Waiting by the telephone

‘Look, there are two seats under the heater over there, quick’ says Aurore as we arrive at Le Progres. It’s a cold March evening but there’s only one place to be, the terrace and seats are rare at this time, it’s l’apero. Sitting here in Paris, it’s strange to think that I was in London this morning, having a second interview for my dream job. 

I  left the office early, jumped on the tube across London with my travel bag and a big knot in my stomach, changed into interview clothes in the toilets of the museum, and ran to the members room to meet Sheena Wagstaff for the informal chat. There were no tables available so we sat on the windowsill. I answered her questions with calm and assurance. She was hard to read and quickly had to go. 

“I’ll call you by the end of the day”, she said. I finished my tea and rushed to catch the Eurostar. 

On the train, I couldn’t read or listen to music. I kept reliving the scene in my head, repeating the questions again and again, picking holes in my answers. I couldn’t wait to get to Paris, I wanted to fast track the time. I was dying for a cigarette, I was dying to know. 

And here we are, Aurore and I at Le Progres, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, trying to talk about what’s been happening in our lives since we last saw each other but my mind keeps wandering and I keep staring at my phone hoping that if I look at it long or often enough, it will finally ring.

‘Do you think she’s going to call today?’ It’s already ten past six in London, this is fucking torture!’.

Aurore tries to distract me with the story of her last office crush, Nicolas. He works on the floor above, he’s one of the associates. She doesn’t know how to approach him. I look again at my phone, it’s nearly seven-thirty in London and I’ve resigned myself: it won’t be happening tonight. 

‘You never know’, says Aurore, ‘maybe they will call tomorrow’. 

‘Hmm, I think they’ve already called the successful candidate and I’ll get a ‘thanks for your time…’ email tomorrow.’ This is usually how it works.

We decide to order wine and then, the phone rings. It’s her. I get up and move away from the crowd. 

‘Thank you so much for coming back today’ she says with an apologetic tone. I’m not hopeful. 

‘I could really do with your help and I would like to offer you the position’. 

I hurry back to the table with tears in my eyes. ‘I’ve got the job, aaarrgggghhhh’.

Each time we talk about that night again, Aurore never fails to remind me that after we celebrated the news with a bottle of champagne, I turned into a broken record and bored her to tears as I could not stop repeating ‘I can’t believe it, I’m going to be the PA to the Chief Curator of Tate Modern, she curated Jeff Wall and Edward Hooper, can you imagiiiine?’ again and again and again.

CCA, 4 May 2019

It’s nearly 5.00pm and the crowd is getting thicker in the former bath house water tank turned gallery space. There’s a pale yellow light coming through the clerestory window which brightens up the dark cast iron interior. We are over the capacity limit, it’s becoming hard to move and I’m getting concerned about the artworks – thin metal structures draped in appliqued translucent fabrics – precisely placed around the space. Too late to worry about it, let’s hope for the best. Suddenly, it feels like someone has turned the volume down. I struggle to make my way to the back of the room, this is where it’s happening, the performance is about to begin.

Adam Christensen hides in a hut-like structure also covered in precious fabrics, behind a beaded curtain but we can all hear him. He reads a text about lost love, gay sex and an extended trip to LA. He doesn’t need a microphone. Once the reading is over, Adam comes out of the hut and climbs on a set of steps. Now we can all see him. He’s wearing a fitted yellow dress with puff sleeves, thick heeled yellow stilettos and a dark brown shoulder length wig. His lips are MAC Ruby Woo red and match the two dots painted on the inner edge of his eyebrows. He carries a piano accordion. 

Adam takes a sip of white wine and starts playing the accordion, just a few notes, the crowd is silent. And then, out of nowhere, coming from deep inside, a long loud raspy howl…THAT voice. It’s bluesy, raw and powerful. It takes you by surprise, it grabs you by the balls, it gives you goosebumps. It sounds like a modern Fado with a campy twist. I don’t understand the lyrics but I can feel the pain and the emotion. I don’t understand the lyrics but it sounds weirdly familiar. Adam told me later that it was a cover of the Cranberries’ No Need to Argue.

That trip to the shop

Mask? check. Gloves? check. I’m ready to go to the shop. Down the stairs and up the hill, my pace is slower than it used to be. No more rushing. Time under Covid is elastic, life unfolds in slow motion, panic is over for now, at least for me. I pass the boarded up pub and put my mask on. Gloves are next, just before I reach the crossing so it’s safe to press the button at the traffic light. Why do I still feel the need to press the button? I will wait. Why do I even feel the need to press the button when I know it doesn’t make the traffic stop? Well, the world is upside down but there’s one thing that I know: the autopilot inside me is still on.


Instructions for when self-isolating (sic)

  1. Find a space in your home where you do not spend a lot of time. This could be anywhere from a whole room, to a corner, to a windowsill.
  2. Make a change to this space so that you want to spend more time there.
  3. Document this change and record how you have spent time in your new environment.

I received the email on 21 April. The instructions are anonymous, it’s part of the game. They come from another artist in need of a challenge in these times of confinement. Mine have gone to another participant. We have a week to create an artwork in response, it can be anything as long as it can be shown online. This is the first deadline I’ve had in weeks and I’m really excited.

I walk around the flat in search of a space I don’t often use. I start in the living room. There’s not much I could change here. There’s a comfortable sofa, a dining table, artworks on the walls and lots of plants. It’s colourful and functional, every object is in the right place, any shift would create disorder.

I need a new perspective. I sit on the armchair in the middle of the room, I never sit there unless we have visitors as it doesn’t face the television. My mind starts drifting. I think of Joanna Piotrowska’s photographs of people making dens in their homes using furniture and blankets. I could tip the sofa over and use books, magazines, plants and lamps to build a small fortress around it, and hide there pretending that I’m the queen of the castle. I smile when I think of the look on C’s face if he was finding me there.

Next, I move to the studio which is used as a workshop right now. C. has been furloughed and he is making doors for us. I’m thinking about reclaiming part of the desk, I need a space to work from home and this is where the best light is in the morning. I could lift up the tarpaulin cover, attach it to the ceiling and create a partition, one on each side, we can share. Pointless, I can’t work surrounded by dust and power tools noise. The only thing that could make my environment better at this moment would be to own ear defenders.

I move on and sit on the bench outside the front door. If we didn’t have the bench, the bench would be the perfect idea for this project. We’ve been in lockdown for nearly a month now, the weather makes me feel I’m in the South of France, the bench saves our lives every day. Our flat is at the end of an open walkway and we’ve reclaimed that space as our own, added a few plants and a retractable bench. We now have a balcony. We get the sun in the evening and it’s a great way to stay in touch with the other residents on the estate. Real people in the flesh: little Djianne on her scooter declaiming to the moon or ‘doom and gloom’ El on his way back from the corner shop, a connection with reality.

I’m going around in circles. Excitement turns into frustration. I decide to bend the rules, to think about how we inhabit our home instead, and how we could change the way we live within these four walls.

I could really do with a break from the new routine, even so slightly.

I could sit on the left side of the sofa or facing the wall at the dinner table or away from the door in the kitchen. Too subtle, I need something more drastic.

I wrote:

I always sleep on the same side of the bed, the right side if you look at the bed, the left side if you lie in it. I’m not sure how it became my side. Maybe it was when I moved into your flat, two flats ago. You already had your side so I had no choice.

I don’t think we even discussed it when we found the next flat: you got the door, I got the wall and the same happened here, except that I’ve got the window now.

I sleep on my side even when you’re away, remaining between the edge of the bed and the imaginary boundary in the middle.

I try to remember what happens when we’re staying somewhere else. Hahaha, of course we replicate the pattern without even thinking about it. Remember Margate, Marseille and all the places in Mexico. Religiously.

Today, I’ve moved my clock, my books and my pillow to the other side. Let’s swap for a few days.

It’s bedtime and I inspect my new environment. I want to believe that less than a metre shift will not make much difference but the strangely off-centered ceiling light looks even more misplaced from your side.

