It had been a quick death, they assured me. I’m not sure if that was meant as a gesture of consolation, or just a way of filling that morbid gap that always occurs when you engage in the unpleasant experience of conversation with a mourner:
−At least she didn’t suffer.
Ironic, really, Mum tripping on that same bit of carpet at the top of the stairs that she had harped on about for months, her self-diagnosed OCD flaring up every time she saw that little flame sticking up out of the sea of red beneath her slippered feet. Less ironic, however, and just plain nasty, was after she tripped, when she tumbled down the stairs that she knew every creak and misstep of, hurled into a state of unfamiliarity, before coming to a stop at the bottom, where her neck snapped.
I have never witnessed a death. Not a human one, anyway. I saw a bird die once, lying on its back in the front garden, straw legs twitching, wings unmoving beneath its own weight. Spasming in an ocean of grass, completely alone except for me, an unknown schoolboy gazing down upon its last moments with fascination.
Had that been how she died? No one of note there to see it. Dad in the pub.
God, perhaps? But if he was able to watch her pathetic kicks as she rolled through the air, why wasn’t he empowered to stop it? Reach out with one wrinkled hand and hold her, scoop her up, put her back at the top of the stairs with a warning to be more careful.
I sat on one of the kitchen chairs. Straight-backed, wooden, legs creaking beneath my considerable weight. My hands were between my thighs. My fingers were wrapped around a chipped mug of blackcurrant squash− Mum’s favourite of all the squashes. I raised the mug to my lips and winced at the sweetness. I wasn’t even thirsty; I just wanted to busy myself as family members I barely knew and acquaintances I’d barely seen flocked into the living-room, doing the rounds of the circle of occupied chairs, shaking hands, offering condolences. Some of them didn’t even extend a hand to me, expecting me− as I was sitting on the periphery, in one of the less important chairs− to be some miscellaneous nephew. I didn’t mind, I really had nothing to add to the process.
I glanced out the window at the cars lining the street. I was hoping for rain: a torrent of slanting bullets to batter the visitors making their way up the cracked street and prepare them for the solemn atmosphere inside; or a mist to really set the mood, and provide a romantic, otherworldly perspective to the proceedings within the bubble universe of 16 Dubray Lane.
Unfortunately, though it had rained earlier in the day, the skies had cleared, the black clouds fading, replaced with grey streaks across the sky. The sun’s hazy beams sporadically reached out, long fingers that gripped the eye and pulled hard.
I looked away from the window and back at the tray of sandwiches on the coffee-table, left there by Aunt Sally, whose sickening enthusiasm couldn’t be dampened even by the death of her sister. She made trays out of everything she could: large plates, oven trays, glass dishes; and weighed them down with sandwiches: triangular-cut, ham and whatever, varying touches like tomato or garlic dressing. I reached for one, nearly putting my arm through the legs of the local pharmacist, where Mum got her foot cream. He patted my arm as he sidestepped it, giving me the tight-lipped smile he always gave, whether you were buying anti-histamines or burying matriarchs. I blinked at him as I withdrew a sandwich from the pile and bit off a corner.
Tasted like cardboard. But I couldn’t tell was it the quality of the bread and ham, or my tastebud’s reaction to death. Would this how it would always be? The inevitability of death taking its toll on my enjoyment of food? Great diet plan. With my mouth full, chewing laboriously, I put the sandwich on the coffee-table.
I leant forward to tie my shoelace and, surreptiously− I hoped− I whisked the handkerchief out of the breast pocket of my charcoal suit and spat the now-gelatinous glob of chewed bread and eviscerated slivers of meat into its black folds. Unfortunately, I did not take the handkerchief far enough out of the pocket, and soon found out− upon straightening up and crumpling the handkerchief− that it was in fact attached to the inside of the pocket. I pressed my hand to my breast, feeling my own saliva pushing against my palm.
−I’m so sorry, one of my older cousins says, as I stand up. He is standing arm-in-arm with his wife, so extends his right hand to my right, the same one pressing the ball of liquid bread to my pocket. I tried pushing the handkerchief back into the pocket, but it wouldn’t go with the contents of my hand. I reached my left hand forward, forcing it to stand in for my momentarily-incapacitated right by twisting it to grab, limply, my cousin’s outstretched limb.
−Thanks, I choked. My face was red as the paint on the walls by this stage. Colour had run through my body; heat with it. My entire body was like a sweat lodge. I sidestepped the people filing into the room, pushing past them with one hand, murmuring ‘sorry’s as I bumped and shoved through the narrow slit in the populated doorframe.
