If You Ever Need a Shoulder to Cry On,
Don’t Use Mine or You’ll End Up in Hot Water
by Stephen Moles
They say a watched kettle never boils—that may or may not be true, but it is most certainly the case that a listened-to kettle, when it is on your shoulder, never stops boiling.
There are a number of causes of shoulder kettles but the most common is exposure to loud noise. I got mine after listening to the entire Motörhead discography at work. It is—or was—my job to listen out for subliminal messages in popular music, so I’ve always needed the volume loud in order to spot anything sinister lurking low down in the mix. I listened to the band’s entire output from 1977 to the present day, forwards and backwards, and actually earned myself a nice little bonus by spotting some backmasking in a song called “Nightmare/The Dreamtime”; but the main thing I got from all the heavy metal was an unwanted whistling sound in the weaker of my two ears. When I looked down to where the high-pitched noise was coming from, I saw a small metallic kettle on my shoulder.
Most people experience shoulder kettles from time to time, but they usually boil dry quickly and disappear. Having one take up permanent residence right next to your ear can be a very distressing experience, leading to anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts.
Once a few days had passed without mine going away, I started to despair. The constant hissing ruined my concentration and prevented me from sleeping at night. My life was so badly affected that I thought seriously about ending it.
There is no cure for shoulder kettles and very little is known about them from a scientific point of view, so bearers often end up feeling isolated and abandoned. The fact that each one is invisible and inaudible to all but the person whose body it is stuck to can mean even loved ones find it hard to sympathise. I have a long history of driving people away before they become emotionally attached to me, so I at least didn’t have to worry about my mood swings affecting anyone else.
It was just me and my kettle.
Even though I asked “why me?” and had to fight the urge to scream or pull my hair out on a daily basis, I knew the best thing was to try to accept the harsh terms and conditions of my new life, which specified that I would never experience silence again. One thing I found extremely helpful was being able to use white noise as a masker for the incessant whistling coming from the object on my shoulder. I noticed that the sound generated by running water or a detuned radio or TV covers up the sound of the kettle, so I made some recordings and listened to them on a loop throughout the day.
This gave me some much-needed relief, but I had to do without it at night because the white noise kept me awake as much as the whistling did. Spending eight hours each day listening to loud music at work was so intense that I needed a long period of purifying silence in the evenings to maintain a healthy balance. Even though I had to quit my job, I sorely missed the quietness that had repeatedly steered me safely to the shores of morning over the years. Bedtime became a raging ocean of noise when I became a kettle bearer. Each night turned into a rough sea that swallowed my energy as I struggled to swim across it.
Despite the overall quality of my existence being adversely affected, I managed to keep complete hopelessness at bay by reminding myself that tranquillity was not the only positive thing in life to strive for. My access to pleasure was not totally blocked by the kettle—in fact, the path to a very specific kind of enjoyment was opened up by it.
“Hi, it’s Bono here. Stop hating me. I do loads of charity work and the tax evasion rumours aren’t true. I’m always there to say what’s good and what’s not because I know better than everyone else. Remember that.”
These were the backmasked words I found hidden in a U2 song shortly before I stopped working. I felt immensely proud to have uncovered such a cynical attempt at brainwashing because, to the few people who had not already made their minds up about him, it proved exactly what kind of a person Bono was. Also, I got a huge bonus, which came in handy after I had to quit my job.
Listening to songs all day with a sceptical ear is demanding but satisfying work. You can’t sit back and enjoy the music for a single moment because you need to be constantly alert, listening between the lines for hidden messages. You dangle your ear in the stream of sound for so long that when a backwards-swimming fish finally bites, you feel like jumping for joy. It did train me, rather worryingly, to think of all songs as potential Trojan horses; but any concerns I had about my future enjoyment of music became irrelevant once the kettle appeared on my shoulder.
I think I was suited to that kind of work because I’ve always loved the new meanings created by viewing details from a different angle. I’ve often fantasised about going through the looking-glass like Alice and exploring a world to which I don’t belong. It feels excitingly subversive to think of myself interacting with people and objects from the opposite side of the tracks. Being able to penetrate the mirror world would give me the same kind of thrill as entering female changing rooms disguised as a woman because I would be able to sink my senses into a forbidden scene.
This fetish for the “backwards” or the “other” in life caused me big problems in the past, but my work as a subliminal message hunter allowed me to put it to good use, pursuing things in reverse while making a stand against mind control. Whether or not “Another One Bites the Dust” played backwards was intended to sound like “it’s fun to smoke marijuana” was for my colleagues to decide once I’d identified the phrase. Whatever they decided made no difference to me; my delight at being able to glimpse another world by looking through the wrong end of a telescope would remain intact.
Hearing Robert Plant sing “there was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan” for the first time was like being wished happy un-birthday by the inhabitants of a parallel universe.
Having to give up that work was a bitter blow. In addition to the stress of carrying a whistling kettle around on my shoulder at all times, I also had to deal with the grief caused by a sudden sense of purposelessness. I found it impossible to get to sleep at night and I no longer had a reason to get up in the mornings—my affliction had turned me into a solitary chess piece crawling round an abandoned Monopoly board in search of meaning. Even if it involved taking huge risks, I knew I had to find a way to continue playing the game in which a pawn can become a queen if it reaches the other side.
I’ve never particularly believed that sharing your problems helps to solve them, but I was desperate enough after being robbed of silence to give anything a go. That’s why I looked up my local shoulder kettle support group and decided to attend one of their meetings.
‘I realise now that this is God’s way of testing me. He decided to put a kettle that never stops boiling on my shoulder to see how strong my faith is. He buried dinosaur bones in the ground to see who is strong enough to carry on believing in the Creation story despite overwhelming “evidence” to the contrary, and I passed that test with flying colours. This is the ultimate challenge. If I carry on believing in Him after this I’ll definitely get to Heaven. I see Heaven as a special club that only really clever people get into, like Mensa. Suffering also helps, so I suppose it’s like a cross between Mensa and hospital.’
I was sitting in a characterless community centre with a group of people who were hard to tell apart. Each one had a face covered with deep furrows and a pair of eyes that seemed to bulge with sadness. Looking around the group was like looking at shapes in rainclouds vaguely resembling humans. The only person who showed any real signs of life was a young woman with several facial piercings and more streaks of colour in her hair than my brain could make sense of. She looked like a sassy character, and yet the hard lumps of her personality were held together by physical lines of unfathomable delicacy, each one dreaming itself into being.
