I had black feet, and blacker eyes, when I was six years old. I shuffled towards my friend Moisree one day in the searing heat of summer and spotted my foothold in her trunk; the shape of my toes slowly becoming worn into her rough bark smoothly, from the countless times I’d climbed her. I lifted my foot and, just in time, saw the butterfly caught in a web.
I crouched, interested and frightened. Keeping an eye on the spider, which had sensed the delicate structure of its web vibrate and was now moving towards the catch, I quickly broke each of the threads holding the butterfly captive. Almost in disbelief, she stretched her wings slowly and fluttered off into the sky, brushing a few of Moisree’s leaves on her way.
I imagined that she’d come back to see me one day – touching down on my nose for a moment to thank me for saving her life. I waited for a long time for that to happen, before adulthood and cynicism lassoed my imagination, and I forgot the pattern on her wings. Before death became something I understood, and was less afraid of.
Perhaps by releasing her, I imagined that in some way, I was liberating myself, too.
“Why’ve you got that sweater on? It’s boiling hot out here!”
The walls of a building tend to soak up the energy within it, where it remains, murmuring quietly in the night time, to be hissed at by a new tenant’s cat decades later. My mother’s delusional depression tore her apart, and she imbued the pieces directly into my body. Our house was silent, lonely, and short on food. I was reminded with each mouthful how much it had cost, and she’d cry if I finished a meal, as that meant none left for her. My body took on the politics of a woman who had been consistently and systematically abused, degraded, and left powerless. She used mine as a way of denying her own; the body that she had grown to hate because she did not know it, or even look at it. She taught me to hate mine; I always hurt. We only had one mirror; it had a crack through it, and if I looked into it at just the right angle, I could see two of her coming through the door behind me.
“I should have had an abortion.”
She met him in 1984 at a Maida Vale house party thrown by a mutual friend. Tottering around, aged 36, in brightly coloured spiked heels and clutching an even brighter cocktail, she squinted through the pot smoke in search of a sugar daddy. She spotted his 52-year-old moustache and polished shoes, and made her way across the room; chin strong and jutted out, bee’s nest hairdo leading the way. She wanted his money, but did not want his children. Children were nothing but pain and sadness.
I was conceived that night…
…and nearly entered the world nine months later onto a car seat covered in cigar ash in a petrol garage forecourt on Edgware Road. He’d already started celebrating, but had forgotten to fill up the tank. She made it to St. Mary’s Hospital just in time, and almost died in labour.
In 1986 we moved to the edges of the city, a run-down and dilapidated no-man’s-land where all the council blocks were grey, and no one earned an entirely honest living, because honesty was a commodity that no one could afford. London had become too expensive, rents soaring and council homes being sold off in the boom of Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ days. He had less than zero in his bank account, lived alone with whisky, and owed a lot of money to blackmailers who kept his secrets. She had virtually no high heels left, because she’d sold them to buy nappies. She kept the best ones in the back of the cupboard secretly, sometimes bringing them out to touch and feel, so she could remember what her life was once like. Once the stitches healed and she was able to get to the off-licence, she bought the first in a long line of bottles of vodka. I’d go with her, and she’d stuff tins of food into my pram, smiling at the shop lady while paying for the bottle only. We’d come back through the peeling door, on the road behind the shops and next to the ditch, and she’d crack it open. She never took ice, or a mixer.
The shop lady had always known my mother stole. She still gave me free sweets each time I ran away from home, as soon as I could walk. She’d pick me up, sit me on her chair, and through the cracks in the leather a sigh would escape, my weight causing the yellow nicotine-stained foam to burst forth. It made me think of my flesh, and I often tried to match my scars with those on her old chair. We found maps of countries in that leather, and in the patterns on my skin. We’d wait for my mother to notice I’d gone, and eat sherbert flying saucers together quietly while I played with her headscarf and necklaces.
She always smelled of spices and earth.
“They’re very nice, don’t worry – they’ve had loads of your sort through their door.”
I spent a long time as a Child of the State, shifting from one foster home to the next, and smashing nearly every one of them up. My body belonged to the government; I was fed by them, clothed by them, schooled by them, and monitored by them. Routine measurements, weight-taking, inspecting new self-inflicted scars, and probing my head. It’s interesting, seeing people pull and prod your body, as if you’re not really in it. Watching from the outside. They never understood why mirrors frightened me, or why I’d always leave a few mouthfuls on the plate, no matter how hungry I was. When I was fourteen I ran away; moved out on my own and lied about my age to get a room. This time, there were no search teams sent. They’d already spent enough taxpayer money on me as it was.
But I loved it. I could do what I wanted. Autonomous. Independent. Grown-up.
“You’re just a kid, man – are you sure you want to try this?”
Cocaine, weed, ecstasy, speed… they released me. Bliss. Alcohol did too. I loved escaping from my body; I wanted to disappear. I was homeless for a while, looked after by four men in the park who gave me their blankets and stole me wafer cones from the ice cream van. They never ate anything themselves. Too much sadness in their bones for food. When you give up living, it’s quite easy to starve yourself to death.
