Mark Sarvas hosts the literary weblog The Elegant Variation. His novel Harry Revised is published by Canongate in August.



The colour of Anna's coffin cushions

Amid the quiet, respectful murmurs of the other mourners, in the sub-zero darkness of the air-conditioned funeral parlour, the casket looms immovably, devouring Harry Rent's field of view. ("Oh, we don't call them coffins anymore," he'd been corrected by Tony Glide, the over-groomed, over-manicured, over-perfumed mortician of Flavin & Makepeace.)

Harry knows he should be thinking about his wife instead of her container but something holds him back, an amorphous terror, an obstacle thwarting his attempts to bring Anna into any kind of relief, and he finds himself contemplating, instead, pillows. Reviewing casket options with Tony Glide, Harry could not get past the question of the pillows.

"You have several options in your range," Glide explained. "I'm rather fond of the Eternity series – the mahogany version is the preferred model for statesmen and celebrities. But if you want to go top-of-the-top, there's really only one choice."

"What's that?"

Glide slid a glossy photo brochure under Harry's nose.

"The Horizon. It's our semi-precious bronze model. It has one great advantage over its lesser wooden brethren."

"What's that?"

"Decay. It won't."

Harry nodded, impressed, and decided that the ten-thousand-dollar price tag was a small amount to pay to ensure a dry, dirt-free eternal rest for Anna. He didn't have any strong religious or spiritual leanings, but on the off chance that Anna was in fact looking over the proceedings, he imagined the choice would satisfy her. Anna's parents – gone nearly five years now, Harry reflected with relief that still felt fresh – had always expressed themselves through displays of cash. When Anna's older sister, poor thwarted Claire, divorced her first of three husbands, their feckless father consoled her with a T-bill. Fondness-as-finance was the lingua franca of the Weldt family.

As Harry thumbed through the brochure for the Horizon semi-precious bronze, he noticed the pillows and the plush lining of the casket. "That's an awful lot of pillows, isn't it?"

"We want the departed to rest comfortably on their journey through eternity."

Harry nodded gravely even as the simple logic of the following statement echoed within: "What comfort? She's dead." He fought to keep the statement within, but as similar thoughts often had in the past, it pried his teeth open and made a mad dash for freedom, catching an unsuspecting Tony Glide upside the head. Glide's preternatural smoothness momentarily disrupted, he could do little more than offer a startled "Eh?"

"What I mean is, well, she doesn't really feel the pillows, does she? It just seems odd. Like it's more for us than for her."

Glide recovered his game and parried, "We find that the grieving process is a collective experience, and that mourners are comforted by the appearance of serenity."

"Oh, okay." Harry paused long enough to let Glide think he had scored his point, then piped up, "Only, you know, it's going to be a closed coffin."

"Yes." Glide did not see the point.

"So no one will really know whether there are pillows or not."

Battling Harry on principle and unwilling to concede anything, an arctic "True" was as far as Glide would go. There the matter seemed to rest. But later, when Harry handed over his cheque, he asked, "So, you do put the pillows inside? Even though it's closed?"

"Yes. Of course."

"But nobody can see them. Or know they're there."

"We know they are there. Anna knows they are there." On the latter point, Harry remained unconvinced.

And so the Horizon bronze semi-precious it was, replete with pillows, and now, standing before the massive, glittering torpedo, Harry is confident that it is a display of extravagance that the room will respond to. But the pillows have returned to lick the back of his brain.

With the same unpractised flourish with which an inexperienced diner summons a waiter in a fine restaurant, he beckons Tony Glide, who sleekly attends Harry, his steps across the room unobtrusive in a way that can only be achieved through years of repetition, efficiently slicing a path to Harry without disturbing the grieving of the other mourners.

"Yes, Mr. Rent," he says, in a perfectly modulated whisper, never overbearing in its solicitude. "Can I get you something?"

"So, look, the pillows. What did we finally decide?"

"I beg your pardon, sir?" Glide can scarcely conceal his surprise.

"What did we go with? They're in there, right?"

Crimson inches upward from Glide cheek to Glide forehead. "Of course, sir."

"Because, you know, no one can see them."

"I assure you, sir, they are there."

Harry nods, more or less satisfied. "Nice ones?"

"Lovely ones, sir."

"What colour?"

"Excuse me?"

"What colour are they?"

"Beige Quietude."


"Beige Quietude, sir."

"Quietude's not a colour."

