37 Degrees Celsius (part II)
By Mark Burrow
A large yew tree arched over a small stone chapel. Smithy surveyed the rows of headstones, the different sizes and colours. He never did like the black granite ones. They reminded him of tackily designed kitchens.
Some of the stones had fresh flowers neatly placed with messages on cards. He saw one grave with helium balloons swaying, a teddy bear propped against the stone. Many of the graves were abandoned, covered with autumn leaves, the stones grey and chipped, often sloping to the side.
He stood beside a freshly dug grave, with an open coffin at the bottom. “Let me get this straight,” he said, “you want me to climb down and lie in there?”
“As we explained,” said the man.
“In the coffin?”
“That’s what we told you,” said the woman.
“And then you’re going to put that on?” said Smithy, pointing to the lid.
“This is the task,” said the man.
“Son of a bitch,” said Smithy, loud enough for them to hear.
The man said, “Is there a problem?”
“It seems there might be,” said the woman.
“That is unfortunate.”
“A missed opportunity.”
“You showed promise.”
“Something different to the others.”
Smithy said, “Take it easy – I’m not refusing, I’m just asking.”
A flotilla of dark grey clouds filled the sky. Gusts of wind whipped up the leaves on the ground. A pair of crows perched on the roof of the chapel. He’d read somewhere that crows pecked out the eyes of new born lambs.
“It’s going to rain,” he said.
“Are you feeling cold?” the woman asked.
“Shall we take his temperature?” the man said to her.
Smithy realised where they were going with their questioning. “I’m fine,” he said, “I’m 37 degrees Celsius.”
“We should check,” said the man.
“It’s alright. There’s no need,” said Smithy. “I’m warm enough.”
The woman was removing the thermometer from her bag, but the man signalled for her to stop.
Smithy took a deep breath and said, “How long do I have to stay in the coffin?”
“Sixty-minutes,” the man replied, using a cloth to wipe specks of rain off his glasses.
“A whole hour?”
Smithy muttered to himself and looked at the sky. It was going to start chucking it down any second. The air had that feel about it.
The crows sensed the weather changing too. They made cawing sounds, flapped their wings and took off.
“If you don’t mind me asking, what has this got to do with the role?”
“It is the role, Mr Smith,” said the man.
The woman said, “Our clients want a coffin that feels homely and lived in. They want the space to be imbued with happy memories and warmth. We offer this to them, providing the assurance that, when the time comes, they won’t be placed into a cold and desolate object.”
“We believe a coffin should be so much more than a box,” said the man.
“This is the role and responsibility of the Thermal Assurance Executive. All we ask of our Executives is that they provide warmth and manifest positivity,” said the woman.
“So, I’m creating a happy home… for the dead?”
“Precisely,” said the man.
The woman smiled for the first time and nodded. “You understand us.”
“Is there overtime?” asked Smithy.
“In certain cases, yes,” said the man.
“What about weekends? Are there bonuses?”
“We can discuss terms and conditions,” said the woman.
“But first,” said the man, gesturing to the grave.
Smithy felt the raindrops on his skin. “Fine,” he said. “One hour?”
The man removed his pocket watch.
“You won’t leave me in there?”
“Why would we do that?” said the woman.`
“It defeats our mission, our purpose,” said the man.
Smithy smiled, noting how they had still manged to get a mention of ‘purpose’ into the interview. He wondered if he should message Helena and tell her where he was, maybe ask her what she thought of what they were asking him to do.
The man made an ushering motion. “This way,” he said.
Smithy gave a nod. He doubted Helena would answer. The relationship pretty much depended on him landing the job. It was his last throw of the dice. He sat down on the edge of the grave, dangling his legs in as if summoning the courage to jump into icy cold water. Using his arms for support, he gingerly lowered himself down and then he let himself drop onto the wooden base of the coffin. It felt weird against his feet, kind of sacrilegious, like thinking about sex when at a funeral. “Hold on,” he said, looking up to the man and the woman, “is this legal?”
They peered down at him, both holding the lid to the coffin. There was a long delay before the man said, “It’s not illegal.”
Smithy considered asking what that meant exactly, but he was tired and hungry and he wanted to get this stage of the interview over and done with. “You might as well pass me that,” he said, referring to the lid.
“That’s kind of you,” the woman said.
Smithy took the lid. “If I pass this, do I get the job?” he said, figuring out how to position himself so he could lie down and drop the coffin lid on.
Smithy finished the man’s sentence. “… this stage of the interview. Yes, I get it,” he said, lying flat on his back and holding the lid above the coffin. It was heavier than he imagined and was already causing his arm muscles to strain. “One hour,” he said.
“Exactly,” replied the man. “We’ll start counting down once the lid is on.”
“Remember,” said the woman, “manifest happy thoughts.”
Smithy let the lid fall onto the coffin. It was askew and he shifted it so it slotted into its grooves. He knew it was on properly because the daylight vanished. “It’s on,” he hollered.
Smithy heard muffled voices from outside.
He felt himself going into panic mode in the blackness.
There was a loud banging noise on the roof of the coffin and what sounded like footsteps. “Hey, what’s going on?” he shouted, trying to push the lid up. It was then that he heard the swooshing sound of soil and gravel being shovelled into the grave. He tried banging onto the lid, forcing it to open, but there wasn’t space to generate enough power in his arms. He yelled at them to let him out. That he didn’t want the job. That he wanted to end the interview.
The gravel kept swooshing onto the coffin.
“No, no, no.”
The soil was sealing him in.
He turned, wriggled onto his front, trying to use his back to force open the lid.
It was useless.
The footsteps and muffled voices faded. The ‘swoosh’ noise grew fainter.
He lay on his front, sensing the pressure of the soil on the coffin. The air close. Compact. He cried out as loudly as he could until his yells became a whimper.
He forced himself to regain control of his breathing.
They said an hour.
Not so long really.
No need to panic.
It’s just some crazed and demented aptitude test.
And he wondered if they had heard him in the coffin, panicking and screaming.
Would that count against him in the interview?
He could picture the four-eyed son of a bitch taking notes.
“‘Manifest positivity,’” the woman had said.
He thought about the types of people who wanted to have their coffins warmed before they died. They drove Range Rovers. Complained about the quality these days of nannies and au pairs. Organised street parties to celebrate the royal family. Raised money for good causes, making sure everybody knew about it on social media, but also did their utmost to avoid paying a penny more in tax than they needed too.
It was roasting hot in the coffin. He shuffled off his jacket, wondering if he would run out of oxygen. He focused on his breathing. Tried to think happy thoughts. Coming home to Helena. Telling her that he had a job. She’d throw her arms around him. They’d kiss and cuddle. Go for a meal to celebrate. Turning over a new leaf in their relationship. He knew he hadn’t been the best of boyfriends over the years and had shown poor judgement, especially after a few beers. He made a promise to himself that those days were over.
He told himself to stay calm. He wriggled onto his back and pulled out his phone. It had three percent of power left. There was no signal down here under the ground. No way he could call for help.
Sixty-minutes, it would fly by.
“You can do this,” he said.
He switched off the phone.
Once he was earning again, anything was possible.