Carol is so sad. She hasn’t gone downstairs to make the pasta bake and she hasn’t put her trousers on and she hasn’t replied to her boyfriend and she hasn’t called her brother and she hasn’t made a doctor’s appointment and she hasn’t fixed her skin and she hasn’t started her tax return and she hasn’t taken up pilates and she hasn’t done anything about capitalism or systemic inequality or global warming or burgeoning fascism or state-authorised torture or dwindling orangutan populations or political corruption or her mum’s voicemail. She is angry with the world for expecting too little of her and too much of her so she should write about this and sell it and become infuriatingly rich.
She must channel the anger into something productive and collective and historic but she can’t even channel the energy from a sandwich into going downstairs and making some pasta bake in order to have some more energy to channel into doing god knows what until it’s way past the time she’s supposed to go to sleep and then she’ll get up hungry in the night and burgle the kitchen and wake up with peanut butter breath and there we go all over again.
She googles herself. At least yes freelance journalist Carol has achieved lots of interesting things in twenty-four months and where is that Carol right now hmm can she please report to the bridge immediately but no here she is sitting at her small desk in her grey pants trying to be fascinating and instead taking another twenty-seven photographs of herself all of which are horrible.
Carol hides her phone in the bottom drawer so that she won’t be bothered by anyone then takes her phone out of the drawer again and sends her brother seven gifs and internet stalks her boyfriend instead of replying to his messages.
She has made a beautiful pasta bake. It is radiant. It is the best thing she has created in days. And he is late home. Maybe he is dead. She starts thinking about how inconsolable she will be for months no years no decades and then she messages him. His meeting has just finished. She puts some sliced tomato on two plates.
She feels like she has entered the parallel universe where she is happy but she keeps picking at it in case it disintegrates into one of the billions where she isn’t. She can’t see it from any other angle so she must live in it.
Carol decides that she is going to write the Great British Novel of Her Era.
She has learned from reading that she is supposed to learn something when she reads but she can’t think of anything of general interest to put in the Great British Novel. She has the kind of memory where she can pass exams and recite TV episodes and direct London cab drivers but as soon as she’s at the pub quiz she forgets everything in the stress of it all.
Carol has got up and put on clean clothes and eaten cold porridge and opened the blinds and made the bed and emptied the sanitary bin and washed up and removed the dead flowers from their vase and put them in the compost bin with the eggshells and banana skins and mouldy teabags and texted her boyfriend to tell him that she is now vertical although all of those miraculous tasks have been carried out by a different part of her brain like an invisible carer who picks her up and washes and dresses her without her noticing. All hail the arrival of household assistance robots except that she is already morphing into one with less personality.
She realises that now is a good time to begin writing the Great British Novel but instead she spends twelve minutes putting things in her online shopping cart then three minutes taking them all out again and by the time she starts typing all useful emotions cease to be present in whichever lobe it is in which these things occur. She lies down and tries to achieve the Great British Orgasm but her phone rings halfway through and it’s a compensation scam and his voice isn’t even remotely sexy.
Carol knows that today is a good day to go out and do the things she has been wanting to do for weeks and weeks and weeks but now that the world is her shellfish all desire has fallen away from the surface and she doesn’t want anything at all.
Carol knows that she should go and buy some new flowers like Mrs Dalloway and some toilet roll and something nice to cheer herself up and she should cook something healthy for lunch as gut flora have a real influence on mood disorders. Carol knows that she should answer some of her emails and she should also shun these menial tasks and realise her creative potential as an empowered woman. Carol knows that as an empowered enfranchised woman she should walk around the corner to the polling station and cast her vote in the local elections.
Carol feels like a disempowered disenfranchised blob. She feels emptier than the vase and the sanitary bin and her savings account. She writes that down. She writes The blob feels so strange that it can’t quite believe it is a blob at all.
Carol feels unstrange. She has voted for normal candidates in the normal local elections and bumped into her normal postman as normal and had a normal thirty-second conversation about normal weather and has got the normal bus with normal clothes on and has sat with her normal friend in a normal café and eaten a normal jacket potato and has got the bus back as normal and here she is looking at her very peculiar hobby i.e. writing.
