Once upon a time. Not so long ago. There was a young woman called Michelle. And she had terminal cancer. Inelegantly supine on a hospital bed, in a private room at the end of the corridor, she was beyond the touch of morphine, and her suffering had took her to another place, somewhere outside the limits of language, outside of what could be said and done. Though barely into her thirties, her once glossy dark hair was now grey and lustreless. Her face was puffy and undefined, largely due to the steroids pumped into her throughout the day. In the chair at the bottom of the bed was slumped her brother, hiding in the afternoon gloom. The nights were growing longer and it was going dark but he couldn't bring himself to get up and turn on the bedside lamp. She had been ill for quite a while now, but this had been the first time he had seen her since her diagnosis. The last occasion he had seen her in the flesh had been their mother's funeral, and they had barely spoke even when it became apparent the disease would soon render her extinct. He shifts uneasily in the chair, trying to control his breathing, dabbing the spilled coffee on his trouser leg with tissue paper. Christ, he wished he had not relented. He was only here at the behest of his frail and pitiable father who would surely not survive his only daughter by much. And that would be the end of that. He could go back to the South Coast and be with Michael and forget about his bloodline. There was a nephew, seven years old and called Dylan, but Michelle's erstwhile partner long ago secured sole custody owing to her drug and alcohol abuse which had fuelled a promiscuous lifestyle that had placed the young boy at risk. They had not been to visit. She was merely a footnote in her son's short history. And there she lay, not quite asleep, not quite conscious, arms crossed on her chest, lips working silently. Now and then she'd jerk violently to one side, and then to the other, like her puppet strings had been yanked. Then eyes tightly shut and lips pursed, she would smooth out the sleeves of her blue nightgown with splayed fingers, which emitted a sickly yet astringent stench, a curious mixture reminiscent of baby vomit and disinfectant. He watched her, both fascinated and appalled, not knowing what to say, not knowing what to do. An exhausted looking palliative care nurse popped her head around the door and told him he had ten minutes left. Was everything ok? Yes, everything was fine he lied. Or should that be misrepresented? It was fine in its own way. He had not been forced to explain. Thankfully, he'd left it long enough. Metastasis had made any remonstrations impossible. The thought suddenly triggered an irresistible wave of remorse that physically convulsed him and finally the tears came and he was consumed by the horror of it all. In the final throes of her life she had assumed a bathos and dignity that she had never possessed before she became prey to malignant neoplasm. Ahh, the gravity of the human body in extremis.
"John," said Michelle.
He felt a terror that surpassed that experienced when he and his former partner were trying to elude a bunch of pissed up queer bashers on Brighton seafront a different life ago.
"Come here please." A skeletal hand compelled him to lean in close, his left ear alighting on her dry cracked lips. Her eyes were now wide open, stark and staring, but it was like he wasn't in the room. No, actually it was like she wasn't in the room. Michelle's gaze went through him and the wall. She could see something John couldn't.
"Closer." When she spoke his ear and cheek were flecked with spittle. There was nothing, she told him. Nothing. But she didn't know how to describe it. Not darkness or light just nothing. Then with a groan she rolled onto her side and buried her face in the pillow. John returned to his seat. After intensive psycho-therapy and counselling, which had helped her to control her addictions and resume a functional existence, Michelle had cultivated a quasi-religious streak, always in and out of new age shops, lighting incense burners, visiting mediums, desiring transfiguration in a Primark kind of way, he sort of gathered. Yet this superstitious believer had seen and what she saw was nothingness. Her witnessing admitted no interpretation. So much for the urban legend of the atheist martyr, the secularist who through the agonies of the flesh and the encroachment of death achieves a state of ecstasy that reveals the secrets of the divine and eternal. Well, this had been quite a farewell performance. Not only had she instilled in him guilt that was so intense it made him nauseous, she had also granted him a disquieting knowledge. A little something to haunt him until he went into the void. There was no other country, just a taste of the jolly corner. He was immobile in the chair. The nurse entered the room.
"Sorry, it's time…"
Michelle snored loudly. She'd had her vision.
