The Undertaker

by Andy Polaine on February 13, 2005

The Undertaker is a short story I wrote a few years ago. I won’t say it’s my best (!) but it’s entertaining enough:

The Undertaker

Nathan P. Goodhope checked his winged collars in the mirror and tweaked his black tie. He took a tortoise-shell comb out of his waistcoat pocket and aligned the last few hairs swept across his bald head. A pair of small, black-rimmed glasses sat tightly on his face leaving small dents in his temples. The morning light shone through the green stained-glass window of the front door lighting up particles of dust that jostled in the air currents. Nathan breathed in, deeply satisfied with his appearance and enjoying the smell of freshly polished shoes and oak. There was a knock at the door and he opened it whilst looking at the pocket watch hooked onto one end of a chain running through a buttonhole of his waistcoat.

“You’re late Lewis. Three minutes late,” said Nathan clicking the watch shut and putting it back into his waistcoat pocket.

Standing on the front step was a tall, skinny young man in a black frock coat and top hat. His skin was only just recovering from the ravages of adolescent acne and he smelled strongly of cheap aftershave. He looked down at his feet clad in scuffed black shoes.

“Sorry Mr. Goodhope, it won’t happen again,” said Lewis.

“No, it won’t happen again,” replied Nathan stepping out and setting about locking the front door, which had three locks each requiring a different key kept on the other end of his watch chain.

“Is everything ready?” asked Nathan.

“Yes, sir. Dr. Eustace is already in Bessie and the flowers are all arranged.”

“Good. And the family?”

“Thomas will be picking them up at ten o’ clock.”

“Come on then, let’s get moving,” said Nathan heading towards a large 1932 Bentley hearse parked in the driveway.

“Sir?” said Lewis.

“Yes?”

“I was wondering… Well, I was wondering if I might drive today sir. Today marks my fifth year of working for you and…”

“I don’t think so Lewis. Dr. Eustace was a well-respected member of Little Barding. His family will be expecting the best today.”

“I just thought that…”

“Well don’t think, Lewis! We don’t have time for a discussion about this. I shall be driving.”

“Yes Mr. Goodhope, sorry,” said Lewis, slumping inside his suit.

Nathan walked around the car, checking all the arrangements and polishing off a thumbprint from the rear window with his handkerchief. Lewis loped around to the passenger side of the old car and climbed in. The interior smelled of vintage car leather, flowers and the stale undertone of death like a church. Nathan settled himself behind the steering wheel worn shiny with age and checked himself in the chrome rear-view mirror before pressing the Bakelite starter button. Bessie’s engine turned over slowly and then jolted into life, shaking the whole hearse before settling down into a gentle purr as Nathan eased out of the Goodhope and Sons funeral parlour. Lewis had become a necessary addition since Nathan had reached his late fifties and had never married or had children, but he still retained the Goodhope and Sons name from his father’s days.

Once they had arrived in Little Barding they pulled over in front of the passenger Bentley and waited. Doctor Eustace’s widow, Margaret, and her son Duncan and daughter Jane emerged from the house. Margaret Eustace was shrouded in a heavy black veil and Nathan could only just make out her watery red eyes as he got out and opened the doors for her and her children. Duncan looked bored with the whole ordeal and slumped back into the deep leather seat as if he were watching football on television. His younger sister had only turned eighteen the week before and sniffled behind her sunglasses and handkerchief.

Lewis was drumming on the oak dashboard looking in the wing-mirror at the scene behind him. He stopped drumming and straightened up in his seat when he saw Nathan approaching.

“Right, let’s get going then,” said Nathan checking his hair in the mirror again, pretending to look at the car behind him.

The cemetery was on the northern outskirts of the village and involved winding through country lanes past rows of newly clipped hedgerows and wild raspberry bushes. Cow parsley stood tall in the ditches running alongside fields of pungent yellow rape that swayed in the wind. Lewis heard a faint knocking sound from behind the glass divider.

“What was that sir?”

“Eh? What?” said Nathan concentrating on changing gear.

“That knocking sound.”

“Not hearing things are we Lewis?” said Nathan with a smug smile. A cow moaned from a field they were passing.

“I definitely heard a knocking sound.”

“That’s just Bessie here,” said Nathan patting the dashboard. “She’s over twice your age my lad. When you’re that age you’ll make a few creaking sounds yourself.”

“No, it was definitely from the back,” said Lewis looking over his shoulder. “You don’t think…”

“Don’t be ridiculous Lewis! I have been in this business all my life and my father before me. Nobody has ever been buried alive and it’s not going to start now.”

“But I definitely heard…”

“That’s enough Lewis! Please, show some respect for Dr. Eustace and get a grip on yourself.”

