Soft Soap


One of my most favourite outfits ever was my second-hand royal blue Adidas flares, (white stripes, white zippy inset pocket) skin-tight, worn with my second-hand, old school Nikes, (yellowed cream, cerulean blue) and a white, fine lawn, off-the-shoulder gypsy top, translucent, floating hip-length, hair scrawled wavelengths.

In the days when I wore this outfit, I strode the Fine Art studios – the floors were concrete caked with layers of paint – I had my own space in a bright corner, looking out over the kid’s playground, near the fire escape where we were allowed to smoke, my most favourite space ever, where I wielded a big paintbrush, loaded with indigo green, and slammed it up the middle of a taut white canvas to see where it would take me.

It took me to paintings like ‘Soft Soap’ – I remember painting that one. I coated the canvas with water first, there was a puddle in the middle, and I swished the broad strokes, rolled them around, followed them into a spreading bundle, allowed them to radiate in spokes in the top third, at the bottom and edges. I was kneeling on the hard concrete, watching the paint mingle with the water and spider about. I could hear Magdalena (artist-in-residence/part-time tutor) telling a boy a few spaces down that his paintings were empty because he had nothing inside. I felt emptied of ideas that day but the paint told me what to do.

Leaving it to dry, I walked the long corridors of the Fine Art shanty town, through several fire doors, to your space. You had company. You were entertaining Hammond and there was one of those uncomfortable silences when I appeared.

And the green paint dried and I picked out the white gaps with cadmium red, thick and opaque, straight from the tube, using a very fine brush and it became a Sci-Fi landscape. On this ground I painted a woman whose legs ended at the knee, with an oversized blank cream globe balanced on her thin neck, where her head should have been – and were her arms behind her back, hands clasped, or did she have no arms at all? You couldn’t know – because her shoulders were small round stumps, her body was whittled and eroded into deformed contours, she was buffeted and worn, by the tumultuous Sci-Fi background she lived on, and her thighs were bulbous, flabby, and her waist was weeny and her hips were like a table and she was wearing most stupendous knickers, from waist to crotch – high-class, anti-bandit underwear.

I painted them in sections of flat chalky pastel pinks and violets, then I covered each panel with small polka dots, each one meticulously perfect & painstakingly positioned – all vibrating vibrantly in contrasting colours. Then I painted lace at the hips, like fledgling wings, though she was never going to flee that painting, and lace at the legs and a circle of larger white spots where her stomach was meant to be. And she had no breasts – they’d been washed away, and she stared out, featureless, monumental, pinned on the landscape for all time. Begging for faith. Soft soaped.

But her underwear had a life of its own. I took a narrow, rectangular canvas and painted an enlarged section of her knickers, they were flying away, without her, expanding, escaping, looming from the wall, coming closer to you – the viewer.

The last time I wore that white gypsy top was the night it got ripped from my back. It was towards the beginning of the summer break. I was working in the uni library with Caro and Jess. After shirking in the stacks all day, we got ready for the private view in the Ladies. I was standing on a toilet with the cubicle door open so I could see how I looked in the mirrors above the sinks.

My stomach and back were covered in welts from when we’d rollicked in the tall, dry grass on Hampstead Heath on Sunday morning after we’d been ordered to leave the celebration. The stiffs didn’t like it when the posh German bird from Furniture Design started licking my left nipple. And you started sucking her toes.

The grass was ochre and umber. You asked me to piss on you, so I did, and for the first time, you said you loved me. I never expected to hear such mundane words from you and I laughed hard. You recoiled. You said I sounded evil. You became morose. We were waiting for the pubs to open, strung out, making do with a salvaged bottle of warm vermouth.

After the private view we ended up in the Student Union bar. I’d recently been barred for life from all Student Union bars and buildings – but it was a hot night and everyone was sitting outside by the river Hogs Mill, so I chanced it, went inside to buy a round. I saw you and her – that homeless, raving E girl with the 1000 calorie mascara – your bodies were two thin stalks drooping from your riveted eyeballs and I could feel the connection as it sparked. I threw my full pint in her face and marched back outside – before the security guards noticed me – sat down with my friends, carried on talking, looking out over the lamp black river into the shadows of the overgrown banks and the chicken-wire fencing.

