BY Shelley Klein in Features | 02 JAN 00
Featured in
Issue 50


A short story in response to the work of Francesca Woodman

BY Shelley Klein in Features | 02 JAN 00

I Could No Longer Play /

I Could Not Play by Instinct

The first instalment was water. They say it's Chinese, but we weren't in China. We were walking round the palace of Versailles, walking round the long formal gardens. There was a pattern to them; not strategic, but a system of walkways and pathways. It was mathematical in structure and we walked up and down, up and down. I remember that while we walked, we tried to describe our relationship. It was a question of outdoing each other. You won. You said that with me it was the whole thing mind, body and spirit. I lapped up your words while the fountains played in the background. The water shot into the air continuous streaks that fell in thousands of silvery droplets. Water torture is slow. Tiny drops continuously fall on the victim's head until the tapping drives them insane. You tapped your fingers against the side of your trousers. I looked into your eyes and asked the question. I knew even then that the ratio of my need to those three little words was unbalanced, but I persisted. I would grind you down.

I had travelled overnight to be with you. There's a rat in separation and it gnawed somewhere deep in my stomach. I had missed you too much, which was a pity because I wanted to state my independence. I wanted to stay away and make you want me as much as I wanted you, but that was unbearable. In my mind's eye, I saw a woman whose legs had been strapped to two trees. When a cord is released, the trunks will spring apart and tear her in half. I kept this image inside my head. It was part of the massive machine, driven by water, powered by need. I didn't want to be pulled apart; I didn't ask to be torn. If only you would say what I needed to hear.

I arrived at the hotel, which was somewhat shabby. Blue paint was peeling off most of the walls, and yet it had charm. When I asked the man at the desk for your room he looked at me with distaste before revealing the number. I knocked on your door you appeared surprised when you opened it. I had caught you out.

You threw me down on a bed that had springs sticking through the old mattress like weeds, and you began peeling my clothes off. I was wearing the green mini-skirt with the zip that always got stuck and you nearly ripped the material in your haste. You said it was the colour of poison. You laid me out and, yes, I thought of the rack. I thought of my body being stretched and reshaped. You had pulled me one way, then another. I was taller because my shoes were higher. I was thinner because I wanted to lose more and more weight. When I wasn't with you (or more to the point, when you weren't with me), I wanted to touch you. I wanted to be everywhere you were, and if this meant pulling myself one way after another, I was prepared. I knew you were busy, but I needed to see you. I didn't think of it as surveillance. Your hands ran up my body, reading me, running through the old patterns, keying things in.

'What were the reasons for torture?' I asked the woman in the basement of the dungeons the following day. She was terribly ugly. 'Why the need to torture?'

'Secrets', she said. She put her finger up to her lips and hushed me. 'You have to keep your voice down.'

The rack was a particularly refined form of the art. I pressed my fingers against the rough wooden handle. I had an unnatural desire to turn it and see if it had any effect.

'Don't touch', the woman said. I blushed and turned round to where I thought you were standing, but you'd disappeared.

A fake rat scuttled over the floor. If I locked you in a room, what would be your worst fear? I asked you that once. I said mine was a world without you. If you were sick, if you died, if you left me. I added spiders as well for good measure, but you asked if I'd seen where you'd put your notebook.

'Why do you continue seeing him', whispered a voice inside my head, 'if it gives you this pain?' 'It's a good pain', I said, and the voice raised its plucked eyebrows.

I wanted to be with you. I knew it was right.

We went back to our hotel. We lay on the bed and you took my fingers into your mouth. They were long, tipped with silver; the latest fashion accessory. Would they make you spill out the secret? I removed them from your mouth and dug them into your sides. It was the only thing I wanted to hear.

You screamed and I told you to 'hush'.

'You have to be quiet', I whispered. The walls were so thin. Anyone might hear what was happening.

I didn't sleep well that night. I knew what you were going to do. I knew the moment I fell asleep you would start stitching my mouth up. You didn't want to hear what I said. Lip skin is soft. You didn't want to say what I needed to hear.

We travelled backwards and forwards. One night we stayed in an orange motel, all the rooms the same colour. You collapsed face down on the bed with arms outstretched as though nailed back-to-front on a crucifix. The bed was made of water-filled plastic and we slotted a coin into the machine and rode the waves until you felt seasick. You told me you couldn't go on. You slept on the floor while I slept in the bed.

Another time, I booked us into a five-star hotel. I said I would pay for the room. It was beautiful. It came with a Jacuzzi and a four-poster bed. You said you were tired. The following day I offered to drive, but you refused. You gave me the map and told me to read. I said it was enslavement and then proceeded to get everything wrong. You wanted to stop somewhere pleasant for lunch, but we kept driving through towns that were empty. One place that was clearly marked on the map had disappeared. Another had flower beds, but the flowers were brown. It had three shops, but they were closed.

You asked 'why did we come here?', as if it were my fault. There was something sinister at the back of your voice.

'I don't know. It was on the map.' And so it went on.

