Almost Alive

I’d never got on with Lena, my brother’s wife; she obviously saw me as something of a loser, not least, I suppose, because I was still living in Mum’s old local authority flat in north London. I hadn’t seen either her or Danny for seven years; she was from Chicago and they had moved back there soon after getting married. But despite my difficult relationship with her, I was pleased to hear they were coming to London, and I invited them over, for I had something important to tell Danny.

The moment they walked in the door, I could tell nothing had changed between Lena and me.

“Is your bathroom in a fit state to use?” was the first thing she said to me — after seven years!

When she went to see for herself, Daniel gave me an American-style hug. He was the entrepreneur of the family, and he’d been doing really well over there with two or three car dealerships until he overstretched himself and lost everything. It was because of the bankruptcy proceedings that he hadn’t been able to get back for Mum’s funeral six months earlier. It was about Mum that I needed to speak to him.

“Sorry about Lena,” he said, in his strange-sounding American accent. “I know she can be a pain in the ass, but hey,” he added with a grin, “she’s family.”

I was still wondering how to tell him about Mum when Lena re-entered the kitchen. She was looking around with what could only be described as disdain.

I hadn’t wanted to explain about Mum over the phone or write to Daniel about what I’d done. But, of course, I had to tell him. I just wished Lena wasn’t there. In the end, not knowing how to broach the subject, I just blurted out for him to go look in the living room. He glanced at Lena and shrugged, then stood up and crossed the room. When he opened the living-room door and saw Mum sitting on the sofa with her eyes closed, he was naturally taken aback.

“What the hell…” He swivelled around. “You told me she was dead, you twisted bastard. What’s the matter with you!”

“I know, I’m sorry; I should have explained.”

I wish I could shout from the rooftops the things I’ve done, instead of writing this little confessional. The one thing I hate about my work is the secrecy, the illegality, I suppose you could call it. But I bring joy to lots of people, so why can’t I do it openly?

Let me explain:

As a child, I had a dog, called Spot. When he died, I was devastated; I couldn’t stop crying. My mother (God bless her), seeing how upset I was, took Spot to a taxidermist friend of hers. I will never forget the day when Spot came back. It must have been three or four weeks after he died — I came home from school and saw him standing there on my bed. I knew he wasn’t alive, of course, but he was there, with me again. It was because of that joyful event that I decided to become a taxidermist myself. But it wasn’t until my beloved mother passed away that I found my true calling.

“You did what!” my brother exclaimed.

“Jesus Christ,” Lena cried. “Let’s get out of here, Danny.”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” he told her before turning back to me: “You told me there was a funeral.”

“Yes, there was — of the entrails.”

“Oh my God,” Lena said. “He’s sick, Danny — he’s really sick.”

Although in retrospect I can understand Lena’s reaction, at the time I thought she was being unnecessarily hysterical. For me, there was nothing strange in what I had done; I was used to disemboweling dead bodies — even though they were usually feathered or four-legged ones.

“When I told the funeral director what I wanted to do, he was very sympathetic. He even said he wished he could have had the same done to his own mother.”

“You mean, he was in on it?” Daniel said.

“He had to be — he knew what was in the coffin. But he was well paid for it.”

“I’m telling you, Danny, your brother is not normal.”

“Don’t listen to her, Daniel. Just think how many heartbroken mourners there must be who would love to have the same thing. I’m telling you, if I had a business partner with your acumen…”

“What? Are you kidding? Is that what this is about?”

“Why not? Don’t you remember how Mum had Spot stuffed and how much joy that gave me?”

“He’s certifiable!” Lena screeched. “Danny, for God’s sake, let’s get out of here.”

“What’s wrong with easing people’s pain?” I asked her.

“What’s wrong with it? It’s disgusting and depraved, that’s what’s wrong with it.”

“More to the point,” Daniel said, “you seem to be forgetting that they’ve got ‘plastination’ these days. Even if your idea wasn’t a trifle weird, it’s redundant. With plastination the water and fat are replaced by some kind of plastic, aren’t they? — then the bodies last forever.”

“I don’t want them to last forever. That’s not what it’s about. I want them to last a few years, that’s all — until their loved ones stop grieving. I don’t even know what happened to Spot in the end. I assume he fell apart and was chucked out. It didn’t matter — I was over him by then.”

