This story is by Abigail Persaud Cheddie and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
When I was sixteen and working part time in a copy shop one August, I heard this story from Jillian, an excitable but mostly reliable girl, about her roommate Olivia. Olivia, Jillian said, almost went mad on the university campus one night because she had spent twenty five years trying to write a book. Olivia’s been seared into my psyche since then, and perhaps she’s the reason I’m going to call Eric tomorrow and postpone our wedding. I will have to find something satisfactory to say to him. I don’t know what yet. How do I explain to a pragmatic man like Eric that like Olivia, the conditions and structures that create and stabilize me, undo and dismantle me? I don’t think I can say something as stupid-sounding as – Hello, I don’t think I can marry you right now as I haven’t yet written my book. It even sounds absurd to me when I say it out loud. Besides, what will Eric tell his family when first they panic, then become solicitous and finally resentful towards me? Every time I dial his number, I think I hear a cock crowing. I become paralyzed. I feel like a soldier about to desert his post and lose his honor. But you know, maybe if Olivia had said something even as stupid-sounding like that, about her book, to her fiancé, I mean, she might not have nearly lost her mind that night when Jillian found her.
“She had been trying to write a book for over twenty five years,” Jillian had said, as we folded pamphlets.
“Twenty five years!” I had exclaimed incredulously. “What idiot takes twenty five years to write a book? I’m writing one now.”
“Don’t sneer,” Jillian said and gave me a hard terrified stare, “Sometimes people fall down a hole, you know. Have you never read Alice in Wonderland?”
After some seconds, I readjusted my tone. “I’ve seen it.” Then much more softly, “Why did she take twenty five years to do it?”
“I heard that when she was twenty five, she married a nice kind wealthy man from down the coast. All her friends said she was a conscientious wife, a tidy homemaker and a doting surrogate mother during the school term to her husband’s little nephew, whose parents had died. I think she was too, because for the seven weeks we shared the apartment on campus, she packed her bag every Thursday evening. On Friday evenings we all saw her wheeling the bag, rushing out to the bus after the last class. I also heard that she had clocked in the maximum number of hours for any news anchor on the whole coast. Always early to give the reports a practice run, never a hair…”
“Wait,” I said, “Olivia who? Olivia March, the news reader, that Olivia?”
“Yes, of course” snapped Jillian irritably and went on. “Never a hair…”
“But Olivia, she’s…she’s always so well composed. I’ve seen her on TV, never a hair…”
“Out of place,” continued Jillian. She seemed agitated, nervous, as if she were undergoing some kind of therapy by telling me the story. I shut up and let her get on.
“All the camera men she’d ever worked with for a decade said so. She would come in, greet the team politely, proofread the reports for errors, something which the editors got paid for, and practice reading the reports quietly. Then she would get up, lock herself in the bathroom and come back out looking slightly distant and unnerved. But when she’d go on air, the stolid demeanor would return.”
“Why’d she lock herself away?” I had to ask, terrified that Olivia had a terminal illness of some sort and was hiding it, like you see people do in the movies. “And what does that have to do with the book and her losing her mind?”
“I don’t know,” Jillian spoke thoughtfully, slowly, almost tiredly, as if she did know and as if I was too stupid and still too young to know. “Olivia told me that she must have started falling into the immeasurable abyss of self-loss when she was ten years old.”
“What do you mean?”
“One day, when Olivia was in school, sitting alone in class, watching a bird by the window and writing a poem about it, some boys came into the classroom with a cricket bat and ball. They saw the bird and rushed over to shoo it away. Olivia stood face-to-face with the ring leader but was too afraid to be angry and bang her fist on the desk and tell them to leave the bird alone. The boy spied the poem she had begun and snatched the page from her. He climbed up on a desk and read mockingly: Curious, furious, little and free, / Black and yellow Kiskadee. / Against the classroom window, tap tapping your beak, / Contemplating friends, is it me you seek?”
“How do you know all the lines to the poem?” I asked skeptically. I’d begun to think that I was spending my vacation working with a lunatic.
“I don’t know,” Jillian’s eyes were glossy, “I saw it the night I was helping her to pick up the papers she’d strewn all over the apartment after she had started yelling. Window Friend, it was called. Olivia saw me looking at it and she laughed and said that was from the first day she thinks she really stopped writing. She was only ten years old then. The boys had laughed and the reader rolled her poem up into a ball and they began batting it around with the cricket bat. When Olivia looked up, the bird was gone. He had flown higher and higher leaving her far below in a hollow as she sat on the steely grey chair. Later she retrieved the page, tried to smooth it out, folded it into two dozen folds and shoved it in the depths of a thick book. For the next few weeks, she said she felt like she had been pushed into a hollow hole inside herself. Worst of all, she couldn’t write like she could before.”
