In place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art.
(Susan Sontag, 1964)
Lisa moved to the cottage to write her novel. What she needed was isolation, from everything except for Mick, who was her muse. They found a place near where he grew up and rented it for three months using the money from her artist’s grant.
The cottage was at the main road end of an unmarked lane. It had none of the charm that the term connotes: it was not rustic or idyllic or even quaint. A quarter-acre, a tailor’s cottage, attached at one side to its vacant mirror image. Small windows and a sour lemon finish dobbed thickly over pebbled walls. Adobe-coloured roof slates that aspired to charm but failed to elevate the place beyond its bleak vision of hurried post-war accommodation.
She loved the way they fucked. On their first date, almost a year before they left the city, they spent a long time talking about sex. She asked him if he was sure he wasn’t gay. Who can be sure of anything when it comes to sex? he replied. He had shared some very pleasant moments with men, he said, but he was overwhelmingly attracted to strong women. Strong, dominant women.
She had never dominated a man before, which was part of why she found it so hot. Another part was how refreshing it was to be dating a man who did not seem to want to possess her. Her pleasure was important to him, and the use of toys was so fervently embraced that their orgasm ratio was never far from parity.
At first it was just journaling. A record of the sense engaged. That grew into scenes, fun ones that she delighted in writing in her notebook. She typed them up and sent them to her agent Dana anyway, who replied simply, Gulp! Fun, but where’s the story?
Dana was right. Without structure, without conflict, there is no story.
In January 2020, they moved to the cottage.
Eighteen months later, Lisa wakes to the sound of the dogs. She rushes to the kitchen before she remembers they are gone. She sits in their empty bed and picks red hairs, rolling them between finger and thumb. When her throat begins to itch she gets up.
She makes coffee and returns to the bedroom to sit at her desk in the grey light from the west window. Other than the turf-carved sheela na gig, the walls are bare. She writes down the details of her dream, the same one that has recurred all spring. An Arctic Circle submarine expedition. Everything froze as she woke, duvet adrift on the floor. She tries to write some lines of poetry about the coldest spring in living memory, but her laptop is open before her. When it chimes, Lisa cannot resist.
She taps down through the list of e-mails, popping spammy blue dots until she settles on something real. A ‘friendly reminder’ from her publisher, into which her agent has been copied. She still hasn’t shared the launch stream on her social media.
Everything was fine until the book launch. Or was it? Lisa isn’t sure. She opens Twitter and spends an hour scrolling. Mick has been tweeting ancient Greece again. His timeline is a teleprompter of unintelligible dialogue. Telemachus this and Tiresias that. Zeus knows what he’s on about. None of it seems to be about her.
In the end she was not kind about his lockdown poetry project. Would it not be easier to just automate a daily tweet? she had asked. ‘I studied Classics at Trinity, smiley face’.
I hope you feel good about yourself, he said. I hope this makes you happy. I hope you sell lots and lots of books. I hope you get a big feature in the Sunday magazines, with a picture of you in front of some sheep on a hill. I hope it was worth it, because I will never forgive you for this, you fucking vampire.
This was around the time the last Stuebens met its end against the kitchen wall. Isobel did a frightened lap and then cried all night, and the shard in her paw was Lisa’s fault, and she was a fucking psycho to boot. In the morning he put Isobel and Arturo in the boot of the car, drove to the vets, did not return to the cottage. All this because she had to read it in front of him.
Spring’s frail ego is a brittle twig. Lisa frowns at the one line she has written. It is surely an autumnal image. She scribbles out ‘brittle’ and replaces it with ‘bitter’. That’s even worse, she decides, ripping the page from the pad. She can’t get close to the words. She gets up and throws an airless black scarf around herself and steps out into single digit May. A walk, she decides, to explore her detachment.
A blue-grey mass of furry electricity bolts ahead of Lisa. It stops at the end of the garden and looks back at her briefly. The neighbour’s cat, tentatively reclaiming its favourite sun traps now the dogs have departed. Lisa crouches and makes kissing noises but the cat slips into the hedge.
On the road it is sunny but there is no heat in the air. The polar vortex collapse has made another modern lottery of spring. Lisa is still thinking about the launch. The reading. What a nightmare. Not a total disaster, she supposes. The online event was fairly well attended, and people were still retweeting the clip of her slapping down the host. She has re-watched it several times.
She had met him before, at events like this one, when they took place in person. A standard issue insider, more parasite than host. He bounced between educational institutions, publications and festivals, without ever seeming to publish anything of merit of his own. She has no idea how he even got his hands on a proof. When the publisher put his name forward him she almost called Dana to see if she could say no.
These two main characters are so wonderfully complicated, he says at the start of the video. And the voice of the first person narrative is so authentically flawed. I can’t help but wonder to what extent this story was influenced by your own life experience?
You know, Lisa replies, her expression and tone of voice flat, it’s funny. I am a huge fan of Vladimir Nabokov, and I love going back to read old interviews with him. Especially the ones after he published Lolita. That ‘wonderfully complicated’ work. She makes quotation marks in the air. Do you think he was asked that question?
The screen flips back to the man holding his hands in the air. I admit that it is something of a naughty question, he says, but it is one that is often asked about this type of novel. And given that you moved to a cottage in the country with your partner just before the lockdown began, there are certain obvious par—
When you say this type of novel, do you mean first person narratives? Or do you mean debut novels written by women?
There is a moment’s silence before the host laughs. It’s not clear if he is trying to smooth over the awkwardness of the moment or simply oblivious to it. Well, fair enough, he says. You won’t be drawn, then?
No, she says. On the screen, her chest rises and falls. But I will say that I did expect to be asked this question. And you can rest assured, Dave, that when I get around to writing my memoir, I will make sure that my publishers market it accordingly.
When she smells seaweed Lisa realises that she has walked all the way to the stream without noticing a single thing along the way. Bad practice. She needs to find a way to tell stories again. Noticing the details of life was always a good way in for her. She is not sure how to get back to that place, or where else to go. Set-up, conflict, resolution: it is all meaningless. Scaffolding in sandy desert. A roundabout at the bottom of the ocean. In the wrong context, the most fundamental of structures become absurdities.
A hundred feet beyond the bridge that smells like seaweed, there is a gravel path. It turns off to the right and runs parallel to the stream under ancient trees, sectioning off a waterlogged field of rushes that rolls steeply down to the bank. At the end of the trees, the path forks. Left leads up onto the crest of the fields, a tractor path between thick grasses arriving at a tremendous view of the south-east Ulster valley, the brooding silhouette of the Mournes and even Loch Neagh’s glistening mirage on a clear day.
Lisa goes left, instead, down to the brook that passes under the path to meet the stream at perpends. She removes her socks and shoes and puts her feet in the water. As if on a string, a yellow-green bar of soap makes a circle before her and lands on a purplish bramble that rainbows the thicket. Not soap, but a siskin. The realisation sends a physical, descendant electric shock through her brain. The bird, startled, flees.
On a dim February afternoon, Lisa and Mick were folded into each other on the sofa. Someone must have been lying on the remote control because the news woke them up.
Does this mean we have to stop smoking?
Nah, Lisa replied. Fuck that. Smoking’s training as far as a respiratory virus goes. Turn over, will you. Her eyes closed again.
The coffee table before them buzzed and Mick reached over her to reveal a phone screen. Oh, he said. It’s yours. He lay back where he was, but not quite. Instead of holding her belly, his arm strayed by his side.
Who’s it from?
She’s asking how’s Peggy.
Hmm. Lisa was no longer lucid.
Mick got up and boiled the kettle. He paced between the kitchenette and the living area. He made tea in a keep cup, put on warm clothes, and left the cottage. When he got back Lisa was sitting up on the sofa watching a film, a glass of wine in hand.
Where’d you disappear off to?
Mick sat down on the other sofa. Who is Peggy?
Doz texted you asking how Peggy is, with the cheeky emoji. You know, like, a winky P.
A winky P?
