Thanks to Steph for the invitation to participate in the 2006 Academy of Bards Halloween Challenge.
Warning - this story deals with the difficult subject of death and funerals in a very frivolous and matter - of - fact way. If this is likely to cause offence or upset, please don't read it.
This story is copyright to the author October 2006.
Death was proving to be an expensive business.
That's what my profit and loss statement was showing anyway. Honestly, you'd think that the only two things in life you could rely on were death and taxes. The taxman didn't seem to be cutting down on his lifestyle any, according to the huge bills he kept sending me, but my belt was already so tight it was cutting off my air supply.
I shoved the books aside, and spent a well deserved couple of minutes gloomily surveying my magnolia painted walls and the cheap, garage - sale - bought pictures of rosy hued skies and waterfalls that hung lopsidedly on them. It wasn't a good look. The walls were dingy and needed repainting and some of the plaster was starting to flake away. Soon I was going to have to shell out yet more money that I didn't have just to keep this goddamn place from crumbling about my ears.
I switched on the kettle and watched disconsolately through the little clear viewer as the water started to slowly bubble.
What I needed, I decided, were a couple of really good deaths. You know the sort; large grieving family, hefty bank balances, willing to pay to send Uncle Walt on his way big style, money no object... that sort of thing. Yep, a couple of really good deaths should see me over for a month or two. Better yet, if I could sort out a couple of regular gigs, say two or three a month. Now that would tide me over nicely. It was either that, or get a proper job.
Not that running a Funeral Service isn't a proper job, you understand. But it is hard to predict turnover, so to speak, particularly when you're in a small town with a dwindling population - and it wasn't dwindling in the good sense either. The buggers were moving on out, the young to the bigger towns and the old to retirement villages down along the sunny south coast or abroad, depriving me of a steady stream of future income. 'Cos let's face it, what's left in the middle of the young and old don't tend to die that regularly, the swine.
Naturally, it's an absolute tragedy when it does happen, of course it is. A tragedy. And being one of the oldest Funeral Services in this area - five generations, man and boy and now girl - you'd think that the grieving relatives would come straight to Smithson and Sons (not that there were any Sons left). But apparently not. They were being seduced by the glitzy glamour of the Funeral Plan (monthly instalments), the satin lined splendour of the solid oak deluxe model coffin and the slimy obsequiousness of my main competitor, Stan Rosemount of Rosemount Family Funeral Service. I couldn't compete with free tea and biscuits in the viewing parlour. Particularly when they included Fox's Party Rings.
Thinking of delicious iced biscuits reminded me of my own Nescafe instant. I dumped a pile of brown powder into a vaguely clean mug and topped it off with boiling water, stirring creamer absently into it and fantasising about cappuccino, chocolate digestives and jammie dodgers. All I had were ginger nuts. It just wasn't the same.
I took a sip, grimaced, and then, picking up the phone, punched out a number.
"Phil? Yeah, hi, it's Viola. Yes. No, it came last week." I twirled the phone cord idly around my fingers as I listened to Phil chatter about his cars and carriages. They were his pride and joy. "Yeah, I've seen the pictures. She's a real beauty. A Marston, you say? No, I'd love to hire it, I really would. How much are you charging? Yes, I'm sure that is a good price. Now, I'm just making sure everything's okay for tomorrow. Yes, that's right - hearse and one limo. You've got the times, right? Great. I'll see you then. Bye."
I hung up quickly, shoved a couple of glossy brochures into the waste bin, grabbed hold of my coffee cup and headed out of the office to check on Eddie, my assistant.
Eddie was up to his elbows in work, which was always a bit of a disconcerting sight, since he was my embalmer.
"Hey, Eddie. All set for tomorrow?"
He nodded whilst fiddling around with a couple of lengths of plastic tubing. I winced as he did what he did with them. "In the cooler, all set." Which was his charming way of saying that the late Mrs Esme May was ready to be collected for her final journey to her eternal resting place in Great Crankley Cemetery tomorrow.
"Good. The family want a last visit tonight, viewing room two at seven o'clock." I watched him work for a while. Most Funeral Directors take this sort of stuff in their stride - have to really, it's all part of the territory. Some of them even do it themselves, but I never could get to grips with that side of the business. I'm way too squeamish. "Don't forget, we've got Mr Case's viewing tomorrow night. The family want an open casket."
He nodded again. "Tomorrow's gonna be a busy day. I'll put the finishing touches to him tomorrow morning. Can I borrow your blusher and lipstick again? It's just the right colour."
I paused, coffee cup to my lips, and sighed deeply. "Do you have to? It's a brand new lipstick and I'll have to throw it away afterwards. You're costing me a fortune in make - up."
He gave me a stern and reproving look. "You should have a proper supply here and you damn well know it. Pass me that formaldehyde, please."
I did as requested. "I know, but I just can't afford to. The mortician's putty pretty much blows the budget these days. I'll have to get down to the make - up counter at Debenham's again, see what freebies I can lay my hands on." I patted down my pockets and pulled out my battered packet of Benson and Hedges. Sighing with pleasure, I popped one into my mouth. "Don't worry, I'm not lighting up," I explained to Eddie's disapproving glare. With all the formaldehyde around, it'd be suicide. Plus, I'd given up last year. I just stuck to chewing on them these days.
He fitted up the formaldehyde to the tubes and set the motor whirring to push the fluid through the arteries and veins of the body he was working on. "Look Viola, I know money's tight. I've been thinking about it. I've got a couple of ideas."
I was glad he had some ideas, 'cos all mine had consisted of getting rid of him and doing the embalming myself. It wasn't my number one option, what with the squeamishness and all. Besides, I didn't think dissecting a frog in Biology classes all those years ago (and fainting as I did so) really and truly prepared a person for draining fluids from a dead human body and such. I gave him an encouraging smile around my soggy cigarette and took another mouthful of coffee. I could swear it tasted of chemicals.
"I got contacts, might be able to put a bit of work our way." He pulled off his thin rubber gloves before running long fingers through his short, unruly blonde hair.
"God knows we could do with the work. What sort of contacts? 'Cos I know what you're like. These aren't fellas you've met in the pub car park again, are they?"
"I'm not buying cheap coffins again. Even if we are cremating them, they've still got to be made of proper wood." I drained my lukewarm coffee, shoved the empty cup into his hands and stubbed out the unlit cigarette into it. "Cardboard coffins, for God's sake. They didn't even last the hearse ride. So embarrassing, not to mention the bloody refund I had to give. And the lost business." I shook my head sorrowfully. "So no more knock - off material, right? I can't afford it." I turned on my heels and headed back to my office.
Eddie dragged off his white coat and followed me out, heading towards the kitchen and lunch. "That was just an unfortunate misunderstanding. And I'm not talking knock - off coffins this time. I'm talking serious money."
"Well, come and talk serious money to me later. I've got the Samuels coming in now to talk about Stan Richardson's funeral."
"Yeah, pity about poor old Stan."
"Pity he didn't see the bus, you mean, before he stepped out in front of it."
"He was drunk, I understand. Terrible mess." Eddie grimaced, then brightened. "Better get an order in for more morticians' putty."
"We want to give him the best send off we can." Edna Samuels' many chins wobbled amidst the thick woollen coat they were buttoned up into. "He was a pillar of the community, was my brother. A pillar."
I nodded my agreement. "He was indeed. The Four Pigeons will never be the same on a Saturday night."
"We knew you'd understand, didn't we, Alf?" Edna's husband grunted his agreement. "I said, 'If there's one person who'll understand what our Stan was to this community it'll be Viola Smithson.' That's what I said, didn't I, Alf?"
"Aye." Alf was a man of few words.
"And our Dottie, you know she would've been here herself but she's that cut up, she is."