I could tell from the look on her face that she was unimpressed by the guest speaker and his attempts to convince us his kettle was a gift from God.
‘Some people say it’s hard to believe in God when there are things like shoulder kettles and Alzheimer’s and paedophilia in the world, but I think they actually prove His existence because they show us what a great comfort God can be in times of strain.’
The girl suddenly looked in my direction. I had been scrutinising her for some time and she must have sensed it. The awkwardness I felt at being caught staring turned into extreme distress when she raised her right hand and made a “wanker” gesture. I knew I probably looked a bit creepy, but her reaction struck me as totally excessive. I responded with a frown and a shrug of the shoulders as a way of asking ‘what the hell was that for?’ without attracting too much attention from the other group members. The girl repeated the gesture but, to my relief, accompanied it with a movement of her eyes and head to indicate that it was in reference to the Christian speaker. I nodded in agreement and we shared a smile.
‘God takes many forms. If one of those is a kettle, so be it. Who am I to question why He chose an object that makes me want to stab myself with a knife? There’s worse stuff in the Bible. I’m one of the lucky ones.’
My silent communication with the girl was the only memorable moment in an otherwise dull and unhelpful meeting. It was pleasing to think that, just as I had singled her out in my mind as someone of interest, she had seen me as a potential ally. I wanted to reward her with friendliness for taking a chance on me.
‘What a wanker, eh?’ I said to her as we were leaving the community centre.
‘That guy? Yeah. Listening to him was more annoying than listening to my kettle.’
While the denim jacket, fishnet stockings and Dr. Martens she was wearing made her seem like a typical rock chick, I noticed up close that it was foolish to pigeonhole her. The various patches sewn onto her jacket, for instance, instead of advertising guitar-based bands, depicted figures from classical music. The most impressive one took up her entire back and featured a huge woven image of a demonic-looking Beethoven, below which was the composer’s name written in Gothic script and engulfed in flames. The numerous patches were complemented by some very unique items of jewellery. I did a double take when I saw that, hanging around her neck, was a silver swastika made from musical crotchet symbols. I had absolutely no idea that kind of stuff existed.
‘So… you’re into classical music, then?’
‘Was,’ she said, as if sneezing the word out of her head. ‘But the whistling ruined that for me.’
‘How did you get your kettle?’
I waited for her to expand on the unusual one-word answer, but she kept her fragile lips pressed firmly together. As the silence grew, my eyes wandered down from the girl’s mouth to her arms, which were visible because she had rolled up the sleeves of her denim jacket. I was pleased to see that they were extremely hairy arms, almost to the point of being grotesque. The sight was welcome because it exposed her imperfections and helped dissuade my heart from immediately building a monument to her.
I had a habit of creating statues of beautiful women soon after meeting them. The hands of my imagination would shape an idealised image of their femininity that would become an obstacle to any potential union and a marker for the grave of reality. Finding the opposite sex so enchanting made me feel gay.
‘If human beings ever achieve immortality,’ said the girl, finally breaking the silence, ‘we’ll all end up looking like elephants.’
‘How do you work that out?’
‘Because the ears and nose never stop growing. If we live long enough, we’ll all look like Dumbo.’
‘Yet another reason to be thankful for death, I suppose.’
‘Ha-ha!’ A light like blue flames reflected in swimming trophies was visible in her eyes as she laughed.
‘Has anyone ever told you that you’ve got beautiful eyes?’ I asked suddenly.
‘Oh. Well, that doesn’t surprise me. I really like you hair too.’
‘Why are you complimenting me?’ The girl seemed genuinely perplexed by my comments. I realised then that I had no chance of ever being able to think of her in a sensible or normal manner. There is nothing more certain to induce me to fall head over heels in love with someone than the knowledge that my feelings are a hindrance to them. I tried to focus on her hairy arms but my heart had already ordered a huge block of marble and was clutching a chisel.
‘Is there something wrong with complimenting you?’
‘Not especially. It’s just unnecessary.’
I couldn’t stop thinking about her edges. My blood was pumping a blueprint of her body.
‘Coming to the next meeting?’ she enquired.
‘Don’t know. You?’
‘Could be good for a laugh.’
‘Cool. I might see you next week, then.’ I didn’t want to say it out loud, but the fact that she would probably be there meant I would most definitely go.
‘My name’s Rolf, by the way.’
‘Flor?’ I spluttered.
‘Yeah. What’s wrong with that?’
‘Nothing. It’s perfect, actually. Don’t you see? Flor is Rolf backwards. You know what this means?’
‘What does it mean?’ she asked, narrowing her eyes.
‘Er… nothing. It doesn’t mean anything. Bye.’
Going to the support group didn’t make me feel any better about my affliction, but it did present me with a means of distraction. I travelled back through the darkness like a moonbeam on a moving walkway, smiling at light speed. It wasn’t until I got back that I remembered I had a kettle on my shoulder; it almost seemed to stop boiling when I thought of the girl. With such a good excuse for allowing Flor to occupy my thoughts, it was inevitable that the block of marble in my heart’s studio would soon resemble her.
Some people ask why each kettle bearer can’t be relieved of their burden by having the whistling vessel amputated; but the unfortunate fact is that they have a “phantom” kitchen appliance on their shoulder which no amount of surgery can affect. Scientists believe that kettles are created by the brain in response to various problems originating from both inside and outside the body. Even though they have no physical reality, the kettles have an unmistakeable visual and auditory presence in the lives of their bearers.
I find it comforting to know that there are many famous people who are similarly afflicted. William Shatner, who acquired his kettle after an explosion on a Star Trek set in the 1960s, has spoken publically about his own struggle with the problem, giving hope to sufferers worldwide that a normal life can still be led despite the constant whistling. Unfortunately, there are also a number of well-known figures who found it much harder to cope: Beethoven was famously driven mad by his kettle while Van Gogh’s decision to cut off his ear was probably not unrelated to the noisy object on his shoulder.
It’s these more tragic cases I dwell on when my mood becomes low, and I have to remind myself that if poor Ludwig van and Vincent van were alive today they probably wouldn’t suffer as much due to advancements in medicine, therapy and technology. While the shoulder kettle is a nonphysical object unaffected even by simple earplugs, there are now white noise generators, CBT and benzodiazepines to keep sufferers from resorting to self-injury.
