Authors: Gordon Burn
‘The sex-pest boyfriend’s still pursuing her,’ Walter said.
‘Yeah, filthy bastard,’ Annie said. ‘Let himself in yesterday and went off with some of my knickers.’ She resat the small metal bolt that she wears in her right nostril during the off-duty hours. ‘Binoculars trained on the front door, weeps and pleads with me in the street, trails round after me like a ragged medieval whatsit mendicant, bells me a hundred times a day He’s developed an ideational disturbance. I’m an object of unwanted attention. Features think it’ll make eight hundred words.’
‘He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good dot, dot, dot,’ Myc Doohan said. ‘You can have that as an opening sentence. Take it. It’s yours. Mine’s another Coke.’
‘Teale-green, citron, avocado, pumpkin. Approximately in that spectrum? Muted brights. Or were they black?’ Ashley said. ‘Lace with a gossamer undercolour? The incorporation of a pattern language capable of renewing the communicative power of the surface. Contour-cut to minimise VPL. What colour were they?’
‘One plain white, one pair oysterbeige.’ Accepting the offer of a light from Doohan, the flame flared briefly in the silver bearing of Annie’s nose-bolt. ‘Donna Karan, New York, bought as a present. “Dry-clean only” label in the back. Come
I mean. Can you imagine?’
‘My darling brown-arsed fuckbird.’ This was me. I was three big vod-ton’s in, expecting to fly. ‘James Joyce to Nora. According to the recent cache of coprophilia turned up at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, or one of those places.’
‘I am on the fringes of erotomania in a way,’ Walter volunteered. He was lifting his sweater and fumbling with the waistband of his trousers. He pouched out a couple of inches of peach
silk between the buttons of his braces. ‘It seemed natural to me that when my wife died last year I should wear her lovely silk knickers under my Y-fronts, summer and winter. I suppose it was intended as a tribute to her. I don’t know anyone else who would do this! I remember her every day because of it.’
I waited for Ashley to chip in with something about private memory becoming largely subsumed in public spectacle, one of his specialised subjects, but he was busy keying data into a palmtop PC. ‘Flong pages. Pie-ups. Moodies. Low-mist inks,’ it said on the liquid crystal display. A member of the bar staff brought Walter his dinner – a white plate brimming with off-white foodstuffs: boiled potatoes, white loose-skinned chicken, pale beans sitting in a pale cornflour gravy, which the barman looped a trail of as he put the plate down.
Walter unfurled the utensils and tucked the red brewery napkin into the neck of his shirt, and we all involuntarily stopped to watch him eating, all projecting him into the same unhappy future of rubber undersheets, plastic bibs, maggot-infested leg wounds caused by the long-term neglect of the profit-creamers in charge of the private death-with-dignity institution where he will linger until the day comes for them to pat him on the face with a shovel. (Walter is well over retirement age but, on a paper where the average age on the editorial side has dipped to thirty-four, having somebody with Walter’s road-miles around, as they expressed it to him, provides a bit of much-needed bottom. A few years earlier, they had worked out that it would cost them more to sack him and make a redundancy payment than to go on forking out for his salary.)
Guessing the tack our thoughts were taking (it couldn’t have been difficult), Walter said: ‘Being old doesn’t necessarily mean a life that is sick, senile, sexless, spent or sessile. Spare me the caregivers and the nurturers … Don’t mind me.’ Walter lifted the gravied chicken leg off the plate with the fingers of both hands. As he opened his mouth to receive it his face became simultaneously death-like and gruesomely vivid, aureoled in the white light of a motor-driven Nikon.
It was like time-to-go-time, when the house lights show up all the cigarette burns and smashed glasses, and the tide-lines of furtively discarded crap. There were islands of tough marsh grass on Walter’s cheekbones that hadn’t been discernible before; tundra in his nose; gristly knobs and plaques and bosses of flesh; deltic tangles of veins; white matter creaming in the corners of his curdled eyes. For a strobic second, he looked like a carbuncular, Arcimboldo portrait of himself, composed entirely of artichokes and radishes, celeriac and beets, plantains and ugly tubers. Chicken grease coursed through the clumps of whiskers he had missed while shaving, came together with saliva and tertiary rivulets of grease and drooled off the end of his chin.
