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Somebody to Love
By Steve Holden
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2010 Steve Holden
All rights reserved.
I have before me, arranged in degree according to colour, several vials containing facial creams, foundations and face powders, behind which stand various bottles of oil. Tissues, swabs and cotton wool are kept within hand's reach. To the left, next to the tray of blushers, eye shadows, liners, fine brushes, is a lamp. It is a simple matter to turn while still seated from this equipment to the corpse. The lamp is adjustable and the trolley is easily moved, forward or back, as required.
All morticians have their own procedure. I, for example, prefer to begin by stopping up the leaking orifices, trimming and painting the nails of the hands, before washing the hair, fixing the facial skin, the lips. The clothes come last, when I am finally able to judge how things stand, the suitability of a particular scarf, brooch, tie.
Everything depends, of course, on the manner of death, the disposition of limbs, hands, head. Shotgun wounds, for example, or burns, sometimes leave no face at all on which to work. And the subjects of coronial inquiries are, at the best of times, crude affairs, disfigured, missing fingers, hands, even the nose, as I recall, in one case where the cause of death was suspected to be an unfortunately inhaled poisonous and prohibited substance. My art, even in these cases, seeks to make the dead beautiful, dignified, to restore them to their loved ones, for, if truth be told, we are only really loved in death, and appearance is all. Things are always and only what they seem, and it is my craft, my art, that gives birth to real beauty, deserving real love.
The matter of Mr Phillips is, however, another thing altogether. He is a god already. I stroke his fine skin, the palest marble, the smooth hairlessness around his hips, the cold firm flesh of his penis, circumcised, neither small nor large. One dreams of such a man. I place my hands upon his shoulders, lean my cheek to his chest, my warm cheek to his cold, unblemished chest. He lies quietly, calm, reposed, waiting for me. Not like other men.
I turn to the bench, to the mirror, my face. I study myself for Mr Phillips, the squareness of my chin, wide for a woman but not too wide, the faint shadow above my lip where hair still persists. My shoulders are broad. My breasts, correspondingly, are large. It is a thing of some importance to me, a matter of professional merit, that my body should be proportioned, balanced; my breasts – most importantly – should be appropriate to a woman of my size and build. This concern, in the matter of my own body, you may understand, is an artistic one, a question of integrity.
I study my profile in the mirror. What I observe, I can safely say, is a striking woman. I gum my lips, smile into the mirror at the body behind me. 'Do you love me?' I say to him. I look at myself in the mirror. He, always a man, says nothing.
Although there is about his face a firmness that suggests indifference, perhaps it is precisely this detachment in death, neither quite here nor quite elsewhere, which attracts me. I push gently at the skin of his face, squeeze at the skin with my forefinger and thumb. He is a little thin, slightly wasted, a result of the disease which killed him. He deserves the fullness of face revealed in the holiday snapshot of a father, a husband, thoughtfully provided by the grieving family. He smiles at me, the sea behind him a solid slab like quicksilver under a pale white sky. He deserves my care, my love.
The working of needle and thread, as surgeons know, is an art, not a science. The fine steel curve of the needle punctures the grey skin of the gum as I bend close over him, my warm breath warming him. The skin pulls, resists slightly, as I draw up on the suturing thread, then pierce the softer flesh inside the lip. I pack swabs carefully so that he pouts, full, ruby-lipped where he has bled a little. I stitch the left corner of his mouth, then the right, draw both ends together, knot the thread, then close his lips with a neat row, tiny stitches closing from soft underlip to soft underlip. He is ready, lips pursed, waiting for me.
I return the tray of needles and thread to the bench, direct the lamp over us, lean close to him. 'Kiss me,' the lips say. 'Kiss me.'
The vicissitudes of death take their toll upon the corpse. And so require my art, my love and care. To embalm. To cleanse. To beautify. The dead come to me, you may be sure. For my art, you see. Such is the demand. And few possess the skills required. A matter of supply and demand. In consequence, it may surprise you, a not inconsiderable stream of clients find their way to our door, even here in Burnie where, being the only professionals in the entire region, we can always rely on one or two corpses being presented for embalming per week, not to mention the local trade in simple burials.