“Hmm, crazy as it sounds, I see your point,” Daniel said.

“You what?” Lena said. “Are you as insane as your brother? That thing in there isn’t your mother — it’s an empty shell, don’t you realise that?”

“Yeah, but, you have to admit, there are possibilities here,” he said with the beginning of a smile.

“Oh, for God’s sake — this has gone far enough.”

She was fumbling in her bag. She said she was going to call the police.

“The sooner this lunatic is locked up the better.”

She was actually going to turn me in. I couldn’t believe it. Danny couldn’t believe it, either.

“I don’t give a damn if you believe it or not,” she said, pressing numbers on her phone. “He shouldn’t be walking around. He belongs in a lunatic asylum.”

“Don’t be silly, give that to me,” Daniel said.

“No. Get away from me.”

He tried to snatch the phone from her, but she was too quick for him. They began tussling for it — and not in a very friendly way. Daniel was swearing at her, and she was snarling like a wild animal. He almost managed to get the phone from her, when she snatched a kitchen knife from the counter. Daniel grabbed her wrist and pulled her arm down, after which I could no longer see the knife — it was somewhere between them!

I was imagining all kinds of ghastly scenarios and, truth to tell, I suppose I got a bit carried away. As they continued to fight, it occurred to me how convenient it would be if Lena was killed in the struggle. That would certainly put an end to her hysterical objections, and Danny would have no reason to return to the States. We could go into partnership. And I could fix Lena up like I did Mum. Well, she wasn’t bad looking, and if she wasn’t able to open her mouth I might even get to like her.

As I said, I got a bit carried away because in the heat of the moment, worried about Daniel, I picked up a saucepan and took a swing at Lena. There was a dull thud as the pan made contact with her skull. She dropped the knife and sank to the floor.

“What the..! What did you do that for?” Daniel said.

“She was going to stab you.”

“Of course, she wasn’t. Jesus Christ, Stanley, you really are a bloody idiot.”

He was kneeling by her side, looking really distraught. To be honest, I was a little hurt. There was no word of thanks for saving him. I thought he’d be relieved to be rid of her. Maybe it was just as well that the blow only stunned her. While Daniel was still slagging me off, Lena opened her eyes. Although dazed, she was as angry as all hell when she found out what had happened. And she made a bigger fuss than ever when she discovered the lump on her head.

“Feel that,” she said to Daniel. “Go on, feel it. If being attacked by that lunatic doesn’t warrant calling the police, what does?”

Daniel managed to calm her down, but she made it perfectly clear that she didn’t want to stay anywhere near me for a moment longer than necessary. Daniel was still angry with me as well. I think all three of us were relieved when they left.

When they’d gone, I sat on the sofa with Mum. I always found it comforting to sit with her. Sometimes, we’d listen to the radio together, or I would brush her hair like I used to when I was young. Without wanting to boast, I had done a very good job on her. But now I was wondering if I’d been wrong in doing what I’d done. I even began to think that perhaps Lena had a point when she said that it was sick. I didn’t know what to do. I wish I could have asked Mum what she thought.

I began to realise that it might be best if I gave up my big idea and stuck to working on animals. And, in the end, that’s what I did.

At least, that was what I intended to do. But things don’t always work out as you intend, do they? Less than a month later, that friendly funeral director contacted me, asking me to do one of his customers a favour. I tried to refuse, but he insisted — he even hinted that he might tell the authorities about my mother if I didn’t cooperate. And no sooner had I done that job than he began to pester me about doing the same for another of his customers. Then — don’t ask me how because that whole thing was supposed to be a secret — the word began to spread, and before I knew what was happening, I was working for three different funeral directors. I had to stop taking orders for animals altogether.

I know some people (like Lena) think what I do is wrong, but if the need is there who am I to object? And, to tell the truth, it’s such a pleasure to see the faces of grieving relatives being presented with what I’ve done with their loved ones. Like I said to Lena that time, what’s wrong with easing people’s pain?

I haven’t seen her or Daniel since they stormed out. I suppose they went back to Chicago. But at least I’ve still got Mum. I don’t know what I’d do without her.

Photo by Nick Karvounis on Unsplash


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