Authors: Gordon Burn
Was this the cue for personal disclosure? The time to give an account of my own period in the interzone? It is a sound principle, with proven returns: hit them with your troubles and they will hit you with theirs. ‘It happened in Cambodia, Vietnam‚’ I said. ‘After the beating, or the disembowelling, or the beheading, or the hanging, or the shooting, or the incineration. People went blind from being unable to absorb the suffering and the death, things that were too powerful for them to manage or take on board. For a long time afterwards they weren’t able to see anything except areas of light and dark … When did he leave? How long ago did it happen?’
‘I want you to see something.’ Instant hard-on. Into trust mode. I buttoned my jacket as I followed her next door to the kitchen, turning on the tape recorder as I went, eyes adjusting to the all-over sunshine yellow like being inside a yolk. The kitchen was oblong, spotless of course, operations centre for the buffer and scourer of monuments, its functional nature disguised by a plethora of feminine embellishments, decorations; everything
regimented, replenished, colour-matched, spares standing by, nothing let to be itself. There was a rouched curtain of floral chintz, a sit-up breakfast bar, a framed print of Van Gogh’s ‘L’Arlésienne’, a tea cosy in the shape of a marmalade cat, a mug tree, a pot pyramid with tiny tight bows attached at each level. Squeezed onto a shelf supported by human arm-shaped brackets, a collection of airport novels, some of them no doubt cranked out by hackettes of my acquaintance as a one-way ticket out of the daily deadline grind. The raised foil titles along the spines picked up the light like the lightened streaks in her hair, the pages water-warped and swelled by condensation.
She removed a half-apron from the drawer handle on which it was hanging, transferred it neatly to the back of a chair, smoothing it like a pregnant woman smoothing a dress over her stomach, and pulled the drawer open. She lifted out the knife-and-fork tray and stepped back, making room for me. In the right-hand side of the drawer were assorted oddments – an egg-slicer, a tea strainer, a nutmeg grater, the four-inch rubber seals for kilner jars. On the left side, in the upper left-hand corer, in the less-faded part where the knives and forks had been, a man’s head, about two inches by an inch and a half, clipped from a magazine or newspaper, and close-cropped to eliminate background. Sparse moustache. Hooded eyes. Afro hair curling in around the edges. The see-through glueyness of old scrapbooks, of rain-lashed advertising hoardings and posters.
‘Close‚’ she said. ‘Yes, but no.’
She went over to a tall cupboard and came back with a similar picture, this time pasted to the underside of a vacuum-cleaner head, flat against the metal, snowy and faded. I started to get the idea: sneaked communings; furtive glimpses. The same face concealed all over the kitchen, all over this house, this ‘Isle of View’, as in a children’s puzzle-picture. She was enjoying setting this new trail, thickening her mystery. Her hair was pulled back; lifted off her neck; dampness at the hairline.
‘I’ll give you a clue‚’ she said. ‘He was born in Dublin in 1951
and passed over in London in 1986. His music was hard rock with a lyrical romantic twist. A double lead sound à la Wishbone Ash.’
But I had already placed the face, come up with a name: Phil Lynott, singer with nineteen-seventies B-division also-rans, Thin Lizzy, and an unexpected object of erotic obsession, if this in fact was what she was driving at. I spun it out, curious to know where the next picture was going to come from. It came from the third Le Creuset pan down on the pyramid, and was attached to the inside of the lid – Lynott in a cowboy-style neckerchief and hooped curtain-ring ear-ring, head angled back, eyes lowered, the classic in-performance pose: guitar solo as fellatio.
‘I give up‚’ I said. ‘You’ve got me. I don’t know.’
But she looked disappointed rather than pleased. ‘I thought you might have written him up sometime. Gone to interview him. He was in the papers a lot around the time he got married. Phil Lynott, Thin Lizzy. “Killer on the Loose”. You must know “The Boys Are Back in Town”.’ She sang some to remind me – ‘“The boys are back, the boys are back in town”’ – her hands lightly fumbling (memories of all those times in front of the mirror), playing bashful airbrushed air-guitar.
‘You said about the drink being in here earlier. I think I could tuck a drink away now.’ She opened a corner door with the booze stacked up on it, the bottles on little fenced-in triangular shelves, tinkling, shivering. She set down two glasses and I poured two good measures of vodka, then topped them off with coke, the cloud-core ice making small encouraging explosions.
