Two small middle-aged men clamber out of the unmarked, little white van. Dark, and insignificant, they wear neat, matching workmen’s overalls, unbranded. They could be twins.
Before they can knock, Lee lets them in. Like a courier, one carries a clipboard jammed with carbonised forms – pink, green, yellow. And white. Despatch documentation.
His handwriting is untidy. Childlike. Unworthy. She wonders how many more pick-ups they’ll do today.
The men go about their business, efficient without being rough. It takes just over fifteen minutes, twenty at most. Lee wants to bark Don’t hurt her. Their dark bag has no pattern.
It turns Annie sallow. Same colour as the jellybeans that Annie’s toddler daughter pressed into her pocket for the journey. Annie’s favourite flavour.
It does not serve her.
The hard, shiny bag is clearly designed for hygiene and disposal. And, the body snatchers are only doing their job. Lee still hates them, all functional procedures and contained kindness. Take that damn oxygen tank too. No-one needs it now.
She wants to check that Annie still has her jellybeans, but the men are bustling, mid-routine.
No doubt, they’d like her to leave them to get on with their work, but she has to stay, has to see that it’s done right, although she knows nothing of their business. She stands. Sentinel. Guardian. Protector. Among all the weirdness, now this final role reversal.
Through the open bedroom window, turtle doves coo their lament from the garden. Annie loved those birds, fed them every day she could.
One of the men is studying her with his little coal eyes. “Sorry love, I was just asking what to do about jewellery?”
Her heart thuds. They never discussed jewellery. She scans Annie: signet ring; wedding ring; engagement ring. Anniversary necklace. Birthday bracelet. Eternity ring…yeah right.
Six metal milestones.
Surely there’ll be another opportunity to select jewellery. “I think they’re probably fine for now,” she says, desperate to get it right. Would Annie have wanted to wear earrings?
A wince hovers for a second, but she sees it. “Has to come off,” says the man.
“You know…if possible.”
“Shall we do it for you, love?” says the other man.
She nods dumb assent. She wants to say something more to Annie…anything to prolong the departure, but the men are there, in the cramped bedroom, getting on with their work. Outside, she sees the little white van. It has a small fan built into the roof. Like the vans they use for moving meat and fish and cheese. Delicacies and fresh goods. Perishables.
They close the one, long zip that runs down Annie’s front, from head to toe. Strange sound, same as when you pack for a holiday. They expand a collapsible aluminium stretcher, then slide Annie onto it. In the ugly, zipped-up bag.
The little dark men get into their little white van and drive Annie away, still warm. Her sister, who hated the cold, will be chilled, taken into refrigerated storage, until ‘arrangements’ can be made. It occurs to Lee that she probably should have asked for a receipt. Or something.
And, she should have asked. Told them. Go away. Leave us alone. At least until gravity could drag Annie pale. No, it doesn’t matter. They can always talk. Wasn’t that what they’d agreed? Anytime. Anywhere. Always.
She should have gone in the little white van. Was that allowed? At least she should have asked. Not just leave her sister to be carted off in industrial plastic, by strangers, last responders. Alone. Too late.
For all the brightness of the morning and the sickly cooing of the turtle doves, she can only feel dull, cold anger. All the things she’d thought about, all the things she’d prepared for.
Not this day. Not this sad, little transaction.
The long, black oxygen cylinder stands dull and useless beside the empty bed. The laundry can wait.
She goes to feed the crying doves.