The day the bomb exploded on Corporation Street, Miss Cooney died. I was unable to talk much about my feelings for her life. In her teak living room, a handful of women gathered to arrange cheap flowers in pots and vases. The doorbell rang. Women walked in. Women left. Some smoked in the back yard or the front garden, stamping butts out on the dirty paving. Some neighbours stared from upstairs windows. One visitor attempted a phone call in the hall, though her voice seemed awkwardly loud, drifting over the visitors, and she ended her conversation abruptly and left. Someone put ten pence pieces on Miss Cooney’s eyes in an extravagant gesture. I removed them.
A thin breeze separated the nets in the lounge, some bluebottles swam around the lightbulbs, settling on the sideboard and settee. All afternoon, as news of the bomb came over the grating radio, we commented on the minutiae of the house. The peach and yellow crochet work on the arms of the settee. The musty Ottoman. The cabbage-coloured counterpane Miss Cooney had thrown over the tall-backed chair with its burst seams. We admired an awful large 1930s print of a Victorian train station, peopled in sharp perspective with men in moustaches and hats, and women in heavy dresses and bonnets, and those inevitable children with livid cheeks like some awful fruit, their eyes empty with narratives of loss and departure amid the steam- and smoke-filled platform. A few miles away all the heavy shoppers were gazing at their injuries, high-throated yells swelling to their own echoes below a vast mushroom cloud.
We kept talking about the room. There was an empty bird cage by the fireside. Some brass work around the walls, that seemed vulgar. Imitation jade ashtrays, piled with ancient dimps, each covered in violet lipstick, measuring the hours. The talk moved to the quality and degree of housework completed or uncompleted or plainly abandoned, of how she lad let things go over the last few years as her health had deteriorated. I was left wondering which years had constituted the last, as nothing had changed dramatically for all the time I had known Miss Cooney, nor had things deteriorated in quite the manner claimed by the strangers. Still, there’s nothing quite as tragic as a sink full of blackened dishes. Or those knitted stockings stuffed into her slippers, ready to pull on if the evening turned cold. No further evenings ever would.
Death makes for regimentation, yet here among the murmuring retinue of what I imagined were former co-workers and more recognisable neighbours from Failsworth, it was clear no one really knew Miss Cooney. Not even me, her immediate neighbour of ten, or was it eleven years? Yet I was to discover that this poverty of knowledge surrounding Miss Cooney’s life was less a fault of my own mid-life fatigue and widowhood and more an intentional and lifelong deceit.
By the third week, the visitors changed. I had cleared much of the house. Cleared the garden of its interruption of weeds. Arranged the papers and bags into piles, and left notes around the various stacks to identify the elements of what I think some people call a legacy. It was hard to see how anyone could make sense of these belongings. Death transforms our treasures into debris. There had been surprising visits from council staff, from a mysterious chalk-faced doctor and a police officer named Connor, who had been at the site of the bomb on the day of Miss Cooney’s death, attempting to clear the early shoppers before the blast left mannequins splintered in the ruins. He had thought the street was filled with body parts. His world would forever be filled with alarms and fluttering curtains.
I had by now assisted with making arrangements for the funeral. There was to be a coroner’s report. I began to wonder how I had been so completely drawn in to this alternative world, why no family members had yet appeared. Had she ever spoken of her family? The visitors thinned and then stopped. Soon, the television filled with sports news from Atlanta. Everything seemed distorted and distant; my interest in my own affairs began to decline. It was at this point the news arrived that I had been named as Miss Cooney’s executor. I stared at the solicitor’s letter. What on earth had she thought of me? My mind drifted back to her arrival in the 1980s, Ernest and I had not known of her house purchase, we had had no glimpse of her viewings. The form of the arrival seemed both unappealing and aggressive. Who was she? One day, the lorries had simply arrived, Miss Cooney sprang from her rusting red Ford Fiesta and took over the house. We didn’t speak for a year.
Now the summer rolled on. I would go to bed late, my back aching, my fingers cut. Thin light broke through the curtains at 3 a.m. as I lay awake listening to distant trains and traffic, waiting to attend to Miss Cooney’s belongings later in the day. By six I would be dressed and ready. I would enter the house to work my way through another drawer of papers and ornaments, through memory and its immediate decay. This was a month of slow accounting and attribution; I was inventing a new history for my neighbour. I was bringing Miss Cooney to life in a way I had never actually known her, we were becoming better friends in death than life had ever afforded. I recalled passing her in the street; I could never have known the abstract central purpose of her life. All those years, this private tiny woman, so studiously unremarkable, had been at work on something. My life had never known such privacy. Each day, the papers and receipts, gave hints and shadows of something I had never known. I could not yet see the shape. Perhaps no life has a shape. Death has a shape.
One sultry Thursday afternoon, as the swifts were loose and wild above the precinct, their high shrieks coming through the windows, and amid of the chaos of attention I was now living in, I uncovered Box Number 17. Inside it I saw a chequered diary, some old notebooks, what appeared to be phone records, tape reels, five sets of keys and a folded map. The map I could clearly see was of north Manchester. Circled was a point on a street, perhaps three miles from my very location, a mill terrace I could almost recognise, leading nowhere, backing onto the embankment. I don’t think I had ever taken a train along that route. I pondered how in cities, minor distances are immeasurably far. Even a single street away, all those unknown tiny discourses are taking their strangers through lives we can never know, we may travel by, but we can never grasp what is closest to us. At the heart of all lives is an immeasurable distance.
Box Number 17 I soon learned formed no pattern. I searched high and low, in the roof space, among pipes and boilers, cupboards and wardrobes, the hot shed. I opened forty sacks and carefully worked through my notes. Nothing emerged of the series. Why number 17? Given the great complexity of Miss Cooney’s hoarding, I began to think that perhaps she had managed to discard some things over the years.
I began reading the diaries and notebooks. Nothing quite prepared me for the substance of those records. Day after day, week after week, they detailed what I learned to call The Visitors. It was 1963, a hard winter, the times showed the daily count of attendance, names — could they be real? The twins. Sutton and Esther. Connie and Albert. The bookings were clear enough, but the notebooks spelled out the sexual nature of the events. At first, I was surprised and could not read on. I walked out into the back yard to see the declining sun, high sharp cloud and gold air. There was a smell of diesel and tar on the air. I considered whether I was feeling ashamed to be reading of someone else’s sexual encounters. Was this just a kind of pornography? How had Miss Cooney come to own this? I gathered my thoughts and decided that there was nothing wrong with reading the material. Yet it was as if the mirror of my work had been shattered, something I have seen emerging among the records had now, finally, been revealed. Yet this discovery made my neighbour more remote. It was a second death.
I must confess, I had never read details of anyone’s sexual encounters. Had I imagined it, I suppose I might have thought it a list of desires. A set of practices. Some narrative of recovery and exultation, of digression and excess; everyone had a separate temper and need, what united people was their sexual distance from each other, even as they were fucking. My own shame at reading the notebooks quickly passed and I became comfortable entering the intimate space of these mysterious strangers and the accounts of their hours together. Had Miss Cooney been listening to these events? Was that what the tapes were? My stomach tightened. My mouth became dry. Some pages seemed to be transcriptions, some were incomprehensible, a list of grunts, some embarrassingly banal instructions to keep on doing whatever was being done, my mind drifted to my own love talk, its transient and incontestable protests. Some entries were explicit. One detailed the various sensations of anal intercourse. Another was a list of sex toys and their employment. Perhaps this was all common material? I had never seen such things before. Does everyone share these moments in this way? However, one thread began to emerge, and that was the very room being used. Week in, week out, the visitors were being booked in for sexual encounters. Were these affairs? It seemed clear that each person attending neither knew their partner, nor had a longstanding relationship. I began to cross reference the material. Pornography is always at its most engrossing when at its most reductive.
A week passed and I had moved all my attention to the contents of the box. My initial discomfort with sexual revelation passed and I was content to read the entries and the accounts of labia, of pressure and positions, of cocks and cunts. The most banal entries seemed to be the most potent. “Oh god, oh god, oh my god, oh that’s good, that’s it, that’s it, just there, oh god, keep going, just there, argh, oh my god, that’s fucking good, oh Christ, oh Christ.” Pages of this, is it drivel? This came together with the diary entries and the lists of utensils, the position of the couples, the changes around the room, I began finding the empty colic prose was strangely erotic. The events of the room were repetitive, doors were knocked, someone entered. There was a banal exchange, it was even polite, then someone began to draw away an item of clothing. Another piece fell to the floor. Each watched the other at a distance. Some were more practised at talking through their desires. Some clearly masturbated. Socks and stockings were removed. One would turn and approach with heavy intent, another would bury a face in blankets and beg. There would be a twisting kiss, a shift of haunches, legs raised, a cock would push into place, there were shifts of weight, glistening vacant stares, bursting heat and sweat and mouths gaping, moans and screams, submission and exhaustion in the decaying evening light. In the room, it seemed everything was permitted. Each visitor was both leaving and becoming something.
By the end of the week, I had determined to take the keys to investigate the address. Everything had now changed. The discovery of the box could only mean there was a second archive. It had to be at the house and I now knew precisely where the terrace was, it’s short street near the old Broadway Club, a stone’s throw from Oldham Road in a world governed by a precise sexual vacancy.