Walter had become an exhibit in Heath Hawkins’s ongoing project which concentrates on media reptiles drinking and eating – ‘on the gargle and in the trough’ – and in general succeeds, as he had just succeeded with Walter, in making us look authentically reptilian: thickened skins; orbital protuberant eyes; flicking fly-catcher tongues. He believes the pictures symbolise the human appetite for the morbid, the salacious and the horrific which we are here to stoke up and feed.
‘The continually stuffed body cannot see secret things,’ Hawkins said. ‘Isn’t that what they say, Walter?’
‘Heath Hawkins.’ Ashley was excited. He had what appeared to be a rose-pink aura round his lanky frame. ‘Specialities: bird decapitators, puppy stranglers, woman beaters, wife poisoners, child molesters …’
‘Mr Click-clack-Kodak,’ Heath Hawkins confirmed. ‘Mutilations, torture, necrophilia, autopsies, bestiality, road accidents, work-site carnage, a good blaze
‘The naked shaking animal,’ Ashley said. ‘Killings, atrocities, butchery, gore. The shameful and menacing experiences that show humanity at its worst. You believed in the beginning that there was a psychic shield. But as more people died, and more friends, you learned there was not. Best-known quote, after your car was hit by a hand-detonated mine set off at a distance by guerrillas: “It was as if I had been to my own funeral. I knew
everything – who wrote, who called, who came, who didn’t.” Second most-famous: “I want to turmoil people. Take them out of that comfort zone,” a clear echo of McCullin’s, “I wanted to break the hearts and spirits of secure people.” A child of privilege, your fascination with extreme violence is your attempt to know the world by knowing the worst it has to offer. Please state your current worldview in a way that would be suitable for a white-on-black, centre-leg pull-quote of fifty words or less.’
‘My grandmother used to have a saying that when hell was full up, the dead will walk the earth,’ Heath Hawkins said. ‘We’re seeing it now They are the dead. Out there. In here. Look at them.’
Heath Hawkins looks like one of the ruined beauties of the West Coast white jazz scene of the forties and fifties: Art Pepper, Stan Getz, Chet Baker after their best blowing days, even their junky jailbird days, were long behind them, and death was clearly on the horizon. He has greased-up, greying copper-bronze hair that falls forward in a scimitar shape when he is helling round getting images of suffering and ruination to stick to the film, and stone-washed vacant blue eyes. Tonight he’s wearing a tonic suit with narrow trousers and a single-breasted jacket, and a T-shirt that says ‘Fuct’ across the front in the lettering of the ‘Ford’ logo. He has a knotted saffron-coloured cord around his neck, and a small, pendant black velvet draw-string bag. As usual, his hands are taped with the same plastic tape he uses to protect the body parts of his camera. Visible on his fingers, and on his face and neck, are the open skin lesions that cover the rest of his body; they are caused by a parasitic protozoa picked up a decade or more ago, transmitted by a genus of blowfly in Salvador or Nicaragua or the Congo or the Lebanon or Guatemala or Biafra.
‘So,’ Hawkins says. ‘How we all enjoying this latest gruesical? A gas, or what? All it’s missing is a body. Still no smudges of the battered and broken, is there? I tell you, Norman, we got to get the fuck in there. Go team-handed. Smush up right in the guy’s face. Bang off some snaps. It
me. I mean, a couple of
hours after she’d croaked it, Monet was in there painting his old lady, getting down the blue and the yellow and the grey tonalities of death. And for sure he’s feeling no pain, old McGovern. Not no way is he feeling any pain, right. He’s pure, insensate vegetable matter. I enjoyed your piece by the way. Good going. But, listen. We’ve got to crash it, man. Do it. Go in with me. Run a raid on the factory of bad karma.’
Hawkins has become as habituated to hospitals as he once was to famines and foreign wars. His first portfolio after he had hung up his flak jacket, his shrapnel-holed olive drabs, came together over the months he spent lurking in the Casualty Department of a busy inner-city hospital, homing in on torn flesh, screaming faces, meaty wounds, following his subjects into emergency surgery, prowling the morgue. The hospital management had to ask him to leave in the end.
He kept taking pictures of his first wife through her slow death from cancer; the ravages of chemotherapy, the bifurcated scar of the mastectomy blown up into images of high-contrast, extreme graininess.
