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Oct/Nov 2012 Fiction

The Handyman

by Greg Forshaw


In my defence, she was dead when I found her.

Her body was with the other rubbish, of which the tenants of the complex weekly produced enough to swamp two dumpsters. Came Wednesdays, and early, I dragged the wagons from the bin-store to the street for emptying. I was the handyman. On the clock from seven till one, I considered myself kin to those pilot fish that clean the maws of sharks, beneath notice.

I knew she was dead at once, in the same way one sensed a house was empty. Some bell-like absence of life rang out. Except she still seemed so present, as the daylight from the doorway found her and the bin-store's automatic light followed suit, clicking on then off again, time enough for me to note that someone would be having an unhappy Christmas.

She'd formed a foetal curl, long nut-brown hair fanned over her face, and only briefly did I think her murdered. She seemed too... what? I didn't know, but that bell came clear, not discordant. And I remembered: "The human body is the best picture of the human soul."

Which didn't mean there hadn't been a wrong done—a wrong beyond that of early death, of any death—her body dumped by flatmates unable to explain her dying or their living here. Many migrants resided in the complex, many more than there were bedrooms. Nationals of countries that couldn't work legally in the UK, they lived densely to live at all. Rent was rent, and who cared how many contributed, and so landlords turned a blind eye.

No, not dumped. She'd brought herself down here. The key to the bin-store was still clutched in her roughened brown hand. Like me, a lot of the migrants were domestics—for the chocolate factory, the council, the hospital. Had she known the blow was coming and cleaned herself away? Her eyes were closed, but her mouth was ajar in that abject way that made more superstitious times imagine the body abandoned, the spirit ejected.

Round the corner a garage door whumped up and an engine turned over.

"Damn it," I said.

I had a decision to make.

"Damn, damn, damn."

I hadn't heard his stick, but this early, it must be Bob, getting a head start on another hungry day. He was the complex's only owner-occupier, yet did so alone, a man like me of pensionable age and no doubt equally prone to talking to himself. He was always trying a "Now then, Simon," though that isn't my name, forever forcing eye contact, not aggressive so much as open-souled.

If Bob drove our way, then this was over. I was drawn towards the body, and the bin-store's door shut behind me. The motion gave light again for a bit, then not. Within half a mile of us there was an undertaker, a cemetery, even a police station, but in the grave-dark all I decided was, "Not here."

Though I kept the bin-store shipshape, sweeping the floor when the dumpsters were being emptied, eliminating vermin, whitewashing the breeze block walls every few months—still, it was a place for waste, not human remains.

The transit van. To take her where? Home? Nowhere I could explain, should it come to that, and it generally did. The only other place I called my own was the workroom. A haven, close and cool. Of course, I double-checked her beforehand: folding that fan of hair behind her ear, then trying to raise a pulse at her carotid artery. Nothing. Which was also what her body weighed, luckily for mine. I couldn't remember the last time I'd carried someone—my Flora, maybe, when I wasn't so very old. I laid this comparative girl out on the worktable, left the light burning for her, then returned to the grind as though I'd done nothing wrong.

I mopped the atrium, the main change besides the flats to this former cocoa warehouse. It had supplied a city in part built on chocolate, not one but two huge factories in York's heyday, pillaging such distant lands, then. Some of the beans once stored here came from Brazil. As had she. Not that I remembered her or her flatmates particularly, only the football shirts and snatches of Portuguese. Not that we spoke. The migrants noticed me no more than the natives, and I'd have rather talked to myself than to them. Still, as if to guests, given the now weeks of snow after months of rain, I'd have to resist apologizing for the climate or asking them how they'd disembarked here of all the world, so far from Rio, say, the umbrella-ing favelas, the families below tight as Tamborim skins, the beaches beyond white-clean, like the moon.

 

The workroom used to contain the warehouse's boiler and was quite secure, with no windows and one door, to which I had the only key. On my return she was still there.

"Hello," I said.

There was none of that disconnect when one faced the death of someone familiar and saw merely all the corpse was not. Her body was everything she'd ever be to me, seemed indeed to be glowing.

