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By Jim Crace
PicadorCopyright © 1999 Jim Crace
All rights reserved.
For old times' sake, the doctors of zoology had driven out of town that Tuesday afternoon to make a final visit to the singing salt dunes at Baritone Bay. And to lay a ghost. They never made it back alive. They almost never made it back at all.
They'd only meant to take a short nostalgic walk along the coast where they had met as students almost thirty years before. They had made love for the first time in these same dunes. And they might have made love there again if, as the newspapers were to say, 'Death, armed with a piece of granite, had not stumbled on their kisses.'
They were the oddest pair, these dead, spreadeagled lovers on the coast: Joseph and Celice. Both had been teachers. He was director at the Tidal Institute, where he was noted for his coldness as much as for his brains. She was a part-time tutor at the university. Hardly any of their colleagues had ever seen them together, or visited them at home, let alone witnessed them touch. How unexpected, then, that these two, of all couples, should be found like this, without their underclothes, their heads caved in, unlikely victims of unlikely passions. Who would have thought that unattractive people of that age and learning would encounter sex and murder in the open air?
They paid a heavy price for their nostalgia.CHAPTER 2
Had Joseph and Celice been killed, their bodies found, then carried home not on that Tuesday afternoon but, say, a hundred years ago, when even doctors of zoology could be lamented publicly, hysterically, without embarrassment, their family and their neighbours would have held a midnight quivering for them. The bodies would be laid out side by side on the bed in their best clothes and shoes, their wounds disguised, their hair slicked back, eyes shut, mouths shut, his hand on hers, their faces rhyming. The room would smell of camphor, candlewax and soap, and be as full of coughs and hard-backed chairs as a doctor's waiting room.
The mourners, women first, would come as soon as it was dark to start their venerations, weeping till their shoulders shook, tapping on the floorboards with their boots and sticks, rattling their bracelets and their cuffs. Whoever had the squeaky chair or the loosest floorboard to creak or the most resounding of sobs could count herself the most distraught. The greater the racket the deeper the grief. A hundred years ago no one was silent or tongue-tied, as we are now, when death was in the room. They had not yet muzzled grief or banished it from daily life. Death was cultivated, watered like a plant. There was no need for whispering or mime. Let the hubbub drive the devils out, they'd tell themselves. Let's make a row. Let's shout. There were even quiver sticks to buy and shake, made out of metal rods with clacking wooden rings. The children would compete for those; their squabbling and their snatching would only benefit the din. A quivering should make the whole house rattle, it was said. It ought to keep the neighbourhood awake. It ought to sound as if a thousand crows were pecking at the roof. But those were optimistic times; death was an ill-lit corridor with all its greater rooms beyond.
At midnight, when the men arrived, all the guests would stand to form a circle round the bed. They'd grip the mattress and the bedboards, a shoal of hands, to quiver the murdered couple, winnowing and shaking out their wrong-doings so that they'd enter heaven unopposed. The ashy chaff of all their errors and misdeeds would drift like cigar motes in the candlelight. Their tallowed sins would smudge the men's clean shirts.
Afterwards, fuelled by the older children of the house who'd serve them coffee or little cups of Boulevard liqueur throughout the night, the neighbours and the relatives would reminisce about the dead, starting with the hearsay of the couple's final, bludgeoned breaths. And then – with, naturally, some shuffling, dozing silences in the hollows of the night when no one could concentrate on anything except the hardness of the chairs – their recollections would regress through the years. Their memories, exposed to the backward-running time of quiverings in which regrets became prospects, resentments became love, experience became hope, would up-end the hourglass of Celice and Joseph's life together and let their sands reverse. When north is south, the dead sit up, climb off their beds, grow younger and indifferent to dying. Skin stretches tight, hair thickens and becomes as sleek as nightcats', blows and bruises are revoked. Wounds close.
First, the friends and neighbours would recall Joseph and Celice's latest months, 'So quiet – considerate, I mean – you hardly knew if they were in.' Then their middle years, their married life, their work, perhaps, their parenting, their wedding, the student days, until – with sentimental guesses at their early lives, what sort of girl and boy they must have been, how they excelled at books if not at sport – their childhoods were achieved.
With practised timing, the quiverings for the murdered couple would end at daybreak. As dawn was flattening the candle-flames and deepening the corners of the room, an aunt, a colleague, an old friend would celebrate the wonder of the couple's births over fifty years before, their infancies, how sweet and difficult they'd been, how promising, how loved.
Quiverings were resurrections of the dead.
But these are hardly optimistic or sentimental times – and that Tuesday afternoon was not a hundred years ago. Poor Joseph and Celice would not be found and carried home for burial. Not for a while, at least. Nor would their faces rhyme sweetly on a bed. No one would come to hide their wounds or slick their hair. There'd be no camphor, candlewax or soap to disguise the smell of their decay. A thousand crows would not be pecking at the roof. There would be crueller birds and greater spaces. There's nothing after death for Joseph and Celice but 'death and nothing after'.
Yet there can be a quivering of sorts. It might be fitting, even kind, to first encounter them like this, out on the coast, traduced, spreadeagled and absurd, as they conclude their lives, when they are at their ugliest, and then regress, reclaiming them from death. To start their journey as they disembark, but then to take them back where they have travelled from, is to produce a version of eternity. First light, at last, for Joseph and Celice. A dawning death. And all their lives ahead of them.
The doctors of zoology were out of time, perhaps, but they can be rescued from the dunes by memory, receding, and tucked up in their waking beds again, still tenants of the room.CHAPTER 3
Celice, at fifty-five, was hardly old enough to have lost her fear of death. That accommodation is only for the elderly or the insane. But her dying, chaotic though it was, was far too sudden to be frightening. There were only fifty seconds between half completing her last sentence ('It's not as if ... ') and drawing her last breath. She did not have the leisure or the knowledge to be fearful. She just felt – for a tumbling instant – like she'd often felt at night, half conscious in the falling shudders of a dream. Winded, weightless and betrayed. Her heart collided with her ribs. Her body shook and arched. Her head was loose and hurtling through rimless chambers. Some conjuror had vaporized the earth and emblazoned all the space through which she fell with pixilated, pulsing lights. Her final moments were kinetic, abstract, pointillist.
Judging by the modest blood-flow of her far from modest wounds, Celice's heart had ceased pumping almost as soon as she was hit. Her skull was not as thick as Joseph's. (That was something that she'd always known about the man. Her husband was curmudgeonly, distracted, timid and thickskulled.) Her skull was weaker than the granite too, of course. The bone caved in like shell. Her brain, once breached and ripped, was as pale and mushy as a honeycomb, a kilogram of dripping honeycomb. It was as if a honeycomb had been exposed below the thin bark of a log by someone with a trenching spade. Her honeycomb had haemorrhaged; its substance had been spilt.
The blows across her face and throat cut off the blood supply and, though her brain did what it could to make amends, to compensate for the sudden loss of oxygen and glucose, its corridors of life were pinched and crushed. The signals of distress it sent were stars. The myths were true; thanks to the ruptured chemistry of her cortex, she hurtled to the stars.
Celice began to hyperventilate, a squall of sips arid gasps and stuttered climaxes. Her heart and lungs were frenzy-feeding on the short supply of blood, until, quite suddenly, they failed. They had abandoned her, too devastated to survive. Her chest muscles had forgotten how to rise and fall. Her reflexes were lost. She could not cough or even swallow back the blood. The brain-cell membrane pumps shut down. Celice had lost control for once. She'd gone beyond the help of medicine and miracles. No breath, no memory.
There were still battles to be fought but these would be post mortem, the soundless, inert wars of chemicals contesting for her trenches and her bastions amid the debris of exploded cells. Calcium and water usurped the place of blood and oxygen so that her defunct brain, almost at once, began to swell and tear its canopies, spilling all its saps and liquors, all its stored immersions of passion, memory and will, on to her scarf, her jacket and the grass.
Less than a minute. She was fortunate.
Was Joseph any luckier, with his thick skull? Already he was almost lost, though if (the wildest dream) angel-paramedics had arrived by helicopter and flown him to the hospital they might have saved his life, if not his senses. His blood pressure was madly high already, from diet, age, the titillations of the day, and now from shock. His heart was straining on its membranes like a hatching sopbug, pulsing its wet wings against the sac. But he was breathing still, alive enough to feel the pain and to experience the dying. He outlived Celice by more than half an hour.
Joseph had been insensible at first. He was concussed. His grey matter could metabolize only half the glucose that it needed. But he was functioning. His kidneys still processed and cleaned his cells. His stomach still digested what was left of the mango and the cheese brioche he'd eaten for his breakfast, and the humiliating sandwich that he'd had for lunch, twenty minutes earlier. His blood supplied his tissues with their nutrients and sent its white corpuscles to construct their canopies of scars across his wounds. His bone marrow continued to add new cells to the trillions that had already passed their dark, unknowing time as part of him. His pupils dilated in the sunlight. His bladder processed all his waste, although he was incontinent already. He still breathed the heavy, salty air of summer in the dunes. Occasionally he moved his leg or extended a finger. He was warm, kept warm by his unenlightened, circulating blood, and by the sunshine. He hadn't put on any screening block, as Celice had advised him to that morning. His naked skin was getting tanned. He urinated down his thigh.
