IT was supposed to be a practical joke, that’s all, a harmless bit of fun. But sometimes things go wrong, and when they do, they go terribly wrong!
It started at John Fisher’s funeral. Now, I didn’t know Fisher very well. He had a small farm outside the village and he drank in Fahey’s pub the odd weekend, which was where I learned that he had passed away. I was there because it’s customary in the country to attend local funerals and I wasn’t working full time so it gave me something to do that afternoon.
The day was dry and there was a fair crowd in the graveyard, all washed and shiny for the occasion. Fr Trent, who had said the mass, stood near the open grave with his holy water sprinkler loaded and ready. Joe Daly, the undertaker, was behind him holding the public address amplifier. John Fisher’s widow, flanked by her daughters, stared into the excavation that waited to receive her late husband. I was at the back of the small crowd with the rest of the curious onlookers.
Then, when Fr Trent had intoned the final prayer and sprinkled the coffin with holy water, a mobile phone rang. It was very loud in the reverent silence of the graveyard and the ringtone couldn’t have been more inappropriate. It was Popeye the Sailor Man, a well-known signature tune for ice cream vans.
Several people sniggered. Mrs Fisher’s eyes flicked angrily from side to side and her jaw clenched. One of her daughters looked up and muttered a curse.
The owner of the phone must have had it stuffed deep into his pocket because the jolly tune continued for several seconds while he mumbled apologies, dug it out, and finally silenced it. He then hung his head in embarrassment.
Anyway, solemnity was soon restored and the coffin was lowered into the grave. Joe Daly and his son put an artificial grass-covered board across the hole and arranged the flowers and wreaths on top. Then they gathered up the public address system and the priest’s equipment and we all went back to Fahey’s for refreshments.
It was vegetable soup and an assortment of sandwiches, as usual. There was also a free drink for everyone — pints only, no spirits. But that was fair enough. Conversation flowed easily and the afternoon wore on and I had three pints before I left for home. I was feeling nice and warm and happy.
I was about halfway home when the idea struck me. What if the mobile phone rang from inside the coffin? That would have been great gas, wouldn’t it? I pictured the priest and the mourners looking at each other while Popeye the Sailor Man issued gaily from inside the timber box. What would they have done? Would they have waited to see if somebody answered the call? Would they have opened the coffin and searched for the phone… dug into the deceased’s pockets, perhaps? Would they have ignored it and carried on?
The possibilities were endless and each one seemed funnier to me than the one before. It had the makings of a magnificent practical joke for very little effort. By the time I reached home I had the logistics worked out.
I had an old Nokia mobile that worked perfectly but didn’t handle data; it wasn’t worth anything, and I knew of a guy that sold all types of dodgy, anonymous SIM cards that couldn’t be traced. Twenty euro would cover it.
All I had to do was prepare the phone, wait for the next funeral, and slip it into the coffin while it was open during the removal. Then ring it at the appropriate time in the graveyard and enjoy the reaction...
It was a brilliant idea! What could go wrong?
Now, in a small village like ours, deaths are few and far between. A harsh winter might take a bundle of old people or we might lose someone to an accident, but that was all. Funerals were uncommon in summer. It was almost five weeks before Liam Broderick, who kept sheep on a small, rocky, mountain farm, fell to his death from a craggy outcrop. His widow went to Joe Daly and Son to organise the funeral.
I had been prepared for weeks. I had tested various ringtones and settled on an old-fashioned bell, like a fire alarm bell, because it was the loudest. I had also tested the SIM card set-up and I was confident that nothing would lead back to me should the phone be discovered and examined. The number was top of my speed dial list and only needed a single press. All I had to do was charge the battery.
Joe Daly and Son’s Funeral Home was a small concrete block building behind the grocery store with dark drapes on the windows and subdued lighting. The atmosphere was solemn and reverential, like a church. Two rows of stackable chairs faced a curtained alcove with a raised dais to hold the coffin. There was a pine lectern with microphone for the priest. A book of condolence was available for signature inside the door.
I went in early, before any other mourners, and I was in luck. The building was empty. Thick carpet muffled my footsteps as I hurried to the open coffin and looked down at Liam Broderick’s thin, white face. In the dim light he appeared to be merely sleeping.
My heart hammered as I glanced back once to the door. Then I took the mobile phone from my pocket and slipped it beneath the white, silk lining close to the timber wall of the coffin where it was unlikely to be discovered by anyone casually tidying or tucking in the lining. I also hoped that the side of the coffin would act like an amplifier and increase the volume of the ring tone.
All the time I watched Broderick’s pallid face, fighting the chilly fear that he was about to open his eyes and ask what the hell I was up to. And I also watched the strong, thick knuckled hands, which were presently joined over his chest, trying not to imagine them reaching for my throat.
I was trembling when I finally signed the book of condolence and left.
The attendance at the burial the following day was small; Liam Broderick had few relatives and even fewer neighbours. The weather was also bleak and damp; a fine mist had descended from the mountain as if in sympathy for one of its own. Moisture beaded on the polished surface of the coffin as it rested beside the open grave. It’s funeral weather, I thought.
I had my hand in the pocket of my anorak, my phone ready.
Fr Trent rushed through the ceremony, clearly anxious to get back into shelter. His blessing was hurried and he shook the holy water with brusque, awkward gestures. I waited for him to finish and then I sent the call.
When Fr Trent stepped back, Joe Daly and his son Jason and the two gravediggers each grasped the ends of the heavy straps that ran beneath the coffin, two at the head and two at the end, and braced themselves. Then they lifted and began to swing the heavy coffin over the grave.
That was the moment the mobile phone rang.
In the weeks between the original idea and that point, I had often wondered what it would be like. Would the phone be loud enough? The result was beyond my wildest imagining.
The coffin behaved like a giant sound box. Like an alarm bell signalling the end of the world, the sound rang around the damp, dismal graveyard, rising into the misty sky and echoing back from nearby gravestones.
Jason Daly stared in terror at the coffin, his mouth open as if he was about to scream. Then, as the ringing continued he dropped his end of the strap and backed away. The coffin overbalanced immediately. The man who had shared the weight with Jason jumped back to avoid being hurt. That left Joe Daly and the second gravedigger unable to prevent the inevitable. With a wild, tearing noise the heavy timber coffin tumbled into the grave and crashed into the stony soil at its base.
Meanwhile, the ringing continued insistently.
I was so stunned by what had happened that almost 15 seconds passed before I pressed the cancel button and silenced the call.
For long moments no-one spoke or moved. Then Broderick’s widow stepped to the graveside and stared down at her husband’s coffin. It was upside down, the unvarnished base gouged by stones and streaked with mud. She turned back and looked at Joe Daly, her lips tight with rage, her eyes like hard chips of the rocky mountain she and her husband had farmed.
“I don’t expect to be getting a bill from you,” she said coldly. Then she pushed past him and walked away.
Joe Daly turned to Fr Trent and began a frantic conversation. You could tell that both of them were furious. I suppose the priest would only be paid if the undertaker was paid, and there seemed little chance of that. I spurned the temptation to ring the phone a second time — no point in pushing my luck — and left while they were still arguing.
I had a few pints in Fahey’s later that night, where the main topic of conversation was the fiasco at the funeral. Some people thought it was the funniest thing ever, while others were disgusted. I kept my opinions to myself. I was pleased to learn from one of the gravediggers, however, that Joe Daly had decided not to bring in machinery to lift out the coffin. He had decided to limit his losses and instructed that the grave be filled in.
I felt more secure after that.
That feeling of security lasted until my phone rang as I walked home. At first I didn’t recognise the number on-screen... and then I did! But it wasn’t possible. With a sick, hollow feeling in my stomach I pressed accept and raised the phone.
I said nothing, but listened. It sounded like static, some form of atmospheric interference. Then it cleared and I heard harsh, laboured breathing, like an old person whose lungs were tired and congested. Then a weak voice asked: “Can you hear me?”
I quickly hung up and stood shivering while cold tendrils of mist swirled about me. Blood pounded in my head. Someone had retrieved the mobile phone from the coffin. That was it! The gravedigger lied; the grave hadn’t been filled in after all.
The only other explanation was insane.
My mobile ran again while I tried to reason it out. This time I spoke. “Hello… who is this?”
Again the weak voice: “Can you hear me now?” It sounded as if it came from a great distance.
“Hello… is that you Joe?” I was in trouble if Joe Daly had the mobile, but the alternative didn’t bear thinking about.
“Can you hear me now?” the voice repeated, still hesitant... sickly
I hung up and looked along the dark village street. There was only one way to determine the truth. I had to go and look.
Graveyards at night are scary places. On nights when the clouds are low and a breeze churns and twists the mist so that familiar sights and landmarks assume strange shapes, they become terrifying. It took all my willpower to force myself through the gate and along the gravelled path to Liam Broderick’s grave.
The gravedigger had spoken the truth. The grave had been filled. It was distinguished by a bulging hump of stony soil, on top of which a simple wooden cross had been planted.
What now, I asked myself, as the beer I had consumed threatened to rise up and spill over. The answer was inescapable. With fingers that trembled from more than the cold I pressed the speed dial number and waited.
Very faintly, almost inaudible, like the sound of a bell from miles away, I heard ringing from the earth beneath my feet. Then I heard the voice from my phone once again...
“Is that you, Tommy? Can you hear me now?”