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TOWARD A MACHINE - Victoria Manifold


Illustration by Rebecca Cottrell // https://rcottrell.com/

It was the start of summer. A record breaker, decades since we’d felt such heat, lifetimes since the sun had touched us in such ways. Small rivers of sweat ran down the walls, forming foetid swamps in the place where the skirting board became floor.

The weather disgusted my father, made him irritable, increased his irascibility until it was almost unbearable and everywhere he turned there I was – all arms and legs and belly – generating an uncomfortable heat with just the workings of my body.

In the grey months of winter and spring I had become older than I had ever been before and it looked, in all likelihood, that this ageing – this maturing so to speak – would only continue. It was all too much, this constant expanding, this never-ending stoking of the furnace of my body and so, as far as my father was concerned, I was to earn my keep and put away childish things. I was to recover from my feral lifestyle and get a job.

My father was influenced, if not entirely controlled, by my grandmother. She was a Jocastan spectre haunting our breakfast table, but she was rich – obscenely so – and she funded all of Father’s peccadillos, all his whims and fancies. She adored him, had coddled and spoiled him since childhood, and was unfathomably proud of him, although by any ordinary standard he was an utter failure. Her pride in him, however, did not extend to me and she was no longer prepared to pay for his expensive hobby of having a post-pubescent daughter. No longer willing to fund the effect the obscene dip and curve of my waist might have on my small brothers.

I was a slug, or, more accurately, a leech. I was a little tick gorging myself on her generosity, a fat worm digging my eyeless face into the meat of her largesse, whilst my poor hapless father looked on, helpless against the force of my growling stomach and sturdy calves. Sharp-toothed and blind, I’d eat them all up unless I was put to work. I would ravage them and still hold out my hand for more.


^^^

The only time Father had ever defied Grandmother was to marry our mother. Grandmother’s rage was such that, soon after the nuptials, various necessities began to be withheld. A clamorous silent treatment was followed by hate mail, bags of dog shit ablaze on the front step, bricks cracked through the windowpane. Until – at the height of this campaign – my mother had vanished, and Grandmother quietly resumed her cosseting and pampering of Father, doling out all the little treats he’d missed so much.

Mother’s disappearance occurred when I was still very small and her whereabouts were a fact that changed constantly, a solid slick of stuff that slipped from our hands, that changed in the same way light changes, without motive or explanation. At various times Father told us that she had died in childbirth, that she had run off with a conventionally attractive man of the church or a less than attractive tradesman, that she was actually still living in our house. “There she is in the corner,” Father would say, pointing to an empty chair. “If you can’t see her then I’m afraid there’s something wrong with you.” Then later, when one of my small brothers – his tiny limbs vibrating with energy, his skin almost trilling with excitement – would say something like “I’m sitting in the chair with Mother” our father would reply “Are you mad? Your mother died years before you were even born.”

And yet, this all seemed reasonable to us, after all we had been raised in a very specific religion, one invented entirely by Father and whose rules were subject to change according to his moods. This religion informed what we wore – excessively modest or childish outfits in natural fabrics; how we behaved – deferential, obedient, and yet somehow still bright and happy; and what we ate – mostly dairy and enormous amounts of juiced carrots.

Carrots, according to Father, possessed an almost holy quality but they left our skin imbued with an orange-yellow glow which convinced my brothers’ teachers they were suffering from prolonged and painful bouts of jaundice. The heartstrings of these shy but determined young women were pulled by the large watery eyes of my brothers, by their poor haircuts and undeveloped language skills. Their already excessive empathy overflowed when they looked at those tiny orange-skinned creatures and, suspecting abuse, neglect or malnutrition, they picked up their telephones, soft lips trembling, and reported Father to the relevant authorities.

There followed a busy period when exhausted social workers and indifferent council officials were chased from the front door as we stayed hidden in cellars and attics. School was over for us then, no more morning bell and apple for miss no more bright smiles and shined shoes.

Instead, these tiny boys would join me to kneel at the badly made altar our father was so proud of building. “With my bare hands,” he would say, holding his fudgy pink hands out to us. The altar would quiver under the boom of his voice, the splintered wood swaying with each syllable he exhaled.

In an ornate box beneath this altar he kept a special set of cards he called the Sonder deck. He’d received these cards from Grandmother when he was a child and had modified them by scratching a series of violent lines into their surfaces, so that instead of bearing the names and faces of say, Mr Bunce the Bear Tamer or Miss Palimpsest the Pornographer’s Daughter, there appeared a set of rudimentary symbols he used some hidden method to interpret.

