"How did you get the toupee to stay on?" The new
apprentice whispered. He wished the cold, white-tiled
workroom behind the funeral parlor could be better
lit and the winter rain wouldn't strike so loud on the
"Speak up Tom, it's only the two of us. The dead can't
hear and they don't care what we say or do," said the
"Is there a special way of doing toupees?" Tom spoke
louder wondering about advances in the craft in the
"I was clean out of double-sided tape but I managed
to find a couple of masonry nails," said the old hand
pointing to a hammer lying on the tiled work bench
beside the body. "They don't care and they don't
Tom tried hard to manage his composure. He said
nothing but more of the color drained away from his
face and he clasped both hands hard on top of his
The old hand worked on in silence. Make-up and a
three piece suit soon had the deceased looking
something like his old self. The toupee was combed
over the nail heads. The body was lifted into the
coffin ready for the final adjustments. Tom watched
carefully, partly out of grim fascination and partly
mindful that he too would be doing all this one day.
He promised himself he would never run out of
"This is a real beauty," said the old hand fastening a
pocket watch onto the body. "It's marked as a railroad
watch. Looks like an old one. It's not gold and neither
is the chain but it has to be worth something. Who
says you can't take it with you. He's going to. He left
special instructions for his own burial. Not many do
Soon the deceased was nicely laid out so that respects
could be paid before the coffin was closed. One of
the relatives asked about the watch but no one knew
why he had insisted it should be buried with him.
Someone said. "When he was sick and knew he
wasn't going to pull through he seemed to be more
concerned about what would happen to the watch
than what would happen to his family."
An old aunt said, "It stopped when he died."
Then the old hand was brought back to close the
coffin and everyone moved on to the graveside.
Time passed and Tom said nothing when the old hand
started coming to work wearing a railroad watch and
chain. Soon the grave and the funeral and the life it
marked were forgotten like all the others. The old
hand got a little older and then he got sick but he had
never saved his money so he had to carry on
One morning Tom arrived and overheard voices in
the workroom. They were not speaking loudly so he
could only make out parts of the conversation,
something about railroads. Not wishing to intrude he
didn't go in right away. When he did eventually go in,
he wished he had gone in earlier. The old hand was
all alone and there was death in his eyes. When he
saw his young colleague he pointed to the watch
lying just out of his reach. He was struggling to speak
but his eyes were rolling and the words just wouldn't
come out. Barely pausing, Tom put the watch in his
pocket for safekeeping and called an ambulance. He
did his best to remember the little first aid he knew
but he saw that the end was near.
"Do you want to come to the hospital with your
friend?" the ambulance lady asked.
"Thank you but no, he won't know and he won't
care," he said for now he knew death well.
A few days passed and the old hand was back again
but now as a customer in the cold, white-tiled
workroom. His funeral and the life it marked would
soon be forgotten like all the others.
Tom waited a few weeks then took the watch for
repair for it had stopped when the old hand died. He
asked about its background.
"Don't know too much about it myself but there are
collectors who specialize in railroad memorabilia.
There's one who brings railroad watches in
sometimes," said the watch-repair man digging
around in a drawer for a name-card.
Tom put the card away to follow up on when time
permitted. That night he worked late and alone. He
locked the door for he feared the living more than the
dead. Few visitors came to the cold, white-tiled
workroom and he had drifted into the habit of talking
to the deceased as he worked.
"I'll soon have you nice and comfortable in there," he
said nodding towards a coffin. This would not be an
easy lift when working alone so he paused for a break
first. Some small movement outside caught his
attention and he went over to the small window but
there was nothing to see in the darkness except the
trees straining in the wind. He took out the watch to
check that it was still keeping time after the repair.
"The chain's not right," said a hollow voice behind
Fear gripped him at once with icy fingers that dug
deep into his back as if to hold him immobile in the
path of some horrible and unseen danger. It was with
no small effort both physically and mentally that he
turned towards the voice from beyond the grave.
He felt the air was suddenly colder and saw the scene
had changed behind him. The body was lying where
it had been but now the tiled work bench had
somehow become a plain wooden table. Adding to
the terrible strangeness, the deceased was now
clothed in some sort of old railway uniform and the
whole room was starting to change into something
different, something older. He blinked just once and
it was all gone with everything back in its proper
He backed off towards the door pulling out his key
and was glad, very glad to get out of that place. In his
panic to secure the door behind him he broke the key
in the lock and had to leave the workroom unlocked
behind him. It was with a great fear of being
followed that he ran off into the night.
It all seemed so different the next morning. The sun
was out. There was time enough before the funeral to
finish the body in the coffin. He even managed to
pull the broken key out of the lock with a good pair
of pliers. He thought, perhaps working too hard
makes one imagine all sorts of things.
However he took the afternoon off to visit the
railroad collector who knew about watches, the one
with the card.
The railroad memorabilia collector was pleased to be
asked. "Well let's see. It's a conductor's watch marked
Western Maryland Rail Road Co. That makes it an
old one for they changed the name to Western
Maryland Railway Co. in 1902. It's what they call a
'Railroad-grade Pocket Watch'. Now the standard for
that didn't come in until 1893. So there you are, it
was issued to a conductor on the Western Maryland
Rail Road sometime between 1893 and 1902."
The collector's expertise was matched with a deep
enthusiasm and he brought out a pile of neatly
indexed albums. Together they looked through old
photos, newspaper cuttings, and lots more besides all
about railroads and railroad watches.
"He wouldn't have worn it on a chain. He would have
used a leather strap and probably some sort of leather
holder. You can get good replicas on the Internet."
Tom took the chain off and put the watch back into
his pocket. He wondered if the collector had noticed
his hand was shaking a little.
"Just wait here for a minute," said the collector. "I'll
show you something else you can get on the
He returned wearing an accurate replica of the
uniform of a railroad conductor of the late 19th
"What's wrong, you look like you've seen a ghost?"
said the collector.
Tom was still pale and shaky when he thanked and
left the collector. Having lost time by taking the
afternoon off, he once again had to face working late
and alone in the white-tiled workroom.
This time he left the door unlocked and tried to stay
close to it. He turned to his evening's work and said
with as much confidence as he could. "Now you stay
quiet and we'll get on just fine."
Working more quickly than usual, he prepared the
body and maneuvered it into the coffin without
stopping for a break. Thankfully he took out the
watch and was pleased to see how early it was. It was
then that a sudden coldness in the air made him
shiver. He felt himself becoming a little light-headed
and rubbed his eyes hard. The fear returned with a
dreadful rush when he opened his eyes again.
The scene was changing back and he could see it
more clearly this time. Once again, the deceased was
in the uniform of a railroad conductor. The room was
no longer white-tiled, bare and modern. It was now
just like the collector's pictures of railroad waiting
rooms of days long gone. But none of these old
photos had a dead conductor in a coffin on the table.
"Keep it well wound up. For when it stops you will
have to come with me." The ghastly voice alone
would have been more than Tom could have coped
with. This time it was made much worse for the
conductor was struggling to sit up in the coffin.
Fear seized Tom in its paralyzing grip. The watch
slipped from his hand. Time seemed to slow and he
had one last terrible moment of realization as his eyes
followed the watch all the way down to smash on the
They found him in the morning with a wild look, set
frozen on his face. His lifeless eyes were still staring
at the watch.
"That must be when he died," said someone pointing
to the time on the watch. "Looks like an unusual
timepiece. I wonder if it can be repaired."
The Timepiece was First Place in
Adult Creative Writing Club,
Competition No.75, 2007.