Death’s Apprentice – Part Twelve

He thrust his spade in again and again ripping up more of the grave. And then…

Then he hit something hard. Rock solid. Like a coffin hard.

Eugh. His skin prickled, his stomach rolled. He picked up the candle lamp and held it over the grave with a shaky hand. He wanted to know what it was but by the same token, he didn’t. He swallowed the lump at the back of his throat and forced himself to take another look.

Yes. Yes. It was a coffin. He turned away disgusted with himself. Joe Bones was now the desecrator of graves as well as belonging to the most reviled family in Bloxwich.

‘Get out then,’ said Azrail, making Joe jump.

‘Do you think,’ he said, feeling the pounding of his heart inside his ribcage, ‘you could not sneak up on me?’

‘I didn’t,’ replied the old man, ‘what’s a matter? You not got the stomach for this line of work?’

It was only then that Joe noticed the long black package resting at Azrail’s feet. It was very long, probably as tall as the old man himself, and it was wrapped in what looked like black bags that had been stuck together with grey duck tape. It had a small part on top of it that looked like a…no, it couldn’t be a head? Could it?

It looked to Joe suspiciously like a dead body. And he’d seen lots of dead bodies. Not real bodies of course, but in the movies. He’d seen loads in the movies and they all looked like that; long and body shaped covered in bin liners and duck tape or brown tape, depending on what was available.

‘Is that…?’ Joe said pointing his shaky hand at the package. He noticed that his hand shaking. That was not a good look, so he quickly lowered it hoping that Azrail hadn’t seen his nerves.

‘What? A dead body?’ asked Azrail, with a smirk that made him look quite evil in the sickly orange glow of the candlelight.

Joe waited patiently for him to answer but it didn’t look like he wasn’t going to get one so he said, ‘So, is it?’

‘What do you think?’

Joe didn’t know what to think anymore so he said nothing and instead placed the lamp at the side of the grave, slung the spade beside it and began to pull himself out of the quite substantial hole. He dug his fingers into the side of the opening. The earth was wet and claggy beneath his fingers. He held on and pulled himself up whilst jabbing his knee into the side of the grave. He finally emerged covered from head to toe in black, sticky mud. His mother was going to kill him.

‘Grab that end then,’ said Azrail, bending down and grabbing the feet end of the body.

Joe bent down and…could he feel ears beneath the layers of black plastic and tape? The head felt squishy and…no he couldn’t think about it anymore else he was going to be sick.

On the count of three they hoisted the body into the air and with a fluid movement, they threw the body into the gaping hole.

It landed with a thump.

‘Off you go then,’ said Azrail, pointing at the hole.

‘What?’ asked Joe, worried that Azrail wanted him to get back in the hole. With the dead body. ‘You want me to get in?’

The old man hissed through his yellow jagged teeth. ‘No you moron, I want you to fill it back up.’

Wow,thought Joe, he leaves me to do all the work then calls me a moron. It’s a good job I need this work or I’d show him who’s the moron.

Joe swallowed his anger and grabbed the spade. The handle was sticky and black and caked in mud. He looked up at Azrail and said, ‘You gonna stand there and watch or…?’

‘No, I’ve got other matters to attend to,’ he replied. He spun on his heels, the tails of his coat swishing through the air and then he was gone into the black.

Joe looked at the pile of dirt and the spade in his hand. Great, he thought, just what he needed. And to think he could be lying in bed at home listening to his music or playing on his Xbox.

He dug his spade into the earth and began to shovel it back over the body.

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Death’s Apprentice – Part Eleven

‘Do you always ask this many questions?’

Joe shrugged. ‘Do you always ask people to dig up graves?’

Azrail blew through his yellowing teeth in a show of exasperation. ‘I don’t want you to dig up the coffin if that’s what you’re worried about.’

Joe threw back his shoulders and puffed out his chest. ‘I’m not worried,’ he said, although the pounding of his heart told him the exact opposite was true.

The old man smiled but it wasn’t a happy smile. ‘Good. Get on with it.’

Joe sighed. ‘Ok, but can I have the light?’

‘The light?’

‘Yes. How else am I going to find it?’

Azrail took a deep breath and passed Joe the light.

‘Thank you,’ said Joe, ‘and what will you be doing whilst I’m the one working?’

‘Working myself,’ replied the old man. He spun on his heels. ‘Now get on with it,’ he hissed as he disappeared into the gaping doorway of the tomb.

Joe was left alone, with only the silence and his own heart pounding against his ribcage for company. The wind began to blow and a crisp packet was tossed into the air.

He took a deep breath and held up the candle lamp and moved it from side to side to locate the grave of Sissy Simmons. A thin slither of sickly yellow light ran across the ground before him, picking out the raised mounds of the freshly dug graves. Inside, Joe’s stomach was doing cartwheels but he stepped onto the wet grass anyway, well aware of his need for this job.

He kept sweeping the light across the grass and the graves trying to locate the one he needed. There was Edmund Simmons, Joe Simmons and Barty Simmons but no Sissy. Onward he plunged into the cemetery, the legs of his jeans becoming wet as the tall grass brushed aganst him. The water was beginning to soak through the hole in his left trainer and now his sock was becoming like a sponge. The next row belonged to Christina Simmons, Jesse and then in the middle was an unmarked grave, except for a small, crudely nailed together cross measuring no taller than the length of his foot. He held the lamp higher to highlight the grave behind it, and there it was; Sissy Simmons.

Joe couldn’t tell if he felt relief or sick at the thought at finding the right grave. In for a penny, in for a pound, he thought, remembering one of his nanna’s old sayings.

He dropped the lamp on the ground beside the anonymous grave, quickly double-checking that this grave was the one in front of Sissy Simmons. Satisfied he was in the right place, he took the long spade firmly in his hand and thrust it into the wet earth.

It cut through the soil easily. Pictures of decaying bodies and opened-mouthed skeletons played in his mind. What if he, you know, actually saw a dead body?

He’d seen his nanna, of course, but that was different. She was of his own flesh and blood. He didn’t like it, it’d had made him really…well,…sad. He loved her. In fact, if he was really honest about it (and if he was honest, he didn’t really like to think about it), she was probably the only person he could say that he’d ever loved. But, he couldn’t deny, there was something comforting about seeing her one last time to say goodbye. But someone else’s dead body, under there, under the damp earth, with worms and things burrowing into their flesh? Eugh, how on earth would he get over that?

The spade went thump, thump, thump as it cut through the earth. He tossed it into a loose pile on the side of the grave.

Death’s Apprentice – Part Eight

It had finally stopped raining when Joe got back to Crow’s Funeral Home. He was cold, wet and in a particularly bad mood as he was susceptible to when he was tired, and/or hungry and had had a run on with his shit head stepdad. Not only that, his “stepdad” shithead had eaten his tea for him too. His mother almost never cooked but every third week, on a Thursday night, she’d cook stew. It wasn’t the best stew; his mom was a pretty shit cook to be far, but it was a home cooked meal and better than a sandwich or cold pizza. One night, every three weeks, and he had to go and eat it before he got home. Joe pumped his fists at his side. God, he hated that bloke.

And now he was here. At midnight. It was a good job he loved his dog. To be honest, reallly honest, she was the only thing he’d ever loved. Before Lola, he didn’t know what love was. He couldn’t really say that he loved his mother. She was, in all honesty, a shit mother, and he knew it, but she was the only constant in the shit storm that was his life but that didn’t mean he loved her. He knew he didn’t, not once Lola had entered his life.

The clouds were scooting across the sky, covering and uncovering the moon. It reminded Joe of one of those old zoetropes that flicked as they spun around showing photographs and giving the illusion the images were moving. Joe pulled his hoodie in around him. What on earth could they want with him at midnight? If he really thought about it, and he really didn’t want to think about it, he had a bad feeling about this. But, if it paid Lola’s vet bills and got him out of the shithole that was home, then, what choice did he have? Although, all that talk about chosen ones and burying the chosen one had been a bit strange. He hadn’t got a clue what all that was about but still, that seemed to be the story of his life. Joe never knew what was going on.

Suddenly the clouds totally relinquished their grip on the moon and bright silver moonlight illuminated the ground in front of him. He hadn’t noticed, until now, the fog that was beginning to roll in across the road. His legs felt like jelly. Actually, no, it wasn’t his legs, it seemed as if the ground itself was shaking. There was the sound of thunder in the distance and…

No. It wasn’t thunder. It was the sound of hooves. Lots of hooves. And they were moving at an incredible speed.

Seven pure black horses with bulging red eyes and black feathery plumes adorning their heads, emerged out of the moonlight. They were pulling a large black Victorian Mourners Coach. At the front of the coach sat a man, dressed in black, and wearing a top hat.

 

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.

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.