Wednesday, 24 September 2008

The Coffin That Carries You Off

"It’s not the coughin’ that carries you off, it’s the coffin they carry you off in... ”

Late in the afternoon, a horse-and-cart drove down the lane from the woods, past the church and into the village. It carried a cargo of luggage and two people, the carter and his paying passenger who also owned the luggage. Villagers broke off their conversations on hearing its approach and watched silently as it passed, their full attention taken up with the Outsiders aboard. Curiosity satisfied, they resumed their chatter without comment on the event. The cart drew to a halt before two shops, the general store and the funeral parlour, that faced the village green. The tall passenger disembarked.

William Snape, formerly a Quartermaster Sergeant with the Grenadier Guards, recently discharged because of an injury, fumbled in his pocket for the key that his late father’s solicitor, Mr Jarvis, had given him four days earlier after the reading of the will. His father, Albert, had owned both properties and businesses until his recent demise. He had left everything to William, his sole surviving relative.

William looked up at the sign above the general store, ‘A. Snape, General Dealer’, and smiled. He remembered the happy, carefree years he had spent here as a child. The window above the shop’s bay front gave onto his bedroom; the same curtains were in place, though somewhat faded, and still drawn against the dark of a night now several weeks past. He looked to the right at the sign next door, ‘A. Snape, Funeral Director’, and frowned. As a boy he had never dared to venture into this foreboding building with its sombre d├ęcor and its deathly quietness broken only by the ominous ticking of the grandfather clock that relentlessly sliced each measured second from the lives of those who would one day be customers. Even standing for more than a few seconds in the short communicating passageway between it and the general store had been a feat demanding every shred of courage he could muster. He remembered his father’s chiding voice, ‘Don’ be silly, boy, the dead won’ ’urt you.’

He stepped towards the door of the general store and inserted the key into the lock. It turned stiffly but with a satisfying click. He pushed the door open and returned to the road where the carter was lifting the first of William’s trunks from the cart to the ground. Together, they brought three trunks in all up the path and into the store, piling them in the middle of the floor on the customers’ side of the old wooden counter. William paid the carter, who tugged on his cap then left to drive back to town.

Now left to himself, William looked around the store. He voiced his gratitude to his father, thankful that he had been provided with an occupation in pleasant surroundings rather than having to search for toilsome work in the city. It was just as he remembered it all those years ago, except that it seemed a lot smaller. He noted a few things he would want to change but remembered a condition in his father’s will about leaving things as they were for three months to allow him to become familiar with ‘particular workings’ of the businesses, and that Mr. Jarvis was obliged to call in from time-to-time to ensure that the condition was met. He now saw it as a sensible precaution put in place for his benefit rather than an affront to his quartermasterly skills or the inconvenient imposition of a querulous old man, and decided that he would probably have acted so anyway.

He emptied his few clothes from one of the trunks into the old, battered wardrobe in his room over the shop. Habit and the memories of bygone days had led him away from the larger bedroom where his father used to sleep. He made up the fire in the sitting room to ward off the chill of the evening, then brewed tea in his father’s old teapot, and, having eaten a large meal at an inn earlier in the day, set about the bread-and-cheese supper he had brought with him. After his meal, he lit a pipe, and sat in the old armchair, looking into the flickering flames of the fire, reminiscing about the stories his father used to tell him as they had sat here together with hot cocoa and Patch, his father’s old mongrel, long since gone. He decided that he would spend the next day taking stock, as his father had taught him, and preparing a list of the supplies needed from the town to replenish the store.

Apart from the crackling of the logs in the fire and William’s breathing, the shop and its neighbour stood silent in the gathering darkness of the cold night. He realised that the grandfather clock had remained unwound for weeks and was glad of it. He would decide tomorrow if he should wind it; nothing would make him venture into the funeral parlour at this hour...

He lit a candle with a brand from the subsiding fire and retired upstairs to bed.

He awoke the next day to find that a heavy fog had fallen during the night, and was now dripping from the eaves and the trees surrounding the village green. He breakfasted on the bread left over from supper before unpacking the two remaining trunks that contained his memorabilia from the several campaigns he had served in and food supplies enough to carry him through the first few days of assessing his long-term needs.

