I don’t know how to start this, I’m still in shock. Like they say, it’s best to start from the beginning.
I’m a salesman, I sell fax machines, talk about a dying industry, but it pays surprisingly well. I travel the country with Darren, he’s not my boss, but my senior. I do the tech demo, hardly modern technology and not very taxing, and he does the commercials.
We live quite far away from each other, but as our meetings are usually London way, I pick him up and drive the remainder of the journey together, but yesterday we were late. I hated being late, there’s nothing worse than a bad first impression. Presentation comes first, always wear a suit and clean shoes. Darren said you can tell a lot about a person by how clean their shoes were. Second is punctuality.
I told Darren to phone ahead, tell them we were going to be a little late. He said we’d be fine, he knew the area, and it was only going to be a couple of minutes. We sat in traffic behind a three way stop light put there for road works. When the cars finally moved, I was initially relieved, before seeing the road was closed in the opposite direction. I made a mental note to worry about that later.
The car park was empty except for a single beat up Lime-Green Beetle, rust crawling over it as if it were a disease. When we got out of the car I had to stop myself from swearing. I hadn’t put on my tie. I’d usually park up and do that before arriving – presentation was the key.
“It’s fine, I know the clients, we go way back,” Darren said, smiling.
I didn’t like that, I felt naked. But I could see an older woman staring out of the window of the reception area. It was too late now, I’d been spotted. I opened the boot, slung my laptop over my shoulder, and heaved out the fax machine.
I followed Darren in, he held open the door, then signed us in. He’d only recently come back to work from a serious heart attack and today was the first day he’d not complained and asked to carry. He knew better than that now. She was still staring out of the window, the old woman, wearing a black dress and those glasses on a chain like a librarian would wear.
“My husband won’t be long, won’t you take a seat?” she said, before turning and gingerly escaping into the office behind the desk.
I put the fax machine on the floor. I never sat when waiting for a meeting, it puts you in an inferior position, you want to meet the client on the level.
“You okay?” I said to Darren, whose hand shook as he put a small plastic cup under the water cooler and poured himself a drink.
“Fine,” he said, downing the glass, “new medication.”
I saw a bead of sweat roll down his forehead and disappear under his collar. His black tie was pulled taut around his neck, making his skin fold over. I wanted to tell him it was probably bad for his circulation, but he never listened to me.
“Come on in,” an old man said, as he poked his head around the doorframe.
I lugged the fax machine in and placed it next to the chairs on the opposite side of the table.
Darren introduced us.
“Steve here has a great demo lined up for you. Now not only is the new model quicker than the last, it uses 50% less toner.”
“I don’t want to know about that,” the old man said, “I’m Ted and this is my wife Elsa. We want to know about you. We are thinking about changing suppliers, and the guys we saw yesterday were pretty convincing.”
“Okay,” I said, suddenly feeling off balance. I had my routine, my patter, I had it honed. I wasn’t used to ad-libbing a sales gig.
“What do you want to know?” I said, leaning back, reaching for my tie and realising it wasn’t there.
“We don’t wear ties here, you’re fine,” Ted said, smiling at me, “How old are you?”
“I’m 32, sir. Been doing this job for ten years now. Darren and I have been working together for, is it five years?”
Darren nodded, and I noticed his face was no longer sweating. If anything, mine was.
“Do you like each other?”
“Yeah, he’s been a great friend to me. He’s going to be my best man, in a couple of months. I’ve told him not to arrange anything strenuous for the stag do.”
Ted looked over at Darren.
“I had a heart attack recently. Steve was the one who gave me CPR, saved my life.”
“How wonderful, I mean, it’s so nice you can be there for each other.”
“Are you a religious man, Steve?” Elsa asked.
“Uh, well, I don’t practice, but I believe there’s a God, probably. I mean, yeah I believe in God.”
“That’s good, we are very spiritual here.”
Elsa grabbed Ted’s hand and squeezed.
The conversation went on for another ten minutes, where they continued to ask questions about my past and my family. Then one thing Elsa said took me off guard.
“Have you ever killed a man?”
“No, God no.”
“How do you know?”
“I think I’d remember that,” I said, reaching for my tie again. That damn thing had put me right off my game.
