In the summer we moved into a privatised box. It had recessed downlights and a view of the bin shed. Events kept happening that summer: terrible events. Some were distant and some were very close. We found out too late about protests that we might have joined, that might have helped us gain a sense of agency. When we managed to sleep we were woken by inexplicable noise. They said it was a ‘profound moral emergency’, but it was happening too slowly. Too slowly and at the same time way too fast. We had some success with our courgettes and that felt like a bad joke. We tried to help our little one accept his emotions but he smashed his toys and repeated the worst of our exclamations, softened in his undeveloped mouth.
Our box was in the middle of many others. We had a small research grant and some redundancy pay. We were often at home or in the park. Our neighbours worked long hours in journalism and aeronautical engineering. If we ran into them in the communal areas we would discuss window boxes. We would not discuss the terrible events, and we would not discuss our desires or how they had started to form bodily growths. Our GPs palpated them and pronounced them ‘ganglion cysts’. They continued to grow. We went back to our GPs who reassured us. Soon we wore our desires disguised under loose shirts, then we dragged our desires around behind us like lethargic pythons. Other people didn’t seem to see our desires, or maybe they were too polite to point them out. We started to avoid the communal areas and especially the lifts.
We discovered that the door to the roof was unlocked. We would take our desires up there to exercise them. The desires liked to thrash around on their primitive legs. They had nearly worked their ways loose from us. They were always gentle with our little one. One day we took a paring knife up to the roof with us and slit our desires stem to stern. We were inspired by the YouTube video ‘how to gut a rabbit’. We severed the dessicated stems which still attached them to us, turned their thin translucent skins inside out and washed the liquid from the objects stuffed inside. Some of them seemed to be agates, some rough lumps of manganese. Some of them were the equivalent of gallstones, and to these clung a smell of digestive juices and wet leaves.
We started sorting through the objects, wordlessly exclaiming as we held them to the light. Now and again we turned to comfort our little one who was trying to animate the empty skins. Then the door opened and the microbiologist came out. She was cautious and between contracts. She pulled down the waistband of her tracksuit to show us her scar. It was the smell that had alerted her. A hint of it lingered round her Fellini columns, the tall glass jars that filled her window boxes. Where we grew courgettes, she grew environments. Downstairs, she ran a finger across the gradients: aerobic, hypoxic, anaerobic. She explained the exchange cycles, how the sealed systems kept themselves going.
She helped us collect the materials our desires would thrive on. We took swabs from our buccal and anal cavities, our fingernails, our armpits. These provided an intimate and homely matrix. But our desires needed more than this, she told us. This was why they had tried to migrate. We took sweepings from under the bed and from the kitchen floor. We scraped the bottoms of our shoes, our computer keyboards, our second-hand books. We shredded pages of the diaries we had kept abroad, souvenir postcards, the newspapers that sustained our anxiety. The cellulose was necessary.
The objects fizzed like Alka-Seltzer in their jars. We sealed the lids and moved the columns, ours and hers, up to the roof where the light was better. We tended them. Some of them failed rapidly: unable to stabilise, they drained of colour. Or one desire would try to dominate, colonising and poisoning until it achieved a monoculture. We moved these, the pallid and intoxicated, to their own necropolis. We took copious notes. The columns that thrived developed wild internalities. We took more notes. We learned a lot about ourselves, our opacities.
The summer needed a thunderstorm to end. The pressure was affecting our desires badly. They were agitated and aggressively prowling. On the day of the storm we were up on the roof carrying out routine maintenance. The microbiologist was at a job interview. As the barometer dropped the columns entered a state of crisis one after another. One of us held our little one tight and the other, like a field surgeon who has to do something unspeakable with a pen lid, approached the vibrating field of jars. We hesitated. Do it, one of us cried, and the other plunged the ends of a plastic hose through the lids of two columns, pairing them. We didn’t know whose desires they were at first, but as they merged all the others blew their tops. The contents flew several metres above us in an oily rainbow. Soaked and fetid, we waited for the rain.
A week later the microbiologist was still acutely nervous. She kept repeating we were ‘out of book’. She had lost months of data and all her appetites. She talked about a desert rock she had seen scoured to a spindle by the sand. For us, it was the opposite. We were swamped by inclinations, needs and feelings. Today that seems an unimaginable luxury. Back then it was hellish. It was not the intimacy that was unbearable, but the loss of one small word. Before it had been possible to say ‘I’, to narrow the field of sensation down to one. Now the only pronoun we could use was ‘we’. Dawn was always early. We lay in the half-light, conjoined and seasick, each rolling in the wash of the other’s resentment, praying to sink back into dreamless sleep, hoping the other would suddenly collapse.