The last three days, however, have been remarkable indeed. The arrival of three bodies in quick succession was most unusual. Moreover, the degree of difficulty pertaining to the Esterhazen girl in particular, but also the shotgun victim, has required that I practise my art speedily, efficiently, using all the tricks, as they say, of the trade, without, of course, cutting corners. And I am exhausted. Even so, you may be sure, indeed you must have no doubts about this, Mr Phillips has received my most exquisite attention. Having completed the embalming and substantial restoration of my first two cases it has been a privilege to devote this Sunday to him. Properly thawed overnight, he has been a pleasure to work with, here, in the quiet of the preparation room. He has waited patiently for me, and I, God knows, for him, alone together on this Sabbath day.
It has seldom been so crowded in the mortuary, save for Christmas and Easter, when the backlog forms on account of the suicides, the car accidents, the closing of the churches for funerals. 'The name of the game,' Father once said, indeed urged upon me, as a matter of essential professional knowledge, 'is turn over. Only advertise in the appropriate organ,' he said, 'and the corpses come to you, on time, regular, one or two per week. Lovely.' He smacked his lips with a wet sucking sound, asked for the trocar and began draining Mrs Cartwright.
Such precepts have, naturally, informed my best practice. But in the matter of Mr Phillips, Father's advice was decidedly, predictably, inadequate. It has not been a simple matter deciding what to do with him, what was the proper, indeed, the right thing to do. He has, quite rightly, as indeed men do, left it to a woman to look after him. As I have. And shall.
It is, on such occasions, strange to find our usually commodious premises so crowded with the dead, indeed, so well inhabited by corpses. They watch me, I believe. I feel it. The dead watch, and wait their turn, for there is a certain order, in death as in life; from those corpses whose treatment has, for some reason or other, been expedited, so that they lie already casketed, requiring only the paperwork before they are dispatched, to those waiting on the preparation table, and those still sequestered in the cool room. Each has his and her proper turn, each waits for some particular attention. Each, you see, calls for me. For in death, I mean in each single death, in every corpse that comes to me, every face that I face has waited for me, trusting and familiar. 'See me,' each corpse seems to say. And it would appear, I sometimes believe, that I am the ghost, wandering and alone, and the dead feel me against their skin, the slight sensation of my touch, a faint pricklishness in their veins as I go about my work, like pins and needles from lying still too long. They wait for me. And I for them. You see, it is my belief that each corpse, man, woman and child, is special.
And yet there has not, nor could there ever have been, a man in my life. That is, of course, until now. And such a man. Mr Phillips. He lies quietly, confidently before me. Welcoming. Listening. I have never, until now, felt such love for anybody, never believed how love, being as it is so deep, indeed so visceral, invites such closeness, one might say, familiarity. I bend to him, brush his lips. 'Darling,' I say. And, 'My dearest.' He lies still, seeming to smile, his lips pursed, thinking, no doubt, of me. His love.
I touch his skin, caress the form that he has taken – the sensate prickle as my fingers press against his cheek, something I have never before experienced.
'My dear,' I whisper. 'My love.'
I study the shape of his shoulders, his muscularity – in short, his perfection. This is, you understand, a matter both of professional attention and devotion, since it has fallen to me, his handmaiden, to preserve that which my god has gifted.
There are many conditions in which the dead arrive at my door, some directly from the hospital and still almost warm, some frigid, hard to the touch, like Mr Phillips, firm fleshed. Then there are those which, decayed, deformed, autopsied, have the merest and crudest resemblance to the human form. The drowned body always makes for a difficult case, not least on account of the bloating of the tissues, the waterlogging, the advanced state of decomposition, the organs infested with salt-water organisms. Every care is required with the cadaver. Take the Esterhazen girl, for example. Her condition has, indeed, dictated my approach. I was forced to work quickly and yet still with proper caution, always according to procedure. To inject the preserving chemicals too quickly, to drain more or less than the requisite amount of blood produces a lower than optimal result. There were nip marks where fish had bitten at the skin. These I packed and covered with mortuary putty, then a temporary layer of cold cream, a thick protective skin, leaving the full facial restoration and the delicate application of the flesh tones until later. The Esterhazen girl had an olive complexion, always difficult to recover without make-up. And the large cocktail of chemicals secreted into the corpse had turned the skin green.
