Undertaking, 1930

by Rob McClure Smith

At the entrance of the Red Lion café, a young girl, bare-powed, her hair streaked wildly with a clumping of wet flour and red-blue confetti sprinkle, is fastened to a postbox by three thick lengths of hemp. The girl examines her feet. On those feet is one shoe. Passers-by mock her good-naturedly, till one disheveled street urchin of a gender indeterminate strikes up a more vicious sherrikin. It flings a big blue marble at her head also. The marble misses, and a Nelson Street Co-op warehouseman in grey trenchcoat and bowler, out skiving on his extended lunch break, takes umbrage at the attempted plunking and skelps the child hard across the ear. The Samaritan considers untying the girl too but thinks better of it as the cuffed child screeches away down the cobbling like a scalded cat, rubbing at its scalp, with hopes still of cadging a hurl from a shoogling green tram.

Hepburn thinks Cumberland needs to learn the ins and outs of the tram system. Cumberland thinks different. Green, red, blue, white is north, south, east, west. That simple. A monkey would master it in next to no time.

How in hell do you remember it though?


The two men walk on by the former Hope Street offices of The Sunday Worker wrecked in the blackshirt riot of '25, a right donnybrook it was that day says Hepburn, and now the expansive picture window of the Provident Friendly Society, a fly-by-night operation suspicioned to be financed by city councilmen on the graft, and now finally to linger anent the black-enamel door of a sickly-dull gray granite building outside of which a horse drawn hearse is parked sans casket. Chucks arrest its downhill roll. The bawsie looks at them, flares flee-haunted nostrils. The men stare back and the animal swivels away embarrassed in its equine way and the flies worry, hover and resettle in the warm pooling of its sweating there.

Interesting animal.

Horse it's called. Still huv them doon south? Or did youse English go and eat them aw?

Hepburn strolls over to the horse, reaches ahint its helter-cheeks and strokes the length of the glistening smooth of its mane.

Ah've nae sugar lumps but.

The horse nickers, breath warm against his palm.

So, why the long face? Hepburn asks the horse.

Back there a ways did I happen to see a young lass tied to a postbox?


And that would be why?

Gitten married soon. Tied doon. Intimations of whit's tae come.

I'm married myself, you know, says Cumberland.

Wid explain how ye came by the expression exact same as this cuddy here.

In the window of the Undertaker's office is propped a large placard and etched upon it in a scrolling printer's font are these prophetic words: 'You may pass this way but once, we'll get you in the end.'

That's classy, says Hepburn. Must've hired a poet, Harkness must. Depressing as fuck as well though.

He's our man?

Oor man he is. You know, Ah seem tae recall back when this yin started oot there wis anither big board right there that said: 'Go to Harkness, he'll bury your carcass.' Ah liked that better. Pithier right?

It's pithy, said Cumberland. Definitely got the pith.

Gone up-market since Harkness has.

From his post at the reception desk a soft-murmuring black-suited baldy-headed individual is dispatched to summon the owner of the establishment on business urgent.

The two men feel their boots sink soft into the thick plied carpet. The waiting here in this place so long has made them too self-conscious, awkward. The air is musty and they surmise why this is so. Hepburn hums and rocks on his heels. Cumberland just whistles. He isn't a good whistler, and Hepburn wants it stopped, speaks to that end, interrupting.

Harkness does it the auld way.

How's that?

The auld man knows aw the tricks. Like leaving a window open tae allow the soul tae leave, or like shrouding the mirror so it isnae confused. Aw that stuff.

Why would the mirror be confused?

No the mirror. Fuck's sake. The soul. The soul it is gits confused by the mirror. It sees itself and gits a fright.

Cumberland scoops up a pile of little rectangular cards from a green bowl on the reception table, shuffles them, birls one atween his fingers. The cards have an ornately elaborate green leaf design.

I never knew that, how the soul got confused by a mirror.

Well, mibbe the soul disnae git confused doon yonder in Sheffield then. In Glesca it does. Remember, they drain oot yir blood and pump in fluid, so yir essentially pickled, preserved wi' alcohol. Mah theory wid be they pit in mair of that there embalming stuff up in these parts and the soul is so quite pixilated upon departing the body and, under the affluence of incohol, gits seriously befuddled.

What do you suppose people used before mirrors? There weren't always mirrors.

Hepburn ponders for a moment the possible consequences of a paucity of available reflections.

They jist stared in ither folks' faces. Ur they looked in the watter. Mibbe fell in like that Greek eegit.

Cumberland laughs and begins reading aloud the text printed upon the little flowery-green card. There isn't very much at all.

All diseases cured by Herbs, he reads.

There ye go, says Hepburn.

Hepburn takes the card and jots something on the back with a pencil and puts it in his pocket. Cumberland starts whistling badly again.

The weeping woman comes out an anteroom in the hallway beyont the reception area. She is wearing a long green trailing velvet dress with a shoulder slung fur stole and all the while snivels inconsolably upon it, snottering the pelt of the dead animal, a final insult it doesn't feel, being dead. She leans upon the supporting arm of an elderly gentleman so much the funeral director quintessential that the watcher of his deathly cadence might suppose him at least partly illusory, a necessary invention. Dignified and soulful, gloom-soothing, baggy-eyed sad, thin-lipped morose, cold-eyed sanctimonious, exuding from each and every crisp fold of his black meekly understated funereal suit the three-ply unctuousness of a Caledonian Uriah Heep. Harkness this is, a man known from Kelvingrove to Hyndland and other such posh places as can spring for his services as being at the consolatory trade unsurpassed, when summoned ever expert at placing upon the loved one's pallid cheeks the coy tint of the mortician's art, adept also at the big showy expensive sendoff with piles of soft white roses and all the cushy plush of the hearse. Yes, one of the wealthiest death merchants within the city limits.

The mourners walk slowly out into the street, one grieving, the other affecting the fine simulacrum thereof. The two men watch their departure through the window, see the woman lowered gently into the waiting car, the perfect folded monogrammed handkerchief passed to her, the dabbing of eyes by same. They turn away, disgusted.

Here's a guid one, says Hepburn, cheerfully. It's an Old Firm game and there's this wee fella oan the terraces keeps screaming 'Kill everybody.' That's whit he chants ower and ower. The whole game he does it. 'Kill everybody.' Same thing. Gits oan yir nerves, right? 'Kill everybody. Kill everybody.' So, after a while, this ither fella near him comes ower and says 'Hey, Jim, who the hell do you support anyway?' And the wee fella says 'Eh, naebody. Ah'm an undertaker.'

Harkness, features reassembled to more habitual snaiky, does not appear to be in the slightest pleased to find Hepburn waiting for him here. It occurs to Cumberland that no one in the city of Glasgow ever does seem terribly happy to see Hepburn.

Mr. Harkness. How's business? Looks like ye've been at a burying? Still doing a roaring trade ah hope?

Ah cannae complain, Mr. Hepburn. Cannae complain.

Then again, it isnae like people can ever stop buying whit it is yir selling, eh? Yours is wan trade fur the ages. But who'll bury yirsel when ye go?

Harkness chooses not to respond, fixing his grin like cement. It looks painful so to do. He glances at Cumberland, who says nothing at all and looks out the window, while Hepburn extracts from the pocket of his overalls the little green card. On the back of the card is jotted a name and an address. He hands the card to Harkness who looks at it and puts it in his own pocket.

This would be the same thing again? asks Harkness.

Aye, says Hepburn. It has tae be this afternoon though.

Harkness frowns, and seems on the brink of a protest.

Is that a problem? The Captain wid be sair disappointed tae be disappointed.

No. No, we'll manage somehow. Somehow. We always do, Mr. Hepburn.

You'll likely huv a nice contribution tae the benevolent fund coming yir way by the end of next week, if no afore.

Harkness nods, still glancing over at Cumberland, smiling nervously. He wants this to be over soon. It is uncomfortable, this conversation, having workmen, even these masquerading workmen, in his place of business, him even being seen with this class of people. He's moved beyond all that. He has a fine marble pile on Great Western Road, two Irish maids and a waistcoated butler.

Hepburn claps his hands and Harkness jumps, startled.

Well that's that then. Wur awa tae see a man aboot a dog. Ur vice-versa. Say, we might even be able tae rustle up some business fur ye if he disnae behave right, eh?

Harkness looks at Cumberland too quickly, this sudden nervy glance.

Jist kiddin, adds Hepburn. Wi' any luck ye'll hit the jackpot soon enough anyway by yirsel. You must be praying fur a nice pit disaster ur the like, eh?

Hepburn reaches across the mortician's shoulders and dunts him hard on the back, smiling. It must hurt. Harkness does not say anything but stands stock-still and rigid with his teeth set in the same rictus of grim embarrassment till the two quit his premises.

The inside of the building funereal had been dark, as is ever deemed appropriate, with the very atmosphere of the place seeming fluidly embalmed, and the two policemen blink upon emerging from out that underworld to walls dazzly with sunlight and an air glazed and immaculate. The horse turns and recommences its examination of them, just to be sure. It is chewing something unspeakable.

Cheery sort him, says Hepburn. He's in the right profession fur sure though.

Cumberland wonders if the girl is still tied to the postbox, then stops wondering.

What did you have him do?

Och, send a couple of his people ower Gorbals way tae measure a man fur a new coffin. It'll give that yin the collywobbles, him no being deid.

Is Harkness undercover then?

Hepburn spits on the pavement, oozies the spit with his foot, shakes his head.

Don't be daft. He's jist a fuckin undertaker. Whit he does is, he undertakes.

Rob McClure Smith has published fiction in Chelsea, Confrontation, Vestal Review, Other Voices,Barcelona Review, Chapman and other literary magazines. He was a previous winner of the Scotsman Orange Short Story Award.