Matthew Turner

Still Life

It was early in the morning and the ceiling above our bed was washed in blue ambulance light. I heard a door banging in the street. Pushing myself up from the bed, in the dimness I could see through the window a man in his pyjamas, sitting on a wall outside the house opposite. The paramedics asked him what was wrong and he held his chest tightly, explaining in a laboured way that he was a taxi driver. With a limp elbow he gestured towards a door blowing open in the wind. They tried to make him go back inside but he told them he’d prefer if they didn’t, because it was a complete mess. He was embarrassed, he kept saying. I went over to the window and while they were listening to his heart, the man looked up at me over their shoulders. Stepping back into her sleep-warmed hand on my back, that was asking what had happened, she told me to come back to bed. I lay down on the clammy sheets and listened as they attended to him and then I fell asleep.

The day after, the drawer containing our passports, that to my knowledge had been undisturbed for a long period of time, was left slightly open. I try to isolate this moment as a specific event, something with a clear beginning and end so it’s easier to understand, when really everything organised itself so gradually that I’m still only approaching the reality of how things were all these years later. The cheap drawer, the chest it was part of and the room it sat within, is still, despite the time that has passed, well defined when it appears in my head. Sometimes, I suspect that other people can hear its contents rattling around inside of me while I walk through the quiet reception area at work, or on my way home when I’m walking down a train carriage, trying to keep my balance as it sways. Everyone, I think, carries a room like this around inside of them.

Our passports were kept one on top of the other in the drawer so we wouldn’t lose them. Some days I found it slightly open, others hanging out the cabinet like someone had opened it fully in a rush, and then, more often than not, tightly closed, pushed deep into the drawer’s enclosure. Observing this closely for a few days I decided to arrange the pages and the angle at which they touched in a precise and almost elaborate way, so as they would register the smallest tremors from the hands that might touch them. Daily I looked in there to take readings and check for movement, as a scientist might check an air pollution meter or a surveyor assesses a datum on a subsiding building. I thought also of looking for footprints in a remote and humid rainforest.

Cracks creasing the walls were what I expected to see coming from the drawer, aggressive rising damp perhaps. Instead the changes were small: misaligned edges, a crimped corner, the pages left open at a visa for Puerto Rico, 2016. I thought it was still warm on one occasion. She had been looking through the pages of her passport regularly.

At the time I started to track changes in the passport pages, the photographs began turning. I first saw it in the Instagram photos she posted when I was visiting my parents in Birmingham. I could see that she had turned around any photo that contained me, or us, to face the wall and I wondered if any of the eighteen people that liked the photo had noticed our room contained just the backs of photographs and paintings, with their hanging mechanisms and backing scribbles exposed, rather than holiday memories, doodles and degree certificates. Flipping them to face the room again was useless; whenever I went out, even to smoke a cigarette for a few minutes, when I got back some would already be facing towards the wall again.

In a way we spoke, and we spoke about the future, in bold and definitive plans that did seem like what people should do after living together for a while. Over email she sent checklists of what we cover, left holiday brochures on the bed and decorated with candles bought for a nicer home we might have one day. There were also the phone calls:

I can’t quite hear you.

You’re still so nice to me…

Why wouldn’t I be nice to you?

I’m staying at my friend’s house tonight.

What was that? I’m making dinner, what would you like?

She would say one thing in such a way as to suggest something else she couldn’t quite put words to, and it was at this point, I think, that what she thought became lost in the different shapes and densities of silences around us. Or else, she was trying to affect something deeper in me than could be reached by language.

Words are empty rooms when they enter into common usage. Some arrange comfortable sofas, a bookshelf and warm lighting within themselves. Others, those words and strings of words that are taboo, contain that many furnishings it’s impossible to move through them. Linguistically they are the equivalent of what you might find an obsessive-compulsive hoarder living in: piles of yellowing newspapers, used ready-meal packets, mountains of tins for the end of the world, food for a dog that died twenty years ago.

It is obvious now that the rented room in that small house contained too much for two people to successfully cohabit. Our predicament was not unique. We were the same as most people who lived in the centre of London at that time. It was something known but perhaps not explicitly said enough, that the meaningfulness of most relationships was based on the fact that people needed to be together, in those tiny rooms, to make life affordable.

