This month’s extract from The Cure For Sleep for subscribers on Substack looked at 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. Readers were then invited to share short true tales of their own on this theme. Here is where those responses are showcased.
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.The Cure For Sleep