Geralyn Pinto is Associate Professor and Head at Department of English at St Agnes College (Autonomous), Mangalore. She is an accomplished poet and short story writer, and has won numerous accolades in both national and international creative writing contests. She was one of the three finalists for Desi Writers’ Lounge’s annual Short Story Competition in 2013 (‘Two Flew Over’) and 2014 (‘Shanthi Smells of Smoke’). Her writings have been featured in various national and international journals. Her oeuvre in fiction spans human interest, science fiction, low grade detective fiction, the supernatural, and bizarre combinations of the aforementioned. She confesses to a love of elementary mathematics and an addiction to Sudoku. Geralyn is hardly all bookworm and enjoys housekeeping and cooking with a special emphasis on baking rich chocolate cake.
Colin, Complete Arranger
To begin, Mr Colin of ‘Colin’s Coffin Works’, later renamed ‘Colin, Complete Arranger’, wasn’t really my father. The Jesuits found me on the kitchen steps of their Priests’ House and handed me over to the good Sisters of Charity who wanted to do the best thing for me, body, soul and mind. So they gave me up for adoption to Miss Estelle Coelho of impeccable breeding, whalebone collars and vinegar heart. Miss Estelle decided that an idle boy’s mind was worse than Lucifer’s workshop and passed me on to her brother, Mr Gelasius Coelho, to serve as an apprentice in his coffin works.
I couldn’t remember the Jesuits, so Mr Gelasius was the first person I recognized as a man. I began calling him ‘Father’ or ‘Dad’ which he didn’t seem to mind. One day ‘Dad’ announced that he had changed his name to ‘Mr Colin Morgan’ in memory of the Englishman who had introduced him to the coffin trade.
My incipient Adam’s apple bobbed up and down like a shuttle in a loom. I swallowed hard and asked him, “Aren’t you… um… scared to take on the surname of a dead man?”
“Scared? What of? Mr Clive Morgan’s been dead since before you were born! And don’t we all take on the names of dead people? St Gelasius died centuries ago.”
I couldn’t help the hair on the back of my neck curling when I thought about how Mr Clive Morgan had been found impaled on a barbed wire fence close by the Church of St Rita of Cassia. He was as grey as the cemetery wall of St Rita’s churchyard and just as cold. Folks around St Rita’s said that he had been chased and slain by the famous woman vampire of the wooden bridge, not a quarter of a mile away. They said that she was wan as moonlight except for a slash of red lips. And despite her feet being inverted, she was swift in pursuit of her quarry. “Vampires travel fast,” the parishioners insisted. “It’s all the blood that’s in them.”
Other townsfolk had a different explanation. Morgan had been involved in a property dispute with a party who didn’t think an Englishman should still possess land and a flourishing business in India. Apparently, Morgan’s disputants argued that he ought to have been sent home long ago with his cigar and the Union Jack. Whatever the truth of the matter, the fence was named ‘Morgan’s End’.
You might wonder how I knew so much about the late Clive Morgan who had died all those years ago. Well, his story was told and retold on monsoon nights. Besides, there was a photograph of him – a grainy black and white one in a thick, black, teakwood frame. It hung on the wall in the backroom of the workshop. Mr Morgan looked down upon the coffins, gloves, knotted rosaries, crucifixes and all of us, with the expression of a quiet fox. I avoided looking back at him too often, but half expected him to stick his head out one day and instruct me on how to screw the lids and hinges on to the coffins, or to point out that I’d fixed the hooks upside down, which I sometimes did.
When Dad went to deliver coffins and Martin and me were alone in the workshop, I’d carefully cover Mr Morgan’s photograph with an apron and go about my work.
The business expanded marvellously. Dad was acknowledged as the maker of the finest coffins in town. He gave people the best that could be had within their budgets. He had typewritten sheets pasted on the glass of our shop windows that gave an outline of the rates:
Premier Coffins: Teak / Rosewood / Sal – Rs 10,000/-
Class I Coffins: Teak frame and durable plywood with teak finish – Rs 8,000/-
Class II Coffins: Wild Jack wood frame and stained plywood – Rs 3,000/-
Class III Coffins: Scrap wood frame with starched cora cloth
dyed purple (married deceased) –
Children’s Size Coffins: White starched cora cloth on wood frame – Rs 1,000/-
Baby Size Coffins: Plain plywood, painted white – Rs 500/-
Baby Size Coffins: White satin on wood frame with silk and lace interior – Rs 2,000/-
He occasionally sponsored burials with free coffins; he also offered discounts on the coffins during an epidemic of malaria. Then, the added features came along: preparation of the body for burial, flowers for the funeral mass and graveside, a hearse like a decorated pushcart in black polished wood, tombstones with epitaphs and Plaster of Paris sculptures.
Dad decided that I was poetic and literate enough to help the families choose epitaphs. I made my mistakes, but only once did he cuff me. That was when Monsignor Mathias, the former vicar of the largest parish in our town, died suddenly after a hearty dinner and I got Martin to engrave his tombstone with ‘How are the Mighty fallen!’
Then Dad entered into an agreement with Harold of ‘Harold’s Silver Band’ and the name of the business was changed to ‘Colin, Complete Arranger’. There was a controlled festivity to every funeral now, partly because Harold played a version of ‘The Isle of Capri’ as the band served as advance guard in the cortege.
Now, I knew Dad was the complete arranger, the thorough funeral professional, but I didn’t expect him to do what he did that day. He climbed into a premier coffin and lay down, smoking a cigar and shifting his tall, lean frame ever so slightly. “I’m getting the feel of it… just to make sure: if it isn’t comfortable, they’re apt to stir, you know.”
He smiled like a fox in a chicken coop.
Outside the little window, August dripped resentfully. Something made me think of the dead in the town’s various churchyards; of their damp and wormy linen and lace. Then a claw of lightning tore the monsoon skies and briefly illuminated Dad as he luxuriated in the coffin. It seemed to me he looked a strangled blue. I moved closer to Martin, who sat in the shadows, putting the finishing touches to a satin pillow for a wealthy corpse. “Hey,” he whispered to me, “don’t he look so much like Mr Clive Morgan?”
I only said, “I don’t know. But I think it’s a bad omen to lie in a coffin that’s not meant for you.”
That night I dreamt of rosewood coffins with an antique finish. It was in the early hours, that someone awoke me.
“Gitup!” Whoever it was shook me rough as you can get.
“Wha…?” I grabbed the little wooden crucifix by my bedside. I always kept one there for protection against the forces of evil. “Who are you? Speak up!”
“Me, Martin, man!”
“Martin? Oh, yes.”
I remembered now that he hadn’t gone home to his family, as he usually did, because we had to get up early the next day for three very special orders.
“Come quick! It’s Dad!”
“He’s by the garden gate. Fallen down, I think…”
By the garden gate, face downwards in a puddle the colour of milky tea, was Dad.
He was clean dead. But what was he doing down by the gate in the wetness of a mouldy monsoon night? Eh, what?
The day was filled with the quiet decorum of death. The doctor explained to Miss Estelle that her brother had smoked far too much. He cast a glance over Miss Estelle, Martin and me, “As I always say, a cigarette is a coffin nail, by another name.”
Pleased with his own wit, he left.
Immediately after the funeral we were informed that we were now in the employ of a new owner, Mr Athanasius D’cruz. I went down to the workshop one last time because I had decided that I would leave to complete my schooling and informed Miss Estelle as such.
I looked about the old place almost nostalgically even though it was as cold as an empty shell.
Then my eye fell on my apron, up on the wall where I’d hung it. It concealed Mr Clive Morgan’s photograph which I had covered carefully as we crafted a premier coffin for Dad’s last public appearance.
I whipped the apron off.
And Dad smiled at me from the dark wooden frame…
I looked over my shoulder at Martin, a sickening little quiver passing through my vital organs. “Did… did someone… er… switch Mr Clive’s photograph for Dad’s?”
He shrugged, “Don’t know. Maybe Miss Estelle asked someone to.”
“Was… was Dad’s coffin… er… comfortable, do you know?”
Martin growled, “What a damn stupid question to ask. Why?”
“You know, they’re apt to stir… if it isn’t…”
Thunder howled over the distant hills.