Short Fiction ~ Stephen Smythe
Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 11
“What do you mean, we can’t come in?” the man in the too-tight suit snarled. “What are you – some kinda funeral bouncer?”
Ibrahim had been going to English classes for six months and had not heard this expression before, although he gathered what it meant. He looked at the woman next to the man. Her eyes were red-ringed, the pallor of her face emphasised by the black clothes. Like the man, she was not wearing a mask. “I loved Mr Watson,” she said. “He always helped people on our street.”
“I am sorry,” Ibrahim said.
The woman caught a sob and the man snorted. “Let us in. It’s not a nightclub, mate!” He had no overcoat even though it was a cold, January day.
“The number of people in the chapel is the maximum permitted,” Ibrahim said.
“Quiet, please,” Ibrahim said.
“Don’t shush me, mate!”
“The service has already started,” Ibrahim said. He had closed the chapel door before the couple arrived.
“Why won’t you let us in?” the man demanded. “We’ve got masks - they’re in her bag!”
"No more permitted.”
“I can’t understand what you’re saying.”
Ibrahim wondered if his face mask was making it difficult for him to be heard, or whether the man was ridiculing his accent.
“Can’t you let us in?” the woman said, softly. “It’s freezing.”
Ibrahim stamped his feet. He had worked for the security firm in the shopping mall, but it was now closed because of lockdown. “I am sorry. I cannot.”
“How many people are inside?” the woman asked.
“Twenty,” Ibrahim said.
“I’m sure the Government says you can have thirty,” she said.
“Not here. The chapel is too small.”
“It’s doesn’t look that small,” the man said.
“There is social distancing inside.”
“Ridiculous,” the man hissed. “Get George. He’ll tell you to let us in.”
“You mean you won’t!”
Ibrahim said nothing. He looked beyond the man to where the headstones were. The sky was swollen dark grey and the naked trees seemed black. He longed for the colours of his home in Somalia and missed the lushness of Kenya – but not the camp. He felt safe here in this Lancashire town, in the north of England.
“It will not make a difference.”
“I’ve known Mr Watson since I was a little girl,” the woman said, crying as she rummaged in her handbag. “That damn virus!”
“See what you’ve done?” the man said.
Ibrahim wondered why the man did not comfort the woman. He waited for a moment until she dabbed her eyes with a tissue and appeared calmer. “I am afraid you will have to leave,” he said.
Ibrahim gestured towards the cemetery gates with his hand. “Please.”
“Make me!” The man planted his feet wide and thrust out his chest. A button popped off his jacket, and underneath part of his shirt was undone revealing a large belly.
Ibrahim had not expected to encounter aggression in a cemetery. But he was not afraid – he had known real danger in his twenty one years.
“Danny, don’t,” the woman said, putting her hand on the man’s arm.
The man gritted his teeth and spoke quietly but firmly. “We’re going inside.”
“I am sorry, sir, that is not possible.” Ibrahim stepped across the chapel doorway.
“What are you gonna do – call your mates on that?” The man pointed at the radio wedged in a pouch on Ibrahim’s hi-vis jacket. He was the only member of the security firm there. The radio was connected to HQ for emergencies only, although Ibrahim let the man think otherwise.
The man edged closer.
“Please keep your distance,” Ibrahim said, stepping back.
The man looked him up and down. Ibrahim met the man’s eyes. Nobody blinked. They were the same height, although Ibrahim was in much better shape. The man unclenched his jaw.
“Danny, come on,” the woman said. “Mr Watson wouldn’t have wanted this.”
The man kept his gaze on Ibrahim, although his eyes had lost their fire. “Where’re they burying him?”
“I am sorry,” Ibrahim said. “There is already the maximum number of people permitted.”
The man opened his mouth but no words came out. He shook his head and turned to the woman. “The world's gone mad.” She eased him away, her palm on his back. Ibrahim heard him say, “Huh. Barred from a funeral. And by him!”
As the light faded, the cemetery due to close in a quarter of an hour, Ibrahim was alone. The rain held off and the mourners had left. They kept a distance from each other around the grave, although a handful hugged awkwardly. Ibrahim did not intervene, unsure about the rules. For that, he was glad.
Ibrahim completed his last circuit before locking up, the gravel crunching beneath his boots. He recalled the man in the too-tight suit: “Some kinda funeral bouncer.” He smiled, wryly. Is that what he was? He cut across the grass towards a grave filled in with freshly dug soil and topped with a wreath of white roses. He read the words on the temporary wooden cross. ‘Thomas Gerald Watson. 1948 - 2021. Love Your Neighbour as Yourself’. Ibrahim took off his beanie and smoothed his hair. He stood there awhile. There was the low purr of an occasional car passing on the other side of the railings. Suddenly, there was birdsong. He looked up. Even in the half-light, Ibrahim recognised the red face and yellow wings of a Goldfinch. It was perched on the bare branch of a solitary silver birch. As it trilled, Ibrahim wondered why it had stayed home and not migrated.
Stephen Smythe lives in Manchester, England. He achieved an MA in Creative Writing at Salford University in 2018. His flash fiction was shortlisted for The Bridport Prize in 2017 and longlisted in the Bath Flash Fiction Award, 2018. He was runner up for his micro fiction in the Bangor Literary Journal FORTY WORDS competition in 2019 and this year in the same competition his story was Highly Commended. In 2020, he had poems shortlisted and longlisted in The Eighth Annual Bangor Poetry Competition and his five minute play 'Mr Bombastic' was shortlisted in the Todmorden Book Festival Play and a Pint Competition (performance and result held over to 2021). His story 'Granny' received an Honourable Mention in The Strand International Flash Fiction competition -9.