After breakfast, he set about tidying and cleaning the shop. This was his priority since it was to be the mainstay of his livelihood; the living quarters and funeral parlour could wait for now. He found pen, ink, and paper and began taking stock, carefully working through each part of the stockroom behind the shop, and then through the shop itself. At midmorning, an unexpected rapping on the door startled him. He set down his pen and paper and hurried over to greet his first customer. He smiled and laughed with delight when he saw through the glass the old couple who had called to see him.

‘Hello, lad, we ’eared you was comin’,’ said the gentleman caller.

‘Jack and Bessie Welch, what a pleasure to see you! Come in, old friends, come in!’

They walked in, both beaming from ear to ear, genuinely pleased to see the young boy, now a man, safe home from the army. These had been Albert’s best friends in all the world, and, having no children of their own, had taken to the young William Snape from the day he had been born. Bessie had more or less replaced the mother who had died in giving him life. Jack was like a favourite and much loved uncle. He had taught William to play cribbage and they and Albert had wiled away many an evening at the game. William and Jack shook hands vigorously, then hugged and slapped each other hard on the back. William shook and kissed Bessie’s hand daintily, and she giggled coyly and made him bend down so that she could place a wet kiss on his cheek.

‘You didn’ave no beard last time I done that!’ she said, ‘An’ you weren’ so tall neither! Turn roun’ an’ let’s ‘ave a good look at you.’

He obliged her by spinning slowly round with his arms raised like a flamenco dancer’s, laughing and calling out, ‘O Bessie, it’s so good to see you again,’ and catching her up in his arms and swinging her off her feet.

‘’Ere now, lad, I’m not so young as I were, y’know.'

He offered them tea, which they accepted, so he locked the door and made sure the sign said ‘Closed’ then led them through to the sitting room. They chatted away while he brewed the tea, and said more times than he could count how pleased they were to see him and how sorry they were about his father. William put on a coat for warmth, the chill of the air getting to him now that he was inactive and the fire not yet lit, then sat with them to drink. They asked him about his travels and he told them where he had been, Bessie oohing and aahing at each revelation, Jack declaring each one, ‘Marvellous,’ and filling the air with great plumes of smoke from his pipe. Realising he was busy, they invited him round for dinner so they could hear all about his experiences, and perhaps play a few rounds of cribbage. He accepted the invitation with relish, fondly recalling Bessie’s wonderful home cooking, the likes of which he had not tasted in years. Jack assured him that she had not lost the touch. They left him to his work and disappeared into the fog that still hung around the village.

William resumed his stocktaking. He was surprised at some of the things he found, believing them to be the very same articles that had been on the shelves when he was a boy. ‘You never know if somethin’ won’ be useful,’ Albert used to say and never could bring himself to throw anything away. He found the whole process an adventure, evoking happy memories and broad smiles.

He worked his way along the shelves behind the counter, painstakingly noting down everything he came across and its value from the label bearing his father’s handwriting. At the end of the counter he came to the front door and suddenly became aware of something he had not noticed before; certainly it had not been there when he was a boy. The doorframe, on the side of the door away from the hinges, had been marked off in what appeared to be feet and inches. He ventured into the funeral parlour and fetched an old wooden rule from a drawer of the desk in the reception room. With the rule, he confirmed his suspicion; the graduations on the doorframe were, indeed, feet and inches. He had no idea why Albert had done this but assumed that he must have sold something by the foot and had found this a handy way of measuring things for his customers.

He returned the rule to its drawer and, on his return to the passageway between the shops, he glanced at the front door of the funeral parlour and noticed that its frame was also graduated. He stood looking at the door, puzzled by what he saw. He could think of no purpose for such a device on this side of the business. He retrieved the ruler to confirm that these marks were the same as those in the other shop. They were. The rule was returned once more to the drawer.

He found a notebook at the back of the drawer. His curiosity aroused, he took it out and opened it. Each page had been ruled into four columns. The first column had names in, the second what appeared to be measurements of height recorded in feet and inches. The third contained dates against some of the named entries and blank spaces against others. The fourth contained asterisks, similarly sparse. Every entry with a date had an asterisk against it. Two names had asterisks but no dates recorded; one was his father’s, the other was that of Bessie Welch.

