Inspiration really does come at the most unexpected moments. For instance, I was driving down the A27 yesterday on my way to a Warhol exhibition at the De La Warr in Bexhill, when we came across a funeral cortege stopped by the side of the road. One of the undertakers was clearly not well. It was a very unexpected sight. I hope he coped with the rest of the day.
Anyway, apologies if this offends.
A Grave Business
‘Stop the hearse!’
‘Stop the bloody hearse.’
The driver checked in the mirror before gently applying the breaks. No-one at Skelton & Sons Funeral Directors had forgotten the incident with Mrs Featherington-Smythe in 1978; he’d been an apprentice at the time and had forgotten the firm’s golden rule: “Never break for a squirrel”. They’d ceased carrying relations of the deceased in the hearse after that.
Oscar threw open the door and ran onto the verge. Pete couldn’t see much from the driver’s seat, but he was sure that the family in the limo behind were being treated to an unexpected spectacle.
Dave, the limo’s driver, told them later in the pub.
‘Like a bloody waterfall it was; the Niagara of vomit. Took their minds of the matter in hand for a minute I should think.’
Oscar wasn’t thinking about any waterfalls; he wasn’t thinking about much else other than how this wasn’t going to go down too well with the boss and whether there was any shoe polish in the car.
‘Feeling better?’ said Pete, pulling back into the flow of traffic.
Oscar turned to the driver and nodded sheepishly.
‘Good. Late night, was it?’
Oscar pulled down the sun visor and looked in the mirror. James, one of the undertakers, leaned through from the back and handed him a tissue.
‘Here you go, young man, wipe it off with this. There’s mints in the glove box. Two things you’ll always find on a hearse, apart from the deceased of course; tissues and mints. No-one likes an undertaker with halitosis. Makes them wonder, you know.’
Oscar didn’t know and didn’t much care. He looked like shit and felt like shit. And something had tasted like shit in that vomit. What was it? He reached for the mints.
‘Where’s your hat, Oscar?’
Charles, the Principle Undertaker, and heir to the family business, repeated his question.
‘Where. Is .Your. Hat?’
Oscar’s stomach lurched violently again.
‘It must have fallen off, Mr Skelton.’
‘Are you telling me one of our pristine, finest silk, top hats is now sitting in a pool of your adolescent vomit on the side of the A27?’
Oscar swallowed back the last dregs of bile and slumped into his seat.
‘Formaldehyde,’ he said quietly.
‘I think I must have overdosed on the formaldehyde this morning.’
‘My God, boy,’ erupted the heir, ‘I know you’re only on work experience with us and clearly have only very limited intelligence, but even you can’t be stupid enough to have actually drunk the embalming fluid!’
‘I didn’t drink it,’ said Oscar, ‘Percy was just showing me the ropes and I tripped over one of the trolleys and knocked over a bottle.’
‘I knew it!’ said James, shaking his head, ‘old Mrs MacDougal came in to discuss her husband’s interment this morning. She left in such a state. I wondered what was going on down there.’
‘Well,’ said Charles, ‘as long as no more damage was done.’ Oscar slouched further into his seat. ‘Oscar? Anything you’d like to tell us?’
‘I don’t think so, Mr Skelton. Percy said he’d be able to stitch up the damage in time for the weekend.’
Charles looked out the window at the passing trees.
‘My Great Grandfather, the first Charles Skelton, would turn in his grave if he had one,’ he muttered.
Oscar looked at Pete.
‘What?’ he mouthed.
‘Trenches,’ whispered Pete, ‘missing in action.’
‘Oh,’ said Oscar, and popped another mint.
‘You, boy,’ said Charles the Younger, ‘are extremely lucky that Mr Skelton Senior is on holiday this week; he’d make short work of you, and no mistake. Now then, did we bring a spare hat, James?’
‘Not with two funerals on at the same time, Sir. Colin and his lads took the rest.’
‘Yes, of course,’ said Charles, ‘did they get away ok? No problems?’
‘No idea,’ said Pete, ‘I wasn’t there.’
‘It’s alright,’ said Oscar, eager to prove himself capable of at least one thing, ‘Me and Percy loaded the hearses and put the flowers in.’ There, he thought, not completely useless, am I?
The rest of the afternoon went without a hitch; at least it seemed to from where Oscar was standing. He was asked not to assist with getting the coffin into the crematorium on account of being improperly attired, so instead waited at a respectful distance.
Once the short service was over, and the assembled mourners had taken a quick look at the flowers laid out by the exit, Oscar stepped forward to open the limo’s heavy door.
‘Mrs Melbury, I’m so sorry for your loss,’ he said in his most serious voice.
‘Thank you, dear,’ replied the old woman, dabbing daintily at her eye with a white handkerchief, ‘and it’s Mrs Huffington. But thank you anyway, and I’m glad you’re feeling better now.’
Oscar closed the door on the grieving widow and walked slowly back to the now empty hearse. He sat down heavily in the back seat.
‘Too much for you was it, Oscar?’ said Pete, ‘Funerals aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, mate.’
Oscar smiled weakly. He could have sworn Melbury had been the name on the coffin; he’d noticed it when he helped Percy wheel it out from the cold store. Or had that been the other one? Suddenly, he felt a bit queasy again.
‘Um, Pete?’ said Oscar, ‘whose was the other funeral today?’
‘Lord Melbury’s, of course. Big one too, I should think. Quite famous in his day, he was.’
Shit, thought Oscar.
‘And is he being cremated here too?’
Pete looked at Oscar and smiled.
‘Christ no!’ he exclaimed, ‘The Melburys! He’ll be going in the family vault with the rest of them.’
I don’t think he is, thought Oscar following a thin line of smoke as it drifted away from the crematorium’s chimney. On balance, he decided, a career in the funeral business might not be for him after all.
© flyingscribbler 2012