Gothic's not just architecture
Short story: 1193 words
Note: Initial "dialogue" rewritten for greater coherence
“A great fella, a great salesman. Snowballs to Eskimos - he could have sold anything. Anything…”
Without stilettos I feel naked in front of everyone. Though the front row definitely does help. No one's turning round – facing me.
“… even condoms to Catholics.”
Listen to them snigger. But condoms were his kind of joke!
“Good company too. Showed me the ropes up in Newcastle. Now there was a hard city for our products, but he made it fun.”
How much longer is he going to speak? Christ, I’d kill for a cigarette.
“Anyone who makes Newcastle fun is…”
I never asked: why Newcastle? He was often up there. Was there a bit of fluff? If so she'd never have been a Geordie. He hated northern accents.
“As you know, our leading rep, three years running…”
And didn't he go on about that!
“Promoted to regional manager. Everyone’s choice.”
See, that’s what I don’t understand. His popularity. No one saw through him. No one recognised the lout. But then they’re all the same, I suppose. It takes a lout to know...
“Our condolences to his gorgeous wife, Megan.”
You should know how gorgeous, laddo. The way you stroked my bum as I came in.
MEGAN had hoped to edge away, her palate yearning for a Marlboro. But the funeral director guided her to the chapel exit where a queue had formed. Mainly men, looking ahead, grinning like wolves.
At least the sixtyish man at the front was no threat. Tailored three-piece, Barbarians tie and white hair carefully combed, he had to be the MD but the name he gave meant nothing to her. A light kiss on the cheek was more in keeping but then he hung on to her hands: squeeze, slacken, squeeze, slacken.
“I blame myself,” the man whispered. “He worked hard. A third year topping the list deserved something extra. The vote was unanimous but perhaps the car… proved too powerful.”
Powerful or not it had been a high spot in his life. He’d insisted they had dinner at that pricey French place in Oxfordshire and they’d touched a-hundred-and-thirty on the M40. She’d been terrified, then resolutely calm. At that speed dying would be like being switched off. No pain.
Next was Emily. They knew each other over the phone and had spoken many times. “I’ll get him to ring you,” Emily had always said, and she did. Emily, well padded and perfumed with Bourjois, hugged her. “When you’re free here, Megan, we’ll sit in my car and talk about him.”
Emily said, “I liked him, too much for my own good. I did what he asked, I was always loyal. But he was unreliable and I knew you were suffering. If anything still disturbs you, just ask.”
“I’ll need time.”
Should she rake over her old suspicions? - something to think about tomorrow. But now there were all these men. A sorrowing widow could not, of course, fend them off. She would be in their hands – literally – taking their antics at face value.
Yet it was even worse. The dark suits used their dubious grief to embrace her floridly and kiss her lengthily. With three of them processed a muscular tongue from the fourth levered itself between her lips. She had no defence. Marriage had linked her indirectly to salesmanship and tradition forced her to accept this associate role.
Latecomers tried even harder. Bodies pressed against her, saliva dissolved her lipstick, and her satin blouse pulled away from her black skirt. Thank God for the funeral director, close by, who cleared his throat to discourage the more ambitious excesses.
And who, when the queueing was at an end, propelled her gently back into the chapel to see to her make-up. A thankful repair as she moved out to the Range Rover containing her father, mother and sister, all po-faced.
Her mother lowered the window. “We came, as promised.”
“So I see,” said Megan.
“Any problems? Money?”
“The mortgage was covered by life insurance.”
“How lucky,” said her mother.
“Unlike my choice of partner,” said Megan. “As you’ve often reminded me.”
“I described what I saw. Unhappily it turned out to be the truth.”
Her mother raised the window and her father drove the tall vehicle away at speed.
Although the funeral director was pear-shaped and his trousers formally striped, he had immense dignity. “My dear, it’s all over now. So much bad behaviour but I thought you coped bravely. I’ll drive you back.”
“Mr Crumple, I know it’s sluttish in a new widow but I desperately need a cigarette.”
“Sluttish? Never in this world, my dear. If you don’t mind I’ll join you.”
Megan leant back against the ridiculously elongated car and inhaled for seconds. A month ago she’d tried to give up. Thank God she’d failed. Mr Crumple moved two discreet steps away leaving her to her thoughts. Except she had no thoughts, only an angry vacancy. And a mild curiosity about Newcastle. Such a long way to go for a night or two of infidelity.
The car park was empty since hers had been the last funeral of the day. Even Mr Crumple had briefly disappeared into the chapel, called there by a functionary. She dropped the cigarette stub on to the tarmac, treading on it with a hardly elevated court shoe which did nothing for her ankles. They’d been the first thing he’d noticed about her at the charity ball four years ago. Conceivably the last thing he remembered as he succumbed to the car’s multi-function steering wheel. Multi-function: his words.
With perfect timing Mr Crumple walked towards her, his face professionally impassive. “My dear, a small matter. I have made no commitment. You may turn the request down without any guilty feelings. You are entitled to your privacy.”
But Megan agreed the request straight away, perhaps to show solidarity with her own gender, perhaps in reaction to that heartless and humiliating queue. As a result the woman slid unshowily into the limousine to share the back seat with Megan. A woman nearing forty, her brown hair arranged in a timeless – no, old-fashioned – style, wearing a suit that wasn’t even sombre, but then not everyone wore dark fabrics at funerals. A woman who said, “I’m gan the railway station. No distance at all. I’ll not speak. You need your quiet.”
Megan nodded, almost to herself. Trust him; he’d not chosen to make the same mistake twice. An older woman, though. That was surprising.
Now Megan felt the need for another Marlboro, this time to be smoked reflectively. Time to dwell on the failure of her marriage. How she’d mistaken his alertness for intelligence and how he, it seemed, had discovered her prettiness and well-shaped figure weren’t enough. A man who had gone for a trophy rather than a wife and who might well be paying a tortuous price for this as the flames presently reduced his earthly remains to ashes.
But, hey, there was a bright side. There’d be none of Mother’s parchment-flesh turkey this Christmas. Or that revolting “traditional” bread sauce. She could if she wanted make do with a slice of quiche.