I went down the hall and, stepping into the utility toilet and locking the door behind me, I threw the contents of my hand down the toilet. I threw toilet paper down to cover it, and flushed. This toilet was extremely pokey; small enough to allow me to sit on the toilet and thoroughly wash the smell of spittle off my sticky hands. I dried them with more toilet paper, and decided to sit a moment.
I unbuttoned my suit jacket and threw it to the floor. Reaching in through gaps between the sealed buttons of my chalk-white shirt, I let my fingers run along the sopping bristles under my arms. In the mirror above the sink, I spy patches of sweat spreading out on my shirt, engulfing the white fabric and darkening it, making it grey. I let my skin breathe before buttoning up again and leaving.
Everyone privy to the events of Mum’s death avoid the patch at the bottom of the stairs as they come in, strafing the wall as they make their way through the hall and into the living-room, just off to the left once you pass the stairs. I don’t skirt it. I stand right at the bottom of the stairs, ignoring the throng of black still coming in− though the numbers have since dwindled, the mourners coming in one-by-one, instead of in twos-and-threes− and looking up at that taunting bit of carpet. I climb the stairs. Pictures line the flowery wallpaper. As a child, I used to think these still-lives− farms, markets, setting-suns and rising dawns− used to come to life at night. These blobby men and women coming to life to go about their business: pulling carts; exchanging greying apples for handfuls of coins; sowing seeds in dusty trenches that rose to meet the sun setting over the peak of the white-capped mountains. I felt stupid; I admonished my younger self for such foolery before he could complete an ascent of his own, surging upwards to excitedly scream about the paintings coming to life, begging people to listen as he, a buck-toothed child in toothpaste-covered comic-book pyjamas, stood in the middle of the living-room and
I reached the apex of the stairs. I rested against the chipped wooden banisters, looking like the lord of the manor though I felt like a stowaway on a merchant ship. Bowed heads trudged towards me, then turned towards a hole in the wall, disappearing out of sight.
I retraced the steps of her last journey; at least what I assumed it to be. From the stairs, down the hallway, to the last door on the right. The bedroom. The room smelt of the elderly: that morbid odour peculiar to unaired nursing-home bedrooms and neglected farmhouses. Ruffled polka-dot duvet, a crease in the bedsheet; half-drawn curtains, the sliver of uncovered window in the centre letting a shard of sunlight across the wooden floor. I crossed the room and stood in the middle of the light. Dust twirled in the beam. I stood at the window and looked down over the garden, at the mossy path, the rusted gate pushed open, the crater-like road. I saw myself chasing a ball. I was both watching myself and was myself. I could see the back of my blonde hair and the ghostly blur of my outline as it faded into reality, but could also see only my hands and feet, chasing after this leather, half-deflated football about five feet in front of me. It bounded up the path, this ball, and vanished out the gate. I felt myself hesitating for a moment before crossing the threshold of safety, the world appearing in such a black-and-white dichotomy to my 6-year-old self. Safety behind; in front, here be dragons.
The ball was in the middle of the road. I took a breath and stepped past the gate, making the transition from path to pavement as though I had never done it before. Well, alone I suppose I hadn’t.
The illicit freedom made me smile. I couldn’t see it, looking at the back of my head as I was, but I could certainly feel it: the skin around my mouth distending; my lips curling; my teeth bared.
I could feel my own thought processes. The road was empty at the minute; if I dashed across real quick, I could grab my football and be back again before anyone noticed. There were cars parked, with two wheels up on the pavements, rear cocked out on the road. If I stopped my forward motion to peer around them and check for traffic, I would be spotted from the living-room window. I’d be in trouble. So I couldn’t stop.
I reached the curb. My little shoes dipped onto the road, one foot standing on a sewer grate. I made for the road; I hadn’t heard the front door slamming behind me, or the urgent footsteps up the path. I felt a tight hand on my shoulder.
−Don’t you dare cross that road! I almost collapsed under the weight of Mum on my scrawny shoulder. My breath vanished; a car came and knocked my ball further up the street. I started to cry.
I grabbed the bedroom curtains and dragged them together. The room was now purely bathed in pink light as the sun battered the red curtains. Mum’s side of the bed− the bedside table− had been stripped bare. Even the shelves with all her half-empty packets of barley sugars and crumpled tissues were empty. Only dust remained.
The wardrobe, where all her dresses and cardigans had hung, was also near-empty. All that was left were Dad’s checkered shirts and some mothballed suit jackets.
He was standing in the kitchen, draining mugs and cups into the sink, as the last of the visitors left. He nodded and hmmed as Sally babbled away.
−Will you keep these sandwiches now? There’s plenty left, and I think it would do you good to have some food in the house.
−Scrape them away, he said, running the tap and letting the tea and coffee sluice down the drain.
