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Saying Goodbye

Chrissy had wanted to come with him this morning but Duncan had wanted to be to be alone.

He stood alone in a cinereous haze, wearing a lugubrious expression and looking at the ashes of his strafed family home.

All around him was the strong sweet smell of burnt wood and potash, the smell of battle except there had been none. Stumps of corn and maize lay like blackened amputated limbs in the distance. The house's windows were blackened dead eyes. The veranda had been reduced to a few burnt spikes and most of the roof had given way.

The iron barn had defied the flames, while the untethered horses had bolted. They hadn't yet been found.

The tireless, paint blistered tractor stood defiantly inside it surrounded by the remains of farm machinery; melted dribbles of plastic had formed shapes on it like burlesque figurines from hell.

It had been one week since his parents had died. He had been seeing someone - a bereavement counsellor to help him recover; but time so the proverb went, would be the real healer, he'd come to hasten it.

Today was the funeral: Sunday. It had a certain clean satisfying symmetry, exactly one week after the fire. He had made the necessary arrangements and was looking forward to the whole thing being over. His brother and sister would be along later today.

Duncan did not really know why he had come over here today. To look for clues he supposed. The whole episode of his father's suicide had an irksome quality to it; it was incredible, it didn't add up.

His father's note had not been in his father's style at all. If his father had committed suicide, he knew it would have said something pithy and unself-pitying. He felt his father would not have gone in for any ceremony, he would have either used a shotgun, or he would have used drugs. Probably, on consideration, the latter: not messy, functional, instant. The twisting hanging had been imbued with a sick, perverse sense of deliberate dispatch. His father would have known that using the tractor, as a platform for his suicide would have had a special symbolism. And then there was the business of his shoes and socks, so neatly and deliberately placed. What was he trying to say? The whole thing added up to a puzzle, which he was sure his father, had left for Duncan to deconstruct.

And so Duncan stood in the scorched barn, puzzling, thinking and scratching his head; ferreting around in the dust and ashes looking for something, but he didn't know what.

At least his father's body had not been incinerated, that would have been even more depressing. His father and mother had always asked if they could be preserved. This was a kind of odd request, to shun and eschew modern technological change and yet when it came to their own mortality to embrace it with hope. 'Strangely hypocritical,' thought Duncan and then shivered. He could have sworn his father was watching him through the mist of dust.

His counsellor would have had a clinical explanation for his feelings. Just as he had a neat explanation for his behaviour after finding his father and mother. She had described it as: “Typical of what many people do when faced when bereavement, they are angry with the person for leaving them so suddenly and filled with the need to contact them. That's what you were trying to do, you were almost challenging your parents to come down and speak to you in your drunken state. “This is a typical reaction,” she’d said in her English accent.

Duncan knew exactly what the ‘counsellor’ had really meant by all that mumbo. He also knew that right now the feeling of his father's presence would have been explained as a 'psychosomatic stress reaction· in trying to confront his parents ugly and untimely death.'

It meant he was fucked up. Duncan would not argue with that, he felt fucked up. He was moody, his moods oscillated around around a central reluctant, sulking lugubriousness; en route passing through depression, anger, sadness, remorse, irritation, agitation - restlessly and perversely occasionally elation. The counsellor thought he could explain that one away as well.

Personally, Duncan thought it was sick and when he felt elated went through a cycle of self-pitying chastising emotions, which often came back to elation. Which really annoyed him and he couldn’t understand it.

Walking around in circles looking at the ground Duncan made out all sorts of shapes in the ashes, from cargo boats to spaceships to female buttocks to papaya fruit. None of them helpful, none of them gave any clues any help.

He reached into his inside pocket and found the small silver model of a Jaguar that his father had given him when he was ten. It was that model which had given him his interest in vintage cars. He brought out a small trowel and dug al little hole in the soil, placing the Jaguar into it and burying it.

"There you go Pop, all yours now," Duncan said aloud.

His watch beeped and told him it was time to go. It was. Duncan wandered back towards his car. It’s black, aggressive yet feminine lines dazzling under the sun. He had had it polished, out of deference to his father. His father had always wanted to drive his pride and joy but he had never let him. It was a V12 Jaguar E-type, brimming with the nostalgia and heritage of a by gone age.

For the British, who had made the car in the sixties, it was quite a sexual, libertine machine: a cross between a penis on four wheels and a female panther stalking a potential mate. It had a vitality, a life that sterile objects of the current age lacked. Cars rarely broke down now, they 'thought' and drove themselves. That strange relationship between driver and car, that mixture of tenderness, parental instincts and anger when the car broke down, had been lost. But not with the black Jaguar penis before him, it was carnal when caressed and whined and played up when it was mistreated. It was, human. Technology brought with it comfort and advancement of the human condition but also a sterility, an aridity which distanced us from our own humanity, or at least, so Duncan felt.

He felt entirely fused with guilt that he had never let his father drive it. But Duncan consoled himself that when someone died, there were always 101 things to be guilty about, sixty times when you could remember mistreating

Someone, but at the end of the day you had, and those moments were encrypted in history, burnt on to a catalogue of one's personal misdemeanours, to be assessed by life's assessors.

He felt enormous regret that there had never been enough time, or that he had never made the time, to know his father as well as he did his mother. In many ways he had always known his father by his behaviour, rather than by knowing him as a person.

His mother he did know by her endless chatter. She was garrulous in a special way, like having a sewing machine whirring in the background, a noise that never quite stopped and yet never quite truly penetrated your consciousness: Idle chatter but comforting and ever present. Duncan wished now he had cut through his father's ascetic disposition and found him, been close to him. But maybe that had just not been possible with his father, or maybe he had, in fact known all that there was to know. Maybe he had known him and just couldn't recognise it.

Duncan inserted the key into the chromium lock. The lock had little darker marks where relentlessly time was chipping away, discolouring it.

Modern cars had many self-repair mechanisms, to at least prolong their life. The dark leather upholstery smelt of strong and sweet beeswax. Duncan ran his hand over the waxed leather sheen of the passenger seat; the odd crack had appeared in the worn leather, but very few in reality.

Duncan inserted the ignition key and pressed down on the worn metal pedal of the accelerator. He listened as the engine splurted, shook and then growled into life. The interior resonated with the gentle throbbing of the engine, its twelve pistons moving seamlessly in its cylinders. Duncan sat for a while listening to the sound, got out of the car and undid the hood of the car.

Underneath the hood the massive engine almost seemed to be hoovering up air through the radiator, and the entire engine block visibly throbbed. As Duncan was looking down he saw a metallic sparkle on the ground. He peered and bent down further. He got underneath the car and stretched out his arm grappling at the evasive object, which was trying to get away. At last his fingers clutched at the end of it and tapped it on the ground into the palm of his hand.

A metal bullet. A very small metal bullet. Strange type. Or was it in fact a bullet? Duncan shoved the inquisitive little object into the secret pocket of his jacket. He suspected he had one of two things: a red herring or a one of the missing pieces of the jigsaw. If it were a red herring, then maybe it had been a planted red herring.

Duncan banged the hood of the Jag closed, his mind buzzing. He revved the engine; the black phallus shook and roared as he sped down the road to the highway. He asked the music player to put on his Beatles anthology.

The black car busied itself hurtling towards the funeral, like the world's first retro sports hearse. Duncan's little finger strumming to the beat of 'Back in the USSR'. At some traffic lights some kids in a sort of pick-up truck type vehicle pointed and laughed at him. It was just as well they did not know that he was the Mayor. Or maybe they did.

Around the clear coffins stood a gallimaufry of local dignitaries: police, local politicians, the director of the local sawmill, the owner of the local agricultural companies, the farming union, wives, famous people, near famous people and people who were not famous at all. (Although notably no Governor, not the old one nor the new one; the old one had been invited but no reply had been received.)

At the funeral, people wore solemn faces. Behind the masks some were genuinely upset, some were there for political reasons; some were there but were slightly nervous about being seeing there, (it displayed an affiliation to the current Mayor which may or may not be propitious to them in the future,) given the current situation. Mr. and Mrs. Ellephanie stood discretely at the back of the outer circle around the coffins.

The air was crisp inside the lugubrious dome, which served as both chapel and repository for storage. The coffins would be carried by an air belt, followed by mourners, they disappeared into a massive catacomb reaching down into the earth, awaiting the vain hope, or maybe less vain these days, of resurrection and rebirth and sometime in the future.

Occasionally the coffins were shuffled around earth in this vast public subterranean sarcophagus, to make room for new coffins. Very occasionally when the subterranean robot arms went in to move the coffins around one was dropped or worse lost. It the coffin was dropped the families hopes for resurrection were quite literally shattered into thousands of shards of frozen human mixed with glass. Even the robots could not clean up the mess so they had to send in a man armed with cleaning materials in a special suit to walk amongst the frozen, deathly humanity and incinerate the little mess.

A note was then duly dispatched to the family apologising and informing them that it was unlikely that their loved ones would ever be brought back to life. They were always good enough to send roses with the note but the family nearly always sued and nearly always won.

This freezing business was incredibly expensive but was gaining in popularity all the time. Lots of people had started saving up very young for it now. It had now become a bolt on to private pension contributions.

The celebrant raised his hands and in the vast blue dome, the lights were lowered to resemble an eerie moonlight. Around the coffins, floating on pressured jets of air, lay piles and piles of flowers, beautiful carnations, roses, poppies, to name but a few, piled up to make a vast raft of flowers. Duncan's parents appeared to be afloat in a vast floral sea.

It was quite touching. Duncan's mother and father's body had been on display in the drive through section and lots of people from the town had come to give flowers. In fact, so many flowers had been given that Duncan had decided anonymously to give some to the other corpses in coffins lying around. There simply was no more room left next to his parents.

“We are gathered here," the voice said solemnly “to mark the passing on to a new place of Mr. and Mrs. Anderton who left us last Sunday. I know that we all would like to extend our sympathy, condolences and share our thoughts with the Andertons who are being so brave in the face of bereavement. But let us be gathered here with hope in our hearts as well as sorrow that one day the Andertons, preserved today, may experience resurrection with the breath of life. Would you join me in a quiet moment for the Andertons who have passed away and also for the Andertons here present?"

The amassed gathering was audibly quiet, only the odd fidget or rustle could be heard.

After a while the celebrant raised his voice.

“Let us not forget that they have passed to a new place, their spirit has gone to a bright place to meet other souls and converse with them..."

A tear ran down Duncan's sister's cheek and she put out her hand to her older brother as she had done many times when she was younger. She was racked by sorrow and remorse and felt even guiltier than her brother since she lived in New Seattle, she very rarely saw her parents.

She also felt extremely uncomfortable with this ceremony. She would not describe herself as a virginally pure and innocent Christian, but she did her best. She found this mixture of religion without religion rather distasteful and unnerving. She couldn't help thinking that all this freezing business was a way of hedging your bets really. Were you in limbo? Could you escape judgment unless there was somehow a final judgment day? She kept telling herself that it was what her parents wanted, so to be happy with it.

Inside her head, as tears were wandering down her face, she kept thinking: ' let's suppose heaven really does exist and there you are experiencing full bliss, you are \in full communion with Jesus and the Lord, you are at peace, you understand and you have the knowledge to understand; when all of a sudden your body starts to wake up at some point in the future and starts calling your soul to come back on duty and get back inside the organic box. Would your soul come back unwillingly from bliss? Would it bother to inhabit your body again? Would my parents become living bodies without a soul? Staring entities, alive but without a brain or a flicker of humanity? And yet I'm a doctor I should embrace any chance to further life,' Susie shivered.

The coffins were turning now and stars appeared across the roof. An angelic choir clad in white stood resplendent in the corner and sang uplifting songs and chants. The mourners arranged themselves into two lines, one line on each side of Mr. and Mrs. Anderton, accordingly like at a marriage.

Duncan lead one line and his wife another. The celebrant strode ahead of them both his robes billowing with air. He walked slowly and deliberately clasping a stick with a model dove aloft. He sang along with the choir.

The dark door loomed in the distance, tendrils of frosty vapour occasionally escaping from the cold dark interior, where the sloping conveyor belt passed down into the sarcophagus below.

The choir's chant quickened to a high ejaculation, as did the celebrant's pace. He stepped off the conveyor belt of air and his clothes ceased their endless fidgeting. He leant over the Andertons and made a circular motion. The coffins stopped and their lids opened majestically in time with a pianissimo in the music. Close family arched over and kissed the Andertons for a final time, on the forehead.

The music reached an exultant and joyous climax, a contrast against the wails of tears from the gathering.

The door opened and the Andertons disappeared followed by their ever present flock of flowers into the tenebrous depths below.

Duncan held his sister and she sobbed and even the more politically expedient members of the assembly were touched with sadness.

Over the other side of town, Ralph's body, his head sewn onto his torso lay in a small wooden coffin. A solemn congregation attended the funeral, Ralph's mother, wife, their children and a few friends from work. Goldentooth, his best friend since school sat solemnly in the front row with Ralph's closest family.

All were mystified and shocked by Ralph's sudden death.

Even though Ralph was not exactly the most popular man in the world, and it was acknowledged (even by his mother) he had made a few enemies hither and thither; no one could actually think of anyone who would have wanted him dead.

They obviously weren't thinking hard enough because there sat Ralph's body, with his now pellucid skin, in a beautifully carved box staring up at the roof of the church.

Then they all watched as his coffin disappeared majestically through another door leading to a terminal, cremational fire. Ralph had had a more traditional funeral with a priest of the Catholic Church.

The Irish priest had preached a long sermon effusing, with pertinacity, a warning against the inhumanity of "storage” and most of the congregation nodded and murmured in agreement with him.

He had spoken with passion of the sacredness of Jesus' resurrection and that man couldn't toy with souls and call them back at will, it would torment them and lead them into a waking perdition.

But at least half of the congregation also knew that, if they had the money they would probably opt for storage too. Storage, on the face of it, appeared a slightly more certain hope than the rather more elusive concept of heaven.
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