Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Barington Encounter: Part Eighteen

About the only original part of Barington Cathedral to survive the various waves of destruction and disrespect which have occasionally (okay - often) visited themselves upon its architecture is the catacombs, wherein lay in their eternal slumber the saintly Sybarite herself and a reputed certain royal personage, two entirely special Baringtonianites who may soon enough be joined by the very ordinary PC Gary Carlisle... ~ MSM

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Entering the church, even given the dullness of the day outside, momentarily rendered Trudy Carlisle sightless. Against this occurrence she squeezed her eyes tightly shut for a few seconds, during which time she could hear nothing but the echoing sound of a few espresso machines; not that this startled her as such, since the inside of Barington Cathedral was probably the last place in the village not served by an adjacent Starbucks. Only after repeatedly sniffing the air - with conkful after conkful utterly bereft of the heaven-scent of latte - did she dare to open her eyes...

Now she was pleased to discover she could see better, which ought to have consoled her in many ways yet didn’t, not in the least; in fact, here she closed her eyes again, tighter than ever, since the first thing she’d seen after opening them was one of the aliens doing an uncanny impression of an espresso machine while reading aloud from a paperback novel as the other four performed some arcane interstellar ritual resembling a hand jive over a pile of towels which could only be described as resembling her husband’s dead body. That they’d been doing just that since approximately five the previous evening didn’t seem to bother them in the least, even though she’d been here herself less than a minute and only watching at that and already it bothered her no end.

Which is why - as has been recently established in as straightforward a manner as possible, given the author - she'd suddenly become so thoroughly comforted by the reassuring sight of the insides of her own eyelids....

Centimetring blindly forward, through what she'd recently seen to be gloom and could still hear were shushing reverberations - and with her shoes (or was that her heartbeat?) seeming to clatter like jackhammers in the mostly deserted church - she made her way forward, continuing until one such sound alerted one such alien to her presence; at which point all sound suddenly stopped and at which point her poor eyelids - which already were not having the best of days - flew apart in a manner suggesting they’d never be together again.

In that way they had that was simultaneously fluid and jerky the other four aliens turned to face her, fixing her with their luminous eyes which filled - to her delight, not to mention relief - with warmth and recognition. (Rather than, say, hunger, or the desire to conduct any sort of probe, internal or otherwise.) In fact, when the one nearest - the one we call Grimmnha - approached her and took her arm she let him, even though they'd never been formally introduced. ‘Welcome, wife of friend,’ he said to her, and something about the plummy sound of his voice removed all her reticence, which it oughtn't've done but there you have it. The others began hushing her name madrigally - ‘Trudy, Trudy, Trudy’ - until she could no longer hear her own familiar polysyllabic nomenclature in the sound being made with it...

Not that she had any idea what to say, let alone what she was expected to say; those protocols were tucked safely away in a folder all-too auspicious to be moved from Frederick Toady’s utterly inauspicious desk in its moldy old corner of the Foreign Office basement. Fat lot of good they (or it) did her there... In the meantime she bought time by listening to her name as though it were being sung by a waterfall; not next to, but actually by, mind you - as though the waterfall itself were singing.

‘You can’t bury him here,’ she said, once she'd started to feel the urge for a piddle so badly she'd need a paddle to get out of the puddle it made; whatever else she'd hope to accomplish by speaking, it made the sound of running water stop at least, and with it her various tensions receded both blissfully and better yet pisslessly from whence they'd come. She eyed them skeptically as they eyed her back noncommittally, and for a moment she was unsure if they would understand her, even though they sounded dead posh, or perhaps because of it; in all her admittedly limited experience - most of it as a shopgirl - dealing with posh people (and especially people who pretended to be posh, but really weren’t, which type these five still might turn out to be) the one consistent thing she’d learned was how much they hated being told they couldn’t do something.

‘Really,’ said the one who’d had her by the arm. It wasn’t a question, nor was it spoken with surprise; whereas it could have been uttered with sarcasm or offense, wistfulness or even charm - any of a dozen different ways really, this being England and all, and therefore the birthplace of verbal passive-aggression - it was in this case spoken with an annoying lack of intonation of any kind. Which was itself a kind of worst-case scenario, diplomacy-wise. Thinking Gary used to do the same thing, and it drove me round the twist pushed a single diamond-like tear past the blood that memory had put in her eye, magically washing it away; peeved as she had been, peeved was she no more...

By now she and the alien had reached the others, and she snuck a furtive glance at the pile of towels, just to ensure that it was, in fact, Gary. It was, or must have been; though it entirely resembled a pile of towels she recognized in its heapedness the swell of his belly and even though what remained of his remains was recumbent she could still make out the stoop of his shoulders, as surely as she’d have recognized them beneath the duvet on their bed. She gave a shudder, but one given out of obligation rather than reflex, which distinction was not lost on her. ‘This church is for kings and nobles and politicians - even artists,’ she said. ‘Very important people.’

