It was spare land and not an area that you could have ever imagined being put to any active use. Around the side of a church – one of those that had deteriorated into a community centre in the 1990s – there was some pink gravel, a dustbin, a layout of faded paving stones where the gravel ceased, and a lone tree to make the space look less excruciatingly naked. Out onto the gravel, my new boss, Claud, had lately poured a small forest. There were around fifty conifers, in wire pods, stacked horizontally.
A sample had been released from their pods and exhibited for our customers to choose from. When each conifer was fanned out, it looked miraculously clean and it had its own beautiful and amazingly precise snowflake structure. If we had unwrapped all of the pods, we would have indeed had a pop-up forest, spilling out across the crossroads in front of the church and stretching up to the doors of the cottages on the far side.
I had only the dimmest impression in my mind of this forest’s native circumstances. All of these trees had been assumedly grown on a hillside somewhere out on undulating moorland. Customers occasionally asked me from where our stock was “sourced” and if they looked like they could be safely trusted with a joke, I would reveal that we grew our trees neatly, in rows, on the dark side of the moon.
We turn up at around midday and the trading begins shortly afterwards. There are currently three of us: myself, who looks after the cash for Claud; and Lucasz and Cenzo, who variously unwrap and rewrap the conifers. There has never been a woman on our team and I sometimes wonder what it is that we do to deter them from applying. They probably do not feel safe around us, fancying that they can detect some sinister undercurrent beneath our emotionless, rather Oompa Loompa-ish camaraderie.
Claud trusts me with the cash, seeing that I am one of those old retail workers who have been by now completely deprogrammed of any instinct to unpeel a layer from the notes and bundle it away furtively into my own pocket. I am like a vet for whom it is second nature never to get nipped.
Lucasz is a sleepy man in his mid-forties – the kind who gets automatically bored with any job after three weeks. Most of the conscious interest had already faded from his eyes. Cenzo is Italian and very young, with a yelping voice that is constantly rearing and plunging. His fountain of harmless lyrical noise has long since faded out of my ears but yesterday I was suddenly tuning back in again sharply. It was just after trade had started and he had shouted out in a peculiarly stony and level voice that I had never heard in his register before.
He and Lucasz had been making a fresh incision into the stockpiled trees, in order to top up the vertical display, when a dead body had flopped at their feet. It had been dislodged from a gap deep in the pile. A shabby old man, an imposter amongst the conifers, roughly the same size but the wrong colour. He was wearing an ancient grey trenchcoat; he was messily covered in stringy black hair that flowed from the top of his head; and most of his body was as blackened as a neglected Victorian building. Death had not yet begun gnawing on him and he had none of that sickly honey smell that the dead soon pick up. At some point over the previous night he had obviously tried to cuddle up amongst the conifers, thinking that they would insulate him from the histrionic cold. Or maybe he had suffocated in their united pine perfume – I sometimes struggle myself.
“Cenzo,” I said rebukingly, in the ringing voice of an unimpressed schoolteacher. “This is hardly an example.”
Lucasz was pattering about inside the man’s trenchcoat, searching for a pulse, but he gave up before he found one. The man’s eyes were hanging open and fundamentally extinct of life.
“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” Cenzo was blinking and snorting. He spun around too alertly, as if death was still hanging about the spot and might tap him on the shoulder.
“Supposing that you one day walk into a pub,” I argued, “and as soon as you are inside, you are met with a scene of unmitigated chaos. The corner of the room is on fire, with flames racing up the curtains. There is a gang of people fighting with knives in front of the bar. A gigantic dog with blazing red eyes is running around biting people. But then you look over at the bar staff. They are relaxed and chatting with other. ‘Ah,’ you think, ‘this is normal here. Everything is okay.’ So you order a drink and go to sit down.”
“He’s dead!” Cenzo yelled at me, thrusting out his chest and stamping his foot, as if he was impatiently trying to rouse me into the same hysteria as himself.
