Short story by Luay Abdul-Ilah
I had never imagined, as I pushed through the revolving door, that I was about to enter a fantastical world as remote as could possibly be from the one outside. It was as though I had entered a dream outside the bounds of place or time. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I made out an ebony counter at the opposite end, its polished surface barren, apart from a wreath of drooping red roses. Instead of rows of alcoholic beverages arrayed on shelves mounted on a rear wall, as one normally finds in London pubs, a large white screen stretched up to the edge of the high ceiling. Across it, elegant long black cars rolled sedately to the accompaniment of a choir singing in a strange tongue and deeply moving music.
I turned to leave, but found the door stuck. So I was compelled to move cautiously forward in that desolate space devoid of any furniture apart from a round table in the middle of the room with four chairs placed around it. To my right, dark blue velvet curtains stretched across the entire length of the thick glass facade. To my left: a total void. That is, unless we consider those artificial candles mounted on the wall a part of the dim lighting that augmented the sense of remoteness from the clamorous world next-door, with its pedestrians, traffic, restaurants and pubs.
A sole inner door slowly swung open to reveal a rather portly man. For a moment, as he moved toward me, he seemed like a creature that my imagination had conjured up under the effect of a delirium. But the regular click of his footsteps on the wooden floor followed by the familiar sound of his voice brought me back to my senses. He extended his hand toward me and said, “Welcome. Thank you for being so prompt.”
As I think about it, there must have been an invisible spotlight training its beam on the polished table where we now sat. That was why I was able to examine his pudgy face, which was free of wrinkles, apart from three horizontal lines that appeared across his broad forward whenever his laugh faded.
“You’re Mr. Brook?” I asked as I tried to collect my thoughts.
“Yes. Edward James Brook,” he answered with a smile. “You can call me Ed.”
I shifted my gaze upward from his face toward the wall behind him in order to alleviate the repulsion I feel when I find myself in too close proximity to another man with whom I have nothing in common. A large portrait in oil hung above that inside door, lit by concealed lighting.
“Is that you in the portrait?” I asked. His face broke into a broad grin that caused his eyes to disappear between the folds of his fat eyelids.
“That’s the original Brook,” he said as he twisted his thick neck stiffly toward the picture for a moment. “It’s my great, great, great grandfather, the founder of this company.”
“How amazing. You look just like him.”
“Isn’t he the lucky one,” he chuckled. “His genes succeeded in staying alive across four generations. My son, John, looks like me, too.”
I took a closer look around, inspecting the portraits on the walls to either side. Some of the faces were familiar because their pictures had frequently appeared in the press. They were prominent British figures who had lived at various points during the past two centuries. If there was one thing they all had in common it was that they were all dead.
That last word seemed to explode and echo through my head. As though the reverberations were transmitted to my host, he said, “May I be of any service to you?”
“I received a brochure from your firm about your life insurance policy. I was impressed by the many benefits.”
“I’m glad to hear that. Could you tell me what, precisely, you liked about our offer?”
I took the envelope out of my leather shoulder bag that I always carry with me. “I like the fact that your policy doesn’t require a medical certificate and that it’s available to anyone between the ages of 30 and 80. Also, the premium is very low. Only 35 pounds a month. Nothing.”
He fished his spectacles from the inside pocket of his black suit, set them on his nose, and extended a pudgy hand. I placed the brochure in it and he smoothed it out on the table in front of him.
“Aha! This is not one of ours. It’s by the publicity firm we’ve engaged. It appears that the version that you received has omitted a key word that is crucial to understanding our policy.” He paused briefly and added, “Funeral. The word’s ‘funeral’.”
“Are you telling me that you’re offering death insurance, not life insurance?”
“Not precisely, Sir. Death is part of the parcel of life handed to every creature, human being, bird or beast. This, in a word, is funeral insurance.”
My irritation must have been obvious, something he would not have expected from one of his own kind. I became aware of a faint whistle that emerged from his chest with every breath he took.
I snatched the paper from his hands and turned it so that I could read it. “What do you mean by this: ‘Leave some money to your loved ones.’? Do you pay something to the family of the deceased?”
“No! But the act of providing for one’s own funeral expenses equals money in the bank for one’s loved ones, wouldn’t you say?”
“What about the second point” – I could not keep the sarcasm out of my voice – “‘Peace of mind that your…funeral …has been covered.’” Aware now of my oversight, I said, “I’m sorry. I must have missed that word when I first read this…. But still, how is the deceased supposed to achieve peace of mind?”
“Peace of mind before passing away, naturally. The assurance that one will not be indebted to anyone…”
“Excuse me if you find my behaviour odd. As you know, we have different ways. But deep down…”
“Think nothing of it.”
When he noticed that I was about to get up and leave, he smiled and said,
“Why not stay a bit and have a cup of tea? Make yourself at home.”
Mr. Brook explained the moving choral music that floated in the space above us. It seemed to run a gamut of emotions from pain to pleading to hope. “It’s the Requiem by Mozart. He never finished it,” my host said as I took a sip of tea with milk to dilute the sweetness of the chocolate cookie I had just crumbled between my teeth.
“This is the most popular requiem among our clients. The next favourite is Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ followed by the Verdi Requiem.”
“Do any of your customers prefer modern music?”
“Yes, a few. They’re atheists most likely. How else would you explain why some prefer Frank Sinatra’s boastful ‘I did it my way’ over the Mozart requiem with its powerful entreaty to the Lord for eternal rest?”
