‘She needed to be able to touch the sides of her world. Everything was so vast and she felt that her body would jolt apart and float off into space.’
‘Last One to Leave Please Turn Off the Lights’ taken from Things We Say in the Dark
By Kirsty Logan
Published by Harvill Secker
The first house I gave you was a tooth. The dentist pulled it to make space for the rest of my teeth, which apparently is often a problem for small-mouthed people when the wisdom teeth come in. He asked if I wanted the tooth, and I didn’t particularly, but I also didn’t want it to get thrown in the bin, so I wrapped it in a tissue and took it home. It was jagged at one end and it smelled sweet and a bit rotten. I got a nail from the toolbox and started to carve. I’ll admit it wasn’t worth putting in an art gallery, but by the end of the day my tooth was a tiny though recognisable house. I understand that when I presented it to you, half joking, as we were brushing our teeth before bed, it was unexpected. You seemed pleased at the gesture, if a little disgusted. It wasn’t your fault that the tooth got knocked into the toilet and accidentally flushed.
The second house I braided from my hair. There was a reasonable amount in my hairbrush, but not enough. I pulled out more from all over my head so that I wouldn’t leave any obvious bald patches. My hair is long and thick so I got two good handfuls without it looking much different, and its stiff curl meant it took to braiding well. The walls and roof were dense, and I even managed two windows. I shouldn’t have surprised you by putting the hair next to your morning cup of coffee. As I was falling asleep the night before it had seemed quirky and charming, but I see now that it was a weird thing to do and made you not want to eat your scrambled eggs. it wasn’t your fault that the coffee got spilled, making the house dampen and fold it on itself and collapse into a mat of tangles. When you left for work I threw the hair out of the kitchen window. I like to think of it, this little perfect house I made – for you from me – caught on a breeze, tugged quick to the sky, blown off a bridge to float down the river.
The third house was my fingernails. They made a beautiful roof, prettier than any tiles I’ve seen, each one painted a different colour. I only have ten nails so the roof was very small. it wasn’t your fault that it somehow got put in the food scraps bin along with the onion skin and the carrot peels and the chicken bones.
That gave me an idea, and the next house was carved from the bone of my little finger. It was accidentally fed to the dog. My ear-house got buried in the window box; my eye-house was squashed under your winter boots; my tongue-house was snatched by a neighbourhood fox.
I made you house after house after house. But each time it was too small, too losable, too easily destroyed.
Finally, there I stand in front of you, everything removable or soft in me gone. I have made this final house for you: the rafters my ribs, the floor my flattened feet, the overhead light my unblinking eye. Come lie on the couch of the long bone of my thigh. Come rest your head on the cushion of my slow-beating heart. Come home.
May visited her friend Blank in his new house. He made tea and laid out a plate of biscuits and told May how important a good house was, how you couldn’t be a real human without one. Their other friend Ambrosia agreed, and told May that she should be working as hard as she could so that she could buy a house instead of just a flat. May dipped her biscuit in her tea and didn’t reply.
The next week, Blank and Ambrosia visited May at her flat. She bought special biscuits and used her best crockery. Her friends perched on the edge of her threadbare couch and held their tea without sipping it. Blank observed, ever so politely, that May’s flat was very small and needed many repairs: the damp patches on the ceiling, the dripping tap in the bathroom, the chipped paint in the hall. Ambrosia observed, even more politely, that she didn’t have thick carpets or heavy wallpaper or curtains in the windows, only roller blinds, and they weren’t enough to block out the flashing lights from the street, and there wasn’t enough noise-reduction, and her ceilings were too low so when the upstairs neighbour walked across the floor in high heels it sounded like she was click-clacking on your forehead. All things considered, May’s flat was too small, too spare, too full of cracks. The outside world encroached far too much. Blank and Ambrosia didn’t stay long.
May did want to please her friends. She didn’t have enough money to fix all the problems with her flat, or to buy anything new to go inside it, or to move out and into a house. But May was clever. She found a solution.
The dollhouse sat nicely on her shoulders – not too heavy, but reassuringly weighty. She piled her hair up and pinned it on top of her head so it filled the attic, holding the house steady. Her eyes lined up perfectly with the upstairs windows, the house only restricting her vision as much as a pair of spectacles. And if she wanted to speak, she could just open the front door.
The dollhouse was much easier to maintain than her flat. When it was windy and a few miniature tiles fell off – well, she just got them replaced with squares of painted card. The hammering of the tiny tacks gave her a headache, but she posted painkillers through the letter box and into her mouth, and the pain soon faded. When the gutters couldn’t handle the damp autumn leaves – well, she just put on rubber gloves and scooped the rotting mush out herself. When she discovered a wasps’ nest in her hair – well, yes, that was a bit of a problem. The exterminator said that the house must be evacuated before it could be fumigated, but it wasn’t as simple as that for May. Finally the exterminator agreed to sort the wasps’ nest with her still inside. She wasn’t stupid, though; she wore a mask. it was fine. Everything was fine.
