In the Dead Man’s House, by Miriam Vaswani

In the dead man’s house, Christmas lights are looped through hooks attached to the cornice. I wonder if the loops are remnants from a long-ago celebration, or if someone bought them for the occasion of his after-death party.

Not a wake, a party. Christ, what bullshit. When I die I want everyone in black suits, bad shoes and minimal make-up, like they’re all going to a job interview at a third-rate bank. I want them to go home drunk with insipid sandwiches clogging their gullets, to remember how much better it was when I was alive.

The dead man’s lover walks amongst us. He looks like he’s suffering from motion sickness. Like he’s just thrown up on an embankment, and is going to tell us he’ll be okay as long as he keeps his eyes on the road. His wine glass dangles in a pale hand. He fiddles with couch cushions, adjusts the blinds. I add up their years together, and the sum is greater than the years he has left to live with his grief. Or I with mine.

The dead man’s mother is dead. The dead man’s father is here. He walks to the dead man’s lover and puts a hand on his shoulder. They stand together; grey, fraternal. Their suits, which looked sharp in the deflected light of the church and the crematorium, no longer fit. They sag at the knees. They collapse at the shoulders.

“I had it dry cleaned”, the dead man’s lover said to me earlier, “but there was no time to adjust it. I didn’t want to prepare, I suppose.”

It will continue to not fit his aging shoulders, which will waste. This will not be noticed by the dead man, who paid attention to these things and was always the one who took clothes to be adjusted, aired the mattresses, remembered birthdays.

“I should have dusted the bookshelves”, he said. “There’s dust in the corners. This is terrible.”

The dead man’s lover has lost the plot. But that’s what a dead man’s lover is supposed to do, and who wouldn’t go mad in this room full of ridiculous flowers? Giant novelty thistles and ornamental cabbages, yellow roses because they were the dead man’s favourite.

And what am I supposed to do? Well. These people are my friends. I talk to them. Dear Jean, the first friend I made in this city, with her mournful jowls, Andrew with his ludicrous young wife. When were we last together like this? I help myself to wine because the caterers were sent away after setting up the buffet. They’ll return to clear the debris. It’s perverse, this food. It was specified by the dead man before he died, and I wonder what the hell he was thinking. There’s a reason people traditionally eat concoctions of white bread and egg at wakes. It’s the only food sad enough to match the occasion.

These chocolate cupcakes, on the other hand, should be thrown from the window and left for the seagulls and pigeons to fight over. Red icing, for goodness sake, and a single raspberry jammed on top like a diseased nipple. I won’t get started on the mini hamburgers, which are meant to be stylish. The caterers looked like they were about to burst into song when we arrived, happy birthday or something like that, then thought better of it. They looked embarrassed, but other people’s grief is embarrassing. Being in a room with grieving people when you are not grieving is like being an uninvited guest at a dinner party.

Conspicuous for her absence is the dead man’s daughter. She lives far away, though not so far away she couldn’t have come to his funeral. I phoned her, to her annoyance, and asked if I could buy her a plane ticket. She declined. She has work to do. Well, who doesn’t have work to do?

The dead man’s daughter has become one of those people who like to give the impression that their own work is much more important and time-consuming than, for example, the work of the dead man’s secretary, who has just slipped out of the flat with a cold brush of her lips on several cheeks. She’s gone to the dead man’s office to sort out pertinent affairs before his staff (a modest team of five auditors and two juniors), return on Monday to be informed of the future of the business. Then she will go home for a cup of tea or a gin and tonic. I’ve been to her home, a large flat in the Southside of Glasgow with antique furniture and towers of books, including an original edition of The Joy of Sex.

The dead man’s daughter is researching a long, elusive variety of grass in the Taiga. I suspect there is a man, though she’d never tell me about that sort of thing. I imagine him as tall, straggly-bearded, unfashionable, resembling the grass they research together. The sort of man we used to call a beanpole.

The dead man was sick for years. He was old and, as they say, ready to go. He prepared himself privately, and the rest of us slowly, a quality of character the dead man’s lover referred to in his eulogy this morning (always looking after his loved ones, always thinking of…). It wasn’t unexpected, but what will I do now? What in the hell will I do. The dead man listened to me. So did the dead man’s lover, on long, laughing evenings over the dinner table, in the sitting room with glasses of brandy or wine or coffee. God, how we laughed. I wonder if we’ll continue to laugh, the two of us, when we’ve become used to his absence.

I wonder if young people still know how to laugh. I hear them crowding in and out of the subway, weaving along the street, piled on top of one another in pubs. Their laughter sounds like it’s coming from the inside of a scrubbed tin. It’s a laugh that is held out like money, wanting to be allowed in and knowing no other way of gaining access. But into where, I would like to know.

Maybe my hearing is failing. That might be the case. Perhaps laughter remains unchanged, like letter writing, which despite what people my age say is exactly the same as it was half a century ago. It’s only formatted differently, delivered instantly. The main things, which are personal risk and the weighing of information, haven’t altered.

The letters the dead man and I sent to each other are still with me. They begin nearly fifty years in the past, and apart from a gap of six months when he had a badly broken arm, the letters are regular. I include in these the notes from the time we lived together in this flat. These were about shopping (tea, beef, oranges) and books (Have you seen my copy of…?). They were about other things, which some would say are more important (I’m writing while you’re at work, my dearest love, because I don’t know how to express…).

That woman over there, the one trying to pick a bit of salmon from her teeth with the caterers’ business card, is the dead man’s cousin. A distant cousin who, if you believe what you hear, once imagined she’d marry him. This was when distant cousins in nice families often married each other, and marriage itself was a thing everyone thought was, if not important, inevitable.

That’s not why I married the dead man. In fact, I didn’t marry him at all, we lived together before it was ordinary, and allowed people to believe we’d been hitched in a ceremony on a Greek Island. Ten years or so later this woman, who is mincing toward me, took my hand in hers and parroted a platitude I can’t recall but which made me laugh aloud in the gruesome Partick café she’d insisted we go to. There was a swirl of something oily in my tea, I remember, and the wind blew chip paper against the grubby window. I apologized for laughing at her, but she never forgave me. I don’t blame her. She wanted, perhaps needed, my sadness and humiliation. I had none for her, nor for anyone else, least of all myself.

People assume a woman in my position doesn’t know. Or is so desperate to hang on to her husband she chooses to believe the patently ridiculous. People assume the man is lying to the woman, pretending to be god knows where while circling Kelvingrove Park, dizzy with lust. Another assumption is that love involves an ordered combination of affection, habit, sex and jealousy. Well, it just goes to show.

I met the dead man nearly fifty years ago, under the stone arches of The University of Glasgow. Not in a pub or café or park, not in a gloomy student flat inhabited by long-forgotten classmates, not in a lecture hall. Certainly not in a lecture hall, for a medical student and an aspiring historian, soon to switch to a degree in finance to the temporary annoyance of his parents, do not attend the same lectures. We must, however, have been in the same places at the same times before this meeting, for we recognized one another.

We were under the arches with visitors. We were amateur tour guides, each showing relatives, Londoners for him and Vancouverites for me, the Dear Green Place. We formed a group that day and went to an Italian café for ice cream, then to the park for an amateur production of King Lear. I don’t recall the specifics of the conversation or the weather, apart from a few sunlit raindrops shivering on a bush.

I was meant to stay for nine months, but I won a scholarship and it was easy enough to emigrate in those days, the Commonwealth still being relevant, at least on paper. I added a British passport to my Canadian one, put them both in a leather wallet and thought no more of it.

After several years of living together in Glasgow and a hallucinatory summer on Vancouver Island, we decided to buy this flat. We inhabited different bedrooms of a sooty tenement at the time, with an old outhouse languishing in the close, visited by the restless friends of our twenties and a succession of lovers who we talked about over coffee (a continental affectation in those days) in our kitchen. The kitchen had a formica table that people would pay a fortune for now. How I wish I’d stolen it when we signed the papers for this place nearly a year later, buoyed by financial gifts from older relatives who said, in various ways, we were an ideally matched couple with good heads on our shoulders. By this time they believed we were married, after that holiday in Greece and a joke postcard to a cousin that was taken altogether too seriously, and in a way so did we. Hadn’t we promised, without saying so, that we’d spend our lives together? Why make it difficult.

