Welcome to Morgen’s Online Short Story Writing Group and the second story on this blog. This 1,796-word literary story is by John McGowan. Please do comment in the section below telling us what you liked about this story and, what if anything, the author could do to improve upon it. Thank you – it’s very much appreciated!
Comment / feedback sought: John is hoping to find out what works and what does not work with this piece of work, and welcomes suggestions for how it could be improved.
The Coffin Route
He had made a promise and you do not break a promise. That had been instilled into him in his childhood. So though an oppressive sky, thick and heavy with grey rainclouds smothered the hilltops and blunted the grey crags, making the world feel that bit smaller. Though the wind blustered a cold threat to stay indoors and the chilled rain spattered loudly on the hood of his jacket he resolved he would see the journey through. As he walked the hills he ruefully smiled and recalled the goodbye to his wife on the doorstep of the B and B. ‘No such thing as bad weather only the wrong clothes.’ She had shaken her head at him and the sentence that had become a kind of family motto and with a sympathetic smile kissed his cheek and told him to be careful.
The walk was easy at first despite the rain muddying the landscape. Climbing the hills on pitched pathways the stones were greasy and slippery and at times it was like trying to walk on a path made from blocks of soap, water gargled underfoot as it rushed down pathways turned to riverbeds. The path then wove its way along the open hillsides where he found himself exposed to a wind that whipped and lashed at his jacket and trousers. He was granted a brief respite when for half an hour or so the rain eased off to a light shower before whirling back up into a frenzied downpour. His hands started to feel numb and stiff and after a while rain began to find a way through his supposedly waterproof clothing. The cuffs of his jacket began to feel cold and wet and the fleece lining of his sleeve behaved like a sponge drawing cold rainwater up his arm. His legs tingled as the cold wet folds of his trousers nipped at his skin. His boots were now sodden and he could feel his feet squelch and squish his thick heavy socks. Sometime later when he came to the edge of Rydal forest above the lake of the same name he looked out and over to the hills on the other side. Water streamed down them, rushing to the lake below on which the rain formed strange swirling patterns on its grey surface. Such a wild place David thought, but full of beauty no matter what the weather. Sure it was lovely when the sun shone and the skies were blue and cloudless but the place was always so full of tourists then that you felt stifled by them. No. This was how he liked the lakes, alive and raw, the landscape baring its teeth and snarling. Somewhere nearby he knew there was a long distance race being run and in conditions like today’s people would think of the runners and officials as being mad, irresponsible even. But David understood why they did it. The wind and torrential rain, the muddy earth pulling and sucking at your legs only made it more real, made it more of an achievement, it made you feel more alive and somehow liberated the soul.
He trudged on into Rydal forest where the leaves had fallen golden but were now sodden through and had formed a thick carpet that he squished deep footprints into as he made his way through the autumn pile, every so often slipping or stumbling.
The path was called The Coffin Route; it ran from Ambleside to Grasmere and was so called because in times before proper roads were built around the lakes it was used to carry the dead from Ambleside to the consecrated earth of Grasmere church for burial. David could visualize pall bearers dressed in ragged black suits, heads bowed and their jacket collars turned up to protect them from the cold wind, mud clinging to their boots and the bottom of their trousers midway between their ankles and knees. Solemnly trudging along the path they carried a plain box made from rough wood that looked more like a crate than a coffin. Occasionally stumbling or missing a step but never dropping their load. Did the ghosts of the deceased follow on behind David wondered, eager to find their eternal rest in the dark earth at the journeys end, anxious that their bodies not be mishandled?
David was midway through Rydal forest and about three quarters of the way through his journey when he came to a huge black stone beside the path. The stone was a rough rectangular shape with smooth rounded edges. Ragged spider web cracks and gouges ran along its surfaces. It sat in front of the drystone wall that ran parallel to the path and the rain had darkened the stones colour from a deep grey to a polished black making David think of it as a huge lump of onyx. David knew it as the resting stone, upon which the pallbearers of old used to sit the coffins while they regained strength to complete their journey. He thought of his father, a huge rock of a man born and bred in the lakes and remembered the first time he had been brought along this path when he was a small boy. It had been summer and for most of the journey he had been hoisted up on his father’s shoulders feeling tall enough to touch the sky. They had stopped here for a brief rest his father sitting him down on the stone and then narrating the stones morbid history. David smiled as he remembered how he had jumped from the stone as though it was red hot and ran to hide behind his father when he had told him that hundreds of dead bodies had been laid there. David sighed; he now regretted the arguments and the fall outs of the last few years when he had brought his father down to live with his family in Manchester. His father had been too ill to live alone and they could not move to the lakes, not that he could have afforded to buy a house here anymore. Locals were being priced out of the area and jobs were scarce. Not that it had mattered to his father. Still he had made a promise. He took off his rucksack and slung it on the stone. He opened the rucksack, tearing back the Velcro flap that made such noise as if the fabric of reality were being ripped open and carefully reached in and took out a small varnished wooden box that looked oddly bright when he carefully placed it on the resting stone. The small gold plate on top of it had his fathers name inscribed on it, David Hoggerd.
He heard the sound clearly in his head, a shaking noise, a rattling. It sound like maracas being played but it was a coarser sound. Suddenly he remembered. His father removing the small travel chess set from his rucksack then shaking it at him.
Fancy a game lad?
David smiled as the memory came flooding back. On the days when the weather was good or when it wasn’t to cold or wet they would stop and play a game or two of chess on the old travel set his father always seemed to have on him. David had not played for many years and now he found himself aching to play a game. He could still remember the feeling of pride when after countless attempts he had finally beaten his father. The sheer joy of it and how he could not wait to tell the rest his Mother about his victory. Thinking back David thought it might just have been the best feeling of victory he had ever felt in his entire life. But it was also here on the resting stone that they had played for the very last time and despite winning he had felt so cheated that he had never played with his father ever again. What age had he been? Eight, maybe nine? Ten at the very most. On a day the total opposite to today his father had shook the chess set at him and he had grinned eager to play. They had played three games there on the resting stone, the branches overhead shading them from a particularly hot summer sun. David had won all three games far too easily and had protested that his father had not been trying and had eventually fallen out with him for letting David win. He had not wanted to be given a victory, after all he had beaten his father before and could do again and was so upset about being allowed to win that he had never played his father again. He could still picture his Fathers face trying to feign innocence. It was only now he could understand what his father had been trying to do only now that he could see that his father had took such enjoyment in playing him. It had not been about winning or losing for his father. Give a little bit of encouragement that was all he had wanted to do and take pleasure in the company of his own son. They did not finish the fourth game as he had gotten angry at his fathers deliberate losing streak and had declared he did not want to play anymore or play ever again if his father was not going to play properly. Here he was now, wishing he could have that time again thinking that he would try and avoid making the same mistake with his own children but knowing that he most likely would or already had.
David had not asked or looked into whether he would be allowed to scatter his father’s ashes in the churchyard. He would do it anyways and if questioned over it, would plead ignorance and take whatever consequences came his way. He had promised his father he would take him down the coffin route one last time and by God he would see it through.
After all, a promise was a promise.
David hefted the small rucksack on his back adjusting it so it sat comfortably. He turned to face the path and just where it disappeared behind trees and bushes stood his father, a huge grin on his rugged face tightly framed by the hood of his orange cagoule.
He heard the deep rumble of his Fathers voice. ‘No such thing as bad weather lad. Only the wrong clothes.’ He grinned at David and with a nod of his head motioned for David to follow. He then turned and headed round the path and was gone.
David smiled, his tears disguised on his rain soaked face and followed his Father down the final stretch of the Coffin Route.
I read (critiqued, see the pictures below :)) John’s story while walking my dog this afternoon, and have a few comments. I won’t fine-tune it like I do in the Sunday-night red pen critique sessions, but hope the following is helpful:
- Wherever the reader pauses (or if you read your work out, you pause), you should have a comma (especially before ‘but’), so instances like ‘
- ‘B and B’ (whenever I’ve seen it) is ‘B&B’. I know ampersands aren’t generally used in prose but are with references / titles.
- One of the most well-known phrases in creative writing is ‘show not tell’ and we’re ‘told’ that his boots were sodden but then shown that they are by his feet squelching, which was a great image.
- Those who’ve read my feedback before will know I’m a stickler for repetition and ¼ of the way through there is ‘made it… made it… and it made’. Repetition should always emphasise, which it does well here, and sets of three always get a tick.
- Thoughts should usually go in italics.
- Rydal forest is a name so the ‘forest’ should be ‘Forest’. Ditto Grasmere Church.
- I loved the metaphor of his father being a ‘huge rock’, especially given the surroundings.
- Towards the end we’re told three times that David and his father stopped playing the game so I’d recommend John picking his favourite way of saying it and use that.
- Although David’s father is referenced as ‘father’ (which should be a small ‘f’ unless used as a name), we know his name is also David by the nameplate. Although it’s only mentioned once, and sons are often called after their fathers, I’d advise not having the same name. Also similar names are confusing, e.g. Ted, Fred, Ed.
- I spotted several phrases which should have been hyphenated: ‘long distance’, ‘fall out’, and ‘rain soaked’.
- Characters should learn something by the end of the story and David certainly does.
- A good story should make the reader emotional and it certainly tugged at my heart strings.
Well done, and thank you, John, for inviting us to comment.
Originally a Glaswegian he now resides in Carlisle with his wife Rona who gives him his biggest push to write.
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