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I’m waiting for my turn to read, sitting in a large room full of people, holding their copy of the anthology. Some of them are members of the University I once attended, I spot three of my previous tutors – one of them the editor of the anthology. I’m waiting to read my story, Secondary Character to the room, among them is my mother and her two friends. The story is about my mother and grandmother. It’s semi-autobiographical. My stomach does that twisting thing, it’s beyond the battered butterflies, beyond the ocean, it’s a twist, a pull, something physical.
“Are you nervous?” My mother says. “No,” I say, “and stop asking me!” She laughs. This is the maybe the fourth time I’ve read my work to a room of people, the others being poems and stories in University anthologies. I rarely read my work out loud to anyone but myself, a lesson I learnt from my tutor, Catherine, about “letting your story sit in a drawer for a few weeks, fish it out, read it out loud, hear how it sounds it, edit it, edit it again and again and maybe send it out”.
I’ll never get used to reading aloud to people. It’s not that I get nervous, more that little parts of me itch when I read the words. I don’t worry about the words on the page, they’re my words, I know what they are, nothing to make me trip up. Even now, at the minor age of twenty-three, with a BA in English and an MA in Writing, I still struggle with words. Ever since I was a kid words, no matter how much I loved and adore them, perplexed me. Numbers too.
My mother said I was on the spectrum of dyslexia, my teacher agreed but nobody thought to test me. At school, I was in the ‘special’ class for reading, something I relished, I thought I was smarter than everyone else. I refused to have letters sit next to one another, rather writing them above so the page became a carving in the same spot. My teachers told me I had to work harder. Reading was difficult, I couldn’t say the words out loud. I knew what they meant but actually saying it was harder than it was for the other kids around me. But I loved English. I loved books. My grandfather and mother loved books, words were all around me. My mother would read to me at night and I’d have a go sometimes, sounding out the words. Somehow – I’m not really sure how – I finished primary school with a high mark in my English SAT.
When I was at University, my mother said I should go and get a test. My housemate, Dom, was dyslexic and studying Creative Writing. When I read his in-progress stories, I found that he added a multitude of different words in different sections of the story. “I can’t make my mind up, plus it helps me think,” he told me when I asked him. “It’s part of the dyslexia, the words don’t come together naturally but I have to put them down.” Unlike me, he wrote ruthlessly and hard. His drafts – no matter how many extra words were added – were always arranged very precisely. It took him hours to write a page but each sentence had its own sophisticated structure. My drafters were half-messes, mashed up ideas and sentences.
“Some of your lines don’t make sense,” Dom said after finishing one of my stories. “They’re great but you miss words out.” I knew what he meant. I did miss words out. My mind goes too fast for my fingers and the words disappear.
I’m sitting with my friend, recounting numbers we both remember. We find numbers difficult. Simple sums both confuse us but we both remember random selections of numbers from our pasts. “I can tell you my school number,” he tells me. “I can tell you my University log in and the phone number of my aunt.” 10021752. Nothing makes sense.
I see the beauty in numbers, the master of algebra and equations yet numbers fail me. Basic numbers. I still use my fingers and at school, when it came to Maths, I was in despair. I simply didn’t get it. “You’re either good at Maths or English,” my father said to me once, “you’ve got English.” At high school I had English in the bag but I still struggled with words, both words I knew and the new words I had never encountered before. It intrigued me, though. I felt foolish, stupider than my other classmates sometimes, but I worked it out alone.
“We’re British that way,” I say to my friend when we’re finished talking about the numbers and we’ve gone over how each of us fall on the dyslexia spectrum. “Speaking of spectrums, some of my friends say I’m on the autistic spectrum. I find people difficult.” “Me too,” he says. “Numbers and people.” “And words,” I say. “And words,” he says.
I’m sitting opposite Elly, the wooden table between us. We’re stoned, reading Angela Carter out loud, taking turns to recount her magical lyrical lines, her fairy tales in The Bloody Chamber: The Company of Wolves and Wolf-Alice, The Erl-King and The Courtship of Mr Lyon. I struggle at certain words. Part of it is my lack of vocabulary, the natural barrier of words unknown, other words, words I know, words I say on a daily basis, when presented to me in its written form, makes me stumble. “Habitually,” Elly says, softly, as if it is nothing, not drawing attention. I appreciate it.
When I read Carter’s work, I see her beauty. I imagine her banging her fingers against the keyboard of her typewriter. “Each word is perfect,” I say when we finish Wolf-Alice. “You know that she’s picked every word and used it for a purpose.” The sentences run long. I don’t usually like long sentences but the breathlessness created makes me think of the Beat poets. Her vocabulary is wide and sometimes Carter plucks strong words that I jolt, I worry about when I see it hovering at the end of the line. When I come to it, I stumble and ponder and wonder what the hell it means.
Sometimes, usually at pubs or at family events, people say to me, “Tom, you’ll know,” and they’ll assume I will. I’m the Uni boy, I have two degrees in English, I should know and sometimes I don’t. Part of it is simply not knowing and the other is this itch in my brain that won’t allow me to say it. When I sit down, under the skylight in my room, the sun coming down on my legs and feet, and I read The Guardian, I stop at words I know I’ve used before. There’s some power, I guess, some power against my mind, the power of the black letters sitting together, united, staring up at me.
I’m sitting on my parent’s bed. It’s night, the lamps are on. My niece, the seven-year-old inquisitive wonder, sits beside me. We’re reading The Fly and The Spider as well as Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree and Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. She can’t say the words properly but I don’t think she struggles in that way. My sister and mother tell me that she’s the top of her class. Last week she wanted to be a vet or “dog doctor” as she put it, this week it’s a dog walker. “Something with animals,” she concludes before I kiss her on the forehead and say good night.
“Uncle Tom?” she says before I walk out of the room. “Tomorrow can we read some more of James and…” She forgets the name of the book. “The Giant Peach,” I say. “Yes, we can. Not too early but tomorrow morning we will.” “OK,” she says. “Good night, Uncle Tom.” “Good night, Amelia.” I leave the door half open and walk upstairs to my room populated with books. I stand and stare at the shelf as if I’m Clare from The Time Traveller’s Wife, in my favourite scene where she stands and looks at Henry’s books. She recognises him within them. She sees his personality in his choices.
My own shelves: Homer and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Tolstoy and Moby-Dick, Tom Perotta, Lolita, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Zadie Smith and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. American Psycho, the Brontes, Stephen King, Philip Pullman, The Hours and A Clockwork Orange. Alice in Wonderland, Lord of the Flies, Carol Ann Duffy, Philip Larkin and Charles Dickens.
There are words within them I do not understand and words within them I have read, understood but still stagnate over. There is something to reading out loud, it is primal, native almost. Sitting around a camp fire and sharing stories is generational, it’s what makes us human but my bones and stomach won’t stop doing their quivering dance and the idea of words will not cease to terrify and astound me.
Thomas Stewart is a Columnist for Litro NY and has had his fiction, poetry and essays published at The Stockholm Review, The Cadaverine, Storgy, Vada Magazine, Anomaly, Agenda Broadsheet, among others. His debut poetry pamphlet, 'Creation' is forthcoming from Red Squirrel Press. He has an MA in Writing from the University of Warwick and a BA in English from the University of South Wales. He enjoys folk music, horror films, suburban fiction, watches, cooking, patterned jumpers and beat poetry. He is afraid of the dark.