A Roof Over Our Heads: Seven Acts
· RESEARCH-BASED MULTIMODAL PROJECTS
· DESIGN: ARCHITECTURE, URBANISM & ILLUSTRATION
· CULTURAL FACILITATION: CARE, POLITICS & FICTIONS
· ACT 1 ·
Early morning light enters through a corner of the balcony, diffuses through the linen curtains, fills the room with fresh warmth, and colours in orange-yellow the portable electric stove on which coffee is being made, the dish with yogurt and dates, the mug, the notebook and the mobile phone. The three beds still unmade, the two pictures of landscapes in blue and white, the three photographs, the coat rack overloaded with jackets and bags, and the amalgam of suitcases, blankets and clothes that pile up in the corner remain still in gloom. The music that comes out of the mobile phone blends with the cardamom in the coffee and they both linger in the room, charging the air with memory, causing OLD LADY and YOUNG MAN 1 in the setting to smile unwittingly and move rhythmically as they perform their daily morning chores.
OLD LADY wears a cream cotton nightgown. Her hair is pulled back under a scarf of red, green and yellow embroidered flowers, which is tied with a knot under the chin. Her golden frame glasses round her candid gaze and her clear face. She moves barefoot, slowly, silent, alien to both the roughness of the carpet and the freshness of the ceramic tiles of the balcony, to where she has carried a green plastic watering can and started pouring water on to the three pots of different flowers: daisies, petunias and a geranium.
OLD LADY: My dear flowers! I love you so much. I wouldn´t gather enough strength to get up if I hadn´t you. You were my mornings until we left.
YOUNG MAN 1 wears jeans, sneakers and a bright green t-shirt with three white letters that read PAH. His glasses are square. He waits sitting cross-legged, engrossed in the phone screen until the whistle and wobbling of the coffeemaker take him out of his universe causing him a funny wince. OLD LADY joins him, seats down on the floor and rests her back against the bed´s foot.
YOUNG MAN 1: You can have the yogurt.
(the lady takes one date)
No! Those are too sweet. You know you can´t.
Come on. Take my hands. Let´s dance. (he takes her arms and starts moving them from side to side following the music´s rhythm causing her to laugh)
Contentment and yellow fuse together impregnating the entire setting. Laughter keeps the coffeemaker, the mug and the plate with dates and yogurt in a longish stir. The three beds still unmade, the two pictures of landscapes in white and blue, the three photographs, the coat rack overloaded with jackets and bags, and the amalgam of suitcases, blankets and clothes that pile up in the corner are now brought into sight, completing the messy landscape.
YOUNG MAN 2 (who is slightly older than YOUNG MAN 1) transits the passage that connects a vague outside with the exposed interior, suddenly turned pale, revealing a clutter devoid of any joy. The entrance door, permanently open, seems to have gone missing. A makeshift curtain, out of what once was a bed sheet, has taken over the role of gate. Once crossed, YOUNG MAN 2 takes off his shoes and leaves them in line with their other fellows, which queue rather orderly opposite the bathroom´s door, this one closed. Gloom and a slight mist differentiate this stretch, which goes from the entrance until the first bed, from the rest of the room.
YOUNG MAN 2: Oh no! I told you to keep things tidy. How else can we ever have a home?
YOUNG MAN 1: Sorry, I was tired. Last night I barely slept. I was dreaming again. You know.
OLD LADY: Come see my daisies dear, today a new one has blossomed!
· ACT 2 ·
The smell of freshly laundered clothes diffused by a light breeze coming through the balcony permeates objects and people causing them to sigh. Two of the laundry lines have made it into the room and the set of scenes suggests a moving landscape of shades of different intensities. The yellow freshness keeps the three women in the room (OLD LADY, YOUNG WOMAN 1 and YOUNG WOMAN 2) in busy though serene hustle. The street bustle and traffic noise sneaks into the room, yet with no effect on the reigning calm. A barricade of cushions surrounds a baby who sleeps on one of the beds.
YOUNG WOMAN 1: Now you sit down and take some rest. Otherwise we won´t come tomorrow.
OLD WOMAN: (smiles and sits on the bed)
How is the new house?
YOUNG WOMAN 2: It is very nice, very beautiful, very spacious with a big balcony. And it has a lift. Finally! I was feeling that my back would break one of these days of having to bring him up and down.
It is very close from here, just four or five blocks away. We´re still neighbours.
YOUNG WOMAN 1: But you are still more here than there!
(they all smile)
YOUNG WOMAN 2: Yes, we got used to this. And to be honest, now we miss it. One evening that we stayed there, we were so bored. We felt so lonely. I was thinking of organising a meal, a real meal, you know. No pasta, no potatoes. (they all laugh). But then I thought the place feels empty somehow. We were so excited when they gave us the keys. But I can´t help this feeling.
YOUNG WOMAN 1: Oh! I can come and help you with some decorations.
YOUNG WOMAN 2: Do you think is worth the effort?
YOUNG WOMAN 1: Yeah… Maybe you are right.
A fleeting sadness brings grey to the room and leaves clothes and breaths frozen in suspension. Breeze ceases.
YOUNG WOMAN 1: Shall we vacuum today?
YOUNG WOMAN 2: Yes, let me go grab the vacuum cleaner downstairs. It was in the storage room, wasn´t it?
YOUNG WOMAN 1: Unless someone else has taken it, yes, it should be there.
YOUNG WOMAN 2: Good. Look after him, please. If he wakes up, just take him in your arms. I´ll be right back.
OLD WOMAN: Didn´t you vacuum yesterday? We will wake him up with the noise. I can´t just get used to it.
YOUNG WOMAN 2: No, no worries. I think he is so used to noise. He would cry so much with the explosions, but now it seems as if he hears no more. His cry has turned silent, just tears, no noise. My body seems to have accommodated this change though, as if we both have been muted to the world, yet developed our own language of intercommunication.
Grey returns despite the exterior sunlight. Clouds make it into the room.
· ACT 3 ·
Profound silence keeps the clutter in unwavering stillness as if the entangled paraphernalia in unstable equilibrium was holding its breath. All of its members have paused for a moment to accompany OLD LADY in her pray, to hold the space for her. The fan will not spin, the phone will not ring, the lamp will not flick, the tap will not drip, the standing coat rack will not bend, no frame will drop, no cup will shatter. They have kindly let her a room of her own and found a place from which to observe her, such is the force of her contemplation. The mirror retains her in a static image, adding a new photograph to the set of three arranged in line on top of the cabinet, in which a younger OLD LADY appears smiley among seven children against a backdrop of olive trees. The scarf of red, green and yellow embroidered flowers acts now as a shawl and wraps her in her recollection. The light brown of her headscarf and skirt matches with the beds´ quilts, all them as in an autumnal composition. Her arms, intertwined, embrace her body. In serene stillness, she holds onto thoughts and hopes.
· ACT 4 ·
As the grains of the pomegranate are liberated the entire atmosphere reddens causing the metallic cutlery, plates, recipients and small oilcloth to blush. An extensive operational crockery has made itself room and, squeezed in between the beds, the cabinet, the table and the coat rack, keeps bodies in motion and mouths in animated conversation. The deployable kitchen has gained ground to the constellation of objects that initially populated the floor carpet until they found themselves displaced to the margins of that new scenario. The steaming casserole joins the ceaseless activity and raises the temperature. Contentment is plausible. Seven different spices displayed in seven different side plates add intensity and scent to the reigning red.
OLD LADY: No. Not like this. I´ve told you many times. That way you grab the knife doesn´t work. You are spoiling the grains. They are breaking and spilling the juice. As if you had not done it so many times at home!
YOUNG MAN 2: Of course! You have the good one, the one I brought. These from the kitchen are horrible.
YOUNG WOMAN 3: All this is looking delicious!
