Bricks • Mortar • Imagination • Words

The Texts - Shyama Perrera

I think, as I run my hands across the exposed brick, how easily the imprints of history are erased. All that remains of lives lived, lives lost, stories laid upon, built into, and carved against the body of a building is the white bloom of water damage across the centuries.

Outside, it is squalling. The sea is grey. The Isle of Wight ferries traverse the Solent like giant metal geese framed between new apartment blocks on the quay. Yet within the squat redness of this regimental space it's so dry you can smell the dust.

One day soon I will paint my own narrative on these walls - a new perspective held safely in confident imperialist hands.

I put my mac on a pile of four by twos. My mobile, zipped inside the top pocket, starts ringing and spinning on its vibrating axis. The arms of the coat suddenly move apart like a baby with the Moro reflex. Adjusting my hardhat I go to the double height chamber where the pictures will hang. Three windows: I count them every time. And the stupid waste pipe they've run across the doorjamb.

All around, chiselled blocks of concrete are piled faux Turner Prize, exposing the original floor that lay beneath them. Higher at the centre than the wall, old cobbles mark the path worn by generations of naval feet entering the gun store in Nelson's city of victory.

No bullets now, no fleets of sails, no jolly Jack Tar in bellbottom trousers, no hornpipe and a view from the bridge; just ladders propped against scaffolding and the whistling of workmen overhead; an organic installation.

I circle the shell, marking the right angles and sudden turns, imagining our name over a designer-rustic entrance: Aspex. How many imprints removed are we from the history of seafaring that distinguishes this great city?

Across the way is the café chic of Canalside. The old gun wharves are shopping outlets now. Yet there is constancy in the water all around us, moving, shifting, changing with the colours of the sky, as do our lives, our narratives, our means of recording perspective.

The mobile is agitating. I can hear it rustling in the nylon, made angrier by the density of the wood. At the churchy door, a battered Matisse blue, I imagine future generations working their own furrows into the spirit level perfection of new floors; fine brushstrokes creating new visions, canvasses laid upon canvasses.

I trace those future steps to where the coffee shop will be. I can almost hear the milk being frothed, the low hum of debate. There is no way to go but forwards: nothing to fear but? nothingness.

I pick up my mac. The phone starts again. I answer. A voice simultaneously angry and plaintive: "Where are you?" I have no response. "I've been calling all day. You're at the old gun store again aren't you: obsessing? Why won't you deal with the here and now?"

Still silent I walk outside to where the summer tables will stand. Across the water a thousand masts like upended brooms, mark the far harbour. I can smell the sea. "If it's over, why can't you just say it? I wish you'd just say it and set me free."

"It's over," I say. "You're free."

I crunch my way in steel-toed boots to the site office with my hardhat and fluorescent jacket. The foreman signs me out. "It's come on since you were here last. The pipework's near done. Horrible thing, isn't it, the waiting?"

"Time and tide wait for no man," I say. "But buildings?"

Pulling on my mac I cross to Gunwharf quays. A middle-aged couple are discussing the show flats while resting against a cannon at the waterside. In my breast pocket the mobile starts its dance once more, pounding at my heart. The couple kiss.

I wrestle out the phone and, without checking the caller, drop it in the sea, turning before it hits the breakers. In front of me the Spinnaker Tower rises from the brine in its half-built majesty; a sentinel, a beacon, a totem of glories yet to come.


Arts Council England
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