The Mask

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When I was 6 years old I wanted nothing more than to be Spider-Man. So it stands to reason that I also wanted the costume. It didn’t matter how much my mum told me that my duffle coat made me look like Peter Parker, I wanted that red and blue one-piece with a fever I’d not known since chicken pox. If any of my friends were lucky enough to have been bought one while I was going without, then they also became the unlucky recipients of my envy and hatred. Because I knew in my heart that none of them wanted to be Spider-Man more than I did. None of them.

The problem was that I’m one of four kids, raised in a house where setting aside money for luxuries was an abstract concept. Over time each of us learned to get used to budget workarounds in response to our demands. This made store-bought superhero costumes a fantasy on a par with being able to stick to walls or lift cars over our heads. And if we wanted clothes, especially frivolous ones, then concessions had to be made.

Almost every item of clothing I owned back then was a long-suffering hand-me-down. Worn by an elder sibling or cousin until it breached crisis point, exploding Incredible-Hulk-like off their growing bodies, at which point it was darned, patched and passed on to me. Being third in line, I grew up wearing clothing that was scarred and haunted by the sweat, farts and grubby habits of the previous owners. Convinced that detergent could not eliminate the hidden, indelible marks they had left behind on the fabric, I lived with the knowledge that this physical history was now bonding itself to my skin. But I considered this my cross to bear and, on balance, better than nudity or dying of hypothermia.

So when I finally began begging my mother for a Spider-Man costume it was with a sense of trepidation. Because I knew that I was not going to be bought one, I was going to be made one. When she finally agreed I immediately began imagining a sartorial Frankenstein’s monster, no doubt upcycled from scraps of burst red shirts and blue ruptured-ass trousers. And that’s kind of how it went for the rest of the costume, which settled around my body in the way that a single, fitted bed sheet might attempt to cover a King-sized mattress. But I never could have foreseen the item of clothing my mother would choose to repurpose for the mask.

She’d been ferreting around in a box of random clothing in a local charity shop when inspiration struck. It came in the form of a pair of blue satin knickers with a red trim around each leg hole. When I discovered this, I yelled in protest.

“No! Old pants? I am NOT putting old pants over my head!”

She rationalised. “They’re fine, I’m sure nobody’s used them.”

Used. Not worn, used. Even as a small boy this word choice struck me as jarring. Worn and used are two very different things and made me think about the intimacy and orifice-proximity of underwear. This wasn’t even the first time she’d even done something like this, having once returned from a jumble sale and handed me a stack of y-fronts with someone’s name written in felt tip across the waist band. But now she was levelling up. It was one thing to place your buttocks where another pair of buttocks had been before but to place your face there is another matter altogether. I mean, I would sit on a public toilet but I wouldn’t put my head into one.

“It’ll be great,” she said, determined now. Maybe convincing herself. “You’ll see. I wouldn’t let you look stupid.”

And it was here that I was forced to take on board the notion that there is need and there is compromise. I wanted to be Spider-Man so desperately that if the only way I could fulfil that fantasy was to place pre-owned underwear over my mouth and face then, by God, I would do it.

I’d like to say that I was horrified as I watched her work on the mask. To say that I flinched. But as she snipped the underwear in two, sewed one half into a balaclava shape and added a neat stitch in the middle of the leg hole, I just saw my dreams becoming reality. And when I finally slipped that mask over my head I felt immediately that my mother had made the right decision.

It wasn’t perfect by any means. It was the wrong red to blue colour ratio. Lacked webbing detail. And importantly, I was unable to breathe freely, the area around my mouth becoming sodden with hyperventilated dribble. Remove it and the impact of this was evident, the circumference of my lips decorated with red, angry sores. If social services had seen them they’d have assumed my mother made a habit of stubbing cigarettes out on my face, a crime only slightly more severe than allowing your son to live out his fantasies by burying his face into a careworn gusset. But I loved my costume and cantered around our garden in it, shooting webs at invisible enemies while a growing patch of damp formed around my chin.

“Are those knickers?” my friend Tim asked in the playground, when I proudly pulled the mask over my head at school the next day.

“No.” I said, feeling my mouth go suddenly parched and dry

“Yes they are. Urrrgh, you’re wearing knickers on your head.”

