I never met Ray and Julie and I don’t know anyone who did. All we know about them is their names, painted on a brick wall down the back end of a vacant lot on London Road, a declaration of love daubed in Dulux, crude plus sign linking Ray’s name to Julie’s like a wedding. The graffiti is long gone but it was there just long enough for Alan Dunn and Brigitte Jurack to notice and for it to become the inspiration for the Ray & Julie sculpture. In 1995 when Alan and Brigitte installed the chairs in that desolate gap next to the Lord Warden pub they were only intended to last for six months. Twenty-eight years later they’re still there, defiant, battered, tough. They’re not much to look at, never were, but that’s part of their appeal. We love the Ray & Julie chairs because there are no airs and graces about them: we imagine they’re just like the people they’re named after – rough around the edges, edgy, don’t give a damn. But now, sadly, it’s over because Ray & Julie are dying. By the time you read this they might well be dead.
I got involved – emotionally involved – with the chairs in 2005 when Alan invited me to write some words for a billboard to mark their tenth anniversary. I wrote a poem celebrating Ray and Julie’s love, written with a finger on a steamed-up window.
The letters of the alphabet
Etched in her pale skin
Punctuated by blemishes,
Freckles, a bruise,
A heart hanging over the i in her name
Like a toy balloon on a stick.
Scratched into her arm
On that mad day at the fun fair,
And that wet, wild kiss
Down the alley round the back of the pub.
Carved into her arm with a knife,
4Ever and for longer than forever
Her skin stained with biro
His indelible name bleeding petrol blue
Into her skinny scarred arm.
I had a romantic notion that Ray and Julie were still out there in the night, still in love on and off, in the pubs, still courting. What I initially thought was going to be a one-off job turned into nearly twenty years of writing about the chairs and imagining the lives of those two lovers I would never meet. With Alan I constructed a mythology, a love saga, a constantly evolving song of love and heartbreak. We imagined a cassette found in the rubble of the demolished Odeon Cinema – the demolition of which left another gaping wound in the fabric of London Road. When we listened to that imaginary cassette we discovered a series of love poems Ray and Julie had written and recorded for each other. These poems became a performance, recited at poetry nights in the city. We imagined that Ray and Julie might be in the audience, hearing the words they had written.
The imaginings spilled out into the surrounding area. London Road became the poetic territory for the mythology. For twenty years we looked for Ray and Julie, made work about them, wrote texts and made recordings. In some ways we were searching for the real Ray & Julie, sending out signals and hoping they would hear. In other ways – because the real Ray and Julie might be dead – we were ghost hunters holding seances, as if London Road was an architectural Ouija board and the only way to make contact was through supernatural methods. The beautiful culmination of this research was the collaboration with the now sadly deceased composer Philip Jeck, whose haunted music captured Ray and Julie’s dreams from scratched vinyl and dust and ether and sent them back into the night. I repainted the graffiti and we raised a glass to the chairs in the dark.
If Ray and Julie knew about our activities they either didn’t care or chose not to acknowledge what we were doing. This notion – that they might be out there – led us to ask questions: How did it work out for them? Did their love affair survive? Or did it end in tears? Did they live or did they die? Or were they there, drinking in the Lord Warden and the other London Road boozers, watching the street fall to pieces before their eyes, holding onto each other because love will either keep them together or tear them apart and love is all you need…
The chairs then. Sometimes we imagined that the chairs were waiting all these years for Ray and Julie to come home, that the ugly gap next to the Lord Warden became the living room in the bedsit they shacked up in. As Julie says in one of the Odeon cassette poems:
The history of all our sleepless nights
Is written in the scrunched-up fag packets
And condoms, bits of tissue and crumpled magazines
Beneath the bed we are always going to throw out.
The dust down there has fallen from our skin,
The tangled knots of dirty hair that drift
Across the lino like small tumbleweed,
Across the prairie of our bedroom in Liverpool.
Sometimes at night we cannot sleep and so
Just lie there with our favourite songs played low.
Ray likes a bit of Roy Orbison, it makes him cry,
I’ll have The Pixies any day, Black Francis howling.
Even tho we don’t like the same records
We’re the same, me and Ray, the same,
Could both lie there forever in our underwear
And watch the dustbowl of our room and wait for morning.
It’s not bliss, it’s not exactly beautiful but there’s a romantic atmosphere to that shabby bedsit and Ray and Julie – or their ghosts – are happy in a sad way, seeing it out, tough, hard-faced. Just like the chairs that commemorate their love.
We sit on the chairs. We have spent nearly thirty years with those chairs, with those imaginary people who used to be – and still might be – real people. Never were two ugly chairs in a rundown and desolate part of a city so loved. Ray and Julie are dying. Ray and Julie are dead. But you can’t kill the spirit or the memory or the love. Ray and Julie. Always.