Living Through Different Buildings

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The second older thing I wanted to post (find the first here) is an extended story/monologue I wrote and performed live on Radio Warwick in February 2013. I had a show for three years called Mike’s Tapes, where each week I played music based around a different theme. This was my attempt to ‘theme’ one of my shows through a narrative. It tells the story of a couple and the ups and downs of their lives together, moving around different cities in Europe. I was fairly happy with it at the time. There are songs along the way by Theo Angell, Paolo Conte, Beirut, Camera Obscura, The Books, Joanna Newsom, Hauschka, The Caretaker and Max Richter. These are as much a part of the narrative as the story itself. Listen and/or read along below.

Living through Different Buildings

Song: Theo Angell – Wakeling

‘Would you like some breakfast?’ Bob asked. ‘Scrambled eggs? Pancakes?’ Bob was a firm believer in living your last days to the full, but in truth Marie had lost much of her appetite. ‘Just some tea, thanks,’ she said.

She was going through photographs in a shoebox, picking out the ones which carried the strongest memories. A few of the photos were close to falling apart, fragile from age, brown around the corners. They were shaky in her fingers. She had always taken photos, but had never done anything with them, stuffing them into shoeboxes, loose, waiting to one day be sorted. Well, she didn’t have a lot to do now.

Marie knew her memory was starting to tatter and fray around its edges, much like the photos. Things would increasingly mean little to her. And so she had begun a project. In a single photo album, its cover a plain blue, she collected only the photos which triggered the strongest of memories. She put just one on each page, right in its centre, and tried to write, in her shaky handwriting underneath, where it had been taken, and who she was with, for when her memory got worse. She was deciding on the memories she wanted to hold onto.

The first picture she put in the album was from her childhood. Much of that was foggy now, but there were patches of it still clear and sharp: the slide she’d slid down a thousand times in the garden, the smell of her maths teacher, who always ate pickled eggs before class. The photo she chose, though, was of her father, in their family kitchen, in a little home on the outskirts of Paris. In the photo, he was standing by the stove, with a wooden spoon in his hand and he seemed to be dancing, dancing around in their cluttered little kitchen.

Song: Paolo Conte – Via Con Me

Her father was always dancing around in that little kitchen. He’d put records on and chop the onions and carrots in time to the music, chopping with that large, silver knife. He’d sway on his feet while he was stirring soup in the pot.

Marie turned over the photograph and carefully put a trail of Pritt-stick – like snail slime – around its edges. Then she stuck it right in the middle of the page, and wrote underneath it: Dad, Paris.

She moved from Paris a few years after that, went east, to Potsdam in Germany, the first city she lived in by herself. She went there to study German and English – languages had always been her flair. In the box, there were photos of Anya and Nicole, her flatmates. They had shared a little flat above a bakery. What she remembered from those years were the buildings: the beautiful research centres at the university – her favourite was the Einstein tower, which looked like a giant white spaceman’s boot. Then there were the palaces dotted around the city: the Sanssouci and the Orangery and the Roman Baths.

Those years she’d taken photos everywhere, of everything: graffiti on the red brick walls, women carrying furniture through the streets, snow sculptures in the winter. The one she chose for her album, though, was relatively simple: it was of the view from her bedroom, down to the café opposite the bakery, with chairs and tables laid out on the street. In the photo, an old woman was leaning down to pick something up – a piece of paper, perhaps, that was blowing about. Just behind her, a young man was walking past in a suit. You could only just make out his face, but it was clear enough who it was. It was Bob.

Song: Beirut – Brandenburg

‘I’ve got your mug of tea for you,’ Bob said, coming in from the kitchen. ‘Thanks,’ she said.

It was a complete coincidence that she happened to have a photo of Bob walking past her bedroom window in Potsdam, months – maybe years – before they met for the first time; she’d simply been snapping the view from her window. It was not till sometime after that they first set eyes on each other across the tables of the Café Brandenburg. That memory, in the cloud of all her others, was still vivid. She had no picture to go with it. No music had even been playing in the café. But she supposed every person was allowed to have one perfect, clear memory, without it having to latch on to anything.

They had started seeing each other. Bob was a scientist from the University of Manchester in England, doing a year-long research trip, and he was working – she could hardly believe this – he was working in the Einstein tower; that white spaceman’s boot that Marie had seen and photographed so many times. So she had gotten to go inside it, see all the equipment they were using to pull apart the theory of relativity. He had tried to explain how some of it worked to her – bless him – and she had followed it well enough, bright and keen as she was. She chose a photo of them both standing outside that tower for the next page of her album.

By the time Marie had graduated and was preparing to move back to Paris, it was time for Bob, too, to return to England. They knew it was coming, were planning to go their separate ways. They’d agreed from the start that their affair was only temporary. A fling. But life had a way of not working out quite like she expected it to, and as Marie was saying her goodbyes at the airport, Bob got down on his knees and asked her to come with him, not to his old house in Manchester but to a new house, a little cottage somewhere by the sea. And she looked at him for a moment, down on his knees, looking ridiculous, like a fool, and she said ‘Yeah. Let’s do it. Let’s get out of this country.’