“Maybe not directly, but have you thought about an interaction you may have had, like letting a car out of a junction, only for that car to be involved in a crash later on? It’s almost certain that you’ve caused the death of someone, just by interacting with them.”
I didn’t know what to say, I looked towards Darren for an answer. He shrugged his shoulders, his eyes wide, and shook his head.
“I uh, never thought about it to be honest, ma’am.”
Elsa whispered into Ted’s ear for a moment.
“We’ll use you, sorry to be so abrupt, but we have somewhere to be,” Ted said, holding out his hand to shake mine.
When we shook, I didn’t say anything. I felt his tight grip, and the sweat from my hand transferred to his.
“I’ll write up the paperwork and get it over to you in the morning,” Darren said, as he stood up.
Almost in a daze, I picked up the fax machine. Darren held the doors open and I placed it in the boot, along with my laptop.
“What the fuck was that?” I said to Darren, as I reversed out of the parking space.
“A sale,” he said, “they loved you. I knew they would. I’m very glad we do this together.”
“But I didn’t show them anything.”
“You didn’t have to, you sold yourself, that’s half the job, come on, you must have realised that before.”
From within, Ted and Elsa stared out of the window, their gazes vacant, but fixed on me.
As we got to the junction, I saw the sign saying Road Closed.
“Damn it, I forgot about that, give me a minute,” I said reaching for the GPS.
“It’s okay,” Darren said, “I know a way back. Turn left.”
Darren’s sense of direction was terrible, but I was intrigued.
We followed the road, going in the opposite direction to where we came from.
“Turn here,” he said pointing.
“That’s a graveyard,” I said, reading the sign that said Cemetery – no through road, “it says we can’t.”
“Trust me,” he said, so I did.
I slowed to a crawl, not wanting to disturb the dead that slept under the graves that lined both sides of the road. We were in the old section, all the stones were either broken or leaned heavily or both. We followed the road as it bore to the right. Every now and then, I saw a fresh bunch of flowers lie silently on the old gravesites. I wondered if the groundskeeper put them there, or distant relatives. I felt for the people who lay there forgotten, maybe they didn’t have family any more, or maybe they didn’t care. It was then I knew I wanted to be cremated.
As we drove further into the cemetery, I noticed a road that led out to the far side, though a metal gate stood in the way.
“How about we open that?” I said.
“No, carry on,” Darren replied, and I watched as the gate disappeared into the distance.
Moments later we stopped. A line of cars in front of us didn’t move.
“I think they have a funeral on.”
I looked behind and started to reverse.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going to go through that gate.”
I slammed on the brakes as a car came into view behind me.
“Fucking hell. We’re going to have to go forward.”
“It’ll be fine, calm down.”
The cars in front had moved to the side now, parking up on the grass verges. Carefully, I pulled out, making sure not to drive on the grass to the right, and over countless gravesites.
A man in a suit walked in front of us, and waved me to park up.
“Great,” I said, “He thinks we are here for the funeral.”
I ignored him, and gestured that I needed to pass. Calmly he walked over to the car, and I opened the window.
“Good morning, sir. Please park up on the space on the left.”
“You’re mistaken, we need to…”
Darren grabbed my arm.
“Just park up, when they’re all gone, we can leave. Don’t make a scene, people here will be grieving.”
I sighed and parked along the verge.
“What now?” I asked.
“Come on, you’re a salesman, you can pretend.”
He produced a mischievous grin, “damn serious.”
We stood next to the car, and I felt out of place.
“You should put your tie on,” Darren suggested.
“It would look a little disrespectful not to.”
I shook my head, opened the boot and pulled out three ties.
“Shall I wear the red one with musical notes, the blue one with the paisley design, or this yellow number?”
“I’d go with the blue one.”
For the first time ever, Darren standing there with his black tie, looked like the professional one.
“Why are you wearing a black tie?” I said, as I frantically tried to remember a Half-Windsor knot without a mirror.
“You’re only supposed to wear them to funerals or dinner parties.”
“Well, I’m not out of place today, am I.”
We continued to stand next to the car as we watched all the mourners leave theirs.
“This isn’t right,” I said, clasping my hands in front of me, trying to become the character I was portraying.
More cars arrived, and the line of vehicles grew.
