‘The Minutes’ by Nell Stevens is shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2018.
We are waiting for Peter to get here so the meeting can start. There’s a bad atmosphere in the room – something between Kat and Adam, I think – and I’ve volunteered to take the minutes so I can keep my head down, typing.
Location: Kat’s apartment, a low-ceilinged new-build place in Peckham, where everything feels too close together and tuneless singing strains through the walls: the neighbours are holding a prayer circle. Occasional shouts of ‘Amen!’ and ‘Praise Jesus!’ punctuate the droning.
Present: Kat, on the floor, her legs stretched out under the glass coffee table and her elbows resting atop it; Diya, curled up on the sofa, reading; Adam, at the main table, flicking through his phone and pretending not to be furious about whatever it is that Kat has done or not done that he is furious about. Now Peter has arrived, and is already talking too loudly, and everyone is gathering around the coffee table. Diya pours wine into tumblers. Kat spreads her hands over the surface of the glass, as though she’s trying to smooth out a crease, and says, ‘Let’s get into it, then.’ When she shifts her legs, a flake of mud falls away from the sole of her shoe, like a stray puzzle piece. The meeting starts.
Apologies – or rather, conspicuous lack of apology – from: You.
Item 1: the dismantling of our exhibition of squatters’ art. The show is housed in an abandoned building with boarded-up windows – it used to be a pub – and the plan was for the exhibition to be ousted, forcibly, by the landlord, hopefully in the presence of a photographer, and that the record of this eviction would then form the basis of a subsequent display. Except that the landlord has failed to notice the presence of the squatters’ art in his property for two months now, so the anticipated expulsion has not taken place, and we all have more pressing things to do than continue to man it, especially since everyone who was ever going to visit came to the private view, and hasn’t returned. Term is about to start: the final term of our final year of university; we need to spend more time in the library and less time supervising the exhibition. We will have to take the art down ourselves.
‘Or we could just leave it there,’ says Diya, ‘and see what happens to it over time. It might fall down, or get stolen, and we can keep a record, photograph it, the death of art.’
Peter objects to the concept of treating art as disposable.
Adam agrees with Peter, and says we should at least notify the artists that they can collect their work.
Diya: We could ask if they were willing to donate the works to a project examining artistic decay. What happens to a painting that nobody looks at? That sort of thing.
Peter, glancing across at me, at my fingers on the keyboard: Diya’s suggestions are noted in the minutes. Thanks Diya.
I nod and underline Diya’s original thought about the death of art. Diya sighs and a storm is brewing, an argument about the boys talking over the girls, dismissing our contributions (and I’m noting this down, too, then switch boys to men and girls to women, then back again because it seemed pretentious and not particularly accurate) and it seems extraordinary that the boys, the men, the boys, whatever, can’t feel it, or don’t care.
Your absence is unfortunate. Without you we all feel sheepish and self-conscious and therefore more irritable. Just a bunch of students with nothing better to do than – what was it Leah said before she left? – ‘pretend that affected stunts and the parroting of half-baked political ideologies is a valuable artistic contribution’. This is why we were all so pleased when you turned up at one of our meetings. Leah, a founding member, had lost patience and abandoned ship, leaving the rest of us feeling rudderless, suddenly unsure what the hell we thought we were doing. Or that was how I felt, and guessed the others did. Then you came along, and things felt clear again. We could never admit it, but it adds gravitas, it protects us against criticisms like Leah’s, to have a bona fide local on our team. We are a group of young artists based in South London, with an interest in urban exploration, subversive design, art as activism and supporting marginalised communities. Without you, we are idealistic, self-aggrandising, pretentious. With you, we’re endorsed: the real deal.
(Your absence is a shame, too, because I like to catch your eye sometimes during meetings like these, and feel that we’re laughing at the same thing, that you and I both know this is all a bit ridiculous, the death of art, the un-evicted squatters’ exhibition, but that it’s moving, too, how much we all care, how, at the bottom of everything, we really do think art saves lives. So little difference between us, really, and the faithful praying on the other side of the wall.)
