I left him staring into the eyes of his own skull and went to make some tea. Nothing special, but loose-leaf for the occasion. Brought it back on a tray with the sugar pot, and the strainer. Neither of us take milk.
He didn’t seem too interested in the tea when I laid it down at first, but eventually decided to come and investigate. The both of us have always seen tea as a bit of a comfort, and considering the situation I think it is fair to say we both needed it at the time.
He poured his, then I poured mine while he added an obscene amount of sugar – he’s always liked his sugar. He says sometimes that at least he died before he got diabetes. I tell him that’s the wrong attitude to have.
“That’s my skull?” he said looking over his shoulder at the yellowing object. The bone dome stood silently, teeth stretched in a never-changing grin. Looking its own way.
I nodded. I wish I’d brought in a bit of cold water. Just to make the tea… drinkable. Far too hot as it is. And leaving it makes it stew. Or is that just if you leave the leaves in? I suppose that’s one reason why people take milk – just so they can drink it before their company has to leave.
“Why haven’t I seen it until now?”
I frowned at him, “Well… the meat had to decompose. It was suspicious enough having to dig your bones back up.”
“You buried me on a hill.”
“I buried you out the way.”
He snorted, “Out the way, on a hill. Was a cemetery too much to ask? Didn’t a new one just open a few months ago? You could’ve put me there.”
I shook my head, “It opened about a year ago,” I said. “And besides, I wasn’t going to sneak into a cemetery to dig you up. Much easier just burying you on a secluded hill where no one goes. Made my job easier. Besides – you didn’t even stay in the ground.”
He didn’t seem happy, even though he couldn’t deny the logic of my decision. I’m rather surprised he cared that much. Honestly, I thought he wouldn’t care where he was buried. He never cared about much anyway. Why would he be so defensive about this?
Silence fell around us. I did my best to not feel too uncomfortable, though the way both of us left our tea to cool definitely gave the room a bit of an awkward feeling. And although I tried my best to come up with conversation, nothing seemed to flow at the time. You can’t ask a dead man how he’s doing. Or what he’s been doing lately. It’d be pointless.
I found out it was pointless after I asked him. I said, “What’ve you been up to lately?” as any friend would. And he just looked sideways at me and said, “Stupid question?”
That happened the last time we met, but at least conversation happened, no matter how much of a fool I looked.
“Hard to check if your skull was free of meat,” I said, attempting a bit of humour.
“Free of… meat? Why the hell are you calling it ‘meat’? That was me. That was my brain in there.”
“What? But you died.”
“So? Still my brain, even if it’s not working. Or wasn’t. I suppose it’s animal crap now.”
This is why it’s hard to talk to him.
“Um…” I said, trying to save face. “I’m certain it’s free of your brain. Or your flesh. It’s been in the ground… a good nine or ten months. And I cleaned it. And I bleached it in the sun for a few days. I put it on the shed roof.”
“No one noticed, I swear.”
He sat back, his arms folded over his chest. His seemed to avoid looking at me, or anywhere near me. I was used to this. I wasn’t fazed by his attitude. He was always like this, even before he died. Equally standoffish, equally gloomy.
But he looked at me eventually, “Where’s the rest of me then?”
I shrugged one shoulder and tested if my tea was cooled with my top lip, “Black bag – ow.”
“I’m kidding,” that made me smile, despite my hurting lip. Didn’t make him smile though. Unsurprisingly. “Everything’s in a box in the shed. It took hours for me to sort it all out. I tried to put all the leg bones together, all the arm bones, all the ribs… that sort of thing. Not sure why. I mean, what am I supposed to do with it?”
He didn’t say a word. Just sat there with his arms folded. The same as he was before. He looked identical now to how he did before he died. Same hair parting, same bags under his eyes, same remnants of that skin condition on the back of his left thumb. Apparently it was a stress-related skin condition. I always thought otherwise; I always thought it was his skin reacting to the washing-up liquid. Because it always flared up after he did the dishes. He insisted it was stress though.
I scratched at my temple, “Do I just keep it all in a box in the shed? Bones in my shed? Human bones?”
“Fucking bury them again if it’s a problem. Sorry to be a burden on you.”
I sighed, “Not a burden, I just… what does one do with human bones? Honestly, if someone finds out, I’ll probably be arrested.”
“And being arrested isn’t a burden.”
“Well. I mean, it is. But… well what do you want me to say? Your dead body is a bloody nightmare to look after?”
