The Things You Own Own You

I knock on the door, but it’s just out of habit. I know that there’s nobody home. I let the two of us in, using the key that the solicitor gave me.

“Jesus!” Evelyn says, surprising us both. Then, “…sorry.”
“No, it’s okay. It’s a bit much, isn’t it?” I reply.

I knew what to expect, coming here to my sister’s house, but it’s been such a long time. As bad as I remember, as bad as I was expecting, being here is still a shock to the system.

The opposite of dropping into a vacuum. You can see photos, or re-play memories, or watch manipulative fly-on-the-wall shows on TV, but none of those things really give a fair reckoning of what it’s like, walking into the house of a hoarder.

On screen, the piles of papers and boxes and soft toys and plastic sacks of toilet rolls and magazines and everything… on screen they just look like stuff. You recognise stuff. You walk down aisles of it, in organised stacks, in the supermarket. You fret about it, think you’ve maybe got a problem, when you’ve got more than ten copies of Vogue on the side, or books two-deep on the shelf, or a handful of DVDs dumped awkwardly near the TV, ready to watch.

Oh, my house is such a mess! You say when people come over. What am I like? You must think I’m a nightmare!

It isn’t. You’re fine. We don’t.

In a house like this, when you’re actually in it, it feels like the walls of stuff are toppling in on you. Or breathing.

“I… didn’t realise it’d be this bad.” Evelyn says. “You always said, but…” She looks over at me. She raises her hand to my elbow, pauses before touching me. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” I say, only half lying.

The fear isn’t here. She’s gone. Without her in it, this stuff is just stuff, and this is just another claustrophobic and sad place, in a world full of them.

What you don’t realise is: when you walk through the house of a person like my sister Delilah, what you’re walking through is her psyche painted out onto the physical world. You’re walking down the pathways of a mental illness. They inhabit it, and it them.

When Delilah went away to university, everything seemed normal. Visits to her student digs weren’t out of the ordinary – a bit more clutter than you’d expect, but she was a student. Ten years her junior, I just wished I could be as untidy as her.

It wasn’t until she graduated… Got a job… Moved out of rent-city into this small terraced house that she bought. That was when the cracks started to appear.

I stayed here with her for a summer, when I was sixteen. The first week was so much fun, hanging out, discipline-free. Midway through the second week, things changed in the way she behaved, and once they did, I couldn’t stop noticing the cracks in her facade. The bulk-bought kitchen rolls. Newspapers from the previous year, TV listings overdue.

Every year it got a little worse, and I found this place a little more scary, ornamental plates and old posters growing in drifts along the corridors, the front door that bit harder to open. But it wasn’t just the place. It was how she and the place fit together. Delilah became more and more erratic. Less like my sister. And that frayed energy came off her in waves, occupying the smaller spaces of the house, making the whole place feel unpredictable. Unstable.

When I was old enough to come up with convincing enough excuses, I stopped visiting. And by that point, Delilah didn’t really leave the house anyway, so we didn’t see each other at all. When our parents died years later, the last thread connecting us snapped, and I forgot to even feel guilty about deserting her. Until the phone call yesterday.

“Is this why you keep your flat so empty?” Evelyn asks, as we pick our way gingerly along the corridor.
“Probably. I don’t really think about it.” I reply, but it’s another half lie. I try not to think about it, but…

But I used to have a record collection. Lots of classic old vinyl, a few newer pressings. At one point the collection outgrew the shelf I had for it… a handful of enthusiastic acquisitions in my hand, with no space for them.

I had a full-blown anxiety attack. Couldn’t breathe again until I’d thrown the whole lot in the trash. I’ve never told anyone.

We eventually make it to the lounge, and I prickle. There’s still some of that fear, residual, drifting around.

I’m through the door. This was the epicentre of my sister’s world. The walls and floors piled high, towers of crap threatening to topple into the room, a sofa with a blanket against one wall, framed by it all. A womb. Lying across the seat,  pretending that she wasn’t going to sleep there, was the last place I ever saw her. In her cocoon. But what was she ever going to transform into?

Out in the corridor, Evelyn is handling an ornamental plate.

“If the things you own own you, what does it mean if those things are worthless shite?” She says, as she joins me. Looking up from the plate, it takes her a few seconds to take in the room. “Wow.”
“Yeah. It’s intense, isn’t it?”

The room seems to be shifting constantly around us, but that’s just an illusion caused by the fact that we can’t see the walls. The space is full and empty of her at the same time. The air feels greasy, like just before a storm.

This is the last place the case worker saw Delilah, too, a week ago. The next day, nothing left but this house, and all these things. My sister vanished, as if absorbed into the folds and crannies of this house.

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Nicolas Papaconstantinou
Nicolas Papaconstantinou is an enthusiastic amateur creative type, and the chap behind Elephant Words. Be nice to him. He growed up kinda wrong.

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