Siamese

[…This is a story that has undergone many drafts in the past 6 years. It originated as the first piece I wrote (after not writing anything creative for over two years) for my Advanced Higher English Creative Writing Portfolio, which was (to the great frustration of my English teacher), altered about 500 times and in the end we decided it wasn’t quite suitable for submitting. So yeah, it was left alone on some dusty corner of an old harddrive until 2013 when I tried on a whim to redraft it again. What started as a gothic, emo-inflected horror story about the loathing of one’s body was fleshed out with some more character development, an unnecessary amount of diegesis and detail. When the opportunity came to submit a ghost story for GUCW’s Halloween Short Story Competition, I decided to revisit this strange tale again. This time, I didn’t just add or cut, I wrote the whole thing out from scratch. In a way it’s completely different, but the plot is mostly the same, and it takes place over the course of one day. I like when stories do that, because time is quite a stressful thing. Let me know what you think…]

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Siamese

Every morning, the sunrise grew stranger; sometimes it was difficult to tell it apart from sunset, the distinction between day and night dissolving altogether. Recently, whole hours had been disappearing, afternoons and mornings lost like cells melting in the bloodstream heat of a vein under pressure. Before getting dressed for school, Maya got up very early and stood at her bedroom window to watch the sunrise. There was something about the queer, flesh-like light, pink clouds streaked with red, which made her skin tingle weirdly. While she watched the colours change, the clouds pull apart as if exposing a wound, she sometimes forgot that she inhabited a body at all.

Often she wondered if she was actually alive; if there wasn’t some other reason for her walking across the cold tile floor at six in the morning, looking over her shoulder, pulling the scratchy woollen socks above her knees, flipping open the lid of her laptop to check her emails. Such a pointless task, the checking of one’s emails, and yet…

There it was again. The email from herself. MAYA. No surname given. At first, she had found one in the depths of her Spam folder, but now it had bounced back to her inbox. She had received one of these emails every day for the past week. It was foolish to open such a message, which she knew could be nothing but some cheap, automatised attempt at tricking her into activating a virus…And yet. The house was still dark, her mother asleep. Only flickers of yellow gold from the sunrise oozed on the floor of the kitchen where Maya sat with her laptop, the shiny varnished floor which seemed to guzzle the light, crave it. It wouldn’t bounce back its heat. Shivering, she opened the email.

***

At school, the people who were and were not her friends called her Mad Maya. Mad Maya, Mad Maya. Leaving her house, she took the familiar route through the ancient copse of fir trees and across the village green, every morning rehearsing the childish chorus, rucksack thumping heavy against her back. Sometimes she heard her classmates’ whispers in the rustlings of the trees, as if the world itself regarded her with equal harshness. Today, the voices were louder than ever. It was impossible to draw sense from that chaos of lashing language. There was a familiar tone beneath the rasping exterior, a familiar tone that jarred unpleasantly with Maya’s attempts to forget the words that swirled up around her in flurry after violent flurry. By the time she had pushed open the school gates, bumped cigarettes off Dodgy John with her lunch money and followed the ring of the school bell, she was physically shaking.

In science class, the teacher was trying to explain how blood gets pumped around the body. The girl sat beside Maya was mindlessly scribbling love hearts all over her jotter. The teacher mouthed the words at them, but no sound seemed to come out; everything had slowed down, as if underwater. Words materialised on the board: atrium, Vena cava, tricuspid, ventricle, pulmonary artery, semilunar, aorta…Lush, intangible, otherworldly words. Every time Maya tried to write them down, her hands shook uncontrollably and the pencil fell from her fingers, clattering conspicuously on the floor. The more she learned about human biology, the more foreign she felt in her own body, as if she were discovering some hideous secret from all those diagrams and lists of words.

If she lifted her book off the desk at the end—which she must have done, because somehow she got out that class with her things—she would have seen the graffiti underneath, a kind of ancient inscription in jagged letters: M A D  M A Y A. She did not recognise the handwriting, but it sent a jolt through her. It was possible that she had seen this before.

***

She found herself home early. The house was silent and her mother was still out at work. There was no car in the drive, not a single dish piled in the sink. Sometimes Maya worried that her mother would disappear. How little she ate! Then there were the useless prayers she still eked out before bed, kneeling by the living room window, where on clear winter nights you could see the moon, flooding the carpet with silvery light.

O, wash me, cleanse me from this guilt. Let me be pure again…Restore to me the joy of your salvation.  