Ironically, I had to abandon a technique for combating negative responses to my kettle because it turned into a form of self-harm. I had taken to wearing an elastic band around my wrist so that I could snap it against my skin every time my logic took a destructive turn, the idea being to nip unhelpful thoughts in the bud through recognition and association with pain. Unfortunately, I was experiencing so much mental frustration throughout the day that my wrist took a brutal whipping which only came to an end once blood was drawn. I truly believed that the rubber band trick would improve my wellbeing, but I realise now that it would have been no different if I had simply taken a knife to my wrist in a desperate attempt to find relief.
Having a variety of techniques at my disposal has been useful. Even if they don’t prove successful in themselves, the act of rotating ineffective methods can sometimes end up serving as a distraction from the noise. The buzz that interaction with Flor gave me was another powerful weapon in the fight against the whistling in my ear, so I wanted to utilise it as often as I could.
I counted down the days to the next support group meeting like an agnostic scientist counting down the launch of a teapot into space.
The guest speaker at the next meeting didn’t mention God or Heaven once and actually made a number of sensible suggestions regarding kettles. I was somewhat distracted by the presence of a certain hairy-armed group member, but I still got a lot from the man’s speech and decided to follow his suggestion of using creativity as a form of release.
‘Hello again. That was actually a pretty inspirational speech, wasn’t it? I’m definitely going to follow his advice and try writing a story about my kettle. If I can’t get it off my shoulder, at least I can get it off my chest, right?’
‘I suppose,’ said Flor, blinking her eyelids at me about twenty times in the space of a second.
‘I’ve got a great idea for a story that emphasises the fundamental weirdness and absurdity of having a boiling kettle stuck on your shoulder. I’ll write about a guy who goes through the same ordeal as me, only he experiences the whistling as a disembodied sound inside his head after being exposed to loud noise.’
‘Is it really disembodied if it’s happening in his head?’
‘Er… yes,’ I said after a quick pause for thought. ‘Well? What do you think?’
‘Nah. It’s too ridiculous. You want to make a point about a real problem, but who’s going to be able to take it seriously when it’s so unrealistic? I know bearing a kettle is quite a surreal experience, but a whistling sound without a kettle is just unbelievable.’
‘But if I write a simple autobiographical piece, people will find it boring,’ I protested.
‘It’s not my fault your life is boring.’
‘I mean it won’t contribute anything original to the shoulder kettle discussion.’
‘Perhaps you could write a story about the olfactory equivalent: a character who has a phantom turd appear on his upper lip after exposure to a strong scent and has to smell shit for the rest of his life.’
‘Hmmm. I think I’ll stick with my original idea,’ I said, making a gesture which drew attention to the arm I had previously been wearing a rubber band on.
‘You should try an antidepressant.’
‘I’d rather write, thanks.’
‘Um, I don’t think writing can help you if you’ve reached the wrist-cutting stage,’ Flor remarked, pointing to my limb.
‘Oh, this? I said, looking down at the wound on my wrist. ‘I got that from an elastic band.’
‘Bullshit. I’ve heard of paper cuts, but rubber cuts are pushing it a bit.’
‘No, really! I was trying to stop negative thoughts!’
‘I bet you were. Look, the right medication can be really helpful when things get on top of you. I know from experience.’
‘You’ve tried antidepressants?’
‘No, but my elephants have.’
Yet another mention of elephants and yet another lack of elucidation. I thought this time she would deem it necessary to explain the intriguing reference, but she elected to say nothing and turn pachyderms into one big elephant in the room.
The conversation resumed when she asked where I lived, but I was too fascinated by her previous comment to follow her in a new direction.
‘What’s the link with you and elephants?’ I asked, finally giving in to curiosity.
‘I’m a zookeeper. I look after the elephants at the local zoo. It’s an interesting job, actually. Elephants are amazing creatures. Their brains are larger than those of any other land animal and they can recognise themselves in mirrors. They’re also very gay, which means they spend more time kissing and intertwining trunks with members of the same sex than they do with potential mates. They’re very emotional too.’
‘Is that why you put them on antidepressants?’
‘In a way, yes. They were deliberately injuring themselves—biting their trunks and banging their heads against the bars. I gave them a little bit of Prozac to stop the self-harming.’
‘I imagine it would have to be more than a little bit in the case of elephants.’
‘Enough to put most mammals into a coma, yes.’
‘You didn’t try putting them in a bigger cage first?’
‘That would only give them more bars to bang their heads against. Anyway, they’re always escaping.’
‘How do they escape?’
‘Absolutely no idea,’ she said, throwing her arms up into the air and letting them fall back against her sides like pieces of meat. ‘It’s a real mystery. When I get there in the mornings, I find them wandering around the zoo like members of the public.’
We carried on talking about elephants for some time. I tried my best to make sense of her relationship with the creatures but it seemed very contradictory. She was effusive in her praise for their unique mental and physical qualities yet she spoke about her day-to-day experience of them as if describing a long-running war with a bitter enemy. To Flor, they were sources of constant trouble that needed to be tricked or forced into compliance. The straw that broke the elephant keeper’s back seemed to be the fact that the ‘trumpeting bastards’ caused her kettle by honking loudly in her ear during a breakout. Whatever the case, she seemed pretty entrenched in her opposition to them.
As we were being ushered out of the community centre I decided to stick my neck out and suggest going for a drink rather than cutting our conversation short. I thought she would almost certainly bring the guillotine down on my proposal but, to my surprise, she responded with a ‘might as well’ that felt to me like a ‘yes’ to a marriage proposal. I was lifted off the chopping block and carried to the local pub by the sugary bombshell that she did not yet wish to see the back of me.
One drink turned into three and we covered many topics as we sat chatting in the corner of the dimly lit pub. I did the majority of the talking while Flor simply nodded and smiled. I couldn’t tell whether she was humouring me or if she actually found me amusing—either way, my observations and attempts at jokes consistently made her smile, so I saw no reason to act differently. There was the odd moment when I detected something akin to pity in her eyes, but they mostly shone with the same brilliant blue light I’d observed in them before. When I stared into them for more than a few seconds, I saw my face reflected in the residue left by happy memories on the collective unconscious. Her eyes, especially when crowning a smile, were so suggestive of ways to revisit past possibilities that I felt like a ghost trapped in a living person’s body.
