Like A Shadow
Lily was certain that most people didn’t have a dedicated wardrobe especially for funeral outfits. Unless of course you’re a funeral director, which she wasn’t. Hidden away in Lily’s spare room was an old wardrobe she’d picked up on eBay several years ago when the mourning clothes started taking up too much space. It was a colourless collection full of modest black dresses, pleated black skirts, a few pairs of sensible shoes, black obviously, and a pair of uncomfortable leather high heels she’d only worn once.
Rifling through the assorted ebony outfits, Lily thought back to the previous year, when a former colleague’s five-year-old daughter had died. The guests were all instructed to wear a colour of the rainbow. Lily had worn a green polka dot fifties dress that came with a petticoat and flared out at the bottom. Today, however, was not a rainbow day.
For today’s ‘life celebration’ or so the invitation called it, Lily picked out some clothes she thought were reverent yet weather appropriate, given the early spring chill in the air. She looked at her own reflection and practiced what she liked to call, her look of condolence. She bowed her head gently; straightening her mouth and made sure her smile didn’t reach her eyes. After all this time, she had it down to fine art.
She reached up and at the last minute decided to pull back her shoulder length brown hair and tie it into a low ponytail. Her fine hair had the tendency to frizz in the rain and glancing out of the window she could see dark clouds looming overhead. Looking down at her outfit in the mirror, Lily was pleased with what she’d put together, black tights, a black woollen skirt, blouse and her long black coat with a fluffy collar. She picked up a black pair of heeled boots to give her 5ft 4’ stature a little more height, grabbed her bag and made her way towards the door of her second floor flat.
Lily wasn’t particularly close to Roger, not like some of the others, but she felt it was appropriate and perhaps even expected of her to go and pay respects considering the veteran postman dropped down dead on her doorstep after handing her a parcel.
She’d do her usual routine of waiting in her car until everyone was almost in the crematorium, then sneaking in and sitting at the back, also making sure she was the first to leave.
It looked dodgy; Lily knew that. It looked like she was hiding something, which she wasn’t, not really. But after last month’s awkward comments from the celebrant, she thought it best to play it safe.
‘We must stop meeting like this!’ he had said with a grin. Not in a rude or inappropriate way, and in hindsight Lily knew he probably meant nothing by it at all, but it hadn’t stopped paranoia seeping through her brain as she tried to sleep that night. Lily wondered, if he had noticed her frequent funeral attendance, how many other people had? Did he suspect anything?
‘Just unlucky I guess.’ She had mused when a neighbour asked a few years ago.
Not as unlucky, she thought, as the people laying in the coffins, caskets, and occasional cardboard boxes, but unlucky all the same. Lily tried not to think about it too deeply, the last time she did it sent her down a dark path, a depressive spiral that she wasn’t sure she was going to come back from. Nevertheless, come back from it she did, and she lived to fight another day, or moreover, attend another funeral.
A few hours later and the heavy velvet curtains had closed on Roger for the final time. Lily had changed from her all-black attire to something much more in keeping with her style; jeans, boots and a stripey jumper, and sat herself at the back of the cafe waiting for Kara. She knew her friend was going to be late; Kara was always late. But that was ok, it gave Lily the opportunity to just sit for a moment in peace and enjoy the last of her coffee.
She looked around the old Tudor building which officially became home to a quirky independent coffee shop a year ago. She thought the exposed black beams and wonky floors gave the place a character you just couldn’t find in a new build chain cafe. Over the past six months, Lily had watched the new owners take a derelict, unused building and create something wonderful for the community to enjoy, and as a bonus they made a cracking honeycomb latte.
‘Long may it last.’ She whispered under her breath as she took a sip.
‘AH! There you are darling!’ Kara exclaimed as she bounded in loudly. Her giant Mary Poppin’s style carpet handbag making its way through the narrow doorway before she did. As Lily’s oldest, and pretty much only close friend, she admired and loved Kara in equal measure. A few years older, a few inches taller and coming from a very different upbringing, they still managed to have so much in common. Taste in coffee, however, was not one of those things.
‘Would you like another sugary, coffee flavoured warm milk? Or would you like a grown-up drink?’ Kara asked, teasing.
Lily looked at her friend, thinking her stylish pixie haircut with dyed white ends looked particularly good this late February afternoon, it complimented Kara’s steel eyes nicely. Not rising to the bait, she replied.
‘Another honeycomb latte would be great, thank you. Oat milk please.’
‘Consider it done!’ said Kara as she made her way to the counter, her pinstripe jumpsuit trouser legs sweeping the floor as she went.
Lily felt lucky to have Kara in her life. She tried not to make too many attachments, and despite her instincts telling her to stay away, Kara was the one person in this world that she truly trusted and called a friend. Lily was godmother to Kara’s daughter, Phoebe and had been both Kara’s bridesmaid when she married Stephen and her witness on the paperwork when she finally divorced him.
‘How was the funeral then?’ Kara asked
‘It went as well as it could. His widow said a few words, incredibly strong woman. It was emotional, you know how they are.’
‘Not as well as you though, eh?’ Kara quipped.
Lily shot her a look over her cup, raising her eyebrow.
‘I know, I know,’ Kara chimed in quickly ‘sensitive topic, but you’ve got to admit, it’s a bit weird, isn’t it?’
Kara didn’t know the half of it, Lily made sure of that. She only told her friend about a handful of the funerals she attended. She never told Kara about the random deaths. The ones in the street, the sudden and traumatic ones, the ones where she ended up covered in blood or the countless occasions she had to perform CPR on complete strangers. The ones she could never unsee that kept her awake at night. The ones she wished desperately she could stop.
Lily thought about the young man who sat next to her on the plane last summer to Zante on the way to a stag do, who had a heart attack mid-flight, the middle-aged woman in the supermarket who stopped breathing moments after Lily gave her a spare £1 for the trolley, the older gentleman who held the door open for her coming out of the council offices before falling headfirst down the concrete steps and leaving parts of his brain behind. The bizarre circumstances that followed Lily around every day were complicated, because Lily herself couldn’t even explain them. So instead, she did what any functioning adult did; she ignored it and hoped it would go away.
‘Anyway,’ Lily sighed, desperately trying to change the subject ‘How’s Phoebe?’
‘Oh yeah, she’s fine. She’s in those teenage years which means she hates me, I could never understand what she’s going through, and I can’t get anything right.’
‘I see. Anything I can do to help?’
‘I was going to ask if you could have a word with her at some point, being the cool godmother and all…’
‘I’d be happy to, I’m not sure how much she listens to me anymore though. I’m not as young and cool as I once was though, not that I was ever cool.’ Lily snorted.
‘True. We’re just a couple of old witches now.’
‘Well, exactly!’ Lily replied with a cackle.
It had been two weeks since the postman’s funeral and the days had passed without incident. This made Lily nervous. On her short walk to work in the mornings she would keep her gaze down, so as not to affect any kind of unseen cosmic balance. Every shout, loud noise or unexpected bang made her jump, made her feel guilty. That was silly, of course, as she wasn’t doing anything intentionally and yet it didn’t stop her superstitions.
Pulling her scarf in and around her rounded face, feeling her cheeks tingle in the cold, she made her way up the ramp and in through the solid doors of the old red bricked building where she spent most of her time.
‘Morning Lily!’ called out Joe, a kind old man who worked with her at the local library. Joe worked part time stacking the returned books and although he stood at only an inch taller than Lily, he had told her many times when he was a young engineer, he was a towering 6ft 4. A widower in his late 70’s with a full head of shaggy white hair and glossy baby blue eyes, Lily got the impression that Joe didn’t work there for the money. He had a more than adequate army pension as well as his late wife’s life insurance but had often said that he liked the company and felt useful there.
‘Better than just decaying away at home!’ He told her once.
Lily would watch as he spent hours chatting to the customers browsing the shelves, getting to know each and every resident who was kind enough to stop and engage with him. Lily liked Joe a lot, he reminded her of her grandfather, Arthur. Even though she lost him years ago and could barely remember his voice these days, Joe’s manner was just very familiar to her, and she found that comforting on the tougher days. It was of course, exactly this reason that she felt protective of Joe and therefore kept him at arm’s length, just in case.
‘Morning Joe,’ Lily replied from across the counter ‘Did you have a nice weekend?’ she asked, picking up a heavy box of new arrivals which needed to be scanned, stamped, and labelled.
‘Oh yes, thank you Lily. It was quiet as usual, but I managed to get out for a walk when the sun was shining on Saturday. It’s getting harder to do that what with the colder weather, my old bones are quite, err, fragile, yes that’s it, fragile. Oh, dear would you like some help with that?’
Lily clearly looked like she was struggling with the box of books which turned out to be much heavier that she anticipated.
‘No!’ She said abruptly, making Joe take a step back ‘No, thank you Joe.’ She softened ‘I’ve got this. Thank you though.’
‘I’m not just some helpless old man Lily, you should let me help now and then. It’s what I’m here for.’
‘I know Joe, I know you’re not helpless. Sorry.’ she smiled. ‘How about I get us both a nice cup of tea? White, two sugars?’ She offered, knowing his beverage order well.
‘Ah bless your heart, that would be lovely, thank you darlin’.’
Giving up with the box for now, Lily made her way to the small kitchenette that she kept fully stocked with Joe’s favourite tea bags, instant coffee sachets for her and an endless supply of bourbon biscuits.
‘I’m just thinking of you, mate’ she thought as she pulled out two library branded mugs. She knew that sometimes her protectiveness made her seem rude and standoffish. It wasn’t intentional but an accidental by-product of keeping those around her at a distance, keeping them safe. Returning with two cups of tea to the front desk she placed them both down on coasters, something she was very particular about. The old library had been in the town for many years and like a lot of the old buildings in Grainbridge it had struggled in recent times. It had been through storms and floods and had cost a lot of money for the council to repair, but Lily was pleased it was still standing and wanted to keep it that way.
She had seen so many beautiful places around them knocked down to make room for flats or had been completely ripped apart from the inside and transformed into betting shops and fast-food restaurants. She was grateful that this building, one she had been into so many times as a child, was still being used for its original purpose, a library. She would come to the library often after school, getting in a few hours of reading before her mum got home from work, devouring all kinds of books. Lily found that she loved learning, but not in a classroom setting. Fractions and bunsen burners were incredibly tedious but here she could learn about fantasy stories about magical creatures and mysterious quests. She’d never imagined that all those years later she would be working here.
Cocooned in these red brick walls, she felt safe with the musty smell of used books that welcomed visitors as they passed through the doors. Towering over her, well-read books in their hundreds slept in large imposing bookcases that went all the way up to the single glazed sash windows. Even when standing at the top of the library ladders, Lily couldn’t see through the large windows but she knew the ones to the left of the building overlooked the river and the ones to the right overlooked the rest of the town. She loved how in the spring mornings the low sun shone through the east facing windows, rebounding over the gold decorations in the library making the old portrait frames shine and the bannisters shimmer. Dust particles danced in the air, only truly visible in sunbeams, reminding Lily of the fairies she used to read about. She felt it was such a beautiful place to be.
Lily looked down at her watch; 8:57am. It was nearly time for her to flip the sign to open and unlock the doors. It wasn’t a busy library, especially not during the weekdays but the weekends and evening events more than made up for these quiet times. She didn’t mind though, she preferred it when it was quiet. She believed less people meant less chance of any unwanted incidents. Lily looked down at the desk and realised Joe hadn’t appeared for his cup of tea.
‘Joe? Your tea is going cold.’ She called out, but received no reply.
She walked through to the back room, thinking his older ears couldn’t hear her calls, but he wasn’t there. Lily went down the hall to the single unisex staff toilet and stopped outside of the door.
‘Joe? Are you in there?’ Again, there was no answer.
Her heartbeat started to quicken, and she could feel her throat going dry.
‘Where is he?’ she said out loud knowing there was only so many places he could have got to in the time it had taken her to make a hot drink. She walked back out to the reception and glanced over to his trolley of returned books which was opposite her on the other side of the large room. Then something on the floor caught her eye.
‘Oh no.’ Lily ran around the desk and over to the trolley and saw Joe laying on the floor next to it, face down.
‘Joe!’ She got onto her knees and rolled him over. ‘Joe, can you hear me?’ But she knew he couldn’t. She rolled him onto his side. His skin felt clammy to Lily’s touch, loosing warmth by the second. His eyes were glazed, and his mouth fell slack. His body felt heavy and there was no sign of movement. Joe was dead.
Tears pooled in Lily’s eyes. She took out her phone and called 999. Within a few minutes an ambulance and a police patrol car were outside. She unlocked the door and stepped back. There was nothing they could do; she knew there was nothing anyone could do. Joe had gone. She watched the paramedics in their dark green jumpsuits call out Joe’s name, flash a pen sized torch into his dull blue eyes before placing him on a covered stretcher and taking him away.
Then came a routine she had seen so many times before. The sympathetic look from the paramedics, the questions from the police about how she knew the deceased, did they have next of kin, her statement about what happened. She went through the motions and when it was all done, she was left alone in the library hall, which suddenly felt much bigger than it did when she walked in this morning. She stared at Joe’s cup; a slimy film floated on top of the now stone-cold tea that sat on the reception desk. Lily thought she should be used to this feeling by now, but how could she ever be used to watching so many people die.