I gave another solemn nod. "I understand how difficult it is at a time like this. Losing your husband in such tragic circumstances... our thoughts are with her and all of Stan's family."
Edna's chins wobbled again. "Thanks, love. And it were so unexpected. He were so young. So young." A grubby white handkerchief was suddenly produced from Alf's sleeve and spent several moments mopping at Edna's eyes before blowing her nose noisily. It was then tucked back into Alf's sleeve.
"Yes, who'd have thought that a ninety - five year old would go so unexpectedly."
Edna gave me a level stare as she patted her steely grey hair, checking to make sure no stray strands had come loose. As if they would dare. "He would've had years ahead of him if it hadn't been for that bloody bus driver. Not looking where he was going."
"Well, the nights are drawing in now."
"That's right, love. And our Stan never did see good in't dark." Especially after about six pints of bitter, I thought, but wisely kept my own council. Instead, I nodded and made sympathetic grunts as she rummaged around in her voluminous handbag. Eventually she pulled out a battered manilla envelope and placed it on my desk. "We want to give him a bloody good send off. We've the money. Our Stan had a funeral plan."
"He did?" Not with me, he didn't.
"Aye. He put a pound a week away out of his pension." She tipped the envelope, sending a stream of coins cascading over my desk. "For years. We'll make good the rest. Money's no object. We'll have a whip - round at the pub." My heart sank, and I discretely put away the expensive brochures. Edna's hair was patted down again. "Aye. We knew you'd do a good job for us. You're part of this community, young Viola, just like yer Dad, and his Dad and so on. You're bones are in this place. Not like that smarmy bugger Rosemount. Been here five minutes and thinks he owns the place." Rosemounts Family Funeral Services had been established in Great Crankley for fifty - three years but if you hadn't lived at the same address for six generations, you were counted as a newcomer. Luckily, my family had buried most of Great Crankley for over a hundred and fifty years now. "Over my dead body does that bugger get to bury me."
I'd been doing a quick count of the pile of coins scattered across my desk. It wasn't a huge sum. I suppressed a sigh. "You know we'll do the best we can for Stan, Mrs. Samuels. Did you have anything particular in mind?"
Alf, sensing business was at hand, made his contribution. "Burial. Headstone. Bit of mahogany and brass."
It took me several minutes to digest this plethora of information. "Indeed. Mahogany. Excellent choice." I unfurled a brochure in front of them and flicked through the pages. "We have two options in mahogany. The Eastbourne is veneer, silk lined with brass plated handles. The price is there... the Bournemouth is solid wood and has that touch of luxury with its padded, silk lined interior, lovely panelled sides and ornate solid brass fittings. It comes with a range of different coloured linings. If you want the best for Stan, it does come at a price..."
Edna and Alf studied the brochure intently. "Stan was a man of simple tastes," mused Edna carefully.
"What the bloody hell's the point of brass handles and coloured lining?" observed Alf. "Stan's bloody dead, he don't care no more. We'll go for the cheaper one." Edna patted her hair in consternation, but Alf remained adamant. Veneer it was. I definitely wasn't going to get rich on Stan's funeral, by the looks of things.
We continued to haggle, me always losing out, until we got to transportation. I pulled out Phil's brochure and proceeded to talk cars.
"We don't want a car."
"You want a horse and carriage?" A gleam of excitement popped into my eyes. I loved the horse - drawn hearse; it smacked of a real, traditional old - fashioned funeral but I rarely got a chance to hire it.
"No, we don't want the horse and carriage. We want something a bit more old - fashioned. More traditional."
"A bit bloody cheaper," added Alf.
"More traditional?" I repeated blankly. "What's more traditional than a horse - drawn hearse?"
Edna's chins went into motion again. "We want the town bier."
"The bier?" I couldn't help it - I gaped. I really gaped. "You want the bier?" Kind of like a flat wooden wheelbarrow, the bier had been used to transport the dead, either in or out of their coffins, through pestilence and plague until 1786 when it was gracefully retired from business after the town's last smallpox outbreak, much to the relief of the pallbearers who had had to push it up the hill to the cemetery on a far too regular basis. "But it's in the town museum!"
Edna's flat glare got another outing. "Our Stan was a pillar of this community."
"But it's only got one wheel! Look, why don't you look at this nice hearse here. It's a Mercedes, really lovely leather interior, lovely smooth ride..."
"Our Stan is going to his final resting place on that bier. Just like his forefathers did." It would've taken a braver woman than me to mention that Stan's forefathers had either been buried at sea or had been trundled along pulled by Dobbin the funeral horse.
"But who's going to push it?"
"You," replied Alf. "I'm not paying for no bloody pallbearers."
I was having a restorative cup of coffee and staring blankly at the walls. I felt like I'd just been ambushed by a couple of funeral commandos. I swear my head was throbbing and my heart was going ten to the dozen.
Eddie popped his head round the door to ask how it went. I think the look on my face must've told him all he needed to know, because he patted me comfortingly on the arm and then topped up my coffee. He even slipped a ginger nut onto the saucer. Absently, I dunked it.
"I think I was just mugged. Maybe I should call the police." My ginger nut, sodden with coffee, collapsed into my cup. It seemed a fitting metaphor for my life right now.
"How much did you agree to... oh, I see. Does that even cover your overheads?" Glumly, I shook my head. "What are you going to do?"
"I might go into denial. That sounds like my best option."
"Well, before you get there, can you give me a hand getting Esme May ready for later?" His sympathetic hand remained on my shoulder and even gave it a slight, comforting squeeze.
"Okay." I fished around for my trusty packet of cigarettes, plucked one from the carton and popped it between my lips. I sucked on it ruminatively for a couple of minutes. "Maybe we should charge for viewings. Do you think people would pay?"
"I'm sure some would, but we probably wouldn't want them coming in. Your actual grieving relatives, now - I'm sure they wouldn't."
I rose unsteadily to my feet and began to weave my way to the mortuary. "Maybe we should ask for a donation towards the tea and biscuits," I babbled, dragging on my unlit cigarette. "That'd sort out the bloody freeloaders anyway." You'd be amazed how many people had the brass neck to turn up for the free tea and biscuits and to gawp at the dead. "I'm gonna have to put prices up. Maybe I should get into Funeral Savings Plans. I could have three basic packages - I've been thinking about it. Bronze, Silver and Gold. Like lifesaving badges, except without the life. Or maybe I should just sell out to Rosemounts and go get a job as a checkout girl. At least then I might have a chance at a social life. Nobody avoids checkout girls at parties, do they?"
Eddie put out a hand and stopped my babbling. "Look, there is another option," he whispered, glancing around furtively.
Stupidly, I glanced around with him before coming to my senses. "Why are you whispering? Nobody can hear you. The place is full of dead people."
"Medical science." We stared at each other for several minutes, a knowing look on his face and I'm sure a vacant one on mine. "It's practically a public service."
"Medic..." A light bulb flickered into faint life in my head. "You're not talking about grave robbing, by any chance, are you?"
Eddie made shushing motions with his hands while cutting his eyes all around the room. "Apparently, people aren't leaving themselves to medical science so much and it's causing problems. The medical profession pays well for... y'know." He waggled his fair eyebrows expressively. "So I hear from my sources."
The cigarette dropped from my gaping mouth. "Grave robbing? My God. Have I woken up in the eighteenth century and no - one's told me?" That had to explain the whole bier thing. Had to. I checked myself over quickly to make sure I wasn't wearing Jane Austen type clothing and was vaguely reassured to see I was still wearing my smart black fitted suit. Thank God. Although, on reflection, I could do with the pushed up breasts.
"It's not grave robbing!" hissed Eddie. "They're not technically in a grave! I mean, once we've nailed the lids down, who's to know what's really happened to them? Think of it as a good thing - kind of like recycling." He smiled encouragingly at me.
"Oh my God. This is mad. How much would they... no! Don't tell me, I don't want to know. I'm not even having this conversation. I'm definitely going into denial."
"Well, it's up to you. I'm only trying to help," he huffed.
"It's very kind of you..." He stopped me before I could be any more insincere by shoving a scrap of paper into my hand with a few scribbled figures on it. "How much? And this is just for...? Oh my God. How much is a whole one? Oh." Slowly, we recommenced our amble down the corridor. "Grave robbing, eh?"
"Recycling," he corrected firmly.
Luckily, by the time of Esme May's wake, I had come to my senses. My custard creams and bourbons were disappearing rapidly, washed down with a gallon of best PG Tips as a small and specially invited band of mourners gathered to pay their last respects and to reminisce over the long and uneventful life of Ms May.
"Shit," hissed Eddie into my ear as he passed with a plate of biscuits. "Bloody Mary's here."
"Oh, bugger!" Mary Devin turned up whenever she got a whiff of free snacks and a good funeral, claiming she was doing research for her own 'do'. Invariably, she was trouble and usually ended up gossiping appallingly about the deceased and then having to be evicted when the custard creams ran out. And that was on a good day.
"Viola, love!" She tottered towards me on her spindly high heels, disgracefully high for a woman of her age. "Wonderful send off. Poor old whatsername would've loved it. You're running out of custard creams, love." She grabbed a teacup off the sideboard with one hand and with the other, smoothed down her woollen skirt, also disgracefully high for a woman of her age.
I felt I had to go through the motions. It was a wake, after all, and I was supposed to be a professional. "Did you know Esme well?" I tried a sympathetic smile, but luckily she didn't seem to care.
"Who? Oh, her. No. I mean, yes, we went back years, love. Years. Miserable old cow, she was. Smashing job you've done on her by the way. Really brought out some colour in her cheeks." Her eyes lit up as Eddie passed again with the biscuits and she piled her saucer high with them.
Alarm bells rang. "Esme's in a closed coffin."
"Is she, love?" was the innocent reply, accompanied by a spray of biscuit crumbs. "Smashing job you did disguising that awful mole of hers. You can only see it if you get right close. I'm very impressed with your attention to detail. Most wouldn't bother once they've screwed down the lid. I'm definitely thinking I'll come to you once me time is up."
"Oh good. More tea, Mrs Devin?" I topped up her cup while frantically motioning Eddie over with my head. "Take over, would you?" I eased the tray into his hands and headed across the room to check on the coffin. It was still tightly screwed down, but had a few tell - tale scrape marks around the screw caps. I'd have to get Eddie to do a proper check once everyone had gone. Which really should be soon, as I spotted Bloody Mary with her arm around Esme's grieving sister. Mary wasn't well known for her ability to sympathise with the recently bereaved.
I steeled myself and steered myself over towards the hapless pair, rescued the sister and ushered the poor woman out towards a waiting taxi. With the main attraction - well, the main live attraction - gone, the other mourners soon went too. Even Mary eventually took the hint; when we turned down her offer to accompany the body back to the mortuary, she decided the fun was over and left. An uneventful night, for a change.
I smoothed down my black suit and settled the tall hat on my head. Eddie and I were on pallbearer duties again, this time for Stan Richardson. "Is there any sign of it?" I yelled across to Eddie, who was trying to knot his tie in the mirror.
He peeked out of the window and shook his head. "Calm down, it'll be here."
"I can't believe we're going ahead with this crazy idea. The damn thing hasn't been used for two hundred years, for God's sake." I fished my packet of cigarettes from its hiding place in my hat, flipped open the lid and inhaled deeply. "Oh, that smells good."
Eddie spared me a quick glance. "You're all worked up. Calm down, it'll be fine. Don't even think about lighting up. You know how those things make you hyper."
"I'm not going to light up," I replied, eyeing the packet longingly. "God knows, I could do with something to help me forget the next few hours. Pushing a bloody dead weight up a hill on a rickety, five hundred year old wooden wagon isn't my idea of a good time." There was a sudden clattering and clunking outside, followed by a knocking at the door. "Is that them? Are they here? God, look at the state of that thing. At least they've put the wheel back on."
The bier had been polished and varnished especially for the occasion, and was decked out in Stan's - or at least Edna's - favourite flowers. We manoeuvred Stan's coffin onto the thing, placed the wreaths carefully on top of him, and then proceeded to cautiously wheel our way along the street, inching along at a snail's pace. A loudly sniffling Edna and a dour Alf followed behind, closely followed by a large cortege of Stan's family, friends and drinking companions.
God, it was hard work. Really, really hard work. Pardon the pun, but Stan was a dead weight and my arms just aren't up to that kind of challenge, what with me not being an Olympic bloody shot putter or anything. With me at the back pushing and Eddie at the front pulling, our progress was slow. I felt like a bloody snail pushing a tree trunk up a hill and it must've taken, ooh all of five minutes before my nicely laundered best mourning suit was crumpled and soggy with sweat. And it being a cool, crisp September day and all. Eddie wasn't much better, as we stumbled and tottered along our uneven way.
Sadly, whoever had varnished the bier had also given it a good rub down with linseed oil too, which meant that Stan's coffin wasn't exactly secure on its resting place. Lashing Stan to the bier hadn't been an option - Edna would've noticed - and within five minutes of us leaving the funeral home, Stan had slithered along the full length of the contraption and had come to rest against my chest. Unfortunately my natural padding wasn't up to the job so I spent the whole journey getting coffin chafing on my boobs and desperately trying to keep him balanced at the same time. I literally and horrifyingly had a dead weight on my chest.
All my best intentions came awry, however, when someone decided to do a Princess Diana and chucked a few roses under our feet. I stumbled, the sweat standing out on my brow with the effort of pushing the damn thing, but I just about managed to keep my feet. Stan, sadly, didn't and clattered off the bier and onto the floor to the accompaniment of my ripe swearing and shrieks of horror from the cortege and assembled gatherings along the processional route.
"Shit! Someone get him!" Oiled to perfection from all the surplus linseed oil it'd inadvertently been bathed in, the coffin zoomed back down the hill and took a sharp left turn at the bottom. I took off instantly after it, flying down the road with my coat tails streaming after me like a great black tail. Poor Eddie, not really knowing what was going on, suddenly found the bier dragging him backwards. Last I saw of him, he was flinging himself onto the bier and letting gravity take its course. I didn't have time to worry about Eddie; following Stan, I swung around the corner, grabbing onto a lamppost for support, and watched aghast as he turned left again and came to a halt in a supermarket car park. All credit to him, he'd even parked in a space.
I staggered up to him, my lungs heaving and my heart thumping with horror and exertion. All the bruising on my chest didn't help as I tried to suck in great heaving gulps of air to calm my mounting panic attack.
"Jesus! God Almighty! Jesus!" I panted, foolishly knocking on the coffin lid. What was I going to do? I felt like asking him to shove up and make room, 'cos I knew that in approximately two seconds time, my life wouldn't be worth living anyway.
It took Edna and Alf a minute, in the end, to arrive on the scene. Amazingly enough, they just about beat Eddie, who was trundling the vacated bier into the car park. By this time, the Supermarket manager was on the scene, fretting somewhat and claiming that funerals weren't licensed on his premises.
"Don't worry," I gasped, somewhat breathlessly, the sarcasm taking my last traces of energy. "He only wants to get a bit of shopping in." I thought calling the police at this point was slightly excessive, although to be fair I was quite pleased when they showed up because they were the only ones able to pull Edna off me.