It was a small rectangular room with a large window (we were lucky to have that), with glass that was coated with opaque plastic to stop the cold coming through. This defused the light and blurred the view of the large plane trees outside, making them somehow look like they were moving slowly even in high wind. The cars moving past in the distance appeared as though they were moving under water. Birds were always at a glide rather than flying.

You entered the room through a door that sliced the corner off the rectangle of its broader shape, described by our friend who was into Feng Shui as ‘a bad omen’. A large Victorian fireplace sat in the centre of the west-facing wall and two large, identical wardrobes flanked both sides, pointed out by the estate agent as ‘his and hers storage solutions’. When we started living together there was a discussion about keeping to these opposing sides, apart from when we were sleeping. For the first few weeks this worked well; however, over time, our possessions became mixed up and intertwined, began to bleed into each other. I didn’t know what was mine anymore, and she, I thought, felt the same.

It was not uncomfortable. After a period of constant movement our possessions eventually found their place, became content even and were tailored to our restricted, cramped movements in the room – claustrophobia was there, albeit somehow kept at an arm’s length through our simple knowledge of the space we both needed, and what went where. If something did need to move, we knew where it could go before being moved back again after a particular movement was performed. Turning a light on, reaching a plug socket, opening a cupboard.

It was the books that took up the most room. They were neatly lined up in bookshelves along the north-facing wall and in regimented stacks around the fireplace. One book couldn’t be moved without shifting all the others, making them seem completely immovable until the profile of the stacks they were part of began to change. Instinct told me that something had changed, and I knew this was true even before I had the chance to look. She had started to take the books that were hers and place them back on her side of the room. The leftovers like barcode.

When I got home in the evenings, I would notice that she had moved other objects around for me. She constantly shifted rugs, moved vases and lamps into different constellations, and as with stars I visualised whole images and stories in these moving arrays. Looking at it all, sitting on the edge of the bed, I felt like some kind of inner-city beachcomber uncovering meaning and intentions in discarded items, taking tarot readings from household objects to register the parts of her that were absent and present.

I stopped cleaning so that I didn’t miss or misinterpret anything, and it can’t have been long after this that she tendered notice on her half of the contract directly with the landlord. I received documents in the post and I had to pay for the keys she hadn’t yet returned. Despite this somewhat final move, she didn’t stop living in the flat. She was at least half present, and as we’d shared a bed for so long it was uncanny when she wasn’t next to me. I assumed she was there a few nights each week and the odd weekend, getting under the covers when I had fallen to sleep and leaving before I had woken up again, a head-shaped indentation left in the pillow. I only saw her outline in the darkness during this period. Sometimes she would leave in the middle of the night or return at a similar time and stay for a few hours. If I was travelling she wouldn’t be home when I returned but I could tell from the subtle traces left behind – crumbs, a teabag left on a spoon, a chair positioned to look out the window – that she had been living there. How did she know when I would get back? Maybe she had been in the room with me and somehow left without being seen. Maybe she was always there. How many times had she been to the door and, listening closely with her fingers on the door handle, realised I was home and turned quietly away. I think she walked around our room and approached the bed while I slept, like some kind of dream.

Following the rearrangements, her possessions started to disappear. I came back from the supermarket and saw there was a collection of small strips of dust along shelves where her books had been. Another time, I ran back to the flat soon after leaving to get a forgotten train ticket, and found L-shaped indentations in the carpet where her small coffee table was once placed. They perhaps spelled out the words CELL, TOLL or NULL. On another occasion, I stood looking out the back window towards Battersea Power Station and turned around to find a set of strange, hollow rings of dust where her candles and lamp were once arranged, and faint rectangular shades on the walls where the pictures hung. I sounded out words with the same multiple ‘o’ and curved geometry in them without being able to discern exactly what she wanted to say: anteroom, backwood, airproof, coordinates. It was feasible that if these domestic glyphs or scattered, spatialised letters were combined together, and scribbled carpet stains were used to fill in the gaps, they could have read: chronologically, colloquy or apoplexy.

