Advance booking

A short story that came to me – first I imagined the problem, and then worked out the solution

© 2020, Hugh Ashton

You get all sorts in this business. You get the ones who come in all dressed in black because they think it’s expected of them. You can tell pretty quickly what their interest in the dear departed is as soon as you start to discuss the cost of the funeral with them.

“Oh, I don’t think he’d have wanted anything fancy. Just plain and simple would be more appropriate.” Well, when you translate that and quietly dig down to the truth, you can often be sure that they’re looking to get everything they can out of the estate and not spend the money on the funeral. However, sometimes you can tell they really can’t afford anything better – there just isn’t the money. So in those cases I generally manage to either cut a bit off the price or upgrade them a bit for free. There’s some in this business who really gouge their customers, but there’s no way I’m going to do that.  Maybe these poor souls get a slightly better coffin than the one they paid for, or I accidentally on purpose leave the cost of the dry ice off the final invoice. Why not, after all?

And then there’s the ones who breeze in, and order things as though they really couldn’t be bothered with little details like price and what the whole thing is going to come to at the end of the day. I won’t say “more money than sense”, but it does seem that way sometimes, especially when they obviously don’t actually have a lot of money to spend. Believe it or not, I try to talk them into the less expensive options, but no, “nothing but the best for her/him” is the phrase I hear most of the time. Guilt, I reckon. They’ve neglected Nan or Granddad in her or his lifetime, and now they think that a big shiny coffin with brass handles, and heaps of expensive flowers are ways they can make up for all the affection that they failed to show when he or she was alive.

And the worst is when the whole family turns up – Uncle Tom Cobbley and all – and they find that they can’t agree on anything. “She always loved roses.” “No she didn’t, she liked carnations better.” “I always thought she liked lilies of the valley”. And then we have the endless arguments about what was their favourite music or song that’s going to be played at the funeral. They go on for ever. Spare me.

But those are everyday customers – you get used to them. Let me tell you about the really weird one I had recently. Small, elderly man. Fringe of white hair, mild-looking face. He was wearing an overcoat and a scarf wrapped around his neck, and when he took it off, I saw the dog-collar.

Well, priests are usually some of the easiest to deal with. They’ve got the experience, and they’ve got faith. They can cope with things rationally, but they’re not unemotional about it.

“I want to book a funeral,” he said.

Well, that’s a funny way to put it, but yes, we do operate a pre-paid plan so that there are no nasty surprises for those left behind when the sad day comes. So I get out the leaflets to explain how much and when and how it all works, and he waved them away.

“No, no,” he told me. “That’s not what I mean at all. I want to book a funeral for a particular date.”

“Oh, I see. And when is this to be?”

He pulled a little black notebook out of a small briefcase he had with him, and turned to a page that he’d marked by turning down a corner. “October 28.”

“But that’s only two days away.”

“No, no,” he said again, shaking his head. “October 28 next year. It’s a Thursday. Not one of my busy days. You are able to do it then, aren’t you?”

I didn’t have to look in my diary to check. No one, but no one, books their funeral a year in advance. “I’m sorry,” I told him. “Yes, we are free, but…”

“It’s my wife, you see,” he told me, as if that explained everything. “I think it should be a cremation rather than a burial,” taking it for granted that ordering your wife’s funeral over a year in advance was a perfectly usual way of going on. “Quite a simple affair. I am guessing that I will be the only one attending.”

At this point, I felt I was dealing with someone who wasn’t all there. Some clergymen are a bit like that. My mother used to tell the story of her vicar who always removed his trousers when he put on his cassock, and occasionally forgot to replace them when he took off the cassock and joined his parishioners after the service. Either I was dealing with one of those, or perhaps there was something more sinister. In any case, I thought it was a good idea to get his name and address so that I could pass it on to the relevant authorities; police, hospital or whatever seemed appropriate.

So I went through the procedure of starting to fill out our standard form, which gave me all of that, plus telephone numbers and an email address.

“And when would you like us to collect her from this address on the form?” I asked. “That’s where she is?”

