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Nell Whittaker: 'Something Burning'

Published on 5th December 2019

someone has died in the street outside the house, it becomes clear as I am walking to the train, because of the police lines, the three officers standing straightly at intervals down the closed-off road, the blue thing like a one man tent at the lights where we usually cross. it is much quieter than usual. the late summer air is still and flat, and people along the road are coming together in small groups; they are reluctant to get on the bus when it comes. then in the station M&S the security guard is shouting at a thin old man, who is taking bottles of wine out of his backpack and putting them on the floor. people are pooling at the ends of the aisles to watch, others shopping, the man protesting. then they’re at the door and a stranger with pushed-back hair is keeping it closed as both security guards hold the man, uncomfortably, they just hold his clothes in their hands. the man who tried to steal the wine is saying loudly, who's this man? who is this man? take your hands off me. take your hands off me.

and as I go round the back of an aisle he gets out of the door. then everyone is happy - the pushed-back hair man is surrounded by people, his girlfriend is holding his hand, she must have been scared and now she’s relieved, proud, beaming at everyone, and everyone involved is talking about what just happened. it is not just the lateness of the summer; things feel to be slowly breaking apart, we are down on the ground again, looking at each other sideways. it has been for a while now that I look sometimes at other people as the point of impact in a window hit by a cricket ball, the damage shattering out around them; all types of frailties; all types of things that can be broken. 


and it was only on Thursday that we were in A&E again, and by the next door bed an australian doctor said repeatedly to to an old lady, so this time a year ago you broke your neck? and this time a month ago you were in a diabetic coma? this summer there were fruit flies everywhere. they gathered in the folds of the bin bags and span out into the room when disturbed, and chaos crept into the lines and angles of my way into work and sent my vision glancing off corners, my heartbeat like a mouse’s. the sun comes blankly back from the buildings. no one is talking at the bus stop. I have this feeling always, the smell of carbon in the air, that out there there is something burning, coming closer. 


Original photographs by the author.

Nell Whittaker finished an MPhil in the summer of 2018, for which she wrote about climate collapse, the sea, micro plastics, and the problem of the horizon. She is now living and writing in Manchester.



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