The House of Lazarus
a short story by James Lovegrove
Visitors were welcome at the House of Lazarus at all times of day and night, but it was cheaper to come at night, when off-peak rates applied. Then, too, the great cathedral-like building was less frequented, and it was possible to have a certain amount of privacy in the company of your dear departed.
Because it was dark out, the receptionist in the cool colonnaded atrium betrayed a flicker of amusement that Joey was wearing sunglasses. Then, recognising his face, she smiled at him like an old friend, although she didn't actually use his name until after he had asked to see his mother, Mrs Delgado, and she had called up the relevant file on her terminal.
"It's young Joseph, isn't it?" she said, squinting at the screen. She couldn't have been more than three years Joey's senior. The query was chased by another over-familiar smile. "We haven't seen you for a couple of weeks, have we?"
"I've been busy," Joey said. "Busy" didn't even begin to describe his life, now that he had taken on a second job at a bar on Wiltshire Street, but he didn't think the receptionist wanted to hear about that, and, more to the point, he was too tired and irritable to want to enlighten her.
The receptionist folded her hands on the long slab of marble that formed her desktop. "It's not my place to tell you what to do, Joseph," she said, "but you are Mrs Delgado's only living relative, and we do like our residents to get as much stimulation as possible. As you know, we wake them for an hour of news and information every morning and an hour of light music every evening, but it's not the same as actual verbal interaction. Think of it as mental exercise for minds that don't get out much. Conversation keeps them supple."
"I come whenever I can."
"Of course you do. Of course you do." That smile again, that smile of old acquaintance, of intimacy that has passed way beyond the need for forgiveness. "I'm not criticising. I'm merely suggesting."
"Well, thank you for the suggestion," he said, handing her his credit card. The receptionist went through the business of swiping it, then pressed a button on a panel set into the desktop. A man in a white orderly's uniform appeared.
"Arlene Delgado," the receptionist told the orderly. "Stack 339, Drawer 41."
"This way, sir." The orderly ushered Joey through a pair of large doors on which were depicted, in copper bas-relief, a man and a woman, decorously naked, serenely asleep, with electrodes attached to their temples, chests and arms.
As they entered the next room, a vast windowless chamber, the ambient temperature dropped abruptly. Cold air fell over Joey's face like a veil freshly dipped in water, and his skin buzzed with gooseflesh. He craned his neck to look up.
No matter how many times he came here, the wall never ceased to amaze him. At least a hundred and fifty feet high and well over a mile long, it consisted of stacks of steel drawers, each about half as large again as an adult's coffin. Each stack began roughly six feet above the floor and rose all the way to the roof. The wall, comprising a thousand of these stacks all told, loomed like a sheer unscalable cliff, lit from above by arc-lights that shot beams of pure white brightness down its face. Sometimes it was hard to believe that each drawer contained a human being.
At the foot of the wall plush leather armchairs were arranged in rows, ten-deep, all facing the same way like pews in a church. About a quarter of them were occupied by people murmuring quietly, as if to themselves. Every so often someone would nod or gesticulate, and silent pauses were frequent. The human sibilance was echoed by the sound of machinery, thousands of cryogenic units all whirring and whispering at once, fans exhaling, unseen tubes pumping liquid nitrogen.
The orderly walked down the aisle between the chairs and the wall, with Joey in tow. Some acoustical trick carried the clack of Joey's boot-heels up to the metal rafters but kept the squelch of the orderly's crêpe soles earthbound.
Arriving at Stack 339, the orderly gestured to Joey to take the nearest seat, then began tapping commands into a portable console the size of a large wallet. Without needing to be asked, Joey picked up the mic-and-earphones headset that was wired into a panel in the armrest of the chair and fitted the skeletal black device over his head. He took off his sunglasses and folded them into his breast pocket. The orderly glanced twice at the dark purple rings beneath Joey's eyes. Joey looked as if he had been punched, but the rings were just very heavy bags of exhaustion, packed with long days and late nights.
Realising he was staring, the orderly returned his gaze to his console. "Right," he said. "I've given her a nudge. Can you hear anything?"
Joey shook his head.
"She may take a moment or two to wake up. Press the red button if you need me and push the blue switch to 'Disconnect' when you're done. OK?"
"Pleasant chat," said the orderly, and left, squelching along to a door set into the wall. The door was marked "STRICTLY PRIVATE" and could only be opened by tapping a five-digit code-number into the keypad set into its frame. It hissed slowly shut on a pneumatic spring.
Joey sat and waited, his gaze fixed somewhere near the top of the stack of drawers, where his mother lay.
The first sounds came as if from deep underwater, where whales wail and the mouths of drowned sailors gape and close with the come and go of the currents. Up they surged in the earphones, these subaquatic groans, bubbling up to the surface in waves. Indistinct syllables, tiny glottal clucks and stutters, the gummy munches of a waking infant, the wet weaning mewls of still-blind kittens -- up they came from the darkness, taking form, taking strength, slowly evolving into things that resembled words, white-noise dream-thoughts being tuned down to a signal of speech, babel finding a single voice.
>wuhwhy the -- dear? is that -- huhhh -- nuhnnnno, nothing, no, no, nothing -- on the table, you'll find them on the -- huhhhello? -- she never said that to me -- hello? is there someone -- hrrrhhh -- dear, I'm talking to you, now please -- it's these shoes, you know -- wuhwwwwell, if you want to buy it, buy it -- someone at the door, would you -- yes -- hahhhhhello? is someone listening? I know someone's listening. Hello? Hello? Who is that? Who's there, please?<
"Hi, Mum," said Joey. "It's me."
>Joey! How nice of you to drop by. It's so good to hear your voice. Been a while, hasn't it?<
"Just three days, Mum."
>Three days? It seems an awful lot longer than that. It's so easy to lose track of time, isn't it? Well, anyway How have you been keeping?<
"I'm well. And you?"
>I must be all right, mustn't I? Nothing much changes in here, so I suppose I must be staying the same. Are you quite sure it's only been three days? I try and keep a count of the number of times they wake me. The news. And that dreadful music. Mantovani, Manilow <
"OK, maybe not three. A few days."
>You shouldn't feel you have to lie to me, Joey.<
"I've been meaning to get down more often, Mum, but what with one thing and another "
>It's all right, Joey. I do understand. There are plenty of things more important than your old mother. Plenty of things. How's work?<
"Oh, OK. Same as usual."
>It's not a job for a bright boy like you, taking shopping orders. It's a waste of your talents.<
"It's all I could get, Mum. I'm lucky to have a job at all."
>And have you found yourself a nice girl yet?<
>Don't make it sound like such a trial, Joey. I'm only asking. This isn't an interrogation. I only want to know if you're happy.<
"I'm happy, Mum."
>Well, that's good, then. And the flat? Have you had the cockroach problem sorted out?<
"I rang the Council yesterday. They said they'd already sent a man round to deal with it, but he never turned up. I think he must have been mugged on the way. I read somewhere there's a thriving black market in bug-dust. You can sell it to rich kids as cocaine and poor kids as heroin."
>Really, Joey, you ought to have moved out of the wharf district by now. Even with a job like yours, surely you can afford somewhere a bit nicer. There's lots of new property being built. I heard it on the news. Residential blocks are popping up all over the city like mushrooms. Why do you insist on staying where you are?<
"I like it there."
>That's as maybe, but I don't like the idea of you being there.<
"I can't afford the down-payment on another place."
>Oh, rot! There must be more than enough left over from the money your father left us.<
"Mum, it's not as straightforward as that."
>Seems perfectly straightforward to me.<
"Well, it would, wouldn't it?" Joey was aware of raising his voice. In that great archetraved ocean of cryogenic susurration-and-sigh, it was the merest drop of noise, but to his mother, in the dark, cramped confines of her mind, it must have sounded like he was bellowing.
>And what's that remark supposed to mean?<
"Nothing, Mum," Joey said softly. "Nothing at all. I'm sorry."
>What is it, Joey? What's wrong with you? We always start out chatting so nicely, and then I say something, I don't know what, but something, and all of a sudden you're shouting at me, and I don't know what it is I've done, I don't know what it is I say, but I wish you'd tell me, Joey, I wish you'd tell me what it is I do that makes you so angry.<
"It's nothing, Mum. Honest. Look, I've had a long day, that's all. I get a little snappish sometimes." He decided not to tell her about the bar job. She would only worry that he was taking on too much, and if, with her acute sense of what was proper and what was not, she thought working for TeleStore Services was bad, what would she have to say about serving drinks in a glorified pick-up joint?
>Yes, well < she said. >I'm sorry, too. But you must understand, it gets very lonely in here. Very, very lonely. It's just me in the dark, and you're my lifeline to the world, Joey. You're all that makes the solitude bearable. If it wasn't for your visits, I don't know what I'd do. Go mad, I expect. If I didn't know that you were coming, if I didn't know that you were going to visit me again soon <
"I will, Mum. I promise. And I won't leave it so long next time."
