THIEVING GRIEF by Simon Woodward and DF Lewis
It was my twelfth cremation of the week, a record, and I was becoming increasingly nervous. Although I spread myself around the city's crematoria, the more I attended the greater the risk of encountering a vicar or council employee once too often. I couldn't afford to raise suspicion and threaten her supply.
This funeral was to be a very small affair. Dangerous. I had considered withdrawing, but knew I couldn't. She would not tolerate me returning empty handed. The mourners consisted of a stick-thin elderly couple and a man, lost somewhere in middle-age, whose face was a red wash of alcoholic skin. As we waited to enter the chapel - an antiseptic space fringed with purple curtains - he wrung his hands and averted his eyes. His knuckles were tattooed. Was he the son? The vicar invited us into the chapel.
He began the service by welcoming the guests and confirming my guess; the man was the deceased's son. The old couple were cousins. The usual three minute precis of a life followed - the deceased loved dogs, had been a train driver during the second world war, had suffered a hard life but maintained his sense of humour - after that a prayer, a hymn, another prayer. Normally tears would finish the proceedings, but not on this occasion. The young man stared at his writhing hands, the old couple clung to each other. On the way out, the old woman told the vicar she couldn't cry because her doctors had had to remove her tear ducts. Outside they stared at their single floral tribute. The younger man stood away from them sucking furiously on a cigarette.
When I approached him he brushed away tears. I stuck out my hand and told him I was a friend of his dad. My voice was calm. My body did not even hint at my lies. I was so sorry to hear that he had passed away. The man's tattooed fingers toyed with his cigarette, his gaze danced around the hedges protecting the garden of rest. I worked at a local RSPCA rescue centre, I continued. His father had helped walk the dogs on many occasions. We would all miss him - man and beast. This was a risky strategy, but I was confident in my ability to read the situation. The vicar's tick list of the deceased's activities always gave me an angle of entry, a section of memory I could slip into, and if you chose the right mourner, one who obviously wasn't close to the deceased, you could make yourself part of any life. An ugly emotion played across his face, and for one chilly second I thought I had been unmasked, but then I realised my instincts were correct. He knew nothing of his father's life.
The ugly emotion was guilt. When he finally offered his hand I took it in both of mine, pumping it up and down, talking feverishly to him of my sense of loss, holding eye contact. He didn't feel me remove his watch, nor did he see me slip it into my pocket. I left him with comforting words about his father's love of dogs. Outside the crematorium I lit a cigarette with trembling fingers and hoped that a watch would be enough to placate her.
Let me say straightaway that I had no idea (and still don't to some extent) why she needed produce from mourners of all people, from those shambling shapes of bereavement associated with, if not fully cognizant of, the dead body they'd just consigned to the cleansing flames. If I had to guess, I would say she felt less compunction when feasting upon hypocrisy. And she, I'd say, considered all mourners the most hypocritical of beasts walking the Earth. Only there for the will. Or for sidling importantly in dark clothes, instead of in the bright outfits with which they habitually cavorted at dance or ho-down. Or for reaching out to a God they'd so easily forgotten when out of His sight busy gathering their trinkets - with us removing such goods of their greed towards the eventual shriving of selfish souls.
I asked her out right, once.
Why, Hal, we must not question it, she indicated with her eyes.
It was an Employer/Employee relationship and I received my share of the proceeds which she so uniquely laundered. I also received payment in kind. And plenty of job satisfaction, too, since I needed to exercise my trade: being arguably the best pycke-purse the world has ever seen. I was no good as a loner. And I had to work as a team. And two were team enough for me, especially with the little touching endearments with which she often treated me, following the more physical part of our settling-up sessions. So, counting my blessings, I did not question it (or her) again. Though, as the days passed, I began to realise what was behind it. Hypocrisy was not her target, after all. Latterly, she has been suggesting the possibility of bringing in a new team member: a third party: an outsider.
Why? Am I not fetching enough?
She swung back her mane of blonde hair, as if casting off with her head. She did not reply: merely riffled through her almanac of cremations, angling for the choicest. I persisted: Is it male or?
She laughed. The brooch on her bosom, sparkled in the movement of light, as an aeroplane passed over. Her house - our den - was on a busy flightpath, as were most of the crematoria I frequented. At last she spoke. She didn't often speak. She was sparing with most things, which, obliquely, was only fitting for anyone who followed the dead as well as the dead's own followers. What she said was short and sweet.
Sugar? I nodded.
She should have known, of course, as she stirred the cup before handing it to me on a saucer, that my temperament, although not suited to operating as a loner, was also not suited to rejection.
His name was Theo. He arrived the following day with the popping of a champagne cork and frothing conversation. She draped an arm around his neck and introduced him. He pumped my hand enthusiastically, smiling into my eyes with an expression I could only describe as jolly egotism, while simultaneously stroking the swell of her arse. I heard her purr. After granting me this briefest of introductions, giggling, she pulled him from the room. As they hastily disrobed on the stairs her brooch slipped its clasp and journeyed step by step to land at my feet. I pocketed it. Without securing the clasp and the pin drove deep into my leg. Blood dribbled down my thigh. Above, I heard her squeal.
