The smell was even stronger - Editor
by Edoardo Albert
The taxi driver knew where to go.
The man paid him and then watched as the cab drove away. The driver had not spoken during the journey. The man had sat in the back, looking out but not seeing.
He was going to bury his father.
The building he stood in front of did not look like an undertaker’s office. Plate glass windows held him in reflection but he did not look as he remembered.
He couldn’t see a door. He looked around, but there did not seem to be any other way in so he stepped closer to the building and stopped. A section of the glass slid open. The reception was glass and marble and steel and the receptionist was their human equivalent: clear, calm and cool. And, of course, beautiful.
He went in, and the glass slid closed behind him. He could not see out through it. Instead he saw himself, repeated again and again, disappearing into infinity.
He sniffed. The air was perfumed, a distant hint of summer meadows sleeping in the sun. Not what he had expected of an undertaker. But even death was corporate now.
“How can I help you?” the receptionist asked. Her tongue flicked, dampening her lips. Saliva glittered like diamonds on the lip gloss.
“I have an appointment,” he said. “About my... my father.”“Oh, of course. Mr Evans. We’ve been expecting you. If you would like to go through, Mr Singer will see you right away.” She nodded towards the corridor that disappeared behind her into a haze of fluorescent light.
“Right. Thank you.”
“Mr Evans, we’re all very sorry, but we are here to ensure that your father will never be lost to you.”
“If you go through, Mr Singer will explain everything.” She turned back to her desk.
Mr Evans walked past the receptionist and down the corridor. There was a door at the end. It was closed, but as he neared it the door opened and he saw a man standing there.
“Yes, that’s right. I have an appointment.”
“Of course. Please, come in. Sit down.” Mr Evans made the first movement towards shaking hands, but Mr Singer had already retreated to his side of the desk. No other option left, Mr Evans sat down. Mr Singer leaned forward with his fingers interlaced.
They were beautiful fingers. Long, but not thin. Perfect nails too, pink to their tips and their quicks.
“You’re not married?” Mr Evans asked, then wondered why.
“Very observant,” said Mr Singer. “Normally it is only the ladies who notice such things. No, it is true that I have never married. I have chosen to dedicate myself to my work.”
“I’m sorry. It was rude to ask.”
“Nonsense, Mr Evans, nonsense. This is a difficult time for you. I appreciate that. May I get you something?”
“No, thank you very much.”
“Maybe.” The smell was even stronger in here. He couldn’t place it. It had something of spring to it, and something of summer.
“Ah, I see you have noticed?” Mr Singer smiled.
“The particular aroma that blesses our establishment.” He smiled again. “At first we tried to remove it but now I fear my employees would be most upset if I found some way of masking it.”
“What is it? I can’t place it.”
“Can’t you guess? No, what am I saying, of course you can’t. I remember from our talk yesterday on the telephone that you are unaware of the particular character of our business. But I can assure you that your father had satisfied himself as to our bona fides before making this a stipulation of his will.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
Mr Singer stood up, came round from behind the desk and perched himself on its edge.
“May I ask your first name, Mr Evans?”
“Gerald. It suits you. Well, Gerald...?”
Gerald nodded. He had no objection to his first name being used.
“Gerald, then. We are not a normal place of rest, as you can no doubt appreciate.”
“I didn’t think it was an undertakers when I arrived.”
“Precisely. We are not undertakers. Our philosophy here is very different. We do not burn people. We do not bury them. This is the modern day, and yet those barbarous customs still survive. Here, we believe the departed should be treated with respect. Here, we strive to preserve the departed as their loved ones remember them.”
“Preserve? You don’t mean taxidermy?”
“Nothing so old fashioned as that. Perhaps it would be best if I showed you some pictures from our catalogue. It was seeing this that made your father decide to commit himself into our hands.”
Mr Singer picked up the heavy book that lay on the desk and placed it open in front of Gerald. There was a picture of a man, lying down as if he slept for a few moments and would soon wake.
Gerald looked up at Mr Singer.
“He’s dead?” he asked.
“Departed, Gerald, departed. Nobody is truly dead while we keep them in our hearts.” He gestured at the book. “Take a look. Satisfy yourself that your father will be in safe hands. Now, are you sure about that cup of tea?”
Gerald looked up, distracted from the picture of the dead man.
“What? Oh, yes. Thank you. I will.”
Mr Singer left the room. He moved as if no mark would be left whatever the surface he walked upon. Gerald went back to looking at the pictures in the book.
He would not have believed that these people were dead. But they were, and he leafed through the pages of the book, staring at each new body, more perfect, more beautiful than the one before.
Gerald put the catalogue down and took a deep breath. His eyes scanned the room but they were not looking for anything. Memory searched for the image of his father but he could not picture him. Details, fragments, yes. But not the whole man. Already the memory was fading.
A spider crawled across the desk and stopped next to Gerald’s hand, its two front legs feeling the air, tasting the scent it carried.
Gerald did not see it. His memory was hoarding everything it could find of his father, pulling out memories from where they had been hidden, looking at them again and then packing them away somewhere safer.
Then he saw the spider. Gerald jerked his hand away, but the spider did not move. Its front legs tasted the air currents, but it did not run.
Gerald looked for something to hit it with, but there was only the book on the desk. He looked around the office, but it was bare and functional.
When he looked back the spider had disappeared.
He leaned over, peering at the floor, trying to see where the spider had gone. He did not like the idea of it crawling around down there, but he saw nothing.
Behind him, the door opened. He twisted around and saw Mr Singer coming in carrying a tray with two cups upon it.
“Your tea,” he said, setting the tray down.
“There was a spider in here.”
“It’s gone now. It was on the desk.”
“Don’t you like spiders, Gerald?”
“I don’t care for them.”
“Wonderful beasts we think here. Did you avail yourself of the opportunity to look through the catalogue?”
“Yes, I did. It was... impressive.”
“So you can see, Gerald, that you need have no qualms about putting your father into our care.”
“I suppose not. But how do you do it?”
“You know, preserve them. How do you do it?”
Mr Singer smiled again. His teeth were very white.
“I see you have not yet looked at all of our book. There is an explanation of the process at the end.” Mr Singer nodded towards the catalogue. “If you would like to turn to page 217...”
Gerald leaned forward, picked up the book and started flicking through the pages. He half listened to Mr Singer while he looked for the correct page.
“The process by which we preserve the departed is entirely new. Indeed, we venture to say that many of our clients have never looked better than they do now.”
Gerald found page 217. It was the same as the others. A picture of a man, a half smile on his face, sleeping. Sleeping the sleep with no waking. Gerald looked up at Mr Singer, the question on his face.
“You’ve found it. Now if you look closely you will see a circle has been inscribed on the photograph of our client. Turning the page over will show you a series of magnifications of that area of our client’s skin. Please go ahead, Gerald. Turn the page.”
Gerald looked back at the book. His hands seemed far away. He watched as they turned the page of the book.
“You remarked earlier about the perfume. Well, now you can see the reason for it.”
Gerald looked at the pictures. A series of magnifications of the dead man’s skin.
But it was not skin.
Fields of flowers, tiny flowers. Flowers packed, crushed together. And each flower a face, its mouth agape, staring up at him although it had no eyes. Tiny flowers where skin should be, a sunflower head made into hands and face and arms.
The dead man was made of flowers.
Gerald looked up at Mr Singer. His mouth was open but no words came out.
“It’s beautiful, don’t you think? No wonder our clients look so wonderful after the process is complete. And now you know the reason for the smell. With all these millions of flowers surrounding us all the time, we could hardly avoid perfuming the air.”
Gerald’s gaze dropped away from Mr Singer’s face. His smile was too bright, too white. His eyes too dark. They swallowed.
“How... How do you do this?”
Mr Singer’s hands opened and the fingers, the beautiful, long fingers, unlaced from each other and the cup of flesh was full of spiders.
“This is how we do it. With our little friends. Truly creatures of marvel. When a new client is brought to us, after certain preliminary work, we introduce these extraordinary little creatures to the body of the departed.”
Gerald could not move. His mouth opened and closed but no words came out and his breath stank of flowers.
“Then comes the most marvellous part of our work. The transformation occurs when the spiders inject each cell with an extraordinary chemical that turns it into a flower.”
The cup of flesh was offered to Gerald, offered across the desk so that he might see. A single spider emerged from the mass, standing upon the bodies below. The spider reared up upon its back legs and Gerald saw that its belly was a mouth and from that mouth came a tongue and the tongue was sharp.
“The result you have seen. You must excuse me if I seem over-enthusiastic, but even after years of working at this establishment the process never ceases to amaze me.”
The spider’s tongue flicked out and probed Mr Singer’s flesh. Gerald opened his mouth to warn him but his throat was ash and his lungs were dry and he had no voice.
“It was no surprise to me that you saw one of our spiders earlier. They do get everywhere.”
The hands stopped beneath Gerald’s face.
“Take a good look.”
Gerald squinted. There was something he could not make out. He looked closer.
All the spiders were feeding on Mr Singer.
He jerked back but the chair would not move.
“Is something wrong?”
Mr Singer was very close to him. Smiling.
He smelled. He smelled of flowers.
Gerald looked at his skin, at the beautiful, flawless skin.
Fields of flowers spread across the face. Tiny white flowers. Each a mouth, open and gaping.
“Not trying to leave, are you Gerald?” Mr Singer, still smiling his white, white smile, raised his hands into the air and opened them.
Gerald found his voice. He screamed.
Spiders, spiders everywhere, falling onto him, crawling over his sleeves, looking for flesh. Hands spasmed over his chest and arms and head, brushing off spiders.
He fell from his chair and then he saw the spiders skittering over the floor. Flailing upwards, he made for the door.
“Surely you’re not leaving, Gerald?”
The smell. The smell, everywhere. In his lungs, on his skin, in his eyes. He was choking on it.
Bodies beneath his feet, crunching into the floor. But he could still get out. No one was coming after him. He just had to get to the door. Then it was a clear run. The woman would not stop him. He’d get out of here. Just get to the door. The door.
He grabbed the handle.
“You can’t go.” The voice was quiet now.
Gerald looked down at where his hand had been.
Flowers. Tiny white flowers floating through the air.
The perfume of his flesh filled the air.