Gavin Clarke Architecture, COVID-19, Family, Reflection, technology

After over a year of our retreating to private spaces Emma Devlin reflects on distance and technology, and how her room in a shared house in Belfast reflects and records her presence.

Journey Around My Room

By EMMA DEVLIN

I looked up my flat on Google maps. The two squares of scrappy land just outside the front door used to be planted with trees. Cedars and cypresses, I think. Their dry, faded stumps remain in the ground. I think of them as the ghost trees. I’m not good with the names. There are still trees planted all along the road where I live which the Open Tree Database tells me are hawthorns. I tend to misread the significance of their names, of each small movement in the branches, each distinct shade of green, or yellow, or brown.

The ghost trees stood directly in front of the house. They would have offered some privacy to the people who lived here. They might have cast green light through the windows. From my room you would have seen the varying shapes, textures, and colours of the sky in the gaps within their wide, conical bodies.

There’s a person who works in an office opposite my building who I sometimes accidentally make eye contact with – or maybe I imagine that – and she steps off to the side. I don’t really know what she looks like. She’s just a distant series of movements, in shades of brown, out of the corner of my eye as I tidy up, dust, have lunch. Maybe I’m just a series of movements to her as well.

I can pick out the features of the people on the street. A woman and her daughter pass by the house every weekday. Once, I was waving at my father as he drove off and the little girl waved back at me. I think there must be some importance to these little things, too small to be of much interest, and yet somehow filled with significance. But I can’t read them. Is it because of people like me – illiterate, essentially – that trees are torn down? 

I could ask my flatmates, except I’m not sure how. My flatmates and I have developed a sixth sense for each other. I know when they’re here, and they know when I’m here. I sense the front door, directly below my room, swinging shut through a vibration in the wall. Likewise, the footsteps up the first flight of stairs. The door to our flat opens and swings shut, and I can tell which one it is because one will cough, the other will not. We talk on WhatsApp about the noise the shower makes, or leaving the bins out, whose turn it is to buy toilet paper. I don’t know them. They don’t know me.

The thing is, I am aware that I am seeing a fraction, a shade, of the people they are. The noise their cars make. The glimpse of their rooms as we pass each other in the hallway. It’s like the paintings I have on the walls. A half-painted stag and a half-painted deer. Both of them disappear at the edges into sketched lines, rough circles.

‘These days I have strange encounters with myself’

These days I have strange encounters with myself. I can’t sleep and I try on dresses, I put on makeup. I pose, I dance, I exercise. I am aware I am surrounded, so I am very quiet. But I don’t know what kind of signals I send, outside of the normal sensory range, for them to pick up. This place has made me mind myself in new ways. I have been told, many times, that I am strange and awkward. Off-putting, someone once said. That word comes back on me. I take note of my room, of the things in it. Books I haven’t read. Half-finished drawings, embroideries. Empty bags, empty boxes. Things I’ve put off. Off-putting.

I have tried to break this pattern. I sent them a picture of a parcel I received for a “Mister E Devlin”. My new superhero name, I said. No response. I cleaned out the shower, the washing machine, the dryer. They didn’t notice. One of them scolded me for leaving my facecloth in the sink. That’s all right, I tell myself. I know how to be invisible.

Ten years ago I lived alone in Turckheim, in France, for nearly a year. That was a different kind of alone: Turckheim is so small that I stood out. Everyone knew me, but didn’t have much patience for my imperfect, heavily accented French. I could understand them, but when it was my turn to speak I was slow, full of uncertainty – le, or la, what preposition, what’s the word? Sometimes this room shrinks, and I am in that other place. That was another small room, smaller than this one. I was smaller then, too. I took up less space. I thought, in the future there will be more room. A place can stretch too, into bigger places, and inside this room I am always, continually, inside the last place I lived. That was a whole house.

The person I lived with was very precise about what space should do. He got annoyed if I read in the living room, because that room wasn’t for reading. I took up too much space and he couldn’t understand how. That was all right, he decided. This is what I must be like. Off-putting.

‘Over time I have developed a blurred, double-edged impression of myself.’

My present room came with lots of mirrors. One for above the defunct fireplace, which I have stowed beside the wardrobe. Three on the dresser, which I have loaded with perfumes, lotions, hand-creams, lipsticks, mascaras, eyeliners, scarves, books, and books, and books. I can’t see myself in them. There’s a full-length mirror which I kept covered with a sheet for the first six or seven weeks that I lived here. In my last place, we only had one small mirror in the hallway, which I only glanced at to make sure I was presentable. Anything more is overwhelming. I use shop windows to check myself. I have a better idea of myself – or I possibly just like myself better – this way. Over time I have developed a blurred, double-edged impression of myself. I had a habit of checking and double checking whether I had locked the doors, closed the windows and I saw my reflection there too. I thought it had stopped, but it’s started again, the checking. I check that I haven’t left my facecloth in the sink once, twice, three-times before I leave the house. I check I haven’t left the door on the latch. I check I haven’t left my purse behind, or my keys. Once, twice, three times. These are the strangest encounters with myself. I don’t trust myself to occupy the space I am in correctly.

I see bits of myself in my half-brothers and half-sisters. A half-understood series of movements, seen at a distance: the way we move, the way we fold our arms, gesture, point, walk. We’ve only found each other in the past year. I’m meeting them as adults, and they all seem so fully formed, complete, in a way that I am not. For years I rarely saw myself in my father, until they showed me a picture of him as a young man. He is twenty-one, I think. It’s his wedding day. The photo was torn in half by his ex-wife during an argument and hastily sellotaped together, hidden upstairs. My sister-in-law snuck it down to show me, and there I am, in his smile, in his eyes. It’s just a glimpse. Our resemblance is lost if you look too closely. There’s another photo of my father, around the same age, where he looks exactly like my half-sister. I haven’t seen her in years, but there she is, and me too. Just a glimpse.

The upstairs neighbours have a dog. He’s small and sandy coloured. He likes me, I think. Sometimes they open the door a crack when I come home so we can say hello. Sometimes, the right person looks, and the glimpse is enough.

A man called Ciaran sent me a letter. When I show it to other people they are confused by it. The term “cognitive decline” has been used. But the letter doesn’t strike me that way. It is a kaleidoscopic piece of writing that trips over itself in haste to tell me about his work on the Fibonacci sequence and daisies, microscopes, membranes. I think it’s because I write about nature. As he said when he handed it to my colleague: 45 years of experience. He showed me something of himself, a rare gift, and I am not inclined to dismiss him so easily. I hope we can talk together properly. I think we have suspected the same things about each other: that we are lonely, that we don’t quite fit, and there are others who use language to pin us down.

I’m trying to work myself out.

I flick through google maps year by year, and each year the ghost trees become taller, wider, are cut back, grow again, until they abruptly disappear in 2019. Will there be trees here again? Probably not. Somebody somewhere has decided that they are not worth the upkeep. There are notions at play there of what is acceptable in a garden, in trees. I’d be happy to see what’d happen when trees are just left alone: trees are good that way. Along the threads of mycelium that connected them under the concrete those old trees would’ve have identified each other, shared nutrients, shared the wait until, what, until the future. And when they were pulled down? One’s image of the other must have sputtered out. I flick back and forth on Google Maps. 2019, 2020, 2019, 2021. Tree, no-tree, half-tree, no-tree. And if it was possible to shift forwards? In the spaces where the trees stood are short, hardy looking shoots. Nameless, to me, but the name is meaningless here: they occupy a place on the taxonomy that is between ordered, tidy ground and wild, worthless garden. Someday the house will change hands again. The yellow door will be painted over, the trees replanted, and the image of the house as it is now, in 2021, will be filed away online and flicked over by someone new. Part of a sequence, repeating itself, deep into the future.

Emma Devlin is a PhD student in Creative Writing with a research focus on representations of the nonhuman and envisaging post-Anthropocene futures. Emma’s story ‘Charisma’ was longlisted for the Galley Beggar Short Story Prize 20/21 and work has featured in the Irish Times, Banshee and Channel, among other publications. Emma is currently working on a collection of short stories. A version of Journey around my Room’ was previously read on David Collard’s Carthorse Orchestra online literary salon in an event curated by the poet Amy McCauley, 5 June 2021.