Red – Nicholas Mayfield

Jason heaved open the door and hit the switches. A low buzz filled the room as large fluorescents flickered on. Stainless-steel surfaces reflected the harsh light alongside white tiles, stretching from floor to ceiling. As he entered, the uniquely familiar scent of powerful disinfectant with just a hint of stale potatoes washed over him. A stately row of shelves and storage compartments framed the back of the room, a line of sinks and vats the left, and a handful of refrigeration units to the right. The morgue was just as he left it. Jason dropped his black, leather bag on a bench. He walked around the room, running his hand across the cool, grey surfaces. Everything was as it should be. He was ready.

Jason turned and approached the centre of the room. Two empty tables stood next to an occupied tub, each with their own dedicated light. The body of an older woman stared peacefully towards the ceiling. She was comely enough Jason thought, though the years had left their mark. The skin under her eyes was dark and puffy, a worn look no doubt earned from sleepless nights and early mornings. Thick layers of foundation may help, but the laugh lines should be spared. They were deep canyons, the echoes of smiles past, and their stories deserved to be told. The shoulder length blonde hair would tie nicely into a bun, which would hide the greying roots. She had a small figure, but was in surprisingly good shape. He would have ventured so far as to dress her in a low cut gown, were it not for the hideous purple ring around her neck. Can’t let the family see that. He could find her a nice, tight gown with a high neck, or maybe a silk scarf would do. Must still be tasteful however, propriety wouldn’t abide a provocative corpse.

‘It’s unfortunate, isn’t it dear?’ Jason lightly thumbed the mark. ‘Not to worry, we’ll clean you right up.’

He walked to a large cabinet labelled Uniforms. Inside he found rows of folded rubber aprons and heavy gloves. Jason rolled up the sleeves of his cotton shirt and got dressed.

The apron chafed around the top of his jeans and didn’t quite come down to the boots, but it was lighter than the others. The light’s buzz grew louder as Jason rummaged through the shelves.

‘Cotton my dear? Perhaps some wax for the neck? No you’re right, better bring it all.’

The lights above the storage units began to flicker, causing half the room to dip in and out of darkness.

‘Nothing’s ever perfect is it,’ he frowned.

Depositing the supplies on a trolley, he dragged it towards the tub, wheels rattling on uneven tiles. Jason stalked to the entrance and hit a switch. The flickering stopped. The room was gloomy now, but peacefully quiet. The only light shone down on the tables and tub, bright halos amidst nothingness.

He stood over the woman. Her milky eyes stared back at him.

‘Let’s begin, shall we?’

Jason liked his job. He knew it was kind of morbid to say so, but he did. The work was quiet, solitary and fulfilling, if a little disingenuous. He prepared someone to greet their loved ones a final time. If the job was done right, he could fill a room with memories. He would research the client; learn about their family, their job, their life. He would know them as a friend, a parent, a child, like no one else could. He would give the bereaved the person they remembered and hide the ugly reality as best he could. Jason smiled as he took a sponge and, soaking it with a potent sterilising disinfectant, set to cleaning the body.

Take her for instance, Jessica Neal. She was in her fifties, worked in the family business since she was seventeen. Never married, but did have a daughter at twenty-three, Zoe. Was a doting mother, worked long hours to support her and eventually brought her in part-time. Zoe was now in her thirties and married with two young daughters. Jessica was a firm Christian and a staunch republican. She liked Chinese food, but not Chinese people. While her favourite colour would change depending on who you asked and what day it was, she would always come back to red. And why not? She had full, beautiful lips. Even now, faded as it was, Jason could see hints of their vibrant colour. Red would look good on her, he must remember that.

Jason scrubbed hard at her neck. He knew the mark wouldn’t come off, but he could dream. The disinfectant began to burn his nostrils, it wasn’t the healthiest to inhale, but he never did care for those bulky masks. They were too obstructing, too heavy and too…impersonal, for this line of work. His task was a solemn, personal affair, not to be handled by some obscure employee behind a mask, but by a person, a real person. Someone who could get to know the deceased, someone who cared. Too many things were artificial these days, too many compromises were allowed. It wasn’t a new phenomenon though, the world had become fake long ago, and humanity was just catching up.

He ran the sponge firmly across her torso and limbs, making sure that every last speck of dirt and grime was gone. Jason wasn’t much of a people person, truthfully, he had never cared for their company. He glanced up at Jessica, well not for the living at least. The world was changing, but he would not have that here. Some things were sacrosanct. Jason dropped the sponge in a pan and looked at his companion. The least he could do was treat this woman as a real person, like her loved ones would. In a brief occasion they would mourn the person, and not the pixels, before returning their gaze to the hypnotic glow of their devices. And there it would remain, at least until the next set of ones and zeroes became inactive.

He stopped for a minute and stretched. People are disappointing, but he wouldn’t let the world get to him here. As his father would always say, one must move beyond trivial distractions. He opened Jessica’s mouth, her front teeth were a bright shade of white, towards the back however he noticed crowns of varying colours.

‘Whitening doesn’t solve everything does it my dear?’

He began to line her cheeks with a layer of cottonwool. Not that his father was above such distractions when Jason informed him that he wasn’t going to college. He leaned back and smiled, Jason always enjoyed reliving that moment. That unique shade of red as the man preaching self-control lost control. The way his eyes dilated just that little bit, the way a never before used vein pulsed into new life. Jason took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He closed Jessica’s mouth and tested the padding. Just enough to hint at a smile, not enough to suggest bloating. Good, her cheeks would still need blushing though. Oh that red his father turned, it would have been the perfect colour.

He was sure Jessica would understand, they were kindred spirits of a kind, red played a meaningful role in both their lives. Why else would the ceremony room walls be lined with bouquet upon bouquet of vibrant red roses? Jason had thought them fake at first. Only rubbing a petal between his thumb and forefinger convinced him otherwise. He could never understand society’s fixation on roses.

He began to massage her neck, easing the tense muscles. Jason reached over to the trolley and retrieved a large jar of wax. He massaged it into the neck and up towards the jawline. He covered the purple mark generously, giving it a bright, ghostly sheen. More wax was added around the eyes and lips, masking the subtle sagging that always accompanies death.

It wasn’t just roses though, it was red roses, for a funeral ceremony. He just didn’t understand it. Flowers that is, well, he understood them, just not the obsession. They were beautiful but frail things, here for an instant and then gone. That was part of the mythos though, the candle that burns brightest burns fastest. Jason caressed the woman’s padded cheek. All beauty wilts, and time makes dust of us all. Once a rose was a beautiful sentiment, in its own morbid way, but times had changed. What was once an endearing and earnest symbol had become an object of vanity.

A rose was still the symbol of love, a grand gesture of affection in petals, but a rose was not just a flower anymore. A rose didn’t grow from seed to germination to blossom, but from trimming to grafting to profit. Is it any wonder then, that the grand gesture becomes so easily disposable? Are your flowers wilting my dear? Oh, I’ll just duck off to the store and grab another lot shall I? Make sure to remove the thorns, can’t be pricking ourselves upon it, might detract from the beauty.

‘Preposterous isn’t it.’

Jessica’s mouth plopped open in agreement. Jason reached in and added more cotton, fixing it in place with gauze and glue. What did it say about a couple’s affections that the symbol of their love was so wantonly replaced?

He set Jessica’s shoulders into a more relaxed position, laying the hands gently on her hips and setting them in place, giving her a more relaxed posture, with just enough space between elbow and body to look comfortable. He never did understand why bodies were presented with their hands firmly at their sides, there were more natural ways to fit into a coffin.

Not that nature had much bearing anymore, the flower was just one casualty in the war for progress. A flower, a rose, was one of nature’s most beautiful and meaningful creations, and yet, it was synthesised for mass production, and sold. Sprayed with chemicals to stay fresh, stems cut to fit in jars, and the body mutilated; thorns, leaves and all. It became a twisted joke, a frail and dainty thing instead of a being with substance. Gone were the tough edges that cut like arguments. Gone the leaves that were the armour of independence. Gone were the flaws that made it unique. What remained was not a symbol of love, but of subservience. Appreciation for the world turned to a desire to make it better, and the love of want had replaced the love of what is.

Jason assessed her, she would almost look peaceful were it not for the purple streak across her neck, or the ghostly white her skin had turned. He looked into her eyes, he would fix that. Jason pulled over a stool, squeezed a thin line of glue across Jessica’s lips, and gently held her mouth shut.

