What did you want from me?
why did you bring me here?
i'm facing my foolish fate oh
i'm too high, too close to the sun
i'm too high, my curious Icarus wings
melt from my skin.
- Tom Baxter, 'Icarus Wings.'
She’s never laid herself bare like this in front of anyone else but Emily. Her writing has always been private, something just for herself. A place where she exorcises feelings – demons – without judgment. She never intended to share any of it, but all that changed the day Emily found one of her notebooks when they were unpacking in their stuff to get ready for London. Coming from her, in that sweet, calm voice – “You’re so talented Naomi, it’s beautiful. Why do you want to hide it all away?” – anything would sound like a good idea. Even standing in front of a club full of uni students at a Literary Open Mic.
Until now, she’s never entertained the idea that anything she writes might be of any value in the literary sense. She’s still not sure that’s true, and she’s not sure how people are going to react. Emily’s a little biased in that regard. She’s no Woolf. No Plath. No Gibson. No Sexton. She’s not sure who she sounds like actually, because she’s never actively set out to copy anyone. Hopefully she just sounds like herself. Writing is something that just flows out of her whenever it feels like it. Usually, it’s when she’s wrestling to overcome extremes of feeling – ecstatic, furious, melancholy, and any and all stops between – she doesn’t create or construct. There’s no narrative voice or particular style. However, under duress, she will concede there’s a particular line of thought, one that would be revealed to those who like to read between the lines, should they have the desire to look.
Somehow, whether implicitly or explicitly, everything she writes is about Emily.
She’s nervous – the dry throat, clammy hands, unable to keep still kind of nervous – teetering on the brink of terrified as she waits in the wings by the stage. For all her political flag waving and prostrating with megaphones on marches, she’s not the best public speaker, particularly when the words she’s saying are intimate and personal. She doesn’t particularly like the prospect of being the centre of attention, even if it’s only for three minutes or so – she’s timed it, just to quantify how excruciating her experience will be.
It’s a decent crowd, chaired by the requisite ‘cool’ member of the faculty, Dr Movern. She’s still not sure if he actually likes her or she him, because he’s always somewhat aloof, and writes all over her essays in spider scrawled red pen instead of typing notes like other members of the faculty. Overall, she’s amongst like minds at least, because something – though she’s still not sure what – possessed her to take English Literature instead of History or Politics or one of the ‘ologies. If her sixteen year-old-self was in the crowd tonight, she’d be disgusted or dying of laughter, possibly both. She’s become like the artsy, deep-thinking pretentious idiots her mother used to surround herself with. It’s not her fault really, university breeds that behaviour; actively cultivates it even. Here, certain things are allowed that wouldn’t be in real world: wearing of berets, reading in public, using air quotes, arguments – because they’re no longer arguments they’re called discussions instead. She is wearing a beret, but it’s knitted, and it’s Emily’s, so it’s more like a good luck charm than a fashion statement. That’s her theory anyway, and she’s sticking to it.
Their flatmates Jodie, Mark and Adam have been dragged along for the ride, because they should suffer this too. They’re a right bunch of misfits, but they work. Somehow. They’ve all egged Emily on shamelessly, and she’s still debating whether she loathes them because of it. The three of them are standing there, grinning at her, looking like a fucking Greek chorus, eyeing her with the same thirsty mirth that she imagines people who watched public executions did. If anything’s going to derail her attempts to be serious, it’s Mark, because he’s the only one who maintains this is the most ridiculous thing they’ve managed to be involved in, except for their unwavering support of Adam’s band on its tour of a seemingly endless stream of dingy pubs, playing to an audience of five.
Her only saving grace in all this is Emily. She’s standing right at the front, directly in her eyeline, as arranged. One of the many conditions to her taking part at all. This way, she has someone to aim her death glares at when it all goes horrendously wrong and she’s laughed off the stage. More truthfully, she wants Emily there to focus on, so she can just look at her, in the hope the fifty odd other faces will disappear. A curious thing; it’s always been that way really, for as long as Emily’s been a part her life. Since she become word in her vocabulary with heavier meaning. She should still be furious at her for casually showing Dr Morvern her notebooks – it caused one of the worst arguments they’ve had in ages – including the one she’s now holding in her hand – even though she doesn’t need it. She knows these words by heart.
The short smattering of applause and overenthusiastic cheering for the last person on the stage – some guy in a ridiculous striped jumper that she remembers vaguely from her Early Medieval Literature class – dies down, and she realises she’s next. It’s here. The days of being talked into it, followed by nights worrying and trying to talk herself out of it have all disappeared, and she’s got no idea how it’s going to go. She can’t just stand there and read it like you read a book aloud, but she doesn’t feel like the overdramatic sell either. It’s just not her.
Be brave, Emily told her once. Now it’s time to be brave again.
“And after that fantastic piece from David Squires,” Dr Movern begins, his deep, gruff voice booming out like she’s being summoned forth by God. He pauses, raking a hand through his greying hair as he glances down at the running order in front of him, “We have another reading from a first year student, Naomi Campbell. Give her a warm welcome.”
At the sound of the applause stirring back up – with Adam’s familiar whistle and Emily’s cheers mixed in – her heart goes up into her throat, pounding deafeningly loud in her ears. She licks her lips to wet them, and takes a breath in the hope of steadying herself.
It doesn’t work.
