You are not tall enough. Not big enough either, nor fast enough. Not talented at playing football enough, especially, to get on the team for which you are once again passed over (or, if not the football team, something more appropriate to your interests, perhaps hockey, or debating, or chess). The coach, your school’s large, cigarette smoking science teacher pulls you aside and says quietly, softly, so closely you can see the yellow that stains his teeth:
‘Maybe next year. And in the meantime we can always use someone to help keep time and cut the oranges, if you want to get your foot in the door for next year’
And in return you say nothing, nod meekly, make a noise that might be interpreted as:
It is not okay though, not even close, so when you come home that afternoon the very first thing you do is draw. A single sheet of white, unlined, A4 paper is the canvas. Each of the 24 colour pencils given to you last Christmas is a brush. You sit down at your small wooden desk. Gazing down at you are bands whose names you do not know and whose music you have never listened to, torn from your sister’s magazines and sticky-taped to the wall. Those pictures are not like this one though, you think, as pencil comes to paper. First comes you, of course, right in the middle of the page. Second comes the football wedged in under your right arm. Third come the teammates, each looking up with reverence towards you, standing there in the centre. Fourth comes the coach, the science teacher, he of the stale cigarettes and “maybe next year”s who you draw only to erase, quickly replace with the school’s new German teacher. Fifth comes the school, the hockey oval, the skyline and everything else. It takes a long time to draw all this (and if you can’t draw don’t worry — maybe you write it down in a story instead) but you want to make sure that everything is done just right, and it is — the drawing is accurate, lifelike and yet has the sparkle that life sometimes so lacks. You could almost reach out and touch it. Not yet though. Now it is time for dinner, you are told, as you trudge up the hall and into the dining room. Your parents are full of concern when they hear the news, and encouragement too, and helpful advice and perhaps a little something else, a thing that you do not like but cannot quite yet name:
‘But you wanted so badly to be in the school football team, just like your old man’
‘That’s so sad honey, but I’m sure there are lots of other teams to join’
‘Maybe we can find a football team around the area that you can join, get some practice so you can really show em next time’
You say nothing, in return, but look glumly at the roast beef and three varieties of steamed vegetables cooling slowly in front of you, and say:
‘Thanks Mum and Dad’
or maybe it was just:
but it’s hard to say really. You go to bed early, unwilling to wait any longer. You find a roll of sticky tape, run your thumb around its circumference for the end of the roll and dig, picking at the tape and and ripping small pieces off. Some of these pieces stick together as you rip at them, and are discarded to lie uselessly on the table, so you dig some more until finally you have four. You climb on top of your bed, press the drawing flat against the wall, then fix it there with a piece of sticky tape in each corner. You lie down. Sleep comes quickly.
You wake, smiling, secure in the knowledge that you will soon be the captain of the football team. You go do timekeeping, of course, and orange cutting, stick it out there for three months or so. Then, when another player breaks their leg you are the natural choice to replace them on the team. You’re surprisingly good at football, far better than in the trials, and you get on well with your teammates. Elections for Captain are held sometime next year, where your meteoric rise and underdog story give you a shot, which you do not miss.
So here you are, standing in front of the school with a football wedged under your arm, your teammates looking at you with reverence. The light sparkles off of the dew on the grass. It’s early, and you’re tired. It was another early morning weekend start today, to play against a team from another district. The game went well, you think, but there’s a lot of admin for you and the coach to do afterwards. The German teacher doesn’t really know anything about football, so a lot of the extra work is falling on you. You shrug off another invitation to hang out after the game — there’s already too much to do, and you don’t like the company of your teammates enough to fall any farther behind. You got another C on your history test on Friday and still haven’t told your parents. You don’t really care about the sequence of events leading up to the Russian Revolution, mind you, but you have to do something after the football team, which even now is starting to grate. You were too focused on getting to captain of the football team to ask whether you would like it once you got there, you realise, and the answer is that you don’t. This answer echoes a little as you walk home that day, autumn leaves falling all around in red and gold. You ignore your parents and their questions, ignore your older sister playing music in her room, ignore everything but the piece of paper sitting neatly on your desk. You pick up a pencil. First comes you, sitting at a desk, very much like the desk you’re sitting at now, but with laptop in place of paper. Second come books, expensive and weighty books piled high on your either side. Third come the glasses, circular frames sitting slightly askew on your nose. Fourth comes a sheet of paper strewn casually over one of the books, an A+ emblazoned neatly in the top right corner. Fifth is the university library surrounding you, students working away at desks and huge bookshelves flowing over with weighty tomes, a sunlit lawn visible through one of the large windows behind you. You’ve never been to any university library, don’t know which one this picture depicts, but are secure in the knowledge that this is a library within the grounds of the most prestigious and selective university in your city and/or state. This drawing is even better than the hockey field, better than all those you’ve drawn from then till now for things too small and petty to recount. This has a depth that prior pieces lacked, you think, with pride, as you tape it over your bed as before. And then you go up to dinner, where your parents pole you and prod you and poke you and goad you until you tell them:
Your father says, only half a question, and your mother will say words that you don’t quite make out over the now quite audible beating of blood through your veins. Your sister stares down at her plate into the lasagna, congealing slowly. You leave the table with tears in your eyes, slamming the door on your way down to your room. Anguish wracks your body as you twist and contort and roll from side to side in bed. Then, exhausted, you rest.
