I spent September-December on a travel-research trip funded by WCMT, learning how sexual consent is taught around the world. I’m writing about it atm. For now, here are some in-between moments.

 

KENYA

The sky tips open. The students scramble, the chairs they lift above their heads almost but not quite forming a barricade secure enough to block the rain. They pack into an assembly hall too small for them all and we squeeze in behind, everyone shuffling up to fit one more person in. Some people stand on tiptoes outside, peering through the windows while the drips from the roof slip down their backs. Almost everyone’s got a line of sight. The show begins.

*

The women squat by round tables piled high with dried fish. Each silvery sliver has great chunks cut out of its side. The skins are folded over the wooden slats behind to dry? roast? The air is brown and walls somehow slimy. The slits in the sides of the fish make them look like drooping feathers.

*

She sits the girls in a circle and hands round a bunny rabbit. She encourages them to share how they’re feeling today. She says there’s no right way to feel and they’re welcome to pass if they’d rather not share. The bunny gets passed from hand to hand. Happy. Excited. Sad. Happy. Worried. Hungry. Pass.

*

A police officer takes a seat at my table. There’s a large gun propped between his thighs. His colleagues are sitting to the left surrounded by empty spaces.

I’ve just started a new book. I stay fixed on the page and ignore the gun that he’s now plopped his hat on top of. After three pages he starts talking to me. It’s a dull but vaguely polite conversation. I go back to the book.

We’re in a grubby cafe with unappetising photos of the food pasted on the walls. I’ve got chapati grease and bean sauce on my fingers, and when I drink, the coffee covers my tongue with a layer of milky film. I wipe my hand before each turn of the page. He keeps interrupting so I don’t get very far.

His friends leave and I’m only on page nine. He asks for my number. I say no and go onto page ten. He says it’s good to have friends who can protect you if you get in trouble. He’s drinking black coffee and soft folded sandwiches.

I gather my stuff. He reminds me to pray.

*

There are four of us on the motorbike. The fields rush past on either side. We slow only for a herd of cows. The driver plays reggae music, the sound catching farmers’ attention as we pass. A man stands on top of a grassy bank by a rice field and raises his hand to say hello.

*

A woman I haven’t met before barges in. I start to say hi in the local language and reach out to shake her hand but she stops me. She drops the basket she’s midway through weaving and holds her hands together. “Let us pray.” I wait for her to look up. The last flake of wood she wove slowly pops out of its frame.

*

The pool is too shallow to dive; I’d crack my head on the steps or the wall, so I slip in slowly. I’m not wearing suncream and when I shower afterwards, my thighs and shoulders will be stained pink. I use my sunglasses as goggles and melt into the ripples.

*

The woman on the coach next to me had missed her stop. She ended up hours from where she was meant to be, so this morning she had a coffee and a mojito in preparation for the journey back. She draws a pink scarf out of her bags, drapes it over her head and leans against the window. She remains in her private den for the rest of the journey.

*

The lights remind me of Soho. Shop signs hang so low I have to duck my head not to get knocked out. They’re great hulking bricks. Beside the shops, squished between the flowing traffic lanes of cars and people, fruit sellers call out. I cover my shoulders with my jumper even though I’m sweating. I reach the crossroads and see the first set of traffic lights in the city. They go green and count down from sixty.

 

UGANDA

 

The locker room has that familar smell of old kit. I can almost hear the squeaking trainers from my old team. Shoes and shirts are bundled up in box shelves and each panel is painted in chunks of dried mud. In the doorway, a boy taps a coach on the arm. He bends down and the boy leaps up in a piggyback.

*

We’re sat on the roof, stuffed from Lebanese takeaway. We’re laughing about how many chicken nuggets we could stuff into our bodies while we sip drinks and watch a fire be put out across the rooftops.

*

The ball goes off the pitch and a dog – golden retriever? – appears and careens towards it. She leaps, landing with the ball beneath her stomach and rolling around it, yapping, waiting for someone else to join her game.

*

We go for a drink. It’s the first time I’ve been on a date in a country where that’s not allowed. It makes it very hard to read signals because you’re not allowed to be obvious about anything. She tells me a story about a sex ed class where they wore goggles greased with vaseline and were spun round ten times before being instructed to put a condom on a wooden penis. She had low blood sugar levels so passed out immediately and thwacked her head on the penis.

*

It’s 9am and they’re waiting for the office to open. Their circle expands and contracts to the beat of the music. They drop my bag at the side and pull me in. One boy is pushed into the middle, his moves easy and slightly off beat. I find out later that he’s deaf. He tugs the hand of a woman on the opposite side and they slip into salsa. He does a half spin and her arm rests on his shoulder, spin again and they’re back in their embrace.

*

It’s a beautiful square pool, deep enough that I have to wriggle down to touch the bottom. The sun favours the side on the right – 2 o’clock if you’re sitting where I am now. By 5pm you need a jumper as well as a towel wrapped around your legs. There’s a little girl climbing out of the water again and again so she can have the pleasure of jumping back in.

*

The girls pull their socks up so high they tuck under their shorts like woolly tights. One flaps her shorts side to side as the coach talks. Another puts her braid in her mouth absent mindedly. They’re itching to play. There are ten of them, all refugees. Most had never played a team sport before. The whistle blows and they scatter.

 

RWANDA

 

I lie back on the hospital bed so I don’t have to see the bit of my leg they’re operating on. They inject me until I can’t feel anything, then slice it open. Afterwards you can peer into it, a gaping hole like the mouth of a dead fish. I send my family a photo and my brothers send back pictures of the wound turned into famous paintings- the best one is Munch’s The Scream. The doctor tries to distract me by asking me what my book is about. It doesn’t help: it’s about the Rwandan genocide.

*

When I arrive, the guard is sleeping under a tree and we wait for half an hour for the guide to arrive. At the top, it’s just me and him. He’s about thirty-five. I don’t ask directly but he tells me he’s a survivor. I want to know his story but to ask specifics feels like it would be pushing something intangible. What would I do with it? Nod and say ah, yes, I’m so sorry you went through that, please give me the juicy details.

*

She’s speaking to a group of fifteen girls. They’re quick and kind, eager to listen. She talks to them about strength. You can see it seeping into them. A boy comes in to pick up his rucksack and quickly shuffles out again. Every day when you wake, up you decide to be confident, she says. One girl writes it down. Flip flops dangle off toes. Legs cross and uncross with shifts in thought.

*

We’ve exchanged emails. We meet for coffee. There are two places with the same name and we both go to different ones. It’s my last day. I’m tired. I wasn’t able to get the form she wanted, so instead of learning about her organisation I spend half an hour listening to how I should be doing my research. I try to pretend this is helpful. The mutual frustration is heavy.

*

The city is beautiful at night. It’s like the view from the top of Brandon hill in Bristol, where you can see the lights all around you. Because the whole place is built on hills, the view is stunning however far you walk. I take a motorbike taxi home when it’s nearly pitch black and put my headphones in. It’s hard not to feel like I’m in a movie.

*

Near the end of Kigali’s Genocide Memorial Museum, there’s a section listing facts about some of the children who were slaughtered.

David dreamed of becoming a doctor. Ariane’s favourite food was cake. Fidele’s favourite sport was football. Irene and Uwamwezi were sisters and the doll they shared was their favourite toy. Aurore liked playing hide and seek with her brother. Fabrice’s favourite animal was a cat.

Tortured to death. Stabbed in the eyes and head. Shot in the head. Grenade thrown in their shower. Burnt alive at Gikondi Church. Killed at Muhoro Church.

10. 4. 9. 6 and 7. 2. 15 months.

 

INDIA

 

The landscape changes every few minutes. Fallen trees give way to giant boulders which in turn are replaced by baby waterfalls. We ask to stop, hop out of the car and run back a dozen or so metres. We climb back in with our arms bundled with pine cones.

*

An elderly couple ask us in for tea. Their room is rimmed with photographs and piled high with heavy blankets. We ask about Diwali. Someone mentions dancing. The woman beams and points to her husband. He gets up, starts beatboxing and spinning round the room. Everyone’s cheering and laughing. The woman’s face crinkles like crumpled paper as she smiles.

*

The washing line is too high so she whips the wet top back behind her and flips it up so it catches. She doesn’t bother to ring it out and the sun illuminates the drops as they fall. Even though it’s the hottest point of the day, and I’m sweating slightly, she’s dressed for the cold. She’s got a traditional sari on, layered with a woolly jumper and knitted hat on top. The line is tied up on tree branches next to a log pile. Behind is a huge oak tree. Beyond, snowy peaks.

*

Her parents have given her until the age of 27 to find a partner. Then they’ll start looking for her. She says that’s fine. “Anyway, it’s just like Tinder.” She’ll get photos and their income, then have six months to get to know him. She says she can change her mind during that period, but it’s frowned upon.

*

Mum joins me for the last fortnight. By now I’ve been away two and a half months. It’s the longest I’ve been away from home, and by far the longest by myself. We’re lying in our camp beds at the top of a mountain. We’ve never really done camping as a family, even though both of us love it. It’s cold and the air is thin. We both have two jumpers, two trousers, thick socks, a hat and gloves on, each with one thumb slipped out to turn the pages of our books. With her head-torch and dark woolly hat, she looks like a burglar taking a break. I look up from my book. We are in a totally unfamiliar environment, but she holds home in her. She flicks a page over and looks up at me. I feel very lucky to be here.

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On my grandma’s dresser is a letter that my brother wrote when he was five? six? It’s addressed to the Manchester United football team. He names each of the players. He invites them round for tea and scones with grandma. He tells them they’ll have to walk from football because they can’t all fit their cars outside her house.

I think about this letter during several different shows.

I think about it in Before I Forget You, I Love You, as Pip Utton watches his character’s wife deteriorate but memories from years ago remain crisp. I think about it in Unconditional, the gorgeously creative two-hander by Josie Davis and her mum which makes me want to go again with my mum and grandma. And I think about it in [Insert Slogan Here], a show that has been rumbling around my brain and made me listen on repeat to the music from adverts, where Sam Ward describes writing to Volvo as an 8 year old and asking to be in their next ad. I think about grandma and theatre and whether my other brother would like this show and what my grandma would make of it and how she keeps forgetting how long I’m away for and the fact that my brother never got a response from Man United.

*

I tell myself I’ll be healthy and organised this fringe. I’ll have days off. I pack tupperware, books, a swimming costume. I join the library.

*

It’s pouring and we don’t have raincoats. She bought a tourist’s poncho and we share. I break a hole along one side for my head before realising the arm hole works too so we walk along, arms wrapped around each other, both of our shoulders getting wet from the unnecessary extra gap we’ve made. The air is cold and fresh and the peaks around Arthur’s seat rise above us.

*

A man gets up during Dice festival to get a pint. The performer draws attention to it, so the guy turns back to apologise. He then scurries to the door and pushes it but it’s a pull door so he falls into it with a bump and by now everyone’s watching him and his face pops with a blush.

*

I think about who you sit in the dark with. I know that I prefer seeing live art with other people, if only to gorge on its strangeness together, but with theatre I often find it distracting waiting on another person’s reaction. As a critic, I’m so used to seeing stuff by myself, and in Edinburgh it feels inevitable. But I’m walking back from Cold Blood, feeling lucky to have seen both it and its predecessor Kiss and Cry, and I’m thinking that one day I’d like to take someone to see a show by Michèle Anne De Mey and Jaco Van Dormael. Someone whose hand I could hold throughout.

*

I feel the lack of Forest Fringe significantly this year. I miss the space, the feel of community, the certainty of surprise. At D&D we talk about whether there is space for live art at the fringe. We decide there is, it just needs another group mad enough to take charge of organising it.

*

There’s a talk at the literature festival that I’ve been looking forward to all month. There are two places in Edinburgh with the venue’s name, half an hour apart, and I go to the wrong one. By the time I realise, I’m too late, and of course it’s raining. The anguish I feel at having missed it is disproportionate to the actual stress of the situation and it’s all a bit much and I think I’ve crashed. I walk home, flop on the sofa with shoes still dripping and don’t move for half an hour.

*

I’m on the bridge trying to push past hundreds of people who seem to mould into one giant fish of a person, gills opening to reveal gaps to slip through, then closing and trapping you in, more tangled than you were a moment ago. I reach the mile where it’s even worse. I squeeze past and go down a quiet street, arriving at a venue where there’s almost no one there. I sit down, out of breath, and let strangers tell me a story for an hour. At the end I cry and then drag myself back out into the cobbled streets. I know I should be used to it by now, but none of it quite feels real.

*

On the last night we go to a friend’s show and I’m expecting it to be good but not quite dance on the tables kind of good, and funny but not proper belly laughs funny. It’s a brilliant surprise and I feel full as we head out into the night.

*

I’m writing on a plane a day after leaving the festival. It’s a tiny plane and we’re up so high so fast, the windows are already spraypainted white. The captain is feeding us instructions. A baby is crying and I wonder what would happen if the captain were to ask it to be quiet. Nothing is crackling and the lights are still on – all in order – but I can’t help feeling the rumble of the plane is an imitaton of Flight’s simulator, rather than the other way around.

*

I cook maybe four times in the month. I don’t take a day off. I have too many meal deals, too much pizza, the exact right amount of falafel wraps. I don’t read a single one of the books I brought and by the end of the month I am getting angry emails from the library about the overdue book I haven’t opened. I don’t go swimming but I do wear my goggles to write my Drip review. I turn up to a few shows at the wrong time or venue, usually soaked in a mix of rain and sweat, and after five days of soggy shoes from the torrential rain a week before, I have to give up and buy new trainers. I’m exhausted. Next year, I tell myself, next year I’ll be on top of it all.

*

Some of my favourite conversations this fringe have been the ones I haven’t quite caught: Sam Ward whispering to a stranger in [Insert Slogan Here] as he dances with them on a stage strewn with candles and cardboard; The things I think I heard in Malaprop’s Everything Not Saved but now, two weeks on, I’m not sure I’ve remembered them right; When they stare at eachother in the low light and the bright noise near the end od No One Is Coming To Save You and they ask eachother – I think they ask each other – if they’re okay; Two debates jumping across each other at a drinks laiden table, new faces trading in shows and ideas; Something whispered in my ear in the dark, turning, tired, what did you say; My friend yelling something to me at 5am, a few of the vowels flying over the music but the rest of it just a blur.

There’s something in the uncertainty of the other half of those conversations, the secrecy or ephemeral nature of them that makes them more exciting than the actual words that fill them could possibly be. That gap, that uncertainty, that darkness, that potential. It feels like the most exciting companies are engaging with that this year – Malaprop, Breach, YESYESNONO, Poltergeist, This Noise, This Egg. The idea of belief and half truths and reality and playfulness on stage. I like the uncertainty of it all.

*

I’m walking back across the meadows. The light is dimming but not dark. The grass joins the gravel path. To the right are three boys. They’re sitting on a bench. They look young. My age, I think, maybe younger. Sprawled on the grass in front of them is a middle aged magician. He wears a bright green suit with playing cards stamped all over it. Cards are scattered around his arm too. Perching himself up on his elbow, he says “this is Edinburgh.” I don’t hear the rest.

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By Sophie Abramovici for Noises Off

I was honoured to edit National Student Drama Festival’s magazine Noises Off this year. We had a team of 13 and I’m very grateful for each and every one of them. [I will come back to this at some point to detail my favourite articles from the week.]

***

My editorials:

#1 (on using words bravely)

#2 (on reaching out a hand)

#3 (on communication, written in binary)

#4 (on critics as light catchers)

#5 (on Speed Death and endings)

And my final piece on the awards ceremony.

***

To see all content, click here. PDFs also available of all the magazines, including the zine we handmade at the end of the week, each of which had a tiny paper aeroplane tucked inside.

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Over Christmas, my grandma knitted baubles to hang on the tree in her communal front garden. As people walked past, they’d look up and notice the woollen snow drops. Kids especially, they’re far better at spotting things than adults. They’d grab a sleeve, point upwards and giggle at the tree’s winter gear.

One morning someone dropped a package through grandma’s door. It was filled with chocolate and on the envelope was written: to the neighbour with balls. Every time grandma picked up the envelope she laughed again. She loves that this funny new tradition makes strangers smile, that it can brighten someone’s day. And her neighbour reaching out with that little gesture made a big difference to her too.

Two fifths of older people say TV is their main form of company, roughly two million adults say they can go a week without having any contact with anyone, and nine million adults in the UK say they are often or always lonely. I’m currently working in a bookshop and occasionally I’ll speak to a customer and wonder if that’s the only conversation they’ve had all day.

Social contact can reduce physical pain and loneliness can enhance it. It guts us mentally and physically, and it’s not just the elderly who are suffering from it. Dozens of reports demonstrate that those in their twenties are more likely to suffer from loneliness than those in the fifties, predominantly brought on by lack of stability through the housing crisis, the economy and the job market (social media is at the centre of many of these conversations too). The government’s recent installation of Tracey Crouch as the Minister for Loneliness suggests intent to take this modern disease seriously and to create platforms of support.

In the period immediately after University it is hard not to feel a bit lonely. After the bustle of being busy every day, being part of multiple clubs and communities and different groups of friends, all fifteen minutes apart, you suddenly feel thrown into the ether with nothing to grab onto. It’s hard not to feel a little bit emptier.

If you haven’t got a job lined up you might move back home but your friends might be doing a course a year longer than yours or a year abroad. You might one day google how to make friends as an adult and it might not seem like anyone has the answers. Your family might largely cook and clean for you so you might revert back to an ungrateful, complacent teenager. You might worry constantly about finding a job, get 43 rejections and then give up. You might take up running for a week and then decide you’re doing a marathon so that you have purpose. Then you might get a job in catering and learn that you should only ever love someone who is kind to customer service staff and that you’re too tired to train for that marathon.

Everyone might try to give you advice and you might write a lot of lists and watch a lot of Netflix and half-heartedly fill in more job applications for things so far from anything you’re interested in that you might almost kid yourself that you want to go into data analysis.

Somehow, eventually, it might start to get better and you might get a job in a bookshop that you really like and the job might come with people you really like too and it might feel like a lucky package deal to have stumbled into.

And eventually you might realise that everyone still feels lonely, every so often, some far more so than others. So when you’re working in your new job you might remind yourself every so often that each little chat you have can matter. And in a bookshop, talking about your favourite stories, it almost feels like you’re sharing new friends.

Forgive me. During university it’s easy to fall out of love with reading because you have to do it. There are deadlines and essays with print too small and PDFs you can’t turn round so you have to read holding your laptop upside down, and there are some really dull books that you have to pretend to have read, and you feel guilty if you pick up something for fun when you have so many unread pages for your seminar tomorrow morning. When the freedom of reading whatever and whenever you like returns, and when you’re surrounded by miles of books every day, it’s tricky not to feel romantic about stories.

It’s the tilting pile of books on the bedside table, mutating and growing like ravenous weeds taking over the room. It’s stuffing a book inside a jumper to protect it from the rain. It’s rolling through the tunnels of the tube looking up just enough not to trip as you turn a page. It’s putting a book on the edge of a table at dinner in the place of a phone. It’s the scraps of paper spilling out of pockets from recommendations to read. It’s walking through the shop and knocking over a pile of books and picking them up and feeling that hunger for words and thinking yes these are the ones I want next.

One of the reasons we love stories is that they take us into other people’s lives, so that for a while we can control who we are spending our time with and what kind of characters they are and we can then get lost in their words. If you’re struggling with a new move, or a loss, or somehow a lack of self, those characters can help you feel a bit less lonely. Just like walking past my grandma’s garden and seeing the damp woolly baubles hanging cheerfully from her tree.

Last year Louis Menard wrote an article in The New Yorker about why we read and why we write. He wrote this about poetry, but I reckon it stands for most stories:

“Maybe it will change your life. If it does, the change will be very, very tiny, but most change comes in increments. Don’t expect too much out of any one thing. For although the world is hard, words matter. Rock beats scissors. It may take a while, but paper beats rock. At least we hope so.”

– In Defense of Poetry, Louis Menard, The New Yorker, 31 July 2017

 

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