The Wall In The Head
Fragments. Everything is fragmentary, everything is fleeting. Cracked little shards sometimes coalesce into stories. But stories never end neatly. Dramas happen, from time to time, in half hour blocks - like cheap Television programmes. Then it's back to a bleak routine. Why bother trying to arrange things? Why bother trying to jam the jigsaw pieces together?
September 1 2008. Monday. Belinda was gone. She'd been gone for weeks. So I tried to kill myself. And I meant it. God, I meant it. But something got in in the way. I'm still not entirely sure what.
The sky was burnt out black. But the darkness couldn't stretch itself, there was too much light fighting its way in, too much of an iridescent glow blasting from the awful offices and the takeaways. Electric citrus; a fake nocturnal sunrise. The city refused to be cloaked. It screamed back. It yelled and it kicked out. The buildings, the lights, the people. They all attacked the night. The yelps from 28 floors below. They put me off. People having fun? Pissed people. Drinkers. Revellers. Stag parties. Hen Parties. Broad Street piss artists. I just wanted to be with her, to be away from here. I just wanted to hold her cheek in my hand again, to sit at the kitchen table watching her whisk batter again, to hear her speaking to me, for me, again. The smell of her hair and the touch of her skin. I can't bear not owning her any more.
It was windy alright. Oh, it was stormy tonight. The wind whipped and curled and funnelled; the rain flecked on the roof like hammers on tin. The ledge was narrow. Now. The horizon rose up and up and up as I tilted forward. Steel cut through the inertia. Possibility was pregnant. A lump in my throat. I couldn't swallow. My temples throbbing. Blood and bile and hope and sickness rising through my veins like poison taking hold. Wind and pressure and horror. Explosions and heat. My head is going to burst. Shrill traffic noises, beeping and revving. Something happening, something finally fucking happening. (For God's sake, don't see this as some kind of encouragement to jump off a building or I'll have blood on my bloody hands. I'm telling you this because we've already got something, haven't we? I'm addressing you. Everything I write is for someone; for someone's entertainment. I haven't got her any more, at this second and for this ending, I've just got you. Whoever you are.) Liquid running down my cheeks, but what variety? A salty tang at the corners of my mouth. Birmingham's concrete forest blurred. The scene needed a cut. I said, 'I love you Belinda, I'm coming for you... Ich liebe dich...' Finally, I fell. When that moment came, I didn't hesitate. Remember that. I didn't hesitate for a second. I stood on that ledge, and then I let myself fall forwards, slide right off it, hoping to go through an invisible portal; towards a place where everything was possible - because nothing was there. And it felt good. Yes, it was exciting. Truthfully. Oh, the power you feel for that second or two or three or four - the levers are yours again. Your hands back on the controls. Push and pull. Oh, it was like the best fairground ride. I think I was laughing. I know I was grinning. Faster, whizzing and whooshing towards the square below. Falling, falling, falling... then suddenly, not falling? What? An immense belch of wind crashed into me from below, my whole body shuddered. A deity's hand print? No. Just pure chance. It was unreal. The gust swirled and spiralled and magic carpeted me upwards again. Rising, rising, rising, rising, rising... how? Why? The spurt of wind flipped me up and over that ledge I'd just been standing on. A sack of bones and organs smashing into a tarmac roof, bouncing, skidding along until I came to a stop. I lay there, blinking, looking up at the angry sky. I pulled a cigarette out of my pocket and placed it between my lips, fingers quivering. Sparking the lighter over and over again. I mouthed, 'What the...?' as a pain like nails piercing fresh flesh began to spread along my back and legs in waves. Then I just started laughing as the pain grew more intense. Ripping. Rippling. Agony. A loud clanking noise, metal on concrete. Boots tramping along. A man in uniform, a beam of light attached to him, appeared from the darkness of the fire exit stairs door. The door I'd walked out of. The door I wasn't intending to walk back in through. He cupped his hands round my cigarette, lit it, lit one for himself and crouched there in silence, smirking and staring out into the middle distance.
'This is going to be perfect in my next TV show,' I groaned, inhaling, cig between cracked lips, as a nicotine head rush blasted my brain. And by way of explanation, should it be needed: 'I write comedy.'
