That Friday it was 4.30 in the afternoon when you came home unexpectedly early with one plastic bag full of oysters and one full of beer to celebrate another house being turfed up by the outlaw roadworkers. So that was two of us in. One already drunk. I had been thinking about you all day, happily at first, but after lunch my thoughts went bad and found images of you with other, willowier women and I’d conjured the hurtful things you had said to me on car journeys, so by the time you were back I felt betrayed, a little nail-polished, and hated you. I had two feelings in conversation with each other, I’m expecting a lot from tonight and I wouldn’t if I were you.
As soon as you sat down someone knocked so you went back to the door; both of us had forgotten that your friend Carl lent us his baby at the weekends. Carl worried about the fumes from his home distillery so liked to give its lungs a break, and looking after something so explicitly helped us not get confused about how to live. You passed the baby straight to me so you could speak to Carl about the outlaw roadworkers who you thought were heroes, but Carl thought were unprincipled. I took the baby to the window to look at the cat. Neither the baby nor the cat looked. Today is Friday, I spoke-sang and jigged. The cat jumped away. The door banged shut and at being banged shut an atmosphere ended. So did mine. I put the baby somewhere. It would be an hour or two until the house was comfortable and at last the night.
The smell of oysters made me feel sick and it bothered you irrationally that I wouldn’t thank you for them. You dragged the radio upstairs by its cord to listen to a loud news programme in the bath. You thudded, undressed and whistled like a sailor. I should have been glad to have you home, at arms-length, but instead of relaxing on the sofa with my legs swung up the wall I found myself pounding on the bathroom door and screaming at you to turn the radio down. Somewhere in my screams I could hear the reason; because the neighbours, because the neighbours will hear the radio. We can’t let anyone have anything. I yanked the radio’s plug from the socket then ran out of the house to shout up at the neighbour’s window –
I’m sorry for the noise you must hate living next-door to us. We’d be quieter if it wasn’t so boring all the time. I’m sure you’ve heard worse. You must find the ungracious groans and roars really disturbing, especially as there’s three of us. Sometimes five. Six. Who knows how many. Try not to think of us as good people. Think of us more like spiritual movements, or swerves of undecided time, maybe just actors. That’s something to reflect on anyway. Yes that is a baby crying. I’m going to go inside and take care of it now. You should have seen me with it a moment ago, we were dancing and there was a very loving and brand-new body heat between us. I honestly think I could create love with anything or anyone at any given moment. As long as it’s inside the house, anyway. Thank you for not calling us animals –
Back inside your bath carried on in silence but I wouldn’t call it peace. I heated up something starchy for the baby while it pulled out pots from the low cupboard. The kitchen wall had the ambience of a man’s body behind it. It was Gary, another tall guy who lived here. He must have come back from drinking or climbing. He went away drinking or climbing, he came back invisibly and snuck to his room. Then I guess he became huge and heavy once more. He worked nights and when he first moved in said you could use his room to do something in. We didn’t know what he meant, Like music? Like a model railway? But you didn’t use Gary’s room as a workshop or studio, or even a gym, so you remained unfulfilled, coughing on my neck at night. I heard Gary behind the wall, opening drawers and sighing, closing drawers and sighing, grunting his throat clear. It went quiet as though my listening was being listened to. I wondered what Gary did and why didn’t he want us to know his full name. Was Gary some kind of soldier? It went so quiet I wondered if he was there at all. A recurring question in the house was; Is Gary in? I gave the wall a knock for attention then one more as an apology for wanting attention. ‘Gary? There’s oysters out here. We’re having fucking oysters.’
I was hoping he’d know what to do with them and want to eat them. There was a lumpy groan then, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ In that way Gary was like every man I would ever meet. Saying ‘Yeah, yeah’ to women like he had one single story he was living in his head. I think he had me playing his sister. You had me as your sister too sometimes, when I wasn’t an ambulatory pardoner or waitress. Anaesthetist. ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m coming,’ Gary said, but I was doing something else. I was washing glasses while imagining a house on the news and I was stood outside it answering questions really articulately, with the sun in my eyes and hand on my hip, the regional news anchor completely thrown by what I was saying. I looked out of the window to a corner of the neighbour’s house –
What you caught me doing there was escapism. There’s always time for it. Did you know there are only five doors in this house? It doesn’t seem enough does it? But I count them every day and it never changes. If I ever want more I have to imagine it, see? Wherever I am stood, I pretend to open a door and step through. You’d be amazed by how good it feels. Religious, I would say it was a religious feeling. Some of the doors are broken, actually quite a lot of things are broken. I don’t fix them because it’s not my place and I don’t know how. Instead I run to the library and find a picture of an open-mouthed animal that uncannily resembles the broken thing. I make a photocopy and bring it home to sellotape onto the broken thing. That’s why you’ll find a picture of a yawning sea lion on the bread bin –
You were shouting my name, I called back, ‘Can’t you come and see me rather than making me shout?’
