Eley Williams wants to tell you a secret.
Let me share a secret with you.
(This parenthetical aside is not the secret [timing is everything] but rather an observation regarding secrets. Do you lean forward or set your shoulders when a secret is being shared? In my experience both the teller and the told tend to shift and adopt new postures as if vying to seem poised enough to handle the secret as well as passive enough to receive it and keep it safe. Eyes widen in order to let more light in.)
(You will never know my best-kept secret. I’m almost certain that it is not shareable — you can’t push your thumbs into it and hand out its segments. If I imagine telling that secret it burrows deeper into my body and its edges become momentarily sharper. What happens to my body when I imagine telling my best-kept secret is the reason the word pang exists, I think — the strain of keeping the secret and the pang of the secret itself causes a series of constrictions, contractions and twists in my chest. This implies that I ‘keep’ the secret in an actual location wormed deep into muscle beside my heart. You would have thought it would be lodged in the brain, avocado-stone hidden in the soft fibre between my ears but, ah!, eughhhh, it’s undeniably just behind my lungs and the base of my throat. It is somehow connected to the clenching muscles around my jaw and the ones that control the balling motion of my fists.)
(I do not examine this best-kept secret often because it makes me wince and, as with the keeping of old books, rare flowers, axolotls etc, I worry what exposure might do to it although I know it will not fray or grow brittle, friable. I can’t imagine its electrical charge will lessen. When I do imagine turning it over to check its lustre or condition, or to see if it is still there, I am reminded that I have instinctively created the perfect conditions for it to thrive: a searing heat and bitter chill felt simultaneously the second I got near it. For this reason I do not consider my best-kept secret often. Maybe it has grown since I last looked, sprouted or swollen or changed its shape. I’m keeping it for myself and for someone else. Maybe it keeps me rather than the other way around.
In the dead of night I wonder how often a secret’s host host can become its hostage, one’s secreted, secreting guest a draining parasite.
Maybe my best-kept secret has grafted into my heart and exists not as a small flat nick or patch or thorn niggling into my core but is now part of my very structure — I can’t give it up any more than I can give up a scordatura of nervous breath or the pace of a quickened pulse.)
(To get to my best-kept secret you would have to push your hands or chosen tools right through my ribs and cause only the negative sorts of compromise. Its release would be the release of implosions or detonations or aerobullosis, not that of confetti or doves into the air. My best-kept secret lurks in all manner of mixed metaphors and has no time for stage-whispers’ cupped hands nor parentheses. I guard that secret to the extent I am that secret. It cannot be shared, unless rending is sharing. That secret is almost too much to bear but will never be borne from me.)
The best thing about secrets and the worst thing about secrets is the anticipation of their being shared.
The worst thing about me is timing and fear of underwhelming an audience. I don’t want to give you false hope so let me say far too late that the secret I’ll share with you is not a particularly interesting one — it’s not tasty (secrets as picnics) and not all that juicy nor meaty (secrets as fruit, secrets as brawn). It’s certainly not top (secrets as shelving or musical notes) and not deep nor dark (secrets as wells and nights, secrets as pretentious coffee flavour descriptors).
So here’s my bland, dry, gristled, wonky twang of a shallow, flatteringly-lit secret. Concerning secrets, there is a word that I hold particularly dear to me and that I have never said aloud, not to one living soul. That word is
not to do with my worst quality, which really is timing. The secret secret-word is zzxjoanw.
Zzxjoanw! Just look at it! What a thing. You might think I just punched my keyboard and hoped for the best. As a word it has chutzpah and fairly zhuzhes along on the page. (Who knows how to spell zhuzh ‘correctly’? Its origins are spoken rather than scripted, received mouth to mouth as part of the code-cant-argot of Polari. Never forget that there is safety in shared secrets, safe words and zhuzhes of vocabulary that cannot clearly spell its name). If you could apply phonetics to the slough of letters in zzxjoanw you might imagine it would be something like the warbling purr of a cat pulling its mouth against your hand in a headbutt of affection. I think I might say something ‘zzxjoanw!’ every time I wake myself up with a snore. Imagine facing zzxjoanw as a heartstopping jawbreaker mid-Spelling Bee, or the triumph of seeing it tesselate into order amongst your tiles mid-Scrabble tournament. In many ways, it is a secret word known to an elect few, a whispered ‘Open Sesame!’ or Shibboleth passed amongst a specific cadre. For a number of years the secret of its existence and meaning was a closely-guarded one. It is not an official secret, however. Many see it without realising it is officially unofficially hiding in plain sight, and you can find in many editions of Rupert Hughes’ respected The Musical Guide (reprinted as the Music Lovers’ Encyclopedia). It is, literally, the last word in that alphabetised encyclopaedia.
Since 1903, zzxjoanw has been listed by Rupert Hughes as the Maori word for a drum, fife or conclusion. Whether an object can be a drum or a fife, quite apart from the same word meaning conclusion, is curious but surely not entirely impossible. The runcible zzxjoanw. Additionally, however, as far as I know the letters Z, X, and J do not exist in the Maori language and there were no other Maori-derived entries within Hughes’ Guide. Odd. It was not until 1967 that writer Philip Cohen questioned the spelling of zzxjoanw, especially in terms of its proposed pronunciation (‘shaw’), and it was judged to be a fictional insertion within the Guide’s text. It was entirely made up. A secret trap-door in the well-worn floor, some lovingly-crafted trompe l’oeil widening a window and giving the false impression of a better view.
I have let you into a secret, a nod and a wink. Do not trust the dictionaries.
Secrets as painful, secrets as fun, secrets as dependably impeachable and shakily dependent. Handle them with care and loose them with abandon, I guess, and let them roar-whisper whisper-roar like blood when it beats in the pressed-to-the-wall ear. Let’s get sly and committed, the best secrets say, and with a drum’s juiciest note that is kept well and keening, they sidle up, match your step and confide in the dark intimacy, in the deep divide where there’s no denying it, let’s bide our time and share some nonsense together, just you and me, closer than ever.
Eley Williams is a writer and lecturer based in Ealing. Her collection of short stories Attrib. And Other Stories (Influx Press) was chosen by Ali Smith as one of the best debut works of fiction published in 2017. Twice short-listed for the White Review Short Story Prize, her works has appeared in the London Review of Books, the White Review, Ambit and the Cambridge Literary Review. She has a pamphlet of poetry titled Frit (Sad Press), and is currently co-editor of fiction at online journal 3:AM Magazine.