A woman alone and without pre-ordained purpose enters the echoing space of a multi-storey car park: this powerful piece by Scottish writer Clare Archibald opened an occasional series exploring the complex relationships of people and place. First published 12 August, 2016 this is one of the top reads on Walking Heads blog.
Your feet hear the words
Choose your place. Be in it. Return with a symbol. You had noticed a building with transparent stairs. You wondered about the people taking them with their huffs and puffs audible to the world, pondered the others taking three stairs at a time oblivious to going unnoticed in their minor victories. You think about the people who always take the lift because they do not like to be watched. The lift runs parallel in your mind, you feel the enclosure.
You focus on the building you want to be in. On the left of the road just before the tower of endless treadmill is a multi- storey car park with a flight of stairs in apparent synchronicity. Perhaps precisely because you are on foot, this is where you want to be. Waves of forbidden pull you there.
The staircase is open and cascades over you as you look from across the street. You feel the deceptive smoothness of its twin bannisters of unspoken and overly dramatised fears. You are a woman. You are alone. You are in broad daylight. The shadows whisper.
Even open-sided stairwells are containers of something. Something not described on signs. There are no hoardings saying do not go there unless you want to feel unsafe, uncomfortable, unthought of. You Helter Skelter around these thoughts and go in.
On foot. You are not wearing the clippety clop high heels of the foalish, skittery victim returning to her car in a thriller. You walk almost silently, with the woven stealth of a pedestrian. Perhaps you would be cast as the watcher. Instead you direct yourself. You don’t look behind you or rummage in your bag for keys. You do not drop an overflowing brown paper bag of shopping. You do not break the heel of your shoe running from danger.
The car park is a designated area of special interest. It is for university students. You wonder why so many students have cars. You think that in a city centre all places are walking distance but wonder are they walkable. You see all the students living with their parents with the make of their car as their only badge of freedom. You think of the costs of trains and buses and terrain outside of this city, all cities and see why this swirling mound of concrete contains so many flattened illusions displayed as taxpayers on windscreens.
You enter with the thought of picking up one of the tickets that you can guarantee will be spread confetti like after the joining together of drivers and shops, hospitals, secret assignations and the myriad of other marriage possibilities piled to the top floor of the staircase. You pick up a random story for later transcription.
For the first time in over 30 years you walk around a multi-storey car park with no pre-ordained purpose. You look at the trees and vegetation that refuse to be held static in concrete.
The green reminds you of the limeade you’d half empty from returnable glass bottles and top up with vodka. You’d take your turn of teenage swigs then run up and down the concrete ramps to increase the blur, lapping the long winding altars to the shops that leapt across the road. You were reckless. You sat in stairwells with boys. You leapt over roads. You were told by others that all these activities were forbidden.
Your car park was in a town that had only two tall buildings, one for the county to run its business and the other for people to live in. As well as giving you concrete shade to try out a secret life, the tower block that rose out of the car park told you that you too would leave and live in cities with tall buildings. You held this thought inside you not realising it was there until it washed over your feet as you walked away.
Before you leave your town you see cracks in the cement where the first person you ever knew could be young and die of their own accord left their mark. You see this played out as a potential ending for all ages in moving images over the years, but the memory of the top floor of the car park as that person’s net of illusion reverberates. You wonder if there had been more tall buildings if it would have been different. You wonder why the ones who jump or push others off car park roofs are mainly men. You stand in the car park and wonder what the time limit for being there with no purpose is. You think about the applicable tenses of containment.
You are not a driver. You do not want to think of yourself as a passenger. Anecdotes of the freedom driving brings have stretched your hearing taut to danger. You look at the signs here for evidence of this license to roam. You look at the faceless drivers and imagine your own. You bang down on the reality that you do not trust any recklessness but your own.
