White Cardboard Boxes
Syllables are hard and round in my mouth but my self is a shape without edges. Sentences have speech marks and indentations, so I may know the difference between speaking and thinking. There are full stops and commas, so I may know the right time to draw breath.
When I read words on a page, the markers are provided for me. Living in a body is different. My body is not neat and ordered, it is never one consistent shape. I am fleshy and sinewy and there are things inside of me that cannot be quantified; cells and nerve endings and different kinds of love.
Language often feels inadequate and yet it is inescapable. If language shapes thought, then the insubstantiality of syntax and conjugation suggests that our thoughts are insubstantial, too. It seems to me, however, that there is much that is deeper. There are layers beneath our thoughts, of feeling and emotion and inexpressible things. In order to get close to the raw underneath, perhaps it is necessary to think through other forms, to communicate in mediums beyond words.
Red is deep and close and hot. Red is the smell of my mother’s skin when she is warm and new from the shower. Red is sour and bitter; the uncertainty of a stranger’s body pressed against mine. Red is the thing at the centre, far away from the edges. It is sticky and heavy and cruel. Red has difficulties and cannot be forgotten. Red is everlasting, in scar tissue and bloodstains. Red is the soft of my organs where the light can’t reach. Red is sore and tender-dark. Red is something to hold onto.
When I was a child, I had a friend called Sarah. She lived down the road; too far to walk alone but far enough for us to walk together, hand in hand. Her mother spent hours cooking for us. She iced miniature fairy cakes in pastel swirls and frothed up fat strawberry milkshakes in her blender.
We always ate in their dining room, around a lacy tablecloth; Sarah’s parents, her brother and I. We each had our own special plate. Her father worked in an abattoir and the table was piled with sticky chicken legs and steaks pooling in peppercorn sauce. He sat at the table in his work shirt while we tried not to look at the scarlet smears. He always got up halfway through the meal to go to the toilet.
‘Fast metabolism.’ He’d declare, punching my shoulder.
Sarah’s mother was a receptionist at the local hospital. When the table had been cleared, Sarah and I practised our spellings for school the next day. I raced through mine, and so her mother pulled leaflets and boxes with bold-printed labels from her handbag, marveling at my speed.
‘Come and listen to this, Steve.’ She called through to Sarah’s father in the sitting room, where he sat watching football on the telly.
The medicinal words seemed obvious to me; phonics pushed together to make categories and labels. They followed patterns and structures and they served a purpose; to give names to liquids and powders, which were tangible things in white cardboard boxes. It was the other stuff I had trouble with; the feelings there were no obvious names for. The pang in my stomach when Sarah’s dad rested his hand on her mam’s back in a way that was unfamiliar to me. The taste in my mouth, hot and saline, when I saw crimson drip then seep into white lace.
Orange is slow and shy like morning light. It is a protective layer of citrus peel. Orange is lentils in autumn, steaming on a wooden spoon. Orange is a blanket wrapped tightly around a sleeping form. Orange is heat and in-between seasons. It is the ripe heart of daffodils and sun pulsing on concrete. Orange will cradle you. Orange is yours to take.
My brother is deaf, and my mother wrote the words he had difficulty differentiating on scraps of paper and stuck them to the fridge, next to a postcard from Tenerife.
‘You’re shellfish!’ My brother spat at me, when I refused to give him a chip from my plate. My mother and I incorporated his misheard words into our vocabulary. We spoke a secret syntax of mistakes and mispronunciations that didn’t make sense to anyone else.
The difference between ‘selfish’ and ‘shellfish’ is slight, but it is very important. I have learned that the most precious things are incredibly small. I know the irrefutable power of naming and claiming, of choosing the right words to articulate previously unsayable things. Language shapes thought and by changing the words we use we can change the way we think, which in turn can change the structures that support the shape of our world.
We ate off our knees on a tangerine settee, squabbling and shoving and chatting about our days. My brother called a ‘knife’, a ‘life’ and ‘tomorrow’, ‘sorrow’, and we took these words and used them in our conversations. His language became a way of weaving a secret world around us that others could not penetrate; cosy and warm. Rules can give shape to the amorphous, but a fixed shape is not always what we need.
Blue has layers and is horrible-delicious. It is water: cold and unknowable. It is secondhand denim, fading over time. Blue is places that are impossible to reach; the sky and the bottom of the sea. Blue is slippery. It is objects that have fallen through your hands and will never belong to you again. Blue is nostalgia; cloying and stale. Blue is Monday; an end and a beginning.
I grew up in Sunderland, speaking a local dialect. I spent my teenage years twisting on sticky dance floors, downing treble vodkas in skyscraper heels, spraining my ankles on cobblestones and passing out on chip shop floors.
‘Someone was mortal last night.’ The boys in the year above winked as I stumbled onto the school bus bleary-eyed, smelling of hairspray and cigarette smoke.
The word ‘mortal’ means to be very drunk. I have never been able ascertain whether it refers to being so intoxicated that you are close to death, or so drunk that you are aware of being alive. A proximity to death can make you feel alive, and this encapsulates the attitudes of the market sellers, car mechanics, lonely alcoholics, their tattoos blurry and blue. My experience of growing up working class was living in a way that was close to the edge, and I have struggled with the idea of being comfortable in adult life. Comfort feels stifling; fusty and plush. Precarity can be paralysing, but it keeps you real.
