There is a difference between learning something and understanding something.
I can just about remember learning that I was a girl. It’s an early childhood memory, so it feels kind of soft and homespun, part of a skein, although I can’t conjure any memories on either side. I’m in the bath. My twin brother is also in the bath. At the memory’s start point is a floating yellow boat, and at the memory’s end point is a floating yellowy-brown turd. In the memory, my brother and I fight over the ownership of both floaters. My father’s arms are also in this memory. I guess he’s washing us.
In the middle of the memory is the moment I learn that I’m a girl. It’s the moment I ask about the half-floating extras between my twin brother’s legs. In the memory, I’m already aware of their existence. I just want to know what they are, and why I don’t have them, and if my poor brother will have to have them cut off so that he can be normal, like me.
So, I learned that I was a girl, and my twin was a boy. But I didn’t understand that I was a girl until I was 11 or 12 years old.
My brother and I went to a secondary school that was a bus ride away from our house. Mostly, the buses ran on time but sometimes they didn’t, and there was a culture of hitchhiking among the older kids (or, a culture of lying about hitchhiking – amazing how many big-boobed single mothers in 4x4s picked up the boys). One time in the winter term, during a day of confrontational rain, the buses stopped coming altogether. My brother, our friend Biscuit and I were stuck in this flimsy bus shelter. The rain hit the corrugated-iron roof so hard we had to shout to make ourselves heard. It felt like we were opening our mouths against something solid.
Biscuit shouted that he was going to hitchhike home, that the bus wasn’t coming, that he needed to pee, that his feet were wet.
We’d been warned against hitchhiking (stranger danger); we said no, we’d rather stick it out, we’d be in trouble otherwise.
Biscuit told us to go screw ourselves, left the bus shelter to walk down to the hitchhiking spot.
The spot was maybe a five-minute walk from the bus stop, and out of sight of the school. It joined a road different from the one our bus took, a road leading out of town. They used to call the out-of-town part the Crying Highway.
My brother and I left it another half an hour before we decided we’d be in real trouble if we didn’t get home soon. That’s how we used to measure stuff – how much trouble we’d get in, moving through space and time, launching into the possible futures of trouble.
We swam standing up the whole way.
And we got in a lot of trouble, but not for any of the reasons we’d listed to one another (wet clothes; ruined shoes; late to dinner; the bus not coming was somehow our fault.)
Turns out our mother had got wind from Biscuit’s mother that Biscuit had a) been with us and b) hitchhiked home. Somehow this turned into c) we’d also hitchhiked home, but separately, and as we still weren’t home, we had d) been murdered.
I remember most distinctly that my mother slapped me, but she didn’t slap my brother. Because she was more afraid for me than for my brother.
That evening, I was told the Crying Highway was called the Crying Highway because, six years beforehand, eight girls and young women had disappeared along the route. Some of them were found dead and some of them weren’t found at all. The ones that were found had been, as my mother put it, ‘interfered with’.
I don’t know why, and I don’t know why I’m telling you now, but those words put me in mind of someone rearranging the folds of my labia so they were popped inside out, a crowded rose in the hands of a clumsy gardener. It was a pretty gentle mental image. I found our quite how gentle a few years later – not that long ago, actually – when my brother and I managed to get round the parental controls on the router. Violently attacked flesh looks like… well. It looks the way it does. I don’t want to have to look at it long enough to come up with a good simile.
Anyway, that’s the moment I understood I was a girl, and I understood my twin was a boy, and the understanding went through what I’d learned like a nail that pins a butterfly specimen in place.
I learned about the wall the same way everyone learned about the wall; it was just there. The sun is warm, the lavender smells like lavender. When the traffic lights turn green, that means ‘go’. The wall was built to protect us from the people on the other side, and if you get too close the soldiers start shooting. Birds build nests. Potatoes grow tubers if you leave them too long.
It’s said that on the other side of the wall is a population of citizen terrorists, both wild to destroy us and desperate to join us. They’re bad people, corrupted by the systems under which they live, although not entirely cognisant of this fact. We see them as a virus. They want to invade and colonise us with their ideas, overrun us with their breeding population. And, like a virus, we think that they don’t have any reason to do it; it’s just the way it is on the other side of the wall.
I’d been taught this in my citizenship classes, a statutory part of the national curriculum. I’d assumed that it was more or less true, if I assumed anything. The wall was there and I was here. There must be a reason for the wall to exist. Why else would we spend so much time and money maintaining it?
So, I learned the wall existed, but I’ve only just understood that it exists.
Urban legends about the wall turn up on messageboards daily. They’re always about violence, sometimes about death and quite often about sex. By that, I mean that sex lingers around the edges of these stories like wet cobwebs. Couples looking for a place to do their private things end up shot, their corpses locked in rigor mortis ecstatis. Boys get a glimpse of a girl on the other side, and, obsessed by the thought of seeing her again, they creep closer and are gunned down. That sort of thing. I think it’s a metaphor for an orgasm, little death writ large. My brother says that teenagers on messageboards are always horny and they’ll find any way to honk their horn, and if it’s violent, so much the better, because they’re all virgins and scared of sex.
It was sex that drew me close to the wall. I don’t really know how to explain this. Sex – bad and haunting sex – was happening around the wall the way mushrooms sprout in damp grouting, or at least that’s how it felt, and I wanted to get closer to it. I think I wanted to be inoculated against it. It’s the same reason I looked up the pictures of the victims of the Crying Highway.
The wall spawns vacancy. For about a mile from it, there are no houses. The buildings in the radius are scabbed with old bill posters and flyers; I get the impression that some of them are shops. They degenerate into weed-strewn rubble until the checkpoints and, beyond the checkpoints, no man’s land, and then the wall. Soldiers patrol the buildings. Sex happens in them. Maybe if we were braver and it weren’t such an absence, there would be some kind of thriving underground ‘scene’ the that young people like us could be a part of. But all there is, is the threat of bodily altercation and the grey ache of death. Maybe on the other side, it’s all like this.
I went there with my brother on a dare. All we had to do, we told one another, was be there. My brother didn’t know I was looking to exorcise the sex out of the rumours. He just thought we were doing it to say that we did it the next day.
We were picking our way along an alley strewn with indistinct but pungent rubbish. It was depressing. There was nothing but filth. Five minutes before, we’d passed a shop selling expired cans of things and a closed-down video rental store. Now we’d walked so deep into the vacancy that there was nothing but the tropes of deprivation.
We kept half an ear out for soldiers, but we hadn’t heard or seen any patrols. It was still light out. We hadn’t managed to scare ourselves much. We were getting bored but didn’t want to admit it.
So, I suggested turning right. There was a right turning. It was there. I picked it. I could have said anything, but I picked the right turning.
That led to another alley, more low buildings boarded shut, and a dead end.
At the end of the dead end, something approaching sex was happening. There was what looked like a boy and what looked like a girl. The girl was standing and her mouth was open. The boy was kneeling in front of her.
“Woah,” said my brother, too loudly. “Woah, haha, OK. Whoops. Let’s go.”
He pulled me out of the alley without looking back.
“Let’s just go home,” he said. “This sucks.”
“Yeah,” I said, but I felt itchy. I’d seen something interesting. It was the girl’s open mouth that did it, I think. I’d read in her mouth an expression of the abandonment of pleasure. I wanted to see it again, just to confirm it.
I looked back.
That was all it took. I just glanced back once.
The girl’s mouth was still open. It was stretched in the same jaw-cracking zero as it had been a couple of seconds before. In fact, it hadn’t moved, and no sound was coming out of it. She just stood there with her mouth stretched open, totally silent.
Her eyes were wide open, too – and they looked directly at me.
She was at the other end of the alley, but I could see the whites around her pupils. And her expression: void.
What I thought was a kneeling boy looked, on swift second inspection, like a slumped-over body.
I swear that I only stayed for a couple of seconds, but in that time, I saw her move towards me.
My brother and I told our friends that we’d seen a girl getting whatever sex act we assumed she’d been getting in the places between our city and the wall. I didn’t tell them that when I’d looked back, I’d seen something else, because I wasn’t sure what I’d seen. What was I supposed to say? That I’d seen a girl gawping, and she’d looked right at me? When I repeated this back to myself, the night after and the nights after that, it really didn’t seem as unnerving as it first had. I started to forget about it. I had other things to think about, like everything.
About a week later, I saw her again.
I’d gone to see a film with a friend. I was walking home. Facts so simple I can hardly bear to recount them. I was a girl walking home from a social activity in a safe part of town.