You follow the trail that always leads to a puddle of acid drops from the roof. The smell of concrete mingling with pulsating metal makes age leach from you. Pricks your sense of recklessness with its jaggedness. You breathe in the remnants of exhaust fumes that never escape fully through the open sides of any multi storey car park. You sense that you are in an unseen mirage of calm with lights that soothe and make you glow in reverse from a distance. You see the leaves caught forever in the railings designed to keep all kinds of nature at bay. You feel the breeze flow through the blocks of forbidding.
You hear the freight train roll above in a Mancunian clap of revolutionary reminder. You stand stationary. You feel the arteries of the area pumped once again with ferric blood that mixes with fake subterranean acridity. The collected remnants of everything gather, pushing colours that transfix you even though you do not like this word. You think of the positive communities contained within and try to join up the pieces. Concrete becomes silver pieces of all that is you and the communities that you have joined and carried within.
You walk with compulsion towards signs that you cannot interpret. You walk with purpose but without aim. You walk as you are watched. You wonder if the different rhythms can be felt by the watcher. The gaze of one can be assimilated and ignored. You do not want to test the gaze of all. You walk unseen from the outside. You look out unseen from the inside.
You search for ramps to run up and down and blur your thoughts but are distracted. Car parks carry their scent, whirling it around their semi contained air in a way that cannot be emulated, of this you are scientifically sure. You cannot imagine the grey acid of their tongue anywhere else. The licks of silence that are not quiet but are in fact amplified enclosure. You perambulate. You are a woman revelling in no purpose. A mother relishing the absence of child. Echoes of others live always in car parks. You breathe the spaces in the air. You fill the spaces in the air. You fold around the grey.
The air carries you in waves and tosses you to the top, open, floor of the nearest car park to your home of now. As the high street dies it is becoming corporately redundant, the shops below subterranean ship wrecks of the concrete tides above them. You stand at the mast and look out at the sea, a flotilla of siren memories floating towards you.
As if her voice were surging up the Firth of Forth from Grangemouth to Kirkcaldy, you remember sitting in the car park of your home town, another place, secretly smoking and reading a music paper interview. You think it was in the soon to be defunct The Cut but you know it was with Liz Fraser. She talks in your head, fossilised by extended parenthesis, of singing the shadows. Shadows flicker a memory of a staircase in a Cocteau film. You hold onto the twin bannisters that join the shadows and swing along to the music of silhouette. Washed up with serendipity you hear echoes of the shapes seep out in the landscape of other car parks, other women who sing from all that is contained within. The spectrum of these voices shades the air with lineage as it falls all around coating you with grey dust that you feel as glitter of ether.
You stand in the half enclosed daylight and watch fireflies of voices fly free in the dark. Invited to soar with the rhythm of the falling water, they do. You hear forbidden spaces become private, derelict places emerge fully occupied and present. You feel the tension of constraints. The balance of freedom in concrete with all that is linear in other ways. You hear the shadows dissipate but not peter. You take your cue and move through the space not feeling the watching, hearing only your own echoes of this habitat.
You stand before the camera and take a photograph of the nameless filming you. Your feet walk out in rhythm with the watcher’s words. Your feet fall silent and follow the exit sign. You will return to stand on the top floor in the dark and look for feet walking across and up in other buildings.
This space is not reserved. You can look at it in whatever light you choose. You leave with the ticket and wonder at the feet of others. You watch yourself climb the stairs.
This article first published 12 August, 2016
Clare Archibald is a Scottish writer who is interested in the interplay of forms and the potential of both collaboration and narrative non-fiction. She has recently been longlisted for the international Lifted Brow/& RMIT Non/Fictionlab Experimental Non-Fiction Prize.
This piece was written as a result of a workshop run by the poet Jean Sprackland as part of the short Place Writing course co-ordinated by David Cooper for Manchester Metropolitan University’s Writing School.
Attendance at the course was made possible by a grant from Fife Council.
Many thanks to Brigid Mae Power for the use of her track recorded in a Galway car park and the giving of her words on this process for me to interpret and incorporate. [Note: that track no longer available on SoundCloud, it is replaced here by Ghosties]
All images are by Clare Archibald