Chapter One: Tequila
It started, as most things end, with a funeral.
This seemed a perfectly ordinary funeral. At first.
The sun could not pierce the glowering clouds, which cast the day in a sullen greyness as befitting a solemn occasion. A greyness to match the stone from which the church, a sombre backdrop, was constructed. The hearse had come to rest in the turning circle at the end of the driveway—opened to vehicles only on such occasions—near the yawning hole waiting to be filled. Rolls of green tarpaulin had been draped over mounds of earth huddling discreetly in the background. The tarpaulin rippled and snapped in the stiff October breeze.
Parked cars lined the roads outside the church grounds. They disgorged people dressed darkly, who huddled themselves against the wind and walked in slowstep along the church drive towards the funeral cars. Two Daimlers, black and stately, stood behind the hearse, far enough away to allow space for the coffin to be extracted when the time came.
Two black-overcoated men stood at the rear of the hearse, faces expressionless, nothing about them worthy of note. Anonymity suits their profession.
From the crowd now assembled behind the Daimlers, six men stepped forward. They, too, wore black overcoats, but their faces were animated with expression: a mix of deeply ingrained sorrow and apprehension. These men approached the rear of the hearse and formed two lines facing each other with grim gazes.
One of the undertakers released the latch on the rear door of the hearse and raised it silently on well-greased hinges. The other removed a black, plastic object from the floor of the hearse and placed it on the roof, behind the erect tailgate. His expression seemed carefully neutral, as though he had stood before a mirror for hours practising how to look impassive. The first removed sprays of flowers from the coffin and placed them aside. They both stood poised at the open door as the action shifted to the Daimlers.
The rear doors to the furthest Daimler opened and four people stepped out. The oldest was stooped, arthritic, her gaze permanently cast down due to over-curvature of her spine. The youngest, also female, around two generations more youthful, stayed by the first woman’s side, watchful and ready to offer support. The remaining two, a couple, looked to be in their fifties, greying and lined.
From the nearest Daimler, three people emerged. The older woman, also greying, stood erect, face set as though determined to see this last ordeal through, or expressing stony-faced disapproval. The man—balding, face crumpled like yesterday’s newspaper—grasped her arm, though it was unclear whether it was a gesture of support for her or it was he who sought strength in contact. The third person was younger, the grey light unable to dull the chestnut glow of her hair. Her eyes were dry, but red-rimmed and puffy. She stood, hands clenched tightly, a little apart from the older couple. Neither of them made any move to comfort her.
Came the moment for the main player to take centre stage. The undertakers each gripped a gleaming chrome handle and began to slide the coffin off the raised floor of the hearse. The men standing at the end of the two lines turned towards the vehicle and bent at the knees. The undertakers guided the coffin onto their shoulders. The action was repeated down the lines and the men straightened, the coffin perched securely on six shoulders, steadied by six hands bracing the teak sides. The men’s free arms linked beneath the casket and, as one, they shuffled around to face the yawning hole. But they did not move towards it. Not yet.
Here the funeral departed from what is considered normal on such occasions.
The undertakers closed the tailgate of the hearse. The one with the practised expression held a hand towards the object on the roof and paused, looking to the three mourners from the nearest Daimler. The older woman grimaced and her lips pursed into a tight nest of wrinkles. The man lowered his gaze. Only the puffy-eyed younger woman responded to the enquiring glance of the undertaker. She took a deep breath and nodded.
The undertaker depressed one of the buttons on top of the object and stood back. If anything, his expression became too guarded and, perversely, expressed volumes.
At first, nothing happened and the tableau was frozen: the bearers, coffin on shoulders, arms entwined, eyes straight ahead; the chief mourners as motionless as freshly hewn statues; the sixty or so people who made up the rest of the mourners also unmoving; and, finally, the undertakers, who had resumed their carefully deferential stances and oh-so-guarded expressions at the head, and to either side, of the bearers. For moments, all was still, all was quiet. Even the persistent breeze faltered and no traffic could be heard passing along the main village road beyond the churchyard walls.
The sound which broke the spell was as unexpected as a peal of raucous laughter. It came from the black object on the roof of the hearse and at such a level the snapping of the tarpaulin covering the mounds of earth as the breeze picked up went unheard.
It was the sound of a guitar playing a snappy riff to the accompaniment of clapping hands. The riff was repeated and a bassline added. Drums and cymbals joined in, complemented a bar or two later by lead guitar.
As the music filled the churchyard, a shiver ran through the assembled mourners, breaking their apparent paralysis. There came a shuffling of feet on the driveway, furtive glances were cast at one another, coughs and the clearing of throats could be heard above the music.
When the distinctive sound of a saxophone broke in with a Tex Mex line, completing the melody, the bearers began to move. Taking small, deliberate steps, they shuffled forward. After the first few hesitant paces, they fell into the music’s beat and stepped to its rhythm.
The undertakers marched slowly alongside the coffin, guiding the bearers between grey headstones.
The chief mourners followed, the puffy-eyed younger woman alone in front, one older couple a pace or two behind, their faces mirroring each other’s in distaste. Behind them came the other greying couple, followed closely by the women separated by two generations in age. The younger of these, it might be remarked, bore a sibling resemblance to the woman at the head of the procession.
All others fell in behind. Many affected airs of grim neutrality as though there was nothing unusual in what they were doing. Some were unable to hide their feelings of aghast at taking part in a funeral procession to a tune their expressions made clear they felt was so misplaced.
The bearers paused when the music reached its first bridge, causing those following to also halt their forward shuffle. All were once more still as the saxophone crescendoed, all instruments fell momentarily silent and one word—in keeping with the tune but not the occasion—resounded across the graveyard.
The music kicked back in and the saxophone soared. The bearers resumed their rhythmic stride and the mourners shuffled along behind, beginning to fan out as the coffin approached its journey’s end.
The undertakers quickened their step to beat the coffin to the graveside. They busied themselves laying wooden slats, like railway sleepers, and nylon straps across the waiting hole. The straps were, of course, grey since this was a sombre occasion in spite of the upbeat accompaniment.
The bearers came to a halt alongside the grave. The chief mourners formed a loose huddle at the foot of the grave. The rest of the mourners continued to fan out, some, perhaps subconsciously, stepping in time to the music still playing from the roof of the hearse. They came to rest, standing three or four deep, spread out along each long side of the grave.
The bearers, assisted by the imperturbable undertakers, lowered their burden carefully until it rested upon the wooden slats.
To the relief of many present, the music was coming to an end. Instruments dropped out in the same order they had come in: first, the saxophone went, followed moments later by the lead guitar, then the drums; next, the bassline faded, leaving only the catchy guitar riff and clapping accompaniment.
Three bearers stepped around the grave and took up position opposite. All six stooped and straightened, clutching the grey nylon straps in their hands. The occasional apprehensive glance passed between them. One of the undertakers muttered something and the bearers pulled tightly until the nylon webbing bore the coffin’s weight. The undertakers, one each side of the grave, effortlessly removed the wooden slats and secreted them beneath the tarpaulin. At a nod from one of the undertakers, the bearers began to let out the straps, inch by careful inch, and the coffin started to descend.
The guitar and clapping stopped and there was an instant’s silence, before a group of voices shouted the title exultantly:
The CD player fell silent and the coffin settled into its dank home. The bearers allowed the straps to fall to the ground, before moving away to blend once more amongst the mourners. The undertakers tugged the straps out of the hole and rolled them into muddy, grey rolls that disappeared into the huge pockets of their overcoats. They stepped into position at the head of the grave, a gap between them, and resumed their carefully neutral poses.
The coffin was interred, the mourners in place; the orchestra awaited its conductor. A tall figure of advancing age detached itself from the crowd and stepped forward to fill the gap between the undertakers. He faced the mourners, dog collar visible beneath the tightly buttoned overcoat. His hands emerged from the coat’s pockets, clutching a small black book. He opened it, lifted his head and began.
“Family… friends… we are gathered here together to commit the soul of Paul Duffy to our Lord…”
The priest’s voice was low, yet contained such timbre no one had difficulty hearing him above the gusting whoosh of the ever-freshening breeze.
When the priest reached the line ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust’, one of the undertakers tossed a handful of soil onto the lid of the coffin. It scattered with a sound like sand hitting glass. Clearly, the undertaker kept a supply of desiccated soil in the seemingly vast pockets of his overcoat since the ground upon which they stood, in the midst of a Welsh autumn, could never yield such a dry specimen.
It was then the funeral severed all links with conventionality. For it was then, amidst the priest’s recitation, the whipping wind, and the muffled sobs and sniffs from the congregation, another sound intruded. It was low, too soft to be heard by anyone other than those standing at the immediate graveside, and so incongruous the few who heard it preferred to ignore it.
The priest was one of those. His face blanched and he stumbled over a word, but he was an old hand at this game and recovered so quickly no one present would later remark upon the stutter.
The undertakers were also standing close enough to the grave to hear the noise clearly. It was a regular, insistent noise, one that is commonplace in so many other situations except here. Never here.
It was the sound of knuckles knocking on wood. Gently, tentatively, but unmistakably bone on wood. And there was only one item made of wood in the vicinity which could be the source of the sound.
The undertakers’ expressions didn’t flicker and they didn’t so much as glance at each other. But, as one, they took a step back from the grave.
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