Nathan glanced in the mirror and all was well. He was particularly pleased with the smile he had fixed on the doctor’s face; he had been such a dour man in life. Nathan looked back to the road and shifted Bessie down a gear to climb Chitt’s Hill. A louder knocking and then a scratching sound came from back of the hearse. Lewis turned again, his eyes wide.

“Mr. Goodhope, I definitely heard…”

“Nonsense Lewis! It was just the bumps in the road. I don’t want to hear another word about…” The scratching sounded even louder and Nathan turned to look over his shoulder. Everything was intact, the flowers looked fine and the lid of the coffin was tightly shut. No finger marks on the dividing glass pane.

“Watch out!” shouted Lewis.

The road to the cemetery had a sharp right-hand curve just before the entrance and a truck carrying chickens in crates was swerving to avoid the hearse that was now on its side of the road. Nathan yanked the steering wheel to the left and swerved. He missed the truck but skidded violently. The heavy car winged the cemetery gates and crashing into the low stone wall.

The car was built in an age before seatbelts and when they ground to a sudden halt Nathan and Lewis were flung through the windscreen. Dr. Eustce’s coffin followed behind, smashing through the glass partition and out onto the long bonnet of the Bentley. It slid to the side, bounced off of the sweeping wing and onto the ground. The lid popped off and the doctor rolled out on the ground, his face still fixed with an inane grin.

The chicken lorry lay on its side in the ditch opposite and crates were strewn over the road. Feathers and mad squawking filled the air as several chickens ran around in circles. A speckled brown hen hopped onto Dr. Eustace’s forehead and plucked at his eyeball. The bird ran off flapping with the white and red blob swinging from its beak leaving the doctor lying there still grinning like a mad pirate who had lost his eye patch.

Margaret Eustace began to scream inside the other car that had pulled up behind and Duncan ran over to inspect the damage with Thomas. Lewis emerged from a compost heap piled up against the wall. He had grass cuttings and dead flowers stuck to his clothes and hair and cuts on his hands and forehead from the windscreen. He stumbled out of the compost and sat on a gravestone staring at his boss.

Nathan was impaled on a small set of rusty iron railings that surrounded an ivy-covered tomb belonging to a wealthy family now long dead. His head hung down and blood trickled from the soaked tips of his winged collar. His comb-over hair blew in the wind like a swing with the rope broken on one side. His glasses, smashed and twisted, lay neatly on the top of the tomb as if they were an offering to the gods.

Thomas was trying to load Dr. Eustace back into the battered coffin whilst Duncan ran around shooing the chickens away with his jacket. Margaret’s cries became louder each time a bird came within pecking distance of her dead husband and her daughter sat supplying her with tissues.

Thomas had managed to balance the doctor’s torso on the edge of the coffin and was trying to swing the legs in when everything slipped and the doctor’s one-eyed leering face lolled backwards into box. His back arched and one stiff leg kicked into the air. Margaret cried out and then buried her red face into her daughter’s shoulder. Duncan stuffed two complaining chickens back into a cage, whilst the truck driver looked on from the verge where he was sitting still in shock. Giving up on the doctor, Thomas sat exhausted and sweating on the cemetery wall. In the distance the vicar and a small group of mourners and cemetery workers were bustling up the pathway winding through the graveyard.

As he neared the doctor’s body Lewis noticed a bump about the size of a potato poking up inside the dead man’s shirt. He bent down to take a closer look and the lump moved suddenly working its way up to the doctor’s chest.

“Jesus!” he shouted, jumping back and nearly tripping over a chicken that ran off clucking loudly. The lump continued moving up towards the collar and a rat poked its head out from between the buttons of the shirt. It took two quick glances at the world around it and then ran along the length of the doctor’s arm and back into the hearse.

Lewis felt it seemed only fitting that Nathan Goodhope should spend his afterlife in the place where he had spent so much of his working life. He checked himself in the mirror, lightly touching the stitches in his head and then stepped outside locking the three front door locks and placing the keys back into his waistcoat pocket. The sign on next to the door still smelled of fresh paint and read “Lewis Freedman, Undertaker.”

“Is everything ready?” he called to Thomas who was sitting in a brand new Mercedes hearse.

“Yes. He’s in the back and well secured,” said Thomas with a smile.

“Good. You can drive. Where’s Little Nathan?”

“Safely in his cage. I was thinking, perhaps we should find him a mate?”

“Maybe we should. We wouldn’t want him to die of loneliness. Which reminds me, is anyone else turning up today?”

“Just the truck driver,” replied Thomas.

“No chickens?”

“No chickens.”

“Good,” said Lewis and turned on the radio. They pulled out from the driveway and headed towards the cemetery to the tune of “I Don’t Like Mondays” by the Boomtown Rats.

©2003 Andy Polaine. All Rights Reserved. This story is not covered by the Creative Commons license for the rest of this blog.

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