He raised his eyebrows, shook his head, and looked at his watch. I was blinking furiously, liquid stained my vision, emotion stained my mind. I looked at the guard. For a split second the guard had become a woman, with blonde hair in a ponytail and a face that was free of make-up and expression. But the next time I blinked the guard was a man again. I laid back, head on hard something, eyes towards sky something, feeling something – but what?
Sweat waterfalled from my brow. I yanked the fridge door and it opened with a surprised gasp. Inside, a fragile light flickered in the dark. The fridge was empty, wiped, it stank of surgery – I'd cleared it out this morning in anticipation of my death. I didn't want to seem like a monster – no-one needs the spike of rotting food in their nostrils when they're clearing out a dead bloke's house.
I went upstairs to my desk, looked out of the window at the caramel street lights of Moseley, at the trees swaying back and forth in the high winds. I flicked on the computer and started writing about what I'd done tonight, but the words didn't come easily. Words haven't come easily since Belinda had to ruin everything. When I could manage no more I laid down on the bed, staring at the ceiling. Sleep hadn't come easily either, but tonight it ate me up. The duvet enveloped me, my eyelids slid shut like they were greased, I succumbed to the darkness and the solitude it promised.
This is a dream:
I can see. I'm part of the world I'm seeing – I'm participating, not just observing. I look down and I see hands. I twist them around, tensing and flexing. I'm alive alright. It's Birmingham. I'm watching a blonde-haired woman sleep. She's lying on a bed in the middle of a roundabout which is overlooked by two tower blocks. It's daytime but there's no-one else around. Just her. She's dosing peacefully, curled into a ball, with golden locks falling across a face painted with a honey glow of serenity. I don't think it's Belinda. I think it's someone else. I'm not sure, I wouldn't put a bet on who it was, I can't see well enough. It's a dream, things are a bit fuzzy, misleading. It's like watching through cataracts. I turn around and I see a new scene. A skyscraper stretching upwards into the sky like a sentinel. It's made from concrete, its hue is deep grey, with jagged lines running up and down it and different-sized blocks around the bottom. The Mids TV HQ. The studios and the bar at the bottom, the office tower stretching upwards. The office tower I just jumped off. Tension, fizzing, refracted sunlight, pickled emotions, streetscapes grey and green, no people, bridges red and brown, a heartbeat jumping, my heartbeat jumping. The same blonde woman is sleeping on the same bed below; she wakes and points up to the Mids TV Tower. Next scene. A thinner tower without windows - the BT Tower. The blonde woman is standing by it, wearing a knowing expression, looking a little like a witty English teacher? I turn a final time. One more scene. The same woman on a bed in the middle of an open-topped atrium space. There's nothing surrounding us at ground level apart from 12 slender pillars. Above about the third storey there are concrete sides of a box with windows facing inwards to create a courtyard – but the roof is open and sunlight falls in like it's being shovelled down on to us by a giant gardener. The woman wakes up, stretches her arms and sits up on the bed. She lights a fag. She turns and swings her legs down over the edge of the bed. Her face. A sudden crash zoom in on her face. She looks at me, helplessly. She stares right into my eyes. Her mouth doesn't move – but this sound comes out of it: 'Donald.' There's a drummer in my chest, hitting so hard I can hardly concentrate.
Ten Brutalist Buildings
By Belinda Schneider (Published 2002)
Birmingham Central Library
Use your eyes. Listen to your heart. Two things interest me most: What does a building look like? How does a place make you feel? That's it. That's the secret. Architecture is really about the art around us, the art you spend your life inside - or outside, looking in at - and it's about the things that happen there. Things that have happened to you. Things that have happened to all of us.
Life isn't just fragmentary, it isn't just fleeting. Put the little pieces together and mould them into a story. You can slot things together into a narrative jigsaw. Draw lines betweens feelings and meanings like art does, connect events and ideas like philosophy does. There is a purpose. Art explains the world. We as participants in art and in life can achieve something. And with these particular buildings, built at a particular time, we did try to achieve something – something for everyone. Something for everything. Perhaps brutalist buildings are the closest thing to a pure evocation of utopia that we ever achieved. Or tried to achieve, at least. These buildings, these places - were for the people and for the future. Public places where public lives were led, lives both sad and happy. That's why I love them.