−I’ll put them in the fridge for you, sure. I’ll put them all on one plate and, sure, if you ate them, you ate them. I heard Dad sigh as she pulled open the fridge door and slotted the plate of hardened sandwiches onto one of the empty shelves. −Hello, Robert. Would you eat a sandwich? She asked. I shook my head; she shut the fridge. The sucking sound of the door closing lingered in the still air. I went to the sink, stood beside Dad and, taking a damp teatowel in my hands, started to dry the rinsed cups.
−Sure I’ll shoot off home so. But if there’s anything that needs doing, just give me an auld ring.
−Thanks, Sally, Dad said. I murmured −Thanks a lot. A moment later, after the front door had slammed shut, it was just Dad and I. The only sounds penetrating the deathly silence were the ticking of the clock above the kitchen door, and the clink of semi-dried mugs as I slid them into the cupboard.
−Where did you vanish off to?
−Oh. People were wonderin’ where you were. That was a lie. I knew it.
−Really? Yeah, I- I needed the toilet, and then I just ended up wandering. I went into Mum’s room.
−I’ve packed all her stuff.
He stopped. I kept my eyes on the little trinket of the windowsill as I felt his eyes on me. Home is where your family is, the inscription in the mock-granite rock said. I kept drying. He turned away and sat at the kitchen table, draping his black wool suit jacket over the back of the wooden chair.
−It made sense, he started, taking a pouch of tobacco from the breast pocket of his shirt; to get rid of it straight away. To save me the…. bother…. of doin’ it when the dust settles. He rolled a cigarette and lit it with the matches on the table. He tipped ash onto the brown tablecloth; the rustic teapots and grainy cakes were besmirched with ash.
−Yeah, that makes sense, I replied. I kept my back to him, rubbing the teatowel over the last mug on the drainer even though it was bone-dry by now. As though I were expecting a genie to pop out.
−It’ll have to be a closed coffin, they told me.
−For the best, probably. I turned around now, mug still in hand.
−She always hated people seeing her without cosmetics on. He laughed: a short, humourless bark. Wisps of smoke flew out of his mouth; webs of spit quivered between his yellow teeth.
−She’s gone now anyway, he said, after a moment. For definite.
−Where did you put all her stuff?
−Garden shed. For the minute. Might bring the clothes to some charity shop; everything else can be fucked out.
−You won’t keep anything?
−Why would I? He stubbed his cigarette out on the table. A large, black burnmark stared up at me, like an eye peering into me.
−I dunno. I shrugged and kept drying the mug. I was sat at the table. He, sitting across from me, presented me with a box of tobacco. He threw it across the table to me. The yellow box blended into the yellow tablecloth.
−Err, a box of tobacco? I feigned dumbness.
−Care to inform me as to why I found it in yer bedroom?
−I- I haven’t a clue.
−Well no one in this house smokes, so…?
−One of the lads must’ve dropped it in my schoolbag as a joke.
−I didn’t say I’d found it in yer schoolbag. How’d you know that was where I found it?
−I just- I- I-
−Just… don’t bother. You’re smokin’ now, so? Well I tell you what. Ye’re gonna sit there and smoke down that full box. Every last cigarette in it, you’re gonna roll it and smoke it, down to the dust. We’ll see how much you like smokin’ after that.
−Sixteen and smoking, Mum tutted. It’s those boys up in that school. It’s peer pressure all around. We’ve been warned about this.
−Just… ssh, and let me just… do this, Dad said, raising a hand for silence. I knew not to talk then, or that hand would come down; slam on the table; followed by his raised voice. That was horrible.
−You can have a root through it if you like, see if there’s anything, he said. But there’s nothin’ to keep. He made another rollie.
−No, I- I’m fine. The silence was crushing; the overwhelming quiet squeezed every bit of energy, breath, life out of me. To break it, I said: −If there’s anything you need, or anything, just- just let me know. If there’s anything I can help with.
−Sure what would you be able to do? Whole thing’s nearly over now anyway. Thank God.
I put the mug on the kitchen table.
−I’ll… I’ll head off so.
−I’ll see you tomorrow.
−You probably will, yeah.
I don’t know what I expected. Maybe it was cathartic. I followed my own, then-smaller footsteps up the garden path, my strides as my twig legs ran matching my gait as I slowly lumbered towards the gate. I put one hand on the rusted metal and looked back towards the house. No one could tell me not to go onto the pavement; no one could tell me not to talk to strangers; I was emancipated by death and apathy; I was free.
The sound of hushed chatter brings me back to the present. The heat of the room is making me sweat. My suit hangs from my withered frame, but I still feel constricted. Everything is tightening.
I am first to go. I stand up and approach the coffin.
I reach out and touch the withered forehead of my father, lying with his arms by his side, and turn away.