“No, no, no. Not at all. I’ll have her delivered here, if it’s all the same to you.”

Now that’s weird. Hospitals don’t deliver the departed to us. We always have to go and fetch them. And in any case, what was all this about having the funeral in a year’s time? I changed the subject a little.

“Can you tell me the cause of her death?”

He caught, shuffled his feet, and turned a little red, clearly embarrassed. “Well, she’s not really what you might call dead,” he muttered.

By now I was sure that I had either a lunatic or a potential murderer on my hands. “I’m just going to have to check a few details,” I told him. “Please take a seat there. I’ll only be a few minutes.”

In the back room, I dialled the police station. “Yes, it’s Harrisons, the undertaker’s. Look, I’ve got a man here, the Reverend Edmund Philpotts, says he wants to book his wife’s funeral a year from now, and she’s not even dead. Can you send someone round to talk to him and find out what he’s on about? There’s something really odd going on. Thanks. Five minutes? That’s good of you. Ta.”

I put the phone down and went back to the Reverend Philpotts, who seemed to be engrossed in a florist’s catalogue.

“Everything all right?” he asked, looking up from a page of gaudy chrysanthemums.

Well, no, it bloody well wasn’t all right, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. “I’m just waiting for someone,” I said.

He didn’t seem particularly bothered, but kept looking, tutting and shaking his head at some of the more flamboyant and tasteless (in my opinion, as well as his, anyway) offerings in the catalogue. Perhaps he shared my feelings about human vanity when it comes to this sort of thing.

Sergeant Timmins pushed open the door and came in. Decent sort of man, known around the place as someone who gets on with everyone, as long as they’re on the right side of the law. If they weren’t, that’s a slightly different matter. There were stories. Anyway, we’d played in the same cricket team when we were both younger, and still kept up a sort of friendship.

“Morning, Mike. Problems?” he asked me. “They didn’t tell me that much about it over the radio when they sent me here.”

“Not really problems as such, Ted, but I’d like the Reverend here to tell you what he wants and why.”

Philpotts looked up from his study of floral arrangements, seemingly surprised at seeing a police officer in uniform standing in front of him. “Why, are the police interested in what I am doing?” He frowned a little, seemingly in thought, and then a broad smile spread across his face. “Oh my goodness! You thought… Oh my Lord!” He started to laugh.

“Perhaps you’d like to share the joke, sir?” Timmins said.

“Well, let me tell you what I think you are thinking. I come in here, I want to reserve a time for a funeral for my wife a year from now, I tell you that you won’t be picking up my wife, but she’ll be delivered here. And then I tell you that she’s not really dead. So you,” and he pointed a finger at me, “think that I have plans to murder my wife a year from now somewhere secret and that I will arrange for persons unknown to drop off her body to you. Correct?” He looked up at us, smiling innocently.

“Thoughts like that had crossed my mind,” I admitted.

Sergeant Timmins looked bemused. “Perhaps you’d be good enough to tell us why this isn’t the case.”

Philpotts’ smile disappeared, and his face became serious. “My wife suffered from a rather rare form of bone cancer. There was no cure at the time, and still isn’t, though there have been some promising developments. Ten years ago, she fell into a coma, and after a few tragic months, she was pronounced dead. She and I had discussed her future before she slipped into oblivion. She wanted to be placed in what she called a “frozen sleep” in the hope that she could be awakened and cured in the future. As a Christian priest, I have faith that the dead shall be raised, but this went a little against my principles. However… this was her wish, and I had made all the necessary arrangements before she was pronounced dead.” He stopped, took a large handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose. “She now lies in what they call a ‘storage facility’ on the other side of Birmingham. It costs a considerable amount of money for her to be there, and next year will be the last year I can afford to pay the fees. The contract ends on the 24th of October next year. After that time, they have informed me that they can no longer keep her there. I assumed four days would be sufficient time to make the preparation for a funeral when she can finally be committed to rest, so I chose the 28th as the date for her cremation. I trust that makes things clear?” He looked at Timmins and me hopefully. “I have all the paperwork, certificates, everything, here in this bag,” patting his small briefcase.

