21 Jun 2021 / The Stories We Tell
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.
14 Nov 2023 / News
Arvon is giving away two free places on upcoming Arvon at Home Online Writing Weeks in December. This opportunity is open…Read more
03 Nov 2023 / Uncategorized
Thanks to the generous support of writer Stacey Halls, we are now inviting applications for the Stacey Halls Bursary. This is…Read more
18 Oct 2023 / News
Arvon to support SI Leeds Literary Prize 2024 with Space to Write Bursary for unpublished female writers of colour.…Read more