I grew up with a busy single mother, and our house – a tiny old fishing cottage on Pimpernel Road in Brighton – was always mouldy. There was greyness everywhere, all around the windows especially: these were rotten black gums, scorches of howling faces along the length of the flaking wood. In the bathroom, there were tall slashes of mould, shadowy caves that could be stepped into, or shimmering capes that could be taken off the wall and worn with a spider leg broach.
I always found the mould beautiful, even though it caused Mum a lot of distress – when she could, she’d gather neighbours as a taskforce against the mould; they’d spend the day scrubbing, and all that would be left was a long lick of dirty water. The mould always came back though. When I was very little, and my dad was still at home, my parents built an extension on the back of the house – they dreamt of a study, a utility room for the washing machine and our little white underclothes, but within a year the wood was wet to the touch, shedding and orange. It was just a very damp house, I guess – the drains bubbled underfoot.
Much later, when I saw the cover of my first book, Paradise Block, I knew that it was covered in festering mould – beautiful, hideous festering mould. It surprised me though, that when I showed the book to all my pals, like a mother with a new baby – careful of her head – the only people who saw the mould straightaway were my mum and brother. Others described roads, a pathway, a map, even the skin of a frog, but we three saw the mould immediately. Really though, this makes perfect sense – we had lived between the sodden, glistening walls of Pimpernel Road for very a long time; the mould had infected my stories, even found its way onto the front cover.
Mould is like a spider; it scuttles closer when you’re not looking. It’s in the room with you, whether obviously lurking darkly in the corner of your shower or covertly, in tiny orange footprints that will suddenly appear startlingly black when they gain courage. Often, mould makes me feel slack, lacklustre – I want to punish it because it’s unhealthy and bad, and yet it reappears so quickly, as if it was always meant to be there. Who’s to say that I’m not the one who should be punished, sent sharply and suddenly into nothing under the stiff edge of a greying sponge?
On Pimpernel Road, my brother and I used to sit on the very narrow windowsill in our bedroom on Bonfire Night, watching fireworks spitting into the air behind the houses opposite. Of course, there was fur on the window frame, and we drew into it with our fingernails: dark, mushroomy bursts to match the sparkles in the air. We went to bed with grey fingers, the wallpaper straining from the walls, and bursts of colour flashing through the gap in the damp curtains.
Some time after my childhood, living in a series of flats that seemed to come sliced smaller and smaller with each move, I began to find mould very depressing. The mould in these flats made me feel cold, lonely and uncared for. I linked the inevitability of mould with the sudden unpredictability of depression. During those difficult times, alone in those tiny flats, it began feel like depression could suddenly surround me; making it so I couldn’t remember anything from before that flaccid slap of gloom. To me, sadness is a physical feeling that results in tears and sometimes anger – it’s easily treatable, the cause of the sadness can be found, talked about and often put away again. But depression is like mould – it’s consuming; when I’m depressed my depression feels like it has always belonged to my damp, unclean body. It’s harder to fight depression because it feels like part of what I am – what should I battle: my grey knees, my sour fingertips, the dusty point of my nose?
More practically speaking, perhaps I began to see mould as linked to these grey parts of life because mould is what happens when you have no energy to push it back, no neighbours or friends to create a taskforce with you. When I’ve been depressed, the mould comes creeping, pulling its septic hand across a discarded takeaway carton, ready to spring up fluffy and bright, accusingly green. Sometimes the mould comes in around the root of the carpet, breathing coolly onto the clothes that lay like greying people on the floor. Mould is a symbol and a result of melancholy, of that enveloping, gulping feeling that blots the light from the room, and of filth that looks back with scattered single eyes.
And in the UK, it seems that women are still taking the largest share of domestic chores, so hiding the melancholy mould away can be seen as a challenge that relates in a large part to a woman’s labour – battling the black blooms around the foot of the shower, the faces that appear on a damp wall, like the jaundiced creeping women that subsume and overtake in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’
Mould reminds me of mortality; it casts everything into absurdity and nonsense with its laughing grey mouth. Promotions, haircuts, armchairs, sandwiches, happy hour cocktails and Pomeranian dogs – these things all seem silly under the eye of the mould. And wrinkles, liver spots, and greening veins are frightening in the same way – there are expensive surgeries to thinly cover what we dread. In the latter part of my twenties, I began purchasing expensive creams and serums that I couldn’t afford, trying to fix the spidery creases that appeared with hyaluronic acid and retinoids; I bought sterile wipes and sprays for my flat, kept a pair of rubber gloves and a thick, toxic bleach burbling beneath the sink, just in case the breath of green touched the pink of the bathroom tile.
My favourite image in Kyra Wilder’s Little Bandaged Days is when the protagonist Erika is in the bathroom: ‘Naturally, I always had a horror of drains,’ she says, ‘the most unloved thing a woman could do, crouching over a pipe, fishing out bits of her own hair.’ I am reminded of Pimpernel Road, the drains always threatening the house, even though my mother did everything she could to keep them subdued – the bubbling underfoot.
In his book Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures, Merlin Sheldrake talks about how scrutinising different species of fungi has transformed the way we see our identities. We can now imagine our bodies as ‘planets’, each a special universe for teaming fungi and bacteria. ‘Biology,’ Sheldrake says, ‘– the study of living organisms – had been transformed into ecology – the study of the relationship between living organisms.’
