Odd things frighten me. I’m not scared by the prospect of standing on a stage and removing my clothes in time to music, neither am I scared of standing on a street corner painted blue with an eight inch Perspex unicorn horn glued to my head, both things life has called upon me to do. Why not? We all have bodies, we can all be blue, these things are not unique, they are not mine alone to own; they are common.
What does scare me, what has my heart beating at the cage of my ribs like a trapped canary, is the thought of sitting at a desk with a person who’s read my work and is going to talk to me about it. Not just talk about it; judge it, analyze it, shoot it down in flames or make it soar again with their appreciation of it and I am terrified.
I create my physical persona to draw attention in the way the class clown makes himself an object of fun before the world decides to do it for him. Like all exhibitionists, I am a whirling morass of insecurity, paranoia and fear inside a gleaming, glittering carapace that screams ‘look at me, no, look at me!’ in the hope that ‘they’ won’t see me at all past all the glitter. Walking toward the table where the agent sat, the sample of my work in the stack under her hand and a warm, welcoming smile on her face, I felt each painful, sugar bright layer of artifice I’d constructed drop away, until I sit in front of her naked as I’ve ever been.
‘I like you’re hair,’ she says. ‘I’d love that colour but it just wouldn’t suit me, I haven’t got the right colouring.’
Is this a ploy, I think? Yes, this must be a ploy, she’s softening me up – never mind chick – your book’s shit but your hair looks fierce.
‘Thanks,’ I say, trying to be all girls together, as if the camaraderie of the ladies room might save me. ‘I’m basically translucent, so, you know, fair and freckles and all, my Dad was a red- head–’ Shut up, I’m begging internally, shut up! She’s not here to talk about your hair dye; she doesn’t want to borrow your lipstick, shut up!
‘It’s a bit like speed dating this, isn’t it?’ she says, riffling through the papers at her side. I see them at once; I see my word babies blinking out from the bottom of the heap as if they looked to me for comfort.
It’s all right, children, mummy’s here, I want to scream, let me take you away from this nasty woman and her evil intentions. I love you, no matter what!
‘But there’s no wine,’ I say and sound as if I’m insinuating she’s drunk it all. ‘I mean, there would be wine, if this was a date, maybe we should ask for some…’ It’s not a date, oh god, does she think I want a date? Does she think I find her attractive? Do I find her attractive?
‘Yes,’ she says, ‘we should ask for some, it is a writers thing after all.’ Does she find me attractive? I’ve not been in the real world for so long I can’t remember how grown-up’s do this!
‘So,’ she puts her hand on my manuscript. ‘This one, yes, I really loved it.’
The sweat my back freezes. The roaring noise in my ears and the dry, painful yank of my heart misses its spot. What?
‘Yes, I read it again on the train, I just wanted to – the breakfast scene, I was there, I was sitting at the table and the family, I had them in my head at once. Oh, and I loved the girls together, how they were, the tension in the little detail, it’s great.’
‘So, what’s your idea for it?’
Silence. A void rips through the room; my feet rush away from me and I’m spinning into it. Pitch? Pitch! To fall, to drop, to tip headlong into disaster; pitch!
‘Yes…’ the last fragment of my self-preservation kicks me in the ass. ‘It’s Tipping the Velvet meets Charlotte Gray, it explores repression and how we create persona to hide from society’s censure, be that of ones sexual or national identity, what we do to survive, what we’ll give up and what we cannot. It’s about how when we escape, we become exposed, which is both frightening and liberating, and the cage we left can seem so comforting we seek to build another.’
‘Right,’ she said. ‘Gosh.’
That’s what I think I said; to be honest, I can’t remember. Whatever I did say, she wants to read it when it’s ready and as I shook her hand and said goodbye, I was dressed again; if it’s in the Emperors new clothes or not, remains to be seen.