All day, Harry had wondered why everyone was dressed in black.
“This is how we show our sadness,” his mother told him, as they followed the crowd into the crematorium, the sun beginning to set behind the church steeple. “You’ll understand one day, dear.”
He had never seen her face so white and her eyes so dark. She would not look at him – nobody would – only the vacant space ahead could hold her gaze.
As the legs of men towered over him, their oily shoes slipping like cockroaches along the carpet, the trail of his mother’s dress blew a steady breeze against his cheek. Harry looked up at them all, searching for their faces, but he could never see beyond the ridges of their cheeks or the napes of their necks.
“Beautiful service by Father,” they kept saying. He was the short man in the purple robes, his mother said, the one who had sprinkled water on everyone at the church just before the lady got up to make her speech.
She had walked up to the pulpit, brushed the hair away from her eyes, and began to speak about the man trapped inside the black box. “My father would have loved to have seen everyone together like this,” she began. His mother nodded slowly as the lady spoke, occasionally dabbing her eyes with a white handkerchief. When a round of laughter rose from the silence, his mother would stay silent, and so Harry did the same.
Soon, without warning, the lady’s voice began to quiver, deep guttural sobs disrupting every word. She continued to struggle until an older man sitting in the front pew hobbled up to her, and walked her back to her seat, where she remained for the rest of the service, ashen-cheeked with large red circles around her eyes.
Watching her, Harry wondered if she heard it too – the screaming.
Everyone had just stood up to the drone of the organ, as four men carried the black box on their shoulders. At first, the voice was muffled, struggling to compete with the Father’s deep singing and the soft humming which followed its melody from the pews. But it grew louder with each second, becoming more panicked and shrill, until it pierced above all other sound.
The cries were punctuated by a desperate banging against the box, each strike booming with a woody resonance.
Harry hugged his mother’s arm, staring up at her in the faint hope that she, for once, would understand. But her eyes said the same words they always did, and regarded him as though he was incomplete, like a memory from her past or a faint object upon the horizon.
“You okay, love?” she whispered to him.
“I don’t like it, mummy. Can we go home?”
She ran her fingers through his hair, and from the shape of her smile, he knew that whatever she was about to say would be a lie. ‘It will be over soon.’
The black box was there as they came inside the crematorium, laid out on a marble table and surrounded by red curtains. There was a long queue leading up to it, with people laying flowers along the top of the box, always bowing their heads as they did so. When Harry came to the front of the queue, nestled within his mother’s arms, the man’s voice reached out to him again, very hushed, sobbing through each word he spoke.
“You have to help me,” he pleaded.
Harry leant towards the box, his reflection stretching across the pitch-black wood. “Don’t worry,” his little voice began, “it will be over soon…”
Matthew Tyrer is a writer who grew up in Liverpool but is currently based in Inverness, Scotland. He has written works published in Trembling With Fear and the Edinburgh Literary Student Journal. He works part-time at Moniack Mhor Creative Writing Centre near Beauly in the Highlands.