My complete lack of a corpse was rather inconvenient. This was my immediate problem: nobody I loved was dead, or even imminently dying. My parents are both very much alive and I don’t have any siblings that could meet their demise under mysterious circumstances. I am completely lacking in terminally-ill grandparents; my mother’s parents are happily (and unfortunately very vitally) living in Spain where I’m convinced their wrinkled skin is actually turning into leather and although I do have one dead grandmother this occurred some two decades ago and is therefore of no use to me in my current situation. My father’s mother died when I was young enough not to remember and Bamps married a woman who truly believes she is ageing gracefully as Katharine Hepburn’s long-lost twin sister. Well, whatever chemicals Glam Granny Beryl is injecting herself with they appear to be working for she stubbornly lingers on, a bit like Dracula really. I do have a few cousins going spare (car crash maybe?), but there is no way I could convince her that I am their next of kin, besides they’re all kind of wankers so let them rot in their hypothetical ditch.
Okay, now don’t get the wrong impression, I’m not actually a psychopath who would orchestrate the death of a relative, however far removed. It would just be really, really handy to have a dead body right now. This leaves me with only one option: I am going to have to devise a deceased relation, create a carcass, craft a cadaver. Not literally, of course, I just need to convince her that I have a body that needs to be buried. This is the part I’m a bit nervous about because I’ve never taken an acting class in my life. In fact, the closest I’ve ever come to thespianism was a certain DVD that my mate Ash smuggled to me in year nine and the title kinda rhymed with that, but yeah, nevermind. My first thought was to go to the swimming pool and float facedown for ages without any goggles on and think of what I was going to say, but the council closed the leisure centre. Cutbacks see, they must think fitness is overrated, let the NHS deal with that – it will come out of their budget then. Deciding austerity measures must be a laugh when you can drive your BMW to work out on your private gym membership. Saltwater then, it is going to have to be saltwater.
The shop had been vacant for months, but then I noticed a change, the whole village noticed. First, it was painted a sage green, very vintage, quite attractive really. Thinking back on it, I remember seeing her do it herself, but in those white and formless overalls over which pallet upon pallet had wept, I did not notice her. I am ashamed of that now, of how intrinsically society has written my idea of beauty. Then came the sign, each wooden letter carefully cut out in a curved and inviting feminine script:
The Big Send Off
Where people had been whispering before, now they started to talk. Most people thought it was a travel agent, some a party supplies store, but then, when the shutters went up, a collective gasp swept from one end of the High Street to the other: it was a funeral directors.
How irreverent they said, how tacky. The curtain twitchers and gossips said all sorts of things about her, but then two kids got killed on the new bypass and their parents took a chance on her and what she did changed what the town was talking about. It was beautiful they said – it wasn’t really a funeral, it was a celebration. One young woman had been brave enough to ignore the idle rumours and because of that she had begun to dismantle the shell of grief that confined a shattered family. Naturally, I was curious and so, as inconspicuously as possible, I ordered a portion of chips to eat-in at the cafe across the street. My reconnaissance mission, however, gleaned me little information and it forced me to draw up a plan of observation. To avoid becoming a stalker (and to prevent impending cardiac arrest) I knew that I couldn’t go to the cafe every day. I therefore had to calculate what days were likely to have the highest volume of deaths and, in the absence of statistics, decided on Tuesdays and Thursdays as my uncle once told me that more planes fly over the valley on a Thursday than any other day. I know, I know, more people die in donkey related accidents than plane crashes, but there are plenty of asses in Aberbranog.
By the time I was brave enough to enter the shop, I had eaten enough calories of starch to rename the cafe Stiffy’s Chippy. I watched her rub the arms of women who smiled through their tears and squeeze the hands of taut-lipped men as her fingers lingered on theirs’ in recognition of what they did not say. She never wore the polyester Victorian mockery issued to those in the mortician’s trade, just a felted green coat with asymmetrical buttons and brown boots over tight jeans. She was real and I was trying not to admit that I was mental.
I had pushed my time of watching over plausible limits and was forced to open my theatrical debut without any rehearsal. I rubbed the saltwater in my eyes before I came into view of the windows and, bloody hell, it hurt. Luckily, when I entered the shop she must’ve been in the back room and so I had a moment to breathe and let the weight of my fictitious grief anchor me to my resolve. The room was empty except for four large banners suspended on stands proportionally split in two. I walked to the advertisement on the far-left and began to decipher the message:
Make an IMPACT in the right way
with our eco-inhumation service!
Leave the weeping to the Willows
with a made-to-measure
when you select this package.
