WHAT A SHAME
The Paperback Publication
This week the paperback of WHAT A SHAME published, so in today’s newsletter I’m sharing the prologue and another chapter from the beginning of the book. I hope it gives you a small taste of the prose style in the novel and the sorts of themes it explores.
‘Scabrously funny and delightfully unpredictable, Bergstrom's debut novel revolves around Mathilda - mourning a break-up and forced into ever more extreme methods of attempting to move on‘
There is a pain – so utter –
It swallows substance up –
Then covers the Abyss with Trance – So Memory can step
Around – across – upon it –
As one within a Swoon –
Goes safely – where an open eye – Would drop Him – Bone by Bone.
Curses are like processions.
They return to the place from which they came.
At first there was drama and morbid excitement – all the morose trimmings that come with the early stages of mourning and grief. People came over.They brought pre-cooked food, wrapped and marinating in flavours, flowers from the fancy florist and other small appropriate gifts. They wore black – respectfully – to both of your funerals: dark, smart clothing on a grey day to a brutalist crematorium, and dark, sullen moods to a flat we once shared where remnants of your dead skin were still in the carpet. Now that you’re both gone I’m struggling to decipher which thread of grief belongs to each of you. It’s a wiry tangled mass in my chest, like those metal scourers you use to scrub stubborn pans. Each coarse steel strand is more tightly coiled than the last, and when amassed tightly in your hand it’s soft to touch. Only when a single strand frays loose is it sharp and painful; I think that’s why it’s easier to keep you both matted together.
After your illusive departure, my friends pretended they didn’t have plans for the weeks that followed. They came over with wine. People fussed over me, and when I sat down at a table there always seemed to be a spare seat where you would’ve sat, assigned now for my misery so plain to see, as if it were wearing a large red hat.
At the beginning, grief and tragedy are ripe dinner-party fodder. It’s much easier to empathise with the unpleasantness of a recent tragedy – proximity to the present is the real marrow. Lurking in the corner of your reality, you feel it in the room and the fear is that it could decide to pick you next. In order to preserve yourself, you must hold it up in your hands and acknowledge its very horribleness, tell someone about it in a bid for it to stay far away from you, for as long as possible. Because pain gets us all in the end, doesn’t it? We all must suffer eventually. The only question is: when?
I’m relieved when they stop asking me how I’m feeling, leaving me to indulge myself under a cloak of shame. Much unlike horror, the best way to prevent shame from attaching itself to you is by ignoring it entirely. Better in than out. Break-ups and death are commonplace, and you’re accustomed to the rituals surrounding them. You watch them in films; you read about them in books. The retellings of an old, timeless narrative in which one etches out one’s humanity. You know what to do with the anguish that immediately seeps from an ending – sudden or slow: you have been taught. It’s the ongoing and ebbing sadness that continues afterwards that we all find a little dull. Unworthy of a story, perhaps.
But I am immovable in its dark swamp, stuck. A stuckness so suffocating, a paralysis so ubiquitous that I almost forget to breathe. There’s only so long those who love you can dampen their own happiness out of sensitivity for your misfortunes. Eventually they must resume their lives. So I smiled when they told me they’d met someone; I raised my glass to their promotion and celebrated their new show; I clapped my hands when they got engaged, and I didn’t mention that a diamond was an unethical symbol of male ownership. I kept partaking in their happiness, and the waves of joy that swell from their lives keep me going, making sure that my sadness doesn’t strangle me, the swamp engulfing me entirely as I let out a final loud burp of disdain.
In the kitchen I make a pot of fresh mint tea to warm myself up. The dark-grey tiles are freezing under my feet and there’s a draught coming from under the back door, which leads to an overgrown garden only ever used for cigarette breaks and house parties. Georgia walks in and watches as I pluck the leaves off the stalks and throw them into the belly of the teapot.
‘Do you want a cig?’ she asks, zipping up her puffer jacket.’
‘Yeah, okay. How is it that you still look so damn sexy in sweats?’ I puzzle at her. Her cashmere joggers bunch up over a pair of trainers and her hair flows over the high collar of her hood.
‘Shut up,’ she responds. ‘Don’t try and butter me up.’
‘Maybe you could consider wearing something other than those dungarees at some point in your life.’
‘I don’t know what you’re referring to.’
‘You’ve lived in them for the past three months, Mathilda.’
She says this like I’ve lost my mind, rather than been lazy with my sartorial choices.
‘Well, now I’m not going to wear anything else. No.’ I put my hands into the deep denim pockets and shrug. ‘I’ll wear them just to irk you.’
‘You needn’t use the dungarees for that. I know it’s normal to stop caring about your appearance when you’re going through a break-up but, like, they’re really starting to drag me down.’
I blow on the surface of my tea as she wrestles with the aged lock on the back door.
Georgia and I met at university and our friendship intensified then receded in the years that followed – different goals in terms of our careers, boyfriends who didn’t particularly gel, and a small handful of those other unimportant reasons that push you apart. Despite this, a thick thread was tied around our respective waists, an invisible rope that kept us attached to one other. We were careless with our friendship a lot of the time because we trusted its durability. The rope was tough and hard-wearing, and unlike the many plant metaphors of other relationships, ours didn’t demand a single drop of water. I didn’t have any other friendships like it.