The first time I saw my future husband was inside the courtyard in the middle of Birmingham Central Library. There was no roof and no stupid fast food joints back then – they were moronically added later. There was just a huge open space with cliffs of pure white concrete surrounding a cool plaza. Sunlight streamed down, the splash of water fountains and the chatter of people filled the air. I liked Birmingham because it was a city defined by its architecture and by its hopes. By the future, not by the past. It still is. People think of it as a place filled with certain buildings, certain types of buildings. They probably don't like those buildings much. I do.
Important moments have to happen somewhere, and because they happen in a certain place or a certain building then that place or that building is forever imbued with an importance that goes far beyond the structure, beyond bricks and beyond concrete. These places are the theatres where real life dramas are played out. How many couples had their first lunch date here? How many couples had their first kiss here? How many couples had sex here? How many couples broke up while sat on benches in these squares. You have to look around and feel these ghosts – the ghosts of the present, of the past, and of the future.
Here's my story. Donald was dressed as a chicken. He'll deny that of course. But he definitely was. A human-sized chicken. He took his chicken head off and I stared at him for a while as I smoked a cigarette. He looked quite handsome, I thought. His mop of blonde hair was all scruffed-up from being inside the chicken head, and his eyes squinted as they came to terms with the afternoon brightness. I liked him. He drank a can of soft drink, cola perhaps, put the chicken head back on and manoeuvred round so he was between me and the camera. He did this stupid little dance and handed out a few flyers to some passing office workers; then the director yelled, 'Cut!' A little later they filmed another segment and after they'd done that Donald came over to me and asked me if I could do a Birmingham accent, and I tried but it was pretty laughable. I was glad he talked to me. I noticed he looked into my eyes for just a second too long while we chatted. It was a total give away. He came into the library a little later when I was studying and we talked some more. I was sat down at a desk and he was stood up. The recessed squares of the coffered ceiling framed his face beautifully, the scene was so symmetrical. I enjoyed the aesthetic perfection of it all. He thought I was rather too amused by him. I was.
Motion. Movement. Meaning. I watched people moving up and down the escalators in that library for hours. People moved smoothly and diagonally, like they were starring in a line graph. They were literally moving forward. We all were. 'Forward' is Birmingham's motto. That was before things changed and we lost faith in the power of the future, of modernism, of the state, of architects – in fact of anyone who told us to do anything and anyone who tried to make it better for us. We're all on our own now.
Now the way I felt about that building, the Central Library, will always be different to how Donald feels about it. Women feel buildings differently, just as women feel words differently. My words come from my body, they're born of me. They have some kind of inner meaning. Words can be female like buildings can be female. Birmingham Central Library is a woman. A grand dame, an Aztec goddess. All the librarians were women too. The architect of Birmingham Central Library was a man, of course. The architects of nearly all modernist buildings were men. But we can't blame the building for the fact that its designer had a dick. Half a century ago I'd have been typing the notes for some man in a suit, some functionary; rather than typing out my own thoughts and feelings like I'm doing now. Some things have changed for the better, then. But, crucially, these buildings were trying to break us all out of that staid age, to shoot us into a technological future where women would have more value and people wouldn't be wage slaves any more. And we'd all live in clean, planned cities packed with buildings that made you go, 'Wow'.
The storm had passed. Eyes full of sun. I yawned. A proper night's sleep – my first proper night's sleep without Belinda. A gnawing ache ground into my left hip. I heaved myself up, went to the kitchen and made myself a cup of tea – black, I had no milk of course. Slippers on, out to the garden. I lit a cigarette in slow motion and looked down the garden, away from the house, towards the railway line. The line was tucked away beneath a steep slope behind the garden.
Should I restock the fridge or should I kill myself?
I sucked on the death stick and sipped my tea. Smoke more? Smoke a hundred a day? My watch said 9.51am. The time trembled on my wrist as the nicotine and caffeine acted like fiends, the numbers a blur. If a train came before 10am I'd finish the job tonight. Of course I knew there'd be a train just before 10, there always was (except on Sundays). I sat down on a low wall in the garden and stared at a bee dancing around a plant.
