By Elissa Soave
Death is not like the weather or joint trouble, which interest only the very old. Nor is it like One Direction or acne control, which are of concern only to the very young. No. Death is a subject of universal appeal so Thursday night has been chosen to accommodate all ages. It is close enough to the weekend to make the older members feel that they are having a bona fide night on the tiles, but not actually on the sacred Friday or Saturday night to allow younger members to come along without feeling they are missing out on anything.
The group meets in Iguana, a café bar at the top of Nicholson Street. It is one of those city centre bars much favoured by the Edinburgh cognoscenti, eggs Benedict for brunch rather than fried egg roll for breakfast, and nothing costing £3.50 when its chic patrons are happy to pay £8 for the privilege. The venue has been chosen by Henry, of course.
Tonight is an Extraordinary General Meeting, called to discuss a matter which has never arisen before. The group gather round their usual large table at the back of the bar, underneath the print of David Bowie in his Ziggy days and beside the gents’ toilets. Henry looks round the table, waiting till everyone has their drink and is settled into their seat. He clears his throat noisily. The chat around the table continues. He loosens his salmon-coloured tie, carefully chosen to coordinate with his pale pink shirt. Now that his mother is no longer around to lay out his clothes the night before, it has become a point of honour for him to be at least as well-turned out as he was before her death, if not more so. He bangs his hand on the table to bring the meeting to order.
‘Good evening everyone.’
He waits until the drone of social chit chat has died down. Given the nature of their acquaintance, it is perhaps surprising that they have so much to say to each other. One might be forgiven for expecting a more introverted crowd.
He tries again in a louder voice, ‘Good evening. We are gathered here tonight …’
‘Good one, Henry. Oh, you’re not joking, sorry’, says Joseph.
He motions to Henry to carry on and takes a sip of his beer. He winks at Sophie, who looks at him disapprovingly and turns back to Henry, giving him an encouraging smile.
Henry speaks again. ‘As I was saying, our purpose tonight’, he gives Joseph a significant glance, ‘is to vote on whether or not to allow a new member to join our group. The nominee in question is Mr Hazeem Abdi. As most of you will know, Hazeem is a convicted murderer who has recently completed his prison sentence and is now looking to rebuild his life.’
‘Unlike his victim …’ says Joseph under his breath.
Sophie is twisting her hair round her fingers and turning earnest eyes round the group, each member in turn. ‘If I could just say something before we start the discussion?’ No one stops her so she carries on speaking, her words tumbling over each other and forcing the other members of the group to lean forward to hear what she is saying. ‘Before I came out tonight, I looked out our mission statement and I thought it might be helpful if we reminded ourselves of that.’
Blushing as the other members watch her bring out a scruffy piece of paper from her satchel, she reads aloud from the sheet. ‘Mission statement: To promote an open and frank discussion about death, demystifying life’s great unifier, and freeing members from the fear of the unknown.’ Pause. ‘Established June 2015’, she adds.
‘And your point is?’ says Henry.
‘Well, just that the club is about life’s great unifier. No one should be excluded, not serial killers, granny smotherers, baby torturers, axe murderers, hatchet-wielding …’
‘Yes, I think we get the point, Sophie, thanks’, says Joseph, ‘If I might make the point though that we are all interested in death as it affects us and those around us. However, none of us, at least as far as I am aware’, he looks around the table, ‘has inflicted death on others. That surely is the difference?’
Sophie fingers the fat pink slug resting on the inside of each wrist and says, ‘What about if we have attempted to inflict death? Does that count?’
There is an uncomfortable silence round the table and Muriel edges a little closer to Sophie to indicate she cares, though without invading her personal space. Muriel guesses that Sophie is about the same age as her own uneasy daughter would have been now, had they managed to resuscitate her, so she feels a particular bond with her.
Sophie senses the mood change and says quickly, ‘Oh don’t worry, I’m not going to try it again. I’ve got a coping strategy now.’
‘I’m so glad to hear that’, says Muriel. ‘Are you seeing a counsellor? They can really clarify things.’
‘No. I cut my forearms instead. Just little cuts though and never vertical.’
‘That’s alright then’, says Henry.
Marge speaks up. ‘Actually, a friend of mine was telling me that in Japan, they respect suicide more than expressions of regret. They are just words, whilst suicide, it can be taken seriously. I cannot imagine they show a similar respect for murder. So I’d say, if it’s OK with the noble Japanese to make such a distinction, then it should be OK by us.’
‘Agreed’, says Joseph.
