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Authors: Rebecca Tope

The Sting of Death

The Sting of Death

REBECCA TOPE
 

 

For my mother
Sybil Tope

DREW SLOCOMBE
– alternative undertaker

KAREN
– his wife

STEPHANIE
and
TIMOTHY
– his children

MAGGS BEACON
– his assistant

DEN COOPER
– police detective

 

ROMA MILLAN

LAURIE MILLAN
– her second husband

CARLOS PEREIRA
(Spanish) – her first husband

JUSTINE PEREIRA
– her daughter by Carlos

HELEN STRABINSKI
– her sister

ANGUS
– uncle to Roma and Helen

CONRAD
– younger brother, died in childhood

NINIAN
– older brother

LOLITA (LOLLY)
– Roma’s dog

 

PENN STRABINSKI
– Helen’s daughter, Roma’s niece

SEBASTIAN STRABINSKI
(Polish) – Helen’s husband, Penn’s father

MIRIAM
– Sebastian’s sister, Karen Slocombe’s mother

GREAT-AUNT HANNAH
– Polish sister of Penn and Karen’s grandmother

 

PHILIP RENTON
– farmer at Gladcombe Farm

SHEENA
– his wife

GEORGIA
– his daughter

RALPH
– his employee

YVONNE RENTON
– his mother

‘What on
earth
does she think she’s doing?’

Penn was staring in bewilderment at a figure at the top of the field. ‘Is it some sort of ritual?’

‘She’s zapping wasps, I think,’ Laurie explained mildly. ‘There’s a nest of them close to her precious bees and they’re robbing the hive. It led to all-out warfare, and she goes up when she can to lend her support to the bees.’

‘Um – how?’

‘Well, if I’ve got it right, she spreads a trickle of honey on the roof of the hive, and then when a wasp starts drinking it, she hits it with a piece of wood. She says she killed sixty yesterday.’

‘Is that enough to make a difference?’

‘I wouldn’t think so.’

Penn’s gaze was riveted on the veiled apparition, over a hundred yards away. Her aunt was a constant mystery to her – sometimes so sensible it hurt, other times completely mad. A young golden cocker spaniel sat at a judicious distance watching its mistress warily.

‘Doesn’t she get stung?’

‘Scarcely ever. She’s very good at it, you know. Her honey won all the prizes in the show last week.’ He smiled, a parody of the proud husband.

‘You’ve really taken to this rural life, haven’t you? It’s working out a lot better than I expected it to.’

‘Roma wouldn’t have allowed it to fail. You know what she’s like.’

Penn chuckled. ‘Yes, I know what she’s like,’ she agreed. ‘After all, I’ve known her all my life.’

‘And I’m just a newcomer on the scene,’ he supplied lightly, putting out a hand to prevent any protestation.

 

Roma Millan was enjoying herself enormously. Everything people told you about wasps was completely wrong. It didn’t make any sense, for example, to talk about ‘making them cross’. It was hard to see how a wasp could be any more provoked than to have a hunk of wood brought down on its fellows in a relentless offensive, just
when some irresistible honey had been provided by a kind deity. And yet there was no sign of anger. They flew past her shoulder, over and around her, to get to the bait, and sat meekly lapping at it while death came out of the sky.

‘Serves you right,’ Roma muttered, as a particularly large insect was flattened under her sure aim. ‘You should leave my bees alone.’ She had refined the force of her blows, so as to reduce the risk of damage to the roof of the hive. The bees seemed unconcerned at the thumps – she almost permitted herself to believe they knew she was there to help them.

The truth was that she was worried about the bees. They couldn’t get on with their normal work while having to man all defences against the wasps. It was war, pure and simple. Struggling pairs of combatants rolled on the ground beneath the hive – wasp and bee locked together, trying to sting each other, like soldiers in a pre-mechanised war. The only sure solution would be to track down the wasps’ nest and get a professional to destroy them. In a six-acre field, with several hundred yards of hedge, this was a tall order. Meanwhile, she couldn’t bear to let the poor bees fight it out unaided.

Penn’s energetically waving arm eventually attracted Roma’s attention, as she brushed a trickle of sweat out of her eye. ‘Oh!’ she muttered
happily to the spaniel. ‘Better go and say hello. Come on, Lolly.’

She didn’t hurry – it was too hot for that. Penn would come to meet her in a minute, when she’d judged that Laurie wouldn’t feel abandoned. Her niece’s features came slowly into focus as the gap between them diminished, the curves of her face reliably distinctive. Penn had one of those faces, Roma had long ago discovered, that always took you by surprise. You only remembered a shadowy form of it, so the reality seemed to possess an extra dimension and vivid colours. Penn’s brow was high and convex, her cheeks as plump as a baby doll’s. Her skin was a deep honey-brown after a sunny summer. When she smiled, her mouth was a wide expanse of teeth and full lips. Roma thought she was lovely, a fortunate blend of her mother’s rich colouring and her father’s Polish bone structure.
Pity Justine never looked so nice
, Roma caught herself thinking with a stab of irritation. Trust her sister to produce the perfect daughter, leaving Roma with a much inferior model. All this talk about genes and designer babies made Roma laugh. Nature would always be several jumps ahead. Justine, the child of an achingly handsome Spaniard and the not unattractive Roma, had turned out sallow,
undersized
and un-coordinated.

Aunt and niece embraced lightly, the affection
restrained. Roma looked over Penn’s shoulder at Laurie. ‘I told you she’d be early,’ she said. ‘She’s always early – keen to see her old auntie, like a good girl.’

‘What were you doing with the bees?’ Penn asked quickly. A shade
too
quickly, Roma noticed, aware of the way Penn worried about the threat of comparison with her cousin Justine. ‘It looked awfully violent.’

‘I was helping them fight off the wasps. Futile, I know, but it makes me feel better.’

‘Are the bees in serious trouble?’

Roma shook her head. ‘Not really, in the long term, but it’s a dreadful nuisance for them, and it’s sure to interrupt their work. By this time next month, the wasps will have mostly died off. I should probably feel sorry for them – they haven’t got anything like the organisation of the bees. But I don’t – I hate them. I like killing them just for the sake of it.’

Penn tutted, her shock only half-simulated. ‘I never took you for a killer,’ she smiled. The spaniel was jumping up at her, demanding attention. Penn took little notice.

‘We’re all killers in one way or another – aren’t we, Laurie?’ Roma said.

Her husband raised an eyebrow, and took a half-step backwards. ‘Steady on,’ he protested. ‘Speak for yourself.’

‘Tush!’ Roma derided him, and began to say something more, before stopping herself. ‘Well – let’s go and have a cup of tea, then. Or lemonade. I think there’s some left in the fridge.’

 

The threesome sat in the tight little courtyard between the back of the cottage and the wall surrounding the vegetable garden, Roma defiantly positioning herself in full sunshine, the others, including the dog, edging sideways into a patch of shade. Penn made routinely approving remarks about the garden and the glorious location they’d found for themselves, and waited for the questions to begin.

‘What did you say this woman was called – your long lost cousin on your father’s side?’ Roma finally enquired. ‘It all sounds a bit peculiar to me.’

‘She’s called Karen, and she’s the daughter of Daddy’s sister, Aunt Miriam. You must have met her now and then?’

Roma blinked slowly. ‘I suppose I did,’ she agreed. ‘Wasn’t there a funeral? Somebody’s father? I got roped in to mind all you infants, while everyone went off to the church.’

Penn considered. ‘Probably that was Karen’s granddad. Aunt Miriam’s father-in-law. My dad would have gone, because – well, because he does things like that. He’d have wanted to be with his sister. So if my mum was busy, you’d have had
me to look after as well. I hardly remember it – nobody seemed unduly sad.’

‘Miriam looked like you do now,’ Roma said slowly. ‘Same round cheeks and bouncy hair. I remember Helen talking about her sometimes, saying what a good friend a sister-in-law could be. I’m sure I only met her once or twice. Funny how long ago all that seems; another lifetime. So this long lost cousin is Miriam’s daughter?’

‘She isn’t really long lost; I’ve known where she is. We used to have holidays together when we were really little. I stayed with them once for a whole week. Karen and I played with dolls a lot, and our mothers cooked. You’re right, they were good friends for a few years, Helen and Miriam. I remember my dad joking about it, saying they liked each other more than him.’

‘But it didn’t last long?’

‘They moved away, that’s all. There wasn’t any falling-out or anything.’

‘Well, it’s a nice coincidence that she lives only a few miles from here. You can visit us both on the same trip. Very convenient.’ Roma leant her head back, getting the sun full on her face, eyes closed. But the questions continued. ‘Is she the same age as you?’

‘Older. I seem to remember she was six when I was four. She’s got two kids now.’

‘Married, dare I ask?’

‘Oh, yes. All very traditional in that respect, from what I can gather. Except—’ Penn spluttered into laughter. ‘Well, I suppose they
are
rather unusual, after all.’

Roma waited, eyes open again, but unfocused. In the shade of the tangled wisteria, Laurie seemed to have dozed off.

‘Her husband’s a sort of undertaker. He runs his own business, doing something New Agey – natural burials in a field behind the house.’

‘Good God! You mean Drew Slocombe? I know Drew, you idiot. He’s the sweetest boy. Not the least bit New Agey, either.’

Penn closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, she shook her head slowly, in resignation. ‘I might have guessed,’ she sighed. ‘You’ve been here five minutes and already you know the entire population in intimate detail.’

‘We’ve been here for almost a year, and Drew is one of the few people I’ve actually befriended locally,’ Roma corrected. ‘He’s one of those easy people you feel you can talk to about anything after five minutes’ acquaintance. He obviously has a soft spot for older women – in the nicest possible way, of course. We took to each other right away.’ She hoped Penn couldn’t see the brief wince at the memory of her last
conversation with Drew. It still brought a surge of hot embarrassment, two weeks later.

‘Laurie? Did you know she was carrying on with a young undertaker?’ Penn asked. ‘Who just happens to be married to my cousin, into the bargain?’

‘Nothing to do with me,’ Laurie disclaimed, without opening his eyes. ‘She does exactly as she likes, you know that.’  

‘So – tell me how you happened to meet him,’ Penn invited.  

‘He was a guest speaker at my Probus Club. Did it very well, too. No mealy-mouthed euphemisms … called a corpse a corpse—’  

‘And a spade a spade,’ Penn supplied, erupting into another musical laugh. ‘I assume he has plenty of use for a spade. God, Auntie, this is all very bizarre.’  

‘It’s not bizarre at all. You’ll see when you meet him. He’s a perfectly normal young man.’  

 

Karen Slocombe was taking the sudden reappearance of her cousin with complete equanimity. ‘She’ll stay an hour, talk about the kids, and her job and how we last saw each other in 1979, and that’ll be it. That’s how it always is with cousins – you know you’ve got something in common, but you’re damned if you can work out exactly what it is.’

Drew chuckled. ‘I wouldn’t know. I’ve only got one cousin.’

‘Yes, I remember. A simpering child called Nanette. Interesting name.’

‘Boring person. So, are we giving this Penn some lunch? And is Penn short for Penelope?’

‘Yes to lunch; no to the name. The story, as I remember it, is that our grandfather was helped by Quakers when he first came here from Poland, and quite quickly became one himself. When his son – Uncle Sebastian – had a daughter, Grandfather was ill, and they thought he was going to die. So they named her after William Penn, the Quaker, to please him.’

‘Did he die?’

‘No, you know he didn’t. He lived another twenty years. He’d only just died when I met you. Don’t you remember?’

‘Now you mention it,’ Drew said vaguely. ‘I get confused when I’ve never actually met any of the people concerned.’

‘We should make more effort to keep in touch with them,’ Karen said seriously. ‘We owe it to the children. My mother’s only seen Timothy twice.’

Drew sighed.

‘I know,’ she sympathised. ‘It’s all such a performance.’

‘Let’s get the cousin over with first,’ he said. ‘One relation is quite enough to be going on with.’

 

They’d finished Karen’s home-made leek soup before Penn mentioned to Drew that Roma Millan was her aunt. ‘She says she knows you,’ she added.

‘Oh, yes,’ he nodded with enthusiasm. ‘I know Roma. She and I get on very well. The first time I met her, she asked me exactly how long it takes for the flesh to come away from the bones, assuming the body isn’t in an airtight coffin.’

‘And did you know?’ Penn’s face paled slightly, but she seemed determined not to be disgusted.

He laughed and shook his head. ‘Not really. And I don’t think she was genuinely interested. She was just showing off to the other Probus ladies.’

‘That sounds like my auntie,’ Penn agreed.

‘We had a long talk a couple of weeks ago – did she tell you?’

Penn shook her head. ‘I don’t think so.’

‘Oh, well …’ he let the sentence tail away.

Karen’s failure to join in the conversation was due to a preoccupation with helping her two-year-old daughter Stephanie finish her soup without getting most of it on the table. In a high chair on her other side, Stephanie’s little brother Timothy banged a spoon.

‘Family life,’ Drew sighed, half-apologetically. ‘You probably didn’t bargain for all this.’

‘They’re sweet,’ Penn mumbled. ‘It’s very nice to meet them.’

‘Well, we quite like them,’ Drew said. ‘Though we do have our moments.’

Karen wiped Stephanie’s face, and handed her a thick slice of bread spread with Marmite. ‘That should keep her quiet for a bit,’ she said.

‘I’s always quiet,’ Stephanie announced reproachfully. Everybody laughed, including Timothy.

‘You are,’ Karen confirmed. ‘You’re amazing.’

‘It’s a coincidence, though, you being Karen’s cousin, as well as Roma’s niece,’ Drew pressed on. ‘One of those small world things.’

Penn shrugged. ‘England’s fairly small, when you think about it. Roma was looking for a rural retreat, and because she was based in Bristol all her working life, it’s not surprising she looked in this area. Laurie’s lived mostly in Devon, so it’s familiar territory for him, too.’

‘They seem to like it, anyway.’

‘It’s absolutely fabulous, apart from traffic noise, and aeroplanes going over. It’s a lovely view of the hills, whatever they’re called.’

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