He’d offered me money to visit him daily, 6-7.30pm, weekends included, to give him a blast of the unnamable. That’s how he’d put it and I didn’t know what it meant. The only thing I knew was this stranger’s mutter about money and the unnamable as I tried to enjoy a private stare at a really good pencil in Keswick Pencil Museum.
Then he took off his damp hat and introduced himself; both names plain.
“Excuse me,” I said, “but I don’t think so.”
“Why not?” he said, just like that.
I looked around to see if I could see any prostitutes but there was only pencils, and us two. “I don’t know if you’ve hit on lucky in here before Son, but not today.” I don’t know why I called him Son. He looked sixty and he turned out to be a year beyond. I was wearing a long skirt and flat boots and I wondered if I looked a likely one to run to the nearest alley with him for a quick unnamable seeing how I had no zips, no tiny buttons. I wondered what the unnamable was and how much you got for doing it. I wouldn’t bloody care but wasn’t it only the first day of me wearing the red lipstick I’d bought as my personal reaction to October and the dark nights coming. The woman in the store had looked at me, not even properly, and told me I needed a red with blue undertones and I took a telling though I don’t normally. “Do I look like I charge for sex?” I asked this stranger, rolling both my lips to make them rub the redness off each other. I was wearing a black tee and a grandad cardi: my gloves, hat, scarf and coat were in a bundle at my feet.
“Not at all, not at all, you look like you do it for free.”
I wanted to tell him to sod off but I was on one of my 75% days so I kept the sod inside.
“Sorry, that came out wrong,” he said, “I’m not after fucks. You’re the one who brought up fucks. Shut up about fucks.”
I didn’t even say anything then but if flabbergast could speak it’d be the puttered sound that fell out of my dropped gob.
“It’s a short novel.”
“The Unnamable. Do you fancy the position?”
“Paid, as I said.”
“I want you to read it to me.”
“Are you illiterate?” I only asked because I was sure he wasn’t and if I hadn’t been sure I’d not have said it and I only threw out this waste of a question to kill a tick while I had a swift think of my own. I needed some easy money. It was hard on the back helping people to try on waterproof footwear. I was giving higher mathematics a go at college but it was making me low, and high or low I still had to find those spends. I was sick of lust at work too but that’s private stuff. If this stranger’s offer was for real I’d be able to jack in the outdoor shop and no more early Saturday morning starts for this dire lady, no more close lust. So I asked him how much he was paying and he said would £15 an hour do? And I asked him where he lived and his house was a short hike from the Pencil Museum which is more than a quick nip from my hole but we all need to walk everyday anyway and I asked him if he had a sight issue and he said no he didn’t and that he considered himself to be the best reader in, if not the whole country, then the whole north-west, and if not the whole north-west, then definitely Cumbria.
Well haven’t we got the biggest twat here, is what I thought at that point; also, I was trying to calculate £22.50 x 7. “Why don’t you read it yourself then if you’re so good?” I said.
I didn’t understand but nobody tries to understand what they don’t want to understand and I did not want to understand because £22.50 x 7 made £157.50.
“Hang on, Son,” I said, “a short novel?”
“Well, won’t we be done in a jot?”
“When we get to the end we will go back to the beginning and start again.”
I was disappointed by this sentence. Was he singing me a song? Was this Ten Green Bottles? Ah, well, no such thing as a good number. Back to the bending and the GORE-TEX and my painful hidden feelings for Artery who worked on rucksacks and trekking poles. A divulging has just occurred. I could die of my own open flaws after a divulging. I won’t divulge a thing one of these soon-to-be days. I looked at the stranger and willed my face to say Clown Be Gone! He didn’t go. “Hoy! Son!” I said, “You’re coming between me and a pencil here.” To be fair, me and a pencil would have other days; we weren’t a one-off. I was in my 2nd home; my 1st one’s a cold hole. I’ve an annual pass for the museum; cost me a few quid but as you know, life’s too short not to make yourself happy.
“You’ll be safe with me,” he said. “I could tell you why but I fear you’ll think me a dirty old man when I’m only a man.”
“How long’s the gig?” I said. I didn’t call it work.
“As long as me,” he said. “As long as you.”
“You don’t look familiar and you probably should.”
“I don’t get out much.”
“Unless it’s to ask someone to read for you?”
“To me,” he said, “and I’ve never done it before.”
“But why meself?” I said with a bit of stress. Two can play the emphasis, Son, is what I thought.
“You’re the right person.”
“That can’t be right.”
“I knew the right person would be in the Pencil Museum. I know things like that, we all do.”
“Intuition,” I said. I moved my eyes all over his mouth, then I looked at the off-centre vertical furrow between his eyes and I thought how we are vegetables from the earth, stranger, we are more strange, but we won’t bloody have it. He had no nose hair that I could see. I went back to his mouth again. His clothes were normal. For round here. Why would he want me to read him the same book over and over? What was he? A toddler? He seemed all there; no blatant mind of a child. How much money did a man of full mind want to chuck away? “Do you know Dolly?” I asked this because everybody knows Dolly and if he lived where he said he did and was even 10% lucid he’d know Dolly.
“Of course I know Dolly,” he said. “Isn’t it terrible what happened to her terrier’s back legs?”
