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In the Heavy Air
Gossip and folklore ferment admist a fire in suburbia
All stories must begin somewhere, not necessarily in a physical place but somewhere. The most dangerous place for one to begin is in a rumour. It borders between myth and truth, a constant unsettling that never arrives at a definitive point. Given its foundation of gossip, this would then ironically make the presupposed safety of suburbia one of the most dangerous places in the world. Roman gossip, Medieval gossip, Victorian gossip, all ferment in the soil below and infest the foundations of civilisation above. Immortalised through its repetition, reborn as truth, gossip is a shapeshifter, a being of its own. It seeps into the wallpaper, breathes into the wooden beams, binds the bricks together, before being inhaled during sleep. Bound to its nucleus of boredom, of the safety of monotony, it duplicates itself in the shape of a anyone it can find. With starters of emptiness and desserts of isolation, boredom is the main meal one can eat in suburbia. Most kids skip the main to fill up on the other two, but they eventually become hungry and with the leftovers thrown away, they have no choice but to look for it elsewhere; hanging on corners, walking the empty fields, the empty roads, they roam like foxes hoping to be led to something, but nothing appears. So, in the darkness they make their own main to fill the hunger; the flash of their phones is the only light to see what they are making but even with all the equipment and light, this wouldn’t distract from the fact that they are deeply inexperienced, messy cooks. And so, they make a messy job; they drop plates, burn pans, set fire to towels until eventually the whole kitchen is on fire. The flames spread and eventually the whole village is irrevocably changed. And all anyone can do is watch, drink, and gossip as the world they know is being burned to the ground. With nothing left, how does suburbia rebuild itself? With the same way it began.
And so, gossip becomes one of the only sources of spontaneity in a place like this. Regardless of its content, in a timetabled day, a timetabled life, it is a break from its mechanisms that engages you. It’s shapeshifting adapts with the times, taking place initially on a near foggy Thursday morning through our phones. A small frame in a loud classroom, a video plays for us, turning our crumpled uniforms upright as we watched. With very little sound coming from its speakers, it was unable to puncture the noise of the classroom. But soon, as the video was being replayed, we moved closer toward it, toward each other, like an imploding star ready to release, changing the universe irreversibly. Upon the end of form time, the star was released, fragments of this video scattered over the world we know, as for us the world was mainly just school. Micro versions of politics, social hierarchies, consumerism exist so intimately, there becomes very little need for a world out there with so much going on in here. The universe it sits within then is a carefully constructed theatre of family ideals with a bottomless underbelly. It is the theatre of suburbia.
Within the construction of such a place, it is no surprise to imagine why crime shows are so popular in suburbia. Safely watching from the other side of the screen, they can indulge in the untamed parallel of their village, one dominated by murders, deceit, and crime without it happening to theirs. There is also a vocabulary that is exclusive to these shows, for instance the naming of a crime as a ‘case’. It seems natural then to imagine a crime committed and all of its evidence being packed into a suitcase where they can exist within their own space, their private theatre. Under the car battery lights, this is only exacerbated by the referral of these as a ‘scene’, mini sets that travel round to different spots like a circus where things deemed
unnatural are unearthed. It travels just the same as one would with a suitcase, opening it up and showing its contents, it’s spectacle to different people. Crime becomes a place for speculation, and as a result one for gossip to thrive.
Regarding the video, the case would I imagine contain a couple of fire engine trucks, firemen and a bed of soil beneath them. The closer the soil gets to the centre of the case, the more scorched it becomes. Traces of wooden beams, paintings, cupboards, and stairs are but charcoal now. Replacing any lightness in the air with its heaviness, a wailing lingers amongst the smoke. And the fog we realise is not fog. With the air so heavy, the summer so near, it is the smoke and ash from this case that now mimics in its descending of the valley walls now.
But like the smoke, the case won’t get far, suburban stories rarely do. If you tried to take this suitcase outside suburbia, there would be very little attention to it. For anyone outside of this universe, it would only appear to be nearly two kilos of soil and toy fire engines. But here, in its birthplace, it appears to be much more. Once the smoke had spread, police were not exempt from its smell and with very little else going on, caught on to it quite fast. Organising an assembly that afternoon, teachers lined the barriers of the hall as we, all six hundred kids, sat cross legged in the middle of them. ‘We have heard of a video circulating’ the police began with. This, of course, peaked everyone’s interest from the usual announcements and became very difficult for the teachers to notice who was moving suspiciously as the talk went on. As with any crime show, it was not the showbiz nor the glamour that attracted everyone, nor for most why it had been done. It was about who had done it. Everything else would follow on shortly from this.
