Authors: Gordon Burn
question that’s been bothering me since I woke up this morning (fully dressed, including battle-wearied Barbour and shoes) is: What did I have to eat last night? I know I had something and I have a reasonably vivid recollection of where I had it: a small, dark, Frenchified place, with amateurish waiters and the dry migrainous smell of new paint; there were pale pink and yellow flowers on the table, a wall hung with peasantware patterned plates, a brass jug on a hook by the door. It’s what went into my mouth to blot up the cataract of Stolly’s and other falling-down lotions that remains a blank.
All morning my stomach has been crying out for sustenance and my head has been asking to be put into some quiet, low-lighted space. And so, despite the high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems and ever-present threat of palpitations; in the face of dire warnings about cholesterol levels and blood sugar, and the volatile cocktail of alcohol and antidepressants, here we are once more in the bottly light among the pebble-grain glass and the crusted tile mosaic and the brightwork, getting in the first of the day.
Although I am in a job that demands engagement and ingratiation, the glad hand, the lulling smile, and then peptic (ulcer-puncturing) forward propulsion, I find my instincts are all for retreat and withdrawal – to the dim nook, the worn leather, the brown shadows in the old corner. A backwards movement, a compulsive taking to cover, is one that feels engraved in my muscles. As a reflex it is never stronger than when I should be out there, as I should be now, on the loiter, attempting to intrude myself into the life of another stranger.
The cuts have been got together for me by Helen, and it’s Helen’s arms and hands I can see holding the gnarled clippings in place against the plate of the photocopier. For reasons of speed, I can only suppose, she has run them off without bothering to bring the lid down. The result is that, while I should be reading up the background on the story I’m supposed to be covering – a catalogue of slashings and shootings and other fleeting fish-wrap catastrophes – I find myself drawn instead to these spectral hands and arms which I am intrigued to find I am able to study in forensic detail, in all their cellular particulars. The high contrast throws into relief every grainy pore and follicle; every grooved cross-hatch and complex tonality; the way the fine dark hairs lap around the watch-strap; the triangle of moles below the wrist; the tapered fleshy cushions of the fingers, shot from below (the flash slicing along the wall) and spread flat against the glass.
Helen is not an attractive woman. No kind of sexual frisson, so far as I’m aware, has ever passed between us. And yet when I take her disembodied hand and place it near my lap, or lay her arm along my thigh, say – like this – I experience an unexpected but definite stirring.
A recurring element in all the cuts (one of the great pleasures of the job, after a story has been filed and a line drawn under it, is binning them) is maps whose inky arrows and star-flashes and blocks of filler Lettratone indicate that they are maps of places where news has suddenly erupted; where the comfortable façade of daily life has been torn away. But that was then.
It’s now three years since Larry Brown, a policeman, was shot at point-blank range in a courtyard at the front of Orwell Court, a litter-strewn block of flats on the Suffolk Estate in Hackney. The man who ambushed and then killed him gave as his reason the fact that his girlfriend had dumped him the night before. He told detectives: ‘I blew your copper away because my girl blew me away. I just did it. The first thing that came into my head was to kill a policeman.’
It’s much longer – almost eighteen years – since another
policeman, Stephen Tibble, was gunned down by an escaping IRA terrorist on a quiet street in Baron’s Court in west London. He was shot twice in the chest and died two and a half hours later in hospital. (Helen’s hand, looming out of the blackness, securing a picture of the dead policeman, captioned ‘Victim’, against the photocopier, has something of the aspect of a blackened hand gesturing from a shallow woodland grave within earshot of motorway traffic.)
Ronan McCloskey was on his fifth day of unsupervised duty as a policeman when he stopped and breathalysed a twenty-two-year-old man driving a Capri in Willesden High Road one night in May 1987. On the pretext of locking up the car, the man sped away with PC McCloskey trapped half in and half out of it. He drove at high speed for half a mile before crashing through a fence at the corner of Dudden Hill Lane and Denzil Road, NW10. Constable McCloskey was hurled against a concrete post and died of head injuries before he reached hospital.