You sleep for the longest time. And then you wake up, a few hours or a few seconds later, assured in your future status as a high achiever. You quit the football team and start studying in the school library into the late hours of the early evening. That history test is the last C you recieve in your life. From here you get A after A. You get those glasses, too, once the long nights of squinting into your textbooks start to add up. You ace your final exams, and though you do not quite know what you want to do you accept a place in the course which is the hardest to get in to: a double-degree of arts and law. There you continue, a big fish growing to fill bigger and bigger ponds, eating the little pellets of As and A+s dropped to you from above.
And so you find yourself in that library, surrounded by heavy books on either side, crushed by the weight of another rejection email. Another field of exceptional candidates whose skills were better suited to the role. Another 6 hours of applications and resumes and interviews wasted, it turns out, for you. You look around at the University’s new library, exactly as you had drawn it, down at the A+ paper and across at the piled books, and wonder what all of this was for. You look behind you towards the sunlit lawn. How far it is. You are tired of these books, tired of constructing unseen links between the under-read works of dead, white men. You wish to do something of substance, you think. The rejection email contains a phone number to call should the unsuccessful interviewee want feedback which, once you are outside, your laptop packed away and the library stairs descended and the number called, puts you through to a human resources professional who in exact and forcefully compassionate sentences tells you something like:
‘We were very impressed by your application, and would have loved to have you on the team, but the field of candidates this year was really very exceptional and we went with a group whose skills were better suited to the role’
You reply, or maybe it was:
‘Thank you for your time’
Or perhaps even:
‘Well, I’m very happy to have gotten this far, please keep me in mind for future vacancies that may become available’
and who can really say. Not you, you of the shaking hands and the blurred vision and beating heart. You put your glasses back on with your shaking hands, confused at the intensity of your despair. Most of the lawyers you have met seem at least subtly unhappy, and the ones you gel with most are also those who warn you, at least cryptically, against becoming one yourself. Yet still it draws you in somehow, and once so drawn the benefits seem to stack up. You walk home slowly under the auburn leaves. You really have to move out of your parents’ house, you think, sidling past them on your way into your room. It’s different now, of course — no more posters blue-tacked to the walls, no more footballs piled in the corner. There are still textbooks stacked against the bed though, and there, in the corner, your desk. Another blank, A4 sheet of paper is laid flat on the wood. First comes you, as always, sitting down this time in a modest but expensive looking suit. Second comes your desk, two desktop screens arranged in a peculiar geometry on top of it which you understand will become clear later. Third are the documents piled in tall but neat piles to one side of you — contracts, pleadings and cases (or whatever another, more personally relevant profession might consist of). Fourth comes your watch, you realise, an expensive watch bought with excellent taste, a watch befitting a promising young professional clambering quickly up the pile. Fifth comes the view, a panoramic skyline of the city from 50 floors up. Each stroke gives you joy. There is emotion in this one, a drama that the others lacked. Your eyes gaze at the screens in front of you, imperious and alert. The sweeping vista erupts in the distance unseen. But that is then and now, now it is time for dinner. You say nothing, stay quiet, keep mum about any exciting job developments, yet still:
‘So how’s the job-hunt going?’
your father asks, in a hopeful tone, to which you reply something like:
as you struggle not to cry. You sink into the chair as your mother suggests that:
‘You should probably dry-clean your suit, too, first impressions are very important after all’
to which you do not feel you can respond. The silence hangs, empty, as you eat a piece of over-steamed cauliflower. Your sister, who has left university to become an experimental ambient artist, with some productions currently in the works, you hear, from the other side of your bedroom wall, reaches out for your hand under the table, and softly squeezes. You don’t feel any happier, not really, but still there is nothing in this world you would not have traded for that second of warmth. You squeeze back and then get up, mumble an apology, leave the table, walk back down to your room. You are tired of this, you think, so tired all the time now, yet still somehow you struggle to get to sleep. But you do.
