Dead Man Walking

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Outside the crematorium, the sky was a resolute grey, and the leafless trees might themselves have perished. We stood hunched against the cold, avoiding one another's eyes. Our proximity was perfunctory. None of us had exchanged so much as a word since the day the plant closed.

'They get more frequent for a while, funerals. Then they tail off. If you're still around to notice, that is.'

Len had a few years on the rest of us. He'd given that kind of advice to anyone who'd listen down about twenty-five of them.

'Where's he off to, then?'

Four pairs of eyes watched as the rain-coated figure strode towards the Mercedes, chin to his chest. Our former boss. He'd always been a bit of a psycho. In those final months he used to scream in apoplexy at anyone and everyone.

'Why couldn't you talk to us, you old b*****d?'

Len raised two fingers at the retreating figure.

It struck me that there was a hierarchy of self-consciousness here. The remaining group had nothing in common, but each kept a measure of dignity. The departee had somehow retained authority in the workplace, but his histrionics had left him unable to show his face in the world outside.

'You remember that management course?'

Of course we remembered. They told us to imagine we were marooned on a desert island. We had a little debate about survival, and then each of us had to nominate the group's natural leader. Someone, almost certainly Len, declared that the leader would need to be useful and should set an example. After that, no-one voted for the boss. He was even more offensive than usual the following day.

The others began a half-hearted ritual of shaking hands, eager to get away. The Mercedes swung past us with a scrunch of gravel. For a moment I saw his face through the rain-speckled windscreen. It was completely impassive and yet distraught at the same time.

Once upon a time, he might have dreamed of retiring to that desert island. Poor sod; his whole world was one now.

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