I moved to London for university. I scraped words like ‘mortal’ from my tongue and felt embarrassed, infantilized by my dull vowel sounds and rough suffixes. I rejected my lineage of tough and tender women, who chain-smoked Pall Malls and scrubbed counters, whose voices were loud and large pulling pints in the pub, but silenced beyond the streetlit borders of their world.
Now, when I write, I consciously call my mother, ‘mam’, even though that isn’t always the word I use when I speak. I know that no matter which dialect I choose to speak in—whether or not I pronounce the ‘I’ in ‘ing’—I have moved away from those women and the place that I came from. I feel nervous when I go into Sunderland pubs and talk to women like my grandmother. They hear my clipped sentences. They note my lace-up leather shoes and my eyes naked without makeup and are assured that I am from Somewhere Else. I am trying to write my way back to them. I am choosing words carefully, trying to regain what is lost.
Yellow is sour and stinking. It is rotting and decay. Yellow is jaundice, sickness and horror. It is the sadness of Sundays; the diseased edges of leaves. It is mould and fungus and neglected, musty things. Yellow is urine and sweat and congealed custard. Yellow is shock and violence and pain. It is broken bodies, blisters, pus. Yellow is the most important.
I have noticed a pattern among my female friends, in the re-telling of sexual assault. There is a moment when we sit opposite each other and she gives me a terrible yellow look; cowed and defeated like a lingering bruise.
‘I can’t say it.’ She tells me. And she doesn’t need to say it, because I know with a familiar lurch the words that she is going to say. And she does need to say it, because until she says the words they will curdle inside her, shameful and sore. Articulating our experiences is a way of taking ownership of them, pulling them from our soft centres and casting them into the world, where they take on new shapes and become separate.
I sat in a café with a friend as she tried to find the right words. She pushed stray grains of sugar around the table; wrapped her hands around her yellow mug, tea-stained and sickly. She avoided my eyes because there was too much between us. I know there are things that are unsayable. I know there are things too white-hot to put into language and traumas that words will never convey. But we have to put those thoughts into something. Language is leaky but it offers escape.
Silver is solid and shiny. It is cold mornings when the world is dark, scraping stubborn ice from a frosted car. It is magic and technology, fast and supple and new with promise. It is heavy and painful. It is lesser than gold. Silver cracks and breaks. Silver is used to repair. It is real and reassuring. Silver is precious.
I went for a walk with a friend who had recently fallen in love. It was winter and our breath was illuminated in the dirty white afternoon. The day was failing and night loomed, heavy and inevitable. Her lips were cracked, she brushed them repeatedly with pink fingers.
‘What should I do?’ She asked. I considered the sky.
‘You’ve got to talk to him. Tell him how you feel.’ I pulled the sleeves of my jumper down over my hands. ‘Communication is important. You know that.’
She looked panicked.
‘But I’m worried that putting it in words will break it.’ She told me. ‘Whatever this thing is, it feels delicate. I’m worried that speaking it aloud will fracture it, somehow.’
I was surprised by her words. I think that words solidify things. They take feelings out of my body and put them into the world, where they become real. I hadn’t considered the possibility of articulation having the power to destroy. This makes me feel afraid. Writing has always been my way out. What if, unbeknownst to me, I have been damaging the things I have been putting into words, making them impure?
Of course, it makes sense; by putting a feeling into language, a part of it is lost, as language will never be able to fully express anything. However, I think that we gain a lot through articulation, too. We draw the inside things out, which makes us feel lighter. We create bonds with others and they exist then, shimmering between us in the cold, crisp air.
I cycle over Waterloo Bridge and my handlebars graze a grey barrier that’s been erected to stop cars ploughing into people. I look up at the red lights on the cranes constructing our uncertain future; at the people crumpled on pavements, desperation pooled in paper cups.
I pass familiar streets as it begins to grow dark, their names like lines from half- remembered poems. People step onto zebra crossings and fumble for oyster cards at bus stops. I note the corner where my friend Sam met me with a bunch of yellow flowers, at the end of a summer when my heart was cracking. I see the café where I sat with my mother when university was a possibility and everything felt gold to us. I pass the station where I sat on the platform and cried; the house my best friends once lived in, when we were younger and our lives ever green. My tyres rattle over potholes and paving stones. I watch as buildings grow glassy, communities shrivel.
I look out at the city rippling before me, an electric sea. There is deep red around the telephone pylons and orange small and secret in unknown windows. The sky is blue-dark and terrible but green is strung across the river like hope. Yellow congeals in the distance.
I don’t know if there are words enough to articulate the unspeakable. I am trying to find a way to put the things that are happening to us into words; the pallid yellows and the soul-splitting reds. Language is forged of hierarchies; royal courts and conquerors, historical events and gender. How can we begin to think outside of these constructs, if the words themselves come entrenched in so much symbolism? How do we break away from this, and reach something new?
I cannot always tell the difference between speaking and thinking. I do not know the right time to pause for breath. Our lives are always shifting and we cannot hold onto them. Everything is too fast and there are too many things to think about. We need to get closer to the raw thing at the centre. I am searching for language that is deeper than this.
Jessica Andrews' debut novel, Saltwater, will be published by Sceptre in Spring 2019.
Read an extract here.
Photograph by Lem Hartley / Thinkstock