Contested breath: The ethics of assembly in an age of absurdity

June–July 2020, no. 422

Contested breath: The ethics of assembly in an age of absurdity

June–July 2020, no. 422

Listen to this essay read by the author.

There’s a script for everything. Someone, voice wavering, says, ‘She’s dead’, and you say, ‘What?’ They say it again, and you say, ‘Oh, my god.’ You ask the usual questions, and then hang up and everything is incredibly quiet. You tell your boyfriend, and you both walk around the house trying to pack useful things: a sleeve of Valium, warm socks. You call your brother in London. He texts to say it’s five am there, can it wait? You call back. Before he even answers the phone, he knows.

Over the Westgate Bridge, the light sits flat and brooding over the city. Mike, my boyfriend, drives. We stop at an Exeloo public toilet five minutes from her house, because neither of us wants to interrupt a police conversation by needing to pee. The stainless-steel cubicles reek of piss. Mine is out of toilet paper. I wonder if someone heard the latest news and sat here pressing the button that dispenses six sheets at a time, until they had enough to assuage their fear of shortages. Overhead, the toilet plays a piano cover of ‘What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love’.

I round the corner to find her draped in a white blanket, a mess of triangles. She looks like a house packed up for a season, furniture shrouded in sheets, waiting. I reach for what I think is an elbow and feel fingers instead. The world whitens, the exposure ratcheting up. I try to pull up the blanket to reveal her face. I get as far as her hair, the soft grey of it blending perfectly with the shag carpet. The fact of that hair, the corporeality of it, shatters me. I have to ask the young cop, eight months on the job, to do it for me. She pulls the blanket back like a game-show prize. And there is my mum.

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Comment (1)

  • Beautiful and true, Sarah
    Posted by Tom Gutteridge
    02 June 2020

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