"That's the best I can hope for, I suppose. Off you go then, Joey. Thanks for dropping by. It was lovely talking. Come back when you can. Ha ha -- I'm not going anywhere.<
"All right, Mum. Take care."
>Bless you, Joey.<
"Goodnight, Mum. Sleep tight."
He removed the headset, pushed the blue switch to "Disconnect", and sat there for a while, listening to the hum of the electric tombs of fifty thousand slumbering men, women and children, his skin tingling with the icy chill that emanated from the wall of steel drawers, until the orderly arrived with his portable console to shut down Joey's mother's brain and send her back to sleep.
The receptionist presented Joey with a bill to sign.
"I took the liberty of adding the rent for this quarter. Seeing as it's due in a couple of days, I thought it wouldn't hurt."
It did. Joey winced at the figure at the bottom of the slip of paper.
"I'm not sure my credit's up to this," he said. "I can afford the conversation OK. I just wasn't expecting the rest."
The receptionist's smile of a lifetime's affinity lost perhaps a fortnight, but no more than that.
"That's fine," she said. "I just thought it would be easier this way. You do, of course, have a month to come up with the rent, although I should remind you that failure to settle the account by the end of that period could result in your contract being declared void and your mother being decommissioned."
"I know," Joey said, returning the bill to her.
"I just thought I should remind you," the receptionist said, and tore up the bill and printed off a new one.
"How was she?" she enquired as Joey signed for the price of the conversation.
"Same," he said. "Same as she always was."
It had been her last request.
I don't want to die.
Spoken in a small, frail, frightened voice by dry grey lips, while eyes too big for their sockets rolled, trying to find and focus on Joey's face.
Oh, Joey, I don't want to die.
On the bus bound for home, Joey pressed his face to the window and watched the city ease past. The black stone walls, the shopfronts behind their protective grilles, the blowsy smears of shop-sign neon reflected on the wet pavements, fast, gleaming cars and drab, slow-moving citizens -- all sliding by with a steady, measured grace.
I don't want to die.
She had barely been able to talk. Each sentence had been an effort, gasped out between blocked-drain gurgles. Moving her head had been a Herculean labour, but she had done so, in order to fix those swollen, terrified eyes on her son -- glassy marbles that were already losing their lustre, pale-blue pupils swimming in sepia-tinged whites.
Her arms, so thin. The veins, strings binding slender strips of flesh to bone. Brown parcel-paper skin.
The man next to Joey on the bus was watching a game-show on the screen set into the headrest of the seat in front. He chuckled and gave a little round of applause whenever a contestant answered a question correctly. He groaned if a contestant was eliminated. He groaned harder if he knew the answer to a question and a contestant did not. He was very drunk.
There are ways, Joey.
He remembered that her cheeks had been so sunken that she had appeared to have no teeth, no tongue, just a sucking vacuum where her buccal cavity used to be. Her skull had loomed beneath her face.
Outside, the city slicked by, silk-lined with artificial light.
In a hard hospital room, where there had been too much brightness, Joey had taken his mother's hand. It was the first time he had touched her in as long as he could recall. She had touched him often enough, held his arm, kissed his cheek -- he had never been the one to reach out across the space between them and make contact.
She tried to squeeze his fingers. He felt the creak of her knuckles as they grated together.
We have money, she said. Your father left us enough.
A sales rep for the House of Lazarus had been around the hospital the previous week. He had left brochures and leaflets in every ward. There were leaflets by Joey's mother's bedside. They had been well read. One of them contained an application form which she had half completed, filling in the blanks with scrawled handwriting like an EEG readout until the effort had become too great for her.
A girl sauntered down the gangway as the bus pulled into a stop. Earlier on she had given Joey a long, simmering look. Had he not been so dog-tired, he might have done something about that look. Might have taken her up on her silent offer.
"Next stop Eastport," chimed a disembodied voice. "Change at Eastport for the Satellite Islands and the Coastal Route."
We have money. Were it properly invested
It had all seemed so simple to her in the last dwindling days of her life, with her body failing organ by organ. It had all seemed so clear, during her moments of painful lucidity, at the ebbing of the tranquilliser-tide. She didn't want to die, and here was her chance not to die.
I just need you to complete the form and give your consent.
What choice had he had?
It's what your father would have wanted, she had said.
She had been so sure.
There's plenty of money.
Had she known?
Perhaps she had known. All along. Perhaps she had known, and had begged him to sign anyway, not caring what it might cost him.
I can't do it without your signature, Joey. They have to have the consent of a close relative.
And why hadn't he told her? Why had he kept his mouth shut? To spare her? Or to spare himself?
The game-show gave way to a commercial break, which included an advertisement for the House of Lazarus. Gordon Lazarus, sleek-haired proprietor, delivered his pitch from a well-appointed office. He sat, perched casually, yet in a bent-backed attitude of the utmost sympathy, on the edge of a walnut desk, with a marble bust of some patrician-looking Roman to his left and, to his right, a murky Augustan landscape in an ornate gilt frame. He gazed unwaveringly into the camera.
"There comes a time when each of us has to say goodbye to someone we love," he intoned. "For many, it is the most painful thing they will ever have to do."
The camera glided slowly in.
"But what if you could be spared that pain? What if you were able to remain in touch with your loved ones even after they had been taken from you?"
A slow, snakelike smile. Cut to a moving crane-shot of the wall of fifty thousand steel drawers.
Lazarus, in voice-over: "Here at the House of Lazarus, years of research into cryogenic technology have borne fruit. The result? The actual moment of passing may now be delayed indefinitely."
The camera continued its swoop, finding Gordon Lazarus at the foot of the wall, standing in front of a family who were clustered around a single headset in emulation of some long-forgotten pre-television tradition, taking it in turns to talk to grandfather or great aunt or poor little junior who was torn from this world far too soon. For bereaved people, the family looked remarkably happy.
"Until recently, communication with the departed was the province of mediums and clairvoyants," said Lazarus. "No more. Here at the House of Lazarus we can keep your loved ones permanently at the threshold of the hereafter. I won't blind you with science. Suffice it to say that by stimulating the neural impulses that remain in the cerebral cortex we can enable your loved ones to talk and interact with you long after the breath has left their bodies. Though departed, they won't be gone. Though lost, they will live on." Another smile, this one ingratiating. "To find out more, simply e-mail me, Gordon Lazarus, care of the House of Lazarus, or call the free-phone number below."
A number appeared at the bottom of the screen in gilt-edged Gothic script.
With a spread of his arms, as if to say, It's that simple, Lazarus reached his conclusion: "The House of Lazarus. Where nothing is inevitable."
The image froze, and there was a brief burst of a jingle -- a few bars of the chorus to "Never Can Say Goodbye" -- and then a caption appeared:
THE HOUSE OF LAZARUS
"Poor bashtardsh," muttered the drunk man next to Joey. "Let 'em resht in peash, thash wha' I shay."
It's for the best, his mother had said as he had signed the application form in the presence of the hospital-haunting sales rep. You'll see.
Through blurring tears Joey had appended his name to the form, which the rep had then taken and folded with a satisfied air, slipping his thumb and forefinger along the crease.
"We'll see to it that everything is in place," the rep had said. "For the final moment. It's essential that we are present for the final moment, in order to take possession of the body during the brief window of opportunity between physical shutdown and actual clinical brain-death. I'll make the arrangements with the hospital to alert one of our standby units when the time comes. Before that, we'll have to take tissue-samples and carry out a few tests, including a full psychological profile. And then there's the question of payment " He had raised his eyebrows meaningfully.
Joey's mother had strained and struggled to turn her eyes on her son again, to look at him, to beg.
Had she known? That there had been almost nothing left of the money his father had bequeathed to her? That after the government and the lawyers had taken their bites, there had been just a crust left over to pay for her treatment? That keeping her alive for six months had used up the very last of the capital?
Joey had to believe that she had not, that she had been too ill to make the calculations, that the sickness sucking on her like a spider had cocooned her from practical considerations. Otherwise But the alternative was too awful to contemplate.
"Eastport," chimed the bus's PA system.
No one except Joey disembarked.
He was almost too exhausted to undress. He barely made it down to his underpants before the weight of his tiredness dragged him down onto the bed. With the last ebb of his strength he switched off the bedside lamp, and then he was rushing down into a darkness like every curtain in the world closing at once.
And at some point during the night he dreamed that he was standing over his mother's grave. It was a traditional grave, dug in traditional ground, with a traditional headstone carved with the name ARLENE DELGADO. Beneath that were the dates that bookended her life, and then the inscription:
A GOOD MOTHER
The earth that covered her had not yet been grassed over, and when Joey prodded the side of the shallow mound of soil with one toecap it gave softly and loosely, spilling in a tiny crumbling landslide around his boots. He reasoned -- with the illogical certainty of dreams -- that his mother could only have been buried within the past twenty-four hours. He even vaguely remembered a funeral service.
