Kin by decree


Robert Sheorman
hey brought in his wife's body, already stiff as a board,
and the music was turned off and the dancing stopped
and some of the guests gasped and one of them even
screamed. And the first thing he thought was, oh God,
that's ruined the wedding party, and we haven't even cut the cake
yet. And the second thing was, what about the honeymoon, those
tickets were non-refundable, could he go with someone else, no,
no, that would look terrible. It wasn't until the third thing that it
hit him - he should be much much more distressed, surely, this
was his wife who'd just died, his wife, they'd only been married a
few hours, he should feel something - and then he realised he was
shivering, and he must be in shock, that would explain why these
thoughts were so callous, and he was so grateful he began to cry.
He cried so much they had to give him a sedative to shut him up.
'There's nothing we could do,' a bridesmaid told him later. 'She
was dancing barefoot, got bitten by a snake.' He hadn't known
she was the type to go barefoot dancing - he supposed that was
one of the things he would have learned about her in the years of
wedlock, years now denied him.
Everyone was very sympathetic for a while. At work his boss
would smile at him fondly, and his boss wasn't the sort to do
anything fondly, let alone smile. And the honeymoon was refunded
after all; it wasn't company policy, but the woman on the end of
the phone had felt so sorry for him that she'd pulled a few strings.
No Looking Back
No Looking Back
And, so very easily, life went on. He felt bad, of course - but mainly :
he felt bad because he didn't feel much worse. He'd expected that
the grief would have left him reeling, but on the contrary he was
quite composed, even (but only behind closed doors) flippant. At •
the funeral he said his piece very well, and everyone in the church
looked at him kindly - even more so, he thought, than they had
when he'd got married in the same spot just ten days previously.
So he went to the entrance to the Underworld. It wasn't hard
to find. It wasn't the sort of thing that would be marked on a map,
but everyone seemed to know where it was. And everyone seemed
to expect, too, that he'd be going down there, that as grieving
husband this was his mission. 'Good for you,' they'd say, 'bring
her back safe!' His boss smiled and patted him kindly on the back
and told him that once he'd returned they should talk about a nice
promotion; a healthy raise and more responsibility was just what a
family man deserved.
'It needn't be the end,' said his mother-in-law confidentially.
He'd been doing that wake thing of making sure he took
condolences from everyone, and he'd thought he should give his
in-laws-that-weren't a bit of extra attention.
He followed the tunnel into the bowels of the earth round and
round and deep and down. He was ferried across the River Styx.
He passed Cerberus, the two-headed dog who guards the gates
of Hell. He saw a lot of the damned, some in chains, some in lakes
of fire, their faces indistinct. I wonder if I'll have to make a speech,
he thought, or whether it'll be like a quiz, with multiple choice
answers. And before he knew it he was in front of the king, the
ancient god, so huge he blocked out the sky.
'What do you mean?' he asked.
'You can get her back from the Underworld. It's true,' she said,
perhaps because he looked so unconvinced, or just plain reluctant,
'I got Arthur back. Didn't I, Arthur?'
'She did,' said Arthur, his mouth full of sausage roll.
'Speak,' boomed Pluto. 'What does one who is living seek from
those who are dead?'
'You go down to Hades, get ferried across the River Styx, pass
Cerberus, the two-headed dog who guards the gates of Hell. And
make your case to Pluto, ruler of the dead. You can't keep doing it,'
she added. 'You can't just bring back anyone, willy-nilly. You have
to give a good enough reason. But, you know, he's fair.'
'I was hoping to get my wife back.'
'Can you see this wife of yours amongst the sea of souls around
us?' And as he looked, he realised that no, he couldn't, that all the
dead looked the same, grey and drab and featureless, it would be
impossible to ... oh, no, there she was waving, 'Here I ami' she
cried, 'over here!'
'And what was your reason?' he asked.
She looked surprised. 'Well, I loved Arthur, of course. So much.
I mean, I couldn't live without him. Could I, Arthur?'
'That'd be the one,' he said, and pointed.
