Pen

The Best of Times Short Story Competition


Spring 2017 Results




Stage Fright

Copyright © Jane Ireland 2017


The man was a demigod. He knew it; his people knew it. Even Jack’s most intimate moments could bring reminders of his ample blessings.

One morning, standing naked in the communal showers after swimming at the local pool, his assistant Lionel commented, “I saw a body just like yours on my recent trip to Italy—Michelangelo’s David!”

“Do you think so?”

Jack knew of that quintessential marbled piece of manhood. He flexed buffed muscles towards his mirrored reflection, but the steamy smear of chlorine was unyielding. So, he looked down at the real thing and had to nod in agreement. He was an Adonis.

“Yes, you’re right. David is me.”

“Every teeny-tiny bit of you,” said Lionel, sniggering.

As Jack pondered that compliment, a darker meaning dawned. Were his performances statuesque? Was that how people saw his craft? He hoped not. He’d always been so polished.

But the seed of change was sown. Adopting a name reflecting animation and strength, Jack Sidebottom became Jack Hammer. Since then, at unexpected but never inopportune times, people said, “Jack, you’re a tool.” Indeed, he was a tool, a big, pneumatic tool. But a sentient tool possessing acumen, grace, decorum, twinkling eyes, engaging smile, Caramello voice. Humility.

A consummate artist required a drill. He’d bench press, box until Lionel was pleading for mercy in various hues of bruise, douse himself in breath freshener and David Beckham—sometimes muddling the two products as to their bodily targets; Beckham smelt better than he tasted. Once, when the mood took him during a funeral service, he splashed himself in a profusion of holy water from a baptismal font, until he was gently taken aside by a church elder. It had been a particularly heated service. . .

One sweltering day, Lionel asked Jack: “How difficult do you think it would be to turn one of these units,” he pointed to a coffin, “into a Coke machine?”

When Jack’s shock at Lionel’s insensitivity had subsided, he replied, “Don’t be ridiculous. You can’t put money into a coffin! And how would you keep them cold? Besides, aren’t sugary drinks on the nose nowadays?”

The emotions Jack incited in his audience were invariably powerful: tears, laughter, perspiration, flatulence, yawns, babbles of tongues, unconsciousness. All were connected to the adoration they felt for him. When he was spent, and the audience was spent, as he stood wide-legged before them, he’d close his eyes, bend his knees and spread his arms wide like a giant, winged albatross. He’d pause at that point—the tease, internally willing himself to levitate. (So far, the feat had eluded him.) He’d slowly open one eye, then the other, noting the inevitable surprise when the audience saw that Jack Hammer was still grounded, for they expected the superhuman to fly.

Straightening up, he’d eyeball his people in reassurance that there was always another day, then encircle them in a symbolic arm wrap of warm embrace. The signature move followed: a simultaneous head shake, wink and tongue click. Its perfection involved months of practice against the reflective sheen of various mirrors and silver receptacles. Finally, ears attuned to the audience, he’d walk behind the curtain, straining to hear shouts for an encore, begging and wailing for more of him, only him. But no-one ever did, out loud anyway.

Funeral congregations could be divided into three categories: mourners, pretenders, jokers. Sometimes the three became one.

Pretenders were there to be seen doing the right thing. Even if they didn’t know the deceased, grieving was good. They liked the palaver, the Devonshire teas in the hall afterwards. No-one ever asked who they were. Who’d dare doubt their motives, sincerity, identities? Jack always knew they were pretenders because of the puzzlement they caused.

Mourners genuinely cared for the deceased. Jokers could sometimes be mistaken for mourners. Both groups had a similar holding pattern. The ceiling scan, the through-the-window-willing-escape scan, the jolting torsos, the spill of tears. He hated jokers most, for they could bring the whole performance undone.

Two jokers were there the day Jack had his epiphany. Wide-mouthed, chewing gum, the boys gazed at the blank television screen on which the slideshow of the deceased’s life was to be shown.

“Coffin cam,” said one lout, loudly. At that, jokers, pretenders and mourners alike morphed into one big group of guffawing jokers. Jack chewed his bottom lip, fisted his hands and cued the music which he cranked up full bore.

It should have been Strauss—Also sprach Zarathustra, but the tasteless family chose Alex North’s bastardised theme from 2001, A Space Odyssey. He could tell the difference.

