Extract: Shrouded by Carol Anne Davis

Peace. There was peace to be had here, amongst the uncomplaining. Gently, he helped Terry lower the female corpse on to the waiting metal board. Cold flesh touched cold surface.
‘Cue passport!’ grinned Terry, reaching for an identification tag.
As his colleague wrote the woman’s name on a yellow label, Douglas stared round the Preparation Room. All Funeral Parlours had one – but did they all have a Director as coarse as Terry was? For the older man, dead bodies literally equalled laughing matter. He had a collection of World’s Worst Death Joke Books, and came up with a new variation almost every day.
Adrian, who was brighter and should know better, could be just as flippant. But with his squash and his backpacking and restaurant-going, he at least spoke of other things. He’d come into the business after his father, so knew its history. Terry, Douglas suspected, would be just as happy working on the buses or driving a van…
After all these years Douglas still felt uneasy whilst working with him. Even in the still calm beauty of the Chapel of Rest, he was loud.
Not that there was anything beautiful about the Preparation Room, Douglas admitted wryly. Except its current occupant, of course. Her dark eyes stared at the future from a face as pale as her nightgown. With some feeling of regret, he put his fingertips to her lids to make them close. Even that made her different, for many people’s eyelids closed of their own accord when they slid into oblivion. Running a palm over them was a movie myth…
‘Sign ’er in.’ Terry handed him the book, and he added his signature. Two directors signed in each body, to avoid identification mistakes. Not that there could be a mistake about this one. The hospital had phoned first thing, so she was the Funeral Home’s first admission of the day.
A car crash. He looked more closely for signs of injury. After securing his funeral director’s diploma, he’d done the two year embalming course. Terry hadn’t, for embalming was optional. As a result, he couldn’t expertly conceal a wound.
‘Quick lipstick and powder?’ said Terry, indicating that the corpse needed minimal attention. ‘Want me to…?’
‘No. You do the forms,’ Douglas said.
Uncapping his pen with a flourish, Terry left the Prep Room. Douglas could hear him whistling as he strolled along the corridor to the office, which backed a waiting area with a Reception Desk. This area Douglas was in now – the Prep Room and outlying Chesting Area – was the part of the Funeral Parlour the public would never see.
He always wanted to apologise for this bit – it was so spartan. To say: ‘You’re worth better than this. I know. I understand.’ But Terry or Adrian might come back and do their ‘Talking to a stiff?’ bit. Better to communicate in silent calm.
He stared down at the waiting woman, then brushed her fringe back from her forehead. Her brow had gone wonderfully smooth: only the tiny creases that had once been furrows remained. Death did that with most of them, at least for a few hours. This was the tranquil period, the ultimate relaxation after life ebbed away.
Bath time had left her sweetly scented: the nurses had washed her. Used cotton wool to plug her rectum, her vagina and mouth. Otherwise, fluids would seep out, and spoil her perfection. If only she could stay as she was right now…
Why did some people resist the idea of burial at sea, he thought distractedly. All flesh reverted to water in the end. Organs broke down, liquefied. The stomach and its contents began to rot away.
Why, for that matter, were sailors so desperate to off-load a dead body into the water? Why was it considered so unlucky to have a corpse on board? If you had to bring the body back to shore you were supposed to make sure it left the vessel before the sailors, the living cargo. Douglas snorted: he’d come to no harm spending years and years with the dead.
He looked down at his dead client: she was still beautiful. It was his duty to keep her that way for another two days. Her husband might want to see her, say goodbye to her. Some mothers wanted to see their adult children for the last time…
Thoughtfully, he teased out her hair till it flattered her features. It was surprisingly glossy, still springy, still invested with life. With practiced ease he tilted her face and tucked a chin rest under her lower jaw. The little prop brought her lips together, gave a pleasing certainty to her mouth.
Douglas stood back to admire his handiwork. She looked tranquil, younger than her twenty-eight years. Twenty-eight. The same age as he was. He wondered what it would be like to lie there like that…
‘Phone call from Liberton. Male. Eighty.’ Adrian was speaking even as he walked into Prep. This part of the building was soundproofed, set slightly apart from the rest. Outside, where you might meet mourners, you had to look funereal. You had to walk slowly, and not smile at anything. You had to be quiet and respectful at all times.
‘I’ll be finished by the time you get back,’ Douglas confirmed quickly. Adrian liked to get through the work, to get home to his still newish wife. ‘Help me chest this one,’ he added. Together they carried the woman’s body to the mahogany coffin, and lowered her in.
A nice coffin this, towards the top of the range. People went into the ground in boxes costing between two- and five-hundred pounds. Douglas indicated the nearest space in the metal coffin frame which stretched almost to the ceiling. It could hold twenty coffins, and currently held ten brought in over the past two days. Automatically he raised his eyes to the cooler which sat on top of the frame. It was functioning perfectly. She could rest now, well preserved.
Smoothly the two men slid the coffin into its chosen section. Carefully, Douglas laid the lid with its nameplate and inscription on top. That was all there was to do for now: Rest In Temporary Peace. The coffin wouldn’t actually be sealed till funeral day.
‘I’m off to Liberton,’ Adrian said, looking at his watch. ‘I’ll take Terry too.’ It required two men to lift each body. One seriously overweight corpse had required three. ‘There’s kids there. The son wants the old man out of the house before they notice grandpa’s not talking,’ added Adrian. He disappeared into the box room for a concealing body bag. Later the family could choose a coffin from the little booklet of wooden options. There was no time for that now.
Time, though, for Douglas to disinfect his hands, and go to the staff toilets to wash his face. There was a funeral party due any moment now. He wasn’t dealing with them direct, but they might see him, however briefly. Perfection was all important in this line of work. Tangled hair or a not-quite-straight black tie was enough to upset some mourners. It made them think you didn’t care…
As he always did, and as Terry had teased him about, Douglas took his time studying himself in the mirror. Did his face look fat – or strong and certain, as his horoscope said?
His hair, cut close because Reevon’s – and, in earlier years his mother – liked it that way, could be described as dirty blonde, though he washed it every morning, and rinsed it lavishly. His skin had the pallor of someone who stayed indoors all the time.
Even when he was little, he’d looked blanched, anaemic. Alice had ferried him to the Children’s Concerts in the park, and left him there for interminably long days. She’d collect him bearing a tan, her latest boyfriend would have a tan, so would the Concert Presenters who stood half in the shade of the stage. The sun had beat down, down on the seated Douglas: but he’d still remained pale.
Douglas cleared his throat, knowing his voice always sounded more strained then he expected it to. Low, too, even when his spirits were reasonably high.
A door slamming made him glance at his watch: it was 2pm. Just enough time to go to the office and complete the paperwork before the next body was brought in. Both extremes of summer and winter led to a glut of corpses. He was checking the relevant documents when one of their hearses drew up carrying another load.
Quickly he began to fill in the cremation data, stating whether or not a funeral service would be held at the crematorium. Then came the address of the officiating clergyman, details of the hymn to be sung, where the ashes were to be disposed…
‘Time you were off, isn’t it?’ asked Reevon himself, striding into the office.
‘In a moment,’ said Douglas, glancing at the older man. Though Reevon owned four funeral parlours in the area, he worked alongside the other men in this parlour, his first. Rarely pulled rank, did exactly the same tasks as everyone else.
‘Parents got everything packed and ship shape, have they?’ the owner asked, half seating himself against a corner of the table. The bright office lights picked up the glimmer of scalp beneath the rapidly receding brown hair. Still the man’s eyes were lively, interested. What to say?
‘Alice keeps adding things to their packing list,’ he said reluctantly, wishing he didn’t have to think about her. Reevon seemed to expect something more, so he added: ‘Wants to take tins of soup in case she can’t find Paul’s favourite there. You know what she’s like.’
Reevon did. When Douglas had first been taken on at the undertaker’s as an apprentice, Alice Tate had come in, bringing her son bars of chocolate or a bakery-bought cake.
‘Loves his food, does Doug,’ she’d say, offering some round to the other men. Terry had laughed and kidded Douglas, but Reevon had steered her out as soon as possible, a look of both anger and pity in his eyes.
Pity for Douglas and anger at his mother: it was an unusual combination. Their neighbours’ faces had shown wonder that so energised a woman could produce such an insipid boy. That was before she’d started taking the tranquillisers, of course. Before Paul…
‘Got your accommodation sorted out?’
‘Bedsit,’ Douglas confirmed shyly. ‘I’ve been moving my books in during the last few days.’
‘Quite a change for you,’ Reevon said. His mouth looked thoughtful.
‘It’s long overdue,’ muttered Douglas, looking away.
Twenty-eight was a ridiculous age to be leaving home for the first time. Where had the freedom years gone? Several months of unemployment after leaving school, then a swift moving from office clerk to delivery boy to salesman as he tried to find something he’d like to do or was good at. By the time he’d gotten the trainee funeral director’s job he’d been all of twenty-three. He’d saved some money in that time, of course, but not enough to furnish a flat even if he found one for a single person. Then the apprenticeship, on spartan wages, had taken two years…
Still, he should have gone two years ago, when his wages stabilised. But as she’d said: ‘You’ve got everything here, son. You’ve turned your room into a little palace, so you have.’
And he had – with a Baby Belling cooker and a teasmade and a toasted sandwich machine. He was fine there, as long as they left him alone and didn’t make too much noise…
‘I’ll finish off here,’ Reevon said, bringing him back to the present. ‘That coach won’t wait.’
*
People were supposed to hate goodbyes – to cry and cling to each other, and not eat for a while. Douglas looked at his mother, and then at his watch.
‘I knew I shouldn’t have worn that black underskirt.’ She said, catching hold of herself in the bus depot’s window. ‘See, Paul – it shines through.’
‘Take it off in the Ladies, then.’
Paul was still a man of few words, thought Douglas, walking as far away as possible from the smaller man, and refusing to make eye contact.
‘Oh, you!’ said his mother, and playfully slapped at her husband, as if he’d made a suggestive remark.
She turned to Douglas.
‘You’ll remember to change the lock on your bedsit? I saw this woman once on TV Trials. Just moved in when the previous owner came back one night. Raped her, he did – walked straight into her bedroom. Just used his key…’
‘I’ve already taken care of it, Alice.’
He’d fitted new window locks, too.
They walked to the ticket kiosk.
‘It’ll be strange for you without us,’ added his mother. Her eyes trailed up and down him, as if looking for a loose thread, missing button, unflattened lock of hair she could comment on. ‘It’s not as if you have aunts and things. That’s the trouble with my being an only one…’
She stopped some yards from the ticket seller and Douglas and Paul stopped beside her.
‘I’ll be fine. Really,’ Douglas said, feeling perspiration start to trickle beneath his arms. He felt heavy, awkward, like a teenager forced to go on holiday with its parents. He didn’t know where to look, what to do, what to say. He wished that he could be anywhere but here, alone again. He was sure people were staring at the three of them.
It had been years since he’d sat with them, eaten with them, been a real son. Now they’d be on the opposite side of the world, in what his mother called ‘Neighbours Land’. He watched as she pushed Paul forward to pick up the Reserved envelope containing the tickets.
‘It’s hot here. Just think what it’ll be like out there!’ she exclaimed for the hundredth time.
It was August here – didn’t that mean it was winter in Australia?
‘The human body can adjust to most things,’ he said.
It was what he knew best – the human body. You couldn’t mould it and plug it and arrange it every day and not know. Know how it broke down, discoloured across the lower abdomen. Know its sights, its smells, its early precious quiet…
‘Maybe I’ll fight the flab there,’ added his mother, smoothing down her pink satin skirt suit. They followed Paul to the depot’s Waiting Room and took scratched plastic orange chairs. When she leaned forward to set down her bag the material clung to her, flesh folding over the fitted waistline like pleats.
He noticed that the freckles on her upper cheeks were prominent again: she’d been trying to fade them with lemon juice for as long back as he could remember. Still, her blonde hair, in its inevitable bouffant, brightened her features, helped make her look younger than her fifty-two years.
The bathroom cabinet paid testimony to the hours she’d spent dyeing it. When he’d been at school he’d hated that hair. It was a parody of a tart, of a fifties good time girl.
‘Last time I’ll do this on Scottish soil!’ she mouthed now, reapplying her lipstick without the aid of a mirror.
Bet you do it again on the coach going down to London, he thought wearily. Bet you do it at least four times in the airport lounge.
‘If God had meant us to have deep pink lips we’d have been born with them,’ Paul said, like a broken record. He took out a cigarette and lit it. Douglas swallowed hard. If God had meant us to smoke he’d have made us with cigarettes hanging from our mouths, he thought wearily. He’d made the mistake, when he was seven, of pointing this out…
‘Hope I’ve got everything,’ his mother said loudly. She’d said that before every date, every weekend break over the years. ‘You’ll write?’ she added, turning to her son. ‘Airmail’s fastest.’ A pause, ‘You get them from the Post Office.’
‘Alice – I know.’
Even now, he felt nothing – nothing. Maybe the sadness would come when they got on the coach, or if they phoned from the airport before boarding the plane?
‘Hope these sandwiches stay fresh,’ added his mother, sniffing inside her carrier bag. It seemed hours before the London-bound service arrived.
‘Bye, love.’
She cried, as he had known she would – she cried easily. Paul hesitated for a moment, then shook his hand. The older man’s flesh felt dry and slightly flaccid in his own large palm. Douglas thought about tightening his grip, but didn’t.
Couples were boarding the bus, talking, laughing. He stared as they stepped on to their Noah’s Ark. A girl slapped her thigh at some unheard joke, her bracelets jangling. ‘Give her one from me!’ yelled a youth in dungarees to his departing mate.
Noise everywhere – he’d had years of it. His mother’s radio, Paul’s television, their voices, hoarse or shrill. Now, at last, silence, silence. At last he’d have a room where he could dream.
And plan. There was ample space in his personal computer. He could take up a new hobby, play some intellectual game. They’d gone, gone – and he could do anything. Anything! Life began at twenty-eight.
Didn’t the psychology books say some people were simply late developers? Maybe he could… his imagination failed. Whatever he decided, Alice and Paul would no longer be around to spy on him. He’d been set free. Maybe the men at work would take him more seriously now, treat him as an equal. Maybe Shelley the receptionist wouldn’t glare. She might even smile at him the way she did at the others. Trembling with potential, he walked towards his new life.

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About Carol Anne Davis

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