House and Heart
What happens here goes on for some time. Has gone on for some time. Trees used to grow with wood so hard it lined the walls of all the capable buildings in town. Sometimes the sky is so black it looks cleaner than anything could ever be. Now it’s rather sheep and puddles and stomachs never in need of a laxative push.
The allotments are cracked and studded with broken buckets. Space is marked and people do their best, but somewhere somebody made a false prophecy for the land that is roasted by degrees of heat and sun, washed up in weather and nobody tames it. We’re all out measuring weather’s weight, factoring the pulse of weeds against the waft of rooms that stink of pancakes, steak and orange juice.
Today it is mud. If it were flooded with water, you might row around in a wide loop with little ducks everywhere because we love them. Instead some leaves shuffle by with indecision, others suck up the breeze, scooting past the plastic rims, licking their rounds before bedding down to nestle, stuck in wet straw. That is the bottle’s play of plastic light, how it flits like a tiny disc in all the hollow things, like a clock or a memoir or the moon.
Prudence plays a small role in the conduct of this place – there is grass that seems able to converse with everything – with the rabbles of dogs and rabbit hutches, with the new trains and their slick blitz, the older ones all mechanical clang in the air’s draft – puffed out – and further across the earth just a big sleepy ventilation. This one is a landscape sold on the merits of all the other landscapes, on the nice horizontal sketches of museums and the peculiar power of invented lives that look very much like our own.
The animals know more, we think. They happen upon their information in the manner of the barn with its sure cocks and happy roosters. They know the remedy for this mental trick is buried in another trick, the joke of substance in absentia. He tells us so: one bird with his squawk, yellow beak sideways, no blinks, mocking the other birds for even thinking about landing. Whole suburbs are founded on these gestures of claiming territory. On claiming inconvenience.
In the year when there was snow all over and only the beakers and a few stalks cracked a path through the whiteness, people brought their horses here and pounded their pubics around on brown leather saddles. There was no dust to settle in, no ridges of mutual support for the overlooked physics of dirt. It was wet and white and a little green, like salt or coriander.
People lost their keys from pockets and the losers would scrabble around, fingers frozen, realising they could no longer justify their margins of existence, their fragile positions of simply being a breathing vessel on this giant blue planet. The creases and stains of other people roughed up the land. A time of frozen plenty. Feet shod dirt on carpets. Worms fattened, buried deep till summer. And with all the necessary authority of it coming, weather went off again, falling right off the edge of the Earth’s sinking bowl. Rarely did anyone stop to note even a finger or a foot, and if we did, we were not factoring in the occurrence of the shared skin and creases, the truth that all this same stuff covered each of us, stopped us leaking out, held us soft and terrible like fragile enamel.
Like a single sick giggle, everything was doomed with early disillusionment. What happened was whole cycles of people feeling murderous about one another. What happened was pale bodies full of cheap wine. What happened was cultural shoes snapped at the heel, men and women run ragged whipping their heads and exposing teeth and hair to the sky for breaking. Most people in their small houses got through each day simply by hating their neighbours. Days clocked up and it was hard to tell if we were charmed by time or the weather.
It was a season of communal malaise. Of narrative struggle. People looked how the seasick look at maps and dream of land. How the hungry see a wrapper, a skeleton fish and trace the edges of their own bones with a slow finger feeling morose and giddy-eyed.
Many people in towns grew fat, whilst those in the country stayed thin in apology to nature, their bodies a solemn alignment of the dignities of careful growth, clever promises made to make the trees carry on with buds and fuzz and lichen. In the town there were idle feet, often centigrades rocketing to one impossibility or another. It was slums and edifices, murky sky and gin palaces; it was idle land, fresh air, bright sunshine and no public spirit. Infidelity kept them warm and cold. Couples split and rearranged, with mouth-first landings somewhere moist and unusual. There was always somebody half naked, congested in their cubbyhole homes like so many shrews and voles and mice.
In the country they’d never fell a tree and make an axe handle. They were reverent and slow-fingered. In the towns, they stuffed anything that would burn into their fireplaces and carried on breathing the rotten air. The table was laid and they were divorced in time for tea. They didn’t look after their bones and would do anything to escape the house. People paid each other to keep at a distance, living out their own gloomy ironies of feeling connected via transaction. They humped their sofas and each other, mislead in their conception that heat meant empathy and therefore intimacy. When fingers got stuck in bottles and limbs stood grey-clothed in empty bathtubs they wondered whether this was the plunge of great erotic feeling, of unparalleled velocity.
