I don’t like funerals. They have a disturbing habit of weakening my resolve. It’s the coffins. I look at a coffin and my inner core of steel oxidises in the rain of tears and gasps of oxygen brought together in my sobbing.
Her coffin was small. I looked at it by accident as we filed out, a family of crows. It was too small. Not large enough to hold the force she’d once been. She wasn’t a tall woman. Five foot four. She would try in life to claim an extra half inch, but in death the truth was laid bare, laid out for all to see, anyone who chose to look. I didn’t choose to look, not after the weirdness of seeing Dad-Not-Dad at rest in his coffin. His scrunched up face bore the pain of the heart attack that killed him. So this time around, I didn’t look. I didn’t want to see Mum-Not-Mum bearing in death the confusion of dementia on her once lovely face. Undertakers can only do so much with the canvas of the dead.
A small wooden coffin, its surface covered with flowers, witnessed by me by accident. My undoing, as it turned out.
She sits and hums. It isn’t a recognisable tune. A hymn to her inner workings, perhaps. The movement of her mind sent out into the world through vocal vibrations. She sits and hums and fills the bus with the sound of herself, low level, barely audible, just loud enough to be noticed when she stops.
When she stops, it’s to breathe. Slight inhalation to refresh the humming exhalation. The gasp that opens her mouth lets out the smell of decaying teeth. A particular smell, sweet and musty, not unpleasant until it suddenly is.
The volume of her hum alters with the movement of her head. It deadens when she turns to look through the window, as though the tempered glass has sound absorbing properties. But that breaks the laws of physics, and something else must be muting the sound. Perhaps the fake fur collar of her leopard print coat, so inappropriate on this warm summer day. Or the twist in her neck restricting her vocal chords.
Whatever it is, it stops when she turns back to face forward, and her humming becomes momentarily louder again. The passengers’ ears adjust. The humming seems softer. It is almost soothing, and yet unsettling.
Do you isolate? Do you manufacture your own loneliness? Do you surround yourself with people so selfish, so self absorbed, that you might as well be alone? Or are you yourself the selfish, self absorbed one?
Do you examine all your own bad behaviour, actual and potential, to see what stories you might wring out of it? Do you store up the slights, the dismissals, the hurt and harm you perceive in the words and actions of others? Do you wreak a kind of revenge, in your own head at the very least?
Do you wish you had never met whichever significant other you currently dally with, and at the same time wallow like a hippo in the physical presence they place in the room? Are you secretly pleased that you’re not actually alone?
I would like to meet you. We could be disgustingly depraved together. Our dysfunction could be sublime, each feeding off the other, churning out words. You could put them to music. I could fill a book. Or a small pamphlet at least.
Attack Decay Sustain Release. What else is life about, if not that? How else do we envelope ourselves in meaning?
Answers on a postcard.
He forgets. She doesn’t know how he can.
Sometimes, she wonders if it’s wilful. She sees them around the house, on window sills, on the dining table. He pulls them from his pocket, a look of puzzlement on his face.
While he forgets, she remembers. Things lie heavy on her heart. She takes pills of her own. Nothing prescribed. Nothing as bad as she used to take, although it’s reaching a tipping point. The heaviness in her heart keeps her awake at night. So she takes over the counter medication. A cocodamol here. A Nytol there. She still doesn’t sleep, but at least she’s fuzzy enough not to care. Sometimes she takes over the counter alcohol. She is soft core.
It isn’t hard to remember. It’s the remembering that causes the heaviness. She wishes she could forget. That leaving things behind could be as easy as getting on a bus and moving away from them. But memories follow you around. Disillusionment clings to your ribs. Thoughts leak from your mind and lodge in your throat just behind the suprasternal notch. She presses the place where they stick sometimes, for no clear reason.
No, it isn’t hard to remember at all.
Old Six Brews enters the room, trailing used teabags from her pockets. Some are still damp and they land with a gentle thud. Others are dessicated, falling with a susurration through the air, the dried out leaves whispering within the confines of their round papery pouches.
Old Six Brews is distracted. She’s only managed four brews so far today. So far. That’s the key. There’s still time. Twilight hasn’t yet brought down the shutters. Old Six Brews rests her hands, briefly ceasing the casual distribution of her tea stained cargo. Her tea stained fingers hover at the edges of her pockets, their tips meddling with the turned hems of the openings.
Old Six Brews spots the kettle. There’s a glint in her eye and her distracted air falls away. As the rumbling rattle of water boiling inside metal builds its head of steam, a smoothing takes place. Old Six Brews becomes incrementally more civilised. As water pours from kettle to mug, releasing the acid tang of tannin into the air, Old Six Brews transforms. Gone is the grumbling, tea stained hag who scares children. Tamed is the dishevelment of hair on her head.
Her name is revealed to be Camellia.
Summer will come eventually. Summer always does. Even when it’s mealy mouthed and sulks in corners, it comes.
In the last four days, she has met two people without front teeth. She hopes they lost them in a fight.
In a half shuttered dream, a woman lies masturbating on a bed. Glimpsed through a window, bathed in the yellow light of an incandescent bulb, her hand dips down between the dunes of her thighs. A shutter slides and now the woman lies masturbating in pixels, bathed in a yellow light made from ones and zeros.
Once she saw a painting trapped behind glass in a pedestrian underpass somewhere in Japan. The bleached skull of a sheep on velvet, it bore a passing resemblance to a skull she’d seen on the moors. Picked clean and weathered. Wind blasted. Two different sheep, and neither one authentic.
When I am dead, she said, I want you to scatter my burnt and ground up bones to the wind. A burial at sea, cast out beyond reach. Not a place where you will come and mourn, droning on about how you miss me. I loved you in life, but I won’t need you in death.
The woman in the red dress doesn’t care. Gazing out through the train window, she watches the hills, the fields, the trees and roads and houses alternate in patterns determined by ancient migrations and settlings old and new.
The creaks and rattles of the shuttling train are background noise to a gazing intense in its lack of purpose. It might be that her eyes are tricks painted over her eyelids. It might be that she doesn’t gaze at all.
She doesn’t care. Her gazing non-gazing hits the glass of the window where she sees your face, catches your eyes looking into hers. She stares as though transfixed by the landscape. She stares and pretends that holding your gaze through glass is not uncomfortable. For you, she means. You hear her say it, Let it not be uncomfortable for you, although her lips do not move.
The woman in the red dress looks at nothing, building citadels in her head that resemble Rome on a hillside. Seven hillsides.
Your eyes roll and darkness falls with a solid predictability. You see the citadels, the seven hillsides. You see the chiding marble of their walls and you shiver.
When you wake, she’s gone.
We are all lost and losing, and sleep holds no promise of a tomorrow any different to yesterday or today. Scarlett O’Hara had it wrong, Mammy. You may rest assured of that.
But see, under the pale skin of her wrist her blue veins lie. In the blue veins blood flows. The daytime thoughts that she suppresses make that blood itch. Thoughts that are carried to her dreams, infecting her sleep with jumbled agonies of regret and resentment.
In a black dress floating with jewel coloured butterflies, a woman sits and drinks, and drinks and thinks, and drinks to not think, watching the room and the people in it. She is happy to an extent, here with people she cares about, who care about her. To an extent, she can pretend that her sleep isn’t infected. But under that pale skin and through those blue veins her hopeless blood flows on, delivering dreams she doesn’t want to share, not even as a joke.
There is a woman that I used to be, but I lost her. There is a woman that I used to love. I lost her, too.
We are all lost and losing, and sleep holds no promise.
And how are you doing?
Head cocked to one side, feigning concern. No eye contact and a pursed little moue of a mouth, pursed with the distaste of someone else’s grief. Or maybe tears welling up, oh so willing to cry along with you. Showing what they think is compassion.
If there’s anything I can do, if you ever need to talk, you know where I am.
Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
You think about needing to talk, and how you would choose someone you love over a sanctimonious rubber-necker. Or how you would seek comfort in a stranger. If you ever needed to talk about this paralysis of giving a fuck, or this loss of recognition of what makes you function, or this howling anguish that comes and goes like the squally showers they talk about on the weather sometimes.
You think about how you wouldn’t choose a grief tourist to bore with the details of your desert-like state, now hot and arid, now dead to the very horizon of existence.
You smile and say you’re fine, say thank you, and you know.
But you’re thinking, Fuck you, grief tourist. Come any closer and I’ll peck your fucking eyes out.
Swipe at the alarm. Silence the beep. There was a reason for it once. It’s a hard habit to break, this rising at a certain time, in time to do duty. This numb march through hours and minutes of getting up, getting ready, setting off, sitting and smiling and achingly making conversation that goes nowhere. There was a reason for it and a point to it once.
Find a new routine. Replace one fake brightness with another. Continue convincing that everything is fine. So British, so stiff, so ramrod straight and unkind. Let the brakes corrode, let the tyres crack from under-use. Let the day drift while filling it with distraction. A film, a meal, a visit to a gallery. Culture as a means of faking a life.
Take a pill or a drink. Take two. Button up tight. Bind your emotions, because now is the time to move on. To get back to normal. To pull yourself together.
And who says so? Who writes that rule repeatedly? Who drums it into our heads like a profanity?
Profane, the thought of letting it go. Profane, the stopping of a tongue, the cauterising of a wound, the prevention of a sorrow.