Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Some Are Born Lucky. Dead True.

A 'tongue in cheek' story of a man without the royal privileges so prevalent this week.►

“You will get cold feet if you stand about waiting for dead men’s shoes.” Peter Keary








Deadly Serious

There’s no doubt some are born luckier than others. Take Amos Crampton, for instance.
He was born prematurely on Friday the thirteenth, in a small terraced house next to an undertakers in the dead centre of Bury. I suppose you could say Amos hadn’t a chance of happiness. But you would be wrong, dead wrong.
True, he was a sickly baby whom the midwife declared, “Hadn’t a ghost of a chance of survival,” but survive he did.
At death’s door on numerous occasions, he often lay in his battered old pram, shrouded in blankets lest he catch his death of cold. His mother administered to his every need. She was heard to say on many an occasion, “Amos, you’ll be the death of me,” but he survived infancy due to her exceptional dedication.
“Amos, die, over my dead body,” she frequently uttered, “he’s dead gorgeous.” And survive he did.
Amos’s passage through school was, I suppose, unexceptional. Some teachers thought him somewhat dead from the neck up. Any attempts to install in Amos anything more than the educational basics were deemed to be flogging a dead horse.
He would sit, trance like, gazing out of the window, oblivious to the teacher’s oratory offerings, completely dead to the world.
Attempts at change were resisted. Even the threat, “You’ll finish in a dead end job,” merely elicited the thought so succinctly articulated by the illustrious Robert Louis Stevenson centuries previously. ”It’s better to be a fool than dead.”
Not that Amos had ever heard of Robert Louis Stevenson. Or for that matter George Stephenson, or indeed any other Stevenson with a ‘v’ or Stephenson with a ‘ph’, famous or otherwise who had ever lived.
Amos was far more interested in leisure pursuits outside school. He rode furiously down the hills around the town after school, peddling furiously, on his dilapidated bicycle, brakes defunct, a death trap indeed. He nevertheless happily diced with death itself amidst the early evening traffic. And sometimes at weekends he could be found, at dead of night in Piggin Wood, the eerie solitude enough to scare you to death. Plus discovery by the gamekeeper would have ensured you were a dead duck. But the visits were profitable and he would return home dead-beat with rabbits to supplement the Crampton family pot.
Sick and tired to death of school, Amos was thankful to leave. He obtained a job easily, contrary to school expectations, as an apprentice, cum odd job man at the undertakers next door to his home. His greyish pallor, solemn expression and general demeanour made him particularly suited to work at an undertakers, though he was less than balmy about embalming.
Work amongst bodies and flowers he liked, though his tendency towards hay fever meant him sometimes coughing amidst the coffins, so to speak. But he didn’t mind, remembering that old adage, “It’s not the cough that carries you off, it’s the coffin they carry you off in.” For Amos viewed life with macabre irreverence. It might have seemed a melancholy existence to others, but in a way it was Amos’ idea of ‘living on the edge’, permanently having ‘One foot in the grave’ he used to say whilst adopting his best deadpan expression.
The work was hard at times, a coffin plus body being a dead weight. Amos was dead set on doing well but promotion depended on filling dead men’s shoes. The die was cast, for promotion prospects seemed as dead as a dodo. Nevertheless he enjoyed the work so much that he even volunteered to work Bank Holidays when only a skeleton staff was required. On such an occasion he would turn on the radio for company, singing along to such classics as Jimmy Ruffin’s ‘I’ve Passed This Way Before’, Sammi Smith’s ‘Help Me make It Through The Night’ and of course Billy Fury’s haunting ‘Halfway to Paradise’, though not loud enough to waken the dead of course.
But life for Amos was not all work and no play.
Amos was not adverse to the company of the opposite sex, courting Jessica, who lived opposite the cemetery for many a year. But whereas Amos was thought by some to be dead from the neck up, Jessica was definitely dead from the neck down. Their courting therefore was confined to holding hands in the cemetery, together reading the epitaphs on the tombstones. A dead loss from a romantic point of view. Jessica may well have been a dead ringer for a young Greta Garbo, but her lack of passion signalled the death knell for any truly sexual progress. Of any case, the ties to his mother were too strong, ‘until death us do part’ referring to mother rather than Jessica.
Amos also pursued other leisure interests to varying degrees.
He regularly visited his local public house. A creature of habit, dead set in his ways, he always sat in the same seat, drinking only spirits, with a natural preference for brandy, a stiff drink if there ever was one. And a deadly shot in the darts team, he was always in at the death in any competition offering cash incentives.
He read nature books, becoming somewhat of an expert, particularly on the Death’s Head Hawk Moth and the habitats of the Deadly Nightshade. He also read poetry, being so fond of Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ that he learnt from memory the entire poem. A huge undertaking, starting of course ‘Into the Valley of Death rode the six hundred.’ And he read novels, Hemingway’s ‘Death in the Afternoon’ being a particular favourite.
He carefully studied the obituaries in the local paper, an interest both personal and professional. Amos worked on the principal, “If you weren’t mentioned, you’d no worries.” Plus any local personages listed could well be a bonus in the very near future.
He visited the theatre, never tiring of Agatha Christie’s ‘Death on the Nile’, the author being on a long list of people he was dying to meet.
Ever the dutiful son, his weekends included visits, in his Sunday best, to the Methodist Chapel round the corner from where he lived. The sermons were often as dry as dust, asking ‘What do we mean by the quick and the dead?’ Plus debating ‘The wages of sin is death’, but Amos did not really mind. It pleased his mother that he attended, and his grandfather, a Sunday School Superintendent would have turned in his grave had he not done so.
In summer he would visit a cousin in Gravesend, conveniently placed for hop picking. An excellent source of extra income in a hot summer, a dead loss when storms persisted. A wet summer signalled the kiss of death to financial gain, though the farmers seemed unaffected by variations in the weather, proving the country aphorism, “You never see a poor farmer or a dead donkey.”
He never made a fortune, did Amos, no gravy train, the undertaking business. He was a proud man, nevertheless. He wouldn’t be seen dead collecting supplementary benefits others thought of as their divine right. He would rather drop dead than accept charity, as he called it. He was at death’s door on several occasions, but always recovered, quoting Mark Twain’s words, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
Inevitably mother passed to the other side and Amos himself grew old. His increasing deafness meant a world as silent as the grave. And the end, when it did come, came peacefully, over seventy years after it was first expected.
A happy life; a contented life; a long life. Neither morbid nor melancholy, though others might disagree.
On cold wintry nights when the wind whistles round the back street of Bury, one can feel a ghostly presence in the air, smiling down at any poor soul braving the elements. The elderly nod knowingly and hurry home. The young huddle together on the streets, sometimes apprehensive as they imagine hearing a hearse passing by from an undertakers long since gone. And are they a little afraid, a little nervous, these brave young things of a new generation.
“Dead true, they are!”