In the journalistic heyday of Victorian-era fiction, the serial was a place to feast on the literary prowess of the writers and cultural denizens of their time — a place to bear witness to a writer’s creative process in episodic installments, from Charles Dickens in The Pickwick Papers to Harriet Beecher Stowe in The National Era.
Naked Boys Reading (NBR) — a literary salon presented at Ace Hotel London Shoreditch every other month — carries that proverbial torch here with the first of their “Short Serials.” Over the next few months, NBR will be sharing serialized fiction by some of their favorite queer authors and allies.
First on the docket is author Season Butler. Born in the States, Butler spends her time writing and teaching between the UK and Germany. Her debut novel, Cygnet, is out now from Dialogue Books in the UK and Harper Collins in the US.
This is the light I like best, middle of February, first thing in the morning. Some people get up early to be productive, but I’m just here to bask. The way it comes into my living room makes it even better, through the many small thin windows celled off from each other with metal frames: six windows high, twelve along. Light wanders in along with shadow, the paradox of washed-out brightness of a sunny English winter morning. I’m in the best place at the perfect time, between the anaemic morning that enters through the brittle glass, landing on the surface of the concrete walls and floor without force enough to penetrate them. It’s peaceful here.
I touch the wall to try and feel the cold light. Palm first, then I place my whole right arm into it. Twist and touch my shoulder blades to the manufactured stone, curve forward a little to lay my spine along the wall, morning running over my face and my sternum.
I dress in black and charcoal and SPF fifty because I’m wise and vain and pushing forty. While I gather up my shopping tote and small money, knot my scarf and pull my coat on, I practice smiling. Everything is easier with practice.
The buds are still closed on my neighbour’s silver birch. The umbels of last year’s Queen Anne’s Lace are crisp brown crowns on top of rigid, papery stalks. The bugs haven’t hatched yet. Nothing rises from the tarmac. Thin light holds the landscape.
The shopkeeper is outside smoking a rollie, also basking. But somehow he looks like he’s under a totally different sun from mine. His face glows gold in its light. His sleeve tattoos are livid with reds and blacks. I don’t like them as much as I used to. He stamps out his cigarette when he sees me coming, even though it looks like he was only a few drags in. He always does that, and never seems to resent the intrusion.
Hunger rolls and belches in my belly. I have no idea what I want. The grapes look fine, so I take some of those. Plantain chips for starch and spice. A carton of coconut water from the back of the fridge. The last time I read an article about any of these things was so long ago that the situation must surely have changed again by now.
The shopkeeper scans the coconut water and places it into a carrier bag before I remember I brought one of my own. Never mind, I’ll think of it sooner next time. “Gorgeous day.” His eyes urge me to agree.
I answer with my smile and a fiver. It doesn’t seem to be enough. “I’ll be inside with meetings all day so…” I trail off. By “meetings” I mean Netflix. The part about being inside all day is a more straightforward truth.
He hands me back my change and passes the bag across the counter. “Don’t you want to take your coat off?”
My next smile is even better than the one before, framing “thanks” and “buh-bye” as I walk back through the shop’s open door.
I do not want to take my coat off. Droplets of sweat find each other on my skin near any curve or fold, eventually tickling and stinging their way to my bra line where they are pulled in by the fabric to mingle with all the tiny monsters that make up who I am. My underarms are weeping; I’m going to have to go back to deodorant with aluminium in it.
I’ll get as wet as I can, and when I do take off my coat, I will be so cold.
Back from the shop I put the grapes in the freezer for later and gorge the fridge-chilled coconut water down to the bottom of the carton, gulping air between swallows of the pale, thin juice. I move into the shade, peel off my layers of charcoal and black, lay my legs along the concrete floor and stack my spine against the concrete wall and chill the tops of my thighs with my laptop, fixing my eyes in the blue light of the screen.
After a couple of hours, the fan heaves and wheezes as the machine begins to overheat. I close the lid before I close my eyes and I’m asleep again before noon.
When I was seven, once on a Friday afternoon, I walked into the living room and found my mother collapsed on the floor. I’d been watching my usual after-school cartoons, and when one that didn’t interest me came on, I went looking for her to ask for her signature on a permission slip, and found her lying in the living room, sobbing silently.
Her eyes were squeezed in pain and in denial, forehead lined with the stress of the situation’s irredeemably. She must have known that it would come to this eventually; maybe she was hoping that the problem would just fix itself somehow. Sometimes hoping is all there is left to do. Sometimes hoping is enough. But not this time.
She was on her back, arms in an X across the place where a seven-year-old caesarean scar marked her abdomen. I knew that scar, under her t-shirt, because it had been my fault. Sometimes her knees would pull upwards and make her body twist to one side or the other. When she gasped, I felt I couldn’t breathe either.
When she could get her breath, she managed to explain that the problem was the new baby. On its way to the place where it was supposed to settle in, it got stuck in the tube and started to grow in a different place, where it wasn’t safe. A simple enough mistake, it seemed to me. I knew the number to call in emergencies, but she wouldn’t let me because we didn’t have enough money for emergencies. Instead, I lay there with her while she told me everything she wanted me to know before she died.
I often find myself in exactly the same position. Even here on my concrete floor, it’s effortless. We learn to be human the way all animals learn everything: through mimicry. Shame it’s not always in our best interest. Too bad that that our nature and our culture have no real need to cooperate. My speech, posture, the shapes I’m able and not able to make with my back and limbs – all copies. Copies with their fair share of generation loss.
