Fiction | Fear In Your Water by Julia Bell

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Grenfell Tower fire, 14 June 2017. Photograph by Natalie Oxford

Julia Bell


Fear in your water


I had been reading Foucault – and not understanding it properly; I was too distracted to concentrate. But I got the gist of it, at least what I thought was the important stuff, what he was saying about madness and how it has been civilised out of us, how back in the day it used to be that sane people and mad people all lived together and there wasn’t so much of a difference. And ‘mad’ people were often seen as visionaries with special access to God. It was only when people got all Jane Austen and mannered, that it was suddenly embarrassing to be unhinged and people got shipped off to asylums. Like George III who thought he was dead and started talking to the angels so manically he foamed at the mouth and they strapped him to a chair.

I let my mind wander, imagined all kinds of upsetting scenes, which made me feel uneasy, so I went out to look for something else to do. I’d had four sessions on the phone with a woman who spoke too quickly, who was supposed to help with intrusive and paranoid thoughts. ‘Distract yourself,’ the voice said. ‘Go for a walk, or a swim.’ But I wasn’t sure that helped either. Sometimes, I heard things. My dead mother talking to me, or ex-lovers would appear in the night. I was supposed to be taking medication but I found it hard to know what day of the week it was and often forgot. In the end, I ignored the messages from the doctors about renewing my prescription. In other circumstances I probably would have been in a hospital, but there just weren’t enough beds.

I had a girlfriend, once, and we lived in this flat together. She still checked in from time to time, but she was mostly gone, with someone better and healthier. ‘I just can’t look after you,’ she said, crying.

I didn’t blame her really, most of the time I could hardly get out of bed, but it did make me lonely to think of her, happy with her new partner. ‘You can stay here until you sort yourself out,’ that’s what she said. But I didn’t want to move out, I was safe there, next door were alright – Mrs Obidike or her son sometimes brought her leftovers and in return I would feed their cat. People looked out for each other, were generally kind, whatever they liked to say in the papers about council estates being rough. Then my ex helped me take over the contract and set it up so the housing benefit paid the rent. But now there was something going on with that, letters that I didn’t want to open piling up by the door. I’d been meaning to take them over to Mrs Obidike, but speaking to people was getting increasingly hard. Whenever I tried, my mouth became dry and sticky and I trembled with nerves. Thinking about this made me feel sick. I needed to get out, get some fresh air, although the weather was heavy and hot, there were storm clouds looming east, though it was hard to separate them in the haze of the polluted sky.

I took the stairs because only one lift was working and the hallway was full of builders. The tower had become like an island, marooned in a construction site, cut off from the world by a sea of scaffolding. Regeneration: what a bullshit word. They were just covering the building in some fancy tiles to make it look smarter for the people who had to look at them. Why should poor people live in a rich area? That’s what they thought. But it wasn’t always this way, this area wasn’t always rich, this tower wasn’t always stuffed and crumbling. As if it was their fault that property was now worth so much money. I had been putting off thinking about it for a while, but there were protest posters in the hallways and leaflets in the mailbox. One of the neighbours had started a campaign, but even he was sick with the stress of it. Every day it seemed there were random men in suits taking measurements, meetings behind closed doors. People from the council, who now worked for the management and development companies. But what could we do? No one was listening. It felt like a siege.

A few hours later after wandering around for a while, I found myself at a bus stop in Marble Arch. There was a person next to me that I didn’t pay attention to at first. But then the woman coughed and the sound was so weirdly familiar that it startled me. There was a pile of Big Issues at her feet, and I heard a voice in my head: I know who you are.

‘Hello.’ I said. ‘Have we met before?’ I said. Too stiff and formal, as if I were not herself, but a reflection of myself.

The woman didn’t answer, she had long grey hair like Patti Smith, the kind I thought I might have one day when I got older. I thought the woman was probably younger than she looked although I am bad at guessing people’s ages. Sometimes when I look at people, they all seem like children, old men still have the bellies of babies, old women carry a girlish hope in their eyes only made perverse by their grey hair. If I had made the world, everyone would stop growing old at about nine years old, which was probably the last time I ever felt safe in my life, and a part of me had been trying to find my way back to that place ever since.

‘Do you know James?’ I asked. Perhaps we’d met at a party or something, years ago when I was better.

‘Know lots of them.’ The woman smiled, cheekily, like she had a secret. ‘You got any tobacco?’

‘Sure.’ I gave the woman my pouch and stood and watched her roll one, then another which she put behind her ear. When she gave it back, I rolled one for myself and we sat next to each other smoking in a weird silence watching people come and go, as if we’d known each other all our lives. The woman didn’t seem to mind me sitting there quietly, and I was glad to have the company.

