Faith didn’t have the answer. She stared at the others, her eyes pleading for someone, anyone to help her. Faith tapped out a staccato rhythm with her biro. No one noticed. She felt marooned on Table Island. The pen slipped from Faith’s fingers onto the table, making a light tap. The gentleness of the sound was at odds with Faith’s speedy thoughts. The moment to contribute her ideas had passed. She’d have to wait for another subject where she could offer up an obvious titbit. She was frustrated and annoyed and angry. Yes, that was it. She was angry. She decided she would channel her anger. She’d make it her bitch, but that phrase felt awkward in her head. She’d have to find something less manly, but that would involve reinventing the whole language, which she didn’t have time for right now.
The question set in motion by the lecturer was rippling along the line of her seminar mates, gaining strength and momentum, but her colleagues rode the wave with the effortless nonchalance of a surfer. Faith felt as if she was always being screwed over by language. Just once she wanted to get on top of it and ride it like the others did. But how could she be the fucker instead of the fuckee? How could she be the aggressor with her words when they were always fucking her? Her words seemed cumbersome and clumsy in comparison to her classmates. She had no words to speak with when it mattered, though they were there just under the surface.
As a young woman two places down from her answered the question, Faith thought about the language the islanders spoke. It was vaguely familiar, yet Table Island existed somewhere between reality and fiction. It felt pretty real to Faith: the buildings certainly felt like they were constructed of concrete; the rooms appeared to be square; the tables were definitely rectangular as Faith cupped their pointy edges in her hands. But the discussions people had in the square rooms were unlike any discussions she’d ever heard before, as they never seemed to relate to anything in the real world away of Table Island.
What the inhabitants of Table Island discussed seemed simultaneously to relate to everything else and nothing else Faith had ever experienced. Faith was used to objects being solid and reliable, but in this world, nothing was ever fixed. You’d put down your coffee only to come back later and find it had transformed itself into a carrot, or dog, or, worst still, an abstract thought. At least you could eat a carrot. The coffee now was not just a cup of coffee, but also a representation of ‘coffee’ and all the things that coffee is, was, could be, should be, and never will be. Coffee could mean coffee beans, or the men and women that harvest them. These people could be Peruvian, or Rwandan, or Columbian. The coffee could be a sign of the workplace, of stressed out office workers and secretaries, or of failing banks, the credit crunch, big bonuses and redundancies. The list was potentially endless. In her before life, no one had asked Faith difficult questions, because they hadn’t expected anything of her. When Faith went to the coffee machine, it was just there in the same place it had always been, by the clocking-in machine. Faith was frustrated that nothing in this new world ever stayed fixed. Why could the coffee never just be coffee for once? It annoyed her that she could never get the letters to organise themselves right, or write, or rite, or wright. They never stayed still long enough. It was like on Countdown when she needed longer to make her paltry five-letter word. She’d be mystified at the bloke casually sipping water for the last twenty seconds before revealing his eight-letter word. An eight-letter word! Faith had solved the conundrum only once in her life: it was elephants. She had seen it right away. The words had never been that clear again. It was as if Carol Vorderman had ascended a cloudy mountaintop with the Countdown clock strapped to her back while Faith peered at the clock through binoculars from a moving bicycle, only the bicycle was now a unicycle, and Carol Vorderman was now Rachel Riley, and she was holding a steaming cup of coffee, or was it ‘coffee’? Faith had given up trying to decipher the difference. She was also starting to question whether it really mattered, perhaps coffee could be anything you wanted it to be.
The question had moved on to the next person along the table. Faith watched as the Table islander leaned forward in his chair; he was settling in. He was going to be a while, this was Faith’s opportunity to really pay attention to the words coming out of his mouth. Faith grasped the first few sentences. He was saying something about gender and language, and then her mind drifted away again like the ebbing tide. Table Island was just one in a long chain of islands in the alphabet archipelago, castaway in a vast ocean of thoughts.
