I was amazed by how many people were stuffed inside my uncle Henry’s corpse.
My aunt clung to me for the first time in her life, bird-bone brittle and ashen pale, while the mourners breathed crowds of ghosts into the icy morning air.
The coffin swayed on eight unsteady legs, like Sleipnir as a newborn foal. Instead of the usual six pallbearers, four sufficed, for in life my uncle was not the tallest of men and was never overweight.
My aunt, noticing that one of the pallbearer’s shoelaces had come undone, nodded to draw my attention to it and we laughed freakishly at the slapstick possibilities. A few mourners turned to finger-wag the outburst, but looked away thistle-faced when they saw the offenders.
The pallbearers paused at the church doors, waiting for God to let us in. When the doors finally swung open, The Lord provided the frozen congregation with some limp candlelight and gas heaters set on low.
The procession slithered inside like a drunken snake. Organ music wheezed. The vicar slapped cold crematorium ash from his cassock as we followed him and the coffin down the weary stone aisle. The light through the stained glass windows made my aunt’s face look cracked.
My mother, already up front, mantra-mouthed the eulogy I’d helped her write. She’d hated her husband’s brother for most of her life, but when my aunt refused to listen to his cancer talk, he’d turned to her and they’d finally reached an understanding.
The ceremony was unexpectedly joyous, as time and gravity had already acclimatised most of the aged attendees to the notion of six feet under. The songs were upbeat and, although the singing was for the most part out of tune, it raised the participants’ mood.
It was surreal to watch my uncle’s pale-wood coffin slide along the rollers like a piece of flat-pack furniture at an IKEA store. I felt nothing as I watched the drab faux velvet curtains close on my uncle’s life. My aunt coughed gently into a folded Kleenex.
Afterwards, we were led away to stand and await the growing line of sympathisers. I sensed my aunt’s dread humming through her at the prospect and picked up the tang of sweat bleeding into her floral perfume.
A woman in a navy-blue headscarf and dark glasses approached, patted my aunt on her hand and started talking about a man named Harry:
“That Harry, he was such a laugh at work back then, in the auditing department at County Hall. He had this cheeky sense of humour. Never saw him cross or out of sorts.”
Harry? Who was this Harry? For a moment, I thought we were at the wrong funeral. But then I saw tears veneer my aunt’s eyes, and I realised that Harry was short for Henry. It made me wonder what it might have been like to have such a fun-loving uncle instead of the one I had been lumbered with.
A stick of a man in a much-repaired tweed jacket, shiny green cords and a creased shirt, fingers and teeth in matching nicotine, approached next. It was their mousy next-door neighbour, Mr Postlethwaite.
“Hello Malcolm. Thanks for coming, luv,” said my aunt.
“It’s going to be lonely without your Henry. We used to watch the ducks together on the pond out back,” said Malcolm. “He liked it best when the ducklings were freshly hatched. He named them all, he did. Remembered them each year on their return, like they were family. He’d have made a good father, if he hadn’t had to look after his mother for all those years. I always used to say…”
“Thanks again for coming, Malcolm,” my aunt said, her eyes drifting to the next in line.
They kept on coming, mourner after mourner, all in different states of grief, yet all with equally complimentary stories to share. I was surprised by how many versions of my uncle there were, each as benevolent as the one before.
By the time the line expired, my throat was scratchy and dry. I found it hard to swallow. Everyone else had kind words to give and sorrow to show. Out of the 200 people at the funeral, 199 mourned him, but not me.
To me, he was the bastard who woke me at 7a.m. on Christmas morning after I had been out partying until 4 a.m.
To me, he was the bald midget with crooked teeth and body odour, whose twinkling eyes mocked me at every turn.
To me, he was the one who quizzed me about my future, holding up the mirror for me to squirm at my inadequacies.
To me, he was exasperating, old fashioned and unlovable. I felt wretched.
Just then the vicar said that the funeral car was ready and my aunt said, “C’mon,” and bolted for the exit.
I jogged ahead and opened the door to the glossy limo, helped her in and sorted out the seatbelt that was too troublesome for her shaky hands.
I got in and we sat together in the grey silence.
“Well, that’s the worst of it out the way,” she said, reaching for my hand. “The funeral director said I can pick up the urn tomorrow, so just the pub lunch and then I can draw a line under it all. We saw him off in style though, didn’t we?”
Lost for words, I nodded, held onto my aunt’s trembling digits and hoped that she could not sense the impostor sitting right beside her.
BIO: Mick Clark is a British ex-pat, who lives near Hamburg in Germany. He has been writing for fun since he was a teenager, and then later as a magazine sub-editor. He discovered the WVU in June this year, and this is his very first submission of flash fiction for publication.
* NOTE: I have used the word ‘bastard’ in the text above. It shows the depth of anger the character felt towards his uncle. I hope that it is not inappropriate.