Respect for the Dead

For your Friday delectation, dear reader, I present an extract from my collection Dear Lucifer and Other Stories.

The dark horse shakes its head slowly, sending the jet-black plumes in its harness into a syncopated dance. Another, shackled alongside and looking into the distance, waits silently, shining in the bright sunshine. A small crowd of people, all dressed in black, breaks and gets into a line of waiting cars. After grinding a cigarette into the grey tarmac and waiting for a white van to pass, the coachman straightens his black top hat and climbs onto the box of the hearse. He adjusts his tailcoat and takes up the reins.

Slowly, the hearse creeps forward, the horses repeatedly bowing their heads and rattling their harnesses as they take their first steps. The metal-rimmed wheels of the hearse clatter on the stone-encrusted road, and the flowers shiver in the wreath on the top of the hearse. One by one, the cars judder into life and the solemn procession inches along the street. No need to hurry. Not now.

An old man, walking home with plastic bags full of shopping, stops and doffs his cloth cap. A cat, folded under a heavy bush, watches the horses pass and a dog barks, intoxicated on the equine sweat drifting in the half-breeze.

In the leading car, a woman, trying not to cry, looks away from her husband and out of the window, not noticing the crumbling tower block and the anonymous houses staring back at her. A group of children stop playing and even the greasy pigeons, swooping for a discarded burger, suspend their fight for survival to honour a battle recently lost. Only an empty crisp packet, circling on the pavement in a dust tornado, ignores the procession.

As the hearse reaches the junction, cars slow and conversations abruptly end. Faces turn to see the horses and the shaking plumes.

– I didn’t know they still did things like that here, someone says. I thought it was just in the East End.

– Nice, though, isn't it? A bit of respect for the dead. Know what I mean?

A Turkish man, placing melons into a crate outside his shop, straightens and watches, puzzled. The procession passes in front of the Co-op and the print shop. A drunk emerges from the pub and stops, bowing his head clumsily.

You are leaving the Post Office, thinking of nothing, putting your wallet away. It’s the clip-clop of shod hooves that catches your attention. And a women by the bus stop making the sign of the cross. You want to take a picture when you see the incongruous majesty of it all, but a cloud passes in front of the sun and you are cold and uncomfortable, shuddering slightly.

Who is that in the wooden box with the brass handles? No one you know. You think of your mother. She is still alive, but you will be in a car with blacked-out windows soon enough.

A motorbike passes, loud and fast, and the horses stop, panicked. The coachman sways on his box and gathers himself, gently flicking the reins.

– No bloody respect, a voice says. That’s the trouble with people today.

The old man curls his face and spits in disgust. The hearse moves forward again, up the hill towards the white-painted prison and another world. As the last of the black cars passes, you wake, as if from a dream. You want to talk to someone, to those standing around, but you realise you don’t know anyone. These people, this…community; it’s not your home, even though you live here.

Slowly, the noise builds and the faces turn away.

Dear Lucifer and Other Stories is out now.

L. A. Davenport