It was a large, tomb-crowded cemetery, stark in winter, lit by a bright, unclouded sun, and he was alone. In front of him, not two yards beneath his feet, the body of his mother lay. It was almost impossible to believe that she could be so close and yet seem so distant. (Perhaps this was an alert part of his consciousness gently reminding him that he was dreaming; that his mother really lay elsewhere, halfway across the city.) If not for the earth and the lid of the coffin, he could have reached down and actually touched her cold, placid face. The idea made him quite angry. What a ludicrous convention this was, to shove the dead under a few feet of soil. It was a kind of masochism, to allow your loved ones to be left so tantalisingly near. The dead ought to be thrown into bottomless pits, where they could disappear for ever and be forgotten. They shouldn't be put where anyone with two hands and sufficient determination could dig them up again
As he was digging up his mother now.
He had no recollection of falling to his knees and starting to hand-shovel the earth away. The dream edited that bit out in a jump-cut. All he knew was that he had scooped aside a few handfuls of dirt and that he was already scraping the lid of his mother's coffin. Not even the full six feet down! What kind of cheapjack gravediggers did they employ at this cemetery?
The earth cleared easily from the lid, rattling down into the gaps between the sides of the coffin and the walls of the grave. Suddenly, with dream simplicity, the lid was free from dirt, shiny and clean. Its brass fixtures gleamed in the sun. Six butterfly nuts secured the lid. Feverishly Joey unscrewed them, tossing each over his shoulder as it spun free. As the final nut was removed the lid gave a little jump, as though eager to be opened.
Here, the dream allowed Joey to hesitate. Seconds away from seeing his mother's face again, it occurred to him that she might not be a very pretty sight. Already, even after only a day, decay and worms might have begun their work. Did he really want to remember her rotten and half-eaten?
But no -- he had to see. He had to see her for himself: lifeless, motionless, serenely and securely under death's spell.
He wedged his fingers under the lid and levered it up. It was surprisingly light, as though made of balsa wood rather than pine. It all but flew off, landing and bouncing on the graveside grass, finally settling upside-down to lie rocking gently to and fro.
And now the unknown director of the dream decided to shoot everything in slow-motion, and it took Joey what seemed like an eternity to transfer his gaze from the upturned lid to the opened coffin. He was anxious that he might wake up before he had a chance to look. So many of his dreams ended on precisely this sort of anticlimax. And having actually thought about waking up, he became more anxious still, because the thought usually preceded the reality. He forced his gaze towards the coffin, forced himself to stare in
And even as he surfaced from sleep, to wake the customary three minutes before the alarm-clock went off, he realised that he had known all along that the coffin would be empty. What else had he expected? His mother was lying in cold storage at the House of Lazarus. Of course she wasn't buried in any cemetery. Honestly, he did have the dumbest dreams sometimes.
But if only it had been that easy to dismiss the dream. All through the day, while he processed the orders that came through on the TeleStore computer and made sure that the correct packages were dispatched to the correct addresses, Joey couldn't shake from his head the dream's closing image: the gaping box, the lining of flesh-red quilted satin, the absence of any indication that his mother had lain there for even a second. Likewise at his evening job at the bar on Wiltshire Street, there was not a minute, not even during the headlong rush of happy hour, when he did not think of the coffin's mocking emptiness.
During a lull he mentioned the dream to Adrienne, the bar manageress, who was into horoscopes and prediction and all that malarkey. She nodded authoritatively as he described the dream to her. "It's a classic guilt/anxiety manifestation," she explained. "The empty coffin symbolises the loneliness you feel. The red lining symbolises your pain and grief, which are still unresolved. The fact that you dug her up means that you're trying to confront your dilemma, bringing your subconscious uncertainties to light." She smiled, glad to be of service. "Does that help?"
"Yes," he said. "It does. Thanks."
But it didn't help. Not one bit.
The trouble was, Joey could no longer remember his mother's face clearly. This had obsessed him all day, the obsession deepening as the day wore on and the work became more and yet more numbingly dull. In vain he racked his brain for an image of his mother that didn't involve her lying in a hospital bed with eyes full of fear and almost no flesh on her body. He tried to recall how she had looked when he was a child, and nothing came. He tried to think of a hairstyle, a shade of lipstick, a favourite item of clothing, anything that might jog his memory. No use. Any recollections he might have had of his mother before she fell ill had been supplanted by the image of the pitiful thing that had pleaded with him in the hospital, clutching a House of Lazarus leaflet in one skeletal hand. He could barely even remember what she had looked like then. His mother had become almost completely associated with an emotion, and that emotion was disgust, and the disgust smeared everything in dark, obscuring hues that hid facial features, expressions, gestures, kindness, love.
