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Funerals are heaps more fun than weddings. My mother told me so when I was a little girl. More flowers, wittier conversation, superior food, and invariably better liquid refreshment.
Her words were, “Ellie darling, any household bubbly is adequate for toasting health and happiness, but the drowning of sorrows demands the best dry gin.”
My mother, who met with a fatal accident in a railway station when I was seventeen, would have been delighted to know her funeral was the bash of the season among her intimate circle. I failed to enjoy myself, but everyone else, including my father who adored her, was still swigging back the neat gin and doing “Knees Up, Mother Brown” at 3:00 A.M. on the morning after, despite complaints from the neighbours.
More than ten years later, as I stood in the windswept churchyard of St. Anselm’s on that chill afternoon of the 8th May, my mother’s edict was a gramophone needle grinding circles inside my head. Funerals and weddings … funerals and weddings.
Only a few months ago, Ben and I had been married in this small Norman church. And now I stood under the elms, abject with misery, waiting for the Reverend Rowland Foxworth to begin the burial service.
I was living a nightmare. Once I had been Miss Ellie Simons, resigned (if not content) with my lot as an overage, overweight virgin. Tipping the scales at thirteen stone wasn’t so bad. I had my work as an interior designer, my cat Tobias, and my motley kith and kin had reduced social contact to the annual Christmas card. Then, fate had struck in the form of an invitation to a family reunion at the home of Uncle Merlin, an ancient eccentric, who had spent the last half century walled up in his castle on the cliffs above the village of Chitterton Fells. To go or not to go? Was it worthier in the mind to spend two days being the butt of familial fat jokes or to send a gracious decline, knowing full well that Aunt Astrid and her flawless daughter Vanessa would be snickering up their mink cuffs at my refusal to show my face and attendant chins? Impetuously, I telephoned Eligibility Escorts, and before I could rethink my pride and principles, its proprietress, Mrs. Swabucher, had rented me Bentley T. Haskell, darkly handsome, one-time chef, now aspiring writer of porno prose, to accompany me for the fateful weekend.
And what a weekend! Uncle Merlin was a toothless personage in a Wee Willie Winkie nightcap; the other relations were at each others’ throats from sunrise to sunset. As for Bentley T. Haskell, I swiftly came to feel I had grossly overpaid for his escorting services. The man was snotty, defensive, irreligious. He immediately turned his lascivious eyes on cousin Vanessa and had the effrontery to turn nasty, when, under the extreme provocation of mounting tension, I made a little slip and hinted—okay, announced—that he and I were engaged to be married. Naturally, I had every intention of doing the decent thing and setting him free. A few weeks later, however, events took a tortuous turn. Word came that Uncle Merlin had died. Haskell graciously returned with me to Chitterton Fells for the funeral, and at the reading of the will we were stunned to discover that my capricious great-uncle had left the entire estate to us, jointly, upon the fulfillment of certain conditions. One was that I lose approximately one third of my weight, and another that Ben write a book containing not one naughty word, and … oh yes, we had to reside together in that derelict house for a period of six consecutive months. After judiciously weighing the pros and cons, we leaped at the golden ring. I thrilled to the challenge of tearing down cobwebs, sweeping out half a century of dirt, seeing Merlin’s Court live again, as it had in his mother Abigail’s day! We hired a housekeeper, Miss Dorcas Critchley, who became my dearest (female) friend in the world. Jonas the curmudgeonly gardener metamorphosed into Jonas the Faithful Unto Death. And Ben came to write the most scintillating cookery book ever to set sail through the post in hopes of landing a publisher. Of course, I never dared hope that he and I would experience a fairy-tale love story utterly in keeping with our turreted, moat-endowed residence; but we did. And, at age twenty-eight, I was reborn. I shed four and a half stone. The hair, the eyes, ears, nose were the same, but I got a new body.
Oh, God, why did you dangle happiness in my face only to snatch it away?
