The problem was the timber they had used to build the coffins. Not so much the timber, really, which was of a fine and solid grain and, as far as could be discerned after decades of decay, skillfully worked. The problem was the low-grade varnish they had applied to the timber prior to the caskets’ internment. Just as the action of wind and water had eroded the face of the cliff, so the processes of terrestrial bacteria and invertebrates had eaten away at the poorly-sealed coffinwood. Fatefully, the problem extended to those coffins planted nearest the face of the cliff. The problem with the partial disintegration of the coffins was that, when uncovered by the erosion of the cliff-face, the outermost timbers of the compromised vessels were quickly destroyed by salt and driving rain. The problem then, of course, was that the bones inside the coffins were themselves exposed to the elements. That would not have been a serious problem in itself, but for the problem of the seabirds. In truth, the negligence of the Shire was the real problem on that score. Had Council’s rangers been more vigilant in monitoring the erosion of the cliff-top, they might have succeeded in having the bones re-interred before the seabirds pushed them out to make room for their nests. That said, the birds’ habit of clearing out the contents of the coffins to accommodate their hatchlings would not, without more, have been a truly serious problem. But the problem on that score was that the cemetery overlooked the town beach. This is how my youngest daughter – a daub of chocolate icing still upon her chin – came to find a human femur on the high-tide line.
‘Is it a whalebone?’ she asked, holding the relic out for my inspection.
The problem with the question was neither that I was unwilling to lie to my daughter, nor that I had been caught unawares without a suitable lie prepared. The problem was my nephew. Intervening before I had a chance to speak, my sister’s eldest son (a stupid crop of stubble fouling up his chin) stepped in to subvert my role as parent with a truthful answer frankly given.
‘But…what happened to the person?’ my daughter asked with a troubled frown.
Dozens of flaking bones littered the beach around us, as though to underscore the enormity of the question. It plagues us all, sometimes. I resolved to call the Shire to complain. Above us, the seabirds went on fussing about the ossuaries they now called home.
While the open-fronted, wood-panelled coffin chambers created by the erosion of the cliff-top and its graves seemed ideal shelters for the terns and gulls, the seabirds’ opportunism gave rise to the problem of the guano. In truth, this further problem had less to do with the guano as such than with certain of the compounds contained within it. Unhappily, the chemicals in question were apt to accelerate the process of disintegration in what remained of the caskets. In consequence, the little cliff-side recesses began to collapse. The coffins’ original, intended occupants being now strewn across the sand beneath the cliff, these cave-ins would have been a problem for the birds alone, but for the problem of the gravestones. Of course, there was nothing wrong with the gravestones per se. The monuments were made, after all, of relatively sturdier stuff than the coffins they marked. The problem was rather that, to the extent that the stones relied upon the integrity of the caskets beneath them for support, they were quickly undermined by the corrosive effect of the seabirds’ shit. In consequence, many of the gravestones nearest the precipice could resist the force of gravity no longer, and began to topple from the cliff. One such gravestone landed squarely and with considerable force upon a nearby sunbather, whose bronzed form my gawping nephew had lately been admiring. My daughter, still clasping the thighbone in one hand, stood in pale-faced shock upon the charnel ground that had once been a beach, and began to cry. A frothy stream of oxygen-rich blood trailed over the firm sand and sank out of sight. I felt a thrill of relief.
The merciful intercession of the gravestone had spared me the problem of the question of the femur.