As Pictures


The sleeping and the dead are but as pictures

William Shakespeare, 'Macbeth'


She looked at Mr James. Or was she looking only at Mr James's body?

'Is this him?' she wondered, 'Or has he gone, leaving this - this shell - behind?'

In spite of the work she had done on him, on his body, she had the feeling still that at any moment he could open his eyes, look around, see the satin lining, the enclosing casket and the bare room, sit up, look at her and say, "It's cold in here. Where am I?"

But no, he, his body, remained still, still as the grave, as they say.

Mr James, Mr James's body, was the first in her care. He, his body, had been her responsibility since Tuesday morning when she had collected him, his body, from the hospital. She had talked to him, to his body, throughout all the procedures, saying, "Mr James, I just need to do this," or "I'm just gong to raise your arm," or  "Excuse me,"  and "There we are," and so on. That was in keeping with her training from the very first day here and it felt right still, respectful.

Was she talking to a person, or was she talking in vain to  - she hesitated to think it -  a thing? Had she drained Mr James's personality from him, along with the bodily fluids from his orifices, passing it through the plastic tubing and down the sink to goodness knows where? 'God knows where,' some would say. Had she removed his soul and replaced it with embalming fluid? As a girl, she had pictured the soul as grey wispy smoke that would float upwards through the clouds, drawn towards light with which it would merge.

She scrutinized her handiwork again. She examined his rouged cheeks - had she been heavy with the stuff? Would his family say at the first viewing, 'That's not him at all!'? She fanned out the covers of his favourite LPs on his chest - they would have to be removed before the funeral, in keeping with the crematorium's health and safety requirements. She re-examined the good poker hand she had given him - he loved a game of cards, they had told her.

As she stood, gazing at Mr James, at Mr James's body, she realized she still regarded the soul as insubstantial, in spite of the tangible weight of his inert flesh and bones, his crumbly toenails, the tight curls on his head. Where had he gone if he was not still here, with her at half-past-five on a Friday evening, ready to be viewed by loved ones first thing in the morning?

Her working day was over. Friday would end. At midnight it would be no more, never to return. Had he ended? Was he never to return? Or, after she had left the refrigerated room, would he rise and would his transparent spectre pass through the door as in a cinematic special effect?

Aloud, she said to him, "I'm still not convinced of the finality of death, you know."

He, his body, made no reply.

"It'll be fish tonight," she said. She smiled. "See you in the morning, Mr James."

It seemed rude to turn off the light; she left it on for him, closed the door and waited for the click of the lock.




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