Shane was a DAO (Deceased Affairs Officer) working the Stockport area and, like most people, had fallen into his job shortly after school, abetted by a lack of qualification or self-knowledge to encourage active choice. He took comfort from the fact that its poor pay and prospects were compensated by being largely out ‘in the field’, rather than perpetually deskbound as with an average office job; and that its morbid, often depressing, aspects, which saw some people last a month in the role, seemed to suit his character. There was something compelling to him about investigating the affairs of a dead person without kith or kin, where no one came forward to claim the body, or say this was a friend or loved one. There was something compelling in seeing the line of oblivion so close at hand, where the moment of death was an effacement from the world’s memory. To be clear, he was not the police. He was simply a tidier, an administrator of finalities, a human dedicated to typing up the loose ends of another human’s end, when there was none but the state to do so.
He was thirty-seven now, and had been doing what he did, under some title or guise, for approaching twenty years. Governments came and went, taking their fresh-fangled drives, policies and argots with them; the economy kept its customary cadence of growths fathering recessions, and recessions begetting growths – stretching the social fabric all the while, billowing minds with avarice or fear; but his contribution never changed: there was always the demand for his services. If anything, the demand had grown. Each year there were more bodies lying undiscovered for weeks or months in a tenement block, or in a semi-detached, and when the neighbours were asked, ‘did you know the old lady next door?’, they would shrug and say that they’d seen her a couple of times, that she kept herself to herself, that they’d only just moved to the area themselves.
There was never any corpse in situ when he first paid the property a visit. It was one of those great ironies that might set a certain type of person chuckling that he’d never seen a body in the course of his work. But, generally, the decay and disintegration had made their mark, with the smell of putrefaction grimly there when he opened the door, or a bleak stain visible on the deceased’s mattress, from which the bedclothes had been stripped and taken for burning. The years had anaesthetised his physical senses to all of this, but not his sense of pity; while bodily coping mechanisms like breathing through his mouth had become second nature, he couldn’t shed the sorrow at what seemed a terrible indignity. And sometimes in it all he saw the shape and shadow of his own departure: his parents were gone; he had no siblings; no wife; no children. His mind conjured his own end, post-retirement: his few friends having moved away, or dying off; his neighbours changing regularly; him passing away, like these poor souls, and no one checking up until the hum couldn’t be ignored. That thought process, of course, was what had finally led him into trouble.
He had several colleagues but there was always a shortfall. It was another of those great ironies that there were droves of people up and down the country spending hours a day in secretive curtain-twitching on the lives of their neighbours, or in less secretive but just as gratifying consumption of TV dedicated to ‘real’ lives and all their whipped-up drama; and here was he, licensed by the state to open the door on a real life – real without the inverted commas – yet it was a job virtually no one wanted.
The shortfall on good, experienced officers was greater still. There was an established protocol or ‘tick list’ for a DAO to follow on entry to the home, but any officer worth their salt, like any decent investigator, needed no recourse to a list. Opening the door on a life was a skill. Or rather, the ability to make some sense of it was: the protocol said to look for birth certificates, passports, bills, receipts, other paperwork – anything that might reveal the history and family of the departed, and where a person to pay for the funeral might be found – but it couldn’t legislate for the moments when old newspaper cuttings stored in the loft, of a child in Red Indian costume at some local fair or other, started you down the road to locating a son long grown up, estranged and living under another name in Australia.
His downfall had started with the case of an old gentleman. Considered objectively, the case had nothing exceptional to it, or that heralded a tipping-point. In life the big decisions are seldom known for what they are, at the time that they are taken, just as unexpiable sins are rarely born in moments of quick and clean transgression; wolves in sheep’s clothing, the points of inconsequence become, by increment and degree, the waypost, then the watershed. In fact it was an image of water that often came to him in the aftermath of what he’d done. He was reminded of the bust pipe he’d had in his house some years before, which he’d wrapped in a thick towel to stop it dripping till the plumber came, but the plumber hadn’t come that day, and the next morning he’d found the water dripping anew onto the kitchen floor; the towel had absorbed every ounce of water it could but the time came when it couldn’t hold another drop.
You see, sometimes, the problem wasn’t just locating a relative of the deceased. Sometimes the identity of the deceased was a complete mystery as well.
