Burial customs

Cleopatra poison
Let’s bury the old year, that which has aged us and wounded us with worry and tough living, and be done with it.

I have a friend who tells me how much better I look each time he sees me. ‘You used to look terrible! Really pale and skinny, haunted, you know!’ He assures me it’s a compliment, though as regular as a morning’s mirror mantra he repeats each time he sees me. This is the story of NY fucking E.

To write better and travel more: this is what I strive for. For 2012 saw the completion of the rest. I learned to drive, formed a band, and learned to write songs and sing in my own voice. I worked my soul away for 6 months, set up the London campaign of a charity that ended up winning awards and securing its funding. There’s still a bitter memory of it all, and I am relieved I left in the way I did. I took a break, wrote some bad stories, then started work at another charity, taught myself how to write winning fundraising bids and at last joined a union. Was it worth it? I gave up meat and drink. I started combing my hair and shaving. I didn’t watch a single bit of the Olympics. It’s as solemn and profound as all that.

To see this one out, this is the final story I wrote over 2012. It’s way too long for a blog-post and is left here inexplicably like an abandoned child’s toy in a roadside gutter. Possibly it provides nourishment for wild animals, and for the rest, it’s a note to self to write something better next year. Toodles.

 

Burial customs

Nervously even for him he clambered up from the sweaty pew, arse sliding against the bare wood where he had sat alone by the altar, apprehensively, ceremoniously and most properly, the moment marked by the shriek of new shoes against marble, and ice-cold tingles rippling along his spine as he awkwardly shuffled sideways by the casket, experiencing something akin to vertigo whilst ascending the larger-than-life lectern to the rows of eyes of Ben’s friends and family. Celebrate life. In the midst of death we are in life. God would not be found in a place like this, in cold churches where people could go to feel good through feeling bad, through compartmentalising their actions into good or sin, but this is for the family’s benefit, so keep it positive. Work – football – generous – tragedy – celebrate life. Annie, Ben’s sister had asked him to do the second eulogy last week – “you are his best mate, you knew him”, but he’d only sat down to write it this morning, with an online template doing much of the work, aided by several Scotch-laced coffees.

“There is no antidote against the Opium of time, which temporally considereth all things; Our Fathers finde their graves in our short memories, and sadly tell us how we may be buried in our Survivors. Grave-stones tell truth scarce fourty years: Generations passe while some trees stand, and old Families last not three oaks.”

– Sir Thomas Browne, Urne-Buriall, 1658.

And I hope you too will remember Ben as I did, as a fun-loving friend who always loved a laugh, and as a kind, generous and warm-hearted man, whose life was tragically taken short … now he’s up there with God.

The second page had come to an end and there was nothing on the other side. As he glided back towards his empty pew he looked up momentarily, catching Ben’s extended family looking so empty, his sisters holding their elderly mother, and by the very front, Michelle too, with her family, not catching his eye, thankfully. By the time he had sat down he had to stand up again, as the congregation began attempting ‘Abide with me’ with pitiable faint-heartedness. Someone was singing very loudly in a baritone voice by the back, who like everyone else there he struggled to recognise.

“Thank you Alex, that was just right.” Annie and Sylvia, the youngest of Ben’s four sisters, had approached him by the kerb, sharing cigarettes taken from Annie’s handbag. Alex instinctively fished around the unfamiliar black suit for his lighter. They were both very cool, and silent. He could hear their mother wailing somewhere in the background, crowded by consolers. Beyond the gutter and the parked cars, the congested terraced street, the alabaster noon skies of a day which hadn’t somehow been able to start, everything feeling frozen and weightless since entering the church, since waking up the morning after. Perhaps in space too there were no emotions. The cigarette brought him back to earth. The last time they had all been together was outside the police station after the incident. Since then everything had been done by phone, very formal, usually Annie’s sweet faintly-cockney voice, but Alex feeling as if they had in part blamed him for the series of events that had unlikely resulted in Ben’s death. The hearses were pulling away, traffic queued behind, and Elena and Harold began to approach them. “Oh mama,” said Sylvia crying, and now the girls were crying, and Harold too, and Alex could feel his insides beginning to melt, tears forming, and without thinking his arms had wrapped around the family, head awkwardly facing the skies to keep the cigarette in his mouth from burning them, the pale sun glowing dimly through a cloud, a telegraph wire and an airplane high up, journeying somewhere it would never reach with unknowable hope.

Ben’s family were Armenian and had organised their own kind of reception that would coincide with the disposal of the ashes into the Thames three days later.

He’d built up a wicked desire for something to drink, and with the automatic impulsiveness that precedes any self-destructive gesture, he found himself ordering large scotch at a quiet pub by the railway station, which was quickly sunk and discarded. He drifted out and bought himself some ciders for the journey back, then staggered confusedly towards the platform, just in time to board the incorrect stopping train back home.

Dazed by hunger, passing one Tesco town after another. The great secret of these places is their void of a future. Nothing would actually happen there in thirty or forty years time. The malls and new-builds would be bulldozed and forgotten much sooner than that. With supermarket trolleys jutting out of the Thames mud. Objects indiscriminately laid out in the circumference of an invisible circle, without focus or centre. A world belonging to old men with ale-udders, mismatched sports jackets and beige chinos.

It was the early afternoon and the carriage was deserted. The cider tasted like two copper coins had been left inside it, tart yet refreshing. Alone, light-headed, here he was safe to think about the last few awful months. Michelle hadn’t said anything to him. The pregnancy showed. Ben and Alex’s lives had both run in parallel: friends since Year 3, when Ben’s family moved to Woolwich from Armenia. They both improbably supported Leeds United, were a similar height, and had surnames beginning with G-, meaning they sat together most of the time, which continued through secondary school, where they chose the same classes, bunked together, shared their first cigarette together, and drifted into the ignorant certainties of early adulthood’s stream of brainless jobs and relationships together.

They always used to sleep over at each other’s houses. The good thing about staying at Ben’s was that they could watch his older brother’s 18-rated horror videos like Hellraiser and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They used to get so terrified that they couldn’t sleep, and would stay up all night talking about fantasy football teams and debate the probable victors of fights between superheroes and movie characters. They always had the same type of lunch box, and both their mums always put in a bit of extra food for the other boy, knowing that they loved to trade and share each other’s crisps. When Ben first started at his school the other kids had mocked him for his poor grasp of English and ‘Russian’ accent, but it only reminded Alex of his gran and cousin in Cyprus who he loved spending summers with, and he liked Ben anyway, and taught him all the best swear words he knew, like wanker, twat, shitbag, prick, arseprick, dickface, slag, felcher, and later, the C-word. There’d been only one falling out, when they had that big playground fight in Year 6 when Alex was pasted by Ben after some kid, Ashley B-, had jibed that the pair were ‘gay for each other’. That, and what had happened a month before that ill-fated stag-party.

They’d both been into girls from an early age. When they were 13, they had even started saving up together for a prostitute in the West End, their big dream, but before they’d reached £1000, how much they estimated she would want, they started to work out how to talk to girls at parties. They had even shared girlfriends some of the time. He remembered when they were 19, ‘D’ her name was, Dorothea, who had been with Ben first, and who had told him how Ben liked to play heavy metal music and ‘wrestle’ with her, that’d been her words. It felt dirty but strangely thrilling being inside girls that Ben had been with. They would sometimes talk about them afterwards, “a bit kinky”, “nice tits”, but usually more in terms of what they were like to be with, “hard work”, “control freak”. As they’d entered their twenties, the years accelerated and temporary settlements became patterns – Ben couldn’t go out without first getting drunk, and then taking coke later into the night to keep going. Alex had had a string of failed relationships which usually ended after the girls found out he’d cheated on them then threw him out.