At midnight, when the bar closed, Joey mopped the floor, bagged the empties and left them out on the pavement for the recycling lorry, and then did not take the bus home. Instead, he took the bus across town to the House of Lazarus.
The receptionist was mildly surprised to see him, but no less displeased for that. This time she remembered his name straight away (it had, after all, been only a day since he had last visited). This made Joey feel uncomfortable. He preferred the formality of anonymity.
"Your mother will be delighted," the receptionist said. She obviously felt that, in successfully persuading Joey to come to the House of Lazarus more often, she had done her job well.
An orderly Joey didn't recognise took him through to the chamber. This man had either previously worked in a funeral parlour or else had decided that a sepulchral voice and a funereal pallor were appropriate to the job at hand. He talked with his lips alone. The rest of his face stayed completely immobile, like a wax death-mask.
"Sir is familiar with the arrangements here?" he enquired as Joey sat himself down.
"Sir is," Joey replied, fitting on the headset.
"Then," said the orderly, tapping a last few instructions into his portable console, "have a most enjoyable conversation."
There were perhaps no more than three dozen living souls in the entire chamber (not counting the fifty thousand sealed in their sub-zero halfway-houses), and while Joey waited for his mother's voice to manifest itself in the headphones, he looked around until he located the customer who was sitting closest to the door marked "STRICTLY PRIVATE", through which the orderlies came and went as required. The customer was an old lady with whom bereavement clearly agreed. She was talking animatedly into the headset mic, stopping only to listen briefly and laugh before continuing her side of the dialogue.
When he heard the first muffled murmurings of his mother's voice, he hit the Mute button on the chair's armrest, slid the volume control down to zero, and started to talk quietly.
"I know you can't hear me, Mum. If it's any consolation, I can't hear you either. I'm sorry about this. It must be very confusing for you. You're probably wondering what's gone wrong. You're probably complaining bitterly. I'm sorry. This is just something I have to do "
All the while, as he apologised to thin air, his attention was focused on the old woman. He was waiting for her to finish her conversation and hit "Disconnect" with her gnarled old finger, which would automatically summon an orderly.
And at last, after about five minutes, the woman began gathering her belongings together, settling her handbag on her lap in readiness to leave. One final goodbye, and then her hand went to the armrest.
Joey snatched off his headset and got to his feet.
He hadn't had a plan when he had taken the bus here instead of going home. He had simply been obeying an instinct, an urge. And even now, when he was about to take action, he still didn't have a plan. He was extemporising, using situation and circumstance to get him where he wanted to be: on the other side of the wall. For, he believed, on the other side lay the means of reaching Drawer 41 in Stack 339, and not just reaching the drawer but opening the drawer and looking into the drawer.
It was the dream that had done it. The dream had in fact supplied the answer to its own question: the coffin had been empty because Joey could no longer remember how his mother had looked. Adrienne had been wrong. The coffin represented his memory. And so he had to see his mother's face again. It was no longer enough just to hear her voice, to talk to her and listen to the disembodied replies coming from an electric void. He had to fix her features once more in his mind. He had to see her once more in the flesh. This was something which a standard burial did not allow but which the House of Lazarus made possible (or so the dream had seemed to be telling him, if a little obliquely). All he had to do was get to the drawer, pull it open, take a good long look, and he was sure he would never forget her face again.
He was already moving towards the door when an orderly came out to shut down the old woman's relative. The orderly nodded politely to Joey as he passed, no doubt thinking Joey was merely making his way to the main exit. The door crept shut on a slow sigh of its pneumatic spring, and just as it was about to close Joey stepped nimbly into the gap, holding the door back long enough to slither through.
He found himself in a white corridor that reverberated with the throb of all the hardware overhead. About ten yards along, set into the left-hand wall, was a door which Joey presumed led to the place where the orderlies waited when they weren't attending to customers. Opposite it was another door, marked "WC". At the end of the corridor, about thirty yards away, was a lift.
Joey was almost certain that he had not been spotted sneaking in behind the orderly's back, but he couldn't afford to hang around, just in case he had not been as stealthy as he had thought. (Even now the orderly could be tapping in his door-code, alerted by some vigilant customer.) He set off along the corridor at a loping jog-trot, scarcely able to believe that he had had the audacity and the opportunity to get this far. He was on the other side of the wall. The lift would surely provide access to each and every drawer. He was going to see his mother again!