Theo accompanied me for the next week, letting me choose the crematorium, the target mourner, letting me do all the work but occasionally stepping in to add weight to my lies with lies of his own. He was a formidable charlatan and utter charmer - I realised for the first time that they were one and the same thing. Before returning to our lair he'd compliment me on my work and then relieve me of my catch, presenting them to her on our return and receiving the sexual benediction that had been, until his arrival, mine alone. My life became such a treadmill at that time, I am not able to remember precisely how long it was before he revealed himself to me. I was sitting in the nighttime garden, awake from the sounds of their exertions, blowing smoke through clouds of gnats, mourning my lost sense of importance, when he appeared. I saw his grin first, then his eyes. His flesh was as pale as bone. A great entrance. It was just so ... Theo. He lit a cigarette and exhaled smoke to mingle with mine. The words that followed shocked me.
He asked me if I knew why she had me steal the mourners’ items. I faked a half-hearted insouciance; no, I did it because I wanted to; reason and consequence were irrelevant. He wafted this aside with the smoke, telling me he knew who she fenced the items onto, how much they paid, where they resided. But he too was unsure of why. He was sure the answer to that question would lead to mystery and wealth. Revelation. A great secret. And to steal this great secret he needed a great thief - me.
I'd heard rumours of your ability, he said. They were all short of your true talent. I came for you, he said.
As one, we became aware of her standing in a bedroom window watching us. She was naked, edged in moonlight, unaware of the shift in our relationship. She beckoned him and he blew her a kiss. So naive, he whispered, then added, with heavy emphasis. Tomorrow.
Tomorrow was always another day. Theo's tomorrow was not even that. It fed on yesterday, hankered after today and lived in a realm of time that suited the dead more than the living. He craved after something he could never have. Riding a trail of broken promises and hopeless ambitions. Like seeking the secret of a nameless woman who cared even less for her brooches than her brothers in crime. Her smiles were her biggest weapon: sickly sweet and pregnant with meaning. She flashed them at me every time she took Theo into her arms or her upstairs parlour.
Theo's tomorrow eventually came dressed in mourning clothes. It was the biggest cremation that gangland had ever seen, with parades of suits and hidden firearms. You would have expected such crocodiles of sad acting to be following a coffin to its earth, where the still footloose and fancyfree could collect together at the crumbly mouth slot: discussing crimes past and future; debating where the dead body had fitted into the scheme of things and where it would feature, given a handy exhumation come the age of anarchy. But, no, this was one of those rare cremations of a big nob. A big cheese. Being burnt, not buried. That's where the secret resided. In the unusualness of the plot. Or, rather, in the terms of ashes, the pot.
Theo knew. I knew. But neither of us could quite appreciate that this particular cremation was the optimum cremation. The pinnacle of our mistress hopes. Where burnt flesh was tantamount to dross into gold. Alchemy was just a word in a dictionary whilst its reality was out there in the grounds of a South London crematorium baking in the heat of the longest weather forecast of everlasting tomorrows.
She had spruced us up all morning.
Don't be too profile, she said, nodding at my feigned nod of understanding.
Theo had just emerged from a clinch of legs and arms, yawning widely, spraying lip-stick pink spittle in my direction.
And, Theo, she added, just because we get it together here doesn't mean you're any more important than Hal.
Hal blanched, winced. I'd even forgotten that Hal was me, given how small I felt in the aftermath of their embraces. I'd have to get used to being Hal. If that was what she called me, who was I to argue? Tomorrow I might be someone quite different or at least bearing a different label.
What's the stuff? Theo asked, opaquely.
This is the culmination, she replied. I then knew, even if Theo was still struggling. Every single snatch at previous cremations, first by me alone, then as a double act with Theo, had been rehearsals for this big one. I had a vision an echo of a dream that the body was immersed in flames and suddenly started moving, with skin flaking off as soon as it charred: killer bees buzzing in the shape of sodden pellets of ash defeating gravity even as they would, more naturally, when as dry flakes in a dance or cascade from a common or garden bonfire.
She put a wilting dark flower in my lapel. Kissed my brow. Did the same for Theo, except, in his case, it was long and full on the mouth. And his flower was in unwholesome bloom, and darker still.
I felt I was the key man in the whole venture, but did I feel it? The other two, I was convinced, were amateurs at heart. As ever, I wasn't professional enough to value my own professionalism, despite Theo's evident admiration of the way I wrung my hands and telegraphed my moves. All part and parcel of the masquerade of feint and counter-feint, I guess. But on whose part?
Remember, the widow has more gold in her teeth than the rest of London in their bank vaults. She said this with sugar grains specking each corner of her mouth and a dark light in her eyes.
South London. A burning hot morning for the hundreds of mourners. They had just witnessed the biggest fat fire of human meat turn into spectral shades of smoke and ash cascading through the crematory chimney.
Now, the mourners flowed as a sea of flowers. Suits and muscle and suspicion. All of my previous lies and easy deceptions, fake lives and hollow condolences, had been a preparation for this task. With Theo at my side, adding depth and corroboration to my stories, I worked my way through the crowd towards the widow, Mrs Haskell, the black veiled and sheathed eye of this grieving storm of villainy.
It was not easy to make progress. In the bright sunlight, all those eyes unshielded by shades, showed pinprick pupils surrounded by irises dancing with fractals of suspicion, the endless mathematics of doubt and fear that were the sum of the criminal mind. Heavy men with cholesterol flesh and determined scowls blocked our path, questioning, redirecting us, their thick necks twisting slowly as they scanned the crowd.
I made my stories rich, folding lies into lies, sprinkling them with sugar, the heat of my telling making them rise, exceeding any of my previous confections. An aging gangster embraced me as the son of an old friend. Theo's face revealed his awe at my talent, and the geriatric hoodlum led us towards the widow. Her veil was raised revealing an attractive middle aged face made harsh by too much sun and alcohol. I paused. Squinted in the sun. The old man's fingers slipped from my arm and he turned, looking confused, forgetting for a second that he had remembered me. I shook my head and he nodded at some profound inner knowledge.
"Hurts too much to see it, eh?" he said.
I nodded. Another lie. I hesitated because there was something in the widow's face that screamed for recognition, or acknowledgement.
"Why did you stop?" Theo at my side.
I shook my head again. Words deserting me as I puzzled at the mystery of her face as if it were jigsaw to be solved. In my head I rearranged her like Picasso. And then we were inside a long car smelling of leather, my new gangster mentor offering us malt whiskey in crystal glasses. He cried an old man's gummy tears and we drank to the health of several people I did not know, but professed to admire greatly.
The car stopped and we, along with the swell of mourners, were ushered into a casino owned by the deceased. A huge portrait of him decorated one wall of the gaming room. Waiters dispensed drinks and food. I saw the widow Haskell bite into a pastry. Sugar at the corner of her mouth. Tears in her eyes. A pain in my head. Theo nudged my arm and nodded in her direction. Didn't he feel a hint of what I could not quite see? I began to move towards her but stopped as a profound silence and stillness possessed the room. A belated mourner had arrived. A young blonde woman with a brooch on the breast of her sombre suit, moving through the parting ranks of heavy set thugs and embezzlers and gangsters. She approached the widow as if she were a mirror to reveal a reflection of her older self.
When they were no more than three feet apart the younger woman stopped and received a stinging slap to her cheek from the widow. Red fingers unfurled on her skin. The widow, face slipping in and out of expressions, black pearl tears resting on lashes, turned and stalked towards a door at the side of the room, beckoning the younger woman to follow. With a glance and the slight inclination of her head the young woman issued us our instructions.
When the two women had left the room voices and laughter and gasps exploded to fill the void, I led Theo towards a separate door. As we weaved through the mourners in their white shirts and black suits and dresses, I felt like the embodiment of a chess metaphor: we were her pawns, this was her end game. Check mate, check mate. The game about to end.
Our door led into a dark corner of the room in which they faced each other. Bitter and broken words were lancing between them with the intensity that can only be generated between blood, between parent and child, mother and daughter. Their voices rose and fell in the symphony of their pain, they embraced and flailed at each other. Like a refrain the words, love, betrayal, abuse and hate repeated themselves amongst a rush of lesser notes.
Outside voices were still raise in debate and speculation. Heavy footsteps had approached down the corridors accompanied by the sound of bullets clacking into breeches. Theo began to sweat. We waited for our instructions. We would know when to act.
Finally the two women stood apart in silence. The young women bent her head and removed the brooch.
"This is yours," she said as she moved to pin it to the widow. But with a sudden grimace she drove the pin into the woman's breast. As she opened her mouth to scream, her daughter slotted a ball of cloth into her mouth, gagging her. A quick look into our shadows signalled us to action. She had twine in her pockets to secure the widow's limbs and another length of cloth to make good her gag.
Through twisting, nicotine coloured corridors, Theo and I carried the Widow Haskell. Our most audacious theft. But of what value to us I could not guess. Outside, we placed her in the boot of a car and her daughter climbed behind the wheel. When we made to join her in the vehicle she shook her blonde locks, as I knew she would, and offered us a sad smile and the key to a safety deposit box. We kissed her chastely and then watched as she sped away with all her grief, terrible memories and pain, finally disappearing in a blaze of sunlight on metal and glass.
Theo winked at me. I scowled jealously, then laughed. There was no cholesterol on us. And we picked our way.