The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Autumn 2010 Results

Aunt Clarissa’s Legacy

Copyright © Janeen Samuel 2010

There was a dead body stretched along my front path. I had to lean right over it to pluck the morning paper out of the rose bush.

I went back inside, shut the door, switched on the kettle, and began the daily struggle to extract the paper from its plastic condom.

The kettle boiled just as I succeeded. I poured the coffee and sat down to sip it while I scanned headlines. Leadership Row Hots Up; Footballer in Night-Club Scandal; Middle-East Talks...


I slammed down the cup so hard that coffee leapt out and sloshed the footballer in the face. My sluggish morning brain had just caught up with what my eyes had told it. There was a dead body on my doorstep. Correction: its blood-stained head was on my doorstep; its feet, given the size of my front garden, must be sticking out past my gate and waiting to trip early commuters on their way to the bus.

Which meant I’d better do something about it. But what? Quite apart from the fact that he was a big bloke, too big for me to handle – and in any case I wasn’t going to bring him inside to ooze all over my carpet – I had an idea the instructions in such a situation were: Don’t move the body. Or was that for people who were still alive?

Ring the police, said my brain, waking up a little more. Don’t touch anything until the cops arrive.

That was it, the police. Should I dial 000? But it was hardly an emergency. The man was dead. I peered through bleary morning eyes at the list of useful numbers clinging to the fridge, and dialled the local police station.

“Your call is valuable to us,” a bored male voice assured me. It then asked whether I had changed my fire alarm batteries and instructed me to stop, drop and roll if I caught fire, before giving way to the sort of music one associates with lifts and aeroplanes. I was wondering whether I could manage to haul the body out through my front gate and dump it in the gutter, when a higher, equally bored voice said, “This is Jasmine, how may I help you?”

“I want to report a dead body. It’s on my front path.”

“I’m sorry, this is the Fire Information Service,” said the voice without the least change of tone.

“Oh! I must have dialled the wrong number.” I looked at the list; there was the police number directly under the one for the Fire Service. “Sorry, I’m a bit flustered, you see I found this body...”

“Thank you for calling the Fire Information Service,” sang Jasmine, all on one note, and rang off.

The police station had one of those if you are a serial killer and wish to turn yourself in, press one answering machines. When at last I got through to a real person, he seemed only moderately interested. “We’ll send a car around shortly.”

I hung up, then immediately wondered: how soon was shortly? I didn’t fancy being in the shower when they arrived. I compromised on a bit of deodorant and clean undies, dithered over the right sort of clothes and hairstyle to convey a combination of responsible householder and appealingly helpless female, and returned to the kitchen where I proceeded to make toast.

I’d made six slices before it occurred to me that it was a pointless operation; I couldn’t bring myself even to nibble a corner. Still, the smell was comforting. I made a large pot of strong tea, too; tea seemed to go with policemen and dead bodies more than coffee. Then I sat down and read the paper with ferocious concentration.

I had got right through to the 'In Memorium' notices – We did not have a last farewell or even say goodbye – when there was a loud knock on the front door. I opened it, not without a certain reluctance, to find myself facing the shirt buttons of a large policeman. He was standing on the doorstep. A slightly smaller one was just behind him on the path.

“You’ve moved it already!” I’d thought there would be photographers, forensic experts, crime scene tape – all the stuff you see on TV. Surely they hadn’t all been and gone while I’d been deep in memorial verses.

“You’re Clarissa Henry?”

I nodded.

“You think you’ve found a dead body.”

“I don’t think!” I snapped. “It was right here. What have you.. done... with... it?”

My voice tailed off as I took in his expression. He was looking up and down and all around. “Not here now, is it?”

“Someone must have taken it. It was right here; I nearly fell over it. A big guy, a soldier.”

“A soldier? You mean he was dressed up in army gear?”

“Well, yes, but...” I’d meant more than that. He hadn’t been just a fellow in army uniform. Even my one bleary-eyed look had been enough to tell me he was a proper soldier. Someone who’d been through battles. A dinkum digger, I thought: two words I’d never used before in my life. But I didn’t say them out loud. The policeman’s look of disbelief was bad enough already.

“Some weirdo sleeping it off,” said his colleague. “Must have come to while you were ringing us, moved himself on. You did the right thing leaving him alone; he might have turned nasty, could have been on all sorts of stuff.” He spoke with relish, as if he wouldn’t have minded being on some of it himself.

“But he was wounded. He couldn’t have just got up and walked off. His head was bashed in. There was blood everywhere.”

As soon as I said that I knew it was the wrong thing. The large policeman folded himself into a squatting position and examined my doorstep. His mate peered at the path. There was no blood on either.

They remained polite. They wrote down what I told them. The second policeman reiterated his theory that the fellow – injured or drunk or both – had taken himself off. The first one said, “You’d just got up, you say. You don’t think you could have been still half asleep and – you know – dreaming?”

“No I wasn’t. And,” with a glare at his companion, “I wasn’t on anything, either.”

I stood at the gate to watch them drive off. Then I turned back to my front door.