Dar. Dar. Dar. Da-dar. The speakers vibrated. Donned in t shirt and hem-frayed jeans, the female drummer sat awaiting her cue to “add depth”. God, she was chewing too! Was this a family of cows? When Daisy pounded with those sticks like a mad woman, Jack saw the way it should be.

If families craved atmosphere, authenticity, there should be props. Some props were nearby. . .

Drumsticks: bones were inside the coffin, albeit not in a state fit for banging or throwing. There was also the question of how they could appear suspended mid-air before returning to earth, or in this case, to the drummer, twirling, in slow motion.

Monkey suits? Perhaps.

There should be an obelisk or some such monolith. No, the coffin! It was right there, begging for more acknowledgment than the flop of supermarket flowers adorning its piano-perfect mahogany. People were avoiding looking at it. Surely if there were creatures, people by default, writhing around it in wavering states of bewilderment and awe, the result would be amazing.

Jack’s mind wandered to the unrecognisable ladies who often appeared at his services. In their creepy wide-brimmed hats, Jack saw aliens, the way they swarmed around even open coffins as if about to perform autopsies. . . He shuddered.

He didn’t know why the family had chosen the piece of music. It certainly didn’t seem to match the deceased’s job as a bus driver. Perhaps the man’s dream had been to be an astronaut. If only Jack knew his full story, he could have worked with the family to make the funeral less, well, confusing.

Right, so in future, as well as using props to ensure realism, he would find out more about the deceased and incorporate that information in more lively ways into his services. Sensitivity was always key.

One week before the next funeral service, he instructed Lionel to erect a large photo of Jack outside the church venue. Captured performing his signature simultaneous head shake/wink/tongue click, he knew the shot had taken all of Lionel’s dexterity, due to Jack’s furious twitching as though willing dislodgement of an ear-trapped insect. Usually a smooth move, from photo twenty on, Jack became frenetic. Only one good photo out of fifty-eight taken, but that would do it, for it showed his beauty.

As requested, beside the photo Lionel placed a large placard: Jack Hammer, Funeral Director. I can make your loved ones come alive again.

“Well Lionel, what do you think?”

“You’ve exceeded yourself this time. Looks like you think you’re bigger than JC.”

“Marvellous,” said Jack.

“And where is my acknowledgment in all this, this glitz?”

Using Blu Tack, Jack stuck a passport sized photo of Lionel onto the sign, writing his name and role as trainee mortician in felt pen underneath. There, he thought, that should appease him.

Jack beamed at the massive crowd which came to the next funeral service. Like seagulls scrambling for chips, he knew their appearance had much to do with his sign. It had appeal, cred. But he’d also heard mutterings of a resurrection people were expecting. He surveyed his audience—awash with grey hair, walking sticks, hearing aids and he feared, nappies. Did these old farts think it was Easter Sunday? But the crowds exceeded the usual Easter lot. Was Jesus to show himself again on this day, to these people, in Woolloongabba?

In any case, they were in for a taste of Jack at his finest, his impeccable planning and creativity coming to life at the pulpit. Or rather, not at the pulpit. He had charged Lionel with the job of keeping the notes in front of Jack, which would have them running the entire time. Like a happy, leaping gazelle, Jack would be animated. Lionel appeared frazzled before he even got going.

Jack had gathered information from the deceased’s family about the elderly lady’s life. Alice’s family told him that she had struggled with communication in her later years, having succumbed to deafness.

All eyes raised to Jack.

“As you may know, poor old Alice was stony broke, for any of you hangers-on hoping to raid her stash.”

He chuckled. The congregation didn’t.

“Seriously though, as you know, poor old decrepit Alice was stone deaf.”

In keeping with realism, he mimed the remainder of the service. . . the entire service. As both men flitted here and there, in tandem, the congregation watched on mesmerized, sometimes shaking their heads or making curious finger gestures towards Jack. It was good to see them joining in, empathising.

The next funeral service, for an elderly children’s performer, was again held at the Woolloongabba church, as the minister had taken ill. Jack instructed Lionel to prepare the body for an open-casket viewing, hoping such an important role would snap him out of his morose state. It didn’t. Jack understood he didn’t know much about Lionel at all.

Jack had learned from the family that the deceased had spent much of his life performing magic tricks. His imagination went wild. He contacted an aviculturist and hired doves which he planned to release after the last verse of “All things bright and beautiful”.

As usual, he started with a statement encompassing the life of the deceased.

“As you know, Harry’s greatest love was tricking children. But no matter who his audience was, he always exposed himself in the end.”

As he read the family’s eulogy, another he had to modify, two jugglers worked faultlessly behind him to keep their balls airborne, or he thought so because he couldn’t hear them drop.

In another new move, he ushered the first row of family, including a boy, to the casket during the hymn. And right on cue, at “the Lord God made them all”, he opened the top half of the casket. Bunches of flowers scattered to the floor. The doves flew free: some hitting the audience, one landing on the thorny crown of a bronze Jesus, one defecating on a lady in a wide-brimmed hat, (Jack silently cheered), one breaking a light.

“Feck me dead!” spluttered an old Irish codger.

Jack presented the shaky little boy with a rabbit from under his hat. His mother looked confused as the lad hugged his new pet.

As the organist retracted her arthritic claws to her lap, Jack and the deceased’s family stared down at Harry, who stared up at them. Really stared—Lionel had propped his eyes open with match sticks.

“You killed Ronald McDonald!” shouted the boy, digging his fingers into the startled rabbit until it almost vocalized.

Blood-curdling screams rang out, as one by one the congregation dared glimpse the clown who was once Harry. Lionel had given him a fiery red wig, painted his face white, put red lipstick onto his lips—a dab to the tip of his nose. He’d used black eyeliner to paint thin eyebrows high on his forehead and a small vertical line under each eye. Harry had never dressed as a clown when he was alive, preferring to look natural so not to scare the children, the family had told Jack in confidence.

“Lionel!” Jack hollered to an absent assistant. “It was Lionel who did this!”

The blubbering crowd bowed their heads and hurried from the church. He overheard one woman saying to another, “. . . although I did like the shade of lipstick they chose.”

When the crowd had gone, as Jack stood alone, staring up at the now soiled crown of Jesus, Lionel came in from out the back.

Jack pointed to Harry. “How could you have done this, to me, to us, to our people?” He quickly closed the lid on him.

“What are you talking about our people? You can’t stand any of them!”

“That’s not true. They love me!”

“Ever heard of narcissism?”

“Is that a new men’s fragrance?” He noted he must research it later. “Anyhow, don’t try to get me off track. You’ve overstepped the mark, abused my sensitive nature, my sensibilities. I’m letting you go, Lionel.”

“Oh God, yes! Set me free!”

He must be delirious, thought Jack. Lionel seemed to be considering his options.

“If you really cared about your people, you would call a meeting to see who the community would like to take my place,” said Lionel, storming form the church.

Two weeks later, as Jack readied for the meeting he begrudgingly called at a nearby church (the Woolloongabba minister had recovered), a huge plastic-wrapped parcel arrived, along with Lionel.

“I think it’s all a bit late for presents, but what did you get me?”

Smiling, Jack ripped the wrapping, at last exposing a life-sized plaster statue of a naked man.

“What’s this about?”

“It’s about you, Jack. It’s David.”

Lionel hoisted the statue upright and placed the plastic carefully into the open coffin on a trolley, both of which Jack had been about to remove for the meeting.

Jack looked the statue up and down. David wasn’t at all well-endowed. He smiled sheepishly, unsure of the connotations. He’d have to consider them.

“There’s a crowd building outside,” said Lionel.

“Seems like the whole community is interested in who will take your place,” said Jack.

“There’ll be no meeting.”

“What do you mean?”

I can use props, too. It’s your funeral, Jack. And by the way, I’m a murderer, but there’s no-way you’ll be announcing that, because you’ll never do my funeral. But I’ll be doing yours.”

Lionel drew a pistol from his pocket. He aimed, and shot David’s privates clean off. The small white penis spun through the air, landing with a tinkle into the collection plate. Jack vaguely realised Lionel must have used a silencer, the sound reminding him of a gentle, breaking wave.

As armed Lionel approached, wide-eyed, trembling Jack edged backwards to grip the side of the open coffin. Two bullets struck his body, one in the crotch, one in the heart. During his topple into the coffin, he grabbed a nearby gladioli, covered his privates with it, then landed perfectly, in state, ready for his big day.

Calmly, Lionel wiped the gun, put it in with Jack, lowered the lid, glanced at the placard outside which he’d changed to: Come celebrate the life and death of Jack Hammer, Funeral Director.

Ushered the people inside.

Once seated, Lionel commenced: “As you all surely know, Jack Hammer was a tool.”