One little room (an everywhere)


I am in the auditorium and I am on fire. I’m not worried about the fire. It seems a justified reaction, because I’ve only ever seen this place on telly and because above the entrance, as I walked in, I read the words The Olivier. Hello to the ghost of Lawrence. I hope I don’t set fire to your very nice velvet folding chairs. The cells inside me hit one another and ricochet. They have been doing this ever since I sat down in the fourth row. It’s like the theatre has dipped its hand into me and wriggled, like a mother testing bath water, sending phosphorescence ringing through my system. Now my cells are alight. As the room fills, I put my headphones on. People clamber past me, unsure and apologetic, but not apologetic enough to distract me from the growing sound of conversation. Everyone, it seems, has something to say. No one is alone, except for me. I tic frenetically and wait patiently, feeling my head fling backwards. Up, up, seeking something, maybe the ceiling.

I close my eyes. One thing I’m very good at is losing my sense of the physical world. When I want to, I can conjure spaces in my head and I go to them when, for example, my body is showing me nothing but a ceiling-stage-ceiling-stage kaleidoscope. The sounds of the theatre drift away. I open my eyes. I am in one of my favourite places: a study with three big windows, each overlooking the sea. It has papers that shiver with salt air and places to sit. I listen to a wave throw itself against rock and sigh and feel my body relax.

“Hello,” says a voice behind me. I whip around. Perched on the sofa, pouring over a script, is English actor Ben Whishaw. He doesn’t seem surprised to see me, even though he’s never been in my imaginings before. Still, I feel the need to explain myself.

“The audience is very noisy,” I say.

“They’ll quieten down once the play starts,” says Ben. He looks up from his script. “In the meantime, you can tell me what you see.”

“The ceiling,” I say, “now the stage, now the ceiling again.” Because I’m a bit worried about it, I add: “the man next to me has moved his leg away from mine.”

“He should have bought a seat in a box,” says Ben, settling back to his reading, “if he didn’t want to sit next to a human body.”

I hum noncommittally and the theatre rematerialises around me. I watch a man onstage throw his head back, trying to make speech.  “I can see the roadblocks in the sentence,” he says. His voice has a familiar Welsh lilt. It sounds like home.

“Roadblocks?” asks his friend.

They are men pretending to be boys and one wears red striped pyjamas.

“I panic,” says Pyjama Man. “It gets worse because I can see them coming. The roadblocks. And sometimes, I pull a muscle from the strain and I have to stay home from school. I tell Mum I have a cold, and I lie under the covers and stare at the ceiling.”

“And that’s when you do that thing with your neck,” says his friend.

But Pyjama Man, Nye, cuts his friend off with an accidental truth: “And that’s when I feel like I shouldn’t exist.”

The audience goes silent. I feel goosebumps erupt across my arms. I clench my eyes shut and, with some effort, pull myself back into my head. The study looks the same as before, but this time Ben isn’t reading. He’s looking at me inquiringly.

“The audience are so still,” I say in response to his unspoken question. “They don’t get it. I want to tell them.”

“Are you sure?” Says Ben. He’s able to ask helpful questions only because he’s a product of my imagination. 

“Well, not exactly. It’s not that I want to tell them, it’s that I want them to understand. How it all feels.” Ben crosses one leg over the other and leans back into the leather.

“How does it feel?” he says.

I gaze out the window at my imagined seaside cliff top; the wild grass and the sheep who taste it, spit it up and taste it again. “It’s like watching a film over and over, looking for the mouthful that made you feel real.”

“Is it?” Demands Ben, incredulous.

“No,” I say, “I was talking about the cud.”

Ben walks to stand beside me. “What if I could put my hand to yours and let you feel, for a second, what it’s like in my body?” I say.

Ben considers my sentence. “You could try,” he says slowly, “it’s not a real hand. You made this room up. I’m sure I’d feel it. Feel all of it.”

Sea glass glitters on the windowsill in front of me. Sand has caressed it to make it soft. I watch as the process reverses, and the edges resharpen to a haughty glint. Then the pendulum swings and it goes the other way, softening and sifting down until all that is left is a row of green dust.

“But it’s not a real hand,” I whisper, “it wouldn’t be real.”

I turn my back on Ben. I don’t want to see his face when I tell him this next bit. “One Monday afternoon, I was sitting in class, and listening to someone talk about Othello.” Ben doesn’t make a sound. I take a deep breath and continue, “a pulse of static shot through me, and I flinched. It made the spinning chair spin awkwardly. The tutor didn’t notice, or he ignored me on purpose. Othello is not Venetian, the speaker said. He must learn the Venetian way. He must always be looking for the ways he is not Venetian, so that he may eradicate them. But he cannot do it fast enough; it is why Iago hates him so much. Then a flicker ran through me and I tossed my head back like a horse. The speaker stopped mid-sentence. Everyone looked at me. The flicker was stuck to the ceiling above my head and it was simply a matter of time before it would fall on me.”

When I finish my story, I hear Ben open the window behind me. The cool sea air rushes into the study. I breathe deep and let the wind blow things away.

Back in the theatre, it is deadly silent. So silent I can hear drops of moisture in the actor’s eyes, as they glint in the stage lights. I can hear the million explosions taking place inside his body, where his cells collide and sell each other information. The explosions go off inside my body and in the people to my left and right. Our cells sing so fast and fire so loud that the place is cacophonous with cell sound. And in this deafening quiet, there is a feeling at the base of my skull. It comes from the place where my tics started earlier, the exact muscle that the man onstage is talking about. I feel the muscle pulse in triumph. It extends itself out and fills the theatre like the light of a newborn sun.

Suddenly, I don’t need to escape to the study with Ben. I want to be here, where I can feel my whole body and every cellular transaction happening inside it. But if I could bring Ben here, to inhabit the velvet chair next to me, I would lean over and say to him: “It feels a bit like this.” Instead, I sit deeper in my chair. A leg presses against mine as the man in the seat next to me relaxes.

When the house lights come up, everyone in the audience is on their feet. A line of bodies stand shyly onstage to watch the eruption. In the heat of it all, I burn with applause, clapping my hands delightedly. Ticking and ticking and ticking. Nobody watches and nobody moves away. They all clap their hands too.

Farrago's magazine cover - Edition One 2024


It’s 2012 and you have just opened Tumblr. A photo pops up of MGMT in skinny jeans, teashade sunglasses and mismatching blazers that are reminiscent of carpets and ‘60s curtains. Alexa Chung and Alex Turner have just broken up. His love letter has been leaked and Tumblr is raving about it—”my mouth hasn’t shut up about you since you kissed it.” Poetry at its peak: romance is alive.

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