Beth Kilkenny writes mostly poems and short fiction. Beth has been published in the York Literary Review, The Blue Nib Literary Magazine, Selcouth Station, and Lunate. Beth was a participant in the MumWrite experimental writing development programme funded by Arts Council England. She has an MA in Literary Studies.
By Beth Kilkenny
You’re a good girl, but aren’t we all?
You don’t speak out of turn. You are quiet and polite and well thought of. You don’t like to be the centre of attention. You don’t like parties, or competitions. When you’re twelve or thereabouts, you leave your house to go to a party, clutching the present bought last minute at the local supermarket. You walk the streets between your house and the venue, and after ten minutes, turn back and return home. You use the present, a one litre bottle of peach bubble bath, later that evening yourself.
You live in a quiet house and become a quiet person, but you talk to yourself all day long, and sometimes forget to say things out loud for people to hear. People say you are secretive but really it’s more you can’t find the words to let people know about things that have happened, on the rare occasion that they do. You study hard. You do well at school which meets everyone’s expectations and therefore makes them happy. You don’t think about whether you are happy or not, it doesn’t seem to matter, because you are good. You walk the streets at night with your best friend, who is also a nice girl who tries hard at school. You talk about music and TV and boys. You look for the boys as you walk the streets, though you wouldn’t know what to do with them if you found them. You’re at home in bed by ten p.m. One night when you walk a man steps out in front of you from behind the bushes and flashes himself at you. That’s disgusting you shout at him and carry on walking, laughing to yourselves , impressed with your bravado. You go home and tell your brother, who, playing the adult, advises you to call the police. You don’t. You were not afraid. No harm was done. It only occurs to you years later, in fact as you write this, that maybe harm was done, just not to you.
You lie in your bedroom at night and hear nothing. You never hear a raised voice, or a burst of laughter. You leave the radio on and drift off to sleep listening to local station phone-ins. You cannot bear silence, where your thoughts roam with no distraction. You think about death at these times, your own, and what happens after, and you shake your head to dislodge the thoughts. Far better to listen to women calling in about their terrible neighbours, or their awful husbands. A world away from where you are.
You want to be a journalist. You want to be a botanist. You want to be a librarian, a lawyer, in publishing. You have no idea what you want to be. No one tells you what you can be. You pass exams, and go on holiday with friends. You go to Greek Islands with too bright skies and too hot sand. You lie by the pool all day and drink sugary cocktails with dubious names by night. You make friends with the boys from Essex, Scotland, Anywhere. You think you ‘re pretty. You know you’re fat. You have a series of sexual encounters that you later reframe as problematic in the progressive feminist discourse of consent which hits you at middle age. You get attacked by a stray cat and become hysterical at the thought of catching rabies; even though you know nothing about infectious diseases. You carry the scar for a long time, on your calf, which no one sees because you hate your legs. You come home from Greece, or Malaga, or Ibiza, or Anywhere, hang around for a bit, then go away to university. Away, but close. Close enough to still be good. You marvel at your bravery at moving to a city in which you know not a single soul. You rent a house with people you have never met before, and will quickly forget,; three boys and two girls. The boys all like sport and lager, or pretend that they do, and so the girls pretend they do too. You read English because despite the good grades and the people pleasing you still have no idea what you can be. You keep doing what you like, what you ’re good at, because it’s the easiest thing to do, and nobody has ever told you otherwise. You read books and write essays and take the train up and down the country.
You watch boys, men, watching you, and you hate it and you hate them. You watch your thighs spread as you sit on chairs and imagine a butcher’s guillotine slicing off the excess of your hips, which is most of them. You go to bars and drink pints for a pound, and two-for-one cocktails, and shots for the ladies in bars where your feet stick to the floor, and where when you go in during the day there’s a faint smell of vodka and fun and shame, that lingers in the air and turns your stomach. You shout loudly in your friends’ ears over 80’s music which at the time seems like historical artefact but in actual fact is like, now, listening to music from 2000, which you do often. Your friends hold your hair back as you vomit in corners. You do the same for them. You look at boys across bars and over classrooms and sometimes close up, under duvets, but usually in the dark.
All this time thinking of nothing but now.
Three years later, you take the train back home and never go back to the city where the smell of vodka and shame lingers in the air. You work in a bar, you work in an office, you work in a classroom, you work in a shop. You pull pints and grimace at the men who think you ’re a friend. You make photocopies and take a deep breath when the phone rings and you have to speak into the receiver and make a statement about who you are and where you are and what can you do to help ? You stand next to a whiteboard in front of enthusiastic Koreans and disinterested Italians and tell them about grammar you only learned yourself the night before. At night you watch TV with your parents after you eat food they have prepared for you in a warm room they have paid for. They talk about what happens next in the show, but not about what happens next to you. You are never the future conditional. At weekends you drink pints with boys you went to school with who didn’t interest you then and don’t interest you now; you wonder where all the girls have gone.
You meet a man, of course, and fall in love. You think that is the thing that happens to you. You worry about getting pregnant and always think your period is late even though you have no idea what the regular length of your cycle is. You worry about what people would say, what people would think, even though you know you would never go through with it, never actually have a baby, at this age. You count yourself lucky, if you count yourself anything at all.
You lose friends you gain friends. A friend you love unfriends you on Facebook, just like that, no reason given, just gone. The friend will reappear again in fifteen years when something interesting finally happens to you, as these friends tend to do. You meet friends at workplaces bonding over collective despair, and bitching about the boss who once tells you to keep your knickers on when you express dissatisfaction about workplace procedures, sales tactics or something equally inane. You go for smear tests, and you go to the doctor about headaches and feel like a hypochondriac when you ask about brain tumours. The doctor makes you feel like a hypochondriac too, but some people die, some people die too young – some people do. You think for a moment it could be you, forgetting that nothing ever really happens to you.
You go to Italy with friends from work and stay in a hotel room with an unusual raised platform in the middle where you each pretend to perform a song every night before you go out to eat the most delicious ravioli you have ever had, ever will have, in a restaurant on a side street by the Trevi Fountain. You don’t speak Italian but your friends do and you admire their proficiency and wonder why you can’t speak another language fluently and realise it’s something to do with being willing to be wrong, to be laughed at.
You work in another office, then another office, then another. You read character driven novels where nothing happens. The days go on, the way they do. You love someone for a very long time, and you watch shows about people buying houses on TV, and then you stop loving him. You love someone else for a relatively short time and you get married, and you, too, watch shows about people and houses but now the people are building their own houses, or making their old houses, bigger and shinier, or in any case more transparent. And so it goes.
Then, finally, eventually, one evening you sit on the couch you have come to hate, a cold brown leather, and take a long, slow breath in. The late afternoon sun slides in through the blinds smeared with a sticky kind of dust, and for a moment everything in the room looks beautiful, in that light, the way it can. You consider the carefully curated clutter above the fireplace, which in the glow, is made remarkable. You place your hands on your thighs, and look through the window, past the blinds, past the trampoline – unsprung, languishing – past the fences and roofs of suburban chaos, and slowly, determinedly exhale. You stand, walk over to the mantel piece, and pick up the Matryoshka Doll which watches over you, always. You open the biggest doll, slicing her in half, pick out each of the smaller dolls contained inside, and line them all up, one after the other after the other. You pluck out the smallest, place it on your tongue, and swallow her whole.