participation

“Welcome,” said the sky.

Spots of brightness appeared behind my closed eyelids. I opened them slowly, feeling my lashes peel apart as though they had been coated in glue. They did not open far; I immediately squinted against a wall of blurred brightness.

It was white.

It was sand.

I opened my eyes fully, ignoring the stabbing sensation behind each eye socket as I took in the view – at least all of it that I could see from my position, lying slightly on my side and mostly on my front, one arm thrown up over my head.

I became vaguely aware of movement, of something washing in and out of my peripheral vision. I turned my head towards it and waited for my eyes to focus.

How odd. How very odd, I thought.

I don’t remember being at the beach, I thought.

And how very, very odd, that I should have imagined the sky speaking to me.

“Welcome,” the sky said again.

I flipped over onto my back, bracing against the softness beneath.

There was a mouth.

It stretched from over side of my vision to the other, one horizon to another, hanging unsupported in the broad blue of sky. Its lips were unpleasantly smooth and pink. It opened to speak, and a deep glistening darkness filled the void.

“We are so pleased that you could join us,” said the mouth.

It smiled politely, and the sky was full of teeth. They were evenly matched, evenly spaced, and evenly and uniformly sparkling white.

I pushed my hands down into the sand at my sides, my fingers reaching out as though they expected to encounter something familiar and reassuring. This did not occur, so I used the pressure to push myself into a sitting position.

I kept my face tilted upwards, towards the still smiling mouth. I don’t think I could have looked away.

“Hello,” I said, or tried to say, suddenly aware of how dry my throat was.

The mouth – well it, was a mouth, so it couldn’t look, obviously, but – it looked at me.

“What’s –” I coughed. “What’s happening? Please?”

The words scratched across my tonsils and came out as a whisper. I wondered if I had somehow swallowed some of the sand.

The sky, if it were possible, beamed even wider. As it stretched, I could see some faint discolouration at the far ends, the corners. Flickering on and off, in square shapes. Pixelation.

“You have elected to take part in the Perspective Project,” the sky informed me.

“The what?”

“The Perspective Project,” the mouth repeated in a practised and courteous tone, “is a guaranteed contributor to overall, lifelong happiness. So much of modern life is about getting, and keeping, that we often forget to appreciate what we already have, and are reduced to reminding ourselves that other people have it worse. The age-old admonition that children should eat their vegetables because other children are starving somewhere, for example.”

I was familiar with this, but I could not remember where I’d heard it before. I could not recall anyone ever saying it to me. But I couldn’t recall anyone ever saying anything. Nor could I remember vegetables, now that I thought of it. I remembered what they were, but I could not remember eating them.

“Those people would appreciate what we have, we decide,” continued the sky. “The things we own, and accomplish, which leave us so unfulfilled – we decide that if only we had been more unfortunate to begin with, we would benefit properly from them.”

Memories flickered briefly, brightly, from beneath a heavy mist. Hard, shiny surfaces, gleaming with promise. A smooth softness, my hand reaching toward it. Lights, and colours, smells and tastes, and the sense of being drawn towards them as though by a current.

The sky interrupted, and the memories submerged themselves once more.

“But all that does is guilt us into sending our hard-earned money to those that we use as reminders. That’s no good, is it?”

The tone turned patronising.

“We don’t want less money, do we? No, we want to enjoy what we have. And if the way to do that is to be put in an unfortunate circumstance beforehand, well, then –”

The smile froze for a moment, before flickering back into motion, pixels jarring as it did so.

“ – in an unfortunate situation we must be.”

 

There was a pause.

“I – ” I said. “Um.”

Despite its promising start, I wasn’t sure where the sentence was going, so I didn’t finish it. Instead, I turned my head slowly towards where I’d seen the sea, earlier. There is was. And, as I looked in the opposite direction, there it was again. And in front, and behind.

The island could not have been more than two hundred meters square; most of it was sand, with a little darkened area of scrubbiness toward the middle. The flat, uncaring sea lay on every side.

“You see what unfortunate circumstances you find yourself in, participant.”

Can’t you use my name, I was about to ask, before realising that I couldn’t remember what it was myself. Instead, I asked,

“Did I sign up for this? I don’t – ”

“You don’t remember. Well, participant, of course, that’s a perfectly normal part of the experience. Vital, in fact. All those poor people that remind us to eat our vegetables didn’t ask to be starving. Otherwise, why would we feel sorry for them?”

My head hurt. My eyes felt as though the light was burning through them, burrowing back into my skull, and my neck was stiff from craning it to look upwards. I was beginning to be thirsty.