She came stomping out of the bar, bedraggled and screeching: ‘Who did this? Who did it? I’ll get you – you bitch!’

You were hanging behind – you were very very small, you were everso small, you were like – the tiniest creature, hopping about on one leg.

There were rows of us, ignoring her. She homed in on me and screamed: ‘It was YOU!’

Lurching forward, she grabbed the scooped neck of my most favourite top and tore it in half with one yank. It hung in two separate tatters from my shoulders, like a flimsy bed-jacket. I sat straight and still, looking out over the water, making no eye contact with anybody, my breasts exposed and glowing burnt orange in the lights from the bar, buffeted by the boozy warmth of her breath and the slight breeze, the only part of me moving – my drinking arm, raising my pint to my mouth.

~ by yearzerowriters on June 2, 2010.

11 Responses to “Soft Soap”

  1. I told you I loved this on your blog, but I’ll do it again.

    Penny, I llllllove this piece! It does such a great job of capturing one little slice of life (that’s a trite phrase, so think up something clever to fill in there for me), and it gathers all these seemingly different aspects and thoughts together but is still fluid and . . . on-track, as it were.

    I think I said it was scintillating, too, which I still think is true. That’s what it is, in one word.

    • Thanks, Sarah. It was really weird, the way this one came out. I was dragged out of my sleep at 1am by this phrase, droning in my head, repeatedly, over & over: ‘you were very very small, you were everso small, you were like – the tiniest creature, hopping about on one leg’ so I put biro to scrap paper & the whole thing came out in one go. I didn’t even have to polish it all that much before I knew it was done. (It was a full moon!) Do you get this type of thing happening to you?

      • That line is just pure magic — I remember reading it for the first time and just being, like, wow …

        The rhythm of it is wonderful. It has a kind of hopping-on-one-leg feel to it.

        That does happen to me. That’s pretty much how I wrote Air, the travelling/airport piece. I had “we got kicked in San Francisco” stuck in my head for a few days, and I rolled around the first paragraph in my mind without having any idea if it was worth actually writing down. And when I did it all just spilled out.

        I can’t remember what the moon was up to then, but it sure does mess with me when it’s full. No sleep and really terrible dreams. No good fiction yet! Ha ha.

  2. I’m glad it happens to you too. I was totally knackered for a whole bleedin’ week after the Soft Soap incident! I kept nodding off all over the place. I find the stories behind the stories – how they came out – absolutely fascinating. Temporary Passport came out of a reccurring dream that I always awoke from in angry, bitter anguish & floods of tears. The night I got off my sodden pillow & wrote it all down made the dream go away. That was the first piece I ever wrote sober, actually. Bad vibe banisher.

    • Writing things down really does banish the bad vibes, or at least the nagging of the stories and ideas. A lot of the things I write that come out of nowhere end up getting rid of pent-up anxiety and parallel my life in very creepy ways. Half of it is uncovering what I REALLY think about stuff (I’m disasterously out of touch with my emotions). The things I wrote around the time of my ex … creepy weird. I had no idea what was going on, but my fiction did.

      Strange stuff, this writing!

      • Yes, writing is cathartic. I was plagued by the stories in The Sentiments, or at least their essence, for years and years. Now that I’ve got them in book form, the bad vibes and chronic despair that shaped them has less power over me.

  3. This is understated the same way Temporary Passport is, and it seems to draw an extra strength from that, socks us an emotional thump in the midriff.

  4. Damn. Now I want to see the painting. And maybe an old photo of the outfit?

    • I have a pretty good print of the painting I can show you, but, d’you know what? this was in the 90’s – people just didn’t take photos like they do nowadays – no mobs etc.


  5. another hard hitting end that lingers long after reading. Hawt stoic mad sex.

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