Item 2, which is the only other item, is what we can do to protest, or at least bear critical witness to, the demolition of the Waderley Tower Block by the roundabout near the university.
Peter glances around at all of us and then asks, sharply, where you are.
A fact lost on nobody: You used to live in Waderley. You grew up on the thirteenth floor, knew its views, smells, the various vibrations of footsteps in the stairwell according to which storey they were passing. It’s embarrassing to say it but I was shocked – first shocked, and then, perhaps worse, impressed – when, as we passed the tower block on the bus one day, not long after we first met, you pointed up to some indeterminate point on the building’s flank and said, ‘That’s my dad’s place.’
The building looked so hostile; you are always so warm.
They’ve razed everything around the tower already. The Waderley Housing Estate used to border the roundabout on all sides, a big grey nest around a big grey egg. Now, the other buildings are gone: the long concrete walkways, the walls polka-dotted with satellite dishes. Too much crime and not enough community spirit, the Council thought: An area of extremely high social disadvantage. Too expensive to renovate, to coax back into respectability. Better, they decided, to reduce it to rubble, and then to nothing; to build a shopping centre on top of where it used to be, and luxury flats on top of the shopping centre, and the university was thrilled by the plans and did nothing to stop them. All that remains, now, is the tower: solitary watchman presiding over all this empty space, foundations gaping in the ground and scaffolding already going up.
Our group has discussed the demolition before. I’ve noticed a certain deferral to you when we talk about it. We have already done our best to prevent the eviction of residents, have unfurled all the usual banners – people before profit, rent is theft – have written blog posts and erected a petition stand outside the library and started hashtags. But the people are gone, now. Your father has been rehoused in an outer borough. The windows are blank, and there are loops of barbed wire strung all over the walls like the Christmas lights around the university buildings, though it is January, now, and they should have been taken down.
That day on the bus, as we juddered around an assault course of roadworks and you directed my eyes up at the tower, I was so interested in you: in the fact that you grew up right here in this place that is now my home, too, but which will always seem strange and bleak to me, and that from here you went so far away, to America, to get your Masters; that you came back to do your PhD at our university, and for some reason wanted to spend time with us, with me, with a bunch of undergraduates avoiding studying for our final exams by littering the environs of the campus with art and slogans; that you are receptive and helpful when I rant about my classes, my teachers, my essays and then afterwards I’ll check my phone and see that while we were talking, you were also posting a multi-tweet thread about the facility of Komodo dragons to have virgin births. How do you do that, I want to know; how do you live in all these worlds at once? You have tens of thousands of Twitter followers and they all seem as fascinated by you as I am.
Soon after you told me about Waderley, one of my housemates took acid and set fire to the kitchen. You and I decided to live together. We moved into a flat by Burgess Park with one bedroom, and we took turns sleeping in the bed.
I am supposed to be taking the minutes, and if I’d been doing a good job of it, I’d be able to clear up the dispute that has arisen, now, about whose idea it was to engineer something that has been named, instantly, ‘the Ascension of Waderley.’ But my mind wandered – I was thinking about you, about the flat, about whether you mentioned this morning that you wouldn’t be at the meeting – and suddenly Diya and Kat are both shouting at Peter and Adam, and Peter and Adam are leaning back, arms crossed, smirking at each other, and all I can do is type frantically and catch nobody’s eye.
Here’s what I’ve been aware of happening, at the edges of my attention: someone saying, ‘Imagine what it would look like if, when the demolition began, the bricks went up instead of down. Imagine if it looks like Waderley’s ascending.’ Someone else – a male voice? – ’Think of it this way: if Waderley were an animal, it would be a pigeon.’ And then, somehow, a collective vision of Waderley filled with pigeons, the birds the exact colour of its walls, and the dust billowing outwards as the building starts to collapse, the birds surging up so it looks as though the bricks had sprouted wings and are flying away. The Ascension of Waderley.
Diya: It is unacceptable for you to take credit for this.
Peter: What exactly do you think you have contributed, here?
Me: It would kill the pigeons.
Kat: She has contributed the idea, the whole thing.
‘It would kill the pigeons,’ I say. ‘The pigeons would just explode.’