There was a girl standing in my rose bush. She had long dark hair and looked to be about twelve or thirteen. She was wearing a full white dress with a floppy collar, a straw hat, and black stockings. Neither she nor the stockings seemed to be at all incommoded by the rose bush, nor by the fact that her feet were hovering several inches off the ground. She was staring down at my empty path and doorstep, and her face wore an expression of the deepest woe.

Her lips moved, just as a large truck thundered past. I strained to hear her but the only words I caught were “Percy” and “Farewell.” Then she was gone.

Once more I went back inside and shut my front door. This time I strode straight into my bedroom. I’d had quite enough of today; I was going back to bed.

I’d kicked off my shoes and had one foot in the bed when the phone rang. Maybe it was the police to say they’d found my soldier after all. I padded back to the kitchen and picked up the phone.

“Is that you, Clarissa?”

“Oh,” I said. “Hello, Grandma.” I hadn’t heard from her for nearly two years, not since she’d had the fight with my mother over who would inherit a huge and smelly Persian lamb coat. But there was no mistaking that voice. “How are you?” I asked.

“None the better for your asking, thank you. Seeing you’re named for her, I thought you ought to know your Great-Aunt Clarissa has died.” A pause. “Your Great-Great-Aunt. My mother’s sister.”

“Yes, of course, I remember.” I’d been silent because I hadn’t known what to say. I’d assumed she’d died years ago seemed a bit tactless. “She must have been very old.”

“A hundred-and-two next birthday. That’s what comes of not having children to give you grief. If she’d had to put up with what I’ve...”

I cut in quickly. “So she never married?”

“She did not. Stayed in mourning all her life for her cousin Percy who was killed in France on the day before the Armistice. At least that was the family’s story but if you ask me it was just an excuse. She can’t have been more than thirteen when he died.”

Thirteen! “Did she have long dark hair?”

“Short and grey when I knew her. Quite mannish. Why?”

“Oh, just, I think I might have seen her... um... photograph. It might have been somebody else.” But I didn’t think it was. In that case though, why the farewell, after all this time? “I guess she’s been reunited with her Percy now, anyway.”

“I don’t know about that.” Grandma gave one of her grim chuckles. “He’ll have gone down below if anyone has. By all accounts he was an out-and-out rotter. Most of the family were only too pleased to hear he wasn’t coming back from the War. In fact there was a bit of a cloud over exactly how he came to be killed, but least said soonest mended.”

“So maybe she’s gone down there to join him,” I said, greatly daring.

“Oh, no! Aunt Clarissa spent her life making sure of her place in heaven – interfering and doing good to people whether they would or no, Church every day and twice on Sundays. She’ll have left all her money to the Church so make your mind up to that; it won’t do you any good being named after her.”

“I never thought it would.”

“Oh, didn’t you? Well, your parents did, or why would they have given you such a fool of a name? Anyway, what have you been up to? Have you found yourself a decent man yet?”

There followed a long pause. The first part consisted of an icy silence while I bit back all the nasty things I thought of saying. The second part was anything but silent.

“What was that?” said Grandma sharply, when she could be heard. “Clarissa, what are you doing there?”

“I’m not doing anything.” My voice shook. “I think a car’s just come through the front of the house and landed in my bedroom. I’d better go and see if anyone’s hurt.” The sad part was, here was I for once with the perfect excuse to hang up on Grandma and I was in no state to appreciate it.

The police gave me some very funny looks this time. It wasn’t me who had called them; a neighbour had heard the crash and seen the gaping hole in my front wall. I was thankful for that because it was the same two policemen and once again there was no body.

They couldn’t believe it. The car was in so many pieces it didn’t seem possible that anyone could have got out alive, let alone in a state to flee the scene. The man from the Vintage Car Club was nearly in tears when he saw it. The police had fetched him to see if he could shed any light on the owner, but he was no help to them.

“We didn’t know there was even one of these in Australia.”

“There isn’t, now,” said the second policeman with relish. That upset the poor man even more, but he recovered enough to potter about among the splintered wood, twisted metal, torn rubber and shredded canvas, making an inventory of the few items that were relatively intact. Before he left he handed me a copy and told me that if I wanted to part with them he’d see I got a fair price.

“They’re the property of the car’s owner,” the first policeman told him. “In any case we’ll be impounding them for testing. It looks to me as if the vehicle was blown apart.”

I thought he might be right. But no testing was ever done. The police decided they had more important matters to investigate, seeing as nobody was known to have been hurt in the incident. And since the car’s owner was never found, the relics did eventually come to me.

By that time, my house had been repaired and I had a nice new bed and carpet and curtains. The assessor that the insurance company sent out had been so impressed by the damage that they’d paid up without a murmur. So I felt justified in splurging with the money I got from the nice vintage car man, and I bought myself a really good leather coat. I call it Great-Aunt Clarissa’s legacy.

The majority of Janeen Samuel's published works have had titles such as 'The normal oral flora of the mouth of macropods.' However, when she is not getting enough work as a veterinary pathologist, she tries her hand at fiction instead of fact and some of the results have been published in various magazines and anthologies. This year she has had one story published in the anthology Shades of Sentience and another is due out in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #44. She lives in South-West Victoria.