We’ve had a slow turnaround for the last Dirty Laundry stories, taking a slightly unexpected break in order to produce The Peripatetic Studio in response to some very tight, externally-set deadlines. When Samantha told me she was ready to post the photos for Dirty Laundry #10, I knew I wouldn’t have a space in my diary to respond to the photos directly. I circled-out this weekend, and we talked through other plans for the series. We’re both ready for this project to wrap-up; the constrictions we placed around our reponse times and formats have been worked through, and building up excitement for the next round of projects has taken away a little of the excitement for this one.
Sitting down to write DL #10 felt like returning to something I’d already finished – in a warm, nostalgic way. I’d looked briefly at the photos when Samantha posted them, but only really in a checking-they-were-there way as i downloaded them to laptop and iPhone in case I found time on the go to look at them properly. I wasn’t in the mood to write anything this w/e, but i’d promised so I went for it anyway.
I started by procrastinating with a different task: re-formatting DL 1-9 from blog posts into a PDF. I moved backwards through the sequence. By the time I reach DL2 and then DL 1, I was really surprised to see just how much my style had changed in response to our web-display. By the later sets I’d simplified my use of italics and dialogue to make it easier to format as a blog; trying to work out where the important mental-pauses were in DL1 was taxing. Perhaps because writing each story has been accompanied by writing about writing it, but going through the quiet decisions of authorial formatting again brought me back through the last year stage by stage- without referring to the two.5 blog I was able to recall where i’d written most of them, mainly because of the emotional resonances. I was also struck by how many small details are in-jokes with myself; only i know which line was lifted from a friend’s conversation, which descriptions are a sly dig at something else.
DL 10 was written in one sitting. We’re preparing the series as a whole to submit for publication, and once we’ve finished with DL 12 I’ll be going through the series and editing the pieces with a retrospective eye, trying to introduce a sense of consistency of length and working in feedback from Samantha and others [NB- I’d be delighted to hear your views of any/all of stories if you haven’t already told me – please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org]. I wrote it whilst purposefully trying to keep myself from pre-deciding what length or form i’ll be editing it into later on.
In response to having just read through the varying approaches i’ve taken with the other stories, I went for something deliberately open in terms of narrative development. I wrote straight onto my laptop, in a word.doc, with the web browser open so I could check back with the photos in their series of three during my breaks from typing. I wrote for the web, with line-spaces rather than paragraph indents, then immediately after posting I re-formatted the document to match the others i’d just created and emailled it across to Samantha to be added into our submission document.
Compared to the earlier stories, I was much less worried while writing this. I think because it’s the end of a project rather than the beginning- it’s part of a framework, rather than a step into the unknown. The lack of narrative development is a purposeful response to the photos: I liked the idea of leaving it oblique, or responding to the Vermeer-esque stillness of the photos Samantha had selected. Knowing that the stories as they are up on the webgallery as a stage rather than the be-all-and-end-all version means I feel happier letting them go; if it doesn’t work, then I know i’ll be able to adapt it- to find and end to the fairytale.
Curtains were the first thing she’d requested. Crushed velvet ones, long enough to touch the floor, held back by one of those thickly braided golden ropes. Like white-girl princess hair, straight down past the waist and brushed each night by a servant.
Chairs came next in the list. Just one real chair, with arms and a back and padding on both. Then a host of stools- small milk-maid stools with a round seat, three wooden legs, and leaves carved round the side so that her guests would be seated on a wreath.
She never asked for a table, nor a dresser, nor a mantel. No mirror, ornament shelf, wardrobe or conversation piece. Curtains – to shut out the empty sky – and chairs, to relax and receive. That was all.
They brought her jugs of water, cold from the tap. She washed up to her elbows in the wide, green ceramic bowl they held up, then hesitantly splashed her face and neck. They wiped her dry with white linen, drawing back when she tried to take it and wipe herself. Each evening they rolled out a maroon and blue pallet; each morning they took it and beat it for dust while she knelt awkwardly by the locked wooden door, holding the round of her belly and pressing her ear into the grain as she tried to catch the whispers between the whump whump whump of the beating.
About mid-morning they’d come in with the tablet and the reed and ask her what she wanted and she’d alternate between asking for curtains and asking for chairs, uncertain if asking for both would provoke them. Her descriptions of the curtains changed – floral, fringed, the colour of beetle wings – but her vision of the chairs stuck in her mind and her tongue was equally consistent. They wrote it all down, then left without meeting her eye.
She understood – without it ever being spoken – that as long as she stayed in the room her baby would be safe.
Without curtains, it was impossible to sleep once the pale light consumed the room; Dawn came earlier than they did. She pulled up her wrap and let the cool air run away with the night sweats. Sometimes she’d turn her face away from the window and allow her mind to roll back into the half-state before waking. The pallet was lumpy, but it was better than the crouch she was forced to adopt once they took it away, one hand out to the side to refuse the floor if she lost her balance, the other trying to ease her lower back.
The room had been painted and them not used; there was none of the smell of redecoration about, but neither was there any grease from fingertips or marks from kicked-back furniture. They hadn’t swept the floor, and if she placed her palm flat on it then it would pick up black specks and old dog hairs, leaving a damp hand-print residue over the veins of the marble. Her fingernails didn’t grow out of their bitten-too-short state. Her hair stayed salon-fresh. Her stomach remained swollen beyond her understanding, but free of that incessant kicking that she had known meant growth. The only way to remain safe is to remain unchanging.
It had been part of a renaissance castle, she thought, or an overly-enthusiastic recreation of one. The tiles had been painted once, before the pattern flaked off into remnants of turquoise on white. She lay in the mornings and traced the shape of them with her eyes, trying to find a suggestion of a pattern. The wainscot was moulded into medallions with identical horses’ heads. She named them after Roman emperors – Vespasian, Domitian, Nerva, Hadrian, Antonius – then lost interest.
Curtains to shut out the sky. Chairs to sit on and for her guests to sit on. Then she could be happy.