And then you wake up, knowing with utter certainty that someday soon you will gaze out over that skyline. You will suck up your mix of pride and shame and give your next cover letter to a friend to proofread. You have the wrong year in the subject line, they say, and with a peculiar mix of devastation and relief you notice that this same mistake is present in all of your cover letters. Once it is gone you will get an interview, and then another, and another, and before you quite know what has happened you will have signed a contract, started your job at a highly reputable multinational law firm, and have spent three years of minimum 12-hours days working high above the clouds, your social, emotional and physical health slowly crumbling.
And that’s how you get here, in your office, as awake as it is possible to be while having only slept for three hours a night since Monday. It is Thursday now, you think. You look down at your watch and see that it is 2 o’clock. The reflection of the sunlit city skyline imposes itself on your desktop screen, so that must be 2pm: You think about getting up to close the blinds, and don’t. There’s work to be done, glare or no, though the nature of that work is impossible to determine exactly. You know that it involves a very large collection of shell companies, on the one hand, and know also of even larger number, on the other, representing the value of unpaid employee entitlements as at the liquidation of the company. You have very almost nearly drafted a contract to underwrite a loan to acquire collateral to facilitate the purchase of another, additional shell company or, more precisely, network of associated shell companies. Your eyes are having trouble focusing on the screen. You think you need to lie down but you can’t, there’s too much work to get done, and you are too sleep deprived to do the work quickly enough that there will also be time to rest. You sense a contradiction here, somewhere, but cannot now deconstruct it. You are tired, after all, so very tired, more tired somehow than ever before. Tired too, you think, of helping construct shell companies for the local subsidiaries of huge, transnational corporations. This is perhaps not really what you wanted to end up doing when you started law school, perhaps not really the life you envisaged for yourself. But the drawing was lacking in certain details, and something, after all, had to fill those in. Still, thinking now, it is clear that a change is necessary. A grand renunciation is coming, you feel, as you stare with slow, simmering self-hatred at the computer screen, the sun glinting off the buildings behind you and below. A different job, yes: something noble, public spirited even. There is plenty of time to ponder the inadequacy of this life. The days grow shorter this time of year, and it has been dark for a long time by the time you finally descend the 50 floors of the skyscraper in which you work. You walk back to your inner suburban apartment, the city gutters choked with leaves. Your parents call. The huge towers surrounding you on all sides block the signal though, so your father’s voice crackles with static as he asks:
‘So how’s that fancy job of yours going? You know you really make your mother and I proud’
of which still you understand the gist enough to reply:
‘It’s great, I’m learning lots and really making the most of this fantastic opportunity’
at which point your mother takes the line and says:
“glad to hear you’re doing so-
And then the signal cuts out. You don’t call back. You are at your apartment now, after all, hydraulic lift ascending through another tower. You find the numbered door, enter through it, take a plastic wrapped meal from the freezer and put it in the microwave, siit down at the desk and start to draw. First comes you of course, now dressed in practical pants and boots, a helmet on your head and a lanyard dipping from your breast pocket. Second come the people around you, some dressed the same but others, sans lanyards, further in the distance and dressed far less professionally. The microwave beeps, unheard, so third come buildings, wire fences and large, sturdy tents. Fourth comes the jungle surrounding this scene on all its sides, puddles of water at your feet. Fifth come your boots, sturdy boots, fit for a strider through serious and desperate situations. And there you are. An aid worker, a humanitarian, a helper of the needy, doer of deeds both noble and public spirited. The drawing drips with restrained emotion that never quite verges on the sentimental, you think. You can feel the need of those hungry people you’re feeding, though you never do think to simply draw them with food, are warmed already by the glow you feel in the drawing. Then the microwave is remembered, the plastic food reheated, again, and consumed. Sleep comes slowly, your mind lost, wandering for too long in that nice, warm glow.
And then you wake up, knowing that soon all of this will be left behind. You volunteer for a pro-bono project your firm is working on, a project which summarises the regulatory frameworks for NGOs working in various developing countries. You take a bigger and bigger role on this project, and through it you get into regular email contact with some people in the field. Once you’ve established enough trust with them you send out a few personal emails sounding out the opportunities over there. They could always use someone with your skills and of your calibre, you think, they say, and before you know it you’ve given your month’s notice, bought a plane ticket and arrived in ‘the field’.