I washed my hands, made a cup of tea, then pulled up a chair beside her to think. People were surely coming. Flatmates, friends, officials. They would want the secret of her death, and unless she'd had recent recourse to a doctor, they would take sharp tools to her, compile a lading list of her remains, run tests and make findings—satisfy their want by way of dismissing her.

"No."

Thankfully if nothing else, my Flora was spared a postmortem as, even more constantly than I was, junior clinicians were her companions. And when finally they abandoned her cause, my wife was carried off the ward not by me but by two mock-solemn monkeys while the consultant was summoned to divert me from her side. Which I'd have never left, given the choice.

"No autopsy."

Therefore no officials. Therefore?

Really, what would it profit the world to know of her death? Better that anyone who thought of her, thought well of her, thought her well. She was still alive to them. So very much of life lived there, in the head. Where else could my Flora be? I no longer believed in any heaven, and she wasn't in the ground. Where else could she have gone with those mock-solemn monkeys?

Therefore I would keep this woman away from everyone else, and with me. Which meant that I must find out how to do so.

I actually knew one of the undertaker's employees, an acquaintance made in The Dog's Head, a pub midway between my place of work and his. A shadow man till he opened his mouth, Vinnie wasn't an embalmer but knew enough to spoil the pint of anyone downing a quiet one, as he did most days after garaging the last hearse, as he was this afternoon.

Warm within, smelling of hops.

"Vinnie, get you another?"

"Now then, a swift half if you insist, Simon."

I think the name came stitched into the overalls I inherited when I'd first clocked on. No one noticing the unlikelihood of one Simon following another, like it was actually a rank, not a brand.

"You remember the questions I had after the wife died?"

"Oh, okay, brother. You might want a little something to stiffen that pint."

I complied.

"So we retrieve the body, lay it out, verify death via the corneas, the lividity. You can't be too careful. We treat it with disinfectant and germicidal solution. Then we set the features of the face, maybe stapling the mandible," he paused.

"To stop the..."

"That's it, Simon. There's nothing worse than a slack jaw. Next we pump out the body fluids and pump in a mixture of formaldehyde and ethanol. This embalming fluid also goes into the cavities and under the skin. We continue the grooming with... You alright, brother?"

I must have shivered.

"It is," he said, "baking hot in here, straight after the bitter world."

"No, no, Vinnie. I can handle the medical stuff, it's the cosmetic rubs me the wrong way."

And done by strangers.

"The thing is, it's mostly cosmetic, and temporary if that's your concern, Simon, allowing time for leave-taking before the natural processes resume. Although there are exceptions: comrade Lenin's been lying in Red Square since the '20s, with a little help from the underground clinic he frequents twice a week. Does that about cover it?"

"Yes, I just wanted to fill in the blanks while she was away from me. My thanks, Vinnie. Another half?"

"Death is thirsty work, but I"m on-call tonight, brother. Christmas takes its toll."

I was trudging back to the complex when Bob bibbed me. Despite the snow, he drove the way he could no longer walk, with all the mad abandon of the taxi-driver he used to be. Nowadays he ran his car just to charge the battery. Yes, Bob was fast, or I was slower than I had been this morning, and I managed to acknowledge only his rear bumper sticker: It's Hell without Him.

Bob was probably surprised to see me. I never stayed this late, and as I burrowed into my haven, I wondered whether I would soon have real need of such.

If she was kept, and I was discovered, what could be done to an elderly man, alone in the world? Prison, perhaps, or just public opprobrium? Neither held much fear for me. I cared no more for others than I did for myself.

She wasn't all that stiff or cold when I removed her stuff. Under her t-shirt, against her skin, she had a crucifix and a name-chain.

"Hello, Lia."

Try as I might, I couldn't pick out a particular time that I'd noticed her, that she'd forced eye contact or said my name. And I was glad of that. There was just this.

Lia's body had the magnetic solidity of our unclothed selves, and I washed her with what I had, a solution used for hand laundering the complex's linen curtains. Thinking on, I brought one such from the store for Lia's modesty, and for the warmth, covering her up just before I went home. Not covering her face though. What had Vinnie called it? Lying in state, like Lenin or Kennedy, their light gone out.

 

First thing the next day I tried knocking. Number 21, hers was.

"Hello?"

Nothing. Bit early maybe? They kept odd hours, all the migrants, though judging by their stereos, her lot were normally around as I clocked off. I duly returned at shift's end only to conclude that they'd left. Could they, good Catholics all, have merely returned home for Christmas, or was this suspicious? Hard to say. Given how many of the migrants worked and lived illegally, their flats were less homes than drab carousels. Replacements were never long in arriving.

Having received no reply again the following day, I broke in, after a fashion.

The greater number of tenants than bedrooms meant that keys were scarce and circulated via various ledges, nooks, and plant pots. The Brazilians' were generally on a high wall adjoining the ground floor garages.

"Hello?"

As if anyone would recognize my voice. And anyway I was hearing that bell again, clear as my wrongdoing here.

The hallway was dim and unaired and smelt of meat. Both bedrooms were barely furnished, and in the living room there were only more mattresses, a double and a single, and separating them a frayed cord.

"Anyone in?"

No, nor any post, which would be in their pigeonhole downstairs, nor forwarding addresses nor CSI nonsense: no blood stains, overturned furniture. Nothing at all, really, saying everything of the devouring life lived there. I tiredly eyed the single mattress that had to have been Lia's but knew I'd struggle to ever get up again.

"That's the second time this week, Simon! You're the last person I was expecting to see come out of there."

He didn't think I had keys and was, for once, not trying to find my eye. "Bob," I greeted him.

"Problem?"

He was right to be suspicious. I didn't enter the flats, and certainly hadn't ever Bob's. We weren't friends. That I was still working, working where he was living, where neither of us belonged, was something between us.

"Anyhoo."

"Indeed."

Was something to him, something shaming. Me, I had a house, a home, not a wifeless hole. I didn't even have to work there, could have risen at my leisure, shuffled down the shop for the local rag, backed the nags on Channel 4. But my home never seemed nicer to me than when I returned to find it glowing in some way that the complex wouldn't despite all my labor.

When I went downstairs, atop the worktable there was a clear puddle round Lia, in no way noxious, and the only sign thus far that anything was happening to her. I remembered that some relics were said to exude "the oil of saints," which pilgrims would want to touch, own, consume even.

I cleaned up, then took the opportunity to treat Lia with a solution I'd prepared after speaking to Vinnie. It was a variation on the moisturising lotion I'd made for my Flora to use after the radiotherapy when her skin was burning and nothing from a shop would answer. One melts olive oil, water, and an emulsifier—beeswax in Lia's case—and also for her, cocoa butter and a little quinine bark as antisepsis. You couldn't be too careful.

 

Four days on and still there was nothing of Lia in the pigeonholes or the local media, nor even any grainy printouts clinging to neighborhood lamp-posts as there would be for a lost pet. It was as if she never was.

Except, and faintly at first, filling only the workroom, she exuded that deep, sweet, dark smell of cocoa butter. Before long her scent accompanied me wherever I was trying to continue as normal in the complex, erecting the tree, wreathing the entrances.

If it didn't the previous occupants' disappearance, Christmas did explain why the carousel stuttered before delivering to Lia's flat new tenants, also Brazilian I thought.

"Eu estou buscando Lia."

"Quem?" she said.

Either surprised at the ring-rusty Portuguese or at the person speaking it to her, having perhaps assumed me a Simon.

"Que se usou para viver neste plano."

She shook her head.

"Nao?"

"Eu nao sei quem usado para viver aqui."

"But you are Brazilian?"

"No, português!"

She wasn't. Saying the nationality itself gave her away, for she hadn't shushed the last "s," as the Portuguese do. Nor was "buscar" their verb for "to look for." But the Portuguese could stay in the UK as long as they wanted and could work to pay for the same, unlike Brazilians. She might have spent the £300 for a fake ID card, might show it to me if I pressed her. Still, one phone call and she'd probably be deported. But what was the point when she didn't know Lia or the previous occupants or where any of them had gone? That I believed, if not her nationality. Then again, I was no Columbo.

 

The following afternoon he was waiting outside the workroom when I clocked off.

"Can I see her?" Bob eyed me.

Damn him.

"How did you know?"

"Simon, how many years have I been here? Once you've gone home, who makes himself useful, resets the false fire alarms, buzzes in the engineer? I have keys. To the electrics, the lift, the workroom. And this old lag followed the new smell to your door."

"Oh."

"But that's all I did! I didn't call the police or tell anyone else or even find fault with what you've done. Not that you did owt!"

"No?"

"To hurt her, I mean," Bob said. "You can just tell—it's the air she gives off. So can I see her?"

"You want permission to do what you've already done?"

"Done, but not done right, Simon, which matters very much to me."

I thought a third person would be the end of the haven, bring in the rot of the world at once, but Lia continued undimmed. We stood an arm's length away, stock still except for Bob's seesawing about his bad foot, the left. Much as I wanted to punish him, I said, "We needn't linger if it's too cold for you."

And our breath was pluming through the clear air above her.

"Obviously," I continued, "the heating hasn't been on in here, Bob."

But he was entranced.

"Bob?"

"What I'd really like to know is her name, Simon. It feels wrong not to."

Which made arm's-length the closest he'd come in his previous visits.

"It's Lia."

"Sorry?"

"Her name."

"Bless you, Simon—for everything."

"You're welcome. Would you like a blanket? I've been hanging on to..."

"To keep her company? I spotted the mattress. So you're in no hurry to get home?"

"Not really."

It had been seeing the windows glowing in every flat but hers those first few nights. It was thinking of my own terraced house, the lights of which weren't on, either, nor was dinner waiting on the table, nor any other welcome prepared for me.

"Marvellous! I do like to make use of myself," Bob said, and planted his stick, then his left foot.

"We could sit, if you like."

"Where?"

"Just there."

After paying our respects, we played board games: chess, patolli, backgammon, keeping strict score. It discharged some of the tension of sharing her.

"So, Simon, how are you... preserving Lia, if that's the word?"

"Ich verstehe verschiedene Sachen, Bob."

"Sorry?"

"I know how to do many things."

"Right."

"Which was the boast of the old hands of Auschwitz," I said, unclear why I was misleading him.

"You were never in the camps, Simon?"

Which would excuse everything, obviously.

"No," I said. "But even before I lost my Flora, I liked to read."

"'Course. You're not old enough. We're not."

"I feel old enough. It's hard to believe I was ever as young as Lia, and harder to imagine having died then, way back in Monte..." I caught myself, too late. Talk was trouble.

"Yes, Simon, I've been meaning to ask you about the photos."

Black and white shots of a boxer in southpaw stance, the champion of Manolo's bar, Montevideo. My Flora wouldn't have them in the house.

"Yes, I don't know why I keep those."

"Why do we keep owt? So who's Javier?"

I didn't say anything, but it was the way I didn't.

"That's you, Simon? Really? I did wonder, though couldn't see the resemblance."

"I wasn't champion long, and I've taken a punch or two since."

"So where are you from?"

"Uruguay."

Which would excuse everything, obviously.

"Is that the same neck of the woods as Lia?"

"Yes."

"Did you change your name when you left?"

I must have looked pained.

"Sorry, Javier. No names, no pack drill." Bob extended his hand. "Pleased to meet you."

My sense was that Bob was quite good and didn't spend too much time alone with Lia. Still, that there was such time he didn't bother to hide, and I thought it proper to dress her, buying a primrose-print frock from the same unseasonal charity shop to which I'd donated her own clothes.

"So you never said, Javier."

"What's that?"

"How you're preserving her, because you're working wonders."

I hadn't treated Lia's skin once since that first week, but I described making her cleanser.

"Was that your trade before you started here, Javier, cosmetics?"

"No, no. I was a steward. For La Trasatlántica, Ybarra, Princess. We carried emigrants from the Old World to the New until the '70s, and then we carried passengers round and round the Caribbean. That's where I met my Flora."

"Oh, I see. Folk would die en route and you couldn't very well bury them at sea."

"Yes, something like that."

Or nothing. Why mislead people when they're willing to do it for you?

"I mention the preserving only because it's peculiar, Javier."

I had to smile. "Which bit in particular?"

"Whatever your wonders, shouldn't she be changing?"

"It's cold, of course."

"It's never that brassic!" Bob said. "That she's not changing, maybe it's important. Maybe Lia is... Are you religious?"

"Everyone's important, Bob, or no one is."

"Everyone is, in Christ Jesus. Life isn't just life. We should tell someone about Lia. Or you should."

"Of course I've considered that," I said. "But consider this, Bob. If we tell the world, then she'll be moved. Away from us, yes, and from the complex. What if it's this very place that's preserving her?"

"I bow to your better judgement, Javier, because you kept Lia. Maybe you knew she was important, another William."

"No, I only knew Lia shouldn't have been thrown away. Not even by herself. We do too much of that, keep memories and photos, content ourselves with echoes."

 

On the Wednesday before Christmas I found the bin-store full of flowers, as displaced as Lia. They were mostly laid where she'd died, where I'd discovered her, and I couldn't remember telling Bob this. That was the trouble with talking. Once you started, you couldn't stop. I must have told him, if only to address the question he hadn't quite asked about my culpability.

So who had Bob told? Someone at church? How many someones to leave such an Eden? The fragrance, a rival to hers if shrill and sugary, made me sick to my stomach as I buried the bouquets in a dumpster. It couldn't have been worse had I found the pilgrims led there by Bob. And where was he leading me? I might have another decision to make.

Neither of us having any family to hand, after he'd attended early mass, Bob spent the rest of Christmas Day with me, first a few in The Dog's Head, then turkey and a fair few more at Bob's. Before we couldn't, we wobbled downstairs to see Lia. There were no games today.

"You're divorced, did you say, Bob?"

"Yes, I've got a daughter I don't see and an ex-wife I don't want to. But it's weird to be alone, Javier. You reach our age, you expect a partner, expect them to outlive you, don't expect them to have left you."

"It's weird, or we are, Bob?"

"Sorry?"

"Do you have a particular friend among the churchgoers? Do you bring her flowers? Or does she bring the flowers, Bob?"

"No, I don't have a lady friend."

"And why's that? Because sooner or later she'd leave you too, unlike Lia. Damn it, Bob, have you been touching her?"

"Of course," he smiled.

"What?"

He turned from Lia with his eyes aglow to rest his hand on my knee.

"No, no, Javier, not like that. We revere her. And when we do, we feel better, literally better."

At that he stood with a flourish, and I noticed what I tipsily hadn't before.

"Where's your stick, Bob?"

"Exactly," he said and held himself so stilly erect it seemed like levitation. "She's too important to keep for ourselves."

 

Worse, someone finally came for Lia just before New Year. Thankfully he cornered me not in the workroom but the atrium.

"Es estou buscando Lia," he said.

"I"m sorry, matey, I don't speak Spanish."

"Os povos que vivem no plano vinte e um disseram que você conhecu Lia!"

I shook my head until he went away.

He never went far though, heading to Bob's and remaining there some while. Damn them.

I was elsewhere when his amigo left. Bob's lights went out not long after midnight. I held off another half hour in cold watchfulness and reviewed my thinking, such as it was. I'd thought of Kennedy again, of a slow train through a troubled country. Then I drove the transit van from the street to the workroom and silenced the engine.

I carried Lia out as I'd carried her in all those weeks ago, she the only thing unchanged, and placed her on the single mattress that made an island in a choppy sea of supermarket carrier bags.

Returning, I gave the workroom the once over and prayed it wasn't the complex alone preserving her. Finally I left Bob a belated Christmas present on the bare worktable, having dug out my old overalls, the ones with Simon indeed stitched across the breast. The things we keep. In the pocket I tucked a note that read,

"I trust you'll put your keys to good use, Bob."

Now Lia and I would take a slow drive through a country untroubled, though it was built on the backs of our compatriots. While hardly the hecatomb of Bristol or Liverpool, how many other Yorks? When I went to close the van door, however, the rear was empty, her mattress unoccupied. Only my grip on the freezing handles kept me upright.

Was it Bob, or his amigo, or officials at last? Whichever, I had to go. I gathered myself and went to get in the cab. Except I couldn't. My heart somersaulted once again and I hung onto another handle.

Lia was sitting behind the wheel in her summer dress, living, breathing, but otherwise unchanged still.

"Olá, Javier."

I moved my duvet into the foot well, took my place beside her, and instead of the old story of Kennedy, I told Lia the new thought I'd just had.

"I'm off the clock forever."

Then we drove away, as if to retire undefeated this time.

 

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