‘Wasn’t Gary important?’ asked another alien, the one second-closest to her, whom we've heard called Lililili.

‘Only to me,’ she said, and where she normally would have been suddenly awash with grief she felt instead the way she used to when visiting her Gran’s house in the 1970s - simultaneously safe and comfortable within the memory.

‘And to us,’ said the third, Marlak, lowering the book from which he’d been reading aloud. This little bit of sentiment almost got to her, but some reserve of inner strength or other just kept it from jettisoning the sluices in her eyes...

‘You have to bury him somewhere else,’ she said, trying not to think about what she was saying or, more specifically, about whom she was saying it. To her surprise, her composure not only held but seemed to be growing.

‘He must have an important burial,’ they said in unison, and here is where Trudy became the most stymied she’d ever been. Without a word her face registered such a complex panoply of emotions that its expression could have auditioned for the Cirque du Soleil as a contortionist, with a lucrative sideline writing Cabinet despatches. All of which the aliens registered and understood without letting on, their appreciation for the complexity of female emotion being based on its lack of cohesion, which was so nearly equivalent to their own.

The tall one raised the book again and flipped backwards through it some number of pages. ‘From the section entitled Britain: A Country and Its Customs, the Encyclopedia Earthica has this to say: ‘In Britain every man is a King, and his home is his castle’.’ The alien lowered the book and raised his eyes simultaneously.

‘That’s a metaphor,’ she said.

The aliens all looked at her, then at Marlak their leader, who himself looked distinctly put out at being looked at in such a way - since he was a high-church Andromedarian, and therefore didn’t believe in leaders - even as the four of them looked imploringly back at him wishing he'd just get over himself, identity politics being a capital crime on Andromeda yet for some bizarre reason the opposite on Earth.

‘A figure of speech,’ she said, by way of further explanation. As expressions of awareness blossomed on their otherwise serene faces, three of them nodded while two of them shook their heads. Several long (what seemed like Andromedanite) seconds had passed when they all said ‘Ah!’ in unison, as though in unison they’d just been the recipients of some ancient pearl of wisdom. Which, then again, just maybe they had.

The leader said: ‘We’d been wondering. We’ve been here for 37 hours and twelve minutes and we’ve hardly seen any castles but we’ve seen lots of what we assumed were men.’

'If you weren't sure if they were men or not they probably were,' she said, and despite herself she laughed. ‘Besides which, that sentiment is well out of date. In fact, if it was ever really held at all it was only by men themselves and extremely gullible women - or else very cunning women, trying to have their way with men gullible enough to believe their own lies.’ Having said such a thing she felt she should be shocked by herself, but wasn’t, which was the really shocking thing, even though it shocked her not in the least.

The five of them seemed to think about what she’d said for awhile, during which two of them (the two who’d first shaken their heads then later nodded) seemed to grow perceptibly smaller.

‘And you are not gullible?’, the un-leader asked.

‘No mate,’ she said with a smirk, a smirk which the alien returned. ‘Anyway, Gary was opposed to human burial.’

Of all the things they’d seen or heard on Earth thus far, this notion seemed to startle them the most, and the moment she'd said it they became as agitated as chickens downwind from a KFC. ‘What did he want done with his remains in that instance,’ the one with the book asked. The Encyclopedia Earthica may have had an extensive section on Death, but it had nothing to say about the disposal of corpses that didn’t involve a shovel, and precious little about the making of them via any other means either.

‘I believe he wanted to be cremated.’ And she believed it because she’d heard him say it often enough, though he’d never been thoughtful or thorough enough in his maddeningly constablish way to ever explain why.

The one with the book raised it and leafed back a few more pages; his enormous eyes widened even further as he scanned a few lines of text, at which point he began to shake his head and mumble, ‘No, no, no,’ which activity his companions soon joined him in, filling the cavernous room with hundreds of the little words, each intoned slightly differently.

‘It’s a very commonplace practice here. On this planet. I assure you.’

Five identical blue heads cocked in five identical manners, assuming five quizzical expressions which, it scarcely needs to be said but will be anyway, were identical.

She forged on... ‘The Vikings used to send their dead in boats, floated upon the outgoing tide and filled with pitch, then set them alight from the shore by shooting flaming arrows at them. In India they put the dead on a pyre as well, before floating the whole lot down the Ganges,’ she said, suddenly an expert at things she’d previously forgotten she'd ever known.

The alien flipped through the book, pausing after a few pages. ‘Building A Viking Longboat - ’ he began to read, until she stopped him.

‘My heavens no, we don’t do it that way here. Not anymore. We send them to the crematorium.’

The five of them mulled the word ‘crematorium’ for awhile, trying to come to terms with its meaning, then trying to come to terms with it without laughing awkwardly, which was the Andromedan word for 'not bloody likely'. ‘But where, then, does one visit when one is lonely for him?’

‘Well,’ she started to say, measuring her words but scarcely needing to anymore, ‘Either we keep them in an urn on the mantel or we can scatter them at a place he liked to visit.’

There was a long pause as the aliens impassively translated this veritable rock and hard place amongst themselves. ‘Was Gary in possession of any such locale?’ Again there was a pause in the conversation because here there was a pause in Trudy Carlisle’s brain, as she translated from proper English to the estuarian patois she heard all day; they couldn’t very well scatter a man’s ashes in the car park of the DIYnot? - not that anyone would notice if they did - and (as she understood from Gary's endless blabbing on about it) Lord’s Cricket Ground already had plenty of ashes, which only left...

An image flashing across her otherwise empty mind, like the flickering beam from a film projector aimed through a smoky, black-and-white room. It was an image of...

‘King Canute,’ she said, her tone bordering on the triumphant, not a name and a tone of voice often intertwined, even when old Canute was still around. The one with the lowered book raised it again and, smiling faintly, began thumbing through its pages. Though it had been nearly twenty years ago she’d earned it, and more than nineteen years had passed since she’d last used it, Trudy Carlisle not only suddenly remembered she had an A level in history but seemed to recall every word of it that she’d ever learned, down to the casual conversations before, during, and after.

‘Once the King of this place,’ said the alien, not looking up from his book - more for the benefit of the others, or possibly to make himself seem smarter; after all, despite not wanting to be leader, he didn't mind people considering him a swot, since to be one was still a compliment on Andromeda.

‘That’s right.’ The facts came flooding back. ‘While most people say he was buried at Winchester, my university lecturer Dr. Daftford had a theory he was actually buried inside Barington Cathedral, or at least somewhere beneath it,’ she told them, and they found it fascinating, they really did, which only served to prove that they were foreigners, since none of the locals or anyway too few gave much of a toss what happened a year ago let alone a thousand or more. ‘Maybe you could technically bury Gary like a king here after all.’

‘Did Gary like it here?’

Here she bit her lip to keep it from trembling, and told a tiny fib in the cause of a greater good. ‘He loved it here.’

In truth, he only went to church when she dragged him there - Christmas or Easter every second or third year but never both in the same year; but one of the last times she'd managed it, as they were strolling up the aisle over the medieval brasses embedded in the flagstone which were some of the only above-ground remnants of the old church to survive the fire, he’d said: ‘Some way to be remembered.’ In this place, at this time, given extenuating circumstances and her desire to please her new boss on her first day of work, that would have to be good enough for all concerned.

There was a brief conference between the five of them, which to her sounded like five frogs in five blenders being blended at five different speeds. ‘When can we begin,’ asked the tallest one, tucking the book away in one of the pockets in his overalls. By her demeanour she indicated she didn’t know, and was about to say so when from behind her she heard the sound of a throat clearing. Looking from alien to alien to assure herself that the sound wasn’t one of them saying something she heard it again, only this time she’d distinctly (and indeed acoustically) heard the 'ahem' coming from behind her. She turned on her heel to face Frederick Toady, doing what can only be described as a combination of lingering and lurking in the doorway; her turn startled him visibly, although thankfully not audibly.

She approached him as cautiously as ever, before whispering: ‘They want to bury him here.’
He looked at her and blinked, then looked at them and gulped, before looking at her again and gulping and looking at them again and blinking. ‘I - I - I -’ he said, needlessly adding stammering to his repertoire of social ineptitude as the tallest, thinnest, bluest alien approached them with what seemed like a glide.

‘Problem?’ Marlak enquired of Frederick Toady.

At this point Frederick Toady felt what felt like a shower of warm liquid light wash over him. Suddenly he felt peaceful, contented, serene, and confused - mainly because he’d never felt peaceful, contented, and serene before, and definitely not all at the same time. Just as suddenly, as though a PowerPoint presentation had switched on inside his head, all he could see in his mind’s eyes were six words, which he then spoke with such decisive force it made a part of Trudy Carlisle stir, then shake, a part of her - it scarcely needed to be said - that had neither been shaken nor stirred in a very long time and was like a martini only in that it could now be lapped up in order to keep a tongue moist.

He said: ‘We’ll have to ask the bishop.’

All five nodded solemnly before lifting the pile of towels Trudy Carlisle had almost forgotten was her dead husband and repairing for the bishop’s office...


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2 comments:

Seumas Gagne said...

Lovely.

michael sean morris said...

I'm glad you think so, since it was nearly fatal to write!