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PAST TENSE (Chapter One)
‘Certainly, madam,' said the man in the black jacket and striped trousers, pen and notepad at the ready. ‘Now, how many would that be for?'
‘I don't know exactly,' muttered Janet, ‘so I can't tell you.' She hated being addressed as ‘madam'. What she liked to be called by all and sundry was the friendly, familiar-sounding ‘Jan' or even her proper Christian name of ‘Janet', and after that – if the worst came to the worst – ‘Mrs Wakefield': certainly not by anything as formal as ‘madam'.
This man was definitely not ‘all and sundry'. He was, in fact, the manager of the very grand hotel in whose lobby they were now sitting. His pen was still hovering above the paper while he waited politely for her to continue.
‘It's for after a funeral, you see,' Janet said awkwardly. She had already felt quite intimidated enough by the splendour of the Almstone Towers Hotel without having to explain that she didn't even know who – let alone how many people –would be coming.
‘I quite understand, madam,' he said as a uniformed hotel minion approached their table with a tray of coffee. ‘A wake.'
It wasn't a word she liked. Actually it was one she had been avoiding ever since Bill's Great-Aunt Josephine had died, preferring instead ‘bereavement reception' or, even better, just ‘a gathering'.
‘That's right,' she said.
‘And would that be after a burial or a cremation?' he enquired.
‘What difference does that make?' she asked curiously.
‘Timing,' replied the manager promptly. ‘Cremations tend to run to time and, of course, we know exactly how long it takes for the mourners to get here from the Calleford crematorium. It's a little different with a church service and burial.'
The word ‘mourners' was another one that Janet Wakefield didn't really like using. After all, she could scarcely be described as a mourner for some old lady whom she had never even seen, let alone known. Her husband, Bill, had just described his Great-Aunt Josephine Short vaguely as one of his late mother's many aunts whom he hadn't known either. He'd rather thought that his Great-Aunt Josephine had fallen out with the rest of her family years ago but he wasn't really sure. And, of course, his own mother – Janet's mother-in-law, that is – had died before Bill and Janet had been married and so wasn't around any more to ask.
‘A church service is more difficult, then, is it?' she asked, searching around in her mind for something neutral to say.
‘Oh, no, madam, but the actual burial afterwards, as opposed to cremation, takes longer and can sometimes delay the arrival of the…er…family here.'
‘The funeral is at the church at Damory Regis,' she said, reaching for the coffee pot, and adding firmly, ‘to be followed by interment in the churchyard there.' Why ‘interment' was a less emotive word than ‘burial' she didn't know but it was.
‘Allow me, madam,' said the manager, deftly picking up the coffee pot ahead of her with one hand and arranging the cups with the other. ‘Black or white?'
‘White, please.' Janet subsided back in her chair – an elegant affair in the French Empire style but more comfortable than it looked – and determinedly carried on speaking while he poured. ‘I've just made the arrangements with the vicar there.'
‘That would be Reverend Mr Tompkinson,' said the major-domo smoothly.
‘That's right,' she agreed, adding the vicar's Christian name in an attempt at introducing a little informality into the proceedings. ‘Derek Tompkinson.'
‘Just so,' said the manager.
Janet decided that this man was pretty nearly as formal as the registrar of deaths had been and that had been bad enough. Especially when it transpired that she hadn't brought with her all the documents that the registrar had wanted. Her stammered explanation that they – she – hadn't visited the deceased's room at the nursing home yet and so didn't have what was wanted to hand was accepted with the proviso that she would do so and go back to the registrar with them as speedily as possible.
Bill and Janet Wakefield hadn't even known that Miss Josephine Eleanor Short was a resident in the Berebury Nursing Home in the town, let alone ill and dying in the place, until the matron there had rung to say that a Mr William Wakefield of Bill and Janet's address was down in their records as their late resident's next of kin, and what did he want doing about the funeral?
Actually Mr William Wakefield wasn't there and therefore wasn't able to do anything at all about the funeral of the late Miss Josephine Short anyway; moreover Mr William Wakefield's employers, having sent him out to South America on their behalf only a few months earlier, were unlikely to countenance his return to England until the job in hand had been completed – and there was no gainsaying them. Not with the Wakefields' mortgage. This was why Bill's wife Janet had found herself for the first time in her short life having to make all the necessary arrangements for a funeral.