Um, okay. So does that mean you can recycle your relatives now? Maybe the next one would make more sense --
Voyage to Valhalla
Let your fallen warrior
sail into the afterlife
with this unique funeral plan.
Following the cremation,
your loved one’s ashes
will grace the decks
of a scale model
wooden Viking ship.
Choose from a sea
or reservoir ceremony.
(Fire arrows and archer included)
I was actually quite intrigued by the idea and crossed the centre divide to the third poster:
Give your princess
the fairy-tale funeral
she deserves with our-
I turned around swiftly, wide-eyed with shock and saline.
“I’m sorry that I didn’t hear you come in. I was just putting the kettle on, would you like a cup of tea?”
“Yes, please, that would be lovely.” Here I was, conversing with her quite normally. Her voice was measured, gentle. Of course it was – she daily navigated the newness of those robbed.
“Milk and sugar?”
“Just milk, thank you.”
“Please, have a seat in the consultation room.” She motioned to a doorway and I settled on a wicker two-seater with comfortable cushions. There was a canvas painting comprised of formless colours gazing down at me. It had no frame as though to accommodate its expansion as it swallowed my supposed sorrow. An emotion I could not name rose in me and was suppressed; my pulse had increased dramatically by the time she returned with the teas.
“My name is Sam Sutton and basically I’m here for whatever you need or want over the next few weeks.”
Damn, girl, I think that’s a bit too generous on your part, let’s get to know each other first…
“How are you feeling?”
“Numb. Afraid.” You lying bastard, playing the vulnerability card.
“Would you like to give me some details about the situation?”
“It’s my grandmother, she died two days ago of a severe stroke.” Well, that is kinda true.
“When it happens without warning, it can sometimes be the most difficult to process. What I would like you to do is to describe your grandmother for me – give me a picture of gran as a person.”
“Well, she was one of those happy hosts. Her Welsh Cakes were the best in South Wales, let me tell you. She was a constant maker of sandwiches and teas, nobody went hungry. My grandmother always wore her housecoat for any task, regardless of the likelihood of the potential contaminant actually marring her clothing, but that is just how she was – a thorough woman, a woman of details. When my grandmother hugged you, her whole body and character hugged you – she was comfort epitomised.” You idiot, you just described the most stereotypical Welsh grandmother ever, not at all suspicious. Why didn’t you add that she washed the front every Sunday and reminisced about blacking the grate, tin baths, and coal fires with astounding frequency?
“She sounds like a wonderful, caring woman. What’s her name?”
Shit, I should have known this was coming. “Um, Beryl.” Guess glam gran was good for something after all.
“Was she religious?”
“No, not at all.”
“It is just that the absence of religion will ease my plan. It is just preliminary at this point and feel free to jump in if you have any ideas. I think we should celebrate Beryl the way she celebrated those she loved – with food and lots of it. A tea party, in fact, with little sandwiches. I will source a most delightful array of cups, saucers, and tea-pots. Leave all the decorations to me and the baking, all I need you to do is see how many of those infamous housecoats you can round up. How does this sound so far?”
“Uh, good. Is this for after the service?”
“This is the service. I believe in commemorating the life of the person, not focusing on the death. I want to encapsulate your grandmother as a person in a fun and unique way to honour her, not an archetypal construct of mortality. I am a funeral planner, like a wedding planner, not a funeral director.”
“Well, yeah, that sounds tidy.”
“But, you are right – there should be a ceremony aspect. I was thinking that at the tea party we can make candles out of our cups and then we will gather around the grave at sunset for a tea light ceremony. But, not to end on a sombre note we will return to the venue for a Welsh Cake baking and housecoat decorating competition. Will she be buried or cremated?”
“Buried.” I didn’t have any corpses to burn, or bury for that matter.
“Okay, has the doctor released the body yet?”
“No, they want to do a post-mortem.” Nice one butt, buying some time to procure a deceased volunteer to impersonate your wonderful, albeit non-existent, grandmother.
“That is very unusual as they know the cause of death.”
“She was down the pit so it is compulsory.” Stupid, stupid. Now, you’ve got a progressive pastry-making, pick-axe wielding granny undermining the institution from below ground.
“Well, well your grandmother is getting more and more interesting. Would you like to incorporate mining into the ceremony?”
“Oh no, she didn’t like to talk about what went on down there.”
“Not to worry, I have no intention of disclosing her gynaecological records at the party.” She smiled.
Don’t talk about female anatomy, you beautiful girl, I can’t concentrate.
“If you don’t mind, Ms. Sutton, I would rather that I be personally responsible for all the arrangements pertaining to the, um, body like. I will let you know when she is buried.” I am a master of deception, now all I needed to do was borrow a fresh, unmarked grave for about an hour. It is not like the occupant is going to mind, is it?
