At the height of the craze for Liam Couch, buses edged down our street three or four times a day as tourists sat in the open upper deck listening to a commentary. We could hear every word of it, over and over. The bus stopped outside Couch’s concrete mansion and the guide told everyone to look closely at the wrought-iron front gates. There was a prize for the first person to notice something special. Eyes came slowly out from hiding behind cameras. Eventually somebody, usually a kid, noticed that one of the gates wasn’t properly hung. It rested on the ground and was held in place by barbed-wire.
‘That’s right,’ said the guide, tossing a Couch Cap (which only had half a peak) to the winner. ‘It’s not finished. He didn’t even finish his own front gate.’
The passengers smiled and cameras were remounted as the bus turned at the bottom of the cul-de-sac. They didn’t spend long in Couch Close. The company had an agreement not to disturb local residents and, besides, the mansion was now being used for disabled accommodation and if the bus purred too long outside, damaged people started to appear.
Growing up, we watched several bridal cavalcades sweep through the gates of the mansion across the street, but Celine was the only Mrs Couch we got to know, the only one who ever came out on foot. The year I finished school, she used to walk across to our place in the late afternoon looking like she was ready to face a new day. Mum would leave her computer to talk to her. Over time, Celine started staying longer and coming inside. She borrowed Mum’s old running clothes and spent a frenetic half-hour going nowhere on the exercise bike that had been lurking out the back since my dad had left. It had grass growing through the spikes.
‘Surely they can afford their own gym gear,’ I complained. ‘Of all people.’
‘It’s the only break she gets from him. That’s what she told me.’
‘And their own clothes.’
Often Mum held the bike steady so Celine could work hard on it. Occasionally Mum held her by the hips. You could see the imprint of Mum’s fingers in her sweat. Celine showered in Mum’s bathroom before she left.
‘And their own water,’ I said. ‘Surely they have their own water.’
Mum wrote a mildly satirical social column for a weekly paper that was serious about real estate and little else. The column alone would never have won her entrée to the launch of the Couch Complex but Mrs Couch organised that for her. The invitation came by registered post and specified elegant shoes, which Mum borrowed from Celine, who brought over a dozen pairs in a gym bag for her to choose from. She said that Liam had paid for the shoes but wouldn’t recognise them because he was a man who never looked down and, despite Liam’s requests, Celine was not a woman who could undress without taking off her shoes first. Mum replied that she took off her socks last, if at all.
Liam Couch had invited the most expensive shoes in the city to a cocktail party in the sticky clay at the bottom of the crater where he proposed to build the Couch Complex, the tallest building south of the equator. He spent the whole evening pointing upwards, asking his guests to dream beyond the stars. Most of them could not even follow his vision back as far as road level, let alone 120 storeys into the sky. He said on TV that the Couch Complex was named after his father, Claudio, not after himself. He could only take such big risks for others. That was the secret of his happiness in this life and in the life to come. He turned and kissed his wife as Mum stepped aside to make room. Some guests had already given up hope of finding their shoes again in the mud.
The Couch Complex has remained unfinished for almost forty years. They got as far as building the spine and the floor of each level. It’s the biggest tourist attraction in town, looking like the skeleton of a fish hung from the crane that still hovers above it. The backbone of our economy. The crane is repainted every year to stop it rusting. Each major anniversary has been the occasion of a festival. Five years after the Couch empire collapsed, there was a competition for the world’s tallest unfinished cake. Five years later, for the tallest unfinished story. For the fifteenth anniversary, there was a race up the outside for climbers. For the twentieth, there was a creeper-growing competition. That was the year Liam Couch died of a heart attack. You could have scheduled it. One obituary mentioned that Liam had started at university but never finished his degree, another that he never finished a meal. There was a competition to give the tower a pet name. The most popular were Liam’s Couch and The Sofa, which is what everybody called it anyway. For the twenty-fifth anniversary, the competition was to turn the tower into a work of art. The winner unfurled bolts of cloth from a number of the floors to make the whole thing look like a comb with hairs stuck in it. For the thirtieth anniversary, there was a wheelchair race the length of the long shadow the building casts in the late afternoon. In the thirty-fifth year, the competition was to design musical instruments based on the shape of the tower.