This interest in ‘who’ lingered in our minds and arrived alarmingly at the top of our priorities after school. To avoid any interference from our parents, we timed a visit to the scene with walking our dogs. Having a dog in suburbia is the ideal camouflage as everyone seems to have one. Although it had only happened that morning, gossip was beginning to become truth. ‘Ghosts’, someone had said. ‘I heard a ghost lived there. That was the wailing, being burnt out of the house.’ Although this may be false, the dogs’ supernatural sense then took on an extra precaution, especially by the time we arrived. The light was beginning to dim, and it seemed evident by the number of footsteps that people had made the most of it; we pushed under the now fragile yellow tape but were ultimately met with near darkness, no floodlights to indicate which side of the tape the crime scene occurred. On the surface, of course the physical crime was being committed on the side we were now on. Making new marks in the light of our phone’s flash, it is difficult to think of it all as anything other than a film set, a perfectly constructed scene. But for those undistracted by this break from suburban monotony, the crime lies on the other side of the tape, the vastness of the valley where the director of this film stays. Hiding in an enclosed pocket of the suitcase they wait patiently.
In some capacity, everybody tends to know everybody in suburbia; not in the presumed incestuous way of country life in which everyone is their brother, sister, mother, or father but in the fact that everyone eventually grasps their own idea of everybody else. In this way, everyone was guilty because everyone is made up of good stories and bad. To generalise, suburbia is then formed of three main groups, first of which would be the elderly. With the view of youth as an uncontrollable force and the burning of an abandoned manor allowing for such a spectacle, the erraticism of such a group would be most obvious. This speculation was the same for the parents, a hierarchical fight to the top of who has the most angelic kids, who has been given the wealthiest upbringing, the biggest house, the happiest marriage. Both groups are up the earliest too; middle aged mothers with new borns, businessmen and elderly people
would then be the prime suspects given the crime had been done before any school kid could wake up. But with nobody coming forward, the final and first suspects were us; making up most of the suburban population, our keen interest in the fire was deemed an indicator that we could have had some part in it. But despite the initial interest that morning, we realise going up to the site added nothing more to this. The same could be said for everyone else; nobody played on its overgrown land nor took any interest in it until now. But with the scorched soil, the earth is exposed, and gossip is released into the bubble of suburbia; the symptoms of this began to show that evening, shortly after we arrive home.
The first indicator of gossip is paranoia. Given the story began in predominantly young spaces of school and their phones, this blame was cemented further. Alongside the infestation of this symptom, people began to string their own conclusions. Although just walking to school, the boy who had taken the video was the prime suspect. ‘If he was walking so early, there’s no reason he couldn’t have been there even earlier to start it.’. However, he was only walking that early because he lived so far up the hill, up the valley walls away from school. And it was also this sole reason that these conclusions quickly disappeared; his postcode allowed him ascendance from this crime and from what I can imagine, any crime. The location of the manor is what people found most confusing; in such a ‘good’ part of the village, how could anyone who was equally ‘good’ or divinely chosen to live in such a place choose to do this? Flipped to the other side of the TV screen, we were all now part of the show. Here, the fears heightened of who was on the outside looking in.
The fingers then moved West, to the opposite side of the village, lower down in the valley. With two of my friends already living in this area, people were quick to assume they had some involvement in it. ‘It is easier to believe in something than nothing’ we were taught in a recent R.S. lesson. This is a lot easier to agree with when photos are taken too; pictures of us on site quickly spread throughout the local Facebook group. The all-seeing eye of the camera, the paranoia of the middle-aged Mum. Gossip stays as gossip if people choose not to believe; the Bible could have been as much gossip as we were reading in the comments of the group. But it was clear by the time we entered school the following morning that it was slowly fossilising into fact.
‘Why would you go up there when there is a crime investigation going on?’
It was difficult to answer this when except for the light flailing of yellow tape, there seemed to be no ongoing investigation except by those in the village. We were questioned further as the school had received a few calls that morning, telling them that we had been seen on site the previous night.
‘As were a lot of people.’ I replied.
But this didn’t seem like a valid response. When you are sat facing an authority like this, nothing seems like a valid response. And so, with no reason to keep us any longer except to keep up appearances for these paranoid parents, we were released into the flurry of questions in class.
