They weigh his heart, then they slice it in two. Afterwards they peel away enough of his face to get at his brain. That goes on the scales as well. It’s amazing what you can learn from the heaviness of things.
They squeeze his lungs. Not bad. But his liver is like paste. And huge. Nothing like the ones you buy in the shops tiny and sleek with blood, each in its own little membrane sac.
His pancreas delivers a verdict, as if it were in doubt. Six, seven pints a day. Special brew, extra strong. He’s drank himself to death. Some medical terminology covers the form, but that’s about the strength of it. He’s sat down night after night and drank and drank and drank ‘til his wife’s left him, his kids have moved out, his friends no longer call and his neighbours don’t even know he exists. Then he’s drank some more.
We’ll never know which was his last. He had two to hand: glass of whisky, empty; can of Special, spilt on the floor. They only found him because of the smell. Downstairs flat complained, went knocking on doors.
At first his neighbours thought it was the drains. Got some firm out to do rodding and sucking and plunging in the holes in the street outside. Two days and his neighbours watched from their individual kitchens, making their individual cups of tea as the men sweated and plunged and sweated and sucked and swore. Two days and they stood in the stairwell conscious of the smell seeping further into their lives, waiting to hear some news, laughing about how bad it might get, the sweetness of it that isn’t sweet at all. Two days until the men stood back, wiped their hands, pushed overalls down at the waist and insisted, ‘There’s nothing we can do.’
Still the smell lingered on until somebody finally rang his bell. And they’ll have known the moment the doorjamb split that this man’s flat was where it came from all along.
Two police constables in their bulky vests went in first, hands over nostrils and mouths. They found him in his chair, the remote still on the arm. They tried the light switches, but the electricity was off – card machine by the front door run through its excess way before. They looked around a bit then backed out as soon as they could, got on their radios, waited for people with white suits and proper masks to tell them nothing suspicious had gone on.
They used his bills to ID him in the end, so I’m told. ‘His ex-wife refused,’ the policeman said. ‘Didn’t think it was her job.’ They looked at his wallet and his driver’s licence, the gas bills piled up in a kitchen drawer. ‘It was fairly easy to tell. Who else could it be?’ ‘He was a bastard on the drink.’ That was what his ex-wife told the officers in charge. Hit the kids and her too. ‘My new man’s much nicer.’ That was what she said, as they wrote it all down.
Later she must have felt bad. They were together eighteen years after all and perhaps she remembered his mother. She got some money together, stood by as the coffin wheeled out, one wreath and a wee notice in the paper in case anyone else out there wanted to see. Bu nobody tried to say anything nice. What was the point? He drank himself to death. Her kids didn’t come. Hardly anyone came except her and her new man, holding hands, and me. On the steps outside, as I passed, they talked about their wedding. The food she had planned. The fact that all her children would be there for that do.
They cut him up nice and good. Then they stitched him up nice and good too. They laughed while they did it. Just another ordinary day.
I leave them outside his front door on my way home. It’s a mixed bunch, fading a little at the edges. I know no one else will bother, but I think he deserves something. He was here once, after all, just like us. I prop the bunch against the wall by the broken door jamb where I know it will stay for a while, decaying gently just like him, until the cleaners are brought in. ‘See if you can’t do something about that smell, won’t you,’ his neighbours will say when they see the cleaners arrive with their latex gloves and their black plastic sacks. ‘Don’t want it hanging around forever.’
It’s a drugs overdose. They don’t say, but I know. They found her bent over, praying to the mattress; blood like a birth mark, like a dark tattoo, gathered from fingertips to elbow, hands blown up to half again their size. I’m sure she wouldn’t like it if she could see.
I think she liked handbags and hair clips and nail varnish. I think she liked skirts and shoes with heels and lipstick. I think she liked playing with her little sister, watching the TV.
They didn’t find her for a while but it wasn’t like she was missing. There were no notices in the papers or appeals on the local news. She just failed to answer her phone. Her mum will have called her and so will her friends. But it’s normal these days, isn’t it, to have a life of one’s own. To do your own thing. When you want. How you want. Independence. It’s a good thing.
Her flatmate found her first. Came back from a trip, probably dropped her bag in the hall, shouted ‘Hello!’ or, ‘I’m back’. Maybe even knocked at the bedroom door. But there won’t have been any reply. Then the flatmate will have gone into the kitchen and switched on the kettle and the television, texted a few friends to let them know she was home before something made her raise her head and say it again, call it this time, ‘Sarah? Sarah!’
They all loved her – her mum, her dad, her little sister. I could tell from the way they huddled in the corridor as I wheeled their daughter away. A small group, just the three. There wasn’t anything dark or unexplored, nothing to explain. It’s just, there’s always a first time. And sometimes the first time’s a last time too. Experimenting. That’s what it’s called.
I leave them outside by their hedge. Chrysanthemums – tiny faces bursting with colour. She deserves something pretty so that’s what I’ve brought, though it’s the little sister I feel sorry for now. Nothing will ever be the same for her. I go home on the bus and as I look out of the window I hope that even just for a moment, whatever empty space that dead girl had inside was filled in some kind of way.
And he had burned well, the old man inside the house. Three boys, a box of matches, a senior citizen and a house full of furniture made of foam. It wasn’t much of a competition, was it? Oh, and a laugh. Don’t forget the laugh. That’s what they said it was for.
The door went up like a firework, so the police report said, before it fell over flat into the hall, varnish bubbling and squealing in the heat. Even the boys were amazed. ‘Did you see that!’ one of them shouted before they started to run.
The flames crept over the ceiling first, then down the light fitting and around the living room door. They burned up a picture of flowers hanging by the bottom of this old man’s stairs. They burned up a pair of his black boots and a rain mac, dark blue with six buttons. They burned up an old carpet that needed replaced and a library book he was planning to return. They burned up wallpaper and skirting and gloss and plasterboard. This old man didn’t stand a chance. One minute he was dozing, the next he was going like a chimney fire, the remains of his hair shrinking in the heat. It’s amazing, really, what the experts can tell.
I go past on my lunch break to see: and the chair where the old man sat is just a ring of black; the windows where he watched the world pass by are scattered across his front grass; his curtains no longer exist. Nor does the granddaughter he was babysitting that night, found upstairs breathing smoke, her throat a furnace as she gasped in vain for air. It’s one way to go.
I stand in the street as the neighbours come out to look. ‘Oh my God,’ one of them says as she wheels her buggy past, slow. The others bend close and hold their hands over their mouths. ‘The poor wee soul,’ they say. ‘And the old man too – such a shame. Wouldn’t hurt a fly.’ Some of them cry.
It doesn’t take long. They aren’t savvy these three boys and they’re only wee.
One says, ‘He took my brother’s ball.’
The other, ‘He shouted at my sister.’
The third, ‘We were bored.’
I tie them to the fence, just back from the broken glass and the newly boarded front door. There are lots. It’s a shame. Men don’t often get flowers so it seems a pity now they’ve arrived in abundance, that this old man won’t get to see them at all.
Is busy. The corridors are full. There are lots of people talking. I stand with my trolley and listen to the urgency of low voices, the quick bark of commands, the endless trill of phones. I listen and this is what they say.
The child’s face was white.
Her hair was dirty.
Her green sweatshirt was gone.
A boy found her. Someone the same age. One minute he was wandering about, picking things up, tossing them down, the next he was looking at those fingers sticking out from underneath a mattress – so pale, so blue he thought perhaps they were a toy. Until he bent to touch. Then he knew.
The boy ran, stumbling, breathing heavy, told his dad. His dad ran – this boy had probably never seen his dad run so fast, not for years – and his dad was shouting as he was running, ‘Call the police.’ And somehow, because his dad was running, the boy was running and other people were running too and stumbling and calling, so when the boy got back there was a small crowd, a whole group of them.
They stood together and looked at the fingers. Then his dad bent down and lifted the mattress. The boy saw it. They all saw it.
Her wide-open eyes.
Her dirty hair.
Her parted lips, blue like her fingertips.
No one bothered to check for her pulse. About that, they all agree.
They said later, the people who were around in the house when it happened, that the mother collapsed, that she caved in. And as she caved in her husband held her on one side while a policewoman held her on the other. For a moment the mother hung there and everyone was silent. Then she began to moan.
They didn’t tell her about the sprawl of her daughter’s legs. She didn’t need to know. About the buttons ripped from her daughter’s shirt. She knew anyway.
Outside their gate, house number thirty-three, on the pavement, there are teddy bears and stuffed animals and cards with little hearts drawn by other children the same age. Everyone’s put a message:
Everyone’s got something to say.
I take mine somewhere else instead. As near as I can get to where she breathed her last. I think of her on my trolley, in my corridor with the strips for lights, taking up so little room. Then I lay them down amongst a pile of rubbish – broken bottles, crisp packets, dog shit, cardboard slashed and worn. They look lost, the daffodils, amongst all the debris. Still at least they are here, just like she used to be.
Afternoon and the end of the week at last. I finish early and make my way over to find someone else’s funeral has just gone on. Twenty-one and a wreath in white plastic and blue ribbon. Not very well made. SON. It’s a shame.
He’s lying there now in his earthy pit, little stones and worms and clumps of clay all piled on top, borrowed black tie, bright shoes and that suit he probably got for his first job interview, the one with the breast pocket and the lining in deepest grey. He’ll have liked that suit, no doubt, but he probably only wore it twice – the job interview and now down there.
It’s an ordinary row. Near the top end of the cemetery where they put in the extension ground a couple of years ago. There are no trees here, just one or two benches. There’s a gravel path and most of the stones are really new. I walk along and watch as they un-scroll past my eyes – the James’ and Evelyn’s and 2007’s and 2008’s and ‘lost are the’ and ‘suffer little’ and ‘in remembrance’ and uncles and grandmas and wives. He’s unusual, this boy. There aren’t many sons up here.
I wonder then why it happened to him, instead of the rest. Perhaps he fell off a wall and crushed his head. Or into a river and swamped his lungs. Or maybe he just had an incurable disease. Got a headache and couldn’t get out of bed and his mum thought he was kidding on because he could be lazy sometimes, always late for work so she said to him, ‘What do you think you’re doing wasting your life not making the most you never know people out there got to take life by the…’ She’ll feel bad about it now, no doubt, but what can she do.
My mother is three rows back and five along. Quite a few have filled up the spaces in between since I put her here, all with their best suits, their hair dos and their flesh slowly going black, a few last remnants sticking to their bones.
My mother’s flesh was rotten before all that. Before wreaths and headstones and wooden boxes with brass handles. Before clay and worms and lumps of earth thrown down from on top. Her skin had already sloughed off, marked the carpet where she lay, soft tissue turned purple then grey before I had any idea that days had gone by since she had been out, weeks since she had used the phone, months since anyone had heard from her at all. My mother’s flesh had well and truly rotted long before people began to complain about the smell.
I bring her carnations, pink with a white stripe. I’ve always hated carnations – the kind of thing you buy in petrol stations, suffocating under shiny plastic. I take them out of their cover and leave them propped up against the grey stone where it says ‘beloved’. They look good actually and I’m glad. I stand there for a little, before I leave. That night I have macaroni cheese with sliced tomatoes on top for my tea.
On Saturday I read the newspaper and consider my week ahead.
On Sunday I watch Songs of Praise and sing along to all the tunes.
© Mary Paulson-Ellis
First published in Gutter 03