“Why are you laughing?” asked Laura.
“It’s funny,” said Richard, draping his trousers over the chair.
“The email said Colin the handy man found it just sitting there, between the cars. An urn just left there.”
Propped up in bed, she imagined it like a bronze trophy cup on the tarmac.
“Maybe he just really liked the car park,” said Richard, slipping beneath the covers and turning onto his side.
Before they were going out, she’d watched Richard at college, her heart bursting with sadness for this boy who had lost his parents. She thought about how terrible it must have been for him.
“It was a person’s ashes,” she said to Richard’s broad back as he turned out the light. “You can’t just forget them.”
“Someone did,” he murmured.
Next day, Laura was uncomfortable. Her desk seemed too small, her chair the wrong height. Looking through the blinds, down onto the car park, she thought about the urn.
Hazel put a coffee mug down on her desk.
“Who do you think left those ashes?” Laura asked.
Hazel thought for a moment, pulling at a thread on her cuff. “It could have been someone who got drunk at the wake. You should ask Tony what happened.”
Laura nodded, turning back to her screen. She’d read the email from Tony the centre manager thirty times since it arrived. The urn was inscribed ‘RIP George Green’. She wished she had some information to email him.
“Do you think it’s funny?” asked Laura.
“It’s peculiar,” said Hazel. “Not the kind of thing that happens every day.”
“Richard thought it was ha ha funny. I told him last night and he laughed.”
“Maybe he thought it was a prank. Like on the telly.”
“It could be.”
“It is a bit funny,” said Hazel as if adjudicating. “When you think about it.”
Laura thought about it. Before she could stop herself, she said: “I don’t think death is funny.”
Hazel sat down.
Seeing Colin in the corridor, Laura stopped him and asked what it was like finding the urn. He looked at her, narrowing his eyes and chewing on the end of a pen, cigarette behind his ear.
“I thought it was a cookie jar or an oil container or something. It was made of plastic, like it would have sweets in it. A screw top. I didn’t even read the sign.”
“What did you think when you realised?”
“I thought ‘shit’.”
Outside on a fag break, Laura looked at the corner of the car park where Colin found the ashes. There was a few dog ends. In the shadow of a grey tree a small fringe of grass poked up between the low wall and the tarmac. Sandwiched between two roads, surrounded by traffic, it didn’t look special. Squatting down between the cars, she looked closer. In the cooling air, aphids and ladybirds moved across the tarmac, a few sparkles from a broken window or windscreen glittered.
In the café opposite the offices, Hazel was quiet.
“What’s wrong?” asked Laura, putting salt onto her salad.
“I don’t think people dying is funny,” said Hazel.
“I didn’t say that you did.”
“You did. You said that you don’t think death is funny.”
Laura looked at Hazel, a woman twice her age. Almost her mother’s age. “Hazel, I didn’t mean anything. I just wish people would take that urn seriously.”
Hazel was quiet for longer, moving her teaspoon around inside of her mug.
“My mother died last year,” said Hazel.
“You never said anything,” said Laura.
“I didn’t really know her. I was adopted. I found her a few years ago. She was in a home. I went to see her a few times, but there wasn’t anything there. One day I got a phone call from one of her other children saying she’d died. I cried for days.”
Walking back to the office, both smoked their cigarettes in silence.
Laura couldn’t concentrate. Through the window she watched people walking by the car park.
Two kids moved past in a way that was both awkward and threatening. An elderly woman, bent at the waist, shuffled towards the traffic lights. A couple she thought might have been Turkish or Cypriot argued their way down toward the bus stop.
None of them looked like they had left the ashes in the car park.
She tried to imagine a person placing the urn down onto the tarmac as the sun came up; the roads empty, the traffic lights changing for no one, but she couldn’t see anyone, just the hands and the urn framed like on a television screen.
“Do you still have the urn?” Laura asked Colin as they passed in the corridor.
“Oh god no,” said Colin, looking her up and down. “Tony reported it to the police.”
“What did they say?”
“They didn’t say much. Two coppers turned up in a cop car, took a statement, looked at where the ashes were, then got back in their car and drove off.”
Laura thought about Colin lying in bed with his wife or girlfriend telling her all about the urn and the police. His wife would be smaller and thinner than her, depilated and moisturised. She imagined them talking about it in whispers.
She knew that he had looked inside but that she couldn’t ask.
Turning out the lights, Laura was the last one to leave the office.
The afternoon had passed slowly. She couldn’t help thinking about the urn.
She thought of the ceremony. In a near empty crematorium with thick carpets and comfortable pews, the coffin would make a slow and majestic passage through the curtain, handkerchiefs rising to tearful eyes. It was a fitting end to a life.
Everything would be neatness; a life sewn shut and finished like a silk cushion. The mourners would see the person for all that they had been and be thankful. Outside, there would be autumn leaves.
When she tried to picture the family and the person that the ashes once were, she could only see a rough sketch; grandmother with hair like grey cloud, grandfather with a strong jaw and sagging-pocket cardigan, father in a pullover with car keys in his hand, mother all breasts and apron, children brightly coloured and sandy haired. They would be distraught to have lost the ashes of one of them, deprived of a final ritual.
Colin was in the corridor when she shut and locked the office door.
“Still thinking about that urn?” he asked, taking the cigarette from behind his ear, placing it between his lips for a second, then putting back in its place.
“I am a bit,” she said.
“The police’ll have taken copies of the CCTV tapes by tomorrow. If you want to we could go through them together and see if we can see anything.”
“That would be nice,” she said, feeling as if she was peeking into a grown-up’s party.
“Come and see me after work tomorrow,” said Colin, putting the cigarette into his mouth again.
“I will,” said Laura, aware that he was watching her as she walked all the way to the end of the corridor.
At the gym, puffing on the running machine, Laura watched her sweating reflection. Her heart beat hard, her scalp prickling. Aware of the fitter, younger people around her, she fought the urge to scratch at the varicose vein in her calf.
The flat was empty when she got home.
Pouring herself a glass of wine, she phoned her parents. Her Dad sounded quiet, as if speaking from a different room. He snuffled like an old animal when she asked how he was.
“Your mum’s got me on a tight leash. If it’s something I like, I’m not to have it.”
“She’s just worried about your health.”
The snuffling grew louder. “Bloody hardly worth it. That’s all anyone ever does these days, bloody worries.”
She told him about the urn, flicking through channels on television.
“It’s a mystery for a younger man than me,” he said. “I’ll be happy if I never see another bloody urn, or another fucking funeral.”
Her mother came to the phone.
“What have you been saying to make your father swear?”
“Probably students. There’s a garden up the street with a gravestone in the front garden. Instead of a persons name it’s got a recipe for steak pie, all engraved properly. A good recipe as well. When I asked one of them about it he said it was an intervention.”
“Don’t you think it’s sad?”
“When you get to my age you don’t have time to be sad about people you don’t know.”
“It is sad though, isn’t it?”
“Darling, sometimes it’s more sad to remember someone than forget them.”
“Don’t you think that we’re too used to people dying for anyone to care these days?”
“Laura, hardly anyone dies these days.”
After she put the phone down, Laura realised how angry she was.
Watching television, Laura thought about what she would do when people died. She imagined the neighbours sat around her as she cried for Richard. She saw herself smashing a mug in anguish against the wall, ignoring the shocked faces as she walked out of the door to sink sobbing, shoulders shaking, gulping down air, onto the pavement outside. She saw herself dignified, holding her mother up as her father’s coffin rolled though the crematorium curtain. Shaking hands with relatives and friends, wind would whip her hair. Looking deeply into her mother’s eyes, holding a hand that would feel like warm tissue paper, she would whisper ‘I love you’, only letting her sobs come once the tiny chest stopped rising and falling. Later, taking the little boy and little girl she would have onto her knee, she would explain, voice warm and heavy, that their grandmother had gotten so tired that she had gone to sleep forever.
When he came home, Richard smelled of beer and cigarettes.
“Do you think death’s funny?” Laura asked him as he struggled to pull off his shoes and trousers.
“You still thinking about Ernie?” he said, lying on the bedclothes across her legs, shirt on, trousers off.
Laura wished that she were fully clothed, not dressed for bed. “You do think death’s funny, don’t you?”
“I think you’re funny,” said Richard, putting his hand under the covers, squeezing her bare thigh. Kissing her on the neck, he squeezed one of her breasts.
“Imagine what it would be like for someone to lose your ashes,” she said.
Squeezing her other breast, breathing sour hops, he whispered that dead people don’t care about anything.
“No one respects death anymore,” she said.
Stopping, pulling away, Richard said: “Are you going to kiss me?”
“I don’t feel like it Richard, I’m upset.”
“What are you upset about?” he asked breathing out, sitting on the edge of the bed, erection visible in his boxer shorts.
“That urn. About how no one cares about death. People think it’s funny but it’s not. You think death’s funny, you can never treat it seriously.” Richard was silent. “Before I even met you I knew that you’d lost people, but you’ve never come to terms with it. You never even talk about it.”
In his shirt, socks and boxers, Richard was silent for minutes before speaking, quiet at first, “Do you want me to tell you some things about death? People die. You either die or you carry on.”
Standing, he began to walk around the bedroom. Laura pulled the covers up around her, covering her exposed skin.
“I held my mother’s hand when her bowels let go and she shit herself. Do you know what her last words to me were? They were ‘don’t let me die’. Do you know what my dad’s last words were? He came out of the coma for a few minutes. He beckoned me close, nodded over at the nurse and whispered ‘they’re all fucking slags’. That was it. I organised the funerals. I booked the caterers, sent out the invitations, cleared the house. I went out and got a job, because there wasn’t any money. Then when I couldn’t do a job anymore, I went to college. And do you know what I did for money then? I sucked off men in toilets for twenty quid a go.”
Pulling his trousers back on, he lit a cigarette even though he never smoked in the house. “It hurt. It all hurt. And you know what? It taught me absolutely fucking nothing.”
Walking toward the door, faced puffed with anger; Richard jabbed at the air with his cigarette. “You don’t know anything about death.”
Laura lay in the bed; eyes wide open for hours, listening to Richard bang around the flat. He was asleep on the sofa when she left in the morning.
The day passed quickly. Laura didn’t go to lunch with Hazel and ignored her phone. Outside, in the grey autumn light, the car park was as it always had been.
As she locked the office in the darkness, Colin looked on, leaning against the corridor wall.
“Come to the office,” he said. “No one will know.”
“It’s terrible,” she said, sitting down in the cramped office.
“I know,” said Colin, putting the video into the player and pressing play. “I think this is the bit the police are interested in.”
Even as she watched the man get out of the car and place the urn upon the tarmac, she knew it was inevitable that she and Colin would sleep together.
“It’s such a tragedy,” said Colin, his hand on her knee.