My father’s bones
By Simon Barget
When my father died, I asked for the body and they put it in a bag. It was a lot heavier than I thought. I had imagined a certain weight, a weight I had previously scoped out in my mind, but for some reason it turned out to be much heavier than that weight. Perhaps it was the fact that I took it all around with me, that the prolonged carrying made it feel so much heavier, heavier than it would have felt if I’d just been lifting it up for a few seconds. Perhaps, though, it was because the bag was a regular bin liner with no pre-constructed grip, making it very difficult to hold with such a large weight in, difficult to carry around all these places almost freestyle, having to switch hands and holding-spot constantly and frequently, having to sling it periodically over my shoulder, having to make sure my father didn’t fall out when I did so -- since the bag wasn’t tied – more importantly having to make sure that the bag didn’t break. I had to be very careful with it. I had to treat something so bulky and gross with an incongruous lightness of touch, with deftness and care.
When I asked for the body, no one made a fuss. I hadn’t thought about the ramifications. I hadn’t thought about whether it was normal to take one’s own father’s corpse, but I wanted to take it and so I just asked. It wasn’t something absolutely pressing and urgent. It wasn’t like I’d thought it out extensively whilst he was living, about all the ins and outs, it wasn’t like I’d discussed it with him, it wasn’t like I wondered whether I needed his permission, it was just more of a spontaneous thought once he’d gone, when I saw him lying there dead in the hospital, that it might be a nice thing to take him. Besides, who else would want it? And like I said, it was met without objection, the only thing was that they didn’t have a receptacle. I had to go home and find one.
Though I had a hard time convincing my mother and almost gave up. She didn’t like the idea to start with, but she’s always had this bias against me, and I believe that the only reason she got so irate was because I’d suggested it in the first place. She’d had no particular plan for the body, she wasn’t going to carry it around herself, and eventually she just gave way, without really giving her permission, not that I necessarily needed it, but the fact that she walked off in mid-conversation made it fairly clear that she wasn’t going to make a fuss.
The first few days were extremely difficult, extremely arduous. I could hardly lift him at all. Have you tried lifting a dead body even for a second, let alone carrying it for more than a few paces? It’s something that takes real getting used to. You need to develop strength in parts of your forearms and upper arms that you might never have used before. You will be called upon to use bits of your body that your brain is resistant to engaging. You will have to work. You will have to struggle. The weight, to begin with, is something prohibitive. You will have to put the bag down almost instantaneously. But if you can just bear with the pain, if you can overcome the overwhelming desire to let the bag drop like a stone, then you find that you can actually hold the weight. And that’s the precursor for walking with it. First, you have to really be aware of your balance. Second, you have to know where your new centre of gravity is, now that the bag is in one hand weighing you down, and it takes a lot of patience, resilience and concentration to try and determine where this new centre is. I felt like giving up so many times, but my desire to carry him round with me must have prevailed. I didn’t have any doubts that I could do it.
And at the time that it happened, I was working in an office outside of my home. Every day I would take him to work. Most people said nothing. Some asked. Some even knew somehow that it was my father. Some thought it was very sweet that I had the care and consideration to carry him round with me. Some became overwhelmed with emotion, beside themselves with admiration and joy, and they wanted to see inside the bag, they wanted to know what my father was like, did we look alike, were we cut from the same cloth etc?
But how could they have known from only one look? How would they have been able to judge what my father was like, casting aside the fact that these people barely knew me, what with the way we don’t show every side of ourselves when we’re inside the workplace. And so I thought the effusiveness was a little overdone. But for all those in favour, there were all those who took against. They thought it ridiculous, preposterous, sick, juvenile, all these words were the very words they levelled at me, not to mention that these same people often complained about my father taking up space. What difference did it make that I kept him in front of my legs, tucked under the desk? How could that impinge on anyone? They only knew he was there because they saw me come in with him in the morning. And what difference between having your father, as opposed to twenty pairs of high heels and four bags of underused sportswear?
At home, I kept him in the lounge. Most of the time, I was oblivious. Most of the time I was so embroiled in one thing or another that I wouldn’t notice he was there. It was only when I looked up, that I would see the bag, and then I might wonder whether it was worth changing the bag, or if it had settled badly in the particular configuration that I had left him in when I brought it in, then I might be inclined to smooth down the plastic, make sure the shape was ok -- it is very rare that anything can poke out, but it has happened -- and then I would just return to what I was doing at the time.
For months I carried around my father, for months my life was inconceivably changed.
But eventually he disappeared. The body disintegrated. I hadn’t remotely thought about it. I had thought he’d be there for ever, until one day I noticed that bag really wasn’t as heavy as it had been before, it was markedly lighter. I wondered even, if my father had fallen out, but no, he was still in there when I looked. I picked the bag again. It was much lighter. In three months, he was gone.
No one asked about the bag. No one noticed. I supposed I forgot about it myself.
But then I felt I needed, or wanted, and I’m not sure which one, to carry something else around with me. A substitute perhaps. There was no one I knew. No one had died, or looked like doing so, in the near future. I wasn’t going to skulk around the hospices for unfamiliar bodies. But then I had the hair-brained idea that I could carry around my mother. Granted, she was alive, she might not consent, she might not want to be in a bag all day and night, but what if I upgraded the bag to a suitcase, something luxurious that would meet her snobby demands, what if I presented the proposition as something all the middle-class snotty-nosed establishment people were biting people’s hands off to get into, what if I referred to the Sunday Times Magazine, what if I really sold it, might she then concede?
Well she did. I have been carrying my mother around for almost five years. That was just after my father disintegrated. My mother’s a totally different proposition. She’s much lighter of course, and she’s not in a bin bag. I use a 75l rucksack and then double her back in so she fits and I can close it. The situation is so different to the one with my father that I hardly ever even remember I’m carrying her around with me. She hardly speaks or moves. Whereas my father was often a burden, my mother’s a walk in the park. I sometimes wish my mother was heavier but then not as heavy as my dear old father.
I forgot to say that I even took my father on holiday with me once. I took him to Scotland as a reminder to a trip there before he’d died. It wasn’t completely intentional but the bag seemed so forlorn as I was leaving. It seemed to say: ‘Please take me with you.’ It inveigled me. He needn’t have come. I could have done justice to the memory without him. If anything, it made it that bit more difficult. I wanted to retrace our steps. To revisit a spot near Fort William -- a trail -- and since he was in the car, it made no sense not to take him. I hauled him through the soggy ground, just like the ground that day when we were together. I hauled him to Mallaig and Skye. I took him out in Portree by the lone telephone box. I took him out in Kyle of Lochalsh with the fishermen coming back from their catches. I tried to prop him up on the chair opposite at the Prezzo by the North Bridge in Edinburgh, but he kept slumping down. I took him out because it felt like I had to. I don’t mean I took him out of the bag, I never did that. But it was just a hindrance. I felt so waylaid by the bag, or to be more accurate, its weight was suddenly brought to bear. It was only then that I realised how debilitating the bag actually was. It was no longer a labour of love. I wasn’t back at home with my work and my obligations. I wasn’t in that routine of going from one thing to the next. Somehow the bag had seemed to fit in, to lend itself to my work ethic. It had put my responsibilities in perspective. But as soon as I got to Scotland, it stopped making sense. I had not been far from leaving it in one of the hotels to be honest, but I couldn’t bring myself to litter.