Prologue

 

BENTLEY Ernest, Husband of Annie and father of William (Billy) passed away suddenly on January 2nd 2004 aged 83.

Funeral January 10th at 12.30 p.m. at Great Mindon Crematorium. Family flowers only.

 

“What about beloved? Something like that?” Billy asked, scrutinising Annie’s crabbed handwriting.

“Beloved? Beloved what?”

“You know. Beloved husband, much-loved father. That sort of thing.”

“Did you love your father, Billy?”

“Of course. Well, I suppose so. Yes, of course I did.”

“Well then. We can put much-loved father.”

“And husband? What about husband?”

“No,” said Annie. “Not beloved husband. Not any sort of husband.”

“But Mum!” Billy looked hurt, as though even now he were taking his father’s part. “You must. What will people think?”

“It doesn’t matter what people think,” said Annie firmly. “I know.”

 

 

Chapter One

 

No one had expected Ernest to die, least of all Ernest. He prided himself on coming from tough, Yorkshire stock, and had often told Annie that he would easily outlive her. So, when he had his heart attack, Annie’s feelings were at first of surprise rather than anything else.

“Are you sure?” she asked the policewoman, who was making tea in the kitchen. (How odd that it was always the police who were sent to break bad news; almost as though dying in the street were an offence against the law). “Are you sure he’s dead?”

“Quite sure. I’m so sorry, dear.” The policewoman handed her the tea (much too sweet, and not hot enough) and put an arm around her shoulders. “It must be a terrible shock. Is there anyone you’d like us to contact?”

“Billy. My son Billy. You’ll need to contact him.”

Because, of course, Billy must be told. Strangely, Annie had rather wanted to keep the news to herself for a while; to taste it and think about it on her own before sharing it with anyone else. But Billy would think it odd if she didn’t tell him at once, and besides, there would be things that would need doing. Annie had only the vaguest idea of what those things were, but she was sure Billy would know how to deal with them. Billy was good at that sort of thing.

“How do you know it was a heart attack?” Annie asked. “How can they tell?”

“Well, they can’t tell. Not for certain. But that’s what it looks like. There’ll have to be a post-mortem, of course.”

“Ernest wouldn’t like that,” Annie said, remembering Ernest’s dislike of being touched and even greater dislike of anyone seeing him in a position of disadvantage. A post-mortem, she could see, was going to place him in a position of considerable disadvantage.

“It has to be done, dear. It’s the law. Because he didn’t die in hospital.” The policewoman poured herself a cup of tea, although Annie hadn’t invited her to have one. Death, it would seem, muddled up all the rules of normal behaviour.

Ernest would have hated dying in the street like that, with everyone watching. Dying in hospital would have been acceptable, with dignity and nurses and clean sheets. But then Annie might have had to sit with him while he was doing it, and she wasn’t sure she could have managed that. Perhaps, after all, it was a blessing that he had died in the street.

“Where was he?” she asked. “Where did Ernest die?”

“Outside the fish and chip shop.”

“Outside the fish and chip shop,” Annie repeated, surprised. It seemed such an odd place to die. She wondered what he had been doing there. The fish and chip shop was the wrong end of town for the barber’s, which was where Ernest was supposed to be, and he’d only just had his lunch, so he couldn’t have been hungry. But now she would never know. Nobody would ever know what Ernest was doing before he died outside the fish and chip shop.

Annie was aware of the policewoman watching her, waiting to see how she would behave. “What do people usually do?” she asked, suddenly interested.

“Do?” The policewoman looked bemused.

“Yes. When someone dies. You must see a lot of them. When you tell them, what do they do?”

“Everyone’s different of course,” said the policewoman carefully. “They cry, of course, and some people even scream. And sometimes they’re just shocked and quiet. Trying to understand what’s happened.”

“And what am I?”

“What are you?” The policewoman’s teacup paused, trembling, halfway to her lips.

“Yes. How would you say I was taking it?”

“I would say,” the teacup returned firmly to its saucer, “I would say that you were being very brave. Perhaps it hasn’t quite sunk in yet,” she added gently. “It’s a terrible shock for you.”

Was it? Was it really a terrible shock? A surprise, certainly, but a shock? Annie wished the policewoman would go away and let her think. She needed time to sort herself out; to get to grips with what had happened. Ernest was dead, and she didn’t feel anything much at all. Not sad, not happy, not anything. Was she normal? Was it okay to feel like this?

“Ernest is dead.” She tried the words to see what they felt like. “Ernest — is — dead. It sounds so strange.” She paused. “He had this little joke he used to tell: ‘Once upon a time there were two worms fighting in dead Ernest.’ I never thought it was funny, and Billy didn’t like it, but it always made Ernest laugh.”

The policewoman smiled.

“Did he have a sense of humour then, your Ernest?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. Ernest only had the two jokes, and I’ve forgotten the other one.”

“Would you like another cup of tea?” the policewoman asked.

“No thank you. I think I’d like you to go now,” Annie said.

“But we can’t leave you here on your own. Not at a time like this. Is there a neighbour who might sit with you? Just until your son gets here.”

Annie thought of her neighbours. Of odd, secretive Mr Adams, a tiny man of indeterminate age who lived alone and who hoarded things. Annie had only once been inside his house and had been left with an impression of disturbing smells and what appeared to be wall-to-wall jumble and bric-a-brac. The piles were neat and appeared to be in some kind of order, but the impression was not welcoming. On the other side lived a young couple, with a frog-faced toddler who screamed a lot. Annie certainly didn’t want to involve them, and she quite definitely didn’t need the toddler.

“I don’t really have much to do with the neighbours.” She stood up. “I want to be by myself now. I don’t need anyone else.”

After the policewoman had gone, Annie locked and bolted the door. Then, because it was getting dark, she drew the curtains and turned on the gas fire. Ernest would be home any time now, and wanting his tea. Ernest was very particular about his tea. He always had it at six o’clock on the dot, the same time as he used to have his meal when he got home from work. Ernest liked routine and order, and because it was easier to do what Ernest wanted, Annie had always gone along with it. Yes. She must get Ernest’s tea ready. A nice piece of fish (it was Friday) and some mashed potatoes and cabbage. Annie thought it was odd to have cabbage with fish, but Ernest had read a book about green vegetables being particularly good for you, and recently he had insisted on having them with everything.

But Ernest is dead, she realised again. Ernest is dead. He isn’t coming home for his tea. The green-vegetable book came too late to save him. He won’t be coming home at all; not ever. His heavy tread on the gravel (a slight limp because of his bad hip), his key in the door, his voice calling her name as he hung up his coat and cap. None of these things would ever happen again. The coat and the cap were — where? At the hospital, presumably. And Ernest himself; where exactly was he? Lying somewhere, cold, waiting for the post-mortem. Annie shivered. At least she wouldn’t have to go and identify him. Billy would see to that. She couldn’t understand why anyone had to go and identify Ernest, when he’d been carrying his pension book.

 

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