Is there life after death? Only the dead can tell, and they’ve got a funny way of going about it.
Original fiction by GAVIN INGLIS.
“Those of us who were acquainted with Ida Digby in life knew how much she cared for those less fortunate than herself. Even when she broke her hip, we would see her, braced on her crutches, taking hot lunches to the housebound every morning. And when her pension scheme collapsed, she would still make the journey to the night shelter to care for the homeless, never asking for anything for herself.”
The Reverend Hamish McConnell made no pause in his dedication, but his eyes flashed from side to side, scanning the graveyard beyond the groups of black-clad mourners.
“I’ve spoken to many of the people Ida helped, and there is one thing they all agree on: it’s that she gave them back something that had gone from their lives, a long time ago in many cases. And that thing was…” He took a deep breath. “Digni—”
A brassy fanfare broke across the hushed cemetery. Startled, the mourners jumped. The Reverend closed his eyes as he recognized Ronnie Hazlehurst’s theme for The Two Ronnies.
“Dignity,” he concluded.
The trumpet continued to play as the mourners filed away from the graveside. It lurched from the middle, with its hints of Hawaii Five-O, to the fat two-beat home straight, with a couple of ugly splits on the high notes. The family shook his hand, but looked at him with indignation in their eyes.Ida Digby’s son muttered that the Reverend should stick around because there was about to be a second funeral.
McConnell let them search the churchyard for the offending instrumentalist. They found nothing—he wasn’t surprised. He’d tried twelve times himself, following the echoing strains of everything from James Brown’s “Sex Machine” to a particularly rough adaptation of “The Way We Were”. It wasn’t always funerals; the ghostly trumpeter would interfere with weddings, choir concerts and even the all-night Easter vigil. The apparition was a regular feature during the Sunday sermon.
But today, the Reverend cast his eyes to the sky briefly as he returned to the church, and was visited by divine inspiration. He made his way to the telephone in the vestry.
And so it came to pass on that Friday night, that the Christian Union assembled its musicians, not in the back room of the youth centre, but under the stars, with a long power extension for the bass guitarist’s fifteen-watt practice amp.
“Whatever beliefs we may hold about the supernatural,” the Reverend began, “we cannot deny that something very odd is happening in this graveyard. For all that this mischievous trumpeter has disrupted our worship, I feel he or she is basically lonely, and needs our approval and fellowship. With this in mind, and remembering that God works in mysterious ways, I ask you to forgive any spirit which dwells here, and do your best to welcome it into your circle through the joy of music.”
Some of the girls looked fearful at the minister’s words, but they clutched their clarinets and launched into a brave effort at “The Church Is Wherever God’s People Are Praising”. McConnell nodded along and listened for a response from the outer reaches of the graveyard. But as he gazed across the worn old headstones and memorials, there came no answer.
Gamely, the band moved into “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and even “The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ending”, but the phantom trumpeter declined to announce its presence. An early evening mist swirled around the paths and verges, and some of the younger children had to be sent home.
“Perhaps,” the Reverend sighed, “our friend has no liking for sacred melodies. Do you know anything …popular…which features a
good trumpet part?”
The Christian Union, already tiring of their chilly vigil, put their heads together. But one young flautist broke away from the group, lifted his flute to pursed lips, and played a single, rhythmic phrase which the minister recognized as the first line of the William Tell overture, or “Dad’s Got A Head Like A Ping-Pong Ball”.
The fragile notes of the flute died quickly in the air. But from somewhere, in precisely the same key, came the answering phrase played on a distant, echoing, trumpet.
The girls shrieked and even the Reverend felt a chill pass under his dog collar. Yet the plucky flautist stood his ground, and replied; and when he reached the fourth and final phrase, the trumpet joined in for a glorious unison.
Reaching deep for courage, the rest of the band fumbled for an accompaniment. By the tricky middle section, the uncanny ensemble sounded like it might have actually rehearsed once upon a time.
When the tune concluded, the Christian Union applauded, their fears forgotten in the exhilaration of the music. There came no response, however, and the graveyard lapsed into an uneasy silence.
Fortunately, a couple of the older boys knew a piece from Buena Vista Social Club and the unearthly brass player picked it up fast. From that point, there was no stopping the band as they roared through a couple of cheeky Herb Alpert numbers and a passable attempt at “Basin Street Blues”.
“I wonder,” said the Reverend, “if we might conclude with ‘Danny Boy’.”
It seemed the ghostly trumpeter was in tune with the minister, for the opening notes rang out immediately into the night air, sombre and heartfelt. Those who knew the accompaniment dropped into line, pausing only to mouth the notes to their colleagues. By the second verse, the entire ensemble had gathered beneath the sound of the heavenly horn. The lament swelled to fill the graveyard, to soar to the very stars. McConnell pressed a handkerchief to his eyes to stem the tears. And as the band reached the very last line, he saw that their faces were shining.
Silence settled over the churchyard. The Reverend felt, for the first time in many months, at peace in his own parish. He called the band together, and hoped in his heart that the poor trumpet player was gathering there with them.
“Let us pray.” He held up a hand. “Lord, we thank You for the music you have gifted us this evening, and for this rare fellowship we have shared beneath the stars. Thank You for bringing our new friend, the trumpeter. Look after him and grant him Your blessing as he passes on from us to Your infinite mercies. As it was in Heaven, as it shall be on Earth. Now, and forever. Amen.”
The band were quiet as they packed up and dispersed. McConnell thought he saw some new couples holding hands as they walked home. As for himself, he locked up, returned to the manse, and enjoyed the soundest night’s sleep he’d ever had.
The following day, the Reverend approached his first and only duty with a light heart. It was a wedding, of two young souls he remembered from their first days in Sunday School. The lad sat on the front pew, fiddling with his collar, while the bridal car drew up outside.
Spotting the bride’s father in the doorway, McConnell nodded to the organist, who launched into “The Wedding March” with heart and vim. The congregation rose to its feet.
The bride entered the aisle with a delicate tread and looked quite lovely. She took several paces before the Reverend realized he could hear, measured behind the joyful chords from the organ, the sound of a trumpet. His heart sank.
Yet the player kept faithfully to the melody, with a delicate touch, diverging only to ring out some rapturous harmony on the third phrase. The Reverend McConnell let out a long breath, and smiled reassuringly as the couple drew together before him.
“Dearly beloved,” he began.
His next words, and indeed, the rest of the ceremony, had to be abandoned. For throughout the church, accompanied by an ethereal swing band, blared an unearthly, murderous version of the theme tune to The Sweeney.
Gavin Inglis is a writer and performer who was brought up in the Church of Scotland. He plays several musical instruments, none of them very well. Gavin’s collection, Crap Ghosts, featuring sixteen more tales of ineffective apparitions and substandard spooks, is available from good bookshops or direct from www.skeletonpress.com.