Ashes - Micky Peters
The first thing I disposed of was my fridge. Start with something big, I remember thinking. At first, I’d considered the television, but then I reasoned that the fridge took up more space, at least physically, and its metallic humming got on my nerves. Besides, I liked watching TV, specifically the news channel or BBC Parliament, anything that bored me, anything that seemed like nothing. And it was always my aim to end up with nothing. With the fridge gone, not much changed at first – I just couldn’t keep any more food than I could eat in a day. I lived off Cup-a-Soups, sleeves of Jaffa cakes, little snack boxes of raisins. A lot of the time, I was hungry, but then when I lost weight most of my clothes didn’t fit me anymore, so it was easy to get rid of them too. I reduced my wardrobe to the bare essentials – two pairs of socks, two sets of underwear, a pair of jeans and a pair of pyjama bottoms. A plain black jumper and two black t-shirts. My coat, my trainers. All the rest of it I either threw in the textile recycling container in town or bagged up in bin liners and left outside the charity shop. Gloves, hats, sunglasses, the whole drawer full of “workout clothes” I’d kept for no reason – all of it gone.
'I like this new look on you,’ said a friend, O., when they first saw me in my monochrome uniform. ‘Sort of minimal; Japanese. Very in.’
‘Do you think so?’ I said, fretfully. I didn’t like the idea of being pigeonholed into a style or image, as though the clothes I had left could collectively summed up into that thing called fashion. I wanted my garments to be utilitarian, militaristic, nondescript.
‘Totally,’ said O.. ‘Although it’s maybe a tiny bit severe? You should brighten things up with some colour next time.’
I felt calmer then and returned to my purge. Over the course of the next week I got rid of all my bathroom items apart from my toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste, a bar of soap and a pair of nail scissors. I kept a towel of course, for when I stepped out of the shower, but just one. When I washed my hair, I let it dry naturally. I started stealing loo roll from work because I didn’t want a big package of it stacked up like a pyramid next to the toilet. I don’t sweat much, so deodorant wasn’t necessary, and seeing as I hardly spent any time outdoors – at least back then – sunscreen was equally redundant. It might sound unhygienic, but I was extremely clean. Cleaner, in fact, than I had ever been before. I started taking enormous pleasure in scrubbing myself, sloughing off all the dirt and germs and dead skin cells until I was raw, like a baby fresh from the womb.
My purge had begun after O. and I went to a literature festival together one weekend. It was the kind of meaningless activity I spent my free time doing in those days – another way to use up the time, to think less about myself. We went from tent to tent, ducking our heads into readings and panels and things, until we came to a talk by a woman who had thrown away almost everything she owned. She now had only a hundred possessions – exactly a hundred – and, looking down at us from the raised dais from which she was speaking, she seemed to me like the most maddeningly happy person in the world. Her voice was mild, her expression serene. Whenever anyone asked a question, she leaned forward attentively and folded her hands before her, nodding along gently to demonstrate that she was listening. Theretofore I’d been the kind of person who regarded “self-help” gurus as peddlers of holistic mumbo-jumbo; swindlers stuffing millennia-old eastern philosophies into twenty-first century western life like mincemeat into sausage casing, entreating people to better themselves through visualisation, meditation, affirmation et cetera. I was dumbfounded to learn that O. did not feel the same way I did.
‘What a load of garbage,’ I said, as we walked out of the tent. I lit a cigarette and looked up at the sky. It was white and flat, like an empty surface to draw on. ‘I can’t believe people go in for that sort of claptrap.’
‘Do you think?’ said O., with a pensive expression. ‘I thought she had some very sensible things to say.’
‘Really’ I asked. ‘You don’t find it a bit of a contradiction that she’s standing up there flogging that ridiculous book of hers, all the while telling people to buy less? She’s probably raking in thousands of pounds. I bet she lives in a mansion and the whole minimal thing is an act.’
