In which Emma B. may speak of ferrets.
She had not worn boots to the funeral. She had not known what to wear and had passed a fretful fortnight paddling in a carpet of clothes - strewn - and then flung - over the bedroom floor. The definitive funeral rig had not leapt from the hangers, but she had become reluctantly re-acquainted with knicker and bra sets that made her want to weep. Her eventual choice, a grey silk dress with half peplum and black heels, was a compromise. Bought as an Election night back-up six years ago, it had never actually been worn. Corporate dressing- anodyne, featureless – instantly forgettable.
The journey to Picks Norton had been as awkward as expected. She had failed four driving tests in different cars and with a medley of instructors twenty years ago, finally throwing in the towel when informed, more in sorrow than anger, that a truly exquisite rendition of the Highway Code could not substitute for even the most rudimentary practical knowledge, such as the difference between gears two and four, and the necessity of releasing a handbrake before mounting an incline.
So two train changes and three hours later, she had pitched up at The Claremont, Picks Norton’s premier hotel, adjacent to the station and a ten-minute walk to the church. The lobby had a unique aroma – part hydrangea /part nursing home lounge, and was vintage ’87, the date of her last visit. She and her husband had been forcibly ejected from his brother’s 40th birthday party and at three in the morning were faced with a straight choice between The Claremont and the police station, with The Claremont emerging as victor.
As she surveyed the dusty chandeliers, the staff impersonating pensionable penguins, and not a customer in sight, it was miserably familiar. She by-passed the restaurant and repaired to her room.
Donald’s fortieth had been a milestone in the course of her eighteen year marriage to Paul. It really merited its own monument. The elder of the brothers by three years, Donald lived in Picks Norton with wife Gillian and twins David and Susan. He was junior partner in a law practice and she audited accounts for Pickwitchery Golf Club. David and Susan attended a local preparatory, and were soon to sit Common Entrance examinations for ‘big school’. Gillian favoured Blessingham College, her own alma mater, known to be ‘progressive’ and with a weekly boarding scheme, but here she was at odds with Donald, who was holding out for Waverley, where he had boarded with Paul. It was rather more traditional, but had started to take girls, so the choice was finely balanced.
Donald, a science graduate from Thurley, was Paul’s polar opposite. A David Niven double, he was wedded to his well-pressed cavalry twills, whilst Paul favoured safari jackets, clogs and jeans.
He was also the dead spit of their father Eric, the celebrated cricket commentator, holding pole position in the latter’s esteem, and no doubt his will, as Paul habitually confided in moments of weakness.
Their tastes were equally at variance. Whereas Paul’s paradise of choice was a Jamiesons’s , Bunting’s Briggflatts and the whole complemented by the strains of Acis and Galatea, Donald relished a cracking Dick Francis, accompanied by quarts of home brew, with The Best of James Galway as backdrop.
Donald and Gillian lived in a Picks Norton version of Southfork and his fortieth birthday was a heaven-sent chance to gloat over friends, neighbours, and Wicked Uncle Paul, who had abandoned lovely Nicola and kiddies for a blonde floozy whom he had married in a low-rent affair with a reception in a cheapskate bistro.
Paul had wanted to decline. Previous visits had concluded in tears – usually hers – after a mediocre meal with tepid wine and shared family memories, placing Nicola centre stage and herself out of the frame. She had overheard Gillian when she had requested a gin and orange: Such a working-class drink and Donald invariably enquired if she intended to go to college when, with a research degree, she completely out-classed them all.
But Paul was her husband now and she would make them accept her.
They agreed to attend.
They arrived on the dot to be met by Gillian, leading early guests on a conducted tour of the tennis court. Dress was Sixties Chic for Chicks: Black Tie for Bucks. Paul resented the cost of a hired DJ and she had deep reservations about her own bumblebee tights and knicker-skimming skirt. But Gillian, in black kaftan with silver lame fringing and Marsha Hunt afro, was the nonpareil. In white boots, white foundation and white lipstick she resembled a Black and White Minstrel and was queen of all she surveyed.
The terrace was awash with tie-dye and seersucker and denim and cheesecloth – worn by women with thickened waists and dimpled thighs. The men, in dress shirts and cummerbunds, smoked cigars and all harrumphed as one to Hi Ho Silver Lining and Pretty Flamingo. Gillian had hired staff and David and Susan were tricked out as waiters. During the course of a formal meal, as smoked salmon cornets gave way to beef wellington, concluding in a triumph of zabaglione with autumn fruits, she observed Paul becoming increasingly restive. He had initially been treated to a riveting account of Donald’s impending trip to the Cricket Series in India as guest of their father, who would be commentating for Test Match Special. Then he had been corralled by Gillian’s sister Pauline, who had bored on for half an hour about the fact that her annual invitation to the Henley Regatta had been sent to somebody else of the same name who lived in Shropshire.
And now the next door neighbour, a woman called Steph in a skinny rib sweater and white hipster jeans was telling him how absolutely marvellous Donald had been when her own husband, Gordon, had run off with the nanny.
Was it her imagination , or had Gillian winced when Steph had recounted how Donald had turned up at all hours of the day and night – sometimes just to sit – even when she was in the throes of glandular fever?
Alarm bells had rung when Paul, glass in hand, had started his favourite party trick, reading people’s palms and prophesying imminent catastrophes whilst commandeering the hi-fi and swapping the sixties tracks for It’s a Sin by The Pet Shop Boys. Meanwhile, Gillian regaled the new young vicar and his pregnant wife with the saga of her Caesarean Section and the importance of nipple shields whilst breastfeeding. She had recently agreed to chair the St Saviour’s branch of the Breast is Best League.
And then Gillian had called the company to attention. She had thanked her family, her children and friends for joining to celebrate with Donald on his special day and now she had a little announcement of her own. The senior partner in the law firm had finally retired and Donald was taking the helm! So Daddy will HAVE to buy me that mink coat!! (winking at Susan). And just before the toasts, she would like to call upon Donald’s only brother, his nearest and dearest, Wicked Uncle Paul, to say a few words…….
At which point Paul, whose own career had borne the brunt of his public and damaging abandonment of a pregnant wife and two children, took to the floor. Witty and charming, he cracked a few jokes about Donald’s prowess at chess and supremacy at scrabble. He described their schooldays, with himself, following in the wake of his successful sibling who had demonstrated, yet again, courtesy of the latest promotion, that the world was his oyster: So let me give you DONALD (raising his glass) what’s he got? (conducting) He’s got the lot!!!! (all together!)
AND (pointing to Steph) HE FUCKS LIKE A FERRET.
All eyes turned to Gillian as the voice resumed:
But it’s all OKAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY because –
The vicar is quicker and slicker and thicker AND (pointing to Donald)
TEN INCHES LONGER THAN YOU.
As Phil Collins wailed One More Night, Paul had fallen backwards, felled by a blow to the jaw, bleeding from the nose and was pinioned by four men who were fashioning a noose from a cummerbund. Gillian was screaming in the kitchen, wig awry, and Donald was soothing Steph in the conservatory. Slices of beef wellington mingled with autumn fruits on the cream flock carpet and her particular gift of a Hermes tie, decorated with racing ponies, lay abandoned beside the shards of a Waterford Crystal decanter.
David had dialled 999.
She had managed to persuade the attending officer to escort them to The Claremont rather than the police station.
But it had been touch and go and she had thanked God for a short skirt and halfway decent legs.
The music had stopped, the guests had fled and the vicar had sought sanctuary in the rectory.
She had not set eyes on him since – but she would tomorrow, of course, when he would be conducting the service.