He sat there, in the silence and shadows, staring into the dark. He stared long enough that it began to stare back. Shapes formed and danced in front of him, his eyes thrummed painfully, and Jason remembered to blink. He removed his hand from her jaw and stood over her. Jessica looked patiently up at him.

‘The time has come my dear, rest.’

He took two small plastic disks and tucked them under her eyelids. He dabbed some glue on with a cotton bud, and pulled her lids shut. She didn’t need to see what came next. He walked to a large cupboard by the refrigeration units labelled Embalming. Inside the cupboard was an old blender-like device with thick tubes sticking out of it. The base was a yellow-tinged white and some of the black symbols had faded but the name was still there, embossed in brass. VexTech C80. The glass cylinder was worn and old, but it was clean. The C80 had been the device of the late eighties. Most upgraded to the new, boxy machines with digital measurements but a stoic few still swore by it. He browsed through the selection of chemicals and decided upon a lanolin-based solution which promised superior firmness!

Jason carried the device to the trolley and filled it with the clear liquid. How different were we now to the rose. Our diet was fabricated, our lives chemically prolonged, our appearance constantly altered and yet, it would be unnatural if we were not. Everything we were was owed to artificial innovation. Jason rummaged around in his bag and produced a worn leather case. He carefully opened the zipper and spread it on the table. Inside, on a velvety red background, were the tools of his trade. There were others here; some disposable, some not, newer and perhaps even better, but these were his. Jason withdrew a long scalpel and examined it, the steel gleamed in anticipation.

The problem, at least in Jason’s mind, came down to language. What was normal is considered natural, and so nature became the norm, no matter how unnatural it was. It happened slowly, and then all at once. It was natural to see animals in cages, and have food engineered to grow. It was natural to know a name online more than the people living next to you. It was normal to dress up a corpse, and make them look alive.

Jason arranged his tools, prepared a blood tray, and inspected the machine one last time. He made an incision in her chest, and the scalpel drank greedily. From that first cut it wasn’t Jessica anymore, just another thing taken through the motions. He peeled back her chest, hooked the carotid up to the C80, and let it slowly embalm the body. The cylinder began to turn a murky red as it replaced blood with chemicals, pump by pump. He massaged the body to ensure even distribution, and eventually, it was finished. He sealed the chest, and sat back. The skin had returned to a soft, reddish hue. She could almost be sleeping, were it not for the stitches in her chest.

Jason pulled his gloves off, and dumped them on the trolley on his way to the door. He switched the lights on. The room flickered and buzzed once more. He removed the apron, chucked it on a bench, and washed up at a large sink, using generous amounts of sterilising soap. Jason knew how it sounded, he had had this conversation before; to lament the way the world was while being an agent pursuing artificial perfection, but he didn’t think of it like that. Death was his livelihood, but it was more than that, he was a messenger, a facilitator. Mortality was the great equaliser, all things decayed; from the tallest building, to the lowliest seed.

He rubbed his hands together vigorously, creating a thick, white lather. Death was feared by some, and an uncomfortable subject for most, but his work made it accessible. He helped people come to terms with death, to talk about it. And so Jason cleaned the bodies, pumped them full of chemicals, and dressed them. He presented death in an artificial, but comfortable light and in turn, it snuck into their minds. He hoped it gave perspective, a realisation that no matter what we build, inject or eat, we are all still part of the natural world. It wasn’t something to be fought or changed, but respected and understood.

Jason turned and leant against the basin, staring at the body across the room. The machine could be cleaned and packed away later. He would apply the make-up and clothing next, but first, he was famished.

‘I wonder what the time is,’ he stood and frowned at the ceiling.

He must remember to ask for a clock. Jason moved to the entrance and opened the door, he looked back at what remained of Jessica, and rubbed his chin.

‘I wonder if there’s any roast beef left.’

He switched off the lights as he stepped through, and pulled the door shut.

Nicholas Mayfield

Nick Mayfield is a student of Macquarie University’s writing program. Nick has worked on the Australian film Horizons Crossing, and published an article on Rugby League via The Punch (now a subsidiary of news.com.au). Nick is currently working towards publishing a series of fictional novels.

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