We eventually managed to bundle him back onto the bier and get him to the Church where Eddie and I thankfully placed him on the coffin rest at the Church gate. Gasping like a couple of fish out of water, we waited while the mourning stragglers caught up with us and made their way to Stan's graveside.
The rest of the funeral went off surprisingly smoothly, in that we actually managed to get him off the bier and into his grave without any further incidents. Of course, it was already too late anyway. My business was ruined.
I didn't even bother going into work the next day. I only bothered to get out of bed to pee, fetch chocolate and answer the front door.
It was Eddie, with a bottle of Chablis in one hand and a load of final demands in the other. He smiled apologetically as he handed them over. "This morning's post," he explained as he crossed my threshold. "Here - it's chilled. Get it open. You look like you could use it."
"Any snacks with it?" He produced a huge bag from his back pocket with a triumphal grin. "Bloody brilliant." I seized them, opened them and poured them into a plastic bowl.
"I see you're smoking again."
"Is there a reason why I shouldn't?" I shuttled the burning cigarette around between my teeth, á la Bogey, and handed Eddie a corkscrew. "And don't tell me life's worth living, Eddie, 'cos right now I don't see it that way."
He popped the cork, poured out a couple of glasses and passed one over to me. It was crisp, cool and lovely. And went really well with the steak and onion crisps he'd brought.
"So you're just going to give up," he said around a mouthful of crisps. "Let the family business that's been going for a hundred and fifty years just disappear, is that it?"
"Family dies with me, if I don't have kids. Which let's face it, isn't likely." I threw a good handful of crisps into my mouth and chewed contemplatively, then took another couple of puffs on my blessed cigarette. "I'm hardly inundated with offers. Who the hell wants to have sex with someone who buries the dead? Nobody I'd want to have sex with, that's for sure. And let's face it, I've screwed up the business already - if I keep at it, there won't be anything worth passing down anyway."
"I spoke to Edna. She's not going to sue after all. Of course, she's not going to pay the bill either but I thought in the circumstances . . . " He topped up our rapidly emptying glasses. I closed my eyes and sighed, then drained my wine. Eddie topped it up again, and again. "Look Viola, I know times are hard at the moment. But there is a way out."
I levelled a defeated glare at him. "Mate, at this stage, I couldn't even sell my body on the street."
"Doesn't have to be your body. Preferably it shouldn't even be alive."
"Oh God, not this again?" I held out my glass again for a top - up.
"Come on, Viola. We both know damn well that the family business is too important to you. Plus, you hate to walk away from a challenge."
I lit another cigarette and narrowed my eyes against the smoke. "A challenge is one thing, Eddie, but this'll need a bloody miracle. And I'm good, but I'm not that good." I nodded, as much as I dared with my embryonic spinning head towards my wineglass. Eddie obliged until the bottle was emptied.
"You don't need a miracle. You just need another business model."
"Of the bodysnatching variety?"
"Of the pay - your - bills variety."
"No. Absolutely not."
Frederick 'Freddie the Rug' Bartle's final viewing was over. I helped his weeping widow into her son's car, murmuring condolences and waved her on her way through the slanting rain that pattered onto the streets and pooled between the shiny cobblestones.
Freddie was tucked up snug in his coffin, his trademark wig with its rich auburn and russet hues tightly stuck to his head. Its shining, well conditioned colours contrasted perfectly with the smart charcoal grey suit he was attired in. Eddie had finished him off flawlessly with just the right shade of foundation and the merest hint of colour about the cheeks. Freddie was a work of art.
Eddie stood back, admiring his handiwork. "Right, grab hold of his arm and pull."
Reluctantly, I yanked hold of him and, with the two of us puffing like a pair of bellows, Eddie and I hoisted him out of his coffin and onto a wheelie trolley. We rolled him back to the mortuary and locked him safely away in a cold storage unit. His coffin was topped up with the contents of a couple of growbags and a bag of builder's sharp sand, the handles and inscribed plate given a final bit of Brasso all ready for its big - and final - day tomorrow.
I was hiding in my office, swigging down whisky and frantically puffing away on two cigarettes at once in a desperate attempt to calm my thudding heart and hurtle back into the wonderful land of denial when I was clapped on the shoulder by a cold, pale hand.
I screamed. It was Eddie. I screamed again. It was a wonderful release.
"Jesus, don't do that!" I panted. Fearing that a heart attack was imminent, I topped up my whisky tumbler with a generous three fingers and downed it in one. I didn't usually drink whisky - it was an old bottle left over from my Dad's days - but I found its curious warming effect strangely comforting.
"The lads will be there in an hour," was all he whispered, probably sensing that my already jangling nerves probably couldn't take any more. "We've got to go." To the rendez - vous, he meant. Before I had lost all reason and agreed to this hair - brained scheme of his, I had made one stipulation - that there be no obvious association with Smithson and Sons. So we had set up a mutually agreed drop off point and a time - midnight, and somewhat romantically, just off the coast out to sea. It gave us the inspired disguise of deep - sea fishermen and meant that we got to wear bulky clothes (conveniently disguising our shapes), hats, gloves (no fingerprints) and boxes full of fishing tackle, rods and the like - giving us a convenient receptacle to smuggle Freddie out in. Once Eddie had a spare key cut of his uncle's fishing boat, we were home and dry, so to speak. The only drawback was that we had to take Eddie's uncle with us but, as he usually ended up hitting the grog and spending the trip flat on his back in his little cabin, we didn't think he'd present a real problem. The biggest issue was laying hands on enough fish to make our cover story.
Quickly, we worked Freddie into the rod bag and gentle placed him in the long box we'd made especially for bodysnatching purposes, covering him with tackle, nets, bait, miscellaneous items of oilcloth, rods, reels, ropes and anything else we thought added to the overall look. Then, bundling him onto the trailer, we threw ourselves into Eddie's Renault Espace and headed off into the black, moonless night. The witching hour was drawing near and we knew the fish would be biting soon.
"Ah, ye have a woman's legs!" screeched Eddie's Uncle Alan, who liked to re - enact that particular scene from Blackadder at every opportunity - usually just before he dropped off to sleep after a few glasses or five of Lamb's Navy. Convinced he had been a seafarer in a previous life, he lost no opportunity to replay what he considered to be his wild and buccaneering past - life past but sadly usually only got as far as the tots of rum. He invariably spent the rest of the voyage snoring like a foghorn, waking up just in time to rubbish our catch and call us 'landlubbers.'
"Yes, well I would, wouldn't I?" I replied, my stomach in knots with anxiety. This was our first 'cargo delivery' as we euphemistically were calling it, and to say I was a bag of nerves was like saying the Pope was slightly religious. I am ashamed to say that I might've snapped a little. "I am a bloody woman, after all."
"Viola!" Eddie shot me a warning glare. "Here, Alan - have another tot." He held up the bottle and tipped a generous portion into his uncle's tumbler. "Warm the cockles, mate."
"Thank you, lad - don't mind if I do. Looks like your wee lass Viola here could do with one too. What's the matter, pet? You're looking quite peaky."
We were sitting on deck in our little chairs, fishing rig all set up and thermos flasks in hand, apart from Alan who instead was clutching a huge tumbler of molasses - coloured liquid. The water quietly lapped at our sides as we rode the gently swelling waves. Thank God it was a calm night, 'cos I dread to think what my stomach would've been doing if it had been a bit rough out here on the briny. We weren't the only ones out fishing either; from time to time, you could hear the whirr of a motor and see the tiny flickering of lights as other dedicated fishers patiently waited for a bite. It was surprising how many people eschewed their warm beds to sit, bundled up against the cold, and pit their wits and patience against the sea. And we were thankful - the easiest place to hide out was supposed to be in a crowd, after all.
