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A Letter from the Grave

Eugene has the last laugh

By Joe YoungPublished 8 months ago 20 min read
Chaos among the gravestones (My own image)

"Only me," I said, closing the front door and undoing the buttons on my sodden raincoat. I removed the coat, shook it, and hung it on a hook in the hallway, and I gave my scalp a vigorous rub to shake off excess rainwater from my hair. A form of reply, which I took to be in here, came from Eugene's bedroom, so I walked in.

It was a sparsely furnished, rather depressing room, with tobacco-stained walls and a grey net curtain at the window. A pungent aroma of tobacco smoke and Brylcreem assaulted the nostrils until one got used to it. Sixty-one-year-old Eugene was sitting up in a single bed, fingers fumbling inside a tobacco tin. His emaciated body lay partly hidden under blankets topped by a yellow candlewick bedspread that was dotted here and there with black cigarette burns.

I placed a betting slip and a five-pound note, Eugene's change, on a bedside cabinet next to a Fray Bentos pie tin that served as an ashtray, and which I emptied daily. "Ta," he said, before licking the paper of a cigarette he'd rolled. I left the room to put the kettle on, and on my return, the patient piped up.

"Well, Michael," he said, "this is the final paragraph of the final chapter." Then, in a different voice, "Just think, Rodney, this time next year, I'll be six feet under."

The laugh that my friend let out in response to his grim prophecy, which was sure to come about, and in a damn sight less than a year, turned into a sustained wheezing fit. I smiled at the joke out of politeness, because by this time we had become accustomed to the idea of Eugene's impending demise, and he had adapted fully to living under a sentence of death. To the observer, in preparing for his final exit, Eugene appeared no more anxious than had he been getting ready to start a new job.

When the wheezing subsided Eugene put the cigarette to his lips, where it protruded from surrounding coarse grey stubble, like a flagpole in a patch of bracken. His bony fingers picked a match from a box, and he lit up.

I sat on a dining chair in the corner of the bedroom. The only other furniture in the room was a chest of drawers supporting a portable television set that was showing horse racing, with the volume set to barely audible. Outside the bedroom in the hallway, a small suitcase stood, upright in readiness.

For today Eugene would be leaving his home for the final time, to take up temporary residence in a local hospice. Of course, his parents were long gone, he had no children, and his only sibling, a brother, Paul, had died the previous year. He did have a wife, but in name only. They had split up some twenty years earlier but neither party had got around to initiating a divorce.

I live in a flat three doors down along the balcony from Eugene. Occasional encounters in the stairwell broke the neighbourly ice, and we became friendly enough that I'd sometimes have a pint or two alongside him down at the White Horse. When failing health confined him to barracks, I became his message boy, fetching food, whisky, and beer from the shop and putting on his daily bet on the horses.

The whistle of the boiling kettle summoned me to the kitchen, and as I left the bedroom, Eugene said, "I've had a visitor this morning. A woman. Here in my bedroom."

"And who was that," I said in a raised tone from the kitchen, "the chiropodist?" Eugene is unable to cut his own toenails, so someone comes in to do it for him. I attempted the task once, but I'm too queasy for that kind of work. I don't know if it's a circulation issue associated with his illness, but his toenails have taken on a yellowish hue. That, combined with a ripe cheesy aroma finished me, and I could only do one foot. It gave me a new respect for chiropodists.

I brought in two mugs of tea and laid one on the bedside table. "Come on, then," I said, "who was this mystery woman, and should I be concerned that you'll run off with her?"

"It was Jo."

"What," I said, "as in your wife, Jo?" He nodded.

"That identical personage," he said with a chuckle. He really was in excellent spirits, given his situation.

"Well," I said in exasperation, "the plot thickens. You never see her for years, and then when you're on your last legs she turns up out of the blue, no doubt to see if there's anything worth having. She ought to be ashamed of herself, sniffing around at a time like this. I wonder who tipped her off."

"I did," Eugene said, crushing the cigarette end into the pie tin, "I invited her. Rang her sister Mo and asked her to pass on a message."

"But you can't bear the sight of her. It's all you can do not to retch when you mention her name."

"I know, but in the eyes of the law, she's still my wife and, for as long as she retains that position, my next of kin."

"And are you going to divulge the nature of the dialogue at this momentous summit, or shall I catch it on the six o'clock news?"

"She was only here fifteen minutes; didn't even have a cup of tea. Or offer to make me one, come to that."

"Oh, to have been a fly on the wall for that interview," I said. "What did you discuss?"

"My arrangements," he said, again in a manner so matter-of-fact it was disconcerting. The words wounded me, as I had assumed that as his reliable errand boy and closest friend over recent difficult months, he would have bestowed those duties upon me.

"Well, that's a bit bloody rich," I said, unable to hide my disappointment. Eugene chuckled. "From what you've told me about her she'd be the last person I'd want handling my affairs."

"Michael," Eugene said, "do I detect a touch of envy in your tone?"

"Of course not," I said. But after a brief pause, I changed my tune. "Well, yes. Yes, I am envious, and who wouldn't be?" The springs on the bed creaked as its occupant laughed heartily. Eugene was delighting in my discomfiture.

"Oh, Michael," he said, reopening the tobacco tin.

"Because, while I've been looking after you, and doing the shopping, and putting your bets on, and even cutting your bloody toenails, she - "

"Only on one foot," he said, interrupting my flow, and administering a reproving wag of the index. I quickly resumed.

"She cheated on you, and stole from you, and you told me she threw a wine bottle at you that fractured your cheekbone."

"True. All true," Eugene said.

" And yet she's going to get her cheating, thieving, bottle-throwing hands on your life insurance. You disappoint me, Eugene. I would have thought…"

"There is no policy."

"…that you'd have nominated a more suitable candidate for - " I stopped in mid-sentence, as his words registered. "What did you say?"

"I have no policy. Nothing."

"No arrangements?" I said, astounded. Eugene smiled and shook his head. "I don't wish to draw attention to the gravity of your situation, old dear, but I fear it's a little late in the day to be giving Parky a call."

"You're right, Michael, it is too late. I'm all alone in the world, and I never got round to opening a policy for my funeral arrangements."

"You have no arrangements whatsoever then. How did Jo take that news?

"I've told her I have some cash tucked away for my funeral."

"But, if she goes to the bank, she'll still get her hands on it as your next of kin." Eugene shook his head again.

"Not in the bank. Hard cash here in this flat."

"Here?" I said, curious.

"Stuffed in a jiffy bag."

"And did you reveal its precise location to Jo?"

"I alluded to it. She'll have to do a bit of digging," he said, lighting up the new cigarette.

And you believe that this harridan would use hard cash that nobody knows about to pay for your funeral. Aren't you being a tad naive?"

"It'll all pan out nicely in the end." Eugene said, smiling.

"I suspect there's more to this situation than I am currently cognizant with," I said. Eugene nodded.

"She won't find a penny. I'm as poor as a church mouse."

"So, no arrangements, either official or unofficial," I said.

None. So, I guess the state will have to foot the bill for my burial. Still, if a state funeral was good enough for Churchill, then it's good enough for old Eugene." He laughed.

"But why go through all of this rigmarole with Jo?" I asked. "Why involve her?"

"You know she was unfaithful to me?" I nodded.

"You mentioned it," I said.

"Well, here's what happened. To put my cards on the table from the start, I wasn't faithful to Jo either," he said. "I cheated on her a few times, but then, who doesn't stray?"

"So, you're as bad as each other, then."

"Well," he said, pursing his lips, "yes and no. I mean there's cheating, and there's cheating."

"Clarification required," I said. "Cheating is cheating, surely."

"I took steps to ensure as best I could that Jo wouldn't find out. I never messed about with local women, and I always worked alone. Over the years, I'd had several propositions, but I turned them all down because they were local. A hotel in Hull, that's where it started. Of course, I had opportunites aplenty due to my being a rep, and staying alone in hotels many miles from home. I carved a few notches on the headboard, Michael, but it was only ever a one-night stand and no more. I gave them made-up phone numbers, and I'd sometimes use a false name."

"Committing adultery miles from home doesn't make it any less of a breach of your marriage vows," I said, "so you can't claim the moral high ground on that one."

"You're right, of course," Eugene said, "but hear me out. You might even consider this karma."

"Go on," I said, looking forward to the scandal.

"I'd taken a half day one Friday in August about twenty years ago. I'd made secret arrangements to take Jo away for the weekend. Booked us into a hotel in Brighton."

"Do I detect a Michael! You're home early scenario developing?"

"Indeed. I went into the house and heard an almighty commotion from upstairs. A male voice, heavy footsteps, Jo repeating Oh my God. So I hurried upstairs and into the bedroom."

"Who was it?" I said. Eugene turned onto his side to crush his cigarette end in the pie tin, and in so doing, a foot popped out from under the blankets, giving me a flash of the ghastly talons.

"Not who was it?," he said, "but rather who were they?"

"You don't mean," I said. The figure in the bed nodded.

"Two of them in the matrimonial bedroom," Eugene said. "One trying to pull on his underpants by the window, and the other stark naked behind the door. And Jo, can you believe it, screaming and holding a sheet against her body to cover her dignity, like she had any left after what she'd just been doing."

"Blimey," I said. "What did you do? Did you know these men?"

"I knew them all right," Eugene said. "Both played on the darts team over at the Plough."

"That must have been horrendous," I said.

"It was, but there's an even worse development."

