The Installation

Felicity Allen

That was the day Denise told me about the time their dad had beaten her baby brother with a strap when he bought a pet mouse from a school friend. First, she said, Graeme had had to take the mouse back. Double punishment. She had heard the beating from the next room. They had never spoken about it. Stretching the truth, to me Graeme had always credited his parents with never laying a finger on him.

We were packing up the house, going through the papers, making quick decisions. I kept what felt like a lot. I regret not keeping the printed emails he had filed, documenting his attempts to persuade the directors to save the training team – not just his job, but his colleagues’. I remember they were well argued, well supported with evidence, smart and generous.

That day I was daubed with an enduring filmic memory of the space Graeme created to live and die in. His living space was individual but mundane; he transformed it, through his death, into something performative, catalytic, a set distilled.

It was a very compact, terraced house, at the bottom of the hilly town, down by the river which had flooded a couple of years before. Tucked under the sheer cliff of the South Downs, it neighboured the chip shop and the hippy pub. (He had rented it for less than a year. The owner, a vicar who gave me a platitudinous Christian booklet on bereavement, told me that Graeme had been a model tenant.) Inside it was very Graeme. Everything in its place, minimalist yet welcoming, every object thought through, aesthetic and economical. Neat, it still felt creative, even intelligent: attributes of a Modernist ideal, without the heritage factor.

Through the front door that opened straight from the street, the living room was fitted with neutral, standard rent carpet. To the left, his old vestry table of seasoned pine. On top, piles of job application details, bills carefully annotated, some correspondence, a set of bank statements heading deeper into the red. The telephone storing several messages: a friend asking him to dinner, another friend catching up, checking in, three messages from me each more high-pitched and perfunctory than the last, a personnel officer checking if he still wanted to come for interview despite his lateness, another friend calling several times the next day, and one, after everyone else knew to stop calling, from the personnel officer at the Arts Council asking him to call. She wanted to offer him the job he had previously been refused because the first candidate had decided it wasn’t for them after all. (After the interview, he had told me, he walked down Victoria Street, daring to believe he had done well, passing all the people and, for ten minutes, had felt everything was possible again. He felt real, he was just like one of these people walking down the street.)

To the right, in the corner beyond the street-facing window, a tv on a stand. On top of the television, a laminated buff sheet typed with Buddhist doctrine on preparing for death. Into the room, a modern plain tiled fireplace with about four small objects sitting on the mantelpiece and the Buddhist tanka we had been given years before hanging above. Diagonally opposite, under the staircase in the space which would once have housed a broom cupboard, the green two-seater sofa. Directly opposite the sofa, a 1960s student residence purpose-built fold-away desk. (On a courtship weekend in Paris we had spotted the same model in the flea market and Graeme had photographed it. We both agreed it was the perfect desk. Five years later, with his eagle eye, he had spotted the same model in his favourite junk shop. I can still see the pleasure alight in his face as he took me in to the children’s room to show me the new acquisition.) More papers on the desk. A doctor’s appointment card. Miniature photographs of Robbie and Lizzie in frames given by them to Graeme on his birthdays. Conspicuously placed, a small Moleskine artists notebook, its ribbon opening on to the page where he had written his ex-partner Gloria Odogwu’s PO Box address. Near by, the camera containing a full film inside.

(Weeks later Lizzie, our ten-year old to whom I later gave the camera, insisted I get the film developed. I took the precaution of isolating myself to open the package of prints. The last was as I had anticipated. Lizzie looked through all the other prints, pictures Graeme had taken of Robbie and her, or Terri, the woman he hankered after, and asked, was that all? Yes, I said. She was disappointed: ‘Oh, I was hoping that he would have made some photos specially for us, that would have something to tell us, a joke or something.’ His last photo, that only I have seen, is a self-portrait, a face surrounded by an anonymous dark ground. It’s a contemporary photographic rendering of The Scream, a century on, the very opposite of Expressionism: dead pan.)

Beyond the desk, on the right, is an alcove bookcase, filled with books and files. Files and file boxes, including a set of matching appointment diaries, key moments obsessively coloured by hi-liter pens. The current one containing a mathematically sorted list indicating when arrangements for the children’s visits had been modified – a birthday party here, a sleepover there – requiring their parents to accommodate shifting dates. The list implied life was unbearable. Adapting was too hard; too much was being asked; not enough given. Books on the shelves include a range about work, management and the voluntary sector, a selection of esoteric, mainly Buddhist, writings, and a small but comprehensive set of books about depression, very similar in range to those left on Derek Jarman’s bookshelves, still housed in his former home, Prospect Cottage.