And she wasn't sure that she was making a very good job of it even though Mrs Linda Luxton, the matron of the Berebury Nursing Home, had helped a lot by indicating that Messrs Morton & Son, Funeral Directors, had already been selected by the deceased for the job. Janet knew even less about undertakers than she did about wakes, her connection with them until now being limited to something about them that used to be chanted in the school playground – ‘First they take you under and then they take' – and to children's autograph books signed ‘Yours until the undertaker undertakes to take you under'.
Fortunately Tod Morton, that young sprig of the firm of Morton & Son, Funeral Directors Ltd, of Berebury, had been even more helpful than the matron of the home.
‘Josephine Eleanor Short, did you say?' he had asked. ‘Ah, yes. I think you'll find she had a funeral plan with us. That helps a lot.'
Janet Wakefield hadn't liked to admit that she hadn't known what a funeral plan was. ‘The hymns and things she wanted, you mean?' she had asked vaguely.
‘No, no,' Tod Morton had said. ‘I mean that Miss Short had already paid for her funeral and instructed us in what she had wanted carrying out. What, when and where, you might say.'
That had completely confounded Janet Wakefield.
‘Service at St Nicholas Church at Damory Regis and burial in the churchyard there, followed by a decent send-off at the Almstone Towers Hotel,' explained Tod cheerfully. ‘Oh, and no flowers.'
‘No flowers?' she had echoed weakly. Sending a wreath was the one thing she had thought would be easy.
‘No flowers,' said the young undertaker. ‘Donations instead.'
‘Who to?' Janet Wakefield had her own pet charity and if…
‘The Rowlettian Society.'
‘I've never heard of them.'
‘Nor me,' said Tod Morton frankly, ‘but I've got their address filed with her funeral plan. All you have to do is to add their name to the notice for the newspapers, together with our name and address, and the donations can come to us in the first instance. Then I'll list them for you and send the money on to the Rowlettian Society, whoever they are. That is what is usual.'
This had served to remind her that the newspapers were something else she had to worry about. Or, rather, what to say in the obituary notice to be published in them.
‘Just put the name of the deceased and her age and where she died,' advised Tod easily. ‘Unless you know what she did before she retired…'
‘We don't,' she said with absolute truth. ‘That's the trouble. We don't know anything about her at all.'
‘Then you can go straight to putting in the bit about the date of the funeral and saying where it will be.' Tod Morton paused and then added, ‘If I were you, Mrs Wakefield, I shouldn't say in the paper that there's a bunfight afterwards at the Almstone Towers. You never know who'll turn up just because of that – they do you very well there, you know.'
‘We don't know who'll turn up – full stop,' she had said rather tartly. ‘Maybe nobody at all.'
‘You never can tell,' said the young undertaker wisely. ‘Funerals are funny things. There are always people who haven't visited the deceased in years who'll come to his or her funeral.'
‘Adding hypocrisy to neglect,' said Janet crisply.
‘Could be,' he said pacifically.
‘And there will always be those who should be there and aren't, I suppose,' suggested Janet, even though she had no idea at all who should be at Bill's Great-Aunt Josephine's funeral but weren't going to be there. Surely there must be some of them, too…
Tod Morton shook his head. ‘They usually come as well. In our experience, Mrs Wakefield, apologies for absence aren't often the order of the day.'
‘So what about hymns and things, then?' Janet had asked, leaving this thorny subject alone.
‘That's Reverend Tompkinson's department, not mine,' said Tod Morton. ‘You'll have to ask him.'
So Janet Wakefield had duly made her way to the vicarage at Damory Regis.
‘Ah, yes,' said Derek Tompkinson, the clergyman there. ‘I've had a note of the date and time of the service from the undertaker's but I needed to see you, Mrs Wakefield, about what to say about your…er…late aunt.'
‘My husband's great-aunt,' she corrected him, adding shortly, ‘and he's upcountry in Brazil without mobile reception. Not that he knows any more about her than I do. That's for sure.'
‘I see,' said the vicar pensively. ‘So there's no one you know of at all who would like to give the address at the service?'
She shook her head. ‘No one.'
‘Tell me, did she not have any favourite visitors at the nursing home?'