“I’m not!”

Even as I protested I knew that the damage was done. That there was no way past it. I was exposed. I was not a superhero, I was a boy staring defiantly through the leg hole of a pair of charity shop pants and there was nothing anybody could do about it. Not even Spider-Man.

“Please,” I begged him, my words muted by urgency and satin. “Don’t tell.”

Tim looked at my face then and I saw a light in his eyes. The light of clemency. Pity. The warmth and goodness of a supportive friend. Then he snatched the mask off my head and I saw it for what it was, the light of a boy recognising the delicious thrill of the chance to broadcast someone else’s humiliation.

He darted away from me and across the playground, my mask held aloft in his fist, where it fluttered victoriously like a captured flag. I watched the slow Mexican wave of reaction on the faces of the other kids as he told them. Their heads turning my way, all smirks and swelling laughter. I was seeing the death of my dream. And underwear. I was seeing underwear.

But in time I’ve come to see this moment as the end result of my mother’s love, her limited options and her misguided attempt to make me happy. And I know, for a time, that it worked. Because alone in the garden with nothing but my imagination for company and the world seen only through my eyes, I was more than a 6 year old kid, just one oblivious day away from perhaps his greatest humiliation. I was everything I wanted to be. I was Spider-Man.

(Editing credit to Holly Aszkenasy)

The Real Story on Evidently Radio

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On June 2nd, Nija Dala-Small and I will be appearing on Evidently Radio to play some tunes, read stories and discuss our upcoming The Real Story:LIVE! event on June 23rd, headlined by Amy Liptrot.

You can catch the show here at 8pm (after which it will be archived) and find out more details about Evidently, their regular poetry night in Salford and details about their forthcoming appearance at Guy Garvey’s Meltdown Festival here.

Update: You can hear the show over on Mixcloud here.

 

 

 

 

A Brief Browsing History of Time

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I forget why but I once searched Amazon for the soap opera actor Dean Gaffney. There weren’t many products on offer. A keyring bearing his face. A printed copy of his Wikipedia page priced at £45. But it was the items listed along the bottom of the screen that really caught my eye.

“Customers who viewed this item also bought…”

There were a number of products for sale but what intrigued me most of all was the box of miniature swastika flags. I wanted to know what the connection between the two was so I clicked the link and my screen was filled with a suggested list of gift ideas for the Nazi in your life.

There were pieces of replica SS jewelry. Swastika decals in a range of sizes. An Aryan blonde wig. And while I couldn’t find a direct connection between Gaffney and the iconography of the far right, it seemed that there was a troubling amount of crossover.

I thought this was funny so I tweeted about it and moved on to the next distraction. It wasn’t until I visited Amazon again that I found cause for concern, discovering that my “recommended” suggestions had been transformed into a solid basis for including me on a government watch list.

They suggested that I buy a replica Iron Cross and armband set. A hardback guide to Nazi regalia. And a canvas clock of the actress Pam St Clement, the hands turning from a bore-hole between her eyes. If I’d discovered a bag in the street that contained these items I’d have assumed they belonged to a serial killer. Or, at best, someone I’d be upset to have sitting next to me on a bus. I was mortified. Who else had access to this information? How far was it going?

And this was just Amazon. What of Google, which I used as my second brain? Throwing it my every random thought. I inspected my recent search history and immediately started to worry.

“Hulk Hogan choke video”

“Bee urination”

“Hilary Swank running”

I thought of the tantalising Buzzfeed sidebar links that I regularly clicked with impunity. The idle curiosity that without context could be treated like an obsession.

“12 Tragic Child Stars”

“32 Incredibly Weird Deaths”

“Top 10 Most Handsome Vampires”

It’d only take one person to stumble upon this information, misinterpret it and create for me a reputational Frankenstein’s monster.

It took weeks of judicious and determinedly innocent browsing but I was eventually able to undo my negative profile and return it to something that would be acceptable to anyone who might stumble upon my laptop. From that point on, I kept my Internet nose clean. Carefully selecting the links I clicked on out of a fear that I might be mistaken for something I wasn’t.

So when I began to receive targeted ads on Twitter offering a cream to relieve anal itching, it was only natural that I wondered how. I’d been so careful. What had I said or clicked on that made me their target audience? The advert itself offered no clues.

“SORE, ITCHY BACKSIDE DRIVING YOU MAD?” it blared in block capitals. “THEN YOU NEED ANALCARE CREAM.”

It was a striking message to say the least, the image beneath it showing three different rear ends. A man’s in baggy jeans, another in business attire and a woman’s wearing candy pink hot pants, each of them clawing between their buttocks. Delving deeper than even a customs officer would dare.

The message was clear: “Whether you’re a stoner, a member of the business elite or a smokin’ hot chick, all of us can fall victim to an itchy bottom.”

While the ad was something of a master class in getting bluntly to the point, it didn’t explain why it had been presented to me. None of these backsides matched mine. I was at a loss. So I began investigating.

I trawled my online purchases. My Google history. Through months of posts on social networks. Looking for triggers. Checking if I’d ever referred to someone as an “asshole” or “irritating”. I looked for butt, bum, arse, ass and rump. Itch. Scratch. Sore. I pondered the packet of Aloe Vera wet-wipes that I’d once added to the online grocery shop. But nothing seemed to tie in. So I turned to the place that I had been curious about since I first noticed the link on the ad; the customer testimonials.

This, more than anywhere, was where I expected to find my answer. Or at least people like me, asking why Analcare had sought them out. But what I found was a world I’d never known existed.

It was like flinging open the doors to a secret society. Or rather, a support group. Pages of people, pouring out their stories about the world of misery that lived in their underwear. It was a secret life revealed. A bathroom life. These people kept their woes from their families and loved ones but they posted them here. Because now, thanks to the miracle of this cream, they were free. And so joyful. So willing to share.

I learned that prior to her liberation by Analcare, Sue had resorted to finishing off toilet visits by gently swatting her bottom with a washcloth before blowing it dry with a hairdryer. Her story setting the tone for the testimonials. Small examples of distress and private, trial and error-based procedure that were nonetheless fundamentally funny.

See Margaret, for example, who stated. “I will not be buying anything else. Just to have a good night’s sleep is like the next best thing since sliced bread.”

The next best thing, I thought, considering her priorities in order of importance:

No.1: Convenient bread products.

No.2: Relief from the permanent sensation that she was sitting on an ant’s nest.

“I am in Heaven — literally.” She added. Because not for her a death spent drifting on clouds, dozing to the blissful soundtrack of a plucked harp. For Margaret, heaven is a place on earth and involves a tube of cream and a disposable finger condom.

And then there was Alan, who found it so useful on his rear end that he tried it out on the acid burns he’d received while removing bind weed in his garden. And later, on his wife’s mosquito bites.

It was easy to picture her backing away at the suggestion of giving the cream a try.

“Wait, isn’t that the stuff you’ve been wiping on your…?”

On and on they went. Tale after tale of people at their wit’s end, contemplating surgery and even suicide before being saved by Analcare. But after I while I stopped reading. It felt invasive. Like I was peering through someone’s bathroom window and making fun. In any case, I’d read enough to know that none of these stories resonated with me.

So I left the page and logged into Facebook, looking for a diversion. And it was then that I discovered a couple of sidebar ads that weren’t there on my last visit. It seemed that my trip to the testimonials had slotted me into an entirely new demographic.

There was now a link to a dating site offering me the chance to meet hairy men in the Manchester area, an advert for a pair of revolutionary slippers and below it an image of what appeared to be the skinned head of a woman. This transpired to be a silicon Barbie mask that I could purchase, slip over my own head and experience life as a living doll.

And it was here that I experienced one of those moments in life. The ones that offer you a sensation of personal clarity, as if you’ve briefly been granted the power to step out of your body and view yourself as others might see you. And what I saw was a grown man, sitting in front of a computer, worrying about novelty clocks, intimate creams and the notion that someone out there thinks he might get his kicks from wearing a woman’s face. I clearly needed to have a very strong word with myself.

Because the clear and overwhelming evidence is that the Internet doesn’t know what you want or who you are. Not really. It just picks up scraps of information, processes them then tosses things at you in the hope that you’ll be interested. It’s like throwing a stick for a dog and it running back to you carrying a similar stick, a squirrel or maybe a severed arm.

