Illiterates Anonymous

The silent sinners trickled into the hall of the setting sun. The sun set. In the hall of the setting sun. Day unbroke. Their meaningless jobs come to a conclusion until tomorrow. one boxer one builder. one call girl one cleaner. a carpenter and an entrepreneur. a filmmaker and a failure. a leader. a liar. All of them artful dodgers. All of them noddy boffins. All of them golden dustmen.

They took their seats.

The leader preambled in words that fell out of his mouth like leaves — on a calm day. Hello all, I am nicholas (nickleby) and I am illiterate — I would like to welcome you to the thursday evening community centre literacy course — A special welcome to the new faces we seem to have.

Everyone did their best not to glance at the carpenter and the call girl.

Would you like to introduce yourselves a bit?

Everyone did their best not to analyse their faces. Three eyes. Two imminent stories.

I am david and I am illiterate

He stared at the leader. He didn’t normally open up. The builder recognised the faint smell of wood chips on his shirt as he talked. david had left his house at twelve, and become an apprentice to his cousin. He became a carpenter at seventeen. He never went to primary school, and hadn’t tried to learn to read or write since. He said all of this to the nine seats and eighteen eyes.

He had never bothered to go to school because he hated the way the rich kids talked to him, and he’d already gotten into trouble for hitting them — even though it was them who stole his phone, it was them who pounded fists on the back of a fetally positioned david and scoffed at his tears. His mother had died when he was twelve and he didn’t know his dad. At twenty-two he lost his right eye to a rogue stanley knife and subsequently excused himself from bothering to learn to read or write. Not that he was going to anyways. Until now — maybe — if the eyepatch didn’t get in the way. He said none of this to the nine seats and eighteen eyes.

Attention was now on to the second new face.

I am bella and I am illiterate

She stood tall & unfearful. She spoke with a confidence that just managed to glaze over her quivering lips. She had dropped out of high school. She was living in the area, after moving around the country for the last couple of years. She usually couchsurfed, picking up odd jobs here and there to make ends meet, including a hotline (she had no qualms about saying it). She said all of this to the nine seats and seventeen eyes (and one eyepatch).

She could tell they suspected the usual tragedy. Sexual abuse here, abandonment there. The usual. The truth was, she had had a good childhood. Yeah sure, her sister had died, but that was before bella was born — it hadn’t affected her more than the occasional melancholic musing of what life might’ve been like with an elder sibling (along with her two younger ones). Her parents were wonderful people. So were most of the people around her. She just hadn’t ever needed to do well in school — always got by fine without it. After a while, she didn’t even feel the need to go. She still didn’t. She hadn’t come here on some epiphanic whim, nor was it from a new responsibility — like your typical pregnancy story. The escort service, as it so daintily insisted on being called, had given her a management position as long as she took this course. She said none of this to the nine seats and seventeen eyes (and one eyepatch).

Procedures continued in the hall of the setting sun. Sheepish, secret learning. In the hall of the setting sun.

On this occasion, as was the case for twenty percent of the meetings, the leader let the others do the talking, reading and writing — because he fought a headache induced by one hundred and thirty-two millilitres of rum. Not all at once; he drank rum slow. ‘savouring it’. But it was enough to get him drunk. Enough to make shapes simpler. Shapes and life. nicholas forgot about his abusive relationship with that bitch. And the fact that she’d slap him if she knew about the rum. slap and shout she would. for talking to a female friend (a cousin). for leading a literacy class for adult dropouts and good-for-nothings. for being illiterate in the first place.

esther — would you like to catch bella and david and those who haven’t done the reading yet up on where we are at?

The filmmaker reached into her tatty unscrupulous leather camera bag — she fit all the stereotypes. esther didn’t have much of a story. I think that’s why she became a filmmaker. She wanted to tell stories, take videos, snap photos — because she was afraid her life wasn’t interesting enough without them. other people’s stories.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a scottish book — novella — from more than a hundred years ago (one hundred and thirty one) — it is about a guy who is trying to find out who a mysterious evil Mr. Hyde is — do you remember the name of the ‘guy’ esther? — Mr. Utterson..?

The leader nodded proudly. esther had been reading. He feared he had aimed too high with the book he’d chosen

- and Mr. Utterson finds out that his old friend Dr. Jekyll knows Mr. Hyde, so he visits another old friend a different doctor — correct; Dr. Lanyon — to talk about it. Dr. Lanyon said he hadn’t talked to Dr. Jekyll in a long time because they had an argument about science Mr. Utterson finds out that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde might be the same pers-

She was cut off in case anyone hadn’t read that far.

well done esther — now we’re going to break into small groups to talk about the book and some of the themes — He slowed down at this word, elongating its one syllable because if anyone was unsure of the meaning, saying the word for longer would help them understand, right? — david you go with these two, bella how about you go with these two and the rest of you in another group, that should do it — the leader looked proud of his successful division.

The book discussion groups generally focused on the ‘discussion’ and ignored the ‘book’. they got to know each other quite a bit during these timeframes. the call girl quickly learned this with the builder and the entrepreneur and it didn’t take long for the carpenter to be questioned in his triad. The cleaner turned to him.

how did you find out about the course david?

The boxer’s ears perked up, expecting to now be a central part of their conversation. Expecting his name to be said.

oliver suggested it to me a little while ago

oliver — you didn’t tell me you were bringing a friend — how do you know each other?

The boxer enjoyed being talked about, not to. He remembered this only when people asked him questions.

He wasn’t an incredibly built man. In fact he could hardly even pull off being a man yet. But he was young and irate enough to pull off being a fighter. He knew david from his boxing club. Not his per se, but the boxer frequented enough to be as permanent a feature as the rings themselves. The carpenter came down a few times a week and when the boxer found out he struggled to read or write he told david about the hall of the setting sun. He said all of this to the cleaner.

He looked down at his knuckles. just grazed not bruised. yet. He had been punching concrete. He was weak. His violence scared him sometimes though. sometimes it scared others too. That scared him even more. Two years prior; he was a fighter with a creative side. he wrote poetry in his free time, and wasn’t half bad. he tried to throw punches on the page instead of in the ring. Two years prior; the agraphia induced by a hefty left cross inspired him to join the literacy course and although he’d made a lot of progress he hated himself for losing the ability to write in the first place. He had anger issues. He used to be a violent poet. Now he was just violent. oliver: your typical boxer, minus the muscles and the dignity. He said none of this to the cleaner — or david.

The cleaner and the carpenter looked at him with friendly eyes. so he looked away. Sometimes looking away is the best way to see things, because you’re not looking at anything in particular. On this occasion he saw the entrepreneur — agnes, he recalled — and she was looking at the new girl. the call girl.

The boxer saw the entrepreneur see the call girl.

The entrepreneur didn’t see the boxer. Nor did she feel the boxer’s eyes glance past her, the way you feel people — or things — stare at you sometimes. Nor did she hear the ongoing discussions as anything more than the buzz of a collective locust entity. two-hundred-thousand arthropods. one ambient sound. this is all agnes heard. She couldn’t take her eyes off the call girl. bella.

Maybe it was her eyes? They were both fierce and indifferent. as if she had a lot to give but didn’t give a shit. and yet they were sweet. bittersweet was probably more accurate. she reminded the entrepreneur of italian wines that left her lips dry and dark cherry-tasting. she was wholly unattainable, with her dolcetto disposition. it could never work.

why couldn’t it work? the cleaner and the builder made it work. a relationship between two illiterates. at the literacy course. sophy had met paul at the blood bank. they were both already going to the course — paul for a month, sophy for two — and that was enough of an opening for sophy to say hi. looking at the bags paul had made some comment about how they all looked the same. sophy said something about everyone being the same on the inside. they were lyrics from a Bon Iver song. but they were happy. they seemed happy. why couldn’t an entrepreneur be happy with a call girl? She decided to ask bella out for drinks after the meeting.

three groups of three left one remainder and the leader had failed reading, not maths. he knew. he wanted to simply watch, and take note on the progress

the leader sat alone to the side, as if willingly ousted in a welcomed coup.

