21 Jun 2021 / The Stories We Tell
Out of conflicting pressures in the unsettled weather ever present in a writer’s head – in all our heads – a story emerges. Elements from the world around us conflict with our inner lives and the lives of those close to us. A narrative builds. The invitation to write this piece is an opportunity to tease out the influences on a short story called ‘Blood Moon‘.
The barometer needle was going haywire.
Watching the MeToo movement explode was chastening for a man of my age, born in nineteen fifty-six. Having lived through the radical feminism of the nineteen-seventies – women ran self-defence classes and reclaimed the night – I guess I had assumed that, while there were certainly still men out there capable of violent rape, young women no longer suffered routine sexual assault.
One discovered that horrible things were done by men to women during my lifetime, not in some distant, materially deprived ghetto or emotionally stunted milieu, but among people like myself and my friends.
Quite apart from those actual assaults, it was also unsettling to see an ever-widening array of behaviours being put under the spotlight. Women were turning round and saying: ‘No. We did not like it when you touched us like this. When you said that. When you imposed your desires without consideration for us. That is what you were doing.’
Every straightish man of my generation was obliged to review his behaviour; to track back over the years and to reconsider: was that truly consent? What did that imbalance in status imply for that relationship? Had one been complicit in others’ bad behaviour?
At the same time as this scrutiny – and self-scrutiny – one understood that nothing is simple, nowhere more so than when it comes to sex.
I tutored an Arvon creative writing course. My co-tutor was a woman, all the participants were women, and the centre was run entirely by women. I was the only male on site. One lunchtime a discussion arose about assaults on women by powerful men: Trump, Strauss-Kahn, Weinstein.
The moment Trump was recorded talking about his entitlement and freedom, as a wealthy celebrity, to ‘grab a woman’s pussy,’ was the moment – we all agreed – that we had understood his presidential candidacy to be doomed. Except that it wasn’t. He went on to be elected. Millions of American women did not have much of a problem with such behaviour – which had complicated the debate further.
Talk moved on to Justin Trudeau, and I intervened in his defence: an allegation against him was not about an assault or a grope but an inappropriate touch; it was from a long time ago; he apologised at the time and his apology had been accepted.
One of the women in our group, M, said, ‘Tim, you’re a man, you’re not allowed to say anything in this discussion. You’re only allowed to listen, and learn.’
I said nothing more, and listened. Upon subsequent reflection, it seemed to me that we’d perceived a difference in categorisation. M divided the world into women, who could be assaulted by men; and men, who could assault women. A reiteration, I suppose, of the 70s feminist adage, ‘All men are rapists.’ Whereas I divided the world into those routinely capable of assault and those routinely incapable of assault, which may usually be congruent with, but was not confined to, gender.
While this conversation was going on in the wider culture, I was influenced by the women in my family.
My wife is a runner. A friend of hers expressed horror that my wife goes running alone, on the streets or in our local park, even at night. I am never worried. Of course, something terrible might happen; it might at any time, anywhere. But I see her set off in her running gear and decide that it’s incredibly unlikely that a would-be rapist would attack such a fit, strong, purposeful woman.
Our daughter, meanwhile, was sixteen, and a keen sportswoman, who trained, on field or in gym, pretty much every day. Watching her and her football team play was to witness twenty-two powerful young women, and I thought how strange it must be for her to listen to the MeToo narrative, of women as the victims of men. What could she make of it?
And what were one’s obligations as a father? Should I tell her what men, some men, are capable of? That the womanhood she was entering was fraught with the particular danger of sexual violence. We told her that she could change the world, but had we paid too little attention to how the world might change her? Perhaps the most appropriate present for her next birthday would be a can of pepper spray.
These various currents – of gender roles, feminist progress, abusive behaviour hiding in plain sight, male predation – met, and a story emerged.
(Being a writer of course means a constant oscillation between the seclusion necessary to do the work and the storm outside; of closing one’s mind in concentration and opening it to what is happening around us.)
The first part of ‘Blood Moon‘ describes a couple, a woman in her late twenties, and a man a few years older. She is an athlete; he was too, is not long retired. On holiday on a Greek island, they are comfortably, companionably, in love.
They swam in the warm blue sea, or lolled in the hotel pool. Sarah let the sun
dry her skin then dragged her lounger into the shade of a parasol. Mark dozed in the open, flesh baking. In their apartment after lunch they made love, lazily.
In the afternoon they walked up away from the village, along overgrown paths, holding hands until sweat in their palms slid them apart. When they passed through a layer of scented air Sarah broke off leaves and rubbed them between her fingers. Thyme. She raised her hands to her lover and he smelled the herbs too, identified them or attempted to. Fennel. They plucked ripe wild figs off trees.
