Clement Wiffen sat at his desk, his trembling hands obscuring his face.
‘Which one was Edwyn Pugh?’ he groaned. ‘Are there any photographs?’
‘Maybe family ones, sir,’ said Mr Darkin. ‘But we can hardly ask…’
‘Damn it, why can’t funerals be more like weddings?’ Wiffen snapped, removing his hands and staring down at the page. He emitted a long sigh. ‘This… it’s the end of me. Us.’
‘Sir, do remember, Grave News is a trade publication,’ said Darkin, sitting down opposite his boss. ‘The public need not find out.’
‘Don’t be naïve all your life, Darkin. Of course it will get out. Why do you think Lambrick and Sons suddenly closed down after 93 years?’ Wiffen stabbed the paper with his index finger.
‘Then it’s bad, sir?’
‘Worse. Read it.’ Wiffen tossed the paper to his assistant.
Darkin read aloud: ‘“Wiffen and Usherwood Funeral Directors, estd. 1896, is now managed by the last of the Wiffens, Cyril’s great-grandson, Clement – a singularly gloomy individual who should carry an ‘Abandon Hope’ plaque around his neck…”’
‘No, no, further down – the details!’
Darkin coughed before continuing: ‘“The family of the deceased, a local dignitary, may have placed their trust in the firm’s so-called ‘Deluxe Service’, due to their much-advertised experience in directing ‘celebrity funerals’ – although, the only vaguely well known celebrity they’ve handled appears to have been the famously dreadful comedian, Les Miserable…”’
‘Further down, Darkin…’
‘Blah… blah… OK, here? “The family must surely have regretted their request for an open casket. The dearly departed was known to be a particularly handsome woman in life, and the portrait beside her coffin confirmed this. So how the embalmers at Wiffen and Usherwood contrived to transform her into Vincent Price is anyone’s guess…”’
Darkin paused as Wiffen lowered his forehead to the desk.
‘Do continue,’ came his boss’s muffled voice.
‘“In keeping with the spirit of the occasion, the table of culinary offerings was similarly dismal: speared cocktail sausages that looked like maggot therapy detritus; pustular, decomposing vol-au-vents; and something else, unspeakable and fungal, like a goitre tended by a psoriasis sufferer.”’
‘Who is he, Darkin?’ asked Wiffen, raising his head slightly.
‘Mr Gurney, the caterer – he was the cheapest, but I did warn…’
‘No, the funeral reviewer – who is this Edwyn E. Pugh?’
‘No one knows, sir. No by-line photo, no biography – he just ghosts into funerals and out before anyone seems to notice. They say he keeps the standards up.’
Wiffen sat upright and brushed imaginary specks from his waistcoat. Mr Darkin fancied he saw something changed in his boss’s expression but couldn’t quite…
‘You know what this means, don’t you?’ Wiffen said. His voice seemed unusually serene. ‘It’s the end, Darkin.’
‘Not necessarily, sir, we…’
‘No, it’s over. I understand now. What sort of damned fool undertaker couldn’t recognise The Reaper when he appeared?’
There was a knock at the office door and Mr Harbridge entered.
‘Excuse me, sir. Only… Mr Wiffen Senior is on the telephone for you.’
‘Thank you, Harbridge, I’ll take it in here. Well, Mr Darkin, it seems my father has had his Grave News delivered. And now, here comes mine.
“Author’s note”: This story was originally composed around 1996. The character of Edwyn E. Pugh is based on the part I played in the role-playing game ‘Call of Cthulu’ with some like-minded nerds at the time. There is a much longer, more involved story starring Mr Pugh and other characters , which will appear in due course. This little tale was written as an introduction / back story, and not necessarily intended for publication in any form. Still, I discovered it recently and thought I’d share, as it’s the very reason this blog is so named.