By Rob Butler
If there was ever an appropriate day for a funeral it was that day.
The filthy weather matched my own mood as I drove down rutted lanes finally emerging on a headland lashed by storm winds. The church named on the invitation flickered briefly between windscreen wipes. As I struggled to see where I was driving I felt this spot would have suited a lighthouse rather than a church.
When at last I had safely parked my hire car, I ran dripping through the porch and in through the ornate wooden doors. Many of the gravestones I hurried past outside lay at strange angles. The ground had heaved over the years as if the dead were struggling to re-join the world above. It didn't look as if they would succeed.
Inside there was a sudden and welcome silence. As I loosened my wet raincoat a suitably gothic looking cleric shimmered towards me proffering an order of service. His English seemed excellent but strangely accented. I thanked him and read the title page. There was a large black cross with 'Order of Service for Robin Smedley' written above it. I started to flick through it to see how this funeral might differ from ones I had attended in England.
"Mr Green?" he asked.
I confirmed my name.
"I wondered if you would like to say a few words about Robin during the service?"
I stared at the cleric for a moment. I hadn't expected that but I said I would be happy to do so if this was acceptable to the other mourners. He motioned to the front pews ahead of us. There was a solitary woman kneeling in prayer.
"Robin's sister. I believe nobody else is expected. Apparently the death was sudden and other family members could not make such a lengthy journey in time. It was lucky she was travelling with Robin or we would not have anybody here at all."
I now asked the question that had worried at me like a toothache throughout my weather-battered drive.
"How did she know to invite me?"
"She found your name and address amongst Robin's things. She assumed you were a friend?"
I sighed. "I was indeed."
At that moment it became clear that the coffin had arrived outside and that the service would shortly begin. The cleric hurried away and I moved to a seat near the kneeling woman and waited.
My mind was now in turmoil. Why would Robin have had my address with her? Was she intending to visit me after all these years? Perhaps she had wanted us to resume our relationship. It had seemed so final the day she left. Yet that would have been typical of her. Always so mysterious. Never really sharing things with me. Her sister, for example. I never knew she had a sister or any close family at all; or any other close friends, come to that. I felt an intense clutch of grief that death might have robbed me of a love I had never expected to regain.
The various hymns and prayers washed over me as I sat in misery remembering the past and mourning a possible lost future. Then I realised that the cleric was motioning me to come forward.
"Mr Green will now say a few words to celebrate Robin's life."
Nervously I stood up. My audience consisted of just one mourner and six undertakers. I imagined the cleric had asked the latter to remain for the service to boost numbers but they may just have been avoiding the savage weather outside. I felt rather foolish addressing so few and looked anxiously at Robin's sister but she gazed back expressing neither encouragement nor resentment. I cleared my throat.
"This is a sad day. I am very pleased that you managed to find me for I would have been so sorry not to be here. Robin and I were very close friends but I haven't seen her now for about twelve years. She..."
"What are you saying? Are you mad?"
Her sister's voice snapped like a whip through the empty church and reverberated around the columns and arches. I jumped and stared at her. She was flushed, furious, seething.
"Who are you talking about? Who is this 'she' and 'her'?"
"I, well, Robin, of course."
She glared at me. "My brother, Robin. He is not a woman. Was not a woman." She began to cry.
I looked helplessly around. It was apparent now that the undertakers did not understand English. They showed no astonishment but rather a ripple of suffused delight that a mundane funeral for them on a wet day was taking an unexpected and interesting turn. The cleric, however, was clearly taken aback. He rushed forward to comfort the weeping woman and then addressed me in a low tone.
"There has obviously been some confusion here. I can only assume that by an unhappy coincidence, the deceased had the same name as your friend and you have been invited here in error. I am most sorry about this."
I ran a hand through my hair. "I'd like to think that, as it would mean my Robin is still alive but why would this lady's brother have my name and address. The only Robin Smedley I know is definitely a woman."
Robin's sister looked up and rubbed at her eyes. It was clear she had taken an intense dislike to me and she spoke waspishly.
"Well there is an easy way to clear this up. The religious practice in this region is to leave the casket open for the funeral so the mourners can pay their last respects. Let us go and look at my brother and have done with this, this horrible..."
She began to cry again. The cleric spoke urgently to the undertakers and one of them nodded, moved to the rear of the church and pulled back the ornate covering on top of the coffin. I realised that they had exposed just enough for us to see the corpse's head. My knees nearly gave way. I had never expected this and had never looked on a dead body before. It was almost too much for me to bear to think of seeing Robin again in death when I had dreamed so often of seeing her again in life. However, it clearly had to be done. Perhaps there had been a mistake and I would merely be viewing the body of a stranger. But that would mean she had not returned for me – I would be as distant from her as ever.
Slowly we approached, the cleric supporting the still weeping woman. I balled my fists in tension and leaned forward to look inside the casket.
At one and the same time I felt both relief and desolation. It was Robin. She looked serene and peaceful. Her long glorious red hair lay beautifully arranged around her face and shoulders. She did not seem to have aged since we last met. I gazed at her in adoration and then grief choked me and tears welled as I realised she was not going to wake up from this apparently blissful sleep.
I glanced briefly at the cleric and was startled to see that he was crossing himself and staring with apparent rapture into the coffin. Then I looked across at Robin's sister.
She met my gaze triumphantly, eyes flashing and sparkling.
"So, Mr Green, do you still believe this bald headed man with his magnificent black beard is this woman friend of yours?"
Rob Butler lives in Reading in the UK. He writes a lot of science fiction stories as well as tales of mystery, suspense or humour. His work has been published in a number of places including "Daily Science Fiction," "Every Day Fiction" and "Saturday Night Reader." His ebook "The Way We Used To Work" can be found on the Bibliotastic website.
Copyright © 2015 Rob Butler. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!