by Ashley Lister
I’ll hold my hand up and admit that, wherever I work, it usually affects my writing. When I worked in an office, I found a lot of my fiction was orienting around an office environment. When I was working from home, my characters seemed to spend more time away from work, or they had the good fortune to work from the place where they lived.
I could blame this on personal laziness; or maybe some sort of Mary-Sue complex. If I was the introspective type I’m sure I would have worked out which of those options it was by now. But it’s curious to reflect on the fact that there’s one workplace I’ve never written about.
As a writer, I can proudly admit to having had a chequered career. Maybe even paisley. Not including novelist and article writer, I can admit that I’ve worked as an IT manager, and admin assistant. I’ve worked as a lecturer and performance poet. I’ve also worked as a bingo caller and spent one ignoble afternoon as a door-to-door salesman. Oh! And I’ve worked in a hospital as a trainee nurse. That didn’t last long. I don’t play well with bedpans.
A good number of those professions have found their way into some element or another of my writing. Perhaps it’s not laziness. Perhaps I’m just good at recycling.
But there’s one profession that’s never made it into my fiction. That’s the time I spent working as an undertaker’s assistant: a funeral director.
I’d been working as a junior reporter (I forgot to mention that one above). The job at the funeral director’s was mentioned by a grave-digger friend. And he added that it came with accommodation. Considering the piss-poor money I was on as a junior reporter, and taking into account the desperate need I had for accommodation, I jumped at the opportunity.
I was provided with a free suit: I discovered that charcoal grey looks good on me. I was given accommodation. And I also had access to a fleet of the fastest stretched limousines imaginable. The acceleration on a Ford Lincoln is phenomenal. The pickup on an un-laden hearse is obscenely fast. Even when they’re loaded with a standard (occupied) casket, most hearses can reach a formidable top speed with surprising ease.
But it wasn’t all glamour, fast cars and fancy clothes.
Living on the premises I was also on-call one week out of every three. This meant, if someone was unfortunate enough to suffer a bereavement out of office hours, I was expected to give the deceased a ride to the onsite mortuary. It was a time of midnight phone-calls, body-bags, transit vans, and the smell of carbolic soap, coffee and cigarettes.
Sometimes it could be sad.
Sometimes it could be a pain in the backside.
And sometimes it could be disconcerting.
I remember once making a journey on my own, through unlit countryside, with a corpse in the back of my transit van. You don’t often hear someone make that honest admission unless they’ve been in the same job as me, or worked as a freelance serial killer. Anyway, I was half an hour out of town and my imagination could hear fingernails scratching at the zipper on the body-bag. I have never been so genuinely frightened. The terror was so absolute I could taste the acid fear a week later. My fingernails left imprints on the steering wheel.
But this work has never occurred in my writing.
I could be glib and blame it on my preferred genre. I doubt there is one publisher reading this thinking, “Sex at the Funeral! What a great title for a story!” But I’ve written in other genres and never alluded to my insider knowledge of this profession. I don’t think I ever will.
I could, however, point out that I took the work very seriously. I wasn’t just dealing with the disposal of people’s remains: I was trying to lend dignity to the cruelty of grief. I could also point out that I rarely write about those things I take seriously.
I don’t write stories about people who teach.
None of my central characters have ever been writers.
And I never write stories about funeral directors.
Fiction, certainly the fiction that I write, is there to entertain. Yes, there are serious elements in my stories. And I’m not beyond exploiting any situation I know to make a fiction appear more realistic. But I’m happier transforming the dull irrelevance of my experiences in office life into something intriguing and exciting, rather than using material that is already more compelling than any fiction I could create.