The irritating beeping of his mobile struck him by surprise in his winter blues. ’Are you home in an hour? Can I drop by?’ The message was from his cousin who in the everyday world was called Evelyn, but he’d called her the grey witch long before she started to claim to be one. However, she never showed up this time of the year, merely a greeting card would signal her existence a couple of days after Boxing Day. Simon wondered for a fleeting moment what she could be up to with such an urgency, but then assured himself that soon enough he would know, so he sank back into his usual state of mind: boredom.
Life was somewhat brighter in warmer seasons, at least then he had some gardening to do, quite a lot in fact. Simon lived by himself in a massive two-storey house he’d redecorated and furnished with all amenities recently, so at least had something, if not someone to look after and keep him busy. He had divorced a few years ago and for a while he didn’t miss his chatty ex and quickly set about vehemently destroying all the mementos of his passionless marriage. Soon however the solitary lifestyle started to take its toll on him and Simon resorted to the common technique of numbing self-destructive thoughts by a vast array of means. He often talked to the evergreens in the landing, to the flowers and the vines.
But now it was Wintertime and Christmas was fast approaching. The void of his retired life grew dreary and lay before him, with nothing to look forward to except a few well-formulated greeting cards written by his ever-enthusiastic English teacher, who genuinely cared for her students, and always had some life-affirming quotes at hand as a ray of hope in the midst of the bleakest month. Simon had mixed feelings about seasonal expressions of love, he wanted to be loved and accepted each day of the year, with no reservations and expectations of changing his ingrained habits and outlook.
’I’ve been invited to a winter solstice festival to the South, Uncle.
’Why don’t you go then?’
’Oh…I’ve asked around and no-one’s able to cover for me at the museum. I was just wondering if…if you could help me out for a few days there. I’m desperate to go.’
Simon’s face was expressionless but his left eye flickered and his earlobe twitched. His cousin didn’t recognise these signs of irritability so after a few awkward silent seconds she continued encouragingly:
’I know you’re not interested in this kind of stuff, but…’
’It’s an absurd idea.’
’But…you haven’t even been there yet, it’s not only about magic, there’re ancient instruments, objects, and…’
’Evie, I can’t help you this time.’ He smiled as he uttered the familiar name. Evelyn noted the term of endearment and instantly took advantage of his momentary state of weakness:
’I wish I had someone else to ask, but you know I’ve just opened the museum…’
And so she continued pleading and cajoling until Simon gave in. And the winter solstice found him at the reception desk of the Witchcraft Museum that was located in the basement of an old block of flats in the city.
Simon found that first of all he had to learn about the tangible, and – what’s more – interesting contents of the two small rooms which were dedicated to artefacts from indigenous cultures around the World. Simon examined the codexes and totem sculptures with an unexpected curiosity. Especially the Aztek gods who appeared in the form of weird and wonderful animals intrigued him and the astute ingenius numerical system blew his mind.
There were precious few visitors during the afternoon as it was the last working day before Christmas. When the first evening guests arrived (the museum stayed open till late, as Vampires are supposedly active at night), Simon was already armed with the basic knowledge to show them around properly, though with little confidence just yet. Getting home just after midnight he fell into bed with a nearly unknown feeling of fatigue resulting from meaningful activity. ’It could have been worse after all’ –he sighed as he sank into the realm of the night.
The second day dawned: the most festive evening of the year was on the doorstep. Snow had arrived during the night and Simon saw from his bedroom window huge flakes, tossed around by a playful whirling wind. The path leading up to the house was blocked by a towering white wall. The Green of the giant silver pines at the gate was hardly visible under the multitude of icy layers.
Having seen hardly any cars or buses on the way it was no surprise that no-one rang the doorbell for two hours For Simon this day promised to be devoted to introspection and to thinking about Birth and Death in the unique environment. Initially he tried not to acknowledge the necessity to reflect but his attempts to distract himself by reading or cleaning up proved futile. Unable to stay put, he started to wander the rooms, oddly compelled to pay attention to exhibits he had not scrutinised before.
The first thing his eyes fell upon was a sizeable wooden object peacefully lying in the corner of the front room. A direct encounter with the finality of existence, the coffin was displayed at the disposal of courageous visitors to try. So far virtually none were keen on the idea and Simon didn’t feel inclined either. As he approached it, a chill swept through his spine and he heard a gale howling through the iron grills protecting the single glazed tiny windows.Simon hated being alone in bad weather enclosed indoors, and very soon he began to hope a visitor would arrive, anyone, to alleviate the desperate loneliness and fear that was slowly but relentlessly stealing upon him. A single candle illuminated the gloomy space, the sky outside was grey as if a shroud had descended on the world and covered the sun, and all hope of nature’s revival forever.
Simon finally had to surrender to the unavoidable questions his mind and the external circumstances laid bare. An acute one to start with was if anyone would genuinely miss him once his life came to an end. Faces emerged from the past in quick succession: lovers, family members, ex-colleagues: mostly shallow relationships, as he had always been terrified of losing control over situations and people, so he made few true friends only. ’Life has passed me by’ – the nagging reality gradually perched on his shoulders while tears of regret and helplessness trickled down his cheeks.
The unexpected ringing of the doorbell brought him back to the present. Pulling himself together he went to open the door, noticing briefly that the snow had stopped. A group of youngsters were standing outside.The clouds had lifted, it looked as if the arrival of the happy bunch heralded the end of the gloomy darkness.
’Are you open today?’ – a middle-aged man who looked like a teacher asked.
’Yes, I was just in the back room and didn’t hear you. We’re open till eleven, you’ve got plenty of time.’
Increasingly alert and forgetting about his pensive state, Simon led the visitors down to the basement. The museum could be found here, appropriate to its theme.
’Is there a student discount?’
’I think so. Hang on, I’lldouble-check. You see, I’ve only worked here for a few days…’ Glancing at the sheet of paper that lay on the counter he quickly calculated the reduced price, printed and distributed the tickets and was about to start the tour when the teacher interrupted.
’Hang on a sec. Another friend wants to join us, he’s running a bit late though. Could you leave the door upstairs unlocked just in case he shows up while we’re looking around?’
’No problem’, Simon said, as he ushered the group into the first room through the narrow oak door above which a stuffed raven hung.
’May I give you some background information about the exhibition?’
’Yes, please. All of us are interested, aren’t we?’ – the teacher peered back at the students milling around. ’Listen up, guys! And make sure you don’t touch anything!’
’Well…this room introduces shamanism and a belief in afterlife. And it’s about death, of course. Hence the coffin in the middle. You can try and lie in it if you like.’
His suggestion must have caught the imagination of the children who drew nearer.
’Without the lid, I hope?’ – asked an anxious-looking pock marked boy.
’That’s no fun.’ – Simon couldn’t help smiling. ’But if you’re brave enough to try it, I promise to let you out after a minute or two.’
’Spooky!’ – cried out a red-haired teenage girl. ’Come on, boys first!’
Everyone seemed reluctant irrespective of gender or age, even the teacher stepped back behind his pupils. After a short silence one of the girls made the hesitant suggestion: ’Maybe…you should show us then.’
Simon was taken aback and stared at her. Her startlingly blue eyes suggested innocence as well as a degree of playfulness, so he responded with a somewhat softened voice.
’What????? Do you want me to…?’
’You must have tried it before if you work here. We’ll try after you’ – the girl fluttered her eyelashes. Endearing persuasion was apparently one of her skills.
’Yes, please, pleeeeeease!’ – echoed most of the kids.
Simon, the macho man was trapped. He hastily glanced around to meet the eyes of the teacher who was looking at him apologetically, his mouth trying to produce a faint smile resulted in a grimace suited to the awkwardness of the situation. No way could Simon count on his intervention.
Though trembling from inside at the strange request and the novelty of the situation, Simon’s resistance was broken down second by second as the kids stopped their pleading and stared at him with genuine curiosity leaving him little option. It occurred to Simon that he had recently been for an MRI scan the memory of coming through unscathed helped him pluck up his courage. A rare moment of absolute clarity commanded that he concede, so he decided to do it.
’OK, then. Make sure you don’t bury me alive though, there’s no bell in this coffin. In the old days they fitted a bell so that people who looked dead but weren’t could give a signal if they woke up buried alive. You can put the lid on for a few minutes’. Without any further hesitation and in the midst of cheering he climbed into the darkness of the mock grave.
Inside the coffin time stretched but Simon felt unexpectedly calm, closing his eyes and clasping his hands on his
chest.No thought or worry crossed his mind, he was entirely and irrevocably in the moment. It was an unknown state for his over-analytical and isolated self. A minute or two passed after which he sensed approaching steps that got nearer and nearer until all movement seemed to stop and strangely familiar voices were heard from above:
It is not that tragic if meat gets burnt
If a virus brings forth panic and you get hurt
If an ignorant tree branch strikes and you get bruised
And for a while not the buzz but abed must keep you amused.
But it is tragic when we let our self-conceived helplessness dominate
Relentlessly wrestling enemies and feeding the bloody flames we create.
It is tragic when a begging child does not cry for money anymore
But devours the meagre crumb we attempt to keep in our core
It is tragic when every move we take only causes pain
But we must dance on: our efforts are in vain.
We love you, Simon. We hope your life stops being a tragedy and you take action not to waste Life any further.
And the lid creaked opened. His eyes slowly adjusting took in the familiar faces of his few but true friends who were now standing around his coffin. The kids silently remained in the background. He looked into the eyes of each of his loved ones, deep and long.
On Boxing Day, two days later, Simon booked his flight to Kolkata, India. Emailing the director of an orphanage he’d heard about a while ago, he offered his services to teach computer technology. A new chapter was about to start in his life, a frisson of excitement flowing through his veins tingled him to embrace the new.