Glide is losing his patience now. Harry is bearing down on his well-practised reserve like the proverbial thousand drops of water.

"It's a proprietary line, sir."

"Oh. It's just..."

Glide graduates from impatient to curt. "This is isn't the time for this, Mr. Rent."


"That's all, sir. And you have jam on your tie."


"Jam. On your tie."

Glide secures his victory. Harry grimaces. Shit. He pulls out his tie and begins licking and rubbing it, trying to remove the stain.

Glide pats his arm. "Come on. I'll give you a clean one."

In the white porcelain glare of the bathroom, Harry, collar up, examines the stain. He gently drapes the limp, wounded tie across the sink. He removes Glide's replacement from its trifold plastic wrap and hangs it around his neck. He does his best to execute the familiar four-in-hand: the broad end passed over the shorter end, looped through. But to his surprise he fumbles the knot, and only this disruption in a familiar pattern he's executed most mornings of his adult life alerts him to the fact that his hands are shaking. With detached fascination, he watches the tremulous dance at the end of his arms. He clasps the rim of the washbasin to steady himself.

He raises his hands from the basin and checks for tremors. Caltech seismographs twitch in agitation. He tries the four-in-hand again, without success.

"You never could tie a knot for shit, Harry."

Max the podiatrist steps over to Harry, turns him around, stands behind him, and, like a father teaching his son, begins to assemble the four-in-hand.

"No Windsors, Max."

"I know, I know. I never understood why you liked this farkakta knot so much."

The men stand in silence as Max expertly weaves the knot. Although at seventy Max is nearly twenty-five years Harry's senior, he's been his closest friend since they met during Harry's intern days. Silences mark their odd friendship, dotted with Tourette's-like bursts of obscenity from Max, so it's not unusual that they now stand wordlessly in the bathroom.

Max turns Harry to face him, to consider his finished product.

"It'll do."

"Thanks, Max."

Max waves away the thanks and picks up the damaged tie, scrutinizing it. "What's this, ketchup?"


"Jam? How the fuck?"

It's Harry's turn to wave Max away. "Long story."

Max nods. "How you holding up, kid?"

Harry shrugs from somewhere deep within his suit. "Okay, I guess."

"You guess?"

Harry nods and hesitates. It's clear to Max that something is troubling his friend, but their history is built on accommodation, on staying out of each other's way, and so Max waits until Harry is ready.

At length, Harry asks a question. "Did you... How did... What was it like when Doris died?"

Max can't conceal his surprise at the personal question. In the time-honoured male tradition, their friendship has been long on jocularity and short on reflection. Max considers a moment before replying.

"Um, how did I feel? If I couldn't smash it with my bare hands, I better fucking be able to drink it is how I felt."

Harry nods. He would like nothing more than to tell Max how terrified he is by the lacuna in his heart where grief and memory and sorrow should be, but which is instead filled by inappropriate thoughts and unaccountable behaviour. That he can't understand this blank nothingness that suffuses him and actually has him beginning to fear for his mortal soul (insofar as he understands the idea). He's sure something is wrong with him, something is broken, and he worries it's beyond repair.

"Yeah. I'd like to smash something, too," he says unconvincingly, when all he really wants is to want to smash something.

Four-in-handed, Harry assumes his place of mourning in front of the casket.

He looks up to find Tony Glide's eyes darting discreetly away. Harry's reminded of all his years of covert girl-watching, appraising glances timed to avoid eye contact. Okay, Glide, I'm onto you. Harry lowers his eyes, gives Glide a moment to return his attention to him, then flings his eyeballs in Glide's direction. Nothing. Glide is consumed with an examination of the flower arrangements. Smooth. A slippery customer. Harry turns away again, this time toward the cross on the wall, suggesting prayer or religious devotion of some sort. A longer interval and then a whip-crack turn of the head. Success. A busted Glide again directs his eyeline elsewhere, a moment too late.

Why the interest? Harry wonders. What's he watching for? And then an idea takes hold of Harry: the pillows. The motherfucker is jamming me up on the pillows. Somehow, Harry has achieved absolute certainty that Anna is lying in an unpillowed casket, and the thought crowds out his unease, his anger, his terror, everything. He glances up at Glide, an animal flare behind his irises. Glide must smell this new, feral aura because he gulps nervously, moves away, and busies himself arranging chairs. You son of a bitch. Beige Quietude my ass.



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