Walking through Mary Datchelor Close, a semi-ordinary looking 1970s housing block, in colour, annexed between Church Street and Camberwell Green Youth Court – a building of which I am always cautious for its ability to stir unpleasant images in the meshes of the afternoon. I am aware that, amidst the almost perfect stillness and silence of the afternoon, there is a feint droning noise coming from somewhere out of view, flooding the estate with a malevolent, nauseating tone, a sub-larynxial movement almost inaudible to the ear. I decide to investigate further, having my curiosity stirred by this intensely monotone sound, uncertain whether it originates from the exterior or interior world. I swiftly go incognito by putting on the appearance of someone going up the shops, (so as not to draw any unwanted or hostile attention to myself,) and move from wall to wall around the estate, pausing now and then to press my ear to a surface, detecting the source of the grumbling drone in this utterly unremarkable landscape. Before long I come across an unmarked white Transit van parked up in front of a house which is coupled to some kind of trailer. An assortment of plastic hoses – three dirty-white ones and one green one – lead from the underside of the trailer unit and in through the kitchen window, evidently pumping something into the house, or sucking something out. The droning sound must be coming from the trailer, but it is impossible to be sure.
There is a lot of congestion in each of the fist-thick pipes which probably accounts for the droning sound – the vibrations of an engine working beyond its capacity, overstrained. As it coughs and splutters under its difficult load, a thick brown tar-like liquid, a little like dirty amber, seeps out from a tear in the green pipe and drips into a puddle around the trailer. This inexorable, tardy fluid, a sort of highly concentrated boredom, holds me in its trance until I gradually become aware of one of several pairs of eyes watching me from behind a dirty lace curtain in the kitchen window of the house. I stop and wonder whether the residents of this house are even aware that there is somebody in their house performing ‘works’ of some kind. Slowly the front door unlocks from inside and a trio of ‘workmen’ emerges, looking as if to demand some kind of an explanation for my standing here and taking photographs. As they walk towards me I notice the Health and Safety warnings on the trailer about decontamination, which would most likely explain the protective white plastic garments the three ‘workmen’ are wearing. They look the way you would expect a team of scientists or engineers to look in one of those science fiction films, who have been charged with digging up the remains of some ancient alien object buried deep beneath London streets, that alien object buried deep in the unconscious viewer.
I decide it would be a good idea to respond cautiously to this unfolding situation, and to that end I make a half-gesture towards the puddle of gravy-coloured fluid accumulating round the trailer tire. My gesture, perhaps tinged with a shade of divisive malice, a bit of divide-and-rule, causes two of the ‘workmen’ to suddenly become animated, and they start bickering to each another in whispers and hushed yelps. The two of them, in their Laurel and Hardy-ish way, are trying to hide behind the back of the third man who is, I now notice, somewhat taller and more impressive-looking than the others. After removing their protective masks and outer gear it is almost impossible to imagine how I could ever have thought all three men were the same size just a moment ago. These two are considerably more scrawny, undernourished and pathetic than the ‘foreman’, who just stares impassively through me just as though my presence was, to him, little more than a detail in the unfolding drama of his work day. Without my noticing, one of the two thin men has placed an empty bottle of Grant’s Scotch Whisky under the drip in an effort to minimize the waste of, (or to prevent contamination by,) this strange fluid. The second thin man just watches the other with a strange intensity, his hand down the front of his trousers, eyes rolling backwards into his skull.
I must escape, I conclude, before this situation, (or my own folly,) achieves its full degree of unpredictableness. Gesturing a second time to the puddle, this time more forcefully, I remind the ‘foreman’ how instrumental I was in the recovery of this apparently precious fluid. Had I not been passing something irreversible might have happened – and he knows it. I guess that he was probably ignoring the gross misconduct of his colleagues – their wastage of the fluid – so as to spare me, an outsider, from the spectacle of their punishment, but there was now no way it could be overlooked. By indicating the leak a second time, I had sealed their fate. They alternately throw hostile glances at me for having betrayed their incompetence, clawing at my conscience for a life line, but this hardly bothers me much – on the contrary, it brings me pleasure to know that I will be able to escape when their punishment begins. The foreman crouches down to the whisky bottle and slugs the contents with a single discharge of his gorge. His stern gaze, then dissolving into small rivulets of moisture in the corners of his eyes, echoes the spreading dark patch around his crotch, a Rorschach image steaming and clinging to the inside of his thighs.
As I slip away from this narrative lurking in the housing estate, I see the faces of those thin men which seem to say – ‘It was the boredom that did it; your boredom! And we will never forgive you.’ Or at least that’s what I try not to tell myself as the droning sound fades into the distance, becoming little more than part of the background of the afternoon, a layer of autumnal parallax. To be sure, a million such monotonies lurks in the plain light of day, each threatening to disturb the apparent order of things. But if it really is my boredom that is responsible, if my boredom carries such charge as to be able to draw latent possibilities out of the monomanias of an afternoon, I am pretty certain that my being there to watch them unfold won’t really change anything.
The whole project to which this text belongs may be seen here: “…drifting towards (x)”
Barry Cade @ The Unstitute