Four days after my death and I am beginning to itch. Is this normal? I do not know. The stifling loneliness is not abating. I had always imagined an afterlife to be crowded with corpses, the chatty throng moving along some twilight pastureland, I had not expected to be completely alone. Perhaps everyone’s death is like this, after the bizarre and annoying company of the forelife, you come to this place to be alone forever.
So many stories and films point towards those left lingering in the shadowy hinterlands, somehow managing to interfere with loved ones and enemies. As far as I can tell, the buildings and landscapes are completely unchanged, but there are no humans, no animals at all. When I wake, I can almost imagine the creaking of trees, sallow dogs, shrieking birds, but there is nothing. No sound. I can hear my thoughts. I can imagine the sounds of the world, but each time I wake, I realise with increasing urgency that the sounds of the world are gone. There is no point in talking.
All the forgettable rage of the world. The burning trees, the clouded fields, the mud ridges that loped with bodies. Tarpaulins sinking in squalid rain before the torrent bit through hills and spilled the lifeless into a lake of beige waste.
When I step inside, Esther is sitting down with Finn. A small hard thing, to flee, to drive away from one life to the next.
Esther stacks their coats beside her, pushing them down with her palms.
‘Like that,’ she says, patting them down. ‘I expect it will rain, later.’
A cable of water from the pool gathered on the sill next to her pours onto a sleeve and Esther brushes it away, then brushes it off the blue vinyl seat beside her.
In here, everyone is no one. I imagine all the endless tubs of chips through the hard summers. There’s a film of scum and condensation on the window and, outside, I can see the Sierra cooling now, steaming on the thin grit of the forecourt. Bar the wreck in the corner, ours is the only car. The sun is low, it hangs above the beach precinct, behind oily clouds: a worn eye.
I turn and stare at the metal counter with its scribbled menus, then look up to the smeared stainless steel wall above the oil fryers. I think of those last few hours on the coast: the white roads spanned by power cables and bordered by marram grass, the clouds that lifted into endless tiers of rain, so much rain it seemed we would drown. The sea always out of sight, but that iodine smell coming through the car, between the sacks and baggage. Sometimes, I saw a thin high bird sweeping through the cloud-line.
Why did they do that? Block the views of the sea with dykes? Is it a sort of defence against something? Something pouring in to the marsh? I thought they were salt already.
Finn is emptying the salt from a shaker on to the melamine table and pushing it around with his toy, he’s breathing heavily again, but there is no need to worry. Esther stares at the walls, reading, squinting at the specials, ‘Hey, they have rock,’ she whispers to herself. She checks the faded health certificates and the sprawl of bleached, misaligned photographs. ‘They have eel here,’ she says. Besides us, there’s no one in the café.
I hear something on the other side of a folding leatherette partition and guess the owners know we have arrived. They will be coming out soon. At this time of year, perhaps very few travellers come here. Everyone has something to leave behind, something to burn, in a place like this. Perhaps people do not greet people out here. Not in the wintertime. The other shops in the compound look shut. We are miles from any town now. Driving down between half-built bungalows and yards of breeze blocks and sand piles, there’s a sense of collapse.
In the corner of the dining room, there’s an archway into next door’s leisure arcade. The lights are off. I can see a rust-coloured stain on the ceiling tiles, some are missing, showing a dark void where I imagine pipes and cables are fastened. I realise I am checking the change in my pocket and take my hand out and stare at it.
Next to the glass doorway, in a swirling Artex alcove, there is a giant turtle play car with an enormous grin. The plastic has paled and whitened and, next to it, there’s a blue paddling pool filled with yellow balls with the legs of some discarded animals poking through. A sign says ‘Play Area’. I look back at the wall clock.
Music comes on and Esther sits up sharply. It’s the Bay City Rollers. Who plays the Bay City Rollers anymore? I turn and look at Esther. She raises her eyes the way she does and I almost smile back. Finn flicks the salt away, slaps his toy down and looks up, his eyes lift slowly upward into his skull and he opens his mouth like some raw ape.
The man walks in. ‘The fryers are off,’ he says.
‘Is there anything hot?’ I ask.
‘Jean, can you come through here and get these fryers started?’ the man yells, he lowers his voice and wipes the hair out of his eyes, then rubs his hands on his thighs. ‘I can sort some nuggets or something. The fryers will take ten minutes, I reckon. Do you want fish?’
‘Do you have rock?’ Esther shouts over.
‘We don’t got rock or eel in yet. The boys’ll be bringing some later, though it’s getting late,’ says the man.
‘You ain’t got rock?’ repeats Esther. ‘You got a cod back there, maybe?’
‘I can do cod,’ says the man. ‘I got the fishcakes and the nuggets.’
As they talk, the women, Jean, comes through. She looks like an Elvis impersonator and I stare at the shoelace tie she is wearing and the parade of badges on her black frilled shirt. Like the man, she has dyed black hair and looks out at us, taking us in, one by one. ‘Do they want fish?’
‘I’m just asking them,’ says the man.
‘I’ll have the cod, I guess,’ I say. ‘Esther, do you want the cod?’
‘I want the rock,’ she says.
‘We don’t got the rock yet,’ repeats the man, staring at me. ‘I can do sausages, too.’
‘I want haddock,’ Finn says. ‘And chips. And tomato sauce’ He throws his arms on the table, lays down his head and stares sideways at the flayed toy.
‘Fryers will take ten,’ says the woman. ‘You from here?’ she asks. She’s knows we’re not but it’s the opening we all need. Finn’s mouth is opening and closing, but no sound comes out.
I’d like to kill the simple soil
and learn the sun, taste the air’s bitter rust,
brandish my mouth like a sabre
and worry about the compass with pins and art.
I’d like to eat among stars and stones
and heave my dirty stomach through
the winter teeth, and I want my enemies to wolf along
severally bad and I will grin with ruin like a god.
There ought to be hurtling quartermasters
and parades of juicy men whose backs we’ll pick along.
the late trains will veer West to all the Henrys and Georges,
for to live is to sink. Later, we can lean into the concierge
like a disease and read the tatty tariffs.
O the ague of silver lives. So take my arm,
we’ll seek the bottle of our room now
and paint the evening puce.
And I intend our memories to hoist their pants
over a cinematic street in Wolverhampton
where the poor admire the Crimplene of
Mrs Culthorpe as she seeks love over her prestigious pram.
And I want to eat haddock on toast
and burnt sausage and bananas, so that, principally,
The President of the League of Confectioners
will smell my breath as I lick the pristine years.
On Sunday, we can boil eggs too long and laugh
at each widow. Nothing can distil the bright glade.
Even the shadows are crawling with our infancy.
Everything will adhere to the many of us.
When you look at things this way, I guess everybody comes to the same point somehow. I mean, Ellie could have stayed and I could have left. That’s true isn’t it? You know when people say, Eventually, like that, they kind of mean they knew it was coming, don’t they? I didn’t know it was coming. I mean, I knew something was coming in the sense that things happen. Everything happens, I guess. Nothing happens for a reason though. I believe that. Truly. I mean, when we were on holiday in Barcelona I didn’t really know we were going to kiss the way we did in the old Olympic Park with that heavy concrete hanging in the air and those giant silos, so weird, and the Telfónica mast, reaching up like some space machine into that amber sky. It was so warm. Everything was emptying out and it was like 1936 or something wasn’t it, not when we were there, but when it was used, and we talked about the lost gift of the wars. No one was around. And I didn’t know that we would do the whole stop over thing in Zürich, either. Just like that, getting off the crazy train into the wet crowds smelling of damp wool and expensive cologne. She took those photos then. And then we ate that amazing cheese thing in some restaurant where neither of us could speak but she was so beautiful and I thought I could die because she was so beautiful. What do they call that food? You know, the one you put the potatoes in, spearing them and dipping them and scooping it all out. And we had lukewarm meats that tasted so rich with the wine. That was good. That was so good. I remember that the streets were cold and we hadn’t packed the right clothes at all, and the lights were glinting in the waters as we walked about with our feet frozen and our hair damp. We were so cold we went shopping and couldn’t afford anything. Anything at all. Not even the coffee. How do people get that rich? Even then, was she thinking she was going to leave? Maybe it was then. There was a lot of travelling that year. Or maybe it was the miscarriage. That takes its toll. I hope you never have to go through that. All I can remember is staring into this sink, a stainless steel sink, in a yellow corridor filled with the smell of babies, and such heat. Such intense, you know, womb-like heat. And that sink. Just that sink, the grey scratched steel. Its lack of any kind of lustre. I thought my whole life had emptied into that sink. I couldn’t even see my reflection in it. Just the black teeth of the plug hole and the suds emptying down, into a kind of, a kind of mouth. And that was the whole point of it. You know? The point of everything, really. Maybe it was then. Maybe that was it. A steel mouth kind of ending.
BAD NOTES FROM A PUBLISHING CONFERENCEfrom your local correspondent
I'll share some of the weirder peculiarities of the publishing presentations at this year’s conference. In no particular order:
It's all about Readers and giving Readers what they want in ways no one will be able to see, ever, because what they want is actually embarrassing and possibly even seedy. It should be easy to be seedy. It's so much about Readers that writers don't really count. Writers get in the way of Readers because Readers want there to be a choice of eight [seedier] endings which their reading preferences can select from. More on Preferences later, i.e. Hell can wait.
What the world wants is more Diversity, which isn't translating things into English, but translating Out Of English (OOE) into languages that might be dying out, fast. But English is so last year. Check out the dying languages and publish stuff in those Urgently. Everyone loves the Diversity thing, but no one really fesses up much on the Demand side. [P.S. ignore that the whole world is doing everything in English, wants to speak, live, earn, read, die in English.]
The growth in global literacy means that English and Europe are much less important and not a Place Of Growth like, say, Brazil. But the bits that are important are only important for like over 50s white women, who, like, buy everything anyway as long as it is primarily paranormal romance. Shhh.
If you purchase three things online, you will be offered those three things forever in different disguises with no covers. There's no escape. This is called Your Preferences, otherwise known as Hell On Earth. Online Booksellers say things like: We've Got Your Number. And they mean it. Mine's 666, by the way.
People who buy serious books don't get past page eight and tend to get distracted by Faceache, Twitster, e-male & co. I think that's right. Oh, and they're just pretending to be clever. If you're male and young, you're a loser where books are concerned, whatever.
If you are young, basically you don't read or buy stuff like old people do. But you do it really immersively and tend to buy books massively in bookshops and love recommendations from your mates. And don't do digital, at least not when you spend all that time not reading, er, immersively. I think. But seriously 18-24 is like the Dead Zone. Plus, you don't get 4×4s done to you, more on this next.
Publishers are doing stuff with Big Data that means you are going to get lots of 4×4s done to you. [Christ, what on earth is a 4×4! Is this a secret plan to force us into Chelsea Cruisers?] Business Publishers seem to make trillions out of dumbass middle managers spending time on rebranding PowerPoint stacks for their next talk on Quantifiable Earning Resource Dislocators (i.e. books). P.S. this is downloadable with your first £10,000 subscription to Speak Idiot Easily Now.
Business Publishing is where all parts of your soul are replaced by a single robotic acronym producer that chops up language into a database and spews it out in 2 minute 20 second bursts of ... well, of something we all feel is, er, business speakyfied, because that is the source of all Corporate Anxiety. They don't get seedy romance here.
The future of publishing finance is getting Pledgers to over purchase The Book up front largely by selling tickets to events that don't happen or gentrified supplementary placebos which disguise everything with migraines or wrap something in leather and pressed flowers thus turning every publisher into a Multi-Millionaire through idiots who are susceptible to charitable guff (i.e. family and friends). [Small print says: Book Gets Distributed, Too, but this Does Not Matter as we have Made All The Money from the author's backers. Ha ha ha.]
Half your life should be spent on headlines. The headline thing is a metaphor for like, EVERYTHING. You do this Last, once The Thing is written. The Thing ought to bloody well spell out Why anyone would want The Thing in one single compelling sugar cube [Sugar Cube? Have I got that right?] so the Idiots Get It. This is the nature of all good selling.
Plus Good Selling has to include Bulking Mock-Ups so The Booksellers can see how thick books are. This along with a colour catalogue of EVERYTHING EVER ON EARTH, will make shops stock your books in vast quantities that will be returned next Tuesday in your local supermarket because The Writer Isn't Wanted.
And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is just the beginning.
Note: Some items may misrepresent the true nature of expertise and/or investment opportunities. AND, we all got pissed, laughing at Andy Hamilton
I don’t know when it started. There was a time, there was a time when people did this kind of thing around here. I don’t know if I can tell you this. Can I tell you about this? There was a time when everything was so much looser, like there were no boundaries to things back then. And we were abandoned, I guess. Out on the edge. Before this thing developed. You know? We all have that, don’t we? We all have some of that in our lives.
She broke off and looked out of the window. Outside, the sea mist thickly moved. A long arm of fog was lifting above the tall houses and slowly reached towards the forest, it was taking its hard message from the North to the firs. Dank air. Copper-coloured light. Birdless sky. The closed terraces shovelling cold through their thin rooms, and those rooms lit with uneasy fires all the way from the old town to the low tight sea houses out alone on the East cliffs. It was February and the long winter was at its deepest. A lone car groaned and gargled through the street, its tail lights bloated and waned in the haar. Then it was gone and the world seemed even more silent. He twisted in his seat back towards her and she coughed thickly and began working her thoughts again.
Let me tell you then. She was sixteen. Maybe a little older. Her mother had gone off to Smethwick, or some place in the Black Country, for work they said, but it was some kind of affair that took her there. They were no good. Ever since the Cartwrights moved here in the 20s, they were all bad. Every one of them. So the young one, she was left here because it seemed the right thing to do, I guess. And he, he was to look after her and that was that. Because the mother had gone. She had gone and there would be no reconciliation. Nothing. He wasn’t much older than you, really. Just a lamb. He’d been fishing that season, there had been no catches for a month. Anyway, she left him and went off. Just like that. And the seas were empty and he had the girl.
She moved to the grate and lifted a piece of coal and placed it gently in the centre of the weak fire. Small sparks squalled in the grate. The wind raised again and the casement rattled like it was shuddering with the dead weather. She moved to look out, drawing her cardigan around her throat. Then the wind settled again and the high trees settled in the glass and the shadows slowly settled and she turned from the amber light of the window and slumped back in the chair, every feature sagging with fire light.
She was fine for the first year. She had some friends from the village. They’d hang around Petersen’s place and take the Caister boys there. Jay Riley and his friend Karl, you know those boys? They would hang around there hoping for something to happen. Something lurid, I imagine. She was probably having sex with them, though we didn’t know that then. Back there in the grounds, there were these mattresses you’d find, pressed into the corner of the gardens, kind of dirty, lonely places, but the kids smoked there and ate what they shot and did their business in the corners and had sex and she was into all that. Even then. She was into that. But that was before this all happened.
He took a cigarette from the pack in his pocket and lifted it to his lips, then thought better of it and put it back, tamping it down in to place with his fingertips. He was watching her carefully, her hard white head, the foxing on her cheeks and throat. The thin straight ridge of her nose. The collapsed mouth. He watched her tiny eyes, the colour of a gas flame. He shivered suddenly. He pulled his hair back from his face and realised that it was wet. His brow was frozen. He wiped his nose on the back of his hand and leaned forward, leaned right into the heart of the story.
There was a bad summer and the rains had flooded the West fields and many of the houses had taken in water, and all through June and July it just rained and rained. There was no end to it. Some boats went out, but the weather was high and heavy and the seas kept them inshore and the hauling was tough and the catches poor. He’d been drinking heavily and then the engine gave in. It just died on him and he was left with nothing. So she began working. If you understand me. She took to it and some of the boys didn’t like that they had to pay now. And the weather being bad, the mood in the town was cruel. So there was, there was a degree of bitterness about all that.
Somewhere in the iron cold of the hall, a clock struck two, and something shifted in the house, ratcheting in the near dark. She was looking right at him now. She was looking hard into him, to see where he was with the story. To see how it was working on him.
At least she was putting food on the table. None of them can deny that. But something had changed in her and when she met people at Channing’s or the bakery or St Faith’s, everyone knew that she had been broken by the weather and all that bad luck and that this would lead nowhere. Nowhere good. She was left staring too far North, I guess, into a bad sea. Like the looking had worked free of her, really, like her eyes were open, but what she saw — well, she didn’t see what was coming, that’s for sure. She didn’t see that.
He leaned further in, pressing his thighs together to push out the chill in them.
Some said that all that beef, all that pork and the game they had on their table that summer, that that was a payment from Isaac Channing to her. Some said that. But at least they ate well. Ate better than most at that time. But all the same. All the same. That was a payment, you see.
He breathed heavily through his nose and noticed the air whiten in front of him. He reached for the pack again and stared at it and put it back. Then he looked up at the window. It was rust-dark now, what light was left in the old town was just a line of ochre wedges below the street lights, beside the draining angles of the night. Nothing moved. Nothing yielded.
Then Fordman came. Peter Fordman. He came in on a train from the Midlands before that line was closed. The old goods line. He arrived with six trunks they said. That’s what they said, six trunks. Before we knew it, he was moving in on Leonard Street and waiting for the great and the good to call. Just like that. Like he was somebody.
It’s the size of a biscuit box, or maybe larger, bound in purple watered silk, frayed now and split where the hinged lid was torn one lonely autumn, and beneath the thin cloth, beneath the padded lush interior, there’s that grey dusty cardboard that shows through along the seams, with those dusty furred edges: soft, burst, leaving a trail of fibres as you hold it up and smell the musty interior.
And that smell – the smell of a disconsolate, an oddly absent childhood – is the smell of old sheets, sweet tobacco, damp paper, stacks of old newsprint – a smell you have in a biscuit barrel, when the biscuits are gone. If I hold it like this, and breathe, I can see a thousand lives and hear a century of whispers. And when I lift it, inside, there are a hundred, maybe more, photos of the dead. Who are these people, caught in winter sunlight in thick hats, the deckle-edge photographs so tiny and frail? Who are the iron-jawed women, helmet-haired, frozen in formal grimaces, speechless, stern and adrift in their archipelagos of light?
The photos pour from yellow envelopes, from tissue wraps, stacked in little sets as if they signify a holiday or separate history – a life picked apart in careful frame, where sepia trees thinly lean into view in ancient lost summers, where a car is seen in otherwise carless streets beside a man in a homburg, or the edges of a long decaying dive are filled with wisteria, sagging and fading into a pale vignette, as if everyone had left the scene.
Under some envelopes of negatives, a few images are colour, yet these colours are turning blue, most are poorly focussed, a soft blur at the edge of a mouth, a weakness around the eyes, a dance or gesture caught in a gauze of light that leaves you guessing at each intention, each extension outward from that moment, that very moment, into this central silence.
‘It was a pyjama case,’ she shouts. ‘He sent it through from the barracks before the Africa thing. They were silk. Broad legs and with a sash, too. And so yellow.’
‘Yes, I remember you saying,’ I shout through to the kitchen. ‘I remember that. It’s a bit worse for wear now. I’m just looking at some photos of—’ but my voice drifts off as I stare at the faces.
I set the box down on to the polished table and step back. I can smell the lamb cooking, I can smell the carpet, freshly swept with that old Ewbank she has, and I can feel the empty room and hear the clock ticking. Are Sundays always days of grief and betryal?
What is a family, beyond a box of strangers lost on the third generation, trapped in tiny images like these, some photos so small you can barely see the lake, or that crumbling tower, or the servants, thinly standing in their whites?
The window has streamed up and one tear of condensation runs free, I watch it take its halting line to the sill, where a little puddle has formed on the paintwork. Through pane, I can see the garden, strained into shape, whittled and weeded, pruned tightly into little loyal patterns of colour. But it’s cold out there. Half the flowers are tied down, dead now. Past the fence, there’s just enough urban wilderness to please the children, and farther, a broad road cuts the middle distance and sends its sibilance towards us like, I imagine, a hidden river. Higher, farther and farther, I focus on the dark moors, those simple stainless shapes, flowing into a horizon above the tiered mills and terraces of this town, and at the top of those hills, like a single thorn, is an almost imperceptible obelisk, a moss-drawn, rain scoured, granite cenotaph the walkers always find, unexpectedly.
She is leaning in again with the faint smell of cigarettes on her roomy cardigan. She is wearing the tan dress with green diamonds, the one with meagre pimples of fabric on it and she is leaning in with her big teeth, each set in its own space like a church. Her breath smells like the bottoms of the drawers in my Gran’s house. She has wire hair. Her skin looks like parched earth.
“There are so many reasons to be different, Dimpnah,” she says. “I can’t list them all for you but, if you are going to dress in that, at least make an effort to look, well, constructive.” I tug a loose sock up to my knee and look at the blue frayed skin on my legs. Nobody cares about clothes in my house.
Constructive is Miss Metcalf’s favourite word and although she never quite finds the right use for it, she deploys it with great resonance and vivacity and all the children enjoy her flamboyance in the classroom and especially her repeated use of this word. I enjoy it, too, though perhaps not quite for the same reasons. My favourite word this week is lizard. I have also discovered that four is an appropriate number. My favourite song is Crazy Horses.
The room is grey and lifeless, and the pale magenta posters draped along on the walls are neither contemporary or inspiring. One is about farming cycles, though we are twenty, may be thirty miles from any farm I know. Like most classrooms, the environment is largely unseen and dully deterministic and chiefly there to show to the adults that something progressive is happening each day, even if the days are baldly the same and the only compelling thing is Mr Monaghan’s nose. Today the nose is puce. The air is stagnant and smells of drains and sweet wax polish. The heavy windows allow some light in, but the light is hampered by the close terraced housing and the tall sides of the factory beyond the grit and tarmac and painted shapes of the school grounds. Heavy shadows chisel their way along the parquet floors all through the afternoon. Near the headmistress’s office there is a tall vase of flowers, their thin white blades reach upwards towards the tight panelling, their smell is a smell that will never leave me.
I’m sitting beside John Joseph Mulligan. I’m watching the dark windows of a house. At the far end of the school grounds, I can see that the prefabs are now lit up. The windows are masked in condensation. Next to these buildings I can see some tall privets hiding the railway, yet every half hour I can hear the goods trains arriving in the sidings next to the factory. I imagine the giant gas chambers beyond the factory rising and falling. Pylons marching in on us like sentinels in the dusk. No one knows what is made there. Men hide in that place. All day long they are busy with the weather of their industry. What is time, but a series of arrivals and departures in the air? I’m thinking a great deal about bombs now.
On the left of Miss Metcalf, near the warping crucifix and a large mounted light switch, are several photographs of distorted children of varying sizes in a scrub village saturated in colour, yet filled with a special kind of misery: God’s misery for children. It is a reminder to us all that life is poised to deny us all things beautiful and desirable and that this can happen anywhere but happens an awful lot in Africa. Africa is the great aide-memoire of priests and nuns, a symbol of God’s precarious enterprise. If anything is permanent in this life, it is the dispensation of misery. The misery of the absence of purpose. The nuns I see call this a vocation.
“If we are to be good and kind and know our vocation, children,” Miss Metcalf suddenly remarks. “We must also be constructive in our attitude and demeanour. No one will thank us for being wishy washy lazybones. God does not want those who are neglectful of His needs.” Threads of dust hang below the ceiling in failing angles. We all begin to tire and yawn and sag onto our desks. “Heads down!” shouts Miss Metcalf. “Time for a story.” We all begin smelling the burned veneer of the years.
I have just opened my eyes. Lucy’s nose is running into her mouth. Terrance is pulling at his crotch now, and begins to cry and wriggle. His eyes are still shut. He raises his hand. There is a little commotion and some snorting and Miss Metcalf rushes forward and removes Terrance from the classroom with a gestural sigh. His shorts are dripping. The heavy door thuds shut and a small billow of air shoves the motes around in soft waves: the cadence of absence, I say in my head.
We have formed a line. It is home time. Through the dark panes I can see a line of prams and hats and overcoats beside the chipped green railings. It is the mothers. A heavy sky is moving fast over St Andrew’s and the air turns cold and viscous. The air seeps through the glass. We wait for the final bell. What exactly is released then? There might be time for some penny cakes and Arrowbars if Donaghy’s is still open. It depends on the amount of chatting at the gates.
How do we become who we are? It is a mystery. Do people simply end up being something and settle into it like a long sort of accident. Maybe it’s a lifelong performance that somehow grows into them, like a parasite. A parasite of meaning and intention. Taking them over like actors in a play. I hear some children become their mothers. Fewer become their fathers. Some are destined for evil, like Mr Walcott and Tyler Burns. Others rebel and enjoy a measure of difference. Some even leave. But I tend to think that whichever route you take, inconveniently evil or banally separatist, you end up with what you got. What you arrived with. What you take with you. The big juicy bowl of nothing.
Some people hate the idea of nothing in their lives. People spend hours avoiding it. And, admittedly, it’s best to keep busy to avoid seeing too much of nothing in your days. Stoning cats can help. And eating beetles.
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.