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Dearly Beloved (In defence of the group cuddle) by Mitchell Miller The Etruscans, no. DH Lawrence You might think that I am a jolly sort – jocund, as they say – simply because I have been smiling for nearly two millennia. And surely, are you not also associating fatness with such a predisposition – the belly wobbling as I laugh, deep, loud and unconcerned? The jolly man forever stuffing his face, making a joke as he waves a boars leg in the air, the punchline emphasised by a loud, satisfied burp (maybe even a follow through). In his flab is manifest the evidence of a prolifigate man. It is true that my folds are not the unfortunate consequence of an energetic thyroid – my grandeur is not glandular, as my Egyptian doctor would say – ahaha. This fat arse comes from too much butter and a fondness for devils on horseback. But you misinterpret if you think I am at home here in some delightful corner of Arcadian real estate. I grin wide, knowingly, ingratiating yet self-satisfied but I would remind you that I can hardly help it – the pose was willed, and not, I stress, by me. I would like, for instance, to try a grimace, or to purse my lips into a small hole, or even just to relax into the natural line of my mouth – but my smirk as you can see, is perpetually thumbed into place by the best Hellenic experts – well, certainly the most expensive. Let me be as blunt then, as the digit of the Daedalus – I am dead, my wife is dead, we are all dead. I am smiling for their comfort – for your comfort. This, my friend, is the brave face. Touch it and see. Cold, aren’t we? So – Sssshhhh. Respect for the dead. Let’s see if I can tell you what you want. You, I see, are neither contentedly fat nor smiling, but weighed down by the cares of being uncertain about your life and death, and further weighted down by your position in society and what being socially responsible really means – or maybe you’re just pissed off at your father? Sick of burdens, of representing, although you understand the importance of what you do, managing the means of predilection. So I understand why you’re here, hopefully searching for your own precedent in this negative, cold, charnel space. I see you wonder, resentfully, what have I to be so jolly about, reclining over my own corpse? This, of course, is exactly what I’ve just been saying – but you can’t actually hear me, I think. Do I simply enjoy the pleasantly chubby wife who is curved into my armpit, sinking tyred into the recesses of my fat? The knowledge of my own material wealth? That’s joy isn’t it – simple, uncomplicated, sensual, material – no heavenly host to scare you.


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My material wealth is, as you can see, stuck down here with me and without much practical purpose. As for HER – to be honest, I can hardly bare to look – there once, it is true, was a time when I might lift my heavy arm, dust drifting off my elbow and cracks forming along my doughy biceps with the exertion, take the tip of her chin, and turn her face to mine, and look into her blank eyes and equally vacant grin, and try, despite the lack of pupils, to manage a suggestive glint that could draw her down onto her back. You might be surprised that even without a dick, I had a libido. But I could not stand it for long, her endless grin, the impenetrable smugness, not even a well-aimed slap across her shoogly cheeks could diminish it. But, hey, don’t get alarmed there china – that was back in the Victorian times, when we were all for that sort of behaviour – a sound, resounding fashion for the Spartan way. I kept, may I add, very strictly to the thumbs-width rule. Now, I never look at her unless I need something, and it has been some time since I ever felt the inclination to so much as move, never mind need. And still you look, hoping for something portentous in our unchanging, broad grins and tender posture. I must know something, you think, to be sitting here, so content (see above). Somewhere beyond the rim of the lips, where the teeth should be, is surely some sign of hope, golden fillings where my wisdom tooth would be. I can see it all in your far from satisfied expression – hungry, eager, sweat mixing with the dirt on your forehead, eyes bland in the fluorescent light as you reach out to me, inexplicably nervous and curl your hand around my shoulder – group hug! – and feel it cold, hard, turgid – and then you smile with a strange sense of relief, a grin as wide and complacent as mine. My wife finds you uncouth, (and thinks we should call the police) but you can’t hurt us. My body is not as soft and wobbly as it looks. Porous though, and it seems to me that this is what you want, coming here time after time and standing in front of us – trying to suck something of us in through your skin. I’ll tell you what though, I’ll try and help out – but

