In 1963, the final year of our living in Canada, directly across the street from the Montreal apartment where my wife and our newborn son and I lived, we had three Scottish friends who had an apartment very similar to ours. In case any of them are still alive I will change their names to Andrew and his wife, Heather, and Andrew's friend, Craig, who was their lodger. We were all in our late Twenties and had become friends because we were all rock climbers.
On an evening in early April, never since forgotten, they came across
unexpectedly, ringing our doorbell with Heather in a state of shock. Her story
was that she had briefly left their living room where she had been listening to
music with Andrew and Craig and as she stepped into the short hallway, which linked their front door with the other rooms, there
was a strange man in a dark suit, like a dress suit, moving towards her. Terrified,
she ran back into the living room, crying for help. The two men ran out but
inside of the locked door of the apartment they found nobody. Nor was there
anyone in the hallway or on the stairs outside.
Eventually with wine flowing and more music, she calmed down and the evening
became more like other familiar social evenings.
Andrew had one personal characteristic, which had bothered me since we first
met. He was a dour and pessimistic Scotsman, which I could accept, but he hated
going to work on Monday mornings so much that he insisted on leaving our
climbing venues early on a Sunday so that there would be sufficient time left on
Sunday evenings before the dreaded bedtime that brought Monday mornings.
As the wine and music took effect, Andrew became jocular and approached where
I was sitting with a grin that suggested an imminent funny joke or story - I
can still picture how he looked at that moment.
He then told me or, more accurately, tried to engage me in the most awful, even
terrifying, sick joke that I could even imagine. In fact it was away beyond my
imaginings, so terrible that I have never been able to repeat it as it actually
emerged. Suffice to say that it involved the extermination of six million Jews
and some play-acting with ash from the cigarette he was smoking.
The only reason I can reveal the bits of it here is that it is fundamental to the
story I am telling. I was shocked to the core and would probably have ended my
friendship with him if events had not done that so decisively. The next day I
was presented with the opportunity to take a seat which had become available on
a cheap charter flight to London and jumped at the chance to follow up on some
job possibilities in London and Dublin, so the following Saturday a climbing
party visited one of our venues in the Laurentian Mountains without me.
On a climb where no rock had fallen before, as Andrew sat paying out the rope to Craig, a rock fell and, hitting Andrew on the head, killed him instantly. The rest of this story comes now from my own dear departed wife, Mary, as she was central to it while I, because of circumstances, was still far away. Mary had to spend the next few days supporting the grieving Heather, especially in the funeral arrangements.
The climax in the story came on the day of the funeral in the crematorium during the following week. At the point in the cermony when the clergyman signalled to have the coffin wheeled to the loading bay, Heather grabbed Mary, collapsing, and saying "That's him!" She claimed that the man in the undertaker's suit now delivering Andrew's body to the incinerator was the one she had seen only the week before in the apartment.
Whatever we think of Heather's story, Andrew was reduced to ashes a week after his dreadful ashes joke.
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