Upon waking each day he would demand- one of my small brothers fetch him the deck so he could undertake his reading. We would stand at the foot of his bed as he laid the cards face down across his goose down duvet. “Sonder deck,” he would whisper, “should I lounge, lie, rest or recline today?” Then turning them over he would declare “The Sonder deck says it is a day to recline.” We would nod our heads. “Rejoice,” he would say. “Rejoice,” we would repeat.

At any moment he could tire of reclining, tire of lounging and of resting. At any moment he could start to dance and order us to do so too, pulling violently at our arms and legs, his feet tapping out a brutal joy on the linoleum. Once again he’d spent the allowance from Grandmother on custom-made tap shoes rather than Calpol, on tasselled waistcoats instead of banana flavoured amoxicillin.

This then was the texture of my childhood. Growing breasts and sprouting pubic hair in a house without a mother, with a sour miasma swelling toward me from my grandmother and with brothers so small you could hardly see them. And they would always be that way too, they would never grow old, they would loiter permanently around the ages of 4, 5 or 6 regardless of how old I became. We never sought explanation for this limbo of childhood they were stuck in. We merely accepted that our father had willed it that way.

^^^

When I’d still attended school I’d had vague daydreams of vocations, of doing some sort of business at the top of an incredibly high building, where I would dress very smartly in large-shouldered suits and talk constantly into a telephone. Or else I would be ruddy and freshly scrubbed as a veterinarian – my patients all soft, clean puppies that smelled of foil-wrapped caramels and had no real health issues. But of course, I had no training in these areas, and so, as I understood it from my father and grandmother, I was to take any job that would have me.

Before I could be floated on the job market my fitness to work was to be assessed at a specialist centre, a cold and antiseptic building of glass and modern alloys whose anomalous architecture towered above the tasteful brick buildings of Grunne, the small town where we lived. Such centres had become fashionably ubiquitous and, although not mandatory, there was no hope of ever being employed without their certification, without their approval, without their rigorous prodding.

My assessment was carried out by a dear friend of my mother’s, some sort of nurse, who had all the qualifications to perform the necessary checks and tests, all the skills to wield the callipers and the speculum. Under her loose dress there was a kind of floppy protrusion that I vaguely recalled had something to do with her womb. I remembered my mother – before she had disappeared – talking about it in hushed tones. Perhaps it was that her womb had dropped down lower than it ideally should be, or was it even that, due to some accident or circumstance, it was now outside of her body rather than hidden? Her name was Judith and it seemed to me from those first overheard whispers right up to the present day that Judith was the most womb-like of all names and that I couldn’t even think of the word Judith – the J curling into the curve of the u and the soft short-tongued exhalation of the dith – without, at the same time, conjuring in my mind some sort of bloody growth, inconvenient and pulsating, blue-edged and horrific.

She took a stool sample, large, pale and orange-hued, consisting as it did mostly of the juiced carrots and the dairy, of the delicious milks and bland cheeses of childhood. It sat in the sample jar like a delicate and unusual fruit, origins unknown, the colour of an apricot but with a surface and shape suggesting the mealy texture of an unripe and peeled banana. Later, at my regular check-ups, the shit would darken to hard little black stones dripping, often, in uterine lining, the colour of both the shit and the blood indicating an almost dangerous surfeit of iron in my system.

Judith performed breath tests and extracted samples of urine, blood, skin and hair. Toxin levels were noted. Stirrups lowered from the ceiling. The black pleather bench was disinfected many times over. There was the usual bloodletting and liver drainage, the black bile separated from the yellow. Until, finally, I was declared fit for work. I clutched in my hands the certificate that told the world this, stamped and signed by Judith and printed on to a thick piece of cardboard, such as sturdy boxes are made of.

^^^

The following day, still hanging on to my thick cardboard certificate, I arrived at an ordinary-seeming house. I knocked on an ordinary-seeming door and an ordinary-seeming man answered. He led me through to an ordinary-seeming room which contained a number of ordinary-seeming objects. My eyes were so wet that the outlines of these objects were slackened to the point of the unknowable.

It was the house of an academic, who had offered me a job as soon as I was declared fit for it. I had hoped it would’ve taken longer than that, that my father and grandmother would realise the strength of their desires was not always enough to get them what they wanted. But, although neither Grandmother nor Father had ever been traditionally employed before, they had what is known as connections. Here the connection was tenuous – the academic was the son of a friend of one of Grandmother’s ex-husbands, or he was the nephew of one of Father’s old school chums from St. Homobonus or the apprentice of a former colleague, or perhaps the connection came from Judith – had she once been his beloved nanny, cleaning his snot-caked face and kissing his freshly talcumed bottom?

