Patricia Chesney prided herself (well, most of the time) on being a rational and sensible adult. True, she had a “thing” about the number 13, and despite herself, though of course she didn’t breathe a word of it to the relevant person, didn’t hold out that much hope for the future marital happiness of a colleague who had a pearl engagement ring. What was that old saying – pearls for tears! But they were mere blips.
She told herself that she was quite happy to be single, but would also be pleased to find someone, as it said on that rather irritating dating ad app that, unfortunately, sponsored one of her favourite TV programmes, to share her life with. But she doubted she would ever try internet dating, even though Selena (she of the pearl engagement ring) and Bernard (the bestower of it) had met that way.
She and Louis met in the most prosaic and vaguely old fashioned manner. They ended up sharing a table in a station buffet which was quite unaccountably busy. It certainly wasn’t on account of the quality of the food and drink. Patricia would have thought she would happily drink anything that was cold, wet, had caffeine in it, and she had paid for, but this (in the broadest sense of the word) cappuccino was trying that to the limits. Seeing her give a little involuntary grimace as she forced another mouthful down, the man opposite said, “If it’s any consolation, the tea isn’t any better. As my Mum used to say, perhaps it smelt the teabag!”
“Well, I don’t know what mine has smelt, but I wished it hadn’t!” They laughed, and she noticed that he had a very nice laugh. Hearty without booming. He wasn’t what you’d call conventionally handsome, but he had a sweet, slightly lop-sided smile, and a naturally kind expression in his brown eyes. They fell into conversation quite naturally, and discovered that their paths had literally crossed and for the same reason. She had been visiting a friend in the town where he lived, twenty miles away, and he was on his way to visit a friend in the town where she lived. True, it might have been more exciting if they had both turned out to be undercover agents (though it’s doubtful they’d have told each other, at least at that early stage!) but it was a pleasing coincidence. They carried on their conversation on the train, and by the time they got off, had exchanged phone numbers and agreed to meet up for a drink in the Twisted Vine on Friday night.
Nobody could ever quite decide if the Twisted Vine was seedy or sophisticated, and if its maroon flock wall paper and candles in wine bottles were retro and ironic or – well, not. But they did serve a decent and surprisingly cheap Cabernet Sauvignon that was a decided improvement on what they had (partly) consumed at the station buffet.
The Twisted Vine seemed to have a constant soundtrack of the greatest hits of the Seventies that probably few would have regarded as such in the Seventies. But the landlord, Edward Quentin, proudly informed anyone within earshot that there would be live music that weekend – his cousin’s wife’s cousin was the lead singer in a New Seekers tribute band.
“That sounds interesting,” Patricia said politely. To their relief, he moved on to another table.
“So is that our next date?” Louis asked. Once more, they were laughing together, but of course it did not escape her notice that he had referred to their next date. And she rather liked the fact that he had. They chatted some more, and discovered more about each other; that they both liked tennis and were keenly watching Wimbledon on TV, and that they both much preferred self-catering to staying in a hotel. We’re getting ahead of ourselves here, Patricia told herself, but it was fine. Naturally enough, the conversation got round to their occupations. She told him she worked in the local pharmacy, and he told her he was an undertaker. He came out with it quite simply and without any fuss, but she could still see a look in those rather lovely eyes of his that told her he realised this might be an issue.
I’m not like that, she told herself. The thought came glib and smug. She only just stopped herself saying, “Well, somebody has to do it!”
“So is this the end of a beautiful friendship?” he asked. He spoke lightly, and yet there was a wistfulness and resignation there, mingled in with more than a modicum of defiance.
“Not at all!” she assured him. But she was quite relieved he had used the rather less weighted word of “friendship”. He was the one who changed the subject, and they did, indeed, arrange to meet up again, though not at the performance by Hide and Seekers, this time in the town where Louis lived, just down the line, to visit an exhibition of a newly excavated Roman dig on display at the local museum. Well, that’s suitable, thought Patricia. It fits. New bones, old ones, what’s the difference?
She hadn’t said it, and was glad she hadn’t, it would have been rude, she thought, when she had walked with Louis to the station and seen him on his way, with them waving in some feeble facsimile of Brief Encounter, but it was true. Somebody did have to do it, and that wasn’t a criticism, even though it might have sounded like one.
This shouldn’t be an issue for me, thought Patricia. She had lived for three years in a house by a churchyard, and all that had bothered her were the occasional very much alive people who indulged in harmless, but irritating drunkenness there some Friday nights. Generally, as the old joke went, the neighbours were quiet. But she hadn’t been freaked out by it at all, and often, though admittedly by day, went for walks there of her own free will, reading the inscriptions and even inventing stories for some of the people. True, there was something terribly sad about the number of children of a bygone century who had died so young, but it hadn’t frightened her in the least. She wouldn’t have gone so far as to say that the gravedigger, Silas (which seemed a suitable name for a gravedigger) was a close friend of hers, but he was a nice old man (and had probably given the impression of being a nice old man when he was in his 20s) and they sometimes passed the time of day with each other.
If Louis had said he was a gravedigger, she realised, she probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought. It might have surprised her, as he didn’t, well, look like one. But he didn’t look like an undertaker either.
Oh, now you’re being ridiculous, she thought. As if there’s some template of what an undertaker looks like. He had, she had noticed, a taste for slightly, though not ridiculously, flamboyant shirts. The one he’d worn for their (yes) date in the Twisted Vine that evening had mauve flowers on a grey background. But she supposed that for work he wore a white overall. Much as she did. That was something else they had in common. On the other hand, was there any need to bother that much about hygiene, when people were well, dead? It would be more to protect himself from – at the thought of precisely what he might be protecting himself from she started to feel a little queasy.
It was one of those questions that people asked you from time to time. “Have you ever seen a dead body?” Patricia had, when she was fifteen and her great grandfather passed away. Her parents had left it entirely up to her, stressing that whatever her decision, it was fine, and Grampy, as she called him, would have said just the same thing. In the end, before the coffin was closed, she decided she would like to see him. It hadn’t been a scary or upsetting experience. He looked very calm and peaceful, and she was old enough to know that though the palliative care he’d been given in the hospice had been superb, he was in pain sometimes, and wanted to be with his beloved wife Alma again.
The thing was, Grampy wouldn’t have looked like that unless the undertaker had done something, and the thought of the something made her rather wish that she hadn’t held hands with Louis though it thought right and sweet at the time. She had a sudden urge to wash her hands with good old fashioned soap in very hot water – or maybe use one some of that anti-bacterial gel they sold in the pharmacy.
Still, being (most of the time) a rational and sensible adult, she set about giving herself a stern talking-to. There are other people whose work brings them in contact with that, she thought. Would I be having these stupid thoughts if he were a surgeon, or a forensic investigator? And they probably have even more contact with that. The use of the neutral monosyllable was surely just convenient shorthand, wasn’t it, not some kind of superstition or variant on “he who shall remain nameless”. Louis was not, by any stretch of the imagination, remotely like Voldemort. But it wasn’t about Louis himself. Anyway, to get back to the comparison. Was she just being a snob? Patricia liked to believe she had no time for snobs and snobbishness.
No, she wasn’t! The point was, a surgeon might touch things it was handy to find a shorthand term for, but he or she, it was to be hoped, would make a person better, would restore their health. A forensic scientist would do so in order to right a wrong and bring someone to justice. The end justifying the means, and all that.
Yet (that unspoken but true sentence again) somebody had to do it. But unless everyone went vegetarian, and Patricia wasn’t a vegetarian herself, somebody had to work in an abattoir, and though she was sure that most who did were decent people and probably in happy relationships, she would have found it off-putting.
News spreads in a small town, and the friend of a friend factor is overlooked at one’s peril.
“I saw you at the Vine,” Mavis Anderson said, as she came in for her repeat prescription for antacid. “And with a very nice young man. But you only seemed to have eyes for each other.” She was on the point of tipping over into the intensely annoying when she added, touchingly, “I know I should keep my nose out, but you’re a lovely girl, Pat, and I know I’m a silly sentimental old woman!”
“Nothing of the sort,” Patricia said, forgiving her much for the “girl” despite her somewhat fickle feminist leanings.
It was one of their quiet days, what they sometimes called a “more staff than customers” day. Selena was there, too, and, currently checking an inventory behind the scenes but within earshot was their colleague Annie. Selena was officially the one with the pharmacy degree and the certificate behind the counter, and technically the only one who could dispense prescriptions, but she and Patricia willingly admitted that Annie was by way of being the power behind the throne. She had an almost unnatural skill for deciphering a mixture of the embarrassed and the misheard and working out exactly what ailed a person and what might help.
She emerged from her sanctum, and asked, “So, what’s this I hear?”
“Spill the beans!” Selena demanded.
Patricia was suddenly reminded of that line from the Tennyson poem, “Cannon to left of them, cannon to right of them”. Yes, Mavis was lovely, even without the “girl” business, but she could wish she’d held her tongue or chosen another watering hole.