ssssshhhh See, I am not without sympathy – I too have stared earnestly in the hope of understanding something profound in the opaque, and saw nothing. It was an old custom to examine the livers of various animals in order to detect omens, portents and even the odd ide. There was a revival of that sort of thing a while back, not long after the crash in bucchero. The wife was well into it – she and her friends, bored of horoscopes, bought a book on augury and a set of kitchen knives, and would go to it every second Tuesday with some stray cats she’d paid the children to round up. For months, she kept tugging at my arm saying ‘the tabby-cat kidneys say you should sell all your stocks in amphorae’ or ‘Don’t take the flight to Thrace, there are bad tidings in the Chihuahua gallstones’ or some such nonsense. I was glad when the interest in traditional Etruscan pastimes faded, and everyone started buying Thracian Dreamcatchers instead. They were ridiculous things that moulted feathers everywhere, but otherwise, mercifully inert. She swore she slept better too, with it hanging above her, the daft bitch. But I was talking about portents – well, I never told the wife, but my grandmother could read the signs, and I learned from her how to scoop out the thyroid (active or not) or slip a knife into the stomach and extract the diaphragm – it was useful when I was preparing meat for the dogs. It wasn’t until the 20th year or so after I was set here, in permanent tender embrace with herself that I began to wonder about it. As I said, we’d long gotten sick of talking to each other, and boredom had long set in – I had spent a year playing with her dreadlocks, which at one time, could drive me wild with passion, but now, seemed ripe only for pulling. I’d given her a particularly nasty yank, so she elbowed me in the gut, pushing me right off the lid. Anyway, by this sort of behaviour you’ll have guessed that I was already unbelievably bored, and somehow I got back to thinking about my granny and all those games we’d play when I was younger – her with her big long knife, some wide-eyed bunny squirming on the kitchen table, and me holding up her charts for her to see. I wondered whether a bit of butchery could tell me anything about how long I’d have to sit here like this – why we hadn’t gone to heaven, why we stayed, in clay. I didn’t need a knife, just pulled my belly open, ignored the smell and rummaged through the coils of my intestines and pulled out the liver, to look at in the manner to which my people are accustomed. It was not so pretty – a bit yellow, somewhat atrophied and slimier than it should have been, with a greenish muck clogging some of its pores, but its condition meant very little to me – I wanted portents. Yet, with its slipperiness and the green ooze seeping out and covering everything, I couldn’t make sense of anything anymore, no matter how close I held it to my nose – in the end, I squeezed too tight and it popped out of my curled fist, up into the air and plopped down into the dust. I let it lie, not thinking that I might need

it again. To be honest though, I’ve managed fine without it. It’s not as if you can get anything but American beer and Chilean wine nowadays anyway, and I’m not so mobile that it’s worth shifting my backside off of this thing and down to the pub, although some of the men, even now, still do try and stay sociable. And then I wonder whether I didn’t imagine the incident of augury – after all I am made of clay and should be hollow as an urn. Sitting here, in the dark, in this little granny flat the daughter and her latest man made for us, it’s hard to know when you are awake or asleep, dead or just morbid. I can hazily recall other similar incidents– tugging at my intestines and ravelling their long coils around my wrist, looking at either end and finding not a sausage. I think I may have done this for all my vital organs trying to ‘get it’ – maybe THAT’S why I am resonant with every thump to my chest? Perhaps – all I can really tell you is this – I found nothing in my guts and nothing in my loins that has made me any wiser, and I’d say that you are unlikely to learn any more either, no matter how much you squint. Narrow your eyes, old son, and all you get are tears and lashes. As to the secrets of death and thus, the key to life I heard many of you speculate about, I haven’t a clue. I’ve tried you know – a long time ago I read underlined passages in books by the great philosophers, and later read the Saturnalia stocking fillers by not so great philosophers and got nowhere. I have tried the way of purity too – sat back on the train to Tarquinia, briefcase resting against my ankles, closed my eyes and tried to meditate – to find something purer beneath the accrued thoughts, fears, suspicions and memories. All I saw were spots flickering across my underlids. And then the conductor came and asked for my ticket. So much for inner peace. I don’t even remember if we died – I don’t even know if my grotty corpse is lying somewhere beneath my arse or not – I never could bear to look. You know, I really could be making all this stuff about augury and emptying my own innards up you know – when you’ve been here as long as I have, it’s hard to remember properly. I do remember going to bed with a bad cough one day, the wife coming in, briskly altering my pillow and pouring medicine into me. Sleep was fitful, my eyes streaming, nose dripping, but still I checked my stocks (bucchero was up again) and read my letters. Then my children are setting me up here, in this dark cave, mournful and silent and puffy-eyed. Then they went away again. And now, I see you – and you – and you – and you … ssshhhh What words, you wonder, were said over us as we reclined into a perpetual cuddle? Well, I don’t know, our script, they say, is inscrutable, but the reason I don’t know is that my ears are too high on my head