Since I had invented a special connection between myself and Flor immediately after meeting her, I seized the opportunity to find some common ground between us to retrospectively justify that connection. Fortunately, that didn’t prove too difficult. For instance, we found that we both like to make watching TV more entertaining by creating a fake moustache out of paper, sticking it to the screen and seeing how long it takes before a newsreader or actor appears to be wearing it on his or her upper lip.
It also emerged that we both believe we can vividly recall being born. I have adamantly maintained throughout my life that not only can I remember being pulled from warmth and darkness into coldness and light but I can still see the faces of my parents and the medical professionals who were present at my entrance into the world. All Flor said when I told her this was ‘me too’, which was accompanied by a wry smile, so there’s a chance she was only joking (but I’d prefer not to think so).
The excitement I felt at spending time with Flor and not making a complete fool of myself caused me to make a partial fool of myself by blurting something out as we left the pub.
‘Hey, I totally forgot about my kettle the whole time I was talking to you! It was the same when I was thinking about you last week—no whistling!’
‘Er… why were you thinking about me last week?’
‘Oh,’ I said, suddenly remembering her aversion to compliments. ‘After we met… er, you made quite an impression on me. I hope you don’t mind.’
‘There’s not much I can do about it if I do mind, is there?’ With her hands on her hips and her bullet belt glinting in the moonlight, she seemed even more intimidating than normal.
‘I-I guess not.’
When she announced she wouldn’t be going to the support group anymore, I became worried that I had seriously offended her. As she reached into her pocket for something, I imagined her pulling out a pistol and shooting me through the heart. What she actually did was even more shocking.
‘Here’s my number,’ she said, using the pen and paper she had just taken out of her jacket. ‘Give me a call if you fancy meeting up again. If not, best of luck with your kettle. Seeya!’
She handed me the piece of paper and walked away. I tried to say goodbye but the curveball she had just thrown me was lodged in my throat, preventing any words from getting out. As I stood choking in the street, my imagination plucked the paper from my hand and adroitly folded it into the shape of a flower. Once I had finally swallowed my surprise and was able to breathe freely again, my imagination held its handiwork under my nose for me to smell. The paper blossom, with numbers written in black biro on its petals in place of bright colours, had the unmistakable odour of two bodies stewing in warm regard for one another.
Jiminy Cricket advised us to give a little whistle when we’re in trouble—well, my head must be in serious shit because it won’t stop whistling. Ever since a coconut fell on it, my noggin has been home to a horrible sound not unlike that made by a cricket.
I was sitting beneath a tree, eating tuna sandwiches, when I felt an almighty crack. The impact of the coconut seemed to trigger the noise. I think the most surprising thing about it was that it happened in Bury St Edmunds—literally the last place you’d expect to find a palm tree.
That was as far as I got with my story before completely losing focus. A mere two paragraphs had taken three quarters of an hour to write. This was partly due to my kettle distracting me but also because the act of writing felt extremely unnatural. Although I was using my own experience as the basis for the piece, filling in the gaps made me feel like I was making completely arbitrary decisions and being fraudulent. B.S. Johnson said that telling stories is telling lies, and I can see where he was coming from.
Beneath the paragraphs, I ended up doodling an image of an extremely angry-looking man with a steaming shoulder kettle and steaming ears. It was a relief to let my hand create freely after the slog of writing, so I added various details to the picture almost automatically. Once I had finished, I sat back and tried to make sense of the smiley face and erect penis I had given to the kettle and man respectively. With those additions, the illustration seemed full of meaning, although I was unable to decipher it.
It wouldn’t be long, however, until the full significance of my sketch became clear.
The other thing that had been distracting me from writing was the thought of Flor. I wanted to play it cool but her phone number was burning a hole in my trouser pocket. The smell of combusting denim sent me into a panic, causing images of her being telephoned by another man to flash before my eyes. Even though only one day had passed since our last meeting, I couldn’t bear the thought of waiting any longer and potentially allowing an attractive girl to lose interest in me.
I translated her delicate handwriting into lubberly jabs of the finger and waited to break on through to the other end of the line.
‘Hello?’ she said, her soft voice in my good ear, contrasting with the harsh sound in the other.
‘Is that Flor?’
‘Hi. It’s Rolf.’
‘I know it’s you. I’d recognise that voice anywhere. It’s so throaty.’
‘Yeah. Like you’ve swallowed a frog.’
‘Oh.’ Nobody had told me I sounded throaty before, although my voice did seem to change when I spoke to Flor. My ears heard it fall to pieces under the weight of her destructive attractiveness, but she obviously thought it hardened to form gravelly lumps in my throat.
‘So have you called to ask me out on a date?’
‘Um…’ My voice quickly became a block of concrete which she walked all over.
‘Or have you just called to use me to forget about your kettle for a while? I’ve answered the phone to men with far worse intentions, so don’t worry. Are you still there?’
‘Do you like Rowan Atkinson?’ I asked, suddenly pulling my stony silence from beneath her like a rug of rock.
‘He’s all right. Why?’
‘I thought we could check out that new Rowan Atkinson museum that’s just opened in town. If you fancy it, that is.’
‘Sounds like a cunning plan,’ she said, audibly smiling.
After arranging the details of our next meeting, I thought there would be nothing left to say, yet somehow we continued talking and got onto the subject of music. From there, we began playing the game where one person taps the rhythm of a famous song and the other person tries to identify it.
Tap-tap-tap t-t-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap t-t-tap-tap.
‘ “Under Pressure”?’
Tap-tap-tap t-tap tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap t-tap tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap t-tap… tap-tappity-tap-tap t-t-tap…
‘ “A Hard Day’s Night”?’
‘What?’ I spluttered. ‘Not even close. It was “Amen, Brother” by The Winstons.’
‘I thought we were only doing famous songs!’
‘That is famous. It’s where the Amen break comes from.’
‘Ah,’ she said. ‘Well, no wonder I didn’t recognise it: humans can’t tap drum ‘n’ bass rhythms.’
‘But the drummer who played the Amen break managed it.’
‘I thought it was a sample?’
‘It is—a sample of a human drumming.’
‘But not you drumming?’
‘No, not me.’