Sophie sits back, relieved her membership is secure. She steals another glance at Henry who remains oblivious. Joseph, who is much engaged in observing the human condition, is aware that the blades of jealousy are sharpened on minutiae, yet he sighs as he observes the wordless exchange. He contemplates Sophie’s delicate, little face, with its freckles and ink smudges, equally certain that he will never be allowed to touch it, and that Henry will never want to.
Reginald looks at Muriel and says, ‘Is this the part where we contact the other side?’
She pats his hand patiently as she does every week and says, ‘We don’t contact the other side Reginald. We can’t actually speak to the dead, we are simply interested in discussing death and related matters.’
‘But Elsie will be wanting to talk. She’s been dead since February and she’s a big talker.’
‘Reginald’, says Henry, not so patiently, ‘As we try to make clear to you at every meeting, if you wish to attempt to speak to the other side, you will have to engage the services of a medium. This is not the place for that.’
‘What’s he say?’ says Reginald, with a hand behind his ear, and addressing Muriel.
‘Perhaps we should move on … If I may …’ says Muriel, producing a sheaf of papers from her rucksack and passing them round the group. It is a colour print of a photograph from an old copy of GQ. The man in the photograph is extremely handsome, with dark skin and geometric cheekbones. His hair is wavy and blue-black, at least what can be seen of it under his knitted skull cap.
‘I’m not sure why we need to see a picture of him?’ says Joseph.
Reginald looks up from the photo. ‘Is this Him?’
‘It’s not God, Reg’, says Muriel, as though talking to a child. ‘It’s Hazeem Abdi, the man we’ve been discussing.’
‘I bloody know it’s not God Muriel’, says Reginald, ‘He’s Muslim, isn’t he?’
‘Well, he is isn’t he? Makes a lot more sense to me now, him being a killer I mean. It’s in their blood, isn’t it?’
‘Reginald!’ shout Muriel, Henry, Sophie and Marge together.
‘What?’ says Reginald, ‘I’m only saying what you’re all thinking.’
All the members of the group are quiet as they look at the photograph, staring at the man with the glittering eyes returning their gaze.
‘He doesn’t look like a murderer though, does he?’ says Sophie.
‘He looks like George Clooney in his TV doctor days, before the crap films’, says Marge.
‘They’re not all crap’, says Henry, ‘Some of us rather liked—’
Marge interrupts, ‘The Hitman, Solaris …’, she gives an exaggerated yawn, ‘Need I go on?’
‘Well, yes’, says Henry, ‘You could go on and say Gravity, The Monuments Men, Ocean’s Eleven—’
‘Or Ocean’s Twenty-nine, Sixty-five …’ continues Marge as though Henry has not spoken.
Joseph squints at the picture, then turns it over looking for the text; there is none.
‘Where’s the article?’ he says.
‘There is no article, this is just an advert’, Muriel tells him.
‘So, are you telling me he is a model for Burberry?’
‘Yes. He was a part-time model before the murder. This is what came up when I googled him.’
‘One can see why’, says Henry, to himself more than the company.
‘Just so I can get this right—he’s a Muslim murderer who models for Burberry … and he’s interested in debating death?’ says Joseph.
‘That’s right. And he’s interested in spitfires. The early models.’
‘How on earth …?’
‘Google’, says Muriel.
‘Wait’, says Marge, ‘Burberry let him be photographed with a taqiyah on his head?’
Muriel nods. ‘It was almost 10 years ago. Maybe they were trying to widen their appeal?’
‘To young Muslim men with a murderous intent? Doesn’t sound like a great marketing strategy to me. Although, then again …’ says Joseph.
‘His lips are nice, very full. I always notice the lips.’ Henry looks up to find the others staring at him.
‘So, anyway …’
‘Yes, anyway’, says Joseph, raising his eyebrows at Sophie who does not acknowledge him. ‘I think we’ve established he’s a good-looking guy. To me, more like Ralph Fiennes, pre-M and before he started his osmosis into Leonard Rossiter.’
‘Who?’ says Sophie.
‘Ralph Fiennes. He plays M in the Bond movies. You must have seen Spectre?’
‘No, I meant who is the Leonard guy he’s supposed to look like now?’
Marge turns to Joseph, ‘Starter for 10. What do George Clooney and Ralph Fiennes have in common?’
‘Easy’, says Joseph, ‘Henry would do them both.’
‘What the hell do you mean by that?’ says Henry, swinging round in his chair to face Joseph.
‘Relax, just my little joke, Chairman’, says Joseph. ‘They were both in Hail, Caesar!, a typical piece of whimsy and oh-such a lark from the Coen brothers. Piece of shit if you ask me, way below their usual standard and I sincerely hope not the beginning of the end. Though you might like Laurence Lorenz, Henry?’