Your voice wasn’t so far off, just one room and two moods away.
‘In the kitchen. I’m in here. Come where I am.’ You wanted me to bring you something. How was it that your voice always reached me? It must have been some accident in the furniture’s arrangement, funnelling every noise you made into my head. I shouted something sad about how no one wanted to see me and I was all alone in the kitchen.
‘I want to see you and I want you to bring me something.’
‘Please just come to the kitchen.’ Then you were there.
‘OK. I’m here.’ You had changed into a pale shirt with a lighter fluid smell, your mouth, as ever, was not fully closed.
‘No, you’re not, that’s the door frame. Come all the way in. In. In here.’
French peasants live up to their belongings but not us. Around us was pressure and cheap spoons, a kettle that couldn’t be left alone or it boiled dry and carried on trying to boil nothing, trying to boil itself.
‘But you are a sauce pot.’ A knuckle dug into my back.
‘How was your bath?’
‘There was screaming.’
With a sigh you moved a clinking bag from the floor to the counter and took out a large bottle of dark beer. I responded with two glasses and poured you a drink, spilled some, poured one for myself, spilled some more. It tasted like tin and bananas. My glass had flamingos going around it that were a lovely, animated pink against the miserable brown drink. Both of our glasses were tiny so I topped you up immediately.
‘This is what they won’t tell you on the news . . .’ you said, and often said after listening to and watching the news. It meant I had to focus my attention on something else because hearing you say it made me immediately desperate. We were facing each other, you breathed in, knocked on the counter.
‘There’s all this spare emergency!’
The roadworkers drilled up streets and turned things over instead of letting alternatives happen.
‘You have to imagine it in slow motion.’
In fake agreement I took another bottle from the bag and enjoyed seeing my big theatrical shadow opening it against the wall. You were getting more drunk. I had to turn my brain off against the words and focus on your shoulders, actually the point just to the left of your left shoulder, then to an irrelevant void beyond that.
‘I can hear voices.’
‘This is nice what is it?’
‘It’s from the shop.’
‘Do you live here?’ It was a bad time to bring it up.
‘Nowhere as nice as here.’ You winked.
‘It would just be useful to know in case this house gets drilled up too. Or – ’
‘I’ll see if anyone else wants a beer.’
You slapped the top of the door frame and turned around to face me again.
‘You shouldn’t worry about it. It’ll be a while before the next one.’
After a minute of standing in silence, during which the cat jumped up to drink from the washing-up bowl, an anger swelled in me that linked together every rage I’d felt since birth. I opened the window above the sink and shouted into the neighbour’s garden –
Fine, maybe you’re right. But next year someone will decorate over all of this. They’ll live here. I mean really live here. Their post has already started arriving, I’ve seen it: optician’s appointments. They’ll subscribe to things and put pictures up properly whilst planning Christmas at each other. Perhaps you’ll get to know them and have things in common. We don’t even have passions let alone long-term injuries or places to go. Sometimes we buy things on credit, I suppose that’s a bit like acknowledging the equation, self x time + desire = boredom. I take them back to the shop, I say, look, honestly, what the hell did you expect? When they ask for my name and address I just draw a weeping face. Possessions get on top of you don’t they? Packing and unpacking are the same. Everything in this house is a healing crisis, floating towards its end, avoiding the centre. Days drifts past us like sticks. We are spare frogs. Goodbye and sorry again –
I closed the window. My voice had tears in it. Where had the baby gone? Was it a baby or a houseplant? This was a normal evening except for the smell of oysters and for the first time all day I understood how to live here: there was cigarette smoke in a room, there was a poster of a famous oil painting of boots on the wall, there were soft attempts at nostalgia pinned to a cork board. Drinks were poured.
Another man dithering around six foot two had recently moved in. When he arrived he asked us to refer to him and acknowledge him as our son and even though he wasn’t much younger than me we were happy to play along. Our son returned home with his stammering underage girlfriend called Jenny and some pizzas. The house came together to eat them, taking real pleasure in the flavours, everyone sat where they could, ignoring the warming oysters. The friend of Gary’s took the last spot on the sofa. Perching on an old speaker I looked at his tattooed wrists and wondered if he and Gary were friends in the army. I chewed a pizza crust while Jenny felt her way to the end of a sentence.
