When I first met the Embalmer I told him how, as a child, I hadn’t liked to stand near tall buildings. I used to hide my face. They call this ‘batophobia’. Perhaps it was something to do with growing up in the country: take me to a city and all I could see were dangerous structures swaying in the sky, ready to topple.
The Embalmer called on the morning after we met to suggest a walk along the beach. I might not have said yes, except that by 11am Kate had already invited a few people over to our house and was making ominous noises about Monopoly.
I glanced at him occasionally as we drove there but he never took his eyes off the road. His eyes, I noticed, were pale blue to the point of being colourless. His music of choice consisted solely of what sounded like 70s prog rock: endless multi-instrumental solos, conjuring images of serious musos huddled in a circle, nodding thoughtfully over pints of real ale or single malt whiskey. He hadn’t seemed the type.
The wind was high that day, so the kite surfers were out, despite the chill of approaching winter in the air. As we walked we made the odd remark about the weather or our feelings on sandy beaches vs. stony ones (I preferred stony), but for the most part I was curiously tongue-tied. Occasionally the wind sent dry, salty clumps of hair like dead anemones into my mouth, which I was forced to spit out at each fresh attempt at conversation. He may not have been much taller than I was, but there was something very solid about him. He was warm, I suppose you’d say. Even next to him on an exposed beach I could feel a subtle heat filtering through his classic navy wool coat. Was it enough to warm the dead, though?
‘I hardly asked you anything about yourself in the pub last night,’ I said after a particularly long silence. ‘You should have stopped me babbling on about myself. It’s a terrible habit to have.’
He laughed – or perhaps ‘barked’ might have been a better word. ‘It was fine. Although you gave me the impression that you found me a bit – unsettling, I suppose. Intrigued me actually. I didn’t realise I had quite that effect.’
‘Did I? I hadn’t meant to.’
‘It’s OK, I found it funny.’
And that was it – he obviously wasn’t going to venture any more details about himself. All I knew thus far was that he tarted up dead bodies and lived by himself in some obscure village or outcrop whose name I couldn’t remember. He, on the other hand, probably knew more about me than he needed to.
An untidy dog threw itself into my path, sending me slightly off-balance. The dog pawed damp sand over my coat. It was followed by a couple in matching cagoules who called it away with matching grins of apology.
‘Are you OK?’
He began brushing the sand from my coat with short, brusque strokes. Very clean hands. They looked to me as though they’d been held in bleach.
‘It’s fine,’ I said. ‘Really. Don’t worry about that.’
After yet another silence I threw out: ‘Someone told me once that bearded collies are the only kind of dog that can roll their eyes around in their head rather than just being fixed in one position. I mean, you can see the whites and everything.’
There was another silence as he digested this.
‘That can’t be true, can it? The only ones?’
I wasn’t imagining the slight curl to his upper lip. So you think I’m mentally subnormal, do you, I thought. Maybe sometimes people just talk for a lack of anything to say, Mister Corpse Fiddler.
Last night, in fact, I hadn’t wanted to be near the Embalmer at all – at least not to begin with. My friend Paul had brought him to the pub. I sat across from them, sheltered by my glass, fingers mechanically working filter tips and papers and tobacco.
Paul made his clanging introductions to the group with a meaningful glance at me. Traitor.
A few minutes later the Embalmer was recounting to a rapt audience: ‘Yes, someone had found him hanging in an abandoned church. He’d been there a couple of days so as you can imagine it didn’t smell pretty. Their faces are nearly always purple, and this one’s features were pretty badly twisted to one side when I got there, too. And then there’s the internal decapitation…’
‘What’s that?’ said someone.
‘That’s when the skull separates from the spinal column after they drop. Usually they’re dead in minutes but I think this one may have been hanging there alive for quite a bit longer.’
He spoke with an amused, professional detachment. I sat there, dry-tongued, skin clammy.
I’ve always believed my face arranges itself to conspire against me, so I don’t trust it. That’s the only way I can account for the amount of people who ask: ‘Are you all right?’ in an average day. I think the most was nine, several years ago now. That day I’d allowed my friend Kate to cut my hair and later been hit with the futility of existence in the olive oil section at Sainsbury’s. There’s nothing worse than an attack of existentialism in a supermarket.
‘Are you all right?’ said Kate, at this moment, throwing herself into the seat next to me. My cigarette was rolled by now, but it was baggy with bits of tobacco falling out of the end. One puff and it would be gone.
Leaning closer in, putting my mouth up to Kate’s ear, I said in a hiss: ‘I have this feeling he wants to remove my organs and dehydrate me and cover me with oils.’
This was met by a shriek of laughter, hastily stifled but with the after-effects visibly working their way through her like snakes. It provoked a curious glance from the pale blue eyes of the Embalmer across the table.
‘I don’t think they do that anymore. You’re thinking of ancient Egypt. He’d probably just inject you with chemicals.’
I considered this.
A few seconds later I stepped outside with my cigarette, but really I went to breathe. Great, shuddering breaths. On returning I sat down opposite him again. The conversation had moved on. Paul had noticed a perfect replica of a man with an afro in the foam of his Guinness. The others had crowded around it to marvel.
I took a swallow from my drink and glanced across at him again. He was still looking at me with what I imagined to be a sort of amused curiosity, but who knew what it was?
‘What was your name again?’ he said.
That’s when I began to talk.
We’d come a pretty long way along the beach now, I realised. We’d met nobody for several minutes and when I glanced back the only other people I could see were small enough to be anyone or no-one. A silence even bigger than before had rolled over us and threatened to drag us down.
‘Do you ever find your job a bit ghoulish?’ I asked, finally. Because I really wanted to know and had no more tactful way of asking.
‘I’ve always had a strong stomach. I remember, years and years ago now, I was walking through the city one day and I stopped under a multi-storey car park to answer my phone. I was talking and then I heard this heavy thud behind me. I turned around expecting to see … well actually I don’t know what I would have been expecting to see.’
He had a clipped voice, I thought. His sentences were staccatos and they dropped from his mouth like weights. I shivered. The cold of the late afternoon was beginning to creep its way through to my bones. The light would start to fade soon. There was only one kite surfer remaining now and he or she seemed to be fighting to control the heavy object in the buffeting wind.
‘What was it?’
‘It was a body. Brains all over the pavement.’
Oh, fuck. I tried to fight the wave of sickness by breathing slowly.
‘A woman had jumped off the roof and she missed me by inches. Would have taken me out, too, probably. Imagine someone explaining that to my mother.’ He smiled into the distance.
I put my hand to the side of my head, imagining my brains escaping, and turned back to face the sea. The kite surfer was gone, but the board was bobbing on the waves.
‘And there were people being sick around me. Someone even fainted, I think. Someone else was calling for an ambulance – that kind of thing. I just stood there and looked down at her and I felt fine. I remember she had very blonde hair.’
My eyes scanned the water. ‘I think that surfer might be in trouble.’
‘What surfer?’ A brief glance seawards. ‘Sorry, I forgot you were telling me about your phobia of tall buildings last night. Probably not what you want to hear. That’s a strange one – never heard of it. Does it still bother you that much?’
An arm emerged from the waves and gripped the board and then a figure pulled itself upwards to safety. I let out a breath and turned to him.
‘I’m fine as long as I don’t look up too long. Now I’m more worried about dropping dead suddenly. I’m scared of all sorts. Ask Kate.” I waited. “Do you know who she was?’
‘The woman who jumped off the roof and spilt her brains on the pavement.’
‘I think her husband had left her. Or she was suffering from post-natal depression. I can’t remember which. Sad, though. Obviously.’
The usual complaints. An overblown female with a touch of the Sylvia Plaths about her. In his line of work Death must have been like an over-familiar employer, telling the same crass jokes over and over to make people like him. Not a stranger hiding in the shadows.
‘Shall we start walking back now?’ I said.
A few weeks later he invited me to his house for dinner. We’d met a few times since, but always in pubs or places with other people around. He was a good listener, I’d found, even if he did make me uneasy.
The taxi driver had trouble finding the place. It was bigger than I’d imagined: a two-storey cottage tucked away down a little lane flanked with hedges. Crunching across the gravel in the dark I found the setting a little more fairy-tale Gothic than I’d have liked. A night-time appointment with Bluebeard or the Big Bad Wolf.
The doorbell rang with a single, strident peal – no novelty chimes for my Embalmer. It opened straight into a tiny hallway, at the end of which I could see a kitchen lit to an almost clinical whiteness.
There are some houses that cause you to bend down and start guiltily removing your shoes the instant you walk in. This was one of them.
He fed me risotto laced with saffron. It would be very easy to give in to this, I thought, and have him feed me and take me for walks at regular intervals. After eating we sat together on the slippery leather sofa in his living room. I drank wine with increasing momentum, reeling out random details about my largely uneventful week. He took controlled, thoughtful sips. As I talked, my eyes did a survey of the room. They took in the spines of the books neatly ranged along the shelf in front of me. Goebbels? I imagined what Kate would have to say about that, and what it revealed about my choice of dinner companion.
‘What about your week?’ I asked.
‘Embalming conference on Tuesday.’ Embalming conference? They don’t get together and play with the bodies do they?
‘By the way, you’ve got something on your face. Here.’
He pulled out a handkerchief and dealt with the offending matter. Then he reached over to extract a hair from my jumper. I squirmed. Perhaps I have an in-built suspicion of neatness: After all, aren’t you at your most tidily arranged in your coffin, right before they bury you?
He was very close. It occurred to me that he was leaning in to kiss me and my insides turned over. Maybe it was his eyes that did it. Maybe it was the hands that touched Death, over and over again. Maybe it was none of those things.
And without the usual courtesy warnings, it seemed as though something snapped in my head. It was no longer connected to my spine. I forgot how to breathe. He stared, puzzled, no doubt, as I hemorrhaged unspoken terrors in juddering breaths and scatter-gun heartbeats all over his pristine leather sofa. And then he put out one hand to steady me. I may well have hit him.
Two nights after this, after a wretched hour in a bar, the Embalmer and I stepped out into the mounting drizzle. Night had come in earnest since we’d gone inside and the raindrops were pellets of ice on my face. The untidy buildings on either side of the narrow street – a mixture of run-down shops and flats – partially blocked out the sky. I pulled my scarf tighter around my neck with a sharp tug. He opened his over-sized umbrella in a single, efficient movement and held it over my head. I moved away slightly.
‘I’m sorry, we’ve been over it but I’m afraid I still don’t understand what happened,’ he said. ‘It was as though you thought I was going to attack you. I thought we’d been getting on well, that’s all.’
‘I don’t know. Sometimes it comes from nowhere.’
‘Were you upset about something?’
‘No. Not upset.’
As we approached the end of the street, the sky burst in one of those frighteningly intense downpours that can’t sustain themselves for long. He hustled me into a doorway.
‘You’re getting soaked.’ He moved to put the umbrella over me again and I waved it away.
‘I really don’t mind the rain. I’ve never owned an umbrella.’
‘Don’t be silly.’
‘I’m not being silly.’
‘Your eye make-up’s running down your face. You need a tissue.’
‘I don’t care.’
He stopped. I stopped. He reached into his pocket. ‘But I’ve got one here. Just hold your head still a minute.’
He made stabs at my face, which I successfully dodged. Off-balance, I steadied myself against the wall. A momentary blurring of my vision made the seedy orange of the street lamps send out spikes of light like the crown on the Statue of Liberty. I blinked them back into focus.
Masochism, that was it. I saw it then. Unfair on him, of course.
‘Look, I don’t mind being cold and wet. I don’t care if my eye make-up is running and it makes me look like a junkie or – or that guy from KISS – with the big tongue. I’m not one of your bloody bodies laid out on a slab. I don’t need tidying up. I can…’
‘The guy with the big tongue from KISS.’
‘Jesus.’ I rubbed my fingers over my eyes. ‘I’m sorry. I’ve not been behaving well. I think I should just go home and leave you to it.’ His eyes registered surprise.
Of course there’s always something a little bruising about the last glance somebody gives you before they exit your life stage left, even if they don’t mean that much to you. I could almost feel pools of blood congregating under my skin where his eyes were focused, forming reddish-purple marks.
‘Well...goodbye, then, I suppose. I hope you get everything sorted out.’
I probably share too much. It’s always been a problem.
He turned and walked away from me down the street, shrinking and blurring until he could have been anyone or no-one. I stood for a moment, my arms around myself. I’d lied. I really hate the cold.
I looked up. ●
Victoria Hattersley lives in Norwich, UK, works in publishing and has a seven year-old daughter. She has had several stories published, including ‘The Girl’ in Unthology 6 (Unthank Books, Norwich), ‘Kangaroo’ in Before Passing (Great Weather for MEDIA, New York) and ‘Looking for Jim Morrison’ in Words and Women: Three (Words and Women, Norwich). In addition to writing short stories, she is currently working on her first novel, The Lantern Man.