I always fall asleep on my left side, facing out of the bed. I now fall asleep on my right side. It seems like facing out is what matters in the end. I wake up in the middle of the night, reaching for water, finding your face instead. I’m confused and disoriented for a few seconds then I remember where I am, on the other side.

It’s day three and I still don’t like standing so close to the wall when I get up. I miss the view from the window too.

I will move my clock, my books and my pillow back to my side today. I hope you don’t mind.

I was happy enough with my response to send it for publication on the project website. I didn’t like the idea much though so we didn’t swap sides in the end, not even for a few days. Creature of habits, yes I guess we are.

As for my own instructions, just a simple question: Where do you draw the line? My forced collaborator took a rather radical approach and simply crossed my words. I liked it very much. Simple, performative and powerful.

The perfect hat

I’m not attached to objects or I want to believe that I’m not attached to objects until I lose them and realise that I miss them very much. 

I still miss my yellow woolly hat which wasn’t even mine at first. I’d never had a woolly hat until I moved to London and was very reluctant to own one. I kept borrowing my friend Sam’s. His mum knitted it and it was just perfect. The perfect size – not too small so you don’t look like you are wearing a sock, not too big so it doesn’t fall on your nose yet big enough to pull it over your eyes and have a quick nap on the train or wear it sideways like a beret. The perfect yellow – not too bright, not too pale, more like gold without the glittery side. Eventually Sam gave it to me, in exchange for a red ski jacket that I’d bought on a whim at Camden market.

I almost lost my perfect hat many times. I left it in pubs all around London, running back after realising my head was cold as I was walking home, hoping that no one would take it. I remember countless mornings, panicking when I couldn’t find it, and the sense of relief seeing it on my desk when I walked into the office.

My luck changed last year on my way to work, did I drop it on the train, in the street, I will never know, it was gone. I have since adopted C’s bright red hat. Sam promised to ask his mum to knit me another perfect yellow one.

Desert island picks

If I was stranded on a desert island, I would want to listen to music that brings back special moments, reminds me of people or put me in a specific kind of mood. 

The first track I would choose is ‘I wish that I could see you soon’ by Herman Dune because I would miss my love very much on the island and this is our song. I can’t remember when or why it became our song but it will always remind me of those evenings dancing together in the kitchen, slightly pissed, watching the music video on our phones again and again, and copying the moves of the band to create our own choreographies. 

My second choice would be ‘Gnossienne 1’ by Erik Satie as it reminds me of an eureka moment. In 2010, I was working on a video piece made of clips of Mexican wrestling matches. I wanted to edit the footage to turn the fight into some kind of romantic courtship dance but I was really struggling as I didn’t have the soundtrack. This was until I saw Russel Maliphant’s Afterlight which opens with a long solo to Satie’s four Gnossiennes. It was one of the most beautiful pieces of contemporary dance I’d ever seen and that was it, I had my soundtrack and I finished the work.

My last pick would be something by the Smiths. I adored them when I was a teenager. I didn’t understand the lyrics at the time but somehow I felt that the songs were talking about me, were talking to me. I don’t understand why I still enjoy listening to these miserable songs, it’s definitely not about nostalgia, they truly bring me joy, it’s a complete mystery.

That’s good!

I stopped living with my mother when I was nine. We’re not close. I visit once a year, I call once a month, I send presents for Christmas and birthdays. 

The monthly phone call always follows the same script, she starts with the customary ‘How are things? Are you well? How’s the weather in London?’ but doesn’t really listen to the answers.

She talks about her day. She gets up early, she goes to the gym, she watches American soaps religiously, she tries not to eat too much, she tries not to drink too much, she goes for a walk to make sure that she hits 10,000 steps a day on her Fitbit, she spends hours reading her emails, concentrating on flash sales and deals of the week. It’s been the same day ever since she retired a few years ago. 

Sometimes she relays what she saw on TV: terrorism, accidents, natural disasters, only the bad news. She has the 24 hour news channel on all day in the kitchen. She also reports on the family, just the bad news of course. 

