Eight Days Left
The black ambulance pulled up outside the flat at three minutes to eleven. The pavement was overgrown with dandelion stalks and their feathers caught on Sean’s trousers as he used a chipped brick to wedge open the gate. He pulled keys from his pocket and clicked the lock open revealing a cavernous space in the back of his vehicle, lined by shelves, with a trolley attached to metal clips. A stretcher was placed on top, and Sean unloaded it, wearing a pair of latex gloves that didn’t quite cover the hair on his hands, and pushed up against his knuckles like a small creature being suffocated by a birthday balloon.
A line of police tape cordoned off the stairwell, which stank of disinfectant, and was lit by a flickering neon tube light that spluttered through its fly-encrusted casing as if a message was being sent from the other side. Sean rolled his shoulder sockets and cracked the bones in his knuckles as he waited for Biggun, who was still sat in the front seat, rolling a cigarette for afterwards. He was always waiting for Biggun, a man who ran on his own clock.
As Sean leaned the stretcher against the wall and gestured to the vehicle, it tipped to one side. Biggun emerged from the passenger seat, leaning his head down before arching his long body out of the car. He was dressed in an overcoat, with a crest on the breast pocket. The company logo was embroidered with a set square and compass beneath it, layered in silver and midnight blue.
Biggun was not quite the seventh son, but the third of his brothers who had followed the family trade. They all had a certain look: long crooked fingers, gaunt cheeks, tall lumbering bodies, and hooded eyes that sank lower with age. Sean wondered if the outfits somehow accentuated their features, but even in civvy clothes, Biggun stood out.
They first met in The Foresters, a rowdy local pub on the main road with an Irish landlord whose mother Biggun had embalmed. He often drank there on a weekend and had a small following on Sunday nights, where most of his friends would turn up to hear him croon. The licensing laws restricted him from using a backing track, so he prepared his own musical accompaniment from a pre-programmed Casio MT140. His most popular request was a version of Video Killed the Radio Star, where he mimicked the synthesiser-chorus to side-splitting laughter and extended applause. Sean thought he was quite peculiar, standing there in a shirt, tie and knitted wolf sweater, singing as if his life depended on it, and offered to buy him a drink for his effort. Biggun ordered a white wine spritzer with a straw, a detail which stuck with Sean all these years later.
Biggun ambled up the path and stuck his chin out in an official way. Together they walked up to the second floor and a police officer with a muzzy and helmet was standing outside with his arms folded.
—We’ve come to collect the deceased, Sean said. Station called us this afternoon.
The officer took one look at Sean, pushed his face into a walkie talkie, and pressed a button leaking white noise that echoed down the corridor.
—Ugh, mmmm. Dunno about that, mate. I’ll have to check. Bit of mess in there.
Sean shuffled about in his pocket and pulled out an identity card. He was sure that he’d seen the officer before, his face seemed familiar. Perhaps he’d nicked him on his last drunk and disorderly. He hoped not, the less said about that the better. After three written warnings Sean was on borrowed time.
Biggun moved to the front and pulled his serious undertaker face, which, without blinking, instructed the officer to open the door into the dingy flat, that faced north, and was overlooked by the back alley of a kebab shop.
Sean wiped his big broken nose with a cloth handkerchief and walked into the living room, which was quiet, aside from the sound of pans rattling out the back. A dog barked in the flat above, and he listened to the slow tick of a carriage clock that sat on the shelf, next to a pile of Reader’s Digests. The temperature was overwhelming.
—Left the heating on, Biggun said. They always do. It’s not going to be fun in here.
—Something not quite right about this place, Sean said, as he ran his fingers along the woodchip walls. Seems dark considering. Don’t you think?
Biggun grunted and sat down on the sofa. He pulled out a form from his top pocket and started to fill in details with a dried-up biro that refused to give ink.
—Is she in the back then? Sean asked.
—That’s what the man said, Biggun replied. Been in here a few days, as you can smell. Anyway, it’s dark cos of the flies.
He signed his name at the foot of the page and gestured to the glass.
—Look, he said. Bluebottles. Bit drowsy, can’t have been hatched long.
Sean grimaced as he watched the flies rustle into life behind the nets. His hangover had caught up with him, the sickly-sweet stench of last night’s session oozed from each pore. That, combined with the foul odour emanating from the bedroom, almost made him retch.
The lounge was decorated with a nut-brown paisley carpet, pampas grass paper in the alcoves, and ruched curtains that stroked the top of the red-hot radiator. A jelly air freshener was propped on the windowsill, and its peach melba scent rose from the ornaments, which were neatly arranged in a line. Faded silk begonias in china vases and optic fibre flowers lined the mantelpiece, which framed a small gas fire with brass surrounds. Photographs of average relatives and frumpy weddings were hung on the walls. The cream leather sofa had crocheted arm rests, and behind the squashed cushions a faded patch of matter, comprised of head-sweat and tint from the past twenty years, formed a grubby circle. Airmail envelopes with happy birthday stickers were piled up against the telephone.
—I’ll just grab a glass of water before we go in, Sean said. Bit parched today.
He walked through a beaded curtain into the kitchen, where a cup and saucer, and microwave meal dish, were piled in the sink. Sean stuck his head under the reluctant tap, which coughed cold water onto his face. This is going to be rough, he chuntered to himself. Not another one. Eight days left in the flat. If she’s gone stringy I won’t manage. Keep it together Sean, nip your nose.
—What are you doing in there, checking your eyelids for holes? Biggun shouted.
—Told yer, just having a drink, Sean replied. Getting some air before we go in.
He walked back into the living room and pulled his gloves into place.
Biggun sighed and shook his head.
—Every bloody time, Biggun said. You’ll have to get used to it, one of these days. Here, have one of these…
He pulled a nose-clip from his top pocket and pushed it into Sean’s hand.
—I am used to it, you know. Seen enough, haven’t I?
—Well by the looks of things you haven’t, Biggun said. Look at the state of you. Get some eucalyptus oil next time. Easier on the nostrils, like. Of course, I don’t need it. Immune to such odours.
Sean started to laugh.
—Chop chop, Biggun said. Let’s get it done.
—Do you think she’ll groan? Sean asked, as he unrolled the plastic body bag and laid it out on the stretcher.
—Too far gone for that. Pat’ll have a job getting her in shape for the family.
—They want to see her?
—Yup. Insisted. They all live in Australia, according to the station. She’s the last one left over here. So we best be careful, Biggun said. Especially with the face. That’s the bit that counts. Don’t be touching the mouth. Her lips will need to be stitched through her dentures. Jaw can be wired. Just hope her eyes aren’t too bad…
Sean took a deep breath and placed his hand on the bedroom door, it rattled with his tremor. His forehead glimmered with beads of sweat, which trickled down the side of his cheeks.
—Did the neighbours find her? Sean asked.
—No, they just thought it was the bins again. Stopped answering her phone, apparently…
Only another fifteen minutes and this will all be over, Sean thought. Her skin best not stick to me, or I’ll be sick. Cold pint of lager in an hour. Then I can forget about it all. There’s other jobs out there. Don’t have to do this forever.
Biggun held a tissue over his face and started to hum a non-descript tune from beneath that made the paper flap up and down, bum bum bum bum. Biggun always hummed before turning the body, a tried and tested distraction technique. He stood over the mound of blankets and pulled the sheets to one side. Sean waited by the door and switched on the light. A small grey foot with blackened toenails poked out from the bed as a toy koala rolled onto the floor.
—Everything alright? Biggun asked.
Sean forced a smile and swayed from side to side.
— Never been better, he replied.
by Adelle Stripe
Eight Days Left was commissioned by Manchester Literature Festival and Manchester Art Gallery in response to the Martin Parr Return to Manchester exhibition. The work was performed in the Gallery on Wednesday 5th December as part of the 2018 Manchester Literature Festival.
Manchester Literature Festival
The Department Store
5 Oak Street
Copywright © Adelle Stripe (words) Martin Parr (cover image)
Manchester Literature Festival would like to thank Arts Council England and Manchester City Council for their generous support.