Alex had been working most recently as a security guard, his dark too-serious brow rendered by the vexations of insane drunks, possibly with undiagnosed aspergers’, and their vain attempts to steal confectionery from the store, followed by their absurd defences of innocence or necessity outside. Ben also had talked about starting his own business since the age of 16 or 17, though like most there was no clear plan or strategy, and ten years on he was still selling insurance over the telephone to dementia-suffering biddies in Aberdeen and elsewhere. Ben had got together with Michelle in his early twenties. Her early pregnancy and their fear of her dominant father required getting married young, a number of low-skill jobs in Michelle’s dad’s company. That early pregnancy later turned out to be a miscarriage, but by the time it’d happened the wedding was booking. Ben was unhappily married and the relationship seemed to have all kinds of problems. They weren’t from the sort of background that were supposed to or even thought about going to university. Both Alex and Ben carried their resentment like a club card into masculine life.

The train was starting to get a little busy. Alex put the empty can back in the carrier bag and pulled out a fresh tin of cider. When he and Ben were fifteen they had made a non-resignation pact. Neither was going to become like the other’s father, these clapped-out, taciturn and miserable men who had amply failed to provide any positive role-model to them. “We ain’t gonna give up like that old bastard”, Alex had announced, sharing ecstatic reveries with Ben on a package holiday in Majorca, the end of a wild long night. He saw the outline of his face against the mirror, gargoyle-lined, stubbled, puffy-cheeked, more rough than tough, with dark eyes suggesting little animation. On one side of him sat a few early-finishing commuters, distracted by Coldplay, Facebook, Angry Birds and other contemporary dross. Beyond the window leaving behind the suburb satellite station, a familiar and remarkable urban landscape of buddleia punctuating smears of suburb town, factory town, gas reservoir town, Christian ministries town, cosmetic surgery town, cash for gold town, doner kebab town, Argos town, Ladbrokes town, Tesco town. Resignation’s so easy. “Not like my dad”, said Alex. “Yeah, not like him”, Ben replied.

Michelle wasn’t attractive in the conventional sense. It was more her value to Ben – she had to be special – and the thought that his friend had had her and enjoyed her in the past was what turned him on. Alex was already seeing a woman, Carlie, but she was still hung up on her ex, and Alex didn’t have the patience or interest in her existential problems, and had retreated into his usual bored behaviour of casual flings with women he met on singles dating websites. One evening, Michelle had come round to his flat to drop off something he’d lent, he couldn’t remember what it had been now. Carlie was staying with a friend in Bristol, most likely her ex. Michelle was sad, like she’d been arguing with Ben, and seeing that they had little else to do that night, they both started drinking beer and talking about what they were all like before Ben and Michelle started going out, all the wild times they’d had, while she talked about some of her exs and her early life, growing up and looking after her mum, about all the cats she used to have and their names. Michelle was always a lightweight, it explained why she and Ben always argued when they went out, and after a couple of beers the meaning of her sadness emerged. Alex wasn’t really the ‘sensitive type’: love was something you said when you wanted to get with a girl or end an argument. He couldn’t remember how it had started, but he could remember being on the sofa with Michelle, kissing her, their hands mentally mapping out each others’ bodies, then soon after, their clothes pulled off. She wasn’t beautiful in the conventional sense. She didn’t want to look at Alex, so he took her from behind, and pulled her hair with one hand, and massaged her clitoris with the other, as requested. The sheer wrongness of it turned them on immensely: Michelle, to get revenge on Ben, who apparently hadn’t fucked her for months, and for Alex, the chance to enjoy something out of bounds that belonged to Ben, like reading his diary or climbing into a scary neighbour’s garden together in search of a lost football or fantastical treasure, like when they were kids. They were drunk already and neither had a condom. As Michelle was coming she asked Alex to choke her with his belt, the way Ben did it. He was worried he was going to accidentally kill her, but she wanted to go further and further, taking each other deeper into that dark night of confused, impulsive, beautiful souls.

Alex quickly crossed one leg over another, and replaced the empty can with another new cider, still chilled. The train was pulling into another busy station, the passengers now boarding had expressions like they’d just interrupted their parents, engaged in mutual coprophagia.

