copyright 2016 A.M. Kirkby
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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Also by A.M. Kirkby
Sword of Justice
A Ghost Story of the Norfolk Broads
The Tin Heart
Wake the Dragon
Not a Ghost Story
The Tea Master
The Claim to Royal Blood
The House of Wine and Roses
and for younger readers:
Pagliaccio the Opera Cat
The Cat Who Couldn’t Miaow
Thirteen at the wake
There were twelve of them there, not counting the dead one. Six pallbearers, the two sons of the dead one, three men from neighbouring farms, the minister from the chapel over Llantisilio way, old Pritchard who used to have the school, and Williams the new schoolmaster, who’d never met the dead man. That’s fourteen, you’d say, but the two sons were pallbearers, so that’s only twelve.
Twelve there, and the old man stiff and pale in his coffin, in the kitchen in Hill Cottage, on Black Hill, in the moorlands where the curlews call and they say the north wind beckons dead souls out at the window. And it was a north wind blowing that day, and black clouds coming.
Twelve there, including those two sons, back from the City in their shiny suits, back with their money and their glossy cars, back for the first time in twenty years. They wouldn’t be coming back again, not once they’d put old Jones in with his wife, and rammed the earth down on him.
The first time they’d seen their father in twenty years, and to see him this way, laid out in the coffin, without his false teeth, his face waxy and white, and his hands laid crabbed and rigid over each other. They couldn’t wait to get away from the moors, from the house of death, from the stranger in the coffin.
Sometimes it’s odd how a roomful of people will just stop talking, all at once, as if some evil angel brushed them with an ash-edged wing. Everything stopped. Only the wind outside, keening, edged.
Suddenly, a knock on the door.
A thickset man with a pork pie hat. He opened the door, peered round, came in, closed the door behind him, looked at the coffin, took his hat off. All in silence. He said nothing; no one spoke to him. His face seemed familiar, but no one could recollect seeing him before.
“I’m sorry for your trouble, that I am,” he said. “So sorry, you wouldn’t know.”
They wondered what he’d had to do with the dead man. Had he hired him once? Lent him money, that he’d never get back? (That happened. There was the boy drank weedkiller, four or five years back, round Capel way; they said he’d owed to three separate banks and two different farmers, and not a penny back did any of them see.) Some relative they didn’t know about? But then the sons would know him, and even they didn’t.
At last the older son remembered his manners and greeted the newcomer.
“I’m glad to see you here,” he said, “Mr…” and his voice faltered.
“Jones,” said the man, clutching his pork pie hat to his moth-eaten suit.
“Isn’t that a coincidence,” the son said, and then flushed.
“No offence, boyo. A lot of Joneses around here,” the man said, “and I’m sure you wouldn’t know all of them, not these days, a city boy like you.”
But by then they were doing the numbers. Mathematics is hard when you do it at school, but in this rough country we’re good at counting; sheep, for instance, we can tell seventy from a hundred at a glance, even far off on a hillside. There were thirteen of them there, not counting the dead man, and thirteen at a wake is bad luck, for sure.
“How long since you were back?” asked the stranger, but neither of the sons would reply. They fumbled with their hands in their pockets and looked down at the floor.
The curtains – drawn against daylight as they always were, after a death – fluttered in a sudden draught, and the candles lit by the dead man’s head flickered; one spat a couple of times as the wick collapsed into the wax, and went out, leaving a nasty smell of paraffin and burning. It was getting dark now as the clouds closed in on Black Hill.
“You’ve not covered the mirrors,” the stranger said.
You’d have thought someone would have told the boys, whoever had told them how to lay out the body, or drawn the curtains for them. You cover the mirrors, so the dead man’s soul won’t look in them and be caught; you cover them, because the first man who sees himself in the mirror after a death will be the next to die. So of course, now, everyone was thinking who was the first man into the kitchen, and averting their eyes, to try to avoid the reflections, and hoping that the stranger, who had been the first to notice that the mirrors weren’t covered, had been the first to look into one.
Thirteen of them there, not counting the dead one, and no one willing to say a word. Even the tall clock in the corner stopped, as tradition required, its hollow tocking stilled for the first time in twenty years. Only the wind keening outside, and a storm blowing up. No one wanted to say it.
“Thirteen,” Pritchard said, at last. “Can you not get a boy to run round from Nantgarw, to make the numbers up?”
But Nantgarw was five miles away. And there were thirteen of us, and the long climb on the barren hillsides to the chapel and its grey-walled graveyard lay ahead.
“Thirteen?” said the stranger.
“I’d have thought you’d know,” said Williams. “Thirteen at a wake means one of us will die within the year.” He flushed a little, and coughed prissily. “Only an old wives’ tale, of course.”
“One of us will die,” said Pritchard.
“One of us already has,” the stranger said.
Suddenly the curtains blew in as the storm hit with a clatter of sleet on the window glass and the roof, and when the first fierce gust was over, he had gone, and we were thirteen; twelve living and one dead, and whether there had ever been another man there, no one could ever decide.