Finally we reached the right place and we took a room in yet another hotel. This time the room had a view. The window looked out over bright hills, and the sun shone through the rain. The room was a converted attic. 'People write in attics', you said, and I added that they also made love in them. That's love, I repeated. Basements are for torture and burial. The dining room was in the basement. We cracked crab's claws and sucked out the meat. We consumed piles of green, hare-lipped mussels and then you sat on the toilet all night. I couldn't help laughing, which I seem to remember you termed cruel.

The following morning we took the obligatory walk to the house on the hill. I had imagined there would be a lot of material here. After all, his books were full of whips and instruments of flagellation and torture. But the house was perfectly normal. We walked through the gates and up the long driveway. You paid my entrance fee, which you said you could claim on expenses. Inside there were tables and chairs, wardrobes and dressers and, of course, a very large bed.

We didn't stay long inside. It was too hot. The sun was shining so we walked round the gardens while you admired the building, noting down particular features. You pointed to the west wing, said it was built in the 17th century. The tiny stone carvings of devils and unicorns fascinated you. You kept muttering to yourself, but you didn't talk to me; I remember wanting to ask what was wrong, but feeling a great sense of resistance. Your lips were sealed. You weren't going to be forthcoming and the dull ache was growing inside me.

We lay down on a wide bank of grass. I looked back at the house and up at the windows. Leaded diamonds glinted in the sharp afternoon light. You took off your shirt and exposed your deathly pale skin. I could tie you up, leave you and hope the sun might loosen your tongue. You lay with your head on my stomach, using me as your pillow. If I had crouched down on all fours you could have made me into a table. You could have crouched down behind me. We could have made out like dogs. For a time you slept; and then, when you woke, you started complaining. You said you had something caught in your eye. I told you to open it wide so I could look. You were tired. Your resistance was low, but gouging eyes out is too easy. I could try a tooth; discover some rot within the hard ivory casing, push a needle into the nerve.

We walked back to the hotel; I ran a bath and we both climbed in. I massaged your back and kissed your wet skin. I soaped you all over like a baby. When we got out, I wrapped you in a towel and laid you down on the bed. I continued to massage and stroke you. I said all the things I knew you wanted to hear. All the things I was quite happy to say. Then I waited, but you closed your eyes.

Sleep deprivation is subtle. Each time you drifted away I'd touch you again. I could see you liked your body being manipulated, but you also needed your sleep. In my mind, the machine grew larger and larger. I knew I was close. Any moment I would hear what it was I wanted. The nuts and bolts were grinding inside me. The pain was excruciating. And then again, perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps you didn't know anything and what I was searching for had never really existed. Finally I said, 'I do love you', and you rolled over and looked me straight in the eye.

'Yes', you said.

My suspicions were correct. You knew nothing. I rolled over and pulled the sheets tightly over my head.

The next morning you suggested that I go back to the city ahead of you. You said you wouldn't be far behind. The moment you spoke I saw you knew what you'd done.

'I'm sorry', you said. 'You looked bored yesterday. I thought maybe you were staying around out of a false sense of duty.' You stared down at the ground. Your beautiful eyes had betrayed you. You wanted to be rid of me but it wasn't that easy.

The journey to our next destination was longer than normal. I drove slowly, but you didn't comment on it. The tension grew. It seeped into the atmosphere. The sparks flew when we pulled into a lay-by. It had started to rain and you said that we needed to talk. The moment I switched off the engine I began crying. The combination of water and electricity can be lethal. I touched your hand and I could feel your whole body recoil. The jolt was excessive considering how lightly I touched you. You told me to stop sobbing. You begged my forgiveness. Electric fencing surrounded the emotional field. It buzzed in the rain. I touched you again, and again I felt your muscles contract.

'Why are you doing this?' I said. 'I love you.'

'And I love you too', you whispered.

After torture comes death. That's fair isn't it? If the secret is redundant by the time that it's spoken then the accused is sentenced to death. We drove to a hotel and took another room. You sat on a chair; I sat on the bed.

'Come here', I said. I was drying my tears, trying to smile. 'Please? One last time.' I patted the mattress and you brought your body closer to mine. The edge of the day was fading; the rain was still falling outside in the courtyard.

'Is this such a good idea?' You were talking, but your voice was faint. I put my finger to my lips and smiled again. The machine was so large it was hard to decipher without standing back from it. In my mind's eye, I turned and walked to the far side of the courtyard and then turned around. It was the size of a small building, all its parts completely in harmony. All the bolts, levers, nails, screws and, above everything, the silvery blade. I dried my tears and slipped your arms out of your shirt, then rested your head on the white linen pillow. Making love from the neck down wouldn't be so bad, would it? After all, you'd done it countless times in the past and it was painless. You closed your eyes while I drew the knife from my pocket. I ran the blade down my finger.

'Are you ready?' I said.

Shelley Klein is a writer who lives and works in London, UK. Her memoir The See-Through House (2020) is published by Chatto & Windus.