by Richard C Elder
A bright-blue winter morning. January 5th. In the driveway of the redbrick house a hearse stands waiting, its tailgate an open maw. A burbling exhaust growls a warning as it slavers onto the frosted concrete. Swathed in black coats and steaming breath, two funeral directors wait to be summoned in.
Gary stands motionless in the front room of his father’s house. He’s twenty-eight, tall and athletic. His mother lies upstairs in her coffin, ready for the journey to the church. Gary stares through the window at the hearse. The chromed deck is rolled out, empty and shining and cold. For some reason it reminds him of a Pizza oven. Family members swirl around him like fish investigating a wreck.
‘How are you, Gary?’ a face asks, its beard and moustache glinting in the sunlight streaming through the glass.
He doesn’t acknowledge the question, doesn’t show recognition.
‘Gettin’ Dad,’ he announces, his voice too loud, each word a dagger-thrust.
A florid, chubby face. Aunt May, his mother’s sister. She’s blocking his path to the door.
‘Do you want me to come up with you?’
‘No,’ he mutters, his eyes burning. ‘Tell them five minutes. We’ll be ready then.’
The staircase is a steep mountain path, forbidding and misted. He knows what he’ll see when he gets up there. Grabbing the newel post he dips his head and starts the climb.
What a way to spend my Saturday, standin’ here freezin’, waitin’ to box-up some aul doll. Shite.
Frowning, Gary stops on the first tread. The hallway is empty, the front room door closed. At the far end of the hall he can see the cat in the kitchen, biting at a ham. The only people he can see are the two funeral guys in the driveway. The tall one is at the far end of the hearse wiping a blemish from the windscreen and talking on a phone. His colleague is at the open tailgate, standing side-on to Gary, hands in his pockets, marking time, his polished shoes jerking up and down, up and down. Two glass doors separate him and Gary, both of them closed against the cold. Gary stares at the pale, pinched face which twitches and frowns under the shock of red hair.
Is there any friggin’ chance? Some of us have a life. Give me a friggin’ break!
More words, but Red’s lips aren’t moving.
Gary’s breathing has almost stopped. He’s light-headed and more detached now than before, in the front room. He sways then leans on the post. May appears in front of him. Smiling, she covers his hand with hers, feels tremors rattling through the rigid fingers gripping the painted wood. Leaning toward him she whispers, ‘I heard him, what he’s thinking. And you heard him. But no one else did. You know why, don’t you?’
Choking, he shakes his head but the words come as fast as a slot machine jackpot, ‘She told me, that last night. I thought it was the tablets. Passin’ it to me? You know? You know?’
May studies his face, sees confusion and distress, asks, ‘So what will you do about him?’
Gary wipes his brow with the back of his hand, saying, ‘Dunno. It’s not as if he said it out loud.’
‘But you want to do something?’
Sniffing and swallowing, he gives her a hard look, murmuring, ‘Yeah. Definitely.’
May stands on tiptoe and puts her soft lips to his ear. ‘Tell her,’ she purrs.
Chanel has him salivating as electricity surges through his groin. ‘Who?’
Words spiral into his head on hot breath. ‘You know who,’ she whispers, her tongue flicking across the fine blonde hairs covering his ear lobe.
‘She’s dead,’ he groans, blood rushing through him, his body filled with fire.
Like a tarantula pinioning a frantic bird, May’s hand tightens on his, crushing resistance. ‘You need one minute alone with her before they come up. Hold her hands and tell her, then leave him there.’
‘This is mad,’ he hisses, trying to pull away.
May’s green eyes glitter and she digs her nails into his skin. ‘What was it he called your mother? An aul doll? Eh? Yes. So get on with it.’
Sobbing envelopes him as he pushes on the bedroom door; it moves smoothly across the carpet pile, makes a shuffing sound. His father is sitting at her bedside, stroking her hair, blinded by tears.
‘Dad,’ he breathes, ‘Dad, it’s time.’
‘Son...I know. But I can’t...’
Gary kneels by his father’s side, holds him. His mother lies still and calm, crisis past, pain gone.
‘Dad, it’s time. They’ll be up in a minute. You go to the bathroom and wash your face. Get steady.’
His kiss drying on her forehead, Gary’s dad stumbles from the room. Gary bends over his mother, reaches into the coffin and takes both her hands in his. They’re cool and soft. He tells her the tale and that he loves her, then places a kiss on her cheek. As he straightens he hears a soft knock on the door. Shuff. The tall guy enters the room first, smiling sympathetically, warmly. Gary steps back to give them room. As they make for the coffin lid set upright in the corner, Gary asks the tall guy if he can have a quiet word on the landing. Red says he can manage.
They leave the room, pull the door closed. But before Gary can speak, a shriek shreds the silence. He throws the bedroom door open.
Red is cowering on the floor, tearing at his hair, staring wide-eyed at the coffin. He turns his face toward Gary and the tall guy and reaches for them with straining arms.
On the pale skin of his left cheek is the imprint of a hand: four fingers and a thumb glowing bright and hot, as if he had just been slapped.