Helen Lyne

writer, spoken word poet

Better off Dead is based on observation. It’s not autobiographical. On most shoots, the extras have to sign a confidentiality agreement.
As I step into the coffin, my heel catches the hem of my dress.


The man on my left steadies me. The man on my right disengages the hem. They help me clamber over the side and stretch out on the padded white satin.

My shoes are too big – not that size matters. Nor does it matter that my tights are so small the crotch is near my knees. I shiver. The black silk dress gives no protection against the cold.

Four men join the other two.

“You right, Janet?” one asks.

“Yes, thank you.”

“On the count of three. One, two, three.”

In well-practised unison, the six men hoist up the coffin and set it on trestles. It’s now at a convenient height for the mourners to view the body. A man in a puffer jacket puts a bunch of lilies on my chest and crosses my hands over them. A girl wearing a sheepskin-lined coat and fingerless mittens bends over me.

“Here you are, Janet. These won’t be seen.”

She places two hot water bottles under the satin flounces beside my hips.

The down lights blast on, adding to the warmth.

A set of scarlet fingernails grips the edge of the coffin and my daughter bends over me.

A man’s voice comes from behind her. “Close your eyes, Janet and try not to breathe.”

I do as asked.

“Aaand … Action!”

A breath feathers my cheek, “My darling mother.”

Silence. Then I hear sucking gasps. A baby is loading his lungs. My daughter says, “Look, that’s your grandma. She was beautiful.”

Baby bellows bounce around the sound stage. Voices explode.


“We can’t shoot that baby.”

“Get ‘im outta here.”

“Bring on another one.”

Bellows and hurried footsteps fade.

“You alright, Janet? Do you want to sit up?”

Not on your life! That’d mean moving away from the hot water bottles.

“I’m fine, thank you.”

Scarlet fingernails dangle Baby Number 2 over me. I close my eyes and hold my breath.

“Aaand … Action!”

“That’s your grandma. She was beautiful.”

Number 2 gurgles happily, unperturbed by the crowd around the coffin. My daughter sobs hysterically into the lilies on my chest and her shoes squeal on the concrete floor as she’s being dragged away. The grieving family disperses and once again, six men surround the coffin.

“On the count of three. One, two, three.”

In well-practised unison, they heft the coffin off the trestles and place it gently on the floor. Two men help me to stand and clamber out. Another wraps a heavy bathrobe around me.

“Here, Janet. Mustn’t get cold.”

In the hair and makeup caravan, the lights around the mirror emphasise my pallor and the blue blotches near my mouth, jaw and eyes. My fingernails are also blue. Two makeup girls had spent a good hour preparing me for the close-up in the coffin. A dab of blue here, another wrinkle there – they’d thoroughly enjoyed themselves. One of them hands me damp cloths and I clean death off my face.

My husband’s voice quavers out of the living room.

“Is that you, Janet? You’re late. Good thing you didn’t slip on the front steps. They need mopping. It’s been raining.”

I’d like to say, “Well I’m not the only one in this house capable of wielding a mop”, but I’m reluctant to dispel the glow of pleasure from having been treated kindly all day so I restrict myself to, “Hello dear. How’s Christopher?”

“Shut the door. You’re letting in the cold. I’ll catch my death. I’ve looked after Christopher by myself all afternoon and dinner’s not ready yet.”

“You watched me preparing it before I went to work. You just had to pop it in the microwave.”

Small feet pound down the hall.


Christopher, aged four, lurches to a halt and sticks out his stomach to be tickled.

“Oooh, Granny!”

He bellows joyfully, louder than Baby Number 1, “Grampa! Grampa! Granny bad. Dirty nails.”

I heat my husband’s dinner and serve it to him and only then do I go to the bathroom and remove death from under my nails.