Slouching his way across the length of the square, pausing and swaying in a deceitfully tipsy manner Rudyard made the short trip to his funeral home with considerable difficulty.
Inside Antigone was moving about the hall among bouquets upon bouquets of half-dead lilies. Singing softly to herself in absent-minded bliss, she went around cutting off the heads of those flowers. She was simply collecting samples to her experiments with bespoke embalming fluids of course, but in her dark, veiling dress and with her lanky, black hair she looked like a twisted, haunting, mirror image, a ghostly gardener; fostering death instead of life.
She snapped her head up when she heard the silver bell go and the sudden expression of avid suspicion finally lent a hint of liveliness to her otherwise pale and placid features.
‘Rudyard? You are back early. Haven't you got a funer-‘ Antigone's voice broke off and her face rearranged itself into the shape of wide-eyed surprise. ‘By Christ, Rudyard, why do you look like that?!’
Rudyard was, indeed, doing a splendid job of impersonating a cartoon character busy peeling itself from under the large, rear wheel of a steamroller. Looking even thinner, flatter and more wrung out than usual.
‘Oh why flattery will get you nowhere, you know.’ He gasped softly, but with unmistakable sarcasm as he sank in his favourite seat; the least splintery corner of the foyer.
‘I didn't mean it like that.’ Sighed Antigone somewhat more affably. ‘It's just that you seem a bit... Faint. Like you are about to expire on me. What happened to you?!’
‘Funny you should ask.’ Whined Rudyard, twisting his tie around his neck in a desperate bid to loosen it. ‘It's a terribly long and weird story.’
‘Then, by all means, keep it to yourself.’ Antigone suggested in an acrid tone, trying to turn her attention back to her flowers.
‘It's just that as I was running from the angry mob on my heels-‘ Rudyard began anyway and the same instant the full force of Antigone's attention was on him again.
‘Mob, what mob?’
‘The angry one. With pocky sticks in their hands and bloodlust in their hearts, you know the type.’
‘No, I mean-I mean-I mean, why was there an angry mob? And why were you running from them?’ She said with an urgency that felt laced with panic.
‘Because they were chasing after me, aren't you listening?’
‘The funeral, Rudyard tell me about the funeral.’ Antigone was demanding suddenly, her voice growing shrill reaching new and hysterical heights. ‘How did it go?’
‘Very, very wrong.’
‘HOW wrong, Rudyard?’
‘The "Oh, dear I'm sure we had a dead body in the coffin when we started out" kind of wrong.’ Rudyard erupted in an irked huff.
‘Astonishing.’ Sighed Antigone, her breath stuttering. She was beyond angry now, mustering only a faint impression of irritation. ‘Rudyard, you surely recall us saying that this was going to be the year we started running this place like a profitable business rather than a charitable home for terrible undertakers? How could you have lost another body?’
‘Beats me.’ Called a voice across the room. It was Georgie who chose just this moment to enter the foyer, catching up with her harried employer at long last. ‘It defies logic. And the laws of physics, for that matter.’
‘Would you all please just hush and let me get to the weird part already?!’ Rudyard cried, trying to grab their attention
‘Rudyard. You lost a body from a closed casket on the five yards it takes to walk from the inside of the church to the cemetery. Are you trying to tell me that this isn't the weird part yet?’
‘No, because you see as I was hiding from the lynching crowd, who should I bump into but Eric "The Toerag" Chapman-‘
‘Eric Chapman.’ Georgie drawled meaningfully. ‘What has he done now, sir?’
There was a beat of silence for one, two, three breaths, then:
‘Professed his undying love for me.’ Rudyard whispered under his breath.
‘Could you repeat that again, please?’ Georgie grunted at him, taken aback. She had, unfortunately, heard her boss loud and clear, despite his best efforts.
‘I said he professed his undying love for me, alright?!’ Rudyard now blurted on the top of his voice. When his exclaim died down it left a ringing echo of silence, a weighted absence as heavy against their eardrums as it was incredulous. Rudyard could have sworn that it lasted until the last recorded syllable of history.
‘No, sorry that's just a noise.’ Georgie finally concluded.
‘Rudyard, you are not just being ludicrous?’ His sister asked almost threateningly, making it plenty obvious that she was in no mood for a leg pull.
She rarely ever was but that is beside the point.
‘No, Antigone.’ Rudyard shook his head gravely.
‘But why would he do that?’ Contemplated their assistant, squinting her eyes into a narrow look of suspicion.
‘I imagine because he's terribly in love with me, Georgie!’ Wailed Rudyard who was walking the fine line between equanimity and complete nervous breakdown with lamentable success.
‘No, I just meant... Are you sure this isn't a wind-up, sir?’
‘No, it's not a wind-up.’
‘You don't know that!’ Antigone cried. ‘Georgie's right, he could be leading you on the devious, ruthless, cunning swine...’
‘No, he couldn't. Because, Antigone, he didn't know he was confessing to me. I was busy hiding in a confessional booth when he strode in and started unburdening himself, probably thinking that I was the Reverend.’
‘Rudyard, this is very important so I need you to focus. What did he say, exactly?’
‘Stated that he'd always been attracted to me, deep down and started reminiscing about the time he tried to ask me out for a light ale, that sort of thing.’ Admitted Rudyard, twiddling with the end of his tie. He seemed unable to look anyone in the eye and there was a bright red blush creeping steadily from behind his collar towards his gaunt cheeks. ‘From there he proceeded to say how he'd only just realised how deep his feelings were. Then he complained about me seemingly resenting him on a personal level before he cheered himself up somehow and dashed off to conduct a funeral. Or maybe ten.’
Rudyard was forced to wrap his story up with the airy huff of lingering defeat.
‘But that doesn't make any sense! He is Eric Chapman! And you are... Well, you are so’ Antigone cried then her voice trailed off. ‘ you .’
‘What does that supposed to mean?!’
‘It doesn't mean anything.’ Protested the mortician, growing defensive under her brother’s intimidating glare.
‘Antigone. Why is it so hard for you to believe that someone could actually love me for who I am?’
‘Because it's you!’
‘Why thank you very much.’
‘Yep, sure.’ Rudyard rolled his eyes. But without the passion of their argument to barrel him on, he simply collapsed on himself. ‘Good grief, Antigone, what are we going to do now? He's threatening to come and talk to me for God's sake.’
‘We?! I don't see how this affects me, Rudyard. Surely, this is your problem, not mine.’ Antigone sniffed and cocked her head up proudly before adding in an undertone. ‘Something's clearly wrong with him if he's developed feelings for you! I am only too glad that I stopped being attracted to the man well before now.’
‘Now look here... Wait, what did you say?’
‘Nothing, shut up, keep despairing.’
‘Any ideas, Georgie?’ Rudyard stared at his assistant pleadingly, but she just shrugged.
‘Don't look at me, sir.’
‘No, you are absolutely right.’ Rudyard nodded with sudden decisiveness. ‘This is my problem. It's my duty to deal with it. And I can only do what a responsible adult with my social standing and with my strict determination to adhere to a comprehensive moral code could do.’
‘Ignore the whole thing until it goes away?’ Suggested Georgie.
‘And how do you propose to do that?’ Squalled Antigone but Rudyard seemed ready to present her with a plan.
‘Avoid Chapman at all costs. After all, he can hardly confess to me if he can't find me. Eventually, he'll have no choice but to realise that my absence must be intentional and that he's being ignored with great purpose. Surely, he'll abandon his advances after that and then everything will be just like before.’ Sighed the undertaker wishfully, drawing a foreboding glare from his assistant.
‘Can I just remind you, sir, that man doesn't take apathy for an answer?’
‘He will now!’ Rudyard snarled.
'And how do you want to avoid him on an island that's only a mile long? Half of which now belongs to him?’
‘Oh come on, how hard can it be?' Asked Rudyard, with a truly unjustifiable amount of confidence.
'Hard, Rudyard, very hard indeed. Is what I'm trying to imply.'
'Poppycock.' Not exactly famous for his even temper, Rudyard seemed to have recovered his equilibrium he was so quick to lose before.
In fact, he now was as close to being a happy man as a Funn can conceivably get. And why shouldn't he be happy? He's done away with the Chapman conundrum and put the body back in the coffin and in the ground very nearly on time, all in one very efficient morning. So as long as Rudyard Funn was concerned, all was well in the world.
'You just need a sharp coordinating mind, that's all. And I've got one of those you see.' He reassured his sister then consulted the wristwatch that sat loosely on his emaciated arm.
‘Now if you'll excuse me, I'd better get move on. My shift in the Archives is about to start and I want to impress the Head Archivist with my penchant for scheduling and staunch adherence to staff rotas.’
Turning on his heels, practically brimming with self-importance, he made it for the door just when Antigone called after him
'Rudyard, you do know that you are the Head Archivist, right?'
‘Yes, I do. What's your point?'
And he tried to bid us farewell with an unfamiliar and perfectly unjust sense of confidence and elation.
But, alas, the vast and unforgiving Universe around us set out to prove once more that there was no indignity so small that it will not save it for Rudyard Funn. This time it happened through the medium of Georgie Crusoe.
'Could it wait?' She intercepted her boss' attempt at an escape. 'I've got something to tell ya.'
'Georgie, shouldn't you be at the Mayor's this morning?' Asked Rudyard in an irate voice that failed to intimidate his assistant.
'Yep. I've just popped around to tell you about this inspection.'
'Inspection, what inspection?' Rudyard snapped his head up and Antigone spun around to glare at Georgie, her dress billowing around her.
'We just got word at the Village Hall that the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau is coming to do their annual audit of these premises today.'
This sounded harmless enough and Funns took it in with a degree of measured reluctance.
That's before the whole foyer erupted into panic.