I looked at the woman’s stuff, an old floral shopper on wheels ripped on one side and half-bursting its contents, grey clothes, plastic bags, lots of plastic bags, and some papers that were covered in dense lines of writing. I had once wanted to be a writer, though I did pretty much everything I could to avoid actually putting pen to the paper. I spent most of my time thinking about what I might write, formulating sentences that I never wrote down and then forgot. I could never find my voice, that one position that would hold the whole world together, it fragmented every time I tried. The writer’s voice seemed like a dictatorship, something that organised and bossed reality. Maybe I just wasn’t that bossy.

The traffic moved around us, people, catching buses, rushing, no one paying any attention at all. The woman tried to sell a few copies of the Issue, but people just hustled past, shoulders braced.

I picked out one of her copies and flicked through it, an eco-special, full of articles about the frightening state of the planet. The woman watched, then started talking about how there are so many pollutants in the water we have no idea how much dirt we are putting into our bodies, the whole time pulling on a cigarette.

‘They’re trying to kill us,’ she said. ‘Everything is full of poison.’

She talked about this artist, Emoto someone, who did experiments with water. She said he had proved that water molecules take on the emotional resonance of whatever is directed at them. That basically, when you project feelings at things they change.

‘I mean if you direct hate into something long enough, that’s what you’ll get. Fear. Fear in your water.’

Apparently, this Emoto person had studied the crystal components of water after it had been subjected to various sounds, from loud thrash rock to Beethoven to love poetry to recordings of Hitler.

‘The ones that had been hated on were all fucked up! Makes sense if you think about it.’ The woman spoke in a low growl, smoking another of my cigarettes down to its nub, squinting as the smoke drifted into her eye. ‘In fact, you could say it explains my whole life.’

The truth of this flowed through me with the force of a revelation. ‘Mine too.’

I could still see his face, his sadistic leer when I knew it would be happening again. Living around him poisoned them all. Especially my mother. My heart started beating hard, I didn’t want to remember, to go back where the air was thick with the stench of his selfishness. Sometimes it was so close it could have happened yesterday. I groaned with the weight of the memory. Hit my arms against my thighs, slapped myself on the head a few times until the woman told me to stop and she held my hand until I felt calmer.

Time passed, the air got closer until suddenly a huge thunderclap made us both jump and a woman at the bus stop screamed. I tried to ignore it because I was in a really intense phase where everything seemed like a warning. I could read things into the weather, or the graffiti on the streets, every moving thing had so much significance it was overwhelming.

‘At last!’ the woman said, ‘the air pressure’s been giving me a headache all day.’

And it started raining, at first spatters, then heavy and soaking. I loved the smell of it, the way the water sluiced the dusty streets. But the weather was bringing a temperature change too, colder, wetter. The heat was breaking.

‘Have you got anywhere to go?’ I asked her, shivering from the cold. The rain was splashing our feet. ‘This is going to go on.’

‘Course! I got a palace on the Goldbourne Road!’ The woman laughed, and for a moment I thought that this could easily be true. Maybe she was one of those who lived on the streets because she couldn’t stay indoors, like the gypsies, who couldn’t bear to live in a house, were always leaving doors open, wandering outside because they felt confined.

The rain got still heavier. ‘My place is just nearby.’

‘So’s mine,’ the woman pointed to the bushes. ‘But I never sleep in the doorways of Mayfair. If they see that you’re a woman, you’ll wake up with spunk on your sleeping bag.’

The woman drew herself up tall, and I could see that once she had been beautiful. She had haughty cheekbones and when she wrapped her hair in a scarf she looked almost elegant, posh, perhaps. Even to me, who by that point was as close to the edge as it was possible to go without falling off, it was shocking to think that someone like her could be homeless. It would have been wrong to have left her outside on her own in the pouring rain.

We half ran, half walked back through the streets of fancy houses, dragging all her stuff behind us. All around us, the white stucco, the landscaped front gardens, the brass door knockers. I always felt like a tourist when I walked past these houses. Sometimes I could see inside to the fancy kitchens or living rooms, like photos from a magazine. And it always made me feel suffocated, like I was underwater, looking up at something far above, how was it even possible to reach the surface, to have any small part of that for myself? I couldn’t imagine it.

By the time we got to the tower, we were both soaked to the skin. The woman looked at all the scaffolding and the builders sheltering in the entrance on one of their perpetual breaks. She tutted.

‘How long has this been going on?’

‘Months.’ I thought about it and corrected myself. ‘Years, actually.’

‘All across London,’ the woman shook her head. ‘I know.’

