Tinned Sardines

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic

a mortician and an ex-magician shoot the breeze

Because of the dim light coming from a single bulb hanging on a wire, you could barely make out the foot prints pressed and scraped into the dust on the floor. The prints had come from two different pairs of shoes and if you were to follow them, they would lead away from a heavy iron door, to some shelves stocked with tinned goods, to a table where two people were sat. One of them had their head down on the table, cradled in between their arms. The other was leant back leisurely, obscuring his face with a newspaper. The only sound was coming from an old radio that smelled like soil.


Tinny trumpets bleated through the speakers, followed by the familiar drawl of a redundant celebrity:


“I would just like to say from the bottom of my heart, thank you to all the soldiers who are protecting us out on the front lines, and also my third autobiography is now available for purchase in all good bookstores!”


The person with their head on the table lifted themselves up, revealing an out of shape, twenty-something year old woman. Her hair was stuck to her forehead since it’d be pressed against the table for so long. She didn’t bother to adjust it.


“Why do you think people who actually die in war and stuff get so much recognition, but no one says anything about the ones that get sent home with like, no legs for example?”


Her voice drifted across the stale air and settled in the ears of the newspaper man. He replied quickly and dryly:


“Because innocent families don’t want to see the ugly PTSD-crippled facial expressions of amputee veterans on their television screens whilst they’re sucking on their chicken bones.”


“Jesus Christ…”


The woman shuffled and readjusted herself on her seat, then she coughed. The man sniffed behind his newspaper, he was approaching 50 and grey hairs were creeping through the brown ones. The man, like the woman, was also out of shape but his ill-fitting suit emphasized this more.


“You’ve been reading that same newspaper for weeks” she said to him.


He didn’t respond.


“It was already old when you picked it up. Throw the bloody thing away and talk to me. Put it down for a second at least.”


Still he sat in silence. She sighed towards the ceiling.


“God, am I that insufferable?”


The man spoke into the newspaper:


“I’m reading the little articles at the side, you know, about like, a pet llama’s birthday or an old lady who won a sack race and got a medal or whatever.”


“You’ve got all the time in the world to finish your sub-articles about athletic old women later on.”


He lowered the newspaper, eyeing her over the brim.


“Can’t you just leave me be?” he asked her.


“I think I’ve left you be long enough now to warrant a conversation. There’s not much of an alternative once you’ve read every label on every tin.” She wiped up some oil from a discarded sardine tin and sucked her finger. He gave her a disparaging look and withdrew back into his newspaper fort.


“Don’t suck like that.” he grunted from within said newspaper fort. She purposefully sucked her fingers loudly three more times, each one like a swing from a battering ram, and his bricks started coming loose.


“Don’t be a pig. Please don’t suck like that!”


“I could tell you something more interesting than anything in that newspaper.” Then, more sucking. Suck, suck, suuuuuuck. Bash, crash, thump against his weakening barricades.


His hands gripped the newspaper edges tight and his fingers were visually trembling. She continued her assault, grinning brighter than the light bulb above them.


“I could tell you a story of my own, it’s better than reading about festive llamas.” There wasn’t even any oil left on her finger but she unleashed her final attack anyway. She gave her soggy fingers one final, gurgling suck. Suuuuck!


The fort walls collapsed and the paper ripped into two pieces with the man’s crumpled, blood red expression of rage emerging from between the shreds like a terrible, angry sun rising above two snow topped hills. The woman was there to meet his glare, with her cheeks wedged between her palms, smiling back at him with all her teeth. The man’s voice erupted.


“Oh my God, fine! Tell me your fucking story you stupid idiot just stop sucking your fat fucking fingers please!”


Before the man could even slam the strips of his ex-newspaper to the ground to consummate his frenzy, the woman said, dead-pan:


“I blew up the funeral home.”


The man stopped in his tracks, mid-throw. He put his anger in a box for later.


“You blew up the funeral home.” He calmly repeated, looking at her with quiet contempt, smoothing over his hair.


“Yeahhhhh. I blew up the funeral home.”


“And why did you do that?”

“It was an accident.”


“You are lying.”


“I’m not.”




The man composed himself a little more, and although he wouldn’t like to admit, his curiosity had peaked. The man continued:


“But I thought it was destroyed with the rest of the town?”


“Well no, let me explain. It’s funny!” She stood up so she’d have full use of her limbs to help tell the story. Her arms began to set the scene. She put on a grand, storytelling voice and then dove straight in.


“This is what happened…


“So, it was a family run funeral home and my dad was the embalmer, a very good embalmer in fact but that’s beside the point. He’d always try and teach me about embalming chemicals and the embalming process and blah blah as I was growing up. He was very proud of his work, he just wanted to share it with someone; being an expert at draining bodies and filling them back up with chemicals isn’t exactly the sort of thing you can talk to anyone about, so it was nice for him having me around. When I got a bit older he’d take me with him to do his business and he’d encourage me as much as possible to take over for him when he got too old and I’d just be standing there the whole time watching him peel these grey bodies, poking them around and god knows what else. I probably learned the entire process by the time I was 15, but it was basically really boring.


“Anyway, due to my innate laziness, I was never going to pursue education once I finished school, and of course, being the daughter of a mortician gives you quite an interesting reputation to say the least, so I was lacking in the friends department as well. By the time I was 18/19 the only real option for me was to take up embalming officially, I knew what I was doing, I had the support of my dad and the pay was alright. But my heart remained listless to the cause of funeral care! There came a point where I was almost purposefully flippant as a quiet protest against my situation. I truly am sorry that I did not share my dad’s passion, but then he went and died anyway.”


The man chimed in with awkward sympathy.


“Oh right! Umm...”


The woman paused and looked at him.


“Are you wondering if I embalmed my own dad?” She said casually.


“Uh… Well I wasn’t…”


He was.


“Ask me if I embalmed my own dad.”


“No, no just carry on. It’s ok, I don’t need to know.”


“I want you to ask me.”




“Ask me!”


“…Did you embalm your own dad?”


She rolled up a bit of the torn newspaper and slapped him on the forehead with it.


“No you idiot. Christ…”


She chuckled and gave him a look that invited him to join in but he wore an expression of confusion and distress.


“Sorry, uh… I’ll continue.” She got back into storytelling character.

“Once I’d lost the presence of my dad, I took an even more irreverent attitude to my work, possibly out of frustration and mourning I don’t know, but this is where my story comes to a close. You see, embalming fluid is highly flammable, my friend, and I am a smoker. All it took was a careless flick of ash and the cold slab of meat before me became a physical manifestation of Vulcan. It was like a human meat dish stuffed with sage and onion and chemical fire. The flames were sparking and licking out of every pore and orifice like little tentacles, and when I pulled the tube out it was like fire on tap. That’s when it squirted all over the floor, all over the discarded clothes that had belonged to the guy on the table. I’d thrown them next to the embalming chemicals shelf, and as soon as I saw that fire reaching for the bottles on the bottom I decided to stop flapping like an idiot and get the bloody hell out of there.


“And then, I watched from a distance as fire ate the building and burped out little explosions, until one big one blew the roof apart.”


She was sweaty and out of breath, she had included elaborate hand actions as well as sound effects. The man stared at her with his eyebrows raised to heaven.


“So… How the hell did you get away with that?”


“Well, and this is the funny part, it was at this point that the sound of the fire was waned by the sound of a low rumble rolling across the sky from beyond the horizon. Looking at the clouds, I thought maybe this was a storm coming to save what was left of the funeral home but then a tight formation of dots appeared above the trees and that’s when the first air raids began.  I think everyone must have assumed the building was lost with the rest of the town, like you said. I don’t know if that’s good or bad luck if I’m honest with you but… God damn I’m out of breath.”


The man had emptied his box of anger but now it was overflowing with confusion and awe. The woman, breathing heavily, spoke up again before he could say anything.


“Also I lied; I did embalm my own dad.” She wiped her forehead and exhaled with puffed up cheeks.

“Where’s the water? Can you get me some water?” She smacked her dry lips.


The man’s mouth creaked and stuttered as he tried to find the words to say.


“What part of that story is funny in the slightest?”


The lady, who was looking for something to drink, turned around.


“Oh come on, the thing blew up at the same time the bombs dropped! It’s funny!”


“People probably died because of you!”


“No one died! It was just me there… I think.”


“You think?!”


“Look I’m pretty sure no one died and now I don’t have to be an embalmer anymore and I got away with everything.” She smiled. “It’s win-win-win! It doesn’t matter anyway since the whole town was leveled 10 seconds later. What’s the big deal?”


“You’re insane.”


“I bet you ain’t so perfect either, old man. Now if you’ll excuse me, since there’s no water left in this shithole I’m going outside to refill.” She walked over to the door, leaving fresh footprints over the old ones.


“What? Don’t go out of there.” Said the man, adopting an anxious tone.


“Why not?” She replied, placing her hands on the stiff lever that opened the door. She began to tug at it despite the man’s protests.


“Stop! Stop it! Don’t go out there, are you mad?” The man had stood up from his chair leaving behind a deep buttock print.


