Death to Books | Luke Allan | Granta

Death to Books

Luke Allan

1. Some mornings I feel very detached, like an eyeball suspended in amniotic fluid being wheeled around on a trolley. I think it has something to do with my dreams. Some image is trying to force its way to the surface but can’t. Or my mind is trying to finish the dream, as one finishes a train of thought, because without finishing it I can’t move on. I feel stuck in the halo of the dream. Glued to the spot. Then I go for a walk and it starts raining. Then I eat lunch and I’m alive and I’m thirty-four. And while I’m walking I’m thinking about lunch and while I’m eating lunch I’m thinking about the walk. The woman dragging a tiny black dog on a leash like a ball of mud. I’m sick of language. Sick sick sick. I look at a stone and think what a beautiful life that must be. I consider just walking forever until I’m a skeleton, and I’d be known as the Walking Skeleton, and people would remember me for it. There’s no book that can talk to me about this. The truth is I don’t miss my mum. I think you can only miss things you don’t have, and I spend every day giving her a piggyback from death to death. She kicks my behind like I’m a horse because she wants to go faster, but I can’t. She finds it very funny and I find it very funny too but I never laugh. Tuesday.

2. It’s true that I was looking for something to read in those days after the phone call from my brother telling me what she’d done. I thought that if you were going to kill yourself, writing the note must be the best bit. The policeman’s report listed quite a few objects found on or near my mum’s body, including a lengthy itemization of the coins in her purse, but there was no mention of a note. Sometimes what I find most confusing about her suicide is not the act itself but that she chose to say nothing about it, that she had apparently found her own death unnoteworthy.

3. My dad has a wardrobe full of John Grisham novels. I really admire that. Not so much the Grisham – I haven’t read him – but that he keeps them in the wardrobe, stacked under his hanging trousers and shirts, with the shelf below full of boxes of completed tax returns and, below that, shoes.

4. What does my dad’s wardrobe of books say about him? Perhaps that he thinks of reading as something people do to be civil, like wearing clothes and doing your taxes. Something people do because it’s what people do. Or perhaps that he thinks of doing his taxes and dressing for work as a sort of fantasy, a fiction. Not a wardrobe full of books, then, but a bookcase full of clothes.

5. My mum killed herself on 24 October 2014. She sealed the door to her bedroom with tape and lit three disposable grills, the kind you take to the beach. Grill Kings, according to the police report. She had £275.50 in her purse: twelve £20 notes, two £10 notes, one £5 note, one £2 coin, seven £1 coins, two 50p coins, two 10p coins, one 20p coin, one 5p coin, two 2p coins, one 1p coin.

6. I pick up a collection of Kafka’s short stories. I flip to a story at random. It’s narrated by a dog. I put it back.

7. I sit here surrounded by shelves of books, completely disinterested in picking any of them up. My books have become a kind of wall hanging – something to look at, not to use. But they take up more space than anything else I own. Imagine turning your home into an ice skating museum and then deciding you hate ice skating.

8. When my mum was getting ready to take her life, she put on her best dress and opened a bottle of wine. Even this terrible thing she did with a beautiful and desperate self-care. Care, too, for the people who’d find her, because it’s clear she researched how to avoid harming others by sealing the bedroom door with masking tape and opening the window a crack. I still find something of her love in all this. She searched for a way of dying that would be as bearable and mess-free as possible for the people who discovered her. One thing I understand about her death, among the many things I don’t, is that there was no spite in it.

9. Yet in her concern for making a tidy death, my mum overlooked that other kind of mess which is grief, and guilt, and confusion. There are the people who discovered her body once, and there are the people who have discovered her body every day since. If I resent one thing, it’s that the care she showed towards those who found her body eclipsed her care for those who would go on finding it for the rest of their lives.

10. I walk around with a chest inside me. It’s buried, like all good chests, and full of air, like all bad ones. My hands look naked and amazed. They unlock doors and go in. They scissor light. I can feel the wind from the window in the openings between their fingers. We have to love our way through it, this life. This luckiness. In a moment it’s going to stop being almost 5 p.m.

11. This time I’m allowed to be there with her. There’s a bottle of wine by the bed, and a bottle of whisky. The door is sealed with black tape and the window is slightly open. She’s lighting the grills. They’re on the wooden trunk at the foot of the bed. She uses matches because she’s a class act. She can’t get the third one to light and starts to cry. I stroke her hair. It’s damp near her ears. I rest my chin on the crown of her head. I want to say, you got this, and, you’ll go far, kid, and, don’t do it. But in this version I’m not allowed to speak. That was the agreement. The light in the room is blue, like a grape. I lift her up and carry her onto the bed. She’s too heavy for me but she lets me pretend, sort of crab-walks over the floor with me. I kneel by the bed and hold her hand when the coughing starts.


Image © Alexander Krivitskiy

Luke Allan

Luke Allan was born and raised in rural Northumberland and is Editor-in-chief of Oxford Poetry. His poetry and non-fiction have received the Charles Causley Prize, the Mairtín Crawford Award, and the Westerly Life Writing Prize, and been shortlisted for the Fitzcarraldo Prize. His chapbook Sweet Dreams, the Sea is forthcoming from the Poetry Society of America in 2024.

‘Death to Books’, published here in abbreviated and abridged form, won the 2024 Ivan Juritz Prize.

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