There are no days, anymore. Not the horizonless maw of ‘days’. No. Just the hours. Hours. Hours I count down quietly (very quietly). When I am counting down, I don’t always remember if and when I reach zero. But I must do. Because, at some point, I do leave the hours and the days. Not for home, no. That isn’t quite right. Sleep, I suppose. Yes, a sleep of sorts. The dreamless twitching of sterile time. When quietly (very quietly) the hours have lost their clock.
When there were days, they made yo-yos out of me. Greeted each morning like life was a game. Grab you, unfurl you, drop you, down, down, down… furlongs deep into an inky sea. When the days and their game were alive, I could still breathe. Even below the surface. And, in time, I could arrive somewhere close to sleep. But when I awoke, I’d be all the way back at the top again. High and dry on the grin of string; a marionette, a yo-yo, creaking, cracking, back down again.
I know there were winners of this game. I’ve read about them. They used to hang around. Here and there. Not yo-yos anymore. Quite different. More like breath on glass. Or, no, a drop, a drop of water. Hanging, hanging, hanging, from the mouth, the gaping maw, of the faucet. These winners, those ones, the ones, that weren’t washed away, all those furlongs below. Who didn’t fall in. But who, it seems, couldn’t be let go, either. Not fully. Who secured a pardon. Drip, drop. So, in theory, at least, they didn’t have to play the game anymore. Those winners. Those abandoned toys.
I look up from the sterile light of my phone screen. I’ve been writing this while in the bath. I can hear the sounds of my love in a farther room. I think, I am ill, stroking a trail of broken bubbles. The water is cold. Hours. So I pull the plug. And resume waiting for my life to begin.
‘That was really interesting! Thank you. I always feel I have learnt something new when I’ve come to these classes’.
I repress the faces of my reprieve and smile. Woodenly. It’s a compliment, of course. Of course it is. A compliment. But surely recognition of the most basic requirement. To have learnt something new from your teacher. Why else come to a class? But then, not all teachers teach. Me included. The blank faces, the confusion, the more honest ones who look on as if I have just dribbled down my shirt. Waiting for me to fill the silence, the awful silence, with something else, something sensible. Rappel the yo-yo limbs, let energy convince. And whilst the rest of my body storms forward, I sit myself in the corner of the room and watch. Teaching. It can be like performing heart surgery for four hours and then, right at the end, your assistant takes off their mask to say, ‘by the way, the patient died three-and-a-half hours ago and didn’t need a transplant after all’. Oh. If only I’d known earlier, if I’d known. Then I could have changed course. Or, at least I could have left the operating theatre with a heart. A compliment.
I climb into my car and breathe. My limbs slip into the regular position of a primed mechanism. The string, the descent, its lowering. This is the longest time until I have to face a classroom again. The strings of sand are already slipping through my fingers. I must leave, now, retreat. Into a bath, into a bed, out of my head. Just count the hours. I don’t wait for the vapour to evaporate off the frosty car window. I can’t see. A sidelight cracks as I graze a streetlamp and carve into my withdrawal.
‘You write beautifully. I wish I could do some of what you’re doing. But we need to focus on just getting it down. Worry about the aesthetics later. It’s only a PhD thesis, after all’.
I stare and try to move the corners of my lips correctly. The lights are low, the sun descends. Isn’t that why we are here? If it isn’t beautiful, what does it matter? When will we accept that style and substance are inseparable? The rules of the game are simple; if the speaker and writer are not beautiful, if the writing is not beautiful, then it stands to reason that we’re wasting air and ink. We are here to compel. We are here to provide knowledge that relie-
‘Thank you. You’re right. For now, let’s just focus on putting pen to paper. Though it is important, to me. Aesthetics. But we can edit that in later, I’m sure. Thank you.’
‘Do you know what you’ll do instead, if not academia?’
Thumbtack salesman. Energy Drink Promotional Assistant. Assembly Line Supervisor of Hydroelectric Dams manufactured for insecure, undersized rivers. Account Manager in the Cayman Islands. McDonalds’ Worker. It doesn’t matter what I respond. Anything and everything is met with the same face. The gentle nodding, the face a mixture of accepting bewilderment and stunted empathy. The compassion of the critical thinker. Who couldn’t, bless them, know the why and what. ‘Leave? Oh, of course, leave. I completely understand. I’ve considered it myself’. And in the corners of their mind, perhaps, a warm feeling washes over them. One less competitor. One more ‘That’s not me’. And even if that were not true, if the blight of competitive individualism didn’t extend that far, its clear I can’t think of my friend-colleague-ally-acquaintance as human. We’re already lesser.
‘Oh, I don’t know. Will have to have a think. Maybe something to do with disability. I’m not sure. But how about you? How is your research…’
‘Ello Mum. How are you?’
‘I’m okay — my hip/back/wrist/life is giving me some pain though’
‘Oh dear/That’s awful/I’m sorry to hear that/Hopefully it gets better soon’
‘Question about work’
‘Have you had your dinner?’
‘Confirm/Deny, Repackage and Return’
‘Yes — my partner and I have eaten [FOOD]’
‘Okay. I love you.’
‘I love you too.’
I really do.
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‘Do you mind if I put the heating on? I’m so cold in here’
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My eyes open. I don’t want to move. But I must. The strike action means a digital picket is being observed. They can’t find me yet. I have a headstart. I get into a sitting position and sit on the long edge of the mattress. I stare at my feet. Lift one leg up. Then another. I go to the kitchen. A cacophony. A sea of plates, unused dishwater, waste that made it to the bin but not inside it. Intrepid Kitchen Dweller, I plunder on and make a path. I fill the Moka Pot, set the gas hob on blaze, and linger. Count down the minutes. I should eat. I really ought to eat.
I pick out mystery bruises and not-so-enigmatic stretch marks while I wait. Am I hungry? Do I need to eat, right now? The only reason we have three meals a day anyway is a hangover from the Industrial Revolution. From the child-labour factory times. Whereas I’m a progressive. We don’t hav-
My stomach pulls at my flesh, down, deep, into me. Pulls towards my spine. I feel slimmer already. The Moka Pot boils over. I panic. Okay, okay. I give in (very quietly) and make toast.
15 hours to go. Then I can go back to sleep and back to the real world.