“Awww, are you worried for my safety?”


“No! I…”


“Oh are you scared of the outside or something?”


“No I’m just…”


“Scared of being left by yourself?”


He sighed.


“Just hurry will you?”


The woman heaved the lever and flakes of rust peeled off. The door screeched on its hinges and both the man and the woman grimaced at the sound, then the woman went outside taking two empty bottles with her, then she closed the door.


With the slamming of the door, the sound of the radio seemed so much more prominent. It was his only company now. The waffling voices, the subpar propaganda orchestras. That soil smell from the caked mud on the speakers. The man dragged a clawed hand down his face and exhaled with anguish. He slumped back into his chair, picked up some newspaper debris, tapped his foot, put the newspaper down again since it was unreadable, tapped his fingers on the table, chewed his dirty fingernails, hummed along to the fruity melody playing through the radio.


There was a faint thudding against the door and the man leapt up from his seat stood frozen to the spot. There was more thudding, louder this time followed by a muffled voice and he hesitated before creeping to the door.  He placed his ear against the cold metal and his facial expression reflected the sensation.


“Help me with the bloody door!” barked the voice from the other side. Another, louder thud on the door made him reel his ear away and he snapped to sense, pulling the door open. The woman waltzed in.


“My, my, it’s looking pretty bleak out there.” She drank deeply from one of her bottles. “Oh that’s so much better! Do you want some?” She offered her bottle, the man shook his head. She wiped the dribble from her chin and threw the two bottles into the corner near the rest of the supplies. The man was staring gormlessly at the ground rubbing the back of his head.


“You alright?” she asked him. He looked up.


“Hm? Oh yes, yes I’m fine.”


The two of them resumed their positions at the table, but this time the atmosphere seemed slightly more amicable. The woman smiled at the man and the man smiled meekly back at her.


“Well.” She said. “Now that we’ve broken the ice a bit why don’t you tell me a story?”


“I don’t really have any stories.” He replied, furrowing his brow.


“You must have something. What did you used to do? You know I was an embalmer.”


“I was…” He was slightly embarrassed. “A magician.”


“A magician! That’s great! Can you do a trick now?”


“No I don’t do it anymore.”


“Why not?”


“It was an accident.”


“Tell me everything.”


The man looked from the woman, to the pile of discarded newspaper, to the metal door looming the background. He stood up.


“Ok fine.” He said. “This is what happened…


“Ever since watching Gregor the Black Serpent as a young boy my only love has been magic, and when I was 14 I got my first magic kit. Magic was written into my destiny on that day I tell you. My parents would tell me, “No son, you must not pursue such trivial dreams” but no! I fought on, and I would dream about turning them into the ugliest of creatures with my magic wand.
But I will cut to the chase; a number of beneficial consequences lead me to very favourable positions and I had made a name for myself by the time I was your age. I was a household name in families across the country, my dreams had come true and I was by far the best magician around.
Until… that twat, Majestimo Sixfingers and his band of budgies rose from the swamp. You should have seen the things that amazing idiot was pulling off with those budgies, budgies doing sign language, budgies performing open heart surgery on other budgies, budgies chirping Latin phrases in Morse code, all under the control of Majestimo Sixfingers.  It was undeniably amazing; it was a new era of magic performance: The Budgie Era. It was time to fight fire with fire or risk having my name erased from the memories of the public forever.

So this was when, after months of planning, I bought a single budgie that I named Tristan, and a brand new Harley Davidson motorbike, that I named The Thunderhog.

That’s right, through rigorous training that can only be explained by my masterful grasp on the laws of magic, and also through a system of pulleys and pedals and other mechanisms, I managed to teach that budgie, Tristan, to ride solo on The Thunderhog.”


“You trained a bloody budgie to ride a Harley Davidson? And you say I’m insane?” snorted the woman.


“I am a master of my craft; I knew exactly what I was doing. You are just careless.” Was his retort. “Now…


“This is where things go sour. I should let you know that I was in a relationship with a wonderful woman at this point in my life; she had helped me plan everything and had given me her full support. She even had a young son from a previous marriage who loved my magic, we got on very well, I saw him like my own son I really did. They were in the front row on the opening night of Tristan the Hogtamer.

But that bastard, Majestimo Sixfingers, must have sabotaged my show, he must have swapped Tristan for one of his inferior budgies, it’s the only thing that explains the subsequent events. I placed Tristan in position on the saddle, ready to tear the house down. The audience was in utter silence, the only sound was the rumble of The Thunderhog.

Everything went completely wrong. That budgie burst onto stage like a rodeo bull. It was revving so hard it was like artillery fire, plus I’d even set up a cord that allowed Tristan to honk the horn. All you could hear was rev honk! rev honk! rev honk! as this budgie mounted Harley Davidson flew across the stage, smashing everything in reach to pieces, tearing the stage lights down, pulling down the curtains. And then…Christ… It drove over a ramp I’d set up on stage and rocketed straight into my girlfriend’s son, sitting horrified in the front row. There was nothing anyone could do. You should have seen the damage; I swear to God that boy’s spine was coming out of his mouth. He’s in a wheelchair now. Probably better if he did die, all things considered. Poor bastard.

“So anyway, I spent some time in jail, and my girlfriend never spoke to me again. Selfish bitch. I could always tell she never really cared about my magic. After this tragic event I think they even introduced a new law that made budgie themed performances illegal. And that’s why I stopped doing magic. I figured if the ones you love can’t even support or forgive you, why bother trying to do anything that makes you happy?”


The man had grabbed one of the bottles of water during his story and was now stood drinking from it.


“So that’s why you’re so miserable” said the woman. “You fucked up your life because you’re an actual idiot.”


“Hey, none of it is my fault! Majestimo sabotaged me, my girlfriend betrayed me.” He pleaded.


“Lets face it, Majestimo didn’t sabotage you. And your girlfriend didn’t betray you, you disabled her son!”


“Well it’s not like he died…Oh.” He realised. “I see.”


The woman smiled at him pleasantly.


“I hate to say I told you so…”


“Alright, alright…”


There was a moment of comfortable silence as the two of them settled down at the table, but then it gave way to a vibrating drone from outside.


“What’s that noise?” asked the man automatically, standing up and looking towards the ceiling. The drone only got louder, and the woman got up too. The two of them stood there as if their chins were suspended on hooks, looking towards the ceiling, hoping to imagine what was to be seen above them. But the drone sound was replaced by deep thunderous rumbling. And then a piercing whistle.


The woman honed her ears.


“That sounds like…”


The shared realization manifested itself in a terrified gaze between the two, instinct and adrenaline hit them both like a punch in the gut. A split second after they had dived under the table, there was an immeasurably violent crash. Their ear drums erupted and their bones rattled inside their bodies, a fresh layer of dirty fell down upon them like a blanket. And then the dancing light bulb above them flickered and extinguished.


“Are you ok?!” aggressive coughing. “Hello?! Where are you?!” The man was straining his vocal chords.


“I’m here! My ears are ringing, I can barely hear you but I’m alright.”


“Am I blind?”


“No, the light went out.”


“Where’s the torch?”


“It should be on the shelf with the food.”


“I’ll try and find it.”


There was the sound of stifled coughing and boots scraping in the stones and dirt as the man crawled towards the shelf. The woman crawled off in a different direction to search for the torch as well, her legs felt wobbly from the explosion. As the man reached the shelf, the sound of scraping boots and clothes was replaced with the clang of thin metal.


“Whereabouts is it?” His hand felt over the shelf, making tinny rattle noises. “I can’t find it.”

“Keep looking, it might have fallen on the floor.”


There was more rattling, until a hollow thud at the metal door turned his blood cold.


“What was that? Is that you? Are you there?” he whispered.


“I’m here it’s not me, it’s coming from the door.” Replied the woman, also whispering.


Thud, thud, thud at the door.


“What the hell could it be?” he hissed.


He began to panic, bile rose to his throat and he swallowed it hard. He began desperately scrabbling around for the torch.


“Get the torch quickly!” whispered the woman, her voice made the man jump.


“I am!” if you were stood near the man, you’d be able to hear his heart beating.


Thud, thud, thud.


“Hurry it up!”


“Shut up! It’s too dark, I can’t see. I can’t see!” his voice trembled and broke.


Thud, thud, thud.


The man hit something with his hand and the plastic scraped on the floor, it was the torch.


“I’ve got it!”


He snatched at it as if his hands were cobras and he held it with a death grip. He fumbled clumsily for the switch and then a beam of light burst out and illuminated his terror creased expression, sweat or tears moistening his cheeks. He lowered the torch towards the door.


“Hello, sunshine.”


The woman was slouched lazily by the door in the circle of torchlight; she gave the door three thuds with the bottom of her fist, thud, thud, thud.


“Good metal, this. Very thick.” She said. She gave it two more thuds “Yes, very good indeed.”


The man stared at her, still aiming his torch in her direction. He sighed.


“You bloody…”


She grinned and laughed, and the torchlight started shaking. He was laughing too

Submitted: August 15, 2014

© Copyright 2021 Sam Jesson. All rights reserved.

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