English crematoriums were all the same, thought Ivy, as she turned off the A14. This one was near Cambridge, though it may as well have been on the outskirts of Carlisle: the gently winding paths between regimented pansies; the stately bungalow with its hearses parked at the entrance like black stretch limousines. They were a good advertisement for churches, these places.
Alice hadn’t been a regular churchgoer, though she had watched Songs of Praise religiously.
Ivy parked the car and composed herself.
Everyone who know her thought that Alice would live to be a hundred. Until quite recently, she was happily independent – still looking after herself in her own home, making jam and chutney from the strawberries and tomatoes that she grew in her garden. But there were signs that Alice knew, deep down, that the end was approaching: Christmas presents remained unopened; her hairdresser spoke of her failure to book a future appointment.
Yet Alice had left no arrangements for her funeral. Her nieces were forced to choose the hymns and readings, and the only minister available, a retired parish vicar, was an unknown quantity.
How like the old girl, thought Ivy, as she joined the mourners gathered at the entrance to the crematorium chapel. Alice was so private in her thoughts and feelings, that even she, Ivy, her best friend, was having trouble assembling a personal obituary.
Alice had lived through two World Wars. Her father had survived the trenches of the Somme. She had retired early from her job as school secretary to nurse her mother through a long illness. How did she feel about these momentous events? Nobody really knew: she gave little away.
There had been a broken engagement to a man in the 1930s. Ivy knew this because Alice had kept the ring – a sapphire with diamond cluster. After her death it was found lying on her dressing table. Whenever Ivy had asked her about the fiancé, a distant, pained look would momentarily cloud Alice’s pale blue eyes, and the question would be politely ignored or brushed aside with a non sequitur: “aren’t your lilies doing well?” Or “these biscuits are nice. Are they from Waitrose?”
Attempts at conversation with Alice could be maddening. She kept a regal distance from politics and culture. She had bought The Daily Mail on Saturdays for a while, but this was only for the television supplement and she stopped getting it when the free weekly paper gave one away. Ivy couldn’t remember seeing a single book in her house that gave a clue to her tastes. She liked watching Emmerdale and was partial to Inspector Morse and A Touch of Frost. She might sit through a programme about the Royal Family, but this was probably out of duty, like standing for the National Anthem. Off the record, Ivy knew, Alice thought most of them “silly,” and she had not grieved for the Queen Mother.
The strains of funereal organ chords reached the mourners in the foyer. Four pallbearers shouldered Alice’s coffin and stood to attention, arms straight down at their sides, before stepping and pausing, stepping and pausing, into the chapel of rest.
Any hopes that the minister – now standing in front of them – would do a better job than Ivy of putting Alice’s life and soul into words were quickly dashed. He had a donkeyish voice that oscillated wildly:
“It seems that Alice made her own beetroot jelly,” he read humourlessly from his own notes. “Whatever that is. Yes, she had a variety of interests … travelling, music, public speaking.”
Really, thought Ivy, was this the best he could do? She looked around at her fellow mourners and wondered whether they were feeling as cross as she was. Most of Alice’s relatives had their heads bowed. Was that young man’s trembling lip the result of grief or suppressed hysterical laughter?
Ivy wished she was less English, that she had the chutzpah to stand up and put a stop to this. She fantasised that she was an American no-nonsense dame, marching to the front, shoving the dreadful minister into his pulpit and yelling: “that’s just not good enough, buddy! Alice deserved better. She was 92 years old, goddammit!”
It was then that she noticed a man sitting at the back of the chapel with a shock of luxuriant white hair just Alice’s.
Afterwards, as the mourners stood outside in huddles admiring the floral tributes, Ivy introduced herself.
“I knew her in the thirties when she was at Girton College,” said the man. “Alice was a great beauty. She mixed with the great and the … not so good.”
“You must be the fiancé.”
The man chuckled. “Was I the only one?”
“She never talked about affairs of the heart,” said Ivy. “Could I ask you what happened?”
“I found out she was a spy.”
© Nick Walker 2003
- This story won the Cambridge Agenda Short Story Competition in 2003, judged by Gillian Beer and Jill Paton Walsh. See links below: