Sam and I made a hasty rule when she called to say the first set of photos were up, that we wouldn’t discuss the pieces until the response was finished. Not only could I not ask her questions about the photographs – working blind – but also I couldn’t read her process blogging until I was done with the writing. As soon as I saw the first round (she emailled me slightly different photos from the final three) I knew it would be an easy concept to respond to. The narrative potential of the situation is naturally rich in intrigue, raising a lot of questions about what’s going on. I also have a strand in my writing of writing about books and reading and writing itself, so having the visual image of the text to play with was a perfect starter.
Clearing through a pile of notes on Friday morning, I had found a scrap of paper from a year or so back with a note to write something about reading and sex, using the concept of slipping from one set of covers to another. With Samantha’s photographs at the back of my mind already, I’d put it to one side as a possible starting point. Friday night I found it hard to sleep so I got up early on Saturday morning and went for a run then sat and wrote solidly for a couple of hours with headphones on so as not to disturb my flatmate. Recently I’ve been working primarily in longhand and then typing and expanding ideas, but this time I wrote straight onto the computer. By the time I went out to meet my parents for a late breakfast I had the draft of part one and posted it straight up (cheers to everyone who emailled me with typos to correct- please keep doing that!). I needed a pause to regroup my thoughts before starting part two, and in the intervening days it was increasingly difficult not to either talk to Sam about her photos or ask her for thoughts on the story so far.
We both posted about the collaboration on Twitter and Facebook, and I read one comment Sam put up on Facebook saying ‘Who’s the Girl? Why the glove? Viccy Adams has posted part one… check it out: http://cargocollective.com/dirtylaundry‘ which then sent me into a panic because I’d become so absorbed in writing from the photos I hadn’t thought to write about the photos: it hadn’t actually registered in my head that the girl was wearing one glove… I already knew where I wanted part two to end, and the whole point of adding on a second half is that I didn’t feel part one engaged as directly with the photos as I wanted the story to. Which led me to wonder how Sam might feel if all my stories ended up taking the photos as inspiration but running off in an utterly separate direction: would she feel that her work was being rejected in some way?
Normally I’d produce a draft, leave it a few days, edit, leave, change something major, edit and then hope to have a finished piece. Although Samantha and I had discussed taking a fortnight to respond, because it was our first piece and we were both so excited, I wanted to produce something and put it up on the site straight away. It also made me realise that it’d be very easy to spend the whole fortnight tweaking and not getting on with any of my other writing or paid work: it’s so easy to get completely absorbed when you find something fascinating, especially when you then have someone as equally invested as you are. So I’m going to try not to redraft the pieces too much: perhaps at the end of Dirty Laundry Sam and I can pick our favourite pieces and work further on them together, perhaps we’ll be happy to have things as are. I’m nervous about letting early drafts out into the public sphere, but I suppose that’s a necessary part of the procedure of working with someone else: deadlines can still be flexible, but you have to create a working rhythm that includes someone else’s needs also.
Writing to post creatively on a blog is also interesting: I can’t use indents and spaces the way I normally would for a printed page, and if one of my stories becomes quite fragmented (as this one did), the visual aspect of space between sections is really necessary to indicate a sense of movement and situation. I recently came a cross another photo/writing collaboration called Photo Stories in which the story is typographically integrated with the photo itself. Love it. I got round the problem this time by going back and adding in asterisks to highlight the sectioning in the story. I also think this story is a bit long for the web- if I were re-editing it, I think it could stand to flush out further for clarity’s sake if nothing else, and then a 5,000 word essay in essentially a blog post starts to become a bit wearing on the eye. Next time I might try to focus on the detail of the photo rather than the concept behind it and use that focus to produce something shorter and more lucid.
I’m really excited that I now get to talk to Sam about our work: I feel like I’ve done my homework and now I’m allowed out to play with my friends until tea-time…
see photographs and stories at cargocollective.com/dirtylaundry
Having generally found books to be more interesting than sex, it is not unusual for occasions like this to arise where I resent the man in my bed for keeping me from the flick of a page. Secondhand models such as – let’s call him Frank – are passed on by a friend alongside not-so-faintly damning comments such as not to my taste, but you might like it and at least the dialogue was good. Slipping out from between one set of covers in anticipation of slipping in between another, I close the door on Frank’s heavy breathing and enter the unveiled morning sunshine of the sitting room. W H Auden’s Collected Shorter Poems are waiting for me. With the tip of one finger I stroke the cracked spine and shiver.