But some minutes later, and against the odds, Joseph came back into the world. He surfaced briefly from his coma – awakened by a rush of oxygen, its bubbles spiralling and rising like the gas in lemonade to pout and burst inside his brain. He'd never heard a wind so loud before or noticed so much odour from the busy earth or felt the syncopated pulsings of his body. The sun was blinding him. The galaxies were bearing down. He turned his head out of the light, despite the pain of moving, so that his cheek was flatter on the grass. He opened his undamaged eye. His spectacles, still on his head, were not broken but they were smeared with blood.
At first, he could see only blades of grass, ungreened by the smudging on the lenses – and then, half a metre to his side, he saw his wife. Her leg was level with his face, braced and supported on its toes and knee. He knew her ankle and her foot. He did not have the angle or the strength to lift his chin and look beyond her knees to glimpse her face. Perhaps she was not dead or even injured. Her leg looked so composed and calm. Her toes were manicured. Her nails were berry red. There was the usual shine on her skin from shaving, the familiar, heavy calf, peppered with sand, the broken veins behind her ankle bone, the foot's low arch, the ochre calluses on her heel.
It must have seemed her leg had moved, a shrug of skin, a spasm of muscle, enough to dislodge some calf-sand and to shake the longer grass under her foot. Joseph tried to bark and squeak her name. His arm was heavy and numb, dislocated at the shoulder. The air seemed too thick to penetrate with anything as soft as flesh. Yet somehow, fortified by his self-pity, Joseph found the will and the adrenaline to reach across towards his wife. He wanted to apologize. He had to twist his wrist against the broken angle of his arm and weave his fingers through the heavy air. His hand – bruised a little when the wedding ring was stolen – dropped on to the stretched flesh of her lower leg, the tendon strings, the shallows of her ankle. Blood from his damaged knuckles ran over her skin but not enough to glue his hand in place. He spread his fingers and tried to grip a solid bone to steady himself. He had to stop his body being swept away, by wind, by time, by continental drift, by shooting stars, by shame.
Her skin was warm, so Joseph might have taken this as confirmation that his wife was still alive, that she might get up off the grass at any moment, collect her clothes and go for help. He could afford to sleep. He started on a dream. An anxious dream in which he'd left his daily ledger out on the deck one morning, on the breakfast table. A careless oversight. It could well rain and wash away his ink, the records of his life. His pages would be turned to pulp. Or else they might be found and read by strangers.
At what point had the life – curmudgeonly, distracted, timid and thick-skulled – gone out of him? Joseph's heart was squirming like an angler's worm, refusing to be reconciled to the awaiting deep, but weakening with every beat. The fish would rise and take it soon. Mondazy's celebrated fish. But the agony did not belong only to the heart. Every pod and pocket of his body played its part, at its own pace, in its own way. Joseph was being gathered in by death, cell by cell by cell. He came to be half of himself, and then a quarter of himself, and then a fraction of himself, which was too small to measure. The music and the mayhem had all gone. His more-than-half-an-hour had elapsed.
They say that hearing is the last of our proficiencies to die, that corpses hear the rustling of bed sheets being pulled across their faces, the early weeping and the window being closed, the footsteps on the wooden stairs, the ruffian departing, the doctor's scratchy pen. That is why our generation talks so quietly in the dying room. And that is why the quiverings of old were not a waste. The body hears the widow and the child, the rattle of the chimney-pot, the quiver sticks, the life unravelled backwards through the night.
The final sound that Joseph heard was his own bark. His face was grey-white, sheenless, dulled. He was still sweating and his penis was erect, not filled with blood and passion but stiffened by the paroxysms of his muscles. Cruel fate. His limbs and face still twitched, a reflex to the blood's acidity. His larynx was convulsed. The sound he made was not a rattle or a whoop, but more like the call of foxes, or else a gull, or else the unresponding kick-start of a motorbike. Within a moment of the bark – and the few retreating cub squeaks that followed it – Joseph stared up at the day with flat, toneless eyes. Again, no breath, no memory.
Excerpted from Being Dead by Jim Crace. Copyright © 1999 Jim Crace. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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