The sky seemed to be waiting for an answer.

“I guess?” I offered weakly.

It beamed at me, pixels jostling to rearrange themselves. I wondered if I was imagining the faint humming noise that seemed to thrum through the air as it spoke.

“You’re going to be so grateful by the time this is over, participant,” the sky assured me.

dear robbie benson, save me

Dear Robbie Benson,

My granddaughter has been locked in the spare room for over three hours now, listening to music on her walkman and looking at your picture. She cut it out of a magazine.

She did show it to me. I hope you won’t be offended when I say that I fail to see the appeal. I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen what a real haircut looks like. Then again, I don’t suppose you’ll actually read this, so what is there to get offended by? Millie – my granddaughter – tells me that movie stars don’t read their fan mail any more these days. She also tells me that no-one calls them “movie stars” any more.

I’m afraid that you have become somewhat of a bone of contention in this house. Millie is spending the first few weeks of summer with me, while her parents, my daughter and her husband, are in Spain trying to save their marriage.

Millie and I haven’t seen each other for more than a weekend at a time since she was seven. This was supposed to be our chance to spend time getting to know each other. But all she wants to do is listen to her music and read those tacky magazines.

She waits for each one to come out, then reads and re-reads them until the next one comes along. She could probably recite them from memory if she had to. She even goes through the stacks of old ones at the second-hand book shop. She gets especially excited if she finds a picture of you, or an interview. There aren’t that many. I’m not even sure how famous you are.

She won’t talk to me. She won’t take off her headphones. I should be grateful for the invention of these walkmans, I suppose. Given current tastes, as indicated by those magazines, I imagine that I wouldn’t care for her music. I wonder if my mother would have complained about Elvis so much if I had had headphones?

I wanted to write to you, even if I know you will never read this. Especially as you will never read it, as a matter of fact.

I do wish you’d stop giving interviews, Mr Benson.

Sincerely yours,

Linda Dougherty

~

Dear Robbie Benson,

Do you know, that was the first letter I had written to anyone in months? I used to write several a week, and receive my fair share as well.

Maggie Collins from next door was over yesterday, and she brought it up. I hadn’t noticed, really, how big the change had been, until she mentioned it. She said that she had wanted to write a letter to the local newspaper editor the other day, and the office asked her to email it in.

She was vastly displeased, and clearly expected me to feel the same.

I don’t.

I never liked writing letters. I always ran out of things to say. (Polite things, I mean, of course. One can never express oneself properly in letters, unless you can trust the recipient to burn the thing after reading it.) But the big blank sheet stares up at you, and you feel pressured to fill up the space. And there are all those rules about what should go in which paragraph. And not starting sentences with conjunctions. Emails, apparently, can be acceptable as a single line.

Perhaps I should get a computer. One of those new portable ones. I will ask my daughter to get me one, as soon as she’s back.

Or perhaps I could write all my correspondence on post-it notes.

Yours,

Linda

~

Dear Robbie Benson,

Moira – that’s my daughter, did I mention her name was Moira? – just called from Spain. The marriage is still in the process of being saved, it seems, and they will be there for a while longer.

Millie’s disappointment was evident. I imagine mine was too. We grimaced at each other and each went to our rooms.

The idea that a marriage is something to be “saved” is not something I can fully support, really. You can’t just swing in and rescue the thing like a cat from a burning building. If it is to be saved, you have to save it every single day, the way I did with Anthony. Still, I admit that many couples don’t even try, so I have to applaud their efforts. Although why the saving had to take place in Spain, I’m really not sure.

Yours,

Linda

~

Dear Robbie Benson,

I tried staying in my room every afternoon this week, just to see what was so nice about it. Maybe it’s nicer if you sprawl on your bed. I am physically incapable of sprawling, and have to sit up against the headboard or a mound of pillows like I’m a renaissance maiden recovering from a long illness, which I’ve hardly the figure for.

I’ve migrated back to the living room, and have purchased a large pair of rubberized headphones. They were very expensive, but I have managed to attach them to my record player, and am currently listening my way through my entire Elvis collection.

Now there was a man who knew his way around a haircut.

Linda

~

Dear Robbie Benson,

I just wanted to see how much of a letter I could write on a post-it note. I think this could work well as a correspondence option, though it might stick to the inside of the envelope.