I built up my courage and left messages in reply for her too. I managed to retrieve a woman’s bracelet from an old bag in my cupboard – given to me by my first girlfriend, I think – and placed it on the bedside table (in the shape of a ‘c’ for Catherine), but it didn’t elicit any kind of response. This made me check the passports again, and I had to recognise the fact that hers was now gone, leaving mine behind as a pale shadow of its absence.

As the room started to empty out its contents, the picture of how things were between us began to get clearer, rather than diminish. In the end – what I presume was the end – the only thing she left behind was a black bin liner full of rubbish. Spilling the contents on the floor I divined a parallel world in detritus, used the dream life of debris to determine who she was.

In the times, dates and locations on old receipts I mapped out alternate travel plans to the ones she had told me about – trajectories across the country that didn’t quite make sense. I studied ambiguous markings on business cards and on the inside of a matchbox, deciphered frustrated and anxious interactions in the folds of a napkin. Our past reality became fictional as I extracted opposing narratives from the banality of to-do lists, and in birthday cards where the sender had reduced their name to five hangman dashes instead of letters.

There was a box of photographs, half of which I had seen before, the others, completely new to me. The first few were of churches in Florence that she had taken on a research trip and had shown to me at the airport when I collected her. I noticed that some of them contained a man, who before I must have thought was part of the same tour group. The pictures she hadn’t shown me were taken by someone else, and caught her looking up to ceilings and contemplating paintings, or smiling in a blur and pawing the camera away.

I organised these things into groups; first by how they were scrunched up and compressed, then size, next by colour, and finally something approximating what I thought was the chronological order of what had happened. They were left neatly laid out on the floor for a number of days, until I noticed a gardener was burning leaves in the park over the road. I persuaded him to add them to the piles ready to be burnt, and I watched from our window while I prepared my own things to move out. Everything was packed into small, identical boxes and then wrapped in blue plastic to protect them from water damage. Packages that were left all over the city in the vague hope someone wandering the streets might find them all and reconstruct their contents into a fully functioning room again, maybe, as I imagined it at the time, in some anonymous apartment block on the outskirts of Berlin, Almaty or Madrid.

Dismantling the remaining furniture, I put the pieces into bags and disposed of them by the railway tracks. Then I made sure the room was completely empty, hoovered, wiped down the skirting boards and window sill, closed the window and shut the door before locking it for the final time. Walking down the stairs to the building’s entrance, I put on my rucksack and decided to get the train back to my parent’s house via Wolverhampton rather than Birmingham. On the way out, I checked again to see if she had collected her mail, and I spotted that she must have come to retrieve it as I was cleaning the room. The landlord had told me to post the keys through the letterbox when I was finished, and that’s what I did.

I still think of all the dust collecting in that room, the low ebb of yellow that was fading from the bulb as I closed the door, and how, if a sound, however quiet, is trapped in a perfectly sealed enclosure it will continue to reverberate forever.

Whenever I walk past the building, I sometimes stop and sit on the wall outside the house opposite. Today, there are the silhouettes of a couple in the window of the house where we once lived, moving around awkwardly in silence as if they’re playing a part in an old fashioned movie. One of them opens the blind, another closes it. Later the blind opens half way, the window opens fully and someone looks down towards me. She appears behind him and draws him away, maybe to finish cooking dinner, maybe back to bed. I try to make myself believe I’ve never been inside the room and can’t even imagine what it must be like in there. That I can’t remember the slight difference in height between the bathroom and bedroom door, and the floorboard by the bed that made a cracking sound when you stepped on it. The way we thought rain dropping on the skylight sounded like pigeons fallings on the glass. Where I’m sitting on the wall, the shadow cast by the plane tree makes the streetlight above me turn on before it’s completely dark, and once the others follow suit, I know someone in that room will switch on the light.

Matthew Turner is a senior lecturer at Chelsea College of Arts and is currently finishing his first short story collection. His essays, reviews and short stories have been published in Art Review, Frieze, Gorse and elsewhere. In 2021 his story ‘Loom’ was included in Salt’s Best British Short Stories.

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