Gemma was invited to take her Speak to Strangers concept to the Birmingham Book Festival, where she produced twelve stories in four days and presented her work on BBC Radio WM.
(15:15, Birmingham New Street station)
We don't understand how to travel with other people. Such a weight of lives crammed together in one carriage, or car, or bus, such a shocking press of faces all chewing, or sniffing, or turning pages. You and I dive from the train, wheel our cases to the platform end and wait for the lift. In shadowy light, we cast a competitive glance at each other's luggage. Could you have carried that up stairs, really? I wonder if this is what you're thinking, so I say so aloud, and name some of the heaviest items I packed: books, laptop, silence.
(21:00, IKON Gallery, Oozells Square)
You sit before an expansive domed-building cloud-floating cityscape. The poet says, When my grandmother wasn't the grandmother of anyone else on earth. While you’re perceptive and witty and confiding and in control. The poet says, They knew I wanted to be a writer so they made me take the minutes. While I think, there is always a moment, when something significant happens but life goes trotting on continuously. In the arching boughs of the gallery, the poet says, Night opens her legs. You smile though nothing is altered, no order reversed or even shaken, but suggestion hangs in the air.
(23:15, St Paul's Square)
After all, it did not seem to matter much: not more than could be managed in secret, without a flinch. With you, I see we all have a hidden history, marked by the most significant events like love and a bit of loss, death and a birth. You and I wander the streets, looking for people and late night shops. We speak of Cuba and second marriages, feeling older than your age, cities and breakfast. You are assured and approach life with a quiet, persistent focus. The sky is violet; the church glows white, two women give us anxious directions.
(09:30, Bloc Hotel)
I am holding two cups of tea for myself and slip into the lift as you exit, followed by teenage girls - your daughters, perhaps - who trail behind you like squirrels with their stiff fluffy ponytails and nervous smiles. You say excuse me, as do I. I step aside, as you do. The hotel is all block prints, concision, and lists. You fill the space you occupy, your face a brilliance of expression, glancing and pausing around, clutching your children by their elbows. The lift doors close and I think this morning my head is feathers but my eyes are alert.
(15:00, Pavillions Shopping Centre)
These walls enclose a world. This is a place I understand without knowing and experiencing: a series of shiny retail units in terraced rows. A food court, like a tennis court, serves golden balls of equal shapes on plates held lightly by hands. These walls create security, neutrality and familiarity, from space to space, from year to year. You are waiting in an empty shop, surrounded by disembodied voices and music like a fading tickle in a throat; phrases floating between wooden shelves and discarded notices. I listen and learn: there are chemicals in aubergines, pork scratchings and in guns.
(19:30, Birmingham Cathedral)
Locked lips, two lovers kiss enthusiastically outside the Cathedral as people enter two by two by three and in groups. Will Self will be at the pulpit and we are all sharp- minded and open-minded but critically-minded enough to listen. You have several lists and with a begrudging charm, you allow me to take a seat though I have only my name, not a ticket. Vast ornate ceilings and brass candelabras lift the building into a luminous whole. I see you after the event, carefully counting stubs and tapping your toes to the cheerful tune of the end of the night.
(10:00, Birmingham and Fazeley Canal)
It's a bright morning, a day for a walk. You're the final fisherman I meet and your name is Cooper, I learn, you have emphysema and your sister died on Tuesday. You show me the elastic mechanism on your rod, which flickers to life with a sharp pull. The day shines. You warn me against walking too far alone. In your story of a local gun crime, you talk about the young girls who innocently left their house to attend a dance. From this word, my mind leaps back to halls, Glenn Miller and cigarette girls with tiny turquoise hats.
You grip two carrier bags, one brimming with breadcrumbs and the other with an assortment of papers inside; strips of papers. I strategically place myself near you, watch you scatter or sometimes lob the pieces into the canal, aiming once at the pecking head of a gull. I call random phrases such as, 'They're hungry, aren't they?' and 'Dinner!' until you edge closer and introduce yourself with a booklet about Jesus and a quotation from Ezekiel. I ask you whether your faith is linked to your love of birds. You suppose it is rather, but you've never thought so before.
(13:00 Livery Street bridge)
You say, I've lived on a boat for 20 years and I'll never live anywhere else. Absent teeth, twisted dreadlocks, you have vigour simmering in your eyes. You make rolling movements with your hands like a baker kneading a loaf of bread. Maybe this is just to flex your fingers, ready to unlock the next lock. I don't know. But I do know that your life - circumnavigating the country, following the canal system as you please – seems like the only way to live. After all, home is the place where you hide from the world and yours is always moving.
(11:15, Custard Factory)
All I want is a little piece of life, so I ask you how you are and also, how you are here. You're crouched in a doorway, light on the dark side of you, wearing a checked shirt and wistfulness. I say something about strangers, as I always do. The day is like an oil painting in its deep russet and blues, with its boldness, with its balcony buildings steel and glass. As for you, youíre more like a watercolour, dreaming of another type of employment, thinking of an alternative city, against the backdrop of film memorabilia and passers by.
(15:00, Great Western Arcade)
Some people represent the significant unknown and other landscapes; can make you feel so restless, so expectant. Talking to you, life lights like a candle. Describing of the craft of chocolate, your conversation is salt and peppered with French phrases. You mime how Birmingham sweeps up from the arcade to present a vista of Parisian-style boulevards and grand buildings. Since Iíve been in this city, I've seen people wear thick knitted jumpers like armour, thump each other and smash car windows. My heart turns over and I know I can never be a true tourist, because I see too much.
(15:45, Birmingham Central Library)
Blood drips from my left nostril, runs down my fingers onto my hand, trickles to the ceramic white sink. I tilt my head back, then throw it forward, forgetting which way is best. You apply lip gloss with unblinking eyes and tell me the bleeding should stop in a moment, that it happens to everyone. Relieved and too eager, I ask: Has it happened to you? The words of your reply are like birds, repetitive and instructive, pecking until I follow, prodding until I turn away. My reflection is broken in the cracked mirror. I hear it'll snow this week.