A Dubious Undertaking
Josiah Oakshott steepled his fingers and sighed as he looked around the familiar, oak-panelled, walls of the dimly lit office. Sunlight, of sorts, struggled through the stained-glass of the narrow windows high above. He sighed again and re-arranged the papers lying on the desk before him. The heavy knock on the door made him jump but he quickly recovered his composure and intoned “Come”.
The door cracked open and a tall, lanky figure in an ill-fitting black suit edged into the office.
“You wanted to see me, Mr. Oakshott?” The figure asked, clearly hoping the answer would be in the negative.
“Ah yes, Archibald, please take a seat”
Archibald Thurble arranged himself in the seat in a sort of slightly organised pile. He seemed, to Josiah, to be a series of ill-fitting joints, badly assembled and poorly tailored.
“Archibald, firstly may I take this opportunity to apologise on behalf of the company for the entirely unexpected and very difficult situation that you found yourself in last week?”
Archibald breathed a sigh of relief. He had been expecting to be hauled over the coals.
“Cor, that’s all right, Mr. Oakshott. I only did what any other bloke would have done.”
“Well, we’ll come to that shortly, Archibald. For the moment, I have to say that I take full responsibility for the unfortunate situation. Had I known that the entire staff of our little firm, excepting yourself of course, would be struck down by gastro-enteritis whilst I was taking my annual holidays I would have returned immediately. Regrettably, as I was sojourning at a hill-top retreat in the wilds of Tibet, news did not reach me until my arrival at Heathrow.”
“Not to worry, Mr. O, I had the whole thing well in hand” Archibald assured him, cheerily.
“Yes, well that is as may be, Archibald, and I do appreciate your efforts to maintain the running of this complex and difficult business despite having only a few weeks basic training”
“Ta” said Archibald, relaxing visibly
“However, there are a number of issues arising from your stewardship which we need to address. Shall I begin with the case of the Reverend W. Pemberton?”
“Oh yes, the Rev.” Archibald stated brightly, “what’s the problem?”
“The problem, Archibald,” Josiah opened a manila folder and extracted a document, “is that when Miss Hermione Pemberton, the niece of the late Reverend, called this office to make arrangements for her uncle’s funeral, you allegedly said to her, and I quote ‘Strewth, do you mean to say that he’s only just conked it? I thought he’d shoved off years ago and you just propped him up in the pulpit for the look of the thing’. Do you recall that conversation, Archibald?”
“Oh yes, course I do” Archibald leaned forward in his seat and looked about him conspiratorially, “I was trying to lighten the mood”
“Lighten the mood?” Josiah said incredulously
“Yeah, well, you know how in them old Readers Digests in the waiting room, there’s that bit about ‘Laughter is the Best Medicine’? Well, Miss Pemberton sounded a bit upset, so I thought I would try and make her see the funny side.”
“Really? Well, in that regard you seem to have failed abysmally. Miss Pemberton, despite her family having done business with this firm for decades, has chosen to make the final arrangements for her uncle with a competitor.”
“Oh” Archibald said, crestfallen.
“Oh indeed, Archibald. Then we come to the unfortunate business of Mr. Tomkins.”
“Hur” Archibald chuckled
“This is not a laughing matter, Thurble!” Josiah shouted but quickly regained his composure. “I’m sorry, Archibald, please forgive my intemperance. The past few days have been something of a strain. Now, Mr. Tomkins” He moved another manila folder to the top of the pile and extracted some papers. “As I understand it, from the Police report, you took it upon yourself to embalm the late Mr. Tomkins yourself, despite having no training whatsoever in this regard, is that correct?”
“Well, I thought I’d give it a go, Mr. Oakshott. I’d watched some of the lads at it and it didn’t seem to me that there was much to it”
“I see, I see. But you encountered a problem when it came to the embalming fluid, is that correct?”
“Couldn’t find none” Archibald confirmed
“You ‘couldn’t find none’. Indeed.” Josiah massaged his throbbing temple for a moment. “Tell me, Archibald, what did you do instead?”
“Went down the garage and got some unleaded”
“You ‘went down the garage and got some unleaded’?”
“Yeah, there was an offer on too. I got one of them wind-up torches” He pulled a torch from one of his pockets, “It works a treat down the mortuary.”
“Had it not occurred to you, Archibald, that, given Mr. Tomkins express wish to be cremated, filling his remains full of Unleaded Petrol might not be the wisest choice of actions?”
“Didn’t think, Mr. Oakshott” Archibald muttered
“You didn’t think? You are aware, are you not, that the resultant explosion permanently removed the hearing of the Crematorium Superintendent, demolished the Balmoral Chapel and deposited Mr. Grimes, the Crematorium Attendant two miles away?”
“There was a bit of a bang” Archibald agreed
“A bit of a bang? Had it not been for the happy accident of Mr. Grimes landing on a pile of mattresses awaiting disposal at the Municipal Refuse Depot, we could have been facing a murder charge.”
“Bet he bounced quite a bit” Archibald sniggered
“I have no idea whether he bounced or otherwise, and it is immaterial to this conversation” Josiah snapped, “As for the late Mr. Tomkins, there was no trace whatsoever”
“But I saw his missus just going out with an urn” Archibald said, perplexed.
“Mrs. Tomkins is about to inter two pounds of Premium Quality Cat Litter along with the detritus from my wood-burning stove, and we can only hope she doesn’t decide to open the urn and examine the contents beforehand.” Josiah extracted a linen handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his forehead. “That Oakshott and Underwood should be reduced to this”
“She’ll never know the difference” Archibald said reassuringly
“We can only hope. Finally, we come to the newspaper advertisement. Do you know to what I’m referring, Archibald?”
“Think so, Mr. Oakshott”
“For as long as I can remember, Archibald, Oakshott and Underwood have had a box advertisement to the right of the title of the Merkin-Under-Heathwood Advertiser. The masthead as I believe it is known in the trade. This has always read ‘Oakshott and Underwood, Understanding and Sympathy at your time of need’. Do you recall that, Archibald?”
“I’ve noticed it, yes Mr. Oakshott”
“I had no idea, Archibald, that when the Merkin-Under-Heathwood Advertiser sends out its quarterly bills for the cost of this advertisement, that there is an additional section in which one can enter a change of wording for the advertisement, if one should so wish. But you, Archibald, you spotted this didn’t you?”
“Yeah, I saw it when the bill arrived”
“And you saw fit to change the wording, didn’t you?”
“Would you like to remind me as to your revised wording, Archibald?”
“Well…it says ‘Oakshott and Underwood…’”
“It does indeed. But what does it then go on to say?”
“We Shift Stiffs.” Archibald muttered,“ I thought it would be snappier and stuff”
“We Shift Stiffs!” Josiah exclaimed despairingly. He put his head in his hands and wept bitter tears.
Archibald watched with some concern for a minute and then decided that he should withdraw tactfully. He could see that Mr. Oakshott was clearly overcome with emotion and there would be time enough for his grateful thanks when he had recovered. Archibald slipped out of the room, proud of a job well done.