PROSE: Monologue of the gravedigger by Clare Azzopardi

Monologue of the gravedigger
Copyright Gilbert Calleja
Translated by Albert Gatt

 So I tell Ġiljan once, I say, there’s no way I’m putting on a tie, not in this heat, it would kill me dammit, but he says no fucking way Ġuż, you’ve just got to, go on now and get dressed, and change that jacket, that one’s for down below, up here, you wear something different... Jesus Christ, how many times must I tell you, we’ve got de Piro de Celis lined up for today, an eminence he was, know what I’m saying? Couldn’t care less, to tell the truth. Thing is, every time there’s someone of the de Piro de Celis ilk I’ve got to put the fucking thing on, stew in the sun and it don’t help that these de thingy folk insist on giving up the ghost in summer.

Me, I don’t really give a fuck ‘bout who and what and wherefore. Got my box and my trowel, is all, and I’ll dump you in there, feet first, head first, makes no difference, you’re dead aren’t you, not really going to mind either way. I mean all the weeping and the pomp and the poses, handkerchiefs, salutations, prayers... give us the guy we need to bury and let’s get on with it say I... Ġiljan, though, he thought different.

And then again, round here people aren’t all the same. Oh no. Not even after you’ve given up the ghost. There’s some get buried in Section A and some get buried in Section B. Some get put in the upper com-par-ta-men-to, the one right at the very top. Others, they find their way to the bottom. Even for the gravedigger, there’s jackets and then there’s jackets. There’s shoes and then there’s a different kind of shoes. The really incredible thing though .... guess which ones tend to slip you a couple quid after the burial? Ha! A no-brainer that one.

No equality round here, is what Ġiljan used to say, a difficult word that, but you need to get your head around it once you start to work here, meaning people aren’t all the same, though after that it’s all in God’s hands ... Round here, it depends on how much you’ve got ... get that into your head. You need to understand this, Ġiljan used to say. After all, in life, there’s some was lawyers and some was tilling the fields, and you don’t expect the guy who tilled the fields to lie beside the lawyer. You know?

Ġiljan himself would be different in the compartamento A, forget about getting his ham sandwiches with him, oh no, that wasn’t on in the posh area ... and he’d make the sign of the cross (now the guy was no believer, I know, ‘cause he said once he’d sort of lost his faith ever since starting to work here), and he’d make a show of being really sorry, and then we’d lower the coffin nice and slowly in comparatemento A, and he’d make me go down into the hole so he’d stay up there all visible, and he wouldn’t raise his voice with me, calm as the dead guy in the coffin (mind you, I’d still get it from him once everybody’d left), up there for all to see, see what a classy gravedigger I am. And whenever he got slipped a couple quid I’d hear him say oh sir you shouldn’t, this is my job after all, even as he raised the palm of his left hand and then: he’ll be in my prayers sir, the gentleman here was a great man, a great man, may the lord rest his soul. All of this as he shoved the money into his pocket and none for yours truly, no siree, he’d even force me to wait around until everyone had left (not something we do often, just when it’s some important guy), head bowed reading the fucking verbiage that these people who’ve had a fair bit of schooling know how to write so well.

So I ask him once, I say how comes the bishops never get buried here? Aren’t we ever going to bury a bishop? Wouldn’t mind burying a bishop, I’ve buried all kinds, save for a bishop. But it’s the same old story all over again, same as with the lawyer and the farmer, you know, he said those ones get buried inside the cathedral so even the tourists get to visit their graves and so God can keep an eye on them the whole time, ‘cause over here, as he used to say, there ain’t no gods over here in this cemetery, just you and me and the watchman, is what he used to say, and we’re always waiting for the government to issue a new post ‘cause there’s far too much to do just for the two of us.