"Oh no," I said, sympathetic, but eager to hear details of the deterioration.

"The guy behind the door was my brother, Paul."

"Oh my god, Eugene," I said, genuinely shocked. "Is that why he moved to Wales?"

"Yes, that's the reason he made a sharp exit."

"What did you do?"

"I went at them full tilt. I was outnumbered, but their nakedness made them vulnerable. I started on the one at the window, a slimy toad called Charlie. I bust my hand on his teeth, look." He raised his right hand to show me a scar on the knuckle adjoining the index finger. "He got past me, and ran downstairs and into the street, bleeding heavily from the nose and mouth, and naked save for a tea towel he'd grabbed to keep the family jewels hidden." Eugene chuckled as he remembered the incident.

"And your brother?" I said. The chuckling stopped immediately.

"Our Paul," he said. "I went at him as well, but he was always a better fighter than me. We fell onto the bed, and Jo shoved me off the edge with her feet so I was wedged between the bed and the wall. Then she lay on top of me, instructing Paul to get away quickly. He gathered the clothes that were strewn, and by the time I'd freed myself, he was gone."

"What on earth did you say to Jo?" I said.

"Paul had burst my lip, so I went to the bathroom for some tissue. Back in the bedroom, Jo was casually dressing. I dabbed my mouth and she buttoned her blouse with no more concern than had she been getting ready for work. 'How could you?' I said. She sneered. 'How could I? How could I? It was easy, mate. You've been dead between the sheets for years.' I'm telling you, Michael, with that level of mockery coming on top of what I'd just witnessed, I could've been done for murder that day."

"But you held it together," I said.

"Aye. I walked out and went to stay with a colleague for a few weeks, and then I moved in here, safely out of the way on the other side of town."

"Well, technically she may be your next of kin, but you aren't obliged to choose her to sort things out."

"I want her to."

"But why, when there's no money?" I said.

"That's the point. She thinks there is money."

He turned again and took something from the drawer on the bedside cabinet. I averted my gaze to the ceiling, lest the talons made a reappearance. He tossed an envelope onto the foot of the bed.

"Here," Eugene said, "I want you to have this." I picked it up and looked inside. It contained banknotes. "I had some old medals and stuff belonging to my grandfather. I sold them a few weeks back. There's four-hundred and twenty there. It's of no use to me, so I thought - "

"Eugene," I said, "I can't accept this. I do what I do because you're my friend. You needn't present me with gifts."

"All right then, it's not a gift," he said, "it's wages."


"You're going to earn it."

"Doing what?" I said. "Not the toenails." He laughed.

"Later today, after I've left for the hospice, I want you to put the front door key I gave you in an envelope and post it through Jo's letterbox. It's across town, but I'll give you her address. She'll be straight over in the morning looking for cash that isn't here." He chuckled. "I can just see her turning the place upside down." Eugene's entire house contents only amounted to about a dozen pieces, so Jo wouldn't have much of a search on her hands.

"And that's your revenge for her cheating?" I said. He nodded.

"It's a part of it."

"And the rest?" He tossed a folded sheet of paper to me.

"Read it aloud," he said. I pulled out my reading glasses, put them on, and cleared my throat. The letter was hand-written.

"Dear Joanne," I said, "Sorry it's taken me so long to write, but there was a terrible queue at the gates." Eugene interrupted with a laugh.

"Pearly gates, get it?"

"I used to dream of wreaking some sort of appropriate revenge for what you did to me. I'd lie in bed hatching plots that would bestow upon you a level of pain and humiliation that was on a par with that which you inflicted upon me. As time passed though, I came to realise that cheap sluts like you aren't worth bothering with, so I left you alone.

"As you know, I've not been in the best of health lately, and my time is limited. I wanted to perform one last act against you which, while not coming close to levelling up what you did to me, will give me immense satisfaction in the closing days of my life.

"You see, dear wife, there never was any money hidden in the flat. It was all a deliberate ploy that played to your greedy, grasping nature. I know how thoroughly you would have searched the place, and how increasingly demented you would have become as no cash turned up. And then, how angry you would have been at not getting your grasping fingers on the loot. Ever been had?

See you soon.

Your husband


"What do you think?" Eugene said, looking pretty pleased with himself.

"I'm lost," I said.

"Here's what I want you to do," he said, "so listen carefully."

"All right," I said, handing back the folded letter.

"After my demise, wait until six weeks after the funeral, and then post the letter. But first, write that day's date on at the top of the sheet." He handed me a ballpoint pen. "Use this so the ink is the same."

"This is just bizarre," I said.

"Michael," Eugene said, "I'm going to my grave, not the Algarve. Once I'm off this wretched merry-go-round, I won't be getting back on, so please allow me a last hurrah."

"I'll do it," I said, "it's just a bit, I dunno, creepy.

"Exactly, and she'll freak out when she reads it."

A clock in the living room struck two, the time the ambulance was due to arrive. We fell silent for a moment.

"They'll be here any minute," I said, "shouldn't you get shaved and dressed?"

"No point, Michael. I've no one to impress anymore."

The doorbell rang. Eugene started to speak, but then he broke down in a fit of sobbing. I gently rubbed between his shoulders and tried to comfort him.

"You're not being singled out for this," I said, "we all have to go through it."

The sobbing petered out as the doorbell went again. I opened the door, and a portly gentleman with a cheery disposition entered. Five minutes later, Eugene and the suitcase were gone.

I looked at the empty bed with the blankets thrown back, the mug and pie tin on the table, and on the pillow, Eugene's letter from the grave, and a stamped envelope addressed to Jo. That night, I took a bus across town, and put the key I would no longer need through Jo's letterbox.

The hospice was twenty miles and two bus rides away, but I managed to get across to visit Eugene three times in ten days. I noticed he'd regained his earlier composure, and was facing his lot with grim resolution. On my fourth visit, I learned that Eugene had passed away peacefully an hour before I arrived. He had alighted from the wretched merry-go-round.

After all the hoopla, Eugene's funeral arrangements were finally sorted out by the hospice staff.

On the afternoon of the event, I joined the six other mourners, all regulars from the White Horse, and we followed the coffin towards its final resting place. I was relieved to observe that Jo wasn't in attendance.

I'd been agonising over whether or not it would be right to carry out Eugene's final wish. I hadn't promised to post the letter, and doing so would be sure to cause trouble, and as his closest friend, I would be the chief suspect. In the end, I chickened out. I thought it best to drop the letter into the grave to be buried alongside its author, so I had it in the pocket of my jacket.

As we stood at the graveside, and Eugene was lowered into the ground, I heard a distant shriek, followed by a second, longer one. Everyone present turned towards the source of the noise, and I saw a woman running between the gravestones, screeching like a banshee. I knew immediately it was the recently widowed Jo. She approached the grave in a state of apoplexy.

"Which one of you bastards took it?" she said, panting.

"Excuse me," the vicar said, "this is a - "

"He told me," she said, gasping and pointing at the hole, "that there was cash hidden in his flat. I went through the place with a fine tooth comb the day after he went into the hospice. There was nothing there, so one of you thieving bastards must have taken it."

The angry invader kicked a mound of earth at the graveside, some of which fell onto the coffin.

"Oh, I say," the vicar said. One of the gravediggers stepped forward.

"Come on now," he said, "show some respect."

"Respect?" Jo wailed, "What's more disrespectful than stealing from a dying man?" Again she kicked at the mound, and the gravedigger gripped her arm.

"Filling the grave is my job," he said, "now, with respect, piss off or I'll call the police." The gravedigger released his grip, and the furious woman looked from mourner to mourner.

"Which one of you is Michael?" she demanded, to my horror. I made no claim on the moniker, but my fellow mourners to a man turned their heads to look upon me, pointing me out as surely as had they used their fingers. The angry widow positioned herself in front of me, her face a foot away from mine. "He told me you looked after him. Did you have a key to his flat?"

"I had one," I said, "but I posted it through your door on the day he went to the hospice."

"Yes, after you'd pocketed his funeral money," she said. The accusation in front of others made me as angry as she was, and I almost submitted to an impulse to throw the damned letter at her. "He told me there was three grand stashed in the flat for his funeral. I was there the morning after he went away, and there was no money. You're a neighbour and you had a key. Very convenient."

"I resent that," I said. "Eugene was a friend, and I can swear here by the side of his grave that I never trousered his funeral money. You can take that or leave it."

"Well, one of you bastards took it," she said, scanning the group, "dirty, thieving scum." As though to emphasise the level of her disgust, she spat. I don't believe she had deliberately aimed her gob grenade into the grave and onto Eugene's coffin, but that's where it landed, and that show of disrespect was the final straw. Mourners and gravediggers joined forces to drag the hysterical woman away from the graveside.

Those in working clothes kept Jo away from the grave, while we in black ties returned to it. The vicar concluded the service without further incident, and the roles were reversed, mourners keeping the complaining woman subdued while the gravediggers filled the hole. When the job was completed, the group dispersed. The gravediggers retired to their hut for a much-needed cup of tea, while the rest of us headed towards the gates, with the raging widow in tow, issuing accusations, threats, and curses.

We finally escaped the harridan when we climbed into two cars and drove off. We gathered at the White Horse, where we breathed a collective sigh of relief, and raised a glass to Eugene's memory.

And, six weeks later, I posted the letter.

Short Story

About the Creator

Joe Young

Blogger and freelance writer from the north-east coast of England

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