'She couldn't,' agreed Arthur, and smiled, his lips flecked with
crumbs of pastry and sausage meat.
'Very well,' said Pluto. 'Make your case. But know this. You have
one chance to convince me of the power of your love. If you fail,
she will forever stay within my realm and you shall never see her
'You could get our daughter back,' she said, and prodded him
affectionately. 'It has to be you.'
So this is it, he thought, and stood forward, cleared his throat.
No Looking Back
No Looking Back
'Well, you see, we were at the wedding...'
And he thought, this was meant to be the test. The point at
which he put his feelings on the line, found out whether or not
his love was wanting. Because he still didn't know, couldn't know,
at first he'd just been so grateful a girl was happy to date him in
the first place, that she didn't run away when he wanted to kiss
her, that she not only wanted to see him again but would actually
be looking forward to it! So there was all the relief, everyone else
in the world seemed to have someone to go out with on a Friday
night, someone they could call their own - but was that relief
actually love, really love, was it really? He'd proposed, or rather
she'd let it be known that he could propose, so he had - and even
as he'd done so, he'd thought, this is a big step - maybe it's big
enough that it'll jolt my feelings a bit, I can find out whether I
need this girl or whether she's somebody I just put up with because
it's the right thing to do. But nothing changed, nothing became
clearer, the whole engagement passed by in the same bland blur.
The church ceremony had been no good either, he'd really wanted
the vicar to give him a good grilling at the altar, demand to know
what he really felt, but all he got was the standard do-you-take,
to-have-and-to-hold, in-sickness-or-in-health, on and on, it was
pretty clear what he was supposed to say, but did he feel it? And,
he'd thought, here in Hell at last he'd find out. He'd have declared
what he thought of his wife, and the King of the Dead would have
listened impartially, he'd have judged and he'd have knov/n. And
either way it would have been fine, if it was love then that would
have been great, he'd have taken his wife back to the land of the
living with so much pride, he actually loved and here was the proof!
And if it wasn't love, if it had never been love ... well, that would
have explained a lot.
'Your wedding?'
'What? Yes.'
'Sorry, your own wedding?'
'That's awful,' said Pluto. 'God. Of all the things to happen.'
'Yes. Well, she was dancing near this snake or something...'
'No, you've said enough. Losing her on your wedding day, that's
really out of order. Of course you can take her back.'
'Oh,' he said. 'Don't you want any more? To check how much
I loved her?'
'Well, you do, don't you?' said Pluto. 'I mean, you must do.
Otherwise, why would you have gone through with the wedding in
the first place? No, no, you take her home, and best of luck to you
both. But just remember,' he added, as a warning, 'you must walk
on alone, and she will follow. Whilst you are underground you are
still in my domain, and if you so much as look back at her she will
fade away and be lost to you forever.'
He walked the long climb up the tunnel. At first all he heard
behind him was distant footsteps, and he could imagine that
perhaps Pluto had tricked him, that it wasn't his wife following him
at all but some other. But soon she could rein in her excitement no
longer, and he recognised her familiar chatter.
God, she was still talking. 'And we'll have children, one of each,
oh, not right away, but soon, within the year, I think. And we'll
send them to the best schools and they'll wear the best clothes and
it's just going to be lovely!' And he looked around.
'Oh, I knew you'd come for me! Just as Mummy did Daddy.
And it's so romantic! All the girls are going to be so jealous, I mean,
they were jealous enough that I was getting married, but once they
know I've been rescued from Hell, they'll all go green with envy!'
She stopped talking. Froze with sudden fear.
'What are you doing?' she hissed at last.
No Looking Back
No Looking Back
had her parents to stay, and they were all relaxing in front of the
television after a particularly festive dinner.
'I'm just tying my shoelace,' he said. And then decided in that
case he really ought to stoop.
'Didn't I ever tell you,' giggled the wife through her sherry, 'that
time he rescued me from the Underworld, he looked back?'
'Turn the other way! Not this way, the other!' And he did.
They both stood there in silence for a while. 'Have you faded
away?' he asked eventually.
