She has written for Granta, 3AM and The Real Story and is currently working on Whispers, an immersive experience exploring paranoia, and a collection of non-fiction about fighting and addiction to regret.