We acquire our own versions of happiness. We pick them up at the chemist. We will meet the daughter of a pharmacist, a magician, the unwitting farmers, the florist, dusty curates, all of them touched by the blow of a fortune teller. Which body belongs to the future mother? Which tousled hot head to the boy with the battered bottom? The big hands and squeezed hearts belong to the busted marriage pair, their molars hanging out unhinged, their intestines blocked with impotent sludge, spud skin and unzipped flies. Once the sore of domestic morbidity cracks, it tends to spread at speed.
There is a house in the distance. A few all around. It’s big like a town. Some buildings with their backs ripped off send staircases sloping right out into air. They’re covered over with boards and belts of warning orange, but people go in and out, their decisions predicated, naturally, on conditions of weather. We stay put and look up at the trees and the blocks of buildings overlapping them, taking little time to calculate the degrees of calibration offered by either god or architect. There is no looking at the corners with their nice bricks or cornicing, thinking how neatly one inorganic block folds into the bright breast of natural things. No. Not that. We drink coffee and gallop from building roof to tree canopy, barely noting the difference between slate or leaf.
From where we can see it now, the view is stretched out. If we lie on our side or close one eye the view feels heavy, looser on the edges. We can angle our own choice perspective. What should feel like pollution feels rather like a suggestive hanging on, as though all these silhouettes of everything and nothing that float on by in layers could be caught and dragged back into a shapely form. We could pull time from the top or bottom and should choose a landscape suitable to our condition.
The sun whips the railway into little shards. The smell of hot tracks, their groan in the heat. We watch the train lines black and unmoving and make chromatic rhymes with the mashed-up flies and spiders of autumn, black too but talcumed now in the dust. We could imagine ourselves packaged aboard those trains, finally chopping the scene to bits in escape, seeing anew something ravishing, some palomino horses in a field or cement in factories with their piles scooped and troubled like concentric hairdos. Those troubles not designed to trouble us, or not yet anyway.
Anachronistic heavens, we all stood under them. The HaHa house stands too in rubble like some murderer in ruins. We called it that when the two top windows fell out and in absence of a door or in fact any certain relationship to soil or sky it sagged downwards in a crudely propped guffaw. Each step around the house had a different hue of desperation. And each brick, with all its acid brothers and acid sisters of mortar and their uniquely aggregated pity, had its own melody.
Golden Gingko used to blossom all around. Grass bent as it shouldn’t, snapping off in the wind. Grass turned to hay, sweet straws, battered-blown across the land. Only recently some amicable nobody folded plastics over the windows, coarse ridge-sewn plastics – banners for breathing – and now all the condensation hangs in the bottom edges with weed decks thudding and daily unravelling threads so you can’t pick window from wall.
They used to be touched by light, the windows; not broken by it, but opened up, polished. The house was named a wonder with its hyacinths, sloping grounds and happy rush of folks about. Not a burglar’s dozen like now with the copper wrenched out and carried away for cash. Something of structure had made an invisible leap out the window with those burglars, its own soiled body visible for just a moment as water had lurched out where the copper was sawn and the radiators rang themselves cold against the wall in alarm.
We wondered whether the house mourned for a repossession of indoor and outdoor space, or yins and yangs and all the half-hidden parts that no longer got their shapes to rhyme together. That rather just rested in a foggy doze. In times of rain and wind, the house accommodated for mood by flinging tiles off its roof, a cascade of roofs, onto the ground, the roof garden. The physics of the roof with its mimicry of the physics of breasts was always on a slow downwards fall. In summer – a hoppy brew – it stank of ferns; the only yeast of subversion. The little place sat there in weather taking its whacks.
We have been watching for some time. May we be forgiven. We Messrs. with eyes all over. When we took a jug with both hands and scooped its heavy bottom up to pour, the weather flowed out of it. We looked at the water in our glass, observed the specks and their impossible swirl and knew answers lay in an observation of closeness that sometimes meant staring at nothing much at all.
This is an excerpt from The Boiled in Between by Helen Marten, out with Prototype.
Image, Helen Marten, Untitled, coloured pencil on paper, 2020, Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ.