Unsung Courage

Kim Farleigh

Photo Credit: Pavel Tcholakov/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Pavel Tcholakov/Flickr (CC-by)

The funerary directory George and I were working in faced Victorian flats, stairways rising to red and yellow doors from tree-shaded footpaths, the silence highlighted by wind in leaves or by our hearses taking the deceased to their graves.

George’s small, round glasses covered his kind, considerate eyes. His small mouth looked unnaturally contracted, the yellowish skin under his thin, greying eyelashes resembled what tobacco and death do to flesh, but his eyes always relaxed me.

The company’s director’s note to our last annual accounts delighted him: “Although the national death rate has dropped by 12 percent, the future is still bright, because the company is buying cemeteries and crematoriums.”

“The future is still bright!” George said, chuckling. “And he’s serious!”

He explained his new smoking regime: “One at breakfast. One driving home.”

Reducing smoking meant delaying your work colleagues seeing you dead on a slab.

“My wife,” George once said, “will get twenty-five percent off my funeral. So now, apparently, I’m useful.”

The first time I entered the morgue was to give him a message. “Colin, Colin, come in, come in. Let me show you around.”

Between corpse-covered slabs, pallbearers in grey suits had been eating fast food and drinking Coke; their disregard for health reflected their wit: “I hope I look better than him when Reaper calls.” “After ten pints last night, I looked like him. I should have been driven here this morning in a hearse.”

Slabs holding refrigerated corpses could be pulled out and carried to the embalming tables. An old woman’s yellowish tone resembled the skin between George’s eyelashes and his eyes, death seemingly reflected in George’s face. The woman’s eyes resembled matte glass of infinite emptiness. Escaping consciousness had stolen the glow that once gave that glass the sheen of eyes, she now as inanimate as the slab she lay upon.

The dead exuded something eerie, like a view into our darkest secrets. You felt they were watching you from elsewhere, troubling reverence dominating mood. Even combat veterans felt the dead’s charisma.

Experience had helped George defeat that disquiet that the dead created. The worst thing he’d ever seen was a twenty-four-year-old woman who had fled out of a flat after arguing with her boyfriend to be hit by a double-decker bus. George prepared her for burial. The embalmers had tossed coins to decide on that one. The ambulance men had warned them. If they do that, you don’t want to see it.

“I slowly pulled up the sheet covering her body, so that the feet got exposed first,” George said. “Purple and green bruises covered her legs, like intergalactic gas clouds. Should I continue?”

“Go ahead,” I replied, his kind eyes under death’s flesh confirming my curiosity.

Although curiosity defeated squeamish delicacy, mentally my teeth gritted.

“Her ribs had been smashed so that everything had collapsed,” he said. “It got worse as the sheet went up. A breast was half hanging off. Do you want me to continue?”

“Go ahead.”

“An eye was hanging out of a socket. The eyes were looking in different directions. They were beautiful, blue eyes. It’s much tougher dealing with the young.”

His voice’s steadiness reflected his fight to subdue the swirl of frightful memories. His ability to speak about the traumatic without gesturing increased the impact he created without expecting people to admire his experience. How often do people raise their voices, throwing their hands around, to describe trifles? No such problem with George.

One morning, ambulances appeared in a steady flow. People appeared at windows along the street, disaster fascinating because the greatest dramas involve survival, our main consideration. Why else does disaster ignite such curiosity?

People hiding behind curtains were oblivious that others, too, were spying. Their shyness came from the charge of nosiness, but at the deepest level, it was their business, for suburbia’s chains can snap suddenly and anyone can end up in an ambulance at any time.

A bomb blast in a train had caused numerous deaths and injuries. Human remains were being brought into the mortuary; the window observers would express their dismay to eager listeners who would be shocked at not having their unconscious hope for survival appeased.

George’s wife rang. Worry cracked her cultivated tranquility. People didn’t have mobile phones then.

“I know you and George must be very busy,” she said, “but I really have to speak to him as quickly as possible.”

Politeness magnified her voice’s urgency. We didn’t have a phone connection with the mortuary. If George faced what had to be faced then I had to as well.

I entered the mortuary. Blood covered the floor. George’s vest looked like it had been dipped into a trough of blood. The silence gyrated with that troubling reverence that death produces, as if steel wires connected to hell had been touched so that the wires zinged with a million volts. My temples and insides revolved: that had been human, but I couldn’t believe it.

George’s eyes radiated perturbation rays. I indicated towards the office. I wasn’t going to eat meat for months. I avoided butchers’ shops for weeks. Hanging meat inferred severed limbs, blood-soaked palms, ripped open torsos… I got out of there fast, George racing behind me, his mouth twisted, like a face I’d seen in the morgue, the cast of horror placed onto that face just before death.

George paced around as the phone rang, staring with that twisted-mouth grimace, his eyes radiating internal radiation’s fallout.

“No, he hasn’t rung here,” he said. “Be calm, sweetheart. At the moment, there’s confusion and no information. I’ll let you know immediately if I hear anything and vice versa, okay?”

After he hung up, he said: “Please let me know immediately if she rings again.”

He knew I wouldn’t have hesitated; but something profound had caused him to speak. We faced each other for a second that resembled an evolutionary epoch. His normally smooth brow was creased with lines that imitated broken aerials.

“Of course,” I said.

“Good, thanks,” he replied.

His eyes dropped; his head began turning.

“What is it?” I asked. “George…?”

He hesitated, then said: “Later, okay?”


He dashed back into the morgue. I faced the suburban dream that wishes to annihilate unpredictability. Few could imagine the contrast between what I faced and what I had just seen. Bay windows stood at regular intervals between painted concrete steps. That Victorian facade’s ordered structure resembled a pleasant lie offering comfort against our deepest fears and fear had wracked George’s face. Not pusillanimous cowering or cowardly reluctance but concern’s flinty sheen. His expression had come from something apart from the horror that had awaited him. I felt hollowed out by that horror; but someone had to break open the bags the police had put the smashed-up remains into; someone then had to clean those remains for identification and burial. Someone who had to inhale deeply, wearing detachment’s mask; someone had to clean up someone else’s wife, husband, brother, sister, daughter, son, friend or lover; someone, bringing to bear all the resilience within, with the courage to do a job few could do, a job that was essential.

The phone rang.

“Colin speaking,” I said.

George’s wife.

“Can you tell him he’s rung and he’s fine?”

You didn’t need to be a sound engineer to detect her relief, the auditory equivalent of sunshine after weeks of rain.

“I’ll do it right now,” I said.

“Oh thank you, thankzzzz.”

If gratitude became liquid, a flood would have burst out of the phone. Because fate had given me the privilege of being the bearer of great news I felt grateful as well.

“Your son?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “He catches that train to go to university, but this morning he missed it; he was on the next one. It’s a miracle.”

“Incredible,” I said. “Look, I’ll tell George now. He looked desperately worried.”

“Please do.”

I raced into the morgue, now prepared for reality. I accepted that sacrifice for the privilege of being relief’s messenger. Of course, the million-volt zinging zinged.

“George,” I said.

His eyes blasted out hope’s lasers.

“He was on another train.”

He gritted his teeth to avoid euphoric screaming, too self-effacing for indulgences. His eyes became awash with tearful relief as he bowed his head. Ambulances were still bringing in the dead. All the embalmers had been pulled into work because of the extra work that that disaster had caused. One, a beautiful woman called Julia, hugged George who placed his face into her left shoulder. A smile of sensitive wonderment shone on her face amid that horror. George had been spared from discovering his son’s possible death by direct means. Every time he had opened one of those bags, not letting the others accept his responsibility, his hands had shaken, horrified by terrible possibility.

He wiped the tears from his eyes and said: “Thanks Colin. Thanks for everything.”

He then continued working. He could have said he wasn’t up for it that day, but he had continued, the worst faced without the glamour that courage often brings.

pencilKim has worked for NGOs in Kosovo, Iraq and Palestine. He takes risks to get the experience required for writing. 130 of his stories have been accepted by 81 different magazines. Email: fazzzzz15[at]outlook.com