Sunday, 29 March 2009

Public Writing

A story opens at the nape of Alec’s neck. It winds its way across the skullish hump of his shoulder down into the soft cleft beneath his arm. In the morning light, beside him in the bed, I sometimes study it. I trace the unfamiliar words as they weave themselves between follicles. Commas sprout unsuspecting hairs. I try to make sense of the story as it grows across his body, but the words – some of the letters in fact – are unfamiliar to me.

Some people conceive of themselves as a unitary part of a greater being: Alec is experimenting with public writing. Earlier today, in a second-hand bookshop, he encountered a well-thumbed architectural guide to the smaller churches of Zürich. It was a surprising find. Two aisles away, I was attempting to justify the purchase of a seven-volume edition of Burke’s essays, but I heard his exclamation through the shelves. He had found amid the swart, sanserif text pressed out in two dense columns, large black and white photographs of places he had known. Until that moment, he had not realised he had ever visited Zürich.

Sitting, as he is, in the café with his laptop; Alec has become the thing that disgusts him most. Sitting at one of the tight, red tables, vaulting inwardly out, fingers to the keys he is proclaiming he has some purpose in the world. Some point of being that is not only reasoned, but addressed. By sitting here, Alec is declaring himself. He is an object: a spectacle. Though nobody can read what it is he writes, he feels a certain guilt in this act. Like the words hidden beneath his t-shirt upon his body, he feels the admonishment of eyes both seen and unseen. Mainly they are unseen eyes. For those about him in the coffee shop do not look at Alec. He is just another person at a laptop. Alec is just another one of those guys.

One of those churches – he wishes now that he had bought the guide – one of those churches in the book, he had stumbled upon quite by chance whilst looking for the house where Joyce had lived while writing Ulysses. He remembered that now. There had been a museum in the house. A museum, or a library, and he had not gone in because it had been raining. Or it was closed on Mondays. Something like that.

He had gone inside the church, however. It had been obscured from the street by a high privet hedge, the dark leaves glistened – that was right, it had been raining – and he had entered and sat in one of the rows of pale wooden seats; dining chairs, really. He had sat there for an hour while he made up his mind what to do.

The difficulty, Alec tells me, is that there are not enough places where one can sit. As a rule he has an objection to cafés. He sees the requirement of buying a coffee as a tax upon solitude. Churches are as bad, he says. In this country, churches are mostly closed, or the larger ones request a donation. Out of guilt – or politeness I suggest, though Alec argues that politeness is a symptom of guilt – he estimates that he has spent over £100 this year in visiting the major English cathedrals alone. This is despite not having any firm conviction or interest in faith.

Churches have another disadvantage, Alec says. He has noticed a tendency for the staff in churches to come and speak to him. “Where are you from?” they sometimes ask. “Have you come far?” The subtext is Christ, though they have a guilt – a politeness – about raising that too. Sometimes they tell him about the history of the building. I know all this, Alec thinks. Alec wishes they would leave him alone.

Cafés have the advantage in this. The staff in cafés rarely speak to him. They have little interest in making him feel welcome because, solitary drinker that he is, they are generally anxious for Alec to leave. He takes up too many seats; he claims a table for himself; and he never buys more than one coffee. He cannot afford to. He usually cannot afford the first coffee alone.

There are also libraries. Alec is not sure about libraries. To look at him on paper, he is a man designed for the public library system. He is predestined to grow into the thick, bottle-bottom bifocals of the reader in Periodicals. He should, were the world as he imagined it, be happy amongst all those books. He should fit in with the dispossessed that congregate there. He could grow old with a creased lending card in his wallet and die knowing the furtive pleasure in keeping books overdue from beyond the grave. Only Alec is not sure about libraries. They have the advantage of being free. Their staff is generally unobtrusive. Only libraries suggest a purpose. Libraries are there to be consulted. You go to a library, Alec says, in order to consult books. He has no need for books right now. Books stop Alec from writing. The exposure to books make Alec realise the world of things that he should be writing, the duty to the wider subject, the great expansive fullness of the world; and they make him realise his own diminutive stature: an ant attempting to write the universe. If he writes in libraries, he feels guilty that people will see him doing this. They will see him ignoring the world. His back turned bluntly upon all those Roman histories, snubbing everything else for his own ends.