‘I asked,' said Janet. ‘According to the matron there she didn't have any visitors at all in the time that she had been in there bar one – an old gentleman – whom she wouldn't see anyway. Apparently she wasn't much of a letter writer and had no correspondence to speak of either but did do some telephoning until she got too deaf. Bad eyesight, too, they thought.'
‘Strange,' mused Derek Tompkinson, ‘very strange. By the way, do you happen to know why the burial is to be here in Damory Regis?' He frowned. ‘You see, Short is not a familiar name in this village and nobody at all in the parish seems to have known anyone called Josephine Short.'
‘I don't know anything about anything,' said Janet flatly. ‘That's the whole trouble.'
‘I did take the liberty of consulting my fellow cleric on the matter.' The vicar gave a little cough. ‘He's the one in whose parish the Berebury Nursing Home is and who visits there regularly. That was to see if he had any suggestions on the matter, but it turns out that he had never seen her there.' He amended this. ‘Or rather, that Miss Short had never asked to see him. Nursing homes have to be very tactful about that sort of thing, you know.'
Janet Wakefield had said that she could see that they would have to be. ‘It would be a bit of a reminder of the Grim Reaper, wouldn't it?'
‘Quite so,' said the vicar of Damory Regis, leaving Janet not entirely sure whether he liked her use of the expression.
‘So we're back to hymns and things,' she said a trifle ungraciously. ‘I suppose we ought to have "Abide with Me".'
‘A lot of people do,' said Derek Tompkinson.
‘And "The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, is Ended",' she said. This suggestion had come from her best friend, Dawn, enrolled to give advice over a cup of coffee.
‘Very popular,' said the vicar.
‘Well, if we don't know anything about her,' said Janet astringently, ‘we can hardly have "For All the Saints", can we?'
The vicar had smiled gently at this. ‘There is no reason why you shouldn't, if you want to. We are all equal in death, you know. The trappings of this world fall away. All is forgiven.'
Janet had flushed, unsure of her ground at that point. ‘Anyway, there's no way we can have that one about promising to serve thee to the end if we don't know what she believed in.'
‘You may have whatever you wish, Mrs Wakefield.'
‘What about "All Things Bright and Beautiful"?' she said suddenly, watching his face. It was one hymn she and Dawn had both remembered from their childhood.
‘You may have whatever you wish,' the vicar repeated.
‘At least,' she said, feeling somehow defeated, ‘we can't have that one that begins "O Love that will not let me go", because she wasn't married.'
Derek Tompkinson, at first tempted to go into the theology of this, said instead, ‘Might I suggest you have "Father, Hear the Prayer We Offer"?'
In the end Janet settled for that and ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind'.
‘And the readings, Mrs Wakefield?'
Janet gave in and said she would leave these to the vicar.
‘And as for the address,' he said, ‘might I suggest you have a word with her solicitor? He may well know more about her than we do. He might even be prevailed upon to say a few words himself.'
‘Her solicitors are Puckle, Puckle & Nunnery in Berebury High Street.' Janet knew that because she had been told it was they who had been seeing to the fees at the nursing home. ‘I understand that Simon Puckle's the member of the firm who looked after her affairs.'
The vicar had nodded at that. ‘Try him,' he had advised. ‘He's a helpful sort of chap.'
So Janet had dutifully made an appointment with Simon Puckle at the firm's offices in Berebury High Street.
‘Give the funeral address?' said Simon Puckle. ‘I'm very sorry, Mrs Wakefield, but I really don't know a great deal about the late Miss Short. Certainly not enough to deliver the eulogy.'
‘I see,' said Janet, mentally chalking up someone else who wasn't ever going to call her Jan.
Simon Puckle hastened on. ‘She was indeed a client of ours but only since she came as a resident near here in the Berebury Nursing Home. I was given to understand that she used to live over Calleford way before she went into the home, so she wasn't exactly local to Berebury and I don't know her past history at all.'
‘Would there be any clues in her will?' asked Janet. She hadn't herself come across any will of Great-Aunt Josephine's so far. ‘That's if you've got it here?'
‘We have indeed got her will here, Mrs Wakefield, but there is a caveat attached to it that it isn't to be read until after the funeral.'