Everyone always says in a funeral about what a ‘fitting service’ and a ‘good send-off’ it was, and when it’s someone old, what ‘good innings’ they’d had. It was such shit. Bad poetry read out of library books. Why should he have to celebrate someone’s life, why couldn’t he just be sad that his best mate was fucking dead? Ben didn’t even believe in God. How could they let that bastard priest who had never met him, never, talk about Ben in the most intimate tones, about what had happened to Ben’s soul? He could see Ben there, sat at the back after the service, with a fag-ash stained suit and a cheeky red or polka dot tie, legs stretched out wide, inappropriate cuff-links, short hair spiked up, a look of proud derision, his lips uttering silently but the words reaching his mind.

Geezer. What the fuck mate. What was that shit you said about me. What was my life. You know what happened that night. I was out of it. You should’ve looked out for me. You shouldn’t’ve done that. I knew that feller had a knife, I knew what he was gonna do, and I didn’t care.

They’d both completely failed on that non-resignation pact, perhaps because they’d both allowed their own lives to landslide into a peculiar blend of passive hedonism and cynical grumpiness. He remembered his fear shortly after he and Michelle had got it together. Never again, they vowed, though they both had very much enjoyed it. Carlie was with him, they’d gone to a friend’s wedding, and Michelle and Carlie were away for a little to talk in one of the reception rooms of this fancy mansion. Alex was absolutely terrified Michelle was going to blab to Carlie, though in hindsight she would have had far more to lose. So, totally idiotically now, he crept up behind the door ajar to listen in. He heard Michelle’s voice, she was saying about how men were ‘disabled’, that was her word for it, they were disabled because they always wanted to fuck strangers, that was all they could think about, yet 6 months after getting it together with the same person they lost complete interest. They’d rather masturbate than have sex with them. “Alex!”, Carlie said startled, sat on the edge of a luscious red sofa, Michelle close by on a mismatching floral-print armchair. “Men and woman are both disabled”, he imagined himself uttering, bursting into that charged room now, rather differently to how he’d really behaved. “You girls are disabled too, in your menstruation maybe, but no, in your desire to bear children into this fucked up world. Why? Why not just fuck, or have relationships.” And he imagined Michelle looking up to him, beautiful in that black dress, glaring viciously, also turned on by the infliction of wounds, and replying confidently, completely out of his imagination again, words without sounds: “Men and women are both disabled by that deep sexual hunger that frees our bodies and restricts our minds into these crazes. But how we both find sexual satisfaction is through a gradual concentration and narrowing of earlier sexual pleasures. Think of your first time Carlie, or no, maybe your first really good time. You want that again and again, that same type of male or female experience, and fucking in that same kind of way, rough, violent, tantric, from behind, on top, with the first one that really opened up your mind sexually. That’s why you still want to be with your first ex Carlie, and why you keep sleeping with him. “Yes,” Alex replied suddenly, “we’re the same, different but equal”. “Yes, and that’s why you and Ben are so close.”

It was Alex’s stop. He scrambled up, accidentally kicking the empty cans over into the path of the congested train. He couldn’t remember how long he’d been asleep for. But he wasn’t worried about the spilt cider all across the commuters’ brogues and heels, as he was more concerned with hiding all the tears that had collected in his eyelashes.

Alex had got out of the habit of waking up early after the last few months of night shifts at work. The flat was freezing. He was starting to run out of clean clothes. The milk too had gone off, but he chanced it anyway for his tea and cereal, adding a little water and sugar to conceal the sour taste. In the three days since the funeral service he hadn’t heard a word from anyone, until Annie called again to ask if he was still coming tomorrow to Woolwich Reach, for the send-off. He dug out his only other suit, and hoped no-one would notice he was wearing the same shirt from the service.