Is Peggy my nickname? Is that what you call me to your friends?
Lisa’s forehead creased and her nostrils flared.
I knew it, he said. You’ve just been taking the piss out of me this whole time.
What are you talking about? No I haven’t. You don’t understand—
No, no, you don’t understand. How hurtful that is. I thought this relationship was special to you too, but once my back is turned you’re off laughing with your mates about what a little sub your boyfriend is. Is that it? Can you imagine if I did the same to you? The tantrum into which he had stomped himself went on for a long time, in the same tone of sanctimony and hurt. After the fact, Lisa wished she remembered more of it, but it was good that he went on for as long as he did, because by the time he had finished speaking she had thought of something to say.
Peggy is my niece.
Peggy is Conor’s daughter. My brother who lives in New Zealand? Doz met her last year when they came home for Christmas. She’s completely obsessed with little Peg, she’s always asking me to send photos of her.
Peggy is your niece?
She nodded earnestly, eyebrows raised, lips together. Mick put his hands to his face, laughed a couple of times through his nose, before crumpling into a profound, ugly cry. It’s just that I’m a really private person, he said, between sobs. The idea of people knowing such intimate details of my life makes me feel incredibly vulnerable. I don’t know why. I’m so sorry for accusing you like that, I just got in my head. I’m so so sorry.
When she gets home from her walk, Lisa goes straight to bed and masturbates with her Hitachi. She comes three times and then is hungry. It is nice, now that she is living alone again, to have these uncomplicated orgasms, although it sometimes feels odd, masturbating in the bed where sex lived and died.
The first night in that bed, it was still prosperous. The landlord met them at the front door with the keys. His name was Cromwell. Once inside, they made grim jokes about what would happen if they were late on rent. When they went to bed, she bounced on top of him until she came and then they swapped.
They were only supposed to stay until the start of April, but there was nothing to do and nowhere to go, so they extended the lease. They extended again and again, bringing vast distances into their little cottage.
She remembers the decision to withhold. Before, in the city, she had involved him in workshopping some stories, but she didn’t share any of her writing anymore. When he walked through the background, she changed tabs. She wrote an entire novel; silently, frantically. If he asked how the writing was going, she made non-specific noises. She couldn’t, or wouldn’t, talk to him about it. She didn’t even tell him when, seven weeks after sending the draft to her agent, the book was sold.
She makes porridge on the gas stove and eats it with raspberry jam. After she eats, she checks her phone and sees nine missed calls. It starts to vibrate again in her hand. She hesitates, and then answers.
I need you to come over. Isobel is dying.
She got into a bag of onions — a whimper, followed by sobbing inhalation — I was in the shower, I didn’t know — another — she’s throwing up white foam and there’s blood coming from… Oh god, Lisa—
They’re toxic to dogs, mum didn’t know, she left them on the utility room floor, I think she ate three…
It’s okay, Mick, don’t worry. It’s going to be alright. Did you call the vet?
She says there’s nothing to be done, it was yesterday when she ate them but I didn’t know it was poisonous… it’s too late. His voice breaks again. Can you please just come over?
Looking at her watch, Lisa allows a long sigh to escape through her nose. Ten minutes later she is stepping out of the shower. Lisa is putting on trainers, grabbing her keys and getting in the car. She joins the main road and is immediately stuck behind a tractor hauling a red slurry tanker with a shitty ass.
They arrived in late September.
Surprise! Happy birthday, love. Mick bundled into the kitchen carrying a large cardboard box. Two brown snouts protrude over the edge.
They’re Irish red setters. Phil Marsden’s bitch had a litter of seven. You wouldn’t believe the prices people are charging for dogs since the lockdown.
You bought two puppies.
Isn’t it great? he beamed at her. I thought if we got two they wouldn’t be lonely if we need to leave them alone. Sure the way things are going, we may never get out of this lockdown. Won’t it be great to have a bit of company. What’s wrong? I thought you loved dogs.
I said I’m more of a dog person than a cat, she replied. But I’m fairly allergic to both.
