Monday, 10 February 2014

Sackcloth and Ashes by Justin N Davies

Words with JAM BIGGER Short Story Competition 2013
2nd PRIZE WINNER (1000 word category)

As he turns the key, Damien senses the handles of his carrier bag stretching towards terminal elasticity, which they reach as he slams the door behind him. Cursing both his landlord’s decision to tile rather than carpet the hallway, and his own to buy eggs for dinner, he rushes to the kitchen to grab a cloth and bucket.

Stooping to rescue his post from the curdling puddle of yolky Pinotage, Damien is reminded of an experiment his mother once demonstrated in which she mixed a can of coke with some milk. “That,” she’d declared, “is what happens in your tummy if you insist on drinking cola after breakfast.”

Discarding the junk mail, Damien is left holding a disintegrating manila envelope; its distinguishing marks have been washed away on the tide of coalesced liquids. He fishes out the contents, leaving the envelope seeping sticky pink blood into the sink.

He stares at the unmarked disc, chewing his toast and sipping his water. The post-it note has survived the deluge, having been attached to the DVD inside the plastic pocket. “We missed you at the funeral,” it says, “and thought this would help with the grieving process.

Initially, Damien is inclined to caution; as far as he knows, no-one has died and he feels reluctant to spoil what has, so far, been an above average week. Curiosity however, lures him to insert the disc into his player.

Almost immediately he pauses it, freezing the frame on a long-range shot of the altar; a simple coffin – oak, perhaps – lies surrounded by white lilies. Mourners, motionless in black, survey the scene.

Damien considers his post-work attire, deftly rearranging himself in his shorts whilst smoothing down his hair.  He then draws the curtains before settling back down on the sofa.

A priest approaches the lectern with solemn dignity and levitates the congregation to its feet with outstretched arms. It rises silently; eerily so, in fact. No nervous coughing or dropped hymn books; no introductory chords from a hidden organ. Damien fiddles with the remote; what he’s taken for respectful silence is, rather, the absence of a soundtrack. Instead, the action plays to the hum of the disc spinning within the machine, and to the expansion cracks of a slowly warming radiator.

The crowd are summoned to their feet twice more to sing soundless hymns; unfamiliar mourners - young, bravely stoic - approach the coffin to deliver their mute lessons to gravely nodding heads. Damien feels soothed by the rhythm; the collective movements of these strangers; their sombre gestures.

Finally, the camera turns to face its doleful subjects as they lip-sync a parting elegy.

“Hear our prayer,” they appear to say.

The picture blurs for an instant before zooming in and focusing on a dark-haired woman, standing tall, in an empty row, modestly elegant in a simple black dress. She fixes her mournful stare at the lens, full lips mouthing “Amen” before dropping her eyelids and head, causing a single tear to free-fall from her pale cheek.

Pause. Rewind.


Pause, Rewind.



In that split second, light from an unseen source refracts through the tear drop, filling the blackness of the frame with a diamond flash.

Damien reaches out and strokes her pixilated face, absorbing wavelets of static shivers from the screen.

He begins to search for clues, frame by frame, long into the night and beyond. Feigning sickness, he continues through the week, eating little, sleeping less; but a familiar face, or gesture, eludes him.

Damien makes enquiries.

‘We might as well be dead ourselves,’ says his mother, ‘the amount of times you bother to call.’

But no; there have been no reported deaths in the family.

Eventually, he speaks to the building’s other tenants. Have they lost someone? Missed a funeral? Do they recognise the handwriting?

‘Please,’ he says, ‘come and watch it; as my guest.’

Their wary faces shake hurriedly from chained doorways.

Undeterred, Damien delivers written invitations. He irons a shirt; digs out his grandfather’s jet cufflinks; but the neighbours don’t come. He watches alone, stiff in his sackcloth and ashes, whilst now-familiar, yet nameless faces sing their voiceless hymns and repeat their silent prayers. He stands with them; bows his head with them,
counting time by the muffled pulse in his ears.

At the last, Damien pauses.

Her liquid hazel eyes shimmer round ink-drop pupils.

‘Tell me,’ he says, ‘tell me what you know.’


Released from her spellbound stillness her lips begin to move.


Pause. Rewind.


Pause. Rewind.


Pause. Rewind.


Pause. Rewind.


Pause. Rewind.


She drops her head; a single jewel falls from her cheek.

‘I’m here,’ he says, ‘I’m right here.’

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