There is No Ancient Gentleman

Oliver Rendle

Dr Oliver Rendle is a writer and academic currently undertaking a master’s degree in creative writing at the University of Bristol. His PhD focused on intersections between horror, pessimistic philosophy and political satire.

“There is no ancient gentleman but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers: they hold up Adam’s profession.”Hamlet, Shakespeare.

“Come, my spade.”

“Alan, I’ve warned you, I’m really not okay with slang like that. It’s offensive.”

“Eh? No, I meant ‘Give me my spade.’ I can see his toes poking out.”

Joe handed over the tool in question and retreated to a safe distance. He watched the dust cloud thicken from behind the mixer as scoop after scoop was added to the pit. Outside their patch of floodlit dirt, the building sat in the dark, still, the construction crew long gone. The unfinished structure loomed up and around them, silent as the grave, quite appropriately. Its raw steel and concrete surfaces amplified the soft ‘whump’ of quicklime hitting… stuff. Assorted stuff. In truth, Joe didn’t know what lay in the hole at this point and was trying hard not to speculate. The smell was nauseating enough, even through the mask, even through the stink of the generator and the site’s general mustiness. It didn’t smell of decay or corruption or death, although that would have been bad enough. It just smelt wrong.

Alan reappeared before long, batting excess powder from his gloves and boots.

“Give me some credit, I sat through your li’l racialism speech, didn’t I?”

“You’re not the victim here, Alan.”

Joe watched the old man ditch his mask and goggles. Usually when a co-worker makes a social faux pas, however mistakenly, it hangs around afterwards like a fart in a tent. It wasn’t like that with Alan. His skin was so thick he probably didn’t need the standard issue boiler suit he seemed to live in. As if to prove it, Alan hummed a cheery tune while he headed for the van.

“Job done,” he said. “Now you lift the tank out and I’ll crack open the thermos. Sugar?”

“Sure,” Joe replied, his face a picture of doubt. “Two. Cheers.”

Alan disappeared into the cab, leaving behind a baffled colleague and a few dusty footprints. Even after a month working together, Joe still couldn’t accept how unfazed his mentor was by their job. This was a grizzly task any way you cut it and tea breaks just didn’t seem appropriate. What they were doing wasn’t illegal or unethical, true, but it made Joe uneasy all the same. In fact, he’d found himself concealing his role at CryoBe from friends and family because it was legal. It made each shift feel worse somehow, like the whole world was aware and therefore complicit. Operating at night didn’t help him feel any less shady either, regardless of the sense in working when the sites were clear. ‘Customer Deposition Logistics’: the job title itself sounded dishonest without being, strictly speaking, untrue.

Joe opened the back of the van and dithered around its contents. The heavy translucent container had no handles and required full-body contact to grasp. Full-body contact was less than ideal though. Like lighting a cigarette on a funeral pyre, hugging this thing seemed inappropriate in some indefinable way. A trail of blue slime still glistened on one of its sides, a viscous reminder of what it had recently contained.

Alan returned to find his assistant trying (and failing) to lift the tank without actually touching it. Beckoning him aside, Alan chuckled and handed over a steaming mug.

“No use pussyfooting around,” he said. “You’ll have to get it over with eventually.”

Joe grunted and nodded towards the pit.

“Shame you weren’t there to advise that poor bastard.”

Alan laughed again without a hint of mirth.

“What, you think he didn’t question the logic of all this before he signed up? Hell, the implications of the procedure are laid out in the small print — not that anyone bothers reading it.”

Alan stared at the container a moment before continuing.

“Screw ‘em. It’s good there’s no shortage of idiots trying to live forever. We’d be out of the job if there weren’t.”

That was Alan. Beneath the stubble and wrinkles, a business sense directed him like the wind might a weathervane. He didn’t mind hoofing bodies around in the middle of the night, carrying out the last wishes of clients long gone, cutting corners wherever the suits told him it was necessary. If he was fazed about his employer’s moral obligations — or their apparent neglect — he hadn’t let it slip yet. This was just a job to him.

Joe sipped his drink without much interest, appraising the glass coffin as one might a reasonably impressive sewer. “Would you do it?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“What do you think I mean?” Joe nodded towards the tank ‘‘Would you take a punt, obviously. If you had the money and all that.”

Alan was a master of the derisive snort. Presumably he got a lot of practice.

“You mad? What you’re looking at there is the most lucrative con in the history of mankind. It’s exploitation, plain and simple, pandering to rich cowards looking to out-run the reaper.” He sloshed his tea in the direction of the pit. “He catches up with us all in the end, as your man there can attest. Doesn’t matter how big your bank account is, soon as you’re on ice the parasites and scavengers arrive to pick apart what’s left. Might be a few years, might be a hundred, but nothing lasts forever.”

Joe kept his silence till the old man rounded on him.

“You can’t seriously think it’s worth it? We’ve buried and burnt a dozen stiffs this week alone and not one got as much dignity as a family pet.”

“I don’t know, Al. I mean, yeah, you’re right. Ultimately, it’s a hopeless attempt to delay the inevitable. But then again, what isn’t?”

