Since my early twenties I have been an avid watcher of arthouse films.
A Passion, Czech Slapstick and Mute belong to a series of prose ruminations in which in which mediated (cinematic) experience and immediate (biographical) experience are given equal value.
Sharing a piece of meat. Calling his mate – his friend? – calling this one's attention to a woman going past. They were on a train, under ground. In their late twenties, a bit overweight. She on the platform. A bid for rank. No display of submission permitted. “I like the coat”, implying, not the face.
The coat was mini-length, huge checks, swinging out from a mandarin collar. Her mother had made it. The two women – her Czech contemporaries – ran out of the tunnel in polka dot dresses, white faces all sooted and the big dots jumping from black on white to white on black. The continuous clatter of stiletto heels was patched onto silence, as were the creaks of un-oiled parts when they raised their arms, sunning in spotted and gingham bikinis. Except for the giggles, also sewn on, they were entirely without self-consciousness. Running up and down the carpeted stairs with legs ballooning and thinning down to twigs. Down to the panelled dining room where we'd arrived at seven in the morning, having set out at four to get across the border. It was still before dawn. Starched cloths on circular tables, waiters in waistcoats and ankle-length aprons. The man with the big mouth ordered in Russian which he spoke well enough to understand the soldiers though he'd had to keep that hidden. He'd smoked the first cigarette of his life, holding it towards him between finger and thumb, knowing no working man would turn down a smoke. Back in the village the wife was fighting. Fought them off, two of them. So she said. So she must have done. But if she had failed, would she have told him? What good would that have been? Put another slice of cheese on that bread and let him get that in his mouth, it might bring him to a halt.
In the restaurant the customers have their meal messed up. She takes in both hands a roasted chicken. When the very long scissors come out her muscles involuntarily contract. The sausages are snipped and handed round on the tip of the blades, just between the two of them, a female feast. Finished with fingers she takes one between her toes; they look very much the same, her toes, the blunt sausage, and she snips it in half with those very long blades. Too many pairs of scissors in this scene. Even the eyes of the one with the bunches widen as the other cuts into her bodice, just below the breasts. Some memories are better not revived. But history is always being written to the same old script; the soldiers lounging in silk covered chairs, boots on the carpet of the vanquished palace, the statue hauled down, their own flag raised. The women in the basement. A little boy looks over his shoulder at the camera, grinning with complicity. Her stomach turns. They were feeding people through the big saws; black, white, they no longer cared. Later she developed the ability to eat through accounts of any atrocity. What made the others in the restaurant sick was the consumption of the gateau before the chicken.
And they didn't wash their hands after pulling the chain. Went straight out the door or over to the mirror. Even the angel whose shoulder blades, as she lifted her elbows to touch up her face, were visible through her deep-backed dress, hadn't touched a tap. Then they put their fingers in the food. Stirred it around before stuffing it in, working through a table of three dozen covers. A thin-soled shoe grinding the food into the plates, one after the other. Splattering all over the chairs and the carpet. Milk slopped onto the front of her dress as she threw her head back, slurped it out of the tumbler in a single draught. Even dry-cleaning wouldn't get that out.
Work made the banquet set out in the hotel. The hush of the fully laid up tables before the doors are opened. The last task before going home, so that anyone looking in the windows the next morning will see white tablecloths and shining cutlery. Working in relay, the phrases go across the space of the room, as each person puts down their allotted item. “You'd have thought she'd have come back, just to say ‘Hello'”. “Well, you know, when she went I had a funny feeling......” The calm of these acres; the unviolated pattern of the placings. Can't replicate that with broken crockery. Four pieces of plate are not a plate. A mess scraped off the floor is not a meal. Craters and rubble is not a nation.
The tunnel is now completely grassed up. Dead end. Wall. Shaded arch of brickwork invisible to the cars that run across the top. Hard to accept the finality of that block, the way the path where the tracks used to be gives out. Like the rails in the middle of a wood that suddenly go up into air. Finito.
He put the plugs in his ears after carefully unfolding and reading the packet information. It described the noise of machinery, the stress of work on the conveyor belt, alarms of modern living, infractions of traffic, but failed to mention his particular problem. He'd worked out himself that they'd do the trick. And the noise cut out.
The field of vision was still full of faces but they were mouthing, ingesting and shouting as they had been all along, but now we couldn't hear them. A relief. No indication that in reality the wax dampens the background but isolates the main annoyance, so the voice of the digital base-beat is there on its own still audible - louder, even. Only an ear plugged and pressed hard against the pillow can make the dominant noise retreat.
The silence was good. Laudable, this thirteen-year-old's self-sufficiency. Though the film cheated by turning on the sound again intermittently, so we heard her ask, “Is it me or is it you who's going to see to the car?” and she had to keep asking. And then her gasps, her groans, her bleats as she lay injured at the bottom of the stairs while the boy took the lift and went out into the street completely unaware. Out there it was, visually, business as usual. Traffic lights. Black. Credits. Rewind.
I reached up to remove the plugs from my ears. Baffled, for the instant, not to find any.
Bio: Mary Michaels was born in London and studied arts and philosophy at Bristol University. After a short time in the USA she returned to London where she has since lived and worked. She was a founder member of the feminist artists' group Sister-Seven , and of the New Studies Poets in Philadelphia where she also worked on a weekly poetry programme on public service radio. She was a poetry reviewer for the London magazine City Limits and has published articles on women writers and artists. Her poetry has been widely published in magazines and anthologies including the Arts Council/Pen New Poetry series. Her book The Shape of the Rock published in 2003 (Sea Cow) brings together new work with poems from her five pamphlet collections.