O. shrugged. ‘Maybe she gives her money away. She seemed very happy to me – definitely a lot happier than you or I.’
I scoffed then, but later that evening, sitting alone on the sofa I’d paid too much for, surrounded by an abundance of things, I thought about how truly miserable I was. I was no longer young, I was no longer beautiful, I was no longer loved by anyone or anything. I was a prisoner in my museum of junk, and I didn’t want any of it. I wanted to be new again.
I ended up buying the literature festival woman’s book online, mainly so I could mock it, but then I put it by the toilet and whenever I went to take a shit I’d inevitably end up reading a few pages. It felt amazing, evacuating my bowels as I learned special techniques on how to streamline my possessions, how to rid myself of excess baggage. It seemed like there was some inner pearl, some absolute sense of personhood that I had become alienated from through the acquisition of so much stuff, and that I could potentially access this “real me” again by binning it all. The book described this process as letting go. “When you let go of things that are blocking you”, the book said, “You make space for things that inspire you”. I got along with this terminology at first, but eventually I realised that letting go didn’t sound like what I wanted to do. I didn’t cleave to my things, didn’t hold onto them desperately as though they were about to be torn from me, as though I was in love with them. Letting go implied that I secretly wanted to keep everything, and only through Zen-like self-mastery would I be able to part with all that crap. I preferred the phrase dispose of. Dispose of suggests toxic waste, crime scene evidence, illegal dumping. It suggests action, intention. It suggests anger, and I suppose I had a lot of that at the time. So then, as I’ve said, I disposed of my fridge, and after that, I was unstoppable.
The furniture was tough, of course, but piece by piece I got rid of it. I sold the dining table and chairs to someone on the other side of town, gave the bookcase to a second-hand store. After that, there was the sofa. That was definitely more difficult because it was old and nobody wanted to buy it, no matter how low I reduced the price. I looked into paying someone to take it away, but it was extortionate. In the end, I dragged it down the street to an area of scrubland beneath a pylon and abandoned it there. The next day, it was gone. As for my bed, the frame I dismantled and took to the tip, and I slept on the mattress on the floor at first. It was like being a child at a sleepover, or an artist living in a squat. In fact, lying on that mattress, there were any number of identities I could inhabit. I’d stare out the window at the night sky – I’d gotten rid of my curtains too – and think about all the people I could have been, if only I’d tried a little harder. It made me weep.
Obviously, things were tricky at work, too. There are certain obligations when it comes to an office job – keeping records, databases, saving things and diligently filing them. If I’d had it my way I would have just burned the place down, but of course I wasn’t about to do that, so instead I binned everything on my desk or gave it to other people – my boss was chillingly thrilled when I handed over my electric pencil sharpener – and then went through my emails, deleting all the junk, deleting my sent items, deleting everything in the inbox that was more than a day old, and then deleting everything in the deleted items folder just to make doubly sure it was all gone. I took all the old letters and reports out of my desk drawers and threw them in the confidential waste, then watched out the window as a special truck came to pulverise them into dust. I had a little bobblehead toy perched on top of my computer monitor and I chucked it in the wastepaper basket. When someone spotted it later and asked whose it was, I kept quiet. Slowly, people there stopped noticing me. I was happy about that.
Naturally, though, my quest to dispose of everything did not go completely unremarked upon. When O. came around one time to pick up an old clock I was giving them, they seemed alarmed.
‘Where’s all your stuff?’ they said, aghast. By this time the flat was pretty bare, just the TV in the corner and the Wi-Fi router – I still hadn’t given up my connection to the glittering realm of cyberspace.
‘I’m decluttering,’ I said. Decluttering was the kind of word that O. would accept and understand. Decluttering was what they did on daytime TV and in awful lifestyle magazine spreads about feng shui. Decluttering was an excuse to seem normal.
‘Amazing!’ said O.. ‘I keep meaning to do the same. I’ve got so much stuff just rammed in all my cupboards – too many clothes too; things I haven’t worn in years.’
