By Ewa Mazierska
Of all stories by Raymond Carver, ‘So Much Water So Close To Home’ is my favourite, because, with its simple dialogue, it pictures moral conflict around people’s attitude to death. It shows a group of pragmatic men on a fishing expedition who find the naked body of a young woman, floating in the water, but don’t want to interrupt their holiday, because they want to enjoy themselves and she is already dead. There is a wife of one of these adventurers who shames him for being so callous, so disrespectful of the dead woman and death itself. This story came back to me in Portugal, where I was on holiday with my children, Adela and David. During this time my Polish aunt died. In fact, the thought of aunt’s approaching death was on my mind before we left Britain as she became very sick one day before our departure for Faro. I decided to take with me a black dress and black shoes, given that after this holiday David and I were meant to go straight to Poland.
Since our arrival we were in daily contact with Justyna, my sister, who sent us updates about aunt’s state. It wasn’t improving, despite her being moved from one hospital to another, in step with the accumulation of her health problems. In the third hospital Justyna was told that no more treatment would be given to aunt, as she was dying. The question was thus when her heart would stop beating.
‘Hopefully she survives till the end of our stay in Faro,’ said David. ‘Otherwise we might have to leave earlier.’
‘Better not to speculate. Let’s go to the beach, as I didn’t pay £200 for our covid tests to sit here and discuss aunt’s hypothetical death. Our duty is to get sunburnt as soon as possible’, I replied.
‘I don’t want to be sunburnt,’ said Adela.
‘I was talking figuratively.’
Two hours later we took a boat to one of the islands near Faro. It was a perfect island, with blue water, blue sky and light magnified by reflection from the water. There were few tourists, most likely on the account of us coming at the beginning of the holiday season and the covid restrictions. On the beach I was reading the story ‘Thirteen to Centaurus’ by J. G. Ballard and was thinking about the blue sky and water having the same effect on us as the ‘social engineering’ on the inhabitants of the Station who were lied to that they were flying to a distant planet. But truth wasn’t something we needed, only our own Station, which would seal us from reality, at least temporarily. We found it on this beach, shaped like a triangle, whose two arms were made of stones, and the third, movable, by the line between water and the sand. There was no internet there, which initially put David and Adela off, but they accepted it, because this non-Bermuda triangle sheltered us from wind, which was very strong that day and the hypothetical gaze of the fellow holidaymakers. We stayed there till hunger chased us away from our hiding. We went to a beach café, where David ordered waffles with chocolate sirup and chocolate milkshake, which he couldn’t finish due to his meal being too chocolaty.
‘Buy me some water, mum,’ he said.
I went to the waiter and asked for water. ‘Sparkling?’ he asked.
When he brought the water, David said: ‘You should know I prefer still water.’
‘I forgot,’ I said.
‘Why don’t you just go by yourself, find a waiter and pay with your own money. After all, you are an adult now,’ said Adela.
‘I’d rather mum buys me still water,’ replied David.
‘So hurry up, as our boat is leaving in twenty minutes,’ said Adela, who during our recent trips adopted the position of the ‘sterner mother’, unlike in the past, when she was happy to pamper her younger brother.
‘I need to put my socks on first,’ said David.
Adela rolled her eyes to express her exasperation.
‘Do it quickly or we will leave you here,’ I said.
We managed to catch the boat and weren’t even the last to board it. We sat on the top deck, amongst fellow tourists, who were a larger group than the one with which we travelled to the island. The cacophony of their voices, difficult to discern even in normal times, grew even more Babylon-like due to the masks worn by roughly half of the travellers, muffling their voices. The murmur, which at times sounded like church chanting, emptied my head from any thoughts I might have had at such a time. When I woke up from my semi-dream, it felt like we were at some burial ceremony, about to dispose of some bodies into the water. The small motorboats waited for a sign to do so; each with the cargo of a corpse hanging from it, in reality the boat’s engine.
‘Mum, we are about to leave,’ said Adela.
‘It’s amazing how easy it is for you to fall asleep,’ said David.
‘It’s either too easy or too difficult. But near water is always too easy – as if I was hearing a call to move to a different reality.’
‘Like this one?’ pointed Adela towards the place from which we were hearing “L’amour est blue” sang by somebody with a siren voice.
‘Yes, except that for me death, rather than love, is blue. Love, at least of the romantic variation, lost any colour to me a long time ago.’
Back in the hotel I checked e-mails, as I didn’t like doing it at the beach. There was one from Justyna informing me that our aunt had died that day.
‘Only two days after our arrival here,’ responded Adela, when I passed this news to her and David.
‘She didn’t exactly act in terms of our holiday plans. Besides, she didn’t choose death; death chose her at this particular moment’, I said.
‘But it could wait a week, till we return to Poland’, he continued.
‘Discuss it with Death, maybe she will be sympathetic to your plight.’
‘When’s the earliest you can come to Poland to attend the funeral?’ my sister asked, when I phoned her.
‘This Sunday, if necessary,’ I said. ‘But it means we will lose half of our stay here without compensation and have to buy new tickets. Also, the Sunday flight arrives in Warsaw at 1 o’clock in the morning. It will be almost no point to book a hotel there if the funeral is the next morning. Maybe you can postpone it till next Friday.’
‘I’ll see what I can do. In fact, Monday is unrealistic for me too, as there is too much to arrange in the meantime.’
‘This is good for us. The later, the better.’
‘I got it.’
The next morning Justyna sent an e-mail informing that the funeral would take place the day after our planned arrival in Poland.
‘Justyna arranged the funeral for next Friday, so we don’t need to change our plans,’ I informed my children.
‘Great. So we can carry on as before,’ said David.
‘Maybe we should wait a day before returning to the beach. We could go to the cathedral, burn some candles for aunt,’ I said.
‘But tomorrow is meant to be a sunny day with little wind. We can go to the cathedral when it’s raining. It’s meant to rain the day after tomorrow. Moreover, we haven’t been to the seaside for almost a year,’ said Adela.
‘Okay,’ I replied.
The following day we took a boat to a different island. It was a smaller vessel with seats only at the top and the boatman standing as if it was a gondola, carrying corpses during the time of plague as in Death in Venice. Fittingly, he wore a mask, although in Faro wearing masks wasn’t a sign of genuine fear of a plague, but of being caught by the police.
The island we reached after half an hour was busier and hotter than the one we visited the previous day, with a trail of fast food restaurants, grocery shops and stalls selling beach gear running in parallel to the beach. Even though I lacked appreciation of what such places offered, their banality was comforting, as they included all the memories of happy beach holidays from the past. While Adela and David buried themselves under sunscreen and towels, I was walking among these shops, stalls and restaurants, ostensibly to find a place with food which might suit all of us, but in reality to cocoon myself from the future. I spent an hour or so checking the menus, which were very similar in each restaurant and trying on straw hats, returning to our spot on the beach with an extra towel and some postcards to send to people whose addresses I forgot to bring. Adela and David were already after the first swim and David was fully dressed, including his hoodie and warm socks. He took his clothes off, however, when I suggested that we go swimming again, only to put them back on diligently, when we left the sea, to live up to his self-perception as somebody on the ‘autistic spectrum’. Before the last swim that day I went to the lifeguard asking if I could swim as far as I wanted, as there were no buoys demarcating the permitted area. He looked at me amused, as if he doubted my ability to swim and replied, ‘Yes, go on. The sea is yours.’
So I did swim, trying to recreate the experience of my youth when I was swimming with all my might, till I had no strength to go any further, which meant that this was the time to return, to check the hypothesis that I went too far. This time, however, I lacked the courage to make myself tired and turned back as soon as I lost view of the people on the beach. Still, when I returned to our temporary abode, Adela and David said: ‘We were worried that you got lost. Nobody swims as far as you, mum.’
There was time to eat and we went to the fast food place which on my inspection looked most to David’s taste. It proved disappointing, as he declared the hamburger which I ordered for him uneatable, just by looking at it. By the same token, he didn’t want to eat anything in the same restaurant or on the island, so we returned hungry to Faro. Luckily, near the house we were renting there was a place specialising in hamburgers and vegan food and everything there was good. We settled there for the rest of our stay in Portugal.
Over the next two evenings Justyna and I discussed arrangements for aunt’s funeral, such as the style of the coffin, the type of flowers bought on behalf of different members of the family, and the menu for the funeral meal. In practice, Justyna made all her decisions herself and I accepted them with gratitude. Making these arrangements, although cumbersome and time consuming, gave Justyna satisfaction, as it proved her competence in matters related to the practical side of life. Preparing aunt’s funeral was a jewel on her crown of dealing with life’s problems. It was particularly precious, as by nature Justyna was spiritual, fragile and delicate, as if made for lofty pursuits. These, however, eluded her, as she failed to fulfil her childhood dream of becoming a painter and her romantic liaisons finished very unromantically. Consequently, killing the remnants of her old fragility became her main ambition. The hardest bit for her was arranging the church service as she hated the Catholic church and its functionaries. But she managed this part too and in a way which didn’t dent too much of her dignity as an anti-church warrior. She repeated twice during our conversation that her dealings with the local priest were mostly conducted through his female secretary. She talked to the priest only for five minutes. In fact, she had more of a personal chat with the people working in the funeral parlour, who proved friendly and understanding, and agreed to charge half-price for the extra days of keeping aunt’s corpse in a fridge, as Justyna informed me.
‘I wonder how much electricity such fridges charge in comparison with normal fridges,’ said Adela.
‘You can measure it by comparing their sizes. The larger the fridge, the more electricity it needs. The one for corpses needs to hold two hundred, maybe three hundred pints, given that fatter people might weigh 300 pounds and they don’t lose much weight straight after death’, said David.
‘If anything, they feel heavier due to their stiffness,’ said Adela. ‘But what about their temperature? For sure, corpses need to be kept in a lower temperature than beer to avoid decomposing.’
‘Well, we’re not really talking about fridges, but freezers. Corpses are kept in freezers, as every person who watched Dexter knows, so to assess the energy consumption of morgue freezers, we need to compare them with the amount of electricity used by household freezers, nor fridges. Yet, neither Brits not Poles have large freezers in their houses. Australians and Americans do, probably in part because energy used to be very cheap in these countries,’ replied David.
I was listening to this dialogue, but my mind was stubbornly stuck on a childhood memory of collecting mushrooms with my uncle, who died seven or eight years before aunt. The wood in Koluszki, where they lived, was so distinct that I never mistook it for woods elsewhere, but I did struggle to describe its specificity. There was an enormous oak tree near the entrance to the wood, famous for giving shelter to boletuses which uncle and I collected over the many summers I spent in their little half of an old wooden house. This house they exchanged in the 1980s for a more presentable two-bedroom apartment in a newly built estate, where they spent the rest of their lives. Although the apartment was more modern, I liked it less and rarely spent more than one night there at a time.
After much effort I visualised more oak trees in the proximity of the oak giant, and the mixture of grass and moss surrounding them, trampled on by hundreds of feet, all in pursuit of the perfect boletus. The was the highest bounty for mushroom pickers, even though other mushrooms, such as larch boletes and humble chanterelles, tasted better. After this, my mind went blank. I wasn’t able to move deeper into the wood, to establish the type of trees and moss that followed. The only way to do so was to go physically to these once familiar places.
The next day it was raining in Faro, as predicted by meteorologists, so we spent part of the day visiting churches. In one of them there was a chapel made of bones of dead monks, which was one of the main tourist attractions of this town. We were particularly impressed by the ceiling lined with bones and skulls, laid out with absolute precision, with the same number of skulls and bones in each part of the ceiling. We walked around it mesmerised, taking photos and admiring the work put into creating such a piece of art. Additionally, David spent some time finding the best preserved skulls, with teeth sticking out from the open mouth, as in a horror movie.
‘Would you be happy to show yourself this way?’ Adela asked.
‘Depends if I lived now or five hundred years ago,’ I replied.
‘What’s the difference?’ my daughter continued to ask.
‘People then were happy to be a part of a collective, unlike contemporary people who are more individualistic. Today building such a chapel would be impossible, because even if people agreed to be stuck there for posterity, they wouldn’t agree to be there anonymously. They would like special plaques attached to their bones and skulls: ‘The skull of Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos’ pelvis, and below them Elon Musk’s butler’s vertebrae. I would be happy to be an anonymous clog in a perfect structure of such a chapel as this one, but I won’t like to be stuck there as myself, desperately trying to stand out from the crowd, as I tried unsuccessfully all my life.’
‘What about you, Adela?’ asked David.
‘I don’t mind either way. I don’t care what happens to me after death.’
‘But other people care. Therefore there are funerals’, said David.
The day before our departure we had to take a Covid test. We travelled to the airport for this purpose, as the tests there were cheaper than in the centre of town and the airport was on the way to the nearest beach. It took us some time to find the right place, but not because the testing centre was hidden in the airport’s backyard, but because it was just a small part of the Covid industry, which, like a parasite, was invading the healthy tissue of the airport. We learnt that there were seven different companies providing testing at the airport and registration for ours was near arrivals. After paying a woman who looked more like a schoolgirl than a qualified nurse took us behind a curtain to harvest DNA from the tissue of our mouths and noses. She pushed the sticks covered in cottonwool so deep that I felt like choking and vomiting at the same time. When we’d all had the tests, the nurse emerged from behind the curtain, informing us that the results should be ready within an hour and advised us not to leave the airport during this period. We went to the airport café.
‘How was the test?’ I asked.
‘Painful,’ replied David. ‘They make them painful by purpose, to put people off travelling and harvest the maximum DNA.’
‘It was painful because the nurse was inexperienced. We should be glad that it’s over. There will be no testing in Poland, at least not before our return to England’, said Adela,
The time dragged on and the atmosphere was heavy, as is always the case with airports, where all of us had various misadventures, ranging from lost passports, to not being allowed on a plane due to not having a return ticket. We were recounting them, most likely to put things in perspective.
An hour passed, and then another half an hour, but we got no call and I was ordering a cake for David who hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, when a nurse phoned Adela.
‘One of you tested positive.’
‘Who was it?’ asked Adela.
‘I rather tell you in person.’
We left the cake on the table and walked to the testing van. The woman who pierced David’s nose was already there, turning to David: ‘Your test was positive, but don’t panic. You can retake it.’
Without protesting, ten minutes later David returned to the torture chamber and re-emerged from it with tears in his eyes.
‘How was it this time?’ I asked.
‘The same as before, only longer. Felt as if she put a lot of effort into finding this Covid negativity.’
‘Or positivity,’ added Adela.
We returned to ‘our’ café, where the cake was still on the table, waiting for our return like an abandoned bride.
‘What will we do if the second test proves positive?’ asked Adela.
‘David will need to stay in Faro and one of us will have to stay with him,’ I replied.
‘I should stay, as it matters more for you to attend the funeral,’ said Adela.
‘No, I will stay, as he is my responsibility. If something goes wrong during the quarantine or whatever he needs to do, I shall be nearby.’
‘You will need to find a new apartment or a hotel, as somebody moves into the house we’re renting tomorrow,’ said Adela.
‘I know,’ I replied.
‘I will help you and help you to move,’ said Adela. ‘But what about the funeral?’
‘It’s enough if our family is represented by one person and it’s best if this is you, as you are my mother’s favourite grandchild. Justyna would also prefer it if you were there rather than me,’ I said.
‘What about me? Will I have to move to a hotel? Will it have internet? Could mum visit me there?’ said David.
‘I don’t know. Let’s hope you will be allowed to self-isolate with me and if you have to go to a quarantine hotel, you won’t be raped there, as has happened in Canada’
‘And what then?’
‘Then we will have to be tested again, hoping the test will be negative, meaning positive news for us. Then we can fly to Poland, in two weeks or so.’
‘I don’t want to leave you here,’ said Adela. ‘You won’t be able to arrange things without me.’
‘Maybe we will. People get better with things when they have to rely on themselves,’ I replied.
There was a silence for a couple of minutes and then David said, ‘Whatever will happen, we’ve had a great time here. The weather was good, the beaches were splendid, the churches were nice, even the food was tasty, eventually.’
He didn’t manage to finish the sentence, as the nurse sent a text message that this time the test was negative. When we were leaving the airport, she approached us, saying to David: ‘I hope your nose remained intact.’
‘I hope so too,’ he replied, without looking at her.
From the airport we took a bus to the nearest beach, where we stayed longer than usual, even longer than we enjoyed, as if to make sure we didn’t miss the last moment of such enjoyment. We swam, we took photos and I collected some shells, even though I collected already a large quantity the previous days.
The next day we flew to Warsaw , from there we took the train to Lodz, where I had an apartment. The following day my sister took us to Koluszki for aunt’s funeral. My sister, my mother and myself went to the chapel to inspect the coffin and flowers. The funeral director was already there announcing with pride that ‘As for the extra time your aunt stayed in the fridge, she looked today very good. I saw many people looking much worse straight after death.’
‘Can I see her?’ I asked, suddenly feeling the urge to see my aunt in her flesh before this chance disappeared forever.
‘No, the coffin is sealed now,’ replied the man. ‘And you wouldn’t like to see what is in there. We take your money to save you such views.’
I didn’t argue, only joined my mother who was rearranging ribbons on the three wreaths, representing three branches of our family: herself, Justyna’s and mine. She was satisfied, as her wreath, although bought by my sister, was fifty percent larger than the remaining two, meaning that her place in the hierarchy of commemoration was asserted. When we returned to aunt’s flat, our small gathering was enlarged by my nephew, Krzysztof, who came dressed in jeans and a crumpled blue sweathshirt.
The ceremony started with aunt’s goddaughters reciting the rosary in which they were joined by several older women. As the prayer consisted of repeating the same line over and over again, I joined in and after couple of minutes my head was purified from any thoughts and stayed this way for most of the church service. I was only ‘awoken’ when the priest washed his hands twice: first in the holy water, then in the hand sanitiser. I uttered a small giggle at his lack of trust in the holy water, which only David seemed to notice.
From the church we walked to the local community centre for a post-funeral meal. It was ordered for thirty people, but only about twenty came, mostly aunt’s female neighbours. For David it was an advantage, as he took a place near the end of the table, with me being his only neighbour. My mother sat two places away from me and from this distance I could hear her saying to aunt’s neighbour: ‘I don’t understand why they had to go to Portugal in the middle of the pandemic and when my sister was so sick. Besides, there is enough water in Poland. We have a lovely lake nearby. You couldn’t imagine how much anguish it cost me to wait for my sister to rest in her grave. I dread to think how much time I will have to spend in the freezer before I get buried, given the selfishness of my children..’
The neighbour nodded, but didn’t say anything and after a while she started to complain that young people stopped going to church, which she was sorry about, because what would happen to Poland if it loses its Catholic faith. This was, however, a topic which was of little interest to my mother. Opposite me aunt’s goddaughter speculated whether aunt had her last communion, given that there were restrictions on admitting priests to hospitals during the pandemic.
After the funeral we stayed in aunt’s apartment for a couple of hours. We talked about how well the ceremony went and then proceeded to divide aunt’s belongings. This talk made me think about ‘The Buddenbrooks’, where there was a similar scene concerning the division of the estate after the funeral of the matriarch. But what I was thinking was the difference between these two situations. Aunt’s possessions were meagre and the talk was about how to minimise the amount of her stuff which would end up in the rubbish bin.
‘Would you like to take these kitchen utensils and some tea-towels, Adela? Most of them are in a very good condition. As you cook so much, they should come in handy,’ said my mother.
‘Maybe you want the washing machine for your Lodz’s apartment?’ my mother said to me.
‘Yes, mum doesn’t have a washing machine there and I have to go to Justyna’s to wash my stuff. Mum’s fridge is also old and the freezer is leaking. Both things can be taken in one go to avoid extra cost for transportation,’ said Adela.
‘What about photos? She had several albums with some photos of our grandparents,’ I said.
‘Yes, she did, but I couldn’t find them,’ replied my mother. ‘Maybe she threw them away, as she threw away a lot of documents recently, because she was under the delusion that the secret service or mafia was following her. She wanted to get rid of anything which could incriminate her. Luckily, she kept her identity card, as otherwise she wouldn’t have been admitted to the hospital.’
‘This is so sad about the photos. I would have liked us to keep them,’ said Adela.
‘Maybe they are somewhere,’ said Justyna. ‘But there is not enough time to look for them right now. Besides, we shouldn’t do it yet, when aunt’s body is still warm.’
‘I wouldn’t say that aunt’s body is particularly warm after spending ten days in the freezer,’ said Adela.
We all laughed, including my mother, although after couple of seconds her laughter morphed into tears. As always with her, I wasn’t sure if she was crying about other people or about herself, till she removed any doubt by saying: ‘We are laughing now, but I’m next on the line.’
My nephew didn’t come to aunt’s flat after the funeral meal. In fact, he didn’t stay till the end of the meal, saying that he needed to hurry up to look after his daughter who got a cold the previous day. It was obvious at each stage of the funeral ceremony that he wanted to keep his distance from this family of measly, inward-looking Buddenbrooks.
On the way back to my flat in Lodz, David said: ‘It unfair that I never met my grandfathers.’
‘Yes, it’s unfair, but there’s nothing we can do about it. I also haven’t met my grandfathers, but only recently I started to regard it as a disadvantage. But in the wider scheme of things it’s not important if we met our ancestors. There is only so much history of little people which can be collected and passed further, similarly as one can bring home only a handful of shells from a beach holiday, even though each shell used to be somebody’s home and contains the unique imprint of the physical and emotional life of the creature who lived there. In the past, whenever I brought these shells homes, I was thinking about all of those which I have left behind, because they were too plain or broken. Now, however, I accept that life is wasteful. Maybe it needs to be,’ I said.
It was only two weeks after the funeral, when my sister and I were talking about cakes in different Lodz bakeries, when Justyna mentioned that when she visited aunt the afternoon before her death, she brought her two pieces of yeast cake, from the otherwise mediocre chain bakery whose only saving grace was this yeast cake, our aunt’s favourite. She brought only two pieces because aunt didn’t have a good appetite and Justyna didn’t want the cake to go stale. She planned to bring another two pieces the following day, but there was no following day for aunt.
‘When, after her death, they gave me all her belongings, the cake wasn’t there, which means that she must had eaten it.’
I was thinking that more likely the cake was thrown away by the hospital’s personnel, as unused food is treated like a biohazard, and especially under the Covid regime. But I didn’t say it, as it was comforting for Justyna to think that our aunt got her last communion before moving to the other side.
Ewa Mazierska is historian of film and popular music, who writes short stories in her spare time. She published over thirty of them in ‘The Longshot Island’, ‘The Fiction Pool’, ‘Literally Stories’, ‘Ragazine’, ‘ ‘BlazeVox’, ‘Red Fez’, ‘Away’, ‘The Bangalore Review’, Shark Reef’ and ‘Mystery Tribune’, among others. In 2019 she publisher her first collection of short stories, ‘Neighbours and Tourists’ (New York, Adelaide Books). Ewa is a Pushcart nominee and her stories were shortlisted in several competitions. She was born in Poland, but lives in Lancashire, UK.