At the same time every year on Table Island, complete sentences would tumble onto shore; their backs thick with punctuation barnacles as they heaved their clumsy literary bodies up the beach and buried their alphabet of eggs in the sand. The birthing was so exhausting that many of the complex sentences would die in the process, leaving their little eggs to fend for themselves. Weeks later, the solitary letters would heave their way up through the sand and race along the beach, the wind blowing about their serifs majestically. But before they could reach the sea, they would have to run the gauntlet of poets lined up by the surf, pens and papers poised in their grubby hands, eager to wrestle the defenceless little newborns into their poems. But if the letters survived the trauma of the word wranglers, they were free to explore the ocean of thoughts for themselves. Some letters quickly worked out that there was safety in numbers, or rather words, but others struck out alone, these were called the alphas, but they were extremely rare, and some even questioned whether the fabled ‘A’ and ‘I’ words existed at all.
While Faith was pre-occupied with alphabet eggs, the conversation drifted away even further. She studied the unspoken language the man who was sat next to her was projecting into the room. Somehow he made himself wider than anyone else, though he was no bigger than any of the other men in the room. He leaned back in his chair, paused, thought for a bit before jiggling his foot as he spoke. Faith could feel the vibrations in her toes and the balls of her feet. No one interrupted him, everyone seemed to just know that this was a pause to be respected, even admired. Everyone waited for him to organise his thoughts and then articulately express them like he was drizzling honey over his porridge. Faith’s fingers tapped out a distress call on the underside of the desk. She needed the words in her head to stop meandering about like they were on a Sunday stroll, they needed to organise themselves into neat sentences so she could answer the question that was lapping at her feet.
No one could hear her pathetic cry for help now. Faith’s fingers pressed into something squishy on the underside of the table. Gum. What could it mean? She pondered its stickiness for a moment, before concluding that the reason it was sticky was because it had been in someone’s gob. Why couldn’t it be that simple? The fact that it was attached to the table, the object that symbolised her remoteness, got lost somewhere on the superhighway that carried her thoughts around her brain. All Faith could think was: bastard! Who puts gum under a table at university? She always had trouble distinguishing the important points.
Faith had done it again. She’d really tried to concentrate that time, but then she’d felt the gum, and it sent her off on the tangent about sticky things not making sense. Now she was thinking of post-it notes. Shit! What was her neighbour saying? Faith tuned in again. The man was now talking about some women being sexually aroused while riding horses. She wondered how this part of the conversation came about and why no one else found it funny.
Faith looked up and saw a spider in the corner of the room, hovering above the islanders like a miniature deity, spinning webs made out of tiny ‘Ts’ and ‘Hs’. She nicknamed the spider Maureen. She suspected Maureen had a better grasp on the conversation than she did, only she couldn’t express it because there was no discourse for spiders to communicate. But Faith suspected that if Maureen could express her thoughts, she’d probably be much more articulated than her. Screw Maureen! Who cared what spiders had to say anyway?
The room had gone quiet. The Table islanders were all looking at her. Faith stuttered out a few random words. She could feel her face turning red and her frustration growing as she tried to structure her thoughts. She felt as if they were butterflies escaping through an atrium window. The windows were too high for her to reach up and close. She’d run outside to try and wrangle them back in, but the wind would buffet them further and further away from her, until they were like full stops on blue paper. The trouble was Faith didn’t have a big enough net, but then she suspected there wasn’t a net big enough in the entire world that was capable of capturing all her thoughts. Faith’s words petered out and the chatty man next to her picked up the discussion again. Faith sat quietly and let him do the talking.
As her classmates filed out of the classroom, Faith noticed something wedged in Maureen’s spider web. She walked across the now empty room to get a better look. The web was not just made up of letters, as she thought earlier, but there were words in it now too. And not just random words, but the words she lost during the seminar.
The words that fell from her head were all here in Maureen’s web, caught together in no particular order. From Faith’s removed vantage point the words looked marooned like tiny islands when seen from a plane high above, some times the clouds would clear enough to see the whole chain of them, but most of the time they were hidden by thick clouds.
‘Alphabet Eggs’ was published in 2016 as part of the UEA Undergraduate Creative Writing Anthology, Undertow.