I rubbed my poor, chilled hands together against the frost - edged cold of the late September night. "Just a bit cold, Alan. Give us a tot of that rum in my tea, would you? That'll warm me up a bit." I held out my plastic mug and Alan unsteadily sloshed a good few ounces of rum into it. If I hadn't been permanently on the edge of a nervous breakdown these days, I might've been worried about how many times I'd had a drop lately but what the hell - I bloody needed it. "Oh, that's good." I released a huge sigh as I felt the tea and rum slip down into my stomach. I took another large gulp and could practically feel the muscles in my body relax a bit, starting from the stomach out. I was banned from lighting up a cigarette, due to all the petrol on board. Apparently, I was a fire risk. With all that alcohol swishing about inside me, I should say so.
Alan lasted another fifteen minutes and was in due course helped on his way by Eddie's generous tots and by the hypnotic motion of the boat. Poor Alan, as much as he might fantasise, just didn't have sea legs and the ones he did have could just about manage the unsteady tottering down towards the tiny cabin. Moments later, a tortuous snoring rose from the bilges.
Eddie capped the rum bottle in a very final manner. I tried hard not to look disappointed. "Right, that's him out of the way. He should be out for a good few hours."
"Let's just get this over with then," was my reply. Eddie flashed the boat's searchlight three times in the prearranged signal, and we sat together in tense silence. About twenty minutes later, we heard splashing as a rowboat pulled up beside us. Eddie leaned over the side and held a whispered and hurried conversation with the rowers. Finally, he raised his head, gave me a stern glance and nodded his head solemnly.
It took roughly ten minutes to get Freddie the Rug out of our boat and on his way. Ten minutes of utter terror on my part. The terror was only partly assuaged by the big fat envelope that was stuffed into my palm. No, tell a lie - I was still terrified, and I had a feeling that I'd be terrified for a good long while to come.
We stuck to our cover story and remained fishing until one in the morning before Eddie manoeuvred us back to shore. I was expecting the coast guard to pull us over every second, but we managed to get back without incident and with a small haul of shining, silvery fish.
"Is that all you caught?" enquired Uncle Alan sleepily as he attempted to shake the rum off. "That's rubbish, that is. Hardly worth the effort of coming out."
I patted the pocket containing the fat envelope, and smiled nervously at Eddie. Little did Alan know.
We'd been doing it for almost a month now. Business - both businesses; the legit one and the 'less legit' one - was pretty slow. The story of Stan Richardson's debacle of a funeral had unfortunately spread and had somewhat dented customer confidence which in turn lead to an inevitable downturn in my ability to respond to customer needs in my second business. Particularly since the requests of my second business customers were usually quite specific. I always knew when we had a job on; Eddie sidled into my office and whispered through the side of his mouth, "Male Caucasian, 60 plus, got to be really overweight." Sometimes they would request a particular cause of mortality - I assumed they (whoever they were) were studying the progression and effects of a specific disease on the human body. Of course, I wasn't always able to supply as their specifications were so particular, and to be honest, some I just plain wouldn't. I flatly refused to provide children, babies and pregnant women - I did have some standards, after all. For some reason, they also kept asking for dogs too. But that, I thought, was just bloody sick.
However, I had been able to respond to enough requests and although my panic attacks hadn't lessened any (I was still reduced to sitting on the toilet for days before and after), the financial rewards were definitely being felt. I'd paid off the worst of the bills, cleared my debts and had even managed to get a fresh coat of paint and some new curtains and pictures into the funeral home. Brightened up the place no end, it had, causing comments and compliments from those punters who had started to drift back - it was amazing how far 'a distant uncle from America's legacy' would stretch. I was a long way from being free and clear, financially speaking, but at least I wasn't knocking at the door of the workhouse anymore. Not for a few months, anyway.
The fresh crispness of September had given way to the soggy darkness of October and I was hoping that business - the legitimate one, that is - would start to pick up after I'd paid for a double page spread in the local newspapers. I'd also branched out into instalment plans, monuments and pet burials, all of which were proving to be rather lucrative. Always good to take advantage of the great British public's ongoing love affair with its furry and feathery friends. It was just about enough to keep the books balanced and vaguely legal looking, all helped by Great Uncle Arthur's legacy.
I'd splashed out on a coffee maker for my office and the pot was bubbling, sending wafts of delicious aroma around the room as Eddie burst in one morning. Startled, I had guiltily stubbed out my cigarette before I realised it was him, and frowned in annoyance. I hated smoking in front of the customers - gave a bad image, I reckoned - but I hated wasting a good Benson & Hedges even more. Grumbling, I fished in my desk drawer for another one, but Eddie cut me off mid - search.
"Voila! Shit, Viola!" His short blonde hair was standing up in tufts on his head where his fingers repeatedly raked it, and he was pacing around in front of me, alternately ruffling his hair and shaking his head. In short, he looked bloody awful.
"Good God, what's wrong with you? Put the wrong shade of eyeshadow on Diane Beaton have you?"
"Shit, Viola. We're in trouble. You know the investigation into that Doctor in the Felmore practice? You know, the one who they reckon's been bumping off his patients?"
I nodded, and continued fishing around in the drawer until I located the battered packet of cigarettes. "Yes," I replied absently. "What's that got to do with us?" My hand hovered over a box of matches.
"They're digging into all the deaths he's attended over the past six months. They're going to dig up Jacob Buttermere! Viola, they're going to dig him up! Apparently most of the other people were cremated but he was supposed to be buried, and recently too. They want to dig him up!" He commenced his frenetic pacing again. "Jesus Christ! What are we going to do?"
The cigarette dropped from my suddenly lifeless lips. "What? Dig him up? But . . . are you sure?" An expression of pure horror washed across my face. Needless to say, if the police dug up Jacob Buttermere, rather than the nicely decomposing body of the 89 year old, they would find half a ton of potting compost, potato peelings and grass clippings from Eddie's recycling bin. "Fuck! What the hell are we going to do?"
Eddie's mouth opened and closed like a fish's as he mopped his sweating brow with his equally damp hand. "I've got my passport and I've packed a bag. We'll have to skip the country. We'll have to skip the country, Voila! Why the hell did we ever get into this stupid business in the first place? I'm never going to be able to watch Millwall play again! Fucking hell!"
"Millwall? I'm not leaving the country. We can barely afford a ticket on the cross - channel ferry to France, you stupid sod! And anyway, we'd need somewhere without an extradition treaty . . . "
Eddie stopped his pacing, a hopefully light in his eye. "The French hate everyone. They wouldn't send us back would they?"
Sheer panic intensified my usual nicotine cravings. My hands were shaking so badly it was all I could do to light the two cigarettes I decided I needed. I rammed them into my mouth and took deep, frantic drags. "What, a couple of bodysnatchers? I wouldn't want us in my country. We can't skip the country. When are they digging him up?"
"I dunno. They got to get a court order first - you can't go digging up dead bodies without one, and that could take a day, maybe even longer. Depends how quickly they want to do it. God! What the fuck are we going to do, Viola? I can't go to prison. I'm too pretty to survive." That was a matter of opinion - mainly his, obviously.
A curious calm began to descend over me as the nicotine finally started to kick in. I leaned back in my chair and narrowed my eyes against the cigarette smoke. "There's only one thing we can do. Get there first. We've got to find him and put him back."
I sent a gibbering Eddie away with instructions to find out more from his contacts about where Jacob Buttermere might be and whether he was likely to still be in one piece. I whiled away the intervening hours alternately panicking, panic - smoking and panic - drinking. As the afternoon wore on, I became increasingly wired from caffeine and nicotine and more and more worried about my heart rate, which was racing all over the place. Fearing for my health and sanity, I hung up the 'closed' sign, called it a day and went home to await word from Eddie.
He called me on my mobile that evening, which was unusual since he only lived a couple of streets away.
"Why don't you come round?" I enquired, trying to hang on to some semblance of normality.
"I think it's best if we stay away from each other," he whispered. "Don't arouse suspicion."
"We work together. Don't you think people'll be suspicious if we suddenly never see each other again?" He made a non - committal grunt and I could hear the tinkle of ice cubes crashing into the side of a glass. He was probably hitting his favourite Tequila and Red Bull again. "So did you get the information?"
"I tried, I really did Viola. But they wouldn't tell me. This is it, we're going down. I'll die in prison, I will!" His voice rose to a shrill shriek; I had to yank away the mobile from my ear before he did me any damage.
"Pull yourself together, man!" I'd always wanted to say that in real life. I only wished he was here so I could've slapped him around the face too. "We are not going down, not if I can help it. Now, are we still on for the drop tonight?"
"We're not going ahead with it?" His voice got all shrill again.
"Don't be bloody stupid! Of course we're not, but they don't bloody need to know that! But if we meet with them face to face and explain the situation . . . " I smiled menacingly; even though he couldn't see me, it made me feel a lot better. "I'll see you later, usual time. Wear black."
Eddie turned up late, having clearly been panicking and drinking all evening. He'd also laid it on a bit thick with the outfit - he looked like the Milk Tray Man, dressed in black from head to toe, topped off with a black woolly hat clapped tightly to his head. Panting slightly, he sidled in through the doorway whilst glancing around furtively, and I noticed that it wasn't only his outfit that was black.
"Are you wearing shoe polish on your face?"
"Do you think I'm stupid? It's gravy powder. I'd never get shoe polish off. Do you want some?" I tried to say no, but before I could answer he'd splattered a load of brown powder all over me and proceeded to rub it into my cheeks.
"Stop that! Get off me!" I spluttered, spitting out Bisto from my mouth. "Won't your uncle be a bit suspicious when we turn up covered in gravy?"
He held up a pristine bottle of Lamb's Navy and grinned, his teeth standing out sharply white against the gravy brown of his face. "He won't care for long."
"Right." I held out my hand. "Give me that here, I'll look after it."
"Not bloody likely. Get in the car, we need to get off."
We bustled out to the car, lugging our usual fishing gear out with us and squeezing it all into the boot of Eddie's Land Rover. Five minutes later, we were wheeling out of the driveway and heading up the highway to the coast.
Uncle Alan had obviously developed a tolerance for Rum. It took almost all of the bottle before he passed out this time. But thank God, he was snoring like a chainsaw and, as always, scaring away the fish with the racket he was making. Not that Eddie and I were doing much fishing. The lamp had been flashed, and we were now waiting for the thud of the oars and the swish of the water which would signal the arrival of the little rowboat.
"Hell of a way to spend Halloween night," I mused as we bobbed up and down in the boat.
"Tell me about it," replied Eddie. "I had a party all lined up tonight. Was going as Dracula. Had a cape and everything. Was hoping to sink my teeth into a sweet young thing tonight. Ended up with you instead."
"Halloween is all about horror."
We had almost finished our flask of tea - which tasted peculiarly of gravy - when we heard the boat draw up at our side. There was a low whistle; the pre - arranged signal. Eddie stuck his head over the side and gestured to me that they were indeed here. Usually, he would show a thumbs - up signal and then in silence, we would commence lowering the cargo over the sides with ropes and pulleys. This time, he made some complicated - looking hand gestures.
There was a moment's silence. "What?" was the only reply he got to his efforts. He tried again. There was another, longer silence. "What the Hell's that all mean? Are you lowering the thing, or what? We haven't got all night to be hanging round here while you fiddle about with your fingers."
"Oh, for God's sake!" I muttered, and poked my own head over the side. "We have a problem," I hissed. "I've broken my arm and we can't get the cargo down by ourselves. You'll have to come on board and help us."
There was muted whispering from the row boat. Two faces turned up towards us, like tiny moon disks. "We're not coming up there."
"Fine," I shot back. "Then we'll have to call it off. Pity though 'cos it's a really good specimen. Exactly what the client asked for. He or she won't like it, but I guess you can explain it to them."
There was more muted whispering. The two moon - faces turned back towards us, sullen and resentful looking. "One of us will come up. Get the ladder ready."
We unfurled the rope ladder and swung it down; we could feel the rope tugging as the guy slowly pulled himself up it. After a little while, a head appeared, little sparse wisps of hair with fractured mini beams of moonlight bouncing off the pate. Sadly, the little wisps of hair were arranged carefully into a comb - over, and had become slightly astray due to the unexpected physical exertions of its owner.
Puffing and panting, the guy flopped himself over the railing and lay gasping like a sturgeon out of water.
"So nice of you to join us. We have ever such a lot to talk about." I smiled grimly. "Now!" I swiftly bopped him on the head while Eddie threw the boat into gear and roared off, leaving the rowboat rocking perilously in our wake.
It was short work to break Frankie, our guest. Shorter, once we'd tied him to a chair in the galley, subjected him to Uncle Alan's snoring for an hour, then carefully and deliberately arranged Eddie's embalming tools across the table in front of him. I think the thing that finished him off, though, was when I pulled out from under the polished table a big jar full of formaldehyde labelled 'sexual organs'. Frankie broke, vowed he was going to get out of the 'import and export business', and coughed.
Soon, we had the name and address of the client safely stored on the back of an old Tesco's receipt.
We let Frankie out at the wharf and watched the poor fellow scamper off, still gibbering and holding his privates. "Glad we were able to help him with his career choices," remarked Eddie as he poured the still comatose Uncle Alan onto the back seat before slamming the car into gear and driving off. "I think he'd do well as a plumber."
I grunted noncommittally, passing up the opportunity for a double entendre. I had far more important things on my mind than making crass jokes. Like lighting a cigarette, for a start. Once lit, I shoved one in my mouth and sighed with pleasure. "Right, have you got the address?" Eddie nodded and pulled out the receipt from his shirt pocket. "Good. Let's get home, quick - we need to get this into Multimap so we know where we're going."
Eddie smiled smugly. "No need. I've got Satnav." He stroked his dashboard toy lovingly. "We can punch in the postcode and it'll take us straight there. Quickest route too!"
I shot him a look. "I don't think we need to worry about traffic at this time of night." With his instructions, I entered the data and we set off, screaming through red lights and careening the wrong way round roundabouts, driving through suburban streets until we cleared the town and drove into the enveloping blackness of the coastal road. We continued for an hour or more, while the moon steadied in the sky and cast a mercury haze across the gently rippling water. We veered off the empty highway, following an old silted up river which had once meandered to the sea and then, directed by the Satnav, turned sharply to the right. It was a one - track road, the pitted and potholed tarmac giving us a bumpy ride even in Eddie's Espace. We were both thankful when, a few moments later, the road widened out to reveal a small, secluded cove, deserted save for a lovely old stone cottage nestled between the sand dunes and the tide's edge. Eddie cut the lights and we rolled to a stop at the side of the road.
We managed to get out of the car without making too much noise. The night was still, the only sounds were the rustling of the reeds and grasses as they were turned by the slight breeze, the subtle sucking of the water against the shore and the occasional chirrup of a night insect or bird settling down for the night.
Well, that was by the road. As we got closer to the house, the sound of Meatloaf's 'Bat Out Of Hell' album played at full blast broke the ambiance as it blared out from the house into the little bay. The occupant was home.
"Oh, shit," I whispered to Eddie. "It's one thirty in the morning. Who the hell is up at this time?"
"On the plus side, maybe he won't hear us breaking in?" Eddie brandished the small screwdriver and the jemmy that he'd brought from the boot of his car and tucked down his boots.
