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Rot In Purgatory?
Beloved husband? Beloved wife?
Mrs Sharp always knew that smoking would kill her husband eventually, although she'd have preferred something more dramatic - and swifter. Imagining the scenario of his demise became an amusing pastime over the long years of a loveless marriage. Thoughts of what she would say to the policeman on her doorstep (expertly trained in matters of bereavement) who would call to inform her of his untimely end, were part of her coping strategy.
‘Serves him right, I knew he would get his just deserts one day,’ was her favourite, closely followed by an almost orgasmic ‘Yes... yes... yes!’
Mrs. Sharp longed for such a day but had never quite figured out how she’d react to the welcome news. And now it had actually happened her only response was relief that her husband was gone forever and she was free. There were tears, yes, but not one was shed for him, they were tears of joy and freedom because her hated jailer was no more.
Although in excellent health and still on the right side of fifty, Mrs Sharp realised she could never compensate for the lost years of her youth spent with a man who cared little for her happiness but she would endeavour to try. Her spouse had been slightly older but his three pack-a-day habit had aged him considerably. Each time he lit up in her presence she’d smiled to herself and announced with delight as soon as he was out of earshot, ‘Another nail in his coffin!’ She'd even dared to scrawl a comment on one of his cigarette packets, beneath the warning which said ‘Smoking kills’ – ‘Not fast enough!’ He’d been well aware of her resentment and she’d made no pretence about their acrimonious marriage.
The years she’d endured, hearing her spouse retching in the bathroom each morning, and now the nicotine and other obnoxious substances had taken their toll. It was no surprise when lung cancer had been diagnosed.
Until then, he’d borne a charmed life and much to her annoyance, he'd survived several car crashes in which his vehicle had been a total write off, and a seemingly vicious altercation with an iron girder on the building site where he worked caused nothing more serious than cuts and grazes.
‘I'll have to sack that hit man,’ Mrs Sharp had been known to remark, certain that there was someone up there who'd decreed her life should be forever blighted by her husband's unwanted presence.
Attempts at divorce had failed dismally and it had proven far too traumatic and costly. Delighted to put every obstacle in her way, even trying to turn their children against her, he’d forced her to remain married against her wishes and better judgement. Condemned to a desperate existence, how could she possibly be sad at his passing? It was difficult to contain her elation.
She would certainly not be wearing black on the day of the funeral. ‘Joseph's Technicolor Dream Coat’ would be more appropriate, she’d smiled to herself short of being irreverent. She was determined to arrange the funeral as quickly and as cheaply as possible. On account of his miserly ways, there would be no sentiment to allow any extras to send him on his final journey. There would be no flowers. Did he ever send me any in my entire married life? She mused. A floral tribute spelling’ Good riddance’ would be more appropriate. She wondered with amusement how much such a display would cost - if the undertaker were to allow it.
The life insurance would pay out handsomely so there would be no need to be frugal with the funeral arrangements but she knew she’d take great delight in keeping expenditure to the minimum in revenge for his mean streak.
Mrs Sharp was endowed with an excellent memory worthy of any elephant so each and every one of her husband’s parsimonious acts had been allowed to fester in her mind indefinitely:
That bottle of wine he’d begrudged her for her birthday... the constant skimping on shopping... the complete absence of holidays... but oh, the pounds he'd puffed away in a swirl of smoke!
‘Vengeance is mine,’ saith the Lord.
‘Ah, but it's sweeter by far if you can manage it yourself,’ Mrs. Sharp chuckled to herself on the way to the funeral directors. But revenge on a dead man? Well... it would be better than nothing.
It became obvious from the onset that the undertaker was going to be a stickler for conducting his duties by the book. Mrs Sharp could have taken her custom elsewhere but was keen to abide by her principles and Cantell & Endcott & sons did offer the cheapest deal in town.
‘Can you make the hearse go just a little bit faster than usual?’ Mrs Sharp enquired with just a slight hint of venom in her voice. ‘You see, throughout our marriage he was always rushing me around everywhere with no consideration for my needs or safety.’
The genuinely sombre face was slow to respond. ‘It's not quite the done thing Madam,’ the undertaker replied. ‘The dead after all, do deserve some modicum of respect.’
‘Respect... respect!’ she glared back at him, ‘What about respect for the living - the respect I never had from him as his wife? Everything was rushed with him: Come on hurry up! I’m going... get in the car! was his classic phrase and the number of times he almost drove off before I was in it properly. Why shouldn’t I have the satisfaction of rushing him to his final resting place?’
The undertaker remained calm. A difficult customer this one, he thought, shifting his feet uneasily beneath his huge mahogany desk. Like policemen, he too was expertly trained in matters of bereavement but it wasn't usual to get many happy clients in this job. ‘What about the service?’ he continued, trying hard to remain unruffled. ‘Was your husband a religious man?’
‘No, a confirmed atheist.’
He sniffed at the air as if there was something distasteful present. ‘Then we'll just do a resume of his life and achievements. A Celebration of the person he was.’
‘Celebration!’ Mrs. Sharp was at a loss for words. Yes, she would be celebrating all right. But it was nigh impossible to think of one positive thing to say about her spouse, even if she’d felt inclined to do so. Better to skip the service altogether than invent a load of meaningless waffle about a person who had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. No use in digging up a past of virtue that never was. What can you say about a person who was not even likeable?
The children had grown up and emigrated; they wouldn't be flying long haul to bury a father they'd never loved. There were no other relatives or friends, so what was the point?
‘There's really nothing in particular I want you to say,’ she sighed.
Relevant dates of birth, marriage and death and names of children were hastily jotted down, but little else.
‘What about the obituary?’ he continued ‘Beloved husband of...’
‘Over my dead body!’ Mrs. Sharp seethed, before realising her unfortunate choice of words. ‘He was never my beloved husband and I was never his beloved wife and I refuse to be hypocritical.’
The undertaker was clearly hot and bothered now as he began to loosen his tie. His client was determined to give her husband a bad send off, if there was such a thing.
But Mrs. Sharp hadn't meant to upset anyone - she was just speaking her mind not wishing to be intimidated. ‘Better just to do the necessaries then,’ she said, hoping he would understand. ‘You see, there was no love lost between us. Scatter his ashes anywhere... to the four winds, he never discussed what he wanted doing with his mortal remains and I don't really care,’ she said, without a glimmer of compassion - and why should she even have to explain why she felt the way she did. Even the undertaker’s suggestion of dedicating a rose bush to his memory was absurd considering the circumstances of her unfortunate marriage.
There would be no headstone with ‘Beloved husband’ engraved upon it or expensive marble chips to mark his final resting place. R.I.P... ‘Rest in Peace! Perish the thought’ she mused. ‘Rot in Purgatory, more like!’
The day before the funeral Mrs. Sharp visited the chapel of rest once more to check the final formalities.
‘Would you like to view him in order to say your goodbyes?’ said the Undertaker, still maintaining his sombre demeanour in spite of his client's clear lack of sentiment for the dear (or in this case not-so-dear) departed.
I suppose in this line of work people get into macabre mode and don't ever get out of it, Mrs. Sharp surmised, pitying him for his hangdog appearance and his chosen vocation. ‘No, I couldn't stand to look at him when he was alive, so I certainly don't want to see him again now,’ she retorted. Then a thought occurred to her which made her change her mind. ‘Wait a minute... I will see him,’ It was as if a part of her couldn't quite believe he was gone at long last and she needed to prove there had been no mix up - that it really was him lying there, dead in that box.
Entering the room, which felt as cold and still as the corpse it contained, she looked down at her spouse's face, resisting the urge to spit at him, but she'd spat in his coffee and in his dinner enough times over the years when he'd treated her badly. Yes, it was him all right, no doubt about that.
‘Ridiculous!’ she exclaimed, shattering the silence in the room. The folk at the chapel of rest had done a grand job even on the cheap, that was certain, but they'd put a smattering of make-up on her husband’s cheeks and packed them with wadding to give him a hint of a smile which he'd never possessed in life. Apart from the inappropriate rosiness, the rest of his face looked as ashen as any respectable corpse should be.
‘As grey and ashen as his lungs no doubt!’
Mrs. Sharp stood in silence for a few moments. To think if she had gone first! she mused, leaning over the coffin for one final glance. For her, he would no doubt have erected an elaborate headstone with the inscription: ‘Beloved wife,’ just for show. Shuddering at the unwelcome prospect, she imagined herself rising up from the bowels of the earth to desecrate her own grave. The very gates of Heaven could not have contained her - and yes, she knew she would have gone to Heaven purely for what she had had to put up with from him. If the dead can still bear any animosity, then her sole aim would have been to return to the world of the living to tear down her inappropriate headstone with her own immortal hands. Beloved wife! What utter nonsense! He never loved me!’ she imagined herself screaming with shrillness loud enough to awaken the other corpses in the chapel.
Love! What a joke there was never any love and even sex was rushed on the rare occasion there was any. She remembered what he would say to her when she was trying for a baby: Come on, let’s get this over with... I’ve got work in the morning.
The funeral went as planned and the weather was as miserable as her husband had been throughout their marriage. No music - although Mrs. Sharp was tempted by ‘I will survive.’ There were no mourners, just her and the undertaker standing outside the crematorium in the pouring rain. She was unable to resist a wry smile when he gladly accepted her invitation to shelter beneath her huge, multi-coloured umbrella, purchased specially for the event.
No sympathy cards arrived, just as she had expected; close friends who were aware of her long-suffering had grown accustomed to sending them every year on the day of her wedding anniversary instead. But mere acquaintances and the write-once-a-year-at-Christmas-folk rang to say how very sorry they were. ‘Don't be...’ was all she could manage in reply, ‘...because now I can start living a life.’
And live her life she did for a further three decades, some compensation perhaps for the thirty years of misery she had spent with a husband who had treated her as a doormat. But even then her departed spouse had one final blow to deliver from beyond the grave, intentional or not. A few weeks after the funeral, a letter arrived from the life insurance company:
Dear Mrs. Sharp,
It is with deepest regret that due to the nature of your husband's terminal illness we are unable to pay the full amount of death benefit as indicated on the original policy documents...
They went on to explain at great length their very valid reason for not paying up. Mr Sharp had apparently stated he was a non-smoker when he'd signed up for the policy and had never informed them when his habit had grown to sixty or more cigarettes a-day. This could have been a complete oversight on his part, or was it a deliberate act to avoid paying higher premiums? Whatever his motives, his unfortunate widow, although now granted the freedom she deserved, was made to live just as frugally as she'd been forced to throughout her long and hapless marriage.
© 2015 Stella Kaye