He met Murrayl, his second wife, at a police scene-of-crime murder reconstruction in a town in the West Midlands. Bearing a strong resemblance to the murdered woman, Murrayl had volunteered to put on clothes similar to the ones the woman was wearing on the night she died, and follow the route from the commuter station to her home ten minutes’ walk away that she was taking when she disappeared. Hawkins had approached Murrayl at the end of the photo call and a few days later persuaded her to lie down in the weed-choked alley adjacent to a Salvation Army Citadel where the body had been found. He photographed her with a supermarket carrier bag taped over her head and her clothing disturbed, resting against a bunch of flowers with a card that said, ‘From regulars and staff at the Railway Inn. A tragic loss.’ Murrayl went on to do some glamour modelling and, now separated from Heath, currently works as a nineteen-forties-costumed cinema usherette at the Museum of the Moving Image on the South Bank.
This time when Annie needs a light, Hawkins provides it with one of his best-known props: the veteran Zippo lighter with the inscription that reads, ‘Though I walk through the Valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil, for I am the biggest bastard in the Valley.’ I notice that Annie cups his gaffer-taped hand in a way she failed to do with Myc Doohan, a charged but tentative contact, like Billie or Ella putting the lock on an old RKO steam-radio mike. ‘The left hand, which signifies unjustly the evil side of life,’ Hawkins says, ‘the sinister portion of space, the side from which we’re told we mustn’t come upon a corpse or an enemy, or a bird.’ Annie briefly touches her cigarette to the tip of the wayward, sheeting flame, and excuses herself.
Hawkins takes a lens out of his camera satchel and removes it from its chamois-leather wrapping. It locks into the body of the Nikon with an important, finely engineered snap. He brings the camera to his eye and demonstrates the soundless, smooth, oil-on-oil movement of the lens as it is focused. Then he sets the camera down and proceeds to something that I have started to suspect is coming. He takes the black draw-string bag from around his neck, and sits back to wait for Annie’s return.
The hands are the hands of a child, conceivably a baby: shrunken, dark-skinned, leathery-looking, the skin brought together where the wrists would be and secured with a metal band, like a blood sausage or a continental salami. Hawkins places the hands either side of the base of the glass from which Annie has been drinking, so that it looks like some shocked-to-your-socks appeal on behalf of the latest Third World drought and famine, or a sentimental Victorian funerary arrangement.
He has been here before. He waits for the tears to come, tracking down her freshened matte cheeks, over the no-make-up make-up of her spasming mouth, before snapping off the shot that casts her in the role of tragic wife, grieving mother; as participant now, rather than professional witness, dealing hands-off with the world, separate from what she sees.
‘Let smiles cease. Let laughter flee,’ Hawkins says. ‘This is the place where everybody finds out who they are.’
The tiny hands, loosely fisted around the stem of the glass, are patinated with a close, mottled pattern of amber and black-brown translucent tones; they look almost like an outgrowth of the laminate plastic surface of the table. I can see now that the glass-rings, far from being irregular or random, would form a pattern if reproduced over a larger area, and are an in-built part of the design.
Scott McGovern has attracted the inevitable cargo of loonies, the usual fruitcake fringe of clairvoyants, UFO spotters, astral seers, poison-pen letter writers, faith healers and intergallactic travellers. And, outside the hospital, some kind of demonstration is going on. But it is impossible to tell from the silent, circling, grave-faced placard-carriers who or what they are demonstrating for or against. There is no ‘Oggi-Oggi-Oggi’. No ‘What do we want! – Peace! When do we want it! – Now!’ No clown-painted children in pushchairs, no electric hailers. Just the dogged shuffle-tramp, and the slogans and daubings that I dutifully write down in the hope that they might arrange themselves into some narrative shape later.
‘Health, beauty, morality’
‘Stain, defilement, disorder’
‘We live in the ecstasy of communication, and this ecstasy is obscene’
‘I want to care but it’s so hard’
‘Upland fields, hilly roads, noble horses’
‘Fame, packaging, standardisation, vacuity, death’
‘The mouth kisses, the mouth spits – nobody mistakes the saliva of the first for the second’
‘More imprisoned, lost and alienated than ever before’
‘Unnerving in their absoluteness, their remoteness’
‘These creatures of the electric limbo’
Heath Hawkins has his flashgun hooked up to the power-pack on his belt; he’s ready to rumble. ‘Okay. Let’s blind the fuckers. Shish their fuckin’ eyeballs, man,’ he says.
Leaving by way of a side-street adjacent to the west wing of St Saviour’s, I see the camera emplacements at an upper window, the fisheye and periscope and telephoto lenses trained on the magenta reflecting window of McGovern’s room. The family of four who usually live there have been moved into the Regent Palace Hotel until the doctors pull the plugs.