Sergeant Timmins and I looked at each other. We shrugged. In unison.

“I don’t think I’m needed here,” said Timmins, turning towards the door. “I’ll be seeing you in the Bull some evening soon, I hope, Mike,” he said to me. “I’m sorry to hear about your loss, Reverend. I hope someone takes as good care of me when it’s my turn.”

“Thank you, sergeant,” Philpotts replied.

“So,” I said to my customer when the door had closed behind Timmins. “A cremation next year on 28 October. Let’s fill in a few more details. What time do you want the service?”

-oOo-

Comments welcome…

On this side of the sky…

Looking over some of my recent writing, I seem to be slightly obsessed with the idea of beings living in some sort of parallel world to us, with an assortment of powers which might be best described as
“magical”. When I say “obsessed”, I mean in a literary sense – as characters and plot drivers in the stories that I write. I don’t actually believe that we are surrounded by a crowd of mainly invisible beings which interact with us.

The picture of the children’s tea-party came from bluelilyevents on blogspot.com

So what do these things look like? Well, of course they are imaginary, so I am free to make them look like whatever I want in my stories.

One thing I am certain of is that they do NOT look like the sweet little children with butterfly wings that the Victorians loved to portray (and that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was sure that two little girls had seen and photographed).

Nor do I believe that they sit around on toadstools (though I had a very interesting conversation the other day with my friend Vicky about this, and the idea of hallucinogenic mushrooms being associated with these beings).

In many cultures, they are referred to by a euphemism, such as “The Good People” or “The Gentle People”, in order to placate these rather nasty and amoral creatures, with their tales of stealing, kidnaping, and general enmity towards the himan race.

For me, one of the most interesting views of Faerie is to be found in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a book I have read several times, despite its length. It makes a very plausible read, describing a world in which these beings interact with us in limited and very specific ways, and as a race have a range of rather unpleasant characteristics.

Another story which has gripped my imagination ever since I first read about it, mentioned in a story by Borges, is the Chinese legend of the demons trapped behind mirrors (and mirrors also play a very important role in Strange & Norrell). The idea that behind the pieces of glass that hang on our walls, there is a race that is out to destroy us, and is only just kept in check is not a comforting one.

Are they waiting for us to make the first move?

Perhaps it is this work that has influenced my current work in progress (provisionally entitled The Other Side of the Sky, but it’s also determined the direction of some of my other pieces, such as those in my Unknown Quantities collection.

Why the biscuits?

And with that in mind, I give you Gobblefinger, a short story in PDF format, which came to me out of nowhere. It was fun to write, and I hope it’s fun to read. “What’s it got to do with these biscuits?” you ask. Well, all you have to do is click here to download the story, and you can find out. If you like it, then come back here and leave a comment, or put something on Facebook or Twitter.

The Other Side of the Sky

Having delivered La Lucia for production and pre-order, I am now busily engaged on something quite a bit longer.

This book, provisionally entitled The Other Side of the Sky, is set in the Midlands (largely in Lichfield) in the 1770s. It is a time of great discoveries in many fields: what we now call chemistry, physics, geology, anatomy and medicine, zoology and botany. 

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Joseph Wright of Derby captures a moment of “philosophical discovery” and the reactions of various observers to a bird’s being deprived of air by means of an air-pump. The seated figure at right may represent Erasmus Darwin.

In addition, Birmingham and the surrounding villages were becoming industrialised, with such “manufactories” as Matthew Boulton’s employing many hundreds, if not thousands, of workers. In the north of Staffordshire, Josiah Wedgwood was transforming the traditional pottery business of the Stoke area.

And alongside this, in the liberal freethinking (often outright republican) world of the Lunar Society (so called because the members met at each others’ houses on the nights of the full moon – not for any esoteric or occult reasons, but because it was safer to travel at night when it was lighter) there lay some hidden beliefs – Doctor Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), pictured above, believed in alchemy as a method of attaining wisdom, and it is more than likely that the members of the Society were interested in what we would now term the paranormal, as being part of the world in which they lived.