The dollhouse blocked sound beautifully, so May kept it on all the time, even when she was sleeping. She liked being inside the house while also being inside her flat; it was cosier that way, safer. There was no need to get curtains for her flat – why, with the dollhouse shutters closed she couldn’t see anything at all, no matter how many flashing lights went by outside. She didn’t need to put the heating on – her hands and feet and body were cold, but her head was always toasty-warm. She got the flat’s electricity shut off too – she didn’t need it, as the dollhouse had the most delightful little battery-operated lights.
Perhaps May did get the house just to please her friends, but now that she had it she realised that they were right all along. Her house did make her happy. Unfortunately, Blank and Ambrosia were not impressed. Fortunately, May didn’t care. She was tired of seeing their disapproving looks. She was tired of opening her mouth to explain herself.
She closed the window shutters and locked the front door. Just to be sure, she swallowed the key and nailed the shutters. See? it’s warm in here. Dark and safe and cosy. Just don’t look outside. it’s fine. Everything is fine.
Since the moment you were born, you haven’t felt quite right, have you? The world looms. it’s all too big, too much. Let’s not even talk about anything outside the world; a single photo of outer space can make you unsteady for days.
Kristin understood; she felt the same as you. When she looked up, the sky was so far away it made her stagger. When she was in a car or a train or a plane, the world seemed to stretch out around her forever. When she thought of what she – and probably you – had learned at school, about the universe and its vastness, the infinity of it, the insignificant tininess of her within it, it made her sick and cold and dizzy.
Since being born, the only time Kristin came close to finding peace was when she had her own child, her own confinement. A baby instantly becomes its mother’s whole world, tiny and beautifully manageable. The stony weight of the growing foetus in Kristin helped, but even more than that was the sameness of her days after the birth, the feeling of the walls closing in around her. It was hard to go anywhere with a newborn, or even with a toddler, or even with a ten-year-old. They’re so heavy, and all they need is one unobserved second to dash away. Reins can snap and Calpol isn’t that strong, really, no matter how many doses the child swallows. Better to just stay inside, in the tiny flat, in the tiny cupboard turned into a nursery.
Kristin’s next confinement was prison. There’s no need to go into the details – she wasn’t there for so long, but it was long enough. Such a pleasantly graspable world with its timetables and routines. The first time she was locked in her cell, she was surprised by her sense of peace. Her sheets were red like her insides and the walls were soft and stained pink with damp. At night she was sure she could hear them breathe. The heating throbbed like a heart. She felt so peaceful that she wanted to die.
But when she’d done her time, they opened the door and pushed her out. She stepped past the prison gate and fell to the ground. The sky was so far away and the world stretched forever and there was nothing steady to hold on to. She wanted to crouch in the footwell of the car and have someone put a blanket over her. A wooden board. A locked door.
Kristin tried to live a regular life for a time, but soon found she couldn’t bear it. She needed to be able to touch the sides of her world. Everything was so vast and she felt that her body would jolt apart and float off into space. She was always cold. She took all the money she had and paid to have a tiny place made. Some people might call it a cupboard, an anchorage, or a grave; for Kristin, it was the perfect house, made just for her, the walls just wider than her shoulders and the ceiling just higher than her head. She said goodbye to the world she had known: good riddance to cold drinks on hot days, to slotting the final piece into a jigsaw, to the rush and sudden chill of an orgasm with a stranger. She went home and asked you to help her. After all, she’d helped to keep you confined and safe, hadn’t she? The least you could do was return the favour.
So here we are. You feel the rough bricks in your hand. The trowel smoothing on the cement. it’s no surprise that you’d be the one who’d end up bricking Kristin in. You always did have to snap the reins and spit out the Calpol. Why are you like this? You’re leaning hard on the wall as you work and your hands are shaking. The flat felt small and safe and solid when you first arrived but now it’s getting bigger, flimsier. The ceiling seems further away than before. is that sky you can see through the rafters? Don’t breathe so hard, you’re making the walls shake.
Only a few bricks to go. From inside her new tiny house, Kristin hums a happy song.
You hear her shift around, getting comfortable. But if she can move, then there is extra space, isn’t there? Too much space. Clearly this tiny house is not meant for her. You are a little taller than Kristin, a little wider. Perhaps the extra of you is for the extra space in there.
You pull Kristin out of the house and climb inside. you brick up the door behind you. She can scream and beg all she wants, but she is still outside and you are still inside.
It’s dark in here, and good. You don’t feel sick. The ceiling is the height of you. The walls are the width of you. You see the boundaries now, and you can stop.
