We called him the Music Man because while he cleaned the headstones he liked singing along to the opera playing on his radio. Sometimes he threw his head back and let his voice soar to the sky, scattering the crows. His singing was so beautiful it softened the fears that lay hard in my heart. It brought Nettle close to tears and closer to remembering. Even Stuck Boy stopped his monologues long enough to listen. The three of us loved watching him at work though he rarely spoke to us except to tell us to bugger off if we got too close.

I’m not sure why the bad thing happened. Maybe he got sick of us hanging around him all the time. Admittedly, it would do anyone’s head in listening to Stuck Boy going on hour after hour about solving iodic evaluations. Nettle and I were used to it, but you could see that it really got on Music Man’s nerves. To be honest, it bothered me far more having to listen to the weirdos that frequented this place, but Music Man didn’t even look up from his cleaning when they drifted past.

By lying in the newly dug grave next to the one Music Man was working on I could enjoy his singing and the songs on his radio and tune out most of the complaints from the weirdos as they completed their circuit of the cemetery. Only a few of their grievances stuck to my ears like tattered cobwebs.

“I don’t know who my hands belong to anymore.”

“Why do they say he is ‘obligated’. It makes him sound like a rectangle.”

“A slatternly slut slithering in slime.”

“Avoid drawing attention to yourself.”

“Okay so I was drinking meths, but those two women had no right to refuse my entry into the cathedral. I said ‘How dare you judge me? Only one person can judge me and that’s not you.”

“Even the sky was struggling to hold up the clouds that day.”

Given everything we had to contend with, listening to Music Man singing along to his radio was an interlude of happiness for Stuck Boy, Nettle and me. Unfortunately, on this particular day, Nettle was going on even more than usual about the names on the headstone that Music Man was cleaning. She was always interested in watching him prise the grime out of the names he was working on even though he always ignored her questions. Eventually she would give up and move away to read other inscriptions. This time, however, she didn’t. Music Man heaved an exasperated sigh. He turned off his radio. I felt the molecules in the air shiver as I peered over the edge of the grave and saw Music Man toss his cleaning rag on the ground. He turned to stare directly at Nettle. He looked back at the headstone and jabbed a finger at the three names etched into the stone and then turned back to stare at each of us in turn. Stuck Boy immediately stopped spouting iodic evaluations. Nettle covered her face with her hands and began to cry. Music Man’s attitude felt like a punch to my gut. He of all people should have understood that there are some things you simply don’t rub in people’s faces. To get this point across I reached up, grabbed his ankle and dragged him into the grave. He lay there yelling blue murder while I climbed out and the three of us stood at the grave’s edge staring down at him. We told him we’d leave him there for a bit so he’d know how we felt and then we’d pull him out and forgive him.

After a couple of minutes four other workers in different parts of the cemetery heard Music Man’s shouts. They came charging over as if the devil himself was after them. Between sobs, Nettle tried to explain that it was an accident, that we didn’t mean to hurt him, that we just wanted to teach him a lesson. They ignored us and called an ambulance. The ambos ignored us too as they loaded Music Man onto a stretcher. We watched them carry him out the cemetery gate and into the ambulance. We watched the ambulance speed away down the road, siren blaring. 

As the noise of the siren died away in the distance the crows settled back on the trees. Nettle cried louder and said she would really miss him. Stuck Boy gave her a hug then swiveled her around and pointed at the headstone. Music Man was kneeling there carrying on with his cleaning as if nothing had happened. Without looking at us he reached down to turn his radio on. Old habits die hard in some people, I suppose.

Sandra Arnold is an award-winning writer who lives in New Zealand. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and is the author of five books. Her most recent, a flash fiction collection, Soul Etchings (Retreat West Books, UK) and a novel, The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell (Mākaro Press, NZ) were published in 2019. Her flash fiction and short stories have been widely published and anthologized. More here.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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