That’s the best part: Phil says they are hypoallergenic dogs! No allergies whatsoever. It’s been bred out of them or something. Go on, pick one up. Aren’t they gorgeous?
No discussion. No forewarning. Not even a heavy-handed hint to lay the foundation. She should have sent him straight back to Phil Marsden.
So they’re brother and sister? Lisa said.
Isn’t that a problem?
Mick thought about this, then said, Oooh. That’s what he meant. Shit, yea, I suppose it is a problem. Or it will be, whenever she goes into heat.
We’ll have to get him fixed, Lisa said.
Mick looked at her. Yea. I suppose we will.
She lifted one of the puppies and held it on her lap, where it curled up, head between hind legs, and fell asleep. She looked at Mick. Can I name them?
They drank prosecco and cuddled their new charges, and Lisa thought that maybe it could be a turning point for them. Later, in bed, they tried to have sex. The next morning Lisa woke up with a hangover and a hairy clump in the back of her throat that no amount of cetirizine or loratadine could release.
A scratchy bubble at the base of her throat. Small, but it refused to be ignored. Every morning, Lisa sat down to write and searched for thoughts beyond the close scratchy trap between her teeth and lungs. Nothing. The only passages she managed to write in these weeks were descriptions of the allergic sensations, but even on this subject she struggled for magniloquence. It drove her to tears trying to come up with a word other than barking to describe it.
If Mick was not oblivious to Lisa’s suffering, he had his own narrative for it. After six weeks of doggy parenthood, they had this conversation in bed.
Are you alright?
Yea, I’m fine, why?
You just, I heard you coughing. And you seem a bit — tired.
A pause, to simmer. Yea, I’m just tired, she said. And the dark evenings coming in, you know.
For sure. But you don’t feel warm or anything, do you?
As in, no fever. Is your sense of taste and smell all good? It might be worth getting a test, just to be sure, you know. They say that with a new cough…
Mick trailed off, Lisa said nothing. If he wasn’t going to acknowledge it then neither was she. I’ll be fine, she said. I’m not sick. Night.
A tunnel into winter; darker and darker. While she tried to write in the mornings, he played with them, loudly, in the other room. Meanwhile she sat at her desk and thought about adding small amounts of bleach to their dinner. Or she could lead them down to the main road where the lorries scream past at sixty mile an hour. Drown them in the tub when Mick was out. Such murderous fantasies became the only creative thoughts she was capable of, but they horrified her and she couldn’t write them down. She couldn’t write anything. She resigned herself to her destiny: a uninovelist, never to write again.
Sleep was the only escape. She napped in the afternoon instead of reading. Mick talked about resilience to the challenges of lockdown. All that they could do was cope, and she was doing so well. They both were. She grimaced, lips gripping teeth, and said, I know.
One evening in late November, Mick suggested they bring the dogs into the bedroom at night.
Are you serious?
They could sleep at the bottom of the bed. It’d be so cute, no?
Are you actually serious?
She’d have left that night had she somewhere to go. Instead, she threw clothes into a bag and told him to take his fucking dogs and go stay with his mother.
Without structure, memory is invalid. How bizarre that she allowed him to stay for so many months after that night. How bizarre that, in the end, he left her.
The red slurry tanker displays its profile to Lisa — patchy manure all along the underside — as it is lead off the main road by the tractor. The road ahead of her is clear, now, but she continues to dawdle at thirty.
Hypoallergenic me bleeding hole, she says out loud, like she’s rehearsing for a role in a Roddy Doyle adaptation. Lisa is laughing at her own joke.
A bolt to the hip but the safety belt seizes her in place. She takes the phone from her pocket and glances at the screen – Where are you? – before flinging it into the back seat. When she gets home this evening, the first thing she will do is post the link to the book launch on her social media accounts. A necessary evil. She tried to organise it for an evening when Mick would be out, but his mother had a possible contact in the pharmacy and was forced to cancel their weekly dinner. She didn’t see a way she could do it without telling him about it.
It’s being launched tonight? Already? I thought you said it was still in final revisions?
It was, she lied, but the publishers are trying to push it through. Apparently debut novels have to come out in the spring for some reason.
So it’s out now?
I don’t know, she lied again. I don’t think it’s out out. In the bookshops, I mean. Not yet. I think it’ll be on the shelves next week.
He asked her again if he could read it and she told him the same thing she had been telling him for the best part of a year. It was the product of her labour and if he wanted to read it he could buy it in the shops like everyone else.
What if I just give you a tenner now and you send me the pdf in an e-mail?
She smiled and shook her head. I need to prepare for this event.
He lurked in the living room all evening. A few minutes before the event started, she decided to put on her massive headphones, which looked ridiculous, only to discover that the microphone didn’t work. At the last minute, she bailed into the bedroom and set the laptop on her writing desk, but the lighting was dreadful, so she hurried back into the sitting room and sat back down on the sofa in front of the book shelf.
Instead of introducing her using the bio she had provided, the host started the event by asking Lisa to read an extract from the novel. She retrieved her copy from its hiding place under her thigh and looked up to see Mick watching her from the other sofa.
She began to read: Sometimes when she is inside of Adrian, Sarah has impossible sensations. Sometimes, when she lies on her back and he carefully slides on, when he is bouncing in vajrasana, it starts to feel like the silicon has come to life, that she is connected to it not just by firmly clasped straps but by a parasympathetic system of nerves. She thrusts with her pelvis and non-existent nerve endings tell her stories about the contours of his yearning, stories as real as her hands on his thighs, his hands holding her—
Pardon me Lisa, I am terribly sorry to interrupt you there, I should have said before. I was really hoping you would read from the scene that begins on page ninety-three – that devastating little chapter. Truly, one of the best passages I have read all year. Would that be alright?
Flustered, apologising, and annoyed at herself for doing so all at once, Lisa flicked forward. When she found the page her eyes widened.
She swallowed her resignation and looked up to meet Mick’s gaze once more. Putting her hand over the webcam for a moment, Lisa mouthed, I’m sorry.
Perhaps you could also give the audience some context for the passage?
Sure, she said to the laptop. She spoke quickly, her words tumbling. So, this is a novel about a relationship, and that’s between Sarah and Adrian, and the story starts off with them having a lot of sex, as you’ve just heard, but, well — and I don’t think I’ll be giving to much away if I tell you this is also a lockdown novel, because this chapter I’m about to read from is where things start to get tricky. Okay. You know what, I’m just going to read. The title of the chapter is ‘How’s Peggy?’.
After the event was over, the book felt lighter in her hands. She handed it to Mick and said, sorry for making you wait so long to read it.
Lisa is passing a filling station at the edge of the town. In a few minutes, she will arrive at her destination. She wonders if it will hurt. Three days after the launch, Lisa was curled up on the sofa reading the short story in an old copy of the New Yorker. Mick lowered himself onto the other sofa. I finished it, he said. He was looking at her, but when she met his gaze his eyes darted to the floor.
What did you think?
I think, he said, that I’d be willing to forgive you if you were willing to apologise.
Lisa remembers the unseasonably short shorts Mick was wearing, the breeze through the open window, the coarse warmth of the woollen blanket she was wrapped in. The tiredness she felt, so sudden and overwhelming. Apologise for what?
No matter. Without structure, memory is invalid. Lisa is parking the car. She pulls up the handbrake, gets out of the car. She is hurrying towards the front door, strapping on a cotton face mask as she goes. The glass panel is sliding open for her. She apologises for being late. That’s fine, you can go on ahead through. Inside, a cheerful woman is wearing a clear plastic face shield over a disposable blue medical mask, and a disposable blue sanitary gown over her clothes. It seems excessive, but no matter. In a few seconds it is over.
I’m a free woman now, Lisa says. She means it.
That’s it, the cheerful woman replies. Well, sort of. You’ll have to come back in ten weeks for your second dose.
Lisa is smiling back at the woman. That’s true.
But the pubs are open next week, the woman adds.
Get away. Lisa is looking through the plastic screen at hazel eyes. Will we go for a drink?