The blob looks in the mirror and realises it is not a monstrous blob at all but rather a friendly-looking potato. The good thing about catastrophising is that when the potato discovers that life is as normal the normalness is suddenly bliss. When it has fallen into the deepest horriblest sweatiest brain chasm the pavement is a glorious meadow.
Carol deletes the Crap British Paragraph then lies down. There is an unread article sitting on her bedside table called HOW TO UTILISE YOUR TIME TO ACHIEVE YOUR GOALS and instead of reading it she thinks about time and what it is for fifty-five minutes before she notices that underneath the magazine there are dusty invitations to a wedding and a cervical screening test and a networking event no not at the same venue and a letter from her Gran all of which she really should respond to but she doesn’t know how.
Carol decides to join a writing group in order to utilise her time and achieve her goals but also so that she can write the Novel and become a better freelance journalist and write better articles that make people briefly miserable but long-term happy and she will make heaps and heaps and heaps of money although maybe people only pay heaps of money to make themselves briefly happy and long-term miserable otherwise magazines and tanning and sex wouldn’t be so popular but then again not everyone is a heroin addict.
She looks through her inbox and there is a bright scary tantalising notification from her old boss but oh no just his out-of-office reply to an email she sent him that morning ugh well then again it is January and here Carol is slobbing around in her pyjamas eating noodles so who is she to expect everyone else to be in their offices and she did send exactly the same boring email to every editor who had ever commissioned her or given in to her relentless cajoling at the time when she was a very busy successful ruthless important serious journalist.
The man at the library tells Carol that there is a writing group at the local hipster coffee shop if you turn up out-of-hours and wait for it to mysteriously appear. He winks at her and she imagines that he wears knitted vests and watches Countdown but has a surprisingly attractive cat and several older girlfriends to whom he reads poetry. He tells her that it is on Sundays at 4pm and she says she’s worried she might miss her regular tea and cake with the vicar and he looks surprised before winking again and warning her not to eat too much cake which is quite uncalled for really so Carol tells him that she’ll have to eat ALL of the cake and drink ALL of the tea because the vicar has a gluten intolerance and a caffeine intolerance which is very unfortunate when people are always offering you tea and cake. Carol has no idea whether the vicar has a gluten and caffeine intolerance but she has seen her in the library before and she is a very pleasant but exhausted-looking Jamaican lady called Angela. Library Man looks concerned and asks her if she wants to take a book out and Carol is tempted to ask him for a first edition of Don Quixote however she does ask him for The House at Pooh Corner and Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the Book of Mormon just to make his day more interesting. He fetches The House at Pooh Corner and offers to put the other two on order but Carol says no really it’s alright don’t bother they were only for the vicar and then she tells him she’s joking because poor Angela clearly has enough to deal with already.
Carol turns up at the local hipster coffee shop wearing her most artistic and complex outfit as she has assumed that she will be completely anonymous and therefore have the chance to reinvent herself as an intellectual of few words and many talents but three people are sitting at the table including her neighbour Johanna of many words and famous talents and all hope of reinvention is lost.
‘Oh you don’t need us you’re fab already how are you have you found your dream commission yet Felix googled you again the other day and we can’t wait to see what you’re up to next freelancers are so cool not like us except lovely Gary here who couldn’t be uncool if he tried could you Gary?’
Gary is a tall man folded up on a wooden stool like a cricket with indigestion. He has minuscule glasses and a black T-shirt that says Ask me about David Foster Wallace so Carol does and instantly regrets it. The older woman with red hair and lots of tastefully placed tattoos of bees interrupts them and Carol would snog her with gratitude if it weren’t for the orange lipstick. She is called Camille and Camille wants Carol to know that this isn’t a writing group but rather a sanctuary for Carol’s words.
Gary’s offering for the word sanctuary this week is a response to Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and he reads his response delicately until everyone’s ears are retracting into their skulls and their skulls into their necks.
Johanna has brought a selection of pastel life drawings and a poem about pastel life drawings. ‘There’s something so liberating about nakedness and the human form it’s like a poem and I want to write like that not like Infinite Jest no offence Gary I cherish you as a person but there’s just so much negative energy in the phallocentric American canon.’ Camille squeezes phallocentric Gary’s bony knee while looking like she vehemently agrees with Johanna. Johanna reads out her poem and it is quite interesting.
