Contents Sequel Next

The Nutcombe Tales


Sure and Certain Hope

The day before Albert Gold's funeral, Cyril Skipton called on his widow. In life Albert had been a large man whose majestic frontage was never seen in public without the impressive accoutrement of a gold watch chain draped across the tautly stretched fabric of his waistcoat. Every night, when the landlord of the Red Lion called Time, gentlemen, please, all eyes in the bar would turn to Albert seated at his customary corner table. Albert would extract his gold watch, solemnly examine it, and give a faint nod, whereupon, the landlord's decision having thus been validated, the clientele would empty their glasses and depart for home. As chairman of the Red Lion Sports and Social Club, Albert invariably brought committee meetings to an end by intoning, There being no other business, this meeting stands adjourned at . . . He would then pause, ceremoniously consult his watch, and announce the time to the minute, eight thirty-seven p.m., or whatever time it was.

Albert's watch was admired and coveted by both the club's secretary, Cyril Skipton, and its treasurer, Reg Plackett, but Albert had made clear that it would pass to Cyril upon his demise. It was therefore to take possession of his legacy that Cyril called on Widow Gold. To his surprise and disappointment, she informed him tartly that as Albert's relict and sole heir she had no intention of separating Albert and his watch, which was at that moment adorning his body in death as it had in life.

Cyril repaired to the funeral parlour and put his claim to Lovejoy the undertaker, only to be informed that, quite apart from the absence of proper authorisation, the coffin lid had already been fastened down and there could be no question of opening it.

But it wouldn't take long. It's only a matter of undoing a few screws. I'll make it worth your while, pleaded Cyril.

Only a few screws? Lovejoy's voice rose. Only a few screws? I'll have you know there's a full dozen and a half, solid brass, 2½ inch, countersunk and recessed, plugged with best pine dowelling, the ends of the plugs planed and sanded smooth, and finished with two coats of varnish. Only a few screws indeed!

Well, couldn't you take the bottom off the coffin then? suggested Cyril in desperation.

Lovejoy looked at him with contempt. The base is dovetail jointed. I make coffins, Skipton, not orange boxes. I'm closing up now. There's no more to be said. He put on his hat and coat, and addressed his assistant Eric. Sweep the workshop floor before you go, and be sure to lock up when you're done.

When Lovejoy had gone, Eric asked Cyril, What's it worth to you, then?

Do you mean there is a way?

Could be, said Eric. It depends.

Five bob, offered Cyril. Eric pursed his lips. Cyril upped the ante. Five bob and my ticket to the match Saturday.

Done, said Eric. Here, help me turn the coffin over. We can cut a hole in the bottom, then patch it up when we've got the watch. Nobody ever sees the bottom of a coffin, do they?

Together they managed to turn the coffin onto its top. The thud as Albert's corpse shifted position was momentarily unnerving, but once it had settled face downward all was still again. Eric set to work with a briskness which would have surprised Lovejoy to see. With a brace and bit he bored four holes in the bottom, marking the corners of a square. In the centre of the square he made a small hole with a gimlet and screwed a large cup-hook into it. Then he took a padsaw and sawed out the sides of the square. Using the cup-hook as a handle he removed the detached piece, leaving a hole about a foot square.

Cyril thrust his hand into the opening and rummaged around.

Don't be daft, said Eric. There's the lining to be got through first. Here, I'll do it. He had already taken his prized Swiss Army penknife from his pocket and opened its largest blade, with which he now rent a long slit in the satin-effect lining of the coffin. He inserted his arm and tried to get to the watch, but soon gave up. It's no good, he's too tight a fit. There's no room to get round him. We'll just have to get the waistcoat off him.

What about his jacket? asked Cyril.

No problem, replied Eric, secretly enjoying the opportunity for ruthless destruction. Ripping through the stitching with his knife, he opened the back seam of Albert's jacket from hem to collar and exposed the waistcoat, which he dealt with in the same way after unbuckling the small belt across its back. Albert still had his arms through the garment, so Eric reached up and cut through both of the shoulder seams. As the last stitch gave way, he uttered an oath.

What's up? asked Cyril. Have you cut yourself?

No, I've dropped my penknife.

Never mind that, I'll buy you a new one. Just get the waistcoat.

Eric took hold of one side of the garment and pulled firmly, but it would not budge. He's too heavy, he declared. We'll have to tilt the coffin to get his weight off it.

They slid the foot of the coffin over the end of the table, Eric working one-handed as he retained a grip on the waistcoat through the hole. The coffin teetered a moment when its centre of gravity reached the table's edge, then suddenly fell to the floor. It almost escaped their grasp as Albert's weight slid down, but their combined exertions steadied it in an upright position leaning against the table. Eric extracted his arm and triumphantly flourished the waistcoat, still buttoned down the front, and with a watch chain clearly in evidence.

Good lad! Give us it here, urged Cyril.

As soon as we've got this back on the table, agreed Eric.

They shifted their grip to the foot of the coffin and heaved until they had lifted it horizontal again and could slide it onto the table. Once they could let go, Eric passed the waistcoat to Cyril and set about repairing the coffin.

From under the bench he took a few offcuts of 2″x1″ softwood battens, each about eighteen inches long, and slid these inside, one on top of the other, filling the gap between Albert's back and the inner surface of the base. He then replaced the sawn-out piece of the bottom. It was only a loose fit, owing to the thickness of the saw cuts, but the battens supported it at its original level. He mixed a handful of sawdust with glue, and forced it down into the gap around the edges with a putty knife. This masterpiece of bodgery he completed by applying a layer of glue across and beyond the patch, and affixing a sheet of brown paper. He stepped back and surveyed his handiwork with satisfaction.

Cyril was not so pleased with the outcome, however. Just look at this, he said, dangling a cheap electroplated watch under Eric's nose. That old swindler Lovejoy has half-inched Albert's watch and left this Woolworths special in its place!

He wouldn't do a thing like that, replied Eric. That's the watch Mrs Gold left with us. I saw it myself.

So that's her game, is it? I'll have something to say to her, declared Cyril.

Never mind that, said Eric, just help me turn the coffin over.

They turned the coffin the right way up again, this time without any disconcerting movement from within, Albert now being wedged up against the lid by Eric's battens. After Cyril had left, muttering imprecations against Albert's widow, Eric locked up and went home.

*****

On the following day the funeral service at the church went without a hitch. Cyril's grief attracted much sympathy, and only Eric guessed that it was not Albert he mourned but his watch. The cortège moved to the cemetery, where six stalwart pall bearers began to carry the coffin to the waiting grave. Smooth though their progress was, the slight jolting was enough to cause a movement of the battens on which Albert was resting. A piece slipped out of place, and the corpse fell an inch or two.

The pall bearers felt the movement. One or two stopped in their tracks, bringing them all to a stumbling halt. Vainly they tried to catch each other's eyes, every man loth to be the first to voice the awful thought they all shared. The vicar, leading the procession with his nose in the book of common prayer, sensed that he was no longer being followed, and turned back with some annoyance at this threat to the solemnity of the occasion.

Come, come, what seems to be the problem?

He moved, said the boldest of the pall bearers.

He's still alive, added another.

Albert's weight was now pressing the end of a batten into the middle of Eric's makeshift repair. Unable to sustain the pressure, it gave way with an audible crack. A piece of wood fell to the path, and a fold of tattered lining spilled out of the coffin.

'E's trying to get out! shrilled young Tommy Simpson.

All decorum was gone. Of those following the coffin, some tried to distance themselves in fear, while others pressed closer in curiosity.

This really won't do, was the vicar's less than helpful contribution.

You can't bury someone who's still alive, said one bystander, looking accusingly at the vicar and Lovejoy in turn.

Phone for an ambulance, suggested another.

Mrs Gold, who at the church had done her best to look stricken by Albert's death, was now rather more successfully looking distraught at the prospect of his still being alive. Aware that his reputation as the organiser of high-class funerals was evaporating by the minute, Lovejoy took command. He had the pall bearers retrace their steps and return the coffin to the hearse. While they were doing so an ambulance arrived, summoned by the cemetery caretaker. Lovejoy explained the situation to the driver, and citizens lucky enough to be abroad that Sunday were entertained by the sight of an ambulance driving at high speed, lights flashing, bell ringing, from the cemetery to the funeral parlour, followed by a hearse proceeding at the same breakneck pace.

In his workshop Lovejoy frantically attacked the coffin lid, boring out the dowels and removing the screws with his biggest Stanley pump-action ratchet screwdriver, watched by a small group of onlookers who had followed the coffin from the cemetery in order, as one put it, not to be in at the kill so much as to be in at the resurrection. When the lid came off, there were gasps of horror at the disorder revealed.

Poor man. He must have been in agony.

You can see how much he struggled to get out.

Lovejoy spotted the pen knife, the blade still open, and removed it. This excited further comment. He even tried to cut his way out.

The doctor who had signed Albert's death certificate arrived, alerted by the ambulance station. He elbowed his way to the front and took in the scene. I can't examine a man in a coffin. Get him out.

Albert was removed and laid out on the table. The doctor examined him thoroughly before announcing, with some acidity, This man is dead. He was dead when I examined him five days ago. He is dead now. It is my professional opinion that he has been dead every instant of the interim.

A voice from the back was heard to mutter a remark that included the words second opinion.

The doctor turned to the ambulance crew and made a gesture that indicated He's all yours.

The ambulance men took it in turns to examine Albert, and delivered their professional verdict. He's dead all right.

The ambulance driver asked his colleagues What do we do now, then? Take him to the casualty department?

The doctor demurred, foreseeing that if a second death certificate were issued for the same corpse, complications might ensue. If I were you, I'd leave him here, and mark the call down as a malicious hoax, he suggested.

Who called us, then? asked the driver, looking around. Nobody volunteered to take the credit.

After a short consultation the ambulance men marked their job sheet Well intentioned false alarm and left, followed by the doctor. Casual sightseers began to drift away, sensing that the show was over.

Lovejoy detained the pall bearers and Eric. He was now lumbered with a corpse at a time when he should have been at home calculating his profit, but, damaged though it was, the coffin was still serviceable, and an empty grave still awaited at the cemetery. If he hurried, there might yet be time to complete the day's undertaking. He had already noticed the opening in the bottom of the coffin, and had put a piece of plywood over it.

Here, help me get him back in his box.

When Albert's corpse had been unceremoniously returned to the coffin, Lovejoy replaced the lid and fastened it with just four screws. Well, he thought to himself, that really makes twenty-two altogether. To Eric he said, Lock up when we've gone. I'll see you tomorrow and give you your penknife, adding sotto voce to himself and your cards.

The hearse arrived at the cemetery in time for them to see the gravedigger beginning to fill in Albert's plot. Lovejoy drove across the grass and skidded to a halt next to the grave.

What do you think you're doing? he demanded. That grave is still empty!

That's nowt to do wi' me, replied the gravedigger. I just digs 'em out and fills 'em in when and where I'm told. He produced a grubby sheet of paper and pointed to it. 'Ere it is, plain as day. '4.15, plot 197, fill.' This 'ere's plot 197, it's 4.15, so I'm a-fillin' 'er in.

Lovejoy slipped him half-a-crown. Give us two minutes. He backed the hearse up to the grave, and with the help of a pall bearer slid the coffin out of the vehicle straight into the grave. She's all yours now. Fill 'er in, he told the gravedigger, and drove off.

*****

The following Monday morning Lovejoy confronted Eric. I suppose you realise that you have ruined me? he asked. Who will give me their business when news of that fiasco gets around? They will all be going to other firms now.

Eric was neither intelligent nor educated, but he possessed a natural cunning which served him well. They might go to another firm first, Mr Lovejoy, but they will come back here if the other firm won't give them what they want and you will.

What they want? What do you mean?

I've been listening to people talk, Mr Lovejoy. They are all afraid of being buried alive. They are saying that there should be some way of getting out of a coffin without having to cut your way out with a penknife.

I still don't see what you're driving at.

You can be the first, Mr Lovejoy - be the first to offer a coffin with a quick-release mechanism inside. You'll corner the market, Mr Lovejoy, I'm sure you will.

That's all very well, but where am I to get this special quick-release mechanism you talk of? If such a thing existed I'm sure it would have been advertised in the Undertakers Journal.

It doesn't have to be special, Mr Lovejoy. An ordinary door latch will do.

And so the Lovejoy Peace-of-Mind® casket was born. It resembled a normal coffin, but the lid was fastened with hinges on one side and a door latch on the other, rather like a cupboard but with the vital difference that the doorknob was on the inside.

The beauty of it is, said Lovejoy to his wife, claiming the invention as his own, that it is quicker and cheaper to make, but people are willing to pay more for it.

The de luxe version had discreet air vents around the top of the sides, and a clockwork doorbell for summoning aid. Eric had suggested clips for holding a packet of sandwiches and a flask of tea, but Lovejoy thought that such luxury would need a higher class of clientele than he was likely to command.

Eric's predictions proved to be correct. One enquiring at the Co-operative Funeral Parlour for a coffin permitting easy exit was mocked and escorted from the premises, and others suffered similar indignities elsewhere. At Lovejoy's, however, they were received with sympathy and understanding, and it was widely acknowledged that he was, after all, the only undertaker in the district with experience in the matter of premature burial.

*****

A few months later Cyril Skipton was Reg Plackett's best man at his wedding to Albert's widow. It was a formal affair, and Reg and Cyril were both in morning dress, the only difference in their attire being that across the front of Reg's dove grey waistcoat hung a gold watch chain. The bride exercising her privilege of being a little late, Reg drew Albert's gold watch from his pocket, consulted it, and smiled indulgently at Cyril before smugly replacing it. Cyril was impervious to this provocation. He later explained that he was not so mean minded as to begrudge the watch to anyone willing to pay so high a price to get it.

In time the details of Albert's funeral were forgotten, and Lovejoy's trade returned to normal. Older inhabitants, however, still refer to the occasion as The Day That Albert Gold Was Buried Alive.

*****


Contents Sequel Next