Mikhala Dourlay 2020

The Um Room

Frank Warren observed the woman crouched down by her blue 1991 Honda Civic Hatchback. The wind loosened her dirty blonde haphazard ponytail and she wrapped her corduroy jacket tighter around her skinny frame.

Frank had worked at Honour and Care Funerals for seven years now. These past three years he had begun working lengthier and more frequent shifts. Sitting alone at the front desk, as he often did, he had a direct view of the insignificant, generally empty carpark.

The woman had parked her car thirty minutes ago but she was yet to enter the building.

He watched steadily as she shut her eyes, drew the cigarette to her lips and inhaled deeply; her shoulders slumping as she exhaled.

The passenger door of the car swung open. Frank hadn’t noticed someone sitting in there.

From the car, emerged an old woman wearing a simple black pantsuit and a navy-blue woollen cardigan; her grey hair neatly pushed back and wrinkles adorning her face. Her legs shook slightly as she stood and hugged herself against the winter chill, eyes staring straight ahead.

The first woman straightened and stood on her cigarette with the toe of her heeled foot, red sole bold against the concrete and demanding attention.

The women looked at each other and hand in hand began making their way towards the doors of the funeral home. Frank gulped down his coffee, forced his eyes away and focused on his computer screen.

The bell jingled, announcing their entry and Frank looked up. He opened his mouth but the woman began speaking first.

“I am Delilah Bowman. This is my mother Leanne Bowman. We’re here to purchase an urn for my father’s ashes.” She said.

Frank blinked. “Hello Ms Bowman, it’s lovely to meet you. I offer my condolences to you both, I–”

“I spoke with Marie a few days ago and I’ve completed the paperwork for the cremation; she told me that I needed to come in to pick out the urn.” Delilah said, looking sideways at her mother.

Frank’s eyes slid to Mrs Bowman. Her eyes were trained on the ground. Unmoving.  

“Of course, Ms Bowman. Mrs Bowman. My name is Frank. Please, follow me.”

He led the women down the expansive hallway before turning to his right. He applied weight to the cold brass handles of the double doors and they groaned open, filling the silence.

The Urn Room elicited many reactions, unique to each mourning, angry, grieving or numb body that entered. The minimally decorated room was rectangular, showcasing the countless urns neatly lined upon its solemn walls; some gathering dust, some practically glistening and each holding a discreet price tag tucked under its porcelain or stone base that no one wanted to see and yet was an inevitable conversation that had to be tactfully addressed. Frank hated that part of his job.

Delilah gave the room a brief once over before switching her attention back to her mother.

Mrs Bowman looked up at the high ceilings and slowly walked around the room. She ran her fingers along objects and breathed deeply.

At times, the sun would pour through the single circular window in the room and illuminate the urns, giving them an ethereal appearance. Frank often came and spent time in this room when he was alone.

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An hour passed.

Mrs Bowman examined each urn down to the finest detail, her hand sometimes trembling as she reached out and touched one. She would then begin shaking her head and moving on to the next one. Delilah mainly mirrored her moves, declining to inspect any urns.

She had gone outside twice for a cigarette.

Frank retreated to his seat at the front desk and watched through the carpark window as Delilah smoked her third cigarette, each drag inhaled as if it was water and she was stranded in the desert.

Frank’s coffee sat cold next to him. Abandoned.

Delilah re-entered the building and stared at Frank. His fingers twitched. She grinned and opened her mouth but a shattering sound echoed from down the hall.

Then sounded another.

Then another.

Delilah made a noise, and ran towards the Urn Room, heels simultaneously click clacking along the hallway. Frank followed close behind. Another smash resounded.

Mrs Bowman stood in the centre of the room while fragments of ceramic lay at her feet.

“Mum,” Delilah said.

She looked at the ground and let out a scream, her chest heaving up and down.

Then she looked up. Delilah said nothing.

Frank looked between them and then at the broken urns at Mrs Bowman’s feet.

Mrs Bowman lightly stepped over the wreckage, gave Frank a small smile and exited the room. Her footsteps faded down the hallway and the front door jingled as she left.

“I’ll pay for those,” said Delilah, staring out the window.

“Sorry,” she then said.

Frank nodded and hovered a hand just out of reach of the small of her back as he escorted her back down the hallway to the front desk.

She sat at the brown leather couch adjacent to the desk and lit a cigarette. Frank made no objection.

Delilah offered him one.

He hesitated but accepted and sat next to her.

She smoked rapidly and was onto her third before Frank had finished his first. He decided it was time to speak and cleared his throat.

“…Ms Bowman?”

“Delilah.” She said.

He resisted a smile.

“Delilah.” He said. “Should I go check on your mother?”

“No,” she said, “she’s fine. Well, she’s not. But…she’s fine.”

Frank nodded.

“Have you ever lost a family member?” Delilah asked.

Frank nodded again, slower, “my wife. Three years ago. Cancer.”

Delilah’s eyes darted quickly to his and then back to the glow of her cigarette.

“I’m very sorry,” she said.

Frank stared into her eyes which seemed to have become bluer. He did not know how long they sat there for. The minutes could have been hours.

He made them both coffees, but they went untouched.

“My father was a horrible man,” said Delilah, interrupting the silence, “my mother loved him. But he made our lives hell.”

She sighed, picked up her coffee and took a sip. Then sighed again. “It’s cold. It’s so cold.”