Authors: Gordon Burn
On each floor, Charlie has to punch numbers in a lock to keep us rising through the building. Our footsteps echo on the stone. Perspiration courses through Charlie’s hair, basting the ridges of fat around his neck. He has to stop every flight and a half or so to draw coolness from the walls into his back and palms and recover his breath. ‘The palace of pain’. Pain Central’. These are Hawkins’s nicknames for St Saviour’s. And waiting while Charlie engages in his small struggle it is easy to imagine pain as part of the hidden infrastructure, conduited through the central service core with the water risers and electric cabling and information systems. Pain as information; pain pathways; localised
centres of pain; the prolonged and inexpressible pain of cancer and burns and stroke, of the agonised bodies arranged in rows, waiting for the end of pain; for their white moment. The building pulsing with pain like a caved molar.
The floor numbers are painted by hand on the walls, bog-standard red on grey. When we reach 4, Charlie enters the four-digit code, then the two-letter codicil, and instructs us to wait until we get the signal from him to follow him through a second door which he opens with his computer card. ‘Affirmative!’ Heath giggles, sliding down the wall until he is resting on his haunches in this small air-pocket full of refrigerator hum and the smell of drying urine and disinfectant.
The fourth floor is the top floor of St Saviour’s. This part of it is decorated in pale pink, mocha, and tangerine, like a fashionable hairdressing salon. The same colours are prominent in the geometrical pattern of the curtains hanging at the window panels of the individual, one-and two-bed intensive-care cubicles. A nine-inch, black-and-white Ikegami monitor is tucked into a corner of the nurses’ station. It is when the picture on this flickers and switches to a set of doors reinforced with metal panels at the end of the corridor that Charlie, holding up two fingers to indicate that we have two minutes to do the necessary, gives us the all-clear.
Minimally prowed, subliminally contoured, the nurses’ station wouldn’t look out of place at a Club Class check-in or advertising agency reception area. It is unattended, but a waxed milk-shake carton is a sign of recent occupancy; a several-sizes-larger-than-lifesize Easter chick sits on top of a concertinaed wad of computer print-out. A single door is set into the recess directly behind the counter, and this is the door to Scott McGovern’s room.
He is invisible at first, obscured by the armoury of hissing and pistoned biotechnology ranged around the bed, submerged in the macaronic web of tubes dripping pain-killers, system suppressors, blood thinners, and diuretics into his body from above. Orange scribbles on a TV monitor show that blood is still being
pumped to the brain from the heart. Green blips on another screen show the cerebral cortex giving up the fight for control of the emotive, animal centres in the deepest layers of the brain.
The bed is raised on blocks. Above and to either side of the bed rises a reef of adorability and bright plush – fluffy bunnies and cuddly puppies, orange jumbos, day-glo hippos, slogan teddies, purple chimps; goblins and gonks in jaunty kerchiefs, homemade vests and coats. Tier upon tier of machine washability, lovability, coal-black noses, dark plastic eyes.
An Alice-band incision runs from ear to ear across McGovern’s shaved, naked head. His face seems at once palid and inflamed, his lips and nailbeds blue. He has none of the repose of the gerontomonster we have been peeping downstairs. He appears fugitive, agitated; mouth twisted, eyes fixed in a dilated state of horror. The large fixed circles are unresponsive even when the flash strobes violently against the transparent plastic structure that sits over his face. It is circular, like the spare-wheel cover on a Shogun or Subaru, and one frame has convinced Hawkins that it has to go. He rips it back where it is Velcroed around the perimeter, takes a step back, and passes the umbilical flash attachment across the bed to me.
‘Higher. Hold it higher,’ he orders after he has loosed off a trial frame. ‘Down a bit. Lower the angle. Straight at the face. Great. One more. One more.’ He is arched backwards, leaning in with his body, leaning back with his head, giving himself options, making optimum use of what can only be the sixty seconds remaining. I look at McGovern’s head, light as a larva casing, hardly denting the pillow, inundated with light, derealised in brilliance. I look away. Hawkins’s trousers are tented at the front, taut across his erection. ‘We’re nearly there. Right
the face,’ he urges. ‘We’re there.’
My hands are perspiring. My sweaty prints are on the gun. My dabs. I’m in it up to the hilt. (‘Let him have it, Chris.’)
