By Cathy Dobson
As old Stanley Gibson stood in the hall, buttoning his overcoat, the phone rang. A scowl flashed across his features. He hated any interruption to his routine. He thought of letting it ring and setting off for his post-lunch walk anyway, but his deep-seated sense of correctness overrode the temptation. He stepped back into the library and picked up the receiver.
“Mr. Stanley Gibson?” The caller spoke in a reedy, nasal voice. “This is Greenwood’s on George Street. I wanted to ask if we could bring this afternoon’s appointment forward to two o’clock.”
“Appointment?” Stanley’s forehead creased. He couldn’t think of any appointment he had made for today.
“We just need to take your measurements, Mr. Gibson. It will only take ten minutes. If you’d be so kind.”
“I’ll put you in for two, sir. I look forward to seeing you then.”
The line went dead.
Ten minutes later, as Stanley rounded the corner out of the park, the mysterious phone call consumed his thoughts. It must be some mistake or possibly a prank. Stanley Gibson was a stickler for routine and kept to himself. Neither mistakes nor pranks were ever visited on him.
He would change his normal route and go by George Street to see what sort of outfit Greenwood’s was. Probably some sort of bespoke tailor, though it would be an odd sort of place for an upmarket business. Most of the shops on George Street were boarded up.
But Stanley’s puzzlement quickly turned to exasperation when he arrived in front of Greenwood’s. Inside, swathes of grey fabric hung from ceiling to floor. Somber urns were perched on black pedestals.
Greenwood’s was a funeral parlor.
So, it had been a prank call after all. He resolved to go in and share with Greenwood that a practical joker was ridiculing decent members of the public in the guise of their business.
As he entered, a distant bell sounded in the back of the shop.
A gaunt, bald man in an old-fashioned dark suit emerged from the doorway behind the counter. “Mr. Gibson, you’re right on time.”
Stanley furrowed his eyebrows. The undertaker spoke with that same reedy, nasal voice as the caller on the phone.
“Just what is the meaning of phoning me like that?” Stanley slapped his hand down hard on the counter. “An absolute impertinence! I’ve a mind to report you to the police.”
The cadaverous undertaker ignored Stanley’s protest as he rummaged under the counter. A moment later, he pulled out an oversized ledger with several folded papers sticking out.
“Well now… Gibson… here we are. You’ve been allocated a slot for a funeral next week Tuesday. Today’s Thursday. Let me see. Looking at you, I’d say about five foot seven to seven and a half. Not more than two feet across.” He made a note in the ledger. “Now, would it be a standard pine casket you’re looking for, or something a bit more ornate? We do have a deal on mahogany this week. I have our catalog here. Perhaps there’s something that will take your fancy.”
“Is this your idea of a joke?” Stanley put both hands on the counter and leaned into the scrawny man. “I don’t know what your game is, Mr. Greenwood. Let’s just call it a mistake. As you can see, I’m alive and well. I don’t need a coffin, and I haven’t ordered a funeral.”
The bald man now also leaned forward, grasping Stanley’s hands as he did so, restraining him at the counter. His voice dropped and took on a menacing tone.
“I think you’ll find there’s no mistake, sir. I was alerted this morning to an upcoming free slot at the crematorium, and naturally, I phoned you to come in at once. It’s rare for an opportunity like this to come up at short notice. I’ll put you down for the standard pine if you don’t want to choose anything more elaborate.” Hot spittle stippled Stanley’s cheek as the undertaker hissed. “It will come to six thousand pounds for the complete package.”
As Stanley protested, he felt a strange pricking on the back of his hand. When he looked down, Mr. Greenwood pulled his own hands back as though to conceal something, then began to fumble with the ledger again.
Perspiration broke out on Stanley’s forehead. He pulled at his shirt collar. The heat in the little shop was stifling. He tried to unbutton his coat, but his fingers couldn’t function properly. His lungs burned, his breaths labored.
“I’ve made out the order form for you, Mr. Gibson. If you would kindly sign here. I’ve also taken the liberty of selecting the larger wreath option and the full obsequies. Very popular options, Mr. Gibson. No client has ever complained about our service.”
Mr. Greenwood positioned a pen in his hand, then guided it to the paper on the counter. Stanley tried to resist but found himself scrawling his name across the bottom. His eyes blurred as the shop spun around him.
“There is a taxi outside waiting to take you home, and the driver will see you to your bed. Tomorrow’s Friday. I’ll bring along the standard pine when I collect you in the morning. We do appreciate your generous patronage in these difficult economic times. Without obliging clients like yourself, sir, I swear we wouldn’t still be in business. Goodbye, Mr. Gibson.”