I started doing this in my early twenties, obeying a vague command from a nagging new compulsion. I’m on my back, lifting my knees from time to time, letting it twist my spine and wrinkle my forehead, and moaning in a voice that is familiar, not quite mine but coming from my own belly. A very good imitation, in my opinion.
The thing is, she told me everything she wanted me to know before she died, and I made all the noises of attention and comprehension. But I wasn’t listening at all. Weeks later it dawned on me that I hadn’t understood a word of it. I couldn’t even remember enough of those incomprehensible words to repeat them to another adult and find out what my mother had meant. I’d let names and dates and warnings and pointers wash over me in the confusion and drama of the moment. At least she was still talking, I thought, while at the same time wondering why it was that I couldn’t call an ambulance, why the instructions for potential baby heroes – say your name and address, ask for the police or firefighters or an ambulance, stay on the line, do whatever the operator tells you – had lost their relevance, since I wasn’t allowed to go to the phone and make the call for help. Why life outside was going on as usual, but in here, on the floor, in broad daylight, everything had stopped. Was there something else I was should do instead? An alternative authority to defer to? Does she, secretly, want me to disobey, or is obedience more important than ever at a time like this?
In that confusion, I hadn’t listened, and now I can’t remember a single thing she told me. I wince and grab my own blank belly, and it feels all wrong to cry in the afternoon.
When my phone buzzes, I’m grateful for the distraction.
A cheerful voice twinkles over the phone. “Hi there!”
“Hello?” I reply, sure I don’t know anyone with this much energy.
“Hi there!” A pause follows while I wait for the caller to offer something more. But it seems like she’s waiting for something from me. When I decide to go ahead and answer back with an impatient, Yes? her next line collides with mine:
“Is that Gwendolyn MacArthur?”
“Who is this?”
Another strange pause, and then she says again, “Is that Gwendolyn MacArthur?”
“Yes, who is this?”
“Hi Gwendolyn! I’m Sherri.” She announces her name with odd enthusiasm, but still somehow sounds like she’s not entirely sure. “Is it okay to call you Gwendolyn? Or do you prefer Miss MacArthur?”
“I would prefer if you told me what this call is about.”
“Great, Miss MacArthur. It’s fantastic to speak to you.”
“Sorry, I didn’t quite understand. Could you rephrase the question?”
“No, I can’t. Just tell me what this is about, please? And please don’t say you want to talk about the weather.”
This time, instead of a pause, she giggles. “Yes, the weather is really something!”
“Tell me why you’re calling now, please.”
And again, the same giggle. Exactly the same. “Right. Thanks. Miss MacArthur, our records show that you were in an accident that wasn’t your fault. Is that right?”
“Depends how you look at it,” I answer and hang up. Then I place my phone on the countertop, intent on leaving it behind, bundle up against a chill I know I will not find and head outside into the ageing day.
“Between Three and Four”
I map my steps, finding the flattest spots on the way, the broadest stones on the cobbled streets. My ankles still hit funny angles and threaten to turn and twist but do not fail me. I roll my eyes against the chill that has settled in the air; I make them water, which cools them more and allows me to imagine the redness dissipating. I picture fresh oxygen reviving my cells and bathing my muscles. I see the darkness hiding the shameful droop to my forehead and cheeks, willing a projection of sobriety, of mundane invulnerability, out to the others sharing this street, making their own ways to or from trouble, or loitering in wait for it. I hold my shit together and do not think about how badly I just want my bed. My toilet, then bed. With the knuckles of my right hand, I liberate tiny cakes of white crust from my nostrils. I checked my pockets several times for the tissues I was sure I had, but I will not find them until tomorrow morning. Simple experience tells me this.
My hearing recalibrates in the alternate layers of darkness and light from signage and headlights and streetlamps. As I pass pubs, bottles drop and sound louder when they break than they do by day. Whispers echo through streets lined with sleepers. I can hear the wheels in your head turning. I’m attuned to the din of your intentions. Our attempts to be small and quiet amplify every mistake. Sneaking is louder, hiding is louder. We have to find different ways to disappear if we’re going to stand a chance of making it out intact.
People fuck at night, but not tonight. I am not in the mood, the wit’s too dry, blood’s concentrated in cocaine noses. I’m flaccid in all the right places, hard about the biceps and the balls of my feet. People go for it anyway, with gadgets and the urgings of dirty talk. People pretend to be their twins to sneak in bed with their in-laws to indulge a kind of incest fantasy, but their guilt makes their birthmarks glow and they get caught out. (The twins forgive but break up with their partners within a matter of weeks on flimsy pretexts.) People force and fix and lie. But not me, not tonight.
People sleepwalk and disavow their actions in hasty, misspelled tweets in the morning. People feign sleep. People genuinely don’t remember, which is the only kind of innocence they need. Between three and four pm.
People aren’t listening, aren’t paying attention. People drop their guard. People die.
Front door. Top and bottom locks of the door of my flat. My office. The lock for my bike. The longest and straightest are stationed silently between my knuckles. I close my fist into a claw, allow your footsteps to fall in line with mine. Slower now until I can feel how close you are, until I can pick you up with the hairs in my nose and on the back of my neck.
I trust my anger. I am in love with it as the space between us closes.
Season Butler is a writer, artist and dramaturg, based between London and Berlin. She is interested in the opportunities and traps of hindsight and hope, coming-of-age into unprecedented change and what it means to look forward to an increasingly wily future.
Her recent art work has appeared in the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Latvian National Museum of Art, Barbican Centre and Tate Exchange.
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