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I wooed my beloved from afar, as she wooed me.
We met at a funeral. The dreary weather matched the mourners’ mood and attire, making for a particularly sombre affair, enlivened only by her luminous presence. A second cousin, once removed, upon the recently deceased matriarch’s side. We spent a couple of hours on the fringes: the back pews of the chapel, then beneath a shared umbrella as we huddled around the open grave, before finding a quiet spot on a landing when the wake retired to the grand old house whose windows and mirrors were shrouded in black.
Our obedient presence was the only thing required of us, too old to be indulged as children, too young to be of much interest to the assembled aunts and uncles. As our brief time together came to an end, I handed her my card and she scribed her address on the paper with which my funeral biscuit was wrapped. And then we were unceremoniously returned to our former lives, two hundred miles and a world of duty and expectation apart.
Our first communication was tentative, uncertain. Had I read too much into our quiet conversation, into her intense but tender gaze? The writing of my black-bordered letter was fraught with such doubts. I steeled myself for the cruel blow of a cold and formal reply, or worse, no reply at all. But I knew that I would forever regret it if I did not brave the hazard.
Our letters, so coy and yet so full of hope, overlapped; hers arriving before my entreaty could possibly have found its way into her fine-boned hands. The cold sun shone a little brighter that day; our interests were indeed aligned, our curiosities equal, our passions kindled.
In a fit of unparalleled joy, I sought out an artist friend of mine, begged of him some of the materials he uses to dress each scene. A bouquet of dried, black tulips, deliciously fragile, as temporary and fleeting as life itself, accompanied my very next letter.
I received a rare volume of poetry, the melancholy verses cut like the November wind through my soul. There was no recognition of my flowers in her note, just as there was none of her carefully chosen gift in mine. Again, our exchange had crossed somewhere in the cruel miles that separated us.
The letters were secondary, always playing catch up. It was the gifts that came to matter most. Usually memento mori of one kind or another, they tended towards the macabre, some might even claim ghoulish. That the family was still in mourning might have been part of it, but I think it spoke of how our souls were entwined not only through this but through other, unseen realms.
A raven, the work of a skilled taxidermist, arrived one morning to perch on my desk, frightening the cleaning lady into a fit of vapours. An antique looking glass, the aged silver having the peculiar effect of making even the most youthful of faces appear ancient, travelled in the opposite direction for her delight and amusement.
A lock of black hair, tightly coiled, arrived hidden behind the casement of a pocket watch that ticked a most doleful tick. A crystal vial of my own blood formed the centrepiece of a necklace shaped like a creeping, strangling vine…
But what had begun as an enchanting hunt for exotic peculiarities soon became a chore. A tiresome burden, distracting me from my employment, cutting deep into my savings until I was forced to borrow heavily from friends and relatives. A mania, all consuming.
It wouldn’t have been so bad if our correspondence had followed a normal pattern, so that each response could be thoughtfully weighed, the growth as slow and natural as the season. Instead, our simultaneous courtship had become a contest neither of us was willing to lose, the bids blind, the rules obscure.
The search for gifts worthy of my distant love became utterly exhausting. And so, in a pit of black despair, I sent an exquisite silk shawl, laced with tuberculosis spores. She dispatched a puzzle box, full of small, black, venomous spiders whose bite turned my pale skin necrotic. Had we hoped, perhaps, to poison a relative sharing the same address, leading to another family funeral, one where we could be reunited?
Perhaps. Though it doesn’t truly matter. Our gambits were both far too successful.
Our final exchange was a pair of headstones, our names and the year of our deaths carved deep and implacable into the marble. They’ll stand together; our grieving families have decided that, in the same cemetery where first we met.
And though I am loathe to admit it, the one she sent to adorn my grave was far more elegant than the one I sent her. So she scores the ultimate victory. When future generations wander past the spot where we two lie and compare our headstones, they’ll never guess that it is I that lost.
Interview with Liam Hogan, Author of “Mourning Post”
What inspired your story?
There is a brain teaser about two distantly related people who meet at a funeral, who get on so well that one of them immediately goes home and kills their Aunt. That was seed enough for this dark little tale! That plus the Victorian keeping and exchange of memento mori – what could be more romantic?
What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?
I enjoy an oddly unsettling story as much as any other slightly deranged author… Elements of Roald Dahl’s more adult work, in particular “The Landlady,” stay with me many years later. For a solidly more gothic appeal, I loved the peculiarity of Edward Carey’s Heap House, and of course the even odder art of Edward Gorey. Is it being called Edward that does it? A lucky escape for Edgar Allan Poe!
How long have you been writing?
That very much depends on how you want to measure things. I had my first piece published at the tender age of 9, in the kids section of the local newspaper. More realistically, I took up the pen again in 2000, but put it quickly down shortly after. But the muse won in 2007, and I’ve been writing – currently “full time”, whatever that means – ever since.
Do you have a theme you return to time and again?
I’m an eclectic writer of speculative fiction, but I tend to avoid heroes. My narrators are smaller than the events happening around and to them. Sometimes they get crushed, I’m afraid.
What are you working on now?
As a primarily a short story writer, I tend to have too many short stories on the go at any one time. But I have an eye on stringing them together thematically, into collections. 2021 will involve some polishing, and trying to find them a forever home.
What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?
I maintain what I describe as bibliblography – a blog that isn’t really one, but is updated with a link to all my published pieces, many of which can be read for free at Happy Ending Not Guaranteed.