The woman on the train takes out a small bottle, tips it into a waiting piece of tissue paper in her hand, and applies it mercilessly to her right eye.
Black streaks of mascara transfer onto the tissue, sullying its whiteness as the make-up remover works on the waterproof formula. With an elaborately manicured hand – small sparkling stickers carefully applied to each nail, to simulate snowflakes sprouting from cuticles – she picks out clumps still stuck to each lash. Finished, she works on the other eye. Outward wiping motions, to rid the lash line of eyeliner. Gentle pats, for the waxy residue of kisses.
When she is done removing her face, she unzips her shoulder bag, removes a gold wedding band from a panda-shaped coin purse, and slips it back on.
I look at the ring – where it hides the untanned part of her finger – and feel sorrow. Not just for whomever she is cheating on, but for myself. The crazy possibilities of love. The roads not taken. Watching this woman, with her long brown hair that she is now cinching up into a high ponytail, pulling out pieces from the side to blend into her fringe, I wonder what it is like to be someone who could be duplicitous with destiny, who has the appetite, energy and confidence to want it all. To have her cake and eat it.
She shakes off the black stiletto heels on her feet. Fishing a red plastic bag from her leather tote bag, she draws out a pair of rolled-up ballet flats and puts them on. The heels go into the plastic bag and the rustling package goes back into her tote. She notices me staring, but does not give me a cold glare or turn away. Instead, she smiles and nods politely. Under the unflattering fluorescent light of the train carriage, her recently-stripped skin is flawless. I had pegged her for someone in her mid-30s, but now see she can be no more than 25. Awkwardly, I return her smile, then hunker down behind my book, pretending to read.
The book is a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, our book club selection of the week. As always, the five of us – English-language teachers and expat wives – had met at the little Bordeaux-style wine bar on the edge of town. As always, we had talked about anything but the book. I hadn’t finished reading it, so I was relieved, but the session had dragged.
Sorry, book club finished late. On the train home now.
As usual, my husband does not reply to my text.
This late at night, there are few people in the carriage – on the last train. The woman and I sits across from each other, on empty rows. As the north-bound train jigs and lurches on the tracks, I become more and more comfortable with her. Like we share some sort of secret, or are buoyed towards the same goal. They announce the next station – mine. She gets up. I am hardly surprised. Smoothing down the back of her black suit skirt with a quick hand, she moves to the door.
As I make my way towards her, gripping the overhead hand-holsters and poles to steady myself, my gaze drifts downward. I am shocked to see brown streaks on her pale shapely legs. Stains of an organic nature. A smattering of – could it be? – soil on the delicate cap of her left knee. She is so poised, so well-put-together; the presence of dirt seems highly incongruous.
The train doors open, the seals hissing angrily at being broken, and we step out onto the platform. The night air is warm and sticky. We smile, nod at each other again, and go our separate ways.
As I hurry home, I cannot stop thinking about the woman. What necessitates this reverse-metamorphosis on her commute? And why does she have dirt on her knees?
But, soon, I am turning the key in the lock of my apartment. There are dishes on the dining table and the remnants of my husband’s supper to clear, mouldering clothes in the washing machine to hang, and two empty bottles and a wine glass still bleeding on the coffee table. I do the chores, shower, then slide under the blanket next to my husband. The display on the cable television set-up box never blinks: 00:35.
My husband grunts and turns over, on his side of the bed, with its clearly-demarcated territorial lines.
A week later, I see the same woman again.
This time, we are travelling in the opposite direction and she performs her transformation forwards: holding a mirror up to her eye, carefully coating her lashes, painting her lips, with the sure-handedness of a brain surgeon, as the rest of us rock and sway to the lullaby of the train tracks. Again, our eyes meet; a flare of recognition, a smile. I am on my way to another book club meeting, but the prospect of another evening spent talking about insignificant things with the same people, in the same faux Bordeaux cottage with dusty faux grape vines draped above the bar, artfully melted candles in Beaujolais bottles and Toulouse-Latrec posters on the walls, is more than I can bear. When she gets off at her station, I slip between the doors at the last minute. A fish narrowly leaping out of a fisherman’s net.
I follow her from a distance, as she walks through the crowded city centre. It is eight o’clock in the evening, and the chic and beautiful types drink in the bar-filled lanes branching from the main streets. She wears a red dress and walks fast – very fast, for a woman in heels; I struggle to keep up in my sensible pumps. A bald, tipsy man drops a glass as I walk by a particularly tiny watering hole, and his long-haired companion lets out a shrill laugh. Liquid splashes on the back of my calves. Distracted, I turn. When I whirl around again, I have lost her. Anxiety flares like a flame. I hurry on, not bothering to wipe away the alcohol already evaporating on my skin.
I catch a glimpse of her vermillion dress. It is a magician’s silk handkerchief disappearing into the circle of his thumb and forefinger, as she threads easily through the lubricated throng. She looks over her shoulder. For a split-second, I am afraid she has spotted me. If she has, she gives no sign. Instead, she darts into a dark alley, the entrance marked by a stone archway.
I go through the archway and find myself in a tranquil garden. A little Victorian fountain stands in the middle of this courtyard, sending a little plume of water rising and falling into the jasmine-scented air. Behind it, a double-storey Peranakan shop house, with long windows shielded by elaborately-carved wooden louvres – rose – sandwiched between two tall buildings.
Men mill around this garden. Some are well-dressed and buttoned-up; lawyers or bankers. Others wear black-rimmed glasses and carry backpacks. Yet others have man buns and carry brown paper bags filled with free-trade canned food. They whisper among themselves.
“Come in,” says a man standing by the door. He wears a singlet printed with heavy-metal iconography that stretches over and strains against his pot belly. “You are here to watch. Welcome.”
I am not sure why I obey him, for I am not the kind of woman who enters strange men’s houses. But I do. Lights burn behind the louvres, in the strict rectangle of the carved ventilated door, which swings open, drawing me in. Curiosity eats at me. It gnaws on me like a bone, hollowing me out, so I could be filled with something less substantial. I step over the threshold, and the man – pot-bellied, hairy-legged – comes in after me and shuts the door.
In the centre, dominating the hall-like interior, is a coffin on a bier. A blue-and-white striped tarpaulin is rigged up over the coffin.
“Is this a funeral?” I ask.
“You’ll see,” he says. “It’s better and more fun.”
“Have a seat.” He points to a chair in a corner of the room. Then, he goes to the old-fashioned electrical switches on the wall and dims the lights. As if on cue, the woman in the red dress appears from a back room. Carefully, she mounts a short ladder pushed up against the pier, then steps gracefully into the coffin and lies down.
“Grief is a private matter,” explains the man in singlet and bermudas. “Mourners come in one by one.”
He opens the door, and motions for the first man to come in. The grey-suited man enters, cradling his black briefcase in his arms. He puts the briefcase in a corner, takes out his wallet and hands a wad of notes over to the singlet man. Then the ‘mourner’ walks up to the open casket, surrounded by fake plastic flowers, and leans over the ‘dead’ woman. His lower lip begins quivering. His shoulders droop. He weeps openly with his head in the casket, on her chest – looking like an ostrich burying its head in sand.
“Do you want the extra?” asks the man running this bizarre funeral set-up. Casual, relaxed, as though he is asking if the customer wants ketchup with his fries. The mourner nods. The man indicates the step ladder, giving silent permission for the mourner to join the woman in the coffin. It is a ginger ascent and a tight fit.
I have begun thinking of the man in the singlet as a funeral pimp. Funeral Pimp retreats behind a sort of light-and-sound controller’s console, with slide levers and rows of buttons that light up. With two fingers, he slides a white button upwards. The coffin lid, attached to some hydraulic mechanism, begins to close. After the lid bangs shut, the funeral pimp punches a button. A metal claw releases a corner of the tarpaulin strung high above it. Soil rains down. At first, a leisurely patter, then – getting louder and faster – a machine-gun rattle as clods of earth land on the hard mahogany.
An eternity ticks by. I check the time on my phone. Only two minutes have passed. Then, the whirring of machinery, and a sort of rough mechanised shovel emerges from the bier. It clears the soil from the lid, with the efficiency of a teppanyaki chef scraping clean his iron griddle. The hydraulic pump eases the lid upright once more, and the suited man – now a little creased – climbs out, blinking rapidly. The woman lies there as before, with her eyes closed, hands folded on her lower abdomen.
I sit there all night, watching the mourners come in, get buried for two minutes, and then leave. If you ask me what it is all about, I wouldn’t know how to explain it to you. Yet, I understand the ritual completely.
Week after week, I return to the Coffin Club – for that is how I now think of it – to watch the ‘exhibition’.
I am always the only female observer. No other woman has found their way into the courtyard. No one else takes a seat in the corner. It occurs to me that this is an apprenticeship, an understudying phase. Perhaps I have been picked, by the serendipity of train timetables, meeting of glances. Perhaps not.
The woman on the train’s name is Chloe. In time, I come to realise all my assumptions about her are wrong. She works the exhibition in order to support a quadriplegic husband after his motorcycle accident. We chat after closing time, when the long line of mourners have had their turn and gone away. She tells me about how tired she is of being the sole care-giver at home: turning him in bed every two hours, pumping his chest to help him expel his phlegm; washing, shaving and dressing him; moving him to his wheel chair; putting him on the commode; rolling him on a mesh lift sheet to hook him into the shower; changing his catheter.
“Coming here,” she says, one night, “is the best holiday. I get to sleep like a dead person for a few hours.”
I give up going to book club, without telling my husband, while pretending it is still the reason I leave the flat every Wednesday after preparing dinner.
One night, Chloe calls to say her husband died. Pneumonia.
“Could you fill in for me, please?” she says, on the phone.
“You’re not going back. Ever. Right?” I ask.
“Probably not,” she says.
At the exhibition, Bob preps the room and mans the door. I climb the ladder and ease myself gingerly into the white satin folds of the coffin. Seeing Chloe do this more than a dozen times has not prepared me for the thing itself; the hardness of the wood under your spine, the musty odours and the initial mild claustrophobia. As I look up at the ceiling, with its timber beams and joints, I seem to melt into snow. I relax into the smooth padded fabric, letting gravity press down on me, making a woman-shaped imprint. The high solid sides of the coffin block out ambient sounds. Only the whoosh of my blood in my ears remain; the hum of electrons.
“Keep your hands inside the coffin at all times,” says Bob, peering into the coffin at me – his face a moon in the cobwebby sky. A neurotic carnival ride operator.
“This here,” he says, pointing at the feat of mechanical engineering yanking the coffin lid up and down, “Do not insert anything, or any part of your body or dress or belongings into this catch, unless you want it to jam. And then you’ll be stuck in there for god knows how long, while I try and fix it to get you out. During which time the oxygen would slowly run out.”
I nod again, and he disappears from view…
…returns. “Take off your ring,” he says. I do, getting it past my coarsened knuckle with some difficulty. I don’t have a pouch or purse to keep it safe in, like Chloe did. So I just tuck it in my bra.
And then the mourners come. I begin to shake from nerves. I tremble so violently that I am sure they will notice and demand their money back. This corpse is not dead enough, they will complain to Bob. But as the first tear drops beat down gently on me, I realise no one cares whether I twitch or not. I am just a symbol for everything they need to pity themselves for: a dead spouse, claimed by cancer; lack of career advancement; football team relegated from the Premier League. Anything and everything can be grounds for a fake funeral. These men just need a quasi-public space in which to unleash their sorrow. Vent their emotions. Then, cleansed by the grace of saline, they climb into the coffin with me – widowers all, vaulting into the pyre – and emerge after two minutes. Resurrected and reborn.
Death gives you licence to think whatever you want or empty the mind. Remove the need for self-preservation, and the taste of true freedom wrings your saliva glands; socks you on the jaw. The body sings.
Death is the ultimate vacation.
I justify it to myself that there is nothing sexual involved. It isn’t a fetish or anything, I tell myself, as I lie here, doing my Kegel exercises. I am not that into being venerated. I don’t get aroused one bit by so much public display of undying love and devotion.
Sometimes, when I have nothing better to do, I think about what my friends and family would say if they knew what I did on Wednesday nights. Why?, they would ask, peering at me as if I were bat-shit bonkers. And what would I say? That I really want to rehearse for the afterlife? That I’m a Girl Scout for the big send-off and believe in being prepared? That I constantly need to prove that I am not afraid of anything, but my false bravado manifests itself in these weird, inconsequential gestures? These symbolic trivialities, these trivial symbols, which wind up certifying nothing?
When I was 14, I dreamt my mother died. In my dream, I looked at her lying in her coffin. Pale. Wearing that smug expression that said: See, if you don’t listen to me, I’ll die and you’ll regret it forever. Part of me panicked. But another part of me was so pissed off at her for making good on her threat. I woke up in tears. Tears of anger mixed with grief. For the next week or so, I did everything she asked. But I never forgave her for emotionally black-mailing me by dying in my dream. She made me, and I made that dream. So, technically, she made that dream, too.
I don’t want to know what my husband would say if he knew where I went instead of book club.
At first, before I learned not to have too much coffee beforehand, and was unable to doze off during my shift, I worried about the feminist implications of participating in this exhibition. This psychological whoring of one’s flesh. Have I given up my agency by lying here, passively, for the comfort and pleasure of men? Who is using whom? Is it immoral, especially when money changes hands, and I get paid half the receipts at the end of the night? How is this different from porn? Coffin porn? Am I a victim of the male gaze? But what if they were too busy bawling their eyes out to look at me properly, much less objectify me? What about the flow of power? Which way? From me to them? Them to me?
Most people, it can be argued, want more out of life. They want alternatives to their boring existence. A change. Most people fill their emptiness with activities. Shopping. Language classes. Parties. Book clubs. Misguided, if you ask me. I fill mine by voluntarily entering a void. There is no avoiding a void. Void all thoughts of avoiding the void. You might as well step into it, close your eyes and enjoy the blubbering.
One night, my husband turns up at Coffin Club.
I recognise the way he smells before I know it is him: black pepper shower gel and Listerine. Then he starts crying, and I know, for sure, it is him. Quiet, shuddering sobs, punctuated by a melodic gasp. The same seven-second cycle, held for a minute or two.
For our tenth anniversary, four years ago, he took me to a hotel fifteen minutes’ drive from our home, where we ordered room service and soaked in the bath tub. After he fell asleep, I watched a documentary about Haenyeo, the diving women of Jeju Island in Korea. These women could plunge up to 20 metres underwater without artificial breathing equipment, to gather clams, abalone or seaweed. Sumbisori was the name of the ancient breathing technique these “sea women” used. As they emerged from the ocean, they inhaled and exhaled quickly with a whistling sound. Sweet relief.
As I listen to my husband weep over me, I think of mermaids pursing their lips and blowing. I imagine a blue tide pulling us out, further to sea. I think about our growing indifference to each other, and how it has been slowly petrifying me inside.
Then Bob asks him if he wants the “special”, and my husband must have indicated yes, because my husband is climbing into the funerary box with me. My right hand steals involuntarily over to the ring finger on my left hand, encountering absence: Bob said exhibition visitors, mourners, clients… whatever… preferred the marital status of the deceased to be left ambiguous. And besides, he added in a confidential tone, the columbarium workers sometimes picked out any melted precious metal and kept it for themselves. All I said, at that time, was: Oh.
It hadn’t occurred to me to point out to Bob that I was not really dead.
Now, swaddled in here with my husband, I have never felt closer to anyone. He flings an arm protectively over me. The cover descends upon us, like a clam shell protecting Venus and her cherub. The sound of his open-mouthed breathing is deafening in the enclosed space. I imagine water droplets emerging from his respiratory system. Mingling with mine.
How strange that he should end up here and not know me. But my time as the woman in the coffin has taught me that men always have someone else in their heads when they come here. I wonder who he is crying for: The detached mother who left him when he was ten, to pursue her dreams of becoming a photographer in some other country? Or the first girlfriend who broke up with him because she didn’t like the shape of his incisors? Maybe the ex-fiancée, who is now a successful artist and paints nothing but anthropomorphic pigs.
Cocooned with him, I am struck by how foreign he smells. In such close quarters, his usual black pepper and mild peppermint toothpaste scent evaporates, replaced briefly by the lavender scent of the washing powder we use in our top-loader. And then: Just a kind of dark cacao, split fresh from the pod, and rotting tomatoes furred with mould. Smells, like memories, shape-shift. I remember us getting married on the beach, crazy plastic leis around our necks, the pastor arriving by speed-boat.
Your scar running from clavicle to shoulder, from when you had surgery after that biking accident. The Hong Kong years, when we lived in a condominium unit no larger than a broom closet. The night I threw a chair at you, and we decided never to have kids, because they would inherit your idiocy and lack of impulse control, and my lousy temper and poor aim.
We should be sorry for every assumption, every foregone conclusion, every corner or coffin we’ve backed ourselves and the ones we love into. The spectrum was once so wide, but we picked and chose, and finally left ourselves with just a sliver of room to maneuvre in.
As the first bits of earth hit the coffin, a moan escapes your lips. ’Til death do us part. ’Til death do us part, I repeat in my head.
My eyes are open in the dark. I grope in my skirt pocket for my wedding ring. Then I prod the satin lining, reading its folds like vertical braille, until my fingers locate the cold greasy arm of the hydraulic pump. I push the infinite platinum silver into a gap in the mechanism, and wedge it firmly there.
I wait for true intimacy to occur.