The stranger arriving at the Local shop had not bargained for the self-containment of this world. Tubbs meets him, asks what he wants. The stranger replies, ‘a can of coke’ but his words are beyond her comprehension. What she hears doesn’t even seem to qualify as language. So she interprets. Or if it is not quite interpretation, she transposes the stranger’s sounds into words intelligible to her: I can I can’t. His utterance remains meaningless – exemplary case of meaninglessness: a statement and its denial presented without pause. Tubbs is bewildered. What the stranger has said to her is a scandal.
Why is Tubbs impelled to transpose in the first place? Why can she not simply identify his words as meaningless and ask for clarification? The answer is given by the uncommon threat that the outsider poses for her and Edward (her ‘husband’). The difference between their world and the outside is radical and so the threat posed is infinite. Tubbs’ concern is to protect herself and her life with Edward and David (monster-son incarcerated upstairs). Successful communication with prospective customers is the last of her worries – Edward and Tubbs would rather not sell anything if that would ensure not having to deal with strangers. And no doubt all customers are strangers.
Her logic seems to run as follows: if she can find meaning in the random and apparently indifferent threat that encroaches on her local world she has some chance of influencing events. However it is misleading to talk of logic here. What she does with the outsider’s words is not strategic, it is of a more primitive order. When she repeats her interpretation a second time it is with a conspiratorial air. Though its syntactic meaning remains the same, now she has learned to say ‘I can I can’t’ and so is in possession of a weapon to be used against the threat; to learn and adopt the outside world’s language is to have influence over its apparent threat.
Edward appears, bloodied and with meat cleaver in hand. And as he interprets the request for ‘a can of coke’ in the same way the extent of the Local Shop’s closed world is underlined. When the outsider is asked one more time what he wants, he has by now understood that there is no escape. (As the sign for the town of Royston Vasey states, ‘Welcome… you’ll never leave’.) He has been drawn so far now into their realm and so far from his own world that there will be no way back. He is no longer able to indicate what he wants in words of his own choosing but can only repeat those he’s been given: ‘I can I can’t’.
For Edwards and Tubbs the words they interpret as “I can I can’t” are bewildering and compelling; for the outsider as he speaks them finally, the same words are an a expression of the loss of his own familiar world, and of his imminent demise, which is why he weeps.
(* From a session on ‘The Artists Novel’ with Goldsmiths Art Writing students, November 2010.)