By Valerie O’Riordan
There’s a tall gap-toothed building that I pass on my way to work. An abandoned block of flats, it lurches crazily to one side, sinking into the earth that has given up and moved aside, and its windows are intermittently boarded up, lending it a whining, drunken appearance, insectile and half-blind. One morning in a misty half-lit fug, a light flickered from halfway up; flames licked a window frame and I thought I saw a figure inside, waving or dancing, but there was no sound, though the silence that day was light and noise would have travelled. By evening, that window too had been boarded and nailed firmly shut, clean timber marking the spot. I never saw anybody enter or leave the building, though occasionally a pile of newspapers shifted into the vague form of an outstretched body would appear at the front, and the embers of fires burnt ashes and charcoal in irregular circles around the perimeter. Last Halloween, some people broke inside and smashed through several echoing apartments, pulling down the wooden shutters and tossing toilets and sinks out the naked window to smash on the road below. After that, the council erected a six-foot hoarding around the front with warning signs and padlocks, though I’m sure that this was easily scaled, as smoke continued to drift upwards from behind it and broken glass sometimes glistened from previously unscarred windows high into the air.
Last winter I received an invitation to an art exhibition, an exploration of urban decay and natural entropy. The address was that of the building; my cracked and dying apartment block. The night of the opening was cold and the wind bit through my jacket and froze my arms and hands as I walked off the footpath and down the splitting tarmac driveway. I had never been so close to the building before, and I paused before the unlocked entrance, one hand on the weathered hoarding for balance, and I looked up from this unfamiliar angle. Subsidence made the building lean back over me, returning my gaze, as if in defiance or insolence, and pigeons huddled along the edge of the flat roof, their waste splattered all along the ground and stray feathers sailing down towards me. Lights glowed from a set of windows near the ground floor, and this time I was sure that I could see people inside, and the distant tinny crackle of a sound system sang out from the unseen rooms inside. I handed my invitation to a smiling black-clad girl, and pushed through the double doors of wire-enforced glass and steel plates.
The hallway had been temporarily re-carpeted with squares of alternating black and white rubber, a faux-Victorian pathway leading up the stairs, marking the designated pathway off from the drab routes to the left and right that lead only to empty rooms and dirty corridors. Thick black rope prevented visitors from taking the wrong path, and a straggle of well-dressed art fans proceeded up the stairs, careful lest they touch the grimy walls of the stairwell. I followed, noting that the graffiti decorating these walls was newly applied, the paint thick and firm, though the designs were crude, and I wondered how authentic was the dust on the banister, or the cobweb draped across the blinking florescent ceiling light.
The floor tiles brought us up three flights and to the left, to an apartment facing the road, its number, twenty-three, embossed on the door as on my invitation, scrubbed and polished to a high gleam. A man in a tuxedo held the door open and I entered and was engulfed in a press of bodies and champagne, noisily congratulating one another and noting the identity of each newcomer. I could see, in the corner, the friend who had procured my invitation, but he was pinned to the spot by a reporter, vox-popping reactions, and he waved weakly, signalling that he’d catch up with me later. I drifted about the apartment, curious to examine the innards of a place I knew only from its exoskeleton.
The apartment spread out to either side of the front door; kitchen and bathroom to the left, living room and tiny bedroom to the right, all peering down onto the darkened road outside. The floor was covered in vinyl tiles, once a vivid bottle green, I guessed, but now cracked and worn. The walls were painted, crazed and peeling, a magnolia that was barely recognisable, and in each room the artist had emphasised the cracks by drawing them out and feathering them further across the walls, a creeping decay in fine pencil, turning the walls into a shadowy uncertain barrier that threatened to collapse at a touch. The ceilings were, in contrast, a blast of colour; vivid graffiti scrawled from edge to edge, overlaid and criss-crossed. I craned my neck to read it; in the bathroom, balanced on the closed toilet seat, one hand smudging the pencil marks on the wall for balance, I stretched upwards and looked closely at the writing. Each lurid scrawl was an individual name, and each was linked to the next by a symbol, or a code, a series of hieroglyphs that I struggled to interpret. The layering of names and connections, each in different colours, sizes and handwriting, created a cacophony of information that dizzied me, and after a few moments, my neck stiff and my eyes aching, I clambered back down and sat for a moment on the edge of the bath, rubbing with my fingertips the sharp edges of the holes where the taps were missing.
In the corridor I collided with a man who was stepping backwards to avoid a woman balancing a huge tray of nibbles into the living room; she stepped quickly around the mob, her feel high and sure, and the tray vanished into a sea of snatching hands as the room gave a sigh. I was warm and sticky from the body heat, and I stepped back out the front door, followed by the man from the corridor, loosening his tie and opening his top button. His suit, seen in the white glare of the hall lighting, had seen better days, and his shoes looked like they had been gnawed around the edges of the soles. I averted my gaze, embarrassed to pay so much attention in an empty corridor, unprotected by the hunger of the crowds inside. He was speaking to me;
“How do you like the show?”