He smacked the button to summon the lift, and the heavy doors trundled open. He was just about to enter the lift when the lavatory door back down the corridor opened on a crescendo of flushing water. Joey froze, and then, realising that this was precisely what he shouldn't be doing, skipped smartly across the threshold of the lift. Turning to face the control panel, he caught sight of an orderly in the corridor. It was the same funereal fellow who had assisted him earlier. Blindly Joey hit the first button his fingers found. At the same instant the orderly turned and caught sight of him. A startled look discomposed the man's waxy features.
"Hey! What are you --?"
The lift doors closed, cutting off the rest of the question.
The lift ascended swiftly. Of the three floor-levels listed on the control panel -- Ground, Maintenance and Administration -- Joey had, more by luck than judgement, pressed the button for the one he needed: Maintenance. When the lift hissed to a halt, the doors opened to reveal a gantry that travelled parallel with the wall, running some twenty feet above the ground floor. Like almost everything else Joey could see on this side of the wall, the gantry was painted white.
In front of Joey the drawers rose in their stacks, much as they did on the side he was already familiar with. The stacks stretched in both directions as far as the eye could see, and the mechanical hum was just as prevalent here. The major difference was that on this side the drawers were serviced by hydraulic cranes. In the distance two of them were moving with a slow and stately gracefulness up and down and along the stacks, each carrying a white-clad orderly in its cherry-picker. The cherry-pickers paused at each drawer to allow the orderlies to run diagnostic checks. Watching the two long mechanical arms rising and falling, Joey thought of a pair of long-necked dinosaurs engaged in some elegant, elaborate courting ritual.
Behind him the lift doors suddenly rolled shut and the lift began to descend. It required no great stretch of the imagination to deduce that the funereal orderly had raised the alarm. Joey realised he must move quickly now.
His gaze alighted on the nearest crane, which was parked a few
yards along from where he was standing, its cherry-picker stationed
adjacent to the gantry railing. A sign on the railing said:
The next thing Joey knew, he was standing in the cherry-picker and examining its control panel. The On switch was easy to find, and once the small display lit up, operating the crane was simply a matter of following the onscreen prompts as they appeared. He tapped in the location of his mother's stack and drawer, then pressed Enter. The crane obediently began to move. First it extended forwards until Joey was within arm's reach of the wall. Then it began to glide horizontally past the drawers, heading for Stack 339. Joey noted that each drawer was fitted with an access panel and a rotating handle that was marked off by a hazard-striped circle. So much more convenient than digging through dirt, he thought. A twist and turn of the handle, and the drawer would slide smoothly open, and there she would be.
A shout from the gantry brought his head snapping round.
"You! What the hell do you think you're doing?" It was an orderly with an electronic clipboard. He was standing wide-legged on the gantry, with a look of outrage and incredulity on his face. "You're not qualified to operate that!"
"I'm going to see my mother," Joey replied straightforwardly.
Just then the lift arrived to disgorge another three orderlies, including the funereal one.
"There he is!" the funereal one shouted. His pale cheeks were flushed. Two pinks circles glowed unhealthily against his pure white pallor.
"Come back here at once," said the orderly with the clipboard, striding along the gantry now, keeping pace with the progress of the cherry-picker.
"I pay to keep her here," Joey said to him. "I break my back to make enough fucking money to keep her here. So I'll fucking well see her if I fucking well want to."
"But you don't understand," said the orderly. "The seal. If you break the cryogenic seal, the physiological shock could kill her."
Joey shook his head calmly. "I just want to take a look at her. It'll only be for a moment. She'll be fine." He turned back to face the wall. The crane halted abruptly, and for a few heart-deadening, hope-dashing seconds Joey thought it had broken down -- either that, or the orderlies had a means of overriding its controls. Then the cherry-picker began to move again, this time vertically. He had reached Stack 339 and was rising.
"Somebody go and fetch Mr Lazarus," the clipboard orderly said, and there was the sound of running feet clanging on metal.
"Mr Delgado?" said the funereal orderly. He was pleading now. "Please come back down. I don't think you have any idea what you're doing."
Ignoring him, Joey gazed upwards.
"I'm coming, Mum," he said. "I'm coming to see you."
Gordon Lazarus was there when they finally managed to bring the crane back down from near the top of Stack 339. And it was Lazarus who first stepped into the cherry-picker, in which Joey was sitting hunched, his legs drawn up to his chest, his hands fisted beneath his chin, his gaze fixed somewhere on eternity.
Recognising the voice of the founder and proprietor of the House of Lazarus, Joey stirred.
"Come with me."
