A Trick I Learned from Dead Men
Author:Kitty Aldridge

4


A grey start but brightening up in the morning with some patchy cloud later on



I WALK HOME. Shake off the day’s woes. Highways and byways. Flyover, lanes, woods: gives you peace of mind. Let the dead men sleep. Spend all day with the deceased you’ll feel alive on your way home, trust me. Not that I’m complaining. I enjoy my job. I am the eyes and ears for those who see and hear nothing. I keep them up to date with weather, goings-on. I let them know the forecast for their funeral. No joke. Wait till it’s yours. Will the sun shine? Snow? Gale force winds? Plain old pissing down? We’d all like to know. On the day you return to dust how about a blue sky? Some prefer a belting storm. Point is people like a forecast.

If I was at B&Q I might have won Employee of the Week by now. We don’t do Employee of the Week at Shakespeare’s. We should. Good scheme. Keeps everyone on their toes. A customer is a customer; service is service, I see no difference because customers are deceased. Splitting hairs, as Derek would say.

Which would you prefer? Old knobby fiddlesticks at W. D. Brookes Funeral Services on the High Street showing you the best view up his nostrils? Not to mention his other propensities, as yet unproven, but. Or me?

I’d want a friendly face. A good morning Mr Hart, looks like rain, not to worry, dry as a bone in here.

Mental, yes. But then it’s you lying there. Who knows what the dead catch hold of? Not me, not you. Not yet.

I’m home! Old habits die hard.

Ned is watching TV in Lester’s chair. Lip-reading Sky News. I switch it off.

He throws back his head, blows through his mouth. The deaf are noisy. Ned slurps, chews, smacks his lips. Stands to reason, not his fault. Like a whale shoots air out the top of his head, Ned blasts it out his mouth. Like he has been at great depths when he is, in fact, a shallow person. Funny, because when he’s going mental on the trampoline you’d think he wants to go up and never come down. When all he has to do is hold his breath, float off like a hot air balloon. Adios.

I sign him the alternatives for tea. Don’t know the sign for risotto. I have become more cosmopolitan in the kitchen. I mouth it. Ri. Sott. O. Ned has a dead face when he reads you, it’s the concentration – it’s why his smile takes you all the more by surprise. He smiles at things no one smiles at: shadows, vibrations, rain, knives. His face lets you see everything, no holds barred. Naked, you could call it. Most faces have learned to cover up their nakedness. Only little kids and Ned go as they are.

He had a girlfriend once, Janey. She had a cochlear implant. He met her at a BDA Youth Group Night in Reigate. Les drove him there and back; the last deaf event he ever attended, as it turned out. When she ended it, Ned cut himself off. Closed up shop. Kaput.

He thinks about his dinner. I hug him from behind, surprise him. Boo. He pushes me off. Hates it he does, hugs. I wrap my arms around, squeeze him. He kicks and squirms. I wrestle him for a hug. He can’t stand it, any kind of touching. I have to chase him, hold him down. I kiss his head. He gives in in the end. I reckon it’s good for him. I do it anyway. No harm done.

I often eat standing up if Ned doesn’t come down. I do Lester’s on a tray. I should run an old people’s home, perhaps: Oldbastards.com. Think on. Time to consider my options. In the old days Les used to say please and thank you, now he says, Fetch us the paper, Fetch us a fresh tea. I prefer working with the deceased. They’re better-mannered and you get job satisfaction. I could never go back to the land of the living, not now.

Water swishes upstairs and the pipes let off a groan. Five generations of farmers have lived here, all our grandfathers going back. Granted, this cottage needs some work, plumbing and electrics for starters. Over the years the fields were sold off, lot by lot. She sold the last when Ned was born. Her ashes lie in the ground her family tilled for a hundred years but we hold no claim on it now. Somewhere out there with her rest the bones of our great-grandfather, feeding the GM crops.

Just after she was diagnosed we lay together on the settee, her and me. We watched the fire flames – not a real fire, gas, but still. Everyone is relying on you, she says. I know you won’t let me down. Her fingers lay in mine. She stroked my hair. No one else was in the house. I think about this sometimes.