After a silent twenty minute journey across the deserted riverside footpath from Thamesmead town-centre towards Woolwich, he turned a corner where, in the distant sands of the brown Thames beach, two white marquees incongruously stood and, flitting about them, twenty or thirty of Ben ‘Benyamin’s’ extended Armenian family, some playing violins in some kind of gypsy dirge. He joined Annie, Sylvia, Mila and Hermione, Ben’s sisters and family all together for the first time in years. “So, what’ve you been doing with yourself these last few years?”, Hermione asked, her words slowing over the final part of the utterance as if she were asking himself what had become of those last few years. Drunk. Unfaithful. I should’ve looked out for him that night. But how did I know that psycho bloke was just gonna stab him like that, blades shouldn’t slide in so easily. He shouldn’t’ve died, he could’ve kept going, but he didn’t want it enough. The ambulance took centuries to come. Lost in traffic. “This and that?”, he replied, with a faint smile. “And you, the baby, right?” “Well, dad wants you to go into the water with Yuri and the others to say goodbye to Ben. He was more than a brother to you.”

He joined Harold, Ben’s father, and Yuri his uncle. There were a few others there too playing music, some weeping, all in black. Harold used to say that the English were a depressed people and this explained their behaviour and politics. He had never given up his customs and ways from the old country, but never really let Ben into them either. “You’re coming with us Alex,” he said, cheerily. “Now is not to be sad. Now we go into the Styx to say goodbye to Benjamin, my son, your friend.” He put his arm around Alex’s shoulder, the first person to touch him since the brawl that Saturday night. He felt almost hysterically light-headed, like he might topple over if a wind caught him unawares. Beneath the marquee was a small table with some pastries left untouched, and a jug half-full of some iced fruit-flavoured moonshine, oghi, which the company were liberally sinking in small plastic beakers. Alex filled one of the cups up and downed the concoction. Soon after his brain was whirling, light-headed yet elated, teeth chattering like demented magnets, and he followed the sound of Yuri’s accordion towards the tide, wading waist-deep into the Thames’ icy embrace, where it was now time.

Yuri began a plaintive, beautiful dirge on the accordion, joined on the violin by another man in the water who he didn’t recognise, a cousin or uncle. Harold came in a little later, carrying the maroon plastic urn, his eyes scanning the crowd by the tide, then the four of them in the water. He handed to him the urn, which was larger and much lighter than he expected, and like a bird, Harold’s mouth opened, and a rich, sorrowful bass voice emerged, singing some song in Armenian, which after certain intervals was joined in chorus by the women on the tideline. He glimpsed the Woolwich ferry in the distance, the post-industrial abysses of north Woolwich and Silvertown, piles and piles of multicoloured containers and tiny golden lights, which when he scrunched his eyes up, which the tears compelled him to do, became much bigger, their rays of light radiating in every distance.

His friend had died because he was tired, he had resigned his game far too soon because he had lost faith in a quick victory. Perhaps Alex had too, he was only 28 but felt three times that. He had a heart, he did, everyone did, but his was soaked in hate, and the source of hate, fear. His fear was death, like everyone else, of getting it wrong, of not being someone before he was old, but in temper of this fear of death he’d become afraid of living, of being able to love, or do, or act as he was, as he truly was, and have the courage to live with the consequences of this. It made little sense, but the truths of life’s studies were demonstrated in experimentation. The water was freezing, the music continuing, a faster song now. He and Ben had forgotten what wonder meant, of that openness of mind that one has in one’s early teens, like they had. All he had known in his twenties was decay, war, stress, anger, migraines, the bankruptcy of everything, only one reality of many. Back when they’d been young, they could’ve invented a cure to cancer or discovered the meaning of god or impossible if they’d wanted, why not? They were bound that way, had that wonder, but of course they wanted to play, to fight, to get together with girls, and that was alright.