R. ground the cigarette butt into the tarmac with the heel of his black pump. He was dressed completely in black, feeling the uniform colour scheme to be appropriate for a visit to the dead. His brother in law said he looked like an overweight ninja. Ahead of him, pushing the funeral home door open was his cousin, wearing a rugby top and tracksuit pants. Resisting the temptation to light another cigarette, he followed his cousin into the lobby of the corpse parlour. R. hadn't wanted to come here. What was the point, he had protested, she won't be there. Of course she will be there, his mother had replied tearfully, what a strange thing to say. His cousin was jittery and awkward. The lobby was unremarkable, having no funereal solemnity, more like an anonymous dentist's waiting room. A tangibly bored middle aged man, dripping calculated earnestness, skinny and waxen in a cheap black suit and dark blue tie, greeted them. He shook their hands and offered easy words of regret. The top drawer of the desk he sat at was partially open, revealing a glimpse of a copy of The Daily Star and a partially eaten sausage roll. Would they sign the guestbook? R. signed for both of them in the big leather backed book. The greeter tells them he needs to prep the room. He disappears into a side door. They hear a light switch being flicked on, matches being struck. I don't like the thought of her being in there by herself, R. says, in the dark. His cousin disregards the remark. It's not so big this place, he says, how many stiffs do you reckon are in here? R. doesn't have too much time to be appalled by the remark as the greeter returns. She is ready for viewing. They ushered each other into the viewing room that was partially illuminated by a scattering of candles which were presumably to facilitate a pious milieu. Impenetrable
black curtains allowed no natural light into the room, not that there was much to obstruct, it being grey and wet outside. There was a sideboard on the top of which were spread a random selection of religious artefacts, a tatty bible, a palm crucifix, a reliquary filled with rosary beads and a bottle of holy water. Next to this were a couple of catalogues, one advertising a selection of coffins, the other a selection of urns, one of which the incinerated remains of the corpse in the corner would soon be in. The wallpaper was an enervating dark brown colour. His cousin looked first, peering briefly into the open coffin. R. saw his cousin's face register incredulity which quickly transmuted into dismay. The cousin kissed the fingertips of his left hand and placed his hand on the corpse's forehead, then pulled it back sharply.
I wouldn't touch her, said his cousin, walking past R. and standing near the doorway, hopping from one foot to the other. It is clear he wants R. to fulfil his obligation so they can leave. R. approaches the open coffin. So, in a few seconds he will see his first corpse, the remains of someone he greatly loved. Even before he glimpsed the cadaver, which in a matter of days would be in a cinerary, the oppressive configuration and fuggy atmosphere of the room had imposed a materialist construal of death that would be dear to that most wearying of creatures, the secular humanist. It was nearly a week ago since his grandmother died, and since her passing, in amongst the grief, confusion and the sheer incomprehension of absence, he had harboured gorgeous metaphysical fantasies. R. feared that to look upon the corpse would dispel these reveries forever.
Christ, says his cousin. She finishes her shift at Matalan in half an hour. R. nods and steps forward, peering into the coffin. And he sees what his cousin saw. R. now understands the facial expression his cousin transiently wore. The corpse was a grotesque parody of the grandparent he had adored and had been the source of so much happiness in his often monochrome life. Mouth clumsily sewn together, Jesus you could see the stitches, into the mirthless grimace of cliché. Snowy hair swept back into a ridiculous bouffant. Face smothered in pancake. R. felt a surge of anger. Even as his grandmother lurched into the twilight world of senility she had always been conscious of and proud of her appearance. One of her last coherent tirades had been against a set of photographs taken in a superstore picture booth. I can't believe I look so old. I'm ashamed to have that in my bus pass. R. leant down and kissed her forehead. This was the worst thing of all. His cousin audibly exhaled in the far corner of the room. The taste was bad enough; a weird concoction of astringent chemicals and cosmetics, but the horror of this was easily surpassed by the icy chill that greeted his lips. It was a sensation that was beyond the descriptive powers of his vocabulary. Why, or rather how, could she be so cold? His last kiss he had bestowed on her had been one planted on the top of her head before he had left the residential home the night before she died. It had left him with a trace of talcum powder on his lips, which had amused him. He could still taste it when his father called round the next day to tell him she had died that afternoon. But this…language had forsaken him.
They left the room in silence without looking backwards. It had all been done. At the desk in the lobby, the greeter quickly straightened, brushing pastry crumbs off his lapels, and escorted them to the door. Neither of them heard what he was saying. Outside, R. lit a cigarette. His cousin said that he would make it clear he did not want an open coffin when he died. Just bury him quickly and spare him the indignity of being on display. R. assented with a regretful shake of the head. They got into the car. R. had been quite right. His grandmother had not been there.
"How do you want to do this?"
S. and his partner looked at each other, the reality of the situation finally enveloping them. The dog, feverish and panting violently, was on the two seater couch at the far end of the room. His panting, which had once signified joy and excitement through physical exertion, usually in the form of his beloved walks or playful fighting with other dogs, now was merely a constant reminder of the tumour on his lungs. Well, it had once been on his lungs. Now it had spread through his small body, eating his internal organs. If the sound of his panting, which was punctuated at intervals by a convulsive, hacking expulsion of air from the lungs that filled them with despair, was upsetting, it was his eyes that were the real heartbreaker. Once affecting and melancholy, they were now yellowing and had a crazed aspect. Christ, how soon it had come to this. They had got him from the pet shop in their middle twenties, a gorgeous little black bundle, and now, as they staggered into early middle age he lay before them, his snout and face white with age, his body slack and emaciated through terminal illness. S. felt that time had collapsed in on itself, his mind throwing up fragmented memories shuffled and dealt without any chronological order. After the dog's initial diagnosis they knew they would lose him within twelve months, but so soon? There was meant to be another eight to go. Coming down the stairs this morning to make coffee before he got dressed for work, S. was greeted by an abstract spattering of blood, urine and excrement on the living room floor. S. now knew why the dog had been so long coming to bed after they had gone upstairs and felt guilty that he had been too drunk to be alert to the animal's distress. After he made a phone call to work, they took the dog to the vets, his partner's daughter driving. After a dismal wait, the nurse took a blood sample. The vet ushered them into the consultation room. It was the end. The dog was on the verge of complete renal failure and if he was not euthanized would suffer an agonizing death within twenty four hours. At the counter they paid by debit card for a home visit, an individual cremation and a wooden casket, which would be adorned with a little brass plaque with his name etched on it. Go home and say your goodbyes, said the nurse, the vet will be with you in an hour. Like somnambulists they walked him back to the car and drove home. And here they were.
"It may be better on this couch, more space," said the vet, gesturing at the three seater couch to the right of the room. Nearby was a coffee table covered with scented candles which S. and his partner had lit when they'd heard the vet's car pull up the driveway.
S. picked the dog up off the two seater. There was no longer any weight to him.
"I must warn you, he may defecate and urinate when…they look expensive…"
"It doesn't matter, we'll clean it up. Whatever's best for him." She was strong, but she knew death, being a palliative nurse. He was weak, barely able to blink the tears back and his legs giving away. The dog was placed on the three seater. His partner's daughter came down the stairs to join them, face bloodless and demeanour saturnine. When S. saw the large syringe filled with a blue liquid and the long needle he felt a sharp pain in his chest and croaked, "Oh God."
The vet's assistant stretched out the dog's front left leg and the vet administered the fatal injection. S. his partner and her daughter stroked the dog and said their farewells as his heart stopped and his body closed down for good.
"I can't believe this," said S.
"Go to sleep little man, pain's over," said his partner.
"See you Sausage," said her daughter.
The vet listened through his stethoscope for a heartbeat that was no longer there. It was over. The dog was dead. Packing up his equipment, the vet explained that now he and his assistant would place the cadaver in a black body bag. They could have time with the cadaver before this was done but he advised them to leave the room when the bagging took place. It was evidently, drawn from anecdotal evidence, the most upsetting part of the whole procedure for the owners. They would get the body bag from the car and wait outside. And out the house they went. His partner and her daughter said their goodbyes to the dead dog and hurried upstairs, no longer able to hold back the tears that were flowing freely now. S. stood alone looking over the corpse. The dog looked better in death now it was released from pain, no longer hunched and wasted, the body had returned to the proportions of rude health. Indeed, with the faint smile on the dog's lips it was almost as if he was merely snoozing peacefully, an illusion belied by the eyes which were wide open and staring at the vanishing point. Yet, while unsettling, even this wasn't too bad, as the eyes had lost their jaundiced tinge and were bright and clear. S. was suddenly overcome by a discomfiting self knowledge. The relationship that had been the most satisfying and meaningful of his adult life was over; no use wallowing in self denial any longer, he had to accept he was the owner of a truly anomic personality. S. leant down and closed the dog's eyes and kissed his head tenderly. Pleasantly surprised by his composure, S. removed the collar and thanked the dog for the pleasure and companionship he had given him. S. hugged the cadaver tightly and relished the warmth, but quickly relinquished the body. He didn't want to feel it go cold. Maybe it was a primal instinct, the equation of love and security with the heat of physical contact with those we cherish. The final act was placing a cushion under the cadaver's head and arranging so it looked like it was sleeping. S. looked at the lifeless body and thought to himself in a few minutes he shall be gone and I will never see him again.
The most important.
The most magical.
The most beautiful.
Thirteen and a half year old geriatric crossbreed dog, black coat, medium build, quite dead, in the whole wide world. Saggy, a bit loose at the seams. But S. loved him. He went into the back garden.
He ascended the stairs and joined his partner and her daughter in the main bedroom. They heard the black corpse bag being unzipped. All out.