>IN THIS, YOUR TIME OF NEED

>It became slightly worrying for Nora when she found a coffin in Clem’s toolshed: a polished mahogany casket sitting among the wood shavings on the workbench. However, it was only after she found Clem inside the coffin that she voiced her concerns. When Nora asked him what he was doing inside a coffin, Clem explained that he had borrowed it from the funeral parlour. He said he was trying to get a feel for the right size, and had she seen the price of caskets lately?

Nothing more was said of the incident until after dinner, when Clem and Nora were sitting in the living room, watching television. Clem asked Nora for the Yellow Pages. What did he need the Yellow Pages for, she inquired. Clem replied that he was looking for a burial plot with a southerly aspect and didn’t really know where to start. Nora got up from her chair, walked over to the dining room table, and packed away their delicately poised game of afternoon Scrabble. Then she went upstairs without so much as a goodnight. When Clem came to bed half an hour later, he didn’t even ask what the matter was. If he had though, Nora would have replied, I think you know very well what the matter is, before turning her back on him.

The next day, Nora went out to buy bread and milk, trying to forget about the incidents of the previous day. He’s just bored, thought Nora, he just needs a hobby, like stamp collecting. She was so caught up in her own thoughts that she almost ran straight into Mary from the florist’s. It’s the strangest thing, explained Mary to Nora, your Clem hasn’t said a word to me for all the years I’ve known him, and then he comes in and asks about the best time of year for fresh jasmine. What on earth for, asked Nora. Said he wanted to get his timing right, said Mary, whatever that meant.

When Nora got home, she discovered Clem on the living room floor, surrounded by all his old records. Finally, thought Nora, he’s found something to do that doesn’t involve coffins. Clem looked up at her. I think I’ve got it narrowed down, he said. Either Chopin or Sinatra. Don’t want to be too depressing, but Tristesse is such a beautiful piece. Not that I’ll be around to enjoy it, he added with a grin. Nora bit her lip and asked Clem if he wanted a cup of tea. Clem said yes, but added that he had moved the tea into a Tupperware container. When Nora begrudgingly asked why, Clem explained that he thought it would be a nice touch to use the tea caddy rather than an urn, to show he had a sense of humour.

Why on earth, said Nora to Clem, do you keep going on about this morbid rubbish? Clem told her that he was simply planning ahead, to sort out arrangements for his death, when it should come. Which would probably be next September. What on earth makes you think you’ll die next September, asked Nora. Well, replied Clem, how am I supposed to sort out both our arrangements without at least four months’ preparation? Both our arrangements? repeated Nora. That’s right, said Clem, it’s not a small job. I’ve got to cancel the newspapers and talk to the pension office and I haven’t even started thinking about fixing that leaky gutter yet. And you still haven’t told me how you want your side of proceedings to go. They don’t have to be the same I suppose, but it would be nice, wouldn’t it?

Nora stood silent for some moments, considering this development. Clem went back to his records, happily sorting them into small piles. Nora retired quietly to the kitchen to make his lunch. Maybe he was right, she thought. Maybe it was useless waiting for the inevitable. Maybe now was the right time to start planning. She took down a box of rat poison from the top of of the fridge, and stared at it for what seemed like a lifetime.

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