‘Whatever. I’ve got another one…’
Tappity-tap-tap-tap, t-tap-tap-tap-tap, tappity-tap-tap-tap…
This went on for some time. By the end of it, my fingers were sore from all the tapping and my cheeks hurt from all the laughing. We finally bade each other goodnight, but I got the impression that we could have continued having fun for much longer.
As I put the phone down, I heard the sound of metal clattering against stone. I knew it probably meant that my heart had just tossed its tools over its shoulder onto the floor of its studio after completing the statue of Flor. I went down to its messy workroom to see for myself, and my worst fears were confirmed as I laid eyes on a beautiful representation of Flor carved in marble. The statue made her look like a goddess; the only imperfections visible were the stains where my heart had let its sweat drip onto her body.
I had no choice but to accept my fate. Just as my connection to silence had been forever blocked by the whistling of a shoulder kettle, so my view of Flor would always be obstructed by the idealised version of her that my stupid, creative heart had sculpted. The same thing always happened when I liked a girl. There was only one way to see around the statue, but that had scared off every girl thus far. There was no reason to think that Flor wouldn’t also run a mile when I told her I needed to try looking at things yltnereffid.
To curb my fear of being stood up, I tried focusing on the passersby as I waited for Flor outside the museum. I had recently observed, on my commutes to work as a subliminal message hunter, that there were always far more men than women around in the early morning; so I began tallying the pedestrians on the busy street to see what the ratio was like later in the day. I didn’t manage to collect any more data because it was much harder to keep count when all the specimens were moving around. Additionally I realised that, if wanted to draw any real conclusions about gender differences, I would probably have to do far more research than occasionally counting the heads in a street or train carriage. This meant that the feeling of being on the verge of a groundbreaking sociological discovery quickly turned to despair.
I switched from counting the men and women in front of me to guessing which gender would be the next to walk around the corner. I was waiting so long that I had time to try variations on the game involving skin and hair colour. In the end, however, my guesses became simple wishes because all I could visualise was a girl with pale white skin and a ludicrous number of colours in her hair—all of which were features I’d probably be unable to see in reality.
After a hundred or so failures, my guess finally came true.
‘Hi, Rolf! Sorry I’m late. I got trunked by one of the elephants earlier and nearly lost consciousness. No doubt it was retribution for spoiling their fun—they escaped again overnight!’
‘I’m just glad you’re safe,’ I said. In reality, I was just glad Flor hadn’t stood me up.
‘This is war,’ she said with her trademark wry smile. From the look on her face, I judged that she was possibly joking about the whole affair, but I didn’t want to say anything for fear of looking either foolish or insensitive.
‘Shall we go in?’
Inside the museum, we learned about the life and career of Rowan Atkinson by following a trail of various artefacts and installations through a series of large rooms. We progressed chronologically from slightly disturbing black and white baby photos all the way to stills from Johnny English Reborn. On the way, large screens treated us to classic clips from Not the Nine O’Clock News, Blackadder and Mr. Bean, as well as short interviews with celebrities such as Richard Curtis, Stephen Fry and Natalie Imbruglia, each of whom offered anecdotes about working with the comedian.
The objects on display ranged from the Gerald the Gorilla costume to Edmund Blackadder’s fake breasts, but the centrepiece was undoubtedly Mr. Bean’s Mini. An attendant had to keep telling visitors to stop touching the car, but I failed to understand what harm they were doing—after all, it wasn’t a fragile work of art that would crumble at the slightest touch.
I suddenly thought of Flor’s hairy arms. Although I already knew what the result would be, I decided to perform an experiment to see whether my heart’s creativity had affected my perception of reality. It came as no surprise when I looked down at Flor’s arms and saw smooth white marble in place of piliferous skin.
I had turned a pretty girl into an objet d’art.
The museum had a great deal of interesting features, but one thing stood out to me as especially memorable. Towards the end of the exhibition, each visitor had the chance to enter an artificial cave which was billed as “THE ROWAN ATKINSON IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE – NOT FOR THE FAINTHEARTED!” Flor and I found the sign intriguing enough, but the sight of a child running from the cave in tears made us realise we couldn’t leave without seeing what was inside.
Upon entering, we both remarked how cold it was. The walls of the cave were clearly made from fibreglass, but the coldness and dampness in the air seemed very authentic. Although the cobwebs, spiders and bats decorating the interior were also patently fake, they successfully added to the disturbing atmosphere, not because they were frightening in themselves but because they made the minds of whomever put them there seem so deranged (the fact that anyone would think an immersive Rowan Atkinson experience should be frightening was the most disturbing thing of all).
Moving through the long tunnel was like walking the length of a ghost train. There were loud noises playing through speakers and visual surprises waiting around every corner. The deeper we went, the more disturbing the installations became. First came the videos, which unsettled visitors by playing classic Rowan Atkinson clips either without warning in the darkness or on a slow-motion loop; then, suddenly illuminated from below by red or green lights, came the lifelike wax models, the most unforgettable of which showed Mr. Bean holding an axe over his tethered teddy bear. The addition of sound effects such as howling wind, rattling chains and creaking doors made for an incredibly surreal experience.
I was standing before a screen, watching the endless repetition of a slow-motion clip featuring Rowan Atkinson as Barry Manilow—to which a “dripping blood” special effect had inexplicably been added—when Flor suddenly screamed. I turned around to see her recoiling in horror from an animatronic arm protruding from a cavity in the wall at breast height. No doubt she had just been felt up by the mechanical appendage, which was wearing a tweed sleeve suggestive of Mr. Bean’s attire.
As a time-stretched and extremely reverberant clip of Mr. Bean saying his own name rang out, Flor threw herself into my arms. I could feel the breasts that had been fondled moments before by the artificial limb pressing against my body.
I opened my mouth to utter some reassuring words, but I found Flor’s lips suddenly pressed against mine before anything could emerge. Although I was slightly distracted by the bizarre surroundings, and although I was worried she might interpret my rapidly engorging penis as an insult rather than a compliment, I still managed to enjoy the kiss. It seemed as if the horizon was curling upwards like a runaway smile to encircle us in a bubble of sky and create two birds swimming in a thin blue here and now. As we embraced, I visualised our kettles coming together. The invisible steam of phantom kitchen appliances rose like twisted words up the throat of the atmosphere and contributed to a conversation about infinity.