My stomach drops when I think about your hands – as though I’m a child in the back of a car accelerating joyfully over a bump in the road – the way you fold them around your knees when you’re talking to me. Lately you’ve been doing that – talking to me, holding your knees – while I’m in the bath. You come in and sit on the toilet while I splash about. The air is steamy and you wave your hand in front of your face, as though someone were smoking upwind, which I take as a sort of jokey criticism of my profligate use of hot water. Then you lean back, clutch your legs and tell me about your day.
You are writing a thesis about Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, but most of your time is spent wandering around the city trying to find a place where you can work. There’s never anywhere. The cafes are crowded with students and prams. The pubs are full of men who ask why you’re alone. The library, you say, is oppressive: so many books crammed on the shelves, so many people jostling for desk space. You share oddly-angled photos of your workplaces, your failing-to-workplaces, with your followers online. The updates come hourly, sometimes minute by minute. You’d forgotten how it is in London, you tweet, after living in America: how impossible it is to find a place to sit down.
Last week: ‘Can I come in?’ you asked, because you always do, as you pushed the door and slid through. ‘Guess what I did today?’
I turned over onto my front, splashing a bit, and the squeak of my skin against the wall of the tub sounded sort of obscene. ‘What did you do?’
I thought you would say what you normally say: I tried to get work done in the British Library, in the Starbucks by Borough Station, in the Trafalgar Arms.
Instead: ‘I went to Waderley.’ In your mouth the word Waderley sounds different, less reverent than when the rest of us say it.
I pictured you standing on the pavement, staring up at the tower. People would have been annoyed at you blocking the walkway; cyclists would have dinged their bells as they swerved around you on the new bike lane. There had been no photo posted of the tower, no tweet about it, and it seemed therefore like privileged information. I waited for you to tell me how you felt, seeing the upright corpse of your old home.
To sound encouraging but not patronising, I just said, ‘Uh huh?’
You paused, pulling your knees closer, peering over the top of them at your toes curled round the toilet seat. ‘I found a way in.’
‘In?’ I said. ‘Like, inside in?’
You nodded. ‘There’s a way into the building round the back. There are some security cameras but I don’t think they’re on. All those signs about guard dogs are just for show. I cut through some wire. The back door into the building, where the boiler and the pipes are, it’s just open. I just walked right in.’
‘It’s not safe,’ I said. ‘It might not be structurally sound.’ I felt a pang of irritation. I was annoyed to think of you doing this, though I had no evidence the building was dangerous, no genuine fear other than something vague and selfish I couldn’t name.
Your eyes were wide. You were speaking quickly.
‘We should do something in the tower,’ you said. ‘We should break in again, all of us, and do something before the demolition. Something big. Peter will love it. He’ll finally get to be like those people who climbed the Shard. Or the ones who broke into Aldgate tube at the Royal wedding. We’ll all go in and we’ll find a way to say goodbye to Waderley, something beautiful.’
‘What?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know,’ you said. ‘Make some art. A bigger explosion than the actual explosion. I don’t know.’
‘They got ASBOs, those Aldgate tube people,’ I say. ‘They weren’t allowed to talk to each other for ten years.’
I turned over. Bath water splashed onto your leg. I sank down so that my ears were underwater, and my own voice sounded explosive in my head when I said, ‘Ten years. Imagine not talking for ten years.’ I came up and studied your expression.
‘We won’t have to do that,’ you said, and I felt soft again, warm towards you. ‘We won’t get caught.’
I flicked some water at your face and you crowed. You bent over the bath and splashed some back at me, which made me kick and at that point you were half-soaked already and we were both laughing and you jumped in on top of me, fully clothed. Water got into my mouth and made me splutter. You wriggled and kicked. Half the contents of the tub ended up on the floor and the neighbour on the other side of the wall thumped it a few times until we shut up. A bigger explosion than the actual explosion. We lay still, tangled limbs and dripping hair, and we panted and listened to the leftover quiet in the room.
So it occurs to me now that perhaps it was my idea: the Ascension of Waderley. Or at least, the filtering of your idea, through me, into the conversation, into the minutes.