Just a quick look at the search engine results that led people to my blog last year proves the theory. Not a single one of them looking for me. Instead these were desperate pleas for advice that read like Ernest Hemingway 6 word stories.

April 14th: “Rat infestation toilet pipe please help”

December 6th: “incontinence shop Barnsley helplessly incontinent wife”

And then there was the endless parade of disappointed masturbators, searching in vain for very specific forms of pornography that I just could not provide.

“hot f**king with pipe line worker”

“balloon whisk sex”

“six boys do porn wildly with a girl & do toilet on her together. Com”

So I gave up trying to find out why certain adverts sought me out, certain now that Big Brother isn’t building a profile on me. That at least right now, the All Seeing Eye is as myopic Mr Magoo. And once I dropped that anxiety it was liberating. I was free to click wherever I chose. The 25 Funniest Autocorrects of 2011 would no longer have to be a mystery to me. And just as I was not a living doll or secretly plagued by bathroom traumas, I now felt, with a reasonable amount of certainty, that Dean Gaffney was not a Nazi.

The Coast

The shortest story I’ve ever written. And possibly the darkest. Published over at The Drabble.

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By Adam Farrer

On the day my family moved to the Yorkshire coast, my mother and I took a walk along the cliffs and spotted a woman standing on the edge, staring out to sea, gripping the handles of an empty wheelchair. We laughed about it together, at the notion of her having tipped someone into the water.

Three days later, we learned that an old man had been found washed up on the beach, naked but for a single sock on his left foot. We never reported what we’d seen. New in town, we didn’t want to ruffle any feathers.

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Year 1

Mum

This is a photo of my mother pole-dancing at Hull Pride in August. There are several things you may notice while looking at it. The muscular couple in the centre perhaps. Or maybe the woman in her underwear on the right, her handbag clamped between her thighs. But one thing I think is immediately clear; that my mum does not give a shit.

Mum

Here she is again, look. The blonde, front row left. Not giving a shit during the audition stages of Britain’s Got Talent 2015 with her burlesque troupe, The Ruby Red Performers. While watching this broadcast  I learned that she knew how to twirl a set of nipple-tassels in opposite directions. Also that she owned a set of nipple tassels.

Mum

And here she is not giving a shit while riding a scooter across the stage during the live semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent. This despite the fact that, seconds later, the blasting caps on her bra would cause her bosoms to explode in front of an estimated viewing audience of 10 million.

I could go on but I fear I’m labouring the point, which just to be absolutely clear, is that my mum does not give a shit. What’s more, she never has. At least as long as I’ve known her. Whether that hasn’t always been the case, I’m not sure. All I know is that for the past 39 years she has been immune to stage fright. Doesn’t fear hecklers or criticism. Could not give a Christmas fig about negative reviews or cruel comment. She does what she enjoys, refusing to let anyone else’s sour-faced opinion stop her. And what she enjoys is entertaining people.

I know this because I have spent my life watching her on stage and witnessing the enthusiastic reactions she receives. In pantomimes, flitting around the stage in glittery wings as fairy Godmothers. In plays and cabaret. Singing and dancing. Or, on occasion, standing in front of Simon Cowell while wearing her undercrackers. If something requires charisma and confidence she’ll give it a try and she’ll generally ace it. Because she is fearless.

“I don’t know why,” she’ll tell me. “I’m just not bothered about what anyone else thinks.”

This is an attitude I’ve always admired in her and wanted for myself. Sadly, along with hazel eyes and the ability to hold my drink, it was not something I inherited from her. In its place I have a mortifying aversion to being the centre of attention.

Now, you might think that being the centre of attention is exactly what I might want. After all, I write indulgently self-focused non-fiction on a blog where there is a photo of me on every page. And I guess I do want attention but that doesn’t stop me fearing it. Because, unlike my mother, I’ve always been bothered about what people think. Always hated being stared at. Never keen on being the focal point.