This made me think of depression again – of feeling isolated and diseased, wanting to use a steel brush to clean away my body, the grey spot where I had lain in bed, the peering white walls, even my flat and the house surrounding it. And then it made me feel better. I always imagined that some people are clean and well, untouched by life – bouncing ponytails and gleaming white teeth – but this is not true. We are all festering human planets. I stick out my tongue and look at the fur there; the threads of light brown between my teeth, inside my nose, my ear – what else is living with me? What don’t I see?
A valuable exploration of this strange cohabitation can be found in Jenny Hval’s Paradise Rot, which offers a look behind the thin, sanitising curtain, a rummage in the hair-clad drains, a long sniff aside the toilet bowl. The novel is centred on Norwegian biology student Johanna and her journey towards a very damp sexual awakening. Jo finds herself living with the languid Carral, in an ex-brewery that ‘was a rotting, reeking Garden of Eden’. Jo is working on a ‘study of the living,’ and preoccupied with the habits of fungi. She is fascinated by abject things – the stuff of life that is hidden – beetles, spiders, mould, mushrooms; human things like piss and decay. Surrounded by the heaving, creaking, belching, urine-drenched brewery, Jo begins to feel her body morphing, not so much decaying as fusing – ‘in the dark my body slowly transforms into fruit: tonsils shrinking to seeds and lungs to cores.’
In Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman, Rebecca Tamás reflects on Buddhist teachings of ‘interbeing’ to explain a feeling like this one – ‘This form of existence does not totally annihilate the experience of self, but it destroys the idea of the self as an individual, independent monad.’ In the brewery, Jo and Carral do seem to undergo a kind of symbiosis, not only with each other but also with their surroundings. Jo’s desire to be fused with Carral seems to destroy the boundaries of her personhood in a way that is a mixture of frightening, thrilling and transformative – when they kiss it’s like ‘stalks and fingers and veins spread through the body like a new soft skeleton’. It is interesting to think of this symbiosis in such terms. Sheldrake comments on how ‘loss of a sense of self-identification is a potential symptom of mental illness’, but that, after considering the entangled lives of fungi, and their kind of ‘interbeing’ with humans and other animals, this has been cast into doubt – ‘many ideas had to be revisited, not least our culturally treasured notion of identity and independence.’
A long time ago, during my sticky teenage years, I was lying on my front in a park-cum-graveyard in Brighton, playing with a dandelion stem while I watched ants shimmying through the sharp roots of grass. I put my finger in the path of a single ant, charging towards some unknown goal – the ant stopped for a second, perhaps surprised by the change of terrain, and then scuttled on to complete its mission. I followed the ant – the grass was quite bald, so I could watch it make its way towards the nearest grave, where hundreds of others were trickling over the edge of the stone, like black water. Somewhere in the distance, a car horn and angry shouting, but I was trapped in that moment. Where’s he going without me? That’s the thought that popped into my head. It seems stupid now, but at the time, it was alarming – teenage me suddenly realising that the entire universe hadn’t been sprawled out for my pleasure and entertainment. I remember flipping onto my back, looking at the flat blue sky – I was thinking about all the creatures, deep, deep in the very blackest part of the sea. I’d never even look at those creatures; I’d never know their lives, except maybe on TV one day – Where are they all going without me? Mould and decay constantly fingers the fringes of our lives, little people holding back the black tides. Many have tried to grapple with that feeling of insignificance, the urge to conquer and subjugate the seemingly indifferent natural world that will carry on irrespective of our deaths – buds unfurling, roots reaching out strongly through concrete and stone, perhaps even disturbing your very own gravestone – but there will be mould and decay and rot as long as there is life, and this feels like an almost pleasant universality or connection to me. Sheldrake tells us ‘we are ecosystems that span boundaries and transgress categories.’
I live on the fourth floor now – there is more light and we’re high up, so there aren’t any drains to seethe – but we’re near to the sea, and the salty wet wind endlessly lashes the outside of the house. The landlord sent someone to reseal the walls years ago, but still the paint crumbles and flakes, the window frames scream blackly. As we breathe inside our little rooms, lay out our washing to dry, we add our contribution to the mould – there is a reasonable certainty that it would like to bring down the walls and windows, wind across our bodies while we sleep, feeding on and embracing us. Everything in life is hungry. Spores are breathed in and out – ‘the nonhuman’ Tamás says, ‘will not “go away,” because it exists in our very own guts and on our very own skin.’
My mum sold her little house, my childhood home on Pimpernel Road. A year or so later, my best friend stumbled across a series of Instagram stories that showed the renovations. The couple who had bought the house were my age; they owned their own business – something to do with bespoke sparkly glass candlesticks. It was completely ridiculous, but I cried for hours – the young couple had ripped out the kitchen with the sagging cupboard doors, the peat-coloured carpet in the front room, my bedroom wallpaper that peeled from the wall like loose skin – now, there was chrome and rigid white tiles, everything was very luminous, plastic chairs with straight backs and brittle legs.
That was years ago now, but I still dream about the house, the clunking of the boiler, the pattern of silverfish bites in the wallpaper, the banisters on the stairs that fell out like old teeth. Inside, it is a jungle, dark vines spinning around the old eyeless rocking horse, deep, dank fur covering the paisley red curtains, like the flank of an animal.
I wonder whether the young couple on Pimpernel Road will hold back the mould, whether they will wipe a damp cloth with enough regularity down the backs of their chairs, re-grout the perilous gap between the white tiles – will they take short, quick breaths, counselling for couples, bleach and retinoids, will they bring in friends, neighbours, relatives, to scrub and scrub at the shimmering walls?
Image © Magalie L’Abbé