When she runs out of things to say, it’s my turn to speak. 

‘I’ve had a great weekend, went camping with S.’

‘That’s good’, she replies in a detached and indifferent tone, unfailingly.

‘We’ve just opened a new exhibition at the gallery, it looks amazing!’

‘That’s good.’

‘That’s good’, like an automated message punctuating each of my sentences, no matter what I say.

I always end the call, ‘I’ve got to go, speak soon, bye’.

She always complains that I don’t call often enough.

House party

It’s 5.00pm, time for Nadege’s birthday celebratory drinks but this year we are not meeting in the pub or in a restaurant or at her flat. We are all in our homes, staring at our phones, waiting for a prompt to join Houseparty. C and I are in our living room, we don’t really know how this works, we’ve opened the app and connected C’s phone to the TV so we can see everyone on a big screen. It takes a few minutes to find the perfect frame and it now almost looks like the set of a morning TV show, with the sofa in the middle and plants on each side. Still no sign of anyone though so we’re watching ourselves sitting on the sofa on the big TV. 

A few minutes later, a message appears at the top of the screen: Nadege invites you to join the party. We accept and she appears on the left hand side of the screen. She is in her kitchen; she can’t use her living room just now as her flatmate is working from home. Nadege wears a bright pink top and red lipstick, ‘I thought I had to do something special today,’ she says with her usual French accent, ‘I haven’t put makeup on for almost two weeks now so it’s a bit weird, I almost couldn’t remember how to apply eyeliner’.

The screen suddenly splits into three, Karim and Liz have just joined the party. They are heavily pixelated and move like bad connection astronauts, ‘we can see you can you see us?’

‘Yes, we can see you’, we all reply.

They disappear from the screen, and…they are back again.

‘We’re missing Vanessa,’ they say. 

‘I’m going to disconnect and try to find out where she-’ says Liz.

Karim interrupts, ‘-why don’t we move to WhatsApp, it worked well yesterday?’

Disconnect. WhatsApp invite arrives. Reconnect. 

Vanessa appears in the top right corner. She is wearing big pink heart-shaped sunglasses, a headpiece and a necklace made of multi coloured pompoms and fairy lights. She’s dressed for the occasion. It looks like we’re all here now, we raise our glasses and start singing, ‘Happy Birthday to-’

‘-no, wait, Mel and Cecile want to join, they are waiting for us on Houseparty!’ urged Nadege.

Disconnect. Reconnect. Back on Houseparty. 

Melanie appears in the bottom right corner, sitting on a bean bag in her bedroom. Cecile is also there, waving from her studio. Now we’ve lost the sound with Karim and Liz. We all try to mime ‘we can’t hear you’, pointing at our ears, making crosses on our mouths with our fingers. They seem confused but finally get the message. They disconnect and reconnect. The sound is back. Let’s get this party started.

Vanessa sings, ‘happy birthday to you’, all join, ‘happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Na-deeege, happy birthday to you!’. We raise our glasses again.

Awkward silence.

We try to talk about what we’ve done in the past few days, keeping safe, working from home or not working at all, trying to buy food, wine, toilet paper, managing to stay sane…for now. The conversation quickly becomes tedious, there’s a slight delay with the sound and the image, soon everyone is talking at the same time, louder and louder, and discussions turn into a joyous but incomprehensible cacophony. ‘So who’s going to play music?’ says Nadege. Karim disappears from the screen; Fantastic Man starts playing in the background. Karim and Liz dance in their living room, some try to follow them, timidly, others just watch, or use this interlude to go to the loo or top up their glasses. 

I find it hard not to get distracted by my own face being on the screen all the time, it’s like trying to have a conversation with someone while looking in a mirror. I would like to investigate how to remove this from the app, there must be a way but I don’t want to interrupt the party again.

Nadege is now in her living room, smoking a cigarette at the window.

‘Where is your flatmate now?’ asks Karim.