‘Did you see them?’ ‘See who?’
‘Yes.’ I replied.
This was of course a lie. The dogs didn’t bark at all. But again, it is easier to believe something than nothing, so it felt easier to give them a story. By the following morning, there were others who were saying they saw a ghost there too; in a Victorian dress with pale legs and a pale face, the normal attributes of an English sun starved ghost.
‘The wailing makes so much sense now.’
This part, for the three of us that went did not make a lot of sense. The video had very little sound except for the wailing but this could easily be mistaken for the fire engine sirens; listening to it back, you begin to hear another one. One more natural, as if being burnt out of the wallpaper, the wooden beams, the bricks. When you think about something for so long, even if it began as a lie, it could quickly cement itself as truth. This eventually led us to the same conclusion as everyone else; it must be a ghost we thought.
For the weeks that followed, the wailing became the only memorable remnant of this strand of gossip. Unsolved, uninterested, suburbia moved onto new stories, with new inhabitants too. Dressed predominantly in clean uncrumpled suits, the new citizens slowly began to camouflage themselves against the backdrop of the English valley. The manor too blended into the new image of the village, one of a heightened paranoia that left a papercut running through valley; throbbing, noticeable but not enough to bleed out from. Its irritation became a distraction from these outsiders. I heard stories of them but only saw them once when on a dog walk on the outskirts of the village; worn alongside their pristine suits were gilets, white hard hats, and large walking boots. They tread across the fields with a lingering sense that they shouldn’t be there, their hats sticking out like a sore thumb against the greenery. I watched them, trying to figure out what they were doing but upon turning to leave, the dog pulled me back; barking into the distance of the men in the fields, there was nothing else there except them. As I pulled him back, a wailing shriek, like the one in the video flew overhead; a family of bats now took plight into the heavy air.
I went about the weeks leading up to summer as I usually do; lethargic, sweaty, and claustrophobic with the expectation of summer weighing heavy on me. Although all the clues seemed concluded now, a sense of pressure still lingered in the air and so with no escape from it I decided to take a walk in the evening up the hill where I hoped the air might get thinner. Walking past the manor house, small sprigs of green were beginning to grow, and the yellow tape had since been torn down. Amongst the tape, large footprints embossed the soil leading up to the house. I followed this trail and although my mind was tired, it was difficult to not be excited about what I thought; a returning taste of this crack in the TV screen, where both fiction and reality meet, I was beginning to look outside of the show. Out of the heaviness, it was easier to think and so now some years later, having moved out of suburbia I could begin to look in without being blinded by the smoke. Here it could be encased, and the case finally closed.
With cities’ land at high price, there is an attraction to suburbia. Here, land was cheaper but it’s protection much higher; within the valley walls a whole ecosystem exists. One long before gossip arrived, and one that will exist long after it; it cannot be destroyed through natural methods and so with something as unnatural as greed, it must take on a new form. Because
beyond these ghost stories, this gossip, beyond the valley walls something lurks. It exists in a place where people do not sleep, where you must be hungry or dead. In a dog-eat-dog world, you cannot be a dog, you must be more. That is what gossip is; it lurks in the night, watching through a camera, a businessman’s eye hoping to get his family up the suburban hierarchy through any means necessary. Even if that means evicting a winged family along the way, leaving them wailing into the valley, he shall do it; for their protection, their existence in the manor house is the only thing standing between him and the sale of four plastic houses on its land. It is all that stands between him and financial freedom. And so convinced by the towers of the city, he pledges himself to the new religion, initiated in through the burning of the house, a sacrifice to the all-seeing eye shaded underneath the hard hats that prowl the land looking for new development.
The construction of suburbia then is an urban one, an entrapment of generations of the same men wearing different forms of the same suit, the same camouflage. Their aim, like the youth here, is to eat, to fill their bottomless bowl, even if it means extinguishing the only things left natural in this world. The involvement of something alien to suburbia also follows within this; if it were anybody in the village who had caused such an event an investigation would have ensued, concluding hopefully with some arrests. But such a cataclysmic event that would shake the trust of anyone in the village that lasts now in myself, in its citizens, to render itself high above the law could only be caused by something outside of it.
And in the smoke, the creature lurks; it glides about, undetectable except from its shape shifting voice whispering into the ears of suburbia’s citizens. In the heavy air it smothers the valley and all its people. In the heavy air, gossip thrives.