The Life-Writer by David Constantine
During the funeral, and after it when the mourners came back to her house, Katrin continued in the almost rapturous state she had been lifted into by the last hours of Eric’s life. It was over, accomplished, her strength had sufficed. And now meticulously she would attend in every detail to every thing that needed to be done. She allowed advice, but followed it her way; help, but she directed it. She accepted condolences, and herself extended them to whoever had been saddened by Eric’s death. She was courteous, gracious; almost constantly she smiled, her eyes shone with the beauty and solemnity of his death, its profound and unique importance. And she exulted: we were alone, I held his hand, I spoke to him last, he saw me last, I closed his eyes. Above all: my strength sufficed, I saw it through. She was sovereign over the afterwards. It should be just as he wanted it, all just right: the three pieces of music, the poem she would read, Daniel would speak for five minutes.When in the brief gap between the previous committal and Eric’s not enough orders of service were laid out, Katrin was coldly angry. Her arrangements faltered. It took a couple of minutes to make good the error. Then things proceeded, she smiled at the clerk, forgiving him. And throughout, smiling, attending to the details, she was remote, she was enclosed alone in the fact of his death, and there she rejoiced, she had sole cure of him, she had gone to the very brink with him, seen him over, she alone, no one else.
As the mourners assembled, they were all, without exception, strange to her. Scrupulously she had invited all of his oldest friends she knew to be still alive; several came and most she had never met before. But the strangeness lay also over people she knew well. In Eric’s son,Thomas, a stout man of forty-five with a very round and childish face, she could see no family likeness whatsoever; and in Eric’s brother, Michael, so much likeness it was repellent. Close neighbours and the few friends and colleagues of her own, she felt she had known them once and now she, or they, had slipped, so that they faced one another oddly. In part, of course, it was the black everybody wore. In that costume they had a role, they were figures in a ceremony, each stood for grief on an occasion of mourning. So in that sense, being for a while figurative, all were themselves estranged out of their normal lives, and dressing in the mirror they had known it and had felt solemnified. Also, although they were assembled for a common purpose, around a death, and all connected to that centre, a coffin, an absence, many were strangers to one another, never having met before or so long ago, half a century ago in some cases, the names they were offered and remembered didn’t fit the present faces and appearances, they were ill at ease as the dead man himself would have been after so long a gap, nothing much in common in the interim, the threads from school and university long since severed, near-impossible to take up again, and hardly worth it.
Katrin passed among them like a good hostess, smiling, embracing, saying a few words, offering food and drink. All interested her because all in varying degrees had been touched by Eric’s life. She attended particularly to those who had known him as a boy or a young man, before she was born, long long before she had met and fallen in love with him. She was drawn to them, but how odd they were, how remote, mostly heavy and bald, in suits they never wore except at funerals, gauche, drinking quickly, a bit loud and hearty in their desire to belong, for a couple of hours, to the thing all there had in common. Any wives with them drifted loose, out to the margins of the occasion. Katrin smiled and went to and fro, and sensed that her cold exaltation passed like a draught through the company. She was concentrating, she had a purpose, she marvelled with pride and satisfaction at her composure.
Katrin stood in the bay window with Daniel, looking out. Behind them the mourners made a hubbub that did not concern her. None of it was intelligible, the words had all gone under in a generalized social noise. Her back felt safe. Daniel said, Did you invite Edna? Katrin’s consciousness tore a little. She glimpsed a further afterwards in which it would be necessary to ask Daniel many things. A shudder went through her, which he perceived. Forgive me, he said. No, no, she said. I did write to her when he died, I did invite her, she never answered. And I asked Thomas to tell her she would be welcome but, as you see, she isn’t here. Daniel nodded. She is very embittered, he said. Then both stared out in silence at the cold sunny street where the housefronts, the cramped front gardens, the tightly parked cars, were all in place as though nothing had happened. Katrin held a bottle of wine in each hand. She bethought herself of her role, she was returning into it, when a small elderly woman wearing a duffle coat, a black cloche hat, red stockings, and carrying a yellow rucksack, appeared, as it seemed, from nowhere and halted, looking lost, at Katrin’s gate. Ah, said Daniel. The woman smiled at them, made a questioning sort of gesture with her black-gloved hands, and stepped briskly up the path. Daniel raised his eyebrows, shrugged, took the bottles. Katrin went and opened the door. Oh, Madame Swinton, said the new arrival, je suis désolée, oh, excusez-moi, madame, je suis Monique.* And she continued in rapid French—which Katrin could not quite keep up with—to explain that she had got off at the wrong railway station, was quite lost, by the time she reached the crematorium every- thing to do with Eric was over, all his party had gone, some- body else’s service was in progress, she had come on as quickly as she could, to meet Katrin and to see Daniel again after many years, and how sorry she was, she had dreamed vividly of Eric the very night he died—and she stood there on the doorstep, appealing to Katrin and beginning helplessly to weep. Again there was a tearing in Katrin’s consciousness, again a frisson of pure terror. She foresaw, she felt already, how in the near next phase of the afterwards she would be assailed. But for now, still exalted, seeing the older woman’s grief, she took it into her own, into the centre of the whole occasion, herself, his widow. Monique stood on the threshold, childish, a waif and stray. Katrin brought her in, embraced her, helped her off with the rucksack and duffle coat, noted the short black dress she wore, as for a party, and how poignantly it sorted with her face that was like a mime’s saying more than it can bear. Her small hat had gone askew.Then in a rush Monique pulled off her gloves, flung them down, with stained and quick little fingers undid the rucksack and dug out a package, which she handed to Katrin. Je vous ai apporté ça, madame. Un petit souvenir des années soixante. The wrapping was a couple of pages of Libération, the thing itself was a fired black bowl decorated inside with a single red rose and outside with a sparse motif of small clusters of cherries. Ça vous plaît? Katrin nodded. She held the bowl on her palms. This too, since it was beautiful, she could take into her high solemnity. Again, saying nothing and with a look of the greatest seriousness, she nodded.
Daniel appeared. Ah, he said, seeing the bowl. Monique turned her smudged face his way. Tu t’en souviens? For answer he kissed her wet cheeks. Katrin smiled now on both of them. She saw how they belonged. Merci, Monique, she said. Soyez la bienvenue dans cette maison. Then she left them together, bearing away the bowl as though for a ritual, but fearfully, feeling the world lurch and her steps to be very unsure. She went into the middle room and laid it down among the last books Eric had ordered and that had arrived after his death. There she stood for a moment, conjuring up the resolve to go back into the big front room, into its noise and utter strangeness, in among all the people in their suits of woe, their faces lifting towards her, all well-meaning, full of friendly pity, and this swell of grief and friendship would bear her up again, their kindness would help her, she was apart but it would strengthen her, she would manage, she would get through to six o’clock, when all, every friend and relative, would leave as arranged, as promised, and she would be as she was, alone, entirely alone, to broach the long afterwards, the life without him.
Daniel and Monique were the last to leave. She took his arm. On the street, lamplit, they looked back once at Katrin standing in the bay window. She watched them out of sight, an elderly couple, the tall grey-haired man stooping, the small woman clutching at him, yellow rucksack, red stockings, respectful black, they had visited her out of Eric’s youth. She drew the curtains.
Katrin began to clear the house of all that was left of the funeral party. She worked fast, concentrating. She hastened on what remained of her exaltation towards the completion, into his absence. She had to be alone for that and the house had to be spick and span, as though she must leave it presentable, not knowing when she would be able to attend to it again. She concentrated, her strength was limited, she mustn’t waste any.
Two hours later the house was just as it should be, all the materials of hospitality were put away, the chairs were back where they belonged. That done, she climbed the stairs, step by step an ever more leaden effort. Pausing at the bedroom door, in the light from the landing she contemplated their bed. Some things, she ascertained, are unimaginable, however hard you try. She stepped in, closed the door, stood in darkness, felt forwards, and fully clothed curled herself up small on the counterpane, her face in her cold hands.
For a week she did nothing. Or whatever she did to stay alive and to persuade the neighbour, looking in, that she was managing, none of that survived the present in which it was done.Vaguely she remembered a faint amazement that anything could be so bad and yet not actually fatal. Life continued, it insisted, it bore you along through the motions of living. So a horror she had not known before entered her like a disease that you will never again be quite rid of, you are the host of it now, its abode, it will come and go as it chooses: the horror of knowing that life without the spirit is possible, you can live as a dead simulacrum.
After a week Katrin left the house for an hour. She walked by the river whose banks had been set in concrete, so that it would not flood. She no longer wished to sit still in a chair or lie curled on the bed.All her exaltated feeling, her sense of his death as a solemn and beautiful thing, her pride in having seen it through, all that was in tatters. Now she could not bear to be still, her thoughts tormented her too much. She decided harshly against herself. The end was a mess, she had made it worse not better for him with her denials and her measures. She should have helped him in the philosophy he had tried to follow, for in the event he could not manage it alone. Often she saw him quite at the mercy of dying, not master of it, not fashioning his own sense of it freely. She saw him wretched and in pain and nothing in his eyes but revulsion and fear. Death hauled him off and that was that. In her remembering, she had to go back some weeks to hear him say, I can’t complain. And that philosophical voice hardly comforted her. Rather, in her state of restless self-torment, it called up the sad riposte, All very well for you! And she fell again into the bitter feeling that her loss was greater than his, harder to bear, impossible to make up, because in losing him she lost her strength and now she would never have compensation for the years of boyhood, youth and manhood he had lived without her, ignorant of her existence. She had seen him frayed and battered by suffering at the end; but very easily she could imagine him, once he was through, resuming his sense that life had treated him well and he couldn’t complain. And she saw him, with that advantage, turning all his concern towards her: she must look after herself, make the most of her life, live gladly, as he had.And how should she do that without him?
This running colloquy with him distressed her more than it comforted her. Every other person lapsed, she was inhabited entirely by him. She felt that he had not passed away but had passed on, into her, and there he lived, in her, not jealously, not desiring to confine her further life, but wishing her well, urging her to live, to keep up with old friends, make new ones, get on with her work. And all that benevolent admonishing worked futilely on the fact that he, the admonisher, was necessary to her doing what he asked.
David Constantine is an award-winning short story writer, poet, and translator. His collections of poetry include The Pelt of Wasps, Something for the Ghosts (shortlisted for the Whitbread Poetry Prize), Nine Fathom Deep, and The Elder. He is the author of one novel, Davies, and has published four collections of short stories in the UK, including the winner of the 2013 Frank O’Connor Award, Tea at the Midland and Other Stories. He lives in Oxford, where until 2012 he edited Modern Poetry in Translation with his wife Helen.
Excerpted from The Life-Writer by David Constantine © 2016. Published by Biblioasis. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
Photo: David Constantine, The Guardian
Published on December 1, 2016.