by Verity Holloway
Imelda never asked to be cremated, but it was too late to say anything now.
Her brother, Russell, understood the delicacy of the situation. “A coffin of that size is a big deal. I mean, if I can be honest, Kate, they don’t make ’em that wide. That’s bespoke. And think of the pallbearers. We can give her a plaque in the garden, maybe a little pond. She’d like that. Being outside again.”
Kate was the closest thing to a nurse Imelda would allow in their bungalow on the Norfolk coast. Solemn Kate, better acquainted than Imelda would like with E45 and webcams and the torpid flow of strangers: American, Dutch, Senegalese. Faceless freaks, Kate called them. None of this was her fault. On the morning of the funeral, Kate took her mother’s gold cross and hung it by its chain over the mirror in the hallway. It would have slipped off her shoulders had she put it on.
When her cremation began, Imelda couldn’t see much of the action. For one thing, the corrugated cardboard box they’d put her in squashed the spill of her upper arms into the hanging folds of her separated bosoms like dimpled mounds of cheese, but she was used to such inconveniences. What confused her was the sudden temptation to move. Not physically, obviously, although the first flush of flame had a lively effect on the tendons deep inside the hillocks of her knees. No, Imelda was aware of a change in the rules. There was a … I beg your pardon? A treat was coming.
Treats were harmful things. People were always telling Imelda that. They thought she didn’t listen. But Imelda was good at listening. Her unique situation meant she saw little of the outside world beyond the old fridge rusting in the garden she vaguely remembered standing in, once. As she lay in bed, feeling the fluctuating temperatures of the passing seasons, Imelda’s other senses had learned to compensate. Her hearing swelled to encompass seagulls and dog walkers, Tesco delivery vans and dustmen, and the clattering of the far-off spinnakers as they turned to catch the headwinds. In the end, Imelda thought she could hear the drone of the listless clouds in the cold Norfolk sky, but that may have been the kitchen light.
Yes, she had stood in the garden with Daniel, yonks ago. Her wedding band still fit her finger then. “I want fireworks at my funeral,” Daniel told her, looking out over the sea. “Bright loud bangs.”
Russell conceded only to an indoor sparkler on a black forest gateau. “There’s nothing to celebrate, ’Mel. He’s gone.”
The years dragged. The rest of the community took their belongings and drove off on account of the sea’s slow consumption of the cliffs. One little house over the edge, then the next. The tongues of the sea, lapping, insatiable.
Now, in the crematorium, Imelda used what was left of her ears. The nice young man whose job it was to press the button made a high-pitched sound, and it intrigued her. Surely you’d need a stronger set of nerves for a job like —
“Shit,” he said. “Shit.”
Imelda sighed into the shelf of her double chin. In its fiery cocoon, her body swelled slightly. It was only a small sin, swearing, but one more for her to deal with. What would Father Green have said?
“God helps those who…” et cetera. But God had not helped Imelda, despite creating and allegedly loving all four-hundred-and-forty pounds of her. They had workmen for that, in the end. Father Green had kept up his weekly visits as they took down the bedroom wall from the outside and pinned up a blue tarpaulin for modesty. He was a sensitive man. All those telephoto lenses. The laughing boys on bikes. Why don’t you do something? He was always thinking, though he knew she could hear. There are exercises for the bedridden. Stop these horrid displays. Consider a gastric band. Please, Imelda.
And underneath, in the chamber of his mind, the animals. Whale. Hippo. Sow.
She cast her mind back to the sight of him perching on the plastic garden chair propping open the bedroom door. Nowhere else to put it — the room was all bed, a tremendous reinforced thing that, like her, was neither attractive nor comfortable. She remembered him wondering where her skeleton was, floating inside that reservoir of fat. Imelda supposed it was only natural. They proceeded with their business.
“Our first case today is one of theft. Theft of…” He paused sensitively. “Food.”
Imelda needed a name.
“Ah, no—that isn’t how it works, Imelda. The confession is an anonymous forum. A conversation between God and the penitent. I’m just the operator.”
Imelda needed a name. That was how it worked.
Father Green never did get over the shame of breaking a confidence. “Dominic Graham, twenty-eight. Works on the deli counter at Sainsbury’s. He, ah…sometimes takes a slice of ham and scoffs it on his break.”
Imelda asked for the variety of ham.
“I didn’t think to ask.”
It was the kind with peppered edges. Imelda could easily process this sin. She tongued each pink, peppery lump of it, Dominic’s salty guilt clinging to it in crystals that smashed like diamonds between her teeth. All washed down with the certainty of forgiveness; the creamiest, frothiest milk of The Holy Mother. A slow nod to Father Green: it was taken care of. He let out a long sigh, deflating with relief.
Father Green had been coming to the bungalow every Thursday since Imelda’s talent had become apparent, around the time she became too large to leave the bed. Imelda was glad of the company, walled up in her bedroom like an anchoress. Russell left brochures for Kate — dreary little care homes down Yarmouth way. But how does one go about evicting a woman large enough to roll over and squash Norfolk County Council? As the roads into the village became clogged with weeds and the streetlights winked out, Imelda knew, like dear old Daniel, that she would never leave alive.
Kate cried when they made the decision to stay. She hated the waves crashing below the garden, little bites getting bigger each night. Just go, Imelda would say. I love you.
“Listen to you. Always got to be the martyr.”
Imelda had listened during her funeral. Russell, puffed up with embarrassment like a nasty spot, gave a speech. He’d brought a carload of the mini Scotch eggs she liked, for afterwards. Years ago, he warned her people would come to gawp. Now he felt responsible.
“No one with a camera gets a Scotch egg. No, none of you. Alright?”
People will cross continents if you give them something worth staring at.
Still, before the end, Father Green cycled out to the cliffs every Thursday. At the conclusion of each session, Kate would shuffle in with her laptop, her webcam and a big bag of cheesy Wotsits.
“Right, your Holiness, I’m turfing you out. It’s five o’clock on the East Coast now, Mum. Your creeps are waiting.”
Gorge-ous Greta, at Queen of Greed dot com. Imelda disliked the name Gretel, and had said so in the beginning. She said so now, in front of Father Green.
“That’s all part of it, Mum. You’re tapping into childhood fantasies. It’s the id. Manipulate the id and you’ve got them.”
Kate, the cleverest girl Imelda knew. The money helped her through community college where incapacity benefit never could. And so, every second night, Imelda crammed fist after fist of orange Wotsits into her mouth for the titillation of two-dozen men whose radiating self-loathing was like sand down the long chute of her throat.
The boys on bikes said it was Imelda who was making the cliffs collapse. Specifically her fucking massive freakshow arse. Their sins were hard to swallow, slimy-thorny, that rotten vice of pleasure derived from the suffering of others. It lingered after Wotsits, Mr Kipling Cherry Bakewells, even the giant Christmas Toblerones that usually solved everything.
Jesus had cheekbones sharp as the breakers on a February morning. Her fingers orange with cheesy dye as she tipped the upturned bag into her mouth, Imelda wondered how the Lord would hide his revulsion when the time came.
An alarm wailed.
The nice young man cursed and stumbled. Imelda strained to make it out, but the roar of the flames became louder, as powerful as she imagined aeroplanes to be, ready to take all those lucky holidaymakers somewhere wonderful and warm.
He yelled. Imelda would suggest he have a nice sugary cup of tea and some custard creams; that takes the edge off for her. But his colleagues had come running at the sound of the alarm, and they were swearing too. Imelda realised her too-small cardboard enclosure had gone. Aah. Better.
As Father Green left the bungalow that last time to watch the evening tides change along the cliffs, he swept a look over the immense mammalian mass of her, sprinkled with the leavings of those damned orange Wotsits.
“It’s never too late, Imelda. Remember what Christ said to the fallen woman.”
Go, and sin no more. Heavy, guts aching with the burden he had left her, how could she? She had to eat. She was still a living creature, no matter what they said.