As a child I would scream and run from the room each year when my family sang me Happy Birthday. And unlike my siblings, I refused to be involved in mum’s passion for amateur dramatics. My sister was convinced by her to dress as a flying monkey for a production of The Wizard of Oz (and later to join the Ruby Reds, that’s her in the BGT audition photo, 2nd right). Likewise my brother ended up performing a solo rendition of “Where is Love?” on the town hall stage. But I was a complete disappointment in that regard. My best effort would be to sing old time music hall songs and even then only in our living room and with a blanket over my head. I have never been anyone’s idea of a born performer.

But last year, from somewhere, I found a pinch of my mother’s confidence. Not much, just enough to make me say yes to the offer of reading one of my stories at a spoken word event promoted by The Real Story in January. I told myself it would be good for me, taking the line that nothing worthwhile is easy. What it ended up being was traumatic.

Weeks of anticipation and mounting stress seemed to have steadily whisked my guts into a soup, which sloshed around in my calves while I stood on the stage, feeling distanced from myself. Wondering if the words coming out of my mouth were words at all. Afterwards I had to take other people’s word for it that I hadn’t just been standing there for 10 minutes mawp-mawping  like an adult in a Peanuts cartoon. But I’d got through it and once the sickness had died away I realised that I liked performing slightly more than I hated it. The thrill of getting a laugh when I’d hoped for one. And God, if I’m being honest here, the validation of a crowd. It wasn’t bad. So I read at another night. And another. And another etc. I learned from them all.

Some nights were wonderful. Others okay. A couple were truly appalling. Exercises in public failure where embarrassment hissed and spat inside me. Underscored my insecurities in fierce lines. But no one died. Apart from me. And then only on stage, so not really. I carry those experiences with me, where they persist like small stacks of bones. Never rotting away. Ever-present. Reminding me how awful things could be but also that, in the grand of scheme of things, that’s not very awful at all. And I found that the more I read on stage, the more comfortable I got and the less my anxiety owned me.

Throughout last year I read at a lot of spoken word nights and saw many people like me. Sensitive, ticking characters gambling with their own scraps of confidence. Squirming under spotlights that were not built with them in mind, their voices cracked and nervous as they apologised before reading. Sheets of A4 paper fluttering in their hands as if they were trying to demonstrate the beating wings of a poorly constructed origami bird. Some of these people read once and were never seen again. Others returned and grew, becoming performers that I’ve been anxious about having to follow on stage. And they’d been afforded this thanks to the nurturing nature of Manchester’s live literature scene.

Since last January I’ve read at many spoken word nights. For Bad Language, First Draft, Tales of Whatever, Speak Easy, Verbose and The Real Story. And at each event I have found supportive, constructive and inspiring people. A community that is not necessarily there to decorate people with praise but is certainly not there to destroy anyone. Only wanting the best from everyone who steps up to the mic. And for that I’m more grateful than I can really say.

From pushing myself to take that first step I’ve had the confidence to take further risks, which while not always ending in anything like victory have at least had value. I’ve sent my stories off to publishers and had my share of rejections but also my first successful book submission. I’ve been interviewed on the radio. Had one of my stories published on a podcast and picked up a regular paid magazine column. I also joined The Real Story, a group that supports emerging non-fiction writers in the northwest and gave me the opportunity to read in the first place and set my ball rolling. None of this is particularly earth-shattering by most people’s standards. I don’t consider myself to be a success. But as a socially defective periphery-dweller with crippling performance anxiety and low self-esteem, I’m cautiously proud of myself.

I’ve long accepted  that I will never have my mother’s courage and fearlessness. I will always find performing nerve-wracking. And I will never stop fretting about what people think. But I have learned that sometimes taking risks can be enough to change your life and that it doesn’t always hurt to give a shit.

The Long Route

Nan dabbed a tear from her cheek with a handkerchief and leaned in to my mother.

“Janet, have a look at my eye,” she said, teasing down her watery lower lid with the tip of her finger. “I think I’ve got a weeping rectum.”

This was one of the many things we loved about Nan. The way words fell from her lips. Her malapropisms and misrepeated sayings. So my mother didn’t correct her. Instead she stifled a laugh and advised her to visit her doctor.

This troubled me. Because I could picture the imminent misunderstanding in his office.