Camille has just written an episode of a TV soap and she dishes out the parts for everyone to read. Carol is surprised that Camille is writing TV scripts because she imagines her selling healing crystals at vintage fairs on rainy Saturdays.
Carol wakes up and falls asleep again and dreams that she is a naked mole rat and all of her veiny rolls of rat fat are spilling onto the hipster coffee shop table where Johanna is trying to spear them with a crayon.
She gets up properly at elevenish and feels depressed because the washing machine is broken. She puts on the least smelly bra and then takes it off again because she isn’t going to bother going out today so she throws on her dressing gown instead and spends twenty minutes agitating the spots on her chin before finally sitting down at her computer which takes thirty-seven minutes to start up because it is so full of cookies and viruses like a snotty toddler.
Carol starts writing an article called HOW TO ACHIEVE YOUR GOALS (WITHOUT UTILISING YOUR TIME) and realises that despite always knowing exactly how long everything takes she rarely achieves any goals at all beyond making the newsreading public more depressed when they wake up in the morning. Carol remembers she is supposed to be showing Camille her authentic creative self.
Carol emails herself a draft of an email that she might send to some new editors then goes to the kitchen to boil the kettle. On her return she is pleased to discover that she has a new email in her inbox before she realises that it is of course from herself just a minute earlier so she goes back to the kitchen and discovers she has forgotten to switch the kettle on at the wall.
Carol feels OK today. She has written almost a page and it has soaked up her sadness like a new sponge and now she is just a bland countertop in imitation marble. The page is about January which is the grimiest month. Carol imagines bringing it to the word sanctuary. ‘It was supposed to be a vast humanist novel with unmistakable wit and insight but instead I am considering giving it to my counsellor on Wednesday so I don’t have to talk.’ Imaginary Johanna laughs a huge laugh while Imaginary Camille nods sadly and Imaginary Gary aka ImagiGary steels himself.
Carol looks out of the window at the drizzle which shouldn’t be there because it’s supposed to be snowing but then again it’s better than August which is the month where half of the British population are just waiting for the leaves to die so they can put the central heating back on and the other half are delaying putting the central heating back on out of pride.
Carol’s page says the dull laundry month where I am such a miserable lead balloon that I can’t be trusted to talk to people in case I make them droop or worse collapse inwards like miniature neutron stars in slow motion.
Carol’s page says evenings are when nobody expects you to earn money or answer emails or dress yourself because they did that already in the morning or the afternoon when I was spending time with two-dimensional television people who tell you what they are thinking and don’t expect you to say anything at all.
Imaginary Camille’s eyebrows are wilting and Imaginary Johanna is frustratingly sympathetic and ImagiGary is looking at her like he is pretending to be bored by everything she just said and also like he will rush home and furiously type up a CV and cover letter to give her next week. Dear Carol I am applying for the position of rescuer but only because you need me a lot. Yours charitably Gary.
Carol realises that she is going to be late for her counselling appointment and texts an apology to Samir whose response is of course unreasonably nice. She wonders whether Samir talks to his plants when they are wilting or whether he just sits waiting sadly for them to open up.
The Foreign Secretary is doing something terrible again and Carol considers becoming a politician so that she can tell him personally what she thinks of him and also so that she can become prime minister and make all of the cabinet ministers and enormously rich corporation owners and media barons pay tax and invest their money in environmental funds and donate their second and third and fourth homes to refugees and queue at the NHS dentist on a Wednesday with all the screaming children like everybody else. She remembers that she went to a private secondary school and that she hasn’t been to the dentist in several years and feels guilty for the rest of the afternoon.
Carol really must write something this week otherwise her personality will be eroded like a dandelion clock facing a light summer breeze and her brain will be clogged up by a gigantic wall of uncreativity and unthought so she tries to kick the wall over and type anything really anything at all but instead she gets trapped in a desperate cycle of checking each social media account in turn until there aren’t any notifications anymore not even from bots or strangers. She goes to the supermarket without needing to buy anything and it is huge and fluorescent and desolate and Carol wants to cry but the wall of unimagination has filled up her tear ducts with brick dust and she is hard and compact and miserable and in completely the wrong place like a machine-washed tissue.