“If you are sure. You can always ask me for casket providers and things of that nature. Have you purchased a plot at the cem?”
“No, not yet.”
“I have a chart of all the available ones. Should we go there now and you can select the one that your grandmother would have loved?”
“Yes, that would be lovely, thank you.”
“Great. I will drive. Let me just go get my bag.”
When she had left, I began to think that I actually might be able to pull this off. I tried to ignore the fact that I had gotten in way over my head and a niggling feeling of that something I refused to name. I didn’t want to consider that she would eventually find out and then who would want to date a psycho who hallucinates super-grannies?
She popped her head back in and my philosophical contemplation was cut short.
“Shall we go?”
“Yes.” I followed her to the road and got into the passenger side of the lime Clio that she indicated.
I was a quiet journey to the cemetery. I remember watching her with the husbands, brothers, and fathers and recalled that this was her man approach: emotion is not masculine, men do not grieve.
“I forgot to ask, how much do you charge for your service?”
“Nothing? Then how do you live?”
“Well, if a family has a large insurance pay-out then I accept some money from them and many families give me donations that add up. But, for the typical family, I feel that it would be morally bereft of me to add the stress of finding money at such a delicate time. Death is to be treated with compassion, not capitalised upon. As long as I take enough money in to pay the rent on the shop, then I can continue business.”
“That’s good of you.”
“It is not about me. If I can show people how to begin to chip away at the immensity of the boulder weighing upon them that is grief, shock, guilt, and regret, then maybe someday they will be able to turn that stone to sculpture.”
This all made sense, but something struck me as a bit odd. We parked the car and began ascending the hill of proclamation where so many hands of stone rose tentatively into the air saying: I was here. I have always thought the grass in graveyards was a more vibrant shade of green than anywhere else, as though the roots suckled and transformed all the intentions cut short by fire and locked casket lid. Maybe it is just the contrast created by the innumerable blades that persist despite frost and flood to the unmaking of bodies concealed beneath their vital cells. The late afternoon sun fell high on the quarry above, honey and slate from which all these people could have been carved. Even the heather stood starkly above us and cast a shadow too long for it to have possessed. As we climbed toward the vacancies at the back, Sam paused for a moment and asked if I would wait.
She made her way down the row of graves, carefully picking her way around each rise and fall as though her footsteps might disturb those beneath. Sam stopped at a small and indistinct marker, one that I would have overlooked had not the object of my infatuation turned her gaze upon it. From her pocket she extracted what looked like a glass pebble and placed it in a pot in front of the grave. She did not rise from her crouched position, but let her fingers taste each grain of stone. There was something so inexplicable, beyond tenderness or grief or love, in the mineral caress of her fingertips that I didn’t realise until I was nearly there how I had been physically drawn toward the image of the stone woman.
I startled her with the clumsiness of the body that was too big for me and she shook the sediment of whatever I had witnessed from her as she rose quickly.
“I’m sorry,” she said walking away from the grave, “let’s move on.”
She didn’t want me to see the inscription torn from the rock that had survived glaciers, but I read as I followed her: Seren Sutton.
“At least you will get quite fit when you visit your grandmother, as all the available spaces are right at the top.” She was flustered, trying to draw the attention away from whatever had died inside her.
“Are you saying I am not fit already?”
“No comment.” She stopped. I stopped. “How about one of these spaces?”
“This could work. I would like to get a feel for the position, see if Gran would have approved. Do you mind if we sit on this bench for a bit?”
“Of course not, I need to sit down after that walk anyway.”
The bench was cold and my already tense muscles contracted against it. It was also a rather small bench and I was very aware of how near my hand was to hers. The light had climbed higher into the crags and the grey of evening was moving over those mounds unmaking the molecules of the forgotten. I was drained of all I had ever been as I watched the coming darkness. Completely empty, I sat ashamed in the presence of someone who had spoken to death and turned back to life, volunteering to suture the irreconcilable. She was so much more of a person than I had thought possible, her pain was so perfectly polished. I didn’t have those spaces within me to absorb any of her burden. All those things I couldn’t see as I watched her from across the street I could see in the way her fingertips wrote her devotion in secret stone.
“What are the pebbles for?”
“Every time I help family, I put one in the pot.”
“What will happen when the pot is full?”
“I will get a new pot.”
The light was slipping further away.
“Sam, I don’t have grandmother.”
“I know, but I still put a pebble in for you.”
“Would you like to go get some coffee?”
From the grey she turned her head and smiled softly at me.
“Yes, I’d like that.”