Farming is no life for you boys, she used to say. Farming ties you down. Get out there and do your own thing. The world is your oyster, she told us.

Sun is low, gold light spreads behind the hill. Shadows on the field. I take myself out. Crow cries on the boundary, like a human voice realising he’s forgotten something. I sit with my back to the fence. Let the day blow by. Crow always turns up in the end, glides in like a dirty thought – patience is a virtue. Vainest bird in Christendom. I spot him at the top of the highest tree.

Good evening, Lee. On your walkabout?

That I am. How-do?

He bides his time. The silver blink once, twice, tells me he is thinking. Slippery customer. We have an understanding. People see Lee Hart, trainee undertaker, they think of death. People see Crow, deliverer of dark omens, they think of death. Reapers me and him both; nice to have something in common.

The field, the house, the pylons; she used to say if she were a painter she’d paint it. She wanted to leave something behind, once she knew she was dying. I wanted to say, You’re leaving me and him behind. But I didn’t.

I stop by the phone mast.

Buongiorno. How goes it?

Mast is busy getting people get connected. A job to do. Communication technology, excellent choice. This old grey pole has got them all talking. Natter natter natter. Me and mast stand there, silent like old friends.

I would have gone with a hammer to find him, the girl-chaser. As I understand it, no one has been apprehended as of yet. Across the fields towards the woods, I would have gone straight away, before her tears dried; along the east field set-aside, where you can’t be seen from the woods. Slip through the electric fence at the broken place. Quick as a flash. If I’d caught up with him, that would have been my day. Tock, tock. Job done. Arrivederci. He won’t be bothering anyone again, no more chasing with intent on our lane. No need to thank me, it was no problem. I realise he is unlikely to repeat his behaviour at the exact same location but if he does fancy a walk down memory lane, buenos dias, here I am. I don’t see it happening, but then who sees anything coming? Only after the fact when it’s too late. That’s the trouble, the future stands behind you, waiting to say boo.

I stroll up the woods; same old, but never the same sky, trees, wind. You have to pay attention. You can go through your life half asleep. You may never wake up. You may never realise you were even alive if you’re not careful. I am careful.

I walk the same way. Past the stumps by the fence then along a twisty path into the heart of the wood where it gets dark. Me and Ned used to play here. I used to sign him the names of things he should know: squirrel, pigeon, bra, knickers. Mum and me used to walk here, once upon a time. The three of us would watch the sunset through the trees. This earth is a beautiful place, she’d say. Don’t waste your lives. We won’t, I said. As if. I still collect sticks for kindling, short ones. Dry them in the kitchen, right size for the wood burner.

The last of the sun pulls the trees into thin shadows. Somewhere a fox is barking. Reminds me of our first ever trophy when we were kids. A dead fox flattened on the south-bound fast lane. A beauty. Ned’s mission was to collect. This was then, but it could be yesterday. I gave him his instructions. Speed was critical, I told him. So, trot-trot. Off he goes. Arms out. Hurry up. Look at him, dainty as. Watch me, Gog! he signs. Yes yes, get on with it. Taking his time. Come on. Peels it off the tarmac. Get a move on. For fucks. Sort it out. Here he comes. Better late than. Mad dash. Through the gap in the traffic. Took your time! Pleased with himself he was. Draped in his arms was our fox: twisted, innards swinging. Stinking to the highest. Then he wants to take it home. Talk about a few bricks short of a load. We bury it in a ditch by the flyover. Ned drops to his knees to pray, God knows where he saw that.

The sun is nearly gone. The last light turns the trees black. I sit down under the big beech. I wait. I don’t know what for.

It’s late when I lock up at night. Les watches TV till the early hours. I boil the kettle for Ned’s drink. I shouldn’t baby him, but. Helps him sleep. It’s only Tesco Value Instant, not Cadbury’s. Calms him down. From the landing window you can see plenty if the moon’s up. Woods, field, lane. The mast is a giant’s dagger plunged in. Magic could happen but it never does.