(Or “In Loving Memory”)
T’was a tough time of year to be contemplating a burial, but there you go. At least it wasn’t Mansell’s job to have to hack a hole 6ft down through the unforgiving frost, and the rock-hard flinching soil, but that’s what the grave diggers are paid for. He was wondering if they’d have to use dynamite, the weather was so unseasonably brutal. But if someone has the discourtesy to go and fall off the perch in the dead of winter, and leave instructions to be buried on Christmas Eve, what do you expect? It would help if the dear departed had been decent enough to leave a little gratuity, whereby the members of the profession so inconvenienced might perhaps drink to his everlasting peace. But no, the man had been as tight as a ducks arse, and the job was being done on the cheap. And a Merry Christmas too you, too, my lords and masters, with knobs on.
Cheap was the word, unfortunately. Mansell often felt more than a little uncomfortable with the demands of his profession, but working for this lot only served to throw that into sharp relief, and he felt even more uncomfortable when he surveyed the receptacle designed for this late ascender unto glory.
An ill-conceived casket was stretched out on the table before Mansell, and it really was a sorry representation of the cabinet maker’s art. No-one had even gone to the trouble to ensure that the sides were of equal proportions, and they lay crooked and uneven against one another, like jumbled and badly cut planks discarded in a shipyard. Here and there rusty nails protruded from the surface, banged over into ugly iron hoops where they had been clumsily bent and not withdrawn, to stick up now like the coils of tiny Loch Ness monsters. They were surrounded by nasty circular craters in the grain, where the hammer had missed its aim and scarred the surface. You wouldn’t bury a dog in this, let alone the late occupant of No. 27 Sebastopol Road, of this Parish.
Noticing something else which made him wince, Mansell reached out and moved the ugly wooden box, very slightly. He was right! Only two of the four corners rested on the surface of the table at any given point, and the damn thing could be made to rock, very gently. What a useless joiner that man was! It really was third rate, shoddy work. If it wasn’t for the razor sharp splinters where the planks had been half-cut hastily and snapped, and the evil protruding nails, Mansell would have thought he’d be better at making cradles, as it rocked very effectively. What a godforsaken mess!
Mansell stood looking at the coffin mournfully, but his grief was reserved for the state of the tatty receptacle rather than its intended occupant, who was, it had to be admitted, rather too tall for his box.
The late Abraham Mole lay resting on the embalming table nearby. All six-foot-six-inches of him, with great grey sideburns marching down his cheeks, and his great hooked nose pointing accusingly at the ceiling. The man probably looked much better in death than he did in life, but, looking at him, Mansell had to admit that anything was probably an improvement.
And just look at those great long bony legs and huge feet, in his Sunday-Best churchgoing boots. The trouble was that the dear departed was far too long for his wooden overcoat, and there were limited resources available to provide anything more copious. It was a nasty problem. Old Master Balwich wanted this gentleman interred in this casket by the time he returned. Although the late Church Warden and Ironmaster had left a king’s ransom to church, the meagre provisions of his estate meant that this coffin was all that was available for Mr. Mole, and whether he was over 6ft tall or not, he was going to have to fit somehow into a 5ft 11inch box.
No-one in the Trade would ever admit to the act Hubert Mansell was contemplating. It was deeply unscrupulous, and not much above the trade of body snatchers. Mansell was glad there were no mirrors present as he didn’t feel like he could look himself in the eye, and he took comfort in the thought that he was only thinking about it as a last resort, for practical reasons. It was Christmas Eve, after all, and he felt uneasy and unchristian, even through the dear departed was a mean old skinflint.
It’s so simple, really. If the coffin is too small for its intended occupant, you just lop of the feet of the deceased, and tuck them neatly between the ankles, that’s all. Nothing horrific, really. It’s quite practical in its way, when you come to think about it. The departed aren’t going to need their podiatry extremities until the final trumpet, and when that is sounded we will all be whole and born again, so it’s not as if you’re putting their feet out for the cat’s meat man and flogging their boots to the pawnbroker. Over in the United States, Mr. Andrew Borden of Fall River, Massachusetts, does it all the time and everyone knows all about it, although his daughter is said to disapprove….
It’s common practice on the quiet, one way or another, like taking Fathers best suit to Uncles on a Monday, and redeeming it at the weekend when he gets paid without a word to anyone.
It just felt so disrespectful. At least if someone’s buried alive it’s accidental, and it’s over pretty quickly. The chances of them being heard in their struggles are next to impossible, and they usually have the decency to expire pretty quickly soon afterwards from shock and being boxed in, so provided on-ones around to hear you can pretty much get away with it.
But if chopping the feet off…. And getting caught doesn’t bare thinking about. Mansell stood looking at a handy saw on the workbench, and havered uncomfortably. Old Balderstone, to whom he’d been apprenticed in the reign of the late Queen Victoria, used to do it regularly. He was a right bloody old butcher who didn’t think twice about it, and he made a nice economy on the side in flogging the boots to the Sally-Ann, with no questions asked….. But then some nosey mourner had to go and hang around after the festivities.
Balderstone always gave the gravediggers a few bob to absent themselves for an hour or two, whilst he switched the elegant coffin seen on the hearse for a banged together thing of unseasoned pine, chopped the feet off the dear departed with the sexton’s shovel, and stuffed them into the cheaper alternative. Everybody knew he did it, and no-one broke ranks to speak of it, or at least no-one did until old Mrs Hitchenweep came back to say goodbye unexpectedly to her late Alfred, and actually saw Balderstone standing in the coffin in the open grave and chop a foot off.
The Municipal Cemetery of Christ in His Mercy, Doncaster, is a big bone yard and a quiet place unused to hysterics, especially at dusk in early November…. But people came running like disturbed ants from the four corners of the compass when they heard Amelia’s screams.
It was a scandal of such epic proportions it even hit the newspapers in far away London, Cardiff, and it was even said in Ireland. Balderstone had no defence whatsoever, being caught red handed. His actions caused some very uncomfortable questions to be asked, and the Justice of the Peace gave permission for those interred during the last year by Messers Balderstone, Willard and Meep, to be exhumed and examined forthwith.
Well, what a circus of horror that revealed to a sorrowful world. One individual, in the 6th grave opened, appeared to have died in considerable distress on having come out of a trance deep beneath the sod in their casket, which was of such cheap construction that it came apart during their struggles, and they were crushed. That was bad enough, but when his feet were also revealed to have been brutally removed with a hatchet the horror reached epic proportions. Another 27 coffins told similar grisly tales, but none as tragic as that of this poor catalytic.
Balderstone was actually tarred and feathered, a sight Mansell would never forget in the light of flickering torches, watching terrified from his attic window. He made a hasty departure from the district under cover of night and didn’t stop till he got to Nottingham.
The very thought made him shiver with fright even now, and he looked at the saw in his hand with a lump in his throat and his hair bristling at the nape of his neck. He approached the corpse with leaden feet, and rolled his sleeves up. Mansell shivered and excuse himself, “Nothing personal, Mr. Mole, and my compliments of the season….”
But just as he said it, something fell off a shelf behind him, and Mansell nearly jumped out of his skin. It frightened the living daylights out of him, even though a quick search revealed nothing too be amiss… But when he returned to his work, the late Mr. Moles feet had moved about 12 inches to the left, as if he had shifted them out of the way…..
For a second he couldn’t believe his eyes, and Mansell closed them hard. Unfortunately, when he did there was a shifting sound, and when he opened them again, the dead man’s feet had moved the same distance from the centre to the right… The fright this gave Mansell was deep and startling, and he gripped the edge of the mortuary table with shock. It was, however, nothing compared to the shock he felt when a steely cold hand gripped his wrist, and he looked down into a pair of murderous accusing eyes…..
…… Balwich returned late to his funeral parlour, reeling slightly from mulled wine and a surfeit of Christmas cheer. He wandered slightly dizzily into the private rooms at the back, to check on the progress of the preparations for the funeral of Mr. Mole.
No-one has been able to ascertain what he actually saw when he walked in, but one of the grooms heard a sharp scream, and then heard a crash which sent him running for the house. Master Baldwich was stretched out cold on the floor in a dead faint, perhaps overcome by embalming fumes…. But as he drew closer, young Gwilliam noticed that although the body of the late Mr. Mole was still recumbent out on the bench, there was a strange hand protruding from the coffin.
Gwilliam felt a little nervous about looking at the occupant, as he wondered if, since he was new, he was the victim of some grisly prank: but when he saw the contents of the coffin, he too joined his employer on the floor in a state of perfect, sudden unconsciousness.
Mr. Mansell was a tall man, too, but he had been made to fit that unsuitable casket quite neatly. Its original intended recipient had been so indignant at the idea of having his feet removed, that he had spared his tormentor the same kind of sacrilegious treatment. Mansells feet, in their neat black buttoned-boots, gleamed smartly at the bottom of the coffin, unmolested and shining respectably. But his severed melancholy head, resting snugly between them, did not look so quite so comfortably at ease.
© By Glenn James 2012