WE SOUGHT THE OPINIONS OF OUR GUIDES, and set out for an area that had already been well documented with no real expectation of a change in our fortunes. That said, there is always that odd sensation in the stomach as dawn rises in the desert, and the last day of an expedition has a superstitious quality to it, so despite being men of science and exhausted by our previous failures, we made the efforts necessary.
We were taken to a place that had already been excavated, and I was about to remonstrate with the man who was leading the donkeys when I noticed a right angle in an area of ground cleared by a recent sandstorm.
As if he had seen at it the same time, my colleague went for it too. We collided, and confirmed what we were both thinking – that it was possibly the joining of stones that formed the entrance to a chamber buried directly below.
To cut a long story short, beneath a layer of sand and rubble there were larger rocks purposely piled to block the passage – which is an excellent indication of a tomb shaft – and there was a brief argument over who it was that would file the claim and who would remain behind to guard the find.
Had we known then that we had an intact tomb, complete with mummy, then I don’t think either of us would have gone, and we’d have sent for the papers to be brought over.
The Funerary Priest – Northampton, December 1982
After death the body is passed on to embalmers who take it to the house of purification. There it is placed on a low wooden table and the long process of mummification begins. This will take seventy days, the length of Anubis’s absence from the sky.
The statue is washed with water
from the nemset-jars
NOTHING UNUSUAL – LEANER PERHAPS. Lighter. Bony like a bird. Swan. Long neck. Three and six on the box and half a crown on silk. Save on the wood – no reinforcement. Save on the wadding – no need, can’t weigh more than a child – halfway to a skeleton. Paper on balsa wood – like a plane – stretched and pinned at the wrist, at the shoulder, at the knees, at the hips. Tent material pegged taut – in taupe. Never at the neck; tight across the cheeks, but the neck wrinkled and sagging. Like a wattle.
—Anything you need?
—No, Madam. The boys and I will be fine.
—No, Madam. And please, don’t offer any to the boys – it’s hard enough to get them to pay attention to their work as it is. Thank you.
She nods. Nice enough. Hard not to see her as if she was laid out, too – bigger, heavier, shorter, but needing a broader plank. More fluid.
This one will barely stink, but her? Vats. Pints. Litres.
The measuring tape gives the final tally.
The boys are out there, smoking, laughing. Say something; bad for business, even in a place like this.
Taps on the window bring dust from the frame, sash weights knocking. Heavy lead.
Hand blade drawn across the throat, flat against the Adam’s apple, and they drop their cigarettes, grind them out. Fag papers and threads of brown tobacco, guilty looks and the drawing together of jackets. Shuffling. Back turned, and there’ll be smirking.
Not her, though. Time for smirking long past. Time for anything.
The wake then – undress her, preliminaries to the embalming, that job, clothes, teeth, make-up – nothing flashy, the art being to replicate the seemingness of being alive but with the gravity of the hereafter. The lack of movement, of soullessness. Finality. Et cetera.
Down the hall she comes out from another room, a bundle of sheets under one arm, a breakfast tray under the other.
—The deceased was a Catholic, you put here. Will the family be holding an open or closed casket wake?
Puzzled, derisive. Resigned.
—First job here? she says.
It was – the last lot lost out on price. Wouldn’t hire Poles.
—Her family won’t be holding a wake. Ours rarely do.
Suddenly posh, in the voice at least, bearing still fishwife in the main.
Cheaper, no wake. Easier. Less air to the face: quick glimpse, perhaps, kiss on the forehead and then the grave. Or fire.
One of the boys at the window, hat in hand, forlorn, across his face fat raindrops streaking the glass and the wind rattling. Come in then, mouthed. Rap on the glass. Wait in the hall.
Not much else to do. Look her over for something missed – nothing – no weight, no width, no wounds, slightly above average height.
Deep breath, check the coat, smooth the brim of the hat. In her mirror, fancy-framed but speckled with black across the middle, a sombre, older man, like himself but more his dad than he remembers; more every day, and his dad remembered more like this man, half father, half son, half living, half dead. One day there won’t be a difference between the two of them.
Life in a box.
And out to the hall.
The boys nod and come to a gesture. Hats off, clasped across the chest – good form, no one there to see it, but good form – that’s the trick: to do it even when no-one’s looking. Isn’t that the trick? To care enough to do it when no one can see? Because it matters, despite everything. That’s the art of it. The history. Perhaps it’s the dead we should show we know what’s right. And don’t they look down at us, from the corner of every room? Top corner right, checking our collars and cuffs.
—Got the trolley?
—Why do you think I asked you in here? For a chat? For company? Get the trolley.
—Not all of you. You, wrap her over – make it tight. No, I’ve shown you – like this.
A lot in common with nurses – lifting, sorting, caring… if you can care for the dead. A way with sheets. Nice and tight. Mummification. Hospital corners, no wrinkles. Like this, like that, smoothed down, swaddled. Up at one side, sheet under, up at the other, sheet through.
The trolley is in. Up – one at each corner – and over, momentary doubt that the mechanism will catch, will lock, flash of a body on the ground, limbs askew, hair askew, teeth out and skittering.
… and we’re off. A smile on departure, reluctant, and a nod, formal, as if to say “this is the way things are done, aren’t they? And they have been done like this, and they will be done like this, for her, and eventually for us, but somehow we are above it all” in this smiling and nodding. Wheeled away.
They can’t get far enough fast enough, these boys; still new, still keen to escape the death site, imprisonment, thinking it possible, perhaps. Thinking it still possible, perhaps. They don’t know that it follows you, is in front of you, wanting to come before the eyes, to lie in wait, just as you turn your back.
