What we thought: You’ve arrived in Manchester, it’s raining of course, so you dash into the Cornerhouse because that’s where culturally aware people like you drink their lattes and herbal tea. You take off the coat that makes you look like a writer (you hope) and drape your scarf over the back of an uncomfortable chair. As you open your copy of the latest critically acclaimed book by that great new author that you are obliged to read your eyes catch a splinter of colour from the young woman at the next table.
She too is pretending to read and doing it with such conviction that you wonder if she might be an actor. She has short hair in a bold bottled colour which you guess changes frequently. Her extravagant tattoos clash with the neatness of her teeth. You realise you have been staring when she says, “hello” in a voice that suggests expensive schools.
Moments later you have moved closer together and are engaged in conversation. You don’t know what colour to call her eyes but with the reflection of the artificial light they flicker like a pair of small screens playing art house films.
She tells you her name is Gretchen and for some reason you don’t believe it’s her real name, later she refers to herself as Greta. You tell her your full name, quickly realising that the surname is redundant and that you are slightly intimidated. Perhaps it’s the overt sex of her vermillion lips or her yellow coat, but more likely it’s that you already know this is an unusual conversation for you.
She tells you about her life so far. Her skin says 25 but her eyes and the maturity of her vocal tone seem older. She has been an actor, a poet and a burlesque dancer. You picture her dancing half-naked.
She isn’t really from anywhere, this university and that, lots of addresses; Scotland, Manchester, the South. Her father died a while ago and small details remind her. There is sadness in her eyes but she isn’t acting sad. Perhaps she cries when she’s alone. She articulates that feeling you have yourself about not-loving-your-mother-as-much-as-you-are-supposed-to and tells you of her dad’s drunken pronouncements on her mum’s infidelities. She may have a disorder she tells you. She like blueberries.
You realise that you’ve finished your coffee and a bottle of white wine has appeared on the table next to her empty teacup.
“Magic exists,” she announces. “Don’t forget where you put it.”
You listen to her memories. The time she told her flatmates she’d be naked at home from now on; the key-ring she bought; porn in Dad’s shed (she didn’t even know he smoked); the first time you have an orgasm – with someone of the same sex; being a vegan and quickly becoming bored with it; that threesome that just sort of happened; the short-term relationships and how easy it is to run two affairs concurrently; drinking till the money ran out and she had to stop altogether for a while. These are the sort of quirky tales you’ve only ever heard before from Miranda July only with more sex.
By your third glass you realise that you haven’t given a thought to your husband / wife / live-in boyfriend / short-term partner and that you won’t be able to think about anything or anyone else for a time. Her images might pop into your dreams. You know clever, creative people but none with a voice so musical. You don’t know anyone who has had such a bohemian life.
Then she leans over and beckons you with a hand gesture straight from the stage. She whispers that she has a secret to tell you, it’s something she has to reveal to Anyone Who Wants to Be Friends with Her.
You need to hear it.
She tells you her Most Personal Story. You have no idea whether any or all of her tales are fact or fiction. You believe about 68% of them will be true. This story will render you dumb. Christmas in the toilets of the pub, a sea of faces. “It’s at about this point that my memory gets very, very cloudy indeed.” She tells you the graphic details in a way that makes Ian McEwan’s early short stories sound like bedtime stories for toddlers. She recalls Noddy Holder singing all through the episode, arriving home, tights round her neck, being casual about it with her mum, being sick the next day, the irony of her old uncle’s comments.
“I thought you should know,” she says.
What the fuck could you possibly say after that?
She sips her wine and licks her lips.
You have no idea which of your conflicted emotions to feel. You resolve that when you get home you will write that truly personal story that will finally elevate you from competent prose to real writing. Writing that is vibrant and savage and funny and true, like Gretchen.
When this conversation is over and you are spat back out into the drizzle, slightly dizzy, you will be left with two thoughts. Firstly that you’ll never forget this brief interlude in your life, her dozens of piercing insights described in a way that no-one else speaks, and secondly that whatever else happens you hope that one day you will hear more of her stories.
Any Other Mouth is published by Freight Books.
You’ll enjoy this if you like: Edgy dark short stories, Miranda July, David Foster Wallace, Ian McEwan (short stories)
Avoid if you don’t like: Personal confessional styles of writing, graphic sexual content, honesty.
Ideal accompaniments: Any strong alcoholic beverage, a naked stranger.
Genre: Short stories, literary fiction