‘And is Leonard Rossiter in that?’ says Sophie.
Henry bangs his hand on the table, causing everyone to reach for their drinks to stop them from falling over.
‘Order. We are not here to discuss films, good, bad, or indifferent (though I may just add that very few of George Clooney’s films may be said to fall into the latter two categories). The question which we must put to the vote is whether or not Hazeem Abdi is welcome to join our group. Any thoughts on that topic please?’
Muriel speaks first. ‘Well, he’d know about how the state of death may be brought about, wouldn’t he? Which is not something we often get expert insight on.’
‘Did I read somewhere that he killed the guy by clouting him round the head with a frozen lamb chop?’ says Sophie.
Joseph laughs and says, ‘What did he die of—hunger, when he couldn’t get to the shops due to the graze on his forehead inflicted by a wet lamb cutlet?’
Sophie wrinkles her forehead and puts her head to one side, making herself look even younger than her 20 or so years.
Muriel steps in. ‘I think you mean a lamb shank, Sophie. It was a gigantic, frozen lamb shank. He did it in the abattoir just up from Castle Terrace.’
‘Lamb chop, lamb shank, what’s the difference?’ says Sophie.
‘Only about 12 lbs and massive brain trauma’, says Joseph, sipping his beer.
‘Doesn’t sound like a good way to go’, says Reginald.
Henry leans forward. ‘The chap who died was asking for it, if you want my opinion. Apparently, and I have this on good authority from my old university pal at the Fiscal’s office, the bloke who died had been blackmailing Hazeem for months before the attack. Hazeem cracked him on the noodle in self-defence when they were having a row about it.’
‘“Cracked him on the noodle”’?! says Joseph. ‘“Cracked him on the noodle”, you say? Bashed him senseless with a bloody meat joint, then left his yellowing corpse to rot in its own juices over the bank holiday weekend is more like it. And for what? Because he was going to tell the rest of the workplace Abdi was gay? Bloody hard lesson if you ask me.’
‘Better than the way I’m going to go. In some flea-ridden camp bed in the old Royal, ga-ga, pissing my pants, and my worst fears gathered together at my side.’
There is silence round the table. Marge is skinny as a beanshoot and can be absent for weeks on end if her treatment is ongoing. She does not often acknowledge her brain tumour so when she does, the whole group feel they have to stop talking and pay homage to her vastly more immediate need to get to grips with death than their own.
Marge laughs and picks up her rum and coke. ‘It’s alright, I do know that I’m dying. On the upside, I don’t need to give a shit about scrabbling about for a pension and whether I should claim back PPI to add to my fund. On the downside, I won’t see our Abbie graduate, or find out if we do actually get to travel to the moon for our holidays. But you’re all dying too, for Christ’s sake. We’re all existing in a near-death hinterland. So.’
Reginald leans across Muriel and says to Marge, ‘Will you tell Elsie I miss her? The cat sits on her chair when we watch Corrie now but it’s not the same.’
Marge pats his hand and tells him she will do that, most certainly.
Henry judges it time to bring matters to a close and calls for a show of hands. People shuffle round the table, shifting drinks and moving jackets. Reginald and Joseph do not raise their hands, but all the others do. Henry counts the hands in the air.
Henry, his own hand held high, says, ‘He’s in, 4 votes to 2. I’ll contact him later and invite him along to next week’s meeting, where the topic will be …’, he checks the sheet in front of him, ‘the corpse and how the care-giver should prepare it for its onward journey.’
‘Hazeem may have some interesting thoughts on that, I’m guessing’, says Joseph.
‘I’m sorry Joseph, did you want to add something?’
‘No, I was just saying, maybe you’ll need to take Hazeem out for a drink beforehand to get to know him a little better before the meeting?’
‘What is that supposed to mean?’, says Henry, flicking his fringe out of his eyes.
‘Nothing’, says Joseph, ‘Here, let me get you another of those Campari malarkeys, and we can get back to the Coen brothers. Their ability to deal with death is much underrated. It’s bloody hard to write about death, you know. I’ve been trying to do it without success for years, but they make it look easy. Remember the scene where Walter and The Dude are attempting to scatter Donny’s ashes? Nearly pissed myself laughing. Now that’s a death scene. Eh Marge?’
o o o
is a Scottish writer. Publications and websites where her work has appeared include Structo (Issue 19, forthcoming), Glasgow Review of Books, Literary Orphans, Gutter, Freak Circus, Burning House Press, The Guardian, New Writing Scotland, and the Scottish school textbook Working Words. She is currently working on her first novel. @elissa_soave.