“Yes, interesting, though I must say, a little confusing. The symbols on the ceiling…”
I gestured inside and upwards, my hands trailing off into the air as he laughed.
“Let me show you.”
“I’m sorry, are you…? Because I really enjoyed it.”
“No, don’t worry, I like to explain. Come on.”
He ducked under the rope and turned a corner; I hesitated for a moment and then followed, leaving the false rubber pathway behind and picking my way through the debris of years – broken ceramic, cardboard, droppings, liquids and semi-solids that I didn’t care to closely inspect. I saw him pass through a doorway at the end of the corridor; I followed, ducking low to avoid the door itself which was swinging uneasily from a single hinge, rust flaking to the floor. Inside, this apartment stretched out larger than the one in which the exhibition was set; this was a corner plot, overlooking both the front, and the dilapidated garages and a row of overflowing bins. The windows were smashed but not yet boarded in, and the sharp edges of the glass clawed at the air, dripping with bird shit and snagged hair and dust balls. On the floors was evidence of occupancy; a stained and damp blanket huddled in a corner of the erstwhile bedroom, and in the kitchen a stainless steel teapot swung on a makeshift spit above an extinguished fire.
“Brew?” said my host, and I shook my head quickly.
He guided me into the living room, where a small plastic stool, like those used by the parents of young children to hoist their offspring level with the bathroom sink, stood next to the nearest wall, the largest uninterrupted wall of the four. I stepped onto it, his hand hovering around my waist lest I slip and crash down onto the filthy carpet below.
“Look at the walls.”
I squinted in the gloom of the evening dusk. These walls had been painted over several times, and each layer was broken and puffed and split, its predecessors spilling out through the gaps. The top layer was covered in graffiti, words scribbled hastily and furiously across the blank walls, and where this layer had collapsed, previous generations of words were visible beneath, more faded, less legible, but definitely present. I read. Most of the scrawls were names – people coupled sharply together, proclamations of friendships and hatreds and love and vengeance. Dave & Pam. Ant & Flo forever. Deano sucks Martins cock. Phone Jen 4 fun. Watch out Kelly. Jules loves Simon. Simon loves Amy. Mates forever 1976.
The exhibition clicked into place, abruptly; the illuminated ceilings mimicking these scribbles, reproducing them in Technicolor, bringing their abandoned and forgotten sentiments screaming into the present, a talking sky hovering over all the people networking inside this temporary art gallery. The building, falling down around us, managed to transmit its messages one last, ferocious time. I rifled in vain through my bag for my camera. The man, the artist, was watching me closely.
“Would you like to see a sketchpad?”
From underneath the blanket he produced a waterproof packet, and unsheathed a selection of notepads and stapled papers, tracing paper, photocopies and photographs. I flicked through them. I saw how he had transcribed the markings from the walls, reproducing the nuances of handwriting tentatively, then with greater skill and assurance. Pages upon pages of signatures and statements followed, annotated with details of location, estimated year, notes from the building’s tenancy records, photographs and newspaper clippings relating to the flats and their denizens. I slowly deciphered the hieroglyphs on the ceilings; a key denoting from where and when each name or phrase had its origin within the building. I was staggered by the detail, and as I leafed through the pages, my gaze wandered beyond the pages and I realized the extent to which the artist had made himself at home in this lost place. Clean mugs stacked against one wall, a towel in the bathroom, more blankets underneath the stool, which doubled as a seat now as he watched me.
I looked out the window of the bedroom, my hair blowing about my cheeks, the ends sticking to the damp and dirty glass that framed my face as I leaned across the window sill. Directly below me was the front door; a bedraggled queue of visitors queued in a light drizzle to get inside, their sharp clothes and high heels out of place among the empty bottles and scraps of plastic bags that decorated the road on either side. Beyond them the street unwound into the city in one direction, and back towards my home in the other; red and white lights travelled in pairs along the slick ribbon of wet tarmac, and car horns blared in the distance as drivers, anxious to get indoors, aggressively jollied their neighbours along. I couldn’t see any cyclists; nobody to match myself against, to see my image as a speck from above, peering up curiously from the safety of the streets outdoors. The lines of the building sloped inwards as it slanted out, and the view directly down, though not very high, was angular and dizzying, and I could see the sudden appeal of a fire in here, not simply for warmth or sustenance, but to bring you back to ground level, to restore a sense of natural occurrences in a concrete pillar that was crumbling away and falling down so slowly.
The November wind was cold and sharp, and my skin grew chilled and the hairs stood up along my bare neck, and I turned back into the living room to speak to the artist, but he had gone, silently, taking his sketchbooks downstairs. His blanket lay dishevelled in the centre of the space, slouched like a figure sleeping or dead on the floor. I fixed it, folding it, and placed it against the wall. Straightening the stool, and running my hands along the almost illegible writing on the wall, I walked outside, and downstairs, and outside again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR