Sleeve Notes

By Duncan Macmillan

This is a brilliant piece of writing, by a brilliant writer and director, Duncan Macmillan.

The list began after her first attempt. Dad was driving and trying to explain why my Mother didn’t want to live anymore. I remember asking lots of questions because eventually he told me to shut up, turned the radio on and smoked with the window down.

She couldn’t see anything worth living for, so I decided to make her a list of everything that was brilliant about the world. I got a notebook from my school bag, turned to a blank page and wrote a large number 1 in the top left corner. An ice cream van pulled up alongside us.

At the hospital mum saw me and said ‘not him’ and so I sat in the corridor next to an old couple who gave me a carton of juice and some chocolate from a machine. Dad was in with her for ages and then when he came out he stood with his arms folded while the Doctor talked to him. He looked at me for a second then went back to staring at the floor. After a while, he shook his head and walked away. The Doctor came over, crouched in front of me and told me that Dad was just going to get some fresh air and he’d be back in a minute, even though he wasn’t. He smiled at me and asked if I wanted anything but I said no because I’d been bought some chocolate and juice from the machine.

After much deliberation, I decided my list should be presented in no particular order. There was no way of saying that, for example, walking barefoot on hot sand was any better than Nina Simone’s voice.

Ice cream.

Water fights.

Staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV.

The colour yellow.

People falling over.

Rollercoasters.

Things with stripes.

Danger Mouse.

Being only seven, the list was largely composed of things I thought were really good, and not things that my mum would necessarily agree with.

In those days Dad had a room with all his records in and he’d sit in his big chair and smoke with the windows open. Usually he’d play the records out loud but sometimes, especially during this time, he would put his head in between huge headphones and sit with his eyes closed. Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Billie Holliday. Sometimes, if I felt brave, I’d creep in and watch the back of his head.

Mum spent a lot of time sleeping or walking. I started making my own sandwiches for school, though most of the time I wasn’t really hungry.

I kept the list in my pocket and added things as they occurred to me. Eventually, when the list was eight pages long and had three hundred and fourteen things on it, I left it on mum’s pillow with the title:

Every Brilliant Thing

She never mentioned it to me, but I know she read it because she’d corrected my spelling.

I forgot about the list until her second attempt ten years later. As a teenager I dealt with it less well. I wore my heart on my sleeve. The night she came back from the hospital, she sat at the table, staring into space, and said that she would be dead if it wasn’t for the ham and pineapple pizza lining her stomach from the night before. I remember saying to her:

‘You took three days worth of anti-depressants, a whole blister pack of contraceptive pills, four Nurofen and half a tub of vitamin tablets. You’re probably healthier than I am. If you’re going to kill yourself go jump off a bridge.’

Rather than storm off I sat there and started to shovel food into my mouth. I’d spent hours on this meal and I was furious that she was sat there with us both, wishing she was dead and letting it go cold. And then the most remarkable thing happened. She laughed. I was so confused. It was such a genuine laugh and it went on for ages. After a while I found myself joining in. It was my dad who got up and walked away, going into his room to listen to records.

That night I carried on with the list.

The smell of old books.

People complimenting your tan and/or hair.

Weetabix.

Bicycles.

Old people holding hands.

Burning things.

Laughing so hard you shoot milk out your nose.

Making up after an argument.

Telescopes.

For a few weeks I would follow my mother around, reading the list to her. I would leave messages on the answerphone. I would turn off the radio or stand in front of the TV. I spent a lot of time talking to her back.

516. Winning something.

517. Knowing someone well enough to get them to check your teeth for broccoli.

518. Starting a new book.

519. Centrifugal force.

520. When idioms coincide with real-life occurrences, for instance: waking up, realising something and simultaneously smelling coffee.

521. The word ‘plinth’.

It soon became my aim to reach a thousand. I wasn’t allowed to cheat, which meant:

No repetition.

Things had to be genuinely wonderful and life-affirming.

Not too many material items.

For a few months the list became my sole focus.

A full fridge.

Gifts that you actually want and didn’t ask for.

By the time summer came around I was approaching my target.

Electricity.

People who can’t sing but either don’t know or don’t care.

Then, in my first week of University:

Construction cranes.

Hairdressers who listen to what you want.

Knowing to jangle some keys at the wildlife park if you want the otters to come out.

Really good oranges.

Falling in love.

Sex.

Earlobes.

Staying up all night talking.

Waking up late with someone.

I started to be bothered by the thought that my Mother no longer loved my Father. I put the thought out of my mind and returned to the list.

Salt sea air.

Aromatic duck pancakes with hoi sin sauce.

It’s common for the children of suicides to blame themselves. It’s natural.

Sunlight.

But just because it’s a natural response doesn’t mean there’s no truth in it.

1003.

I posted the list anonymously to my mother. When I returned that Christmas I found it on my desk, neatly folded back in its envelope. I still don’t know whether or not she had read it. It certainly hadn’t seemed to change her outlook. I began leaving post-it notes around the house, stuck to various things. On her mirror was:

1760. Piglets.

On the kettle:

Marlon Brando.

And on her bed:

Bed.

Every night I’d return to my room to find a neat pile of small custard yellow squares of paper, each with a number and a word. I got more inventive, writing on the inside of cereal packets or shoes, carving words into fruit or rearranging the fridge magnets. Last year, when I moved the last of my stuff out of the house I found a few.

21,304. Hammocks (inside the lid of some mustard).

630. Cheese and pickle sandwiches (stenciled onto a coat-hanger).

Dad drove me back to University. He gave me his record player and a box of records. Charlie Parker. Ahmad Jamal. Art Blakey. Jackie McLean. Cannonball Adderley.

At University, the list took on a life of its own. People were constantly asking if they could read it, add to it, photocopy it. Over the years, the list grew to several thousand entries, then to several thousand pages. The document was scrawled all over with different handwriting and in different colours, with exclamation marks, underlining, asterisks, footnotes and amendments, drawings and even the odd diagram. People would read through it in groups, and their faces would light up. They would read the occasional one out and laugh or nod emphatically, saying something like: ‘That’s so true.’ Or: ‘Wow, yeah, I forgot about that.’

It became a useful screening device for prospective partners. Either they got the list or they didn’t. If they didn’t, then they could f**k off.

Inevitably, the list lost momentum. Anything generic or universal (clean sheets, freshly cut grass, the smell of bacon) had already been included and entries had become more specific:

337,804. The feeling of calm which follows the realisation that, although you may be in a regrettable situation, there’s nothing you can do about it.

443,221. Track 7 on every great record.

529,404. The prospect of dressing up as a Mexican wrestler.

Not the action of dressing up, but the prospect of it.

Eventually the list stopped, just one hundred and seventy three thousand and twenty one short of a million. Other things became more important. Work. Mortgage payments. Life. I’d grown up.

826,976. Cartoons (in particular, Sunday morning cartoons).

826,977. Peeling off a sheet of wallpaper in one intact piece.

826,978. The even numbered Star Trek films.

826,979. Snow.

I wasn’t around for the last time. I was in Australia with work and when I got the call I was on the beach. Dad wasn’t around either. A neighbour complained about the exhaust fumes and eventually the police cut through the garage door. Hosepipe through the driver-side window. That surprised me actually, because mum hated driving. She had poor circulation and would always complain about her ankles on long journeys. It’s such a masculine way to choose to die I think. The car radio was on, I assume tuned into Radio 4 or Classic FM or something. There was a pad and pencil on the passenger seat but she hadn’t written anything. The hole in the garage door remained right up until Dad moved last year.

I drove my Father to the funeral. We sat in silence. He smoked with the window down.

It wasn’t a shock. It wasn’t a relief. It was more like a betrayal. Abandonment.

After the service, meeting my Mother’s friends and colleagues, I realised how much the list had changed the way I see the world.

31. Birdsong.

45. Hugging.

341. Alcohol.

577. Tea and biscuits.

1092. Conversation.

That night I began to type it up, starting at the very beginning.

Ice cream.

It was a lot of work. I got to the end and kept adding things. I completed the list. I printed it out and left it in my father’s chair. He never mentioned it directly, but when we spoke a few weeks after the funeral, he thanked me and said ‘I love you’. I told him that sentimentality didn’t suit him.

999,997. Palindromes.

999,998. Inappropriate songs played at emotional moments.

999,999. Completing a task.

1,000,000. Listening to a record for the first time. Turning it over in your hands, placing it on the deck and putting the needle down, hearing the faint hiss and crackle of the sharp metal point on the wax before the music begins, then sitting and listening while reading through the sleeve notes.

‘Every Brilliant Thing’, a new play based on this story, is currently touring the UK and is soon to be published by Oberon Books.

www.everybrilliantthing.com

oberonbooks.com/every-brilliant-thing

Duncan is a writer and director.

Plays include: People Places and Things (2015/16 – National Theatre/Wyndham’s Theatre); 1984, adapt. George Orwell (2013-16 – Headlong/Nottingham Playhouse/Almeida/West End and international tour, co-adapted with Rob Icke); Every Brilliant Thing (2013-16 -Paines Plough/Pentabus Theatre/Edinburgh Festival/UK and international tours); 2071, co-written with Chris Rapley (2014-15 – Royal Court Theatre/Hamburg Schauspielhaus); The Forbidden Zone (2014 – Salzburg Festival and Schaubühne, Berlin); Wunschloses Unglück, adapt. Peter Handke (2014 – Burgtheater Vienna);Reise Durch die Nacht, adapt. Friederike Mayröcker (2012/13 – SchauspielhausKöln, Festival d’Avignon, Teatertreffen); Lungs (2011/12-16 Roundabout season at Paines Plough and Sheffield Theatres/Studio Theatre, Washington DC, US) and Monster (2006 – Royal Exchange).

He was the recipient of two awards in the inaugural Bruntwood Playwriting Competition, 2006. Other Awards include the UK Theatre Best Director (with Robert Icke), 2014; Best New Play at the Off West End Awards 2013 and the Nestroypreis for Best German Language Production, 2013. He has twice been nominated for an Olivier Award in the Best New Play category. His work with director Katie Mitchell has been selected for Theatertreffen and the Avignon Festival, and continues to run in rep and tour the world.