‘In his bedroom, where he belongs to.’ replies Nadege, with an irritated tone…it looks like confinement has started to take its toll on her.

More small talk and silly jokes, a hat competition and many awkward silences later, we decide to call it a night. It doesn’t feel right to say goodbye to Nadege, knowing that she will spend the rest of her birthday evening on her own…but maybe she’ll start another online party with other people in a minute. It’s day five of lockdown and it seems that video calling apps keep the world going around.

Just a few weeks back, it felt completely surreal, like the script of a Hollywood disaster movie: a strange virus was spreading across China, hundreds of people were stuck on a luxury cruise ship stranded off the coast of Japan. Wuhan was in quarantine. It’s happening very far away, we’ll watch the movie when it comes out, no need to panic.

It starts to feel more real when Italy gets into lockdown, then Spain and France. Covid-19 is now the topic of every news article, radio programme, social media post, conversation with friends and family. It almost feels inappropriate to talk about something else, it would mean that we don’t care, it would mean that we’re selfish. 

It’s a week before lockdown, the gallery is temporarily closed and I’m now working from home. I need to get used to new ways of interacting with colleagues virtually. Zoom has become the new skype. Everyone is obsessed about keeping in touch visually. Faces appear and disappear on the screen, they all seem well but it’s only day one for us. It’s lunchtime, I venture out, it feels naughty but this might be the last opportunity to buy a few essentials…and paint to refresh the kitchen at Easter, no doubt we’ll be in lockdown by then. The pharmacy has new signs on the door: No hand sanitiser/ No masks/ No thermometer. The experience of walking in the street is one of awareness: keep your distance, don’t touch things, don’t touch your face. Covid-19 is at the back of everyone’s mind or is it? A few people wear masks but the market on Deptford High Street is as busy as ever, people are having lunch in cafés, queueing at the butcher and fishmonger stalls and even at the burger van. The DIY shop doesn’t have the paint I need but I may as well stop at the supermarket as I’m out, I need to make it count. I’m curious to see what they have in stock today, unfortunately, it looks like it’s been looted again: no pasta, no toilet rolls, no milk, no eggs…but I find a loaf of seeded bread and some cheese. I feel like I won the lottery. We won’t starve, no need to panic. 

It’s day one of lockdown and C has been furloughed since yesterday. I knew it was coming but I had not really given too much thought about the two of us being at home together for weeks. The idea of spending all my time with C – something that I would normally very much look forward to – appears all of a sudden like a strange proposition. ‘We have enough space,’ he said, ‘and a brand new big TV, we won’t kill each other, trust me!’ No need to panic.

It’s day five of lockdown but it feels it’s been weeks. Time is stretching, lazily. Life seems to be happening in slow motion. It takes hours to buy food as long queues snake around supermarkets so people can keep two metres between them. Nothing seems urgent anymore. Today is the same as yesterday and tomorrow won’t be different. It reminds me of being a child and the endless summer holidays spent at my grandparents in a small village in the north of France. Summers felt like a lifetime, days felt like a week: breakfast, getting bored, watching a bit of TV, lunch, getting bored, reading a book, getting bored, dinner, TV, bedtime. Next day, same again. Today, I’m not sure that I miss the craziness of endless to-do lists and deadlines, the permanent state of urgency, the always-keep-busy mode. It’s exciting to think of all the free time this situation will unlock and the best way to make good use of it. We won’t get bored, no need to panic.

It’s day five of lockdown and it’s hard to remember what it was like to go for a walk for no reason, eat out, meet friends, go to the pub but we know that when things finally get back to normal – whenever that is and whatever that means – we’ll be desperate for a dance (quoting Frank Turner in last Saturday’s Guardian Weekend supplement) and have the biggest, craziest party ever so no need to panic.

Modern Toss

Like every Saturday, C opens the Guardian TV guide and heads straight to Modern Toss. In seconds, muffled giggles turn into outright loud laughter. C hands the guide to me, ‘look, it’s priceless.’ 