McGovern’s face once shone with publicity – with the glamour and consciousness of advertising, of television, of innumerable photographs. And it still has an aura; it is still ‘auratic’, but in a
different way: it has been unmade; unpackaged; it shines with the aura of death. With the disc of plastic back in place, it looks like a picture of itself; the picture we have just half-inched. It looks like the xeroxed photographs of the deceased that it has become the custom to slip behind the light-reflecting wrapping around carnations or roses left at the shrines.
‘Good going. Nice job, boss. Wowsa, wowsa, wowsa,’ Heath Hawkins says. Then:
Better believe it. This is the place where death rejoices to come to the aid of life.’
‘Hurray!’ thought the little Rabbit. ‘Tomorrow we shall go to the seaside!’ For the Boy had often talked of the seaside, and he wanted very much to see the big waves coming in, and the tiny crabs, and the sand castles.
When I was in the ascendant and the bean-counters in travel-and-accounting would call me Norman and visibly perk up a little when they encountered me in the lavatories and the corridors – jousting, joshing (‘You did put an “X” for “no publicity” on that last expenses claim?’) – in those days, I used to stay in the class of hotel, more-stars-than-the-Planetarium places, where the mirrors made you taller, thinner, bolder-outlined, more substantial; a real occupying presence. It is what you are paying over the odds for, this stroking. Mirrors that are flattering, magical and abracadabrant. Lighting that is sequenced, angled, theatrically filtered; lighting that makes the skin look simultaneously taut and pampered, inwardly glowing, washed with that heavily wedged, wintering-in-Cap d’Antibes money tone.
Now they – and ‘they’ are by and large the same people; the same spreadsheet tinkerers and calculator Liberaces; the same shiny-arsed sandwich-at-the-deskers – plough through guides and gazetteers making sure they put me into places where the mirrors are positioned to show you in the cruelest light; to creep up on you and catch you at the most lowering angles, zooming in on the rouches and swags of fat, the albinoid goose-fleshy skin, the smashed capillaries, all the things you have learned to assiduously avoid in the normal run of existence.
Places with alopecia candlewick on the beds and rooster-sized stains worked into the linty carpets. Places with no Chicken Noodle News to buoy you through the sleepless small hours; no
cable porno, no dedicated showers, no minibar, no billing-back. Just the mournful kettle and the inviolable envelopes of Ovaltine and Nescafé; the fire-doors occasionally flapping; the old birdcage lift beginning its lurches through the building with the arrival of the kitchen staff around six.
Welcome, in other words, to the Duke Hotel, in Seaton, a once-popular (although never fashionable), now run-down seaside resort a little over two hours by changing-train from London.
I was only able to turn this into an overnight after a lot of wrangling; but my protestations about needing time to get behind the conventional faded exterior and soak up the atmospherics finally won the day. After a lightning assessment of the degree of dilapidation, then digging my furry friend out of the bag and propping him against my pillow, my search for atmosphere took me somewhere called Muffins Licensed Tea Rooms, where I ordered a high-tea of fried eggs, mushrooms on toast and a dab of baked beans, helped on its way with a couple of stiffening Stolly-tonics.
The Jack and Jill for this (a highly reasonable
8.73) I quarter-folded and added to the wadded ball of counterfoils and flimsies and bits of till roll for generally much smaller amounts that I have to collect for reimbursement purposes. A small humiliation that the graduate intake of slumming scribblers, the young tab hands, have made into a game. It has become a point of honour among them to only eat hamburgers, doner kebabs, pizza; to use the tube and the bus (‘to one travel pass,
6.80’, representing one week’s travel) rather than taxis. A way of saying they are different from us. Bicycles. A tactic to assert their non-culpability. These are the ones who voted the newsroom, all editorial departments, the canteen smoke-free zones. Get up in the morning and run. Meet their deadlines. Spend lunchtimes on the treadmills and pec decks in Body Awake, the in-house multi-gym. Queue up to be congratulated on the effectiveness of their hygiene practice by the dentist who anchors his mobile surgery in the car park every Friday. Wander the building accessorised with half-litre bottles of Highland Spring and Evian, offering each other strips of sugar-free gum.
Seaton, as you can imagine, is full of narrow cafés and greasy-spoons, all advertising their pastie/sausage/chips/Devonshire cream tea combinations in consternated jailbird freehand across the surfaces of paper plates. (Those old notices I remember as a child: ‘Customers are requested not to consume their own food on the premises.’) I settled on Muffins partly for its linen service and olde wheel-back chairs and the ‘Licensed’ in the title, but also for its open aspect, the people-watching possibilities it offered, being situated at the top of the main shopping street of the town, overlooking a grassed-over roundabout with the stone figure of a local worthy on it, grandly gesturing, and, beyond that, the tilt of the sea.
