Saturday 14 December 2013

Sick Notes

'Sick Notes' by Gwendoline Riley was picked up in a charity shop, probably simply because she is a local writer. It is the story of Esther who has come back, we know not where from, to a flat in Manchester that she shares with her friend Donna. Pretty much she mooches around for a few months, sleeps with a few people, gets drunk a lot, stares at the ceiling, hides under the grubby duvet and doesn't really know what to do with the rest of her life. And then it ends. She does mention having a bath at one point but the book left me with an urgent need to wash my hands, which is possibly the most unusual reaction I have had to a piece of literature. 

This description from a brief stint at a boarding school where she meets Donna sets the tone somehow:
"At mealtimes we carried our food in moulded trays to large round tables. We poured glasses of squash from a huge jug. It was unwieldy, loosing its centre of gravity in those small hands and short arms, so the drinks as always sloshing out, sticking the paper cloth to the Formica then dripping over the table lip onto our laps. Whenever I spilt I heard my mum saying, 'You've never understood liquids, have you?' " (p.25) 

And from there we move to a description of her mother's hoarding habit, her obsessive inability to throw anything away:
"One afternoon when I was skipping school I was making myself a cup of tea and I threw out a carton of sour milk. While the fridge door was open I found myself going though all the shelves in there, dropping jars of furry jam, a cracked block of cheese, my brother's half-finished turkey steak (that she'd put in a jiffy bag a week ago) into the bin too. I emptied the rotting contents of a stack of plastic tubs, and then from one cupboard I threw out a dozen empty jam jars, a box of pellet-dry raisins and a bag of grub infested flour." (p.34)

Everywhere just has this feeling of neglect, even squalor, as if people are only passing through, not stopping long, so it's not worth their trouble to take any care. This is the bar, where Donna works (and this seems to be describing the scene shown in the front cover image):
"I take my drink to one of the empty tables near the back of the room; lean back then lay back on it. I feel its viscid surface velcroing my coat. I lie completely still, with my mug on my chest, listening to my breathing and staring up at a tight tangle of wires falling through a hole in the patchy plaster. A sickly yellow glows in two enormous, leaded glass light shades which hang askew on gold chains." (p.43-4)

And the room she lives in:
"My room is a barren tip. The boxes are still stacked in the corners, the bare duvet is on the floor by the record player and there are half-full mugs and scraps of scrawled-on paper everywhere.
'As you can see: I'm currently - riding the crest of a slump,' I say. 'Excuse the ...'
I sweep a hand around the carnage, but he isn't looking anywhere except at me. There are unfinished books everywhere: resting open on my bed like pitched roofs, like dead birds. He picks one up as he sits down next to me." (p.93)

And then on the bus:
"Upstairs on the bus I sit in the last empty double seat. The thin air is dank and there's a breathy grey film on the windows. There's the smell of worn-out mint gum and of sweet shampoo, from the girl in front of me who is combing her wet blonde hair out over and over. I watch her and I don't think of anything. Then I watch a puddle of spilt drink in the aisle elongating with the acceleration, licking at a screwed-up sweet wrapper as the bus heaves itself away from a stop." (p.117)

I partly enjoyed the book because as she wanders she recites places and streets that are so familiar so I can visualise her environment: Market Street, Oldham Street, Hulme Asda, Central Library, the Arndale, Victoria Station, Piccadilly Gardens. It wasn't until I was browsing for quotes when I came across the reason why it is entitled Sick Notes; she refers to writing sick notes for herself for the last two years of school, and it occurred to me that the story of this interlude in her life is a kind of sick note, a made up excuse to avoid getting on with the serious business of living. I think this is why there is such a thing as Young Adult fiction, because, although I liked the book, it is such a long time since I have had things and people to be responsible for that I cannot recall what it is like to have *nothing* to do, no demands on your time and no one to consider but yourself. It was as if I was reading the thoughts of another species. 

The book is wonderfully astute and full of little details of observation that make it very immediate. I'll give you two tiny sentences that counteract the grubbiness of all the other quotes:
"When I crouch down to tie a lace that's trailing through old puddles I see how the setting sun is making sparks of the hairs on my ankles." (p.139)
"I'm reading the graffiti on the bench, fitting my thumbnail in the lines of the runic romances." (p.169)

So, what is it all about? I'm not really sure, but it did inspire me to take maybe a 'sick day' sometime, to do nothing, to wander aimlessly and see where it takes me. But the middle aged me needs a day without rain.

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