Well, was. But she could still agitate people in death. The nice man had never seen anything like this. They had safety measures in place for this eventuality, surely, but — “What do you mean, turn it off? I’ve tried. It’s in the vents. Shit. It’s the smoke, it — Shit.”
Sins, sins, sins. Imelda, supine, mouth wide to receive. Yet something was different. A strange satiety was seeping into her innermost cavities where muscle cleaved sluggishly to bone. It was not unpleasant, sliding caramel-hot down into the empty parts of her, the long labyrinth of tubing from end to end that only knew the ache of too much or too little. Beyond her chamber, the nice man and his friends had left her. The aftertaste of their small sins were confectionary to Imelda, guiltless treats to nibble and discard.
No longer hers to take.
Whoomph. A rushing sound like a Norfolk downpour on the old fridge outside her window. Daniel said he’d get around to moving it one day. The stroke had put pay to that; then the merciless shingles up his spine that finally did for him. If Imelda were to allow herself one final self-indulgence in these last moments of heat and light and loneliness, it would be regret; regret for Daniel who never got his fireworks.
A bright loud bang.
She could move.
Firemen! Just like on the telly. Dozens of them, streaming in with fine rounded biceps and meaty thighs in heatproof overalls. Out Imelda burst from her chamber to greet them. Up in the air vents, billowing out joyously into the room, rushing down — Hello! — as they waded through the clinging miasma. She embraced them, coated them, slinking around the crook of knees and the sweet spot between neck and shoulder. From her various vantage points, Imelda could taste them all, the individual cologne of them, this morning’s soap, core temperatures lovingly preserved at thirty-six degrees. Salt on their skin; lip-smacking, bad-for-you salt. Some of them carried sins, big sins, sins larger than her body, even. But she was airborne now; fire, smoke, and hot black grease. Their sins were no longer hers to swallow.
They’d be needing a new roof. Imelda tried to recall the name of the man who’d done the patio for Daniel donkey’s years ago, but the good Norfolk wind caught her and flew with her, up, away from the smoking crematorium. Imelda rode the thermals, out over flat tilled earth, barreling down over caravan parks and amusement arcades, dispersing fine white ash over the little village pubs where she shared pork scratchings with Daniel, a lifetime and four hundred pounds ago. The cliffs were a crack between white sky and black field, and she headed for the edge with glee.
Daniel never got his fireworks. She hoped this would do.
440-pound corpse sets fire to crematorium.
Investigators believe that the mid-November blaze in Norfolk began when large amounts of burning fat from a four-hundred-and-forty-pound woman’s body blocked an air filter, which in turn caused the filter system to overheat, Anglia News reports.
“Bodies of this size are a modern phenomenon,” Chief firefighter Martin Briggs told the media. “New facilities must be created to process them.”
Father Green averted his eyes from the demolition’s final throes. A small television crew had turned up to watch the JCB push the last of Imelda’s bungalow into the swiftly encroaching sea. A preventative measure, they called it, though the sightseeing children had long since found other distractions inland.
In days gone by, women like Imelda were honoured grandmothers, traveling midwives, cunning folk of dreadful, wondrous influence. Father Green had his wooden box with the grill through which the faceless congregation confessed, but he knew all those voices, and they all knew him, and it was so terribly weighty, so hard to digest. He tucked his chin into his scarf and watched a Wagon Wheel wrapper blow over the cliff.
“Thank you, Imelda. I shall come again next Thursday.”
Along the coast, Imelda took a gasp of briny air. The sea has no sins.
About Verity Holloway
Verity Holloway holds an MA in Literature from Cambridge’s Anglia Ruskin University. Her speculative fiction and poetry is inspired by all things medical, historical, and religious, with a magical realist bent. In 2012, she published her first chapbook of poems, Contraindications. Her unpublished novel, ‘Pseudotooth’, won the Writers’ Centre Norwich Escalator Award as well as an Arts Council England grant, and was recently longlisted for the Tibor Jones Pageturner Prize. Verity writes art history
features for the Pre-Raphaelite Society Review, and blogs at verityholloway.com.