“Look at all these graves,” I said, “how many do you think have been visited in the last five years, or thirty years.”
“Not many I wouldn’t have thought.”
“I want to be cremated, I don’t want to be forgotten. Make sure Susie knows.”
“Me too. Yeah, I will.”
We stood in silence, seeing more people walk hand in hand towards the church.
The man in the suit approached us.
“Please make your way, the ceremony will be starting soon.”
He placed his hand on my back and gently nudged me.
“Are we really doing this?”
“It appears so,” Darren said, and I could tell he was enjoying himself.
“What the fuck, surely this is disrespectful?”
“We are two more people come to mourn the loss of a fellow human being, how can that be disrespectful?”
“We can’t walk this way,” I said, as we approached some graves. The thought of walking over someone’s eternal resting place made me shudder.
We cut across the grounds and joined the main path that led to the church.
“Do you think they dig up the graves when they run out of space?”
“I’d hope not.”
“Look how many there are.”
I did some mental arithmetic, trying to get a guesstimate of the number of plots throughout the grounds.
“There has to only be around five to seven hundred plots here. How many people must have died over the past hundred years? Thousands? They must do it. I bet there’s a mass grave of all the people who didn’t pay a lot.”
From behind I heard a young woman cry. I turned to see her, a man, I assumed her spouse stared daggers at me.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Her demeanour changed as she glanced at Darren.
“So sorry for your loss,” he said to her.
“Thank you,” she said, and the pair moved past us.
“What was that?” I said in a whisper.
“Salesmanship, they don’t know we aren’t supposed to be here.”
We stopped as we reached the entrance to the church.
“We really doing this?” I asked again.
“No turning back now. You are a really good friend.”
I laughed, not too loud as to look out of place.
“Remember to mention this in your best man speech.”
He smiled and put his hand on my shoulder.
Along the main road leading to us we saw the hearse.
“Here we go,” I said.
“Why did it have to happen now, he’s so young,” a woman said from behind. I didn’t want to be rude, so I didn’t turn.
“When it’s your time, it’s your time,” a man said.
“I’m going to miss him so much.”
It took an eternity for the hearse to stop in front of us. Another black car behind came to a halt and out stepped five men.
“Sir, could you help?” The suited man said to Darren.
“Sure, what do you need?”
“We only have five pallbearers. Would you be kind enough to help?”
“I’d be honoured,” Darren replied.
“Excuse me, his health isn’t great, let me do it.”
“Nonsense,” he said to me, “I’m fine now, the doctors told me.”
“They never expected you to carry a coffin.”
He gave me a glare that said, shut the fuck up, so I did. He never listened to me. All I could think about was how I was going to tell our manager Darren had another heart attack carrying a coffin on the way back from our meeting. How on Earth could I explain that?!
“Thank you so much,” the suited man said, and led him over to the hearse.
I anxiously shifted from one foot to the other as I watched them in the distance slide the coffin out and haul it over their shoulders.
“How do you know them?” An old woman asked me.
I panicked, “I work with him,” I said.
“That’s nice, he’s always said how much he liked his work.”
I wanted to correct her, to say I was talking about Darren, but I didn’t as then I’d need to explain I wasn’t supposed to be here.
As if everyone knew what to do, they created two lines and allowed the coffin to pass. I felt my heart race for Darren, wanting to take the weight off his shoulders, so he wouldn’t have to do what he was doing. Instead, I silently watched them pass. I caught Darren’s eye and he winked at me.
One by one the fellow mourners filed in behind them.
In that moment, standing alone outside, except for the suited man who checked his watch, I thought about casually walking back to the car and waiting there. Then, in the distance, I noticed something. It was hard to miss. A lime-green Beetle, coming around the bend and passing all the cars that had parked up along the verge. What are the chances, I said to myself.
“Sir, please make your way inside,” the suited man said.
“Okay,” I replied without a second thought, I’d got this far, I wasn’t going to leave Darren on his own in there.
I pushed open the large oaken doors, seeing all the mourners in place in the pews, their identical black outfits like the crowd at a football match. I watched as the coffin was put in place and searched for a seat. Around halfway up there was a space, enough for Darren and I to sit. I sat and was relieved to see Darren, at the front, wasn’t breathing heavily or sweating. He took the place next to me and we waited in silence.
Moments later we heard the doors open for a final time. We turned in unison to see Ted and Elsa walk hand in hand up the aisle. I snapped my head back around, not wanting them to notice me. They passed by without incident and took a place in the front row.
“Jesus,” I whispered to Darren, “what are they doing here? They know we’re not supposed to be here. They will complain. We may lose our jobs.”
“Shhh, just be quiet, it will be fine.”
But it wasn’t fine. I needed this job. I was paying for a wedding. What was I going to say to Susie? I lost my job because I went to a funeral by accident? I felt an anxious sweat begin to grow.
Darren on the other hand couldn’t have looked more calm.
I jumped as the doors clicked shut.
“We are gathered here today to celebrate the life of a man, a son. He wasn’t a father, but he loved his nephews and nieces as if they were his own. God isn’t vengeful, he tests our faith to prove that we are worthy of his love.”
The pastor continued for a while and then said, “Our first hymn is Ode to Joy, you’ll find it on page seven of your hymn books.”
We stood and sang.
Like I told Ted, I wasn’t religious, but as the congregation began to sing, I felt a spirituality I hadn’t felt since I was a child. It was as if God Himself was here with us, and even though I wasn’t meant to be there, I felt as if I was welcome.
As the song ended, Ted stood up, and I felt my heart race. I looked down at my feet.
“It’s great to have so many familiar faces here today, some old, like my mother Ruth, and Elsa’s father Edward. And it’s lovely to see some new faces too.”
My heart sunk. It felt as if he was talking directly to me. I peered at Darren, his head was held high and proud, as if he belonged there.
“Our son is a good man, a fair man. I couldn’t have asked for a better person to bring up. I remember when he was five and he rode his bike for the first time without stabilisers. He rode in circles on the gravel behind the house, his face was so full of energy, and that never stopped, never.”
“Darren, we’re at their son’s funeral. Oh my God.”
He ignored me.
“My wife doesn’t want to speak, she’s a little emotional, and who could blame her.”
He gave out an awkward laugh.
“But we both love him, and we are thankful so many of his family and friends could be here to see him off.”
“If there’s anyone else who’d like to say some words, please do.”
I heard Ted’s shoes echo around the cavernous hall.
“How about you?”
I squeezed my eyes shut and waited for someone to get up. When no one did, Darren nudged me. I looked up to see Ted stand in the aisle looking directly at me. He smiled and tilted his head back toward the altar.
“No, I can’t do this, Darren. This is insane.”
“There’s no turning back now, if we lose the sale we will lose our jobs.”
Without thinking, I found myself on my feet. Everyone stared at me.
“I don’t know them, I don’t even know their name.”
“Pretend it’s me,” Darren said, grinning, he was enjoying this way too much. I wondered if it was my panic that tickled him, or whether it was the insanity of the situation.
I had no idea what I was going to say, I had nothing prepared, but my legs put one foot in front of the other and I approached the lectern.
Ted put his hand on my shoulder, “You didn’t need to wear a tie,” he said, “we don’t wear ties around here.”
I absently touched my blue paisley tie and felt even more out of place.
“I’m so so sorry,” I said to him.
“You’ll do fine.”
Standing in front of the lectern, looking at all the mourners, I felt my heart thump so hard I was worried they’d hear it. I glanced at Darren and he winked back at me.
“Hello everyone,” I started, “I’m in shock, as I think you can all imagine.”
Throughout the congregation people nodded in agreement.
“I met him five years ago at work. He thought I was an intern, and he took me to one side and said, ‘If you want to be a good salesman you need three ties.’ He then took me shopping.”
I stopped and realised everyone was following my every word.
“This one here,” I said, tugging on my tie, “he picked this out. He said it showed I was playful but meant business.”
A few chuckles murmured around.
“He then looked at my shoes and said you cannot take someone seriously who has bad shoes. He made me take them off, and he showed them to me. Showed me how scuffed they were and how they didn’t shine. He bought me some new ones and some polish. When I say he bought them, he took me to the shop and then pushed me to the cashier. £150! My suit didn’t cost that much.”
This time laughter rang out, and I smiled, I was killing it.
“So he dressed me better than my father ever did and we started going out on sales trips. It wasn’t until four years later, a year ago, when I asked him to be my best man that I told him I’d been a salesman for ten years.”
There were smiles all around. I felt good, felt like I had helped ease their pain a little. Ted nodded and clapped, and then, one by one others joined in. I waited for the sound to die down before I said my final words.
“So yeah, he’s a good guy, and I love him.”
I felt a grin grow from ear to ear. Darren was watching me intently, and I returned to my seat.
“Great job,” Darren said to me quietly.
“I meant every word,” I replied and felt tears begin to well up.
The pastor had returned to the lectern.
“If we don’t get this sale now, I’ll be pissed,” I said to Darren, but his mind was elsewhere.
“It comes the time when we have to send our friend to the flames so that he may pass over to the afterlife.”
I felt the adrenaline still surging through my system.
“That sounds a little crazy,” I said to Darren, nudging him, but still he was elsewhere.
“It’s time,” the pastor said as he walked over to the coffin. The pallbearers got up and made their way over.
Darren stood up. He was really into this. He walked over and stood next to the others.
Ted was waiting next to the coffin.
“I don’t think I’m the only one who knows I’m going to miss you.”
Darren shook his hand, “I’ll miss you too, dad.”
I was numb. I watched as the pallbearers opened the coffin and helped Darren inside.
“What’s going on!” I shouted.
And murmurs fluttered around the congregation.
“It’s okay,” Darren mouthed to me.
I got up and felt an arm pull me back.
“Get off me,” I said, pulling my hand away.
As I got to the aisle, the suited man was in my way.
“Let me through!” I demanded.
“I can’t do that,” he said, shaking his head.
The pallbearers and Ted picked up the coffin and moved it to the back of the hall, to the conveyor belt that sat in front of the red velvet curtain.
“Darren, what is this?” I shouted, but he couldn’t hear me.
By now other men had made their way over to me and held my arms.
“Please don’t make a scene,” the suited man said.
“What are you doing with him?”
“It’s his time,” he said.
“You cannot cremate him, he’s alive!”
“It’s what he wanted.”
“This is insane.”
“Why is that?”
“You’re going to burn him alive!” I said, pulling against the hands that held me gently but tightly.
“He wanted everyone he loved with him as he passed over. Is that a bad thing?”
“Yes, it is,” I said, suddenly confused and taken off guard.
“He only had weeks left to live. He wanted to go his way, not alone in his flat from a heart attack.”
I fought against my captors but there were too many of them. I fought until the coffin disappeared behind the curtain. Then I fell to the floor, and the grips relented.
I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Thank you for coming, Steve. He loved you very much, and it’s obvious you loved him.”
The pastor announced, “Our next hymn is Jerusalem, on page five.”
I can’t remember how I ended up outside, but when I did, I stared at the smoke that rose from the back of the building.
“You did well, Steve,” said a voice from behind, it was Ted.
I wiped away the tears that didn’t stop flowing.
“What do I tell my boss?”
“Tell him you got the sale. We really want it, Darren has always looked after us.”
“I don’t care about the Goddamn sale. Darren… he was my best friend.”
“And you were here with him. Did you see any of his other friends?”
“What do I tell them?”
“Nothing. Say you dropped Darren off where you always do. We’ll take care of the rest.”
I drove straight home. As if it were fortuitous, there was no traffic. Susie knew something was wrong, but I said I was tired from the day, it took it out of me.
My boss phoned me today, saying he had bad news.
“What happened?” I said, already knowing the response.
“I don’t know how to tell you this, Darren’s dead.”
I stayed silent, to try and portray shock.
“He was driving with his parents, they have an old beat up Beetle, you know how unreliable those things are. They found it burnt out on the side of the motorway.”
“What?” I said, suddenly perked up.
“All three of them went up in flames, how sad.”
I was numb, I didn’t know how to respond.
“His parents were in the car too?”
“Three bodies, well bones. I don’t know much more. I’m sorry to have to tell you that on a weekend. But thought you’d best know.”
“Thanks,” I replied solemnly.
All I could think about was what Elsa asked me, that have I ever killed anyone? That it was almost certain that I’ve caused the death of someone, just by interacting with them. I wondered what would have happened if I told Darren no, let me find the way home, though he would have never listened to me.