“Awful,” I said. “I’ll be there tomorrow, 6pm, but I will have left details regarding my whereabouts and expected time of return with my neighbour who I 92% trust.”
“Good,” he said.
“Good,” I said.
He walked away then, saying, “thank you very much and I apologise for disturbing you.”
I didn’t answer; turned pencilwards. He hadn’t disturbed me. Job already done. Presenting as normal is my daily aim. We’re lucky here because the rain helps; all those hats and scarves and hoods and an excuse to only glance and twitch a smile as we pass by at a half-run in a squall.
When he’d gone I had room to ruminate and have myself a tiny waver, then another, and then another. I wasn’t sure I should’ve accepted the gig but then I remembered how I’m never sure about anything, even after I’ve done it. Some people are sure people; I’m not. Sure can turn into a ruse, a user. I bimble about in a confused and anxious state; it’s the only way I’ve got of feeling nearly real to myself. In some ways I have to be a daily fake. Like any day, for instance, if I dressed to show my true self I’d have to wear my wardrobe. Not only the big wooden thing itself but everything inside it too. That’s what I feel I’d have to do to get some place even close to expressing myself truthfully. I’d have to be a multi-coloured, multi-textured garment onion carrying its own coffin on its back and that would be daft labour but who can feel fully expressed trotting along in only one or two layers and without the coffin burden?
The stranger had ruined one of my pure moments. That’s what I’d been having with the pencil when he’d approached. I hadn’t been aware of being in a pure moment until he’d muttered me into a normal moment and I can play one of those any time so he’d been lucky he hadn’t got the sod off but on that day my belief in God was around the 75% mark and I tend to lay off the swears on any day that’s over half way. That day was one of my days when I can really feel God being my viewer. On those sorts of days I try to keep myself to myself more than ever. I’ve a pebble in most of my pockets. To a pebble, a person is just a mouth with stuff around it and nothing a mouth can say can touch a pebble. I could be a pebble yet. I let myself down in every conversation. I don’t want God to view such failure. Chatting never gives me time to sort out my real thoughts. My mind is still thinking about what the person has said but they will stare at my mouth, avid for response, so I end up putting out any old shit, known rhythms and patterns to match their day.
That’s why I love the Pencil Museum. Pencils are cool. Pencils wait. I could compliment a pencil all day long but a pencil doesn’t need that shite.
My sharp point: You don’t need an actual beating heart.
I was on a next-to-nothing-percent day when I entered his place so I was getting away from the noisy sky—it was clattering rain down on me—not the noisy sky and God’s stare so I was being all gung ho, you know, like doing one cocky thigh clap and then plonking myself down, pulling off my boots and curling my welly socks up under my bum, saying, “alls you needs warm and dry,” as I wobbled my head around his front room with a chimp face on me. The place was clean enough so I took a tea and something out of his biscuit tin. The armchairs were old worn soft things facing the fire. Everything was presenting as normal. He hadn’t answered the door flying low with the tip of his willy sticking out. Normal house, normal smells, normal biscuit tin. The Unnamable was on a little stool. I did two coughs to rev up my throat, ready to floor him with my enunciation.
I was waiting for him to suggest I do it in the nude, or at least topless, but he never and I wouldn’t have.
I picked up the book; paperback, the cover design was a bluey-green maze or a face, big red clown nose or a knob (doorknob) in the middle of it; I liked it. The book, in some past time, had cost $1.45 brand new and afar but now it was here in Keswick in the autumn of 2016 and worth I knew not what. He told me to take it slow, so I did. On a corner of the inside was a pencilled 75p with a black felt tip line through it. Lower, was a black felt tip 30p. It’d bled.
I began to read.
“I’m not deaf,” he said.
“You’re a bit rude though, Son,” I said, but I lowered my voice. I carried on, and on, and on. Oh, it was wonderful. I hadn’t been expecting it. Not so much what I was reading. I didn’t know what I was reading. Someone else’s mind. This Samuel Beckett was a lad. Presenting as normal could kiss his arse! This was a gig. This was a gig. And what a carriage we made. Meself one buckled wheel, Son the other, Beckett the horse. On and on and on we rattled on. The wonderful thing mostly was the sound. The sound in the middle of us. The silence around the sound. Each word I spoke fattened the sound until it was like we could’ve reached out and found it, gripped it, felt something. The good and fat arse of the sound warmed by the fire. It was lovely. I couldn’t take money for this. This wasn’t money stuff. I knew I’d have to keep my job on at the outdoor shop. I would have to keep being a salted snail every time I was near Artery. I would have to keep reading to this man. I would have to keep reading this man. I would have to keep reading to this man this man. I heard my heart. Lub dup, ba bum. It might have been happiness, or contentment, or peace, or safety, I really don’t know, so I should say it was something that meant something and then I might be as true as I can be. I’d like to say I have found a real home but that’d sound like a joke, even to me, and I’m the one who knows. Just like that. Me in this good place with Father Sound and Stranger Son.
the end. no end. yes end. shut up.
Shauna Mackay lives in Northumberland, UK. She is the 2016 Seán Ó Faoláin short story competition winner. She is a winner of the National Octagon Prize and her monologue will be performed at The Octagon Theatre, Bolton, as part of their First Words season in June/July 2017.