by Marta Orriols
Translation by Dan Beizsley
Chapter 1: Before
We were alive back then.
None of the terrorist attacks, nor the wars or the epidemics ever concerned us. We’d watch films that converted the act of dying into frivolity and others that turned it into an act of love — but we were far removed from understanding the meaning of losing one’s life.
Some nights in bed surrounded by the comfort of fluffy pillows and propped up by the arrogance of our late youth we’d watch the news from the shadows with our feet entangled. We didn’t know it then but death was approaching Mauro’s blue, crystal eyes. One hundred and thirty-seven people dead during attacks carried out by the Islamic State in France, six die in less than 24 hours on the roads in three different head-on collisions, a river bursts its banks and kills four in a small village in southern Spain and at least seventy die in coordinated terrorist attacks across Syria. Sometimes we’d blurt out “poor sods, what bad luck” and if the news wasn’t that interesting it would send us both to sleep. All of this was taking place in the bedroom of a couple whose relationship was being extinguished. Sometimes we’d change channels and watch the end of a film and I’d remind him that he needed to collect my coat from the dry cleaners, or if we’d had a good day we’d try to make love but it seldom worked. If the events on the news gained traction they would bleed into our conversations at work over coffee or in the queue for the fish monger at the market.
But we were alive, death was for everyone else.
We used phrases like “I’m dying” to express tiredness after a hard day at work without the words ever pricking our skin. I remember when everything was going well for us and we’d go to our favourite beach and float in the middle of the sea then pretend to drown only to be resuscitated by each other through mouth-to-mouth and then we’d giggle for hours. Death didn’t belong to us.
When I was a kid my Mum fell ill and died within a few months although it has long since been converted into a collection of hazy memories that are difficult to recall. Dad came to pick me up from school just after afternoon classes had restarted and after hundreds of kids had trudged from the canteen back to their desks. When Dad arrived, accompanied by the principal, he knocked on the door just after the science teacher had finished explaining the difference between invertebrate and vertebrate animals. The memory of my mother’s death is forever connected to the white chalk line on the blackboard that divided the animal kingdom into two. I’ll also never forget the other students staring at me who up until that point I’d considered my equals. I was suddenly placed into a third kingdom for injured animals who must learn to live without their mothers.
Even if it were terrible her death had at least come with some warning and was preceded by a margin of time for a farewell and the opportunity to express tenderness. There was also the naivety of believing in heaven that came with the innocence of my 7 years that protected me from properly comprehending her passing.
Mauro and I were together for many years and only for a few hours did we cease to be. He died suddenly a few months ago without warning. When he was struck by a car he was taken away from me, along with many other things.
Without heaven nor consolation and despite all the pain I try to avoid talking about Mauro in the past tense. Instead I often try to think about him using the adverbs before and after in order to erect a physical barrier. He was alive that midday with me — he drank wine, asked for some of my steak and took a few work calls from the publishing house while playing with his napkin ring. After he noted down the name of a book by a French author on the back of the restaurant’s business card. He touched his left ear lobe repeatedly and seemed uncomfortable — maybe he was embarrassed by it. He was nearly stuttering. Within a few hours he was dead.
The restaurant had a piece of coral as its logo and I sometimes look at the business card on which he jotted down in his immaculate handwriting the name of the book he’d wanted to read. Maybe because everyone is entitled to embellish their misfortunes with so many fuchsias, yellows, blues and greens that from the day of the accident I think about the before and the after of my life much in the same way as the Great Barrier Reef. Every time I try to think if something happened before or after Mauro’s death I force myself to imagine the coral and while doing so I fill it with fish of all colours. The reef has become the equator of my life.
Dying isn’t mystical, it’s physical, it’s logical and it’s real.