Transference of Death
I’m sick of hearing birdsong as the sun blurs its way between my curtains. Not because the sound particularly grates, but because since he died I can’t sleep. Birdsong should only be appreciated after peaceful sleep.
I’ve been hearing the birds since 3am, and somehow I’ve stumbled into the funeral this morning, still numb, dishevelled bordering on presentable in a two-piece last fashionable in the Jurassic Age. The current ‘serenade’ is being provided by a pair of green-backed woodpeckers and magpie quarrelling next to the open grave.
I look around at all the life in the cemetery. Maybe some of the birds here will find worms to eat that have fed from his decomposition. In time he could be the energy powering the song. That’s apt. The priest is beginning.
’...to pay our respects to our recently departed friend Len Cobbold…’
I drift into thoughts of my dead companion. We struggled together and now I struggle alone. I throw a rose onto his coffin, dewy in the wetness of the morning, it’s crying too.
It was a few months ago, before the turn of the year, that we had one of our classic strange-and-morbid discussions over late-night dark coffee.
‘Len,’ I said. ‘We won’t have much money even for coffee when the plant fails. I don’t know what we’ll do! We’re just about clinging on to what frankly feels like empty hope as it is.’
‘I know’ he said, distractedly. ‘You see the local news last night? Primary school teacher, newly qualified and pregnant, been given less than six months in this world – lung cancer. She didn’t smoke.’
‘Len, not transference of death again.’ I had seen the news. Though he didn’t say why he was particularly drawn to this girl. He didn’t need to.
‘Yes! I’m serious. Wouldn’t there be more justice in this world if people like us could forget about suicide and…’ he paused, ‘breathe in the sicknesses of people who have so much to live for’.
‘But even so, it’s just…if it came to it…would we really want to? You know the line the therapists take, they’d be saying “look over there, Eddie’s taking his Iguana for a walk, there’s this whole spectrum of colour around us”...be telling us to see the beauty.’
‘Maybe. But you’re getting better.’
‘So they say. You’d honestly die for this girl, given the chance?’
‘Sure. It’d be a win-win turn of events. Even you wouldn’t miss my melancholy after a while’.
That was about an average conversation for us. But something changed, Len really took an interest in this girl. Almost went as far as saying he honestly could take her illness away. I said to him ‘You know, some people so want to live that they die trying. I watch the news too. Some 20-year-old Indian kid fell 2000ft from the wheel well of a Boeing he’d climbed into…he flew 10 hours in a fucking undercarriage, just to find work, improve his life. And he didn’t even make it! And here we sit, on our arses talking about ways of dying. There’s a hard place to find justice.’
He told me people are just different, and that lifespan is distributed unfairly. And at 52 we both felt we’d had enough.
I didn’t see him much for a few days after that, he was unusually distant…evasive, even. I caught sight of some sort of wall-shrine of newspaper cuttings when I knocked for him, but what the hell, asked no questions. The next day I knocked, and he wasn’t there. He was always there. He hadn’t even popped next door to the cornershop. He was just gone. I caught up with him the next day; he mumbled something about being dosed up and not hearing the door. I didn’t buy it. God, I wish I’d kept him talking, the way we always used to. He was getting worse, and yes, I was getting better. It was like the glue of torment that held us together was being melted by a new warmth in me. Neither of us knew what to do I guess, least of all me. I reckon, if he was still alive, he’d feel closer to me again, now that I’m back in therapy.
The priest is finishing now, something about peace and becoming righteous. Len would have had something to say about that. Something to do with justice, no doubt. I think the priest has been uncomfortable talking to so few of us, he doesn’t know where to look. I shouldn’t be surprised Len’s ex didn’t show. She went through enough burying their only child. After the tragedy, she couldn’t look at him, why would she come to look at him dead? There’s just me, Ranjit from the cornershop, Hani the cleaner and one other, who I can’t quite place. She has blonde hair like sunlight, a petite girl, seems confident but also quite…reverent. Probably someone from the outreach team. A chaffinch flits past her head like a bullet and I turn to watch my good friend lowered into his next plane of existence.
We are given the chance to talk about him back in the church. It’s more like small-group discussion than speeches. We reminisce our experiences of Len over tea in the kind of cup-and-saucer jobs you only get in a church hall. We all struggle to avoid his depression and talk about the ‘bright side’ of Len. I catch myself looking at Outreach girl, who’s not yet said anything. In the quiet while she plays restlessly with her hair, the others look to me to share a story. So, smiling and crying, I tell my favourite.
It was when Janine arrived at the plant. Rain-soaked, shoulders tight as a vice, and clasping her umbrella as if it was welded to her fist, the first female employee was greeted with cold stares, open hostility and jeers. Except for Len. Walking over, he took it upon himself to publicly welcome her, shaking the rain out of her umbrella as he did so. As he walked her to where she’d be working, and she was looking off at some other part of her new surroundings, he raised two fingers to his eyes and then slowly pointed them at the hostile workers – ‘I’m watching you’. Len had enough respect for this to have an effect, but was sufficiently detached from plant politics to be free to make his stand in the first place. Every morning he’d take her coffee just because he knew she’d appreciate it. She was the one person outside of our long-standing friendship that he reached out to. And he did it when it meant enduring further isolation from his fellow workers, at a time when depression and isolation were new to him. He was experiencing for the first time what it meant for reality to be dislocated entirely. Maybe that in itself was what enabled him to reach out, and in the years Janine was with us I doubt she knew a better friend. Neither did I, I say as I finish.
Len was a good guy really. He’d never have been my best friend for so many years if he hadn’t been. It was him who enabled me to tell a chaffinch from a chicken. In happier times he’d travelled all over to witness avian rarities. I remember the grin on his face when he told me that after waiting for hours as the sun came up, he’d seen the rare bittern – ‘in-flight!’ he’d added with relish. I still don’t know whether I believe he really saw a flamingo in England.
He swapped birds for news when his condition started keeping him indoors. It jaded him, and made him an angrier man. I warned him that I’d heard people who regularly watch the news are 20 per cent likelier to be depressed, but he told me depression was better than ignorance. I didn’t bother debating with him whether watching the news made one more or less ignorant.
It was when cancer stories became an epidemic, a perennial news item that helped to develop his ‘transference of death’ theory. He wanted a system to enable people living tormented lives with no definable end to be able to ‘breathe in’, as he put it, the terminal illnesses of those with everything to live for. I’m glad he never took the idea out of his flat; euthanasia alone is a hot enough issue.
‘He was already so gaunt before he told me,’ I say to Hani. She nods and touches my hand briefly. ‘I’d been telling him he needed to eat more!’ I know it sounds lame. The explanation I hadn’t wanted to contemplate then was simply too incredible. His obsession with transference of death was becoming his reality.
He did have it bad though, thoughts that would drive him to extraordinary pain, constant unbidden voices and suicidal impulses. The impact on his life and ability to work and socialise was unimaginable. We were lucky we had the plant where we met. Through the years we’d moved from bashing the shit out of metal to computer-controlled coach-building. Whatever else it did, manual work took us out of ourselves, away from our heads (at least on the days when we both made it out of bed), before coming back to our apartment block to sit and vent our frustrations some more.
When the recession hit, the atmosphere in the plant changed, the grey walls that reminded me of my old Airfix kits suddenly took on a deathly pallor. The bright orange railings and fixtures mocked rather than inspired, and the attention to detail which we prided ourselves upon lost its meaning as the completed cars stacked up in the expansive space next to the warehouse, none being sold. Coffee as comrades at the cathedral-like window became pensive and disharmonic.
I think by the time he started dying we’d all but cut ourselves off from the real world, the real people who were in the local cafe or park or pub, and not on TV. We wouldn’t have been able to tell you how much a pint cost, just what our mental illnesses had done to us. It defined us.
While I was working alone at the plant, which was in a similarly terminal condition, we were both a little freer. It’s crazy, when he heard it was terminal it was like all his Christmases had come at once. I don’t think the doctor had ever seen a reaction like it. Paradoxically, having cancer gave him a new lease of life – now that he only had to think about a short, limited few months. He had a very hard time convincing the powers that be not to treat him at all.
All that time, I didn’t know what to think. It threw me into a real emotional typhoon. If he was happy, what could I do? He didn’t seem to realise how much losing him was going to cut through me, how empty I’d be despite the morbidity of our conversations. I was going to be bereft, and he seemed already in his own personal heaven. Like dying was going to be his greatest achievement.
My attention re-enters the room. People have started milling around, making conversation. Outreach girl is nodding her head gravely while Ranjit speaks to her. I can’t hear much of what he is saying, something about TV. Ranjit puts his hand on her shoulder, and they both smile a rueful smile.
‘It’s amazing you pulled through’ Ranjit is saying. I move closer, intrigued. There is a familiarity to this girl, like trying to recall a dream that flashes in your mind when it’s too late to really remember it, your morning coffee is steaming in front of you but something of the dream world is still present. I realise with a wrench in my stomach that she is probably very close to the age Len’s daughter would have been now, and with the same otherworldly blonde hair. Her connection with Len, with his funeral, mystifies me. She seems more than just an outreach worker who cares. Who is she?
I feel anxious, socialising still doesn’t come easily, even with just half a dozen people. I gulp as I realise she’s coming towards me.
‘You must be Ray – hi!’
‘Hello. I must admit, I’ve been wondering who you are…how did you know Len? Are you from the outreach team?’
She smiles, which seems to brighten the room, and her glacier-white teeth shine. Glancing down to avoid eye-contact, I notice her ID badge. Suddenly I realise I know who is, and the realisation feels like someone has their hand around my heart, and is squeezing.
‘Actually, I’m a primary school teacher’ she answers, ‘I knew your friend so briefly. I was dying – cancer - and he came one day, with a smile and some flowers…’
‘That sounds like Len,’ I say, trying to hide from her the pit I am sinking into. Len, what have you done?
‘So he comes and he says he wants to pray for me to get better. I thought “well, anything is worth a go” and so I let him. He’d seen me on the news, apparently. Not the only one, my bedside was avalanched with cards after the cameras had been’.
I motion with a nod for her to continue. ‘So,’ she says, ‘I didn’t hold out much hope. The doctors didn’t hold back, they told me straight up I didn’t have much time. But when he took my hand and prayed, I started crying. He prayed so passionately, this guy I didn’t even know. I felt so grateful, and such warmth spread through me - I can’t explain it. I know it sounds stupid, but I walked out of the hospital two weeks later. I believe, somehow, he got me well.’
I am stunned into silence. I realise I am crying, and she puts her arm around my neck so gently.
‘Can you tell me what happened to him? I wasn’t sure, I only just found out he died,’ she asks, eyes searching, trying to catch mine.
I can’t answer. I finally look up, through my tears and into her eyes. In a single moment, I see Len’s pale blue eyes, and the eyes of his lost daughter, encapsulated in hers as she looks at me, with tears starting to fall down her cheeks as if from heaven itself.