As he perused the pages of the book, he began to wander. He gave himself a fright when he found himself confronted with a coffin standing on end against a wall in the stockroom. The lid had been leant against the open box so his first fear that the coffin was occupied was quickly dispelled. The lid bore a simple brass plaque, as yet without engraving. The corner of a square of paper with something written on it was tucked behind the plaque. Intrigued, William approached the coffin to read the writing. It said, simply, ‘E. W.' in his father’s hand. On the floor, he spotted a second square of paper poking out from under the foot of the coffin. He bent down and retrieved it. It said, ‘A. S.'. He put this latter square of paper in the book and returned the book to the desk drawer. As the light was fading, he returned to the general store, pulling the heavy curtain across the end of the connecting passage as he went. He looked at his pocket watch and was horrified at the hour; he was due at the Welch’s in twenty minutes. He ran upstairs to his room, where he removed his working clothes and washed at the stand. He dressed in his guardsman’s uniform as a special treat for his hosts, then dashed through the worsening fog to the Welch’s home, arriving just on time. He forgot all about the book in the desk.

Over the next three weeks, he found himself very welcome in the village, not least because the shop was open once more and folks did not have to make the long journey into town. Jack and Bessie had spread the news that Albert’s son was back once more and had taken over from his father. Nearly everyone came in to see him, as though he were a sideshow in a circus. Many recounted stories about his childhood of which he had no recollection, and which, he was sure, related to some other boy. A good many told stories of his father during the years of William’s service to Queen and Country. The warmth felt by the villagers towards his father’s memory touched him. Many even bought goods from him, although some invoked the special discount which they claimed had been their privilege in his father’s day, and for which there was not the slenderest thread of evidence in any of his father’s ledgers. Invariably, they commented on his height, with remarks like, ‘Fancy a small boy like you would get to be so big!’ At six feet two inches tall he was the tallest man any of them had ever seen in their parochial lives.

He spent most evenings with Jack and Bessie. Her cooking was just as good as William’s memory of it, his adeptness at cribbage not the least reduced by the passage of time. William took great pleasure in their company, they being the nearest he had to family. He considered it an inestimable privilege to be able to supplement their meagre diet at his own cost. The light that came to their eyes with each joint of meat or special fruitcake warmed his heart. He knew no-one whom he loved more.

One evening, he arrived at the Welch’s cottage just as the doctor was leaving. Inside, he found Jack beside himself with worry, wringing his hands and saying over and over, ‘What’ll I do?’ Bessie had suffered an attack that had left her paralysed and she was not expected to last long. William laid a kindly hand on Jack’s shoulder and assured him, ‘Do not be concerned about what you shall do, my dear friend. I shall care for you as if you were my own father.'Jack thanked him for his kindness and was moved to tears at the extent of William’s sensibility but assured him that his main concern was how to pay for a funeral that could properly honour his beloved wife for the many years of love and service she had bestowed so freely on him. ‘My friend,’ said William, with great solemnity, ‘I shall take care of her as though she were my own mother.'Thus respectively comforted and charged with purpose, Jack and William sat with Bessie, one each side, each holding one of her hands, until she slipped quietly away from them into the presence of her Blessed Maker, whose praise she had loved to sing.

In the early hours of the morning, William went home, leaving Jack beside his beloved Bessie, talking to her as though she were still there, telling her of the love he had for her, and of how much he would miss her, and of how much she would enjoy seeing the angels and looking on her Saviour.

Back at home, William felt himself drawn to the desk in the funeral parlour. With a candle to light his way, and with his heart beating against his ribs enough to break them, he drew back the curtain to the passageway, rushed to the desk, retrieved the book, and hurried back to the safety of the general store and the other side of the heavy curtain. He opened the book and looked down the last-started page until he found Bessie’s asterisked, undated entry. Intrigue overcoming fear, he committed the recorded height to memory then returned past the curtain to lay the lid of the single remaining coffin against the doorframe. Lifting his candle, which flickered in the draught from around the door, casting dancing shadows eerily around the room, he saw that the coffin was exactly the right size for Bessie. A chill ran down his spine and all the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. In abject, irrational fear, he ran from the room, dropping his candle and plunging the passageway into darkness. He fought with the curtain to draw it over the opening, then ran upstairs to his room where he leant gasping and panting with his back against the inside of the door...

