Lawrence Ashby shuffled over to the kitchen table in his charcoal-colored dressing gown. He had difficulty bending his right leg these days. He put his mug of camomile tea down next to the Bath Chronicle. The sounds of light choir music drifted over the radio.
“We buried a pair of babies at the crematorium today,” he said to his wife, Agnes. “Twins. It was very sad.” He took a small sip of tea.
“Little twins? Oh dear,” she replied, standing at the kitchen sink.
“And a lady who had made it to the big one hundred.”
“I suppose there’s not too much to hang on for after that.”
Agnes put the casserole dish back into the washing-up bowl. “Well, it’s just a number after all.” She swept the silver hair from her eyes with a rubber-gloved hand, and got back to cleaning the plates.
“I’d like to go to the cinema tomorrow,” said Lawrence, standing up and looking through the window.
“There’s that new Japanese Samurai film.” His normally bright flowers were obscured by the dark curtain of evening. “We could go for a meal afterwards. What do you say?”
“Hmm, I’ve got those library books to return, and then there’s the shopping.” Agnes gave him a resigned smile.
“Perhaps I’ll venture out on my own, make the most of my day off.” He straightened the two cacti on the window shelf and swept some excess soil into his hand, then dropped it into the bin, covering the tea bags. He returned to his seat and turned past the obituaries to the cinema listings in the newspaper.
“Let’s have a look.” 4:30, 6 or 9pm.
The telephone rang with its long, persistent tone.
“Can you answer it, Love? I’ve got my hands full here,” said Agnes.
He reached over to the sideboard and picked it up. “Lawrence Ashby speaking.”
Over the next minute, he gave a series of short, clipped answers into the receiver. “Yes…I see…all right…all right. I’ll be there at eight.”
“Who was it?” asked Agnes.
“Humphrey has got laryngitis again. It looks like I’ll have to cover tomorrow.”
“Oh dear. It’s a shame about your film.”
Lawrence replaced the receiver carefully. “I was looking forward to a day out of the suit tomorrow.
This will be seven in a row.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” said Lawrence, extending a stout hand with a gold, sovereign ring on the little finger. “Lawrence Ashby. How are you?”
The family took it in turns to return the undertaker’s warm greeting.
“Would you like to wait inside? Or perhaps you’d prefer to look around the gardens.”
They mumbled a response and wandered off to look at the flowers.
Lawrence limped up to the building with his ebony cane. The previous group of mourners had finished in the chapel, and he busied himself ushering them towards their cars, with the final thank-yous and sympathetic smiles. Although he was a patient man, there was a schedule to adhere to. Six-a-day was no easy task, but he always got proceedings started on time.
Long past retirement age, Lawrence sported a significant paunch and a grey beard that was thin enough to have been called “whiskers” in Dickensian times. He had the perfect posture for the job—bowed forward in a show of compassion—and he brought character to Timsbury Crematorium, as only a wizened local could.
When the family returned from the gardens, he approached them, pulling up gracefully like a hearse.
“I have the Orders of Service ready.” He opened up the box and began to hand one to each family member.
One of the grandchildren suggested passing them around in a chain to make it quicker.
“Oh, that’s fantastic,” Lawrence said with a grin. “I hadn’t thought of that. Wonderful.” Of course he had thought of it. He passed each one out as if they were certificates.
When he was finished, Lawrence took a step back, finding the perfect space to occupy. He felt a light breeze through his socks where his wide-legged trousers didn’t quite meet his polished shoes.
Picking up his top hat from its familiar resting place on the stone pillar, Lawrence showed the bereaved to their places in the chapel. There was only a handful of them. It was a sad fact that most of the deceased knew very few people by the time they passed away. He positioned the hat on top of his wispy hair before entering.
When everyone was seated, and Father Stephen had begun the proceedings, he directed the pallbearers to deliver the coffin. They put it down on the plinth, bowed and departed, never facing away, leaving space for him to pay his respects.
Lawrence removed his hat with both hands. Standing centred in front of the coffin, he bowed from the waist, arms straight down, the hat gripped by his side. He held the position, perfectly still.
After five seconds, he would normally straighten up, and give a curt nod, before heading out of the chapel exit, completing the ritual. But this time he couldn’t straighten up. He felt a vice-like grip high in his chest. He couldn’t breathe. What was happening? It was as if a heavy barrel of bricks had been dropped onto his back. Lawrence dropped to his knees, trying to say something, but his lips just moved like he was a fish on the line.
The mourners looked on in astonishment. Several seconds passed. No one could believe that their service had been hijacked. Rushing to help him would put an end to Grandma’s funeral.
This certainly wasn’t the day off he had planned. Lawrence turned and looked up from the red carpet, past the pews and through the heavy wooden doors. Instead of thinking about his happy childhood, his prized flower garden, or his wife Agnes, he wondered if that Japanese Samurai film was really as good as people said it was.