The water washes over the body with a regular, lapping motion. It’s hard to be sure whether the body is male or female – it’s slight in form, lying on its back, its face turned towards the far bank of the stream.
Everything about the body is indistinct, almost as if the water has blurred it, worn it away. Even if its face was visible, it seems unlikely that the person the body was, would be easily recognised. Certainly not from the generic jeans and black hoody combination, or the cheap, white trainers – one off, one on – apparent through the trailing, green weeds.
It seems incongruous (to the point of being tasteless) that a body should be here in the stream, next to a graveyard where the rest of the dead sleep in relative peace. Like this particular body has been excluded from the norm of burial; or even as if it has escaped from the cold earth – only to tire and lie down again in the water.
The graveyard is early morning silent, save for the screeching crows roosting in the yew trees and the gentle babble of the stream. And perhaps, on reflection, it’s not true to say the body wouldn’t be recognised. Perhaps if it was viewed by someone who loved the person the body had been, they would recognise the person instantly. Everyone belongs to someone at some point, and perhaps love makes you see.
In the Hula Hula bar, Alex is making a Zombie. He’s added the two types of rum, the passionfruit, grenadine and bitters, and now he’s agitating the cocktail shaker like crazy. He has the blue tiki mug full of ice, ready on the bar in front of him. The little mound of chopped mint and strawberries are waiting to become the finishing touch.
The music is slow and hypnotic – a child’s dream of a desert island. On the tables, the coconut shells brim with peanuts and the paper flower garlands droop stickily on the backs of the chairs. Alex is pleased that some of the bulbs in the bar’s lights are on the blink. The dark hides the tattiness of the tin wall plaques and the plastic palm trees. It means too that the punters can’t see the waitresses’ jeans under the unravelling shred of their grass skirts. No, the fantasy cannot be exposed - it’s all most people have.
Alex is feeling uneasy today and it makes him twist and twist the ends of his moustache, winding the hair tighter under his pomade’s uncompromising control. The worry he has is the guy who came in to the bar a couple of days ago. A small guy, unremarkable really in his jeans and black hoody. Not one of the usual faces with their hipster beards and hipster attitudes. This guy looked tired and sad, trying and failing to hide the track marks on his arms. The profound hollows beneath his cheek bones.
Alex had asked him what he wanted to drink or eat, and the guy hadn’t replied at first. He’d just stood there at the bar, pulling the sleeves of his hoody over his hands, swaying slightly to the rhythm of the bongos. When Alex had repeated his question, the guy had answered, “I don’t know. I’m sorry, I just don’t know.” Then he’d left quickly, almost tripping over a couple who had just come into the bar.
For some reason, Alex can’t get the guy out of his mind. There was something about him almost ghost-like. Or like a ghost in the making. For now, Alex finishes making the Zombie and gives it to the punter who ordered it.
As the door to the bar opens and lets the outside in, Alex hears the jangly music of an ice-cream van and it strikes him how unseasonal and truly sad it sounds in this late autumn evening.
In the stream, the body sits bolt upright. Straight backed, head twisting to look directly ahead. It’s obvious to see straightaway that its eyes are already beginning to decompose. They have the dull milkiness of days old fish. The body isn’t concerned about this though – it has places to be and people to see. Then, it stands up.
Wet-dog like, the body shakes itself down in a movement that would be cartoon comic if it wasn’t so precarious. Its sinew and muscle are so slack, such energy could rip it apart, leaving only a rattle of bones for the water to smooth.
The body lifts up its hands and put them to its face, then it drops them to its side. It smiles, frowns, then smiles again, each expression made slowly and deliberately as though out of practice. There are many things the body contains that can’t be seen – the vital, invisible things that make it who he was. It remembers being on a beach, walking on sharp stones, the sea air wild and breath-taking. It remembers the smiles of his mother when he stood in the garden as a little boy and sang, ‘The Sun has got his hat on’.
It remembers sad things too and things it would rather not remember; but most of all, it remembers a blue door to an old, red brick house with people who loved him inside. The body steps out of the stream, walks through the graveyard on uncertain feet; but still it walks with purpose because it’s going home.