I had expected an old, crumpled man with shoes that might’ve been bought from the back of a Sunday supplement. But I found instead someone smooth and unlined, dressed entirely in rusty black, his brogues pointed sharply. There was something perverse about the smoothness of his face, a great polished egg with lots of thick, dark hair perched on the uppermost curve. I could feel hot bile rise into my throat as I looked at his unreal cheeks and chin, almost plastic in their smoothness.

Still, there was a certain romance to him. For instance, his wife was dead. There were a number of pictures of her around the room, impossibly beautiful, displaying a dazzling smile, bright eyes, that sort of thing. The kind of fun and attractive person who would describe themselves as ‘free’ and ‘feeling alive’. So that as I looked from the photographs to his blank, serious face I assumed there must be something lovable somewhere inside him, that any disgust I felt at the shape and smoothness of his head would, eventually, transform to desire.

He wasn’t interested in inspecting the certificate I’d received from Judith, it was enough that I had made the effort to acquire it, enough that I could open my body up to those quasi-medical humiliations she specialised in. He explained that the work I was going to do would be dull. My only job would be typing, I would need to decipher his handwriting and, occasionally, listen to a recording of his voice.

As he took me to the room where I would be working we passed a door marked ‘WC’. “You can … go … in there,” he told me, the emphasis implying he’d rather I didn’t. We passed another door, a small strip of pale orange light coming from under it. A mechanical whirring mixed with the sound of a ball bouncing up and down, down and up. I could feel an overwhelming heat radiating from the room. “That’s locked, don’t go in there.” My voice was louder than I would’ve liked as I said “Okay” and then “Okay” again.

The linen smocks with the sailor collars I was so used to wearing had been deemed too childish, too unprofessional and Grandmother had insisted on choosing what she considered appropriate work attire for me. She had squeezed my fleshy breasts and hips as I’d tried on tight woollen sweaters, tweed pencil skirts, low-heeled pumps, sheer stockings and shoulder-padded blazers. She had bullied my hair into a subtle beehive and pinched my cheeks until they appeared rouged, she had placed a string of pearls around my throat. “That’s better,” she said, looking at me dressed as a simulacrum of a secretary from a bygone era. “See how you get on in the real world.”

So, this then was the real world. A small airless room at the back of this ordinary house. The room was hot, everywhere was hot, and my damp skin sweated into the tight nylon and wool of these unfamiliar clothes. “We had better start,” he said to me.

He showed me how to turn on a computer and how to work the blind that covered the window. Then he took from a mahogany bureau a byzantine piece of paper, made up of perhaps hundreds of individual smaller bits of paper taped together. He unfurled it across the floor, a great flag of words that amounted to his life’s work. “This is it,” he said. I sensed that he expected a response so I nodded my head and raised my eyebrows, turned down the corners of my mouth and exhaled through my nose in a way I hoped was encouraging but would not invite him to discuss it further.

“It’s an important work, which my peers and colleagues are certainly unprepared for. Something that will vindicate me and of course him too …” He gestured vaguely around the room. I wondered which peers and colleagues he was referring to. After all there was no university in Grunne, there was nowhere for miles that would reasonably be expected to employ an academic and nothing to suggest he commuted great distances at all. The room displayed no crest or paraphernalia of any seat of learning, no lanyarded staff access card slung carelessly onto a table, no logo-ed pens or desk pads pilfered from a Freshers Fair.

I was not interested in any of his academic theories and as he talked I turned my mind into a great beige blank. This was something I had learned to do when Father’s Sonder deck interpretations became too lengthy. Instead of hearing words I began to float above a smooth, pale plain, everything sounded like television static and everything tasted of fizzy water, not too cold.

Then it was time to begin work. I adjusted the woollen pencil skirt, picked up the handwritten paper he’d given me and began to type. My skills were very poor and I made many mistakes, that first day all I managed after seven hours was:

I take care not to mention MH when in presence of D, but she guesses my thoughts anyway like she knows what I will ask of her eventually. Perhaps she is more attuned than I first thought? Perhaps the marriage was a smart move after all, despite Mother?

I remember the day I arrived from _____________ clutching his book, hoping for just an autograph but feeling, after having shook his hand, that he felt me an adequate protégé, could feel that I too was an architect of the machine.

^^^

The hot days took on a shape that was new to me. I still kneeled every morning and evening at the altar with my small brothers, I still obeyed the instructions of the Sonder deck as they reached us through Father, but now I was allowed to go out alone. First, to my appointments with Judith – where she sketched the shape of my skull and unsheathed her rectal thermometer with a flourish – and then on to my job with the academic.

