The Cure For Sleep: Size & Shape
Season 1, 006: arriving at a right fit in our skin, our circumstances
“This is a book of women and words; homes and honesty; light and longing. A life laid bare, held to the morning light and given to us as reminder of what it means to choose to live. Shadrick weaves the raw beauty of the day to day with the magic of myth and fairy tale to offer us way through the darkest woods”
Kerri ní Dochartaigh, author of Thin Places
This month’s advance extract from The Cure For Sleep is about size & shape: what it takes to arrive at a sense of right fit in our skin, our circumstances. How it feels to be without that. After reading, do share a short true tale of your own - no more than 300 words – on this theme in the comments section.
Read the Season One stories contributed by readers over on The Cure For Sleep website: bedtime stories | memory games | bonding | choosing | promises | size & shape | time | desire | regret | faith | rebirth
The shadow of the wild woman dying back in the West Country, too ill to edit her swim diaries: this cast my own late and very public attempt at storytelling into even sharper relief, so that I became still more ambitious for it. The poolside mile of writing was my single best chance to create a lasting life as an artist, one that might begin to pay enough through grants or commissions to keep me outdoors for good.
And so I needed to amplify my quiet presence beside the water of my small town’s lido. Just as O’Keeffe came to prominence as a painter when her lover Stieglitz exhibited her canvases alongside exquisite nudes he’d made of her, so I must create an iconography for my work: images that could travel beyond the brick and flint walls of the pool and make strangers stop their online scrolling to look, then read.
But to seek and brief a photographer was a terribly shy exercise for an ignored daughter grown old. To have a man pay me close attention had always been my dearest wish, but to ask for it? As difficult to voice as the wild woman had found her end-of-life regrets.
There was just one person I felt able to approach: a father who’d had children in the same nursery as my own, whose family photographs shared on social media were lit so that the everyday seemed infused with a sacred aspect. A loving husband and a proud parent of daughters, I admired his manner too – the kind of man I’d have liked to be raised by, if such choice were ever given.
Like the sculptor, he understood within moments everything I was trying to achieve, saying yes to me as swiftly as I had to the wild woman. There was a condition, though: he wouldn’t charge for his time, but I did need to hand him my whole trust, setting aside any received ideas of my best angle, a pleasing smile. Yes?
Yes, I said, it being my season of agreeing to strange bargains for the hopeful feeling, light as thistledown, that came from making them.
How at ease he made me feel, so that I felt able to say what even Nye didn’t know: that each time my father drove past me, unheeding, in the small town where I’d lived, I felt myself a stray dog or a piece of litter. That I fell into compensatory dreams of being an object of use or beauty – a jug of hedgerow flowers on a tablecloth, a willow-pattern plate. And so these scrolls and my kneeling to them was not only a response to my near-death and wish to live more vividly ever since, but also – at a far deeper level – a chance to remake myself. To assume my right size and shape at last. To claim authority. To be seen. Did he understand?
He did, entrusting to me stories of his own childhood as we began work, so I could laugh and feel natural despite our unusual business. Conversation, my comfort zone.
But then, with our hours of filming almost at their end, he asked me simply to stand still, and straight, against a white wall. To look unsmiling into the lens, naked of make-up.
I’d already floated, face to the sky, and swum laps while he filmed me from underwater. Had knelt at my scrolls, pen in hand, before shaking out a length of the paper like laundry. Bizarre things, all in view of pool-goers. This should have been the work of minutes, and yet it triggered in me a backwash of old miseries: all the many times I’d hated my face in a mirror or my body in clothes.
How much I wanted to end the session then, breaking my promise.
(Oh these brief but decisive moments when we step from shame into whatever lies on the other side. Each one never easier than the last.)
‘Give me a moment, I can feel tears coming. This is horribly hard. Look away, will you?’ I had to close my eyes then, bending over to ready myself. Diver on a high board.
‘OK. Let’s go.’
It was only a camera, a man, and me in middle age. But the sensation was one of freefall, release. A corset torn off and thrown aside.
