Published in blAEkk vol. 3 – ‘Solitude’, on 15 Dec 2016
You make it three, maybe even four minutes before anybody sees what you’re doing.
The first person to notice is a man with a laptop two tables away. He’s been busy with his screen and his coffee, but then he lifts his head to ponder something, and that’s when his eyes meet yours. The man has a grown-out crew cut, hipster glasses and an upright, swimmer’s physique. He’s young but not adolescently so; you figure he’s been around and seen a few things in his time. But nothing like this. As soon as your eyes meet – as soon as he comprehends what you’re doing – the man looks quickly down again, not so much at as through his screen. Inside of three seconds he’s downed his coffee and clapped closed his computer and is making hastily for the exit.
You watch him go. You keep doing what you’re doing.
It’s mid-afternoon on a weekday and the gallery’s cafe is not especially busy. At the top of the room a male staff member goes around tidying tables without much urgency. Another two employees, both female, stand near the counter, chatting while they press buttons on monitors or file away wine glasses that they handle, with care, by the stems. Your table is located in the cafe’s south-west corner. Your back is to the wall and you are facing the room. None of the staff and none of the cafe’s few customers is paying any attention over here, where you’re doing what you’re doing. Halfway down the room’s west wall is a large standing plant; if there’s anyone at the table beyond it, you can’t see them. Not that it matters. The cafe’s exit is directly opposite you, in the north-east corner. The cafe’s eastern wall is made of an apple-green frosted glass. A class of teenagers is led in from the foyer by their teacher and down the corridor, past the frosted glass. You take all this in. You continue to do what you are doing. You notice yourself make a brief noise, but nobody hears it.
Another minute passes before you are seen for a second, more consequential time. Two ladies, one in her middle years and the other what you assume to be her mother, have brought a tray to the table recently vacated by the alarmed hipster. You continue with what you’re doing. The ladies pour and enjoy their tea. Briefly you think of your own mother. You make a new noise, louder than the last, and of a slightly different nature: earlier it was a kind of persistent phutting, whereas now it’s more of a sustained, high whine.
Against expectation, it’s the older lady who has the keener hearing. With elderly difficulty she turns side-on to see where the sound is coming from. There’s a certain quality in the old woman’s face that you find sympathetic: something mildly bohemian, ’68-ish. The old woman looks your way and squints, but the scepticism in her eyes lifts when she understands what you’re doing, and you could swear you detect the beginnings of a knowing smirk in her expression as she taps her daughter’s arm then points a big-knuckled finger in your direction, but the smile is cut short when the daughter sees what her dear old mum is drawing her attention to and makes a high, shrieking sound of her own, confirming in the process that she does not share the older lady’s progressive outlook.
So, here we are. This is how it’s going to go. Fair enough. There wouldn’t be much point stopping now, even if you wanted to. So you keep doing what you’re doing.
It would be a grave understatement to say that the daughter is displeased with your behaviour. She yells something, some declaration of alarm and disgust that you can’t make sense of over the whine that you yourself are still producing – and now everyone’s looking your way. In unison the two female staff members yelp and cover their mouths, shocked; then one of them breaks into a kind of appalled laughter, while the other screws up her face and makes straight for the kitchen, wanting nothing to do with this.
There are five diners in the cafe, including the woman and her elderly mother. You verify this by counting them as they hurry towards the exit at the top of the room. The elderly lady offers a quick, comradely nod as she’s dragged away by her matronly child. The scandalised but amused waitress takes out her phone and starts snapping photos of you. This neither pleases nor displeases you: pleasure is not the point. You would be doing what you’re doing either way.
The male waiter, the one who’d been doing the rounds with the cloth, stands where he is, looking nervous. He knows he’s the one who’s going to have to deal with this. Tentatively he crosses the room, twisting his hands into his cloth. The waiter approaches with his eyes to the floor, as if you were a dangerous animal that he doesn’t want to antagonise – although you know it’s really just because he doesn’t want to look at what you’re doing. You increase the intensity of your activity. The waiter takes a step back, then moves closer again, but even more tentatively. He holds the limp cloth in front of his body, like it has some power to protect him.
Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave, he says. Now. Right now.
You continue as you were. You cock an ear to check if you are still emitting the high-pitched noise. You are. It gets louder.
Sir, I’m serious, says the waiter. You have always found this bizarre, this being referred to as sir at times when the last thing its speaker feels for you is respect. It’s hypocritical, and it only makes you want to speed up, to spite him. So that’s what you do.
