Introduction: the Jam Jar
“Everybody just pretend to be normal.” – Little Miss Sunshine
I step out of the cold sunshine into my all-different-now office. The revolving door is mercifully slow, which gives me time to wonder whether I’ll go full circle and run for it. I’m still deciding when I notice I’ve already made it through. On the escalator, I do a quick mental run-down of who knows about what happened last Tuesday. There’s my boss, Malik…actually, that’s probably it. I doubt he told anyone else. He’s busy, and anyway it’s customary to treat a death as private, like the first trimester of pregnancy or prostate troubles. As if it isn’t announced in the paper. As if a no-longer-existent human isn’t something we’ll all have to acknowledge at some point. As if bereaved people want to be asked by disgruntled colleagues, “Where have you been, bloody part-timer? Off on holiday again?” Oh, please, let me have that conversation. I’m just dying to cause that excruciating pause.
I glide my fob across an electric pad, and the gates obligingly open to let me in. I stride through at a pace that suggests I do not trust them not to get impatient and crush me, and then resolve to act normally. I’m not allowed to be devastated by this. Bereaved parents, children and siblings are expected to be destroyed. Distraught nieces and nephews are permissible. Grandchildren too at a push, but not for long. “Daughter-in-law-to-be” doesn’t even feature on the grief hierarchy, which is only there because we’re not kind enough to each other under normal circumstances. Bereaved people get treated inordinately well. No one barks at the bereaved. No one crowds them or lets them make their own tea. No one accuses a bereaved person of incompetence or thoughtlessness, or starts a sentence with a brusque, “Look…”
If I tell anyone, they’ll think I’m stealing Dion’s thunder, milking it for sympathy or time off or slack in my workload. I know I’m not imagining this aspect of our culture: if I feel this strongly that I have no right to be as upset as I am, someone here probably agrees with me.
As the bottleneck of the corridor by the stairs widens out into the open-plan of the office, my heart quickens and my vision swims. I can see the back of my chair in the distance, my blue cardigan flung carelessly over it, way back on Monday when everything was fine. I focus on it as I make my way through the sea of desks. Dion is 15 minutes down the road, organizing the funeral. I know the sight of his dad, bloated and green, pollutes his mind’s eye, and the smells of putrescine and cadaverine still billow in my mind’s nostrils (if your mind has an eye then it must have a nose too).
The thudding quietens as I reach my chair, and sit next to my desk mate Homa and across from Archie, completing the action in a way I’m almost positive looks ordinary. I switch on my computer as if it’s not pointless, as if sitting at a desk and doing things is any more useful than lying underneath it to contemplate a week-old sandwich crumb. Having nailed switching on my computer, I type in my password as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. God, that looked amazing, I think and internally high-five myself. Oh yeah. Gettin’ my normal on.
“Morning Erica,” says Homa, pleasantly.
“Morning!” I shout. Right, that was a fail. I was going for cheerful. I smile, and say in a quieter, more Monday-morning voice, “How’s it going?” There we go, I think, that sounded good. I am in control. Things aren’t tinged green and terrifying. The air is not thicker than usual. The lid is firmly on my jam jar of horror. I could turn myself upside down and not a drop of trauma would leak out.
“Good, thanks. How was your weekend? You’ve been on holiday, haven’t you?”
“HE WAS DEAD DION GOT A CALL FROM HIS CLEANER AND SHE COULDN’T GET IN BECAUSE HE WAS DEAD HE WAS DEAD FOR OVER A WEEK AND WE FOUND HIM THERE AND THERE WERE PAPERS AND MILK AND THE DOG WAS TRAPPED AND HE WAS DEAD.”
She looks at me, stunned. Across the desk bank, Archie’s head snaps up. They present the whites of their eyes and the backs of their throats for a moment, without comment.