YOUNG MAN 2: Oh yes! Usually she feels lazy, but when she gets into it no one can beat her in the family.
OLD LADY: What are you saying?
YOUNG MAN 2: That you are the best!
(they all laugh)
YOUNG WOMAN 3: Shall I call them to confirm how many of us will be finally?
YOUNG MAN 2: Oh no, no need dear! No worries, I´m sure some food will be left over, as usual when she cooks.
YOUNG WOMAN 3: But I´m not sure… Because we told them yesterday but I think this morning I heard them saying that they have told other friends as well. So maybe we should ask.
YOUNG MAN 2: No dear. Look, we don´t make distinctions between friends and family as you do here. We call everybody who comes to our place family. So there will be plenty of food for everyone, no matter how many come.
YOUNG WOMAN 3: I see. It is not guests. It´s family. I like that. In any case we better hurry up. We said at 2.00.
YOUNG MAN 2: Haven´t you got used yet to how time works here dear?
(they both laugh)
· ACT 5 ·
A cloth made of dark green plastic bags fails in its attempt to set a boundary for the large display of plates with hummus, aubergine salad and falafel, glasses of water and juice, jars with yogurt, bowls with fruits, plates with sauces, spices and olives, trays with sweets and a large casserole with stew meat. Food, objects and people, all set on the same level –the groundfloor–. The afternoon glare lights all them up as if dragonflies in a meadow. Cheerfulness and overdue hunger infers a growing vibration on people, objects and food alike. The chirpy stir lingers through recurrent laughter.
MIDDLE-AGED MAN: Thank you so much for the invitation! It really feels like back home.
MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN: We´ve brought some sweets.
YOUNG MAN 1: Come, come! Take a seat.
(he takes a cushion that is on the bed)
OLD LADY: Oh! Not this. It is going to get stained. Take this other one.
YOUNG MAN 1: But they are all the same!
OLD LADY: This one is very dare to me. You know dear.
YOUNG MAN 2: Yes, you know. This is HER cushion. (he laughs) Take yours.
YOUNG MAN 1: But they are all the same! And they are not ours. (a familiar sense of capitulation darkens his face)
The setting comes into expanded motion. Cutlery resonates in plates and bowls, food moves across the cloth from side to side. Filled mouths begin to interfere with the conversation.
YOUNG WOMAN 3: Do you have news today from your family?
YOUNG MAN 3: Yes. They sent me this video. Yesterday it was my sister´s birthday. They celebrated it like us today.
The phone´s screen presents a familiar scene, parallel in form and content to what happens in the room at the time. A group of people is seated around a cloth on the groundfloor. On the cloth there are dishes with vegetables, glasses of water, jars with juice, bowls with fruits and a cake with two candles. A radio and two mobile phones complete the set of displayed items in the room. Nothing detaches from the same horizontal surface. Walls and ceiling stand bare. Unlike theirs, the one on the phone´s screen is in dark, scarcely lit with a few other candles. The graceful dancing and tender singing of a little girl in pink makes the setting come alive. Clapping and singing embrace her and break the gloom.
YOUNG WOMAN 3: She is so beautiful!
YOUNG MAN 3: Yes, she is. I love her so much. I will always do, even though we haven´t met yet in person.
MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN: In my language we have a word that means I-love-you-forever
YOUNG MAN 1: How old is she?
YOUNG MAN 3: She´s turned two years old. I left two months before she was born.
OLD LADY: She reminds me of your sister. She used to dance around all day long, under the olive trees of home. Do you remember it?
(YOUNG MAN 1 and YOUNG MAN 2 smile)
YOUNG MAN 2: Of course we remember! She has always been the zappy one. Utterly untamed!
(OLD LADY, YOUNG MAN 1 and YOUNG MAN 2 laugh)
OLD LADY: My God! Keep her safe.