Song: Camera Obscura – Let’s Get out of this Country

In England, Marie became Mary. Too many people had mispronounced her name and eventually – after the tenth, eleventh person, she just stopped correcting them. Even Bob started calling her Mary. They were only intending to stay in England for a few years – she always knew her heart belonged to Paris – and so it seemed like a harmless bit of fun, for the time she was there, to have a sort of new name, an altered name: not quite a different person, not quite the same.

She chose a photo from that time: a view from the front of the little white house they were renting, looking down towards the sea. It was funny how most of the photos in the book were of places or buildings. When she thought about it, her life had been little more than a succession of different buildings, different places she’d called home. Like little drawing-pins stuck around a map, everything tied to them with string.

Bob found a job at a local research centre, Mary at a theatre doing publicity. A handful of other jobs followed: foreign advisor for a sandwich company, French and German teacher in the local school. Years went by. They met people and lost people; friends and friends of friends flitted in and out of their front door. They tried for children but had trouble and the idea sort of fell by the wayside. At some point, they got a tortoise. 15 years passed. Life – passed: in dinner parties, and rubbishy action movies, and phone messages

Song: The Books – Thirty Incoming

It was in her late 30s that Mary finally got pregnant. The doctor had told them not to get their hopes up, but of course that was an easier thing to say than to do. She chose a photo from that time: an ultrasound scan, 4 months in. It was a girl, the doctor told them. She could almost feel the ghost of it inside her now, as she guided the glue around the corners of the photograph. She didn’t like to look back on that part of her life – the other life growing inside her, the hope. All the fights between her and Bob. Emotions were – highly strung. Turned up loud on the volume. Six months into the pregnancy she lost the baby.

It was shortly after that they moved back to Paris and she became Marie again. That time was blurry. For a while, she lived more in her imagination than in the real world, imagining the smallest details: what colour they might have painted her room, what they might have named her. There was one photo from around that time: Bob’s 40th birthday, a shot of him cutting the cake. She stuck it facing the ultrasound on the opposite page. There were candles and confetti and cards all around him. That was a good day. She guessed that was how life worked: there were bad days and there were good days.

Song: Joanna Newsom – On a Good Day

It was funny how the later memories of her life, the more recent memories, were the blurrier ones. In Paris time moved quickly. Marie had not been there since she was 18, and the city was a blur – parts of it almost as she remembered, others that had changed beyond recognition. It seemed like the city was changing every day, as though it had no fixed geography but was constantly being remapped, renegotiated. Buildings from her childhood were torn down, new ones sprung up in their place. She started going to a book club in what used to be a swimming pool. The school she had gone to – where he maths teacher had smelled of pickled eggs – was now a video-store, with a café backing onto it. Well, time moves on. Things change.

Song: Hauschka – Subconcious

It was taking a good few days to go through each box of photographs and select the right few, so the album was progressing slowly. Next in went a holiday snap from the trip they’d taken to Egypt, then two more from their ‘Scandinavian adventures’ – the tour through Norway and Sweden and down into Iceland that they’d taken upon retiring. More buildings: hotels, log cabins, train stations. Their lives had been all about getting around, seeing things.

Marie sipped at yet another mug of tea. By now, she wasn’t really moving from the sofa. Bob had set a place for her in the front room on the sofa bed. He’s taped a tray to its arm, a sort of makeshift bedside table where she could keep orange juice and the morning’s newspaper. She didn’t read much of it anymore, but it was nice to have it. She would glance at the travel section, of course.

The photos were becoming harder to decipher. Memories were slipping from her now, as though every time she emptied her nose into a raggedy tissue or coughed up a little blood, another memory leaked out. Her mouth was having trouble keeping saliva in. She kept a box of tissues on the makeshift-bedside-table-tray but she didn’t always get to them in time, and sometimes a little spit would dribble down her chin and fall onto her neck. Bob, if he was in the room, would come and wipe it up.

She tried to work through the photos, through the clouds of foggy memories, but it was increasingly hard. When she did find something she remembered, she would cling onto it, staring at the same photo for hours, playing the same moment over and over again in her mind.

Song: The Caretaker – Mental Caverns without Sunshine

The last photo she managed to stick in the album was of Bob. He was in the kitchen, cooking, making one of those breakfasts he loved to make her – pancakes and scrambled eggs – back when she could still stomach it. That was the luckiest thing in her life, really. Not the buildings, or the places or the travelling, but finding someone to make her breakfasts.

And that was the book. Not much more than a dozen photographs, or so. That was what her life reduced to.

After Bob found her with her head lolling to one side on the sofa bed, he organised the funeral back in the suburb of Paris where Marie had grown up. And they put the photo-book in the grave with her, so that she’d have some memories, a few important moments to cling onto, wherever she was going next.

Song: Max Richter – Written on the Sky

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