‘Hi Siana. It’s Abi here from Greenpeace.’
‘Oh hi, I saw some missed calls…’
‘Yes, sorry for those, but we wanted to tell you,’
‘Emily killed herself last night.’
Crumple to the floor and realise. There is no changing that sentence.
I met Carlos Zapata at a Dark Mountain book launch. Tall, late forties, handsome, if you like. Friendly and interested in what I had to say. No reason why he shouldn’t be, but… there’s the doubts. If you don’t know why, lucky you.
Colombian originally, now living in Cornwall making automata. I told him I’d email if I found myself Cornwall-bound. Weeks later I waited at the train station. Nervous. Re-running our conversation and email exchanges. Had I suggested anything other than mutual creative and intellectual interests? Had he? Carlos arrived waving. My hackles lowered. Instincts confirmed: safe human.
He showed me beautifully made carvings and automata in his workshop, faces like people. We walked and talked along the Cornwall coast, under big trees, onto small beaches. Then we drove to an old pub for a pint. By then it was getting late, and I had a train to catch. We got into his car and drove into the dark. Windscreen-wipers squeaked through the rain. I didn’t expect it, and to this day I don’t know how it happened.
We started talking about death.
‘You never ever see dead bodies in England. In all the years I’ve been here, no bodies. Car accidents – the bodies disappear almost instantly. In Colombia if there were accidents or violence the bodies were there. You would see them.’
I spent my young adulthood in New Zealand. Can’t recall seeing anyone dead.
‘And no matter if it was a natural disaster, gun violence or a car crash, one thing was always the same.’
‘What was that?’
‘There is always a guy there selling ice creams.’
I burst out laughing.
‘It’s true. Before the police arrive, before the ambulance arrives, always the guy arrives to sell ice creams to anyone standing and watching.’
‘And… people buy them?’
‘Well yes. I think so.’
Now I considered. By the time I was a year out of high-school (a high-achieving all-girls school with a snobby reputation – shirts tucked in please) three of my classmates were dead. I never saw the bodies. Nobody sold me an ice cream.
One: Hannah. We were sixteen then. I didn’t know her well enough to like her, but I cried like hell at her funeral. A fantail got into the chapel during the service, flitting and dancing above the crowd. Big flowers and photos, brown casket and disbelief. Hundreds of white balloons released outside the maths department. Hannah and another teenage girl were killed by a man speeding his car through a crowd at a party on Edgeware Road. It was all over the news; nearly every teenager in Christchurch got a text inviting them to that party. I don’t know if the ice cream man showed up. I never asked.
Carlos was talking.
‘When I was ten years old I remember my mother and grandmother telling me we were going to pick up my great auntie’s remains. My grandfather got upset and said I was far too young, but they insisted. In Colombia in the ’70s when a family member died they were put into a crypt. But space is limited. So, after five years, you had to go and pick them up.’
‘I remember standing in this line with my mother, my grandmother and my grandfather, and all of these other families were standing in the line as well. Just in front of us two men would take the name, retrieve the body from the crypt, and lay them on the table. There are quite big differences in how each body changes over five years. You can tell quite a lot about someone’s life by how they look when they’re dead, what they ate or drank… We were watching them be brought out one by one, and we started—’
He was stifling laughter.
‘We started comparing the bodies – how intact they were, what colour they had turned…’
Now I was stifling laughter.
‘Must have been good incentive to take care of yourself, knowing everyone’s gonna get a real good look at you five years down the track.’
‘Then the two men brought out my great auntie. They laid her out on the table and…’
Carlos was out of breath. Incredulous amusement.
‘They started pulling her apart. Breaking and pulling her arms and legs off so that they could fit her into a box for us to take away.’
I was verging on hysterics. I couldn’t help it.
‘And you were ten years old?’
‘Yes, I didn’t think too much about it at the time. But looking back, it was a bit…’
He trailed off. Yes, it was a bit.
We came to the natural pause in conversation where we quietly ask ourselves if the stories are true. Will death really come for us too? I found the answer to be no, which was comforting. Rest in pieces, auntie.
That kind of proximity to the dead was unfathomable to me. But not for lack of dead. Two: Marsha. In my class for two years. Always laughing. Great hockey player. Wore a dark green turtle neck at school. I remember dark greens at her funeral. We were seventeen then. Rumours fired that the man who assaulted her was let out of jail early and she couldn’t cope. A bullshit way of saying we expected her to. But, rumours are rumours. And horrors are horrors.
‘The next time I remember being close to a body I was sixteen, still at in school in Colombia. Me and these other students went with a professor to a big pool of… what’s that liquid?’
‘Yes that’s it. We went to this big pool of it, like a swimming pool, and the professor took a long pole with a hook on the end, and he reached out into the pool and hooked one of the dead bodies floating in there. There were a few. He pulled the body to the side and dragged it out of the pool. The medical students had access to the bodies for dissections. I was doing an anatomical drawing class and they said it was OK for us to watch. That… yeah. That was gruesome.’
I could not imagine. Well, actually I could. They were eerie and pale and suspended. Easy to imagine the bodies of strangers, not their ‘peopleness’. Harder to imagine are the bodies of people I knew; and know are dead.