I decided to lighten the atmosphere with a compliment: “You must have had a lot of customers for your funerary insurance policy.” I would have erupted into a loud, roguish guffaw had he not cut me short with a shrill: “Yes! We were the first to put the idea on the market, long before brokers, speculators and major banks stepped in.” He took a sip of his tea. “Most of our clients are elderly and advanced in years. Young people still mock the idea. You know how foolhardy people are at that age. They can’t appreciate that life is governed by a geometric progression that tells us: the older you get, the faster your time comes.”
Interpreting my silence as agreement and encouragement to open heart, he continued, “Many people avoid us as though we were manufacturers of death. In fact, we’re like doctors. They work to alleviate the pains of the living and prolong the lives of mortals. We work to immortalise them among the living through the stateliness, solemnity and reverence that etches the funerary occasion in their memories for perpetuity.” He paused to allow this to sink in, then resumed, “We also satisfy our clients by executing their wills to the letter. Some go so far as to specify who should attend the funeral and what they should wear. Others request our services after their departure in exchange for a small fee. As you know, the preoccupations of daily life distract people from their dearly departed. So we carry out our clients’ instructions as pertains to the regular maintenance of their graves and the surrounding flowers and shrubbery. We’ve continued to serve society silently, generation after generation, inspired by our founding father’s deep belief that the dead are the power behind the survival of love in the hearts of man…”
My head jerked back as he snapped a pudgy index finger toward my nose and said,
“Tell me, can you think of a deceased friend or relative without a pang of compassion for him because he reminds you that he is now no more than a memory to you? When he appears in your dreams it is to stimulate your memory and prevent it from malfunction. .. We don’t discriminate between our clients, whether alive or dead… Now, if you permit, I’ll show you some videos of some of the funerals that we have undertaken. Who knows? You just might change your mind.”
“Were all of them…?”
Ed (as I had begun to call him by the time we had finished a meal of fried cod, chips and a couple of bottles of Bordeaux) had honed his ability to know what I wanted to say before I completed a sentence as, noticing my eyes riveted on the images of the celebrities, he cut in:
“Some of them… The majority of them ‘passed’ through the hands of my father and grandfather. The British show little interest in their famed and glorious once they pass away. They are uncomfortable with expressing their feelings, whether positive or negative. They regard overt expressions of joy or sorrow as frivolous – over the top, one might say. To them, what counts in times of crisis is the ability to stay calm and keep a stiff upper lip. Have you ever visited the cemetery at Highgate Cemetery?
“Have you seen Karl Marx’s tomb?”
“Yes, I like the bust.”
“Uh huh … Well, just twenty feet away is the grave of the first owner of a Chinese restaurant in Soho.”
“So what difference does that make? After all, all dead people are, ultimately, dead.”
“But it does make a difference, of course. True, Marx was German – and I hate the Germans because they killed my brother in World War II – but his ideas continue to influence the world and many people in it… Not that I’m one of them, mind you. But what’s left of the restaurant owner? I doubt that even his restaurant is still alive.”
“What’s your point?”
“Had Marx died in France, his tomb would now be surrounded by intellectuals, philosophers, eminent writers. Have you seen the Père Lachaise in Paris? There the tombs of the famous are monuments surrounded by statues. Each tomb is a work of art in and of itself.”
“Well, we can’t alter national traits, can we?”
“True. But people in all places and at all times strive toward immortality. Have you ever watched an elderly man playing with his grandchild? He’s overjoyed because he’s reassured that he has passed on his genes to a second generation.”
“That doesn’t apply modern artists. They produce their creations like fast-food chains. All that matters to them is that there are consumers for them in the here and now.”
“Consumption is the sole guarantee for the survival of capitalism. It’s like a shark. If it stops moving for a second, it dies. We, in this firm, are the only ones who stand up to it through our efforts to realise a form of immortality for our clients.”
A silence hung between us, as I recall, causing me to shift in my seat and make ready to leave. But just at that moment the inner door swung open slowly and out emerged the young man who had previously served us lunch.
“This is my nephew Johnny,” Ed said. “He’s multitalented. A cook, car repairman, electrician…”
“I think I saw him in the video.”
“Not in these casual clothes of course. In the black suit and hat he wears at work. And not with that smile on his face.”
“As we say in my country, ‘Every occasion has its rite, and every time has its men.’”
“I hope you don’t consider it out of place if I ask..”
“I’m from Baghdad.”
“Ah! From the city of Ali Baba and the magic carpet… Is it in Africa?”
“No, in Asia.”
“Pardon my ignorance. I’m very weak in geography…. I’ve heard from colleagues that burial services are quite…um… efficient over there. Have you come to a decision?”
“No, not yet. Do your services extend to overseas?”
“We have branches in three European countries. Meaning you have four choices.”
“Are the premiums the same?”
“The cheapest is cremation since you won’t require a plot of land.”
“Which is the best option in your opinion?”
“Each has its pros and cons. Cremation is better in the short term since you pay less.”
“How does it fare on the market?
“It’s getting more and more popular these days. Still, my advice is to go for option two. Over the long term you may stand to benefit more. Perhaps a medical research institute will purchase your skeleton from your great-grandchildren. Or, if you’re luckier yet, scientists might clone you from the cells of your own bones…”
A silence descended for some moments that seemed to stretch on forever. A haze descended like a film over Mr. Brook’s eyes, making me feel as though years had raced by during our meeting. I suddenly realised that he was fleshier and more rotund than he had been some moments ago. His skin had acquired a florid colour that suited his chubby cheeks, broad forehead and bald front pate. His voice, echoing his final words, reverberated in the void between us and bounced off the walls where the gilt-framed portraits of past clients burst out in uproarious laughter, drowning out the funereal requiem.
Translated by Peter Daniel