[I have written before — right here, as a matter of fact — about Quin and his dying and my writing stories about that. It seemed only fair to post one of those stories here, to be clear what I was talking about. This and other Quin stories, along with a number of very different tales, can be found in my award-winning collection “Bitter Waters” from Lethe Press.]
When you’re burying a man, you can give a lot of time to what he wears, how he looks, what he takes with him. That last, especially. You don’t have to get all Ancient Egyptian on his ass, he’s probably not Tutankhamun, but — well, it’s a thing. You can do it.
Us, we stood around his bed and cracked a litre of Stolichnaya. Shot-glasses straight from the freezer, the way he’d taught us all to drink it: we drank him a toast of parting shots, wetted his forehead, opened his wardrobes and set to work. Dressing Miss Daisy, Micky called it.
We’d already washed and shaved him, we were good at that; it was routine, we’d been doing it a year already. I would’ve liked to have his hair cut, but none of us was competent with scissors and who can you ask, to do that? We were sending him on shaggy, then — but we did touch up his roots, not to let him go greyly.
Underwear was simple, a pair of his favourite Calvins; he’d seen a banned advert once, dissolved into hysterical lust and never wore anything else after. Clean black jeans and a silk shirt, the Issey Miyake jacket with the mandarin collar that he loved, all of that was straightforward.
We argued over footwear, because he hated his smart shoes. For preference he went around in sandals and socks, and we all hated that and always had. He’d have been thrilled, to know that we were still fighting over his feet. In the end, we decided he could go barefoot. Clouds are fluffy, and the road to hell is notoriously well-paved; he’d be fine, either way.
We crossed his legs for comfort — “sorted for ease,” Sally said — and because we were all settling in to make a night of it, and because he’d always been a crusader. We laid his hands across his belly, fingers linked, because he used to do that when he was drunk or tired or bored enough, when he was just sitting back and listening while we bickered and flirted and debated great matters all around him, and you’d think we did it entirely for his amusement. Likely we did.
Then it was all about decoration. His favourite rings, that had grown too heavy for his fingers: they could go back on now, the jet and the jade and the skull-knuckle silver ring. They were too loose, but that didn’t matter any more. He wouldn’t be flinging his hands around to make his points again, his stillness did that for him.
No watch — he used to say there never was that much hurry, that a man had to carry the time on his person; and I never knew him late, though it was odd how often the rest of us turned out to be early — but we plaited leather thongs around his wrist, and each of us tied a knot in the trailing ends to hold them.
Around his throat, what he liked to call his giveaway: “I’m a creature of the seventies,” he used to say, “medallion man to the core.” Only his medallion hung on a fine silver chain and was silver itself, a moon in crescent, the bulk of its disc black and secret, with just that sliver shining. He loved that.
A silver Bajoran cuff on his right ear, with the finest imaginable chain linking it to the sleeper in the lobe. In his left, a stud of white gold, which was all the gold he ever had or wanted: one of a pair, and these days Gerard wore the other. Gerard wasn’t there. He’d given this to us to do, which was either acutely generous or an acute surrender, and I wasn’t sure which.
We’d already ruled out a post-mortem tattoo, even if we could have found someone to ink it. We had discussed it, though. He’d have liked that.
Nothing left, then, bar what went into his pockets or into the coffin with him. Much of that was standard, those things he always used to carry in his jeans when he was still able for it, when he was up and about: his purse with all his credit cards in case he needed money, house keys in case he wanted to come home. A corkscrew, a toothpick. Loose change. He liked to jingle a little as he went.
In his right-hand outer jacket pocket, a fresh pack of Winstons and a lighter, because he hadn’t been able to smoke for a long time now and he’d want that; left-hand outer pocket, a flask of Lagavulin. The last thing he drank in this life, first drink in the next.
Left-hand inner pocket, a wallet of photographs: his mum, his sister, us. Some of us individually or in twos and threes, the ones he’d taken himself; and then the team photo, all of us together at the foot of his bed on the day he came home from hospital, the day we started nursing him ourselves. All of us bar him. He took photographs, he didn’t appear in them. He used to say he wasn’t interested in how he looked to other people, only in how they looked to him. It wasn’t true, of course, which is why he found it necessary to invent.