(When Lizzie was two Graeme had taken her on an expedition with his ex-girlfriend to Prospect Cottage. From the garden they could have peered through the windows at the bookshelves in the hall, into the corrugated iron bungalow which is uncannily reminiscent of the ideal home Graeme had rented in 1970 after he had dropped out of his fine art degree at Reading University: green and square, Graeme’s had a verandah. Next to Braziers Park, immersed in woods, it was burnt down two weeks after Graeme had moved out. Graeme said some people thought he was responsible although a local boy shouldered the blame.)

Beside the end window that looks out on to the miniscule neat back yard, a black cardboard and chrome Ikea chair. Opposite the bookshelves, a tongue and groove cupboard door into the closed staircase and, at rightangles on the end wall next to the cardboard chair, another door into the modest kitchen extension. The kitchen houses plenty of food in the freezer and fridge. Beside the draining board a small glass of red wine, half full (the other half, the coroner finds, is in Graeme’s body, with enough paracetemol to cure a headache). It stands beside three short letters, handwritten in blue biro on grey-blue Basildon Bond, to Graeme from his mother; each friendly, the first, chatty and written more than half a year before, the next a little shorter, and the last increasingly firm, repeating for a third time the demand for repayment of the parents’ two thousand pound loan. (From Denise, in this house that day, I learn that mention of Graeme has been banned by his father for the previous two years. She had tried to dissuade her mum from asking for the money back. She had said there was no point: Graeme had lost his job. Presumably pressure in Joan’s own neat home had prevailed; Graeme’s father’s silence made better sense to her than her daughter’s phone calls.) Through the kitchen a tiny lobby leading to a neat, clean, not bad bathroom. Toothbrush, cleanser, Issey Miyake scent, personal stuff. A back door opens on to the neat yard with the potted round bush of box and a dream shed with every tool just so (just the same lay out, his brother was to tell me, as his own: the order drilled in by their father).

Going upstairs I look up to the tiny square of landing and imagine the scene that Jan reported three weeks earlier.  The blue nylon cord, previously quietly dormant over several years in our car boot’s tool kit, coiled in its figure of eight, only occasionally unravelled to help with a camping trip, now reaching its spectacular final moments, hanging from the open attic hatch, meticulously tied with the skill of a sculptor to one of the two main beams that supports the roof, stretched over a couple of days by Graeme’s weight, his head leaning to one side, dead but apparently almost sitting on the landing floor, his legs outstretched poking beyond the landing into the children’s room. The small round, classic chrome and leather stool that Graeme had spotted and retrieved from a street skip and so lovingly restored in our nesting period before Robbie was born; kicked over, falling into their sparse room where their bunks are still neatly made. Hanging at the window I discover my early 1960s brightly coloured vintage curtains: liberated from the store cupboard in my house.

The other landing door leads to Graeme’s bedroom. Behind the door, to the left, the double bed, white birthday present plain linen from me on an unmade duvet, thrown back as he gets out of bed, gripped by shark-infested insomnia. A simple, mass-produced candelabra looks impassively down from the ceiling. A writing table (where the coroner had left his two silver rings for me) supporting a dated (pre-Internet) computer with a disappointing lack of narrative: just job applications, domestic administration and two letters to Gloria Odogwu’s PO Box asking for the ten grand she owes him. In the far corner, clothes in a built-in wardrobe; his white linen shirt, still smelling of him, stranded on the chair with other clothes. Undress, go to bed, can’t sleep. Books scattered about, in neat piles, with yellow post-its marking pages to create a slime trail from book to book, a slug of suicide in each. Why you want to do it, why others fail to understand, steps to take to prevent you from taking your own life, mystical wisdoms, and a deadly d-i-y instruction / destruction manual. (The author, a devil, burrows beneath how many fragile skins, setting death alight.)

Five years have gone by and a fragment of my being is a CCTV of memory sucking up the performance of Graeme’s death, ingesting the elements he fixed in place for me to retread, at random, an ever-circling camera, lighting at different times on the objects and space that make up the three-dimensional narratives of his absence, bibliography of evidence producing the text book for Robbie and Lizzie’s interminable homework. The letters of application, the bank statements, the Buddhist death text, the irretrievable identity of the notebook’s PO Box, the emails to his employer, the hi-lit diaries, the anniversary suicide file prepared for an earlier Bank Holiday Monday, his mother’s letters, the post-it book pages, the phone’s oral history, the candid camera. The hand-me-down story of Graeme hanging from the familiar
blue cord. The formerly abandoned stool, kicked over, once again resurrected, in our house, now.

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