"Or maybe he'll bump right into us as he dances up and down the corridor?" I grabbed the jemmy off him and tucked it into my own boot. "Try not to use that. It might make too much noise breaking in just as the song track changes, knowing our luck."
Cautiously, we approached the house, taking great care to stay in the few shadows that remained since every light in the house seemed to be on. "Did Frankie say this guy was a bloody insomniac?" Eddie asked in amazement as we drew close to the kitchen window. We could hear the reedy wailing of the occupant singing along happily to 'Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad'. "Oh my God. Looks like breaking in could be easier than we thought. The back door's open." He leaned his palm against the glass and the door swung slightly ajar. We spared nervous glances for each other, took a few deep breaths and stepped through.
In keeping with the old stone cottagey look of the place, the kitchen was large and country style, with scrubbed oak units and counter tops, a well - worn pine table and a huge bleached pine dresser which stretched the width of the wall. Crockery and plates decorated with merry little cows and ducklings lay neatly ranged along the shelves or dangling from small hooks fastened to the bottom. It was all very Emmerdale Farm.
"Nice place," muttered Eddie as he pocketed a tiny milk jug with cows frolicking around the rim. "Just like my mum's flat."
My heart was already thumping in my rib cage at all the crimes we had already committed. We didn't need to add petty larceny to the list. "What are you doing with that jug? Put it back!"
"My mum'll love it. Besides, what are you worried about? We're about to steal worse than a bloody milk jug!"
"Ssssh!" The track flipped, causing a moment of silence. Eddie and I froze in the middle of the kitchen until the jangle of rock guitars and drums started up again. Simultaneously, we both breathed sighs of relief. "Are you sure Frankie said it was here?"
"Yes, in the cellar, apparently." We recommenced our creep across the floor, towards the cellar doorway at the far side of the room.
"I don't get it," I observed as I gingerly tested the cellar door. It was unlocked. "Why keep the remains here? If they're supposed to be using them for medical science, why aren't they in a hospital or someplace?" We started down the darkened staircase, the strains of Meatloaf fading fast behind us until it was a minor annoyance, like a mosquito buzz in the night. Quite reassuring, in a strange kind of way. I pulled out my mobile phone and set the flashlight on. It cast the tiniest beam, like a gloworm lighting our path. Frankly, it was next to bloody useless but was the only source of light we had. Well, it was until Eddie pointed out the light switch at the foot of the stairs. "I mean, how are they storing them? They can't have the proper facilities here. I dread to think what they're . . . "
Eddie had flicked the light switch; stark yellow light pooled all around us, sending the planes of our faces into harsh and ugly relief. Or at least, Eddie's face was ugly. I could only assume I looked like shit too. I consoled myself with the thought that at least it'd make my mug shot suitably menacing when the cops finally pulled us over. Facing a lifetime stretch inside, a woman could do with a bit of a tough - girl reputation to help her while away the years. Maybe I would end up Top Bitch?
A poke in the ribs interrupted my desperate panic - daydreaming. There was a heavy - set door sunk into the wall at the foot of the stairs. "Frankie said it was in a room off the cellar," hissed Eddie, gesturing towards the doorway in front of us. I reached out a trembling hand. It was locked.
"Shit. What do we do now?" Eddie stared around in panic, his eyes absolutely huge in his head. "Who's idea was all this anyway? What do we do now? Shit, what are we gonna do?"
"Calm down!" He was panicking again, so I just had to slap him. It felt really good, so I did it again. Sadly, he then calmed down. When he was composed enough to take anything in, I shot him an angry glare. "Just for the record, this was all your stupid idea. Recycling, remember? It's thanks to you we're in this sodding mess! And as for the door - can you pick locks?"
"No! I'm an embalmer, not a catburglar!"
"Fine. In that case, we'll have to use the key." The key that had been in the lock the whole time.
Meatloaf had given way to U2 upstairs. I was feeling eerily calm by now, like I was on a runaway train and knew damn well I couldn't get off, so may as well kick back and wait for the end of the ride. It all had a sense of shuddering inevitability about it. I watched as my hand reached out, fingers fastened about the key and turned; the lock clicked, and the door sprang ajar.
We stepped inside.
Eddie let out a low whistle at the sight that greeted us. I didn't make any sound - my jaw had dropped open.
Frankie had called it a cellar. I had imagined a dingy room with maybe some musty old bottles of wine, a few mice skittering about, a few sticks of old broken - down furniture. Maybe piles of coal. Cobwebs everywhere - you know the sort of thing. At the funeral parlour, my dad had converted the cellar to a modern storage facility - the cold store, if you like. I suppose, technically, we should call it a mortuary since it was where we stuck our clients ready for their final journey, in between viewings and 'pamper sessions', as Eddie called them. But this place - well, it beat ours hands down. There was nothing country kitchen about this cavernous cellar.
"Oh my God. What is this place?" Open mouthed, the pair of us wandered around to the faint strains of 'In The Name Of Love' filtering down from above. The lighting was ambient, the carpet plush red, the walls a nice, nondescript cream. It was almost like being in a museum. Which we were, I suppose, except it wasn't paintings or sculptures we were looking at. I wasn't sure what we were looking at, at first.
Eddie had paused halfway along the room, his mouth agog with shock and horror. "Is that . . . Oh my God. It's Freddie!"
"Freddie the Rug? But it can't be. It can't be." I ran over. Sure enough, there was Freddie, floating peacefully in a large, upright see - through container full of liquid, his wig streaming gaily behind him. My mouth fell open again. "What's going on here? That's Mary O'Riordan. And . . . there's Albert Eccles. Oh my God. What are they all doing here? They're supposed to be in some hospital or university by now. Or a research lab. Somewhere bloody medical! What the hell are they doing here?"
Eddie had his face in his hands, and had sunk to the floor. "It's like some fucking art gallery, except with these poor people. It's sick."
I joined him down on the floor; I had no choice really, as my legs had abruptly stopped working. "It is sick. And you know what's worse, Eddie? We did this. We put these people here, so they could be kept in this guy's private collection and gawped at whenever he felt like it. This is our fault."
"You're right, Viola. I feel awful. So what are we gonna do?" He turned helpless big blue spaniel eyes on me. Clearly, it was down to me to pull us both together and sort this situation out. God, I had never needed a cigarette so badly. I rose briskly to my feet.
"What we came to do. Get Jacob Buttermere and get the hell out of here. Let's not kid ourselves, Eddie - it's too late for us to get an attack of principles. We knew we were up to no good. We did it for the money and it'd serve us bloody well right if we got caught. But I'd rather we weren't and so to make sure of it, we need to get Mr Buttermere back where he should belong. Come on."
I pulled him to his feet and we both set off around the huge room, looking for the recently departed Mr Buttermere. After a couple of minutes, I was drawing a blank and it didn't look like Eddie was having much joy either. Of course, it didn't help that I couldn't remember for the life of me what the hell Jacob had looked like. I trotted over to Eddie. "Eddie, would you recognise him if you saw him again? I didn't really see that much of him, if you know what I mean."
A slight frown spread over his features. "I'm not sure I would. Remind me what he looks like?"
"What do you mean? You're the one who bloody spent hours on him, shoving tubes up him and draining stuff out of him. Not to mention the hours spent in make up."
The puzzled look remained on his face for a few moments longer, until a light dawned in his eyes at last. "Oh, shit yes. I remember. Light Cover Girl foundation, cookies n'cream eyeshadow, Boots clear nail varnish and Boots aubergine lip gloss. Lovely job it was." Sometimes I wondered about Eddie and his unhealthy fascination with women's make - up. "About five - four, very wrinkly even after I'd worked on him, little bit of grey hair left. Look for a smart blue suit and purple shirt."
