AN ACCIDENTAL KILLING
The man who stood on the coastal path was unremarkable. He was of average height and build, with thin mousy hair and a longish pointed nose. People put him at forty, but he was in fact thirty-four. He was considered plain by those who knew him, quiet to the point of alienating, and had never been in love. Now, he stared out to sea but watched instead a scene from his past, when he had been a boy; the kind of boy who stood alone in the school playground, who lacked friends but attracted enemies. This present memory came to him with a clarity that stirred a kind of nostalgia inside him that troubled him. He was not accustomed to pleasant reminiscing.
The body lay under a thin white sheet. In the corner of a large, sparsely furnished room Claude watched his father putting on clear plastic gloves. It was cold and the bright lights made it seem colder. He wished he had put on an extra sweater. When his father was ready, Claude stood back a little, waiting for the first glimpse. He knew that it was a man, a tourist from the south, killed in a traffic accident.
‘Are you ready?’ asked his father, smiling.
‘Very well.’ He pulled back the sheet.
The man’s hair was dark and slicked back, apart from a strand that fell forward, partially adhering to a sticky-looking wound above his left eye. His complexion was already pale and bluish, lacking lustre. He was wearing casual but expensive clothes and, where his skin was exposed, he would have been tanned with the honey glow that you saw on television advertisements. His shoes had leather soles. As Claude helped his father to undress the corpse, he imagined the accident, the look on the man’s face before the impact that had left him suddenly lifeless. When he lay naked, his father said what he always said: ‘In death we are all equal, rich or poor, old or young!’ Claude liked the way he said it, almost like a prayer.
‘Pass me the scalpel, will you?’ his father asked. ‘Unless you would like to try?’
Claude smiled timidly and shook his head.
‘No matter,’ his father said, his eyes full of kindness. ‘Another time, another time.’ He took the instrument and made an incision in the neck of the dead man, inserted a tube and opened a large container of embalming fluid.
The boy did not ask questions. He understood the process. Once more, Claude shivered in the cold, wishing again that he had dressed more warmly. He didn’t usually forget, but this time he had been in the garden playing, and in the sunshine it had been pleasantly warm.
‘You can run and fetch a sweater,’ said his father. ‘I will do the face when you get back. Tell mother we will be ready for dinner at the usual time.’
Inside the house, there was the warm moist smell of washing, vying with the meaty aroma of lasagne, and on the sideboard, shone a fresh green salad with small ripe tomatoes and pale flakes of parmesan cheese. Claude felt the first stirrings of hunger. In his room, he quickly found what he was looking for and ran back through the kitchen, his soft shoes making hardly a sound.
‘Where are you going?’
He did not like to tell his mother. ‘Outside! We will be in for dinner at the usual time!’ he called, realising that she would know from the ‘we’ that he was going to watch his father, and swearing under his breath.
Back inside the one-storey building which stood in the deep, cool shadows at the bottom of the garden of his mother’s house, there was a buzz from the lights overhead as he entered, and he saw his father from the back this time, bent over the body, his white coat luminous.
‘Have you started yet, father?’ said Claude, panting slightly.
‘I said that I would wait, and I have,’ he replied, pleasantly. ‘Come to the other side and we can begin. Put on your gloves.’
Claude pulled on the smaller gloves, bought specially for him, taking longer than he should because of his haste, grinning and jumping up and down a little on the spot. At last they were on.
After his father had supervised the washing of the man’s face, he allowed his son to lather and shave it – delighting in the care and attention the lad took. The corpse’s lips were cracked and a little dehydrated so, after the usual moisturising, Claude applied a little soft wax to even out the surface. The lips were firm and moved like rubber, displaying pale gums and a good set of teeth. When Claude had finished, his father helped him insert the plastic discs, which kept the shape of the eyes, under the eyelids, and then he mixed up glue to seal the eyes and mouth shut.
The body already looked healthier, more lifelike and yet not alive. Working from a photograph, it would be simple to render the man as fresh-faced in death as he had been before the accident. With his index finger Claude took a little foundation and began to dab it gently on the bruised area around the wound, which soon began to take on a natural fleshy tone. His father had cleaned out the dirt and used tape to close it. They worked closely together, their arms brushing one against the other, making them smile momentarily. Claude listened to his father’s breathing and caught the smell of garlic from his mouth.
By the time they had finished, the man looked as though he had a small, almost invisible scar on an otherwise flawless complexion.
‘He was a handsome man,’ said Signor Cousteau, holding up the photograph they had worked from. ‘More handsome in death than in life, don’t you think?’
‘Yes, father,’ replied Claude, sincerely.
‘Put a little rouge on the cheeks,’ said his father. ‘That’s right, and a little on the nose. Yes. Now, on the forehead and just a little on the chin. Perfect!’
‘Shall I put the lipstick on now, father?’
‘Do you think he needs it?’
‘Maybe a little,’ said the boy, more because he wanted to finish the job, not leaving anything out.
‘Very well. Just a little.’
The body was bruised where the seatbelt had been, but the family and friends would not see the torso of the deceased. The hands would need some attention, though, when he had been dressed.
‘Is it time?’ asked his father.
‘We have ten minutes more.’
‘We will finish after dinner in that case. It is always better not to rush. Do you have homework tonight?’
The boy hung his head a little. ‘Yes, father.’
‘Then I will come alone. Thank you for your assistance, my son.’
Claude looked up quickly and smiled at his father, who pretended to be busy with some clearing away.
After taking off their gloves and washing their hands with a special antiseptic soap, they left the building and went up towards the main house, in order to take a shower and be ready for their meal. Claude put an arm around his father’s waist and felt the weight and warmth of a large hand on his shoulder. The garden was cooler now that the sun had gone below the tops of the trees. It was different out in the fresh air, where people lived and moved. More complicated thoughts invaded Claude’s head and he wished he could go back and finish the work, so that he could avoid the distractions that now assaulted his mind.
His mother was draining the pasta when they entered, in the large traditional kitchen where she had grown up. She was still a beauty, it was said, and could have married into a grand Italian family. Instead, she had fallen in love with a Frenchman, who had never quite managed to make the required transition from one culture to another. He had come to Italy, for her, but his heart had never left France. So the story went. Claude knew the fairytale had not quite come true, but he was too young to understand why.
His mother’s house. That was what his father called it, even after all the years he had lived in it. Involuntarily, an idea came to Claude: he wondered what it would be like to see her on the long, narrow table, covered by a thin white sheet. Drawing it back, he would do his best to take away the harshness in her face, to soften her expression and make her look happy.
‘Be quick! The pasta will be ruined. Why can you never be on time!’ she said.
The men did not speak, but hurried upstairs to wash.
On the coastal path, Claude allowed a smile to spread across his face. Exactly which memory was the author of such a pleasant reaction, was impossible to surmise.
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