Meekly Joey stood up and allowed himself to be taken by the hand and led back onto the gantry, through the crowd of a dozen or so orderlies that had gathered, into the lift and up to Administration. All the while Lazarus talked soothingly, encouragingly, reassuringly to him. In the commercial, Lazarus had come across as cold and vaguely insincere, but in the flesh he seemed genuinely caring. His dark suit stood out among all the eye-watering whiteness. Joey found it strangely restful to look at that suit, when everything else was so painfully white.
Lazarus sat Joey down in his office -- not the office shown on television. This was an altogether more functional place, rather like mission control for a space flight, fitted out with the very latest in communications technology. The chairs were comfortable but not extravagantly so. The desk was broad and spacious, but skeletally constructed from plastic and steel, not wood. There were no pictures on the walls and no windows.
Lazarus asked Joey if he would like a drink, and when Joey didn't reply, poured him one anyway. The chunky tumbler, quarter-full of whisky, sat heavily in Joey's unfeeling fingers. Lazarus poured himself a drink, too, and then sat on the edge of the desk and began talking. Explaining things. First he talked about faith. The transfiguring power of faith, the absolute necessity of faith when all else fails. Then he started talking about the unfeasibility of cryogenics, how it was impossible for complex organic systems to survive prolonged exposure to sub-zero conditions, and how for this reason cryogenics would always remain an unrealisable dream. Joey didn't quite understand what Lazarus was saying. Wasn't that the entire principle on which the House of Lazarus was based -- keeping the dead alive on ice? So what was the deal here? Then Lazarus started using phrases such as "connectionist networks" and "subcognitive modules", "rule-based symbol manipulation" and "Gödel's theorems about enclosed formal systems". None of these would have meant anything to Joey even if he had been thinking straight, but when Lazarus said the words "artificial intelligence", Joey remembered what he had discovered in the drawer that was supposed to contain his mother's body, and things began to fall into place.
After he had talked some more, Lazarus fell silent, obviously expecting a reply. When none came, he spoke again: "Well, Joseph. I've said all I've got to say. I've been as honest as I can. The question now is, what are you going to do?"
Joey made several hoarse false starts before finally finding his voice. "I don't know."
"Are you going to go to the police with this information? The media? I have to know, Joseph. It determines how I deal with you."
"She was just wires and chipboards and a hard drive and --"
"But she's real, isn't she, Joseph?" Lazarus said, with a glint in his eye. "She's real to you. That's what counts."
Joey couldn't deny the truth of that statement. "What did you do with the body?" he asked.
"We gave her a proper send-off."
Joey looked at Lazarus doubtfully.
"I swear," said Lazarus. "We employ a multi-denominational priest full-time at our private crematorium. I'm not a monster, Joseph. I have a healthy respect for the dead. After all, one day I'm going to join that club myself. But you still haven't answered my question."
"I don't know what I'm going to do," Joey said finally. "I need some time to think."
"I can't give you time, Joseph," said Lazarus, glancing at his wristwatch as if considering whether it might not actually be conceivable for him to shave off a portion of the universe's relentless tick-tock and hand it to Joey. "Time is the one thing I do not have. If you are prepared to be reasonable with me, however, I can make you an offer."
"An offer?" said Joey.
"A very generous offer. As I said, I'm no monster."
And Lazarus explained.
"Mr Delgado. How good to see you again."
Joey was such a regular these days, perhaps the receptionist's smiling familiarity wasn't feigned after all. And now that he had privileged-customer status and was entitled to talk to his mother for however long he wanted, free, her smile seemed less patronising, more deferential.
"Go on through."
Into the chamber of gleaming steel drawers. Into the mechanical exhalation of thousands of fans, chilling the skin, bringing a tincture of winter to the air -- a marvellously bogus touch, the confirmation of a mass preconception, like a stage magician's cape and wand.
Stack 339. Drawer 41.
And telling her everything he had done that day, everything he was doing tomorrow.
"I'm thinking of moving. I've applied to the Council for a transfer. They say the chances are good."
Building up a life for himself. For her.
"Still looking for a new job, but there's enough left from the money Dad left us to tide me over."
Some of it false, but most of it real, and the real encroaching on the false day by day.
"I've found someone. You'd like her. I'll bring her along some time so you can meet her."
Because all along, without his realising it, he had needed his mother just as much as he had believed she had needed him.
"I'm happy now, Mum."
Because he hadn't wanted her to die any more than she herself had wanted to die.
"Honestly I am."
And because sometimes an illusion is so enchanting, so alluring, so life-enhancing, it is infinitely preferable to the truth.
"And I'm glad that you are, too."
Isn't that so?
© James Lovegrove 1997, 1998.
first appeared in Destination Unknown (Borealis, 1997).
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