The winning story by Edward Lane
Messrs Charon & Sons
George surveyed his surroundings with indifference. Waiting rooms. Places where time doesn’t just stand still, but digs in, builds fortifications and then points and laughs at you from the top of the battlements. Liminal spaces where you are grabbed by the scruff of the neck and forced to stare, unblinking, at the unadulterated present. This one did not have the blandly concerned air of a doctor’s waiting room, with its dramatic leaflets on how to quit smoking and benevolent reminders of the four signs of a stroke, but its walls wore the same antiseptic aspect. Kills 99.9% of all joy. There was nothing to draw the eye or jolt the senses, nothing to entice the spirit from cloying stillness. Time was not to be trifled with: George prided himself on his ability to squeeze every last drop of life out of each passing moment. Sometimes, though, events intervene and time comes to a shuddering halt.
At least the seating was comfortable.
And Messrs Charon & Sons was the finest funeral parlour in London. Its onyx black shop front with the faded gold lettering had stood unassumingly in a quiet street near the river in Chelsea for as long as anyone could remember. Family-run, pleasingly conventional, George wouldn’t dream of going anywhere else. Charon & Sons had handled everything for both his parents. The whole process was managed with perfect tact. Everyone wore ties. Everything was ‘just so’. George approved of this. Life is messy and unpredictable; a predicament, not a journey. To pay tribute to the dead is to anoint all that chaos with order, to round off the convoluted, plotless narrative with a conclusive full stop. “The End.”
It was this that had brought George to his unhappy state of limbo. Someone had died, and George had come to make the arrangements.
George heard the deep, sonorous vowels of old Charon rise and fall in the private office next door. Whoever was in there was really taking their time. No doubt Charon would be masterfully, ever so gently, steering another grieving family on the slow, sad journey towards the laying to rest of someone loved and lost. All very well, but George didn’t have all day. He wished he had brought a newspaper. It was annoying that Charon did not provide reading materials for those waiting to be seen. George would mention it when he saw him. At this stage, he would have eagerly perused the nutritional information on the back of a cereal box to keep his mind occupied.
He thought back to the first time he had met Charon.
It had been a long time ago. His father had died, very suddenly. He had been young, perhaps nineteen, unsettled by his loss and uncertain of how to feel. His father had, at times, been more of a concept to him than a parent; a source merely of ready money and stale precepts.
He had a vivid memory of that day. Stepping over the threshold from the sunny street with its exuberant white stucco terraces, he had entered into another world altogether. It took a while for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. A cool, musty solemnity hung in the air. Charon’s office was empty except for two tattered leather armchairs and a large desk made of oak. A single ceiling lamp hung in the centre, giving light to the furniture but little else. Now and then it flickered. Shadows danced around the circle of light, as though vying for position, angling for a way in.
“Hello?” he tried.
Nothing moved. Even the motes of dust seemed to hang motionless in the air out of respect.
“Can anyone help me?”
All was still.
He was about to turn and leave when a mass of shadows in a corner of the room coalesced into a tall, stooped figure. On his spindly frame hung a three piece suit with an old fashioned pocket watch that glinted in the low light.
“I am sorry about the light,” purred Charon as he glided over to the desk and motioned George to sit. “It makes it unnecessarily gloomy in here.”
“Not at all,” replied George, bemused.
Charon paused for a moment.
“Or should I be apologising for the dark?” he said with a raised eyebrow and a small smile.
George frowned, but quickly concealed his frown with a cough. Now wasn’t the time for philosophy. Charon folded himself into the armchair behind the desk. George tried to guess at his age but was unable to get more specific than ‘old’. ‘Ancient’ was perhaps more apt, although his resonant voice insinuated a profound vitality.
“I am sorry for your loss,” he rumbled, taking out a sheaf of papers and studying them closely.
“And yours,” George spluttered, “I mean…thank you! Do I? I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say.”
Charon looked up at George.
“You may say what you like; your father has died.”
George reeled. The past few days he had felt cut adrift, floating dizzily through white noise, unable to think clearly. Those words suddenly tuned George into a crisp reality he had forgotten could exist. The harmonious tones and melodious cadences of Charon’s voice were oddly calming. George blinked back tears. He hadn’t been intending on talking about the death itself, but a torrent of words poured out: how sudden it had been, how his mother was barely eating. She and his father had been inseparable.
As George spoke, Charon leaned back in his chair and regarded him impassively, his leonine features expressionless. His eyes caught the flickering light above and appeared as pinpricks of fire suspended in the darkness. George moved nervously on to the subject of the funeral, the readings and the hymns. He had tried researching what the ‘correct’ choices were, but wasn’t sure he had got it quite right. He felt himself wanting this peculiar man’s approval. When he had finished running through the finer details, Charon said nothing for a moment, then nodded curtly, another small smile playing across his lips.
“That will do nicely.”
George beamed, and then frowned at himself.
As he showed George out, Charon shook his hand and murmured:
“Don’t worry, my boy. All shall be well…in the end.”
He then gave him an almost roguish wink that, although George had just met him, seemed quite out of character.
George stared at him and then stepped back into the street, shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun. Remembering himself, he turned back to thank him, but Charon had already melted into obscurity.
George was jolted out of his reverie by the sound of muffled humming from the office next door. What on earth were they doing? Choosing some awful hymns, by the sound of it. He imagined the ageless features of old Charon grimacing – imperceptibly, of course. George hoped they would be done soon. He had a very busy day ahead of him; letters to write, certificates to obtain. That was the worst part of it all – the bureaucracy. Death is not a white hollow skull, but a faceless envelope, bursting with forms. We do not have much choice over coming into this world or leaving it, but in each case somebody fills in a form as evidence. Clocking us in and out.
When his mother died, everything had been different.
He had been older, with a family of his own. His darling Lizzie, and Tom and Ellie. They had rallied round. And they had had more time. The doctor had gravely informed them of the long word that would one day kill his mother, and George had, rather oddly, felt relief. Relief from the deepening dread that he felt increasingly as she had grown older and more frail. What would it be? And when? It was the uncertainty that tugged at the sinews of his heart.
Next door, the murmurs rose and fell, followed by a light titter. Yes, George thought: oddly enough, laughter has its place in the intricate tapestry of grief. A shining thread of mirth.
He recalled sitting by his mother’s side, with her two brothers, as they waited for the end. Small talk had dried up quickly, had taken fright at the immensity of what was about to happen, and silly jokes flowed in easily to fill the void. At first they felt ashamed to laugh, and their merriment was punctuated with shocked silences, but his mother didn’t seem to mind. And he remembered something a doctor had said, that hearing is the last sense to go. They kept talking; telling stories, trading jokes. Later, he went round to the side of her bed and took her hand. It felt surprisingly warm and vital. He could have imagined it, but he thought he felt her grip back.
George was brought back to the present by the sound of more humming from next door. And now they were singing! The horror, the horror! He cocked his ear to try and catch the tune. Shine, Jesus, Shine? Oh, please.
George thought back to his second visit to Messrs Charon & Sons, when he had to make the arrangements for his mother. He had felt an almost preternatural calm as he pressed the smart brass bell and was ushered in. The deep resonance of old Charon welcomed him back into its cosy grasp. George felt he had been a trifle impetuous and headstrong with his father’s funeral, too insistent. That was not the way. In the private office, George settled back in his chair and calmly delineated what he wanted for his mother. Family flowers only. Announcement in the Times, not the Telegraph. The coffin elegant, but not too ornate. Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine. At the end of it all, George felt he had done justice to her. It was all so exhausting: the thoughtful letters, the well-wishers, the kind-hearted repetition of well-worn phrases. But, George recognised, necessary. When someone dies, it is important for those that knew them to memorialise them, to give life to their remembrance, as when you breathe on drowsy embers to revive a fire. That was how Lizzie had put it, anyway.
George caught a faint whiff of jasmine, as he always did when he thought of Lizzie.
Holidays on the Cote d’Azur. One in particular. Sauntering back one evening, arm in arm, from the quayside, they had turned a corner and been met with a wall of intoxicating scent. It was early summer and jasmine flowers were everywhere, burgeoning bushes of white-speckled green lining the cobbled pathways up through the old town. They had paused, overwhelmed with the fragrance of the evening. His heart had skipped several beats. It was time to ask her. His hand went to his pocket and he dived to the cobbles. She had rolled her eyes and said “Obviously”. George reflected how strange it was that the smell of something can so easily dissolve the present into the past.
What can be taking so much time, George thought, increasingly irate. He was surprised at Charon – he knew he was waiting. Uncharacteristically rude. He wouldn’t say anything, of course, that wasn’t the way. But he would somehow intimate his displeasure. He was desperate to discuss the arrangements he needed to make for dear old… George was puzzled. A mind blank. He had forgotten who he had come about. He had been getting these momentary lapses more frequently of late, it was very distressing for a man so in command of his faculties, as he was. George wrestled with his memory but his neurons were deceptively agile and there was nothing for him to grasp onto. Come to think of it, he had never noticed this waiting room before. He had always stepped straight into Charon’s office.
Just then, the voices in the next room rose and he was able to make out some words. A rumble from Charon, like distant thunder approaching.
“And would you like to see him?”
A brief answering murmur and then the sound of chairs moving and scraping the wood floor.
The door opened and the marmoreal features of Charon shimmered into the room. He was followed by a group of figures. George could not see who they were, their faces were out of focus, but he could see from the set of their shoulders that they had taken their loss very hard indeed. It must have been unexpected. He felt a stab of remorse for having judged their hymn choices and a feeling of deep empathy arose from within his heart and flooded his entire being; his synapses sizzled with a profound compassion.
“You are all going to be all right”, he assured them earnestly, “all shall be well.”
They did not seem to hear him, but at Charon’s invitation, shuffled towards him.
Tom, his eldest, in his final year at Oxford. Ellie, in her last year of school, looking forward to a gap year in Florence studying fine art. And his Lizzie. She looked so sad. Tom was gulping and staring fixedly ahead, Ellie had buried her face in her mother’s arms.
“All shall be well,” he said again, “this too shall pass.”
They did not respond, but a shudder came over Lizzie and then she was still, the expression of sorrow on her face softening slightly. He tried to lift his hand to reach out to her, to comfort her, but found he could not move.
Charon stood back, looking on impassively. The sweet scent of summer jasmine flowed through the air. A profound peace settled. George caught Charon’s eye, and noticed he held in his hand a white envelope. The edges of George’s vision were darkening and he felt himself drifting apart.
Charon turned his gaze upon George, a sad smile flickering about his lips.
“All is well, George. All is well.”