‘She wanted something quiet, low-key. Just close family and friends.’
Linda has her fingers crossed inside the pocket of her trench coat.
Christ knows what Irene would have wanted. A flag draped on the coffin. An outsized Union Jack. Men in uniform playing trumpets. A military salute. Her coffin carried down to the aisle to the Alleluia Chorus.
She’s probably left instructions somewhere. Linda can just imagine it. The circumstance. The pomp. The expense.
The vicar is saying ‘Did she have any thoughts on hymns?’
Irene’s views were absolutely clear. Hymns should be rousing, grand, and patriotic. There were only three that really cut it: Jerusalem; I vow to Thee my Country; God Save the Queen. She hated anything saccharine. Or childish or soppy. But Irene’s not here to state her views. Linda smiles sweetly at the vicar and says ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful; All Creatures Great and Small.’
Lester says ‘We need a decision on the access. Is Linda Kirkby playing ball or not?’
Bruno says. ‘I don’t think we should be putting her under pressure. She’s got a lot to deal with at the moment. It’s Irene’s funeral this week.’
I say ‘I think I’d like to go.’
Lester says ‘Go where?’
‘To Irene Grover’s funeral.’
‘Why on earth would you do that?’
I’m not quite sure myself. Curiosity? Morbidity? A show of support for Linda? A misjudged mark of respect?
I say ‘She’s part of the history of the project. She spent years in the Infirmary. She lived in St Anselm’s all her life.’
Bruno says ‘Doesn’t Linda Kirby want you dead?’
‘It was a turn of phrase. We’ve all moved on since then.’
‘A turn of phrase from a woman whose husband’s disappeared.’
I say ‘I think we should be nice to her. She’s been through a lot.’
Lester says. ‘I think you should leave it well alone.’
I say ‘I’m going. I want to go.’
Lester shrugs. ‘Not on company time, you’re not. You can take time from your annual leave.’
Bruno says ‘Watch out. You could be next.’
The sign above the door says ‘Serving the people of St Anselm’s for four generations’. ‘Serving’ seems an odd word. Though she can see that ‘Burying the people of St Anselm’s’ might sound a bit indelicate. The ‘four’ is printed in a slightly larger font. Someone’s painted over ‘three’ and written ‘four’ instead.
For an outfit with such a pedigree, they look distinctly fly-by-night. An ashtray on the table. Fold-out chairs. Instant coffee for the recently bereaved. Mr Bradstock can’t be more than twenty. He must be Generation Number Four. Bradstock Junior Junior Junior. Linda supposes that counts for something. Longevity. Then again, it seems intrinsic to the business. She wonders if there’s such a thing as undertaker start-ups. Pop-up funeral parlours. It doesn’t sound quite right.
Bradstock Junior Junior Junior says ‘We’re pretty busy at the moment.’
Linda says ‘People don’t stop dying.’
He says ‘None of us can live forever. And thank the Lord for that.’
Linda wants to ask how many times he’s used this line before.
I have a text from Daniel. ‘When’s a good time to talk?’
Lester says ‘We need to have a proper conversation. What are you doing for lunch?’
I weigh up my options. Lester Daniel. Daniel Lester. I can’t decide which one I’m dreading most.
I say ‘I’m having lunch with Daniel.’
Life work balance. Of a sort. Putting the implosion of my personal life before the death of my career.
Lester leaves and slams the door. He doesn’t approve of life work balance. As a general rule, he doesn’t approve of lunch.
Bruno says. ‘I don’t know why you bother. I’ve heard the way you talk to Daniel on the phone. You can barely even speak to him. You’re all stilted. As though you’re speaking in a second language. You don’t even sound like you. You use a different voice.’
‘The children need their father. I have to fight to give them that.’
‘You’d be better off with me. I’m actually pretty good with kids.’
We both fall silent, staring at our screens.
I say ‘Do you honestly think that there’s a version of events where you and me become a couple and live happily ever after?’
‘I think it’s a possibility. It’s up to you to choose it.’
I go to put the kettle on. I’m not sure what to say.
Bruno follows me to the kitchen. ‘I think you’re too hung up on sex. It’s really not important. You learn that pretty quickly when you sell it by the hour.’
We’ve run out of teabags. I hate it when that happens.
‘Look at us.’ Says Bruno. ‘We’ve barely even touched.’
Linda admires her handiwork.
At Irene’s request, the money put aside for a funeral wake has been given to charity. Anybody wishing to make an additional donation should leave money in the collection box. All contributions will be given to the Welfare Society for the Widows of Sailors Lost at Sea.
She couldn’t face a wake. Sycophantic platitudes about Irene. Questions about Alan. She’d have to concoct a proper story. Vague symptoms wouldn’t cut it. He’d have to be on his deathbed. To miss his mother-in-law’s funeral. And Billy would have to be on board. He’s never been the brightest. There’s no way she could rely on him to get his story straight.
And she’d have to pay for caterers. Or canapés at least. It’s not as though she’s made of money. God knows, the funeral costs enough.
Sitting in the sun with my former-not-quite husband. The Man Who Would Be Free. A sudden burst of sunshine. Unexpected for the time of year. St Anselm’s looks almost continental. Daniel is positively glowing. He smacks of happiness and health. His bulk is toned. His skin is tanned. His sunglasses are ostentatiously expensive. He hasn’t looked this good in years.
It could be a Romantic Mini-Break. A pavement café in some exotic city; cappuccinos curdling in the midday sun.
But it’s not.
We have to make some difficult decisions. Specifically, we have to sell the house. Or rent it out at least. He can’t keep paying his share of the mortgage. It’s not that he wouldn’t like to. But he has to be realistic. He has other expenses now.
Well yes, I can see that. The suit, the shades, the suntan. The suntan. You don’t get skin that colour without a long haul flight. I guess the girlfriend doesn’t come cheap.
It’s important not to argue. To keep it civil. For the kids.
I order wine. Red wine.
He says ‘I’ve started drinking white.’
He talks through his options with the waiter. Makes a considered choice.
‘It’s better for you.’ He says helpfully. ‘Fewer calories than red.’
I say. ‘It’s Kit’s party on Wednesday. It would be great if you could come.’
He smiles apologetically.
He says ‘You know, kids parties. They’re really not my thing.’
He has a point. It doesn’t go with his persona. More Condé Nast Traveler than Malcolm Hodge Memorial Hall.
I say ‘It’s great to see you looking so well.’
‘I’ve been playing tennis, walking. My counsellor made me realise. He said that he could help me with what’s going in in my mind, but that it’s up to me to help my body. Eat well; lose weight; keep fit.’
He adds, by way of afterthought. ‘You ought to do more exercise. You’ll find it helps a lot.’
Dear God, he’s giving me advice.
I want to say ‘Did he tell you to walk out on your children; humiliate your not-quite-wife?’
I want to say ‘While you were getting yourself and your new body ship-shape for your new life I was holding everything together. Drinking wine and eating chips.’
I want to say ‘Come home. The children miss their Dad.’
I don’t say any of these things. I can’t quite find my voice.
I say ‘Please don’t patronise me.’
But I can tell from his expression I haven’t said the words out loud.
He says ‘You really shouldn’t be drinking. It doesn’t suit you at all.’