I helped Mr Grimley to his feet and together we stared at the gurney on which I had laid out his dead brother the previous night. It was some seconds before I realised it was down to me to break the awkward silence.
“He was there yesterday.”
Mr Grimley nodded, his tortoise-like eyes receding beneath deeply wrinkled lids.
“Are you sure this is…?”
The question hung in the air like an accusation, but we were a small outfit with space for only six and the mild autumn weather was still keeping people away. Discounting the insult to my professional pride, there was no possibility of an error as the elder Mr Grimley represented our entire business for the previous three weeks.
“It’s definitely the correct gurney, Mr Grimley.”
His grief appeared to battle something that was altogether more complex and, in horror, I remembered the last clause of our agreement.
“He can’t have gone far,” I said and recognised in my voice the same desperation that I had heard from countless customers, the same refusal to accept loss, the same anger, the same disbelief.
My wife had been pregnant with our first child when, over a decade ago, I first met the younger Mr Grimley. Any doubts I may have had about his precise terms were silenced by the unusually large advance and thoughts of the home it would enable me to secure for my family.
Yet, even now, I found it incredible that the ‘inability to bury’ clause might apply. There were rumours about the mysterious disappearance of seventy kilos of Mrs Whitstanley’s rockery on the day of her husband’s memorial, but that was with the crowd down the road. Things like this did not happen to professional undertakers, and I considered myself one of the best.
“You have disappointed me,” Mr Grimley said quietly as he steadied himself against the empty gurney with one hand. There was nothing more to say.
“Frank!” I heard a sonorous voice behind me.
“George!” Mr Grimley turned, as did I, to see the imposing figure of his brother somehow managing to look dignified despite wearing just a split blue robe and a brown paper tag on his right, big toe. The younger Mr Grimley smiled so that even the deep creases on his forehead seemed to turn up at the corners. “You’re looking… surprisingly… well.”
“Didn’t I tell you?”
“You told me lots of things.” There was an edge to Mr Grimley’s voice, a resentful edge.
“You aren’t still going on about that! Our wager was as clearly agreed as this one.” George marched over to embrace his brother affectionately. He turned to me. “I don’t suppose you know where my suit is?”
It was a somewhat irregular but not altogether unreasonable request. I nodded and went through to the office. A perverse masochism masquerading as hope made me check the Grimley file. The specificity of Mr Grimley’s terms began to make sense as I deciphered the complex wording of the punitive ‘failure to bury’ clause and realised I was liable for a multiple of the original advance. I didn’t need to calculate the effect of ten years of compound interest to know that I was ruined and I could not believe my foolishness as I located George’s personal effects.
They were deep in conversation when I returned and George began to dress without pausing, barely acknowledging my efforts.
“…you see, I was right. The elixir of eternal life has a simple formula and you have lost our little bet.” He paused for a triumphal smile. “You owe me five hundred thousand pounds.”
“I don’t think so.” Mr Grimley answered with a mischievous glint in his wizened eyes. “My definition of immortality doesn’t allow for,” he paused, looking around the mortuary with evident distaste, “a gap in service.”
“Really?” George’s voice changed, no longer warm, it was sharp, almost threatening. “So I presume you have come up with your own formula?”
The younger Mr Grimley’s eyes narrowed and the two distinguished old men, both now wearing identical pin-stripe suits, squared off against each other like boys in a playground. Their eyes locked and their rivalry was marked by cold aggression, the type a man might act from.
“You owe me five hundred thousand pounds,” George repeated.
“Gents, please,” I said.
It wasn’t much, but our customers didn’t normally behave like this and I knew I had to do something. George and his brother looked at me, united by fraternal hatred of a profession they had good reason to despise now they could dispense with all need of it.
“This,” George declared, “has nothing to do with you.” He turned back to the argument. “Mortal or immortal, Frank? Your choice.”
“You’ll get your money,” Mr Grimley said, then turned to me, “I believe I’m due a refund.”
Gaius Coffey has written full outlines for two sit-coms, several novels, a couple of screen plays, a stage play and a radio play. He has even completed some of them. Currently, he is working on the final draft of a novel and flash fiction is just one of the many exciting and enjoyable diversions he has found to prevent him from actually finishing it. He lives in Dublin with his wife and two cats.