Here’s an extract from my new Australian vampire novella, Bloodwood. If you like what you read – Bloodwood is out on 5 October and available for pre-order now.
The First Funeral
Standing at the mouth of the shallow grave, Shelley pulled herself up to her full five foot two. She cleared the cobwebs from her throat, tucked a strand of her prematurely grey hair behind her ear and raised her arms in the air.
‘Friends and family of Jude, please gather round.’
The throng of people shuffled closer in the crisp morning air. A few latecomers trudged over the ridge past the nearby young eucalyptus and through the long grass. Jude Hillyer certainly knew how to attract a crowd, in life and in death. Ordinarily, there were more trees than mourners at one of Shelley’s funerals. That was, until today.
Shelley pressed her eyes shut, breathing in the scent of the damp gumleaves and freshly churned dirt. Today had to be perfect. This funeral could change everything for her.
The brightly coloured mourners – dressed in polar fleeces and knitted beanies – gathered closer to the grave and a few faces grimaced in horror when they caught a glimpse of Jude.
These days, death was tidily tucked away, inside a box or covered over with chemicals and thick make-up. But not at one of Shelley’s Green Farewells services. The dearly departed Jude lay beside the grave on a woven wicker tray, her body wrapped cocoon-like in a natural linen cotton shroud.
‘Thank you, everyone,’ Shelley said. ‘And welcome to the celebration of the wonderful and eventful life of our friend, sister and aunt, Jude Hillyer.’ Shelley was trying to strike the perfect balance of authority and compassion in her voice. According to Shelley’s mother, the role of a funeral director was all about respect and tradition. Although her mother’s idea of respect ignored the needs of the planet.
‘Jude was a woman who lived life without fear,’ Shelley said, ‘who fought for her beliefs and devoted her every waking moment to the land on which we stand, and to the air, the water, the sky. As a leader, she fought for us, our children and our children’s children.’
Shelley glanced around to gauge the crowd. The mourners, mostly on the other side of sixty, stood with their hands clasped, heads bowed and brows knitted. So far so good. But no matter how she felt, Shelley could never allow a real smile to cross her face. No-one wanted a smiling undertaker. She’d learned this on her very first day helping out in the family funeral parlour, reinforced by a sharp clip around the ear from her mother.
With an appropriately solemn nod, Shelley continued. ‘We are here to honour Jude’s life and her achievements. We have her to thank for saving the Barabung River against the government and big business, and her tireless anti-nuclear weapons campaigning. Single-handedly, she preserved the wilderness for generations to enjoy. She then found a new career later in life producing wonderfully scented candles. Despite her bravery and strength, our friend finally lost her battle with cancer, and today we are here to celebrate her return to the land. We lay her to rest in this beautiful setting, so her body may feed the trees, the soil, the grasses of the land she loved and respected so much.’
Many of the onlookers bobbed their heads and sniffled into clutched hankies. An older lady, in a red woollen coat and pearls, folded her arms tightly and glowered at Shelley. Suspicious looks were nothing new for her. People were always wary of those who chose to work with the dead.
‘Now I welcome Virginia, Jude’s niece, to read a poem she’s written especially for today.’
Despite the wintry morning, Virginia was barelegged, and Shelley noted, as waxed and tanned as a mahogany table.
‘A life filled with action and sacrifice,
Straight talking without artifice,
Our beloved aunt stood up for all,
Saving the planet was her call.’
Somehow, Shelley managed to keep a straight face and ignore the terrible poem, and she took a moment to savour the sight of a well-attended funeral on her property. It was bad form but Shelley had to admit she’d danced a little jig when Virginia called last week to inform her of Jude’s passing. Three months earlier, Jude – the Jude Hillyer – had called Shelley personally, expressing interest in her services and, after a brief stroll through the natural cemetery on Shelley’s property, Jude purchased a prepaid funeral plan with Green Farewells. Shelley would never wish someone an early death, but as soon as she heard Jude’s familiar voice on the phone, she knew this could be the funeral to kickstart her business. Finally.
Shelley patted her pocket, double-checking the wad of business cards, ready for the wake.
‘Let us remember her life and her smile,
Her defiance and strength at her Supreme Court trial.’
With a side-step, Shelley positioned herself by the safety ropes that went underneath the body. At the other end of the grave, Gareth, the burly seventeen-year-old from the farm next door, was already clutching his ropes.
A sunbeam peeked through the grey sky, piercing the gently waving gumleaves and, for a moment, Shelley’s shadow fell across the shroud.
‘Her candle now out, her tongue now still,
We say goodbye on this grassy hill.’
Strong wings flapped overhead and a glossy black crow swooped low over the crowd. The bird perched right on the edge of the wicker tray, claws clutching at the woven edges. Shelley choked on her breath as the bird cocked its head and eyed the ceremony curiously.
As discreetly as she could, Shelley lunged forwards, waving her arms and shooing the black bird away. Heads turned her way with frowns or bemused smiles, but everyone’s attention soon returned to Virginia and her poem.
Everyone, that was, except Liz Forrester – Gareth’s mother – clamped a chubby hand over her mouth. Liz’s eyes met Shelley’s and she pursed her lips tightly and made the sign of the cross as the crow flapped away into the bush.
Heart thumping, Shelley leaned over and checked that the bird hadn’t left a sloppy deposit behind, but the wicker body carrier was clean. Shelley straightened her posture and pretended nothing had happened.
As Virginia finished the last lines of her poem, a tear dripped from her nose and splashed onto the shroud. Shelley took up her position at the ropes and nodded at Gareth. Gareth would never win a Nobel prize but he was strong, cheap and available. This wasn’t Vieri Family Funerals, where her mother led a team of thirty. Green Farewells had a staff of one. Shelley. And some weeks, she seriously considered driving an Uber to help pay her mortgage and buy the odd loaf of bread. But she imagined she wouldn’t get many five-star ratings when she pulled up to pick up passengers in her hearse van.
‘Thank you, Virginia,’ Shelley said. ‘What a beautiful and insightful poem. And now we will return Jude’s body to the ground. To the place where we all began, and where we will all return. As one with nature, the Earth and the power of life and death.’
Shelley gave the safety straps a little slap, the signal to begin lowering the coffin, and Gareth gave a curt nod in reply. She held her breath and her knees wavered as she scrutinised the shroud closely, checking again for any possible sign of life. Death didn’t scare Shelley, but waking up to see the satin-lined interior of a coffin was a regular feature in her nightmares.
‘Let me through!’ someone shouted from the back of the crowd. People murmured and parted as a man in his twenties with thinning brown hair and an ankle-length black cassock pushed through.
Shelley blinked calmly though, inside, her chest tightened.
‘Whoa there, Mickey,’ said Ross Forrester as he stepped in to block the priest’s path.
‘Almighty God!’ Father Michael Bekker yelled.
Mickey dodged Ross and pushed his way to the graveside. Shelley couldn’t help but notice a leaf sticking out of Mickey’s wild tufty hair. ‘You created the Earth and shaped the vault of Heaven. You fixed the stars in their places.’
‘Piss off, priest,’ said a younger man with swinging dreadlocks. ‘Jude wouldn’t want you here.’
‘You should all be ashamed of yourselves.’ Mickey scoured the crowd with fire in his eyes. ‘All of you.’
Shelley rushed around the grave and grabbed Mickey’s arm. ‘Father Mickey. Please, you’re disturbing the service. If you can’t be respectful, you’re not welcome here. Please go.’
‘Service?’ Mickey scoffed. ‘Do you realise what you’re doing? The danger you’re putting us all in?’
Shelley stretched up tall. ‘I have all the necessary credentials and permits.’
‘And it is my Christian duty to stop you and your heathen practices.’
Shelley jammed her hands on her hips. ‘You’re interfering with a sacred moment. Upsetting the deceased’s family and friends. I’m giving you one last chance or I’m calling the police.’
‘Our Lord Jesus Christ broke the fetters of Hell and rose to life, bringing deliverance and resurrection…’
The dreadlocked man and Ross both grabbed Mickey by the shoulders.
‘When you conjure up the Devil himself,’ Mickey bellowed as they led him away from the grave. ‘Don’t say I didn’t warn you.’
‘I’m sorry, everyone,’ Shelley said, her cheeks blazing red. The niece and the rest of the Hillyer family, the only attendees in all funereal black, glowered at her and Shelley wrung her hands.
‘Jude always liked a bit of a ruckus,’ the dreadlocked man said with a chuckle as he returned to the graveside. ‘She probably arranged this herself.’
A few others laughed along with him and Shelley breathed easy. She tucked her grey hair behind her ear and nodded to Gareth. Together they shifted the body over the hole and lowered the ropes, laying Jude Hillyer to rest at the bottom of the grave.
As the dirt hit the shroud, Shelley took a final look over the body.
Satisfied the body was still lifeless, Shelley lifted
her chin and tried to forget Father Mickey’s words.
If a soul is laid to rest
With a perched black crow as its guest
And then a shadow crosses the pall
And a mourner’s tear does fall
Dry your tears and beware
Cross yourself and prepare
Below the soil, new life brews
It’s the living it pursues