For the last few miles of its journey into Seaton, the local train had followed the course of a wide brown estuarial river, the expanse of mudflats fanning wider as the river approached the sea. At every station it picked up or put down elderly people with elbow-clamp crutches and wheelie shoppers, the occasional boy or girl in school uniform. Then I began to notice the travellers, people in medieval, nearly caveman, garb, getting off and on. Scarified faces; ears, eyebrows, noses pre-emptively barbed with tines, coils; untreated sheepskins lashed to their chests and lower legs; belts of hemp and string; beads and tribal pendants; buckled archers’ thongs; woad in their rasta hair.
Rough encampments, little clusters of timber-and-corrugated-iron shacks, started to spring up between the railway and the river. Makeshift settlements of wheelless vans, converted railway carriages, tar-papered chicken huts and ex-army tents. Communal fires. Naked babies. Bandana-wearing scavenger dogs.
Muffins was double-fronted, the big corner windows expansively curved. And into these fisheye frames stepped pretty much the mix as I had witnessed it on the train: retirees, cave-dwellers, simpletons, schoolchildren on the wag. Now joined by: the single homeless, the lone-parent families (the paper’s style book insists that we call them this, and it’s catching), the unfit mothers, the problem mongrel broods who gravitate here in the
winter, unfurl their sleeping bags in the hotels and holiday lets and b-and-bs, and work at keeping the killer cold from establishing a beach-head in their bones. Of course it is no longer winter. It is June, nearly July. Nearly high-season, in so far as you can-conceive of anything rising higher than knee-level in such a blighted, light-flooded, end-of-the-line place. Time for them to move out and on. But move where? How?
They walk the streets carrying all they own in blankets, paper-wrapped bundles, black refuse sacks. Bundles balanced on bicycle saddles, wheeled in supermarket trolleys and lurching buggies. Battering husbands. Whippet wives. Babies in crooked glasses. Like some way-station in a border war; some refugee camp, the number for credit card donations flashed up on the bottom of the screen. Teenage grannies. Winterwear chopped, slashed, cannibalised for the summer. Skull-and-crossbones tattoos. Lost-to-the-world faces, in dream-sequence montage, swimming up to the menu card in Muffins’ window, staring blankly, lips going, conjugating egg, sausage, beans, pot of tea/egg, sausage, chips, beans, pot of tea/egg, sausage, chips, beans, round of toast, pot of tea. Two, three faces looking together, grey dead eyes, mouths silently working.
After a while the door opened and a woman came into Muffins Licensed Tea Rooms. She had an old-fashioned chorus girl figure, one hand resting on the shoulder of a boy who must have been aged about eight or nine. ‘You be a good boy,’ she told him when he was seated by himself at a table. ‘Jean will tell me if you haven’t been good, won’t you, Jean?’ It was obviously a custody situation, with Muffins the transfer point between parents. He had blond hair cut high up the back of his head, and a sign around his neck which said: ‘I only eat natural foods. Do not give me sweets or snacks.’
When Jean took my plate away, I saw that the placemat was a cork-backed photograph of the front of Muffins. There was the purple paintwork and the half-net curtains, and there in the left-hand window was the table where I was sitting. Except seated around it in the picture, stiffly animated for the local snapper,
was a party of strangers – a sports-jacketed man and two smiling women.
For some reason, I found this deeply unnerving. I felt all the old demons stirring (mouth dry, heart hammering, numbness deadening the ends of my fingers when I paid the bill). Back at the hotel I took two Rohypnol and put the Rabbit on stand-by on the bedside table. Then I lay down with the little dog clutched close to me and grabbed some shut-eye.
It was dark when I woke, and close even with the window open. The sound of plates being scraped. The ping! of a bullet in a television western, a sound I hadn’t heard for a long time. The smell of drains – sweet and foul; somewhere under or around that, the green flatulent smell of the sea.
The hotel bar was full of cockney noise; drum-tight beer bellies and hair lacquer, the men wearing the ties or jacket insignia of some club or fellowship or sporting association; the women in lobe-dragging chandelier ear-rings and carpet slippers.
I took in some pubs. The Broken Doll. The Barking Dog. The Tite Barnacles. People waiting for other people. People already securely in the brotherhood of the bar. People watching each other’s drinks go down, hoping the other will drink faster. Hateful fuckers. Fault finders. Catalytic people persons. People wanting to connect, but not connecting, waiting for the alcohol to hit. People lean and young and unencumbered.
