Tomorrow came, as it must, and she settled her bill at The Claremont after a frugal breakfast of packet granola.
She had avoided the toast rack.
In summer vacations at Dorlich, she and Lynne had worked as breakfast waitresses at the five star Pompadour, famed for its conferencing facilities and overlooked by Leslie Potts’s balcony on Wellington Parade. Pay was poor; tips were excellent and perks were variable – to include the County cricketer who had performed such an undistinguished, but necessary service…… However, the Pompadour had proved to be a fount of corruption. Its popularity had exceeded The Claremont’s wildest dreams, and the company practice of secreting and then reheating - remaindered portions of toast, was quite understandable. The alternative would have been the contravention of time schedules and an extortionate bread bill. But she had been shocked by her own alacrity in embracing the unspoken code; dexterity in pouncing upon the detritus of discarded plates and expertise in scraping the tiniest morsel of dried egg from the corner of a wholemeal triangle, prior to presenting it with a smile, to its new recipient.Since then, toast courtesy of an external provider had been strictly off limits.
She headed for the church.
It was situated on the outskirts of town, close to a river and opposite the familiar landmark of The Trumpet and Cushion – lynchpin of the annual visit to Donald and Gillian during the early years of her marriage.
The prelude to this highlight of the social calendar was unchanging and depressing.
Paul would always not want to go and the fortnight beforehand would be characterised by bouts of bad temper and the suggestion of various ingenious reasons for crying off. But they would go anyway, bundling Vanessa into her car seat and stuffing the boot with a bumper supply of disposable nappies, changing mats and antiseptic cream for the inevitable nappy rash that a stay at Picks Norton invariably provoked. Three nights and two days would then ensue in which they would compliment the garden, David and Susan’s special puppet show in honour of Wicked Uncle Paul and New Aunty, and Gillian’s chicken Marengo.
Gillian would expand upon the increasing senility of Eric; the vulgarity of Donald’s colleagues, and how well Nicola and the kiddies had looked when they came to stay last month. Her own shortcomings as a toilet trainer would be paraded for scrutiny:
Oh dear, Vanessa’s done a whoopsie (smack in the middle of the peach velour couch). Didn’t Mummy tell you that POOS ARE FOR POTTIES?
This would be followed by Donald’s slides of “our little luxury” – a holiday home on the outskirts of Carcassonne – in stark contrast to the humble terrace that was her sole abode after Paul’s salary had been plundered by monthly maintenance payments to Nicola.
So the final evening at The Trumpet and Cushion, distinguished by chicken liver pate, scampi-in-the-basket and black forest gateaux on trestle tables beside the river, was the treat of the visit.
Then the drive home, punctuated by desultory rowing; Paul would dive to the pub and Vanessa would go down with a virus.
And that would be that until next year.
The church, like The Trumpet and Cushion, was bound in a time warp.
It resembled a car warehouse and apart from the conduct of business, bore no relation whatsoever to the gothic splendour of Reims with its smiling angel – a particular favourite with Paul. She stepped inside and joined Vanessa who had positioned herself at the back. No sign of Richard, which was understandable, and she did not recognise anybody else, again unsurprising in the circumstances.
The music began and the cortege made its way up the aisle. Meriel headed the procession, followed by Nicola, children and grandchildren, with Donald and Gillian bringing up the rear with their definitive custodial authority. They were remarkably composed, and exuded the quiet satisfaction generally associated with the attainment of a lifetime’s ambition.
Which was probably the case.
They had expended years of their lives on the capture of Paul , typified by the Dorlich dawn raid when they had wrenched him, (incapacitated by dysentery) from the arms of Sukie, and had returned him to Nicola and the kiddies. The worm in the bud was an 18-year hiatus, courtesy of her own marriage to Paul, but her replacement by Meriel, who, like Miss Bates, could be guaranteed to supply three things very dull indeed on every imaginable occasion – was immensely gratifying.
As the service progressed, she felt a reluctant twinge of sympathy for Paul.
He had studied at a Parisian Jesuit College and had officiated as a church incense bearer during his first marriage, to Nicola. This had not impeded his career as a serial adulterer, but to spend his last moments on terra firma in a box, at the mercy of Shine Jesus Shine was cruelly ironic.
She fancied she could sense his increasing frustration as matters proceeded relentlessly from sins rather than trespasses in The Lord’s Prayer; through the doggerel of You can shed tears that he is gone, Or you can smile because he has lived, culminating in Meriel’s singular rendition of Desiderata.
A selection from The Death of Ivan Ilych followed by Oh Come oh Come Emmanuel would have been infinitely more suitable, but he was not her husband and it was not her call.
After about fifty minutes, it was over and she followed the intimate party to the graveside. She would rather have left, but could not abandon Vanessa to the mercy of aunt and uncle, cousins, stepmothers and half siblings, who had studiously ignored her very existence for the past five years. She glanced at the vicar, thankful that he too, betrayed no recognition of their former acquaintance, except perhaps for a hint of vaingloriousness as he intoned We commit it this body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
At which point, her 39-year-old stepdaughter Ursula broke the sound barrier with an incoherent eulogy to incomparable Daddy, whom she remembered tossing her into the air in their childhood games of Kings and Queens, One to Five and Robbers and Barons And their magical picnics in Kimberley Woods, and learning to float in the sea. She would never forget, and her own children would miss, these games with Grandad Paul.
Vanessa stared straight ahead.
They left without speaking to anybody.