‘The knife-and-fork drawer was the first place. Then I put one at the bottom of a laundry basket, behind the toilet-brush holder, under the lining-paper of my underwear drawer, in all the places a husband would never find them.’ We were perched on high stools with an elbow apiece on the counter and one foot each on the floor, like wiseacres in a
cocktail-hour cartoon. ‘I saw him first on TV‚’ she continued, ‘and then I got to see a Thin Lizzy concert. And it became more and more an obsession with me, so that nothing else mattered but him. And I found this girl
– a woman, really; she was married like I was, and even had children – she felt the same way about him as I did and we used to send each other these letters. I kept her letters locked up in a case and needless to say Hugh found it one day – I have to admit I had been behaving strangely – and broke it open. As well as the letters this girl had written to me was one I was writing to her. He never knew I was in love with Phil to that point. When he found out he said it all had to stop, that I had to pull myself together and get rid of all the pictures I’d put up. He said I could keep the records – he said the records were different, but I had to get rid of all the pictures and I wasn’t allowed to keep scrapbooks or anything like that. And so it went on, rows, mainly over looking at the pictures. Which is when I made the decision to put them in places where only I knew they were there. I suppose go underground with them. That was the start of the private conversations, the secret assignations over the Jif and the Toilet Duck and the dirty socks.’
‘And then he rumbled you?’
‘He came in here. Most of his hair gone now, just a monkish fringe at the back and sides, splaying over his collar. He came in – it was different then, a different colour. A much different layout, the cooker here where the breakfast bar is, for instance, much older appliances. The familiar sounds of him moving about. The habit he had of washing his own cup, leaving it to stand overnight on the drainer. I was sitting in the next room, turning the pages of a magazine, watching television, thinking – I don’t know – whether chops or sausages, or what about fish for a change tomorrow – and he’s in here with a Magic Marker writing “cancer hole” on the wall. “Cancer hole” in foot-high letters from there to there. That’s what he wrote. Meaning me? My body? This house? The world? I still don’t know. Then put his head around the door and said he was going out to get a part for the car. I never saw him again.’
Reality can be riveting, even for a pro. Real life. The hidden factors, the things that don’t get out. Tosser was going to cream his jeans. ‘He had bought a holiday for us in Lanzarote, as a surprise‚’
she said. ‘It was going to be our first holiday together for five or six years. It was just ten days away, the outstanding balance cleared, the whole thing booked and paid for. The police sent somebody out there on the dates, just in case, to mix and mingle, standard funeral procedure, but he didn’t show up.’ Two people who have forgotten what it had felt like to be married and intimate with somebody, sitting talking in a kitchen, a simple two-picture.
Back in the other room she stood at the window and drew back the curtains. Something theatrical in the gesture – a gesture that is inherently theatrical – a two-arm flourish, jerking by force of habit in anticipation of the right-hand curtain snagging on its runner, serving into the sun. A dim neon glow from the leafy pattern covering the armchairs and the sofa. Micromotes coursing into the electromagnetic field of the silent television. Veorah Batcheller hit her marks. She took up a position – a posture – by the door at the end of the room’s longest wall, a suggestion now of something bolstered, a stiffening, something girdled about her middle, a teacher impatient for the class to settle, waiting to begin the lesson, cigarettes and lighter still clutched in that oddly evocative way.
‘Those who die violent and sudden deaths‚’ she began, ‘nearly always have great difficulty in passing over. Many of them awake in the afterlife believing themselves still to be on Earth, and can only wander aimlessly until some form of assistance is given to them.’
The wall she was standing beside was the one that the back of my head had been staring at earlier. In the still strong afternoon light I could see that it was divided up into an elongated chequerboard pattern of black and white. The black spaces were very black, almost ebony, and were very obviously representations of the police memorials – life-size impressions obtained from charcoal rubbings of the granite skins, careful, systematic, every pimple and pore and crater, every fault and asperity faithfully rendered. The nine uniform inscriptions ‘Here fell …’ and a date. The nine Metropolitan Police badges, engraved into the uprights.
The nine gravelly patinas. These serial, repeated objects, uniform in their leathery darkness.
