My attention was initially drawn to the man due to his mass of curly grey hair and unkempt appearance. His lips peeled back and spread across his wizened face. Stealthily. Incongruously. The smile was entirely inappropriate given the situation, and was done so in a manner of one who is up to something, and confident they will not be exposed. The man, who no-one knew but were too polite to question his presence, raised his hymn book to the bridge of his nose, and glanced at me over it out of the corner of his eye. He had noticed my staring. I turned my head forward sharply, and coughed softly into my hand, just as "Contessa Perdono," from Beethoven's "Marriage of Figaro" had stopped playing. My Aunt lay in a faux mahogany box, on a pedestal in front of us like a broken music-box ballerina. She had requested it be played in the event of her demise, but always refused to explain why. The minister gestured with both hands for the congregation to rise, and as we sang Amazing Grace, I could not help but steal fleeting glances at the stranger. Perhaps he had been and old friend or lover. But he had smiled. An old enemy? My Aunt had been well liked, and married for fifteen years… Happily so, or it at least appeared that way. I resolved to get talking to the man at the wake.
I nibbled the edge of a small, triangular cucumber sandwich, and scanned my eyes over the Kingdom Outreach church wake room full, of relatives and family friends. The room buzzed quietly with whispered chat, like an undisturbed hornets' nest. I couldn't see him. I smiled politely as Susan, a friend of the family approached me to let me know she was sorry for my loss. As she spoke, crumbs fell from the chocolate cake she was eating into the crack between her colossal bosoms. I asked if anyone knew who the strange man was. She said she thought it was a homeless man from the shelter next door who had just come in for the food afterwards, and no-one had the heart to ask him to leave. She then proceeded to boast about how well her kids were doing in school and enquire as to when I was going to settle down and have some of my own. I drew the conversation to an end quickly, and moved away from her generous frame, which was wrapped in a floral dress that clung to her folds of fat like cling-film. Now that my view of the room was restored, I saw him. He was stooped over the open coffin. I walked over to him briskly from behind. His hands were in the coffin.
"Excuse, me, WHAT are you doing?" I looked at him sternly. He jumped up suddenly and I could not see where he had put his hands, as he had retracted them swiftly. His face contorted in the horror and fear of a child caught stealing, and he leaned back on one foot as if making to retreat. Up close, I could see that his shabby clothes were stained with multiple substances. The accompanying smell invaded and stung my nostrils. It was sharp, an olfactory scalpel, carving itself into my memory, it was a culmination of body odour, urine, vomit, faeces and stale whiskey, but the combination seemed to form an aroma unique and powerful. The man did not speak. He simply raised his hands as if asked to "stick 'em up." They were trembling, and his palms were as black as soot, they almost looked charred. Suddenly he fled the church, leaving behind one of his disintegrating moccasins and a residual odour. I asked around to see if he had taken any food. When I learned that he hadn't, I felt a bit bad.
The wake was ending. My Aunt was about to be buried forever, under 6 feet of soil which I realised would cause the cheap, flimsy coffin lid to cave in within seconds, an image I could not get out of my head. We had been quite close. Close enough to talk about man troubles and share a joke, but not close enough to share our insecurities and deepest fears. I would miss her. I walked over to the coffin after everyone had gone outside to wait for the burial, to say goodbye and take one last look at her. People say the dead look peaceful, but everyone knows they look horrendous. Folded hands stitched together across a chest that no longer rises and falls, and makeup the person would never wear in their living hours, ridiculously rosy cheeks and universal foundation that doesn't match the pale, raw chicken skin-like hands.
"Goodbye Audrey." I whispered softly, and bent down to kiss her cold, bloodless cheek. I noticed she was wearing a gold chain with a little heart locket. I opened it, and inside was a picture of Audrey and my mum when they were little. The homeless guy must have been trying to steal it.
When the burial was over, when everyone was gone, my mother and I sat at the fresh grave and she said a prayer. I knew how upset my mother would have been if I had told her I was an atheist, so I hung my head in prayer with her. My aunt's husband and my grandparents had died some time ago, so my mother and myself were all my Aunt really had left. After many tears and reminiscing about the good times with her, and a few anecdotes about her drunken escapades on our family holiday in Florence, we left for home. The car journey home was silent, and the further we got from Audrey, the dimmer the sky grew.
It was nightfall as we arrived home, and my mother remained silent. I could see the despondency growing on her brow. When a loved one dies, as we all know, there are only so many words that can be said. Trying to express grief through language is like trying to pour the ocean into a vase. We said little to each other for days. She lay in bed mostly, and I took care of the household chores and brought her food which she seldom ate. I was washing dishes one day, when the sink became blocked. I poured drain cleaner down, and it seemed fine for a little while, but kept blocking up again. I figured there must be something stuck down there, so I called a plumber to fix it. While he was fiddling about under the sink, I went upstairs to check on my mother. She was sobbing into her pillow.