My story is looking at the interaction between the inhabitants of the land “on the other side of the sky”, home to a non-human race, and these people of the Enlightenment. I confess that my writing is at least partly inspired by Susanna Clark’s wonderful Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but it is not the same universe as hers. There is no Raven King in my history, and the laws of nature are closer to ours than in her world.

I am now about 10,000 words into what I hope will be a satisfying 70,000+ words. Wish me luck.

A new book! (well, not that new, really)

As my regular readers (both of you!) will know, I am working with Steve Emecz of MX publishing, and Steve White to produce audiobook versions of some of my stories.

I’ve taken one of my favourites – The Hand of Glory – and turned it into a radio/audio script, which has now been narrated by Steve White. Before it can go onto Amazon, though, apparently the text must be made available on Amazon as a book or an ebook (I don’t pretend to understand the details, or the reasoning behind them).

So, here is the script of Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Hand of Glory as a Kindle title, priced as low as possible.

Mary Devereux tells Sherlock Holmes that her stepfather has obtained the corpses of two executed criminals, and is storing them in an outbuilding of the family seat in Warwickshire. Unknown men visit the house on Friday nights, and depart mysteriously in the family carriage, driven by her stepfather, who also appears to be making significant inroads into the family fortune.
She implores Holmes to investigate, and as he and Watson explore the sleepy market town of Luckworth, they encounter dark and macabre secrets that shock them to their core. Along the way, Holmes loses his left canine tooth in the waiting-room at Charing-cross station, as mentioned in “The Adventure of the Empty House”.

For a very short taster of what is in store in the audiobook, try this:

By the way, you can look up the Hand of Glory on Wikipedia, but it might spoil the story somewhat if you don’t know it already. If you have read the story, and you want to know more, then by all means look it up – it is definitely a macabre and dark subject.

A new story – FREE download

This has been kicking around in my head for some time and to a large extent it wrote itself. I am not sure whether I’ve got it right, or whether it is depressing or uplifting – it might be seen as either.

It’s 500 words – just under – and it’s a story for these times which are currently wrenched out of joint.

In any case, it’s not going up as a page on this site, but if you want a free copy (Word DOCX format), click here. I would simply ask you to leave your thoughts and reactions as a comment here if the piece makes any impression on you.

I’ve entitled it “The Other Side of the Mirror” – which was the title of a song I once wrote and recorded with a couple of friends. It seems that the world(s) on the other side of the mirror, as in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Through the Looking-Glass, and a story by Borges, has a continued fascination for me. The cobbled-together Photoshop illustration comes close to my mental image of the story.

Bonus point (no Googling!): Where does the last sentence come from?

Audiobook available now!

My story of the Holloway Ghosts – a Sherlock Holmes adventure, brought to life by Steevin White​ – who voices all the parts. I originally wrote this as a story, but adapted it as a radio play with no narration – simply voices and sound effects. Steve and I had great fun casting the characters – and I hope you will enjoy the results. I’m delighted!

There was a lot of fun creating this from the original story, stripping out descriptive passages, and replacing them with dialogue and/or sound effects. We had to make sure that the characters had sufficiently different ways of expressing themselves for them not to be confused in listeners’ minds, and I think on the whole, we ended up doing a good job.

I have to confess that I don’t know Bookmate, but there are far more five-star than one-star reviews of the app and the service on the App Store, despite the fact that the three featured reviews seem to be one-star. Sounds worth a go, anyway.

AppStore GooglePlus

 

Apologies (and a free gift)

I’ve been settling into a new role for the past month or so. On May 2, much to my surprise, I was elected as a City Councillor. It sounds very grand, but in fact the City of Lichfield is really a parish, and most decisions are made by the Lichfield District Council, and matters concerned with roads and education are largely decided by Staffordshire County Council.

However, being a City Councillor, although it is an unpaid position, does carry some responsibilities, and there is a learning curve attached to doing the job properly – and I certainly intend to do that. So far it’s been interesting and exciting, and even though the novelty may wear off, I will always consider this to be a serious and responsible position to hold, and I will do my best to represent the people of Garrick Road Ward.

There are minutes and agenda, the details of how meetings of planning committees, etc. and a few rather nice quaint historical ceremonial events such as the Lichfield Bower, the Sheriff’s Ride, a world champion Town Crier (Ken Knowles, pictured above), who also acts as sword-bearer on ceremonial occasions together with two mace-bearers, and so on. But… learning takes some time, and my writing, including my blog, has been affected.

By way of a little compensation, let me give you a short (untitled) story that I wrote for the Lichfield Writers:

Yes, I was frustrated and annoyed. We’d got on like a house on fire for the whole evening, and I was ready to go home with her, or take her home with me, when she looked at her watch and told me she had to be up early the next morning, so goodnight, thanks for the drinks and see you soon.

So I needed something to cheer me up. Didn’t feel like the chippy, and we’d had an Indian together before we’d settled into the pub for the evening. I knew I’d had enough to drink – too much, if the truth was told, so that wasn’t an option. And then it started raining, so I turned my up collar and kept walking.

It caught my eye from some distance away. A hand, sticking out of the skip outside the department store they were doing up. What looked like a woman’s hand and arm, bare to the elbow. Visions of lurid headlines spun through my mind as I approached. “Lichfield man’s macabre midnight find” was a good one, as was “Grisly garbage in city centre”.

I actually laughed out loud when I got close to the skip. The arm was a mannequin’s arm, plastic or plaster, or something. I pulled at it, and it came away, leaving me holding it like a trophy. “You look armless enough to me,” I said to the now dismembered body in the skip. “Nice of you to give me a hand.” (Don’t worry, I get a bit like this after a few drinks. It could be worse – I could turn into a raving violent monster)

So there I was, walking back home, hand in hand in hand with my new friend (or part of her). When I got in, I put the arm on the table, and noticed for the first time that there was a slim chain round the wrist, which looked like gold. Not only that, but there were three pieces of glass, two red and one white, in gold settings halfway along the chain. Pretty, but not my style. I decided to take it along to my friend Julie who runs the antique and curios shop to see if she’d give me anything for it.

I left it for a few days, and took it in to show her. To my surprise, she didn’t immediately dismiss it as junk.

“Where did you get this?” she asked, peering at the glass with a jeweller’s loupe screwed into her eye. She sounded suspicious.

“I just sort of picked it up somewhere,” I told her. Well, that wasn’t a lie.

“I’m not going to take it,” she said.

“Why? Not worth your while selling it?” I asked.

“Out of my league, dear. If I were you, I’d go down to Birmingham and go to one of those little shops in the Jewellery Quarter and see what they have to say.”

And that was the end of that conversation.

As always happens to me with this sort of thing, I left it alone for a month or two, but one day I was going into Birmingham, and I had a few hours between meetings, so I decided to use the time to do what Julie had suggested.

I had no idea which shop to go to when I got off the train at Jewellery Quarter, but picked a small dingy little place – something in the way Julie had talked had made me cautious about going into one of the bigger more glossy stores.

The man behind the counter asked the same question as Julie had done.

“Where did you find this?” His tone was more accusing than curious.

“I found it on the street,” I said.

“And you didn’t feel you needed to hand it in to the police?” If the tone of his voice was anything to go by, he didn’t believe me.

“A cheap bracelet and a few pieces of glass?”

“They’re not glass.” He handed the chain back to me. “Now bugger off, and be thankful I haven’t called the cops. I’m not touching this.”

I buggered off, as requested, the bracelet burning a hole in my pocket. The next shop I went to was a little more helpful.

“Hmmm… Two rather nice rubies and a very pretty diamond. Nice setting. Are you selling?”

“What’s it worth?”

“I’ll give you a couple of thou.”

Wow. Two thousand pounds for something I’d found in a skip? Which probably meant he could sell it for five. “I’ll think about it.”

“Two five, and I’m not asking any questions about where it came from.”

I had a sudden thought. “Tell you what. I’ll give you five hundred if you do what I ask.”

“Go on…”


 

All this happened fifteen years ago. The two rubies and the diamond now adorn my wife’s custom-made engagement ring. And yes, she was the one who left me in the pub that night I found the bracelet, telling me she had an early start the next day. She really did have an early start, and she called me that evening to apologise for running away. By the time I’d found out the truth about what I’d discovered in the skip, I’d decided, and she was on the point of deciding, that we were going to get married.

The ring clinched the deal.

“How on earth did you manage to afford this?” she asked me when I gave it to her.

“You really don’t want to know.”

But what I really want to know is what happened to the person who threw out the mannequin with that expensive bracelet still on its wrist. Let me know if you find out, will you? I won’t tell anyone else.

Something nasty in the woodshed – REVIEW of Cold Comfort Farm

I suppose quite a few people are familiar with this phrase (the one about the woodshed, I mean), and some people might even know where it comes from – I used it myself just the other day. However, I’d never read Cold Comfort Farm until now, and I regret not having done so before.

As a non-fan of D.H.Lawrence (as a novelist, though I do like a lot of his poetry), I particularly enojoyed the book, and it actually had me laughing out loud on the train as I read it.

Continue reading “Something nasty in the woodshed – REVIEW of Cold Comfort Farm”

Bee-bee

Just finished a 3k+ word short story which ventures into new territory. The protagonist is a youngish woman, and the situation is one I have never personally experienced.

It’s all from a very intimate third-person POV, and though there are flashbacks, the majority of the action occurs in one small room and one person’s mind – it’s quite claustrophobic.

There’s a lot of swearing and four-letter words at one point. Still not sure whether to leave them there, but they do fit the character and her mood at this point.

The style is closest to my Tales of Old Japanese – a very sparse style –  not too many adverbs, and very little in the way of physical description.

There’s an element of the supernatural here, but there’s also ambiguity here – I hope, and I also hope that it’s quite scary from a psychological point of view (as opposed to people being eaten by zombies or chopped up with chainsaws, etc.).

Oh, and the title, and the image I’ve chosen to decorate this page with? All part of the story.

…she kept coming back to Bee-bee, as she had done for over thirty years.

Bee-bee was six months younger than Anne, and she had been given to Anne by her grandmother, who had died less than a year later. From the start, Anne had instantly fallen in love with the rag doll, who seemed to always have been called Bee-bee. No-one could remember who she was called that, or why.

Now on her fourth set of button eyes, and after many major surgical operations to repair almost ripped off limbs, severe abdominal lesions, and general old age, Bee-bee went everywhere with Anne, whether Anne was on her own or not. Bee-bee was always there to listen, sitting at the head of her bed, whenever Anne had doubts, or when her heart was broken as yet another man walked out of her life.

Now, what to do with what I’ve written… Any agents or publishers interested?

Beginning at the end

Our writers’ group, the Lichfield Writers, gave us an interesting exercise this week. Usually, a writing exercise gives you the opening sentence of a piece. This time, we were presented with the end.

As night turned to day, he started to understand the truth.

I ended up writing a genre which is somewhat unfamiliar to me. I think it almost works.

Continue reading “Beginning at the end”

The story that wrote itself

Who says blogs have to be simply opinion pieces, and non-fiction? Here’s a piece of slightly weird fiction, based on a dream that I had the other night.

Usually I write using a computer. But the other night, I couldn’t be bothered to go into the room where I keep the computer, turn the thing on, and write down the thoughts that had occurred to me. So I started to write longhand, with a pen – and I don’t mean a ballpoint pen. This was a fountain pen, filled with turquoise ink.

[Why turquoise? you ask. Simple – the local stationery store was having a closing-down sale, and they were selling bottles of turquoise ink for 10p. So…]

Anyway, I wrote and I wrote, and I went to bed, and in the night something very strange happened. Don’t ask me how I knew all of this – I would have said it was a dream, except for all that I saw the next morning, but it did seem to me that I was watching all this from my bed as it happened. Continue reading “The story that wrote itself”