‘Beeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan.’ Another intrusive sound effect, even louder and more distorted than the last one, shook us apart. The kiss was over as quickly as it had started.
‘Quick,’ she said, taking me by the hand. ‘Let’s get out of here.’
We rushed through the remainder of the tunnel like characters in a very odd adventure movie. I tried to hold onto Flor’s hand for as long as possible, but as soon as we left the cave of terror and found ourselves in the welcoming light and relative sanity of the gift shop, she let go, causing us to be reborn as separate entities.
‘Wow! That was intense!’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘You’re a great kisser.’
‘Um… I was talking about the Rowan Atkinson Experience.’
Once again I had made the mistake of paying her a compliment, which I should have known would result in the expression of annoyance she was now wearing.
The first thing we encountered in the gift shop was a wall of screens displaying images of terrified faces. Photographs had been taken of all the visitors to the cave and copies were being sold for £5 each. Most of the pictures showed people with bulging eyes and open mouths, but the one of Flor and I stood out because it captured the two of us with our eyes closed and mouths interlocked.
‘Shall we get a copy? Flor?’
I turned to see the girl I had just kissed standing before the depiction of our special moment with clenched fists and an angry face.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.
‘I can’t believe we were secretly watched!’
‘It’s just a photograph. And it’s not very secret if it’s displayed here, is it?’
‘I still can’t believe it.’
I tried to get her to elaborate on why it upset her so much but her emotions kept erupting and derailing her train of thought. All she made clear was that seeing the image of our kiss felt worse than being sexually assaulted by an evil robot version of Mr. Bean, which didn’t do wonders for my self-confidence.
Since purchasing the photo was out of the question, I decided to look around the shop for something else to buy. Despite the weirdness of the tunnel and Flor’s ire at the immortalisation of what happened between us, I had still enjoyed myself and knew I would look back on the day with fondness. With that in mind, I scoured the shelves for a memento of my first date with Flor.
The least useless product I could find was a Rowan Atkinson tea collection containing “Black(adder) Tea”, “Bean Tea” and “Johnny English Breakfast Tea”. When I announced I was buying it, Flor came up with an interesting theory.
‘Are you much of a tea drinker?’ she asked while fingering a Thin Blue Line colouring book.
‘Not really, no.’
‘Well that shows you haven’t begun the process of habituating to your kettle. If you start buying tea or coffee for no apparent reason it means you’re unconsciously wishing your kettle will stop boiling. It’s perfectly understandable, but you need to accept it will always be there and learn to live with it. I went through a big tea phase myself.’
I didn’t want to tell her that I was planning on using it as a reminder of her, alternating between saying ‘she loves me’ and ‘she loves me not’ every time I used a teabag; so I just waited for her to finish speaking and said ‘I’m going to get it anyway’ in a feeble voice.
After leaving the museum, we decided to have some food and a few drinks in a pub. Although Flor continued to be her complicated self, occasionally sending out contradictory signals, I continued to enjoy my time with her. She amazed me with elephant facts while I amused her with just about everything I said. For example, when I told her I was thinking of turning my short story into a “conceptual” book, she laughed so hard she nearly choked on her cottage pie.
‘But there’s so much conceptual art around—where the concept itself is the artwork and the process of physically crafting it is either secondary or completely unnecessary—that I don’t see why we can’t have the same with books. My idea is to have a book with a normal blurb on the back describing the concept of the story but nothing but blank pages inside. What do you think?’
‘I think you’re funny,’ she chortled.
When I offered to walk her home at the end of the evening it was partially out of concern for her safety, but also so I could postpone the awkward moment when we would say goodbye and I would have to decide if it was appropriate to kiss her again. It didn’t occur to me that she might interpret it as a sign I wanted to be invited inside.
‘So,’ I said in a shaky voice as we stood outside Flor’s front door. ‘It’s been quite a day. I’ve learned loads about elephants and Rowan Atkinson.’
‘Yeah. I never knew he went to school with Tony Blair.’
‘And I’ve experienced a whole range of emotions: fear, confusion, excitement…’
‘Look,’ said Flor, spinning her keys around on her finger. ‘Shall we just get this over and done with? Would you like to come inside for a cup of coffee?’
‘I thought you said a desire to drink tea or coffee was bad.’
‘It’s just a figure of speech, stupid. I wasn’t thinking of drinking anything. I’ll switch on the white noise generator and we’ll get cosy. Wanna come in?’
My heart was beating so violently it sounded almost as loud as my kettle. Obviously if I followed Flor into her house we would have carried on where we left off in the horror tunnel; but that was something I didn’t think I could bring myself to do. I was sure it would end in disaster like all the other times I had tried to impose my unique style of intimacy on girls I liked.
‘No,’ I said bitterly. ‘I can’t. I’m really sorry, but I can’t.’
Men are very visual creatures, especially when it comes to sex. They require an image or a succession of images to arouse and maintain their interest. I am no exception to that rule; in fact, I am probably its logical extreme.
They say love is blind, and in my case, if I experience it at first sight, it invariably is. Just seconds after laying eyes on a beautiful woman, I find my heart trying to make an effigy of her, partly to pay homage to something it considers greater than itself, but also to possess something it sees as valuable.
I can easily imagine that such a capacity arose from natural evolutionary processes, but I have yet to meet another human being affected by it. The women I’ve attempted to explain it to have all reacted very badly, making me feel alone, abnormal and ashamed of my heart problem.
Truth be told, their repulsion is no great surprise. Most people, after all, are not okay with introducing reflective surfaces into the bedroom. Telling a woman that you will be unable to climax unless you are looking at her in a mirror is, in my experience, an excellent way to ensure the only place you will ever see her again is in depressing memories. The problem I have, however, is that whenever I look at a woman I like, my view of her is completely obscured by the statue my heart has created. The ideal situation for me, paradoxically, would involve the removal of the idealised image so I could look straight ahead and see reality; but that, unfortunately, seems impossible. To reach my goal, I’m therefore forced to think outside and around the box, which means angling a mirror in such a way as to see around the statue and directly observe the apple of my eye, bruises and all.
Over the years, trying to see past the structure has become something of an obsession for me. Since it is inextricably linked with sexuality, it could be seen as a fetish—that is certainly what has frightened off potential girlfriends in the past—but I don’t think that would be an accurate assessment, because I’m simply taking unusual avenues in order to satisfy my boringly traditional sexual desires, rather than being aroused by the avenues themselves. I’ve often wished I could be a sexual fetishist who is made horny by marble because that would solve a lot of problems; but no amount of wishful thinking seems sufficient to make that happen.