Carol starts writing an article called HOW SUPERMARKETS MADE US HATE THE NATURAL WORLD and it is brilliant and she is very pleased with herself so she skips lunch to keep writing it until she is a hunched-over skeleton and the article is swimming in front of her at which point she eats some granola straight out of the packet and a hunk of cucumber that is lurking grimly in the fridge.
She spends the evening watching illegal clips of old comedy programmes on the internet with her boyfriend and he makes them an out-of-the-jar curry with cook-in-the-bag rice and tells her about his sore neck and his unpleasant boss and Carol tells him her boss is always unpleasant but actually she feels a little bit better about being self-employed and makes a mental note to buy her boyfriend a nice beany thing you can heat up in the microwave and put on your neck to relieve tension as long as you don’t superheat it and make it explode and melt your skin irreparably.
Carol takes Atonement to the word sanctuary because she has been meaning to read it and now she can at least start it by reading the first chapter aloud and hopefully it will be even more depressing than whatever Gary brings.
Gary has brought an essay about Slaughterhouse-Five.
Camille has brought a radio script and some oat and raisin biscuits.
Johanna has brought several erotic poems inspired by Orlando and Camille looks pleased. Camille suggests that Carol bring some of her own work next time.
Johanna invites herself round for tea and does all of the washing-up even yesterday’s cereal bowls and the suspicious jam jars by the sink and she tells Carol about her new patio and her real estate colleagues and her candida infection until Carol’s boyfriend comes home and then she tells Carol’s boyfriend about her new patio and her real estate colleagues and Felix’s coffee table made from repurposed motorbike parts. Carol asks whether the motorbike had a religious or a humanist funeral and Johanna laughs so much that Felix gets envious doing his gardening next door and knocks on the window and invites himself in for a few hours and tells Carol’s boyfriend about their new patio and his real estate colleagues and his coffee table made from repurposed agnostic motorbike parts until Carol comes downstairs in her pyjamas to make a point.
Carol needs to take something to writing group otherwise Camille will think she is just there for the biscuits. Perhaps she will write a terribly impressive but misunderstood work of speculative fiction which will predict the course of technology and politics for the next fifty years.
Ahead of Her Time Carol has a Pot Noodle for lunch and reads the contents page of New Scientist which includes cheerful article titles about cholesterol and addictive virtual reality and the International Space Station running out of funding and how people might survive a nuclear holocaust. Carol wonders whether people have sex in the ISS and whether you can get freeze-dried space lasagne.
Carol picks up her toothbrush and realises that she has been using the same one for a very very long time so she goes to Superdrug and buys a blackhead-declogging-pore-minimising-super-cleansing-dermo-loving-micellar-technology charcoal face scrub and a toothbrush.
The light outside is dirty grey and her feet are frozen and the nauseating energy from five packets of crisps and two large bars of chocolate and a Cup-a-Soup is causing her to claw at the walls. Her arms are made of glass and her torso of papier-mâché and her legs of dust and the tiniest draught will cause her to disintegrate all over the bed like a snakeskin. She stares at the patterns on the duvet cover until they are gigantic and then she gets up and washes her face and gets blackhead-declogging-pore-minimising-super-cleansing-dermo-loving-micellar-technology charcoal face scrub in her eye by accident which stings and stings and stings but at least she feels alive. She thinks about how ironic it is that when she is alone she spends half of her time wishing she were dead and half of her time terrified of anything that might possibly kill her including sepsis and chicken. She must be quite attached to living otherwise she wouldn’t expend so much energy avoiding death.
She is trying very very hard to find everything amusing and temporary and ephemeral but sometimes the nasty part of her brain wins and life piles a huge rhinoceros of pain on her shoulders.
Really she just needs more money and exercise and sleep and a sense of purpose and to write a bestselling novel for which she will always be remembered and which will be so good that invading aliens will decide upon reading it not to blow up the Earth because humanity is worth something after all.
The rain ran off the windscreen of the van. Squeak clunk squeak clunk the wipers fought in vain. Last week she had reported on a cheese festival and the week before it was a reptile beauty pageant. NEED A SUMMER BREAK? REVIEW OUR GROUNDBREAKING LITERAL-VIRTUAL FUNREALITY GAME. WE’RE COUNTING ON YOU.
Carol deletes a section that wouldn’t go amiss in a futuristic telenovela then makes her way creakily to the fridge for a beer. Her hips shriek internally like unoiled robotic joints and she thinks about all of the books she wants to write instead of this one and how much she dislikes beer and how much she wants to go on holiday and then she notices that she has drunk the beer and has taken another one out of the fridge and she goes back to the laptop and starts typing.
Beer-Carol stops typing and puts a frozen pizza in the oven.
Beer-Carol is enjoying the nightmarish book although despite the satire and technobabble it will inevitably be consigned to the prehistorically-sexist-and-supposedly-non-existent-but-clearly-designated women’s holiday section of most bookshops with a swirly font and a pretty pastel cover. She starts editing the next bit that she probably wrote yesterday but can’t remember.
Clunk squeak clunk squeak. Literal-Virtual Reality. Maybe they’d put her in orbit and she’d fight off asteroids. Maybe they’d put her in the womb and she’d gestate for nine months. Maybe they’d put her in a top editorial job with a private jet. Maybe they’d put her in a damp bedsit with literal-virtual-actual cockroaches and pitiless bills. Jade got out of the van.
Carol smells burning pizza.
‘Really it’s such a gift to see you stepping out of your cold journalistic shell’ – Johanna is chewing a fountain pen unsuccessfully and her teeth are making little clicking sounds on the metal lid – ‘but what exactly is the overarching grand narrative dear Carol? Are these people in Virtual-Actual-Hyper-Normal-Sexy-Fun Reality all trapped there as some kind of scam? Is Jade going to be kidnapped by the government for being a radical purveyor of truth and insight? Is this a book about you?’
Carol reads the next bit of Funreality and is just getting to the good bit when Gary turns up late and ruins the atmosphere completely. His T-shirt has a picture of a marijuana leaf and says There ain’t no such thing as a free joint. Johanna says that you don’t have to be an anarchist to like marijuana and Gary informs Johanna that he isn’t an anarchist but a traditional libertarian you know before the Americans ruined everything and Johanna laughs and says she’s just teasing him because it’s obvious that Gary doesn’t own a large amount of property that he’s anxious about being taxed on and then Camille interrupts politely and suggests that everyone share some insights on Carol’s story and everyone does share insights until Carol is sure that she will never write anything ever again.
For example Camille reads the first page again for a very very long time and nods thoughtfully and says gently that a little more punctuation would not go amiss and Gary takes the page from Camille and reads it for a very short time and nods thoughtfully and Johanna takes the page from Gary without reading it and looks at Camille and nods thoughtfully and Carol takes the page from Johanna unthoughtfully while everybody is nodding and nodding and she agrees to add a few commas.
Gary’s sacrifice to the sacred word altar is an unreasonably long stream-of-consciousness sentence about a squirrel he saw in the underpass.
Carol visualises an enormous fountain pen inking a full stop on Gary’s forehead.
The house feels like a cage so Carol goes to the library to force herself to fill in job applications but the library is too big and cold and full of people who are rustling and coughing and fidgeting and muttering and slurping on their water bottles and looking at Carol over the tops of their computer monitors and Library Man comes over and nervously asks her about the writing group and whether she has lost The House at Pooh Corner or would like to renew it and did she get the emails and does she want to pay the fine although it’s alright really because it’s her first time and he can click the right buttons on the system and before answering Carol accidentally stares at him for so long that he looks like he might wee himself a little bit. Carol feels sorry for him and goes to the desk to pay her fine and renew The House at Pooh Corner and she tells him it is taking her a while to read on account of the syntax being very dense and the character development being very slow and Library Man laughs awkwardly and doesn’t ask her about the writing group again.
Carol’s boyfriend is back from his work trip and she is relieved that she will now have some company while staring at the mildew on the ceiling and listening to the thuds and clatters from their nocturnal housemate who boils unrecognisable joints of meat at 4am in the kitchen with the windows closed. She last saw the housemate about six weeks ago and that was in the petrol station minimarket and they stared at each other like startled cats and made conversation about the rent and the weather and whose dirty pan had been on the windowsill since June and which neighbour might have stolen their recycling bin.
At lunchtime Carol calls her brother for a whole hour which is probably his entire lunch break and he is so kind and serious and familiar that she cries.
