At The Third Stroke, It Will Be
by Malcolm Twigg
"In 1994, during a concerted marketing campaign, the National Telephone Company in England (British Telecom) accidentally addressed a circular letter to a cemetery in South Devon ... offering to connect residents to the phone..." - taken from a local newspaper
"And not before time!" Great-great-grandad Moses shuffled back to his slab, myopically holding up an official-looking form to his eyeless sockets.
"What's that,then?" mumbled a head, inching itself along the dusty floor.
"One of them new fangled telly-phone things. They're puttin' one in." Moses eased his creaking old bones back onto his slab, wrapped his tattered shroud around him and peered closer at the letter. "I dunno, we been stuck in here for aeons, rapping on tables in morse-bleedin' code when all the time we could've been chatting away like somebody civilized!"
"I got arthritis, rapping on tables," whined a voice from beneath Moses' slab.
"You got arthritis before you went over Doris". Moses peered between his skeletal legs at the slab below. "Stop moaning and get back in your box. It's mournful enough without you dripping all over the place. Why you got embalmed by Grindle and Sons I don't know. They never was any good." The figure subsided with a whine and an audible 'schlurrp'.
"I don't know how you stand it, lyin' on top of that ..." Moses cranked his head to face the corpse reclining in the coffin opposite "... never mind a telephone you could send smoke signals on the smell."
Moses shrugged. "It don't bother me, do it Jereboam? I ain't got no nose. Not since that bleedin' rat ran off with it in 1899." He picked up a piece of broken sarcophagus and lobbed it viciously into the corner of the crypt. There was a squeak and a scrabble of tiny claws as something ratty backed hurriedly down a hole.
A pile of dust in the corner flurried. "Oy! Do you mind?" a dry voice whispered, agitatedly. "I would like to keep some corporeality together, if it's not asking too much. It's all right for you youngsters, you've still got some body left."
Jereboam laughed his gargling laugh. "Body? That's a good one." He drooped his neck to look at Head. "What d'you think about that, then, Head?"
Head spat out a jawful of dust. "Some people have no sensitivity. That's what I think about that," it said, indistinctly, on account of a globule of Doris's decay gumming up its palate. "You haven't got much choice when you're arguing with a speed-boat propellor," it sighed heavily. "Right now there's a headless body crawling about on the ocean floor looking for me, and I'm stuck in this mausoleum with a load of bleedin’ comedians."
"It's just what you want then," said Moses emphatically.
"Telly-phone. If we got one in you could phone up. Tell it where you are ... like."
Head finally dislodged Doris's globule from its palate. Moses watched it curve through the still air with interest until it spattered into the middle of the pile of dust, which immediately began to complain again.
"Ho, yes. Very clever," Head said with heavy irony. "And how's it going to hear the bell ringing then, without any ears?"
Moses looked non-plussed, then brightened. "Ah! It says here they got these phones with little lights on now that .. er ... ah ... see what you mean." He lay down on his slab again. "Looks like you're stuck then."
"I'm stuck!" wailed Doris. "My legs have welded to the bottom now ... I got arthritis you know", she added as an afterthought.
Moses reached creakily below him, slammed Doris's lid shut and rattled back heavily onto his slab. "As I was saying," he said "You're stuck, lad. We shall have to ask for a rebate. Let's face it, you're not up to dialling are you? Not unless you do it with your nose ..,. and I ain't usin' it after that!"
Head huffed. "Well that's nice! You know who your friends are. Get some heat on in here and I wouldn't have a cold all the time, would I?. Haven't got the body-weight to build up any resistance have I?"
"What?" Jereboam shrieked in horror. "Heat? With Doris deliquessing away in her box. They'll have the health inspectors in." There was a muffled splashing.
"Now see what you've done," said Head. "You've upset her. She's claustrophobic, you know."
"That's all we want," said Jereboam, sarcastically. "Shut up in a mausoleum for eternity with a claustrophobic old crone. Yeah, I know!" he shouted at a renewed bout of wailing from inside the coffin "and you got arthritis too! Gawd 'elp us!" He slipped back inside his casket, closing the lid on himself.