I often get turned on when I view reflectoporn online. I look at photographs of objects for sale on auction sites and can’t help feeling excited when I see that a scantily-clad person is reflected in the shiny surface of the item they are photographing; but the excitement is only sexual when the reflected image is of something I would find arousing when looked at directly. The rest of the time, I’m intellectually turned on by the idea of discovering new worlds and hidden meanings in things reflected or reversed, which is what made my work as a subliminal message hunter so satisfying. Perhaps my intellectual penchant was borne out of sexual frustration—I really don’t know. Asking whether the backwards chicken or the marble egg came first seems rather futile.
Judging by my past experience, I was sure that any attempt to consummate my relationship with Flor would have ended in frustration or rejection: either I would hide my need for a reflector and be forced to make unclimactic love to a statue, or I would ask if we could have a threesome with a mirror and be kicked out of her bed, house and life in a flash.
I knew I would have to be honest about my predicament eventually, but I wanted to delay that moment for as long as possible in order to enjoy spending time with Flor before being considered abnormal. That was why I turned down her offer of intimacy, which felt like cutting off my nose to save my face. That was also why I went home alone and felt like wanking and crying as I drank Rowan Atkinson tea in the dark.
One elephant, two elephant, three elephant, four elephant…
I was accustomed to lying awake at night for hours on end because of the noise from my kettle, but my obsessive thoughts about Flor had made my insomnia even worse. In an attempt to turn off the spin cycle in my head and begin winding down, I focused my attention on the little red numbers displayed by my digital alarm clock.
…eleven elephant, twelve elephant, thirteen elephant…
When I saw the minutes change, I would close my eyes and begin counting the seconds to see how close I could come to reaching 60 at the same time as the clock. To begin with, it was surprisingly easy, with errors of no more than a few seconds each time; but as the night went on, I found myself becoming worse and worse until I was consistently off by around 20 seconds. The first night I tried it, I actually stayed awake until it got light outside, by which time my accuracy had completely returned.
I noticed exactly the same pattern after playing the numbers game several nights in a row: the excellent success rate I started out with decreased the closer it got to midnight and, if I stayed awake long enough, would return to its previous level as dawn approached.
…nineteen elephant, twenty elephant, twenty-one elephant…
I was baffled by the disparity. My counting ability didn’t randomly fluctuate or get worse the more tired I got; it seemed to have an inversely proportionate relationship to the closeness of the middle of the night.
Due to my chronic insomnia, I actually had enough time on my hands to gather a lot more data than I managed during my investigation into the numbers of men and women seen in the mornings. I was therefore able to develop and test a theory, which was that time moves slower at night.
I bought a brand new, top-of-the-range alarm clock to test whether my old one was faulty. I cleared the detritus off my chest of drawers so the two timepieces could count the night away side by side and I could directly compare them from the comfort of my bed. Seeing the red numbers on one side and the green numbers on the other made me feel like the night was staring at me through old-school 3D spectacles; but thankfully that didn’t put me off my observations. As the gloom was entertained by a stereoscopic film of a man in bed staring fixedly at the camera, I beheld perfect symmetry in the two clocks. When the features on their faces changed, they always did so in unison, confirming that the original device was ticking over as efficiently as the second.
I was therefore able to narrow my suspicions to a couple of possibilities in relation to the pace of nocturnal time: either there was something extraordinary about the conditions in my bedroom which made clocks within it slow down at night, or there was something universally wrong with the way time is measured. Thinking about it made me feel more positively stimulated than I’d felt in bed in a very long time, so much so that I had to get up and walk off my excess energy.
I thought my obsessive search for secrets had come to a brutal end when I quit my job, but it suddenly felt like I could stumble upon an earth-shattering revelation by pacing my bedroom and theorising. Was it some sort of plot by clock manufacturers to deceive people about the real amount of hours in the day, or could it be that the internal workings of timepieces were affected by an invisible force such as gravity?
My head was soon so full of ideas I could no longer feel the carpet beneath my bare feet.
Before I had a chance to reach any conclusions, I was interrupted by the ringing of the phone, which sounded like a siren at such a late hour. After hastily putting on a dressing gown in place of the skin I had just jumped out of, I picked up the telephone.
‘Hi, Rolf! Sorry for calling so late. It’s Flor.’
‘Oh, hi. Sorry about the other night. I…’
‘Never mind about that,’ she butted in impatiently. ‘What are you up to now? Do you want to come to the zoo?’
‘Yeah. I’m here now—I decided to come in and observe the elephants because my kettle was keeping me awake. I think I’ve just made an earth-shattering discovery and I wanted you to be the first person I showed it to. You want to come and see?’
‘OK,’ I said. ‘But I don’t think it’ll beat what I’ve just discovered.’
‘I’m not sure about that.’
…fifty-seven elephant, fifty-eight elephant, fifty-nine elephant…
I hadn’t been to the zoo since I was a child. More than anything else, I was deterred by the traumatic memory of a monkey jumping up against the wire fence of its enclosure and thrusting its erect penis in the direction of my mother and me. Seeing animals in small spaces didn’t appeal to me either, but the image of the swollen simian member and the wild, mocking look on its owner’s face as it performed the obscene gesture were enough to keep me away from the zoo ever since.
Now, however, I was willing to risk being exposed to any number of penises to see the girl whose likeness my heart had recently erected.
Flor was waiting at the main gates with a torch in her hand when I arrived. She asked lots of questions in a German accent while shining the torch in my eyes before letting me in. I tried to join in with the routine by answering in a Jewish accent, which probably wasn’t appropriate, but it came out sounding more Jamaican than anything else so the shtick ended rather abruptly.
Flor was tittering to herself as she led me through the lightless zoo. Besides her titters and torchlight, everything was silent and dark, which I found threatening knowing that we were in the company of innumerable fierce creatures.
It wasn’t until we had walked all the way to the other end of the menagerie that I heard the first animal sound, which came in the form of an elephantine trumpet. The creature that made the noise suddenly appeared around the corner and came storming past us as we reached an outdoor area lit by lamps. It was a rather diminutive elephant, but it still scared the hell out of me.
