She doesn’t turn, doesn’t give the greeting he’d hoped for. (There’s been so little welcome for such a long time.) “Yes,” he says. “I’m back,” and holds out a hand, hovers it over her shoulder. It should draw her to him, result in affection, a kiss at least, but she isn’t facing him, doesn’t see the gesture, is too busy, moves away.
“So… there’s another one?”
He hesitates. (Whether to lie?) He’s unsure how she will react if he confesses. He imagines lips pressed together, clamped disapproval.
Hands clatter dishes in the sink.
“Yes,” he admits, braces himself.
She doesn’t speak.
He wishes she would.
This morning, when brushing his teeth, he sucked in a paunch, hoped she didn’t notice how nipples now sat on mounds of flesh. Everything decays. (If he could just shed this body…) He and Andrea know appearance isn’t everything, only the surface of things, but even after all these years he wants her to see him again, as he was, not as he is. He’s aware of exposure, of shame.
He watches her working the washing up, swirling the suds. She moves rhythmically. She’s plumper too, never manages to be soft, is always swathed in dressing gown or apron, cords pulled tight. Nevertheless he aches when he looks at her. He tries to remember the last time he saw her naked.
Nothing has been the same since his heart attack. He knows it frightened her, doesn’t remember much himself, only a sense of levitation, of moving up, and when he came back down something had detached. Such emergencies were supposed to bind couples together, weren’t they? It should have enhanced their need for each other, he thinks, but it hadn’t worked out that way, not for them. And about a month or so after, he’d overheard her on the phone.
He’d just taken his evening walk (nothing strenuous, no chest-pumping, but important for recovery, he’s been told). On returning, door closed on autumn, he was taking off coat and shoes in the hall when the wail in her voice alerted him. He wasn’t a snoop, had only paused, listened.
“What am I going to do, Greta?” she was saying. “He’s too young to be so ill. I don’t think I can stand it. And now I’ve got no choice at all but to be nice to him…”
He’d opened the kitchen door. She’d had the courtesy to redden.
They strove to talk about it reasonably. (They were adults, after all, and allowed to have truthful, unpleasant feelings.) He’d wanted to take her in his arms. She’d moved away.
“You’ve changed, Paul,” was her only muttering of explanation.
“How d’you mean?” he’d been shocked, dizzied. He’d assumed that once health was restored, everything else would be resuscitated. “I’m still me, you know.”
She’d stood a long way away, back to the sink. She’d shaken her head, twisted her mouth, had said something about different outlooks that he didn’t quite catch.
“I’m sorry,” she’d mumbled. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“No, no, I’m glad you did…”
In his heart of hearts, Paul knows she’s right. There are differences. He’s noticed them too, just hasn’t thought of them as interruptions to his marriage. If anything, he thinks there have been improvements in his character. He’s more compassionate, less concerned about wealth and status. “I’d have thought she’d like that,” he ponders, troubled.
It’s quite clear her tolerance of him is diminishing. He watches her bottle up, bite her lip when he knows she wants to get angry. She believes she’s not allowed to shout at him. It worries him. It makes him wonder whether she’d rather he’d have died. He can’t sleep.
At night he often tiptoes from the bedroom and sits on his own in a chair. “Like an old man,” he mourns, stuffing his feet into slippers. Sometimes he puts on the radio. It’s a bit of company (sound turned down of course, careful not to disturb Andrea). He likes the drone of another human voice. It reminds him there’s a whole world out there. And that’s when he heard about it, one night, in the dark. It gave him a new sense of purpose, made him feel less alone.
He’d begun with a simple email; in essence, ‘I’d like to meet you’. No reply, so he sent another. And another, flooded the inbox until he wore them down, until he gained an entry. A meeting in a café.
He mentioned nothing to Andrea. (“It mightn’t come to anything… I mightn’t be able to persuade them…” he told himself, knew it was a deception.) “I’m going for a walk,” he called, tried to keep his voice light.
He’s used to it now, but that first time was strange. He was shown a few photographs, told a few facts: a young girl, in her twenties, an immigrant. She’d called herself Lillith, but had no papers, no one was really sure, no one could be traced. Looking at the pictures he was surprised how ordinary the body was. Not horrific at all.
“What happened?” he asked.
The official grimaced, described a girl used as a container, dozens and dozens of tiny balloons swallowed. “She went for the big payoff, was unlucky,” he said. “Only one or two of them have to rupture, and, you know, that’s it, lights out.” He was casual about the inevitable, then noticed Paul’s distress and tried to be kinder. “On the plus side death must’ve been pretty quick, you know.” He coughed. “What with the amount she’d ingested. Heart failure. Yeah, pretty quick.”
They drank their tea in silence.
“So, what’re you thinking then?”
The question was an interruption. Paul had been staring at an old grease spot on the surface of the table, imagining the moment of her death. Had it come when she’d stopped breathing, he was wondering, or when someone thought she meant so little as to stuff her full of latex? Perhaps even earlier, when her name had slipped off the tongues of loved ones and into memory? “Let me organise a proper funeral,” he said, suddenly decisive. “Church, flowers, music, all that… poems even.”
The official scratched under his hat. “I can’t sanction that,” he said. “We don’t have the funds, can only do the basic, you know, coffin, crem. No ceremony. It’s all we can run to.” He spread his palms.
“How hopeless it is…” thought Paul and then aloud, “I’ll manage it.”
He had no idea where to begin, had to swallow his qualms. Andrea would have a fit if she knew what he intended to do with their savings, but to his way of thinking everyone deserved a send-off. Someone should stand at your coffin and pretend all was not lost. “It’s not about the money,” he said, “it’s about respect.”
The official raised an eyebrow. “You’re not offering to pay for it yourself?” He looked out of the window, watched a scene of unknown people passing the café, struggled to understand, even remotely, why someone might do this.
“Well, okay then,” he relented, “if it’s really what you want.”
He gave Paul access to the room where Lillith had been found. It was grotty, bare, not much to see. Paul tried to look for clues, evidence to help him follow her few years of life, but all he found was a CD under the mattress. He’d never heard of the singer, a young woman blackened with eyeliner, though one lyric struck him as appropriate: It happened, you passed by… He crossed his fingers, prayed this had been Lillith’s. Afterwards he ordered a simple bunch of flowers to top her coffin, hoped it showed enough sympathy, hadn’t been able to justify the cost of a headstone.
He tried to explain to Andrea. Everyone should be the same in death, he said, and asked her to accompany him to the funeral.
“Let me get this straight,” she said, “you’re inviting me to go to the funeral of someone I don’t know, and what’s more a drugs’ mule?” If she’d said it with any greater distaste, she’d have been spitting.
“It’s not like that,” he pleaded, wanted her to understand how he’d been thinking of his own circumstances, how no one could predict what was coming at you from behind the next door. She hadn’t been able to grasp the connection. The decent way was to turn your back and approach mortality in silence.
“We are clean people,” she said, repulsed and fascinated in equal measure. “We live on a good street. We are not responsible for what goes on in other people’s houses.”
So Paul went alone, sat in an empty pew, listened to echoes, the only other persons there the celebrant and the official. During the service the celebrant forgot Lillith’s name and referred to her throughout as ‘the deceased’. When it was over the official put his hat back on and shook Paul’s hand, congratulated him. “That’s that then,” he’d said. “Duty done.”
“It was the least…” Paul hesitated. “If there’s ever… another, you know…”
The official laughed. “Blimey, you’re a sucker for punishment, aren’t you? Don’t tell me you want to,” he waved an arm, “do this, all this again? No mate, you’ve done your bit.” He slapped Paul on the back as though beating a blockage out of his artery.
Paul looked at his feet, was unsure, couldn’t quite pinpoint what he was looking for. He’d offered Lillith so little, a moment’s honour, nothing more, but he was convinced it was important, worthwhile. “This is private,” he thought, “I don’t have to explain it… even to myself.” He blinked at the official in silence.
“Paul, mate, you don’t know what you’re saying. D’you know how many people die alone in this town every year?”
Paul didn’t, but word soon got round there was a crazy man willing to bury the lonely dead. This is his fourth funeral already, one he’s just made known to Andrea. Suddenly he realises how much of the last few months he’s spent thinking about people he’s never met. He’s been back and forth across the town, visiting its most God-forsaken places, all those brooding bus journeys when he chews on how to reflect a stranger in a coffin, how to make them more than humdrum. (He’s not yet given up on poetry. He likes the notion, finds it fitting, even tried to write some himself, though never got beyond ‘Remember me…’)
Andrea stops washing up, takes off her apron, folds it and places it over the edge of the sink. “When’s this going to end?” she whispers, and Paul realises her shoulders are heaving.
He’s awkward, looks at his feet, wishes he could convince her he’s only fumbling for meaning. “It gives me something to do, love,” he offers, “since I haven’t been able to work, you know…”
“But why this?”
“I think… it’s necessary… maybe…” A pause, then, “Someone has to do it.”
“But why you, you of all people?”
He’s about to ask why not, why not him, but checks himself. However sure he is that everyone deserves a ritual, (and it has to be invented by someone, isn’t just plucked out of the sky,) he knows it would rile her to say so.
“What about the living, Paul?”
She means herself, of course. What about me, that’s what she really means. Her words are raw and dismantle his confidence. She defeats him. In that moment he recognises that he’s stepped around her, avoided her across the table, probably for decades. (Have they created anything worth a memory?) They’ve trodden through the years, doing the predicted, living the life expected. “It should have been you…” he guesses she’s thinking, “you should have died…”
Instead he’s come back and left them living like this.
It hardly feels they’ve lived at all.
Paul makes himself neat, tucks his shirt into his trousers, hopes his stomach isn’t hanging over. Andrea still doesn’t turn round, won’t show her face.
An end must be inevitable. How much time before it comes? Perhaps his feeble heart will do the trick. Perhaps this time he’ll let himself go, not feel obliged to scrabble back inside this body. Perhaps she’ll tire of him, pack her bags, collect the bits and bobs she thinks important and take herself off to another house, another room. She’ll go and stay with Greta, he thinks, and they’ll stroke her cats and drink some wine and talk about him in the past tense. It’s impossible to know which day will be the last. All you have to do is wait and one way or another it will come.
“I’ll finish it,” he thinks. “I won’t do this anymore.”
It’s hard to picture a life without Andrea. The house will be too large, and he won’t bother cleaning it. Stacks of newspapers will build up in corners, empty tins on counters. Washing up will go undone. “I’ll probably only live in one room,” he thinks. He’ll sit out his life on one chair and hear no voice but the radio. If he’s lucky, (very lucky,) someone will root around and notice from discarded pizza boxes that he liked Italian food. Then, with some attempt at ceremony, but in reality almost at random, they’ll commemorate him with a song.