Oh Frank, I know you meant well. Another girl – different time, different place, babes – and it might’ve worked.
Frank is persistent. When the early morning coffee and pastries run fail to bring me back to the bedroom, when the caressing hands on my shoulders are slapped away, when the phonecalls are not returned – Frank still stays true to his role as romantic suitor.
‘How did you get rid of him?’ I’m on my hands and knees, phone caught between shoulder and ear, trying to find an earring under the cookery bookshelf.
‘He got rid of me,’ says Susie and I can picture her half look at her own hips which signals her usual crazy-pot of embarrassment and pride. ‘Unfriended me on Facebook and everything.’
The earring is visible, but not within reach. I try using a copy of Marcus Wareing’s Nutmeg and Custard to knock it out, but it would appear to be caught in the dust of the carpet. ‘You told me you dumped him.’
‘I dumped on him.’ The clatter down the phoneline means that Susie is getting a glass of water. ‘Asked him to come to couples therapy.’
We contemplate this for a while. I dislodge the earring and Susie drinks her water and I ask if she’s eating lunches at the moment and she prevaricates and I ask if she’s taking her meds and she sighs and says her mother calls her at 7am every day to check and we both know that isn’t really an answer but, hey, what can you do if someone doesn’t want to change.
It isn’t so much that the flowers change my mind, but the comedy value of pre-beheaded roses catches my attention. Over dinner in a clichéd Italian restaurant conveniently situated round the corner from Frank’s apartment, he tells me he got the idea from a movie.
I have not bothered to ask Frank if he reads. One doesn’t ask a person if they breathe.
When dawn creeps in between the half-broken Venetian blinds I decide that I might as well stay long enough for Frank to wake up and tell me which bus to catch. There’s a stack of papers next to the bed but on closer inspection they’re all in French or whatever and I try to remember what Frank does and I think I might have something to do with the European stock market.
For once I’m glad that Susie doesn’t really sleep. She answers her phone on the third ring. ‘Try the bathroom.’ Susie’s voice is thick as honey. ‘I think I might have seen something there.’
‘There’s nothing on the far side of the living room, by the table?’
‘Watch one.’ Susie laughs, slow and quiet, and breaks into a yawn.
Stepping over the remnants of a takeaway, I surprise a pair of last night’s lovers in the bus shelter. They adjust their clothing and sit sullenly. Eventually the taller one tells me the buses don’t start running for another three hours.
When Frank finally answers the buzzer he does let me back in, but then we stand in the hallway and stare at each other. He has a crumpled look which I desire to smooth out, but he makes me coffee instead.
‘Do you have trouble sleeping?’ Frank rubs the side of his face with the side of his hand. ‘Am I snoring?’
‘Are you upset? Did I say something?’
After a pause I concede that no, he hasn’t done anything. Frank lets me use his toothbrush. I lie next to him under the even-in-this-light-a-bit-dingy sheets and after a bit we have sex again and it passes the time until the buses start up.
Against any of the odds I’ve been counting on, Frank continues to court me. He tells people I’m his girlfriend. After one-too-many post-work-pre-dinner cocktails Frank announces that he wants to go away for the weekend. He hints that his parents would love to meet me, they have this great little place up in the hills. Frank tells me he can get Monday off work.
Although the internet tracking system is a bit unreliable, I’m almost certain that my Amazon order will arrive in the Saturday post. Frank tells me we can collect it from the depot when we get back. We can ask one of my neighbours to sign for it.
‘I don’t want to do that.’
Frank ducks his head and gives me his Lady-Di look. ‘I’ll go without you.’
This really does seem to be the best option. Frank swears and leaves. The books arrive on Friday and I get takeout and spend all evening curled under my 1950s floor lamp – the one Susie’s mother bought me for Christmas – reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. I wake up and clear up the noodles which have fallen out of my lap and put myself to bed, drunk on words.
