on all fours

The cottage that Jenny has shared with her mother for thirty years is a narrow, two-storey affair, squashed between its neighbours, a knocked-through living area at ground level, Jenny’s bedroom and a spare room on the first, her mother’s bedroom and the bathroom on the second, the whole thing connected by a staircase as bare and steep as a spinal column. Over the years the two of them have held onto everything that came their way – books, pictures, papers, nick-nacks, cables, lamps, linen, plates, cameras, typewriters, spools of thread, film, whatever – the whole lot either stuffed in carrier bags, strapped in old suitcases or packed in plastic crates, everything piled-up, stuffed-in, balanced-on, walled-up, to the extent that you turn round on the spot looking for somewhere to put your bags, complete a full circle, and end up standing there smiling bravely instead.

‘I’m so sorry about the mess – I’ve been trying to have a bit of a tidy up since mummy became ill – well, I say ill – I should say iller – if that was a word – is that a word? – maybe I just invented a word! – because you know I’m not the full ticket myself – I’m half worn out – you should see me going up those stairs – on all fours half the time – like a goat! – well, not a goat, more like a monkey – a monkey with a bad back – you see, I had a cancer scare – I’m sixty after all – I suppose you’ve got to expect these things – it’s a shock when they happen, though – don’t get me wrong – you know about mummy’s cancer, don’t you? – riddled with it I shouldn’t wonder – but she won’t let them look – she won’t listen to anyone – never has – look at this place! – but if I threw out one little scrap she’d know and have a fit – come in a bit, I need to lock the door behind you – I never know whether lifting the handle on its own is good enough – best not take chances…’

It’s a test of spatial reasoning to figure out how Jenny is to get past me and my three bags of kit without one of us either burying ourselves, or both going outside and coming back in again in reverse order. Meanwhile, Jenny talks constantly through the whole, complex procedure. It strikes me that her conversation is a verbal representation of the house, lacking any kind of editing function, any random thought or memory as good as the next, no clear space, nothing to point. The stress of the situation doesn’t help, of course. It sounds as if their relationship has been pretty difficult over the years. As Jenny’s monologue continues, an image slowly develops behind it, like a Polaroid picture moving from ghostly impression to something more solid, something with colour and depth, a long face, thin lips, guarded expression.
‘Straight up – right to the top – well, I SAY the top….we’re coming mummy!…’
Jenny follows behind, on all fours.

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