Oranges and lemmings

COLD COMFORT: Stories of Death and Bereavement ed James Loader, Serpent's Tail pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
AS a compulsive thinker-about-death, I can't be in a crowd of people without seeing lemmings heading towards a cliff. Some with their heads buried in newspapers, some with their minds elsewhere, some filled with dread of the precipice, but all about to go whoosh, out of the light, into the limitless dark.

One expects a book about death and bereavement to be, well, heavy. This anthology is a slim collection of not very heavy stories. There are wonderful and moving things in it, but I imagine the authors as a line of courageous creatures throwing ping-pong balls at an oncoming tidal wave.

The absurdity of it is also its charm. It's as charming as the incident of the orange described in Loader's introduction. His mother died of cancer when he was nine. (Early parental deaths often predispose people to becoming lemming-spotters in later life.) He spends the afternoon playing cricket at school, and when he goes home to see his mother, her door is locked. He goes to bed exhausted by the cricket and by the anxiety in the adults around him. He is sucking on an orange when his aunt comes in to try to comfort him. She has trouble finding an explanation that a child might understand. "Then the image came to her that would, she thought, make whatever it was she was attempting to say intelligible to me. She said, 'It's like your orange,' and then, gathering confidence, she developed the simile while I drifted into sleep ... So I never knew why it was like an orange." Later, he says, people found more conventional metaphors. "But the orange stays with me because of its mystery, and because it reminds me of the difficulty we face when it comes to saying anything at all about death - what it is really like, what it means, how we react to it or how we should react ..."

That introduction sets the tone - bewilderment and grief laced with the comic. Take the comedian undertaker in Paul Bailey's "Disque Bleu", the opening, and for me the best, story. Bailey's lover, David, has died (of cirrhosis of the liver, but really, Bailey believes, of guilt). He rings an undertaker who says, "It's Easter in a few days time. We're pretty heavily booked." But the undertaker rings back the next morning.

" 'You're in luck, Mr. Bailey,' the fruity voice announced. 'There's been a last minute cancellation.' I nearly laughed, but managed to say something absurd, like 'Good', instead."

"Disque Bleu" is not a funny story. It's almost unbearably sad beneath the restraint. Yet Bailey assures the undertaker that "his jokes, his performance, had been a comfort". Cold comfort indeed.

Loader is idiosyncratic in his choices, which range from a ghost story by A S Byatt, in which the shade has shot himself in the head, and "can commend suicide as a hangover cure", to an account of the death of an obese woman by Eliza Fewett, a consultant oncologist. "And then - like an overworked engine, each part beginning to fail, thus overloading another dependent function until ... the muscles that drive chest expansion started to falter and the poisonous waste gases in the hot blood accumulated to toxic levels that started to damage the brain - with a final and great expiration of superheated air, the fat lady died." I can't imagine a broader range of subjects, or more imaginative responses to death, but what does it all add up to?

It's hard to eradicate the childhood conviction that dying is a matter of will; that if you try hard enough, you can stave it off. Or the idea that a life should be like a good novel, with a beginning, middle and end. That lives can't just be snipped off without a satisfactory conclusion. You would think that our knowledge of the inevitability of the cliff would make us a little better able to cope with our loved ones going over it. But no, it is always outrageous, always unacceptable, and each death is always the first death.

So perhaps all we can ask from such a book is a bit of light relief from the Big D, which is as much like an orange as it is like anything. Which is to say that it's the one thing that isn't like anything else.