There was no one else to clear out the house other than Lydia. Her sisters Barbara and Delia weren’t even in the country – one in Brooklyn on an internship, one in London doing something stressful in media. Why make them come all the way home just to clear out an old man’s house? Not that he was just any old man. But, to be honest, Lydia didn’t want her grampa’s stuff any more than Barbara or Delia did.
She wandered the house, feeling unhaunted. Yes, she’d learned to play on this piano. Yes, she’d watched Saturday-morning TV on this couch. yes, she’d eaten porridge off these spoons and speared peas with these forks. Should she take them? But she already had spoons and forks and a couch, and she liked them better than these ones. With her grampa gone, the things were just things.
She stripped the beds and tugged the clothes off their hangers. She pulled open the drawers and cupboards. She opened all the windows to let the summer air get in and around and behind all the things. She liked the smell of her grampa, but the person who bought the house probably would not.
Before Lydia could deal with the things, she had to deal with the ashes. She decided to scatter them by the greenhouse, where she used to help her grampa with the tomatoes. The stalks were withered now, the growbags dried up, but she could still smell the warm greenness on the air.
The urn was made of thick plastic, heavier than she expected. She stood by the greenhouse with the urn in her hands and she thought about her grampa. She missed him, of course she did. He was good, but he was gone, and not wanting to stand there for another ten minutes didn’t mean she loved him any less.
She was surprised, on opening the urn’s lid, to find that the ashes were gold. Clearly he was very good indeed. But, still, he was gone. She tipped the urn to let the ashes fall – but just at that moment, a breeze caught the whole scattering lot and blew it through the open windows and into the house.
Lydia stood for a long time, the upturned urn in her hands, the breeze playing through her hair. Then she held her breath and went inside.
She needn’t have worried: she was not about to inhale her grampa. All the things in the house – the carpets, the lightshades, the sideboard, the dining table, the floral three-piece suite, the bonbon dish in the shape of an elephant, the china shepherdess, the magazine rack, the kettle, the shower head, the ugly faïence fruit bowl that didn’t have any fruit in it, the bar of soap by the sink, the mattress, the fridge – every single thing was covered in gold.
Not coated in gold. Not gold-plated. But scattered with enough tiny dots of gold that, in the bright summer sun, everything glittered.
Lydia rubbed at the surface of the fridge with her fingertip. The gold didn’t come off. She scratched it with her nail. it still didn’t come off. over the next few hours, Lydia scraped and scrubbed and gouged at every gold thing in the house, which was everything. The gold stayed.
She called her sisters. Barbara wanted her to call the house clearance company, just like they’d planned before. Delia thought that was ridiculous – it was covered in gold, for heaven’s sakes! It was valuable now. And not just valuable in a nostalgic sort of way, because they’d learned to play on that piano and stuff. She wanted Lydia to sell the golden things. Lydia hung up the phone.
She closed all the golden windows and made up all the golden beds and put the golden clothes back on their golden hangers. Then she stood in the middle of the golden house looking at the ugly faïence fruit bowl. She couldn’t throw it away, because it was valuable. She couldn’t sell it, because it was her grampa. She couldn’t keep it, because she already had a fruit bowl she liked better and her grampa was gone and keeping his fruit bowl wouldn’t bring him back.
She pictured herself carrying all the golden things out of her grampa’s house and trying to fit them into her own small flat; how every wall and surface would be covered past using, every blink blinding gold. She pictured herself living here, making a life among the remnants of her grampa. Sleeping on the mattress of him, washing in the bath of him, using the spoons of him to eat her cereal.
Lydia stood there in the golden hallway, looking at the golden fruit bowl. The longer she stood there, the heavier it felt. Was it her imagination, or were the walls beginning to sag? Could the floor joists take the weight of all this gold?
The sun began to set. The light through the windows made the whole house sparkle.
Not long before I started this book, my wife and I got married in a library. She wore vintage brogues and a pinstriped suit; I wore a feathered cape and a grey silk dress. We wanted our wedding to be special and different, just like everyone wants their wedding to be special and different. But like everyone, we slipped into cliché: it was magical and all our living parents cried and I had probably the happiest day of my life.
We went on a northern honeymoon, where we kissed on blacksand beaches under the slow green throb of the northern lights and felt a constant bone-deep cold, colder than we’d ever been in our lives.
We did the expected thing, and bought a home. We spent a lot of time looking at paint charts and debating different kitchen worktops. I’ve never felt so steady, so domesticated.
That’s why I decided I was ready to write about my fears. I have a place to retreat to where I can always put on the lights no matter how dark it is outside.
‘Last One to Leave Please Turn Off the Lights’ is taken from Things We Say in the Dark by Kirsty Logan, published by Harvill Secker, priced £12.99