The Reanimation Show
In a gallery stacked with exhumed bones, we all look pretty much the same. It’s a lesson barely worth repeating, but our guide with the gold face paint and manners gleaned from chat show hosts has little else to say, so labours it anyway, with a nod to the audience and a pause for the laugh track. I remember an article in a specialist journal of osteoarchaeological crises of imagination, which argued that the dead, when reanimated, took on the flesh of either one’s past unrequited loves or of cornered wildcats, and that you couldn’t know which it would be until you settled by the fireside with jasmine tea and a bedsitter album by a 70s singer/songwriter. Very early Bowie will do at a push, but the important point – and even our guide is silent as I’m apparently speaking aloud – is that either way they will strip the flesh from your bones so that you’ll never recognise yourself again, gold paint or not.
Not Fade Away
Skeleton sits, drumming his knuckles on a closed book, that Bo Diddley beat of blunt bones. It’s a Bible night, a tribal night: a night when the dead come back to rap on the shutters and shake the shingles, raise the roof and lower the temperature to cool, cool, cool. It’s a piano night, with keys clacking like loose wooden tongues that gossip and kiss by the light of a black moon that perches like an owl on a lightning-blasted tree. Skeleton sits, humming beehive vamps to the snare drum scratch of beetles in the boardwalks and bedposts, riffing honey into all those sticky places we’ve been told not to touch. It’s a feast night, a beast night; a so-good-to-meet-you, so-good-to-eat-you, little piggy, little piggy night, with thick poppy breath and white teeth teasing hot, soft skin. And skeleton sits, rattling those rhythms like rolling dice, with snake eyes hooded and impossible to resist. It’s a tasty night, a wasted night: a night to shimmy and shudder to the stuttering flutter of bone on slack catgut. Bare feet shuffle on bare boards. Come a little closer. Skeleton winks, and the teeth in an old skull sweat.
Arms stacked with invisible gifts, the visitor slips in unnoticed and takes the seat by the window. She’s brought novels and nightlights, a deck of shuffled memories, and a base note of chalk and ginger. Her eyes shine with cut flowers, cut glass, mismatched cutlery, and scenes from the cutting room floor showing bloopers and bursts of blue air; all those occasions on which words and glances have missed their intended targets. The cat curls into her lap, though I can only see her at the mirror’s edge, but when I close my eyes her voice is the café in a grand museum. This is all we are inside, it says, leafing through the menu as if it were a catalogue of recent acquisitions: a blessing of bones and uncertain shades. Outside, a taxi’s been waiting since the mid-90s, its meter clocking up fortunes, its engine ticking like a sharp pencil on lined paper.
Skeleton glows like a tungsten bulb, clicking his shoulders and rattling his knees. He’s a long time dead but comfortable with the living, like a benign headmaster or a low church vicar welcoming the knitting circle. He has an anecdote for every occasion and talks about an unspecified accident – involving a ladder, maybe, or a jet ski, or perhaps, unlikely as it may seem, both – in which he broke almost every bone (he gestures with self-effacing extravagance), and how afterwards they wouldn’t stop knitting for a year or more: blankets, bootees and ganseys for the lost and confused washed up on our shores. It was then that he started to glow (that gesture again, but this time with the gold of a cracked morning on Blackpool Beach). He might have been a teacher or some sort of salutary warning. He might have been buried for a thousand years or more. But here he is, a scrape of sunlight with his heels on a stool, his head in the clouds, and his teeth chat chat chattering like electricity down wires.