My mother needs an exorcism. That’s what she said to me one evening. Because she wakes up screaming sometimes, seeing people when sleep suddenly leaves her, strangers slinking round the room she’s trying to get rest in. She thinks it’s her, believes there’s some internal work needed on her soul, some patch that needs rendering or a prop for her joists to help secure the structure. I’m not religious like my mother but I know that my understanding of everything outside of a small circle of what I’m sure of is so remote, that what’s out there is at once too complex, too infinitesimally detailed and too grand for me to simply logic away. And I’ve seen people too, since I was small. A man in a top hat looking at his crooked back in a mirror; a child on a landing playing games with toys; a soldier standing watch; someone squeezing my hand; a woman by my wardrobe; each one appearing in the various places I’ve spent the night. So I’m not discounting anything, I’m open to spirituality. But in 2012 I heard a talk that made me think it might not be us; what we experience could be down to buildings instead.
Joanna Crotch began her presentation by letting the audience listen to Bill Chandler explain that every violin is different. He knows, as first violin with the Scottish National Orchestra, that this isn’t simply because violinists create personas for their instruments, or that certain wood and styles of structures (the list of luthiers is long) makes for different acoustics. We know they do, and it does. No, Chandler was saying that every violin is different on a physical level. This is because when a violinist plays, the vibrations they create, their specific technique, shakes and moves the actual atoms, re-arranging and re-shaping the instrument. The violin becomes moulded not just to fingers, the crooks of necks and the curves of chins, but to a person’s music. I thought about this and concluded that presumably any violin of mine, over the centuries I would need to learn to play, would mimic how I have the persona of a tall persona despite being only five-foot-five, an aura leftover from a girlish growth spurt that left me taller than everyone else in primary school. So maybe the scroll of my violin would unfurl like a fern as I played it, lengthening the neck. Joanna Crotch moved away from music however, took this point and applied it to the way we use buildings and the effect this use has on them at a basic, anatomical level, speaking of how knowing this informs her pedagogical approach as a lecturer at the Mackintosh School of Architecture. It’s an engaging idea that means we need to understand how people move and respond to environments in order to design structures that work in the way we want them to. And surely it also means that everything we come in to contact with is changed by how we work with it, live it, not just how we play it, in very real and physical ways. I’m convinced by this because one night, soon after I’d first moved in to my boyfriend’s parent’s house, I was woken by a woman wailing ‘get out’.
We get on. I should say that right away. We get on fine, my mother-in-law, Laura, and I. This isn’t a set-up for a well-worn joke. Plus it wasn’t her that was shouting. Craig and I were between roofs for our heads. Back from a long holiday which was for me post-PhD and for him post-supporting-a-PhD, we were taken in by Craig’s family to be taken care of. It was nice to revert back to long-established roles for a while. His mother was a cook before she was a home-maker so dinner was served in courses. She dressed vegetables in real butter for us, simmered chicken broth for us, slow roasted joints for six hours and on cold-hard mornings heated soup for me to take to work and have something hot to hold for the commute. She did our washing, wouldn’t take any part of my wages and told us stories of the hundred-year-old house that Craig grew up in and how once it was a GP surgery. Back in the days when a physician lived where he worked and worked where he lived, a Doctor, his wife and a mother-in-law had run a practice downstairs. When he retired they turned the ground floor in to a dining room, a living room and a bedroom and moved a second mother-in-law in to where Craig and I were currently sleeping. Now these two women hated each other, Laura said. A right pair of nippy sweeties apparently. She had heard this from the woman who they had bought the house from, and she had heard this from neighbours who couldn’t help but overhear the blue murder. These mother-in-laws refused to summit and eventually stopped speaking to each other altogether, living separate lives in the same home. One upstairs. One downstairs. Which would seem to be the best way to keep everyone happy; get on with things, stay out of each other’s way. Except there was only one kitchen, still is in fact, and these women liked to cook.
By the time I heard this story I was starting to sympathise. Not having our own space was taking its toll on Craig and I. We were welcome of course but felt a lack of room, a closeness in proximity that wasn’t territorial, more like business-as-usual practical, the kind that made me uncomfortable not least because Laura was handling my dirty knickers and I have always been somewhat cavalier about choosing when I think my period has stopped rather than waiting for any sure indication. The Kitchen was Laura’s and it was seamlessly shaped for her in such a way that whenever I tried to contribute I would crack my shins against the stool she used to reach the tallest shelves and burn my hands on barely-there tea-towels. Her own fingers had grown accustomed thanks to years in a professional kitchen.
So perhaps it was us, choosing to build up our boundaries, becoming protective of our space. Perhaps I was as unwelcome as a pupae in wardrobed wool. But maybe it was also the echoes of these elderly in-laws that were making us close the door more tightly at night because it rattled if we didn’t, as if it had been slammed so many times as to warp the jamb. I had heard one of them shout out in the middle of the night, I swear (but who can be sure), long before Laura had told the tale of warring women. Thinking about Bill Chandler’s violin I imagined fights that shifted frames and rattled walls; screams in timbres that shook nails out of beds and loosening picture frames till they had to be hung in awkward places elsewhere, quivering concrete fibres in to shapes that wouldn’t support me. I imagined storming, stubborn heels pummelling floor boards like bread dough and leaving footprints that we were now following. And so how could the next owners, and the next, and us, not be informed by the paths that they trod? These mother-in-laws had altered the atoms of the house and although we were there changing the context of the consultation-room-turned-bedroom-turned-temporary-home that Craig and I were sleeping in, I can’t help but feel that we were perpetuating some of their aggravations instead of solving them. If I heard them, one of them, shout out in my sleep, waking me weary, trying to night evict me, it was because the walls were still relaxing after years of being tense, releasing their animosity in whispers that pushed me out in to the high street to look in the windows of newsagents and estate agents for a flat that we might call our own, where we could cook our own dinners, microwave some lean cuisine, clean our underwear on any day of the month. But I still see people where we live now, a ground-floor-flat in the West End of town that seems to be harbouring a weirdly tall woman. So maybe I need a different kind of spiritual eviction, one that involves us smoothing over wood, kissing corridors better and laughing at window sills to make them smile. Some way of soothing and fixing these ancient feelings with lathing, mending and making, just like our mothers.
Laura Tansley’s writing has appeared in Butcher’s Dog, Cosmonaut’s Avenue, Deseeded, Gutter, Inky Needles, Kenyon Review Online (with Micaela Maftei), New Writing Scotland and PANK. She is co-editor of Writing Creative Non-Fiction: Determining the Form and she contributes feminist pop culture articles to ClarissaExplainsFuckAll.com. She lives and works in Glasgow.
Laura will be performing at The Real Story:LIVE! headlined by Amy Liptrot on June 23rd.