A spa treatment room. Photo: Merlin resort, Thailand/Flickr
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Tracey Thorn: I know just how uptight I am when I find myself at a spa and unable to chill

I envy calm people for their apparent immunity to overexcitement or overreaction.

"Oooh, you’re terrible at relaxing,” says the massage therapist as she kneads my legs, vainly trying to release some of the tension that holds my body upright. Thanks, I think. That’s relaxing. I’m on a spa weekend, health and fitness being the mission, albeit with a stash of emergency biscuits in my bag; but a stressful week at home – domestic worries, parenting worries – has delivered me here in an uptight state of mind, and immediately I’m confronted by my lifelong inability to let go.

I’ve written before about anxiety and how humiliating it can be. Finding it hard to chill in a spa is the least of my worries much of the time, and pales into insignificance next to some of my other panicky experiences. Still, relaxation is a goal to which we must all aspire in the modern world, and it’s an area in which I often fail. Telling someone like me to relax is as helpful as telling a depressed person to cheer up, but you’d be surprised how often the command is issued, and how shaming it is not to be able to obey.

What separates laid-back people from those like me who are permanently on edge is our response to stimulation. I envy calm people for their apparent immunity to overexcitement or overreaction. They seem to have a thicker skin than I do, impervious to the minor fluctuations of everyday life. It takes something really uptempo to get their hearts racing, so they seek out roller-coasters and fast cars and cocaine – properly adventurous or risky experiences – needing that buzz to feel alive.

In contrast, I creep through life on tiptoe, trying not to set off alarms, avoiding stimulants that would tip me over the edge, the inside of my brain and body operating at roller-coaster speed much of the time, even when nothing is happening. My heart races at the slightest provocation, needing no recreational drugs to pump it up, and I’m more likely to get addicted to beta blockers than to coke. I blush at the drop of a hat, sometimes just from thinking, and can flush from chest to forehead as I sit quietly at my laptop.

“Hmm, writing another of your columns?” Ben remarks drily when he sees me like this, and quite often I am. It’s as much excitement as I can take.

Ironically, of course, I have a relaxing voice. People tell me my records soothe them, which isn’t always what I want to hear. The disconnect between what I put into my vocal performances and what comes out the other end can be frustrating, leading me to wonder where it is that all this angst and intensity goes. Some secret part of me attempts to conceal it, converting torment into its opposite, but it’s an unconscious act over which I have no control, and I often wish my vocals were a truer representation of what’s going on in my head.

I think all this while I’m lying on a mat in the relaxation class, listening to Liz Fraser’s “Teardrop”, another vocal that strikes me as trouble masquerading as ease, born from deep and complicated thoughts, yet finding its home on a chill-out album. Still, I do find that Liz’s voice works some of its magic on me, slowing me down as I make my way to an appointment for a body scrub. There I’m greeted by a Hungarian lady who talks at breakneck pace throughout the treatment, a frantic laugh punctuating every sentence. “You’re terrible at relaxing,” I feel like saying to her. But she’s new here, doesn’t quite know how the shower works, or what height to set the massage table at, and is trying to put me, or perhaps herself, at ease.

You’d think her awkwardness would unsettle me but in fact it’s reassuring. To a tense person, it can be threatening to be in the company of the nonchalant. Their slower pace acts as an irritant, and their savoir faire feels like a reprimand, showing you up for the nervous wreck you are. But me and the therapist, we’re similar types, I reckon. So she rattles on about her family, and dry skin, and the awfulness of paper pants, and she nervously giggles, and I nervously giggle back, and finally I start to feel quite relaxed. Or as much as I ever do. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge