Winner of 2017 Giller Prize

Winner of 2017 Giller Prize
Michael Redhill for his novel Bellevue Square

Saturday, November 15, 2008

In the Land of Long Fingernails: A Gravedigger in the Age of Aquarius

An excerpt from Charlie Wilkin's memoir of the long-ago summer when he worked in a graveyard.

The next morning, in heavy rain, my car refused to start. I took the bus to the cemetery, arrived late, and was put to work in the maintenance shop, applying gold-coloured lacquer to an elaborate concrete outer vault that was to be used the following day. The thing was big enough for a stack of bodies, and on the crest of its arched lid was the likeness of an open book, presumably the Lamb’s Book of Life. On it, I was to apply neat lines of letters forming the dead person’s name and the message “Love Eternal” and a biblical reference, Psalm 46:10. All of which was no more or less than the usual freakish provision for the arrival of the dead at Willowlawn Everlasting.

At break, Peter informed me that the funeral was going to be a corker—a seventeen-year-old girl had died of bone cancer. He had been told to expect four school buses of teenagers.

I blew a reefer under the eaves of the chapel, out of the rain, and feeling as remote as a star went back into the shop to apply a second coat of paint. The teenager’s death was made calculably more ominous for me by her condemnation to the vulgar airless crypt that I was in the process of decorating and in which she was on the cusp of spending eternity. Hogjaw came in, as stoned as I, and for a moment, on a whim, I jumped into the box and struck a surfing pose, and jumped out.

“Lie down in it,” he said, and I stepped back in and lay down.

“You look good,” he said.

“I’m alive,” I said. “It doesn’t count.”

“You’re stoned is what you are.”

“You get in,” I said as I got out, and he stepped in and lay down and shut his eyes.

Scotty had told me that from the age of forty the actress Sarah Bernhardt had slept in the coffin in which she would eventually be buried. He had read it in Midnight. I mentioned it to Hogjaw, who said he thought people could do “a helluva lot more in coffins” than they do.

I asked him “Like what?” and he said. “All they do now is rot and go to hell.” He opened his eyes and asked if I believed there was an afterlife, to which I responded that it was a nice idea, one that I had once held inviolable, but that I no longer knew. I asked for his own views on the age-old stumper, and he said, “There is as long as we’re alive—after that, what the fuck does it matter?” He closed his eyes again and held up his hands as if to receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit. He said, “As far as I’m concerned, this is all there is … this box … this dope … this gawdam fucking graveyard.” He stood up, stepped out of the vault, and brushed the concrete dust off his clothes. “And this dead teenager,” he said, and he looked at me and rapped his knuckles on the side of the vault. “I hope I’m wrong for her sake.”

“I hope you are, too,” I told him.

“If I am,” he said, “I’ll be the first guy in hell to admit it.”

I applied the letters meticulously but used a little too much glue, allowing a few of them to drift out of line on the slightly bevelled surface. After break, I redid the lot of them, including the scriptural injunction, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Then I rolled another joint, and walked out into the Garden of the Blessed Redeemer, where Denise was trimming stones. We smoked and sat for a few minutes, at one point touching fingers in the grass. I told her about the verse on the dead girl’s vault, and she told me she thought God was the stillness.

“God is love,” she said as I got up to go.

I returned to the shop and, with the glue nearly dry, spray-painted the inscription and went over to the shed and ate a peanut butter sandwich and a couple of overripe peaches. I rolled another joint.

The sun appeared as I ate, and I spent most of the afternoon cutting grass on the sit-down mower. From time to time I sneezed, or stifled a sneeze. About an hour from quitting time my eyes began to itch and then to water, and my nose began to run. I sneezed several times in succession, then, quite suddenly, was convulsed by a sneezing fit so forceful that I had to stop the mower, get off and lean against a tree while my body rid itself of twenty, maybe thirty, violent sneezes. Within minutes, my eyes were all but swollen shut.

I slumped into the maintenance shop a few minutes before five and was greeted by howls of laughter over my appearance. Peter diagnosed hay fever—a menace that he said had given him fits during his first four years of cemetery work. “If you wanta get rid of it,” he told me perfunctorily, “you get allergy shots. It’s too late this year.”

I survived the night with heavy does of antihistamine tablets, and had to beg off mowing the following morning. Instead, I laid out graves with Hogjaw who, in Luccio’s absence and with Peter’s ascent into management, had become my closest companion on the job.

Throughout the morning, I suffered waves not just of hay fever but of draining pessimism as we set up to bury the dead teenager. The grave, when we finished it, contained six or eight inches of greyish water, as well as a substantial ball of newspaper that Hogjaw had used to dry the digger controls. Peter had ordered Denise to polish up the lowering device, whose gleaming stainless steel proclaimed its morbid welcome to the underworld.

From behind a grove of cedars, Hogjaw and I watched the committal, a despairing locus of grief, all of it in preposterous contrast to the crowd of high school students in miniskirts and bell-bottomed jeans, and to the bright yellow presence of the school buses.

When we had lowered the coffin into the concrete vault and had hitched cables to the gold-painted lid, Hogjaw walked to the grave, dropped onto the edges of the vault and said, “Do you want to see her?”

“No,” I said, as sure of it as I have ever been of anything. “Actually, yes,” I said, “I wouldn’t mind,” at which point Hogjaw, the master of such exertions, spread his knees so that they touched the side walls of the grave, reached down and, having manipulated the coffin latch, lifted the lid and, holding it open, stood up, so that I had an unobstructed view. I glanced around, to make sure we weren’t being watched, and for the next few seconds stared into the exquisite corpse’s expressionless face, a face unmarred by the tortures of disease—in fact, except for the makeup, indistinguishable from that of any dreamy seventeen-year-old. “Bye-bye now,” whispered Hogjaw, and he bent over and touched the teenager’s cheek with the backs of his fingers, moving her head slightly, which spooked me, sending me backpedalling to where I grabbed the indoor-outdoor that was covering the dirt pile, yanked it off and flung it over a nearby stone. I wrenched up a lump of clay and fired it into the grave.

We lowered the vault lid, and I hastily tidied up as Hogjaw plowed clay into the hole. It might behoove my tale to report that as a child I had an irrational fear of cancer, and by twelve or so, was praying nightly that the little lump or lesion in my armpit or groin would not do me in—at least not before I had had a chance to have sex, which I thought about day and night, agonized over, dreamt about, sometimes to vivifying, even alarming, effect. My fantasized mate in these morbid speculations was invariably a busty brunette in black lingerie—big-nippled, perhaps twenty years my senior, and well versed in the bedroom arts. At the time, I believed I might inveigle such a woman to have sex with me if she knew I was on my way out and would require the service just once or twice … which is all I want, Dear Lord, please, just this five or six times.

As I tamped the sod into place, I experienced the same paradoxical mixture of relief and guilt that I had known as a kid after witnessing some baleful violation of the natural order. She was dead of cancer—I wasn’t. Meanwhile, I wondered what nightmarish forces had exploded in her skull when she had found out she had the disease—wondered what unbridgeable loneliness and despair she had endured with the awareness she was going to die.

I wondered if she had ever had sex.

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