Moses raised himself on his elbow. "You know your trouble, don't you Jereboam? You don't get out enough. No-one said you'd got to stay in your box." An idea struck him and he sat up. "That's it!" he exclaimed, slamming his hand decisively down on his patella, which frisbeed across the room, raising another flurry of dust and more complaints. Moses hobbled to reclaim his knee-cap, scuffing the dust spitefully as he passed. "You should be in an urn anyway," he rasped. "This is a burial chamber, not an incinerator". Anybody'd think we was a load of Hindus." He slammed his knee-cap back on, limped over to Jereboam's coffin and rapped on the lid. "Are you still there, or have you passed on to Nir-bleedin'-vana? Did you hear what I said?"
"Yeah, I heard, and I ain't budgin'. I like it in here. It's cosy."
"I'll give you that, lad. You don't get many plush-lined caskets nowadays."
"Too right you don't. I worked all my life for this and I ain't giving it up for nobody,"
"No-one's asking you to. Who d'you think's going to pinch it? Head'll roll around like a pea in a tin bath. Doris won't be budging out of her soup for a few years yet and, as for Dusty, well it's been so long since he's had one he's forgotten what it's for."
The lid opened an inch and Jereboam's yellow eye peered out. "There's still you."
"Me? You know me, lad. I like to keep active. You don't get a body like this lying around in a box forever." He flexed his scapulae, dislodging a clavicle which gently swung to and fro. "Trouble with you is, you're paranoid."
Jereboam thrust the lid open and sat up, his serrated throat gaping like a second, lop-sided grin. "And good reason too." He jabbed at his throat. "I didn't get this shaving".
Moses dipped a finger in a dollop of Doris's drip and secured his collar bone again. "What I mean is ..." he said, turning to Jereboam "... this here letter says to give 'em a call if we haven't got a phone installed. I mean, that's nonsense, innit? How can we give 'em a call to tell 'em we haven't got a phone installed when we haven't got a bleedin' phone installed? However ..." he continued "... and this is the thing ... it also says you can call in the local shop and deal with them face to face. You're the natural choice, ain't you?"
"Me? Why me?" squawked Jereboam.
"Oh, come on! You're the only one with a suit! I'd go, but it's going to look a bit odd a skellington walking through the door, innit? 'I come about the phone' I says. I'm goin' to get a phone all right. Probably phone the police and get me arrested for indecent exposure. At least you look vaguely human. You could pass for ugly."
"Ho, yes. Holding my head on with my hand, I suppose?"
"Use some of Doris's dollop," Moses said banging his repaired clavicle. "It's better than super-glue."
"Why are you so set on getting a phone anyway? You don't know anyone to ring."
"They offered, didn't they? It weren't me who asked. Just goes to show somebody cares. Can't think when anybody last thought about me. Must have been round about the Zulu war ... and even then they put the flowers on the wrong memorial." Moses slumped dejectedly on his slab. "Eternity's a long time you know. Especially when you can't choose who you get cooped up with. Not ..." he hastened "... that I include you in that. At least you can hold an intelligent conversation, when your head's not hanging off."
"AND HAST THOU NOT OVERLOOKED ME, THEN, VARLET?" boomed a sepulchral voice filling the tomb like thunder, making Moses and Jereboam jump and Doris freeze inside her coffin.
"Bleedin’ ‘ell! I forgot about you," gasped Moses, clutching his sternum. "I wish you'd warn us when you're goin' to chip in."
Jereboam looked around wildly, his head vaguely following the motions of the neck. "Who the ...?"
"You wouldn't know him Jerry. Completely disembodied. Pipes up about once every 150 years or so - very unnerving. Right chatterbox. You needn't think you're getting in on this phone lark," he shouted at the far corner. "People could die while they're waiting for you to speak. Bill would be bleedin' astronomical." He gently positioned Jereboam's head back on his shoulders. "What about it then?" he wheedled.
"Oh, for God's sake do it!" whispered the pile of dust. "Let's get some peace. You expect a bit of peace and quiet when you pass over don't you? You don't expect a load of zombies arguing whether to have the phone or not." It subsided, vibrating gently in agitation.
Doris struggled upright, leaving strands of sticky mucus behind. "I forgot to turn off the gas, you know. A phone'd come in handy for things like that." She raised a crooked finger. "If only I could dial" she said wistfully. "I got arth ..."
"SHUT UP DORIS!" they all chorused, and Doris slipped slowly back inside her coffin.
"And while you're at it Jereboam, get some air freshener," mumbled Head, shuffling away from Doris's open coffin.
"I haven't said I'm going yet" Jereboam demurred.
Moses stuffed the letter into Jereboam's pocket. "Go on, lad. You can keep it in your fancy casket weekends."
Jereboam climbed shakily out of his casket and stood, brushing dust and cobwebs from his broad pin-stripe and spats. "First time I been out of that since they put me in it. I hope you appreciate what I'm doing."
"Course we do, Jerry. We'll soon have this place looking like a home from home. Bring a paper back while you're at it, let's see what's going on in the world."
Jereboam patted his pockets. "I'm skint. I told my old lady I wanted to take it with me but you might've known she'd cop for it."
Moses snapped his fingers. "I got just the thing". He bent down, dug out a loose cobble and dropped something in Jereboam's hand.
Jereboam stared. "A Cartwheel Tuppenny Piece? What good's that?"
"It's a week's wages!" exclaimed Moses. "I've been saving it. It's one the Undertaker put on my eyes, when I had any, and forgot to take off again before they nailed the lid down."
"How old’s that? You may as well give me a groat for all the good it is," objected Jereboam. "Nobody's going to recognise this."
"FAITH, A GROAT IS A GOODLY SUM!" boomed the sepulchral voice, making Jereboam jump again.
Moses scowled at the corner and led Jereboam over to the door. "It's money, innit?" he said. "Now, the address is on that letter. Tell that nice customer services manager he can install any time - we ain't going anywhere. Har, har, har!" He hauled the crypt doors open and bundled a reluctant Jereboam outside.
The door swung to again with a doom-laden 'thud', and Moses adjusted his shroud with satisfaction. "Gives you a sense of purpose again," he said, to no-one in particular, and strutted back to his slab.
Doris shifted uneasily. "If they don't turn that gas off soon it's going to blow up," she whined.
Moses sighed. "Doris, it did! It even brought the plaster down in here. How d'you think you ended up where you are? It's a wonder there was anything left to embalm." Doris subsided again, whittering. "You know," Moses said to the ceiling. "It's boring in here. You don't think about it until you've got something better in prospect do you?"
"Well, all I can say is, some people led very sheltered lives if having a phone put in is a high spot," said Head.
"At least some people will be able to use it," Moses jeered, wagging bony fingers at the baleful stare of Head's wormy eyes. "Now, if you don't mind I'm going to have a bit of a kip until Jereboam gets back. Wake me up when he does."
In the event Jereboam did a perfectly good job of it himself. He hit the door at a run and the thundering reverberations as it clanged shut again gonged around the tomb like Armageddon's overture. Moses shot off his slab as though it had been greased, the pile of dust flurried violently in the breeze, swearing horribly ... and Head bounced off the far wall where Jereboam's foot had kicked it in his hurry to get back in. Meanwhile Doris shrieked and evacuated what was left of her bowels.
Moses clung to the side of his slab, shaking, while Jereboam dropped what he was carrying over his shoulder, frenziedly jammed a broken tombstone under the door handles and, without a word, jumped into his casket and slammed the lid. Once he had recovered, Moses hammered on top of Jereboam's coffin. "Oy. What's going on. Where's the bleedin' murder?"
"You'll find out soon enough," responded Jereboam petulantly. "That's the last time you talk me into anything." The lid exploded open again and Jereboam sat up, pointing to the bundle of clothing by the door. "And if you want to know where your phone is, ask him!"
Moses walked over to it and turned it with his foot. "It's a bleedin' corpse!" he said and bent closer to look at a name badge on the suit lapel: "British Telecom Customer Services Manager". He looked back at Jereboam with an expression of outraged indignation on his stretched parchment face.
"I know it's a bleedin' corpse, don't I?" Jereboam said. "He had a bleedin' heart attack, didn't he? Can't say I bleedin' blame him!"
"What did you bring him back here for?" asked Moses indignantly.
"Well, he's dead isn't he? Can you think of a better place? Besides, I didn't know what else to do. Screaming women running all over the place sort of scrambles your brain, you know. Not that you would, because you ain't bleedin' got one! Telephones!" Jereboam said scathingly, slamming his coffin lid shut again.
"Well, that's that then," Moses sighed, picking up the rigidifying body and depositing it on a spare slab. "One more to join the happy family. At least it'll keep Doris company. This one hasn't been embalmed at all." He threw himself back on his own slab. "I tell you what, Jereboam, he's in for a surprise when he eventually passes through. I'll let you explain."
He sighed again. "God, but it's boring in here. I wish we had a phone."
Site designed and implemented 1998-2002 by
Deep Outside SFFH copyright 1998 by Clocktower Fiction (Books). All Rights Reserved.