There are obstacles presented by such corpses, yet the interview with parents is always, I find, infinitely more difficult. Usually I leave this aspect of the business to Elvio, that master of confidence and deception. But his attendance was prevented by the prior arrival of the Kremmer son, such a terrible murder, a delicate case requiring Elvio's finest arts of diplomacy. The Kremmers are a most worrying family and to milk the full fee for complete restoration from the grieving family, the final kindness which could be given to a loved one who has died in such a way, would, in the circumstances, have been unlikely. Even so, the mother struck a particularly good bargain, considering she had Elvio to deal with. There are few who can best him; he could sell a long spoon to the Devil. Yet the mother had the better of him. It was not, he told me afterwards, one of his most satisfactory negotiations. He was, he said, unsettled by it, and I was glad that I had not been required in my public capacity for such an interview. Yet at times, in Elvio's absence, I am, reluctantly, forced to attend to this, the more public side of our business, though I have, by choice, had little experience or practice in the consolation of grief. That being so, the interview with Mrs Esterhazen was destined to be a troubling one. Women, especially mothers, are notoriously difficult customers.
The girl had been two days missing, found west of the town where the beach stretches past the industrial strip beyond Somerset, where the pulp mill effluent makes swimming unpopular, where few people walk. She was rolled in on the tide at mid-morning, quickly autopsied, one would suppose, no doubt, on account of the smell, and shipped to our premises as the mother arrived. Such coincidences are not auspicious. Not the least difficulty involved removing the mother to the small antechamber before the body was taken from the van. She seemed to want to watch. Consider, the greater half of my work consists in concealing the truth, disguising death, so to speak. Even in the cosmetic restoration of the body, my art strives to conceal itself, strives never to draw attention to the work itself, so that the mourner will say the corpse, that dear departed, appears to be at peace, sleeping God's sleep. The last vestiges of suffering, the marks of death, the corporeal facts of decomposition must be avoided. The merest hint that the passage to death has been ugly, that the corpse has suffered mutilation or violence or putrefaction is to be prevented at all costs. And the arrival of the mother so inopportunely, you cannot fail to see, made my task only more difficult.
The small antechamber is normally reserved for mourners whose preference is to wait, in order to collect their thoughts, before they commit themselves to that last visit of the loved one, but the room also does duty as a viewing or interviewing room itself when several clients have been, so to speak, double-booked. The large antechamber or, more properly, the chapel is, of course, grander, its atmosphere more conducive to encouraging in the grieving family a sense of trust, a feeling that they are in good hands, that our solicitude is heartfelt, deep, genuine. It has, moreover, an excellent sound system which produces a remarkably convincing ecclesiastical tone. The recordings as they play through the speakers in the small antechamber are somewhat diminished in comparison. Even so, the atmosphere provided by our usual choral recordings, King's College and the like for the religious services, Handel or Bach for the non-denominational types, is most conducive to the stimulation of tears, heavy thoughts, the expression of grief.
Elvio was, needless to say, and quite properly, making use of the large antechamber while he spoke with Mrs Kremmer, the mother of the deceased, and the two younger Kremmer boys. The remains of the eldest Kremmer son had been partly compiled and inventoried by me prior to the sudden and unexpected arrival of the Esterhazen girl and her unfortunate mother that Friday morning. The shotgun death is, for me, an unsightly, often unnerving spectacle. It is only when one has worked with the remains for some time, perhaps even for hours if the wounds are extensive, that one is able to proceed with detachment. It is a matter on which I have speculated from time to time these last three days that I may have dealt with the drowned girl's mother more sympathetically, more professionally, if I had not come directly from Kremmer's bloody work.
There was not, I insist, a single grain of moral censure in my bearing. I take no such liberties with my clients. Each and every one is treated with the respect one reserves for the dead. If anything, Elvio's information may have caused me to exhibit some reluctance, a kind of distress, a suggestion of hesitation that may have been open to misinterpretation. It is possible that I examined the mother's face too closely, searching for the tell-tale sign: that she had known all along, always knew how her child would end. 'Such an innocent,' Elvio had informed me. 'She had just the right look, could've charged double.' She'd worked the car park by the school near the football ground. It was a traditional place for the sort of pleasures she had to offer. 'From time to time,' he said as he sorted the day's receipts, 'I went there. That Esterhazen girl,' he said, and pressed his fingers to his lips. 'Of course,' he said by way of explanation, 'she was not interested in the business proposal I had to offer. Strictly business,' he said. 'One must assess the supply.' The young, he believed, set too much store by their own luck. His proposal, he insisted, would have been a simple matter, with no great expense, to place the advertisements discreetly in The Advocate, to provide a phone service, the use of a car. Yet the girls he had approached were reluctant. 'And only a small supervisory fee involved,' he said. 'A small loss of income,' he said, 'for such improved conditions of security.' They had merely to have left the organisation with him and the potential for increased bargaining power was, he believed, enormous.
Excerpted from Somebody to Love by Steve Holden. Copyright © 2010 Steve Holden. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
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