Short Fiction ~ Janet Olearski
First prize, (Strands International Flash fiction Competition - 6)
It was on one of the days when Walter was returning from the cemetery that he saw his dead brother on the bus. He could swear it was him. ‘Same build, same hair, same ears, same everything,’ he told Barbara.
‘Why didn’t you go and speak to him?’ she said. ‘If it had been me, I’d have wanted to take a closer look.’
‘Oh no,’ said her dad. ‘I’d have missed my stop.’
‘Well, I don’t know about that,’ said Barbara. ‘It’s not as if someone sees their deceased brother every day, is it?’
‘What’s “deceased”?’ said Walter.
‘Never mind,’ said Barbara.
Walter was a solitary man, but a contented one. He had his own little rituals and routines, and that was the life he enjoyed. For five years he had made the weekly visit to the cemetery to tidy his wife’s grave. The way Barbara saw it, her mother was gone and visiting her grave wasn’t going to change anything or repair their shared feelings of loss.
A day or so after the brother-on-the-bus incident, Walter came down to breakfast with his three-dreams story.
‘I had three dreams about her,’ he told Barbara.
‘What kind of dreams?’ said Barbara.
‘Nice dreams,’ he said, ‘you know … about placing bets at the bookie’s, and doing the cooking.’
‘I don’t suppose she’d have been thrilled about any of that, especially not the race days,’ said Barbara. 'What was the third dream?'
'I don't know,' he said. 'I can't remember.'
Walter spent his mornings doing chores… things like shopping, or going to the launderette, and he spent his afternoons watching TV in his bedroom. He could watch films over and over and be constantly amused since he never ever remembered that he’d seen them before. It was on one of those typical afternoons that the doorbell rang at a time when no one was expected.
‘Who’s that?’ he asked Barbara. He always said, ‘Who’s that?’ as though Barbara was some kind of clairvoyant. It was a race day and he was watching the horseracing from Newmarket. He liked a bit of a flutter, though he claimed otherwise.
Barbara picked up the door phone. ‘Hello? Hello?’ she said, but no one answered. ‘I’ll go down and take a look,’ she told him, but he wasn’t much bothered.
She ran down three flights of stairs and when she got to the corridor leading to the front door she could see out onto the main road. Their front door was a mirror on the outside and see-through glass on the inside - useful for passers-by who wanted to check their appearance or comb their hair. Barbara couldn’t see anyone lingering outside in the road. She thought that maybe she’d catch someone loping up the street, some kid taking a chance at ringing the doorbell for fun, or maybe an acquaintance who didn’t think to wait, or a post office delivery van. Peering out, she saw only the street, for the most part empty, and the traffic passing – quite a lot of it. She looked first to the left and after that to the right … and then she saw it. The funeral procession.
There was a large black hearse, highly-polished, moving slowly down the road. Walking in front of the car was the undertaker, completely in black, wearing a top hat and looking like something out of Dickens. Other limousines followed, and they contained the mourners. She couldn’t see them clearly. She stood behind the glass and watched the cars pass, the procession holding up the weekday traffic, which moved bumper to bumper. She turned to go back upstairs but, as if doubting what she had seen, she returned to the door and looked again. The cortège had gone. Vanished. The traffic flowed freely.
When she returned upstairs and stepped back into the flat, Walter called out to her from his room.
‘Who was it?’ he said.
‘No one,’ she said.
Two days later, just as the horses in the 4:10 at Newmarket passed the winning post, Walter collapsed with a heart attack. Barbara tried to resuscitate him, helped by a woman from the emergency services who talked her through the steps over the phone. But Walter was dead on arrival at the hospital.
Barbara organised the funeral with – insurance policies permitting - no expense spared. Small and contained though his later life had been, she believed Walter deserved to have a memorable send off. She pushed away her grief until the arrangements were complete. Only then on the way to the cemetery, the sky fittingly overcast, did it seem to her as if she had at last fallen awake.
Looking about her, she saw that the cortège was taking exactly the same route as the funeral procession she had seen that afternoon just a week or so before. The Dickensian undertaker walked in front of the shiny black hearse, while Barbara sat in one of the limousines that followed on its tail. As they passed the front of her house, she saw the procession reflected in its mirrored door.
From where she sat, looking up at the building’s façade, Barbara strained to see the flickering light in her father’s upstairs window. It was, after all, a race day.
Janet Olearski’s poetry and short fiction have appeared in Constellate, Far Off Places, Wasafiri, The Commonline Journal, Bare Fiction, and elsewhere. Most recently her creative non-fiction piece ‘Smokers’ was shortlisted for the Queen Mary/Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2019. Her work includes the story collection A Brief History of Several Boyfriends, a novel A Traveller’s Guide to Namisa (forthcoming) and, as editor and contributor, The Write Stuff anthology. She blogs regularly on writing-related topics for the Dubai-based Emirates LitFest. Find her at http://www.janetolearski.com and Twitter: @JanetOlearski