Back at Kat’s place for another meeting. There was a party here last weekend, and leftover detritus makes it feel as though we are posing for one of the photographs in the squatters’ art exhibition. It’s cold; I’m wrapped in a blanket that was thrown over the side of the sofa. The laptop I’m typing on nestles against the wool, which smells strongly of cheap aftershave and makes me think of the boys I fell in love with in my first year, the exaggerated way they used to move their shoulders as they walked, as though they could power their legs from the neck down. They were so impressive to me: solid and desirable. It seems longer than two years ago that I felt that way about them.
You are here, now, though you’re busy on your phone and won’t look at me.
‘We’ve got the pumps and the balloon samples,’ Peter says.
‘Uh huh?’ you say, as though he were telling this to you alone, and I want you to be livelier, to be more pleased, because who are we doing this for, why are we doing this, if not for you, if not to please you?
There has been a flurry of messages on the group chat since the last meeting, and the Waderley plan has morphed into something more concrete and – slightly, so slightly it seems, still, like a punchline to a joke I didn’t hear – more realistic.
You: So just to get this straight, you want to fill the building with pigeons
Kat: The Ascension of Waderley
You: But the pigeons would just die
Me: That’s what I said
You: They’d just get blown up with everything else
You: I’ve seen video of tower blocks being demolished. They fire a shot at first, to scare off birds in the building – and what you’re suggesting is that we lock pigeons in a room so they can’t escape, and they’ll hear that warning shot and start to panic, but they won’t be able to get out, it’ll be chaos and feathers and screeching and terror and they’ll be throwing themselves at the windows, and then the building will explode and that will have been their final living moment
Peter: It’s unclear that the birds would die
Me: They’ll definitely die
You: Pigeons can detect sounds at lower frequencies than humans. They can hear volcanos and storms from hundreds of miles away
Adam: If we ascertain where, exactly, the explosives will be placed in the building, we can ensure the birds are far away from the sites of the explosions, and just escape when the building begins to disintegrate
You: Why not use balloons
You: Grey helium balloons
Me: Yes, grey helium balloons
Conversation moved on to the practicalities of balloons, of whether the force of the explosion would burst them, and you uttered the words that stopped everyone in their tracks – ‘as a former resident of the tower’ – and you said that if even one grey balloon survived the explosion, if even one brick appeared to float upwards when the building sank down, you’d consider the installation a success. ‘Plans are afoot for a Waderley send off (/up)’ you tweeted, and I was proud to know what you meant.
So now here we are. Present: you, me, everyone else. Apologies from no one.
There’s a sort of fizzing energy between us that comes from the aftermath of an argument, a new shared purpose, though you seem somewhat immune from it, slumped in the corner: you’re frowning, thumbs darting across the bottom half of your phone. We have hired helium pumps from a party shop near Peter’s house. Diya and I spent several hours sourcing and ordering various grey balloons online, which Adam now spreads out across the coffee table, an interior designer’s swatch of Waderley shades: light, dark, metallic, dull, marbled, translucent, mauve, pigeon-toned. Beside them, Adam places images of the tower. We blow up balloons and compare them to the pictures.
‘What do you think?’ I ask you, and you just shrug, slide your phone into your pocket, as though even that is boring you now. I check my timeline: you’ve been arguing with a stranger about whether ‘gotten’ can be used in British English. ‘Forgotten,’ you have tweeted. ‘Begotten. Misbegotten. Ungotten. Gotten.’
You have been different these past few days: I don’t want to say avoiding me but it does feel that way. I’ve been frantically lonely, listening out for your key in the door of the flat. I miss you. Perhaps it has been longer that you’ve been like this: a couple of weeks, since the bath thing.
We narrow it down to two shades of balloons, and take a vote.
Yesterday you gave a lecture to my Criticism and Theory class. The timetable read Benjamin Lecture with no speaker listed. I had mentioned to you that it was happening, because I thought you’d be interested, and you had nodded and not let on that you’d be the one giving it. Then, on the day, there you were, walking out onto the platform at the front of the room. You tapped the keyboard and the screen above you opened its eye. Black background, white words: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and your name underneath in lower case.
The next slide was a photograph of flowers – bulbous crystal vase on a grey surface, petals white and pink and red, the leaves and stalks in muted greens, the palette of something Dutch and old – and underneath it, ‘A still from ‘Big Bang’ (2006), Ori Gersht’. You pressed a key and the picture began to move. The vase exploded in slow motion. Red petals splintering out like fragments of coloured glass. Next: video of the video, the same bouquet exploding, playing on several stacked screens running up the side of a tall building. Next: quote from Ori Gersht: ‘When the explosion happened, you had the sense that the entire building was collapsing.’
Prickle of sweat between my skin and the collar of my shirt. I felt as though this was all for me, supposed to hit me right between the eyes. Then: ‘What is the difference,’ you said, ‘between a painting, and a photograph of a painting? Between a vase of flowers exploding and a video of a vase of flowers exploding? Between a video of a vase of flowers exploding and a video of a video of a vase of flowers exploding?’
Afterwards, when you had slunk off the stage and we were filing out of the theatre, I felt swelled up inside with pride, fullest of grey balloons, because you had been so casually clever up there and because I knew you. Or, if I didn’t really know you, then because you were my person.
(I got home later that day to find you eating sunflower seeds at the kitchen table. It was mid-afternoon, not dark yet but thinking about it, the sky just beginning to congeal into something murky, and I was so happy to see you: tangible you who crunches things between your teeth, not the far-off, cool-edged you who had given the lecture, or the cypher of yourself offering opinions on the internet. ‘I liked your lecture,’ I said. You stood up and the legs of your chair scraped against the floor. You walked to the window. ‘Nobody likes lectures,’ you said. The tree outside was waving its branches behind your head and it looked for a moment as though you were tangled in it. ‘Everyone wanted to be you,’ I said and you gave me a look of such offended pity, sorry and wounded and sour. ‘Oh don’t start acting your age,’ you said, and spat out a striped shell into the palm of your hand.)
‘I’m interested in those oppositions of attraction and repulsion,’ said Ori Gersht, in a slide from the lecture, ‘and how the moment of destruction in the exploding flowers becomes for me the moment of creation.’
The meeting has run long and everyone is tired, losing focus. Peter is playing with the helium pumps, practicing filling balloons. He’s waving them in your direction, saying, ‘This colour is right, right? You’re sure this is right?’ You’re leaning away from him as though you can smell his breath. Each time you move back, you edge closer to me, and I move my leg out from under the blanket, and wonder whether you’ll touch it.
Diya bats a balloon away from her face. ‘The demolition is scheduled for noon on Friday,’ she says. She points to one of the photos of the building. ‘We know there will be simultaneous explosions on different floors, and our best guess is here, and here, and here.’
And this is the plan: we will meet at two a.m. on the day of the demolition, take the route that you have already found into Waderley, and divide ourselves into two groups. One set will go to the thirteenth floor, roughly half way up, use the key you still have to access your father’s place, and fill it with balloons. The other will go to the very top floor, force entry into one of the flats there and do the same. Since we don’t know exactly where the explosives will be, this seems our safest bet.
‘Does everyone know what they’re supposed to be doing?’ says Peter.
I draw the blanket closer around me and write that the meeting has ended before it has technically ended. My outstretched leg is like a question mark on the floor. You haven’t touched it.
It strikes me that everyone in this room is in love with you.
Location: the barred entrance to the abandoned tower. Waderley is looming blackly overhead, dark lump against velvety, light-polluted sky. Everything seems flat in the streetlight; your face in particular looks blank. Darting red edge of Diya’s cigarette. We are all wearing hoods. It is Friday. It is 1.59 a.m.
Present, now: all of us except Peter, who texted saying he’d been ‘held up’ and telling us to go on without him, which means he got drunk and/or lucky and either way is in bed with no intention of getting out of it. Without him – his unquestioning confidence in his own right to take charge – we’re all looking at you, waiting for you to tell us what to do.
‘Ok?’ says Diya and you mutter, ‘Ok.’