Dr Movern glances over at her, and readjusts the microphone stand because he’s much taller than she is. Swallowing hard, she walks with trepidation out on to the stage, and then forward towards the microphone. It’s hotter out here, under the lights, it’s brighter too, and it takes her a few moments to adjust. The stage seems bigger all of a sudden, now she’s standing on it, and she wonders if she looks as lost as she feels. She only has a few seconds to settle before people will start to get restless, and she can already feel the rumblings of what will turn into heckling from somewhere at the back.
It’s a relief when she finds Emily, looking up at her and smiling, nodding encouragement.
“This is um,” her voice sounds tiny. So tiny that she wonders if the mic is even on. It whistles intermittently while she collects herself, proving that it is. Clearing her throat, she begins again. “This is a piece called Icarus Wings. It means a lot to me,” she grips the mic tighter. “I … I hope that you like it.”
She cringes at that because it makes her sound fucking pathetic, but when she glances down at Emily, there’s an even bigger smile on her face, and it’s the push she needs to carry on speaking.
the fog of this morning; mourning too
thick and unrelenting
there’s no way out of this
i can’t have you
the want is too much
you are too much
we are too much
something has shifted in me
i can’t shake you, sweet thing
you’re still here, an innocent lingering between these sheets of mine
long cold, but warm for you, somewhere deep down
there’s a monster, crawling up from the depths of me
i’ll twist this knife
stick it deeper into the heart of you
we shall match
wounded in the red
my temper’s too short to outlast you
i’ll never resist.
the door’s ajar now.
let me escape this.
let me breathe full like i took for granted
you tempt me to reach beyond my height
love is here, despite me.
because of me
because of you
flickering dangerous visions of things
things too near and altogether too far
if i stand on the edge, would you catch me?
All too quickly, it’s over. The energy’s been sapped from her, like an exorcism of some kind. A release she wasn’t expecting. It’s an effort to stay still and upright. She has the same sinking feeling as when she first wrote those words – frenzied and feverish, without care, as it all rushed from her, and she felt powerless to stop it. There aren’t any tears this time, not like after the lake; angry, confused, but lovesick all the same. She cried and cried until it felt like there was ht to cry at all. Then, she found more tears. Somehow, drawn from the depths of herself, like the very feelings she was trying so hard to get over.
Somehow she thought she might feel less, if she could just put those feelings somewhere else, somewhere in a desk draw out of sight, instead of storing them all up, crushed and wanting for space in her chest. It didn’t work exactly, once they were free from that little cage, they just bloomed, bigger and brighter than she could’ve ever imagined.
She breathes out, blinking back surprise when she realises that people are clapping, really clapping, not in that polite but secretly disinterested way they’ve been doing for the rest of the time. Just when the applause starts to die down, Adam whistles in an ungodly pitch that she’s sure that all dogs and dolphins within a two-mile radius can hear that reignites it. She smiles nervously and steps away from the mic, curling her notebook between her hands as she feels the heat of embarrassment radiating through her, colouring her cheeks. Unsure what to say or even if she should say anything at all, she nods her appreciation instead.
When she looks down at Emily again, there are tears in her eyes. She mouths an ‘I love you’ at her, and her she smiles again, genuinely this time. Her uncertainty gives way to pride, and a strange sort of giddy exhilaration she never counted on. Emily’s never heard that piece before, and she can already tell how deeply it’s affected her.
“Well,” Doctor Morvern looks over at her again, his expression completely unreadable. “That was, certainly something Naomi. Thank you for sharing it with us.” She nods again, at a loss as to what else to do. “Follow that … Michael Kendrick. Follow that, young sir,” he finishes, waving Michael forward. He walks towards the mic much more confidently.
She turns away, retreating to the side of the stage again, eager to find Emily and the others, genuinely curious to hear what they think. They could’ve just been clapping out of kindness, after all.
When she’s on the last stair, craning find Emily in the crowd, she feels a hand on her shoulder.
“Great stuff, Naomi,” Dr Morvern declares. “Great stuff,” he repeats, squeezing past.
It’s the stamp of approval she didn’t realise she was waiting for.
“Thanks,” she manages to croak out. Floored.
“Oh,” he says, taking off his glasses as he turns back to her again, remembering something, “whatever you do, don’t stop writing. You have a talent.”
“I … do?” she gapes.
There’s a faint trace of a smile quirking up on Dr Morvern’s lips. He scratches his stubble thoughtfully before speaking again. “You do. Just umm, don’t tell everyone, OK?” and with that, he leaves her, headed forward the bar.
“What just happened?” she says, mostly to herself, shaking her head in disbelief.
Before she can completely recover from that little bombshell, she’s accosted by Emily. Behind her, she can see the others watching, making stupid faces. Mark and Adam are itching to come and talk to her, but Jodie glares, and they hang back, grinning at her like idiots instead. She just stands there, looking at Emily, not entirely sure what to do with herself or what she should say. She thinks she’s probably said enough for one night. Without a word, Emily pulls her into a hug, squeezing tight. It feels different to every other time they’ve done it, and she’s not sure why.
“I always knew you were brave,” Emily whispers, pressing a gentle kiss to her lips.
Her eyes flutter closed. Content.
Though she fought it, she was in love, even then. She fell hard, fell fast and feel deep. Deeper than she ever thought possible; she fell hard and fell fast; losing all control in the process. Emily watched and waited, patient until she was ready.
The landing was soft in the end. Emily did catch her.