“My point is that none of our customers will panic if we ourselves remain calm. Prop that body over there against the steps, clear of the Christmas trees.” Perhaps we would end up selling the dead man half-price, as an artificial tree. I imagined a partially-sighted elderly couple purchasing him by mistake, planting him in a pot of earth in their living room, and dangling baubles from his stringy hair.
There was no bag in amongst the conifers, but I later found the inevitable tattered suitcase, stewing full of dirty clothes, behind the dustbin. When the agents from the mortuary arrived, I tried to press the suitcase upon them but they refused to touch it. Somebody would need to go through all of the dirty clothes, looking for an item of significance. It was evident that the dead man did not possess two coins to put over his eyes, but there might have been an unsent letter to some lost adult children or a medal that had been once handled briefly by the Queen. Who, though, had the right to delve into this suitcase? Whose mind was solemnly priestly and unprurient enough to carry out the necessary prying? I left the suitcase standing hopefully on the pavement outside the church.
Cenzo was too young to sense it, but I think that the same feeling was stirring and rising within both Lucasz and myself, the feeling that at these dire, draining moments begins to cavort around men of our age and class like a tiny, irascible dog. The awareness that if we miss a step on the ladder – that if there is some major error in our bodies and we need to take several months off work – that if there is not enough cash in our bank accounts at the end of the month for the rent – that there is then no total guarantee given that we too will not tumble amazingly into the same raw situation that this deceased gentleman had found himself in. The haunting feeling that is not quite guilt but something smaller – that it is not altogether impossible that we too will one day become homeless.
Homelessness is like a monster that is always there and always silently watching and you can never make sincere bargains with it and it is startlingly unpicky about who it swallows. We also know that very few people are ever regurgitated whole.
Later, my spirits were refreshed again when my friend Tori and her boyfriend Toby stopped by at the forest. They live in a different universe from the one in which homeless people die alone, albeit one in which everybody is always cheerfully borrowing small amounts of money from each other. “Can you give us a tree on mate’s rates?” Tori demanded bluntly.
“She means for free,” Toby nodded. He is a discharged solider and whenever I see him taking part in civilian life, he looks bemused and eternally unsurprised, like an adult who has consented to take part in a children’s party game. He was glancing around at my conifers with his usual conspicuous, private drollery.
“I don’t see why not. We never seriously count the stock – indeed, we leave them all lying here overnight. People probably come and lift them.”
I told them about the dead man. I realised that I had until now assumed, inexplicably, that the man had been Irish. If he had been restored to life, there was no earthly reason why he would not have spoken to me in Polish.
Tori listened without interest or commentary. Next she was advising me that myself and my men should be giving away mulled wine. “I might buy a tree if there was mulled wine,” she reasoned pointedly. From over her shoulder, Toby scrunched as much sarcastic exasperation as was possible into his face.
“Are you taking a tree?” I reminded them. “I did say that you could have one.”
Toby shook his head. “We’re doing this new thing this year. We have this app on our phones.” He began to show me. “It’s designed for people who are bored with Christmas and who want to take a year off, a year in which they do everything totally different. So the app generates completely random rituals and traditions. We’ve been given a long list of things to do.”
I looked down at the list and it was certainly very long. They were going to procure gazelle chops from a specialist butcher and eat them with hazelnut jam. They had to fashion a town scene out of marzipan and eat a different figurine made out of cake and jam every hour across the day, whenever a particular bell tolled. They had to sing carols with wonky, flimsy-sounding lyrics that the app had generated. They had to line their windowsills with moss and hang turnips from the ceiling with candles fitted into them. The presents were to be fired out of miniature, cardboard, spring-operated cannons. And so on. The absence of any reference to Christ’s nativity made these ceremonies seem depressingly lifeless, as though they were being enacted on a planet without any oxygen.
“Well, we have to get going,” Tori decided. “There’s still so much to organise.”
Firmly, I wished them a Merry Christmas.