The walk took me along a street filled with mini-marts and coffee shops that, during the day, was busy. During the night it was shuttered and quiet, but it wasn’t creepy. Ethereal horror wasn’t a part of my life.
When I saw her, I didn’t recognise her immediately, because I couldn’t see her face. She was standing opposite a retro-nostalgic haberdashery, her head thrown so far back that she was staring directly at the sky. I thought that she might be staring at a police drone, her exaggerated stance a declaration of disdain for the machinations of keeping the peace. People perform their disapproval all the time, even when there’s no one to witness it. You get so used to doing the dance of yourself that you start doing it without the audience.
I glanced up to see if I could spot the drone, but there was nothing except scrap material clouds going glum against the evening light. A momentary glance. But when I looked back, her whole stance had changed. Now she was facing me, staring directly at me.
She was maybe 15 metres away, but even from that distance I could see her eyes glimmer. And I could see the hole of her mouth, the huge gape. She was totally still and totally silent, and staring at me with the face of a girl locked in a scream.
I stopped walking and we stayed facing one another along the pavement. I couldn’t bring myself to walk closer. I was weirded out, obviously, but underneath that basic recoil was something else. I felt that any step I took towards her was an invitation to harm. I, somehow, was responsible for this, culpable for my acts of repeated witnessing. I sort of understood even then that I was the reason she was here.
As I stood there, freaking out and only just starting to get a grip on those thoughts, the girl started shaking.
What I mean by that is, her head started to vibrate with what looked like the tension of keeping her mouth and eyes stretched so wide. Her eyeballs rolled back in her head.
This was too much for me. I turned around and started to walk back the way I’d come, hoping to take a left turn half a block away and speed-walk a slightly longer route to my house. My hands felt as if they were filled with a cold, prickling fluid and I was nauseous. I didn’t know what was happening, I just wanted to be as far away from the girl as possible.
Just before I got to the turning, I glanced back over my shoulder.
As soon as my gaze hit her, the shaking stopped. She was still again, her mouth still open, her eyes still rolled back.
And then her knees bent slightly, like a low creature preparing to spring.
And then she started to run.
I fled. I did not stop running until I’d reached my house, and I didn’t think anything as I ran, except go go go. I shut the door behind me. For the whole of the rest of the evening, I only looked directly in front of me. And when I went to bed, I didn’t look out the window to see what was waiting on the edge of the lawn. I didn’t. I didn’t check. I didn’t.
I’ve told you that I learned the wall exists a long time ago, but I’ve only just understood it.
The wall is there to divide us from something. I don’t know what it is. I’ve understood myself as being on the other side of a wall without really thinking about what it means to be in opposition all the time. I hadn’t really grasped the endemic hate that must live in me, to accept the existence of the wall.
I can’t explain it to anyone. How do I say to my family: why have we always been on this side of the wall? What are we? It sounds like cod philosophy. They’re such mild people. They don’t want to be told that they’re filled with an unbelievable and spiteful hate, or, worse still, that this massive hate is actually a part of their mild normality.
And as I turn it over, I become more afraid. It means that everywhere I go, I drag the wall with me. The dirt of the badlands clings to my shoes even when I walk through the school fields. I have always been a person who lives on this side of the wall. How do I unlive that? Do I need to ask the girl? I don’t think she wants to talk to me. I don’t know what she wants from me, but it isn’t talk. I keep remembering her face, that silent scream, a mouth unable to vocalise. Or else it’s her maw, her pillaged orifice, the place she wants to take me into.
I saw her again. It was a few days ago, and again, I only took in a glance. She was waiting at the end of my road, with the eyes, the mouth, the shaking. I was coming out of the front door. I went straight back in, but not before I saw her lurch forwards. A minute later, I heard two knocks at the door. Then nothing. I stayed indoors the whole day. It was a normal Saturday. My parents were in the garden, my brother was playing computer games. It wasn’t eerie. It never has been. The wall has never been eerie; the wall is just there. These moments are so small along the length of a day, but I have had to know them.
Every time I see her, I’m guilty of seeing her. That’s all it takes. I’m guilty of understanding, and continuing despite my understanding. I don’t know how to stop her. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with what I’ve learned. I just want to scream endlessly.
The Wall was originally published in Somesuch Stories Issue 2, which is available for purchase here.
Photograph by Suze Olbrich