Please, says the waiter. This is a public place. People come here to eat.
You cup a hand to your ear, indicating that you did not catch what the guy just said over the sound you are making. The waiter turns and looks pleadingly towards his colleague, who is by now bent over and thumping the counter, in gales of laughter. The waiter makes a gesture of helplessness. His colleague shrugs back. I don’t know, she mouths. I can’t even…
Almost your entire body, save for the ear-cupping hand, is now fully engaged what you’re doing. Inspired, you wonder if it’s possible to involve your face in some way. It must be. You turn your ear-cupping palm flat against the side of your head and begin to push it in the direction of the rest of your body’s activity. The high whine does not stop and hardly falters during your endeavour, which you find quite remarkable, in the circumstances. Your eyes have been on the waiter all along. You keep looking at him as your face moves to where your hand is pushing it.
The waiter already looked pale, but now he loses another shade of colour.
Oh Jesus Christ, he says, and you could almost feel for him until some internal tide seems to change and his expression hardens and you’re disappointed to see him become just like everybody else in the world and he says he doesn’t get paid enough to put up with this – as if he thinks you have anything to do with the free-market systems that determine his income anyway – and he backs away, screaming insults as he goes. Loser. Weirdo. Loner. All the classics.
You watch him exit through the kitchen. He’s followed swiftly by his co-worker, who still seems to find this all very funny but who isn’t about to be left alone with you as ever more energetically you move, shape, peel, contort. Your vision blurs with the vigour of your activity. That’s new. Your wallet and other personal effects fall from the table. You let them go.
The waiter’s words strike you as rude and unnecessary, albeit unsurprising. You have always been alone, misunderstood; but true pioneers usually are. You’re considering the most respectable way to phrase a written complaint to the gallery’s management when you’re distracted by something – a sound, high-pitched and insistent, much like your own but more of a squeal than a whine. Your face’s angle is such that you can’t see the source of the noise, but you understand that it’s coming from over to your left, roughly where the large standing plant is located. So you haven’t quite emptied the room after all; you aren’t alone.
With some effort you reorient yourself. Halfway down the adjacent wall, a person steps out from the table obscured by the potted plant. A woman.
There’s no question that she is the source of the secondary noise. Over your whine and the woman’s squealing you can just about hear a gossipy murmur as punters begin to gather outside the café, drawn by the commotion of the panicked, escaping diners and the tannoy’s request for the assistance of a member of security staff. But it’s not the hysteria that makes you slow down what you’re doing, nor the familiar anticipation of burly hands dragging you out into the street and throwing you down, maybe even spitting on you, like that time at the Proms; it’s the woman and her behaviour.
The woman is copying what you’ve been doing, or at least performing her own version of it. Your vision clears as your activity slows and your body kind of unfolds and your face returns to its normal position. The woman’s smiling at you. The sense of it is not at all maniacal but in fact rather friendly as she emits her excited squeals and mimics the gestures you yourself were recently making. Shaking, pulling, spreading, adjusting, pushing, reconfiguring. She seems to believe this will be pleasing to you, but it’s not pleasing, not at all. It repulses and frightens you – not the behaviour but the woman’s obvious ignorance of what the behaviour signifies. It was all right when you were doing this. When you did it, it was harmless – not a grotesque, diabolical act but the mere appearance of one. Not quite a parody but certainly a commentary. You were bravely exploring, pushing boundaries, and in the disgust you caused you were forcing your audience to explore and question their own mores, and if they were not able see that now then one day, one day…
But there’s no such power behind this woman’s performance. There’s no higher ideal at stake, no governing intellect at play. Look at her, all dowdy forty-odd years of her, with cake crumbs on her blouse, doing what she’s doing, her eyes glazed and moronic and her intentions utterly, vulgarly sincere as she doesn’t just do what she’s doing but seems to be enjoying it for its own sake. This… this is wrong, all wrong. You wish you had the moral strength to confront this horrendous smiling woman, but you don’t. You can only gather your things from the floor as quickly as possible. You stand, close your coat around you and what you’ve been doing, and you back away to the door, just as the male waiter had, yelling the same class of insults that he had used on you. As you exit you fall relieved into the path of the arriving security guard, who asks you if you’re okay, sir. You’re pleased to say you are. Gently the man guides you to one side, encouraging you into the growing crowd of onlookers. You gladly join them – the safety of their physical company, their moral comradeship. The security guy makes to enter the café, but he stops at the threshold when he sees what the woman is doing and makes a kind of nauseated gulp. My god, he says. What is wrong with people.