When Frank hasn’t called by Sunday afternoon I consider sending his phone a text message to check that he hasn’t been accidentally killed or something. I think he’d find Diamond’s take on the effects of latitude and longitude on evolution to be pretty fascinating. Around about midnight I think about calling him but I don’t. I call Susie and she answers and her voice sounds thin and there’s loud music in the background but she says she has five minutes.
I ask Susie if she’s heard anything about Frank and she asks me what happened and I tell her and she sort of hems and the background music fades and I can hear her telling someone she’ll be back in a sec.
‘Have you called him to apologise?’
‘Are you going to?’
‘Whatever. Chat tomorrow babes.’ After a bit I get out of bed and read A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry because it always makes me cry and then after that I can sleep.
This year the tulips are early. It’s still too cold to sit in the sun without a jumper, but I take a thermos and a spare rug and kick my shoes off and enjoy the look of the spring pushing out at the world. Perhaps because I added a little brandy to my coffee, Notes on an Exhibition by Patrick Gale tilts back in my hand and I close my eyes.
Frank is standing over me when I wake up.
‘Is your phone switched off?’ he asks.
I blink away sleep and turn down the corner of the page I was probably on. Frank sits next to me and tucks the rug under my knee. I pull my phone from my bag and there are four missed calls from Frank and a text message saying that he’s here – by the pavilion, as promised. I tell Frank I was reading and he sighs in such a way as to indicate that while he knows, he doesn’t understand. He takes the book from me and puts it in my bag. He helps himself to coffee, choking a little on the first sip.
While Frank tells me he is seeing someone else, his hand rubs my bare foot. He finishes his coffee and thanks me and kisses me on the cheek and tells me he’s glad we can still be friends.
Since it is almost Susie’s birthday I invite her round to watch me eat dinner and since we haven’t hung out for quite a while she agrees and even takes a shower before she comes over. She brings me an African violet in a chipped green pot and I try to take it from her at the threshold and embrace her and she’s trying to take off her coat and neither of us laugh at the confusion.
‘She’s an accountant,’ Susie tells me. ‘Or a lawyer or something. Curly red hair, square glasses.’ Then she asks me what I’m reading at the moment and I tell her actually I’m not.
I’ve laid the table for two – just in case – but Susie says that really, she’s fine, so I eat spaghetti bolognese and she plays with the pepper pot and tells me about meeting Frank’s new girlfriend at a party last weekend and how fat her arms were.
‘You should come. Next weekend. Frank and Karen aren’t going to be there.’
I ask why they won’t be. Susie looks down and across at her hips and smoothes the t-shirt down over her stomach. She says she kind of has to get going. She tells me to call, anytime. I tell her to tell her mum I said hi and I say I’ll think about the party.
After the front door closes, I water the violet and put the rest of the spaghetti in the bin. Then I sit at the table for a while. Then I go to bed.
Oh Frank, I know you mean well. With this other girl – different hair, different face, babes – you might be able to make it work.
History tells us that if we do not learn from our mistakes, we are doomed to repeat them. I give the couriers a generous tip then lean against the door to keep it open while they heft the whiteish cardboard boxes down to the van.
The empty shelves have a lipstick of dust at the edges. I run my finger along them each in turn, flicking the accumulations onto the floor for when I eventually get round to vacuuming.
Susie says nothing when she first sees it. She walks around and pauses by the violet to check it isn’t dead yet then comes back and asks for a cup of tea. ‘I never wanted to say,’ she says. ‘But it was kind of creepy before. All those stacks of books. All those dead trees.’
‘All that light from the windows now they aren’t blocked. I never knew you had a garden – never knew there was a door there actually.’
‘Extreme, Charlotte. Did you enjoy Friday then? Meet anyone?’ The kettle sings and I make us tea. Susie tells me she’s off the lithium and on lamictal instead.
‘Would you like a biscuit?’
Susie hesitates then says yes but she doesn’t eat it, she crumbles it onto her lap and I make a note that I will have to vacuum again.
Coming out of Screen Five at the local cinema, I run into Frank by the toilets. He tells me I’m looking well. ‘You must be here for the adaptation of The Road. I thought you hated book adaptations.’
‘Star Wars, actually.’ I finger the ticket stub in my pocket. I tell Frank he’s looking well too. His friend Bernie comes out the Gents and raises an eyebrow at Frank and we talk about the film for a bit, then Bernie says he has to get going and Frank asks if I have time for a drink.
