Death’s Apprentice – Part Nine

A shiver zig-zagged down Joe’s back as the horse-drawn carriage pulled up alongside him.

The driver lifted the brim of his hat and said, ‘Joe Bones?’

He didn’t know why but Joe looked around him before he answered with a short, ‘yes.’

‘Jump aboard,’ said the driver with a gesture of his hand.

‘Who are you?’ Joe asked. He might have been seventeen but the old saying of not getting into cars with strangers sure seemed appropriate now. The guy was giving him the creeps. He looked like a corpse with his shrunken face and yellowing skin. And his eyes, his eyes were red with large black pupils and they looked at him like a vampire looked at its prey in those old horror movies. Joe didn’t like the look of this at all. No. Not one bit.

‘I’m your ride,’ the driver said, with a bow of the head he added, ‘the names Azrail Bartholomew Brown.’

‘Where we going?’ Joe asked. His stomach was tight and there was a little ball of dread growing in his gut.

‘Angel Gate Cemetery.’

‘At midnight?’

Azrail smiled, allowing Joe a glimpse of his jagged yellow teeth. ‘Are you getting in, or shall I tell Mrs Crow that the trial is over?’

Pull yourself together, said Joe to himself. He took a deep breath, took hold of the silver handle at the side of the carriage and pulled himself aboard.

The black leather squeaked as he sat down. He could smell leather, cigarette smoke and something funny, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on but it reminded him of his nanna.

Azrail gave a flick of the reins, shouted “Yah!” and the horses took off at break-neck speed into the night.

Joe’s knuckles turned white as he tried to find some grip on the black leather seat. Vomit threatened to explode up his oesophagus as the horses and the carriage zigged and zagged across the town.

‘Do you think,’ said Joe, swallowing down the bile, ‘we could slow down?’

‘Eh?’

‘Can we -‘

‘I can’t hear you, hang on a minute,’ said Azrail. The horses came to an abrupt stop. ‘What did you say?’

‘I was just wondering if we could slow down.’

‘Ah, not good with travelling, eh? No matter,’ said Azrail with a wink, ‘we’re here now. Although, if you want to keep this job you need to sort that travel sickness out. Anyway, we’re here.’

Joe smiled weakly. He could hear the horses panting hard, their hot breath steaming in the air.

They were indeed in front of Angel Gate Cemetery.

The old Victorian Cemetery was on the outskirts of town, its sprawling grounds rambling in between farms and the odd expensive house. Angel Gate took its name from the two angels, Nox and Morta, who stood draped in their heavy marble robes, beatific smiles on their skeletal faces, their hands beckoning the weary traveller to step inside. Two big iron gates stood between them, bound together by thick iron chains and a large padlock.

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Death’s Apprentice – Part Seven

‘Too skinny,’ she said, holding my arm in the air.

‘We can’t be too choosy,’ said Mr Crow, ‘he’s the only applicant we’ve had.’

‘He’s too skinny. He won’t be able to do the lifting,’ she replied.

‘I’m strong,’ I said.

‘You’ll be carrying dead weights, you need upper body strength for that.’

‘Corvina…’ said Mr Crow, with a slightly desperate edge to his voice.

‘What!?’ Snapped Mrs Crow.

‘We are a little short on time, and you’re not yourself at the moment, what with…you know,’ he said, with a flick of his head.

Mrs Crow snorted.

‘Although, having said that, he’s not, you know…,’ said Mr Crow, with another flick of his head. Joe was beginning to think he was having a fit.

‘He’s not what?’

‘You know…’

‘No. I don’t or I wouldn’t be asking, would I?’ She placed her bony hands on her hips. ‘Well? Out with it!’

‘The Chosen One -‘

‘Of course, he’s not the Chosen One. How can he be when we buried the Chosen One two weeks ago?’

‘Corvina, darling, we’re out of options. We’re never going to find the perfect candidate, not when the Chosen One is indisposed of, are we? Beggars can’t be choosers, isn’t that the way the saying goes?’

‘Thanks,’ said Joe, unsure whether he should be offended or not.