Sometimes, the susurrations and mutters of her mother’s prayers haunted Maya’s dreams. There was a time when she stayed out later and later, wandering the streets, just to avoid them. If only she knew what single guilty thing her pious mother had done in her life; that central act of transgression that seemed to define her, irrevocably, as this fragile, selfless being. Often the act pressed itself so heavily on Maya’s mind, massive and burning like some elaborate tapestry set fire to by Satan, that she could almost unpick its outline and form. But it was possible that she would never discover the truth as to why her father left soon after she was born, why on a daily basis her mother clutched God’s cross so tight around her neck.

She tried to sit down and do her maths homework, focusing slowly on the sums, as if each one were a special code she needed to disentangle, to find the kernel of meaning, the way they did with poems in English, scanning words on a page and picking at them, as if each one was a stitch. The problem was, each time she held a few figures in her head, they were snatched away—it literally seemed as if some force were wrenching the numbers and crushing them into some dark part of her unconscious. Some day in the future, perhaps, she would again encounter those fractions, sets of ones and twos, sixes and sevens, come to divide and splice her mind. The lines and figures appeared shakily on the page. Suddenly, the phone rang.

“H-hello?”

“Yes dear, it’s me!”

“Oh, Gran. Hi.”

“I’m just checking up on you dearie, it’s been so long.”

“Yes.”

“Are you busy just now, fancy a chat?”

“Doing my homework.” It was such an effort to talk at all; the words felt garbled in Maya’s mouth, like hieroglyphs.

“Oh, I’m dreadfully sorry—I didn’t mean to disturb you. I’ll let you get on then, I—”

“It’s fine.”

“You sound sad my child. You go and get yourself a wee biscuit or something. The sugar will help. I hope it’s not too difficult, what you’re doing, I—”

“Bye, Gran.” Maya clicked off the phone before her grandmother could finish speaking. She did not replace it properly on its hook and the cord dangled obscenely from the wall.

With mechanical obedience, she opened the cupboard and pulled out a packet of digestives, holding them in her hand as if they were some foreign food and she did not know what to do with them. Her hands were shaking again. Slowly she took out a biscuit, and tentatively bit it. She could not hold it in her mouth, and she ran to the sink, gagging. Some alien sensation seized her and she knew she could not eat, though something like hunger ached vaguely in her stomach, spreading up to her chest, settling in the centre as some unwelcome glow of pain.

Perhaps it was heartburn. She poured herself a glass of milk from the fridge, remembering an old trick of her mother’s to cure it. She lifted the glass to her lips but suddenly stopped. On the surface of the milk was a thin, quivering skin. Bile rose in Maya’s throat. She thought of jellylike scabs, wobbling with pus and blood underneath. The smell was gross yet oddly familiar, primordial somehow, like the smell of a womb. The glass dropped from her hand and shattered on the tiles, the milk bursting everywhere, sour and white, spraying itself on Maya’s clothes and skin, where it clung like some viral, viscous substance.

She slumped to the floor, momentarily paralysed. The sound of the phone off the hook resounded throughout the house, a pulsing, crackling sound that came from somewhere else: please check and try again.

***

As usual, she had met him at lunch, by the neck of the woods where the sycamores draped over the river, the river that wound round the whole village like an elaborate, snaking artery. Every Wednesday and Friday they would skive class together and nobody had ever noticed. He was two years older. They walked into the woods together, not clasping hands until they were shrouded in darkness, and even then, it was not clear how it happened, who made the first move. At this time of year, the mid-afternoon light was very white, shining down in strange beams through the thick canopy of trees. They would find their secret place. Each time it felt new to Maya, though she suspected that the boy hardly cared. If she came here alone, she would never be able to find the place.

Gently, he unravelled her from her school clothes, her hair coming loose in his fingers, her tights scrunched to a ball on the forest floor, crumpled like a shed skin. Her body was lily-white in the cool forest light, her shoulders exposed to the shivers of the trees and the tear-like glimmers that clung to the needles. Each time, he would run his hand automatically up her stomach; he would trace the long scar that ran up her left side. He would trace it slowly, lovingly, as if he were following the seam of a secret. The mark of ruined flesh. They never spoke of it, but each time he would reach down to trace it, to read it like braille, even as they kissed. Once, the sensation had given her delicious shivers, but now it meant nothing at all. Before, it had even been slightly painful, the scar so tender under his touch. Now, she could hardly feel it at all.