We continued browsing around the room until we found Jacob. Still decked out in his navy suit and purple shirt, he floated in suspended animation in his Perspex container. "Wow," marvelled Eddie, staring in fascination at our target. "He still looks good. Just like he popped off yesterday."
"Yes. Very lifelike." I nodded, impressed. "Great job with the make - up."
"Thanks." I swear he simpered and blushed. "C'mon, let's get this over with and get out of here."
He swung a large, empty black leather holdall off his shoulder, laid it on the floor and unzipped it. Then, we stared up at Jacob's container for a few moments. "Can we push it over, do you think?" I sized the thing up. It looked pretty heavy, what with all the liquid in and, of course, the body. "We're going to have to get it over somehow, so we can get him out of there." I puzzled over the quandary for a moment. "No, I can't see any other way round it. We're just going to have to get that thing over."
I think it was the crash of the container going over, just as the U2 tracks were changing over, that alerted the owner that there was mischief afoot in his home - made mausoleum. We stuffed Jacob into the holdall as quickly as we could and, lugging a handle each, we made our unwieldy way back through the cellar, heading towards the stairs as quickly as we could with our dead weight weighing us down and dripping a trail behind us.
We skidded to a clumsy stop at the doorway. It was blocked by the huge, sweaty mass which was Charles Mackie. The dark pools under his armpits told that exercise wasn't his natural medium. Neither, unfortunately, was calmly discussing the situation when he found two strangers making off with one of his prized possessions. Luckily for us, he was still out of puff from all the dancing he'd been doing, so him launching himself at us with a hugely angry roar meant that by the time he made it to us, he'd run out of momentum. Which was some relief, as I suspect he would've had us down like a couple of ninepins if he'd been at full pelt.
"Who the hell are you?" he roared, prowling around us and mustering his energy for another strike. "What the hell are you doing in my house?"
"Now listen . . . " I danced around him, at arms length. "Now listen Mr. Mackie. I can explain." I gestured to Eddie with my eyes; he twigged the signal and slowly started to make his way behind Mackie, aiming to sidle out of the door and to freedom. Whatever happened, we had to get Mr Buttermere back and six feet under.
"How d'you know about this place? Is it Sampson? Did he send you to raid my collection?"
"Eh?" Sampson? My God, a rival collector? There was some sort of macabre collectors club out there, swapping bodies like they were trading cards? Now, that was way too sick to contemplate. I shivered to my bones, but managed to keep enough wits about me to quickly come up with something. "I don't know any Sampson. I'm Tracey Henderson, from Rosemount Family Funeral Services. We . . . erm, have been . . . uhhh, suppliers for you, I suppose you might say."
"Shhh! I don't wanna know - that's why I go through middle men. Deniability. But I can tell you this, lady - I bought those goods. Paid in full. They're not on loan, so what the hell are you doing coming here and taking them back?"
We continued to circle cautiously round each other, as 'Desire' rang out above us. Eddie was still making his slow, subtle move towards the staircase. I was playing decoy, and thinking faster than I'd ever done before. "Oh, well, we pride ourselves on after - sales service, Mr Mackie."
"A funeral parlour does after - sales?"
"Absolutely. It's good business. I thought my assistant had fixed this up with you last week? A monthly check - up is all part of the service."
His forehead creased in confusion. "You're taking one of my people to do a check up on them?"
I nodded eagerly and smiled in the most reassuring way I could. "Absolutely. Check the cosmetics. Make sure that the stitching is holding. Repacking body cavities and replacing body lubricants."
His frown cleared and he straightened from his crouched posture. "Oh, you mean like an oil and filter change?"
My smile froze slightly. "I couldn't have put it better myself. After all, you wouldn't want one of your prized and expensive exhibits going all manky in a jar, would you?"
"But I thought they were preserved?"
I faltered a little. "Yes, well, they are. But the usual funereal preparation isn't designed to preserve for the long term. After all, most bodies are supposed to either burn up or decompose. My assistant here will tell you that. He's my specialist preserver." Eddie nodded eagerly.
Mr Mackie still looked a bit suspicious, but seemed to be willing to go along with this frankly ridiculous charade. He was clearly rich - bodysnatching didn't come cheap - but didn't seem to be too blessed with brains. Luckily for us. I promised that we'd have Jacob back within a day, and he gave me a list of touch - up work he wanted doing and somehow, by some bloody miracle, we actually managed to get out of there in one piece and, even more amazingly, with the remains of Jacob Buttermere intact in the holdall.
As soon as we got outside, we had scrambled for the car and once in, Eddie had slammed his foot on the gas and we had squealed away from the moonlit - bathed bay.
One hair - raising drive later and we were pulling up at the Great Crankley Cemetery. I pulled out my plot map of the cemetery, Eddie grabbed a couple of shovels and we made our way through the maze of rows until we'd found Jacob's grave. The turf still hadn't had a chance to take properly, so it was quite easy to carefully peel it off. The soil was nice and thick and damp, and still hadn't settled from the original interring which made shovelling easy, but it still took us a couple of hours careful digging before we struck wood.
By five thirty, we were replacing the turf over Jacob's definitely final resting place and tidying up his flowers.
Job done, we climbed back into the car and hyperventilated until our heart rates returned to normal. "I'm getting too old for all this," I gasped, taking my own pulse whilst trying to light up a cigarette. "Is there any of that rum left?"
"What the fuck are we doing in a cemetery?" A strange voice suddenly piped up from the back seat. Eddie and I both screamed, before realising that it was Uncle Alan, finally awake from his Rum slumber and blinking in the early morning sunlight. "Did you catch anything?"
"You wouldn't believe us even if we told you."
"Yeah, right," he scoffed, yawning and stretching his legs. "You couldn't catch anything if it was pickled and in a jar. You're bloody rubbish, you two."
We slammed the car in gear, dropped Uncle Alan off home and then headed back to my place for alcohol, snacks, more alcohol and whatever else we could find in the medicine cabinet.
Things turned pretty quiet after that. The police dug up Jacob and found that he hadn't been helped on his way by Doctor Stubbs over at Felmore at all, and a verdict of death by natural causes was re - affirmed. He was given another, this time final, burial - we threw it in for free for his family. Well, it was the least we could do - unbeknownst to them, it was his third. But then again, they do say the third time's a charm.
We severed all ties with Eddie's shady associates and thankfully retired from our former business. The Funeral Service was a struggle, but at least it was an honest one and my heart just couldn't stand all the excitement.
Still, business had picked up since all that unexplained business over at Rosemounts. Some former disgruntled customer had apparently shown up, demanding his property back and saying something about after - sales service. Needless to say, Stan Rosemount had denied all knowledge of any bodies being serviced in the basement but sadly, some grieving relatives who had happened to be around at the time discussing funeral services had gotten a bit antsy and had called the police. Even more inexplicably, Stan's funeral parlour had burned down that night, which didn't help clear up the police investigation into alleged bodysnatching at all. Poor old Stan, guilty by rumour if not by fact, hadn't been able to sustain his business and Rosemount Family Funeral Services had been forced to up and move out of the Great Crankly area within the month. He couldn't go too far though - the police still had his passport.
Which meant that Smithson and Sons were once again free to be the only monopoly in the area. I was sleeping better, drinking less and could even go a couple of hours without a cigarette, now that the pressures of the business were lessening. Of course, I was still racked with guilt over the part I'd played in the whole nefarious business, and occasionally I even felt a bit bad about the whole Rosemount thing. I knew I'd been damn lucky to have gotten away with the whole thing and I swear to God I had learned my lesson, I really had. Still, who was I to argue if good stuff came out of it all? I wasn't Catholic, after all - no need to wear a hair shirt and whip myself every night. Death, so to speak, had given me a new start and I'd have been daft not to have taken it up.
Strange how things work out, isn't it?