‘Aerial burial!’ yelled the man, imagining the launching of his lifeless corpse into outer space.
His considerable bulk was being rocked, about to be hauled upwards inside what was the tight fit of an antiquated wooden lift car – the projectile coffin of his imaginings; his pine overcoat, his pine spacesuit, as it were.
‘Graveyard declutter!’ he bellowed, seizing on another thought. Might outer space be the answer to overcrowded cemeteries in the modern age? Much as al fresco became ‘the rage’ when the sinking of the dead beneath church flagstones was stretched to saturation point?
Must be the most morbid instance of sweeping under the carpet, it occurred – the Medieval practice of burying people under paving slabs.
Even as the lift cables took up the slack and began to strain, that single notion – burials in space – catalysed thought connections that cracked and fizzed pyrotechnically inside the bulky man’s cranium.
‘Negative burial!’ he exclaimed. Burial in space must be considered negative burial, because the deceased is headed in the opposite direction – up instead of down. 60,000 feet above the ground, rather than 6 feet below. ‘Pushing down the daisies!’ the bulky one shouted.
The big man squeezed his arms up the rattling walls of the lift and above his head the way an escapologist might, reassigning his limbs in the preliminary stages of escape. Thus, was he able to clasp his hands over his ears. He needed desperately to crowd out those thoughts. He needed extreme focus. Supreme concentration. He clamped his eyes firmly shut.
‘Come on, O’Singh!’ he muttered, in the manner somewhat of somebody speaking in tongues. ‘Take strength from Strathclyde!’
Professor Breville O’Singh was transported back in his mind to the University of Strathclyde, preaching there from the stage of the amphitheatre, rolling his hands one over the other to facilitate the order of his speech. Not rhythmically, but in the fashion rather of a father dancing at a disco, to Sister Sledge.
A bear-shaped man was O’Singh, or perhaps a man-shaped bear. A big man as imposing a figure as Cassius Clay, though always looking sorry for the imposition. Kind of limp, drawing in his bulk. Professor Breville O’Singh was apologetically large.
‘When asked a question to which there is any number of possible answers, we reply, “How long is a piece of string?”’ observed Professor Breville O’Singh, from the stage. ‘But equally we could ask, could we not, “How wide is a piece of string?”’
O’Singh stopped to survey the reactions of his audience, a gaggle of professors, sat in various attitudes of contemplation, in judgement, squinting into a blinding low-angled shaft of Spring sunlight.
O’Singh’s eyes popped open. The floor indicator light flickered on ‘4’.
‘Come on, man! Erm… Extract from Exeter!’ he urged himself.
His eyes clamped shut again. And this time in his mind’s eye he was at the University of Exeter, breaching the campus parkland between faculty buildings amid a gaggle of peers. He stopped abruptly and swung round to shield himself from a flurry of cherry blossom blown up by a sudden gust.
‘We ask ourselves, “What is the meaning of life?” yelled O’Singh, addressing his fellow-strollers, above the whoosh of the gust. ‘But what indeed is the meaning of death?’
O’Singh stood with a clump of cherry blossom adorning his left ear, looking like the most oversized lady in a Hawaiian greeting party.
In the juddering lift, the professor re-opened his eyes and exhaled deeply. The indicator light illuminated ‘5’. The car tremored and stopped. O’Singh hesitated, eyeing the door. Then reached for the handle. A squeal of metal sounded as he ripped open the interior concertina door.