When the morning came to lay Bessie to rest, the whole village turned out. The vicar spoke in high praise of her, and held her up as an example of true Christian fortitude and faithfulness. Jack’s heart was filled with pride that such a woman as she had chosen to spend her life with him. At the graveside, he had cried like an infant, and William had been there to render him strength and support. At the inn afterwards, William had bought everyone a half-pint of ale, and they drank to Bessie’s memory and wished Jack all of God’s comfort in his grief. After a fitting delay, people went about their business, Jack went home to begin his mourning, and William went to the shop to await custom.

In the middle of the afternoon, William was surprised when a horse-and-cart pulled up outside the funeral parlour carrying six brand new coffins in assorted sizes. The driver, who introduced himself as the representative of the coffin-maker in town, explained the basis of his calling. It seemed that the coffin-maker and Albert had entered into a binding agreement, with the condition that, should Albert die, the contract was to continue for three months at no cost giving the new proprietor opportunity to sample the arrangement. The general terms of the contract were that the coffin-maker would supply unspecified coffins to the then proprietor in advance of requirement and at a percentage of the actual cost. If coffins were supplied and not used before the next delivery, the proprietor would be released from the contract. It was presented as an ideal and lucrative business arrangement with high profit, no waste, and no risk for the proprietor, and a certain means of income for the coffin-maker. The catch was that if the new proprietor did not wish to continue the arrangement, then the costs forgone by the coffin-maker would be extracted in perpetuity from the old proprietor. William wondered how this was possible, and the driver explained, ‘There are ways and means...'Being somewhat confused, William asked for a copy of the contract to be left with him for perusal. The driver was happy to oblige.

In the week that followed, three people died, two old ladies from old age and a farm worker from being gored by a bull. As undertaker, he was called upon to supply his services and dutifully went along to measure the corpses. He wrote down the names and dimensions of his new clients. Each time he did so he was reminded of his father’s notebook. Back at the funeral parlour, he sat behind the desk, opened the book and searched the column of names. They were all three there, and all had a height recorded against them that matched his measurement exactly. He glanced up at the door and the graduations on the frame caught his eye. Over the years, these people had all been visitors to the general store and this was how his father had obtained their heights without their knowing!

In the stockroom, he found three coffins that were long enough for the bodies. He checked their other dimensions against the boxes and found that each was a perfect fit! He could not believe this amazing piece of luck. He made a guess at the meaning of the fourth column in the book and pencilled in an asterisk for each of the three entries to show that a coffin was available. He closed and pocketed the book.

*

The families of the deceased paid the full price for each coffin, turning in a handsome profit. The funeral services all occurred on the same day, which meant William’s being absent from the general store for most of it. As it turned out, he spent the whole day at the graveyard. After the first service, he happened upon the grave corresponding with the last complete entry in the book. He noticed that the date of the occupant’s death recorded on the stone matched the date that his father had written. He searched for other names among the tombs in the time between the two remaining services. He soon realised that his father had recorded the date on which each person had died. He wrote in the dates for his father, Bessie, and the three unfortunates just buried.

That evening, he sat before his fire, pipe in his mouth, the notebook open and on his knee. He now knew what the columns stood for. The date, he thought with hindsight, was obvious. The asterisk appeared to show the availability of a coffin. And yet, something was not quite right. His father’s and Bessie’s entries in the book had asterisks against them, yet he had not made these marks. Indeed, on closer examination, the marks seemed to betray the handiwork of his father. How could this be? How would his father have been able to do this? Unless...

William leaped to his feet and hurried through to the stockroom next door. He carefully measured the inside lengths of the three remaining coffins and wrote down the measurements. Back before his fire, he compared what he had written against the heights in the book. He found three matching entries, as yet incomplete. He sat stock still for five minutes, his pencil poised above the page, hardly daring to write. Eventually, and slowly, he marked three asterisks against the matching records. He felt his heart pounding at the horror of what he thought he had discovered. He found a sheet of paper and cut three squares from it. On each square he wrote a set of initials. He returned to the stockroom of the funeral parlour and tucked a corner of each square behind the unengraved brass plaque on the lid of each corresponding coffin. He returned to the fireplace and sat well into the night staring at the flames, then at the glowing coals, then at the dying embers. Finally, he fell asleep. Woken by the chill air of the night, he ascended the stairs to bed and slept fitfully until morning.

*

It came as a shock, yet no surprise, when each of the three predicted victims succumbed to death and was found by him to be a perfect fit for the predestined coffin. Their deaths hung heavily upon him as if, in some unknown way, he bore some responsibility for them. He felt such tremendous guilt on presentation of the bills that he immediately retracted them, making some excuse about sharing in the grief of the bereaved and wishing in his own way to pay his last respects to their departed loved ones. His guilt persisted when, as a result of this, his reputation as a man of compassion brought in more custom to the general store than he had seen since he inherited. Whatever he did seemed to increase his financial well-being.

The notebook he kept constantly to hand, in his coat pocket when abroad, beneath his pillow when asleep, on the arm of his chair when at ease by his fire. Only when he went to church did he and the book part company; before leaving home he locked it in the drawer of the desk, for which he had found the key, and retrieved it immediately on his return. One afternoon, uncertain as to what it would mean, and with great trepidation about the wisdom of his action, he took his pen and ink and carefully wrote his own name and height in the book. Fear gripped his heart but he put on such a show of cheerfulness and pleasure in his service to his customers that none guessed his inner torment.

Mr. Jarvis came to call. William was much relieved at his attendance and sought his legal advice about the contract left with him by the coffin-maker’s delivery boy. Mr. Jarvis read the contract in great detail and confirmed that it was identical with the one that Albert Snape had shown him several years earlier. As he had explained to Albert, so he explained to William, the contract was invalid in any court of law in England, and probably anywhere in this world. Indeed, he explained that the condition of continuance of the contract in Albert’s will was unenforceable, and that he fulfilled Albert's insistence that he visit William only out of loyalty to a dear friend and reliable client. His opinion was that the coffin-maker was a fool, completely off his head, and the contract should be ignored, and that no pressure to continue it should be countenanced.

William did not mention the uncanny coincidences associated with the contract, thinking that Mr. Jarvis would consider that he too had taken leave of his senses. He thanked Mr. Jarvis for his wise counsel and rendered the appropriate fee. He expressed his definite intention to dispense with the coffin-maker’s services and to find a more rational supplier.

Mr Jarvis had hardly left the village when the coffin-maker’s delivery boy drove up with three more caskets, one of which was small enough for a child. Unnerved by this sight, he said nothing about the contract but signed for the delivery and stored the coffins in the stockroom. The delivery boy drove his horse-and-cart away, watched out of sight by William. As soon as the cart disappeared around the corner past the church and into the woods, William rushed indoors to measure the coffins. Breathless, he sat at the desk and opened the book. He scanned down the column of heights and found a match for each of the adult-sized boxes. He marked them with spidery asterisks, drawn with a shaking hand, and labelled the coffins with initials written on squares of paper. For the small casket he found no match. Puzzled, he closed the book and went about the rest of the day’s business.

Three days later, Mrs. Crombie, the old cook at the big house on the hill, came to buy supplies to restock her larder. She had brought with her Sophie, the house-keeper’s young daughter, whom she left by the door and told to behave herself well and she might get a treat. The girl leant against the doorframe. William swallowed hard when he saw her there. Mrs. Crombie enquired if he was quite well, only he looked so pale of a sudden, and William confirmed that he was so, merely having not slept well on account of the last night’s storm. Sophie smiled at him from the door. He smiled back, and asked her to move in case someone came in and knocked her over. Mrs. Crombie was so pleased at her obedience and politeness that she bought the girl a lollipop but kept it for later in case it spoiled her tea. They left the shop and William hurried through to his sitting room and drew on a bottle of scotch which he had recently taken to keeping in the house. He wrote the young girl’s name and height in the book and marked an asterisk in the fourth column.

The next day, his services as undertaker were required at the big house on the hill. Grief-stricken and fearing the worst, he made his way to the tradesman’s entrance and rang the bell. He was invited inside to find his worst fears confirmed, and more. Sophie, it seemed, had been given the lollipop after tea and had gone off to play. She had tripped on the back stairs and fallen. The lollipop, which she had had in her mouth, had been forced down her throat and caused her to choke. Mrs. Crombie, on coming across the lifeless child one hour later, had fallen dead with a heart attack.

Back at the shop, William wrote the date against the entries for Sophie and Mrs. Crombie. That night, he sat before his fire and wept. He drank more scotch and, before all the company of heaven, vowed that nothing would compel him to continue this foul contract into which his father had entered. His resolve gave him strength and, convinced in his own mind about what to do, he retired to bed.

Three days later, a date was written against another particular entry in the book...

Some time after, with no impending deaths weighing on his mind, and while he was busy serving several customers, he happened to glance out of the window. The coffin-maker’s horse-and-cart had drawn up outside. Seeing that William was busy, the driver unloaded two coffins unaided and deposited them in the funeral parlour, then came through the passageway to obtain William’s signature and his continued commitment to their arrangement. William signed for the coffins, relieved that this would be the last delivery.

‘I have decided not to renew the contract,’ he said to the driver as he wrote.

‘You are fully aware of the conditions?’ the driver reminded him.

‘So you intend to claim payment from my father?’ William asked.

‘In perpetuity, yes,’ came the sinister reply.

William wished the fellow a good day, then watched him drive from the village for the last time. He took out his handkerchief and wiped beads of cold sweat from his forehead. Serenity swept through his being as a huge burden lifted from his soul. People would still die, he knew, but he preferred not to foreknow who it would be, or that they appeared to pass away to order. He began to sing to himself, the first time he had done so since Bessie had died and he had begun to realise the unholy nature of the contract. He returned to his remaining customers and cheerfully, and without deception, helped them to their requirements.

As the day wore on, he realised that he lost the habit he had lately adopted of glancing between doorframe and customer as the latter left the shop. Another wave of peace swept through him, and he gave thanks to the Almighty for his new-found freedom.

Later in the afternoon, when the shop was empty of patrons, he was overcome with curiosity and went through the passage into the funeral parlour. He turned the corner on leaving the passage and stopped in his tracks. All peace left him and was replaced with horror. The two coffins had been left leaning against the wall. One was of average size for the village, the other far taller. For a full ten minutes, he stood and stared at the latter until his throat became so dry that he craved his whisky bottle once more. He hurried back through to the shop, hearing the bell ring as another customer entered. He found Mr Jarvis waiting to see him. William excused himself, quickly slaked his thirst in the sitting room, then returned to attend Mr. Jarvis.

Mr. Jarvis explained that he had come because today was the last day of the condition laid down in the late Mr. Snape’s will, and to be sure that the young Mr. Snape was quite well, and to see if he could be of any further assistance to him. William thanked him for his consideration and thought that he could indeed be of help. He closed the shop then invited Mr. Jarvis through to the sitting room and sat him in the better chair in front of the fire. William wished to make a will...

He spent the evening in anxious and sorry solitude. The smaller coffin, he discovered from the book, was for Jack, the larger, for himself. He fretted over which would be used first and hoped it was to be Jack’s then chided himself for his selfishness. He recalled how that, when he arrived back in the village, his father’s coffin had been used and Bessie’s remained. He shuddered at this memory, and finished the contents of his whisky bottle before negotiating the stairs for bed.

The next day, William was restocking the shelves from his stockroom when he heard the doorbell. He walked into the shop and saw a man closing the door, and therefore with his back towards him. William glanced from the stranger to the doorframe. He and the stranger were of the same height, and of similar build! William’s heart missed a beat. The stranger turned around to face William, beamed a smile at him, stood to attention, and said, ‘Colour Sergeant Frederick Postlethwaite at your service!’ and saluted smartly.

‘Freddy? Is it really you?’ William blustered.

‘As I live and breathe, Billy, my lad!’

The two friends hugged and laughed and slapped each other’s backs. William wondered why Freddy was here and Freddy explained that he was on leave for a few days and, since there was no time to travel north to see his family, he thought he would look up his old friend instead. They laughed some more, then William helped Freddy carry his pack upstairs and installed him in Albert’s room.

They talked well into the night and played cribbage with Jack who had joined them. William explained how he had come by his father’s business and Frederick thought it was a fine way for a Quartermaster to spend his retirement from the army. They told Jack about their adventures and William explained how Freddy had saved him from the spear of a native. Jack could not have been more grateful to Freddy if it were his own life that had been saved.

Eventually, Jack decided he should go home and the two friends were left alone once more. William became serious. ‘I have made a will, Freddy,’ William’s final speech before bedtime began, ‘and, if I should die without issue, all this comes to you, my dearest comrade to whom I owe my life.'It was Freddy’s turn to bluster.

The next evening, William and Freddy went to a coaching inn away from the village and relived their military adventures again over several pints of ale. They could not remember a time when they had laughed so much. The time passed quickly and last orders were called. Each man had one more for the road before leaving the inn. Outside, they found that an unseasonal fog had fallen heavily, bringing with it an eerie silence and muffling their voices on the long walk home. On reaching the village, Freddy thought he heard something and William told him he was imagining things, that the fog had got to his brain. Freddy retorted that it was more likely the ale and they roared again with laughter. At the village green, Freddy tripped over the grass verge beside the road and fell headlong into the ditch. William laughed so much that his sides ached. As Freddy clambered out of the water and regained his feet he heard the clatter of fast-moving hooves and the rumble of cartwheels. He peered past his still-laughing friend and saw a runaway horse-and-cart emerging from the fog at breakneck speed. ‘Look out!’ he shouted, lunging himself at William. The two men fell to the ground, Freddy before the charging horse and William to one side.

The coffin-maker’s horse-and-cart ran over them then vanished in the fog. Their agonised cries brought villagers from the nearby houses. They carried the two men into the funeral parlour, where there was the most room to lay them down indoors. One of the village boys ran the three miles to the doctor’s house. It took an hour for the doctor to arrive, by which time William had been made aware by Jack, who had been summoned by a neighbour, that his friend had died quickly having been kicked in the head by the stampeding horse. The villagers, in an act of simpleminded kindness to the dead man, had placed Freddy’s body in the tall, perfectly fitting coffin. Realising this, William, through the tears he shed for his friend, thanked the Almighty that he himself would be spared; Freddy had saved his life once again...

The doctor hurried inside and knelt beside William. He shook his head at the sight of William’s legs and the pool of blood congealing on the floor. ‘I’m sorry, old boy,’ he said, looking into William's face, ‘but it looks like the wheel of the cart ran over both of your legs. The damage is very serious. I’m afraid, I do not have the skill to repair them. I have no choice but to amputate both legs below the knees.'William nodded his assent and the doctor called for some of the men to move the desk into the middle of the room and to lift William onto it. He had the men hold William down before beginning the operation to remove his legs. William’s screams were heard throughout the village before he was finally rescued from the excruciating pain by his falling unconscious.

William awoke in a makeshift bed to the sound of the doctor talking in subdued tones to Jack, vaguely hearing a remark that he had lost a great deal of blood and there was not much hope. He called out, feebly, ‘Doctor!’ The doctor’s face appeared before him.

‘Try to rest, Mr. Snape.'

‘Doctor,’ William grasped the doctor’s forearm as he spoke, ‘how much of my legs have you cut off?’

‘Don’t worry about that now, try to rest.'

‘I need to know, you must tell me. Please, exactly, how much have you cut off? Use the graduations on the doorframe.'Taken aback by the strange request, the doctor froze and frowned at his patient. He felt William’s forehead, believing him to be delirious. William squeezed the doctor’s arm, ‘Please!’ and looked imploringly into his face. The doctor nodded and complied sombrely. Jack and the other men looked on in dismay at the macabre spectacle as the doctor laid first one severed member then the other against the doorframe. The doctor returned and stood once more over his patient. William looked pleadingly at him.

‘Exactly nine inches,’ the doctor said, gravely.

William looked over to Jack who smiled sympathetically at him from beside the shorter coffin that was still propped against the wall. William viewed the open box despairingly, then motioned Jack to come over and held out his hand, which Jack took in his own trembling hand, and said to him, miserably, ‘Now we are both five feet and five inches tall.'At this comment, Jack’s face took on a puzzled expression before it finally crumpled under the weight of his sorrow and his eyes overflowed.

‘There are ways and means...' a voice said in William’s mind. He saw that his father would now pay in perpetuity by the cessation for all time of his family line, and that no-one would inherit the business, William’s beneficiary having preceded him in death. He rested his head back on his pillow. As he lay there, he became suddenly aware that the grandfather clock had started working and that, with its ominous ticking, it relentlessly sliced each measured second from his fading life...