Inside the coffin.

Julia Cameron talks about ‘morning pages’, a place where writers can go to unload their thoughts, unclutter their minds, free their imaginations before they settle into the serious business of writing. Whether they’re working from memory or imagination – and people like to make the distinction – it’s important to find a place for these excesses of the mind. 

By Saturday morning, mine is full to overbrimming. 

During the week, I read about a writer friend’s shock when he came across these words from the great Ralph Waldo Emerson: I visited Ellen’s tomb and opened the coffin. Too raw and private to be included in Emerson’s writings, my friend believed. Why had an editor not omitted them in 1832? 

The thing that pings for me: what did Emerson see? How long had Ellen been dead? Bones hair and teeth or a putrefying corpse. It must have been easy to lift the lid off coffins in the 1800s, not so these days. 

There were grave robbers in Emerson’s day,too. I read about them when I visited a graveyard in Edinburgh which JK Rowling also visited when working on her Harry Potter books. That graveyard and the one in Shillington where several of my husband’s ancestors are buried remain in my mind as places of both memory and imagination. Places that haunt. 

Lift the lid off the coffin and what do you see?

What will it be like when someone handles my body and settles it into a coffin? A sobering thought, knowing that I, the I of my mind is no longer inside that body. My body the suitcase that holds my mind, a convenient vehicle in which to transport my thoughts and feelings even as I understand my body is also the source of those feelings.

That’s what it was like when I was 22 years old and on the edge of ending a relationship with my then long-term boyfriend, Paul, with whom I had shared a home for the past two years, with whom I had shared my body since I was nineteen. He took away my virginity as people describe it.

Such a quaint expression. As if your virginity is a special something you hold onto with pride and pleasure, at least for a time, but beyond a certain time if you haven’t rid yourself of your virginity, then you begin to worry about your inadequacy as a person. This is particularly so for females but males too, I imagine, worry if their virginity hangs around for too long. 

His name was Shaun, a blond, blue eyed Canadian who came into the social work department at Prince Henry’s hospital where I worked, with all the confidence of a senior clinician. He knew his stuff. He knew how to greet people at their bedsides when summoned by the doctor. He knew how to take a jam-packed history of that person and he knew how to ask the rest of us locals what services he might locate to help the person stuck in the bed. 

Shaun had a partner, he told us, and the two had travelled together to Australia with the intention of settling here. He liked us. A group of women social workers ranging in age from the youngest me, to our senior, who was in her mid-forties. She did not join us for lunch at the Olive Tree round the corner that day. Too much business to manage.

The others left the lunch as soon as it was over, but Shaun and I lingered over our coffees and then, as if in the movies, he suggested we rent a room in a hotel nearby and spend the afternoon together.

I remember the white sheets on the hotel bed, his pink body freckled and studded with curly orange hairs. He was not a great lover, but then again, nor was I. I performed as I knew I must perform, as a woman of confidence, a femme fatale, a woman who had a partner back home as Shaun had his partner, but we were on the road to more important things like staking our claim in a world of sophistication and drama.

‘Possessions hold you down,’ Shaun told me as he pinned my arms behind my head with one hand and tortured me with his touch. From my inner eye we looked as good as any couple, in any movie. From the place where my mind sat inside my body, but I was no more there than Shaun turned out to be.

I was late back to work and in trouble with my boss. I made some implausible excuse like an emergency call from my sick sister, but everyone knew that Shaun and I had lingered longer after lunch. Everyone was suspicious. 

This soon became the trigger for me to find another job, which in the halcyon days of the 1970s when social work jobs were aplenty, I found easy. Easy enough to leave the hospital to work elsewhere, an elsewhere that led me to a future I can now look back on with amazement, though I could not see it then.

When you’re 22 years old, you can’t see the pattern that unfurls ahead of you and the years behind you of childhood and adolescence are still too close to make any sense, only you’re glad to be past them.

Ten years later, by which time I was no longer the muddled young woman of my early social workdays, Interpol contacted me. There was a Canadian man, they said, who had worked at Prince Henry’s during my time there and was an imposter wanted for embezzlement. 

Like Emerson looking into Ellen’s coffin, what I see when I lift the lid on this story, bones, hair and teeth, a carcass and no mind left behind. Only the fading memory of a young and foolish woman who thought she could share in the excitement of being in the movies. 

One thought on “Inside the coffin.”

  1. When is someone truly dead? An empiricist would demand to see the body and in all likelihood—and here I’m reminded of the opening to an old spy film—jab a pin in it just to make absolutely certain. (I was convinced that happened at the start of ‘Funeral in Berlin’ where several viewers of a corpse feel the need to make sure for themselves but it seems I was wrong and nothing I type into Google is helping.) It transpires that Emerson not only exhumed his wife’s remains but, later on, also his kid who died of scarlet fever fifteen years earlier. Strange. I chose not to view my dad’s body after his death and, unsurprisingly, the same was true of my siblings. My brother, however, did go and see Mum but said afterwards he regretted the decision. I forget if my sister went too but I don’t think so.

    I knew nothing about Emerson before reading your post. Now I know a little which I will forget quickly enough, something I’ve become resigned to. The one quote of his that I found myself drawn to and, who knows, might even work its way into a poem is: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them. Life is a series of surprises.” Is death unsettling or settling? I suppose it depends on who’s died and how. The death of my parents put to rest so many things. Not everything was resolved but not everything has a neat solution; you take things as far as they need to/can go and make do from there on. I don’t think people do wish to settle; settling is where we give up striving.

    At twenty-two I was very much the striver. Much to do. Much to prove. I was also living, and had been for a couple of years, with the woman to whom I gave up my virginity. So you and I have that in common. I wasn’t much of a dreamer though and never have been. I had plans, ambitions even, but at twenty-two things are still in flux, something I hadn’t accounted for. I also didn’t realise how much I’d settled. The life I had wasn’t the worst imaginable but neither was it ideal. It was the best I thought I could do with what life had dealt me and I aimed to make the most of it. Ah, well. It didn’t take ten years for me to realise my wife wasn’t the woman I expected her to be though. Not the first time I learned that lesson nor would it be the last.

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