From beneath you it devours. This old house. Yes, matter is durable, hard and if it hits you on the leg hard enough, it bruises. But it’s also ever-shifting in this 1903 terrace, located in Barton Hill, Bristol. In 1828, this place was all fields. Ten years later, Isambard Kingdom Brunel had designed The Great Western Cotton Factory, which operated until 1925, and the first workers’ houses sprang up. My street was one of the last to be developed in the area until the great mid-century demolitions began. Barton Hill Settlement was started by the University of Bristol in 1911. University staff and students lived alongside the cotton workers with the aim of bringing cultural and educational opportunities to the working poor. There were open air schools to combat high levels of TB and schools for young mothers. Not so very different 100 years later. My old neighbour in another part of this city is a community nurse. Much of her time is spent here in Barton Hill – the health problems remain respiratory.
Fluids build up in the lungs. They rise up from the Feeder Canal. They drip from the cistern and follow the cracks in the concrete floor. They fill a polystyrene cup placed just-so underneath the sink trap. They leave marks on ceilings and down walls. They feed extinct colonies of black mould tucked away behind layers of friable plaster. Breathe on it and it crashes to the floor. They creep in through gaps in roof flashing and meander down inside window casements. They seep into old plaster until it blows. The fluids fill me with fear and bring me to the edge of panic. It’s not the hard matter that terrifies, it’s the ‘all that’s solid melts into air’ that sends me into a spin.
And the effects of the fluids change my body. In the couple of weeks of hard graft my muscles have changed. While I’ve spent the last few years weight training and have, in the spirit of the last-chance-saloon of middle age, re-shaped myself in the gym, this work on this house has trimmed different bits. And it’s also reminded me that I’m vulnerable. Dealing with the consequences of fluids and the ever-moving house has made the tendons in my right arm seize, swell and harden. My hands, once flexible and delicate, have clawed. My forearm is the most solid thing here.
But I realise that I am not the first person to buy a ‘fixer-upper’. Nor the first to bite off more than she can chew. I strip back and build up. I understand that the likelihood of malfunction and failure at every turn is what troubles me, what I both loved and loathed about driving old cars. It’s just mutability, the always-already fluid state of all matter, I tell myself. Yet, it’s so much easier to deal with across the liquid crystals of my screen, with the solid weight and warmth of the laptop spreading across the tops of my thighs, than it is in the active spaces of dust and spores and droplets. But I must press this and press on…