Nan repeating her error. Her trusting nature stopping her from questioning his request for her to remove her underwear. But despite a lifelong confidence in medical professionals I could imagine her thinking, as he asked her to bend over and raise her dress, that he seemed to be taking the long route.

Evidently on FAB Radio

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(Update: The show, which was a joy to do, can be found on Evidently’s Mixcloud page.)

On August 13th at 8pm the brilliant Kate Feld and I will be on FAB Radio’s spoken word show Evidently, promoting the next The Real Story LIVE event. We’ll be discussing the event with presenters Ella Gainsborough and Kieren King as well as reading a couple of stories and introducing some songs that we’ve found inspiring.

When they’re not presenting their radio show, Ella and Kieren also run the Evidently  poetry night every 2nd Monday in The Eagle Inn, Salford. You can find details about it here. If you like live poetry, pubs and/or Salford then it’s really the night for you. If you’re one of those people who’s scared of going out in Salford at night, don’t be. Salford is probably more afraid of you than you are of Salford.

In case you’re curious about what Kate and I sound like before the show, you can hear Kate reading her excellent short story ‘Max and Bird’ on the latest edition of the Tapes and Tales podcast (I bloody love Tapes and Tales). And, if you like, you can also listen to me on this YouTube video, reading out commuters’ negative tweets about Metrolink.

A Full Hour

“You can’t wear that.”

I was aware that I was speaking out of turn. That Gordon was my boss and that I shouldn’t have challenged him. But some situations require you to take a stand. In this instance over the t-shirt he’d had printed and was planning to wear to a pirate-themed event funded by one of our suppliers.

He’d been so pleased when he’d shown me. So proud of his work. The front bore our camera shop’s logo, festooned with clip art cutlasses and Jolly Rogers. On the back he’d listed the photographic services our store offered, tweaked with a pirate theme and written in a quilled font across a foxed, yellowed scroll.

1 hour rape

4 hour murder

24 hour pillage

“You just can’t.” I persisted.

“Why?” he replied, deflated. Worryingly oblivious.

“Because it says you provide rape. For a full hour.”

“Within the hour,” he said briskly. “We print photos within the hour.”

“But this says rape!”

“Oh, everyone will get the joke,” he said. “They have a great sense of humour at these events.” He paused to consider my opinion. “I mean, 24hr rape I’d understand…”

Herons

The cleaners were chatting in the staff kitchen this morning.

“Alan something.” One of them said, trying to recall the name of a deceased local barber. “Brilliant. Only charged £3. Didn’t believe in hairspray.”

“What did he use?” her colleague asked.

“Air freshener.”

They always spoke like this. In dryly amusing fragments. Snippets and sighs. As if their exchanges were determined efforts in efficiency. But when I walked in on their conversation the other morning it seemed especially concise.

The three of them were sat around a table, each speaking in turn. The first with a note of victory, as if she’d just successfully answered a quiz question. The second like she’d just failed to answer the same question. And the third as though she was confirming the answer.

“Ah! Herons.”

“Oh! Herons.”

“Yes. Herons.”

I waited for more. Some context. But they all sat back in contented silence. Staring into space. No more needing to be said.

The quiet was heavy and compressing. I fought a sudden, rising desire to speak. A desperate, tick-like compulsion. I stirred my mug of tea and bit my lip. The clock hit 8am.

“Right.” One of them said, slapping her knees then getting to her feet with a soft grunt. The others followed suit and the three of them left the room.

I waited for the door to fully close behind them before releasing the word like a long held breath.

“Herons.”

I Trust You

“I find it difficult to trust people,” she said to the woman opposite. “But I trust you.”

They were sitting at a nearby table. Hands clasped around big white mugs of coffee. The woman speaking was large. The other petite, nodding silently as she listened.

“I’m insecure, “ the woman continued. “I know I’m fat. Not pretty. So I mixed with people who let me stick around. People who were bad for me.”

She paused to fix her friend with a meaningful look and I could tell that this was a prepared speech. With significant beats and intermissions. When the time was right, she dropped her bomb.

“One time, they got me loaded and let someone sexually assault me in my sleep.”

She looked expectantly at her friend. Waiting. For the reaction. The dramatic OMG.

“Oh, don’t be silly,” her friend replied. “You’re not fat. And I think you’re pretty.”