For some not-immediately-obvious reason, Frank has moved the instant coffee from the cupboard by the sink to the cupboard by the cooker. I am careful opening the fridge so that the row of beer bottles in the door shelf don’t jangle. Through in the sitting room, I select an Indiana Jones box set and plug in the headphones to the DVD player and wait for Frank to wake up and offer to make me breakfast.
Susie’s mother is only in town for one night. She admires my new television and asks where I sent my books.
‘I’m back with my ex,’ I tell her. ‘It’s going really well.’
‘The librarian?’ Susie’s mother switches the 1950s floor lamp on and off, and adjusts the hang of the mirror behind it.
‘Not him. Someone else.’ In the mirror Susie’s mother’s eyes meet mine and she smiles and tells me she’s pleased it’s all working out. I ask her not to say anything to Susie tonight and she agrees and doesn’t ask me why.
Frank has changed his phone number. Outside his flat, slick with rain, the operator tells me this number is unavailable and suggests that I try again later. I keep my finger pressed on the buzzer for a minute, but nobody comes. At the cinema I use my pass and watch the latest Disney movie twice in a row. When I leave it is dark and there are still no lights on at Frank’s so I take the last bus home and towel myself down in front of The Royal Tenenbaums.
‘I like it,’ Susie says. ‘Suits your colouring.’ The hairdresser passes me a hand-mirror and rotates the chair so that I can see the back of my own head. I raise a hand and touch the vibrant transformation.
‘I look like Anne of Green Gables’ I say. ‘But hotter.’ The hairdresser laughs and tells me she’ll fetch me my coat.
Susie walks me home and invites herself in. She looks along the shelves of DVDs and asks if she can borrow a couple and I say sure. Then I ask if she has a minute.
‘He still hasn’t called.’
‘He isn’t going to. Move on.’
I shake my head and Susie gives me a hug and tells me it’s all going to be fine. She hesitates in the doorway – holding a handful of DVDs over her stomach – and tells me I just need to be myself more.
I shut my eyes and exhale slowly before licking my lips and croaking out How much?
The florist repeats the figure and I put the phone down. So much for the grand gesture. The postflap goes and I think that maybe it’ll be my disability cheque and if I took the flowers apart myself, got a free box from the supermarket, and took them round in person then maybe I could afford it after all.
There’s no cheque in the post, only the gas bill and a small parcel which had been misaddressed and should’ve been delivered a month ago. It’s a book – second-hand – I used to really want to read. I leave it on the table and pin the gas bill on the utilities board and then I watch Chinatown.
The glove is perhaps not strictly necessary, but it’s the small details which mean the most. The pages of the book come out from the bindings, but it takes ages to find each of the words I want to use so I move into the bathroom and sit on the cold, duck-egg titles of the shower to keep myself awake. After I’ve finished I burn the leftover cut-up pages and rinse the ashes away.
At their wedding, a curious thing happened. Frank stood up to make a toast and he told the crowd that he had pretty much given-up hope, then Karen sent him a note explaining how she felt. How scared she’d been. What she was willing to do to have him back in her life. She didn’t sign the note, Frank said, just a request that he call and a line of kisses. Then, stuck in the glue of one of the words – because the letter was a ransom note, asking for his love, with the words cut out of newspaper – was a stray hair.
‘There was only one woman in the world,’ Frank said. ‘With hair that beautiful shade and my heart still firmly clutched in her hand.’ So Frank called Karen and asked her to go for dinner and she agreed and then that was that. ‘And sixteen months later here we all are,’ said Frank. ‘Raise your glasses please to my beautiful wife.’
After the speeches were all finished and Frank and Karen were dancing, she said how much she’d enjoyed his speech.
‘Was it supposed to be a metaphor for something?’ Karen asked him. ‘Because I didn’t quite get it.’
Frank asked her what she meant and she said she never sent him any letter and they stopped fighting and kissed and made up because everyone was watching. After the honeymoon, while Frank was unpacking the garden tools and arranging them in the shed, he remembered and he went into his things and found the letter and showed it to Karen and still she said she didn’t know what he was talking about and there was a sliver of dissatisfaction in the way they looked at each other for ever after.
That’s what I tell myself.