And is it so bad?
That building, heavy and grey, windows tear-soaked in the rain but dry inside, quiet – endlessly reliable. What could happen in a place like that? What could be so bad? It’s all done, on death – finished. Like bedtime – warm and done. Blanket under the chin. They’d prefer to rush to something else, to run forward to burial as if that was the way to avoid it, to run past it and away. Wouldn’t it be better to sit it out? Live with it? They want to get their jackets off and into the pub and drink and fight themselves out of their fates.
We stay inside, mostly, except with the children, who we follow to the back of the van and have to be walked away by the elbow, bemused, as if we would have lived with the body, made do, dressed it and washed it forever. Or just held it. With the adults we watch from the window, or return to business – tea, often. Television.
Form must be followed, even if there is no-one there to see.
Nothing weird in this job today. Nothing out of the ordinary – no clingy mothers, no children, no men who punch rather than cry. Get your hands off her! Fucking ghoul, fucking devil. And then gritted teeth and racked with sobs. Apologetic. None of that today. All quiet on the w.f. The crunch of gravel on the drive.
Doors oiled on the hinges slide silently open and the space inside is spotless. Oiled runners, rollers rattling, straps and buckles. The boys take the car and the van is quiet.
Oil the throat in peace. Not scratching the balls, not picking the nose in the presence of the dead, but address the attentions paid to the body’s needs that the presence of the living make difficult.
At the lights, studiously looking forward. What’s the alternative? To catch the eyes of passers-by? And then? What common understanding can be exchanged there? Any more than one can communicate with a paramedic at a crash scene, or the wounded, or the jaws of life. Pointless – nothing sensible to be said or thought. No point. And what business is it of theirs?
And how to keep that contempt for them secret? – their desire for something of the afterlife, so prurient and formless, peering in the windows hoping for a glimpse of someone else’s death, to somehow understand what theirs might be. Neuter it that way.
No radio, no nuts, no crisps.
The journey is short and then the camaraderie of the office, the going backwards of gravity, easiness of years, impossibility of so much that is sombre being taken so seriously for so long and then its opposite. Just as impossible – the necessity to be light enough for the others in the face of the chest clutching and the gloom.
Better to be her.
Or not. She is less than nothing here. Nothing there, but unique for her moment. Now she’s one of a number, one of a class – not many, but more than one. Not centre stage, no so-lo, part of an ensemble, one of a type, waiting in line for her prompt. Forgettable in the face of even the mundane requirements of the business of the day.
—How did it go?
—Fine. Those lads…
—Give them time.
—They’re cheap, got to give them that.
Coat down. Tea.
—Who’s washing her?
—You are. Tea?
—I’ll bring it through.
What’s the hurry? Why wait?
In the pub they talk of wax, snigger behind their hands like young nuns. There is no wax.
Hands first, then feet. Always best to get the big jobs out of the way, dirt from under the fingernails, trim. No need to push the skin back – it draws away of its own accord, tide receding, leaving. Cut further, easier to get at the grime.
Palms white, lines in black – easy to read, this life. No fortune, no future, except the obvious. Palms soft and pale, tending to bunch up, stretched flat, knuckles straightened against the ligaments’ twist away from the resting line. Some play in the fingers can be made by stretching. More care and attention paid here than to the feet – the hands on display, per-haps, but professional pride, necessary thoroughness, artfulness. They won’t be ignored. Under shoes, under socks, under wood, in the fire, underground – not the attitude.
These feet are twisted little things, footbound like a Chinese woman’s, toes off at an impossible angle and closed on themselves. Corns. Nails bitten. A small puzzle, but ignorable – where’s the need for puzzling? Some needless things are useful, others are not – there’s a story there, but no one to tell it, and to what end? The toenails are bitten. Someone has bitten the toenails. She bit the toenails. The toenails were bitten.
Now the flannel to the soles of the feet – flat arches given a turn by the tension in the muscle. The water in the bowl muddies and the enamel greys under it. Only a little – indoor dirt of a woman who died out of the sun. A privilege? Not for her. Who’s to say she didn’t want to get dirty? Who’s to say she didn’t want grit and grime and mud, all of that stuff? No evidence of it. Two bones entwined, twisting from the ankle to the knee, turning in. Two legs entwined, like a shy girl, coquettish, silly, except baggy and lined like an elephant’s, brown mottled and white like giraffes are, two long necks, the feet the heads.
—Where do you want this tea?
—On the side, please. Thanks.
—There’s more in the pot.
Less care now, with the flannel: less to take care of. At the top of the thighs, nothing, an invisible nothing until the tops of the hip bones, the navel marking the reappearance of the body, visible again and whole, though whole to what? – the question never asks itself.
Skinny. So skinny. Not in the way all corpses are, but translucent and matt, dead to the touch, pliable and inelastic, but utterly without substance. A layer of paint, the rice paper of a cheap Bible, the rainbow of a rising bubble, the bones beneath barely beneath the hollow of the hips, so hollow that the mind inserts its opposite, a sphere that will mesh with the absence, make up for it. The pot belly of a long distance lorry driver, taken en route and slow-ing to a crawl on the hard shoulder, cold shoulder, clutch disengaged, engine stalled, choked on a ham roll.
No breasts, just ribs, the finger’s width between as present as the rise: the same shape, the same idea, a dishcloth laid over pots and pans and Sunday duties softened by slugs from the bottle above the counter, too high for her to reach. See? Let’s hope.
Wipe to the wrists, wipe to the neck, and the sheet drawn up.
Ready for the box.
Alex's novel Lucia was published by Galley Beggar Press on 14 June 2018. To order One of our special limited editions simply head here.