"Everything is gonna be okay Mummy. You will be OK in time. Audrey wouldn't have wanted to see you cry." I put my hand on her shoulder. She lifted her reddened face from the pillow and turned towards me.
"I know love. It's just so hard to believe she's really gone. And I don't have any photos of her, I'm afraid I will forget her face."
"I'm sure there will be photos in her house, when we come to that. We will get you photos, don't worry."
"No, she told me all her photos were lost when she moved house, and that was only a month ago." She turned into the pillow again and began crying loudly into it. All I could do was rub her shoulder and repeat; "It's okay, It's okay…"
She stopped after a few minutes, and said "I lost the only photo I had of her, and I'm so angry at myself." Her brow crumpled, and her hand clenched the side of the bed, nails digging in hard.
"Now now, don't be angry at yourself, these things happen. I will find you something to remember her by, I promise."
"I'm sorry to be a burden love, you have done so much for me, thanks for staying with me. I don't think I would have coped without you." She smiled weakly, and reached out for my hand, and I squeezed it reassuredly.
I gave her a hug and went back downstairs to check on the plumber's progress. He was crouched under the sink and stood up when he saw me. "Found your problem!" He smiled and held out a gloved hand containing a congealed mass of what looked like potato and carrot peelings, rice, and something else. Something shiny.
He washed away the vegetable matter under the tap, and was left holding a gold heart-shaped locket and chain, the same as the one around my Aunt's neck when she was buried. I opened it, and sure enough, there was the same photo of my mum and Audrey together as kids. They must have had one each. I was grinning from ear to ear. I thanked the plumber, paid him sent him on his way, and ran straight upstairs to give my mother the good news, she had her photo back.
"Mummy, look what was blocking the sink!" I take her hand and placed the shining locket in it. She sat up, smiling widely. I was so happy to see her smile after so much misery.
"Oh my God, I can't believe this; I thought it was lost for good! This is a sign from Audrey, it must be!" We hugged for a few minutes, then she finally, after five days in bed, came downstairs, and I made us some celebratory tea.
My mum looked emaciated and pale. She encircled the cup with her hands, ignoring the handle, as if embracing it, and took sips every few seconds.
"One thing I'm confused about. I was almost 100% sure I wore that locket to the funeral, I noticed it was missing half way through the service…Maybe with all the stress I'm getting confused. I must not have worn it, clearly!"
"I noticed Audrey had one just like it too, with the same photo inside. I can see why you would be so upset over it."
"What do you mean?"
"The necklace she was buried with."
"She wasn't buried with any jewellery, and that's the only photo of the two of us."
"Well I saw it on her before she was buried."
"That's impossible. Don't say that Caroline, you are scaring me now."
Her hands were trembling. "I don't need this kind of stress right now".
"I'm really stressed too, and I'm tired. I must be getting mixed up."
"You must be love, because I've had that photo and necklace since we were kids, and it's the only one."
She started to relax a bit, stopped shaking and started talking about ordinary things like laundry detergent, and the neighbours making too much noise and how it was disrespectful. I however, was anything but relaxed. I knew what I saw. I needed to find out how that necklace ended up on Audrey's neck, and from there to down the kitchen sink drain. My thoughts returned to the old homeless man. I made my way to the shelter.
I parked in the church car park that grey afternoon, and quickly checked on Audrey's grave. The soil looked undisturbed, and the pink roses we had left had already begun to die. Their rain-soaked petals had turned brown around the edges, and many had fallen onto the fresh soil and began to decompose. I tried not to picture Audrey down there, and made my way to the shelter next door. It was a crude extension that had been tacked onto the church, and was not in keeping with its atmospheric, gothic architecture. Still, it was for a good cause, so no-one could really complain. I swung through the double doors labelled "Kingdom Outreach Fellowship" like someone from a western movie, and there was a sudden silence. All eyes were on me. The table on the right abruptly halted their card game. A man sitting by himself eating soup stopped his spoon midway to his mouth. The queue for soup stopped being a queue and became an audience, as they turned to watch an unexpected guest enter their domain, perhaps wondering what someone like me could possibly be doing there. I walked up to the volunteer serving the food and asked if I could speak to them in private for a moment.
"Andres!! Can you cover for me?" Yelled the acne covered teenage girl as she walked away from her station. A Tall thirty-something Puerto-Rican guy sauntered in from the kitchen, and the loud talking and cutlery sounds resumed as we walked into the staff room.
