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.
A few months later, G thought back on all this while having breakfast in a restaurant. He had his daughter on his lap while she was playing – despite her being profoundly serious about it (at least so thought G) – at looking at herself in a mirror and banging her nose against the surface. She almost touched it with her tongue once, but G managed to stop her just in time. They had permission to be in there for another seven minutes and a few seconds. G smiled at his wife, staring at her protruding cheekbones, then looked down at his bacon and egg toast.
‘She’s alive,’ the man in yellow had repeated that night, handing the ambulance driver a form.
The driver glanced at it.
‘Whatever you say.’
G was in the back with the body. It was still warm, although that was perhaps because it was summer and everything was hot.
They didn’t pass a soul for several kilometres; only ambulances and other special vehicles were allowed on the highways. At the first two checkpoints the officials didn’t open the back doors of the ambulance. They did at the third: two men in uniforms pointed a torch at the body, then immediately shut the doors, covering their mouths with the tops of their shirts. It wasn’t until then that G realised there was a smell inside the ambulance. The heat made everything worse. Outside the men were shouting at the driver, but the words only reached him muffled through the metal sides. They were speaking very quickly in the local dialect, so G only caught a few words: ‘gas’, ‘corpse’, ‘grandmother’. He wanted to get out, but couldn’t: he had to keep his hand under the pillow because the vital signs device was secretly connected to his right index finger, so that the figures on the screen were in fact his. He began making sentences out of the words he heard: ‘You need a permit to transport grandmother gases.’ ‘At night we are all hospital people.’ ‘Current regulations do not authorise death.’ Suddenly he wanted to write a poem or a song. He felt as if he didn’t know his own tongue, as if he were thinking in a foreign language.
Soon afterwards they set off again. G didn’t ask anything, and the driver didn’t give any explanations. G wanted to carry on creating poems or at least phrases, but couldn’t. He thought he missed the sound of words, and then that maybe they were still echoing round the metal walls of the ambulance but he was unable to make them out. He wondered if it wasn’t the same with starlight: if in thousands of years on another planet someone would hear things like ‘intubated’, ‘stench’ or ‘vital signs’. He was almost certain the answer was no, but couldn’t have explained why.
Four or five kilometres further on, the driver pulled up on the hard shoulder. G heard the sound of the driver’s door and the night air hit him in the face when the back door was opened. Then and there the air came in cool. Dozens of tiny insects were fluttering round the ambulance’s rear lights. The driver pulled up his T-shirt to cover his nose, then turned round and put on a surgical mask. He climbed into the container. That was the word that went through G’s mind to describe where he and his grandmother were: a ‘container’. The driver looked him straight in the eyes, intently, for a few seconds. He seemed frightened, but the mask made it hard to make out his precise emotions.
‘She’s swelling up,’ he said, pointing to the body.
Several images flashed through G’s mind: images of his grandmother in the fields; of the day her only daughter (G’s mother) was born; of the way she rubbed a balm on her calloused hands after a hard day’s work; of those same hands weaving a wicker basket or pulling up weeds; and then strangely, of the face she would have pulled decades earlier, when she was the same age as G now, if she had been told her body was swelling up. The images were so clear and new to G that he thought perhaps they were reaching him through the vital signs device, that maybe the clip gripping his finger and hers was acting as an antenna. Instinctively, G pulled his hand from under the pillow. He realised that several minutes had gone by, and that the ambulance driver was removing his grandmother’s rings. Only one was left. G tried to remember how many she had been wearing when she collapsed across the card table, but it eluded him. All at once he felt infinitely weary.
‘What are you doing?’
‘She’s swelling up.’
G didn’t move. The other man slowly removed the last ring. G smelled an aroma of menthol in the air, and thought the driver must be using ointment to grease his grandmother’s fingers. He couldn’t resist falling asleep any longer, and closed his eyes. He opened them again when he felt the man’s arm brush against him as he took the necklace off her neck. G had no idea how much time had passed. He had the impression it had been many hours, although it was still night-time. The ambulance driver seemed to be smiling behind the mask, and G thought he was telling him everything was all right.
The next time he opened his eyes, the man’s pupils were fixed on his and he was poking at something inside his grandmother’s mouth.
‘If my grandmother could see that, hey . . . see really . . . not a corpse . . .’ G muttered.
The man’s hands froze for an instant in mid-air. The heat, humidity and hunger made G feel nauseous. Crickets were
chirruping in the distance. All of a sudden there was a bleep from the G’s trouser pocket, and then what sounded like a woman’s voice:
‘Sorry, I didn’t get that. You say you want to get rid of a body?’
His phone assistant had been activated by mistake, and in a tone somewhere between robotic and jocular, the voice had responded with what had once been considered a joke. G wanted to laugh but found it impossible. Staring at the other man, he said:
‘Siri, call the police.’
‘Calling the police. Your whereabouts will be automatically transferred to their switchboard.’
The ambulance driver quickly pulled his hand out of her mouth, as if G’s grandmother had bitten him (G even thought he could see her teeth marks), and rushed out of the container. He waited until the driver had started the engine before silencing the confused voice questioning him on the far end of the line. It was only after he had switched off the phone – and without knowing why – that he guffawed and began slowly to slide down on the stretcher next to his grandmother. He put his arm round her, rested his head on the pillow, and wondered what their two bodies would look like from up in the sky if the ambulance, the stretcher, the vital signs machine and the driver . . . if everything were transparent except for the two of them, if there were only their two naked bodies floating at a hundred kilometres per hour over the asphalt, how they would look to an extraterrestrial if the light they emitted were to reach him some day. ‘Identical,’ he thought, ‘that’s how he would see us,’ and decided they would have to wait another week before they buried his grandmother. ‘Seven days,’ he thought. ‘Seven is a good number for remembering the dead.’ Then he fell asleep.
Photograph © Carlos Gil