Sometimes I can’t help wondering just how many more people this bloody place is going to be able to take. They all want to be buried here. I don’t know, there’s I don’t know how many thousands waiting for a fucking permit to get their family tomb, willing to pay thousands for it. Six thousand, I ask you. For a tomb. Size of a garage. Oh sure, good deal that, money spent on a corpse instead of a nice garage for a spanking new car. I don’t know what’s going to happen in a few years. And then again, this government’s refusing to issue permits. Which sort of makes sense if you think about it, there being no space left. So there’s some three thousand waiting, and it’s going to be a hell of a long wait, until they die. Not that I can be arsed.

I’ve got a solution, mind you. Burn them and give the ashes to the families to take home. Church should make this a rule. Anyone that dies gets burnt ‘cause there’s no place to bury them. I mean, there’s barely enough room for us to live on this little rock, let alone bury the dead. In which case, I’d just pack up and go home, no need for the likes of me anymore. Wouldn’t complain, mind you.

That’s what they do abroad, is what Ġiljan told me, throw them into the fire and put the ashes in a small jar, give it to the family to take home and put on a windowsill with a flower and a lighted candle. Ġiljan also told me about this woman (she wasn’t Maltese, mind you, Malta’s way backward in that respect, haven’t moved on much since whatsisface ruled the roost, chap with the big buckle my dad used to call him, he’s the one who held this country up) ... Anyway. So this woman, somewhere in the States I think, loved her husband so much that after he died, she took his ashes home in a jar and began to sprinkle a little over her meal everyday. Went on for about six months, until she’d used up the lot. Then it was her turn to die. Dunno if they burnt her too, maybe ate her and died, the lot of them.

Me, I want them to burn me when I die. I mean, I wouldn’t want to be buried here, not after working here all these years. Burn me and take me home, I’ll tell ‘em, that way I can haunt you in the night, drive you nuts even after I’m gone. They’ll just tell me to go to hell, mind you.

One time, a while back, Ġiljan says what’s that you got there? Happens I’ve this mp3 player, you know, one of my mates’d put a couple hundred songs on it. It’s just that when I started here, this place was getting to me, all the silence. I couldn’t get used to it so I brought the thing along with me. Let’s have a look, he goes, and he took the headphones out of my ears, and I’m going Ġil, it’s not really your cup of tea, but he goes whaat?, you don’t know my cup of tea, who d’you think you’re talking to? So he listens for a while and then goes, I know who this guy is, I know him, ‘course I do, only I can’t remember his name, but he was a great singer, and he died a while back and he’s buried in Paris. That’s what he said, Paris, in this big cemetery, bigger than the whole of Malta, where millions of people are buried, and he said this singer’s buried there too, millions of people visit his grave every year, bringing flowers. So I made up my mind to go there one of these days, and die there and leave a note saying I want to be buried next to this famous singer in the big cemetery in Paris. As long as I’m not buried in bloody Addolorata. Come to think of it, I think now we’ve joined the European Union, I get to choose where I want to be buried, right? I mean, there’s people get the choice of where to go and work, where to live, so I’m guessing I get to choose where I get put under. So I choose to be buried in the big cemetery in Paris, and no one’ll gainsay that, or I’ll put them in their place, see if I don’t.

One day, some time after I’d started working with Ġiljan, he said, d’you want to hear a story? And I go, what story? Not the ones with Ġaħan The Fool in them? Not Ġaħan, he goes, this one’s a story that few people know, but since you’re in the graveyard racket, you ought to know it my friend. So we sit down under a tree in the commoners’ area and he gets started. Once upon a time, he said, here in Malta, there was this Architect, wee little chap, but with a head like a rock. He said this Architect had a dream which he was prepared to go to great lengths for, and would let no one stand in his way. His dream was to rule over Malta and the Maltese people. Now, Ġiljan said, at about the same time Malta had an Archbishop, a tall, wiry sort of chap, very outspoken. This Archbishop too had a dream – he wanted to be the one who kept Malta and the Maltese people on the straight and narrow. Now, at the time, Malta was ruled by the beautiful Queen, who’d had a grip on the country for over a hundred years. It wasn’t going to be easy for the Architect to get his way. And anyway, the Architect’s dream was only every going to come true if the other guy threw in the towel, which wasn’t going to happen any time soon, no siree. So it came to pass that the Architect and the Archbishop went to war with each other, and the people were split right down the middle, half of them would cheer for the Architect, the other half for the Archbishop. There were those as would light their candle for the Archbishop, and those as would do it for the Architect.

