Authors: Gordon Burn
He got up and closed the door to shield Betty’s ears from something she was going to be able to read in the paper twenty-four hours later. Revealed on the wall behind it was a punch-printed blue-metal sign: ‘Due to the AIDS crisis you are no longer required to kiss the boss’s arse.’ ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘I suppose you can’t inspect a sewer without wading through shit. Give us a listen of this twisted bollocks.’
All three of them kept watching the television, whose sound was down, and on which a bearded man in a tam-o’-shanter was preparing to tee-off, while I walked to the other end of the room and loaded the tape. The computer screen on Dosson’s desk contained a list of words that seemed to have their beginnings or ends missing.
They reminded me of T-shirt slogans glimpsed in the spaces between open jackets and shirts,
athy on reception had been wearing one. I could remember it. It went:
The first sound that came out of the speakers was Scott McGovern snorting coke – high-pitched, more of a whistle, followed by a long, satisfied, bone-clean exhalation. Then the out-of-doors country sounds. Then the mounting choking and sobbing. Then the wild track again – a breeze sifting through the tall grass in the meadow, a can being crunched, the dog’s barks echoing down the valley. This contradicted the fierceness of the weather on the television in a way that all of us I think found unsettling.
Scott McGovern’s voice when it came seemed unconnected to the world of wind and weather. It was coming from the world of machine-assisted bodily function and progressive structural dissolution and the agonal event, telling us what the daily reported spectacles of death and destruction – the meat-and-potato cases of kidnap, torture, murder and mutilation – repeatedly told us: that only other people died.
‘My father made me suck his cock almost every day. My mother knew about it and she did nothing.’ McGovern had recovered himself by this point. He was quite matter-of-fact.
Oh very nice,’ Dosson said, double-checking with a glance at the door that this was something Betty wasn’t going to be able to hear.
‘I can’t drink any white liquids now,’ the voice on the tape continued. ‘They make me throw up. What I remember more than the taste of my father’s come, is the overwhelming feeling of helplessness, of …’
‘Oh fuck me while I’m sleeping. Oh
oh dear.’ Dosson was dividing his attention between the tape and the television, listening, pacing.
‘I remember how I would always close my eyes as the cock was in my mouth and he would start hitting me in the back and yelling “Open your eyes, you cocksucker!”’
‘Walk in, aim the blade, build the grip … The angle of the spine is of paramount importance,’ Dosson said. He was in the centre of the room, bent at the knees, sitting well back in his stance as the manuals recommended, air golfing. ‘He’s going to miss it. Got to … WhadItellya.’
‘I was being controlled and humiliated by this man who was supposed to love me as a father. He would make me say that I wanted to suck his cock before he put it in my mouth.’
‘The rotter,’ Dosson said, indicating with a jerk of his head to me that he had heard enough. ‘What a fucking rotter … Yeah well. Well done, Norm. How long has it took you? Only a week.’
‘A week of being ripped to the tits,’ Ronnie Duncan said under his breath. Sebastian-Dominic smirked and went to town on the ring on his little finger.
‘We’ll make an inky-finger out of you yet,’ Dosson continued to me. ‘Keeps the pot on the boil at the
least. So? What’s all
the long faces for? Let’s run with it. Tone it down a bit. The language. Big sidebar on child abuse. “The menace stalking our children. What you can do if you suspect da-dee-da.” Plenty white space in the lay-out. Get some oxygen in. Cheery fucking tale.’
The list on Dosson’s computer had flinched and scrolled up two new words.
Sebastian-Dominic undid his top button and loosened the knot of his tie with one hand in a single action. Ronnie Duncan said he needed to stay for a word about the complaints that somebody was cooking sausages on the coals in the staff sauna again. Betty Cooper appeared in the doorway making signs that indicated that calls were stacking up and lunch was looming. ‘I think we could do with a couple of blasts of your air-freshener in here,’ Dosson told her. ‘Haven’t got any mind-freshener, while you’re at it?’
Easing past her, I felt like somebody coming out of a strip joint into the daylight on a street where he might easily meet somebody he knows. ‘Don’t worry about the fucking writing,’ Tosser called after me when I’d emerged far enough for the senior cronies camped within his power orbit to hear. ‘We’ve got subs to do that bit.’
Sebastian-Dominic, still convinced that it was amusing – camp or kitsch or postmodern – to be slumming for a while on one of the tabs, was the first to laugh. ‘If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.’ There was a chance he knew the expression. But I could see he was sure that wasn’t going to happen to him, much as I had been certain many years ago that it wasn’t going to happen to me.
of Scott McGovern’s abuse at the hands of his father ran as a splash complete with front-page barkers and screamers, and continued inside on pages 2, 3, 10 and 11. That was last Thursday. In the five days since, there have
been think pieces, leaders, a shrink writes, why-oh-whys, a steady stream of TV crews coming to the office to interview Tosser (who invariably gets Ronnie Duncan to do a stand-up for him), reader helplines, phone-in polls …
On Friday, I took receipt of a case of Teachers and a complimentary memo from the editor (my first) that I picked up and read at least a dozen times in the course of the day, and which, I am bound to admit, I have in one of my jacket pockets now.
It is the dogwatch of a Monday, and we are still dug in around St Saviour’s, a raggle-taggle army, half-alerted for signs of unusual movement, big-name visitors who might provide a couple of inches, some scrap of tiding-over copy, waiting for Scott McGovern to die.
At noon on the first day, a spokesman for the hospital had emerged outside the main entrance with a bucking, resistant sheet of paper to inform the legions of the press who had assembled that they were in ‘a totally persona non grata situation’. That earned him a big hand in the bar of the North Stafford Hotel in Stoke when the pack who were staking out Peggy Askam saw it later on television.
A number of us who were there that night are here now, coralled behind the police barriers on a busy street in Maryle-bone. The situation is undignified, but not what you would call soul-sapping. The mood in the press pen is good-natured, almost festive. Somebody has put up a hand-written sign: ‘Warning: Do not rattle our cage. Do not feed the animals.’
Since the decimation of the Street, there aren’t many opportunities to get together to exchange gossip, spread rumours, compute redundancy pay-offs, and job shop, unless you’re a member of the Garrick, which none of us here are. Some people are playing rummy or backgammon, squatting on the ground on their primary-coloured, high-performance layers of Thinsulate and Polartec and Trail and Trek; a couple of bottles have been uncorked, a hip-flask or two is doing the rounds, an old smudger is brewing up chewy tea with a lethal-looking, battery-operated
electric poker device. (He only has to produce it to prompt one of a series of running jokes about objects that Scott McGovern may or may not have taken up the shitter.)
At St Saviour’s, the cleaners and porters arrive and depart; broad-beamed nurses and smock-wearing doctors, riding the high of sleep-deprivation, maintain their soap-operatic ebb and flow; the police mark the change of shift by shrugging into reflector vests; a blue emergency light strafes the dark rectangular valley; a siren wails; a portable beeps; a photographer exercises his power winders, speed finders, nicad chargers, angle finders, the Quantum Turbo powerpack on his belt, squeezes off some restless scatter shots. By now we are factored into the equation, a cause for unease and disappointment when we fail to show up. We have moved in, found a rhythm, become part of the furniture of the area, all in the space of a little over two weeks.
But we are not the only spontaneous hutment of strangers to have claimed squatters’ rights here. Sitting out this death or death situation under the maintenance-free, canopied frontage of the hospital opposite – a white, parabolic, membranous structure whose vast trusses resemble dinosaur skeletons – is a troupe, a tiller, a
of Scott McGovern fans.
Here are the women who have marked every birthday, every anniversary, every minor milestone in his long career with knitted sweaters, home-baked cakes, and Gucci wallets. Here too the women who have sent him half-pairs of split-crotch panties with their telephone numbers attached, lockets enclosing clumps of pubic hair and wadded cotton wool, video cassettes of themselves masturbating and gasping his name; here also the women with a frail, wintering, chemotherapy look who have left McGovern money in their wills and now know they must expect him to pre-decease them.
None of this is guesswork or conjecture. I know it because, in common with every other paper, we have let loose a girl reporter on them -a sympathetic sister who, without exception, has vavoomed in there and stitched them up like kippers.
Even from this distance I am able to recognise individual faces
from their pictures – the ring-leaders, the hard-core, the women who have logged the most battlefield time, sitting under posters and sagging bed-sheet banners and giant multiportraits of McGovern, each likeness flickeringly illuminated and garlanded like Shiva or Vishnu or some other great Sanskritic deity.
Since becoming mini-celebrities in their own right by appearing on television and in the magazines and papers, they have been awarded an increase in their caste privileges and are accorded the sort of veneration reserved for tribal elders. They take the places that are considered the most draught-free and least vulnerable to rain and fumes from the traffic; sandwiches and hot drinks are brought for them from the café; their pillows are plumped, their shoulders and chilblains massaged, their blankets straightened, their sleeping-bags unzipped and hung up to air. And they have responded royally by assuming some of the glamour conferred by the broadcast and printed image – their flesh seems tighter, their hair looks livelier, their make-up more vivid; they are looking as good as it is possible to look after two weeks of douching in a narrow toilet cubicle at the nearest greasy-spoon.
Throughout the day all the women take their turn waving signs at passing motorists that say ‘Support the vigil – Hoot if you hate tabloid scum’. Every hoot is rewarded with cheers and lairy whistles from their side of the road, indifference or the finger from ours if we’re awake and watching. At six, at the police’s insistence, the signs are put away, and there then commences the communal humming of old Sunday School and ‘Sing Something Simple’-style, middle-of-the-road Radio-2 fare. At about seven-thirty, which is about now, the murmur of praying begins, accompanied by the burning of incense and joss sticks, and then the waving of guttering candles and cigarette lighters above their heads while they sway together singing ‘Sailing’. Sometimes a priest is present to lead them in prayer and console them in their darker moments. Always there are the cyclops lenses, the lights and strobes, an electronic news-gathering team with the member wearing the banks of beepers on his belt steering the
camera-wielder by the waist towards images offering the highest valency of fatigue and fanaticism and ecstatic abandon.
Watching this vigil in the last few days has revived memories of old newsreels showing the pre-dawn vigils that traditionally took place outside prisons in the hours before a hanging. The civically monumental, weather-chewed, Victorian façade; the watchers at the prison gates, waiting for the striking of the clock; the abolitionists’ singing of ‘Abide with Me’ in the face of the jeering of their opponents; the offering up of silent prayers, the fervently pawed crucifixes and rosaries, the clench-faced men of the cloth; the posting of the typed notice on the gate confirming that sammy has taken the drop; the sombre picture of the mother and wife/sister emerging from the last anguished farewell; the bible-black three-decker headlines in the lunch time editions. (Dead Dead. Oooo-oo, oooo-oo …)