“I had a transplant,” she told him, the first time he asked. That was all she knew. She had never bothered to learn more of her own body; the boy had taught her all she wanted to know.

His flesh was pale and silver, a latticework of pulsing, blueish veins, but even as he pulled her over his body, she could not feel him. He was light as air and her body was not her body.

It was as if she were watching herself from afar, a child crouching behind a tree, stricken with terror and curiosity. She felt sick afterwards, and in fact even retched a little. He passed her a cigarette. She could hear the trees whispering again, and this time it sounded as if they were calling her name. Mad Maya, Mad Maya.

***

Possibly it was nightfall, sunset, the house so quiet, her mother asleep. The email lay open on the screen, its contents splayed out and glaring their strange incandescence across Maya’s bedroom. A chorus of acid colours spilled liltingly, tauntingly through the window. The ache had deepened in her chest, so deep it felt like her own veins were strangling her heart. It was difficult to breathe, with the dust of the room and the air that filled her lungs like spider webs mushed to molasses.

There was the collage of her entire life: comically vicious stick-figure drawings from her primary school jotters, school reports, doctor reports, notes to friends, reams and reams of texts, the carefully-typed emails she had sent to the nurse, impassioned diary entries scrawled in that distinct thirteen-year-old hand. Traces of the white powder devoured at weekends, the imprints of the boy’s kisses on her shoulders and neck, captured uncannily, impossibly, as polaroid photos, the bruises glowing through the skin like ghosts. Nothing felt real anymore. Maya hitched the laptop closer on her lap and peered at the pictures. Each one was a palimpsest, layered below streams of lurid red typewritten print: Mad Maya; parasite; murderer; the wrong child; sinner and sinner and sinful and sin. She shivered and gasped. She felt the screen start to shimmer, the pixels elasticating, blurring, the LCD surface beginning to compress and open, like a portal.

For a moment, the power cut off. A reflection appeared in the darkness of the screen: there were two Mayas, conjoined at the waist and the chest, struggling for breath. As the light flickered back on, the bodies flashed negative as if under x-ray, and in that second it was possible to glimpse the single aorta, throbbing like a terrible eel, tangled between the two bodies.

The laptop’s screen had cracked, but it didn’t matter. A silver moon beamed its single slice of light, guillotine thin, upon the glass.

***

How beautiful the world is! In the mirror the girl ran her hands through her hair, she felt the lovely inky glossiness of it, the way her skin was so soft and milky. A finger ran up the length of the scar on the right side of her body; in its crosslinks of knotted collagen she could read a virginal history. She picked up a notebook from the bed and felt its pages skim beneath her fingertips, delicate and full of possibility. A whole life to be written on those lines. The girl found herself at the window, yanking open the glass with fresh young limbs. The night air was cool and ambrosial; the air smelled of wild pines and the coming snow. The heat around her heart started to liquefy, spreading a pleasant warmth through her blood. Yes.

On the desk, a phone buzzed with a text: Where are you, why can’t I reach you?

The Contemporary Carnivalesque

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Picture a Saturday night high street. See the bare limbs, flesh glaring biscuit-orange under canopies of street lamps and the neon flashing of signs for pubs and clubs. All is bewildering, all is bright and vivid and searing. High heels and crumpled blazers, unbuttoned shirts and bodies stumbling all over the road, shrieking and laughing and throwing blind curses to the sky. There are people conversing in drunken slurs, echoes of animal-sounding noises, shadows of disaster thrown up the walls. At the weekend, with sun-down comes turmoil: the interruption of the normal.

Writing several decades ago, Mikhail Bakhtin coined the term ‘carnivalesque’ to refer to the nature of carnival, a time in which normal social regulations and restraints are temporarily suspended. This includes social hierarchies and associated cultural expectations and mores. Carnival is a brief period, an interruption of ordinary life that opens up a space outside of regular time, enabling freer, closer social interaction between those who would normally ignore one another (a peasant sharing a toast with a lord; a banker arm-in-arm, sharing a heartfelt singalong with a construction worker at a music festival), the acceptance of bizarre and outlandish behaviour which exposes the underbelly of humanity, the intermingling of opposites (the sacred and profane, high and low, young and old, classy and trashy) and finally carnival is a sacrilegious experience, devoid of holiness and instead a mockery of all things godly. Bakhtin suggests that the state of carnival is valuable in its ability to produce a social condition, however fleeting, of equality and freedom, a reversal of all the cultural norms that carefully structure everyday lives. In short, carnival means the ordinary world thoroughly shaken and flipped upside down:

Carnival is a pageant without footlights and without a division into performers and spectators. In carnival everyone is an active participant, everyone communes in the carnival act… The laws, prohibitions, and restrictions that determine the structure and order of ordinary, that is noncarnival, life are suspended during carnival: what is suspended first is hierarchical structure and all the forms of terror, reverence, piety, and etiquette connected with it… or any other form of inequality among people [From Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, my emphasis added]

Think of the example Bakhtin provides: the medieval carnival. Lords and ladies would mingle with the peasantry, sharing rich feasts (think wild boar, think excess, think decadent berries, slabs of cheeses and intricate pastries – the burger stand and the Waitrose meal-deal of the Middle Ages), there would be grotesque entertainment, where jesters provided relief from the humdrum boredom of everyday labour. There would be wrestling, archery, hammer-throwing, dancing and general disorder, raucousness and debauchery. Think long wild spirals of medieval hair, clothing being ripped by trampling feet, misfired arrows, shouting, chaos, a sense of triumph and a sense of defeat. A state of pure pleasure and excitement and unity, where all sense of time and habits is lost. These activities aren’t policed; there are no authorities, just a rupturing occurrence of equality.

A key feature of carnival is the grotesque body. This refers to the human form made disgusting, abject, exposed. Inevitably, this involves the opening of bodily orifices, an exposure to shit and piss and sick and blood. Julia Kristeva, in her essay Powers of Horror argues that what these substances (and other triggers of revulsion such as the weird skin that forms on warm milk) is their exclusion from the ‘symbolic order’: being neither subject nor object, these abject fluids draw us ‘toward the place where meaning collapses’, and to put it simply, remind us that everything structured, everything familiar – ‘identity, system, order’ – can collapse, can momentarily be lost. The losing of these necessary familiarities causes discomfort because it reminds us not only of our own mortality (there is blood, we have blood, therefore we live and one day will die) but of the ‘fragility of the law’ that binds us within the symbolic order of social and metaphysical distinction. What is real, what is imagined, what can be touched, what can be lost – all thrown into confusion.

Considering the nature of medieval carnival then, where eating is loud, messy and public, manners are absent and bawdy humour is rife, it is easy to see how Kristeva’s theory of abjection links in with Bakhtin’s notion of the carnivalesque. The explicit exposure of grotesque, sweating, expanding bodies and their apertures (eaters, circus entertainers, fire-eaters, dancers, nudists and other performers) creates the collapse of social regulation, internalised politeness and cultural restrictions that preserve normality and define how we live, who we are, what place we occupy in the rigid hierarchies of the world.

The grotesquery of the carnivalesque haunts not just history but also contemporary life. What springs to mind for me are TV shows like Embarrassing Bodies, The Biggest Loser and Supersize vs. Superskinny revel in their exposure of grotesque bodies: bodies that upset the social order, that overspill, that violate expectations of the ideal self. Through their television screens mass audiences observe with fascination and horror the layers of flabby skin, the genital warts, the rashes and the hair loss and the gaping, hungry mouths. What is so compelling about these programs, which seem to delight in their own scatology? I would argue it is their exploration of the abject, their emphasis on the materiality of the human body and self, as well as the fluidity of this materiality – and not only its mortality but also its ability to change, to become thinner, fatter, more tanned, spottier. There is a similarity here to the public autopsies which literally dissected the nitty-gritty of human flesh before an entranced audience. When we watch Gillian McKeith in You Are What You Eat poking around examining someone’s shit, we are confronting our strange, precarious existence as physical entities, as Kristeva puts it: ‘These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being.’

So the grotesque forces us to face up to the abyss of possible meaninglessness that besets our very existence. Carnival is a stage for celebration and freedom, but it is streaked with this dark note of the sinister limits of humanity (or could it be called unhumanity?).

I am led now to think back to debauched goings-on that characterise British nightlife. It is quite easy to compare, at least to some extent, the club scene and the music festival with the medieval carnival. Think of all the sweaty bodies thrown together: lawyer, banker, prostitute, mayor, all dancing outside of their normal clothes, their normal dispositions, their normal souls. Collapse of order. Entertainment has not evolved much in civility: one only has to take a trip to an inexpensive British-dominated seaside resort abroad to discover carnival wonders. Grotesque strippers whose very anatomies have been adorned with the alterations of plastic surgery; whose very bodies violate and confuse the (socially constructed?) definitions of human and inhuman, male and female, real and fakery; whose very bodies are abject in themselves, who violate all symbolic hierarchies. The ordinary citizen puts on a dress or a t-shirt and sheds temporarily their identity, dives into the sea of disruption and debauched, drunken catastrophe.