It’s cold in the garden and we huddle together under the outdoor light that has a sensor function. Georgia’s bike is tangled in ivy, and fairy lights dress the wooden trellis that lines the top of a brick wall, separating us from next door’s garden. At the bottom of the long, thin lawn is a large holly bush but it’s too dark to see it now.
Georgia’s tone softens. ‘I just want you to know that we’re all here, if . . . well, if you need to talk.’
I was bored of this conversation. The one where she stresses my heaviness, grappling for a more constructive way of saying: you’re carrying something dark around that neither you nor I can seem to make sense of.
‘And Freddie. Seriously, Mathilda?’
I knew this was coming. ‘Ah, come on, don’t start. What does it matter to you?
‘Of course it matters to me. You’re my friend and I care about you. He’s such a twat.’ She’s irritable. ‘Rebound, yes! But not with Freddie. Why would you go back there?’
‘Because when someone makes you feel like you’re not good enough for them you become completely consumed by the task of disproving their theory.’
She rolls her eyes and sighs.
‘You know what I mean?’
But Georgia has no idea what I mean because she’d decided Henry was the man she’d marry the first day she met him. Which was in sixth form when she was co-educated for the first time. Whilst her peers were unnerved, Georgia has three older brothers and became a lighthouse serving navigational aid in those dangerous penis- filled waters. Her reward was the pick of the litter.
‘How is Freddie, then? Which campaign is his latest ex- girlfriend the face of? Burberry,Yves Saint Lau—’
‘Don’t be an arse.’
She lifts her head in acceptance and looks down at the floor, taking another drag from her Marlboro. We enjoy the quiet for a moment or two and then I say reluctantly, ‘She’s actually the lead in that new Netflix series Ekua likes.’
‘Noooo!’ She laughs, becoming more animated. ‘That period drama?’ And then: ‘There’s something going on with you.’
I roll my eyes.
‘It’s not just the break-up, or your dad.’
‘Look, I’m trying my best to fix things—’
‘Fuck that. You don’t need to “fix” yourself,’ Mathilda.’ She uses her fingers for quote marks, her cigarette wedged between two of them, and I pull a white feather that has escaped from the innards of her jacket.
‘You’re perfect the way you are. You just need to face your shit. He didn’t break up with you because you did something wrong.’
‘Well, that’s useful to note,’ I’m droll.
‘He’s the idiot. I mean, look at you. You look like Julia Roberts, just with a smaller mouth.’
I blow the last of the smoke from my mouth with a titter and put my cigarette out on the brick wall, shivering still in these damp clothes.
‘Why did he break up with me then?’
Her pregnant pause turns into a barren land where no words can propagate.
‘Do you want to come to yoga with me tomorrow?’ I ask, filling it.
‘No, I don’t. Seriously, I came with you last week and the noises that were coming from you made it sound like you were about to give birth and—’
‘Fuck off. The instructor said it was okay to make noises.’
She laughs, then, ‘Yeah, and therein lies my point. The instructor felt the need to come over, tap you on the shoulder and reassure you about that weird racket you were making.’
‘I wasn’t embarrassed,’ I say coolly.
‘Good for you. I was.’
‘I just really want to improve my Crow and I have weak shoulders and skinny wrists.’ I show them to her playfully, careful not to spill my tea. ‘See? I’m at a disadvantage to a lot of people.’
The light above us goes out and I grin at her through the darkness. She waves her hand to provoke the sensor and the light comes on to outline the concern on her face.
‘Do you not think that some of us are just too fucked up? People settle down and find each other, like you and Henry. Or they don’t, and what’s left are the broken people.’
‘You’re not broken.’ She sighs. ‘I’m so tired of the broken- woman narrative. But it’s not just the break-up, is it? There’s something else. There’s always been something . . .’
The comment stings at the back of my throat but I don’t let on. ‘Look, I moved in here because I needed a place to stay, not a judgemental eye unpicking my every Crow,’ I quip, opening the door, and she follows me back into the kitchen where she takes off her coat and heads back to the living room to join the others.
‘You pair are never going to guess who’s in that new period drama,’ she calls out.
I laugh and shake my head, topping up the tea in my cup which makes the leaves dance. I look around as if to remind myself where I am. The house has the potential to be breath-taking but it’s rough around the edges. Georgia got it in the usual way a millennial living in London acquires property: her parents bought it for her. Of course, there’s always the death of a relative or the meeting of a wealthy lover to assist in the acquisition of a new home, but I must say those weren’t working out for me either. The crockery in the cupboards is mismatched, a collection of whatever her previous tenants left behind. The art on the walls clashes – a signed and mounted Anthony Burrill sits next to a cheap Picasso print wedged into an Ikea frame. The long pine kitchen table in front of me is better suited to a country house and there are two Swiss cheese plants on the floor – one dying and one thriving – each beholden to their owner’s green-fingered care. I nudge one with my foot, breathing in the inharmonious charm of shared living, comprising clashing styles and jarring tastes, brought together in a way that things are not supposed to be – much like the women who live in them.