Funeral by John S Alty

This story was published in Across the Margin magazine and was placed on their list of Best Fiction of 2017

By the time Michael arrived, the pall bearers had the coffin shouldered and were trailing the priest into the church. The hearse was parked by the roadside, tailgate raised. He followed the coffin through the door and took a pew at the back, away from the sparse congregation. The organist played Bridge Over Troubled Waters badly. She probably did a fine job with Chopin but was struggling with the Simon and Garfunkel classic, Adam’s favourite song. A scan of the mourners and he knew this was the right funeral.

When the priest started his eulogy of a man he can’t possibly have known, Michael left the church. Hands pushed deep into the pockets of his raincoat, he strolled between the tombstones. Gusts sent leaves skittering around his legs and a grim sky threatened rain. Adam always did have a sense of occasion; a fitting day for a funeral. The freshly dug hole gaped and the apparatus of burial was ready. Michael moved away to a copse of trees from where he could watch the proceedings unrecognised. Crows screamed their indignation at his intrusion and clattered into flight.

Handfuls of soil rattled onto the coffin, flowers were dropped, words were ripped away on the wind and then it was over. Black clad figures drifted away towards the cars.

Michael stood alone staring into the hole. Few men can be described as truly evil, but this was one; he’d cut a swathe through life leaving misery and pain behind.

“I hope you didn’t die easily”, Michael said, as he pissed on the coffin. Then he walked away, took out his phone and dialled.

“Yes, the bastard’s definitely gone. And yes, I did, just as I told him I would. I’ll be home soon.”

The Call of the Sea by John Alty

First published on the Writer’s Workshop site:

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide

Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;

And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,

And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

~ John Masefield

An albatross and a handful of shearwaters skimmed the tops of the waves, their wingtips impossibly close to the water as they swept and dipped and darted. The sea was grey green and white clouds scurried over a pale blue sky. Waves marched past, spume was ripped from their tops and scattered downwind. The wind blows constantly in these high latitudes and the ship was making good progress.

“Glass has been dropping these past three hours, Captain, I think we’re in for a big blow before nightfall.”

“Aye, I think you’re right, Jones, let’s get these topsails off her and the foresail, too.”

I heard Jones call an all hands and soon the men were swarming up the ratlines and along the yards to furl the sails and tie them tight so the wind couldn’t tear them free.

By late afternoon the wind was howling, tormenting the sea, goading it higher. The ship was rolling gunwale to gunwale now, green water running down the scuppers.

I ordered the helmsman to steer five points lower to ease the strain. I’d have to take it back after this gale, though, to keep on course for Cape Horn. The English must have their tea and the best prices go to those first to market and that would be us, God-willing.

Through the night the tempest fought us, its army of watery dunes chasing and harrying the ship. She fought back, refusing to be overpowered, lifting her stern to the waves. Now and again a monster would rise above the rest and crash down on the ship, shivering her timbers and sweeping away anything not firmly lashed; several pork barrels and one of the dories was lost but her precious payload stayed safe and dry in her holds. By the next afternoon the wind was down but a big sea was still running and the men had to take care as they went about their duties.

We’d be past the Horn sometime tomorrow and then we could turn north, bound for Blighty and the embrace of loved ones, the taste of fresh bread, foaming ale and a bed that stayed still.

And then I’d be restless and yearning to be off, for I must go down to the seas again.

On The Road Again by John S Alty

This tale won the Writers Workshop  short story competition, December 2017:

The sun was coming up as I reached the Atchafalaya Basin and I stopped on the elevated stretch of highway cutting through the swamp to watch nature showing off. Mist rose like smoke through the cypress, burnt red and yellow by the dawn bursting over the horizon. Then I was back on the road, tyres thudding on the blacktop as it reeled away under the car. Willie Nelson on the radio, On the Road Again. I was in the groove, tuned to the rhythmic thrum of traffic coming and going, the miles slipping by. On the road again.

I’d left Pensacola in the early morning, still fully dark, to be through New Orleans and Baton Rouge before local traffic built. She’d be up now, drinking her first coffee of the day; mussed hair like a blonde halo, wrinkled t-shirt, bare feet. I planned to call her when I stopped for gas, say good-bye. Would I? Probably not.

Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Road Tripping. Mellow. Soothing. Go west, young man. Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas. Then what? Mexico? Why not? I took a couple of bennies with a can of Coke, no need to eat, no need to rest, keep on cruising.

Afternoon came and the sky over the Gulf was a bruise, a plum coloured smudge lit by sheet lightning. Storm building; rain before nightfall. The air conditioning was cranked but I opened the window anyway. I wanted the noise, the buffeting air stream, hair riffling in the breeze. I wanted to feel.

Springsteen was hollering at me, Born in the USA. Little towns with forgotten names then Houston, San Antonio and onwards towards Laredo on the Rio Grande. A handful of bennies, can’t stop now, no time to sleep. Rain splashing, the wipers slashing, headlights cutting through the night. Keep going, keep moving.

Momentum. A body in motion tends to stay in motion. Newton’s law. Driving on in driving rain. Foot down; eighty, ninety, a hundred. The wheels slapping the concrete faster and faster. Radio full blast, Tina Turner belting out Proud Mary: Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river.  Yes, I’m rolling, on a concrete and tarmac river.

I’m on the road again.