‘Can I offer you a refreshment?’ I said, opening the kitchen cabinet. The shelves were as sparse as the arctic tundra.
‘A cup of tea would be nice,’ said O., taking the clock down from the wall.
‘No tea,’ I said. ‘Sorry about that.’
There was a short, uncomfortable pause. O. looked at the clock in their hands. ‘Tap water’s fine,’ they said.
That evening, after they’d left, O. texted me. I’m worried about you, they said. If you ever need to talk, I’m here for you. I’m your friend. But I didn’t much like the idea of O. being there “for” me, or of O. being “my” friend. It sounded too much like ownership, like O. was yet another thing I was somehow responsible for. I deleted the message without replying. A weight came off my shoulders.
Without the clock, time became weird. I no longer had the alarm going off every morning and so I started waking up when the sun rose. A couple of times I was late for work, but nobody noticed anyway. People had stopped caring about what I did. At night I’d pick at food until I was full – the concept of specific mealtimes was out the window at that point – and stay awake until I was tired. I’d chucked my mattress as well by then, so I’d fall asleep on the floor, wherever I was sitting, or perhaps snuggle down in a corner if it was a particularly cold night. I no longer experienced minutes, hours. Even my awareness of the weeks passing became flimsy. There was only the shifting light, and then the darkness, and then the light again, on and on as the days went endlessly by. My TV, computer and phone all had little clocks on them, and I tried to disable them at first, but when that proved impossible I simply threw them out and cancelled the Wi-Fi. At first, it was achingly hard, to be without all that entertainment, all that information, instant gratification, double-u double-u double-u dot. Then it was suddenly easy. If I was ever bored, I went out for a walk. If I wanted to know something, I’d go into a library and find it there. I realised then that so much of what I’d thought to be essential in life was actually just convenience, so I started to take more risks. I withdrew all the money from my bank account and closed it down. I called the telephone company and had my landline disconnected. I stopped showing up for work, but by then there was no way for them to reach me; they didn’t have my home address. I assume that, eventually, I was fired in absentia.
My body seemed to lose meaning. When I looked down at what I had between my legs it didn’t feel like it had felt before; imbibed with significance and obligation, an acquired sense of personhood and identity. It was just organs, and I was purely biological, an animal scurrying around on the surface of a rock in space. When I caught my reflection in a shop window – I’d already thrown out all my mirrors – I no longer saw the old me, the “person”, the fixed, defined summation of characteristics and possessions and social categories. I was something else entirely – something not quite human. The idea I’d had of “myself” was exposed as little more than a mirage, a fiction all along. There was nothing absolute, nothing certain about me at all. There was only the blurring of boundaries, until the distinction between me and everything else in the universe seemed to be gone entirely.
The last thing I disposed of were my papers. Passport, birth certificate. My driving license and medical records. I took them down to the docks one morning, very early, with just the sound of the water lapping against the piers, the lavender sky of daybreak broken only by a thin streak of cloud that scooted from the trail of a distant jet engine. There was an old demolition site barricaded off with panels of wire fencing, but I easily pulled the panels aside to slip through the gap, then wandered through the piles of rubble, skirted the perimeter of an enormous hole in the ground where the foundations of a new towerblock were being laid. At the bottom of the hole, I spotted an empty metal bucket, the kind for hauling cement, and I shuffled down the gravelly slope towards it. I put the documents inside. I’d brought along an old cigarette lighter for the purpose, and after I’d started the fire, I threw it in as well, then stood a short way back until it popped. The papers shrivelled up slowly, flaking away in the flames until they were just blackened shavings. Then the fire died. I went forward and emptied out the bucket. A gust of wind came and blew away the ashes of the past.
Micky Peters is a queer Anglo-Irish writer based in London, currently studying for an MA at City University. His work has appeared in Garageland Reviews and at The Bomb Factory Art Foundation. He tweets @micky_pete