The Cities of the Dead (short story)


Not long to wait now. I opened the box of confetti and shook the tissue-paper petals onto the carpet in front of the shrine. Then, walking backwards, I laid a trail down the hall to the door of the flat. I opened the door and stood listening for Mr Belloc who lives in the flat below mine. He’s always down in our shared lobby, picking through the junk mail or peering through the peephole at the day outside, a ghost in his grey cardigan. He smells of eggs, and if he’s there when I come home from work, I smile and run up the stairs before he can start talking to me.

I really ought to have scattered the petals all the way to the street. They might not be able to find it otherwise. But I couldn’t do it to Mr Belloc. I imagined him standing in the drift of little pink discs, wondering who had made this mess and whether it was a message he should be afraid of.

I left the door ajar and went to light the incense sticks and the candles. As the flames found their strength they lit up the bottles of Sol beer, pale gold and jewelled with condensation. I switched on the fairy lights and suddenly it was so beautiful.

The others would be on their way now, from Islington and Camden, Stella and Paul coming all the way from Clapham, Emma from Battersea. All of them coming, their children asleep in their flats, guarded by teenagers, only Stella’s unborn child coming with her. Would it see the glow of the fairy lights through Stella’s taut flesh and turn towards them?

After months of preparation I had turned my spare bedroom in Crouch End into a shrine for the Mexican Day of the Dead, All Souls’ Day. The bookcase and the dressing table were draped in old embroidered tablecloths I’d found in charity shops, cardboard boxes had been glued together and covered in doilies to make an altar. Everywhere there were flowers, slender white lilies and alstromeria, the “lilies of the Incas”, bunched around thin candles, their petals incandescent. And marigolds, which cost the earth at the florist’s at this time of year but which are the most authentic: in Mexico they are known as cempasuchil, the flowers of the dead. Really it should have been marigold petals on the floor, their sour perfume leading in the souls, but I couldn’t risk staining the carpet in my rented flat. It was bad enough already: if Mrs C knew about all these candles she’d go spare.

Every surface was busy with enticements: glazed plaited loaves from the Polish deli, pomegranates, starfruit translucent in the candlelight, bitter chocolate, the Mexican beer and limes, the bottle of tequila. And in amongst the treats, the papier mâché skulls I’d made over the past months (there should be sugar ones too but they had been beyond my craft skills), tinplate milagros, paper cut-outs, and a band of cardboard skeletons or calaveras.

At the centre of the altar was a blown-up photograph: my great grandfather standing in the market place back home, flanked by two of his four grown-up daughters, great aunt Peggy and great aunt Maureen. The ancestors. Strictly speaking, great aunt Maureen isn’t an ancestor yet as she is bedridden in a home in Darlington. But near enough. Great grandfather had a strange warped look about him, his face and right shoulder twisting away as if in the very first stages of going up in smoke: the photo I had xeroxed was terribly old and it had got even more badly bent when my mother had peeled it out of her album for me to copy. But I had painted over the photocopy with watercolour, which had made it look like a nice old aquatint, very suitable.

In his brown tinsmith’s coverall, the old man looked askance at all my nonsense. Mexican bloody Day of the Dead? And what was with all this foreign muck? Fancy fruit nobody in their right mind would eat. Beer as weak as… Perhaps he would watch his tongue in front of his ‘girls’; yes, I’m sure he would have. I never knew my great grandfather, the town tinsmith. I had only heard the stories about him: how he had the very first car in town before he drove it over the drop above the river; how he kept a bear in a cage at the back of his hardware shop to draw the customers; how my mother would bring her acting friends home for coffee after rehearsals at the Drama Club only for them to hear him peeing loudly into a bucket (made by his own hand) in his room next to the kitchen.

I went into my kitchen to stir the chilli and put the tortillas in the oven to warm. I wanted everything to be perfect. Then I heard laughter on the stairs and hurried to welcome my guests.

* * * *

Our Lady of Guadalupe gazes out of thick ruffles of white satin on the ofrenda in the living room. Around her are the photographs of our dead – our beloved and those we respected who have left us now: my father, Luis, who died of a heart attack four years ago, my grandmother Antonieta, at peace now, and my poor little Consuelita, precious scrap. Also, Doctor Mariega, who was a good man and helped us when my grandmother was fighting the devil in her lungs; he has gone to join her now.

Consuelita will come first, tonight. She didn’t come on the 29th, no, that’s when the souls in limbo come, who died without baptism. She was baptised by Father Wenceslao just before she slipped away. The children will come first tonight. Then, when they have left, it’s the turn of the adults to be welcomed at the feast. I have put out bread and salt for Consuelita, and water. How thirsty our visitors will be! Later I will put out pork in green mole sauce with chayotes, and puddings, fruit in sweet syrup. We want them to feel only delight at our offerings; they will know we have not forgotten them.

“Rita, Carla, come and sit by the altar and wait for your sister. Oh you look a picture, my angelitas, in those taffeta dresses. They were worth the money, whatever your father says. Mind you don’t drip wax on that frock, Carla. Sit still. No, don’t touch the food. Not one crumb until our guests have departed. Then we’ll share what they have left. They only take the essence, you know. Rita, on second thoughts, run out quickly and buy a packet of those cigarettes the Doctor used to like, Delicados. Take my purse.”

I think of my baby coming back to me, so tiny. How will she find me? I have laid more cempasuchil than ever before, a real carpet. But our house is only one of thousands, no, millions in Mexico City, all yearning for their darlings to come back, just for a little while. I hope she can find me.

* * * *

In the city of the dead they are stirring from the year’s long torpor, quickening. The memory of appetite wakens again. The pressure builds around the fissures that lead up into the light. How many millions will slip through when the passing-place trembles and gives way to them? Who would not snatch at the chance to return, to listen to the remembering, to see the trouble the living have gone to, to reassure themselves that they still exist, in hearts?

Oh but when they rise up through the aeons of rock and out, into air, it’s not what they imagined. They are pulled every which way, called here, enticed there. So much to tempt them, their whims so lovingly indulged; the lure of plenty is overwhelming after so long in the empty dark. Where to go, where to go?

* * * *

Come in. I thought no one was coming! Come in and put your coats in the bedroom. Let me get you a drink and then I’ll show you my shrine. God, that sounds a bit weird, doesn’t it? Well, you’ll see, it’s just something I really got into in the summer. Couldn’t tell you why.”

I left the first of my friends to arrive and went to answer the door to the next wave. More came. I opened bottles of beer and handed round the tortilla chips. I really wanted to be in my shrine, to see the delighted surprise on my friends’ faces when they saw the transformation I had wrought: a little grotto of mystery and otherworldliness in prosaic north London. When everyone had a drink, I went down the hall to the spare bedroom. Only Stella was in there, standing in front of a calavera by Posada which I’d blutacked to the wall: a brilliant skeleton bike race with the crazed “messengers of mortality” causing two-wheeled havoc.

“What d’you think, then? Do you like it?”

Stella looked around the room and wrapped her hands around her pregnant belly.

“I just don’t know what to make of it, Caroline. I had no idea you were going to go to so much trouble. I mean, it’s really pretty, the lights and the flowers and everything, but it’s kind of strange. What do all these skeletons and things have to do with you? It isn’t your tradition, is it? And anyway it’s morbid.”

“I don’t think it’s morbid. I love it. I went to an exhibition about it and I just got hooked. I’d love to go and see the real thing, but failing that I thought I’d bring a little bit of Mexico to Crouch End. I know it isn’t completely authentic, but in Mexico no two celebrations are the same anyway – they just do whatever their ancestors liked to do: drink beer, smoke fags, play cards, go to church, whatever. It’s about remembering.”

“So do you remember this funny-looking lot, then?” asked Stella, turning to look at my great grandfather and the brace of great aunts.

“Oh.” Caught out. “Well… kind of. My great grandad’s a legend in the family, quite a character, so he lives on, and great aunty Peggy, she was in the WAAF and really quite glamorous when she was young. Poor aunty Maureen isn’t doing too well these days, I’m afraid.”

These days? You mean she isn’t even dead yet and you’ve got her stuck in your voodoo skull-fest? You’re sick, Caroline.”

Simon, my friend from work, appeared and seemed reluctant to come into the room.

“Er, Cal, I think there’s something burning in the kitchen.”

Oh God, the tortillas. I ran to try and save them.

* * * *

The smells, so many good smells: spicy mole, warm bread, damp tobacco, hot tamales, cool beer. What will they choose? The souls are swarming over the world, each seeking out the scent that will draw them down to earth. Oh, Sol, that pricey stuff the tourists always wanted, and, ohh, the tang of tortillas that are just catching, oh that’s good

The air is churning, seething, over Alexandra Palace.

* * * *

How still the candle flames are. Carla and Rita are sitting on either side of the ofrenda, their heads sunk in their hands. I suppose it is boring for them, the waiting. The flames are so steady. When they flicker, we say the souls are arriving. My husband swears the candle flames were bent horizontal in his house, the year after the earthquake. Perhaps I could put the television on for the girls, if I keep the sound off. Oh, but it’s too still.

* * * *

I don’t think you could call this evening a success. I hadn’t bargained for them being so awkward, or maybe they were just bored. The shrine room has been empty nearly all evening and I’ve hardly had a chance to be in there. I think the problem was that they didn’t know what they were supposed to do. Was it a party or something else altogether? It’s my fault – I hadn’t thought enough about why I was inviting them, I just wanted somebody to see what I had made.

And then they just didn’t seem to get it at all. Had I converted to some weird religion? How seriously were they supposed to take it? Kath asked me earlier if I believed in spirits. I said, no, of course not, that it was just a sort of art project (trying not to sound pretentious!). I didn’t say that it’s been wonderful to have something I could throw myself into, to take my mind off that horrible business in the summer. They don’t even know about that. I feel too ashamed to tell anyone.

Now they were all in the sitting room, some sitting, some standing around the switched off television. Friday night telly, funny, comfortable, was locked away inside it. I tried to razzle them up a bit.

“Shall I open the tequila now? Margaritas anybody?”

No one wanted tequila. Stella rolled her eyes and patted her stomach. Emma said she’d have to get off because she had to go into work tomorrow. Paul said they’d drop her off. Kath had fallen asleep on the sofa. Great. Someone said their babysitter would be expecting them back soon. Oh yes, the babysitters – there was a sudden cheering up, the relief of justifiable escape.

When they’d gone I went back to the shrine. Some of the tea lights were guttering in their waxed-paper trifle dishes and a few of the lilies were singed. Candlelight flickered in the mirrors. The mariachi music I’d been playing had come to an end long ago. I put it back on and the low plunking and thrumming started up again. What the hell, I turned it up loud.

Despierta, dulce amor de mi vida,
Despierta, si te encuentras dormida.
Escucha mi voz vibrar bajo tu ventana,
Con esta canción te vengo a entregar el alma

The condensation on the bottles of Sol was all dried now. The little room was warm from the candles – there must be fifty or sixty of them. Perhaps I would sleep in here tonight, the light was so beautiful, cocooning. Somehow it was impossible to feel lonely in this room. And I had been lonely. Not telling a secret makes you feel very alone. 

I remembered that I had left the door ajar when everyone had left. There was no need for it to be open now. I got up off the bed and went back down the hall. I was just about to shut the door when I heard a noise down in the lobby. Mr Belloc. I leaned out of the door to see down the stairs. Mr Belloc was dancing, a vanished lover in his arms. His eyes were closed.

Ay, Rosa he sighed, “I never forgot you.”

So I closed the door quietly and went back to my special room. My friends had misunderstood, but I could forgive them. I had only just worked it out myself. This was a night of returning. The little life I had thrown away in the summer had been returned to me now in peace.

* * * *

Ah, my neck is so stiff. I must have nodded off. Carla and Rita are both asleep. What time is it? Where’s Tomas? He should be home by now. Oh! The water in the little glass is almost half gone! Consuelita, my darling little one, you must have been so thirsty! Mama is here, Mama is here.