"I'm so sorry to bother you, I know you are busy." She closed the door behind us, shutting off the commotion.
"It's okay, I was about to go on my break anyway. Are you wanting to volunteer? We could use an extra pair of hands here, we don't get much funding!"
"Sorry, no. I was hoping you could help me. My Aunt passed away recently, and we had her funeral at the church next door. I think one of your residents may have... kind... of... infiltrated the service. He was loitering over the coffin and I think he may have been trying to steal from it."
"Oh my god! I am so sorry about this! My name is Veronica by the way. I will make sure the manager hears about this. What did he look like? Is he here now?"
We both peer through the reinforced glass back into the dining area.
"No, he's not here. He was wearing an old brown corduroy jacket, and had bushy, curly grey hair."
Veronica frowned. "That sounds like Bernard. He refused to ever take that jacket off. He even slept in it. He was a good guy, but we had to ask him to leave because of his bad personal hygiene. We have showers here, but he just refused to wash. Unfortunately he died a few weeks ago, his funeral was held next door too."
"I'm sorry to hear that, really. But my aunt only passed away six days ago, so it couldn't have been him."
Veronica took a bite of a red apple, and whilst crunching, said "That's weird. Must have been someone else then. But there's no-one else here that fits that description. I really better get back to work here, sorry!" She chucked her half eaten apple in the bin and opened the door, motioning for me to leave. I left, and stood outside, thinking. This was all too much of a coincidence. Something odd was going on here. I paced back and forward for a few minutes, and then found myself walking around the building, past the front entrance of the church, and around the back.
When I got to the back of the homeless shelter, just opposite the bins, there was an opening in the wire fence leading into a field. I thought it would be nice to have a stroll through it while I was thinking. It was an uphill walk at first, and I actually appreciated the opportunity to expel some of the pent up energy and frustration I was feeling at this time. When I reached the top of the hill, my jaw dropped. I was dumfounded by the beautiful scene beneath me. I could see for miles across the countryside, and the hill rolled down into what looked like an azure ocean. It was a field of cornflowers, bluer that the mind can envisage, and a gentle breeze created rippling waves across it, as if it's very presence was to imitate the sea. I sat there at the top of that hill for what felt like an hour. I felt calm, at peace. I started thinking. Maybe I imagined the necklace on my Aunt. I had heard that deja-vous, for instance, occurs when there is a glitch in the brains perception. It can store a new experience in the area where memories are stored, at the same time of the experience, creating the belief that one has seen or experienced the thing before. Maybe the necklace experience was something like that, with all the stress I had been under, would it be so unusual? And wasn't it possible that the odious man at the funeral could have dropped in from somewhere other than the homeless shelter, after all, isn't there more than one brown corduroy jacket in the world? I stood up and stretched my arms out. I was feeling rejuvenated. Feeling good. I made my way back to the car. Time to go back home to my mother. When I walking down the hill, approaching the gap in the fence behind the shelter, I noticed some movement.
As I grew closer I saw that there were a few dogs scuffling around the bins. Poor things, I thought. They must be starving. Two of them ran up to me when I crossed the threshold, panting and whining. Two were black Labradors and one was a little Jack Russell. They didn't look underfed. One of the Labradors was yanking at a bone that was hanging out of a black bin liner sitting beside the bin. The dog was whining like crazy, and with a digging motion of his paws and ripping with his teeth, he got the bag open and trailed the contents of it out onto the ground.
I tried not to scream as the human skull rolled out and rested on the ground just before my feet. The dogs began to tug and gnaw vigorously on an array of large bones and ribcage, which were no longer concealed by the bag. My legs felt weak, however I mustered the strength to run to my car and drive back to my mum's house. Somehow I managed to remain calm and as if I had not in fact seen the most horrific image of my entire life. I thought about ringing the police. But I needed to know more. I had been guided to this for some reason, and I needed to see it through.
All the thoughts you are thinking right now entered my head. Are they dumping the bodies of homeless people because there is no-one to pay for the funerals? Was it a murder? Was it a one off? Or is there a serial killer at work? All of these things came to mind, and once the police started sniffing around, whatever it was and whoever it was could just move someplace else. I went back there the next day. I had decided to watch from the field out back. I hid in the long grass, and waited. I saw three funeral processions come and go at the church. I could see everything from the top of that hill, but no movement at the back of the shelter. At 7pm I was about to leave, when I saw two men carry something from the back of the church round to the back door of the shelter. No. It couldn't be!! It was the size and shape of a human body. Then there was another… And another. Three funerals took place that day, and three body shaped packages had been carried next door. Are they…Burying empty coffins? The worst thought entered my mind, having read Sweeney Todd. I had to find out if this was happening. It was time to do a bit of volunteer work.