‘Property. The biggest scam there is,’ the woman said, loudly nodding at a group of three builders smoking under the NO SMOKING sign. ‘Question is, who are they working for?’ and as we passed them, watching them sneerily in their high- vis jackets, she started singing a riff from the Lou Reed song ‘I’m waiting for my man’ except she changed it to ‘I’m working for the man.’ One of the men whistled at us. I looked at the floor, but inside I was laughing.

But the moment we crossed the threshold into my flat, something changed. The woman darted like a sniffer dog, nosing in every corner of the room, eyeing up my stuff, dripping water all over my books. She even sat on my spot on the sofa, the one by the light with the best view and made a damp patch. I felt invaded and immediately regretted inviting her in. I wanted her to leave but I didn’t know how to tell her.

I had that feeling again, sick-scared and dizzy. It came on so quickly it gave me vertigo. I was sure of it now, the woman wasn’t homeless at all, but she was here to spy on me from the council, I was sure of it. The woman had tricked me, and now I had invited her into my home. Why should someone like me live here? That’s what they were thinking. They were going to throw me out. Panic coursed through me. I fetched a towel, hid beneath it, rubbing my head until my scalp tingled.

‘It’s OK,’ the woman said. ‘Don’t be scared.’

But I was scared. And I didn’t know what to do except grit my teeth and pull the towel harder over my head. If I could do that then I could make the woman go away.

‘Listen to me. In a few hours the police and the bailiffs are going to come and throw you out of here,’ now the voice sounded like my ex. ‘Do you understand? They stopped paying your benefits weeks ago. You need to call your social worker and pack up your stuff in boxes. You need to find somewhere to go.’

I didn’t understand, it was too confusing. Peeping out through the towel I navigated to the wet patch on the sofa, and lay there, listening to the sound of my own heavy breathing. The knocking was so intense that at first I thought it was just more construction noise. Under the towel it was hot and humid. And there was more shouting, someone yelling through the letterbox. And that’s how they found me when they rammed in the door, hiding on the sofa with a wet towel over my head. I screamed when they touched me and someone used my old name, one that connected me back to the past and made me feel sick when I heard it.

‘That’s not my name,’ I said, but they weren’t listening. My name was just a part of the procedure.

‘Jesus, it stinks in here.’

‘You need to take that towel off your head.’

When I peeped out there was a broken door and two men in suits and a policewoman there.

‘Is there anyone else living here?’

‘I have a visitor, but she’s going soon,’ I said. ‘But there’s no one here.’

‘She must have gone out the window.’ I said this so matter-of-factly that they actually went to the window and looked out, even though, being on the 17th floor the windows didn’t open wide enough for someone to get out. And then they gave me that look, the one that is a mix of pity and fear.

‘Where’s my social worker?’

The man with the papers shrugged. ‘She’s off sick. We’ve got you a bed in a hostel, just ‘til we can sort out you with something else.’

In the end I took just one rucksack. Some clothes and a few books. I left Foucault behind because when would I have time to read that? I was going to live under the bushes in the park, or later, out in the countryside, I would find an abandoned caravan for a few months, I would travel to the seaside, find a hostel in another town. I would be cold and hungry and dirty and I would get very sick.

Then, in another town, I saw it on the TV in the day centre. All of us crowded around one of the volunteers ipads to watch the news. At first I couldn’t believe how quickly it went up, there was something about the flames that was almost starving, the way they consumed the building. Those fancy tiles might as well have been firelighters, the way they accelerated the fire. After a while I couldn’t look. Mrs Obidike and her son. Their cat. All of that waste. Everyone in the day centre was pale and shocked. Some of us who had come from there, muttered about going straight to London to show solidarity. I pressed my nails into my palms, overwhelmed by a helpless rage. It just seemed so… inevitable, that of course this was going to happen, this disaster had been happening for years, the neglect, the carelessness, the slow, cruel hardening. And it confirmed what I already knew, that for those of us who have to swim in this water, everything is fucked and everything is on fire.

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Julia Bell is a writer and Director of the Creative Writing MA at Birkbeck, University of London. She has published three novels, most recently The Dark Light (Macmillan, 2015). Her essays and short fiction have appeared in The White Review, Times Literary Supplement, Paris Review, Mal Journal, the BBC, and numerous anthologies. She is the co-editor of the newly re-issued Creative Writing Coursebook (Macmillan, 2019). She divides her time between London and Berlin.

Resist: Stories of Uprising is published in paperback by Comma Press on the 21st May.
commapress.co.uk/books/resist-stories-of-uprising-1

For more information and to buy the book, visit Comma Press’s website.


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