Authors: Reginald Hill
A Dalziel and Pascoe novel
a tragi-comedy in
three acts of violence
For Rose and Peter
spoken by a member of the company
A simple child, dear brother Jim,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?
We are seven
Death? Not much. Not then, not now. What is it? You here, I there: you stopping, I going on? Unimaginable! But I can imagine dying and the fear of it. The love of it too. I can imagine a corvette in heavy seas - a bathtub vessel in harbour, but let a gale come howling up the Tyrrhenian, then in the twinkling of a dog-star, its steel sides are changed to perilous cliffs and the dinghy far below bounces on the wild waters like a baby's teething ring.
I can hear what the wind sings! At home, a father's anger and a mother's tears; at school, nipping draughts and stumbling repetitions, dreadful doubts and tiny triumphs... the sum of the squares...
Lars Porsena of Clusium
... a spot on the nose... a place in the Eleven ... how to mash a girl...
arma virumque cano!
Now I seize the rope and feel its fibres burn my frozen palms. With what strange utterance the wind resounds against this metal cliff; arms and the man, it sings...
you 'orrible sprog!... move to the right in threes!... hands off cocks and on to socks!... squeeze it like a tit!
... a pip on the shoulder... a place on a course... how to kill a man...
Italiam non sponte sequor!
And now at last the gaping O receives me and suddenly it is once more a dinghy and the wind is just a wind. Master of myself finally, and of these men who kneel around me, I give commands. Eyes gleam white as fish in sea-dark faces, paddles plunge deep, and my buoyant craft drives over the grasping waves towards the sounding but unseen, the undesired but never to be evaded Ausonian shore.
Fanciful, you say? Romantic even? Oh, but I have still darker imaginings. Time blows like mist in a wind, parting and joining, revealing and concealing, and now the wind is a wind of Autumn bearing with it not the salt spume of foreign seas but the bright decay of fallen leaves and the peppery scent of heather and the dust of limestone tors.
There is noise in it too, animal noise, a breathing, a coughing, an uneasy shuffling of feet as I pass over the dew-damp grass towards the darkling house. A window stands carelessly open . . . reckless I enter and the wind enters with me . . . slowly I move across the rooms . . . along corridors ... up stairs . . . uncertain, hesitant, yet driven on by a gale in the blood stronger than any fear.
I push open a bedroom door ... a nightlight shines like a corpse-light . . . but this dimly apprehended shape is no corpse.
Who's there? Is there someone there? What do you want?
It is time to speak into this light which shows so little.
Who's there? Closer! Closer! Let me see!
And now the wind is a burning wind of the desert in my veins, and it sobs and it shrieks, and the house bristles with light, and I reach for the saving darkness as the helpless, hopeless sailor embraces the drowning sea . . .
Voices from the Grave
Sweet is a legacy, and passing sweet
The unexpected death of some old lady.
No one who attended Gwendoline Huby's funeral would soon forget it.
Her eighty-year-old frame was lighter by far than the ornate casket that enclosed it, but the telekinetic weight of resentment from the chief mourners was enough to make the bearers stagger on their slow path to the grave.
She was buried, of course, in the Lomas plot at St Wilfrid's in Greendale, an interesting specimen of late Norman church with some Early English additions and a pre-Norman crypt which the vicar's wife (in a pamphlet on sale in the porch) theorized might have been the work of Wilfrid himself. Such archaeological speculation was far from the minds of the bereaved as they processed from the dark interior to the brilliant autumn sunlight which traced out the names on the tombstones of all but the most eroded and deepest lichened dead.
The surviving relatives were few. To the left of the open grave stood the two London Lomases; to the right huddled the four Old Mill Inn Hubys. Miss Keech, successively nurse, housekeeper, companion, and finally nurse once more at Troy House, essayed a crossbench neutrality at the foot of the grave, but her self-effacing tact was vitiated by the presence at her shoulder of the man generally regarded as the chief author of their woes, Mr Eden Thackeray, senior partner of Messrs Thackeray, Amberson, Mellor and Thackeray (usually known as Messrs Thackeray etcetera), Solicitors.
'Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live and is full of misery,'
intoned the vicar.
Eden Thackeray who had thoroughly enjoyed the greater part of his fifty-odd years composed his face to a public sympathy with the words. Certainly if several of those present had their way, there'd be an extra dollop of misery on his plate shortly. Not that he minded. Misery to lawyers is like the bramble-bush to Brer Rabbit - a natural habitat. As the old lady's solicitor and executor, he was confident that any attempt to challenge the will would only serve to put money in the ever receptive coffers of Messrs Thackeray etcetera.
Nevertheless, unpleasantness at a funeral was not, how should he put it? was not
He hadn't relished being greeted by Mr John Huby, nephew to the deceased, landlord of the Old Mill Inn and archetypal uncouth Yorkshireman, with a look of sneering accusation and the words,
? I've shit 'em!'
It was his own fault, of course. There had been no need to reveal the terms of the will until after probate, but it had seemed a kindness to pre-empt any anticipatory extravagance on the part of John Huby by summoning little Lexie from her typewriter and explaining to her the limits of her family's expectations. Lexie had taken it well. She had even smiled faintly when told of Gruff-of-Greendale. But all smiles had clearly stopped together when she bore the news back to the Old Mill Inn.
No! Eden Thackeray assured himself firmly. This was the last time he let a kindly impulse move him off the well-worn rails of legal procedure, not even if he saw one of his own family chained to the line ahead!
'Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts . . .'
Aye, Lord, mebbe thou dost, and if so, nivver hesitate to pass them on to that silly old bat if she happens to drift in thy direction! thought John Huby savagely.
All those years of dancing attendance! All those cups of watery tea, supped with his little finger crooked and his head nodding agreement with her half-baked ideas on Lord's Day Observance and preserving the Empire! All those Sunday afternoons spent crammed - no matter what the weather - into his blue serge suit, the arse of which always required a good hour's brushing to remove the thick layer of cat and dog hair it picked up from every seat at Troy House! All that wasted effort!
And worse. All those debts run up in the expectation of plenty. All those foundations already dug and equipment already ordered for the restaurant and function room extensions. His heart fell flat as a slop-tray at the thought of it. Years of confident hope, months of tremulous anticipation, and barely twenty-four hours of joyous attainment before Lexie came home from that bloodsucking bastard's office and broke the incredible news.
Oh yes, Lord! If like the vicar says, thou knowst what's going on in my heart, then pass it on to the silly old bat pretty damn quick, and tell her if she hangs around a bit, she'll likely catch Gruff-of-sodding-Greendale coming up the chimney at the Old Mill after her!
'Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear sister here departed . . .'
The pleasure, dear God, is entirely yours, thought Stephanie Windibanks, nee Lomas, first cousin once removed of the dear departed, as she grasped a handful of earth and wondered which of those around the grave would make the best target.
That low publican, Huby? Rod's suggestion that she should console herself with the thought that she had been dealt with no worse than that creature had only fanned her resentment. To be put on a par with such an uncouth lout! Oh Arthur, Arthur! she apostrophized her dead husband, see what a pass you've brought me to, you stupid bastard! At least, dear God, do not let them find out about the villa!
But what was the use of appealing to God? Why should He reward faith when He was so reluctant to reward works? For it had been hard work cultivating the Yorkshire connection all these years. Of course, it might be pointed out that she had long been aware - who better? - of Cousin Gwen's central dottiness. Indeed, she had to admit that on occasion she had even actively encouraged it. But who would have guessed that when it pleased Almighty and entirely Unreliable God of His great mercy to take Gwen's soul unto himself, it would also amuse him to leave her dottiness wandering loose and dangerous on the terrestrial plane?
God then her target, rather than Huby? But how to strike the intangible? She wanted a satisfyingly meaty mark. What about God's accomplice in this, that smug bastard Thackeray? It would be nice, but long experience of the world of affairs had taught her that lawyers loomed large in the ranks of the pricks it was fruitless to kick against.
Keech, then? That down-market Mrs Danvers, peering with myopic piety at a point a little above the vicar's head as if hoping to see there and applaud the ascension of her benefactress's soul . . .
No. Keech had done well, it was true, but only in relation to her needs. And think of the price. A lifetime of those creatures and that smell . . .! It required the soul of an ostler to envy Miss Keech!
This then was the worst moment of all, the moment when you realized there was no one to vent your rage on, a nothingness as insubstantial as the spirit of that silly old woman doubtless smiling smugly in her satin blancmange mould six feet below!
She hurled the earth with such force against the coffin lid that a pebble rebounded straight up the vicar's cassock, producing a little squeal of shock and pain which translated the
sure and certain hope of the Resurrection
sure and certain hype of the Resurrection.
No one was surprised. Was not this, after all, the age of the New English Prayer Book?
'I heard a voice from heaven, saying unto me, Write . . .'
Dear Auntie Gwen, thought Stephanie Windibank's son, Rod Lomas, Mummy and I have come up to Yorkshire for your funeral which has been rather Low Church for my taste and rather low company for Mummy's. You were quite right to keep these Hubys in their place, as dear Keechie puts it. They are the product of very unimaginative casting. Father John looks too like a bad-tempered Yorkshire publican to be true, and Goodwife Ruby (Ruby Huby! no script-writer would dare invent
is the big, blonde barmaid to the last brassy gleam. Younger daughter Jane is cast in the same jelly-mould and where this superfluity of flesh comes from is easy to see when you look at the elder girl, Lexie. In shape no bigger than an agate stone on the forefinger of an alderman, I swear she could enter an ill-fitting door by the joint. With those great round glasses and that solemn little face, she looks like a barn-owl perched on a pogo- stick!
But all this you know, dear Auntie, and much else besides. What can I, who am
tell you, who are
? Still, I must not shirk my familial obligations, unlike some I can think of. The weather here is fine, cornyellow sun in a cornflower sky, just right for early September. Mummy is as well as can be expected in the tragic circumstances. As for me, suffice it to say that after my brilliant but brief run as Mercutio in the Salisbury Spring Festival, I am once more resting, and I will not conceal from you that a generous helping of the chinks would not have gone astray. Well, we must live in hope, mustn't we? Except for you, Auntie, who, if you do still exist, must now exist in certainty. Don't be too disappointed in our disappointment, will you? And do have the grace to blush when you find what a silly ass you've been making of yourself all these years.