That left the last discussion group. filmmaker failure and liar. an odd bunch, to say the least. however, they were the most serious of the groups. in that they actually talked about the novel. the characters. the writing. the themes. good and evil. human nature. identity. the failure looked up sheepishly to the other two.

i haven’t gotten to that part yet

he looked down at his feet again — tap tap tap — his knees — tap tap tap.

the tap tap tap was the last souvenir of his wall street past. the pressure of a job. a job that came crashing down with his world nine years ago, along with the rest of the financial world. in reality, he was not the worst off, but in his head he’d lost everything. this was his first failure. pip pirrip jumped out of his window near the end of two thousand and eight and tried to kill himself. this was his second failure. he didn’t die but did go into a three day coma. when he woke up in a hospital bed he complained to the nurse that none of magazines were in english. the failure was diagnosed with alexia, which meant he could no longer read. he could hear and spell and write but could no longer read, even something he had just wrote.

the failure was recovering. but it had been the slowest nine years of his life. he had a girlfriend before two thousand and eight, and she was willing to stay with him after everything. the problem was, he’d fallen in love with someone else — personally he blamed the fall — and that someone else was an old friend. his girlfriend had no idea. he was a terrible person and he knew it. pip’s inability to feel one thing for one person had been likened to browsing a misogynistic menu of mares. they forgot he couldn’t fucking read.

tap tap tap

the leader was kind enough to interrupt the tapping.

it seems most of you are making excellent progress on the book now, can anyone tell me some of the themes in the story? agnes?

well, — the entrepreneur began — there’s good and evil

that is a big one — anyone else?

the builder sat up straight

a person can be more than one person?

well done paul, let’s use that one for our writing task today — i want you all to get a paper and pen and write whatever you like on the theme paul just gave us

the leader turned to the call girl and the carpenter

i’ll get you two some pens and paper if you need

After making good on his reassurance to the two new attendants, the leader walked around like a schoolteacher, looking over shoulders and helping those who needed the most help. they all needed help at some point. except the liar. strange. the leader decided to check up on him. maybe he was too ashamed to ask for spelling help or something. looking over his shoulder at the liar’s red notebook, the leader’s eyes widened. thousands of words were scrawled onto the pages. words he didn’t even know existed stared up at nicholas from permeated paper. he saw his own name.

elliot, what are you writing?

nothing, I said, and quickly closed the notebook

Character list & Author’s Note

leader — nicholas nickleby

call girl — bella wilfer

carpenter — david copperfield

filmmaker — esther summerson

boxer — oliver twist

entrepreneur — agnes wickfield

cleaner — sophy wackles

builder — paul sweedlepipe

failure — pip pirrip

liar — elliot

You may have noticed the usage of Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to incorporate themes of identity, especially ‘good’ and ‘bad’ personas, or just generally contrasting internal dialogues, personalities and identities. This is something I struggle with and there is a little bit of myself in every single character. You may or may not have also noticed that all of the character’s names are from Charles Dickens novels (go on, look them up for yourself). There are references to “artful dodgers”, “noddy boffins”, and “golden dustmen”. Noddy Boffin/The Golden Dustman is a character in Our Mutual Friend who is illiterate, and attempts to learn how to read and write — and he is like the rest of the character names used in that they are lower or middle class, struggling their way up and around societal and ultimately personal obstacles. The cruel irony of their illiteracy as literarily-named characters is just an added bonus. This piece was intended as an exercise in character development and I hope that you could relate to any of the attendants of the hall of the setting sun. Please reach out if you have any questions or comments.