‘There’s no need,’ said Mum. She was old by this stage, and not well, but occasionally her mind still fitted pieces together with sudden dexterity. ‘The whole tower is a musical instrument. The wind whistles through the lift wells like a flute. You can use the fire doors as stops.’
‘Whatever you say, Mum.’ I was good at half listening. Her stories all came round again.
She went on: ‘Other times the unsealed concrete moans and shudders and the top of the stairwell gives little short gasps. There’s no knowing what then. Different sounds. Sometimes it sobs. Sometimes it gets the giggles. Sometimes it falls silent and the building keeps its thoughts to itself.’
Mum spent longer in the tower than anyone else alive. Mum and Celine. All those years ago, they were both invited to the first celebrity charity open day that was held during construction. This time, the guests wore sensible shoes and were taken to the ninety-ninth level in a cage that ran inside the shaft of a crane. The noise nearly deafened them. Liam apologised that they had, as yet, merely constructed the skeleton of the building. He said sorry with such pride in his voice that everyone applauded.
Liam explained that they were looking at an X-ray of his dream. He warned his guests against drinking too much and wandering close to the open edge of the building but didn’t follow his own advice. He got drunk and lost count of the guests when they returned to earth.
Mum and Celine stayed behind. The cage was sent up the crane to retrieve them and, when it arrived, they wedged a stray girder through the door and into the fretwork. The lift was stuck and the shaft was blocked. Nobody could get to them. Simple as that. They were safe. They had decided to stay.
Mum used to say that the time they spent squatting in The Sofa didn’t cause the fall of Liam Couch’s career but only brought it forward. Its collapse was inevitable anyway. His fortune was balanced precariously on the edge of fantasy and was bound to topple over sooner or later. No construction work could continue while the two women refused to come down. Liam assumed that without any supplies, they couldn’t last long. But Celine and Mum had planned this and were equipped for more than survival.
Celine had a phone with her. She also had a spare battery, but was so efficient that she didn’t need it. She rang the paper Mum wrote for and explained where they were and what they were doing. The editor was used to dealing with the ripples Liam Couch sent through the community and nothing surprised her. Besides, Couch owed the paper so much for unpaid advertising, and had so many law suits against them, that it was glad to help. Mum undertook to write a daily column from the top of the tower and the paper doubled her fee. In addition, it agreed to arrange a helicopter to bring fresh supplies to the top of the tower. There wasn’t much Liam Couch could do about it. He had promised Celine the ninety-ninth floor of the tower as a wedding present. It was hers to use as she saw fit.
‘I suppose people want to know why we’re here,’ wrote Mum. ‘The fact is that there is no reason. The whole stunt is as pointless as the tower itself.’
Mum and Celine fired the imagination of the city. Within a fortnight, the revolving restaurant on top of another city tower was calling itself The Squat. Mum wrote more elegantly than ever before. The ceaseless movement of air around the concrete latticework set her on edge, made her restless, filled her with longings that found expression in print. She assumed the persona of an avenging angel perched on the roof of the city, looking in on everyone’s lives. She imagined being able to peer over the back fence of the premier, look down the chimney of the aluminium smelter, see through the sun roof of every sports car, gaze into the load of every open truck, read over every shoulder. She wrote as if she could see everything that was hidden from her. She wrote all the gossip she knew to be true but insisted she was making it up. She held the whole city in the palm of her hand.
‘Celine and I are living on a cloud,’ she wrote.
Meanwhile Celine did deals. She got sponsorship. A department store offered them the use of a bed or beds, whichever they preferred. Every day a different restaurant sent up a hamper of fine food and drink and the contents would be reviewed in the column. Mum always wrote the column before lunch, so the review was based on what the food looked like. She held to the adage that it was impossible to write about food except on an empty stomach. A mahogany dining table was hoisted up the outside of the tower in pieces with instructions for assembly. Hairdressers were landed on the roof, as well as masseurs, naturopaths and a personal trainer who suffered vertigo and didn’t come back, leaving an exercise bike that blew like a windmill day and night and would only stop turning when someone was in the saddle. Photographers and film crews from overseas came and went. One of the best-known images from that time is of the helicopter sweeping to the top of the tower with a fresh port-a-loo suspended beneath, not unlike the opening of La Dolce Vita. The lesser buildings of the city can be seen in the background.