Carol is happy. She writes to twelve editors and applies to three recruitment agencies and seven full-time jobs and even the civil service and feels powerful and excited at the prospect of paying for all of counselling and council tax and a new coat. She will buy her boyfriend nice presents and shop in the premium aisle of the budget supermarket and visit her parents and take her friends out for coffee and pay off her credit card debt and get pet rabbits and donate to charity and go to the cinema and pay for online subscriptions without adverts and finally replace the broken bathroom mirror and splash out on a decent foundation that doesn’t make her acne worse and she will feel magnificent or at least like other people do.
She gets up from the desk and goes to the kettle and watches it boil and pours it into a mug and realises she’s forgotten the teabag but she adds a bit of cold water and starts drinking it anyway.
Carol checks her email and one of the editors has got back to her already and she sips the hot water and calls the doctor and starts her tax return and feels so normal that she doesn’t recoil in shock when two more emails arrive.
After waking at 4.48 and 6.55 and 7.00 and 7.05 and 7.10 and 7.15 and 7.45 Carol finally goes on a train to London and tries to ignore all of the chewing and typing and sprawling commuters who talk and talk into their empty phones as the signal dies.
The editor’s office is very shiny and rather big. The editor is rather shiny and very small and called Bex and Bex asks Carol questions about herself and Carol doesn’t say anything about the book or the mildew or the crippling self-doubt and tells Bex she likes going for walks and Bex says that Carol’s journalistic experience sounds very interesting and will she be happy to wait a few days and Carol says that will be fine. Carol eats a chicken sandwich on the train and reads an article about the future of low-skilled manual labour in an automated world. Maybe she could write a book about a society in which everyone just eats and sleeps and watches TV and picks their noses and has sex because everything is run by machines and then she is very relieved when she remembers that is the premise of Brave New World so she doesn’t need to write it and she can get on with journalism and with replacing the bathroom mirror.
In the evening she tells her boyfriend about London and the editor and he asks her why she is giving up on her book and she tells him she hasn’t had any inspiration in weeks and weeks and she wants to go on minibreaks like everybody else and he cuddles her and says she’s wasting her intellect and she tells him that if nobody clever goes into journalism then everybody will become stupider and stupider and then they order pizza and watch nine episodes of a comedy gameshow and feel strange.
Carol feels almost like herself again although she doesn’t quite know what that means but she is fairly certain that she hasn’t been that self since December and nothing has felt right even her clothes and her voice and her bed and her favourite TV programmes. She is going to write challenging articles and thinkpieces and start to chip away at the crushing monolith of political injustice except that first she has to catch up on four episodes of the lesbian prison drama.
Carol is just setting off for writing group when she remembers that she isn’t going anymore now that she is once again an influential and motivated journalist. She calls her boyfriend who she suspects is buying her a birthday present in town and he answers the phone sounding very shifty so he is definitely doing that and she suggests coming to meet him in town just so he really panics and then she feels much happier about it being awful nasty disgusting weather outside.
At teatime there is a knock on the door. ‘Is everything alright do you need anything really just say because we missed you today especially Gary and you know Camille brought camomile and cardamom cake for your birthday week at least I think that was why she did although she is cardamom intolerant and her apprentice keeps giving her extraordinary presents and how is your book coming along is it writer’s block how awful you know you are wasted on the papers when they are just deluding the masses come on Carol please come next week please.’
A phone call early in the morning and Carol is miraculously awake enough to answer on speaker and shiny editor Bex is offering her a last-minute tight-turnaround 1000 words of accessible yet ruthless and concise yet detailed political analysis of what in Carol’s opinion can be summarised as democracy being bad for democracy and All Hail the Foreign Secretary and
might even have the budget and space for a regular column
she looks at the bills on her bedside table and
won’t get a better opportunity than this
she scrolls through another page of job adverts and sees a call-out for a virtual reality game reviewer and feels a little bit sick and
send a draft through tonight
Bex glitters impatiently through the phone and Carol looks at the ceiling and swallows and thinks – bitterly because of the bills and bitterly because of the mildew and bitterly because of that infuriatingly inescapable conscience of hers – if it’s fiction you want Rebecca then there’s a writing group at my local café so just turn up out-of-hours and wait for it to mysteriously appear
we’re counting on you
and Carol hangs up.
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