I’m snooping in a dead man’s fridge. It’s not an official postmortem, but he’s still upstairs in his bed and I need an answer now.
It confirms the assumption I’ve already made. Everything he’s been eating for years is stacked on the shelves, like an NHS ad for how to drop dead of heart disease. White bread. Hard cheese. Soft cheese. Cream cheese. Wheels of brie. Bacon. Chorizo. Sausages. Milk. And a few forgotten baby tomatoes, wrinkled with age.
I don’t know why I bothered opening it. What was I expecting to find? My boyfriend and I lived with his father for two years while we studied and muddled through the worst of the job crisis, and Chris’s routine never wavered for a second – except for the time I made him a cup of tea and he said, “Oh! It’s… in a different mug!”
I gathered he’d always been prone to groundhog-day living, even in his early years living on a farm in outback Australia. But after his wife died of oesophageal cancer on Christmas Day 2008, he didn’t so much stick to his daily routine as become fossilised in it. When his memory showed the slightest signs of wavering, he started setting alarms. The house in north London was pierced by an infernal beeping seven or eight times a day, yet somehow he always remembered what each was for. He even had an 8pm alarm to remind him to go to bed and read, and a 9.15pm alarm to remind him to sleep. The 12.30pm alarm meant lunch: crackers, grapes and a pile of cheese.
I knew he was dead an hour before Dion, my boyfriend, found him. It was all right there, in his text: “Bobbi’s at Dad’s and he’s not answering the door or phone. Milk and paper haven’t been collected and the dog is barking. He’s probably just asleep or out, right?” Suspicion that something’s wrong, confirmation that something’s wrong, denial that anything’s wrong. It was practically a death certificate.
I got the text at 8.30am on a Tuesday. Chris wouldn’t be asleep. He once whispered to me, conspiratorially, that he’d had a lie in until 6am. Any time I got up after 8am, he would exclaim, “Half the day is gone!” Papers left uncollected? He’d usually have read them and assumed the opinions as his own by now. Milk left on the doorstep with half the day gone? Unthinkable.
One of us had to go and find him dead. And it had to be Dion.
“I don’t have the key,” I texted. “You should check on him. Shall I meet you there?”
“Don’t worry – I’ll go at lunch. He’s clearly just gone out and forgotten to tell anyone.”
My heart thudded. I texted back: “He could have had a fall – you really should check on him now.” I felt I was offering him a plate of poisonous mushrooms.
“Getting on the 43 bus now,” he replied, followed by, “Thanks for making me go.”
Feeling like I’d had seven cups of coffee, I marched around the flat getting ready for work, singing loudly to drown out the cartoon anvil whistling down towards my head. I was halfway to the tube when my phone rang. “You have to come,” Dion said, his voice strangled. “He’s dead. You have to come now.”
My vision blurred. People crossed the road around me. Before taking another step, I emailed my boss that I couldn’t come to work because of a dead body. It might have been more eloquent than that, but not much.
On the tube from Bow Road to Archway, which is approximately three tissues and two vomit-scares long, realisations went off in my head like explosions. We’re not seeing him next weekend. He won’t be at our wedding. We’re not going to South Africa next month. Dion has no parents left.
I took deep breaths, trying to pull myself together. Dion was the one who had just found his father dead.
Fellow tube passengers showed almost heroic acts of kindness. A man waved that I should take his seat. A woman asked if I was OK, patted my arm and handed me a tissue.
When I finally got inside the house, it was freezing. The heating must have been off for days. Dion was in the kitchen mopping dog mess. His dad’s doberman, Troy, had been trapped – unfed, unwatered, unwalked. Dion put the mop down, collapsed on me and sobbed.
After a moment, he pulled away. “Do you realise the text you sent me right before I got the call?” he said.
I thought for a second, and clamped my hands over my mouth. “Oh God…”
“Right before I found out Dad had died, you sent me a text that said, ‘We’re out of coffee – I want to die.’”
Which is how the police arrived to find us in the kitchen, wet-faced and leaning on each other, surrounded by dog shit, gasping for air through peals of laughter.
I’m snooping in a dead man’s computer. It’s not an official time-of-death investigation, but the paramedics are upstairs and I need an answer now.
Dion is downstairs in the cellar, looking for a key to the back door. I can hear him rummaging around as I open his dad’s inbox. I knew Chris had a daily alarm for checking and sending emails. I should have responded to the twist of worry in my gut when Dion told me the second and third times, “No reply yet.”
The last time we saw Chris, he cooked a roast. As always, he bought the wine, according to what he thought I’d like – this time, it was vouvray. He didn’t even like white wine. A year earlier, we’d all gone on a road trip to Tours in France. He said it was the wine we’d had on the first day, and that I’d really liked it. I didn’t remember, probably because of Chris’s strict policy that I must always have a full glass.