The war went on for many years. The people fought and struggled and raged and stormed. For many years, the Archbishop had the upper hand, but The Architect wouldn’t give up, he knew that victory would one day be his. And then, Ġiljan continued, one fine day the Architect and the Archbishop got together, locked themselves away in a room and talked and argued for hours on end over things that nobody can understand, insulted each other and talked some more until the moon rose over the land. And then they emerged, smiling, hand in hand. The war was over, they’d signed a truce and nobody knew how or why, the people were stunned and angry because they wanted an explanation, but they got over it soon enough and began to cheer for both the Architect and the Archbishop. The Queen was pleased as well. The Architect took over the kingdom and ruled for many years, until the people were sick and tired of him and turned against him.

So, Ġiljan went on, why am I telling you all this? Here’s why. See, in those days, even the cemetery was divided, one part was for them as cheered for the Architect, the other was for the Archbishop’s people. And seeing as you work in this place, you’ve got to understand this, my friend, he said. During wartime, a wall stood between them, though they tore it down when the Architect took over. But, he went on, if you’re ever down there and something doesn’t seem to be quite right, that’s probably ‘cause one of them souls is still roaming about.

So I made up my mind never to go down there at all, seeing as I’m not really cut out for the spooky stuff.

So anyway, burying a destitute isn’t something you do everyday, but it’s not unheard of either. Me, I think it’s the best way to go, despite the stench of death and the man or woman’s body stinking to high heaven. Ġiljan always said that destitutes stink more than other people ‘cause they stay longer in the morgue. The doctors wait for a couple days to see if someone’s going to turn up to claim the body, but nobody does (which is why they’re called destitutes, is my guess), so they stink the place out when they get here. But that’s the way to go, far’s I’m concerned. All I want’s a simple little box, a wee cross and the priest saying a few prayers, and that’s me. No weeping and no ceremonies. If I ever have a little girl that’s what I’ll say to her, I’ll say look sweetie forget the weeping and the ceremonies and fuck knows what else, keep it simple for me, keep it quiet, just like a destitute’s funeral.

But Ġiljan thought nobody would want to die like that, ‘cause it’s no good if no one’s there to mourn you, and this is one of the reasons I couldn’t figure Ġiljan out sometimes, cause he’d blurt out something like this, something really stupid, just like the Prime Minister. Look mate, I’d say, you’ve no idea what a money racket the whole thing is, what with the holy pictures and the cards, the flowers, the candles, the mass, the undertakers, the priest, the hearse, the taxis, a beautiful, shining coffin (which gets bumped about by yours truly soon as it gets here), a marble headstone or a monument. Sure, mate, and so what if someone’s there to mourn you? So who’s going to mourn you, Ġiljan? I would ask. Ġiljan wasn’t married, you see. I don’t think he’d ever fallen in love, ‘cept for this Konċetta who’s been dead since 1901. I’d often see him linger over her grave, I think he fell in love with the photograph and probably had never loved anybody in his life. And my guess is she wasn’t married, but came from a well-off family. And I even heard him talk to her once or twice.

But he never said a word about Konċetta. The only thing he said was that, if possible, he wouldn’t like to be buried like a destitute, so I’d put his mind at rest, saying I’d be here, seeing as I was the younger one, whereas Konċetta (who’s been here a good long while in any case, and isn’t going anywhere fast)... but then I’d bite this tongue of mine and say nothing about Konċetta, we’d had a row over Konċetta once, and I nearly got a turn in the charnel house.