After supper in an outdoor restaurant, they return to their hotel. The man is tired but the woman wants to walk for a while. He goes to their room. She walks, out of the village, into the moonlit night.
In the second part of the story – in what constitutes the bulk of it – the woman is attacked, and what follows is a description of the fight she has with her anonymous assailant.
How was I to do this? (Not that a writer necessarily decides such things in advance: often one simply plunges forward and sees where words take you; decisions come later, revising, and with an editor’s input.)
The story is written in the third person, but close to the main character, Sarah; the third-person subjective or over-the-shoulder perspective, I believe some call it.
As soon as I began to describing this scene I naturally questioned my right to do so. Was I allowed, as M would have it, to tell a woman’s story, particularly at this time? Not only were women speaking up about their experiences of sexual assault, but the wider consideration of cultural appropriation questioned whether a person from one realm of society had the right to represent lives from another – particularly less privileged – realm?
As with MeToo, so in general one of the surprises of growing older is witnessing a younger generation grappling with old conundrums and finding new illumination, angles, solutions. I’m sure many people of my age felt constrained by the gender stereotypes of our youth. We got on with making relationships as best we could, and it’s been fascinating to see notions of gender fluidity allow young people a greater flexibility in how they see themselves and each other.
I wonder whether one of the attractions of becoming a writer is precisely to experience the ‘other’. In the act of writing this story, I ‘identified as’ a woman (in fact I wanted initially to publish it under a female pseudonym).
Or to put it another way, as Rachel Cusk once wrote, ‘consciousness is androgynous’.
Literature itself provides all the proof one needs to pursue the endeavour. Has any man written of male experience with more authenticity than Annie Proulx, from the pathos of Quoyle in The Shipping News to her cowboys – gay or straight – in Close Range? Is there a stronger fictional woman than Ernest Hemingway’s guerrilla leader Pilar in For Whom the Bell Tolls?
Once I had embarked upon the scene, I determined to attempt a forensic description of the unknown man’s assault, and Sarah’s resistance.
I suspect, looking back, that to some degree I was prompted to imagine on the page what I did not want to entertain as a possibility in life: that my wife, out running, might be attacked. Was I allowing that buried anxiety, that denial, expression in a safe place i.e. on paper. I mean, if a man is worried that his wife might be prey to assault, what’s he supposed to do with that worry? Forbid her from going out alone? Clearly it’s about a hundred years too late for that. Accompany her? I wouldn’t be able to keep up.
Once I began writing the scene, I was powered by indignation.
He held her right arm against the ground with his left hand, but her left hand was free. She raised her hand to his head and felt around for something to grab – hair, beard – she found his right ear and gripped the lobe tight in her fingers and pulled his head towards her and sank her teeth into his right cheek.
The man yelled in pain. His right hand was on her left hand, trying to prise her fingers from his earlobe, but that would not help him, he could not get to her teeth. He pulled her fingers off his ear and now he held both her arms – her left hand and her right wrist – but she had a lump of his fleshy cheek clamped between her jaws. He was groaning, moaning in pain and rage, pinning her down yet trapped himself. If she opened her mouth she was done for. There was a taste on her tongue. It was him, her attacker, her rapist, she could begin to consume him. He lowed like a beast of burden.
There’s a story that Maxim Gorky’s wife heard him scream. She rushed to his study and found him on the floor, clutching his stomach. He’d been writing the scene of a woman stabbed by her husband, and felt her agony.
That degree of empathy with one’s characters, whoever they are, is surely what a writer aims for. Describing Sarah’s fight with her assailant, I was furious with his invasion of her sovereignty – How dare he? – and wrote in a state of concentrated fury.
Why, I guess I’m asking here, did this story emerge? What is it for? A small act of male reparation? One married writer’s anxiety finding expression? An homage to his daughter and her sporting colleagues? Or just, in the end, a short story that will or will not entertain, or irritate, or invigorate a reader.
Find out more about The Stories We Tell.
Tim Pears is the author of eleven novels, including In the Place of Fallen Leaves (which won the Hawthornden Prize 1994), In a Land of Plenty (made into a ten-part drama series for the BBC broadcast in 2001) and Landed (shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize and the IMPAC Award.) His most recent novels comprise The West Country Trilogy: The Horseman (2017), The Wanderers (2018) and The Redeemed (2019). His first short story collection, Chemistry and Other Stories, has just been published. Tim is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He is married with two grown children. He enjoys urban rambling, and rural wandering and foraging. Sport is vital to his wellbeing: he plays table-tennis, watches too much football and writes occasional essays about sport and society.
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