Dead Hand Clapping

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The following is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of “Dead Hand Clapping”, a psychological thriller by Zoe Drake.

First, mountains were mountains, and rivers were rivers. Then, they were all one. And in the end, mountains were mountains, and rivers were rivers again.
The phrase went through Ian McKenna’s mind as he stared at his father’s coffin. It was one of those Zen sayings that had fascinated him the first time he came to Japan, back in the day. Not this, not that. Now it’s something, now it’s nothing. One week he’s out with his Dad for a few beers, on their annual Christmas get-together in London. The next week . . .
He was standing, fidgeting with his prayer book, stumbling his way through the tune of an unfamiliar hymn, trying to shut out the muted falsetto of the woman next to him: Eri, his late father’s girlfriend. Anonymous in the Japanese mourning uniform of black twin-set and pearls.
There wasn’t much at all to show that McKenna was back in Tokyo. The name, St Alban’s Episcopal Church, could have meant anywhere in the UK, even though it was standing in the shadow of the Tokyo Tower. The pastor standing up in the pulpit was British. The seventy-odd members of the congregation were his father’s business partners and friends – people from the Embassy, the Consul, the St Andrews Society, the Japan-Scotland Society, The Tokyo Football Club, staff and customers from his father’s favourite Irish pub, the Fiddler. The only things that told him he wasn’t still in London were the higher ratio of Asian faces in the crowd, and the signs written in Kanji characters on the back wall.
McKenna’s hangover was well and truly kicking in and his guts were in an uproar. I need some air, he thought, the heat in here’s doing my head in. He’d only been in Tokyo for two days and it felt like he’d spent most of that caning his late father’s Scotch collection. Staying in Dad’s apartment, sleeping on Dad’s sofa; he couldn’t bring himself to use the bed.
As the hymn came to an end, the priest asked them to sit and then related, in his precise Home Counties English, what an honorable man Leonard McKenna had been, an upstanding member of the expat community working tirelessly to improve links between two great countries. He had equal amounts of praise for both Eri and Leo’s ex-wife, and was suitably regretful that that she could not be present. If only you knew, McKenna thought ruefully.
“And now,” announced the priest, “Leo’s son, Ian, has kindly agreed to say a few words.”
Ian McKenna got to his feet, trying to ignore the eyes turning in his direction. Eri leant over in her seat and whispered to him: “Ganbatte kudasai.” Do your best. He walked slowly to the pulpit, climbed the steps and stood behind the lectern. A change of perspective. He wasn’t part of the crowd anymore, part of the mourning. He was leading it.
“My father, Leonard Charles McKenna,” he began, running his tongue around dry lips, his eyes fixed on the creased paper and the scrawled lines of his speech. “My father spent a total of over twenty years working in Japan – first as the Asia rep for Universal Distillers, and then with his own company, Glenroyal Consultants. He lived – and he died – in the Japan that he loved.”
A movement at the back of the hall caught McKenna’s eye. There was a figure standing behind the congregation. A man who hadn’t been there before. He must be a latecomer, must have entered the church a few seconds before, McKenna thought, but nobody seemed to have noticed him.
“To try to enumerate my father’s contributions to the Scottish community here,” he continued, “would take up the whole of this service. But for most of us . . . for most of us, Leonard Charles McKenna will be remembered for his kindness and his sense of humour – as well as the time and devotion he showed to everything he was involved with. He’ll be remembered for the simple things. Simple things that showed his everyday generosity, like offering his apartment for Japan-Scotland Society meetings, for hauling cartons of wine to the British Club for a St Andrews Society giveaway promotion that he’d sponsored . . .”
McKenna paused, looked up again. There was something very disturbing about the figure at the back. The man was wearing a big winter jacket over white clothes. Strange white things that looked like filthy hospital pajamas, and his long hair was matted and greasy. Had some homeless bloke wandered into the church? Why wasn’t anyone doing anything?
A sudden noxious chemical reek made McKenna’s gorge rise. There was a hot, prickling sensation under his armpits. The heating’s turned up too high in here, he thought. I can hardly breath . . .
“Dad – Leo McKenna will be remembered for all of these things. But more than this, he will be remembered as a good friend and the best father . . . a fine man, who took the time to do good, wherever possible.”
He looked up again. The figure had gone. McKenna stopped, looking from left to right to see where the figure had gone, how he’d managed to move so fast. People in the congregation stirred, looking behind them, wondering what he was staring at.
He hurriedly got back to his speech, bringing it to its conclusion. “It was Shakespeare who said . . .‘Death makes no conquest of this conqueror, for now he lives in fame, though not in life.'”

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About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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