The white spaces with which they were twinned were as visually hectic as the rubbings were austere. They were filled or part-filled with leaves, twigs, dead flowers and miscellaneous bits of street debris – cigarette ends, Tube tickets, chocolate wrappers – whose significance wasn’t immediately obvious; cumulatively, they suggested a parody or perversion of the pretty patterns – the climbing rosebuds and nasturtiums, the sunny chintz – in the kitchen.
She went on talking while I tried to absorb some of the detail, providing background on how PC X was shot here, PC Y stabbed there; telling me nothing new, nothing I didn’t already know, that I hadn’t already
from disparate sources, a smoothly unspooling recitation of facts, figures, names, places.
Topophilia. Stigmataphilia. Lithomania – the human obsession with stones. The stone erected in memory of Yvonne Fletcher was a dense negative of itself: the parched white of the original here turned viscid black. The memorial to Alan King in Walthamstow was disfigured with a five-inch hole gouged out of the side, a section of the internal metal armature exposed. Two of the inscription plates had been extended to ovals to incorporate lists of three names. The stone commemorating the Harrods bombing is made of blue-veined polished Carrara marble to conform with the store’s façade, and this had produced a smooth, virtually uninflected image. The upper portions of the memorials where rapes had taken place were framed or haloed with feathers, shells, pieces of evergreen.
What else? There was a picture postcard of Avalokitesvara, a fourteenth-century Japanese Buddhist deity, welcoming the souls of the dead, according to the caption (evidence of Robin Carson being round for an early sniff?). Also a jumpily typed-out quotation from the Revelation of St John: ‘To those who have won the victory I will give some of the hidden meaning. I will also give each of them a white stone, on which a real name is written.’
‘You travel up to London to clean the Yvonne Fletcher memorial on a regular basis‚’ I said. ‘But all the other things you have here, the pressed flowers and bus tickets and what seem like pieces of litter and so on – does that mean at one time or another you have been to clean up all the other memorials as well? Some of them are in places where you wouldn’t let your dog roam the streets on its own.’ I felt the tape recorder in my pocket click off halfway through this, and by the end was aware of the heat invading my ears. I hoped she hadn’t heard.
‘Where in the paper are they planning to put whatever it is you have in mind to write about me? Under “freak news”?’
There was a blizzard of notation as she turned to come around the sofa, the white-on-black column of Police tour dates on her back aligning with a black-on-white list on the sideboard wall: 140 D 13, 62 D 15,135 R 4, 29 S 11,131 O 8, and so on, map references, an evolving method of cracking the Lottery, appliance registration numbers. ‘You already know a lot about me‚’ she said, ‘but I still don’t know who you are. An overweight man in his fifties. M&S suit and socks. Vain. Bit of a drink problem. A bad sleeper, I should say. Somebody who sees the world as something removed, separate “out there”. Somebody who is only happy being the surveyor of the scene but outside it, separate from what he sees. You could be a pervert, a con-artist, some shit-for-brains waiting to pull a knife on me, some psychopath who would think nothing of doing me in. A cop hater.’
‘No, don’t tell me, I don’t want to know. To be honest, I was under the impression you were somebody else at first. Norman Mailer. Whoever he is. A writer, I know, but that’s all I know about him.’ I was on the sofa, she was in the chair by the television, Derby and Joan who used to be Jack and Jill, both of us reinstated in our original positions. ‘Desert-horror hubby, tax-tangle comic, sex-storm barmaid, plunge mum, stab dad … You have the power to “make” me‚’ she said. ‘You’re going to rewrite me, to boil me down for public consumption. Yvonne woman. Scrubber saint. WPC memorial angel.’
Veorah Batcheller. Veorah Ray. The Guise. Hugh Ray. ‘Your husband was called Hugh. Hugh Ray? What kind of parents would do that to their son?’
‘His friends called him “Tony”. It’s what I called him for a long time after I met him … People called Miller used to always get “Dusty”, didn’t they? Dusty Miller. Dusty Rhodes. My best friend at school’s dad.’ She shivered suddenly, rubbed at the gooseflesh that had sprung up on her arms. ‘You know that expression that somebody’s just walked over your grave? … What do your friends call you?’
‘Norman‚’ I said. ‘Norm, Normal, Normsky. “The Norman Mailer of the Dog and Duck”. That’s how I log on actually, when I’ve got something to put into the system at work. “N. Mailer”. Although I also have a password for confidentiality that nobody else is supposed to know.’