Linda

~

Dear Robbie Benson,

I haven’t worn makeup in years, but this afternoon when I walked into my bedroom I immediately smelled face powder. Nothing was out of place, so I couldn’t be certain. But at dinnertime, Millie refused to leave her room. She obviously thinks it some kind of utopia in there – blessed if I know why, it’s got all of my ugliest furniture – but she at least leaves to eat.

I waited for her to go to the bathroom, then pounced. It was worse than I’d feared.

She’d managed the lipstick and rouge all right, though neither suited her skin tone. I hadn’t any eyeliner left, however, just partially desiccated mascara, which she had applied in liberal quantities to her lashes – and then to her eyebrows. It had not gone well. She had obviously attempted to remove it, but had only managed to smear it so that her eyebrows not only appeared to join in the middle, but run into her hairline at either side.

I gave her some makeup remover. I suppose I should have reprimanded her… but then I started laughing. I couldn’t help it.

She scowled, which given the state of her face was truly horrifying to witness. She went into her room and slammed the door.

I have been trying to remember whether her mother ever did anything like that. I recall more shouting and rolled eyes than slammed doors. I was the one to send her to her room, she’d never send herself.

I’ve no idea how to deal with a child who won’t speak to me. Really, this hardly seems fair; I thought I was done with parenting. Shouldn’t it be like riding a bike, when it comes to the second time round? All that “it takes a village to raise a child” stuff must have something behind it, no?

I guess you must know a lot about makeup, being an actor. You’ve never used mascara on your eyebrows, have you?

Linda

~

Dear Robbie Benson,

I’m tired.

I have no reason to be tired. I’ve not done anything strenuous today, other than going down to the town centre to buy Millie some cheap makeup from the pharmacy. Taught her how to use it, too.

Then Moira called, and kept trying to explain some sort of epiphany she’d had at night on a beach in Spain. I didn’t understand it, so she asked to speak to Millie and tried to explain it to her. She didn’t understand it either. The main gist of it seems to be that they’re still not coming back yet.

Millie went back to her room after that, and I put on Johnny Cash.

I never listened to Johnny Cash, he was always Anthony’s favourite.

Linda

~

Dear Robbie Benson,

Millie was very excited to see your show mentioned in another magazine today. I bought it for her. She was excited again when we got home and found a message from her mother asking us to call her back.

We did. Moira said that she’d been thinking long and hard about her epiphany, and she had written some things down, and she wanted to try explaining it again. Millie listened politely, though I sensed that it wasn’t going any better this time.

When there was a break, Millie started telling her mother about how good she was at putting on makeup now, and how we’d been looking today for a special sparkly eyeshadow palette she’s seen in a magazine. Moira started speaking again, her tone quite different this time, and saying some very unpleasant things from what I could hear. You’d think Millie had said she was going to move to Paris to dance at the Moulin Rouge.

Millie tried to say that she had only wanted to look pretty, and Moira really lost it. Shouting, her voice breaking. Millie had started to cry too. I took the phone from her, and told Moira to call back when she had calmed down. I recommended that she have a cup of strong tea. Then I hung up.

I suppose I’m still on my first round of parenting, after all.

Do you have children?

Linda

~

Dear Robbie Benson,

Millie and I watched that Disney film you were in. We rented it from the library and watched it while eating fish and chips from out of their newspaper wrappings, no plates. We’d both seen it before, but I hadn’t realised you were in it. It’s very good. You should be very proud of yourself.

Tomorrow, she’s agreed to watch one of my favourite films, with Tony Curtis, to whom I vaguely recall once writing a letter.

I hope you’re well.

Yours,

Linda

paint

There’s usually paint on my fingers

flecks, specks of cerulean, rose madder

like I climbed the sky’s ladder

rushed and brushed up against a sunset

crimson and wine dipped,

yes, dripping onto the floor,

yes, good, please smear that everywhere

I’m trying to pretend I’ve no reason to care if

my clothes are office ready

steady go

I’m making something here. What career?

/leans back, tipping chair/ I’m in the flow.

There’s usually paint on my notebooks

you’ll have to take my word that that word

was a work of genius, as now it’s just

an ochre smudge

/scrawls “what is art?” across a wall

as though that was somehow deep/

this is all mine

and you don’t get to judge.

It’s these gold marks, these sparks

that hold me apart

promising this artist’s a part of something

bigger than herself

/pretends not to hear you when you ask what/

There’s usually paint on my fingers

just one movement, colour falls

builds up against the walls, the windows,

/insists “it’s immersive!” to no-one in particular/

layered on layers to block out the light

if it’s on thick enough, perhaps you won’t see

the canvas, a bare square of white.