I will not disguise that it all started with a dream.
In this dream I was walking through the land where I live or at least, which is different, the land where it appeared that I lived, and someone explained that just below the surface of the ground there were dead people.
In my dream I immediately thought of the Handsome Family and their song about the singing bones beneath our feet. When I woke up, though, I forgot all about the Handsome Family and their song. That particular thought only came back to me much later.
When I woke up and went out I inspected the land and I saw the places where the dead people were said to be. I noticed that whilst in my dream people had brought the location of the dead people to my attention, in my waking state there appeared to be no recognition from anyone else that they were there at all.
I explained all this to my companion in this vale of tears.
We have to find out if they’re there and if so where, I said.
Why? shouted my companion in this vale of tears, who was truculent through drink.
How? she added, a little more quietly.
I believe, I said, that there are tapers that you can sink into the ground and if there are human remains beneath they change colour: red for human remains, green for no human remains – the opposite of traffic lights.
Tapirs are pigs, she said. Do they root the human remains out like truffles?
Not pigs, I said. ‘Tapers’ not ‘tapirs’. ‘Taper’ is probably the wrong word but these things are like those you might light your pipe with, though much bigger. You fit them into the ground and as I say they may or may not change colour.
Spills, said my companion in this vale of tears, which I ignored.
To work, I said, and set out on an expedition to buy the tapers.
Where do you buy an implement that indicates the presence beneath the ground of human remains? They looked uncomprehendingly at me in the local hardware shop and in the specialist building supplies place there was a lot of talk but no tapers; indeed I am not sure that they knew what I was talking about either.
Or maybe, it occurred to me later, they were seizing whatever pretext was available to avoid dealing with me.
In the end I made for John Lewis. It should have been my first choice.
One of the constants in life is that the best things are unclassifiable. Take the Handsome Family again. Are they Folk, Rock or Country, or any of those with ‘Alt-‘ as a prefix? None or all: they are ‘If you require assistance please do not hesitate to ask’ – or they would have been in the days when there were record stores and assistants who were not serving out their redundancy notices and staring suicidally into the middle distance.
It was the same in the days when I required CDs of the music of Cap Breton. Sometimes the assistants got animated when they finally tracked the music down under ‘World Music: Europe, France’.
Dunderheads, they would exclaim, with a conspiratorial wink.
And so in John Lewis I sought out an assistant.
I need a taper that indicates human remains, I said, or rather a set of them.
A set of tapers, I explained with a smile; not human remains.
Certainly, sir, he said, naming a location within the store.
He must have phoned through because they were waiting for me. A nice middle-aged man explained to me at some length the range available. The more expensive ones promised one hundred per cent reliability, and had an elegance lacking in the cheaper ones. As he chattered on I noticed that we had been joined by another man, also in John Lewis livery but with a badge suggesting that organisation’s officer class.
Might I have a word with you, sir? he said. In private?
He put an arm around my shoulder and we walked to the window. I could tell at once that here was a man who was going out on a limb for me, motivated by nothing but pure fellow feeling.
Is this purchase wise sir? he said.
I am afraid that I jabbered. I told him that there were bodies beneath us and how essential it was that people recognised that fact.
For all I know they have names, I said.
Indeed, sir, but – how can I put this? – is it wise that you, sir, should be doing this?
As he said this, a great slab of the dream came back to me. I thought I’d remembered it all but maybe the most important bit was only now returning. As it did my dream turned in retrospect into a nightmare.
They thought that I had killed them. I’d forgotten that.
Good lord, I said. I see what you mean.
Bears thinking about carefully, he said. Doing myself out of a sale!
Thank you, I said, and left the shop, more confused than I can say. Both men seemed relieved to see me go.
There were I realised only three options.
I could abandon the matter altogether. That was the sensible course. The man at John Lewis had indicated that without equivocation. But could I live with myself if I did? What quality would the remainder of my days on Earth have if I did that?
I could do what any politician would and organise an enquiry. I could revisit the dream. Kefir was always a reliable tool for that. But I knew in my heart what the dream had been; there was nothing to be gained from equivocation.
And so it was that I took the third option. It was a week or so later and I am glad to record that my companion in this vale of tears was at my side. In the small hours of a moonless night we planted the tapers (I bought the expensive ones in the end) and then we stood back and activated them. Across the baleful landscape they glowed, softly at first and green, then changing, most of them, gradually to red.
I awaited what would come with whatever reserves of courage remained to me.