A Row of Trees

The Journal of The Sonic Art Research Unit

Freya Dooley – Scenes from Temporary Commons

Scenes from Temporary Commons

// 1


Disorderly Weather sets the scene.
The thunder could split rock. The rain
announced itself out of nowhere,
banging on the window
attention seeking.
Heavy beat down, a relentless headache, they
don’t call this fallacy pathetic for nothing.

I’m counting the beats of every passing hour minute
that I am still
not asleep, still not asleep, still not asleep, still not asleep. Restless
I can’t settle, my mind tears through all thoughts at once,
falling from a very great height and then,
in a moment of clarity,
fixates on just one scene.
Saturating the surface, soaking into the pores of the finest

In bed with the rain, one thing leads to another.
Extreme weather patterns and persistent downpours cause leaks.
Soggy buildings compromise the ground they sit on and
soft structures lead to sinkholes.
Now, I know what you’ll say, that
fluctuating emotions, feelings of insecurity, precarity,
may prompt fears that some might call irrational. But
irrationality is immeasurable, and nothing is impossible,
or, on better days, anything is possible.

Water seeps down through surface soil and gradually dissolves the rock beneath.
There are hidden cavities underground, growing little by little,
the floor falls through
without warning,
and the slowest of time becomes all-of-a-sudden.

By the light of my phone, I indulge in unrest and
browse thumbnails of swallowed buildings and sleeping residents
eaten alive by the earth.
The land may, for a while, sustain its own weight and that of whatever is built on top.
But there will come a day,
the experts say,
when the surface layer will collapse.

Soft terrain shifts easily. Especially at low sea levels, especially after heavy rainfall.
Signs you’re sitting on a sinkhole: jammed doors,
cracking noises,
sloping floors,
sagging trees,
blocked drains,
concave pavements and
dipped fences,
ruptured foundations,
rainwater collecting in unlikely places.
One thing leads to another.


The whole street would have heard it last night
but the Weather is acting this morning like nothing happened.
This sort of thing is typical: moods predictably volatile.
I hate to sleep on an argument.


// 2


This House
which I like to pretend is mine
is nestled in a terrace on the edge of the city.
This House lives a porous existence.
There is no stillness, or if there is, I can’t find it.
Everything hums with potential, with
traces of past occupants,
all the other lives in transit, absorbed in the walls.
We are all temporary tenants.

This is the setting, for now, and
I’m interrupted daily by the sounds of Next Door
playing the parts of their own lives,
where they themselves are the protagonists.
Landlord visits regularly, always without warning.
Exercising his professed rights,
he lets himself in –
slopes under the door, slippery.

Most of the houses on this street have similar layouts,
some are divided into flats.
Landlord owns half of them,
patches up his patches with surface renovations and postured improvements.
In imperfect conditions, the buildings age in tandem, some with more dignity than others.
Ruptures and wrinkles, broken plumbing and peeling skin,
unable to take responsibility for their own maintenance.
The states we’re in.

Penetrating damp is caused by water that is diverted into the structure of the house.
Damp is common around here,
rising water levels infiltrate the buildings.
The rooms wheeze and strain.
Cracks in pointing,
cracks in render,
leaking rainwater,
blocked guttering,
failed seals.

I can taste mould.
The conditions are perfect for rapid growth.

An unidentified leak is dripping somewhere in the house. I can’t quite locate it.
Leaching the edges, it ticks on and on,
in between the party wall,
in between me and them,
Next Door.


// 3



All these things next to each other, that’s what we call the universe


// 4


Alone on the other side of the wall,
Next Door’s dog cries incessant rhythms,
pleading attention
from eight, when they leave for work
or, ten-past-eight, because she has a habit for lateness,
until they get home around six
or, seven-thirty, because they have a habit of putting each other off.
When they return, they mistake the dog’s distress for grateful excitement.
The dog itself is perpetually forgetting its own routine of rejection and reassurance.
Perhaps people get pets to feel in control.
I had a fish, but it jumped the tank,
dried up on the floor.
Exhausted, without knowing why.


// 5


Everyone knows the plumbing’s collapsed
but Landlord ignores my calls, he’s
suddenly decided to keep his distance.
So I’m on the phone with the plumber: the interlocutor between me and the house.
The connection is bad, the line between us interrupted by Weather, so,
between words there are hisses, clicks, pops and percussions of breath.

Communication is sexy.
The plumber tells me that
before this, in another life, they were George Michael’s sound engineer but they had to reroute for better stability, more sociable hours.
They tell me to bleed the radiators,
they tell me, a rupture occurs where pressure finds a weak spot.
Air hates to be crowded so I do as instructed.
The pipes hold tight and then
with relief.


// 6


How was your day?
It was too much.


// 7


Next Door have woken up on the wrong side again.
We share a wall, a drainage system, a landlord, and an alarm.
My circadian rhythm has been forced into harmony with theirs.

Their bodily functions resonate through every room
and I often lie awake at night to their grunts and groans, deemed by the Council as
natural noise
and therefore,
illegitimate grounds for complaint.

The two of them exist in interchangeable modes of anger and pleasure
and alone in my room,
I’ve got no choice but to tune myself into the daily soap opera of their comings and goings.
We know each other intimately by now,
though, we’ve never actually met,
nor would I want to at this point – I just couldn’t face the embarrassment.
It’s gone too far, our boundaries have been compromised.
The walls between us have cracked.

Every dinner date is the same.
Something easy, something salty, something to make me feel European:
carbonara, cannelloni, macaroni cheese.
Me and my murmuring stomach sit in front of the microwave and watch the meal prepare itself.
Beige, bubbling, the lasagne turns endlessly in a container that will likely outlive me.

In the evenings, Next Door’s television is so loud
that there is often a stream of Britain’s Got Talent contestants auditioning in my living room.
Tray on my lap, I listen in and assess the quality of the performance by the sounds of the audience, made difficult by the fact that both cooperative approval and cruel disdain are signified by laughter.

One of the contestants, a ventriloquist, is booed off stage,
puppet and all.
Their double voicing, a possession turned public spectacle, is laughable, but in a bad way.
Together, they are grotesque, awkward, excruciating.
This contestant is trying too hard, and the audience can tell.

Channel-hop to The news?
Some sitcom.
This one’s on loop, I recognise the theme tune.
Closed space, closed time,
neat and finite.
The laugh-track, in lieu of a live audience, acts as an instruction for emotion,
something to supplement stiff dialogue with energy.

Every few minutes, I’m reminded how and when to feel.
fill my living room.
Thigh-slaps, hiccuping snorts and
layers of ha haha ha ha leak into my lasagne.
A comforting can of laughter,
a tool to teach me how to laugh alone.

I chew to the beat of familiar delivery.
I join in, laugh along, though
I can’t quite catch the jokes.
Eventually, my simulated tittering breeds sincerity:
the more I laugh, the more I really feel it,
like a gas rising to the surface,
spluttering out
in disorganised, involuntary
The release feels so good
it’s kind of disgusting.

The sounds of my fits and sighs bleed through the wall.
I’ve given myself away,
I’ve accidentally issued a call and response.
We’ve ruptured!
It’s a contagion!
Yes, for a brief moment, there’s a we:
me, the laughing Americans, and the neighbours who forgot they hate each other.
Our otherwise most distinctive, intimate voicings unite in beautiful, melodic, perfectly synchronised bursts of generic hysteria and
Ad break
our chorus is cut short.

The moment’s passed.


// 6


This house doesn’t know its juices are leaking.
How embarrassing.
Our common spillage is finding new routes back to the source.
We’re stood on shifting ground, waiting for
any time now.

a position in time
something, or someone, stretched tight.

The drip continues, the pipe gradually inflates.
High pressure is unsustainable,
it builds up and builds up
until –


// 7


The echo of her emoting bleeds into my bathroom through the wall.
It is the sound of someone who thinks they are completely alone,
or who does not, or cannot
Something’s changed? Something’s happened?
Perhaps the problem is that it’s neither.

The root word of futile is futilis,
meaning, leaky.
It refers to a particular kind of water vessel, broad at the top and narrow at the bottom,
so water escapes easily:
an inadequate object, trying and failing.
Feelings of futility might have something to do with realising your limits.

When I was inconsolable as a child, my mum would hold a mirror up to my face
and I would interrupt my own tears with laughter at my own pathetic reflection.


// 8


Next Door is listening to an audio book, a self-help manual of empty promises,
something like
How to Live a Fulfilling Life.

sorry, I misheard, it’s

How to Live an Ideal Life
Inspire Others.
The book is mainly catchphrases and hooks, step-by-step ways to make yourself useful,
it’s an exhaustive list.
You know you’ve made it when there’s nothing left.

Left to her own devices, she’s stuck inside the question
Is this the best you can do?


// 9


The whole street has a damp problem, you can smell it from the next postcode.
The stagnation is getting to me.
By now, my clothes and skin smell so strongly of damp that I can smell it on myself:
a sign that a scent doesn’t suit you.

My attic stretches across Next Door, covering us both.
Unfathomable, structural damage is spreading and
the threat of above accelerates the threat of below.
Little do we know; the hidden leak is now a burst pipe.
Water corrodes the floorboards and
everything goes soft.
A heavy, edgeless bath sags overhead,
filling up and
filling up until
the ceiling eventually


I know it’s happened when I hear stagnant rain pouring over Next Door,
drowning out indecipherables.
I wade in, ear first, and discover that their TV is destroyed.


// 10


A long-running disagreement with Landlord about
Whose Fault This Is
Who Owns the Water.


// 11


Another restless night.
The door is slammed underfoot,
not mine,
I know the sounds of intrusion by now, but the other side,
Next Door getting in late from somewhere else.

They’re loud and unregulated.
A low drone noise reorders itself into music.
The beat sweats,
dirty pulses through the floor,
a party of them and
me: the uninvited, acoustic voyeur.

Finally, they’re playing a song I know!
Not one I like, but it’ll do.
I sing along – I guess I’d call that something like a shared experience,
or at least something familiar.
I get the half-known words wrong and suddenly,
hearing myself out loud,
I’m embarrassed in my own company.


I drift off, untethered, enacting ways of impossible being.
Tonight, it’s me, Landlord and George Michael
conjoined in a three-way kiss.
Our tongues dance to the rhythm of guilty feet,
the house is sinking and it’s taking us with it:
slipping towards some irrational,
inevitable conclusion.

Landlord holds my mouth wide with both hands,
and explores my windpipe with every incompatible object
in a futile attempt to reconcile our
communication problems.
But it’s too late for that, it’s gone too far
it’s what I signed up for:
soft interior, wet walls, total intrusion.
Landlord grips my teeth, climbs in deeper, heaves over the ledge and tunnels down
to get right in there, a good look, trying to find gold,
gold which he spent or buried ages ago.
I cough up and call out
but language has collapsed
and so has time
and everyone who inhabits it
or did,
or will.
All these things next to each other piling on top of all these things next to each other,
folding in and over,
no walls to lean against,
no floor to ground us.

This House I pretended was mine drags itself and all its attachments into soft terrain
and before I know it,
we’re all swallowed whole.


Our bodies sink into our shared sewage and make the water rise.
Bits and pieces find their way up to the surface.
We float freely,
exist covertly,


Excerpts from Temporary Commons (2021)

Originally staged as a six-channel sound installation
Written and narrated by Freya Dooley, with music by Emma Daman Thomas and Freya Dooley Commissioned by Jerwood Arts, London for Jerwood Solo Presentations 2021
Supported by Arts Council of Wales

Temporary Commons quoted from The Weather by Lisa Robertson (New Star Books, 2002).


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