Over dessert, he started quizzing us about house prices: “Do you think you two could afford to buy a place big enough to have kids?”
“God, no,” we replied. “House prices have probably gone up 30% since you peeled the potatoes. If we had a baby, we’d have to put it in a drawer.”
“Filing cabinet drawers are huge. We could get it a filing cabinet.”
“Then it would have, like, four rooms.”
“The thing is,” Chris said, interrupting, “this place is too big for just me. But I don’t much fancy moving. So I thought I’d renovate it so I could have the bottom floor and you could have the top two. Then you could start a family at some point. Does that interest you at all?”
That’s how he offered to set us up for life. Like he was popping in to feed our cats while we were away.
Looking at the last email he opened, and the last email he sent, I can see when he died. It was eight days ago, hours after he went to his lawyer and changed his will to leave us this house.
Dion comes upstairs from the cellar. “Look what I found.” I look up. He’s holding an entire case of vouvray.
It was a favourite game of ours to try to convince Chris to spend some – any – of his money. He had retired from his job as director of public health for Lewisham to care for his dying wife. At 68, he found himself a retired, widowed workaholic, so he amused himself by investing his savings and pension in stocks and bonds. They made money; he called it a win. But that was the end of it: he never spent his winnings.
The road trip to France was to celebrate him buying a car (secondhand, of course). We were still nowhere near Dover when he remembered he loathed driving. But once we settled into the bright Airbnb flat, we eased him into the holiday spirit – cheeseboard out, glass of wine in hand, abstemious defences down – and spent a full hour trying to convince him to buy a new suit.
Wouldn’t it be nice to arrive at the opera in a jacket without rips under the arms? Wouldn’t it be lovely to sit on a park bench without someone giving you their change? Would spending the money affect your life even one little bit? And on it went. By the time we reached the bottom of the bottle, he was cautiously convinced.
We found a Hugo Boss, and set the French sales assistants on him. He started mortifying us less than 30 seconds in by speaking “loud enough for them to understand”. Then he mentioned that Hugo Boss made uniforms for the Nazis – except the sales assistants didn’t understand the word “Nazis” in his Australian accent. So he demonstrated by goose-stepping, in perfect Basil-Fawlty, don’t-mention-the-war style. We hid behind a shoe rack until it was over.
“This is our own fault,” I told Dion as we tried to pretend we didn’t know this loon. “This is the cost of your dad parting with his cash.”
“Well, it’s way, way overpriced.”
He died a year and two months later. He got to wear the fabulous suit he bought maybe three or four times. I wouldn’t care if he never got to wear it. I’ll always be glad he bought that suit.
I’m snooping in a dead man’s toolbox. I’m not an accomplished handyman, but the knob on his bedroom door has come off and we need to fix it now.
Chris’s face could usually be found buried in a textbook about ancient Greece, and he was always slow to take care of his physical surroundings in the boring present. When I told him I’d heard mice in the walls, he did nothing about it until they were joined by rats the size of canoes. The kitchen cupboard doors are falling off and the wallpaper is peeling; the knob on his bedroom door has been merely decorative for years; and now, on this horrible Tuesday morning, the undertakers are paying the price.
It has been less than three hours since Dion found his dad. He arrived this morning at 9.30am, opened the door and called, “Dad!” He went to the kitchen and saw the mess, and Troy’s ribs. He fed him twice, already knowing what he’d find upstairs.
He opened the bedroom door and saw his dad in bed, with a book on his chest and his glasses on his head. He must have nodded off while reading. But it had been eight days. The sight and smell of what was in that room will linger in our minds for months, wake us up at night and randomly pierce our thoughts like knitting needles through the temple. Dion slammed the door shut, of course, and the handle came off in his hand.
There’s a knock at the living room door. We’ve closed it to keep Troy from running upstairs. Everyone should be spared the sight of what happens to a corpse after a week, even a dog. He’s distraught, and has attempted to curl up on my lap as if he were a puppy rather than a fully-grown doberman with paws the size of burger buns. My legs are crushed under his weight. Dion opens the door and the police officer comes in.
“Hi,” he says, gentle and professional, but his lips are pursed, as if he’s trying not to laugh. “Sorry to disturb you. We have, um, a situation. The undertakers are here to remove the body, but the handle on the bedroom door has come off. The window was open, and unfortunately the wind slammed the door shut. So they can’t get out. We, um, we need your permission to break down the door.”
There is a silence. It takes a moment for us to comprehend that the undertakers are trapped in the room with an eight-day-old corpse, and we’re now being asked, ever so politely, if we might authorise their release.
“Right,” Dion says. He cocks his head to one side and says, “That’s pretty funny.”
The three of us laugh so loud and hard that the dog scurries away. Dion leans against the wall, authorising the breaking of the door with a thumbs-up and a nod, and I’m quickly yanked away from my toolbox search, because “They deserve to get out of there quicker than you can fix a doorknob.”
They break down the door. The smell fills the air. We cower in the kitchen as they bring the body downstairs, put it in a van, and drive it away.
People can get from “Sorry for your loss” to “God, you’re so lucky” remarkably quickly.
The coroner came back with the same conclusion I reached after looking in the fridge: Chris died of undiagnosed heart disease. Shortly after we learn this, Dion and I receive a letter that says, and I’m paraphrasing: “Condolences to you and your family, and congratulations to us: you owe us 40% of your dad’s estate! It amounts to more money than you could possibly make between you in a decade, and you owe it terrifyingly soon. Get selling that house you grew up in, and find somewhere else to raise a family. Sincerely, the government.”
That’s awful, friends say, but they have to know: how much is left for you? And that’s when the “no parents left” and “decomposing cadaver” parts of the story dissolve. Because what’s left for us will be enough for a small flat.
“So you’ll have… no mortgage?”
“No mortgage,” Dion says, simply. He understands the significance of what he’s saying, but it’s obvious he doesn’t feel guilty. He watched cancer slowly and painfully claim his mother, then he found his father’s week-old corpse. He figures a small flat in north London is the least the universe owes him.
But I feel weird. I know how people see me now. From the outside, this couldn’t have worked out better for me if I’d dug for it. I spend five years with someone, he proposes, and months later he’s getting a life-changing inheritance? It’s like sticking money in a fruit machine moments before it pays out.
Inheritance isn’t supposed to come when you’re 29, when jobs are insecure and debt is just part of the furniture; inheritance is supposed to come when you’re 50, when your savings are plump and your vote already counts. I’ve won the lottery. A strange, sad lottery. And as I swallow yet another lump in my throat I think, I’m supposed to feel lucky right now.
I’m snooping in a dead man’s phone. I need to access his contacts to make a funeral invite list, and trying to guess his passcode is a good distraction from the fact that I am afraid to go outside.
It’s 9.45am on Friday, and I have to go to work. I’ve been dressed and ready for 20 minutes. I’m sending and replying to emails so that no one clocks I’m not in the office. It’s nearly 11am when I realise I’m now knotted in the corner of the sofa, hugging myself and trembling. I have no idea how I’m going to get all the way to the front of the flat, find my shoes and put them on.
Soon, someone’s going to ask where I am. What can I say? “I’m scared to go outside because my fiance’s dad is dead”? Is that better or worse than, “I need to work from home because my fiance’s dad is dead”? Maybe, “I’m on my way, but I’m not wearing shoes, because my fiance’s dad is dead”?
I don’t feel entitled to this level of grief, and that’s reinforced with every, “How is Dion?” No one asks how I am. I don’t begrudge their thinking this has little to do with me. No one assumes you’re cut up about the death of an in-law-to-be. Even though the “traditional family” is falling by the wayside in Britain, we all revert back to traditional ideas when it comes to grief. People assume I haven’t lost anyone. Not really. He wasn’t my dad. I didn’t have to see the body. I didn’t even have to clean up the dog mess.
So when people ask, “How is Dion?” I tell them he’s coping heroically. I tell them his mother was a psychoanalyst and I tell them she taught him how to talk and think about trauma, how to interpret emotions and deal with them. I tell them we took the vouvray home and toasted Chris, and stayed up late laughing about funny things he used to say.
But there are things I don’t tell them. I don’t tell them that Dion is coping, but I, for some reason, am not. I don’t tell them what a loss this is for me, too, because my grief feels as unearned as the inheritance.
I don’t tell them I wake up feeling scared, that just being here talking to them took 45 minutes of courage-mustering at my front door this morning. I don’t tell them that when I saw someone on the tube with grey hair and a gut, I wanted to grab him and shake him, yelling, “You’re going to die!” Or that I had the urge to knock a bacon sandwich out of a man’s hand and say, “This will kill you – and I don’t mean ‘turkey’s healthier’, I mean that one day, because you ate that sandwich and hundreds like it, your heart will stop beating and you will lie in your bed with a book on your chest and glasses on your head until your family realises what a week with no contact means.”
I don’t tell them Chris did more for me in the five years I knew him than many people do for their real children. I don’t tell them that we’re already packing to move to our new flat, a place that’s big enough to have kids – with a filing cabinet for emergencies. I don’t tell them how it feels to be set up for life. But if anyone ever asks, I’ll tell them that it’s way, way overpriced.