Celine and Mum conducted talkback radio from the top of the tower. People sent in problems to ask for help. The two of them were said to deliberate at length on the small things of life and to speak with clarity. They gave advice about thesis topics, hair colour, mortgage rates, tax minimisation, global warming, resort wear, perfume labelling, insurance premiums, child allowance and conflict resolution. Mum urged her readers, male and female, to stop shaving. She said that she and Celine enjoyed nothing more on a calm day than to watch the breeze move the hairs on their legs in unison, first one way and then the other.
In time, Mum asked for a copy of the Bible. She began tearing out a page at a time and releasing it from her cupped hands as if it were a bird. The pages fluttered everywhere. People found stories from the New Testament landed on their windscreens and thought they were parking tickets or flyers for something they didn’t want. Some of the Psalms landed in trees where they lodged until autumn when, having changed colour, they fell to earth. One man found the story of Noah in his swimming pool. A woman found a page about Moses in the gutter. The part about the loaves and fishes found its way into a lunchtime gathering of Weight Watchers. Some people waited for the release of the daily bible page and then tried to catch it but nobody succeeded in this. A single page has no will of its own in the wide-open sky. It was like trying to catch the end of a rainbow.
Mum and Celine announced they would stay for 120 days, one day for each floor of the building. It was the longest period, by far, Mum spent away from home. ‘If Liam Couch wanted us to come down sooner,’ wrote Mum, ‘he would have built a shorter tower.’
Work on the project was delayed and fell way behind schedule. Couch’s backers got nervous. They fought and his financial arrangements started to unravel. On the day Liam Couch went into receivership, Mum wrote a column about her plan to launch the world’s biggest paper plane from the top of the city’s tallest tower. She also mentioned that she and Celine were tiring of French champagne and lobster. The suppliers pleaded with her to change her mind. Her words affected sales.
After 120 days, Mum and Celine were flown off the tower to a hero’s welcome on the ground. They were on the cover of everything.
Liam said that he wanted a divorce but it was three years before Celine moved out of the mansion, this time to live on her own. Mum decided that she, too, intended to grow old in her own company. After a while, her face softened with age, her hair thinned, she gained a few kilos and became a nobody again.
‘You know what one of the worst parts of the whole thing was?’ Mum said years later when she heard that Liam had finally had his heart attack. She didn’t mention the tower very often. ‘It was having to kiss his wife for the cameras the day we came down. I didn’t like that.’
Mum sits on a sofa outside the house where she can look down three of four steps to the street. She likes a breeze. By the time I split with Jo, her memory was already crumbling, so she never gave me a hard time about that and never said ‘I told you so’ because she couldn’t remember what she told me. It suited me to come back and look after her while I thought about rebuilding my life.
Buses roll past, all eyes fixed on the concrete mansion opposite. They annoy me. Mum doesn’t even notice. The passengers all look the wrong way because they want to see the mansion. Many of the tourists will return to the gift shop at the foot of the tower and buy photos of Mum and Celine to take home. They sell piles of cards with the famous photo of the two women picnicking on the ninety-ninth floor with a waiter in tails hanging out of a chopper ready to refill their glasses. The two of them look strong. They look like they own the whole world and for four months they did. Maybe that one image of them still haunts the people who are captivated by their story and that of Liam Couch. When the tourists catch a glimpse of the feeble woman out the front of our place on a worn sofa, they look concerned, as if the place has been given over to special accommodation, same as the mansion. They want to look at something else.
‘Why did you come down when you did?’ I asked Mum once, years ago. ‘You could have stayed up there forever. In the lap of luxury. Had everything you wanted.’
‘I could have, I suppose. But sometimes you have to accept that something is finished. Even if it doesn’t look that way.’© Michael McGirr