White Cardboard Boxes (an extract)
Syllables are hard and round in my mouth but my self is a shape without edges. Sentences have speech marks and indentations, so I always know the difference between speaking and thinking. There are full stops and commas, so I always know the right time to pause for 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 and 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. My life is always shifting and I cannot hold onto it. Everything is happening too fast and there are so many important things to think about. I cannot be categorized in the way that language can.
I am trying to get close to the raw underneath. I am trying to speak through other forms. I am trying in colour. The first colour is red.
Red is deep and close and hot. Red is the smell in my mother’s skin when she is warm and new from the shower. Red is sour and bitter; the uncertain close 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 depth and difficulties and cannot be forgotten. Red is everlasting, in scar tissue and bloodstains. Red is the soft centre 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 whisked 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; even me. 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 bloodstains. He always got up halfway through the meal to go to the toilet.
‘Fast metabolism.’ He declared, 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 her mother pulled leaflets and boxes with bold-printed labels from her handbag, marveling at the speed I read out the words.
‘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 in the hollow of her mam’s back in a way that was unfamiliar to me. The taste in my mouth, hot and saline when blood dripped onto the tablecloth and I watched crimson 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 centre of daffodils and sun pulsing onto hot 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 own vocabulary and we spoke a secret syntax of mistakes and mispronunciations that didn’t make sense to anyone but us.
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 and 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 own conversations. His words became a way of weaving a secret world around us that other people could not penetrate; cosy and warm. Rules can give shape to the amorphous, but a fixed shape is not always what we need.
This is an extract from the beginning of a longer essay.