I would arrive at his house promptly at 9am – he detested tardiness. We would break for a small lunch at 12 noon and then typing would continue until 5pm. At the end of each day the academic would print the document I had typed for him, take out his tape and stick it to the edge of his ever-increasing paper. “Good work,” he would say and hand over an envelope of cash. This cash was then given, in its entirety, to my father.

I began to enjoy the peaceful rhythm of my days, with only one task to do, taking words inked on paper or captured on tape and putting them onto a screen, where they would flicker briefly and then become solid. I had even started to pay attention when the academic spoke, had started listening to his quips and observations, had even – at times – thought him witty and erudite, had imagined how the smoothness of his face would feel uncommonly cool against the sweeping back of my hand.

The standard of my work remained questionable but the academic did not complain. Sometimes in the late afternoon he would put a hand on my shoulder and squeeze it. At other times, when he handed me the envelope, his eyes would wander from my face further down my body or, as I left, I would flick my hair over my shoulder and it would touch his lips.

I would return home after these days with weak knees and flushed cheeks, almost dying to lie down alone in a quiet place, desperate to reach with my fingers into the space between my thighs. But instead, I had to listen to my father and then feed my brothers, comb their hair and get the stains out of their underwear.

These stains proved more difficult to remove after Father introduced some changes into our daily routines. A particularly involved Sonder reading had suggested a radical overhaul of our diets. The dairy was gone, replaced instead with huge amounts of offal designed to build strength in us. Whilst I was at the academic’s house my brothers would be given various objects to lift and carry for hours at a time. I would arrive home and their tiny arms and legs would be exhausted. I would find them lying in heaps, mewling on the carpet, desperate for a bit of tongue pudding, a crumb of sweetbreads. From there I’d carry them to the altar where Father, in his ceremonial fluorescent robes, would lay out the Sonder deck for us. Here he would tell us if my small brothers had carried enough weight that day or if I had earned enough money to warrant the space I took up. A small silence before the Sonder deck would reveal to Father the nature of our transgressions.

“Your loose hair is that of a harlot,” he would tell me. “Your physical weaknesses are symptoms of your moral failings,” he would tell my brothers.

“Rejoice,” he would say. “Rejoice,” we would repeat.

Afterwards Father would discard his robes, pull on his suede trousers and venture out to a nearby fusion restaurant for his evening meal. I would prepare the kidney and carrot juice for my brothers and they would spend the hours before bedtime rabid and manic, scratching at each other’s shins until they bled a deep, unnatural red.

^^^

When I had been working for the academic for seven or eight weeks, I noticed that the oils in my fingertips had taken the matte finish from the mouse I used. In a bold move I pointed this out to him, offering as an explanation the amount of right clicking I do. He leaned in to look at the strange greasy pattern and my neck began to sweat. He placed his nose close to me and inhaled the heat. I turned my head and, somehow, we were looking right into each other’s eyes. “You know,” he said, “you actually have quite pretty eyes. Not dissimilar to my wife’s.” I had to catch my breath then, although I knew he was lying. My iris is a very dark brown, almost black, so that it appears I have no iris at all, just a massive, dilated pupil in the centre of the white.

Although it had been an obvious untruth it was still thrilling for me to hear and I was thinking about it later as I cut up the livers that were to be mine and my small brothers’ evening meal. As the knife sliced into the flesh it occurred to me suddenly that the meat was the exact same texture as the place between my thighs that, nightly, my fingers had been reaching toward. That is to say, it felt to me as my labia did and, disgusted, I picked up the livers and threw them into the bin. I told my brothers there would be no meal for them that day and they would have to go to bed hungry.

It was a shame for them, they could barely carry the weight of their own bodies and their little tummies grumbled in protest. For myself I found an errant tomato rolling in the bottom of the refrigerator. It was about the size of my fist and the skin broke easily as I bit into it, its pale pink-orange flesh yielding quickly to my teeth. I laughed to myself as it was clear to me then that the meat of this tomato was probably much closer to the texture of my labia than the liver was, but the thought no longer disgusted me, and I carried on eating until it was all gone.

When Father returned from his restaurant dinner, he heard my brothers’ crying, heard their rumbling stomachs and their whimpering. His face darkened when I explained that the meat was bad, that we had no money for more, that I was hungry too. “I see,” he said.

“Perhaps,” I ventured, “I could keep some of the money from the academic, perhaps I could buy some fruits and vegetables – not carrots – and learn how to cook them properly. I could buy a book detailing methods and ingredients. The academic says plant-based diets are very current.”