Half the thirty-strong A-shift at Chelsea police station were killed or wounded in the IRA bomb that went off in Hans Crescent, adjacent to Harrods, just before Christmas, 1983.
PC Keith Blakelock was hacked to death with knives and machetes during the Broadwater Farm riot in Tottenham in October 1985. (An attempt was made to hack off his head, with the intention of parading it on a pole.)
And at the sites of these and other police murders – Braybrook Street, Shepherd’s Bush, W12; Montreal Place, off Aldwych, WC2; Higham Hill Road near the junction with Mayfield Road, Walthamstow, E17 – permanent memorials have been erected in recent years: small funerary monuments of Portland stone and granite and white-veined marble; important materials in unimportant, sometimes tawdry, settings; desolate reminders of solitary death in bright hospital rooms; of sudden death on the pavement.
Although there are people who bring them flowers, holly wreaths at Christmas, and small potted plants, there were always others who, even before the events of recent months, said
the memorials were a source of negative energy which they claimed to have experienced as fields and waves of radiation and soft singing static. They believed there was something fetishistic or cultic about them (one woman told me the memorial close to where she lives had been put there to spy on her), and would cross the street in order not to have to pass too close to the bad juju they were generating.
The first attack happened in April last year, in the vicinity of the stone erected in memory of PC McCloskey in Willesden: a young woman gagged and raped in some nearby bushes while walking home from a friend’s house. The second rape took place in a mews at the rear of Harrods, and this time a knife was used. The rapist struck for the third and fourth times in Hackney and Tottenham, very close to where the officers Blakelock and Brown were killed.
The connection between the attacks and their locations remained speculative until the arrival of a set of pictures from the attacker whose existence has been withheld from the public but which I was given sight of thanks to a long-standing sweetheart deal between my paper and the police.
I turned up at the appointed time at the enquiry headquarters and was shown into a cubicle room lined with battered file envelopes on industrial shelving and lighted by a huge rectangle window of wired glass. I was brought turbid brown tea in a mug with a faded Metropolitan Police badge on it – ‘The Badge of Courage’ the inscription read – and handed a buff folder by a detective sergeant whose ‘Sick bastard’ seemed as if it could apply to me as much as to the person in the smudges. It was a transaction loaded with these kinds of ambiguities, and I was aware of his physical closeness, of the close eye-balling he was giving me – on the look-out for some crotch action? any attempt to palm one of the slippery eight-by-tens? – as I undid the string-tie.
The penis in the pictures was that of (probably) a white male – the uncertainty was due to the fact that it was mottled, brown and pink; piebald like a horse. But the weird pigmentation was
far from being the most distinctive feature: the shaft – and, in the later pictures, the glans – was pierced with bullet-headed silver studs, making it look notched, only semi-organic, and lending it the appearance of some kind of museumised medieval weaponry. The number of studs varied from picture to picture, but they didn’t keep sequence with the attacks. They shone with the same value metal sheen as the gold in the declivities of the carved inscriptions of the stubby, phallus-shaped memorials against which they were carefully, semi-erectly posed.
This square is a favourite route for taxis going in to the West End from the south and west. There is a steady black stream, sluggish and black as oil, conduited along the northern side and off into the narrow channel to Regent Street, making the turn at the exact spot where WPC Yvonne Fletcher was mowed down, shot in the back, and killed.
The memorial that stands here, the first of the police memorials to go up in London, is white with a granite plaque bearing the standard inscription ‘Here fell…’, with the name and date. After ten years, the white of the stone is so very white it looks like a keyhole of light projected on to the railings and the tough green-black plants ranged behind it.
Because it is June, it is too early for the overhead trees to be slaked with dust and particles of carbon, but late enough for the young, lush leaves to throw a cooling shadow, trapping the air underneath. Even on the brightest day the white stone to Yvonne Fletcher has the fluctuating quality of light flickering at the back of a cave.