The images of a last will and testament solemnly being read by an elderly solicitor to the assembled family in the library came, as far as Janet was concerned, straight from Hollywood.
‘Uncommon but not unknown,' added Simon Puckle.
‘Is that because it's got something in it saying that if someone didn't turn up for the funeral they mightn't get anything?' suggested Janet. She wasn't sure if that came from Hollywood, too, or from fiction borrowed from the library shelves labelled ‘Romance'.
‘That could be one reason, although,' the solicitor paused and went on carefully, ‘I would expect any professional adviser to have counselled against making any such…er…unusual provision.' He hesitated before adding, ‘Especially one that could conceivably lead to difficulties. So, Mrs Wakefield, I must remind you, would be the…er…premature disposition of any of the possessions in her room.'
‘There's not many of them, I can tell you,' responded Janet smartly.
‘The very old don't need a lot,' murmured the solicitor, a veteran in these matters.
‘So we won't know anything at all, then, until after the funeral,' concluded Janet, aware that he hadn't said whether or not the firm of Puckle, Puckle & Nunnery had actually drawn up the aforementioned will. She sighed. ‘There's so much we don't know about Bill's Great-Aunt Josephine.'
It was only at the funeral itself, though, that she began to realise quite how much that lack of knowledge amounted to. Resolutely heading for her place in the front pew as the chief mourner, Janet, who had dressed carefully in an ambiguous mixture of mauve, black, green and cream, had dutifully followed Tod Morton and the coffin into the church at Damory Regis.
The first thing of which she was aware was the odd assortment of people in the congregation. This was something she hadn't expected. Certainly the notice of the death of Josephine Short and the time and place of the funeral had been well published to the wider world but no one had been in touch with her. Firmly occupying the pew behind the one reserved for the family was a cohort from the Berebury Nursing Home led by the matron, Mrs Linda Luxton, and on the other side of the church she spotted Simon Puckle, the solicitor.
Further back were a couple of women obviously so familiar with the church and its ritual that they exuded the feeling of being regular members of the congregation. And on the opposite side of the aisle were two men and some women, who might or might not have come from the Rowlettian Society. Scattered about the church were several other men, mostly oldish, and some more women – only one young, her auburn hair standing out in a sea of grey heads. At the back, handing out service books, hovered a churchwarden and a sidesman.
Ahead of her now and after the organ voluntary had come to a stop, the vicar, robed in full canonicals, was pronouncing the words ‘"We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can carry nothing out…"'
Janet Wakefield had no quarrel with these sentiments as far as the late Josephine Short was concerned. Detailed examination of the bedroom in the nursing home had been singularly unrevealing, her possessions there few and far between. Certainly there was everything present in the room that one bedridden old lady could or would possibly need, but nothing whatsoever to shed light on the personality of that same old lady – not even anything about the Rowlettian Society. There were some rather worn black and white photographs in a torn brown envelope in a bottom drawer but they had had no names on them that had meant anything to her and Janet had left them where they were.
As the vicar began the Sentences ‘"I know that my Redeemer liveth…",' and while the coffin was being set upon the waiting trestles, Janet Wakefield sat herself down in the right-hand front pew and picked up the prayer book there.
Her solitary splendour in that pew, though, was not destined to last long. Seconds after she was seated, a tall youngish man wearing a dark suit and a black tie slid into the pew in which she was sitting. He sat down beside her, bowed his head, and gave every appearance of entering into silent prayer. ‘"Whom I shall see for myself and shall mine eyes behold, and not another",' finished the Reverend Derek Tompkinson, reaching his stall after first reverencing the altar and turning to face the congregation. Janet cast a covert glance in the direction of the newcomer but was little the wiser after that beyond being aware that the man's suit was of a light wool and had been cut in a slightly un-English way.
‘The first hymn,' announced the vicar, ‘is "Father, Hear the Prayer We Offer" which is number 172 in the green book…' Under cover of the general rustling of activity, caused by the taking up of hymn books and the searching for the right page and the starting up of the organ again, the newcomer leant over towards Janet and whispered in her ear, ‘Phew! That was a near thing. Just made it in time, thank goodness. Mother always said I'd be late for my own funeral but if I was late for Granny's there'd be big trouble. Well, I'm not, am I?'
PAST TENSE Copyright © 2010 by Catherine Aird.