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and don’t have any holes in them. But about this script – Theosophists have said it hides the words of the God-Kings of Atlantis, feminists that it contains their secrets of matriarchal paradise – you people do insist upon Arcadia – and hedonists, how to interior decorate for health, wealth and well being. As a native speaker and joined-up writer, I can give you the inside scoop – yes, it is the work of the Atlantean potentates, but it’s just their shopping list for the local branch of Tescos – two bottles of Chablis, one avocado and a packet of pitta bread (the white, not the brown stuff). One up for the epiprocureans. But it’s funny that, not being able to notice if we’re even dead or not. I think I am, because it was in just such a granny-pad as this we buried my father, frozen in just this same intimate pose with my mother. Etruscan men can never be parted from our women you know, and we aren’t. We love them too much – the gentle brush of a kiss, the idea of a hand gently pressed against the soft parts of the shoulder – we will not forget that. Other people call this the way of the flesh, the transient vessel and the like, but that’s just their failure I think, and probably something to do with the fact no-one ever gave them a decent blow job. We however – well look at us – we achieved the immortal cuddle! Did the Egyptians manage that with those big, featureless cones in the desert? Did the ever-so-self-satisfied Greeks find this sort of harmony? Don’t even start me on the bloody Latins … We’d all be much happier if we just cuddled more. The Greeks, no. In fact, your Greek is a total dunce when it comes to true appreciation of the flesh – wasting all of that time insensitively looking for hard-ons. Always wanting a right angle when we could tell them, poor buggers, that there are all numbers of positions, acute and oblique, available to the open-minded. I’m proud to say I was very adept in my active days – oh yes, I could pull anything out of the headcloth if she needed it – tenderness, brutality, submission, fear. I had no fear about being the x to her y either. Not for the sourpuss Greeks of course – they may have no trouble bouncing a boy-toy in between the Homeric lays, but you’d never catch them letting a woman on top. Me, my wife, we went through every power-reversal or gender neutral, hermaphroditic and holistic position in the illustrated manual she got for Saturnalia from that cousin of hers. Screams of pleasure were derived at both ends, and I was of course completely comfortable with it. Yes, really, I can say that without having my Daedalus cut off. Oh, but I’m a saucy one. Speaking of my son, I was indeed there for his birth – and I’ll point out, not just the foaming lathery bit either – every grunt, squeak and squawk, her fingernails digging right into my palms, pulling my beard into the birthing pool. Again, your never see a Latin do anything


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other than smoke a cigar and chew on a dormouse on his big days, and as you might imagine, the average Greek is too busy whispering promises into the ear of some young callant whose aubergine he coveted. But that’s history for you, and those are the victors, eh? Lucky you all came along. Lucky you found me, at just the right time, when all of this stoicism was wearing thin, when you needed to soften those hard (but efficient) edges. I’m here for you, to smile and tell you ‘it’s ok, really’. Sssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhh ... I have a question for you though, and this is it: do you honestly believe I can slip off this pedestal and nip down to the off-sales for a bottle of cheap Merlot, and thus lend my support to the global economy? Can I gently massage a once-vital organ between finger and thumb, and enlightened, smile beneviolently upon you, to whisper ‘the answer is …’ You know, of course, I can’t, but you hope – hungry, eager, sweat running into those bland eyes as you reach out to me, inexplicably nervous, to curl your hand around the curve of my shoulder and feel it – hard, cool, turgid – and then again, smile with a strange sense of relief ... Sssshhhh. Try and hear. Let me be more specific – do you think the fingerprints you laid on my false skin will weather a simple feather duster? Do you see any of our soft furnishings (and you are right, we had plenty of those) still hanging? They looked just like yours. We’re good company but solitude, my boy, is alas, the end of all things – for all of us. I have my wife here, but I can’t feel her. Maybe I’d like her more if I could, but probably not. Hard, isn’t it? My collarbone might be lying somewhere underneath me. Take it, make a wish, pinkie to pinkie. Snap a few more, as many as you like, there’s a whole city of us here. See if anything happens. When it doesn’t, go back to your fairies, and let us wait for the next customers. But then, actually, now that I think about it, do come again – in fact, I know you will, because you can never admit defeat. So when you do, bring a corkscrew and we’ll open this bottle here – it is Chilean, but quite passable.

Dearly Beloved (in defence of the group cuddle)  

A short story by Mitch Miller for The Drouth issue 11 "Monument" 2004