It has not been violated. It doesn’t feature in the pictures. It is maintained in its pristine condition by a woman, a stranger unknown to Yvonne Fletcher at the time of her death, who makes regular expeditions from the small south-coast town where she lives to wash the stone and polish up the granite and set fresh flowers at the memorial’s base.
It is an activity that she feels no compulsion to explain. Attempts were made to get her to sneeze it out in the first months
after the memorial was unveiled, but she had made a commitment to remaining silent and wouldn’t be budged. And in the intervening years, so far as I know, she has been free to go about her janitoring undisturbed. But these are slow newsdays (Scott McGovern’s death is still pending; the story will be stale buns soon). The coincidence of violent death and violent sex at the memorials is irresistible. It is a story that has to be kept at a rolling boil. Sebastian-Dominic dredged up a recollection of the woman at morning conference at the beginning of the week. A couple of calls to the budgie at the bill shop supplied likely days and times. And here I am, parked behind the cool, stone pillar of a shuttered building with an unobstructed view of the Yvonne Fletcher memorial, poised to invade its guardian’s anonymity, ready to pounce.
I had anticipated that she would be approaching from Regent Street to the west, or Piccadilly to the north, which narrowed it down to three streets (and two pubs – the Tom-all-Alone’s and The True Sun, from where I haven’t long returned – a final
to the meltdown hangover with which I started the day,
to tomorrow’s). The route I hadn’t counted on was along the gravel path of the formal garden in the centre of the square with its lunching office workers and lurid flower beds and central statue of William III.
But that’s the way she must have come, because now all of a sudden she’s there and already absorbed in her work: a medium-built, young-appearing middle-aged woman in trousers, a sweater and a rubberised anorak that she has taken off, folded and placed as padding under her knees. I know from sniffing around there that she keeps a container of water and a plastic atomiser wedged between the memorial and the metal fence; she has unpacked spray polishes and bleaches with emphatic labels and bright child-proof nozzles and a variety of other cleaning materials which are standing by waiting to be used.
Even before I break cover and take the first steps towards her, I have a vision of her life and a distinct image of a place I have never known. (Grids of lampposts, rows of urns and statues as
points of identity and continuity in the vast space. The smell of real cakes through the doors and windows of the bakery.)
The whole of the south side of the square is undergoing renovation and all the buildings there have disappeared behind a false front – a simple-coloured, billboard-sized façade cartooning the eighteenth-century classical façades it conceals. Wide orange mesh covers the spaces of the windows, and men in safety helmets are visible there in such numbers that I feel like a show put on for their amusement as I emerge into this hot and intricately enclosed space. Through the path of the bullet that killed Yvonne Fletcher, through the accumulation of energies, past the place where her hat had lain, photographed but untouched, for many hours, a predator closing and closing on the unalerted woman on her knees.
It is an attitude that prompts a rush of images – darkly radiant, churchly lit images from pagan ritual and the scriptures.
Hundreds of associations in a few seconds from far away.
But, at this point, three images predominantly: A man stepping round a woman who is on her knees with a brush and a bucket and abjectly imploring to be allowed to go where he is going. A woman looking up, blinking against the light that has just flooded the cupboard where she has been forcibly shut away. A woman bent to the task of scouring a ring of dirt off a bath with the radio playing some hit from her youth in the morning after her husband has set out for the job both of them know in their blood he will soon be losing and the children have left for school. (No matter how strenuous our efforts to put a space between them and us, our own lives constantly invade us.)
There is a tin vase tethered by a chain to the railing at the side of the stone. Wisteria and lavender in a glass bottle. Primrose in pots placed in a tricolour basket. I’m almost there now, almost on the woman, but she still hasn’t turned or given any sign that she knows that I’m approaching. It is as I am about to bring my hand in contact with the knotty open weave of her sweater, register the start of alarm, that I notice it has grown as quiet as cancer.