In this week’s cartoon, two characters stand on each side of a water cooler. One says, ‘What did you do at the weekend?’. The other one replies, ‘I smashed my house up with a bat.’

I give C a quizzical look. ‘Sorry, I don’t think it’s funny.’

C keeps on laughing. ‘IT IS funny!’

‘It’s NOT, why do you think it’s funny?’

C has tears in his eyes, my lack of reaction seems to be amplifying the comedy effect of the cartoon.‘It’s just hilaaarious.’

‘I still don’t get it, why would a guy saying that he smashed his house with a bat at the weekend make you laugh so much?’

‘I don’t know, it’s just mental.’

‘Oh well, I’m glad it makes you laugh.’

The end of the road?

N meets her boss for coffee opposite South Kensington station. He’s there when she arrives and looks uneasy, unnecessarily stirring his coffee with his spoon. He talks about his weekend, about the weather and then he drops it: he’s closing the website. N is being made redundant. He pretexts another meeting, says they’ll speak about the details later and leaves swiftly. N decides to take the bus back home, the long way around, she’s in no hurry anymore. She heads to the top deck and finds a seat at the front. It’s a rainy December afternoon. Out there, life goes on: tourists taking selfies, shoppers disappearing into black cabs and underground stations, umbrellas getting blown inside out by the wind, couriers on bikes cutting through traffic, ordinary scenes of pre-Christmas London. The rain is lapping against the windscreen. N feels numb. The green light turns red. The bus stops. Is it the end of the road? Is now the right time to go home? 

Approaching Stoke Newington, N calls a friend, ‘let’s go for a drink!’. They meet at the Prince on Kynaston road, it’s usually quiet on Tuesday nights. The conversation flows like nothing happened. N is not ready to break the news. A few glasses of wine later and more, all is forgotten, at least until the next morning.

N is woken up by the sound of the boiler which strangely lives in her bedroom cupboard. The rain hasn’t stopped since yesterday but she finds the sound of the water hitting her window reassuring. Bad head, too much wine last night, gets up for a paracetamol and straight back to bed. She can hear flatmate number 1 getting ready in the bathroom. Flatmate number 2 has already gone to work. She never knows if flatmate number 3 is at home as he never makes any noise and rarely leaves his bedroom. She calls him the Ghost. 

N looks around the room that she’s called home for the past three years. It’s small and clean, there’s a Brigitte Bardot poster on the wall, books on the windowsill and holiday photos above the desk. It doesn’t feel like home though. It feels more like living in student halls or a cheap hotel. Flatmates have come and gone, often. Some were better than others. N is forty-two, has a full-time job but still has to share flats with strangers. She hates the cleaning rota, fighting for space in the fridge and washing other people’s plates, and cups, and everything else. Unfortunately, that’s the hard reality of living in London on a small salary. 

Would I really miss this place if I had to go now?

N calls her sister from her bed, she doesn’t know where to start so she talks about the rain and coming back to Bordeaux for Christmas and the presents she will buy for the kids. They’ll talk again tomorrow. 

It’s 12.00pm, all the flatmates have now left for the day, even the Ghost. N walks around the flat in her pyjamas, a cup of tea in her hand. Moments of her life in London start popping up in her mind. She was a waitress at Ottolenghi café on Upper Street, she lived with K and N in Finsbury Park. She dated C, the guy living on the opposite side of the road at number 38 for a while. She moved into a flat in Hackney with M, a fashion designer who shared her love for Nicole Croisille, they fell out eventually. She found a job as an editor for a website and was finally able to ditch the hospitality game. She dated J who went travelling for six months just after they met. They pursued a bumpy long-distance relationship until he came back and she realised he was a dick. She lived in his studio flat in Spitalfield while he was away, surrounded by his treasured Star Wars paraphernalia and a bike on the wall. That place never felt like home either.

It was a week and a few hangovers later that N finally found the courage to explain the situation to her sister, ‘I’ve lost my job, I don’t know what to do’. ‘Don’t worry sis’, M said, ‘you’re coming back for Christmas, we’ll have a good party and we’ll figure something out’.