Right-hand inner pocket, his passport. We’d renewed that for him just six months ago, when he was long past leaving his bed. He’d need it now, wherever he was going.
In the same pocket, because every journey involves longeurs, he’d want a book. We gave him — no, we let him keep — his copy of Religio Medici, a slim Victorian edition with the leather long since worn to a butter softness. That’d see him through.
Tucked under his arm, of course, a cuddly toy. How not, when it would infuriate him to find her there? Besides, she had a function: this was Vespa, the vast fluffy wasp we’d bought him years back and hung on the back of his door to remind him never to go out without his epinephrine.
That, of course, was the moment that Alix yelped, and scurried out of the room; and came back a minute later, blushing and laughing, with his EpiPen in her hand. We’d almost sent him off without it.
So that went into his jacket pocket with the fags, because there was nothing he liked better than a smoke after a crisis; and then we were done. The vodka was gone, but hey, there’s always another bottle. And this was a wake and a houseparty and, what, did anybody imagine we were going to bed tonight…?
At some uncertain time during that long night, when the others were all out in the kitchen, concocting some witches’-brew punch to welcome Gerard home, I slipped into the front room — laughingly renamed the parlour, just for the occasion, because that’s what he would have done — and I added one little memento of my own, slipping it into his pocket with the rest of his loose change. My lucky silver dollar, that I’d been carrying since I was thirteen, since my astronomer-uncle sent it to me from Mount Palomar: the design showed an eagle with an olive-branch in its claws, descending on the moon. It was a sharp counterpoint to his own moon-medallion, and I wanted him to have something that would hurt one of us, at least.
Later we gave Gerard some time with him alone, while we went out walking in the dawn mist and the chill of it, climbing a hill and passing a bottle from hand to hand, drinking one more toast on the summit. And then — at last, too soon, whichever, both — it was properly tomorrow, and we had to let him go. See him off. We had to be good in public, dress as sober as he was and act as quiet in church and at the graveside and over sandwiches and squash in the church hall after. His sister presided, while his mother sat quiet and proud and miserable in her wheelchair at a table in the corner. One by one we all went over to do the dutiful by him as well as her, listening to her and failing utterly to recognise her son in anything she said.
And when that was over, we could go home and there could be wine in plenty or whisky for those that wanted it, the rest of that bottle of Lagavulin; and it turned out that I was the only one who wanted it, so I did that, I applied myself to what I wanted most.
Then Tig started rolling joints and sending them around, clockwise and anticlockwise each in turn, so I got them coming and going; and eventually between the whisky and the dope it was me that was going, losing contact, drifting hard.
And when I was roused, when Gerard roused me everyone else had gone, seemingly; and he said, “Not so much a wake, more a sleep, eh? Bed for you, sweets. I’ve made up the spare, so shift yourself.”
So I did that, I shifted myself upstairs: through the bathroom on autopilot, toothbrush and towel, and so to the little boxroom where I must have dossed a hundred times when we were sharing shifts, while he was slowly slowly dying in the room below, breathing no more than a leaf breathes, heedless and fractional.
I tumbled into bed and slept, or passed out if you’re not polite; and woke in the deep dark, to a terrible sense of presence.
I hadn’t thought to pull the curtains, and I could see him, almost, as a shadow against the stars; I hadn’t closed the window either, and I could smell him like rain on the road outside, like the risen roots of matter.
I lay very still and didn’t speak, didn’t breathe; felt watched, watched over, not free after all. As though there were still expectations, and I had better not disappoint.
And then he was gone and I could breathe again, like a child at Christmas who has been desperate not to let his father guess that he was still awake, not to spoil an adult’s pleasure in a supposed secret; and I was still dizzy unless I was dizzy again, and I went spinning away again into incoherent dreaming, and didn’t wake again till it was full day.
And when I did, when I roused and sat up and fumbled for my glasses on the bedside cabinet, the first thing I found was my lucky silver dollar, laid gently down for my fingers to discover, clean and cool and misted with the breath of leaves.