“Sylvia died quietly in my arms. She had been choking on her own vomit just moments earlier, then she suddenly went very quiet and still, and then… then….” The speaker, a chubby middle-aged man with soulful brown eyes, seemed to be lost for words and there was the gleam of moisture in his eyes. He sucked in a deep breath, his chest inflating and puffing out and making him look, for just an instant, like the weight on his frame was muscle, and then he sighed it all out again, sagged back to a sack-shape and spoke with a hint of a sob in his voice. “She was my shelter.”
“That’s very nice, Bob,” said Steve, who was running the meeting that week. “What do you mean by ‘she was your shelter’?” Steve was glancing covertly at his 5x8 index cards when he thought no-one was watching him. He’d never run a bereavement meeting before and was trying hard both to get it right and to make a good impression.
“Well,” said Bob looking a little puzzled. “What I said, really. She was my shelter.”
“You mean that she protected you from the emotional storms of life?” Steve nodded as he spoke, trying to encourage Bob to agree with him.
“Uh, no.” said Bob. He shifted a little uncomfortable and the chair, an old wooden thing that had come from a school classroom when the area still had schools, creaked beneath him. “We were homeless, you see, and she would stand up and hold newspaper over us. When it rained anyway, there wasn’t a lot of point doing that at other times. And if it was windy she’d sit there and hold the blankets up on her arms and I’d sit on the base of them, and we’d keep the wind out that way. She was really my shelter. It’s so cold without her. And wet too, when it rains.”
“Uh huh.” Steve shuffled his index cards, hoping for inspiration. This hadn’t been in his book. He could see the corner of it sticking out of his satchel, but he really didn’t want to get it out in front of the group. He would look like such a complete amateur if he did that.
“When’s the funeral?” The speaker was an elderly lady with a hat covered in plastic fruit and a dress that looked like it had been bought during the second world war. Steve knew he’d seen her at a few of the meetings now, but he couldn’t remember he name.
“Oh, no funeral,” said Bob. “They can’t have one without a body, they said. I said I didn’t mind, I’d just come and throw flowers on someone else’s grave if they’d say a few nice things about her and see her off to a better place, but they said it didn’t work like that.”
“Well that’s just selfish,” said the elderly lady. Her voice was low and clear and Steve kept wondering if it was actually her speaking or one of the other members ventriloquising. “They should bury her whether she’s there or not.”
“Um,” said Steve. “I think they do have to have a body to bury, you know. It’s not really a funeral without a body.”
“Well, use someone else’s. I had to share when my Arthur died!”
Steve’s eyes widened, and his fingers twitched. His index cards spilled to the floor while he tried to think of a response.
“What happened to her body anyway?” The elderly lady ignored the fallen cards and turned back to Bob, so Steve ducked down and tried to gather them all up again.
“Oh, I took it back with me when they weren’t looking,” said Bob. “She’d gone all stiff by that point, and I figured that she could still hold up the blankets if I tied them to her arms. Or… no, tied them. I was going to tie an umbrella to her neck too, so that she’d keep the rain off a bit. The worst of it, you know?”
“That’s practical,” said the elderly lady, and Steve heard mumbles and groans of approval from the rest of the group. He was quietly appalled, but the book had said to let people mourn in their own fashion and not impose a different ideal for grieving on to them.
“It didn’t work, she went all floppy,” said Bob. Someone sniggered. “I can’t even get her to stand up now, she just slumps over and her arms and legs go everywhere.”
“Akimbo,” said the elderly lady.
“Bless you,” said Bob. Steve gathered the last of his cards up and popped his head up, but Bob looked sincere. “I’ve got some lumber though, I found it floating in the river. I’m going to try fixing her to that, and if that works she can be my shelter again.”
“That’s lovely,” said another voice, but Steve couldn’t pinpoint in the small group sat on the old wooden chairs. “It’s really nice when people want to help you from beyond the grave. My mother, right, when she died she hated me so much that she pushed all the plates off the shelves and smashed them on the floor. We had to get the kitchen exorcised just to get rid of her. It still smells funny in there.”
“Yeah, well, I thought, why let her go to waste?” said Bob. “I mean, she was my girlfriend, right? So she can keep on helping me out.”
There was an awkward pause while everyone wondered how far Bob was taking this idea and decided not to ask.
“Um,” said Steve. “Are you sure it’s… hygienic to keep her around like that?” He really wanted to say legal, as his book was very clear that you weren’t allowed to own corpses, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. It seemed inconsiderate, and the comments coming from the rest of the group suggested that Bob might have a lot of sympathy there.
“She can’t catch anything, she’s dead,” said Bob. “And I wash her now and then. There’s only a couple of bits have dropped off, and I just varnish them and stick them back on.”
“Clear,” said Bob. There were a couple of “Hear, hears” from the audience. “She wouldn’t look right with a tan at her time of life.”
“Of course not,” said Steve weakly. “Of course not.”