‘Jesus!’ I screamed. ‘Why aren’t they in their cages?’
‘Because they escaped again,’ answered Flor. ‘But now I know how they did it.’
‘Just take a look at them,’ she said, pointing to a group of elephants sniffing around a shuttered food outlet.
‘I don’t get it. Where are the parents? They’re all babies, aren’t they?’
‘Exactly! They look smaller than normal, don’t they? Well, they’re adults. It seems they shrink at night and are able to squeeze through the bars. When I find them in the mornings, they’re back to their usual size. I don’t know why they get smaller at night—maybe it’s something to do with the amount they shit, which is a lot, believe me—but there’s no denying it now. I wanted you to see for yourself and prove I’m not mad.’
‘I can indeed verify that the elephants appear smaller and you are not mad.’
‘Amazing, eh? I don’t know if I’m the first person to discover this—I’ve heard of “an elephant never forgets” but never “an elephant is smaller at night”. I think I’m on to something big, if you excuse the pun.’
‘Haaaaang on,’ I said, feeling the powder from crushed ideas blowing over the holes of thought. ‘I was going to tell you about my amazing discovery, which I believed was a mystery about time, but I think your discovery may have just solved it.’
‘Sorry,’ said Flor, ‘but I’m freezing. Do you mind if we go indoors?’
I told her I was feeling cold too and that going indoors sounded like a good idea, but I didn’t realise until she led me there that ‘indoors’ meant inside the elephant house.
‘I’ve just cleaned most of the shit out and the elephants won’t bother us here now that they’re free, so this is the best place to be.’
We sat next to each other with our backs against the wall and stared at the remains of fruit and vegetables lit by the torch my companion had put on the stone floor.
‘So what was your discovery?’ Flor asked, laying a hand on my knee.
I placed my right hand on top of hers while keeping the left one held firmly over my mouth and nose because of the strong smell in the air. Flor was probably used to it, but the odour of elephant dung affected me to such an extent that I had to keep my airways covered and explain myself in the style of someone pretending to speak over a Tannoy.
‘Well, I’ve noticed that time seems to slow down at night. There’s a significant difference between my own timekeeping and that of my clocks around this time of night, which is when elephants get smaller.’
‘I think I know where you’re going with this.’
‘Uh-huh. So how do you think I was measuring the seconds?’
‘One elephant, two elephant, three elephant…’
‘Precisely! So if elephants get smaller at night, it follows that my counting would speed up at night.’
‘What a funny world we live in. I don’t know whether to be amazed or disappointed by that explanation.’
‘Take your hand away from your mouth,’ demanded Flor. The sound of her voice had suddenly changed, as if her words were being carried on the backs of wet butterflies.
‘Just do it.’
I lowered my hand and Flor moved in to press her lips against mine before I had a chance to breathe in any more of the stench.
Every movement of our lips and tongues turned a new page in a pop-up book about passion. We were soon exploring similar titles, devouring all the literature we could get our hands on until we became glowworm/bookworm hybrids threatening to burn down the entire library.
I was all fired up and wanted to make love to Flor on the floor of the elephant house, but I knew it would end in failure if I couldn’t see her reflection. Since there were no mirrors around it seemed pointless to mention my predicament at that precise moment; so I did my best to remain turned on as I began having sex with a statue. Perhaps I could ensure Flor was satisfied before I went limp, which would be quite an achievement. I even considered whether it was dark enough to be able to get away with groaning and spitting on her in order to fake an orgasm and avoid an awkward anticlimax.
As I mulled over the options, Flor suddenly pulled back and looked at me with an expression of embarrassment and concern. I was worried she might have been able to read my thoughts and was going to send me packing for being such an oddball, but instead she said something totally unexpected.
‘I’m afraid I’m a bit, er… “quirky” when it comes to sex. Um… can I ask that you don’t look at me while we’re doing it? I bet you think I’m a complete weirdo and I wouldn’t blame you if you did a runner now, but that’s just how it is… if there’s a pair of eyes watching me it totally puts me off. That’s why I was so upset about the photo of us in the museum. God, this is embarrassing. Do you think you could humour me by closing your eyes or turning your head?’
Being rather “quirky” myself, I had no problem accepting the idiosyncrasies of others, so I assured Flor that I would humour her and not pass judgement.
‘It’s fine as long as you don’t start screaming “don’t you fucking look at me!” like Dennis Hopper,’ I joked.
‘Thanks,’ she whispered.
I was about to reveal my own bizarre sexual requirements when an amazing thought occurred to me. While our individual needs made us theoretically incompatible—because someone who has to see the other person in order to climax is in direct opposition to someone whose pleasure depends on being unobserved—the realisation of these needs was also the resolution of their confliction. Put simply, by turning my head away from Flor and obeying her wishes, I would be able to see past the statue of her and observe the reflection of her true self via the metallic object on my shoulder. Eureka! The kettle had robbed me of silence but had gifted me a new type of vision: the ability to peer surreptitiously into the looking-glass world.
I could completely accommodate Flor’s sexual issues while secretly indulging my own. With a single stone I could kill two birds, one of which was a gigantic albatross around my neck that almost no one knew existed.
I never imagined animal cruelty could be so fun; but becoming a bird killer in a zoo was possibly the high point of a life I thought was over after having my shoulder occupied by a kettle. I finally got to see lovemaking through to the sweet end.
One thing I realised, however, after finally achieving my aim, was that all satisfaction is at best temporary and maybe even completely illusory. As I lay next to Flor among the squashed apples and straw, looking through the walls of the elephant house for reflections of eternal light, I understood that despite all the giving and taking involved in sex, it is still only a symbol of the unobtainable. Even if it’s the biggest release of tension or the most profound expression of mutual love, it remains a metaphor for something we can never have because we don’t even know what it is. The only way we know the unobtainable exists is because we act out the loss of it over and over again in our beds and on our TV screens like trauma victims. Lovemaking is no better at capturing the unobtainable for humans than screaming is at recapturing silence for a kettle bearer; but it is considerably more fun, which is why I have vowed to do a lot more of it before I die and the unobtainable obtains me.
About the Author
Stephen Moles lives and works in London, England. He is currently under Japanese influence and his honour is at stake.
“If You Ever Need a Shoulder to Cry On, Don’t Use Mine or You’ll End Up in Hot Water” © 2012 Stephen Moles