The writing continued steadily after this as before but the woman doing it parted ways with doubt, deference, disguise. No more being modest, playing small.
I had learned, so late, to stand unadorned and look the world in the eye. To see and be seen in an equal exchange of gazes.
How wild I felt, how free.
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Size and shape
It all seemed to start with dreams of big headed, small bodied people I had as a kid. They felt strange and unmentionable. What could I say? I never heard of anyone else having these dreams, seeing these odd figures. So was I odd? What did their dreams look like?
Now days and years and moments take shape in my head, fill my thoughts. They float in or tumble around.
When writing in my diary I always put the day at the top of the page, not just because you did that at school on a Monday when you wrote your “news”, but because it reminds me of the feel of the time, a little flag of the possible mood.
I run and I measure the time by the feel of a night shift. The ones I work through as a children’s nurse. The first part of the run matches the busy section of the night, the beginning where you meet the patients and their family. You meet their fear, their joy at recovery or their deep despair at life changing diagnoses.
Then there’s the middle section-you’ve travelled some distance, you have a rhythm know where you’re heading. But home and sleep feels far away. Will you make it in one piece?
At last there’s an uplift, it’s 5.30 and you can begin to feel the end of the night, the start of the day. You can almost smell the freshness of the next shift, the perfume, the recently showered and the clear heads ready to problem solve, to send the well home. The run is nearly over.
So is this size and shape of time universal? Did those odd people walking in my dreams ever visit anyone else? I don’t mind sharing so much now, in fact I’m intrigued by others head spaces , not scared of my own or theirs anymore.
SUB FUSC - St Hugh’s College, Oxford, October 1977
I felt preposterous in my black and white plumage. My silly little pretend mortar board, my velvet length of ribbon looped over my shirt collar, dark tights already slipping down, the gown that came down to my waist. I had walked the streets for ages gathering the courage to go into the shop to purchase it. There had been no handout, no typed sheet sent in advance to warn of its purpose, necessity and cost. If you didn’t know, if you had to worry about the expense, you didn’t belong. If you belonged, you asked no questions. But I had many. and lacked only the courage to tell my truth, that a streak of skepticism born in the terraces of Lancashire wanted to snort with laughter at the whole idea of dressing up like this.
The only thing I could cling onto on this surreal morning of Matriculation was that for once everyone would be on foot. I wouldn’t have to walk alone because I couldn’t ride a bike. God knows I’d tried, all through that summer, but my hands and feet stubbornly went their separate ways, and my lack of balance on two wheels excluded me from far more than my accent. Today, for the first time in the last ten days, I would appear to fit into the crowd. And appearance was all I asked. Nobody needed to know about the reality, that I was floating in a helium balloon far above all this, dizzy from all the meals I’d been unable to face, watching it happen to someone other than myself.
As we crocodiled down the Banbury Road we were joined by chattering penguins from other colleges, gradually becoming louder and more pompous as we neared Broad Street. Eventually we became numerous enough to constitute our own reality, part of the glass bubble that surrounded Oxford in my mind. Two feelings tugged me apart - one that there had to be more to this glittering prize than a cold room in a spartan hall with oilcloth on the floor and a bathroom where rusty water came out of the pipes, and one that all this was far too grand and refined a place for a provincial Northerner like me, that there had been some mistake, that my silence in social situations would be noted any day now and mark me out as an interloper, who had no conception of years of boarding school and a world where parents provided things like smart shoes. Others could effortlessly unravel the linguistic code that called exams Collections and a silly little robe “sub fusc”. What they didn’t know, they would dare to ask, from generations of fathers and elder brothers. It seemed to me that the facade was deliberate, designed to frighten and silence the uninitiated. In many ways I already loathed the place, found its customs ridiculous, felt no desire to be a part of it. But I remembered my English teacher throwing her arms around me after the news reached my school, and talking about the lovely years ahead of me, as if there would be no work, no anxiety, no throwing up in the morning after breakfast, just an idyll of punting and champagne. It never occurred to me at the time that my instinct was right, and hers was wrong.