“Oh, the academic says, does he?” It was Father’s ordinary mocking tone but with more spite than usual. He said nothing else to me that night, picking the Sonder deck up from its place on the altar and climbing the stairs to bed. I cleaned up the mess from the tomato and then went to bed myself, sleeping soundly despite fearing repercussions.

Grandmother arrived the next day, wearing an esoteric perfume with top notes of effluent. She had descended on us to call me a slut, to slap my face and let out a whistle through her teeth. I was a talentless little whore taking her for a ride. I had abused my father’s good nature and had neglected my brothers. I was just like my bitch of a mother. “What will you do with her then?” she asked Father. His dark outline appeared in the doorway. “Let us consult the deck.”

“Ah,” he said, turning a card over. “Ah” again as he tapped a long fingernail on another card. “This is very grave indeed.” His face was solemn, but I could see pleasure in his eyes, there was something there, just at the edges, that he was enjoying. “The Sonder deck is very clear. You are no longer my daughter. You’re a stranger to us.” A sweeping gesture of his arm then, taking in all my brothers and my grandmother too. “You are to leave the house today. Perhaps you can find your mother and stay with her or see if your academic wants you.” He gathered the stack together. “Now,” he said, “rejoice.” “Rejoice,” my small brothers repeated. But I stayed silent and walked from the room, turning once to see them for the last time.

^^^

The summer was over then but I could still feel its heat in my skin as I arrived at the academic’s house, 9am sharp – he detested tardiness. I pulled at my pencil skirt, my smart sweater, I smoothed down my hair and cracked my knuckles. It was just like every other morning, until it was not.

To kiss him was to kiss a hole dug into the cool, damp earth and filled with worms.

He led me through the house and to the locked room, the room at the back of the house that glowed a pale orange. Before we entered he sat me down and took off my shoes and socks and trimmed my toenails, he washed my feet and ankles and he kissed me one more time. There was no need to talk to each other and I let him perform these acts of care in a comforting silence.

Inside the light was both a flat grey and a dull orange and it pulsated from the centre of the room where a peculiar apparatus sat. It was made up of a vertical bed attached to the wall by a heavy metal arm. The bed was covered with elaborate straps and something that might’ve been a headrest but wasn’t quite, more of a curved and hardened pillow designed to push my head forward so that my chin touched my chest. It fitted my form wonderfully, as if designed perfectly for a person of my proportion.

I had little experience of a sexual nature but imagined this to be an erotic game, or else something between an erotic game and a sacred ritual, something that would bring us closer together, not simply by performing the act itself but later, after it was over, from sharing a secret, from looking across a busy room at each other and knowing what no one else there did. But when I turned and called his name he had gone, and I was alone in the room.

Looking up I saw that straight ahead, hanging from the wall, was the academic’s gargantuan paper, the words clearly legible, even from a distance. I focused in on them but they had changed since I had typed them, they had moved around the page and rearranged themselves to say something else entirely. “Rejoice,” they said. “Rejoice,” I said.

I felt a burning sensation starting in my feet. The smell of smoke under my thickened toenails. I saw my mother as a gently smiling mannequin in the window of a city centre department store. I saw my father, the massive head of Cronus devouring the limp dolls of my brothers, their unageing faces smooth and milk-scented as they neared Father’s terrible yawn. The image of my grandmother did not bother me at all.

The apparatus seemed to fold in on itself then, slowly inch by inch the bottom half rising and the top half lowering to meet somewhere in the middle as the heat rose from my feet and up, up into all the hidden parts of my body. A mineral taste bloomed from under my tongue, or was it more metallic than that, was it, in fact, the taste of blood, filling my mouth and flooding over my bottom set of teeth, down the sides, dripping onto and staining my lovely sweater? I was bathed in orange light, tasting a sour divinity on my tongue. I swallowed the blood down and epiphany after epiphany followed. I was just about reeling from them, just about spinning from them, if spinning was at all possible from the position I was in. I was spitting out epiphanies onto the floor when the flat light began to round out, began to curve and curl at the edges. Bright, an orange ball expanded. An orange ball, an orange ball!


 

Victoria Manifold is a writer and trade union worker from County Durham. Her short fiction has been published by The White Review, Prototype, Extra Teeth, Five Dials, and The Lifted Brow, among others. She was shortlisted for The White Review Short Story Prize in 2016 and 2018, was a runner up in the 2019 Berlin Writing Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2021 Desperate Literature Prize and the 2022 Mslexia Short Story Prize.



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