Nobody seems to want to move. You say, ‘Ok,’ again. I take a deep breath and the smell is damp leaves and petrol and the washing powder you use which now I use as well. A motorbike speeds around the roundabout. High-pitched mosquito whine.
You turn to the wire fence that divides the world from Waderley, running your fingers along it, feeling for the break you made before. The wire jangles under your palms.
Diya: Where did you cut it?
You: I’m looking. Give me a second.
Adam: I can’t see a hole. They repaired it.
You, mystified: They never repair anything.
But the hole you made is gone, and Kat is fishing wire-cutters out of Adam’s bag and handing them to you. You don’t react for a moment, just stare at the mesh, and then you take them. You open the jaws of the cutter and close them. You look as though you are gardening, trimming a hedge, but I can smell the metal. You make cuts. The sharp edges of the broken wires catch light from the road. A car hoots its horn but none of us turn to see if it was directed at us; when nothing else happens, you continue to work. A flap of mesh is loose, now. You peel it back as though it were a page of newspaper, and duck through. After you: Kat, Adam, Diya, and then me. On the other side, even though it can’t be, everything seems quieter.
We file around to the back of the building, moving close to the wall. Security cameras: lights not blinking. I have two of the helium pumps in my backpack and they’re clanking against each other as I move; it is almost as though we’re going to a party, as though I’m carrying a bag full of cheap booze and we’ll turn the corner to find people and noise and not the concrete platform behind the tower, dark.
The door at the back is open, as you said it was before, clanging on its hinges and we shuffle into the boiler room. As I step inside, I touch the wall and try to imagine that within a day it won’t be there. It seems unmovably solid: the concrete and the litter in the corner of the room and broken glass by the window; the residual smell of cigarettes, rubbish, cannabis.
Through more doorways, torch beams hesitant before us, all of us following you until we reach the stairwell. There’s trash and dried leaves on the stairs, rustling as we begin to climb. Four and a half floors up: the bag is heavy and I’m panting. There’s a clunk that sounds like a bottle being kicked against a step, and Adam stumbles and yelps. The noise makes us all freeze. Heavy breathing and beyond us, quiet.
Then somewhere below us, a light comes on. It casts shadows in the stairwell: spidery lines of railings spring up the walls. Adam crouches down at once and the rest of us sink, slowly, fumbling to turn our torches off. We wait. The light downstairs stays on.
There’s a thud from somewhere beneath us, and then a dog barks, twice. My face is near Diya’s leg, which twitches at the sound as though someone has pinched her. Footsteps below us and a voice, echoing up to where we’re crouching: ‘Through here! This way!’
I inch towards the railings to look over the edge. Two boys, teenagers, with a big white dog are crossing the floor. Paint cans in hand. They’ve got a large, swaying lamp with them that casts these wide shadows. Rattle of ball bearings through the aerosols. Hiss of paint on the walls. Adam stands up, flicks his torch back on and begins to climb again. Below us, the boys catch sight or sound of him and shout up, ‘Who’s that? Who’s there?’ and then dash back to the exit. Footsteps receding; light fades.
When I look up you’re staring at me, and smiling. ‘You look so scared,’ you say, and somehow it’s the nicest thing you’ve said to me in weeks.
There are hundreds of videos of demolitions on the internet. Shaking cameras. Wind buffeting the speakers. A flash and then dust and the sickening lurch of the solid upright thing away from solidness, away from uprightness. Straight lines not straight anymore. Sometimes the middle of the building sinks first and the outside walls veer inwards. Sometimes it’s the other way around. Sometimes there’s a crowd of people who have gathered to watch, and they make ‘ahs’ and ‘oohs’ as though they’re at a firework display, and then applaud.
We are standing inside your father’s old flat. It’s just you and me. The others have gone up to the top. We’ve brought head torches. I put mine on and toss one across to you; you grab for it but don’t catch it. It rattles on the floor and the batteries roll out. You’re still smiling at me as you crouch to put it back together, and it feels like a kind of heat, this shift in your mood. It hasn’t been good and easy between us for so long, and now here you are, and here I am, and we are doing this thing together. You walk to a window and look down at the roundabout, the wreath of red and white car lights around it. I stand next to you for a while, long enough to notice your breaths, which are slower and deeper than mine, and to overthink what I want to say to you, so in the end I say nothing, and return to the task in hand, tipping out balloons from your bag, which you’ve discarded by the door, and setting up the pumps.
‘Here,’ I say. ‘Come on. Help.’
You turn and raise a hand to shield your eyes from the beam of my torch. Your expression is vague, as though you’ve forgotten for a moment why we’re here. Then you clear your throat and nod. You cross to me.
I watch your fingers as you fit the balloons over the pump’s nozzle where the helium comes out, and then release them and knot their necks. Your hands are so busy, twisting and twisting; your face is so still.
The pumps hiss and rattle but I stop noticing after a while. We fall into a rhythm of fixing and pushing and tying and letting the balloons float up to the ceiling. I like hearing you beside me, shifting your weight on the floor, sighing; I like the glimpses of your hands at work and the way the smell of laundry detergent is just noticeable over the darker smell of the old flat. Time passes, measured out in taut grey orbs, and soon I’m not even thinking about where we are, or what we’re doing, just the rising of the balloons.
It seems, after watching demolition videos, that there should be a way to rewind. I imagine how it would look on an old-fashioned VHS, the way the buildings would reassemble, leap upwards, soldiers caught slouching on duty. It would seem as though they’d only forgotten themselves for a moment. But on YouTube it can’t look that way. I can only click backwards to the moment before the explosion and see it repeat. There’s no continuity between the present and the past. You can only watch it forwards, in short bursts, and then again.
I’m thinking about the bath thing. I am constantly thinking about the bath thing, have been spinning out and back to it ever since, through every meeting, through every lecture, through every subsequent bath. Your breath on my breath and how quick you were to jump in. Droplet of water falling on my shoulder from a damp dagger of your hair. It’s expanding in my chest and I can’t seem to hold it any longer.
‘Hey,’ I say. ‘You know that thing that happened? The bath thing?’
You don’t respond. Something feels odd and I glance up. The room is crowded with balloons. They have filled the ceiling and several layers lower, so that there’s only a little space around the floor that isn’t full. When the beam of my head torch illuminates the grey spheres, they look translucent and murky. I extend an arm to where I guess you are; the balloons creak against each other. My hands grasp air and latex. I can’t feel you. After scrabbling around I find the pump you were using. It is lying on its side on the ground.
I reach out around me and begin to feel panicked. Jostling, noisy, the balloons resemble eyes, or mouths, or eggs.
‘Hello?’ I say, and my voice sounds echoey. ‘Are you there? I think we’ve done enough. I think we should find the others and go.’
The room doesn’t look like a room anymore. It feels as though it is already disintegrating. Nothing is familiar; the smell, solid and damp and real when we arrived, has been replaced by the tang of the rubber.
‘Hey!’ I shout.
I pull my phone out of my pocket to check the time. It is four a.m.. I call your number and it rings through to a computerised voice saying, ‘You have reached the voicemail box of’ and then you saying your own name. You sound uncertain, as though you’re lying. I try twice more, and then stop. Somewhere beyond the tower, sirens are wailing.
I wade through the balloons to the door, and slide through it. They nestle on the threshold, trying to follow me out. I expect to see you in the corridor, but you aren’t there, either. I text the group chat, saying I’ve lost you.
We are sleepless and fractious and the meeting is convened around a table outside the coffee shop by the roundabout, from where we have a view of the tower. Workers are busying all over it, now, in fluorescent jackets, baubles on a tree. We’re supposed to be looking at Waderley but instead I’m looking everywhere for you. Peter is here, hungover and annoyed, saying, ‘Right, but where is she?’ whenever I try to explain what happened – the room, the balloons, the sudden absence of you – and frowning. ‘She can’t miss the demolition,’ he snaps, and then looks at me and says, ‘Put that in the minutes, that she can’t miss it,’ as though that will make it true.