'He looked back? At my daughter?' The mother-in-law was
scandalised, and Arthur harrumphed disapprovingly.
'No,' she said.
'I didn't looked back,' he said. 'I dropped something.'
'I thought you were supposed to fade away.'
'You wanted to tie your shoelace.'
'Maybe they didn't notice. Maybe they felt sorry for us, let us
'I tied my shoelace, that's it. I didn't look back. She's here, isn't
she?' But although no more was said, there was a noticeable frost
in the air as they ail settled down to play Trivial Pursuit.
'Perhaps we should get someone, its only fair...' he said, and
began to turn his body around again, and she shrieked at him to
stop. And again, silence.
Within the year they had a son, and within the year after that
a daughter. They moved to a bigger house. 'Take care crossing the
roads,' she'd say to the kids, or, 'Don't play too rough, now. If
anything happens to you, Daddy wouldn't be able to save you -
he'll probably only look back.' And the children would laugh at a
joke they didn't understand, but which had been repeated so often
they thought they did.
'Shouldn't we keep moving?' eventually she asked, a little
'All right.' And so they did. This time his wife kept quiet, so that
was a relief of sorts - but it meant he had to keep checking she
was still there. 'Have you faded yet?' he'd ask, and each time she
replied she sounded ever more irritable. And at last they broke into
the daylight, they were safe, there were free, and death couldn't
take her back. And even if she were still a little cross with him she
was so relieved to be alive again that she hugged on to him and
kissed him.
One day, when the children were just too old to play with any
more, he decided to buy himself a pet.
'What on earth do you want a snake tor?' his wife all but
shrieked. 'They're dangerous!'
'Oh, don't be ridiculous,' he said. 'There's no poison in it, it's had
its sacs removed.'
They didn't go on the honeymoon; now he had that promotion
he couldn't afford all that time off work. But they managed a very
pleasant four nights in the Cotswolds. They'd go for walks and
eat pub food. And she was all right, he supposed he did love her,
really, even though she never excited him, even though she never
did anything as outrageous as dance barefoot again. It wasn't until
Christmas that the looking back incident was brought up. The wife
'Yeww,' said the girl. 'Daddy, it's gross!' said the boy.
'I'm not having it in the house,' said his wife. 'Over my dead
1 3
No Looking Back
■"! ''■®.S-,a,.S'»»™ •
'Fine/ he said. And he put its tank in the garage. He got a little
freezer for the garage too, that he could keep the snake's food
in. He'd spend more and more time in the garage now, after a
hard day running things at the office he'd sometimes not bother
to go inside the house at all. He'd take out the little frozen mice „
he'd bought from the pet shop, 'yum yum,' he'd say to Snakey, I
he'd hold them by their tails, and they'd be stiff as a board. And 1
he'd feed Snakey by hand, and how he'd watch as the mouse was I
swallowed whole, how it'd be sucked round and round and deep
and down until it disappeared completely.
Simon Toy
remember Tim as I wait here and sweat under the green tent,
the backs of my thighs soaking under my black pants, the base
of my spine marked out on my black shirt, sitting on the red vinyl
chair, picking at groundnuts and kua-chi from the unsteady tables. I
don't play cards and haven't much to say to the other relatives.
My part of the family went down to Singapore when my father
did his university and never came back. We've lost touch with
almost all of them since and even my father has trouble recognizing
Uncle Keong Tim's brother-in-law and some of his cousins. 'Keong
Tat's son', that's how I'm introduced and then I shake hands, nod,
ask whether they want a packet drink, get it for them if they do and
go back to my seat and sweat some more.
Tim's family was the only one we really kept in touch with. First,
because Uncle Keong Tim used to have business in Singapore and
then because Tim, or Ek Tim as everyone called him then, couldn't
pass Malay and was sent down to study at my school and stayed
with us.
We were fourteen then. I had just got my own room because Ee
Lin, my eldest sister, was in England studying. The room wasn't really
given to me; I just moved in. First, I only slept there but then, slowly,
my clothes, portable cassette player and tennis rackets followed. I
was a squatter in a strangely pink room with frilly curtains.

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