Tuesday 2 April 2024

Gareth's Body 

I wrote this short story following a discussion at a session I attended at the Centre for Death and Society (CDAS, University of Bath) Annual Conference in 2023. We talked, amongst other things, about the hierarchy of (dead) bodies which made me think further about the status of the dead and the impact that this might have on those who are grieving them.                         

                                                Gareth’s Body

The conversation with the registrar’s assistant leaves Emily shivering, despite the warmth of the day. Throughout the call the insensitive jobsworth on the other end of the call had constantly referred to Emily’s witty, untidy, kind, gorgeous, generous (too generous at times in Emily’s opinion), clever, verbose (at times embarrassingly so) Gareth as ‘the deceased’.

‘When did the deceased die?’

‘What is the name of the deceased?’

‘What is your relationship to the deceased?’

The denial of 72 years of life with one brutal, final, word.

Gareth is no longer a husband, a lover, father and grandfather, a brother, a friend, an engineer, a football and musicals fan, a collector of old Beano comics. All this, all of his identity, erased by the word ‘deceased’. Or so it feels to Emily. She smiles briefly, remembering ‘the parrot is definitely deceased line’ from Monty Python’s famous sketch; a favourite of theirs. This thought takes her to other entertainments. The crime and hospital dramas where once people are dead they become ‘the body’. Silent Witness is the worst. (Great title though.) So many previous friends, acquaintances and work mates of the central characters end up as ‘the body’ on the mortuary slab just days after interactions with the occupants of The Thomas Lyell Centre. What dangerous relationships to have. Only in Midsomer is it necessary to choose one’s friends and acquaintances more carefully. She smiles again. It amazes her that this huge, life-will-never-be-the-same-again, event has happened and she is still able to think of, and be amused by, other things, that she still feels thirsty and hungry, that she still manages to wash and dress and get through her daily chores. Even if at the end of each day she can’t fully remember what she’s done, what’s she’s eaten, what she’s thought.

After deciding on a casket, booking a venue for a post-funeral tea and talking through the ceremony with a celebrant Emily spends a bitter sweet afternoon and evening looking through years of photographs. The children are planning a visual display of some sort at the wake. She’s not quite sure what they’ll do but she’s happy to pick out some of her favourite shots; of Gareth, of Gareth and her, of Gareth and the children and grandchildren. She marvels at how strong and youthful her beloved husband looked until just recently (the later images are on her phone rather than in albums or boxes). It was only in the last few weeks of his six month illness that his muscles had begun to wither and his grip slacken. Tall and long-limbed with a full head of dark hair and a craggy, handsome face Emily had always loved Gareth’s body as well as his mind and his heart. Closing her eyes she is once again in his arms her head tucked underneath his, their legs intertwined. Such an embrace might or might not have led to sex. Either way Emily had always gloried in Gareth’s touch, never not been intoxicated by his scent. Forty-five years of marriage had not dulled their passion, their interest – in and out of the bedroom - in each other. Since his death Emily has slept on her life-partner’s side of the bed clutching one of his old jumpers. But the bed feels different and the smell of him is already fading.

Five weeks later Emily travels the short train distance to the nearest seaside town. She listens to one of Gareth's recordings of Les Miserables during the journey, crying just a little. On her lap is a large bag containing a simple plastic urn. The remains of Gareth’s body are not as heavy as when she collected them from the undertaker. With the family, and the dog, she had scattered half of the ashes in the woodland just ten minutes away from the house they have lived in for the last 32 years. Gareth’s favourite morning walk, they’d taken it together just two days before he died. His strides less confident but still purposeful. His delight in his surroundings undimmed. Today as she looks out to sea Emily’s memory wanders to the many boat trips that started from here. Whilst Gareth fished, she read and bathed in the sun planning the meal they would have with his catch, the wine that might accompany it, and the cuddles and caresses that would likely follow. His body again, she can’t stop thinking of his body. His hand in hers, his sexy smile, his slightly too hairy (for her taste) back. The thoughts are often about the intimacy between them. But also she imagines him throwing one of their grandchildren in the air or frowning over the crossword or hopping round the garage after hitting his thumb with a hammer during a failed DIY attempt. Gareth though is no longer ‘a body’. Gareth no longer has a body. From a man, to ‘the deceased’, to an urn of cremains, Gareth has not bones nor skin, no eyes nor ears. He can no longer walk, wave, shout, kiss. But as she tips the last of the ashes into the sea Emily knows that it matters not as he is, and ever will be, deep within her heart.

  NB: This story will also be published in Letherby, G. (forthcoming)Using fiction, non-fiction and memoir to tell sociological (death) stories’ in Tripathi K and Lamond I (eds) Listening to Death’s Echo: International Critical Autoethnographic Discussions on Death London: Palgrave/Macmillan


No comments:

Post a Comment