It happened after the visit to the mortuary. Charlotte expected to be in a state of shock for some weeks to come, because she not only identified the body she also identified with it. When she later described the experience to me, I felt also that it was my own body she had identified. And when Charlotte told her mother, her mother screamed; holding her aged hand to her wrinkled throat in referred strangulation.

Charlotte was a writer of crime fiction and, yet, remained a well-respected member of the community, holding Bridge parties every fortnight. She lived with her mother, of course, and the intruder had been a great shock to them both when, one cold crisp evening in November, they heard (from their respective bedrooms) the noise of smashing glass and the unmistakeable sound of human moaning, then a half-stifled screech followed by panting. They never found out whether he was a genuine burglar, albeit a noisy one, or a drunk who had lost his mind or his way home. Her mother had never recovered from the incident and remained bed-ridden. She thought she had herself strangled the so-called burglar. But, even then, she had been too frail even to consider such self-defence tactics. Charlotte sensed the burglar had already been strangled or an attempt, at least, had been made to invade his wind-pipe by parties unknown, since he struggled for his breath, holding his own throat in desperation as he staggered in his escape from Charlotte’s house through the window he had just used as his means of forced entry. That was the end of the matter, except for the many police interviews that ensued. The intruder had made off across the garden, it seemed, despite the perilous appearance of his state of health. But the matter was written off as Charlotte (with her mother) tried, without much success, to regain the peace they had earlier enjoyed.

Charlotte’s glimpse of the intruder’s face in the darkness, after she had staggered downstairs with the poker she kept by the bed for just such an occasion (and why she did not keep a mobile phone up there for emergencies rather than a poker or as well as a poker is now a mystery even to Charlotte who had made that conscious or subconscious decision) – yes, her glimpse of his face was inexplicably supplied by many sudden flashes of light or, rather, by a sudden flash of many lights, enabling her, later, to identify the body during a visit to the mortuary. It had been a chance visit and a chance identification, because she had arranged to meet her brother-in-law there (he worked in the mortuary’s administrative office) and she had been shown around the place to see how mortuaries went about their business. She was currently writing a detective novel that was to feature a mortuary and, therefore, this visit would have been essential research … until she was accidentally allowed a glimpse of one of the bodies in the steady, searching light or lights of the central stowing-room. Then all thought of the novel she was about to write went out of the window as did her strange inexplicable dwelling upon the single nature or blending effect of various lights within the context of this her second sight of the intruder’s face, now on the mobile marble slab of a government mortuary. Even her brother-in-law had not ventured this far into the mortuary before, since official correspondence and accounts surrounding the dead did not normally entail mixing with the dead themselves. So, he was equally fascinated by this inner shrine to the departed and the way it needed to be illuminated, both discretely (separate beams of light) and in overall effect (several beams merging as one). But that was all forgotten when he heard his sister-in-law Charlotte’s short, sharp, but long-echoing shriek of shock.

Indeed, she evidently recognised the previous intruder’s face within the flat horizon of fleshy features beneath her gaze but, so as not to draw attention to this strange and worrying fact, she stifled her shriek before it was allowed to become a full-blooded scream fit to wake the dead. During that uneasy glimpse, however, it is important to note that she noticed that parts of his internal organs looked as if they had tried to escape through his mouth via the throat – for whatever unaccountable reason. The mortuary attendants, politely not wishing to treat a guest of the mortuary as if she were an official visitor here to witness a police-accompanied visual display of faces in an identity parade of corpses, quickly pushed the slab into its slot, so that she could then only see the soles of its feet, complete with verucca. It was a happy release for Charlotte not to be able to substantiate the nature of that unholy glimpse of some frightful details about the man’s outer and inner body. Also, it would be embarrassing if she had indulged her whim by making a mis-identification under deceptive lighting. Nobody invited identifications unless they had to do so. All manner of crossed wires were often caused by mismatching identifiers with identifiees. A lot depended on lighting. Almost as if this were a stage. A theatre of operations.

Charlotte’s brother-in-law (who had recently became a widower when Charlotte’s sister died) was mainly ignored by Charlotte and her mother since he had not been a good husband in their eyes, and they wished him to remain nameless. His crimes remained euphemistically referred to as being those of a cad and a blackguard. But to visit a mortuary at this brother-in-law’s invitation was a chance too good to miss; a sudden bolt-out-of-the-blue communication from him on the email. He explained he had read in a newspaper that Charlotte was planning a detective novel called Mortuary Lights and offered to take her round the place, since he had the ear of the attendants, the closest attendants to the dead as it was possible to reach. She grabbed the chance with both hands, deliberately failing to inform her mother of the invitation.

On return from the mortuary that day, then, as I said (and I have known Charlotte for many years having played at her Bridge parties on and off when I was in the area), she uncharacteristically threw off her clothes and wandered around the house, her mind in a fever of plot and sub-plot. She more normally sat calmly and collectedly at the keyboard, letting ideas slip and slide into existence, with a sweet pot of tea quietly infusing beside her -- rather than this violent plucking of story-lines from the very fabric of the room. Thrusting herself into chairs and tables, biting the edge of a cushion, bouncing her body from wall to wall, bruising protuberances such as elbows and knees in the process. She barely managed to resist grabbing her own throat in this process, because she feared she might go too far. Her stomach heaved and she felt her gorge rising. Such re-enacting of crime fiction in the process of writing it was a dangerous activity and she had never indulged such methods before, although she knew several writers who had injured themselves quite badly in both the de-composing and composing of the chapter where all the loose ends were tied up and the murderer was made known to all parties involved, including, sometimes, to the writers themselves.

During a moment of respite, she heard her mother wandering around upstairs, causing the beams to creak. Although generally bed-ridden, the old woman was still not incontinent and could personally visit the powder-room when the need took her. As long as she stayed on one level. But the process of ablutions had long since ceased to be one that was civilised enough to warrant the name powder-room where it was done. Her mother’s half-stifled cough from the landing caused Charlotte to sit on the settee and dry the tears she suddenly found in her eyes. It was a difficult business – writing; even the writing of pot-boilers and whodunnits.

She eventually got up and turned down the room’s dimmer-switch, as she listened to her mother flush the toilet upstairs and stumble back across the landing to the empty bed, now probably ice-cold from her body’s absence. Charlotte wondered how the shaded bulbs from all corners of the living-room made conflux just above her like a dying searchlight. In the limelight. Now within the grey effulgence of something that preceded either sleeping or dreaming, as she crumpled down and curled up on the settee.

It was a dream, rather than sleep proper, that beset her. She dreamed of words, many words. It seemed as if these words were the culprits. The culprits of the culprits. Even her sister had asked for it, it seemed. The police said so. Almost as if a victim was defined by the guilt of having attracted a criminal to commit a crime upon their person. Without a victim, there could have not been a crime. Charlotte now felt herself to be a victim of her own words -- in her rightful slot at last, she thought, because if she were dreaming, rather than sleeping, how could she ever wake up?

It was then she heard her mother uncharacteristically coming down the stairs…

I never went back to Charlotte’s Bridge parties. I hear they are still being held, but probably not by Charlotte herself. I read dictionaries most of the day, so that I can report the world’s events with some precision and believability -- this world of which I really despair. It is a vivarium letting the lights in like a glass mortuary … or possibly vice versa. The words did it, then. Or just one single word. And at last all loose ends are tied, when I discover the word ‘lights’ on my internet compendium of words, drawn to its definition, as I am, by many underlined hyperlinks.

LIGHTS n. The lungs, especially the lungs of an animal slaughtered for food.

(published ALBUM ZUTIQUE 2003)

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