The thing I really enjoy is cleaning out the graves. I’m always the one who gets to go down into the grave itself, dammit, and seeing as I’m so full of shit, I’d always get him to believe that the goner was still alive. Like, Ġil, fuck me, this guy’s still alive! He’d always swallow it. I’d go down there with my Vileda gloves and the dustpan and a basket. Armed to the teeth. And while I’d be down there picking up the bones and such, I’d start saying things like wonder what sort of a big-head this one was? And there I am cleaning the grave out, dumping stuff into the basket, giving the rope a tug so Ġiljan would raise the lot. Clothes first, then the bones, and so on, you get the idea. I like to see what brand of clothes they dressed the corpse up in for the burial. Ġiljan always said I was a malingering git, but I’d say he was just scared ‘cause he’d never been inside a grave himself. He would reply that he’d done this loads of times, had had it up to here, so now it was my turn but... Ġil, Ġil, this guy’s woken up! What shall I do now? He’s up, Ġil, he is...

And then, it’s the First of November, and the thing I really hate is having to bury the foetuses of those women who had some complication, so their kid was stillborn. All that crying and screaming. Not that I blame the poor women. I mean, put yourself in that situation: you’ve had a child and it gave up the ghost after about ten weeks. But you’re told you can’t bury the thing, no sirree, you need to wait between six months and a year, until they’ve got enough foetuses to bury all at once. So you can just imagine how these women feel. And then they just put ‘em in a bag with a label and freeze them. And I feel for these women, I must admit. But then again, it’s not like we’re just sitting around doing bugger all here, they’ve got to understand that, we’ve no time to give a burial to every single foetus, know what I mean? So anyway, that’s the thing that bothers me most, and I told Ġiljan this once, but he said there’s nothing should bother me, ‘cause once things start bothering me, I might as well just pack it in.

Another time I tell Ġiljan, I say, abroad, they take the dead on a motorbike to be buried, and he’s like, Whaaat? Look, mate, are you out of your mind? But it’s true, I say, they’re taking them on a motorbike, which mind you I thought was a pretty good idea for Malta, what with the traffic you get and all. And I told him, I said look, I’ve decided I want my body to be taken on a motorbike when I die, ‘cause knowing my luck there won’t be a single hearse available to take me, they’ll all be in use, or half of them will have broken down, and motorbikes are easy to get hold of, and then again I’m not a very big guy, so there won’t be such a heavy load to carry, and if anyone finds this funny when I tell ‘em, I’ll just say that’s how it’s done abroad. And that’s when I looked over at Ġiljan and saw that he was in fits, and he says look, over here we’re still in the dark ages, you know, we’re barely past the time when Deserta was the only chocolate you could sink your teeth into, and that’s why all we’ve got is these old hearses, and it’s all we can do to get them to issue licenses for the newfangled ones, let alone for motorbikes. And actually, sometimes Ġiljan is really spot on. Eh, mate?

Got my best jacket on for you, my best shoes, tie as well. Thank the God who’s meant to be up there, you chose to die in winter, Ġil. You deserve no less, mind you, though you did get up my nose a fair number of times, you deserve to be handled with respect by the gravedigger, all that respect I’ve never really had for other folk. Maybe now’s the time to look up your Konċetta, mate, and maybe now’s the time for them to send another chap round these parts. Fuck that, let’s not get started on that, it’s only now they’ve issued the call for applications, fucking bastard, didn’t want to pay an extra salary, the bastard, devil take him. As for me, I’m working overtime, fancy that, since when have I done any overtime. Fuck knows, but you know what, mate, I think the time’s approaching for me to pack it in myself. Eh, Ġiljan, what d’you say?

Acknowledgement This is an extract from the play L-Interdett taht is-Sodda, first published in Maltese by Merlin Library (2010).

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