· ACT 6 ·
The glass of the sliding doors to the balcony is fogged. A series of rolled towels line up at the bottom to prevent heat scape. Water is boiling in a saucepan on the portable electric stove. A comforting mist permeates the room with calm. Wool blankets on top of the quilts wrap the three beds. A ceiling lamp projects layers of grey under the volumes, adding to the looming haze that blurs silhouettes and thoughts alike.
YOUNG MAN 4: I just need a towel and very hot water. Oh! Just remembered they´ve brought some scented sticks some days ago. That was so strange! Let me go check in the storeroom. I´ll be right back.
OLD LADY: Why has he left?
YOUNG MAN 2: He went to the storeroom for something he says will be good for the massage. I don´t know.
OLD LADY: Oh! If there is that woman there, there is no way to get anything out of time. She reminds me of a civil servant back at home: she says “no” in automatic mode before you finish the question, just as a robot!
YOUNG MAN 2: Mom, you´re so exaggerated! (he laughs)
YOUNG MAN 2: Ohh! This feels so good. Finally I have a little relaxation!
YOUNG MAN 4: Yeah.. it´s not easy to find a moment for one´s own here, is it?
YOUNG MAN 2: I think I forgot what that is!
(they both laugh)
YOUNG MAN 4: The only thing that put me off at the beginning was precisely this; having nowhere to retreat to. Day and night you are in the company of others here, you like it or not. I know we can´t do alone to keep this space running, but I was so used to my private room. Now I´m realising that even in the midst of this mess I have the capacity to create these spaces when I feel I need a bit of seclusion.
YOUNG MAN 2: Are you going back soon?
YOUNG MAN 4: I don´t think so. I´m enjoying it here. I feel much more useful.
YOUNG MAN 2: Don´t you have a job there?
YOUNG MAN 4: I´ve been trying for a while to make a living as a physiotherapist, which is my deep vocation. But there´s no way I´ve managed to meet my rent out of this alone, so I´ve been taking shitty jobs one after one to be able to support myself. I felt so tired.
YOUNG MAN 2: I see. I´ve heard the same story from many people already. It scares me.
· ACT 7 ·
Under the moonlight the balcony has turned into a pool of silver. The cool glow behind the glass sliding doors contrasts with the half-greyish half-yellowish indoor light, which blends with the cardamom inside the coffee mugs, succeeding in their joint effort to warm up the room. Backs rest against cushions, pillows or the wall.
YOUNG MAN 2: 107. It´s a bit higher today. Have you eaten already?
OLD MAN: No, no... It depends on the day. Some days is higher, I don´t know why.
OLD LADY: Same! Yesterday mine went up to 158!
YOUNG MAN 1: Because you cheated. You ate those pastries!
YOUNG MAN 2: Did you understand?
YOUNG WOMAN 3: I guessed it, yes.
OLD MAN: It´s been higher than it used to be since those months by that damned fence. The doctor said I might got stressed out and that´s why it raised.
YOUNG MAN 2: Stressed out? Why?
OLD MAN: Oh God! Those days! I remember one day I was going back to my tent with my meal and it wasn´t there anymore! Nobody seemed to know anything about it. How come? So I raided the entire camp in search of it. I knew I would recognise it. It was mine.
YOUNG WOMAN 3: And what happened?
OLD MAN: There it was! After hours of searching I found it. The guy who had taken it didn´t object. He just came out and even helped me to dismantle it and assemble it back in my place! (he laughs)
YOUNG MAN 3: That was the day we met. Do you remember?
OLD MAN: Of course! How could I forget that guise you wore!
(YOUNG MAN 3 and OLD MAN laugh)
YOUNG MAN 3: I know! Those gumboots and that plastic they called “waterproof”!
OLD MAN: Yeah… “waterproof” they said. How did they dare? Didn´t they have eyes to look around?
YOUNG MAN 3: Then I didn´t see you anymore, until we met here again! I felt so happy when I recognised you in the crowd in the lobby.
YOUNG MAN 2: I think we all will remember that first day. We were all tired but so exited at the same time! Finally, a proper roof over our heads!