Authors: Gordon Burn
‘TV star Scott McGovern, who suffered massive brain damage after an attack at his home, died in hospital last night. Doctors switched off the 54-year-old stricken celebrity’s life-support machine after his family said a poignant farewell.’ The story is stroked into the system, slugged
for easy retrieval, ready to go.
There was once a velveteen rabbit, and in the beginning he was really splendid. He was fat and bunchy, as a rabbit should be; his coat was spotted brown and white, he had real thread whiskers, and his ears were lined with pink sateen. On Christmas morning, when he sat wedged in the top of the Boy’s stocking, with a sprig of holly between his paws, the effect was charming.
My bed looks as though it has been pissed in, and the piss has soaked up the sheets into the pillow, turning it a dirty urine yellow. It hasn’t (at least not lately). The yellowing comes from the liquid inhalant I dose the pillow with at night and whose piney menthol vapours do what little they can to stop my furred tubes and pumps and passages packing up on me completely while I’m sleeping.
‘Karvol’ to see me off; Meryl Streep to bring me round again. I jam Streep’s Talkingbook version of
over my ears as soon as I am half-awake, to lull me into consciousness.
If I associate this reading of the old nursery story with happy landings, it is because the first time I heard it was 30,000 feet over the Atlantic, in the middle of one of those electric storms that has the cabin staff shooting pop-eyed, fixed-grin glances at one another for reassurance and passengers gasping audibly every time the plane pitches or plummets three hundred feet through a hole in the turbulence, up-ending sneaky movie-time Scotches and Virgin Marys. I was sitting next to a grey-haired granny, travelling alone, up in a plane for the first time, and being barmily unafraid about the fact that the sardine can in which we were strapped, helpless, was being jiggled about the sky like a coin in God’s dark pocket.
I clamped on the headset and started whipping through the channels in search of comfort, help, distraction. I passed on the Chopin preludes, Horovitz in Moscow, Carl Sagan revealing the secrets of the cosmos, Dwight Yoakum, David Hamilton’s
and P.M. Dawn, stopping when I heard Streep’s cod English-governess accent telling the tale of the velveteen rabbit against a light string-quartet and flute backing. The archaisms of the language of course were instantly lulling, and the Ice Maiden American voice doing battle with the intricacies of English pronunciation – ‘reeelly splendid’, ‘a look of wisdom and bewt-ee’, ‘that was a waaanderful summer!’ – provided a secondary diversion. I came in after the beginning of the story but, by the point where the Boy and the rabbit are tearfully separated after a bout of scarlet fever (I cried), I was engaged enough to feel as if a cooling hand had been laid across my fevered brow (the baby-pink manicured nails; the modest diamond solitaire). In my memory the hand has come to belong to Isabel, the hostess who earlier in the flight had assured me that the chest-pains I was experiencing were not signs of cardiac arrest but most likely the consequence of putting away too many sherbets the night before, and to keep on steadily sipping glasses of water.
I listened to
two or three more times all the way through before we landed. That was six years ago, and I have hardly stopped listening to it since – on the tube and in mean-curtained hotel rooms in early-to-bed towns; in pubs and during the purgatorial, drawn-out days of waiting at flower-heaped atrocity sites.
An Olympic sprinter once told me about the strange sweet feeling that ran through him at the moment he decided to accept God into his heart: ‘Like cool air,’ he said, ‘being blown into my chest through a straw.’ I suppose it could be something like this I am trying to capture with my twin pathologies or rituals: the astringent menthol vapours on my pillow at night; the crisp insinuating kindergartenisms of Meryl in the mornings. (The later are experienced largely as sounds and abstract associations by now – compulsive, reveried, divorced from any story.)
I am living in what I suppose, looked at objectively, you would have to call reduced circumstances. But reduced from what? Reduced from how I used to live with my wife, Even, and our children, Tristan and Jennifer, certainly. For instance, the ‘bed’ is not a bed but a grubby tangle of bedding on a sofa: sometimes I clear it away when I leave; just as often I’m relieved to find it lying where I left it when I come home. Ditto the milk cartons and cups and kitchen things that officially live behind a counter in the same room, with the two-ring hotplate and the ‘junior’ fridge that over the years has taken several coats of paint.
This is a studio flat – i.e., one bedroom, one living room, one alcove kitchen, one lavatory with oppressive, entombing stall-shower. Two of the main items of furniture are lightweight and collapsible, and were probably meant to be temporary when they were first rescued from the pavement by my landlady, Mrs Norstrom: a garden recliner with a rusting frame and wipeable upholstery, covered in a pattern of big, blown red and orange flowers on a foxed-blue ground; an aluminium table with hinges down the middle where grease and crumbs and fugitive food scraps accumulate. There is one picture – a poster-photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge. Plus a copy of the Desiderata on a monkish parchment scroll that my daughter gave me as a present when I moved out of the house and in here about fifteen years ago, when she was seven. It used to remind me too much of recovery programmes and the 12-Stepper’s ‘Serenity prayer’ (‘It’s embarassing but it’s beautiful’) that somebody at the office once slipped anonymously onto my desk with a note saying it was time to forgive myself and get some self-esteem. For a long time I kept it turned face to the wall, with the words – ‘Go placidly amidst the noise’et cetera – glooming out only when Jennifer visited me with her mother. The carpet is the kind of straw stuff placemats are made of in healthfood restaurants, the walls unobjectionable, indeterminate.
Very occasionally it can look as though Annie Jeffers has come with her recycling bags and dumped the contents in here. It’s
very far from ‘Orderliness. Harmony/Piles of sheets in the wardrobe/Lavender in the linen’. Whoever it was said men know nothing or little of the ‘wax’ civilisation had a point. A man needs a maid.
I’ll admit it (already have admitted it): I’ve lived better. But I’ve also lived worse. The back-to-back where I was born will do for openers, with the slop-bucket in the corner of the kitchen, no electricity, no hot water, lush fungal damp, the ceilings cracking and eventually caving in. This appeared to be nobody’s fault, and certainly not ours. I was a war baby. We were living in a port town that had been a regular target for the Germans. Accommodation of any description was in short supply. We were no worse off, and probably considerably better off, than thousands of others.
My father had gone back to doing what he had been doing before the war. He was a cutter for a Jewish tailor, and every suit he ever wore was a three-piece, and every coat had real buttonholes on the sleeves. He was a big man with a slight stoop and honest brown curly hair who put his wage packet on the sideboard every Friday unopened. I used to go to the barber with him every other Saturday just for the times when ‘Dickie’ Ames cleaned the hair out of his clippers with a lighted wax taper: the sizzle of the hair igniting, the acrid burning smell among all the sweet smells of haircream and shampoo and dense glop. In his spare time my father made wallets and purses, and engraved cowboy scenes with lariats and prairie moons and cactuses onto wide leather belts, which were worn at weekends by a good number of his friends.
Later, when we’d been given a flat in one of the new blocks put up by the council, my mother went to work as a cleaner in some furniture shops and a pet shop in the town centre. I’d hear her going off in the mornings when it was still dark, the clattering of her high heels, and the heels of the two women who worked with her, echoing up to the fourteenth floor where I was still huddled in bed. Occasionally, I’d see the three women, usually with a couple of men in tow, going into one of the pubs on the
edge of the fruit market just after opening time, although I don’t think they ever saw me.
My father died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage when he was fifty-nine, only seven years older than I am now. I was in a hospital canteen interviewing a man whose wife had just had both her legs blown off by a bomb planted in a litter-bin by the IRA when I was told, and the sudden reversal of roles was disorienting. The sympathy the man who I was interviewing showed me was different not just in degree, but in levels of spontaneity and compassion, to any I had shown him.
We buried my father in one of his own suits – a narrow chalk-stripe with double-breasted waistcoat with revers. The meat, his thumb and some of the fingers of his right hand were grooved almost to the bone from a lifetime of sewing and from the pressure of his leather-working tools. Almost the last thing I did before they put the lid on was explore with my own fingers the hatchings and depressions that were the most tangible evidence of who he had been. I remember, with the undertaker’s men crowded respectfully behind me in the tiny bedroom, and a chink of very bright light blinking in through a gap in the curtains, trying to have a thought suitable to the moment. Instead, the words that teletyped through my brain were: Friends are still stunned … Parents are deeply shocked … Park officials are still visibly affected … The small town is mourning the deaths …
The years when I was married are the only time I have ever lived in a house – lived somewhere, that is, where the living rooms and the bedrooms are on different levels. Even had grown up in a house, the children were born into one, but in all the years I lived as part of a family with them, I never felt properly acclimated; never fully keyed in to rhythms of upstairs and down, to unexpected encounters on the landing, to the complex vertical traffic-flow I never felt, in the fullest sense, intimately and absolutely
all guards down. Eventually this was to develop into feelings of anxiety and dread (and then resentment), so that home, far from giving me a protected corner in the world, a foothold in the universe, was in the end the last place I wanted to be.
For the first years, though, it was a normal young marrieds’ nuclear existence. We were trailblazers in a part of Fulham that at that time (it was the early seventies) had yet to see its first Neighbourhood Watch window sticker or its first Montessori school. We lived in a three-bedroom house in a modest turn-of-the-century terrace that was soon fitted out with the stripped pine and the directors’ chairs and the big ball Noguchi lanterns everybody (everybody like us, that is – the in-comers) had in those days. We had the William Morris curtains from Liberty, the knock-through lounge, the rectory table, the bookshelves-on-bricks.
The centre of operations, though, was the kitchen, where, in order for Even to go on earning her screw, we had installed a brick-base, butcher-top food preparation island and a restaurant-quality range. Even had been a food writer contributing mainly to part-works when we met. Our first conversation was about a piece on the best cuts of meat for a casserole that I was subbing. (She had written that Chicken Marengo was a dish created on the battlefield of Marengo. I wanted to know if there was any way of avoiding the repetition. She said there wasn’t. The repetition stayed.) On the phone I had imagined somebody flaxen-haired, lantern-jawed, big-boned, an enthusiastic trencher-woman. But in the flesh, although tall, and attractively assertive, she turned out to be wiry, dark, with long straight hair and the witchy, peasant, close-set eyes of the Essex hinterlands, where she had grown up on the bait farm owned by her father.
Even was, as her name suggests, unruffleable. She had a sense of balance and equilibrium that was perfectly suited to working at home at the same time as bringing up two small children. She was employed as a tester for the food writers on a couple of weekly magazines (deracinated women with power shoulders and brutal breath who, so far as I could tell, didn’t know a
from a bath bun), making sure before they were printed that the recipes for fish fritters or
didn’t give the wrong amounts of this or that, or say ‘braise for three hours’ when what they meant was thirty minutes.
She was systematic, scientific, scrupulously weighing, measuring, sieving, skimming, boning. There was never the homely spot of flour on the nose, the frontierswoman dough up the arms to the elbows, the frivolous slogan or Bruges pissing boy made with the left-over pastry, egg-brushed on top of the pie-crust. She wore professional whites, surgical gloves, surrounded herself with things that glinted, pulverised and cut – meat basters, steak tenderisers, larding needles, jointing knives, shears – things that would have seemed as at home in an operating theatre as a kitchen.
In between times, she interviewed prospective au pairs responding to the ad we seemed to have more or less permanently placed in
the Finn, the Lapp, the stream of Filipinos, the endless Poles, the dumpling-faced girls from the north of England called Eileen who sat in their rooms at night crying, and then disappeared for mysterious operations, never to be seen again.
At least that is the way it all looked to me then, although I’m probably not the best witness. I was working on the subs’ bench at the
and gradually acquiring what I have heard called that
Fleet Street look. The day theoretically started around lunchtime and ended at ten, but add on two or three hours either end for drinking and a little lifestyle feedback, and you’ll see that I was missing in action for anything up to fourteen hours a day, on a daily basis.
In 1973, the year Jennifer was born (Tristan is two years older), I joined the ‘quality’ paper that was going to allow me to branch out and develop on the writing side. (I had moonlighted for them on a couple of stories while I was still subbing at the
and an editor there had liked what he’d seen.) I was in Zaire covering the Ali–Foreman circus after only about a year, and, within another year, was being indulged by the space barons on the sixth floor who were the men (they were all men) with the real power on the paper. I was prepared to go anywhere to write about anything and to stay there for as long as it took (admittedly this usually wasn’t very long). On the strength of
these background pieces and extended news features, I started doing profiles and then an occasional column with my picture next to it in which I was allowed to use ‘I’ for the first time (I found this very difficult).