Three: Susie. Pancreatic cancer. We were eighteen then. Pink and white coffin in a big marquee in a green garden. We were asked to dress brightly. Colours and colours. More like a wedding than a funeral. She wanted it that way. Her sister, brother and father choked and smiled their way through speeches and we did the same. I didn’t know Susie well. The biggest insight I had into her world was when she gathered our year group together to tell us her mother was close to dying of cancer. That was four years ago. Little party bags of liquorice allsorts handed out. Candy from a funeral. Pretty sweet. Fucking sad.
‘We bought a dead body once.’
I turned to Carlos.
‘It was the ’70s, if a body wasn’t claimed within five years you could buy it.’
No stifling my laughter now.
‘That’s fucked up. Surely?’
‘We were in secondary school and my friend wanted to make a donation to the school, and he came up with the idea of donating a full human skeleton. So we went to the mortuary and bought a young woman’s body that was never claimed. She was twenty-one. I’ll never forget her name. Pepita. It affected me, I think. That nobody claimed her body.’
‘We boiled it down to get everything off the bones, then gave the school a full human skeleton, for science class.’
‘The kids would have loved it.’
We sat for a minute, looking out towards the rain and tail lights in the dark. I was enjoying myself. Sinister glee.
But then… there was Emily. That phone call. I will never… The hardest. Much closer to me. We met because we believed the world deserved better than what we were doing to it. Amazing activist. Loved chocolate. Never wore shoes. Had never tried coffee, ever. She told me she had promised to try it on her thirtieth birthday, but confessed that she really didn’t want to. Of all the ways to avoid drinking coffee, suicide proved quite effective. Emily died on her own terms a couple of days out from turning thirty. Coffee does suck though. Makes me anxious. Ice cream is better.
‘I laughed at a funeral once.’
Now Carlos turned to me.
‘It was my friend Emily’s funeral. Me and a bunch of the Greenpeace family showed up and were completely distraught. There were heaps of other people there, but the service was quite weird, awkward. She must have been estranged from her family. There could have been many reasons for that, but my mind jumped to one. Anyway. Her cousin, at least I think it was her cousin… this big muscley family member stood up and started making this very loud and grand speech, about life, death and family. But as he went on it became more and more obvious that he didn’t really know for sure who Emily was. At one point he had to ask whose daughter she was. It was completely bizarre, but it got better. Everyone drove to the graveyard – this very neat, clipped, fancy graveyard that really didn’t suit Emily at all – and we followed her coffin as it was carried onto the grounds. Big muscley goes to the front and starts performing a traditional Maori welcome for the coffin, which involves loud calls and sharp movements. Then out of nowhere these chickens appear. There’s a cockerel with them, and the cockerel puffs out his chest and struts alongside, replying to big muscley – bock bock bock, BOCK, bock-bock, BOCK! So the two of them are both going at it, one after the other, and I’ve got my hand over my mouth struggling not to lose the plot. Then Emily’s coffin gets lowered into the ground and the Greenpeace crew stand around till everyone moves off, to cry and sing songs. But one couple’s baby keeps crawling determinedly towards the grave, her dad keeps grabbing her back but she keeps getting her little hands over the edge and peering in. And I am just dying with laughter inside thinking wow, slow down kiddo, good things come to those who wait.’
He meant it. I was pleased. We arrived at the train station. Both of us elated, unexpectedly. Alive, even. Who’d have thought? I turned to him.
‘Carlos, I’m glad I came. I had a really good time.’
‘So did I. Take care, Siana.’
Back on a beach in New Zealand I stared out to sea, eating an ice cream. A vanilla cone, dunked in chocolate. With a flake. And nuts. The guy in the Mr Whippy van sold it to me. I told myself it was field research for my article. But really I was sad and wanted to eat a big ice cream. Aha. So that’s why. Dead bodies sell ice creams. Genius, Colombia.
I recalled a warning that joking can freeze stories at their trauma point. The humanity of sadness is sidestepped in favour of comic relief. I am guilty of that in almost every aspect of my life. But stories, like ice creams, don’t always stay frozen. Not in this climate anyway. They thaw and dribble down your fingers and arms like tears – so let them. Grow up in a paranoid Colombia, with Marxist-Leninist groups fighting the government from the countryside while the marijuana and cocaine wars heat up; grow up in Aotearoa with too many cows and a mental health crisis. Do we agree?
That death is strange.
So tuck away the scenes that keep your heart soft. And nothing fills me with more genuine empathy than the image of a small child dropping their ice cream, lip quivering, eyes widening as they burst into tears. Except perhaps the mass casualty victims lying in the background.
I remain dead serious; the living is funny.
‘Life and Death’ (2013)
Wood and Acrylic
by Carlos Zapata
Carlos Zapata was born in Colombia in 1963. He currently lives near Falmouth, Cornwall. He is self-taught, and his work belongs to and takes inspiration from folk and tribal arts from all over the world. Many of his works have evolved from personal experience of living in a foreign country, and in his home country, where a civil war rages on relatively unnoticed by the outside world. His work is in private collections and museums around the world. carloszapataart.com