‘And then . . . their roof fell into our . . . barbecue!’
I remember being Jenny. I remember not knowing where I was going and hoping when I arrived there would be nice people and ways out. I must look after Jenny. They can sleep in our bed, I’ll put the camp bed in the kitchen for me and the baby, or is it a houseplant, or is it a baby. You could discover somewhere else in the house to crash.
The sound of someone’s stomach gurgling from beer and cheese merged into the drum intro of the CD you had put on. Everything felt wonderful for a second then horrible. The music was coming out very loudly from the speaker I was sat on sending vibrations up through my bum, into my throat. I tapped the pizza box on my lap wondering how everyone else could bear it. Our son and his girlfriend Jenny were holding hands while she wiped some pizza grease from his cheek with kitchen roll.
Our son always brought pizza home.
‘Mum – ’
He meant me.
‘Do you know where my snowboard is?’
I wasn’t sure what to say this time. ‘Do you . . . Do you want me to pretend . . . ?’
Jenny stood up laughing then started to dance to the loud music you’d turned up even louder.
‘Just tell him it’s in the shed.’
She giggled and span round, everyone watched her. Gary gawped like he had never seen anyone spontaneously dance before. Jenny was waving her hand above her head as if the violent guitar band was euphoric disco, really going for it in her slim, peach cardigan. After enjoying the sight of her for a few minutes you picked up your wine glass and danced with her. Jenny took your drink from you, sipped it then span around again. You were doing strange, jerky moves that involved biting her hair and leaning into her space. A small sweat-patch had emerged on the back of your shirt. Jenny was expansive and pearlish, she had an eternally moving sense of herself. You seemed to want to give her angles but couldn’t catch an opening in her swirly rhythmic girlhood. Neither of you were really in touch with the actual energy in the room, which was more like a meeting, and it was painful watching you work so hard to make it a party. You stared at Jenny’s teenage chest and neck. I have to live where you look.
The door opened letting in the light from the hall and there were two more people in the room; a man and a woman; friends of Gary’s friend from the army. I hadn’t noticed anyone go to the door to let them in but there they were looking at you and Jenny as if something exciting and wild was happening. I wanted to tell them it wasn’t at all, that this wasn’t really how it was here. Being here was more like a row of shoes. I looked up from the speaker and smiled at them as they bobbed their heads to the music. They sat down on the floor and took out an AtoZ from a bag which they quietly looked at for the rest of the night.
Still dancing, Jenny tried to say something to you about the music but you interrupted her saying, ‘You’re beautiful.’ She put her hands over her face and tried to say what she wanted to say again, you interrupted again, ‘But you’re sexy.’ She kicked your leg and you hopped on one foot saying, ‘But you’re sexy’, every time Jenny tried to speak. She laughed a lot. This little game carried on until I left the room to see if the baby was a baby and if it was still in the kitchen. In there were two cats drinking out of the sink, one lapping from a cereal bowl and the other getting it straight from the tap. All the pots and pans were in a tower. Gary called for me to bring him a knife, I asked what kind of knife.
‘Erm, just any knife for this packet of nuts I can’t open.’
‘Yes,’ I muttered into the drawer. I put the baby in the camp bed. ‘This belonged to your uncle Gary, he slept on it during the war. He saw so many spiders there.’ It looked comfortable and I looked forward to getting in it too. The baby and me would sleep like slightish apes with all our folded arms spelling out a forever bond.
When I came back the atmosphere in the room had collapsed and Jenny had gone. Gary and his friend were saying, ‘WHOA’ and our son had pinned you against the patio door, so furious and upset all of his body shook. You were trying to calm him down by putting your head behind the curtain and speaking in a high-pitched voice. It made him angrier.
‘You do this every time, ever since I was a child!’
From behind the curtain you squeaked, ‘Sorry, my boy.’
‘Why is everything I care about a thing for you to mock? Like the painting competition. My undercut. You always ruin what matters to me, it’s like you can’t accept I’m not like you.’