Nowadays you’d think it impossible for a person to die at home without his or her identity being known, or knowable. But while the media, and the minds of the majority, obsess about the Big Brotherisation of our lives, there are legions of people living lives without record: those too shiftless, aimless, or clueless to stay in view; those who shift, aim and clue themselves to stay out of sight. Aliases were common, often stacking three or four deep. Some of the investigatees were immigrants, but most weren’t. Many had been neglected for years before the state succeeded in forgetting them in a final swirl of red tape; often, following a successful identification, he would run the name through the council archives, and learn that they’d been on the grid for large chunks of their life – had a birth certificate, had been to school, held a job – but then in the last ten to twenty years, when senility was biting, and the cash to live on nothing but a pile under the bed, they’d fallen off the grid completely. No name against the council tax, which might be hundreds in arrears; no name on the deeds, because they’d been paying rent with cash; a false name for the utilities, or they’d been cut off – sometimes it was staggering.
He might have coveted the brazen, liberative quality of their anonymity: to dissolve away from the demands of others, and entrench in the privacy of the self; but no: he knew the cost. It wasn’t the loneliness that perturbed him. Loneliness was famously a state of mind. It was the manner of the end. At death, the line was drawn, and the living moved on at the speed of light, but while he would know nothing of it, and his fear was irrational, he was haunted by the spectre of his life never being memorialised, celebrated, or mourned in any way, by any one.
There was a government policy for the unnamed. For fear of mis-consecration, and the ire of a relative coming out of the woodwork after the fact, the body of an unknown was buried plainly in the Stockport Borough Cemetery. No ceremony; no headstone; the cheapest box; the smallest plot. He suspected it was a matter of funds as well: there was little enough to go on the living, never mind the dead.
In the months leading up to the case of the old gentleman, he’d been troubled by a recurring nightmare. He stood before a long line of the nameless, and each was a figure that he’d failed to identify in his investigations. There were blank spaces where their faces should have been, and they’d been deprived of the power of speech; their bodies shuffled forwards to where he was standing. A clerk would pass him a file which he opened; inside, printed in bold type on a single white sheet, were the scraps and snippets, and memories and stories, of a life lived, but there was no name to be found, no matter how hard he searched. ‘Erase,’ the clerk would signal each time, and with a stiff, circular motion Shane would rub away the print until there was nothing left. Their histories were undone. Their being was expunged. As if they’d never been. For they’d been forsaken by their own kind, him most of all; none had cared when they died, and he had not cared enough to remedy that state of affairs. Their bodies were laid to rest without mourners, without a service for the grace of the soul, and without a marker to attest that this person had lived on this earth.
When he woke on the decisive morning, his dream had been especially vivid. He went down to his little kitchen, poured a black coffee and sipped it by the sink, looking out of the window as the early light rose. There was a squirrel in the back garden, slick and intrepid, and it nipped across the flagstones before scaling a drainpipe. Its black eye locked on him, round as a button; as he stared back, he registered the animalistic nature of the blackness, the kind which shifts between fullness and emptiness, between vacancy and knowing, in the tick of a clock. The flashes of absence disturbed the most, for it felt like the creature peered right through him, and apprehended the guilt in his heart. In that second he made his vow: that he would solve every case that he was given; that he would never let another of the departed go to ground without a name, and a headstone to bear it. He returned to his covers. Sometimes the strange thought would come to him afterwards that as he’d lain in his bed, warm and pensive, elated at his new commitment, the old gentleman was also lying in his bed: cold, unheeded, but eternally patient, waiting for him to come.
Yet he should have understood that his grand commitment was just a commitment, nothing more. It did not make things happen. When we’re young and believing, and most susceptible to the damages of falsehood, before our immunity has developed of its own accord, and prepped our systems for the daily exposure to come, we are told by adults left, right and centre that we can become anyone and achieve anything. That with the right application there’s nothing we cannot do. But by now Shane knew the exact opposite to be true: that even with application, and talent too, most ambitions remain unachieved; the twenties onwards, once all safety nets have been rolled up and put away, and the authentic nature of things closes in, are an arduous and harrowing process of reconciling the ideal with the real, bestowing life its own identifying sense of bereavement. Yes, he should have understood the nature of commitment. It did not mean he would succeed. You cannot will a name into existence.
The old gentleman had waited a full six weeks before even the double glazing, a draft excluder, and the tape he’d put over cracks in the skirting to keep the warmth in, could not contain the stench any longer. The coroner had determined natural causes; the police had no luck finding out his story from a look around the flat, or through their database enquiries; so a week later Shane had been assigned as the DAO.
He began by visiting the neighbours on the estate. It was the middle of a working afternoon, and only one family was in. The man and woman of the household were both there, as were three kids: two boys and a girl. They were of Middle Eastern origin and all looked nervous as he introduced himself. They sat on some boxes and offered him the one wood chair. The man explained in the barest English, and with the help of cardboard placards of the type that beggars write for the streets, that they were Syrian asylum seekers; gaunt and angular, his left hand tremoured until he tucked it out of sight under one leg. The family had moved in a week ago, long after their neighbour had died, and naturally knew nothing of him.
Shane had a friend from school who’d spent some time in Syria, teaching English in Damascus before the Arab Spring, when Assad and family had run their dictatorship with a clandestine, orderly brutality. Rarely a week went by without one of the Mukhābarāt, Assad’s secret service minions, following him about the city, and he’d heard tales from some of his Arab colleagues, told in their own homes, quietly over sugared tea, of the tools of torture. In one such, an ‘enemy of the people’ would be strapped to a large wheel which was set rotating at a slow pace, and over the days of rotation his brain would liquefy until finally it passed out through his nose. None of which savagery compared in scale with what had gone on in the last few years. Watching the man’s frail frame, Shane thought of the dread he and his family might have fled: the dim, crimson cells: schools of sadism and filched dignity. There was a worse fate than to be unmourned, he thought; it was to disappear, dragged from your bed before the cocks had crowed, while your children looked on with frightened eyes; it was to face an un-human ending, dispatched as one of a nameless herd, anonymised in the thick profusion of injustice, without hope of vengeance or redress. And when he thought further, absorbed in a moment of dark reflection, about whether or not there might be a God, he found himself faced with a grim binary choice: that there was, and He allowed this to happen; or that there wasn’t, and there was no restorative promise: no righting of wrongs in this world or any after.
Shane gave the man some money for his help. He dropped notices with his details through the letter boxes of the rest of the estate, asking for any information on the man who’d died. Then he entered the flat.
As he went in, ready to begin his search, he could feel a perverse intensity within himself – enthusiasm was too strong and too wrong a word – that came from the fresh resolve of that morning and the new belief that it gave him in his task. His intuition was sharper than normal, each movement more precise and deliberate, and his attention to process more exacting on himself. It was a barbarous smell that he walked into, notwithstanding the open windows. The rooms were incredibly small and jumbled, full of the signs of a secluded life. There were no photos, but the spaces were coloured with the man’s likings and his quirks, his keepsakes and his clutter, and touched no less by his fears and frailties: walking sticks, liniments, some kind of baton to despatch burglars beside his armchair. A record player sat on a sideboard in a corner of the living-room, and the sideboard itself was stacked with old vinyl records, mostly performances of Puccini, Verdi and folks songs sung bel canto. In another corner there was a TV, though it had stopped working, and looked at least fifteen to twenty years old. There were ornaments everywhere, and a few of them had hallmarks, or the place of manufacture: one from Milan, one Palermo, and one Sienna: fortifying the Italian connection.
The kitchen was pretty non-descript – a cheap wooden table and chair, and some white goods gone cream – and the bedroom had little of interest either. His wallet had been on his bedside table when he was discovered, and there’d just been notes and coins inside: no photos, no credit cards, no library ticket.
In an airing cupboard, concealed beneath some blankets, and stuffed under a wooden slat, he found pages from a dirty magazine: topless ladies, pretty tame stuff. From the photographic style they might have dated as far back as the eighties. Shane felt a gentle rush of pathos: that the man should choose to hide the pages in his own home: fearful of embarrassment, or some kind of shame. Poor old boy, he thought. He still had a right to that privacy. He took the pages away with him, and binned them on the journey home.
Then a fillip of excitement as he returned to the living-room. In the bottom drawer of a cabinet he found a bundle of letters. ‘Dear Dad,’ the first began. So he’d had children, or one at least. Shane’s eyes moved over the womanly handwriting. He felt confident that this would lead him to the name of the dead man, and perhaps to a daughter.
‘I’m here about a public health burial,’ Shane said. ‘The day after tomorrow.’
The council used an undertaker’s on the Wellington Road, not far from the Borough cemetery; he remembered that there’d been some murmurings and controversy in the Metro, or perhaps it was the Express, about six or seven years ago when the contract had been awarded, because the owner was the brother-in-law of one of the councillors.
‘Yes. How can I help?’ The woman behind the desk said each word in deft, dampened tones, as though she didn’t want to wake the dead ranged in the back; her curly dark hair sprung gently as she lowered her glasses from the top of her head onto her nose, and watched him through them; her cheeks seemed permanently reddened.
‘I’m from the council,’ he said. ‘Shane Mullins. I’m a Deceased Affairs Officer.’
She nodded. The movement was measured, discreet. ‘Do you have a reference number?’
‘It’s –‘ he took a slip of paper from his inside jacket pocket. ‘– 9458.’
She prodded the keyboard. ‘Yes. Tomorrow afternoon, 2pm. At the Borough cemetery.’
‘A headstone’s needed,’ he said. ‘A better coffin too.’
The woman was puzzled. ‘A headstone? A coffin? There’s no way by tomorrow,’ she said.
He shook his head. ‘There has to be. You see, there’s been a mistake,’ he began. ‘A mistake with the file. We have got a name for the deceased. There are funds too. It shouldn’t be a public health burial. Not anymore.’
‘Shouldn’t that be changed centrally – in the council records?’ she asked.
Again he shook his head. He brought out the money.
The sky over the cemetery was white without any of the brightness, and the wind was plaintive in a bone-cold, restless day. The man of god that he’d come to see was standing a way off, head bowed faintly over a plot, a procession edging towards him, the coffin borne on four staunch black shoulders, and the mourners following in aching disorder; now Shane heard a thread of intonation carried deeply on the air, running the age-old rhythms of the service for the dead; now gruff, hasty gusts kicked and shook the man’s holy vestments, and pressed and whipped the pages of The Book.
He’d tried the church before coming here, but the heavy pine doors had been locked, and the cleaning woman at the priest’s house had told him of the services being delivered that morning. He could see that a crowd of ten or more had gathered around the hole in the ground for the first service. Not a bad send-off, he thought. There would be relatives there, friends. The closer they were to the person who’d died, the more stunned and stricken they would be, whether the end had been expected or not. The closer they were, the longer it would take for their disbelief to die, and for recognition to begin. But just as the grief was never fully spent, the recognition was never fully held, though the years might march on; he knew that from experience; he’d been at his own father’s bedside when he passed away, and his mind remained overshadowed and undone, somehow, by the sight of his death. He remembered death approaching, doggedly, hours before it finally arrived; every one of them had been wholly impotent in their watch; when it came, the pale, bleak transformation of his father could not be reconciled with anything that was a part of the living, or the life that had been; such terminality was as alien, and as opaque to reason, as the infinity of numbers. Life stood in contrast – as a warm indefinite thresh, where experience was a flux, and even the worst situation might promise hope.
But life and death were not opposites, he had eventually concluded; they were two separate essences: elemental, distinct, differing: like peculiar sub-atomic particles; or divergent species – the two species of experience. He had no insight into the nature of death; as a living being he knew the qualities of life alone. Why do you care about the nameless dead? he would ask himself sometimes. They travel into the quietus. They enter another essence altogether. But knowing is seldom acting; reason and feeling rarely align; he couldn’t sit by and do nothing. And that was the heart of his dilemma: a living man, applying the rules of life to the remains of the dead.
‘Father, have you got a minute?’
The priest turned. ‘Yes.’
There were rooms adjoining the cemetery chapel; most were places of preparation or tranquility, but this one was functional: a small kitchen with a kettle, some biscuits, a table at which they sat. Shane felt the discomforting scrutiny of an elder, though he was approaching forty. He’d gone to a Roman Catholic primary school as a boy, and his mother had taken him to church every Sunday, but once his mother had stopped going because of ill-health, his own attendance had fallen away sharply, and the man of god knew this: there were words waiting in his eyes, words of keen reproach, or patronising sorrow, for a chap who’d lost his way. Please don’t talk to me about that, he thought. He had pains enough with his faith: the imprecise agnosticism; the rejection of alleged authority; the hunt for true authority; his see-sawing self: the unsettled bedsharing of sentiment, argument, hope.
‘It’s about a burial. Tomorrow, here. At 2pm. There was a mistake, you see. With the file. It’s down as a public health burial. But it’s not – it’s a full funeral. With service. At the request of the relatives.’
The priest took out a small leather-bound diary and turned to the relevant page. ‘It is rather short notice,’ he said, ‘but I’ll come. What’s the name?’
‘William Puccini.’ William because, for whatever reason, the deceased old gentleman felt like a William. And Puccini given his love of Italian music.
Slowly the priest wrote it in his diary.
This is madness, Shane thought. He took a deep breath to give himself courage. ‘This is for the service,’ he said, handing him some cash. ‘There was an envelope. Delivered to the council offices. From family who didn’t want to come forward. It had this money inside, instructions for the funeral. I don’t think anyone will attend.’ He paused. ‘Except me. I’ll be here. Representing the local authorities.’
The truth will out. At the time of action, Shane hadn’t thought ahead. He hadn’t allowed himself the space to consider what it would mean: that action meant truth, and that the truth would be out of his hands. He didn’t know whether it was the woman at the undertaker’s or the priest himself that had flagged his odd behaviour, but in retrospect it was inevitable, and while it hadn’t come before the old gentleman was laid to rest with a full service and headstone, it had come hotfoot after.
There were moments when he felt with a ferocious conviction that what he’d done was right, when his imagination would run a reel on the white-hot, impassioned argument he would thrust in the face of anyone who challenged him; but there were moments when an ashen doubt ruled; and there were moments when he concluded, with a general resentment, though never quite persuading himself, that he’d been backed into a cold, shadowy corner: that he’d had no choice.
The chop was not immediate. First his boss at the council, Adam McLeish, had to grapple with the concept: that one of his staff should take matters into his own hands, and pay for the funeral of one of the unknowns. Make up a name, for God’s sake. William Puccini. Such bizarre behaviour. And wrong, inexcusable – dead wrong. Its incongruity with Shane’s record of diligent tenure, of steady, unremarkable performance, in a steady, unremarkable role, and its patent contradiction of all common sense and the norms of sanity, prompted an eerie week-long pause, like a stay of execution.
When McLeish finally called him into his office and confronted him, there was no grand showdown, no indignant countering by Shane, no rousing speech: no finger-pointing and chest-banging that the council were basically chucking people into unmarked graves, and – so what! – he’d taken pity on one poor sod, spending the little money he’d saved to give him a better send-off.
‘You’re just here to dig around, find out who they were, if you can. That’s it.’ McLeish snarled.
‘I couldn’t take it anymore.’ Shane had felt the weak anger rise in his chest. ‘I didn’t want him to be nameless, buried in some nasty plywood box, without so much as a prayer. In some potter’s ground . . .’
He had no idea what he would do now. He hadn’t expected the council to sack him, because they pretty much never sacked anyone, even gross incompetents, but then he’d ignored the continued pressure on cuts, and the vulnerability that came from headcount reduction quotas. He packed his desk and left the office. He went home and sat for a long time, thinking.
He thought about the old man. He’d vowed to uncover his identity, but failed completely. The letters from his daughter, the ones he’d found in the bottom drawer of a sideboard cabinet, and which had promised so much in the way of a trail, had proved to be disturbing outpourings of emotion which made him feel like a voyeur, but had taken him no further in his investigation. The letters were signed ‘Mary’, but there was no surname; a grandson, ‘Tommy’, was mentioned; he knew from experience that those two data points could not narrow the search sufficiently, even in the UK, never mind the world. He’d read the pages of graceful, looped script several times. In them the woman pleaded with her father to forget the past, to visit her and his grandson. Something had happened in the relationship, something that had soured him: there were no direct references to it, just her pleas for forgiveness. Each letter was the same: a begging, a grieving. Given how he’d been discovered, it was safe to assume that the old man had never softened in his resolve, and that he’d lived out his years alone, heart-hardened. Stupid fool. Sorry, sorry fool. The letters had stopped fourteen years ago. There isn’t enough joy in the world, he thought, to soak up that kind of sadness, that waste.
Reading the letters had redoubled his own resolve to find a name, but the flat and its occupant remained stubborn and unlockable; there was no trail, official or otherwise; one evening he’d almost wept with frustration; time was running out, the public health burial approaching. He’d taken action, going to the undertaker’s and to the priest.
In the evening Shane went for a walk. The walk took him instinctively from quiet roads to busy ones while his head was elsewhere altogether; before long he was in an area with chain restaurants, a leisure complex, an arcade, a cinema. It was eight o’clock on a Friday, which meant queuing in the cinema for twenty minutes, and a ticket to some blockbuster he didn’t particularly want to see, but at length he filed in with the rest; his ticket was checked; he sat down in the heart of the auditorium, crammed and cramped into his seat. To his left, as he looked now, before the lights dimmed, he could see a young couple leaning close to each other, warm and whispering; to his right a group of lads, four maybe five strong, were slunk back in their chairs, legs parted and feet planted macho-macho as young guys like to do, and they were chatting and laughing and digging into popcorn; just in front was an elderly couple, and a young grandchild with them, and the heads of the grandparents kept bobbing and turning and looking down to the little girl, solicitously, generously, pleasurably.
The lights went down and the trailers began. In the glow of the screen, the sea of heads moved gently, silhouetted, moving, alive, living, moving.
He looked behind him. A woman, her gaze absorbed in the images, glanced down at him. Her eyes locked on his. They were black eyes: full, knowing, never absent: in their human way.
He recognised in himself the burning need to be in the company of others: surrounded by his own, strange kind.
A murmur of laughter travelled around the space. No quietus. Only animus.
This is where I belong, he thought.
Stephen Easterbrook is a writer from York in the North of England. He likes to write about people’s innermost thoughts: about life as we want it to be, versus life as it is. He is working on a collection of short stories and a debut novel.