On Mute
Words by Hannah Barton



It’s the dashboard that a affords control, as I walk through the City of London, west to east, this weekday afternoon turning to evening. My route optimised, I tap, slide, tap, and exercise a mean kind of power, grasping my phone in my right hand; it is placed between me and the world. Set right, this device becomes a gleaming portal, offering up familiar visions, collapsed and contextless, to my mind’s eye. With my music playing, my steps become a little performative, and the scenes before me detach themselves from the vistas of brick, concrete and glass that, dashed with signage, stripe by. Framed between two studded earbuds, the faces of others, suspended in a horizontal plane, move with a Brownian motion, bobbing and blurring, and forming an irregular patternation.

And I see them – on the skinny side and wearing mechanically hewn polyester jumpers, slate grey abstracted with the gaudy yellows and blues so typical of the 1980s. They are sat with the slight family hunch, comprised of nervous bookishness, yet brightened by a seam of grinning assurance. Ever so slightly knock knee-ed, it’s Christmas maybe; now there are party hats scattered in the background. We took photos at festive junctures in the main. Six years older, my brothers were my prototype adults and I loved them, with their chemistry sets, foreign money and model trains.

I wanted those trinkets – my own pursuits diminishingly interesting in light of theirs. The twins. Though we strove to call them ‘the boys’, accentuating their fraternal differences. I remember when the day they left for university, breaking up our party, I crept into their bedroom and lay facedown and silent in the gap between one bed and the window, knowing something was done with, and waited for that sad moment to slip away.

I was twelve then and soon to put my girlhood behind me, parting with those days of play, and discovering a new world of bodies, high drama, best friends, hair dye, GCSEs and clapped-out cars. And now, fully grown, a parent gone, the house long sold, memories come in scopic imprints, often summoned by music, today via an algorithmic nudge.

Killing Moon is selected for me as I move through the streets, this dusty, warm evening, and I bite into a piece of fresh fruit. Nostalgia becomes me as tones or timbres resonate, and a swirling ochre carpet studded with G-Plan is mapped upon my surrounds. And I remember us dancing - which is most definitely an acquired vision as we are all inherently tense, and rather still, until we’ve had a few. Even as children we would nod, or drum our fingers, rather than dance all together. It’s odd that I recall otherwise, in these compressed, collaged flickering apparitions, where we are simultaneously dancing and I am sitting in my father’s car as he drives, me looking out of the window as my phone and our local radio station plays New Order. I tap my fingers on my thigh and the door interior with a juvenile irregularity, and I’m too young to understand the seriousness of it all.

Tears For Fears, and the next sensation is a swelling optimism - all power-dressing and assertion. And I, somehow, am Curt Smith, as stupid as it sounds, his performance now mine. And I am also me, imagining a future with a new maybe-love as I inhale and exhale to Christine McVie, fingers spasming, grasping for piano keys, by my sides. Listening, ensconced in Sennheisers, clad in all black and half observing the people I stride by, I become woven into place and a part of the world. It is a passing moment. I take initiative – tap, tap, tap, moving things forward – cajoling my inner-unreliable- narrator to skip ahead to later scenes: Cornflake Girl and screaming tunelessly with my girlfriends in seedy bars; Bill Withers and years later, back-sore and awaiting a flight in a hot airport lounge; a rup-pa-pomp-pom of an Oktoberfest stomp and a brand-new niece.

One chord progression and I go back; a recollection of meeting someone when younger, exchanging gifts of pin badges and shy looks. Then another, who I tried not to think of, in whose company, when I noticed my legs turning his way, I would swivel my hips in the other direction, and smile on. And when I became aware of my arms – which at inopportune moments would suddenly seem massive – and when my manner became tense, I would drink, or leave, which sometimes resulted in boozy tears as I walked home, once behind a suited city worker who has forgotten to stand up straight, tottering along with his gut hanging out, the material hoarding whip-rippled between skyscrapers in the night wind above.

Virginia Plain – this was my choice. We were all asked to pick a song for my great friend’s wedding. In our heyday we would all dance to it together, living side by side, elbows out, jeans wide, as our trainers tacked and tugged slightly on the cider-sticky floorboards. Step by step, London’s paving stones become well-trodden marquee decking, and we are again celebrating the day.

I am with friends who were close-knit aged 22. Wedding guests at 32, the tacit sense that the ten years passed were variously and profoundly significant was palpable. Still, our cheer is piqued and we toast the couple’s good health, as we consider slightly the state of our own affairs. My ex-boyfriend is in the crowd. We met at 20, and were young together. As we catch up, and he tells me about his recent operation, during which he’d had a section of his intestine cut out. The surgeon, he explained, had excised his rectum, which left a scar running between his buttocks with a ‘y’ branch under the cheek. He gets out his phone and shows me pictures of the wounds. They are graphic – he is still healing, and affected no doubt by this trauma. And I feel for our young selves – so silly that I remember holding those expanses of skin whilst he kissed me, and I would kiss him back. Our talk is time-stilted but easy and I recall our break up; we both parted ways so amicably I felt we couldn’t have really loved each other, we must have just been friends who fucked for a while, and to think of him and his scarred buttocks at this moment seems almost portentous if it wasn’t such a grotesque.

As we dance, amongst other friends and lovers, woozy strains from ballads amplify the words spoken earlier by the registrar, who had declared there to be seriousness to love, urging her listeners to consider what it means to take another into your heart. An inarticulate feeling rises in me as the music plays on, which roughly translates as ‘the thought of you dying is unbearable’.

Modern Love fills my ears and quickens my step. A car swings by, crossing my path as I hang back with weighted effort on the curb. The vision dissipates and the impossibility of accepting this change – a sensation at once sprawling, terminable, and terrifying – is temporarily countered by comforting workaday perils. The manifold shapes and systems that surround me are stabilising in their normalcy, even as follies within turmoil. I set my phone to mute.


Hannah lives and works in London, UK. hannahbarton.com


Created by Duncan Woods & Seb Camilleri