'Chief Mourner' by Virginia Moffatt
The woman was there again, sitting in her usual spot: the corner of the back row on the right hand side of the church. Her long black coat was buttoned round her thin frame, her grey bob,neat and tidy. Since starting the job in Spring, Jake had seen her in the same pose at every funeral service. Each time he and the pall bearers conducted their two-step shuffle down the aisle, he was conscious of her eyes staring at the casket, the sniffle of her sobs resounding through the church.
Who was she? Why was she there? She was gone before the final hymn or favourite song of the loved one conveyed the deceased on their last journey. No-one knew. The only thing certain was that she was a recent arrival in town, only ever sighted on these occasions. It was as if her career of perpetual mourning was all the life she had. And no-one could say why.
Today, Jake was going to find out. For once, he wasn't needed to bear the coffin out of church, the deceased sons were doing that. His fellow pall-bearers took advantage of the break and went to the pub, leaving Jake to pace up and down, his collar turned up against the chill of the November east wind. His fingers were frozen by the time she slipped out of church, head bowed down, body still shaking from the emotion of the occasion. He approached her cautiously, as if she was an injured animal,
"Are you all right?"
"Yes, thank you." A soft voice; a pale face, one that had barely seen the sun, and the saddest eyes he had ever seen. And there was something familiar about her, something he couldn't quite put his finger on.
"Did you know the deceased?"
"No." She started to walk down the path.
"Only...I was wondering... I've seen you before."
She turned, "Ah."
"At every funeral... You are always there." She stood for a moment, weighing up his words. At last she sighed, "I suppose it won't hurt. I'm unlikely to be here for much longer. I was away for a time...for a long time. And everyone I knew, everyone I loved , they died in my absence."
"So..." The doors of the church clattered open causing him to turn in surprise. When he turned back she was gone. His curiosity piqued, he resolved to speak to her at the next opportunity.
But the next day, she wasn't there, nor the day after that. A month went by, and there was no sign of her. Till one lunchtime, Alan pointed to a headline in the paper: Family's horror at the child-killer next door. Her picture, now and then; the old grainy image that had made her a bogey woman for thirty years. He wondered if she was as bad as they said. And he knew he could never ask.
He would never see her at a funeral again.