And now you are wet, as wet, surely, as it is possible for a human to be, as well as miserable, frustrated, and burnt-out. It has seeped into even your boots, you realise, your socks, your feet and even your bones. You are hungry too, though not as hungry as the people here being helped by you. They haven’t seemed all that appreciative, you think, the few that you’ve met. You’ve been too busy setting up tents, coordinating supply lines, filling in spreadsheets, summarising regulatory requirements to really tell. No-one’s really noticed you, either, out here where everyone is an aid-worker, dressed like you, where you are counted merely as the least experienced of them all. People had been really impressed when you’d left the firm though, envy gleaming in their eyes and pent up dreams stirring angrily against their breast. You try to think back to that, to the feeling you’d had setting out but it doesn’t come, quite, and if it does it doesn’t help. That’s okay though. After all, here you are, someone who is helping. And don’t get you wrong now, you love being here, helping the most vulnerable people in the world — it’s great, it’s cool and you feel really challenged, you repeat to yourself. But maybe, the theme varying, just maybe your skills might be better used elsewhere. Why are we so under-resourced out here, after all? Why do we have so little to share? Surely the problem lies at home instead, you recite to yourself, already imagining yourself delivering these lines, on TV perhaps, or in front of a cheering crowd. This, this certainly helps. Your allotted time to Skype home comes up. Your parents’ faces appear on the laptop screen but you can’t hear them. You decide to run with the conversation anyway, pretend that nothing’s wrong, because if you hold it together then nothing can be wrong. Your father’s lips move in such a way that he could be saying:
‘I can’t believe it! You’ve calling all the way from half-way across the world and we can see you just like that! We’re both so proud of you.’
to which you reply:
‘I’m having a great time, it’s really amazing to be able to be able to help those in need and give back to those who need it most’
to which your mother’s lips soundlessly reply:
‘It’s so great to hear about all the amazing work you’re doing over there. I’m so glad to have raised someone who understands the value in helping others’
that other someone being your sister, currently living in Berlin. You open an email from her asking how you are doing, how long you think you’ll be away for, whether you need anything. You will respond later. You have only a black biro now, and that is all that you need. You pick up a piece of blank, unlined paper and place it on the foldout table in front of you. First comes you, facing away, wearing a suit tailored to look far less expensive than it is. Second come the microphones bustling to catch the faintest hint of your voice, and the TV cameras craning to drink in the smallest sip of your face. Third come the advisers, off-side, phones in hand and bluetooth headsets in ear. Fourth comes the lectern, the raised stage, the auditorium and the banners which line its every inch. Fifth comes the crowd, hundreds strong with your name on its lips. Even in monochrome it is a sight to behold. The sharp lines and deep blacks give it a power, a force, a determination, you think, that here is someone who knows what they are here on earth to accomplish. Someone who does great and important things. You walk back though the mud to your tent, the ground still wet but your body no longer cold, warmed by the glorious future you know is coming. The spreadsheets can wait, you’re pretty sure. You sticky-tape the drawing above your sleeping mat, lie down, and let the darkness take you.
And when you wake up you can almost hear the applause. And somehow you get it, again, and there they are, again, applauding and clapping and cheering, echoing round the hall till all are one. Your ears are deaf to everything but the beating of the blood through your veins. You look out over the crowd and see nothing, no-one, a swarm of opinions much less than the sum of its parts. In the television cameras you see only yourself, reflected back at you out of the darkness, manoeuvred out of all your dreams and promises, over before you even begun. You, someone. Yet always less and less. When was the world drained of colour, you think, staring into the black reflected out of the camera lenses. When did you drain the world of its colour, you realise, with a start, but there is no time now to think on this as now it’s time to speak. You see your mother and father in the crowd. They are yelling your name in time with the rest of the crowd, you see, wearing the same campaign t-shirts, with you on them. Your smug, grinning face gazes up a thousandfold at you as you say, in a voice amplified so loudly that you do not recognise it as your own, something like:
‘I would like to thank you all for coming down here tonight, and for putting in so much work over the last few months, and weeks. We ran an amazing campaign. Each time I looked around the HQ I always saw people giving 110% — the phone bank volunteers, the door-knockers, the campaign managers, and most of all mum and dad, who are here today, who’ve been working hard to get me here not just for weeks, or months, but for years and even decades [scattered laughter breaks out, but not quite as much as you’d imagined]. Without them I would never be standing where I am now. And tonight we should celebrate. But tomorrow we get down to work. Because the hard work is only beginning. Winning is the easy part. The hard work is governing, representing, delivering all that we built our campaign on, and ensuring that we leave this place in much better shape than we found it in [Applause like rain]. I have been humbled to be elected to represent you all, and will govern for all people within it. With your help I know I can do it!’