Ben had helped me end my tragic love affair with eating. Ironic, considering his profession. Because of him, I stopped feeding myself like a refrigerator, lost the stipulated poundage, learned to like myself a bit better, and at long last had the sweet knowledge that a real live man loved me. We were going to live happily ever after.
The one thing I overlooked was that I was the sort of woman who bred disaster the way hamsters breed hamsters.
A seagull uttered a plaintive cry as it skimmed aloft, over the crooked tombstones; the vicar opened his book; the buzz of voices dwindled.
The air was permeated with the mildewed sweetness of the wreaths. A tear slid down my face. Here was a funeral with even more to offer than usual. Here was the grand finale to Sudden Death, Police Inquiries, Headlines in the Newspapers, and, best of all, the Questionable Involvement of a Wealthy Young Woman.
How unfair, how wrong, that I, more than the man lying at final rest, should be the focus of the crowd’s interest. I was certain I was being watched.
“Really, Ellie!” I could almost hear Mother’s voice. “What can you expect? You are the star turn in a drama where the only price of admission is a wreath. You alone can provide the updated, unexpurgated details of the Event.”
I am not a killer. Didn’t the coroner’s report clear me of all blame? No matter what people may think or say, I was only guilty of trying too hard to be the perfect wife. Biting my lip, I looked out furtively from under the brim of my black hat. Was it surprising I had gone a little mad after all the anguish of this past week? If only Ben’s father had come with me, I might have done better. But he didn’t believe in funerals.
I trembled and clutched the icy foot of the marble angel I was hiding behind as two elderly ladies clad in rusty black crunched by. Late arrivals. One brushed my arm and, apologising in a quivery voice, moved hastily past. I got a whiff of a sweet, primrose scent. Did she wish to be near the front in order to get a better view? Or did she shrink from the idea of being close to me?
Let people talk. Perhaps I did not deserve any friends. All that week I had refused to see anyone except Ann Delacorte. I had been unable to say no when she pressed me to visit her at the flat above her antique shop, so she could comfort me. Comfort! Nothing could comfort me!
There was a serenity to Ann that had drawn me from the first. But glimpsing her now, I thought her heavy black veil overly dramatic. Ann had an enthusiasm for the fashions of the forties, but was she basking in the poignant figure she presented as she clutched the arm of Lionel Wiseman, our solicitor? Lionel plucked a handkerchief from his breast pocket and pressed it into her hand. Death makes hypocrites of us all.
The day was the kind that has had all the color washed out of it. The grass between the headstones was sparse and coarse; the naked branches of the clustered elms were inked against a cobwebby sky. The wind carried a fine misting rain, and from far below (St. Anselm’s was also known as The Church on the Cliff) came the seething whisper of the sea.
“I am the Resurrection and the Life …”
Dear Rowland. Ben had always been rather jealous of this good-looking clergyman with his public school background and quiet charm. My fault again. A year ago, despairing of Ben ever falling in love with me, I had encouraged him to think that Rowland harbored a restrained but abiding passion for me.
“Ashes to ashes …”
The brass plate on the coffin flashed in the watery sunlight. A bluster of wind shook the trees and carried a woman’s voice straight to me.
“Wish vicar would get his bustle moving! I wouldn’t have missed this one for nothing, but I’ll have to stop coming regular if I’m like to miss the five o’clock bus. People keep saying it was the chicken that did for him but I says the mushrooms. Usually is the mushrooms, in’t it?”
A muffled voice answered. “Papers said natural causes; but we all know what a softy Dr. Melrose is. Couldn’t bear thinking of her in the dock, that’s my bet. Not bad looking, is she? And a decent figure. Hard to believe she was fat as butter when she first come here.”
“Dust to dust …”
He was inside that coffin. Dead by my hand. Dead of eating food I had prepared. Adequate to the grandeur of the occasion. The gala opening of Abigail’s, Ben’s restaurant. For months he and I had dreamed of the great day, but when it arrived, fate intruded, and I became chef for a day.
“And to dust thou shalt return …”
My mouth was filled with dust and ashes. If only I had some chocolate, preferably Swiss, loaded with almonds. Oh, how despicable I was.