I was invited to Sunday dinner with his family in Dowanhill and he was invited for holidays with my family in Victoria. We were given privacy, which included a shared room and shared bed to fall asleep in, giggling quietly about flatulent great-aunts and appalling birthday cakes. When people stayed with us he’d move into my room, allowing the impression that his was the guest room.

This illusion extended from family to friends. It was a different time, entirely. Perhaps those who loved the dead man were happy to believe he’d settled down with a woman, given that the alternative was relentless worry. It was a time when men were jailed and castrated, denied their livelihoods, kept from their children. With a woman he was safe.

We woke one morning in my bed, still drunk from a dinner party the evening before. Our friends from Inverness were in his room. We could hear them making love. It was a beautiful, temperamental April, when dawn came just a few hours after dusk and we slept with the windows open. His mouth was on mine when I woke, or perhaps mine was on his. Then our tongues were in one another’s mouths, our hands on one another’s skin. It was simple. That was our consummation. It became regular, if not frequent.

The dead man’s daughter came much later, to indulgent smiles and a level of relief from both our families that we found amusing. After a fussy babyhood, one of only two times in my life I’ve questioned my sanity, she thrived, riding her bicycle in the park and marching along the street beside us. Her hair shone like new rope. She was a confident girl. That is how we raised her, but that is how she would have been with or without our intervention. From her father she gained the ability to concentrate on an intricate problem, and a love of history. From me she learned to clean her own wounds and deal with uppity shop girls.

From the dead man’s lover she learned about plants. On his arrival in her life, when she was at the age when a girl is torn between climbing trees and playing with anatomically ludicrous dolls, he helped her grow peppers in pots on the kitchen windowsill. This project progressed to an old iron bathtub behind the flat which they transformed into a flower garden. Later, there was an allotment with practical gourds and impractical roses. She arrived at secondary school with a smug knowledge of plant species that annoyed her teachers.

Of course things changed, and while I felt some sadness for the way life would never be again, I didn’t begrudge him. I was content, still, with my promenade of men. He wanted only one.

We rearranged things. For years we all lived together, drinking wine in the evenings after she’d gone to sleep, playing jazz records, sometimes dancing. The Cold War settled around us, the failed independence referendum came and went. There were hunger strikes, IRA bombs, poll tax demonstrations, Nelson Mandela, blue eye shadow, The Falklands, Idi Amin, perms, The Sex Pistols, The Berlin Wall, shoulder pads, Perestroika. We talked furiously, the three of us, about who we were, who we would be, who anyone would be.

The dead man’s daughter sometimes joined us as she grew older, impressing us with a knack for deadpan humour. I remember it as a happy time, but surely I had moments of irritation. I missed getting into bed with him and talking until we fell asleep. That is certain. I can’t deny, however, that all our lives gained depth and pleasure.

I started to walk with the dead man’s lover late at night. We were both bad sleepers and fond of wandering under streetlights, pausing to admire the way the black clouds covered and uncovered the moon. Once, after smoking a bit of weed I’d carried back from British Columbia in my hand luggage, we walked hand-in-hand through the west end giggling, looking up at the clouds and alternately taking slugs from a bottle of Rioja we’d taken from the kitchen. We wandered into the park and sat under a bush inventing a perfect desert island. His involved a lot of plants I’d never heard of. Mine had a large bathtub and a wine cellar. We staggered home at dawn, trailing dew and wet leaves up the close steps.

Those clouds moved fast. I missed them terribly a few years later, when the dead man’s daughter left to test her knowledge of Siberian vegetation and I departed for what would become four years in a chaotic hospital in the southern United States. American clouds move slowly through a big sky, too big to detect the curve of the earth. I learned to fix gunshot wounds rather than complicated knife work. Bullets, I discovered, do more damage and less harm than a blade. I decided that Scottish violence was characterised by intimacy, and American violence by detachment. Canadian violence remained blurry to me; I flew to Vancouver the day they began digging women’s bodies out of a pig farm. The property, the newspaper said, was patrolled by a massive boar. There were fewer details about the dead women, but much implied.