I think of so many human bodies scattered like ants, half-naked on the street. We dance, we dance, but together we fight, we spit, we are sick. Are we free? The rich snort cocaine in the toilets while the poor share their escapism in drink and junk food, and gradually the substances are passed down the food chain, and either way all normal reality is collapsed. Whether in the bar, the cinema, the club, the street. Yet always there is a going back – the freedom is only temporary.

Perhaps it is worse in these post-recession, cut-ridden times. Where to find relief from the mundane trawl of economic news, of job-hunting, of fitting one’s life into a monotonous form? The more human life is repressed into artificial structures and rigorous norms, the more the pressure builds to release, the more our indulgences become more disruptive, the more we binge and cause chaos and feast.

Can we find carnival at a rave?

Can we find carnival in the graffiti that sticks like smears of sick to the graves of urbanity? The need to upset borders, make violent, meaningless marks.

Is carnival an intrinsic part of our humanity?

Perhaps there is a carnal need for escape, for explosion.

Another example of carnival suggested by John Fiske in Understanding Popular Culture is that of the television game show. The presenter tries to assert domination by ridiculing contestants, but contestants respond by ridiculing the presenter. All hierarchies are upset, as money becomes not a currency of earning but something that can be won at the spin of a lottery, the opening of a mystery box. Jokes are rife, people often cry, music fills the atmosphere with a carnival sense of celebration and ridicule. Onlookers watch on with perverse fascination, anticipation, sometimes revulsion, sometimes boredom.

I was recently talking to a friend about the big Scottish music festival T in the Park, and he said that it was one of those things that ‘you kinda hate at the time, but love it afterwards’. I think this sums up the experience of carnival quite well, in some ways. The stress of the occurrence of carnival – the intensification of sensory pleasures and horrors (the live music, the colours, the portaloos, the mud that seeps in through your trainers) perhaps makes the carnival (festival, gig, club, drunken night at the pub/disco/park) hard to absorb at the time. Perhaps because you are too busy experiencing and participating. Too busy actually feeling exhausted, exhilarated, intensely confused and disorientated. But on reflection, the upset social norms can be ignored, and the experience is fitted snugly together by the reason-seeking mind. We remember the good bits, and the bad seem good, and everything is a great whirlwind of excitement and pleasure that sticks because up against normal life the value of the event cannot be measured.

There is also something in the fact that grotesque experiences provide a kind of social glue or bonding through stories. People go out to lose their inhibitions: to get roaring drunk and behave ‘appallingly’, or at least in ways that upset normality. But, fundamentally, they mostly forget. It’s up to their group of friends to get together and fill in the blanks, often chipping in with their own fictional missing pieces. Stories that live on and are retold and recycled and not only provide valuable conversation fodder but serve as a way of uniting and reinforcing friendships. It takes a night of disorder, disruption and eventual recovery (an adventure, a taste of the carnival) to enjoy normality again, to be reminded of who is there and who you are and how everyone relates to you.

In a world where the Chancellor of the Exchequer attempts to show he is a ‘man of the people’ by tweeting a picture of a burger and fries he intends to have for dinner, it is no wonder the world requires remedying through brief disruptions. As disillusionment filters through the everyday mist of reality, perhaps public craving for the carnivalesque has increased, as the thirst for the abject relates to our need to prove that there is a point, a borderline which enables the dissolution of meaning. Where everything seems more and more absurd, where money seems a mere plaything of gambling bankers, so easily borrowed and so easily lost; where our everyday lives are structured by euphemisms and business jargon and lies, it is no wonder we seek to obliterate social norms in alcohol, clubbing, violence and lust. And with the internet, who knows where the exhibitionist and border-crossing nature of carnival behaviour might end up?

Bibliography:

Bakhtin, M. (1929) Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics.

Bakhtin, M. (1941). Rabelais and his world

Fiske, John. (1989) Understanding Popular Culture.

Goulding, C., M. Saren, J. Follett (2003) ‘Consuming the Grotesque Body’ in European Advances in Consumer Research Vol. 6, pp. 115-119

Kristeva, J. (1982) Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection.