For Sifan Zhao
As he made his way down the lower floors, G was thinking of the body’s materiality, its weight, the mass it was meant to lose at death, the air lodged between its joints, the effort it was costing him to carry it, and that none of this seemed plausible to him. By the second floor he was no longer thinking of anything, or at least anything of the sort.
The workmen were surprised when they saw him appear. An ambulance’s dipped headlights languished at the far end of the parking lot. The driver was leaning against the side of the vehicle; even at that hour of the night the heat was almost unbearable, but it didn’t seem to bother him. G didn’t feel able to make it the thirty metres between him and the double doors to accident and emergency, so he asked for help. The two technicians took several steps back; the ambulance guy was looking at his phone and didn’t seem to hear.
‘How did you get here?’ the younger one asked.
‘I live five or six blocks away,’ G replied, and realised he was panting.
For a few seconds, the men didn’t know what to do or say. G doubled over to retch, and lost his balance. The older workman jumped forward, managing to catch the body before it fell.
‘So sorry,’ G said absurdly.
The younger one was visibly scared. He walked three or four metres away and looked over at the ambulance operator, who was still unaware of what had happened. The other technician was holding the body under the armpits and staring at it as if it were a completely strange object, as if he himself didn’t also have a body. G thought momentarily of the fear a body can instil, and then about why the man had put himself at risk, had decided to hold it up rather than let it fall, as if that body could matter to him, as if hitting the hot asphalt would make a difference for the body and hold some meaning for it.
The man placed two fingers on the dead body’s jugular.
‘It’s dead,’ he said, then immediately corrected himself, ‘I mean, she is.’
G made no answer. He took a cloth bag out of his pocket and a paper, and began to roll a cigarette. The young technician had moved even further away, until he disappeared behind the sliding doors of A & E. The older man said:
‘Will you roll me one?’
Without a word, G took another pinch of tobacco and another paper. The technician looked down at his hands, remembering another not-so-distant time when everything was different. The humidity was suffocating. He thought he could see the asphalt breathing, the steam or mist rising from it. Then he thought he was probably mistaken, and that this vapour must correspond to another phenomenon he was unable to explain. There wasn’t a soul on the other side of the parking lot, apart from the ambulance driver. He could hear the street lamps buzzing.
G finished rolling the cigarettes and passed one to the technician. They shared the weight of the body so that they could smoke; G laid it against his right shoulder, the other man over his left. That way they both had a free hand.
‘I don’t have a light,’ the man said, searching in his pocket.
G felt in his back pocket for a lighter. He tried to remember if he had put one there before he left his house, but couldn’t. He jerked his head, as if towards the body. He muttered something.
G stopped digging in his pockets for a moment, took the cigarette from his mouth.
‘I said she was my grandmother.’
Before G could renew his search, the hospital doors creaked and two men came out into the tranquil night. One was the young technician. The other was wearing a pale yellow uniform and was pulling on a pair of latex gloves as he walked. He wasn’t much older than G or the young man beside him, and was unsuccessfully trying to look angry or annoyed. Two drops of sweat slid down his forehead.
‘Are you crazy?’ he whispered, glancing at the far end of the lot and the ambulance driver. The older technician cupped the cigarette between his fingers with a practised swivel of his free hand.
‘We have to take her to her village,’ G said, adding its name.
The newcomer asked the older technician to bear the whole weight of the body, and bent over to listen to the chest. G took the chance to renew his search, pulled out the lighter, and began smoking. With every lungful he blew up into the air the mosquitoes swarming round the street lamp flew away, only to regroup a second later.
‘This woman is dead; she isn’t going anywhere. We only transport live bodies. Nobody saw you bringing her here?’
‘I live five or six blocks away.’ The tip of his cigarette glowed between his index and middle fingers when G pointed in the direction of his house. ‘The village is about sixty kilometres from here.’
G fell silent. For an instant the only sound came from the disjointed voices on a video the ambulance driver was smiling at on his phone.
‘Please,’ G said eventually.
The man in yellow hesitated or seemed to hesitate for a moment, and finally said something to the technicians that G couldn’t hear. Without waiting for G to take the cigarette out of his mouth, the older man passed him the body, and the three of them walked a few metres away. The young one was complaining about something, and stood apart from the other two. They began arguing. G thought that only a few hours earlier he had been playing cards and drinking spirits with his grandmother. His daughter and wife were asleep on the sofa in front of the TV, while the two of them bet quietly. He thought how lucky his grandmother had been to get to know her great-granddaughter, and an instant later how empty that idea was, how absurd it was, even though he didn’t know why. He heard some phrases from the men’s disagreement, with words such as ‘tradition’, ‘burial’ or ‘last wish’. G recalled that when his daughter was born, a friend had dedicated a poem to her. ‘An opening breath,’ it read, predictably enough, ‘a change in the atmosphere, a frontier.’ Something like that. He had used the adjective ‘labile’, in reference to a private joke between the two of them. G thought of how long it had been since the last time he saw his friend, and what he would be doing now. If he were doing anything.
The argument between the three men became more heated, pulling him out of his daydreaming.
‘The problem is that people of your generation think you’re better than everybody.’ The older technician had hold of the younger man’s lapels, and the youngster was peering terrified at his hands, his knuckles, then at the man in yellow, back to the hands, then at G and his lit cigarette and the other man’s that had gone out, thinking he understood something, though he was not sure exactly what.
The ambulance man came over.
‘This woman,’ the man in yellow said, as though surprised at what he was saying, ‘is alive. You have to take her to her native village.’
He said its name. G nodded. The ambulance driver looked at them, puzzled.
‘I’ll go and fill in the proper form,’ said the man in yellow. ‘You get her into the ambulance.’
He left without waiting for a response. The others exchanged glances and set to work. They wouldn’t let G help them. The older technician lifted the body onto the trolley, then the three of them pushed her up the ramp into the ambulance. G finished his cigarette, reflecting on the weight he had freed himself from, in that he wasn’t sure if this was what he really wanted, in that he wouldn’t have to wash her any more, that one day he would be that too, a body, not something similar but exactly that, his grandmother’s body, because even though we pretend that’s not how it is, there is only one body, a suffering, hard-working body, his grandmother’s, his own, his daughter’s, the ambulance driver’s, the calf’s whose veal they had eaten tonight, before they had begun playing cards. When he handed her over to the technician, G caught one final whiff of his grandmother’s breath. She smelled of liquor, and death, and veal.