Early morning mist rose from the lawn as the funeral director led me into the mortuary. “Have you ever been in a mortuary before, sir?”
“It’s cold.” He unlocked the door and led me into a large white room where racks stood against the far wall. There were six units, each consisting of three tiers on a moveable base. All but two tiers were occupied with white-shrouded objects. I made that sixteen dead human bodies.
I deposited my holdall on a table. “Here’s his clothes.”
The director looked through them, raising his eyebrows at the shoes.
“Joe was a postman. We thought he’d like to be buried in his work shoes. He loved his work.”
“I can imagine that, sir. He got out into the countryside I imagine?”
“Yes, he was always on rural routes, driving out to all the farms, all the old halls hidden away in the woods.”
The director’s interest perked up. “I suppose he saw places that no one else gets to see, except the landowners?”
“I suppose so. May I see him?”
“Surely, sir.” He led me over to the racks and pulled one out. It was at waist level. He folded the shroud back, and I saw Joe’s face. It was white, clean-shaven, and peaceful. His eyes were closed, and, for all the world, he looked like he was sleeping. I looked down on my brother for what I knew would be the last time ever and felt a lump in my throat. The funeral director retreated, discretely. I lay a hand on Joe’s cold cheek and remembered.
I’d gone to university to study geology, then worked for a gem trading corporation all my life. I had a beautiful house in Surrey, which I shared with Linda, my wife, still attractive in her early sixties, and our two Irish setters, Hero, and Betsy. Our kids were grown up with lives – and kids – of their own. Meanwhile, Joe, my kid brother by ten years, had drifted and spent years in the States, working when he could as an artist, and as a barman when he couldn’t.
“Greg, I know you don’t understand,” he’d said, “but I couldn’t bear to be tied down like you and Linda. I need freedom.”
“No, Joe, I don’t understand. You’re wasting your life, wasting your talent, and you’ll end up living in poverty at the rate you’re going.”
I regretted those harsh words now, regretted barely seeing him when he’d returned to England to live in Yorkshire ten years earlier. Linda and I had asked him to visit, but he never did, even at Christmas. He said he had to work then, delivering presents and cards to the rural communities he served. I always imagined he was envious of us and visiting us would exacerbate his feelings. Maybe I was wrong?
Then there’d been the accident, his vehicle careering off a high heath road and down a steep embankment into a river, where he’d drowned, unable to escape his little red post office van.
That evening I went back to Joe’s place, where I’d been going through his things. He’d never married and, of course, hadn’t made a will. No harm in me taking any of his stuff, I thought. There was a filing cabinet. I was surprised to find it unlocked. Inside, I came across a folder labelled DEFRA. In the folder were packets of photographs of houses and farms. Some looked like they’d been taken from his post van. But aerial photographs too. Taken with a drone, I guessed. One showed sprawling buildings with a lake and a lot of greenhouses. Another shot of the greenhouses showed them full of a leafy shrub. Cannabis, I suddenly realised. Other photographs showed barns crammed with cattle or piles of dead sheep.
I looked through some bank statements. The latest was two years ago when presumably he’d switched – or been switched – to online statements. But they told me what I needed to know. Frequent payments from DEFRA, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.
I was relaxing in my hotel room before dinner when the phone rang. “Mr Harding?”
“There’s a gentleman to see you.”
“Who is it?”
“Er … it’s a Mr Buchanan, he says he was a friend of your brother’s.”
“Should I come down?”
“No, he says he’ll come up. If that’s all right?”
Two minutes later, I was seated, facing a florid-faced man dressed in tweeds with leather patches on the elbows. He poured out two shots of whisky from a bottle he’d brought. “Cheers,” he said, sipping his drink.
“Cheers,” I said, “how can I help?”
“Look, I’ll get straight to the point. Your brother was upsetting a lot of people, spying for the government.”
I feigned astonishment.
“We need you to go home straight after the funeral.” He took out a pen. “And not come back.”
I bristled. “Now, just a moment …” Then I felt the skin on my forehead crawling and saw a brilliant green light from his pen.
He gave a wry smile. “I’m sure you’d like to keep your sight, wouldn’t you … er, Greg? And, by the way, I’m sorry to say there’s been a little fire down at Joe’s place. The fire brigade is there now, damping the ashes.”
I decided that, yes, I’d like to keep my vision. “All right. Turn that off.”
He clicked the pen, and the light went out. “Please, keep the whisky.” He got up and left the room.
I realised Joe’s death had been no accident. I downed my whisky in one, then with shaking hands, poured out a generous measure.
Taken from the book, Flash Friction: To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. III: 72 Little Stories
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