Alan shot him a look usually reserved for lunatics, cultists and politicians one does not agree with. Joe threw up a hand as if to ward it off.

“I know, I know,” he said. “It’s crazy and irrational. At the same time, I get why they might go for it all the same. They’re just scared. Aren’t you? For what it’s worth I wouldn’t mind turning up at the pearly gates as late as possible.”

“Well, I’ve got good news for you on that front. Everyone’s late by the time they get there.”

“You stole that from someone didn’t y—”

“My point is,” said Alan, hurdling the accusation, “we all know how it’ll turn out eventually. The filthy rich can’t claim ignorance. That’s what bothers me sometimes. You’d think with all that money and power — money always comes with power, mind you — you’d think they’d get a nose for risky ventures and outright scams. You’d expect them to be cautious or at least catch the whiff of bullshit when it’s pitched at them.”

Joe was well aware of Alan’s misguided ideas about the upper classes. He was compiling them for a future trial.

“Even still,” Alan went on, “they pour all that cash into a million-to-one chance at an unknown future, knowing full-well that nobody ever benefited from the investment. And I know they know that. I’ve seen the marketing spiel. The warning is on the first damn page. It’s got to be, legally.” He paused to shake his head. “Do they listen? Do they hell. And however many years later, when the last penny tinkles down the plughole, look where they end up. You were promised burial? Here’s the closest patch of dirt available. Cremation? We’ll find an old boiler to chuck you in. Why? Because the company won’t fork out more than it’s got to and there’s nobody left who gives a shit.”

Right on the edge of a full-blown rant, fed by a reservoir of pent-up frustration, Alan stopped and clamped his mouth shut. The anger was still there, of course, just held in check for now. He seemed to be saving it for some future occasion.

Without the emotion to animate it, the old man’s face resumed its usual scowl.

“Anyway,” he said, calmer now, “they bring it on themselves. You can’t get too mad about these things.”

Joe had to bite his tongue at this. The evidence seemed to suggest the opposite.

“You’re not wrong,” he said, keen not to press the topic further but curious despite himself. “But it’s like you say, if people had more sense CryoBe wouldn’t… well, be.”

At this Alan tossed his dregs away and held out a hand expectantly.

“Fear makes people do strange things,” he conceded. “And I suppose rich folk are pretty strange to begin with. You have to be someone special to end up in a tank like that though. We should expect better of them.”

Joe drained his mug and passed it back. “Special, eh? Like famous, you mean?”

“More than famous, you’d have to be certifiably renowned. Or the opposite, I suppose, wealthy and influential enough to disappear from the public eye. Those are the really dangerous ones alright, but that’s beside the point. There are plenty crazy enough to gamble on the deep freeze.”

Joe was also aware of his mentor’s alternative understanding of social hierarchies and their relationship to power. Every time the topic arose, Joe felt a deep chasm opening a few inches from where he stood. However, being aware that Alan was still, technically, his boss, he always backed away from the precipice — as was his duty.

Nodding slowly, Joe played it safe while trying his best to change the subject. “I guess that makes some sort of sense… so who was in this one?”

“No idea. Doesn’t matter now.”

Alan walked away as he shrugged this off, retiring to the shadows to light a scraggly dog-end. Joe was impressed he’d been considerate enough to give him some space, so much so that he didn’t question the intelligence of sparking up in a chemical minefield. Instead, he continued staring at the grave and idly wondering who it belonged to.

“No… I suppose not.”

The pair lapsed into silence. If either one had more opinions on the topic, they kept them to themselves. On the edge of hearing, somewhere beyond the darkness, traffic continued droning into the night.

“You’re definitely right about one thing though,” Joe said, after a pause. “I’d be out scratching for cash like everyone else if this lot were any more rational. Which reminds me, I don’t think I ever thanked you for getting me this gig. It’s appreciated.”

The role of amenable subordinate was second nature to Joe by this point, as much as it boiled his blood.

Alan grunted and blew out a smoke ring. “Don’t mention it,” he said. “Not like I could have managed this month alone.”

“Right, of course, you mentioned there was a backlog. Lucky me.”

“Not a backlog, as such. But yeah, a lot more than usual. It’s not only that though…”

The old gravedigger looked uneasy. Scorn was clearly his preferred emotional register.

“…It’s just, I’ve been doing this for the best part of a decade now and it can get pretty lonely. The shifts don’t get easier and it’s nice to share the load with someone. And talk, too, of course. I mean it. It’s good to have you here, Joe, and I hope you stay on when we’re up to date. I’m sure the company will cough up the funds.”

Joe was stunned. He’d heard tough people sometimes had gooey centres but he’d presumed in Alan’s case that was because he was decomposing.

“I — I don’t know what to say. I’m not sure what I’m doing next but… yeah, maybe. I’ll bear that in mind. It’s been an interesting experience. And even if I don’t hang on, thanks for getting me this position in the first place. I mean it.”

Alan stamped out his cigarette, marking the end of the conversation and their contractually assured ten minutes.

“Don’t thank me. Thank the power cut.”

It was time to get back to work.