Rudyard Funn runs a funeral home in the village of Piffling Vale. It used to be a quiet place, but with the continued presence of Rudyard’s long-lost daughter, Calliope, the premises ceased to be gloomy and silent and are now filled with fighting, life and laughter instead – much to the chagrin of his sister, the Funeral home’s foremost mortician. Currently, Antigone’s door to the realm of the dead (and her mortuary) is being battered down by the relentless knocking of Rudyard - who has some rather grand plans for the night!
‘AntigoneAntigoneAnTiGoNe…!’ Rudyard was busy blurting out, seemingly in one, continued breath until his exasperated sister finally tore her door open.
‘What?!’ she hissed, peeking owlishly from the complete darkness of her doorstep into the backlit, pale face of her brother. Antigone, as a rule often didn’t need to use her eyes to see him - she knew her brother’s narrow face intimately enough to guess at his expression without having to make it out. It was a familiar yet strange mirror of her own.
Sometimes she wondered whether Rudyard was so successful at getting under her skin by virtue of their similarities or on the account of their differences.
‘You know my best suit? The one that I wore to father’s funeral?’ Rudyard demanded with his characteristic, single-minded urgency and almost mad twinkle to his eyes that usually made an appearance when he had some delusion of grandeur or crazy plot going on.
‘Yes, what about it?’ Antigone sighed, preemptively exasperated about his tiresome brother’s latest scheme. She held onto the feeble hope that he’d just wanted the garment for an upcoming funeral – but did not have too much faith in that particular outcome.
‘Have you seen it?’ Rudyard demanded like she was a bloody cloakroom attendant and not the funeral home’s most talented (if only) mortician.
‘No.’ she answered curtly and attempted to shut the door in Rudyard’s face, but he managed to wedge his cursed Oxfords over the threshold and shattered Antigone’s plans in that regard.
‘Well, I need it!’ Rudyard announced as if Antigone was somehow responsible for keeping track of his sartorial items. ‘Will you help me find it?’
‘Why, are we burying you in it?’ She asked, a familiar, childish spite building in her voice which made Rudyard cry out indignantly and take a stunned step back like he’ didn’t throw much more hurtful phrases around regularly.
‘Of course not!’
‘Then no!’ She announced and took the opportunity to shut herself away.
But she barely had a chance to turn on her heels on the top of the stairs when the knocking started up again.
‘Argh.’ She knew she’d lost the battle as soon as she flung the door open, she could see it written all over her brother’s smug face. But truth to be told, she was just too curious to know what the funeral director was attempting this time. It was best to be aware if… no, when the whole thing came crashing down around Rudyard again. ‘What’s wrong with what you are wearing now?’
‘It’s the pair of trousers that melted in your embalming fluids!’ Rudyard pointed out and admittedly the shorts he was sporting at the moment were somewhat frayed around the edges - but she hadn’t kept up with the latest fashion for the last seventeen years, so she just assumed that her taste, as usual, was a tad outdated.
‘Precisely. And I’ve got to say, you look very fetching with your legs exposed. It makes your handsome kneecaps pop.’ She used her most syrupy voice in an attempt to compliment and consequently distract Rudyard.
But perhaps she laid it on a bit too thick. At least judging by the confused expression Rudyard regarded his pale, stick-like extremities (befitting of a praying mantis) with.
‘It sure does.’ He mumbled in meek assent. ‘I can barely feel them.’
‘See? So just go and hop into your kilt and let me be !’ She wasn’t going to admit it to Rudyard, but late Captain Sodbury’s publishers found some of his yet unprinted manuscripts a little while ago and her preorder of Veronica Knight’s last book, A Lewd Vale was now waiting for her to enjoy in the peaceful respite of her solitary mortuary - if only her sodding brother would grant her that much-desired peace.
‘I can’t. Rudyard announced with that distinct, bull-headed determination that made finding out what Knight’s latest heroine - the sure possessor of an impressive, heaving bosom and immaculate morals - shall do in the isolated township of mostly males an increasingly unlikely prospect.
‘Oh for Heaven’s sake why can’t you?’ She sighed without much conviction to it. It was too late, she was sucked in now and she knew that she’ll have to see this to the end if she wanted her precious solitude back.
‘Calliope used it to make a nest for the bats that live in the archive’s storage cupboard.’ Rudyard at least had it in him to look a bit sheepish as he admitted to this.
‘That child!’ Antigone growled with frustration, not for the first time and as if summoned, Calliope materialised from behind her father.
‘Are you talking about me?’ She chirped with her distinct brand of sharp brightness, prompting her father and aunt to answer in unison.
‘Yes.’ Antigone admitted.
‘No.’ Rudyard lied.
‘What are you arguing about then?’ She demanded and Antigone contemplated how she never would have dreamt of sticking her nose in the adult’s business like that when she was her age.
‘About your father wanting his suit and me wanting my peace back before I reach the end of my tether and go on a murderous spree!’ She decided to grace her with an answer if a bit begrudgingly.
‘Calliope, have you seen my best suit?’ Rudyard whined at his daughter now and Antigone contemplated sneaking away - only she couldn't throw her favourite (if only) niece under the bus like that.
‘Back of the cupboard in the attic.’ Calliope answered with her characteristic, eager beaver surety. Then proceeded to ruin the effect by being disrespectfully, obnoxiously curious again ‘What do you need it for?’
‘I am going out’ Rudyard’s answer was suspiciously apprehensive. Calliope must have felt the same because she continued to press on.
‘With Mr Chapman?’
‘What?!’ Rudyard all but screamed, then scowled and proceeded to whisper the rival funeral director’s name with disgust like he could hear it, somehow, from all the way across the square. ‘Chapman?! No! Can five minutes not pass in this household without someone bringing up that man?’
‘It could if only you stopped talking about him all the time.’ Antigone pointed out, to annoy her brother who threw her a glance sharp enough to be impaled on.
‘If you must know, I am going to the Mayor’s blackjack tournament.’ Rudyard finally admitted, pretending to be magnanimous about it. ‘But you don’t have to concern yourself as you’ll be staying here with your Auntigone’
‘No, she won’t.’ Antigone declared, mostly to disagree with her brother on principle. She had little to no intention of leaving the house with Lewd Vale waiting in the privacy of her mortuary. Besides, babysitting Calliope wasn’t really a chore, anyway. She was ten, self-sufficient and a trained survivalist, could cook better than Rudyard and Georgie combined and didn’t need Antigone’s interference to entertain herself. So she really only said it to be as bothersome to her brother as her brother was to her and fully intended to back out of her commitment to leaving the house well on time.
‘How come?’ Rudyard gaze snapped at her and she could feel her smile widen at the clear expression of annoyance plastered across his face. As always he’d failed the entertain the prospect that his little sister would have anything better to do than sit around, awaiting his commands.
‘Because I am coming with you.’ She threatened and basked in the glory of Rudyard prompt exasperation.
‘Now look here, Antigone. I can’t leave my ten years old unsupervised while I am off to enter the Mayor’s den of iniquity and Georgie’s working at the Mayor’s office later today!’
Across the hall and from the kitchen their assistant (hanging till late as she was more of a permanent fixture than an employee anyway) was busy projecting in eager agreement.
‘I’m great at helping out on poker night!’
‘I thought they were playing blackjack.’ Antigone shouted back.
‘Yeah, well, same difference.’
‘I still don’t see why am I the one supposed to stay at home when I am an equal partner at Funn Funerals and it’s your daughter in question who needs supervision!’ Antigone argued, turning back to Rudyard.
That was the point where Calliope thought it to be appropriate for her to interrupt again.
‘Auntigone, Dad, it’s ok. You can both go and have a playdate with Mayor Desmond.’
Rudyard scoffed at his daughter with fond condescension.
‘Thank you, Calliope, but I can hardly have a minor unattended in a house full of poisonous liquids and highly flammable equipment.’
‘That’s ok, Dad. I won’t be alone. Or here. I’m having a sleepover at Douglas’ tonight, remember?’
Antigone felt the thick mixture of something like a surge of indignancy and protectiveness flare in her. She had a sudden memory of her many attempts at sleepovers, felled repeatedly by the fact that she was severely allergic to their peers and the recurring bullying that followed every such trial. She was suddenly determined to spare her niece the pain
‘No, you’re not.’ She sneered at her, but knowing how little an impact she tended to make, she continued to pester her brother in turn who was far more likely to be wavered by her nagging. ‘Rudyard, how can you allow your infant to stay at complete stranger’s house?’
‘Douglas is not a stranger. And I am not an infant. I am perfectly capable of…’
‘The child is too immature to be exposed to such experiences, Rudyard.’ She declared, talking over Calliope, should she change her father’s mind. ‘I never had a sleepover at the tender age of ten!’
She knew it was the wrong thing to say from the way Rudyard’s eyes glazed over with the sudden reminisce.
‘My God, you are right!’ He whispered with reverent horror before turning to the Funn descendant. ‘Calliope, you are most definitely going.’
‘But Rudyard…!’ Antigone cried, offended but to no avail.
‘Would you rather stay and babysit? Because I can’t see why should I allow you to come with me in the first place!’ Rudyard asked, clearly trying to distract her.
In all fairness, it sort of worked.
‘So I can make sure that you are not gambling away your daughter’s inheritance.’
‘Antigone, not in front of the child!’ Rudyard bellowed in panic and all but plastered his hands over his offspring’s ears. ‘Don’t listen to her, Calliope, she’s losing it from breathing in the fumes of the embalming fluids for too long.’
‘It’s not like you’ve got any other money to bet with.’ She was pretty sure about that - despite all the late success of the business they were still on a strict diet of only the finest root vegetables that the 30p price range had to offer.
‘Aha. And how about his?’
Rudyard, who seemingly anticipated this argument, whipped out a banknote with obvious triumph.
Antigone stared at the unfamiliar colouration of the bill. It’s been a while since she’d seen this much money under their roof.
‘Where did you get that from?’ She asked with a mixture of awe and suspicion.
‘Nana gave it to me for my birthday.’ Rudyard’s voice had a faint note of reflexive taunting, a remnant of their shared childhood.
‘She died fifteen years ago!’
‘And I kept the money for a rainy day.’
Antigone growled, placated by the very likely explanation - only Rudyard could be enough of a skimp for such an act.
‘Some day it is when the Mayor invites you of all people to joins his illegal casino. Anyway, who died and made you his last resort?’
‘Why would you even assume’ He whinged. ‘that he won’t invite me unless someone died? I’ll have you know that Mayor Desmond and I have been mending our professional…’
‘It’s Agatha Doyle.’ Georgie chimed in helpfully. ‘But she ain’t dead, she is just off to the mainland to a confectioner’s conference in France. So now they are one player short.’
‘And I am going to take this opportunity to turn our family’s fortune around.’ Rudyard cackled maniacally.
This finally lured Georgie from the kitchen. She threw her shoulder against the doorframe and watched her boss’ plotting with the scepticism it deserved.
‘Are you sure, Sir? Ten pounds will only get you so far. And I’m not even sure that you know how to play blackjack.’
‘I’m not talking about blackjack, Georgie.’ Rudyard waved as if he really wasn’t doing just that until now. ‘That’s just an excuse. I am going over to the Mayor’s tonight to remind him of the intrinsic values of our village he had lost sight of in his desperate bid to turn us into a town. I shall…’
‘Save your pitch for the Council, would you?’ Antigone interrupted him before he had a chance to warm his vocals for a full-blown tirade. ‘Why don’t you just tell us what Hell is this all about?’
‘I am going to get the Mayor to start funding the upkeep of the burial grounds again.’ Rudyard announced in the most overly-dramatic, conspiratory manner - like he was revealing the Manhattan plan for the women of the Funn Funeral Home.
‘I don’t see how is that going to help to turn our fortune around.’ Georgie scowled. ‘Just because the Piffling cemetery is a bit nicer, people will still bloody well choose Chapman over us. I say we focus on the rebranding, Sir.’
‘It’s because it’s us , Georgie!’
‘Yes, exactly. That’s why we need the rebranding.’ She was syllabising now like Rudyard was an eager but dense pupil of hers - which he was, in a way.
‘No, I mean we are responsible for the upkeep of the burial grounds. Have been for five centuries and for many more generations.’
‘To put it in plain English,’ Antigone added. ‘he is planning on syphoning the village funds into our pockets again.’
‘It’s about more than that!’ Rudyard’s voice was suddenly full of quiet passion they have never heard from him before. It was like watching his reflection in a funhouse mirror - it was still Rudyard but from an alternative realm, where he had heaps of robust confidence and everything under control. ‘The burial grounds are a disgrace. When I went with Calliope the other day to visit Cordelia I was astonished to see how derelict everything looked. It’s a dilapidated mockery of a graveyard, unworthy of the name.’
He looked pleadingly in his sister’s eyes, as Calliope hid her wounded expression in his side.
‘You should see the state of that place, Antigone.’
If she were a bit less wise and a bit more wistful, she could have pretended that the plea was bout the burial grounds as something as they had in common as siblings and shared with no one else. That it was about the games of hide and seek they used to play among the gravestones as their father haggled with the diggers or about the way they used to challenge each other to scale the proud oak trees or to mount the stairs leading down the Sodbury crypt.
But she knew better. She knew that it was really about the girl, a pretty young thing that used to arrive on a creaking bicycle, held together only by rust and the will of the Holy Spirit or some earthen magic, with Rudyard’s freshly tuned mandolin in the back. The girl who had Rudyard rushing downstairs in a breakneck speed only to pause in the privacy of the end of the narrow staircase to smooth his best suit down. The only person, aside from Antigone, who could make Rudyard smile sincerely. The girl who now had the final resting place in the shade of the same oak tree on which Antigone once broke her wrist in a failed attempt to climb it.
And because she knew better and she knew her brother she didn’t say “Oh, Rudyard.” with a sad infliction the way she really wanted to. Instead, she dragged the Antigone who’d swoop to conquer out to the forefront; the version of herself who would pick Rudyard up when he couldn’t carry the burden of being himself alone. The girl who hissed phrases in Latin at Rudyard’s bullies until they ran off, convinced she was possessed; who had grown into a woman who’d make herself hate Chapman on her brother’s behalf even when her heart was breaking under the weight of such a heavy task - until it ceased to be heavy, of course.
‘Crikey, you are right.’ She cried out. ‘What are we still waiting for? Let’s drop your daughter at Duncan’s…’
‘Douglas’.’ Calliope interrupted.
‘...and conquer the depraved lot at that illicit gambling circle.’
Across him, Rudyard was just ruining the impact he made with the conceited Cheshire grin spreading on his face.
‘Antigone.’ He drawled with evident satisfaction. ‘What do I hear? Are you quite sure that we can allow such a timid little creature as my daughter outside in the big, bad world?’
‘Oh don’t get smug with me, Rudyard!’ Antigone dismissed him, too fired up by the disrespect that befell the only Piffling resident that showed her and her insufferable brother a shred of sympathy over the years of their unspoken exile. ‘The child is more capable than the two of us put together and soon will be more useful than Georgie.’
‘Hey!’ Georgie cried.
‘She’ll be fine.’ Antigone concluded, barely holding back on the urge to wipe Rudyard's grin off with a smack across his face.
‘Are you really certain, though?’ He asked, putting on airs. ‘Because, I thought she was just a helpless infant. I thought she was too immature to be exposed to such experiences.’
‘Well, that was then. When I believed that this whole charade was for the sake of you and your wounded pride, a mere attempt of yours to win the council’s respect again. But it’s a completely different case if it’s for the sake of Cordelia! In that case, she will just have to cope.’
‘I said I’ll be fine!’ Calliope spoke again, exasperated.
‘Sure you did, you brave little soldier.’ Antigone said, vaguely, cavalier of her courageous play-acting and she went to grab her coat. It was getting late and she wasn’t going to catch her death on their way to the Mayor’s office in the chilled Piffling night - not as long as Chapman was the only mortician available to embalm her, should she suddenly decease!