There was a young boy on the tideline who was pushed forward by the sisters, and began to play an solo elegy on the trumpet. Ben too used to be able to play trumpet, and was in the school choir when they were kids. “Now, Alex”. The urn was profanely easy to open, its cheap plastic packaging almost blasphemous. Inside a white carrier bag, the ashes, which he now shook out with urgency, like putting out a deep fire, against the wind, towards the other side of the river. The family began to wail, as his ashes are wrapped tight in the whirl of the wind, then sucked into the swilling waters, thick and almost peppery are the remains of what once housed his presence, his soul. The urn was still quite full, and as he kept scattering them towards the river, wide grey smudges momentarily filling the air like Hades’ fireworks, the wind now blowing them into his mouth and eyes, and against the onlookers. As Ben’s closest friend, it was his responsibility to mutter a few vaguely profound words to bring the ritual to its climax. Gingerly the word “hope” is repeated: sceptically, optimistically. He handed the urn to Harold to scatter the remaining half, and looked out at the water, the ashes washing into that other London that might reside tranquilly below the water, on the other side of the river like a mirror-world, a land of London dead beneath the old Thames, a community infinitely greater than the living, still present in the lime and the slime of the banks, still despatching to the living their black-humoured gifts, ministered by gulls: the typewriters, tobacco pipes, shopping trolleys, plastic bags, cut-up corpses, messages in bottles, torn-up letters, wedding rings, and the occasional bit of ironwork that all wash up on the banks, some of which are claimed by the desperate combers of the beach, impoverished junkies still plying an ancient trade, sold on as scrap in exchange for escapism and food. Alex turned again at the onlookers, and back at the waters again, the distant lights. Silence, emptiness anew.

Mate. I forgive you mate. Look out for her. Don’t give up on yourself.

It was late evening now, and they were back at Annie’s flat in Thamesmead, close to where her parents still lived and where the reception had been. They were all wasted and wearied by all the singing, dancing and heavy-duty drinking of the morning and afternoon, and Alex, Michelle, Sylvia, Yuri and some of the others had come back to hers to carry on drinking. “More oghi!” – “Music!” – “That shit’s crazy” – “Ah man, I’ve got work tomorrow, ha ha ha!”. They were jumping round to old skool UK Garage and rave music, hysterically play-grinding and pogoing to those wondrously innocent, sensual dance songs from years ago, the nursery rhymes of generation of Thatcher’s children. Later, when he was out in the kitchen fixing Michelle and himself a final shot of oghi for the road, she followed him, and leaned against the fridge door, his back against her as he washed more glasses in the kitchen sink. “You know I’m pregnant right,” she began, her harsh-sounding estuarine upbringing bleached away to a more softly-spoken, sleepy drawl. “Well you know Ben had tests yeah, his sperm. What you call it, they weren’t fertile enough. That’s why we never had any little ones even though we’ve been together for like five years.” He handed her a full glass, which she put on the counter. “What you trying to say?” he replied. “It ain’t yours Alex, it can’t be, don’t ask me why, but trust me, it’s how it feels. But all I’m saying is, I want you to stick around and help me. For Ben”.

Alex looked into her bright, deep-set brown eyes. For a second, he could feel such immense sadness, uncertainty, vulnerability, that compelled him to come close to her, and hold her. She was crying into his shoulder. Another feeling then blistered inside him, through her – hope, that there was hope, that the right thing could be done. Her hair felt soft against him, beautiful smelling, not artificial like perfume or conditioner, it was the natural smell of her he was drinking in. He could feel an erection inappropriately forming, and began to pull away. “It’s ok”, she said, attempting to laugh, her forearm wiping away at her eyes, taking off her remaining mascara in the process. “I know all you men are disabled like that”. Alex remembered his dream with her and Carlie, it couldn’t be real. He finished the oghi, and she finished hers. “I swear down, is that “I’m a Dreamer” playing?” he said, smiling fierily. “His favourite”. And so Alex took her hand back into that sitting room, their bodies roaming closer and more intensively intimate than either had felt before, charged in space with the real hope that maybe, against the grain, they might know a happiness and a truth denied to Ben, and Alex, up until that moment.

“Honours, monuments, all that ambition has commanded by decrees or reared in works of stone, quickly sink to ruin; there is nothing that the lapse of time does not tear down and remove. But the works which philosophy has consecrated cannot be harmed; no age will destroy them, no age reduce them; the following and each succeeding age will but increase the reverence for them, since envy works upon what is close at hand, and things that are far off we are more free to admire.”
– Seneca, On the Shortness of Life, 41CE

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