but it’s difficult to remember, exactly, what you said. You’ve never liked public speaking that much. The speech itself was written by a staffer, one of the people in dark suits watching from off stage. They are saying things into their bluetooth headsets, things whose meaning you cannot decipher, and with panic you wonder what piece of you they’re tearing off now. This wasn’t what you wanted. This wasn’t what you wanted. This wasn’t what you wanted but that’s okay, it’s alright, it’s fine, just relax a little, have fun, have a drink, have three, have five have eight. You thank each person individually, you think, with their right names, you’re sure, for their contributions and all of their hard work, and they all thank you, express their admiration in neat, forcefully grateful sentences. And so the night goes on, and on, and on so you’re a little unsteady on your feet as you wander near the end of the night into an anteroom. There’s a fold-out desk here, a sheet of lined paper and a small grey-lead pencil. You think for a drunken moment about the life that you want to be living, a life more authentic, you think, more independent, a rugged individual whose words, really listened to, stick in people’s hearts and heads, and then it is set. First comes you, brow furrowed and pen in hand, much like now, hunched over a desk much like this. Second is the laptop and no, no, no, you think, erasing it with the end of the pencil and with the other putting in a typewriter instead. Third come the sheafs of paper piled high to either side. Fourth comes the big, heavy bookcase in the background, filled with books of you and others. Fifth comes a framed piece of paper, you’re not quite sure from where, with an award, bestowing you’re not quite sure yet what. Even on lined paper, after 8 glasses of wine and in simple, ballot-bubble-filling pencil it is beautiful. Dark, shaded grey swirls in shadows round you. Whatever kind of book you have written — though you’re not quite sure what it will be yet — you know that it will be a work of pure, unambiguous genius. You feel yourself suffuse the paper, the lines, the absences and gaps, your dreams pouring down into the image becoming real or is it the other way around, you ponder, briefly, as you put the pencil down. But then you see that your minders are distracted, and know that you’ve schmoozed so much more than you can take, so you sneak out the side to take a cab home, the drawing tucked neatly in a jacket pocket. You stumble into your apartment, pin the image to the wall above your bed and turn your phone onto aeroplane mode, just a few moments before you would have received a message of slightly ironic congratulations from your sister, and go to sleep.
And then you wake up as a future writer, a writer-to-be, a writer in waiting, filled with high hopes for this glorious future somehow, still, even after all this time, still not getting it so yes, yes now you are crying, crying tears that you think should really be from happiness. You have done it again after all — the book sits in front of you on the desk, the award hangs above you on the wall. The reviews are in:
‘One of the most powerful and unique voices in modern literature’
‘A powerful call to authentic human action’
‘an exciting debut from a politician-turned-writer who we expect great things from in the future’
and many others too insipid to be worth repeating here.
They are jealous, you see, jealous of you for getting to live this perfect life, and in this they are wrong. All wrong. You hate writing, just like you hated politicking. Just like you hated aid-working, and lawyering, and study. Just like you hated that football team.
You look at your old drawings, lying there uselessly on the table — you as the football captain, you as the high-achiever, you as the lawyer, you as the humanitarian, you as the politician, you as the writer. You look into them, deeply, search in vain for the slightest flaw. With what greater art could they have been sketched? With what better detail could they have been filled? With what more ambitious images might they have been inscribed? The pictures stare back: perfect, silent, and still. The room around you is cold and grey, and you wonder what there is left of the world beyond its walls. Yet still you reach for the pencil, and the blank sheet of paper, and ask yourself for what you want to be, this time — a university professor, maybe, with a scientific discovery, a Nobel prize even, a child, a white picket fence. But as pencil touches paper you feel again the anguish rise within, feel the breath of the void cold on your cheek. You still don’t know what your book is about. Just another one of the details that was inevitably left out. They are just pictures after all, and cannot be a substitute for the life they depict. They fall to the floor, dropped one by one out of shaking fingers, leaving only the blank sheet of paper from before. You are old now, and your parents are dead. You are still crying, you think. A piece is playing in the background, something beautiful and sad, and you remember that it’s of her’s. And so you pick up the pencil again, firmer this time. A smile touches your lips as pencil meets the paper. This time you do not draw yourself, nor any life you could be living, nor anything really, certainly not yourself as an artist. This time you just draw.