Forty-eight pounds a week. That’s how much my first box room in 1999 was, in a house-share with many others. I cleaned office toilets and sold drugs by night; pot-collected, waitressed and mended shoes by day. I was the first girl in town to get a job at the shoe shop. Only took boys, they said. I kept walking in and yelling that I’d work hard, till they gave me a job out of sheer frustration, paying £2.00 an hour cash.
I learned to reject high heels there, and every time I mended a pair I’d do it a little bit substandard, hoping the owner would reject them too. High heels let men know you’re coming. Plimsolls are silent; men don’t know there is a female nearby.
They would see me often; when they came to get their work boots mended, when they ate at the café, when they had a drink at the local, and when they came to pick up their fix. They’d say, “You’re a good worker you are, you’d make a good wifey.” I’d say, “Yeah, to your sister.” I dated boys by day and girls by night, and ate leftover scraps from customers’ plates so I could spend my wages on drugs.
They spotted me kissing her goodbye one night, and shaped my face to their fists. The next week, when I was still swollen, one of them ‘showed me what I needed’. It was difficult to get out of bed the next day – hard to even get home, that night.
I had so many street fights that I lost count, until I was beaten with a gun one evening and needed six stitches in my head. I never saw it coming. I nearly lost the inside of my nose that year from the coke, and then my life from the gun. I was seventeen.
My body was not my own then, nor before, nor for some time after. It was not my own when a man got me pregnant at twenty, and tried to tell me not to abort. Life, growing inside a queer body, was a queer thing. I knew that I could never love him. Not the way that I was supposed to.
“So you’re a dyke and a feminist. You basically hate men.”
My body became politicised the day that I was born. I am a woman. I exist to reproduce. Except that I don’t, because I will never give birth. Does that make me less of a woman? Does that mean I am not part of society? What it means to be a woman, to be human, to live and to breathe, to love, and to determine what you do with yourself and with whom, is all skewed when you have a politicised body. A body that belongs to other people. A body that has been knocked down and rebuilt often – each time to suit a new interpretation of what it means to be a woman. Someone else’s interpretation. I was someone else’s daughter, someone else’s girlfriend, a potential incubator for new life, something to stare at or grope in a pub. I was defined by the shape of me, judged on what my body meant to the viewer, and assessed for what benefits could be reaped from it. Told what I should and shouldn’t do with it. Expected to present myself in a particular way – socially, at work, in a relationship… even when alone at home. They can seep into your mind, those expectations, and change how you view yourself in relation to the rest of the world. You are never just you, anymore. It’s strange how possessing hips and breasts can do that.
I am depoliticising, and repoliticising, my body.
On my own terms.
There is only one thing I know for certain, and that is that I will die one day. When I see myself backlit, cheekbones visible but not my flesh, I know that is how my bones will look when I die. Impermanent. Skeletal. If this is the case, then why don’t we do what we like with our bodies? What are we scared of, and why? Does the transient, impermanent nature of this flesh and blood terrify us? Do we want to live forever? I don’t. The world can be a difficult place. When I come to moving on, I will choose when it happens. The last radical act that I can do with my body will be to decide when it stops breathing.
There will be a lot more radical acts before that.
Do we hide from our bodies, not knowing how to make them into what society expects them to be? Do we try and disappear if we don’t fit in? Is existence painful for everyone? My body is my home, not a country or a postcode. I have taken measures to make sure it doesn’t get broken into again. One of the most beautiful things we can do for ourselves is radical self-care.
“What are you thinking about?”
It wasn’t until I was thirty, and examining the intricately crafted wonder of a spider’s web up close one day, that it hit me. Stood next to my friend Moisree almost a quarter of a century earlier, in my quest to free and liberate the butterfly, I had completely destroyed another creature’s home.
My mind flashed back, with breath-taking detail and clarity, to the quick glance I threw the web before climbing the tree to watch the butterfly cut her shell-shocked way towards the clouds. I remembered seeing the spider, sat motionless on the edge of the web, looking in at the destruction. And I remembered instantly blocking that image from my mind.
I returned from my memories, and observed myself from outside of my body, watching the new spider feel its way over the iron-strong threaded map that was its home. And I thought of Moisree’s spider, feeling tentatively into mid-air for a thread that was no longer there.
Moisree is gone now, cut down to build more grey flats for poor people to hide their bodies in.
Perhaps the spider moves the way it does because of how we have labelled it. With mistrust and fear, and the suspicion that it is after something that belongs to us – our home, our identity, our body. Perhaps the butterfly, knowing as a wildflower does that it is beautiful, moves assuredly – confident of its standing, and what it means to others. Both of these creatures know what their bodies represent in the world. But both of them are insects. They are the same.
I never considered the spider’s survival mechanisms. Why it moves so jerkily in the darkness, and why it seems, so often, like it is the hunted – not the hunter. If you label a person as bad, if you say that what they do with their body is unnatural; that their skin, their ability, their brain, their beliefs, are unnatural; then they feel unnatural. They act from a place of fear, not love.
It is time we use our bodies for revolution.