“We’ve only been out a couple of times, don’t go reading too much into it,” she said, “We had to share a table in the station buffet.”
“Oh, how romantic!” exclaimed Annie, totally unironically. When she wasn’t reading about serial killers, she had a weakness for Mills and Boon. She had once actually met her favourite writer Jasmine Robinson and her friends and colleagues never heard the last of it.
“You wouldn’t have said that if you’d drunk the coffee,” Patricia informed her.
“I have, and I agree, it’s vile,” Selena said. “But tell us more.”
“He lives in Grimthorpe. He’s called Louis.”
“So does Bernard,” Selena said. Bother, thought Patricia. So he does. I’d forgotten. And he owned a bookshop on the High Street where, presumably, Louis’ – well, premises were. She was bound to have seen them in the days before it signified. “There’s only one Louis there I can think of, Louis Holding, that’s not saying there aren’t more, of course, but it’s not that common a name. Oh, Pat, surely you don’t mean ….?”
“I do,” she said, rather more defensively than she had intended to. She was about to tell them anyway. She hurriedly crossed her hands behind her back and heard her inner child whispering, “Liar, liar, pants on fire.” But it wasn’t a lie unless you actually said it.
“Oh, my lord! I mean, somebody has to do it, of course….” Stop stealing my lines, Patricia thought. “And he seems like a nice chap, but you scrub up nicely – pardon the expression – and you have a brain, and your biological clock isn’t ticking that loudly yet, not nowadays.”
“Will somebody please let me in on this?” Annie asked.
“Oh, don’t get excited, she’s not going out with one of your serial killers ….”
“I really wish you wouldn’t call them my serial killers!”
“If you would both condescend to be quiet for a few seconds,” Patricia said, mustering her dignity. “Louis is an undertaker. What of it?”
The trouble was, she couldn’t help admitting that she might have reacted much the same way as Selena had the roles been reversed. It was all right for her. Her significant other owned a bookshop. Nobody would ever react other than positively to that, would they? Even if you might question his choice of engagement ring.
“Like I said, he seems like a nice chap. He and Bernard are both in the local Rotary club, they get on very well, I think. But, well, he’s hardly likely to introduce you to his clients, is he?”
Annie, Patricia suddenly realised, had a rather strange expression on her face. “I know what you mean by that, Selena,” she said, “And I’m not going to come over all sanctimonious. But you’re quite right, of course. He’s hardly likely to introduce Patricia to his clients – and by that I mean the living ones, because he’s discussing something intensely private and shattering at what’s probably the worst time of their lives.” She paused, collecting her thoughts. “It’s five years now, since I lost my Dad. I was living with my parents at the time – the classic case of someone in their forties coming home to Mum and Dad when a relationship and money matters go wrong. You’d have thought him the healthiest man in the world, but he had a sudden aneurysm. The doctors did their best, heaven knows, and he hung on for three days, but I don’t think he ever really had a chance. Mum was in total shock. I did my best, but I felt as if I were walking through a dark fog, too. The world suddenly turns into a different and very frightening place when something like that happens. But there are still – things that need to be seen to. He had all the official stuff in order, bless him, as much as you can, a funeral plan and all that. But every step still seems like a marathon journey to a place you don’t want to go. Of course it wasn’t anything that millions of people, the world over, don’t face every day. But that doesn’t make it any easier. I don’t know how we’d have got through it without Mr Blake – Edgar – who was our undertaker. Oh, I’m realistic. He wasn’t a charity. He was doing a job. But there are ways of doing a job. He treated us all – and I include Dad in that – with such respect and compassion and went well beyond the call of duty. There are things that maybe can’t be made bearable, not yet, but can be made more bearable, if you know what I’m saying. He kept in touch. I’m not saying it’s something I dwell on all the time, but I’ll always be grateful to him.”
They were silent for a few minutes. Then Selena hastily cleared her throat and said she’d make them all a coffee.
The Roman bones exhibition was interesting enough, but the publicity had somewhat exaggerated its scope, and Patricia didn’t say no when Louis invited her round for a drink. They talked about their respective jobs, though of course both respected their clients’ privacy. “I know you looked askance at my being an undertaker, and I genuinely do understand why,” Louis said. “But I’m proud of what I do. I had a mentor, wonderful man, retired now, who always told me to remember I was tending both to the living and the dead, and should always have time and respect for both of them. We’re still good friends. Edgar, he’s called.”