“And she never wrote again, boo hoo hoo,” I mimicked crying, hoping to shame Jillian out of her tale-telling.
“No,” she said sternly. “She wrote. She wrote something almost every year of her life after that. She wrote so many things that if you saw them the way I did the night when she threw them all up and over the apartment, you would not believe that she had not written anything, not really.”
“What do you mean not really?”
“She hardly finished anything that she’d started and she had started a lot, all the way back to before she was ten and writing about the bird on the window. At three in the morning when I was helping her to sort the papers back into files, I saw folders lovingly but aggressively labelled with titles like Random Writing Attempts to Sort; Poems from before 1985; Writings: 1986 – circa 1989; Stories 1990 – 1994; Thoughts circa 1995 –1998. There were diaries, thick ones labelled, Do Not Read, one for 1995, 1996, 1997 and so on. And I saw large art books with clippings, pictures and drawings of stick figures with names under them like she was trying to create characters, and there were famous quotations and numbers too – big bold number 15s, 16s, 17s, 23s and so on. She would draw up the numbers of the age she was before her next birthday. There were novels, started ones I mean – some with chapter ones; some with four, seven, nine chapters, two with fourteen chapters, one with twenty one. There were novel titles like Asylum in Her Head, A Hundred Thousand Moments in an Abyss, The Writer’s Fall and so on. There were pages that had creases from where she had crumpled them up but had smoothed them out again. And pages with her name written all over them in different handwriting – Olive, Olivia, Olive, Olivia. Olivia said she could feel all of her writings covering her over and burying her under their weight. She said she was no Alice; she couldn’t slay her jabberwocky. She couldn’t finish a single piece in twenty five years and get out of her rabbit hole.”
“Why?” I said croakily, entranced.
“Because Olivia wouldn’t let her.”
“What?” my skepticism exclaimed again.
“When I came into the room that Friday night, I was surprised that Olivia had not gone home. She was talking to herself and flinging herself from one end of the room to the next. ‘I have to finish writing something,’ she was shrieking, ‘anything at all or tomorrow I am dead at the bottom of this abyss.’”
I raised my eyebrows but Jillian went on.
“Olivia ran to the other end of the room and spoke loudly back to herself. ‘Things die every day so that people can stabilize themselves. To retain self, you have to be stable. Stable! Only do the necessary things: cook, clean, wash, work, raise your family, keep it together! Keep it together! Hold everybody’s structures together!’ Then she ran to the other end of the room and pointed at the blank wall on the opposite side. ‘You’re the cruel one who should be dead at the bottom of the abyss then, not me!’ Then she ran back and pointed at the side she had just come from. ‘I’ve balanced things. I’ve balanced things! I’ve fixed things. What have you done? You’ve produced nothing. Get out! Get out! I must retain myself!’ She ran back again, ‘But the hole, it’s finally pulled me down. Only you can help me out. You have to save me. Save me!’ Then she stopped running and turned to the wall and pushed hard against it, ‘I’m tired with you. Save your-selllf!’”
“What happened then?” I could barely talk.
“After I helped her put her papers back into folders as the sun was coming up, I said, ‘Olivia, what will you do? You must write something.’ I was scared for her sanity. ‘I must go home,’ she said. ‘My husband’s not very good at making stewed fish. And little Bartholomew, who will help him with his homework?’” Jillian had stopped talking. The hum of the photocopying machine unnerved me.
“What happened,” I asked again, horrified that Olivia might have gone back to her static functional structure and never climb out.
“She took her bags and papers and went home composedly, without a strand of hair out of place,” said Jillian, with an air of finality.
And I stood staring into space, as I’m staring now – at the telephone.
It’s been ten years and the last I heard from Jillian was a cryptic text message that she was moving to Canada to try and climb out of her hole. And Olivia, I never heard about again. She doesn’t read the news anymore and she’s probably gone into safe reliable obscurity somewhere. She never slayed her stable self – her jabberwocky. It was too massive, strong and controlling. There was no renewed self to come back out of the rabbit hole like Alice. Olivia was still down at the bottom of the abyss.
And now what about me? I’d been trying to write a book for over ten years. What kind of idiot spends ten years writing nothing? I’d spent over a dozen years of rigid routine, only doing what’s been expected of me. I’d gone to school; I’d done my master’s degree; I’d gotten a job; I’d combed my hair back by the strand and I’d gotten a rectangular rock on my finger. Had I been falling down the same hole that most of the women before me, even the new age ones, had fallen?
Ten years is a long time to fall.
I picked up the phone and dialed Eric’s number.