“I’m so glad you’re here, Maya. I just don’t know what we’d do without you”, John says as he gets up from the armchair and goes over to sit by Sissy. She’s dozing again, propped up on three or four cushions, her sharp, grey features even more pronounced in the cushions’ soft indent. It won’t be long now, John thinks. Please God, don’t make it be long.
Maya is busying herself with tidying teacups and straightening piles of magazines on the little table in front of Sissy, but she stops when Sissy gives out a ragged exhale of breath and opens her eyes. “Where’s Sonny? Where’s Sonny? I need to see my Sonny”, she says.
John takes hold of Sissy’s hand and gently massages her palm with his thumb. “My darling, Sonny’s not here. He’s not been here for a very long time. I’m sorry, but we’ve not seen him for years.” He looks at Maya.
“You know, I don’t know what to do here. I can’t bear to lie to her and I can’t bear to tell her the truth. Everything hurts her, I know. But we always talked about trust, about telling the truth to each other no matter what. And how she is now… it would be like lying to a child.” John sighs and looks back at Sissy, feeling each tear that rolls down her cheek as a stab to his heart.
“You’re doing fine”, Maya says. “There’s no right or wrong here. In my experience, truth in most situations is best, but it’s not an absolute. You’re dealing with all this on your own, John. You’re doing the best you can and that’s all anyone can ever do.”
Maya goes to sit on the arm of the sofa by Sissy. “Alright, my darling”, she says to her. “It’s ok, let’s dry your eyes and just prop you up a little bit. There, that’s better. Now, can I get you anything? What about trying a bit of that soup again?”
Sissy moves her head slowly and looks up at Maya with eyes that don’t recognise her. “Sonny, my Sonny. Where’s Sonny? I need to see my Sonny”, she says.
The body walks down the road towards the house he grew up in. It’s the early hours of the morning now because it’s taken it so long to get here; but perhaps the night is a merciful thing, hiding the world from it and it from the world.
It stops for a minute, momentarily uncertain. The house looks different, less familiar – or at least not the house that its memory holds. The body has another memory too. Of a story from when he was a child – of a monkey’s paw and three wishes. Of a mother who more than anything wants her son to return to her, despite his death and the terrible injuries to his body. Of a knock on a door made by a dead thing and a father’s final wish to make his son return to the grave.
The body asks itself – am I that dead thing? It looks down at his hands with wonder and sadness, and it turns away from the old, red brick house with the blue door.
The body’s thoughts are fragmentary and fading – what was I thinking? What was I? What was?
Sometimes, Francis gets sick of this shit. He knows it’s what he gets paid for, but it’s all so hideous, so… messy.
Take the latest clean, for example. Some little junky nobody, the good shit coursing through his veins; thinking he didn’t have to pay for the privilege. Well obviously, that wasn’t going to fly with Laurence - because with Laurence, you try, you buy! Nothing in this life is for free.
So Laurence did what he always does when he’s angry and Francis dealt with what was left behind. He’d cleaned the room with low odour bleach, paying particular attention to the gaps between the floorboards. He’d wiped down the skirting boards and scrubbed away the spatter on the ceiling. He’d left the room spotless. Then, he’d dealt with the body.
Francis is nothing if not egalitarian – rich, poor, junky, clean – all dealt with in the same way. Bodies dumped near graveyards in the dead of night is his modus operandi. In water if possible; hiding in plain sight, as it were. He sometimes thinks he should say some words over them as he leaves, but then he reflects they’re not his responsibility. Not his mess. Besides, there’s rarely ever any time.
His phone beeps and when he checks the message, Francis sees Laurence has got him another job. Yes, sometimes, he gets sick of this shit; and when he yawns widely with no warning it was coming, he realises just how very tired it all makes him feel.
In the graveyard, the body has returned to the water. On its back, its face turned towards the far bank of the stream. If anyone looks especially closely, it's possible to see that the body has moved slightly downstream, perhaps pushed by the insistent current.
Before it no longer thinks anything ever again, the body wrestles with the thought that sometimes, we are exactly where we are supposed to be. In a place and time that is ours. It thinks of the person he was and decides this is his time. His place.