Benny & Shrimp
An Excerpt From
Benny & Shrimp

Who stands up for the dead?
Looks after their rights,
listens to their problems,
and waters their potted plants?

You'll have to be on your guard!

An aggrieved, single woman in a distinctly abnormal emotional state. Who knows what I might get up to at the next full moon?

You've read Stephen King, haven't you?

I'm sitting by my husband's grave, on a dark green bench worn smooth by use, and letting his headstone irritate me. It's a sober little chunk of natural stone with just his name on it—"Örjan Wallin" in the plainest of plain lettering. Simple, you might even say over explicit, just like he was. And he chose it himself, too; left instructions with the funeral director.

Just a little thing like that. I mean, he wasn't even ill.

I know exactly what message he was intending his stone to convey: Death is a Completely Natural Part of the Cycle.

He was a biologist.

Thanks for that, Örjan.

I sit here on my lunch break several times a week, and always at least once at weekends. If it starts raining, I get out a plastic raincoat that folds away into a little purse. It's hideously ugly; I found it in my mother's chest of drawers.

There are lots of us with raincoats like that, in the cemetery.

I always sit here for at least an hour. Presumably in the hope of getting down to the right sort of grieving if I stick at it long enough. I'd feel better if I could feel worse, you might say. If I could sit here wringing out endless hankies without stealing constant glances at myself to check the tears were genuine.

The awful truth is, half the time, all I feel is furious with him. Bloody deserter, why couldn't you watch where you were going? And my feelings the rest of the time are, I suppose, pretty much like those of a child who had a parakeet for twelve years and then it died. There, I've said it.

I miss the constant companionship and all our daily routines. There's no one rustling the paper on the sofa beside me; no smell of coffee when I come home; the shoe rack looks like a tree in winter without all Örjan's boots and wellies.

And if I can't work out the answer to "Sun god, two letters," I have to guess it, or leave it blank.

One half of the double bed's always neat.

Nobody'd worry where I'd got to if I didn't come home because I happened to have been run over by a car.

And nobody flushes the toilet if I'm not there.

So here I am, sitting in the cemetery, missing the sound of the flush. Weird enough for you, Stephen?

There's something about cemeteries that always makes me think of some convulsive, second-rate stand-up comedian. Repression and gabbled strings of words, of course—but surely I can allow myself that? I haven't much besides my little repressions to occupy me these days.

With Örjan, at least I knew who I was. We defined each other; after all, that's what relationships between two people are for.

Who am I now?

I'm at the mercy of whoever happens to see me. For some I'm a voter, for others a pedestrian, a wage earner, a consumer of culture, a human resource, or a property owner.

Or just a collection of split ends, leaking sanitary napkins, and dry skin.

Though of course I can still use Örjan for defining myself. He can do me that one, posthumous favor. If Örjanhadn't existed, I could be calling myself a "single girl, thirty something"; I saw that in a newspaper yesterday, and it made my hair stand on end. Instead, I'm a "young, childless widow," so tragic, so very sad. Well, thanks for that, Örjan!

Somewhere there's a nagging little feeling of pure deflation, as well. I feel let down that Örjan went and died. When we'd planned our future, short and long term! A canoeing holiday in Värmland, and a high-yield pension scheme apiece.

Örjan should be feeling let down, too. All that tai chi, organic potato, and polyunsaturated fat. What good did it do him?

Sometimes I'm outraged on his behalf. It's not fair,Örjan! When you were so well-meaning and competent!

And there's an excited little flutter between my legs now and then, after five months of celibacy. It makes me worry I've got necrophiliac tendencies.

Next to Örjan's stone there's a really tasteless gravestone, an absolute monstrosity. White marble with swirly gold lettering; angels, roses, birds, words on garlands of ribbon, even a salutary little skull and scythe. The grave itself is as crowded with plants as a garden center. On the headstone are a man's name and a woman's name with similar dates of birth, so it must be a child honoring his father and mother in that over lavish way.

A few weeks ago I saw the bereaved by the monstrosity for the first time. He was a man of about my age, in aloud, quilted jacket and a padded cap with earflaps. Its peak went up at the front, American-style, and had a logo saying FOREST OWNERS' ALLIANCE. He was eagerly raking and digging his little plot.

There's nothing growing around Örjan's stone. He'd probably have thought a little rosebush totally out of keeping, since it wasn't a species native to the cemetery's biotope. And they don't sell yarrow or meadowsweet in the flower shop at the cemetery gates.

The Forest Owner comes regularly every few days, about noon. He's always loaded down with new plants and fertilizers. He seems to take great pride in his gardening, as if the grave were his allotment.

Last time, he sat down on the seat beside me and looked at me sideways, but he didn't say anything.

He had a funny smell and only three fingers on his left hand.

Benny & Shrimp

Benny & Shrimp

A Novel