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A Glimmer of a Shell of a Husk
The following piece first appeared in print in Salvage #8: Comrades, This is Madness, our latest issue. Issue 8 is available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here, and start with the next issue (issue 9).
On furlough I behave as I would on holiday: I bring a blanket outside and lie under the blazing April sun, I read my novel, I stay hydrated, I am sunburnt. How lucky to be paid to do not all that much whilst the world shudders at me through my news app. An undercurrent of electric anxiety murmurs, stirring me. I pick at my toes, a sun hat hiding my unwashed hair. ‘Over your body the clouds go / High, high and icily / And a little flat.’
Things that may or may not be true: work has infantalised me and I am dependent on it for my sense of purpose. I am unfit for work (furloughed). Animals are becoming bolder; in the mornings I see rabbits venturing into the small carpark below my bathroom window. Time has changed, days oozing into each other and hours disappearing with nothing to show for themselves.
A key point, and one that I’ll protect from your battering ram: productivity imbues life with meaning. There are things that we can control: how many emails sent per capita, half an hour versus fifty minutes of yoga, caloric intake versus caloric burn. There are uncontrollable things: a tidal wave of emails received, rabbits in the carpark, night sweats. Productively speaking, I lean towards control. So, if not emails at work, then in a small kitchen with no window and a defunct extractor fan. Fragrant control permeates my flat and clean washing: minestrone soup, sourdough bread, coconut dal, oatmeal cookies, anchovies with garlic and cream.
On the internet I look at recipes for food, I think about successful supplementation: smoked paprika and chilli flakes for pul biber. Lay down your battering ram, let me open the door for you. After days of practice I can do a headstand. The world is out of control, but I can control my body. I’m really spoilt for choice with all these home workouts. The world is out of control, but I can tone my body. Welcome into my cavern of illusory productivity.
With the changing of time, days drifting like flat clouds, I do yoga, read my book, go for a walk, cook dinner, go for a run, think about my job, where is it and what is it. I imagine the time after this and think about the times before this, but struggle to think about this time right now, what it means, what it doesn’t mean, what is happening. Is my lack of purpose – unproductive wandering, fake-holiday – making me woolly? I fixate on my hands: are there particles there? With soap, do the particles die or do they flow into the sink and down the plughole? Have I ever been in contact with one of the particles? (Particle as celebrity: I wash my hands at the touch instead of refusing to ever wash them again.)
I find that I can’t think too closely about some things, like: what is a (rest/work/sick/holi-) day, who is key, reading for pleasure, not reading for pleasure, five years from now where do I see myself, the purpose of work contra play. Furlough is a time for self-improvement. Work is where it gets me though, because I don’t know what it is. Because I learnt about it too late, had already ingested it and now it speaks for me or I am its mouthpiece. Oh Freddie, I want to break free, although I do appreciate your style and in particular that soft pink sleeveless turtleneck.
What is life without work? What is weekend life?
Why can’t I do the splits after thirty days training? I can’t get used to living without, living without, living without you by my side.
A silk scarf that covers the ugly little coffee table in my living room is occasionally lifted by the breeze when the windows are open but is mostly held in place by three slate coasters. Out of the corner of my eye I catch it moving and imagine a slip of a ghost, a shadow moving unnaturally on the other side of the room from where I am practicing downward-facing dog. This peripheral ghost also haunts me when I’m sitting outside, little flies, bees or a dry leaf blown across the grass. I’m jumpy. I imagine that I must have high blood pressure, I wake in the middle of the night, heart racing, cold and damp. Do I just want to feel useful? Perhaps it is better for me to work and not think about these things. My mother-father work, to which I owe my life.
Time goes high, high, and slips away. Stretchy hamstrings aside, I’ve little to show for myself. I will come out of this lockdown like an idiotic babe in the woods, whilst everyone else will have lived through this time. Maybe I’ll just lie, say I did too, who’s checking up and what’s the point in living through it anyway. Perhaps that’s it: a glimmer of a shell of a husk; very little to show for my furlough.
What does it mean to be useless?
Does control make me useful?
Who is controlling what, whom?
Maya Osborne is a writer, currently based in Cambridge. She is paid to work as a publicist for Verso Books.