The Coffin Maker's Daughters A Matter of Time

       Bunny Mitchell / History & Fiction
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The Coffin Maker's Daughters
A Matter of Time
Bunny Mitchell
Smashwords edition
Copyright Bunny Mitchell 2017

Discover other titles by Bunny Mitchell
The Farthing Mark
A Magpie Mourning
and in The Coffin Maker's Daughters series
Blind Bargain
Sweet Thunder
Sin of Pride
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Albert Spencer was laid to rest in two coffins. It was not something that he would have wanted.
All his life it had been his trade; making coffins. Everything from the plain and simple for a pauper's grave to beautiful polished caskets with ornate brass furnishings and padded silk linings. All alike had been crafted with love and care.
The best coffin he had ever made was for his wife, Carrie, who was thirty-six when she died giving birth to their thirteenth child. It had been made in anguish but with supreme love.
And shame.
It was Lily, his eldest daughter, who had given voice to the thoughts that were torturing him. She had come down from London for the funeral.
'It's a fine coffin. You did a good job there,' she had said.
'Nothing but the best,' he had replied. 'The least I could do for her. She was a good woman.'
'The least you could have done for her was leave her alone. Knocking her up every year like that. A few less children and she wouldn't have needed a coffin, fancy or otherwise.'
Lily had been instantly sorry for her outburst, and probably, for her, no sooner had it been said than forgotten, but her accusation had stayed with Albert and coloured his life until his dying day. Guilt, like some feral creature had torn at his guts, eaten the heart of him and left him hollow. Any joy of life had disappeared and he became morose and withdrawn.
The making of his own coffin had been an act of contrition. He wanted to be buried alongside her but he didn't deserve to be buried in style. It was the poorest thing he had ever produced. Unsanded and made of uneven planks, it lay in a corner of his workshop, a receptacle for tins of varnish and old rags. It was only when he was close to dying that he told his daughter of its purpose.
'Tell Josh I've made me coffin in readiness. It's out the back with some bits in it.' His voice was so weak that Violet had to lean over the bed and put her face close to his in order to hear. 'Just tell him the box. He'll know what I mean. It may not be what you'll expect but it's what I want.'
'Yes, Pa.' said Violet. 'Yes, I'll tell him.'
Violet waited until they had finished their dinner before she told Josh. Neither had had much appetite and much of the meal, a mutton stew, remained on their plates.
She got up from the table, bent down to scrape the leftovers into the dog's bowl and as she straightened up, said, 'Pa told me he was to be buried in the box.'
Josh looked up sharply. He leant forward, his forearms on the table and his mouth agape. 'You must be joking!'
'Would I joke at a time like this? Those were his words and he was quite definite about it. He said you'd be surprised.'
She started clearing the table, putting the salt pot onto the dresser shelf and taking the dirty plates into the scullery while Josh sat rubbing his face, deep in thought.
'If he was talking about the box we keep the varnish cans in, I won't have it. What will folk say if he's buried in that ramshackle thing?'
'It doesn't matter what people say. If—'
'Course it matters. It'll ruin the business.'
'But if that's what he wanted, you can't do much else. You can't go against a dying wish, can you?'
Josh scraped his chair back and stood up. He shook his head as if he didn't believe what he had heard. 'When Pa made that box, he said it was for when it was his turn, but Freddy and me, well we didn't believe him. We just laughed. Thought he was joking, didn't we? Thought he'd just cobbled summat together to keep the bits in and Freddy said he'd made it like that cos after making so many coffins he'd forgotten how to make any other shape. He ribbed Pa for days about it. Well, you know what Freddy was like….'
At the thought of their brother they lapsed into silence. It was what usually happened at the mention of his name; the hole left in their lives too new, too raw to be touched by words.
Violet gazed out of the window, absently stroking the ears of the cat that sprawled like a fat cushion on the wide window sill. She was seeing, but not seeing, the yard crowded with stacks of newly cut wood left to season in the sunshine and the apple trees beyond that stood in pools of their own petals and were just beginning to show signs of fruiting.