Gazing on other people’s reality with curiosity, with detachment, with professionalism. ‘What is coming into being, we apparently have here in this bay one of the best collection of birds in Britain, and we are now getting from all over the country wildlife, naturalism, God-knows-what.’ Somewhere I heard this. I made a mental note, later a physical one. The solitary walker reconnoitring, stalking. The voyeuristic stroller.
The Oceanarium. Closed. The band shell, paint scraping off in giant soft flakes. The swimming bath, closed because of a breach in the sea wall. The Cyclone, the big dipper that swoops on its stilts and disappears into the banks of ornamental shrubbery alongside the railway. ‘Britain in Bloom’ planted out in flowers.
Birdsong echoing in the station. Nicely tanked. Zapp Zone, a games arcade. Fuel food in the Kashmiri Veranda, where they sit you in a waiting area with copies of
and take your money before they seat you at a table. A nightcap in a lounge bar full of dolorous clanging industrial music, the disc-jockeys in their foxhole canopied by camouflage netting. I listened intently for something recognisable, a hook, a key. None was forthcoming. But people were on their feet, hearing through the chaos to some concealed meaning, thrash dancing.
‘So, pal,’ I said when I got in. ‘What news from the Rialto?’
Vera Batchelor is her name, my reason for being in Seaton. Spelled – for reasons we haven’t gone into yet; for reasons we might never know – Veorah Batcheller. Suggesting the slave states and dirt cabins of the deep South; a big-hipped Dixieland vigour and swagger; both seats in the bus. Which, needless to say, wasn’t at all Mrs Batcheller’s manner when she ventured to correct the version of her name as I had it in my notebook. This was hesitant, apologetic, distinctly English.
It happened a week ago, at the memorial to the murdered policewoman, Yvonne Fletcher. Mrs Batcheller hadn’t seemed perturbed by my silent sneaking up on her, or even my calling her by the name of my wife, who she doesn’t resemble in any way. She had gone on collecting together the rubber bands, the slugs of moss she had prised from between the paving stones at the base of the memorial, the leaves she had removed from the lower stems of the roses she had brought, the dirtied Q-tips. She heaped all this in the centre of the paper the flowers had been wrapped in, and balled it up. She gave a securing half-twist to the caps and nozzles of the bleaches and detergents she had been using, then placed these in a bag with the words ‘The Big Shopper’ printed on it. The white stone seemed scoured and, in a way, reconsecrated; violation-proofed; purified. She made some ritual adjustments to the plants and flowers, then stood back for a few moments to appraise the order and symmetry she had accomplished.
The bag was heavy, but when I offered to take it for her she refused to let me, swapping it from one hand to the hand with a ruffled metallic hair-tidier around the wrist. It was hot, so she carried her jacket between the bag handles. The interior of the square was still full of lunching office workers and we crunched across the gravel, seeking out the blocks and tunnels of shade around the perimeter, two of the few people moving.
I remembered that a French writer once spent a whole novel recounting the day of a man who crosses the Luxembourg gardens in Paris on his way to see a doctor, runs into different people, watches them, and tries to reconstitute for each of them the experience we all have on the one hand of looking out onto the world, and on the other of being exposed to an internal reverie of images and fantasies. The simultaneity that makes us always somehow both inside and outside ourselves as we move about. I relayed all this to Veorah Batcheller not because I believed she would be interested so much as impressed by my bona fides and credentials. This was Carson with his buddhas and mystics and monks. People sat on benches with their eyes closed, faces angled to the sun. People lay on their backs on the grass, bagged remnants of their lunches lying beside them, glancing at their watches, deciding just five more minutes. I was saying that I was a cut above; that I was to be trusted, I wasn’t out to do the usual monstering job. I had mumbled my name. I thought I saw a glimmer of recognition. I wondered about my breath.
‘A faint evocation of a famous film actress in a small part in an early faded film.’ This is a steal from Greene that I have resorted to on too many occasions in my hacking life to risk using it again in my weirding of Veorah Batcheller. It applied to a couple of the women occupying tables in the Fountain Room in Fortnums. But mostly they were Japanese, some Germans, French, Americans. The Fountain Room was VB’s choice. That is, I teased out of her an admission that it was somewhere she had long wanted to go and had never been able to gather up the courage to go on her own.