What I write instead is that I’m scared you are still in the tower. I write that I’m scared we left you behind, that you’re stuck somehow, that you can’t get out. Or: I’m scared you want to be there, that this was your plan all along. I’m scared that none of us know who you really are or were. I’m scared to check your Twitter feed in case you haven’t posted since last night, and I’m scared to check your Twitter feed in case you have, are continuing to tweet, bodylessly and soundlessly from a place I can’t reach. Where are you? Why won’t you answer your phone?
Places I have not found you:
- On the top floor of the tower, where I ran after leaving your father’s flat, and saw that the others had done exactly what we, or I, had done. They’d filled a room with balloons, the same bulging grey. They had been breathing the helium to make their voices squeak, and were giggly and proud of themselves, and Kat and Adam were touching each other and kissing and whatever had been happening between them these past few weeks had finally overflowed, and nobody was really in the mood for me to panic, and they said you must have got bored and left and that it was no big deal.
- Outside the tower on the pavement, waiting for us to emerge, smoking a cigarette.
- On any of the streets between Waderley and our flat, walking or sitting, or waiting for a bus.
- At home, in the bed or on the sofa, or sitting at the table, or standing in the window. Everything was as we’d left it and I could tell – it seemed clear – that you hadn’t been back. In the fridge: half-eaten tray of supermarket sushi. On the floor by the front door: boots you wore to teach in, which you complained rubbed the skin of your heels. Just as it was when we left: a museum piece.
- Here, now, inside or outside the cafe, waiting for us all to arrive, nursing milky coffee, thumb rolling over the screen of your phone.
Camera is set up on the table, pointing right at the tower, filming. Time is 10.59 and demolition is at noon and it’s cold, freezing really, and the wind is making everything difficult: notebook pages fly, hair in my eyes. I sit tight and count the minutes, stretching, ballooning, into a perfectly-formed half hour, then, later, an hour. I calculate: I haven’t heard your voice, haven’t seen you, for 489 minutes, and I think I am falling apart.
One minute until the explosion. Peter is quivering, now, and my hands are unsteady on the keyboard. A distraction: to think of your lecture, of Ori Gersht, the moment of destruction, the moment of creation, the petals flying outwards towards the screen and your voice as you said, ‘What is the difference between a painting, and a photograph of a painting?’ Kat, Diya, Adam counting down the seconds out loud, twenty-nine, twenty-eight, twenty-seven, lurch of something in my stomach, anticipating the collapse, dropping and squirming and my lungs feel tight, as though the air we’re breathing is already thick with dust, and the site around the tower is completely clear, now, nobody is allowed nearby, and there’s a loud bang, just as you said there would be, and moments later a wisp of birds peels away from the roof and I’m wondering whether that would have been enough, just to film the birds taking off like that, and whether we couldn’t have done something afterwards to edit it, to make it look simultaneous – the explosion and the birds – whether the Ascension of Waderley couldn’t have been, after all, the kind of art that is made from fact, rather than the kind that is fact, whether a video of an explosion is as good as an explosion, better, even, because it can be rewound in a way that can’t be done on YouTube or in life, eighteen, seventeen, sixteen, giving in and looking at your Twitter feed to find a single sentence posted over and over – ‘When all lines are broken and no sail appears on the blank horizon, then there remains to the isolated subject in the grip of taedium vitae one last thing’ – and hundreds of retweets and various comments along the lines of ‘Have you been hacked?’ but you’ve posted this sentence before and I remember thinking then that I understood it, but suddenly it seems to mean something else, and there’s no delaying it, is there, five, four, as everyone at the table tenses and Peter says, ‘Let’s do this,’ two, one, juts of grey smoke as though the tower has grown arms and is breaking out of itself, and the sway of the upper floors, and there they are, the balloons, astonishing, bobbing, climbing into the air, and everyone is amazed, never really thought it would work, astounded, laughing, strangers pointing and gasping, it’s perfect, it’s just how we imagined it, the building taking off, drifting upwards, disintegrating in the sky, weightless and speckling the clouds and all above us, now, and I’m so giddy and incredulous and buoyant that I turn to kiss you, because in all the commotion and joy I’ve forgotten where you aren’t.