In libraries he finds himself contriving excuses for his presence. He finds himself constructing alternate narratives for being there. Should anyone ask – which certainly they would never do – he likes to have reserved some alibi for why he is there in the public library. “I am just working on…” he is ready to say.

Alec has never got to grips with his local library. He has never fully worked out where things are, or established where likeminded people – for surely there are others like him – go to sit. He has wandered around reading the bright yellow labels sellotaped to shelves, and he has read them off – local government, business studies, law – and he has known them all to be inapplicable to him. The only place Alec has found to work in the library, the only reasonable place where his presence would not have been too obtrusive, his alibi not seemed too false, has been amid the Marxist criticism, for the desks there are large and the subject is reasonably within his ken. At the library he sits, with three books chosen by weight from the shelves, one of them propped open, passively ignoring the contents; and this, this might seem a suitable place for Alec in the world. It’s not where he is, but this, one might think, would be a habitat he might fit into. Only the section is walled on one side by plate glass, etched with the council’s logo and optimistic tag-line, and Alec has realised he is overlooked there by the people who use the vending machine. Nobody comes in to read Das Kapital, but there is a reasonable expectation that four times in every hour, somebody within the building will want a Twix or Um Bongo.

And so, Alec finds himself here today, sitting in the café at one of the tight red tables. He is here because I am next door having my hair cut. I had suggested that Alec had his hair cut too, but for the last ten years he has taken care of his own hair, keeping it short with electric clippers, unaided by a mirror. I have seen him sometimes in his flat, crouched naked upon the kitchen floor, feeling his way around that unnatural nut like some ancient philosopher scratching for truth out of his skull. He knows every lump upon that thin fleshy surface, the soft brown ponds of moles, the brittle ridges and craters of the bone beneath. He shaves himself hairless with his eyes tightly closed, blotting out the reality of his furtive occupation, blotting out his nakedness, his shame. Alec cannot have his hair cut by other people. He cannot live out the passive conversation that strangers require him to deliver.

I have asked him about this on occasion. He has a preference for machines and for solitude. Yet, though he claims to be unable to survive the hairdresser, every month or so Alec subjects himself to the tattooist’s needle.

“Alec,” I have said, “surely that situation is the same, is more intimate; the penetration of ink beneath your skin invades you more than the scissors’ blade against your hair.”

It is not the mechanism, he says, the tattooist only writes what I tell him to write.

After he had left the church he had walked through the rain. His guidebook told him that one of few places open in Zürich on a Monday was a museum of printing in the university. He had thought about taking the tram, but resisted. Alec does not like spending money. The museum was situated at the end of a long corridor, and he was not entirely certain that he was supposed to be there. It felt like he was intruding, bursting into an academic department that had somehow found itself listed in a popular guidebook by mistake. There was an exhibition of expressionist lithographs of the 1950s. He took it in and promptly left.

Every month, the story gets longer. Does he know how it will end? As I trace the words wending themselves across the divots of his spine, through the thick rivulets that arch between the ribs across his flanks, I ask him how much more there is to go.

Alec shrugs.

“It is just a story,” he says, “it’s no big deal.”

“What is it about?” I ask him.

He shrugs again.

“It is my story,” he says, “it is mine, and in my native tongue.”

Some words repeat themselves. Some appear to have capitals. I wonder if Alec will one day run out of room.

“No,” he says, “that will never happen.”

By an arrangement of mirrors, the woman is showing me the back of my head. It is not how I had imagined it. I had not realised how my head tapered into my neck. I have quite a thin neck. It seems vulnerable; obscene. I am anxious to pay and leave. Alec is next door, sitting with his laptop and he is experimenting with public writing. He will not be finding it easy.