Short Fictions > Short Fiction > The Rosewood Coffin

The Rosewood Coffin



The Rosewood Coffin


Harold had collapsed in a shopping mall. Now he watched with interest as the paramedics set up their equipment in the ambulance.

     'He's a fine figure of a man, but all that muscle is heavy.' Mildred said, gasping from her exertions as they pushed the stretcher into the ambulance. Then a look of alarm spread across her face. 'I can't feel a pulse. I think he's dead.'

     'Can't be. He's still breathing,' Colin replied.

     Of course I'm not dead. I'm only twenty-five, Harold was about to say, but had second thoughts. They'll likely react badly if I speak, seeing I've no pulse.

     'But something strange is going on.' Colin tapped the computer screen. 'All the traces on the monitor are flat-lined. You sure you've set it up correctly?'

     'Of course I have. I've been doing this for years,' Mildred said with asperity. She pulled two of the ECG electrodes from Harold's chest and placed them on her neck. Immediately a trace with equally spaced spikes started to move across the screen. When she replaced the electrodes on Harold the trace returned to a straight line.

     'I can't believe it,' Colin said and frowned. 'All the indications are he's dead, but he's breathing. Look how his chest is rising and falling. And I can feel his breath as he exhales.'

     'How about trying CPR?' Mildred said.

     'No point in CPR, he's breathing.'

     Thank goodness for that, Harold thought. I didn't fancy being kissed by that hairy ape. He shivered. The tiled floor in the mall had been cold.

     'We should close his eyes,' Mildred said.

     'I've already done that.'

     'Then how come they're open?' she asked.

     Colin pursed his lips. 'This is weird. Let's get him to hospital. The sooner we offload him the happier I'll be.'


Harold listened to the gaggle of specialists talking as if he didn't exist.

     'I can't understand it,' the neurosurgeon said. 'His vital signs have been non-existent for the last three days, but his scans show no abnormalities and he's breathing. I'm out of ideas.'

     'Same for me,' the cardiologist said. 'His blood tests are normal, but nothing's showing on the instruments, and you have to believe your electronics. His heart's not responding, not a hint of a reaction to any of the stimuli. And without any heart function it's a mystery how he's breathing.' He stood back, scratching his head. 'According to the monitors he's dead, yet his muscle tone is fine. There's been no sign of rigor either. Breathing as he is, he has to be alive.'

     'So there's nothing any of you can suggest?' the registrar said, peering at each specialist in turn.

     They shook their heads.

     'Could it be just a coma?'

     'Not in my opinion,' the neurosurgeon said.

     'You're certain the instruments all indicate he's dead?'

     'No doubt about that. Not a flicker on any monitor.'

     'You'll have no argument from me. All the screens indicate that life has expired. ' The cardiologist agreed with his colleague.

     'That's good enough for me. If all the instruments indicate he'd dead, we're in the clear. We must never forget that this is a business, not a philanthropic operation. It's important to keep our shareholders happy, so we can't afford to waste a bed on enigmatic emergencies. I've already told his brother to prepare for the worst. I expected resistance to the idea, but his reaction surprised me. He seemed really happy and said he'd make the funeral arrangements.'

     I can imagine what those arrangements will be, Harold thought.

     'It's getting late so we'll give him one more night, but if the instruments register no change by the morning we'll send him down to the morgue. We have to believe the diagnostic equipment. It cost a fortune,' the registrar said. 'Maybe the pathologist will be able to discover the problem.'

     Pathologist? That's a bit extreme, Harold thought. I'll be better off at home.

     The registrar continued to talk as they left the ward. 'We need this bed. We've patients waiting, and they'll be paying.'

     It's not my fault that no one has been able to resolve the quandary. Harold knew what the problem was, but the medicos would be bound to disagree if he spoke, and he couldn't face an argument. He closed his eyes and thought back to the young woman in the mall, unable to supress a smile. What a stunner. She'd stop any red-blooded male's heart. His smile vanished when he recalled the registrar's words. Mortuary indeed. No way am I going to let any pathologist examine me. Not after seeing all those Silent Witness programmes on the TV.

     As soon as the nurse moved to another ward, he slipped out of bed, dressed and hurried to the lifts.


Harold scowled as the taxi took him home thinking over the registrar's comment about his brother. The words echoed in his head and again he wondered about the arrangements his brother would be making.

     Although they were identical twins, the resemblance was purely physical. Their attitude to life was totally different, but people could never tell them apart. Even their writing was identical. It was unfortunate that their parents had given them both names beginning with the same initial, Harold and Henry, which compounded the confusion. It had been fun as children, but as they matured it had caused complications; their mail became mixed up, he got his brothers parking tickets and recently he'd been served with court orders that banned him from certain nightclubs. Luckily they were not the smart venues that he favoured.

     He'd never been close to Henry, and since their parents had died in that car crash, their relationship had deteriorated. It had worsened further when he'd found Henry passing cheques on his account and had been forced to sue him to stop it happening again. He'd never received compensation, and despite the court order he knew he never would.

     Henry could never settle to any work and had squandered his legacy. His gambling debts were the reason he'd had to sell his house a few months previously. He'd got a good price, but the half a million wouldn't last Henry long. The penthouse apartment he was renting showed he hadn't learnt a thing.

     Harold had built his legacy into billions. He was now living in a mansion on a large estate with a retinue of servants, which had turned Henry's jealousy into outright hatred.

     Little wonder he was pleased  to make my funeral arrangements, Harold thought. I'll bet he's hoping I've left everything to him, but never in a million years. He might be my only relative, but I'd sooner leave my money to the dogs' home.

     If only I could meet someone like that young woman…

     As the taxi approached the gates to his estate, he saw his Bentley Mulsanne emerge some eighty metres ahead. Henry was at the wheel. Harold wondered if he should give chase, but the taxi driver swung into his drive. By the time he'd turned round the Bentley had disappeared.

     Harold's stomach rumbled as he slipped his key into the lock he realised he was famished. Three days on that drip was no substitute for real food.

     The housekeeper gasped, her hand flew to her mouth and she collapsed into a chair as he entered the kitchen. It was a couple of minutes before her breathing steadied. 'Mr Harold. You're alive. We were told you were dead. I'm so pleased you're not.'

     'I guess that was Henry, but he got it wrong,' Harold said with a smile.

     The housekeeper nodded and struggled to her feet, holding the back of the chair to steady herself.

     'Why is he driving my Bentley? Where's Roland?'

     'Mr Henry sacked him. He said he'd no need for a chauffeur. He sacked the cook too. He's given them both a week to get out of their cottages. He said they were an unnecessary expense and I could do the cooking for him. Roland didn't say a word, but Cook's really upset. Sobbing her eyes out.'

     'That's no way to treat people after years of faithful service. We'll have to do something about it at once.' I may not be able to get compensation for the loss of my money, but I'll set these matters to rights. 'Can you contact them, tell them that Henry had no authority to dismiss them and they are still employed? And their cottages are their homes for the rest of their lives. When you've done that, I'd like you cook me something to eat, please. I'm famished.'


The housekeeper cleared a space at the dining table that was strewn with papers, and while Harold showered and changed, she fixed bacon and eggs with sausages, mushrooms, and chips.

     Harold could not control his curiosity and leafed through the pile of papers as he ate. One file was headed Contract between Cut Price Funerals and Henry Smith Esq.

     Esquire? That would appeal to Henry, Harold thought. The signature at the bottom of the payment section, H Smith, had been signed with a flourish. It could have been his. I'll give the profligate sod Cut Price Funerals. Harold checked the number of the credit card. At least the bastard has used his own.

     Henry would have had no option about the credit card, but… Harold's anger subsided as an idea germinated. It would be fair recompense for the anguish that Henry had caused my longstanding chauffeur and cook. It was also a way I can get even with him for the cheques he's passed on my account and give me some belated satisfaction.

     Henry walked through the front door a few minutes before midnight. When Harold confronted him in the hall his mouth dropped open, his eyes widened and he blanched, but he refused to answer a single question. He was trembling as handed over the keys to the house and the Bentley, and was still shaking as Harold escorted him off the premises.


Harold was waiting at the undertaker's office when they opened in the morning. 'I've changed my mind,' he said. 'I feel guilty about that cardboard coffin. He's the only brother I have and he deserves better than that. I'd like to see what else you have. I'd like something with class.'

     They moved to the workshop where the foreman pulled a box from a cupboard and set out a row of varnished timber squares on a bench, together with a selection of coffin fittings.

     'This is a beautiful piece of timber,' Harold said, running his hand across one of the samples laid on the bench.

     'Brazilian rosewood?' the foreman said. 'We don't get much call for that, but it will make a magnificent coffin. I'll check with our timber merchant. If he hasn't got any in stock it might take a while and it'll be pricey.'

     'I'm aware that quality doesn't come cheaply, but It'll make be feel better.'

     'How about veneered plywood? It'll keep the price down.'

     The undertaker pursed his lips at the foreman's suggestion, and glared at the man, but said nothing.

     'No thank you. It has to be solid rosewood, Brazilian mind, and I'd like ebony inlays. The very best. It's not every day you get to bury your only relative. And these cheap brass-plated fittings won't last. I'd like solid bronze, polished.'

     The foreman gulped, leant forward in his chair, wiped his eyes and opened a timber merchant's catalogue. After a short search he stopped at a page and picked up the phone. It was a short conversation, before he replaced the receiver and punched some figures into a calculator. Then he turned to Harold.

     'We'll be looking at thirty thousand pounds for Brazilian rosewood. The bronze fittings will add another five grand, maybe a little more. They'll have to be specially cast, but the foundry should have suitable patterns.'

     'That's fine. How soon can you have the coffin ready?'

     'The wood yard has the rosewood in stock, so if we work overtime we can have the timber-work completed in a couple of days. The bronze fittings may be a little longer. I'll have to check with the foundry. They'll likely ask for a premium for a rush job. Probably ten percent.'

     'Go ahead,' Harold said. 'I won't quibble over ten percent.' Then he turned to the undertaker and said, 'How about revising the contract while I'm here?'

     Harold noticed the undertaker's eyes were bright and he was rubbing his hands in anticipation. He thought of his brother, but supressed the urge to join the undertaker in the hand rubbing. He wished he could see Henry's reaction when he received his next bank account, but some things were not possible.

     They returned to the office. 'Can I offer you a cup of tea?' the undertaker said. 'Maybe something stronger? I can send my secretary out for a cake.'

     'I'm fine, thank you. Let just get this sorted out.'

     'Thank you, Sir. It's a large financial contract. A big risk for a small establishment. We'll have to ask for a substantial deposit,' the undertaker said. 'Will ten thousand pounds be acceptable?'

     'For goodness sake, let's not shilly-shally. We can fix a final price now and be done with it. Forty thousand should cover it. I understand how difficult cash flow can be for a small business, so I don't object to paying up front. You have the card details, so we can complete the paper work while I'm here, and you can process the payment in full at once. I like to clear up accounts of this magnitude as soon as possible.'

     'Thank you very much, Sir. That's very understanding. I'll have my secretary attend to the details and draw up an addendum,' the undertaker said. 'Please excuse me, I'm running late for an appointment that I can't avoid. My secretary will make sure everything's in order. She very efficient so it shouldn't take long. You'll be more comfortable here in my office than in the public rooms.'

     Twenty minutes later the secretary came into the office with the amended contract and Harold felt his heart begin to race. He tingled everywhere as warm blood coursed through his body. She was the girl from the mall.

     Harold glanced at his Omega Seamaster, trying to hide his confusion. 'Goodness me, is that the time?' I mustn't lose this opportunity, he thought. 'I'm sorry to be rude, but I'm rather rushed. How about dinner tonight?' he asked as he signed, H Smith with a flourish.

     The secretary looked surprised, but she recovered quickly. 'Thank you. That's very kind,'

     'Where can I pick you up? Shall we say seven? Will the Ritz be acceptable?'

     'That will be lovely,' she said, a smile lighting up her face.

© Jim Ditchfield 2017