She was thinking about the life that had been extinguished that morning and realising that she had never really known her father. Yes she had known all the things that made up the outer husk of him – what he liked to eat, how he walked with a limp even though he wore a built-up shoe, the way he shook out his newspaper every time he turned a page and his unpredictable temper – but she had never really known him. No more than she had known her mother.
They had brought her into the world, fed and clothed her, rubbed the bruised knees and taught her right from wrong. But all her life they had simply been her ma and pa. It was as if their roles had set them a race apart. She had been too involved with her own life, she supposed, to think of them as individuals who once had been children and young people themselves. People who had loved and laughed, struggled to make ends meet, had dreams, had health worries and responsibilities. To her they were just Ma and Pa.
And now it was too late. If she had understood how her pa's mind worked, she may have been able to figure out the thinking behind his desire to be buried in the box. The box of all things! He had made better ones destined for a pauper's grave and she dreaded to think what the village folk would make of it.
The clock on the mantelshelf struck the hour just as she saw Josh crossing the yard on his way back to the workshop. He had grown stout over the years. It had crept up on him from the moment he'd got married. She was not surprised, knowing how Betty liked to cook. It struck her that he was beginning to look like their pa. She was very fond of Josh and was going to miss him.
He had told her some weeks ago, when Pa had first taken to his bed, that in his spare time he had been building his own workshop at the bottom of his garden. He lived on the other side of the village and it would mean that he would be spared the long walk to and from each day.
She knew it made sense but it saddened her that she was not going to see much of him. She had relied on his company ever since the last of the family had left home. Everything was changing and in spite of knowing for weeks that her pa was dying, now that it had happened she couldn't quite take it in. Nothing would be the same again.
Pull yourself together, she had to tell herself. Maggie will be here any minute. Do you want her to find you with the pots still unwashed?
She finished her chores but Maggie had still to arrive so Violet wandered over to the workshop with a mug of tea for Josh. She found him with his hands in his pockets staring morosely at the box.
He had emptied the contents – the tins of varnish, old rags, off-cuts of wood and bent nails – and pulled it out to the middle of the floor. Pa had made it with odd knotted planks and there it sat, amongst the butter-coloured wood shavings, looking a sorry sight. It was unfinished and had been stained in places from a leaked tin, dirt and oil.
'I'm damned if I know what he was thinking. Do you?'
She didn't know what to say.
'I'm not doing it, Vi. I don't care if it was his dying wish. I can't do it. I'd never be able to hold my head high again.'
'Well, it will have to do for the time being. Maggie will be here any moment to lay him out. When she's gone, you can bring him down to the parlour. I'll call into Mary's and ask young Ned to give you a hand.'
'What did you go asking Maggie for? Betty would have come over and given you a hand. You only had to ask.'
Violet felt a spark of irritation. 'Josh Spencer!' she exclaimed. 'If you think I'm going to lay out my own father, you've got another think coming. It wouldn't be decent and nor so for your Betty. She's part of the family too. No, it's more fitting that Maggie does it. She's been doing it for years. And apart from that, I've got the vicar to see. Arrangements have to be made and—'
'Alright, alright. Don't get in a huff with me. I'm sorry. I didn't think. I've been too busy puzzling how I'm going to get round this,' he said, giving the box an angry slap.
Violet still had the mug of tea in her hand. 'Here. Drink this while it's still hot.'
Josh thanked her and took the mug. 'Have you got any ideas?'
They were silent for a while, both gazing at the box; Josh drinking the tea and Violet sucking on the corner of her mouth as she considered.
'How about…. No,' she said, dismissing the idea even before she had given voice to it.
'Go on,' he prompted.
'Well, I was thinking….' Still she hesitated. 'Just that Pa wanted to be buried in the box and you want to make him the best coffin you can. I understand that. After all, you are taking over the business and your reputation is at stake.'
'So how about if you make what you want for him and make it big
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