But you were too drunk and cruel to play along anymore and shouted back that he’d only lived with us for three months and you hardly knew each other. Our son grabbed your neck even tighter and howled. You retched and coughed. The music was too loud, so loud it made me feel confused. Without Jenny and the baby everyone in the room was about twice my size. Everyone was about ten years older, or younger, or had moved here from somewhere, the room was all large and out of control. Eventually Gary’s friend went over to you both and rubbed our son’s shoulders whispering in his ear until he let go of your neck. As instructed our son breathed deeply in and out nodding his head while Gary’s friend slapped his back and offered him a beer. Before long they were sitting together at the table as if no one else were in the room, talking together as friends. You were staring at me like I was about to do something but I was not. Where did Jenny go? I ran out of the front door and looked down the road. All I could see was another street with cars driving up and down it, maybe a construction vehicle. No sign of Jenny. You really had made her go away. I whispered to the neighbour’s front door on my way back in –
Don’t worry it won’t always be like this. Moving here was the solution to the time before this and this will need a solution that will need a solution. There’s no point craving stillness, just direction, and you can get that with anyone. Like him in there, it’s the shape around him where I try to live. You know? The coordinates he gives off. Every time he picks up a book or moves a chair he creates a space that I can feel. I fancy it. There’s a name for it. It’s a beautiful name with hard walls and secret channels, terraced house –
When I walked back into the room where it was still all going on you looked at me as if I had done something but I had not. A loud deliberate bang on the patio door behind your head made you jump. I pulled the curtain across to reveal a stranger with a hard hat and a greyhound.
‘Don’t open it.’
I unlocked then opened the patio door, asked the stranger if he knew where Jenny went, then I asked how he got into our garden.
‘I often come this way,’ he answered. ‘Tonight I heard the music and thought I’d stop by.’
Gary politely asked if he wanted a glass of water. The stranger just smiled as he stepped inside and took off his hard hat.
‘So you live here?’
‘We think so,’ I said.
‘Sometimes,’ you said.
‘I’m just staying tonight,’ said Gary’s friend.
‘I might leave soon,’ said our son.
The AtoZ couple silently shook their heads. Gary fetched the stranger some water.
‘It is surprising, I must say, to be inside this place. It feels like a nice home. It’s warm but not hot, that’s important in a place this size. You’ve all got clothes on but no one is sweating too much. That wouldn’t be nice.’
The stranger pointed his finger at me.
‘Now, the truth is, I’ve never liked this house. I want you to know that. Whenever I see it I think, no way.’ He got sort of angry. ‘No. Way.’
The stranger patted his hat and then calmed himself, he let the greyhound walk around the room. It sniffed your feet then curled up under the table.
‘So I’m pleased with what I’m seeing here. It’s not too bad at all. Five men, and a girl or two. That feels about right. How old are you, miss?’
Out of everyone it was least obvious to me how to answer that. I could have said 29. I could have said 49.
‘She’s 19,’ you said. The rest of the men agreed that 19 sounded about right and then someone said there was another girl upstairs asleep. Of course Jenny went to bed. When I was Jenny, I went to bed. The stranger cleared his throat.
‘What I want you all to know is that from tomorrow . . .’
No one would do the right thing. I went upstairs to find Jenny and to persuade her to come back down, even if she’d washed her face. It didn’t feel right to be discussing my age with strangers and greyhounds.
‘Jenny?’ I tapped on the bedroom door, ‘Jenny, I think we should get our own place.’
‘A two-bed flat with an L-shaped kitchen and a large glass eye in the oven door. Jenny?’
‘We’ll feel contained but free. Jenny?’
I could hear voices getting louder downstairs, then furniture moving and being turned over.
‘We can put flowers in a line along the windowsill. I really know how to make somewhere nice, Jenny.’
Downstairs there was shouting and banging. Brilliant violence and madness. The music started again.
‘It’s all about coasters, low energy lightbulbs, a pile of magazines, gentle music coming from somewhere. I’ll carefully guard your happiness, every day. When you come home, when you walk through the door, you’ll feel a grounded excitement. I’ll give you that, Jenny, and a photo of us on the fridge.’
From downstairs came the smell of vomit and dog shit. Our son’s voice crying for someone to call the police, Gary shouting, no, no, no, not that.
I tapped on the bedroom door again.
‘We can bring the baby, I’d like that, how different that is. Carl’s home distillery will explode soon anyway. This house will get flipped and turfed up.’
I heard the front door open and slam shut. A drill. I gathered urgency.
‘We have to go. Men just embarrass us, Jenny. We have to live in it, in every bad thing they’ve done before. They bring it to us, Jenny. My address is what he’s done to other people. But in our flat, with a view across the park, there’ll be so much light. What do you say, Jenny? I promise not to get in your face.’
I stood quietly and tried to listen. After a moment I heard a small voice murmuring through the door. But Jenny wasn’t talking to me. She was on the phone, she had taken the house phone to bed. Fuck Jenny.
It isn’t you I want, but the coordinates you give off. Your head, my reference. I like the feeling of it.
Photograph © NathaliSt