Veronica was ecstatic when I called in and decided to volunteer after all. All I had to do was to serve the food. To my disappointment, I was strictly forbidden to enter the kitchen. In front of me were huge metal tanks of "Chilli con Carne." The "Carne" part looked paler than beef, which is traditionally used. I asked what meat was used, and Andres, the chef, told me it was pork. He said it was delicious and asked me to give my opinion. I told him I was vegetarian. I felt a bit dubious serving it to the homeless, but if I didn't, someone else would. I had to remind myself that I must play my part if I am to get the proof I need. As soon as veronica and Andres were both on breaks, which only occurred after a few days of volunteering, I sneaked into the kitchen.
I braced myself before opening the fridge. No human heads, no human anything, just some supermarket own brand pork, vegetables, cheese and milk. The freezer! I swung the chest freezer open. Nothing incriminating. It must be at the bottom! I started throwing out legs of lamb, packets of beef, chickens, all onto the floor in the hope of finding something underneath. "Shit, where is it?" I said to myself. As Andres walked in.
"Just what are you doing?" He looked at me sternly. I must have had the same look on my face that the homeless guy had when I said the same thing to him. Then I realised I should just confront him. I knew I had lost the volunteer job after this, so I had nothing to lose.
"I know what you are doing here"
"I saw the human bones out back in the bin-liner. And I saw men from the funeral home bring dead bodies round here, I was watching from the field. You are feeding them to the homeless, aren't you? Veronica says you don't get funding, that's what you are doing isn't it? Don't worry, I won't say anything, it's for a good cause after all, you know what they say, waste not wont not!" I laughed nervously.
"You are fucking bat-shit crazy. The 'human bones' you saw was a model skeleton donated by a local high school, as we were had teachers volunteering here on several subjects to try and educate the homeless. It didn't catch on, so we threw away the skeleton, the model globe, and the textbooks, all of which were also in the bins if your prying had extended a bit further."
My eyes widened. "But what about the bodies form next door, I watched it from the field!"
"The so-called bodies you saw were pieces of rolled up carpet that the funeral home has donated to us, as they are getting new carpet put in. And you've said twice you watched from the 'field.'
Is 'field' slang for something, 'cos I don't get it? You are one fucked up girl."
My brow furrowed. I now doubted myself. "No, I mean, the actual field out back. Look, I'm sorry, I got it wrong. But there's no need to insult me."
"Okay, I'm sorry." Andres said in a sarcastic tone.
He gestured to the back door, "Show me this field you watched from."
We went to the back door, past the bins outside, and to my utter astonishment, we were greeted by a towering brick wall, where the fence used to be. It wasn't new. It had moss growing on it.
"Caroline, allow me to introduce to you, Ashton Mills chicken factory, it's been here since 1979. I suggest you check yourself into the nearest psychiatric ward love."
And with that, he closed the door. I was left there staring at this factory wall. He was right. I needed help.
It was hard on my mother, but after my grand scale delusion, I checked into Swanson Meadows psychiatric hospital. After explaining what had happened I was diagnosed with schizophrenia and treated with electro-shock therapy for six months. It made me mellow, and tired. I could not have had delusions if I had wanted to as my brain could not have fuelled them. After a year, I was released, and prescribed medication that I would have to take for the rest of my life. Within a few months, I met my now husband, and I fell pregnant. My life was good….Acceptable. But with the medication my emotions were numb. I did not know if I really loved him, he was a good provider, but I really felt no attachment. And at thirty-three, I knew having a child was logical, but I could not get excited about it. It was the medication, but I couldn't risk tumbling back into a delusional world.
Three years later, something finally grabbed my attention. The news…
"This, just in, breaking news story;
With the recent good weather this July, we have had an increase in water sport activities along the coast of Northern Ireland. Scuba divers have reported findings of human remains in the ocean at a location on the Antrim coast which cannot be named at present due to extensive forensic research which is currently underway. So far at least 39 bodies have been identified and it is estimated that at least one hundred bodies are yet to be named. The bodies all have one thing in common. They all died of natural causes and were due to be buried at the Kingdom Outreach church in Ballintoy. Although the deaths were of natural causes, there is evidence of heat application and cut marks on the bones consistent with traditional butchery. This may mean that the bodies have been subject to cannibalism. Current excavation of corresponding graves at the church proved them to be empty.
The ocean… The cornflower field…was it a sign?... No…
I had moved on with my life. I took another pill.