‘And he’s the only applicant we’ve had…’

‘Doesn’t mean we have to accept any riff-raff off the street, does it?’

‘Wow,’ said Joe.

‘We’re running out of time. We’ve only got 33 days left and…’

‘No.’

‘But Corvina…’

Joe turned to leave. He’d had enough of this shit. He needed the money, yes, but not enough to deal with this crap. He heard Lola whining for him from outside. And yet, he needed to look out for her. He needed to leave the shithole that was home. He spun on his heels.

‘Give me a trial.’

‘What?’

‘A trial. One week, for free,’ said Joe, unsure of why he was saying he’d work for free, ‘and then, if you like what you see and you want to hire me, you can add the week’s wage onto my pay after -‘

‘But that’s not working for free then, is it?’

‘It is if I don’t get the job.’

Mrs Crow swept over to him, faster than a lady of her age should be able to. She pushed her rimmed glasses up to the top of her nose and stared at him for a few moments before spitting on her palm and holding her hand out for Joe to shake. ‘Deal,’ she said.

Joe cringed inside. There was no way he was going to spit on his hand too, that was just too disgusting. ‘Okay,’ he said, taking her hand. Her grip was unusually strong for such an old woman. ‘Deal.’

She let his hand fall.

‘Good. Although, I think we’ll start the trial tonight. Be back here at midnight -‘

‘Midnight?’

Death’s Apprentice – Part six

Mr Crow had a slight limp which I found myself replicating as I followed him. We walked past a room with two cream sofas, and a half-dead pot plant on a small coffee table, and down a long corridor that seemed to get increasingly darker the further we went. There were lots of closed doors with small plaques tacked on to them, saying intriguing things like; embalming room, coffin workshop, and Place of Rest. We turned right into another even darker corridor lit by lamps that looked like they belonged in the last century. The air was hot and humid and smelled of paraffin and mint imperials.

Finally, we came to a square waiting room lined with wood panelling. Mr Crow directed me to sit down on one of the mahogany chairs. It sounded as if I’d farted when I sat down.

‘I’ll be back presently,’ he said, with a quick nod of the head before he disappeared behind of the two doors in front of me.

I looked up at the large chandelier hanging low above my head. It clearly hadn’t been dusted in a long while as a grey spider’s web trailed from it onto the far wall. I followed the trail with my eyes to where it reached the top of the left door frame. The mahogany door had a plaque which read; Hell. I smiled. They sure had a sense of humour.

Despite the fact I was there for an interview, I felt calm, although I wish I’d had more time to make myself look presentable as the big hole in the toe of my trainer wasn’t the greatest look.

Mr Crow emerged from the door which read; Mrs and Mr Crow.

‘If you’d like to come this way,’ he said, standing by the door and gesturing for me to enter.

‘Josiah,’ screeched a female voice from behind the door, ‘stop acting like a prick and get the boy in here.’

I watched as Mr Crow’s eyes narrowed, and his lips pursed.

‘Shut up woman, will you,’ he shouted back to her.

‘You better come in before she loses her head,’ he said.

I did as I was told.

I entered the office of Mr and Mrs Crow. The room was quite small but I guessed it would be a lot bigger if it wasn’t for the stacks of paperwork overflowing from every surface. There was a large desk in front of me, covered in ledgers and piles of paper that looked like it had come from a historical movie set. There was a rotary dial phone in black, an ink well, a quill and a wooden blotter. There was a wooden chair behind the desk, and behind that, the wall was covered floor to ceiling with a mahogany filing cabinet. From the few open drawers, it looked like it contained index cards, rows upon rows of yellowing index cards arranged in alphabetical order. In the left corner, just in front of the cabinet, sat an old woman in a rocking chair. She looked like she’d died because her mouth was gaping open and her bottom set of false teeth were producing from her mouth. She was dressed all in black and her grey hair was arranged in a neat bun on the top of her head.

‘Is she okay?’ I asked, pointing at the lady. She reminded me of nanna the day she’d passed away.

‘Depends,’ said Mr Crow, sliding in behind the desk. He opened the ledger before him, picked up the quill, licked the nib before plunging it into the thick black ink.

‘Name?’

‘Joe Bones.’

‘Okay,’ said Mr Crow, sticking out his tongue as he wrote my name onto the ledger in beautiful cursive script.

‘Age?’

’17.’

He looked at me over the top of his glasses. ’17, eh?’ He nodded as if answering some internally asked question.

‘Address?’

’51 Moon Lane,’ I said, in little more than a whisper, knowing that this information alone would make them not want to give me the job.

‘Mmmm,’ he said, looking at me over the top of his thick-framed glasses, ‘Moon Lane, eh?’

I jumped as the old lady, who looked like she’d been dead only a few minutes early, was now standing by my side.

She grabbed my arm and began feeling it.

Death’s Apprentice – Part Five

My heart gave a start as the door to the back was flung open. Several things happened at once; a tall man with a large hook nose and wearing dark blue overalls covered in soot burst into the room just as Lola yelped and disappeared behind my chair.

‘Lola!’

‘No dogs! No dogs! We don’t do dogs!’ called the man, flinging his arms in the air like he was swatting flies.

The receptionist jumped up. ‘No, Mr Black, he’s here for the job. His name is Joe Bones. I told you about him -’

He stopped his arms still high in the air. ‘You did?’ he asked, turning to look at the receptionist.

‘Yes, just now.’

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ he snapped, ‘how am I supposed to remember everything?’ He turned on his heels to look at me. ‘Mmm,’ he said, looking over his thick round glasses at me, ‘you’d better come through then. But not the dog!’

‘Okay, I er…’ I looked a Lola. I didn’t think she’d want to go anyway.

‘Leave with me,’ said the receptionist, who was now standing beside me although I hadn’t seen her move at all.

‘Are you sure?’ I asked.

‘She’ll be fine with me here,’ she said, taking Lola’s lead, ‘now go on Mr Bones, go and do your interview before you miss out.’

I followed Mr Crow through the door and into the back of the funeral parlour. There was a funny smell, of acid and melted wax, lavender and something that reminded me of a fly spray my nanna used when she was still alive.

‘Down here,’ said Mr Crow, taking a dirty handkerchief from the top of his greasy overalls. He wiped his forehead with it then stuffed back into his pocket.

My Grandad

I don’t know why but I’ve been thinking about my grandad a lot lately. I was 11 when he died and I was devastated. It was probably one of the most profound things that has ever happened to me. I’m 42 now and still, I feel it. Not as deep or as intense as when it first happened but, even after thirty-one years, the grief is still real.

Recently, I saw a quote by Jamie Anderson on Pinterest that hit me in the feels:

“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot…Grief is just love with no place to go.”

Anyway, here’s a little memory of my grandad. He couldn’t talk or walk properly because he’d had several strokes but still, he was my hero.

The Red Leather Chair

The smell of frying bacon drifted in from the kitchen and my stomach groaned in anticipation.  Grandad looked at me with his smiling blue eyes, his thick white eyebrows arched high above his black glasses.
‘Sorry,’ I giggled, shrugging my shoulders, ‘had no breakfast this morning.’
‘Uh,’ he replied, with a shake of his head, a gentle smile erupting on his face as my stomach complained again.  He pointed to the telly with a crooked finger and then to his ears.  ‘Uh-uh.’
I flashed him a cheeky smile and shrugged again.
Shep, my Grandad’s long-haired collie, stirred in the seat beside me.  He yawned loudly, stretching out and laying his head on my lap as I wrapped my hands in his glossy coat and turned my head towards the telly just as it was announced by the heavily bearded commentator that Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy were due in the ring.
Grandad shifted forward to the edge of his seat, his walking stick clattering to the floor as he unbuttoned his shirt sleeves and rolled them up past his wrinkly elbows in preparation for the fight.
‘Fred, do you want sauce in your bacon?’ shouted Nan from the kitchen, but Grandad was oblivious to it all; he’d only got eyes and ears for that small black and white telly.
Shep leapt from the sofa, dashing behind it as my Grandad’s red leather chair began to dance around the room, the wood and leather creaking and straining under his weight, his grunting harsh but still with lashings of warmth, becoming louder as he lost his mind to the wrestling, to his life as a boxer in the army.
I could never tell anyone who won any of those fights we watched on that battered telly on the Saturday dinner-times we spent together; I was far too engrossed in Grandad’s face to care.  The strokes had robbed him of many things; his speech, the ability to walk or eat independently, but as we sat there I became lost in the sparkle in his eyes and the stories that had become etched in his wrinkles.  It was during these times that I could see my Grandad was still a man and was still truly alive.
But the red leather chair sits empty now; still and lifeless like the room in which it sits.  His grey trilby is still perched at an angle at the back of it, his walking stick abandoned on the floor.  The smell of cigars lingers in the air along with the smell of his hard-earned sweat.  But now the warmth has disappeared and a numbing coldness is seeping into the room through the cracks, filling me with emptiness.

Death’s Apprentice – Part Four

Crow’s Funeral Home sat at the end of high street, sandwiched in between Everheart Florists and the King’s Head pub which has been derelict for over twenty years. Crow’s (established 1854, or so the peeling gold lettering over the door told me) was a shabby red-bricked, double-fronted Victorian building.

I pushed open the black door and entered but Lola wouldn’t cross over the threshold. She began to grumble.

I closed my eyes and sighed.

‘Come on girl, don’t do this now.’

I turned to face her. Her teeth were bared and her hackles were raised.

‘What’s up, Lola? Come on now,’ I said, pulling her by the lead, ‘don’t be stupid!’ But the stupid dog wouldn’t listen and dug her white claws into the pavement.

‘Lola, come!’

The dog sat down in silent protest.

‘Can I help you?’

‘It’s this stupid dog,’ I said, ‘she won’t…‘ But I lost my train of thought as I looked up and into the eyes of the most beautiful woman I’d ever met. Her eyes were emerald green, and her hair was the colour of wild red roses. My heart began to skip a beat.

‘We’re closing in a minute but if you need some help?’ she asked, slipping on a pair of black shades.

Lola growled.

‘Be quiet!’ I snapped as I tried to regain my train of thought. Why was I here? Oh yes. ‘I’ve come about the job in the window.’

‘Oh right, come in, come in,’ she said, standing to one side of the doorway, so that I could enter.

‘Come on Lola,’ I said, pulling on the dogs lead. She would not budge.

‘Let me,’ said the receptionist. She took the lead from my hand, gave it a sharp tug and then let out a hiss that sounded a bit like that of an angry swan. The dog stood up and lowered her head in submission and the receptionist pulled her inside. I followed, impressed by how easy she’d tamed my unruly dog.

The Funeral home wasn’t what I expected. The right-hand side was taken up with a selection of headstones of various shapes and sizes and stone, and a small variety of coffins of different styles and materials including oak, wicker and (for the more environmentally minded) cardboard. Beside the coffins, there was a black covered sample book containing fabrics from silk to velvet and linen for the lining of your choice. The receptionist’s oak desk sat to the left of the room, covered in papers, an old fashioned rotary-dial phone and a large porcelain vase of Stargazer lilies which filled the air with their pungent aroma. There was also another smell in the air, something disguised by the lilies but equally as pungent but I couldn’t quite place what it was.

‘Please sit down,’ said the receptionist pointing to a set of four oak tables arranged around a small table, and I’ll tell Mr Crow you’re here. What’s your name, please?’

‘Joe Bones and thank you.’

The receptionist disappeared through a door at the back and returned a few minutes later.

‘Mr Crow will see you in a minute,’ she said, as she took her seat behind the desk.

Lola was quiet now. She curled up by my feet on the deep red carpet.

The clock on the wall read 5.00pm. I looked at the magazines on the coffee table; The Funeral Times, and Funeral’s Today. I didn’t pick them up; they looked like they’d been there since the place has opened.