10.06am. Engine noise. I rushed to the wooden fence at the back of the garden and peered through a hole in one of the slats. My nostrils started to fill with the faintest tang of diesel. A two carriage train chuntered past, bound for Worcester Foregate Street. I only saw it for about 15 seconds, a blur of blue-green metal, a haze and a stammer down in that deep wooded valley.
'Late. Fucking railways.' I turned towards the house. 'It should've come before 10. I'll do it anyway.' A snail slithered towards me over the paving stones, its movements taking an age, its antennae asking constant questions of the air in front of it. The futility of its journey bewitched me. So slow, so simple to pick off, so tasty, so easy to cycle over by mistake. Pathetic. Accommodating. I loved it. I bent down and stared.
Ten Brutalist Buildings
By Belinda Schneider
I'm not a sturm und drang kind of girl – I believe in rationalism and modernity. But rationalism and emotion are not incompatible. Rationalism and fun can be cosy bedfellows. Things which make sense can also be beautiful and enjoyable. Places that make sense can be settings for beautiful and enjoyable experiences. To wit: dancing fills me with glee. Brutalist buildings aren't always thought of as gleeful locations, but this one is. Why can't somewhere that's thoughtful also be a place you can get enthusiastic about; even a place you can get exuberant about? Brutalist buildings aren't boring, and if they're cared for they're not depressing either. This building is called Priory Square and it has rhythms – like the music you can hear inside. Levels on levels; sharp corners and stacked boxes. They call it a 'square' but it's more like a tiny town wedged into a hill as Birmingham city centre slopes from high ground to low, with shops on top; and below, this wonderful, huge covered den for drinking in live music. The outside of the music venue is just a cliff of concrete, uncompromising and stark and grey and ready to have any experience or any sound imprinted onto it. It's a blank sheet where you can draw your own fun. This is a building where fun triumphs. Sound, concrete and emotion conspire. It's neat.
Me and Donald went to see The Rationalists play at Priory Square. They were astonishing. I think I fell in love with Donald that night. I thought he might become my husband. He did. We'd got drunk at the pub before the gig - me on gin and him on woeful English lager - which I think was to spite me in some way. He always shouted, 'Prost!' before the first gulp as a satirical gesture. I asked him why his countrymen couldn't make beer – or, rather, why his countrymen insisted on drinking the worst of their brewed output while phasing out the breweries around Birmingham that could whip up the half decent stuff. He always just shrugged his shoulders.
The gig was great. The Rationalists saved their best song, Elizabeth Anderson, until the encore. Elizabeth Anderson was the name of the girlfriend of the band's singer, Charlie Sullivan. Ex girlfriend. They broke up and forever she'd be remembered by this song. And that song always made me think of this moment and this place. That song made shivers of pure electricity snake up and down my spine when I heard it performed live or listened to it through headphones or on the stereo.
It was such a lilting, beautiful song, so... strung out. Its power built and built from foundations that weren't so solid. In fact it was made of nothing; it would have probably floated away – that's how fragile it seemed when it started. So brittle and beautiful. But then as the song progressed it became more potent and more substantial. Those words and those guitar lines just dragged at your soul as you listened, they pulled you into the world that the band were inhabiting, and it was so exciting and bewildering all at once. Tribal and yet gentle, so poignant it made you think of your own life and the important people in it. The best songs always make you think of people – of a person – like the best buildings do. They provoke you and they evoke things from the past at the same time. They tumble up your insides and change the way you feel. And if you don't feel anything then something's wrong. Perhaps you're too old, because if you're young you'll feel things and they'll mean something to you because they're important, all this is important, songs are important, architecture is important, all art is important.
Donald pressed his hand into the small of my back as the song began, then he curled it round the top of my hip and he squeezed me into him, my head coming to a soft rest on his chest, which moved up and down as he sang the words to the song. I sang them too. And as I sang them I looked around the room and marvelled at the right angles and the space above my head. I'd never been to see a band in a venue where the roof was so high above your head. The Rationalists were from Birmingham and their songs were only about two things: architecture and love. That's why I adored them, I guess. My two favourite subjects as well. Why did Donald like them though? He was a cynic but he had some blindspots.