He shrugged, “If you want to say that. It’s not even my problem.”
I sighed again. Same insufferable attitude. Plus my tea was still too hot. But at least it was cooling.
“It was so fucking creepy digging you up.”
“You don’t say.”
Despite his obvious disinterest, I decided to press on with my point. I wasn’t going to let his attitude deprive me of a conversation, “I mean, on the one hand you did ask me to last time you were here. So at least I had the peace of mind that you wanted me to dig you up. But on the other hand… I can’t tell whether seeing you made it more or less creepy. Because if I hadn’t seen you again, I’d just be digging up the bones of someone I’d spent years of my life around. Which is creepy on its own… but seeing you again, then digging up your bones is weird. Because maybe I don’t see those bones as yours? I can’t tell. But you’re welcome with the skull anyway.”
“What do you mean, ‘you’re welcome’. I never thanked you.”
“No I… I did what you asked.”
“Yeah, you dug my body up. Didn’t ask for you to display my head in your fucking house. Who wants that?”
I found myself truly glowering at him. Talking to him was getting me nowhere. It was just ending up annoying me. Still – I’d promised to take tea with him. Not that a promise meant much to him anyway. He never honoured his. Still doesn’t.
“Shall I take it down then?”
I didn’t answer this. I just tried my tea again. Drinkable. A little hot, but not scalding. And perhaps the heat of the tea would quench the heat of my forehead. He was truly annoying me. And yet I felt awful being annoyed at him.
I’d mourned him. For months. And then… six months after he’d died, I heard a knock on my bedroom door and in he walked. In the flesh. Physical, nothing ethereal or see-through. I had a panic attack over it to which he stood there, scowling a little at me, but didn’t try to explain or help me. He just waited.
Waiting in the room probably helped, I admit. Probably helped me to come to terms with the fact that he was there. Unthreatening and… normal. Because I had missed him. A man made almost entirely of flaws, and I missed that? Apparently. Somewhere I cherished him, I admired him, I was amused by him. It felt strange to like someone like that, or to want him around… and, as I sat with my teacup at my lips, I wondered what I had missed. Had I missed the way he annoyed me, his blunt and unorchestral voice? What exactly had I lost with his death? Nothing much.
I’d actually gained a bit of positivity. I laughed a lot louder when I laughed during the understated healing process. When I wasn’t thinking about him, when he wasn’t on my mind. If I was amused, I was properly allowed to laugh… I was probably a bit happier.
Staring at him, I put down the teacup.
“I guess so. A bit hot but…” He was talking about the tea. He’d looked down at it when he’d asked. Tea came first. Insultingly enough.
He, with his new information, tried the tea. Then he complained he’d added too much sugar. So he added more tea. Then he complained it was too hot. So he put it down again. I watched. I didn’t say anything.
“You know something,” he said, unaffected by my silence.
“I discovered a lot about myself. When I died. It’s like… all the things I should have known, or maybe I did know them… all the things buried deep in my brain all were so clear. Whispers of thoughts were suddenly spoken properly, and facts were shouted. I realised a lot. It felt huge at the time. Just feels normal now.”
He snorted, “There, that perked you up, didn’t it.”
“Shut up. What did you… find out? Was it all about you?”
“Most of it. Some of it was about other people, some of it was about other places and things, most of it isn’t important. Perhaps I’d go and tell people things but… yeah they all think I’m dead so what’s the point?”
“I thought you were dead.”
“Am I different?” I asked, with trepidation.
He just shrugged again.
Which annoyed me. But I tried not to let it show.
“What did you find out.”
“A fair bit,” he said. Then he kept me waiting by trying his tea again. Not to be put out, I drank some of my own. But when I put my cup down, he was huffing and adding a splash more tea and a lot more sugar. Apparently a dead man can’t make a decent cup of tea for himself.
I playfully asked if he needed any help – he declined less-than-playfully.
“Tell me what you found.”
“God, fine. I found out, well… this all might be a little surprising to you too. But I found out more about my actual family, I found out my actual name, and I found–”
“Hold up, your actual name?”
He nodded slowly. As if I was stupid.
“What parent calls their child Lull?” he said. “When their other children are called Rhesus and Lois? Why the hell would you think my real name was Lull?”
“I know it’s what I told you, but I didn’t know I had a real name until I died. So. And yeah, I’ve apparently got an older brother called Rhesus. I didn’t even know that. Unless I did and it was just buried somewhere in my mind. Death pulled it out maybe.”
“You don’t sound all that surprised,” he said. Flatly.
I tilted my head, “Should I be? I mean, yes, you have an older brother, that’s new. But I don’t know him do I? Probably never will. Where is he?”
“How the fuck should I know?”
“Fine,” I said. “You don’t know. And I’m not that surprised. I’m more surprised about your name, though you’ve got a point about it… I suppose no parent would call their kid Lull would they.”
“So what is it?”
And he smirked. In all the time I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him smirk. I don’t know if I’d ever seen his teeth, to be honest, that’s how little he ever smiled.
“What makes you think I want to tell you?”
“Um, the fact you brought it up? Is it really embarrassing?”
“Quite embarrassing, yeah.”
“Are you going to tell me…?”
He shrugged. “Ahh… yeah. I mean, what are you going to do. Tease, worse case.”
“I could tell Lois.”
He frowned. Darkly.
I blinked, “Or… not tell Lois? You could tell her yourself…? Actually, that’s a good point – why haven’t you appeared to her? I want the answer to that question first please, before your name.”
“Appeared? Hah. I’m not a spirit.”
“Alright, why haven’t you gone to her then?”
His eyes narrowed, and he developed some subtle snarl. Both combined contorted his features into something quite ferocious, and I regretted asking the question. It was a fair enough question too – Lois was his sister, his little sister, the girl he took care of even before she could walk.
“Why the fuck would I want to screw up her grieving process?” he growled. “She’s mourning, or she has mourned. If I showed myself to her… bang, whole thing screwed up. Whole thing pointless. There’ll be a point where you won’t see me again either, so if Lois knew I was here… well look at Lois. She’s a stupid little girl, she’d latch onto me again. Pretend I wasn’t ever dead and her head would make her believe that. Out of denial.”
“Alright, alright. Good point.”
“Then when I vanish forever, she’ll have to start all over again. You think that won’t be more damaging?”
I tapped the side of my teacup once and shook my head. I felt like I was getting scolded, like I was stupid. Because he had a good – better than good – point. He was right. Dying, going away seemingly forever, then coming back into Lois’ life wouldn’t be good. I’d never call her a “stupid little girl” but… he was right. He was. She’d start believing he never died.
Lois relied almost exclusively on me after her brother died. Perhaps because she thought I was closest to him, I was reliable like him. And I am reliable, I will call myself that, but I’m a lot softer than he ever was. If she pissed him off, he’d let her know. If he needed space from her, he’d physically push her away. I could never do that. I let her close to me, I held her when she cried, I talked about him with her, I smelled her tears and she smelled mine.
Something we both… realised… was that we felt as if he had never existed. It wasn’t long either. The denial was strongest, and scariest. As if he had just gone away on a trip somewhere and he would be back before long. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised I was waiting. I was waiting beside a door that he would never come through. I would buy cigarettes for him and only remember no one was going to smoke them when I was halfway out the shop door. I would prepare the sugarbowl when I made tea just in case he wanted any, before realising he’d never be there to take sugar again.
That was the denial. And it hit both me and Lois hard… but it affected her more. I was my own person, I looked after myself, but he looked after her. If I was waiting by the door, she was pressed up against it. With her nose at the letterbox. As if trying to use any sense she had to find him.
The belief that he never existed came soon after that, and Lois was indeed a wreck. I’d lost a friend, but Lois had lost a brother who was more of a father than a sibling. Not a good father, but a guardian nevertheless. So to believe he didn’t exist terrified her.
A year, and she is only just healing properly. She can go through his CD collection now. She can’t play any of them. But she can look at the boxes without weeping. Most of them.
“No. You’re right. Don’t go to her.”
“I could tell her your real name. If you like.”
“Also no. What would that help?”
He sat back again. No longer as vicious. “Yeah. To reveal that her brother’s name wasn’t ever his real name? Lovely.”
“Fine, not that either.”
“Just… keep this to yourself. Honestly, it’s better if no one else knows. They’ll only ask questions about how you know. I probably shouldn’t have mentioned it.”
I scowled, “You can trust me, you know. I know when to keep my mouth shut.”
“Alright,” he sighed. “I know. You’re not stupid.”
“I don’t think I am. At all. Come on. What’s your real name?”
I found myself smiling, trying not to chuckle. Arby? The man sat before me, who I’ve known as Lull, is called Arby.
“Short for anything?”
“Probably. Stop laughing.”
“I’m really not.”
He busied himself with his tea. Taking mouthful after mouthful. Until he had drained the teacup. I politely offered to pour him more, but he declined.
“Yeah, no more tea. I’ll be going in a few minutes. Back to the void of fucking nothingness.”
“Is that really what it’s like? To be dead?”
He shrugged. “Honestly I’m just speculating. I don’t remember a thing while I’m there unless it’s more subconscious revelations made conscious. Death is death. Nothing is nothing. Just how it is.”
“How much longer have you got?”
“How long has it been?”
“Not long, actually. Probably a couple of hours.”
“Mm. About as long as last time.”
I smiled, “Last time you were here for twenty minutes.”
“I suspected this for a while now – your perception of time is completely thrown off. Like you thought the cemetery opened a few months ago? It opened before you died, you know?”
“Shit. I remember. That’s annoying.”
“It’s alright. You just going to vanish again?”
“How do you know you’re going?”
He looked to one side. Perhaps thinking of the answer. Then he looked down at his hands. “I’m not… sure. It’s like an alarm clock in my head. Or something. I just suddenly realise I’m going to go. I don’t have long. Even if my perception of time is fucked.”
“When are you going to come back?”
“Might not. I can’t say.”
I felt suddenly vulnerable. My question, a child-like question, an innocent question. “When are you going to come back?” As if my happiness, my enjoyment in life, my purpose, relies on him… Even though I know that, if he never did return, I’d be okay. I’m logical enough – I hope – to avoid mourning too hard a second time. I know he’s dead, I remind myself of that fact every time he vanishes again. I remind myself that he’s dead, that he probably won’t come back. Ever.
But still. Asking that question, allowing that slice of childishness into my tone… it’s made me a little melancholic about the entire situation. I know I’d give up a lot to just spend a few hours more with him. And that’s proof I’ve not healed. Much. At all.
“Ah well. I’ll put the kettle on if you do come back. In the meantime, is there actually anything you want me to do with your bones?”
“Oh um… no. That is… you can bury them again if you want. Or you can keep them in your shed. Honestly, if I was you I’d keep them in your shed. Burying bones over and over might literally get you arrested.”
“Right… I’ll think about it. Perhaps I’ll invest in a big dog.”
I managed to laugh.
He vanished not long after that. Fortunately, he wasn’t halfway through a sentence, or else it’d have felt even more abrupt. All that happened was that his teaspoon fell to the table. He had been fiddling with it slightly as he listened to me explaining what kind of dog I’d most want – my preference seems to fluctuate between one of those Russian bear dogs and an old English sheepdog – and then he’d –
He’d vanished. It was disconcerting, terribly so. To be looking at someone, chatting, and then they’re suddenly not there. No sound effect like in a cartoon, nor a flash of light. Simply, he was there, then he wasn’t. Instantaneously. No fade-out, no dissolve. Just vanished.
So the teaspoon clattered to the table and actually took a chip out of the teacup as its handle scraped past. I sat there for a while, still, not really moving at all. But I knew he’d not come back.
I cleaned up the table. Examined the chip in the teacup; nothing major, it wouldn’t cause a crack. So at least there was that.
After all that, I went back to the room and examined his skull. When he was sitting in front of me, the skull on the bookshelf behind him wasn’t weird. Now it was. I picked it up, and my fingertips didn’t like that. It felt too strange. Touching something which was, a year and a half ago, in the head of the man who’d been drinking tea with me…
Yeah, I put it down quite quickly. Simply too awkward for me to hold anymore. Even stranger to be in the same room with it after its owner had departed from the room so suddenly.
So I decided to leave the room too. Leave the room and call it a night. Tomorrow I’d feel differently about the skull – I’d be able to face it and feel comfortable with it. But looking at it now, looking at the teeth that, a year and a half ago, would have had held a cigarette while he lit it… it was scary. It made my head ask all those questions. The ones beginning with “how” and “why”.
I turned out the lights. All the lights downstairs. And I locked the front door. I stared through its window, my house dark behind me, and the streetlamp across the way glowing faintly, painting the surroundings in shades of brown and gold.
That hill he was originally buried on is a public bridleway. One I walked many a time either alone or with friends or family. It didn’t mean much to me then, it was only a bit of rough terrain with a few climbable trees… perhaps a dash of nostalgia here and there. I suppose it’ll mean something else now.