I began to imagine that humankind was suffering from an imbalance of the ingredients we should ideally have, and that this could be solved by a formula that was yet to be discovered. I wondered what life lessons the dead man’s daughter was learning in the northern parts of Russia, and what records the dead man and his lover were listening to in Scotland. I diagnosed myself with depression, probably connected with loneliness and menopause, the latter I’d otherwise greeted with affection. I decided to cure it with a prescription and a flight back to Scotland.

The caterers have been and gone, leaving neatly boxed remains of giant chips in cones of faux-newspaper, bottles of acidic wine and wilting blobs of brie. The dead man’s lover has, with some difficulty, removed the dead man’s cousin who wept conspicuously against his chest, wetting his suit and the breast of her synthetic dress. The dead man’s father has been escorted by a young relative to his ground floor flat on Hyndland Road, where he lives with a collection of leather-bound history books, an army of model airplanes and is visited daily by a home help who we all believe (and hope, it must be said, for she is a pleasant and cheerful woman) is his lover. I’ve promised to visit him in the morning for brunch. I intend to take imported fruit from the Jamaican grocers and pastries from the café on Byres Road that always has a queue down the pavement, even on rainy days. I believe a day can be built around these rituals, and those of us who grieve must have ritual. The alternative is a desert of time. The alternative is nothing.

“Who chose these flowers, you or him?” The flat is empty, except for me and the dead man’s lover, settled with our brandy in the lamplit room. He pauses for a long while, looking through the bay window. The wind picks up, rattles the glass, falls away.

“Him.” He whispers it. Him. Not his name; the dead man’s lover will not say the dead man’s name.

“Easy to blame a dead man.”

“It’s true.” He smiles into his drink. “He said you’d be disgusted.”

“Should we get started?” I don’t want to move from this chair, but I will.

“I had hoped…” He leans into himself, like a textbook skeleton, age-riddled. A yellowing one I remember from a lecture hall, limp on its stand, dressed at the end of the year in a cheap suit. A fedora on its head, a cigarette glued to its molars.

“We could wait for her.”

“No. Let’s get on with it.”

We go to the study, brandy in hand, where three small boxes are stacked against the wall, in a gap between the desk and window. They are metal, fireproof, locked. The dead man’s lover lifts a mug of sharpened pencils from the desk and tips it onto the leather blotter. Three small keys shine.

I curl into the corner of the couch, wearing socks borrowed from the dead man’s chest of drawers, where a copy of Mayakovsky’s poems lay tented. The dead man’s lover sits across from me. Between us, photographs are stacked; a pile to keep, a pile to take to the library. This is what interests people, now; the lives of people like us who they imagine led such different lives. Our sex illicit, our fibs burdensome. I saw it in the young archivist’s eyes, the boy of no more that thirty years who has been pestering us for months, for relics. Something he can display alongside casualties of our time, like poor young Turing.

What bullshit. Yet, here we are.

In my hand, a photo of the four of us beside Loch Lomond. The dead man stands beside a portable barbecue wearing soaked swimming trunks, one hand held to the side with a skewered fish smoking in the sun. The dead man’s lover lies on a blanket I once loved, the child beside him, a cigarette in his hand, a towel covering his face. A white shirt buttoned over a pale chest. There’s a smudge on the lens, a finger, mine. I’m a dreadful photographer. The dead man’s daughter has turned away; all I see is her hair blending into the grass, a thin leg extended.

“We’re history.”

The dead man’s lover laughs, a solid laugh this time, at the poverty of my joke. Such a sound on a night like this, like hearing the young man he was, laughing as I danced in this room with the dead man, vinyl crackling, both of us too drunk to stay upright.

Miriam Vaswani is the author of Frontier, a novella published by Pankhearst in 2014. Her fiction and non-fiction has appeared in Gutter Magazine, Valve Journal, The Skinny, Gender Across Borders, Tin House, Newfound, Poetry Scotland, Retort, Our Penniless Write and the anthology Whereabouts: Stepping Out Of Place. She covered the Edinburgh International Book Festival as a columnist for three years and was fiction editor of Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine from 2012 to 2014. Her short story Under Water was nominated for the 2014 Pushcart Prize. She tweets at @miriamvaswani 

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