We were rescued from our mess by the secretary from Cousteau House. He approached us in the pocket park as we pushed our little one and the blank-faced microbiologist on the swings. His block faced ours across the park. Its facade sported a biplane mural and a council logo. He told us it was built in memory of a minor philanthropist, killed in a flying accident. When we attended a residents’ meeting, he told us it was working-class housing designed by two architects who had thought to actually ask working-class people what they wanted. They had wanted double balconies and efficient smoke-free heating and the ability to share desires. The architects’ understanding had been basic but it had given the residents a head start. The people of Cousteau House, he told us, had amassed three generations’ experience of emotional commoning.
The residents had seen our columns pop and had guessed we would need help. The secretary admitted he was surprised that anyone in the luxury flats was engaged in such a project. Surprised and a bit suspicious. Still he taught us how to filter our merged desires, reconstitute the lost ones from traces caught in the gutters. Our lives gradually stabilised. You should meet the other water snails, he said. We found reasons to keep meeting, swapping glassware, stories, pump components. One damp evening in late autumn the secretary, tentative for once, showed us their desire tank. It was a single aquarium that spanned half the basement. We were overwhelmed. Innumerable desires, some great, some small, many antagonistic, had been led to equilibrium. One of us mumbled something about symbiosis. The secretary just tapped the glass. He directed our attention to a fibrous mat of algal growth that spread across the floor. Dense in the centre, its fine fringes waved in the currents. It had appeared, he said, when the council sent out the Section Eights. The block had been declared an Opportunity Zone, suspending the tenancy agreements. Cousteau House would be torn down and replaced by a new-build. This would have 16 flats for sale, 10 flats at affordable rents and 6 at social rents. These last were double what the residents currently paid. He said the problem was that social rents were pegged to private rents, and private rents were skyrocketing. He didn’t say: because people like you have moved here.
We had our own problem: a type of desire we had named ‘desire to live right’. Hyphal and delicate, it extended rust-coloured filaments up and down our columns with comic desperation. If things didn’t change it would collapse and die, sending our environments into toxic shock. We tried every patch we could. We tweaked our sedimentation and nitrate levels, we shopped ethically, we took in parcels for our neighbours. The overextension slowed for a time and then continued faster. When the secretary proposed that we common our desires with theirs we were surprised. We asked for a few days to think it over.
We knew that the process was irreversible. No filtration system could unweave such a living tangle once it was established. Our desires would thrive or die with theirs. We started a list of the pros and cons. Two hours later one of us knocked the dregs of the wine over it. It didn’t matter. The microbiologist was relocating to Lisbon, where she would have access to a lab. She hoped the change of culture would do her good. We had neither the technical background nor the resources to up sticks like her. The residents were offering us charity. They were extending a lifeline, and we would take it.
You probably want to know what it was like. There was no great cosmic merging. It was more like slowly taking a bandage off, or learning to separate the sounds of a new language. Life is more acute, which for now, for us, means painful. The algal mass is greedy for nutrients. It leaves our desires with little. We do what we can to control the self-destructive outbreaks that result. We tinker, we clean, we tithe our energy and skill.
You probably want to know if we’re better people. We aren’t. Only this: we can’t shut out the cry, and so of course we give. Out of love, out of recognition, or simply to end the pain of it, we give whatever we can. To others, to ourselves. We know each other imperfectly. We misunderstand, and worse. We harm each other, sometimes not even recognising the weight we’re placing on a deep and tender bruise. We get it wrong, we get it wrong. So much so that we worry that ‘we’ is a cover, a mask. Because our vulnerability is not evenly distributed, and this can’t be undone. Still we say ‘we’ and in that joining of voices we make a claim on the future, and a promise to it. We: we are weary with the sense of things being done to us. Some of us have no right to be weary: we know the world has always unrolled beneath our feet, but we feel it nonetheless. Do you see? Ought has no purchase against what simply is. It’s not just the battle with the council and developers, an ugly fairground ride swinging higher and higher. It’s a battle with the whole assemblage that has been pressing on some of us, many of us, and so all of us, for a lifetime, for many lifetimes.
You maybe want to know what we dream of. It used to be nightmares of total collapse, paralysis by noxious bloom. We prepared a chlorine mix, ready by the tank, in case permanent anaesthesia came to seem better. That’s behind us for now. We dream of small instances of justice and joy and sometimes we get to see them seeded in the world. Yesterday we found a wayward desire putting out feelers in the tank. It was a small and vulnerable yearning. It concerned a sweetened rice dish the dreamer hadn’t tasted since childhood. We are doing what we can to nurture it. If it thrives we will celebrate. If it dies we will mourn.
Perhaps you want to know what keeps us going. When our little ones bud their own desires we slip these into the tank and then we throw a party. We dance together, slowly, in the community hall with all the lights on, in the darkness of an early January evening. We know we look foolish and ungainly but none of us feels it. This gives the dance, and us dancers, an easy weight. We move in various ways, in our various times, because we want to express what we share: hope for the new desires. For the ways those desires might meet the world we’re able to patch together. And we continue to believe that desires can bud spontaneously, laterally. That boundaries can be thinned. Passing strangers in the street we look surreptitiously for the signs of this. Then we look more boldly.