The crocus buds had already been snapped off by birds. But Melanie refused to find any symbolism in this, reminding herself that it must be many years since Aunt Louisa last breathed in the start of an English spring. This was the time of year for Crete, in her aunt’s well-ordered life. And so it was in Crete that she had drawn her final breath.
Melanie and her family had been there only twice, the house being continuously rented out to strangers during the school holidays. As she eased the back door into position and negotiated the locks, she admitted to herself, even on this of all days, that her maiden aunt’s lack of enthusiasm about Clemmie and Alice was something she had noticed and resented. Perhaps, she reasoned, catching sight of the kitchen clock and moving upstairs to check on the family’s readiness, that’s why she had felt taken aback, these past few days, by the labyrinthine weave of this grief that threaded its way inside her. She should, surely, have experienced pure sorrow, as she confronted the death of a woman who had been an important presence in her life – the woman who, having no children of her own, used to take an interest in what her young niece was up to, and in what she planned. Sometimes it struck Melanie that she must have become rather a disappointment to her aunt. For, after all, had not this pioneer, unlike her younger sister (Melanie’s mother), carved out her own career in a generation when most educated women taught for a few years and gave up when they got married?
Melanie stopped half way up the stairs and closed her eyes. She could still see the hooded eyes narrowing, the lips tightening into a thin smile as her aunt received the news that her niece had passed the civil service exams.
“Well done, Melanie. There you are! A career for life…”
And she’d turned away back to the life she herself had chosen. It was one in which she had several times re-invented herself. Always emerging as something different, but never stopping long enough to take anyone with her on the journey. Perhaps it was a fear of commitment; it could be a kind of selfishness. Melanie told herself she was glad her own life had worked out differently. But she wished that her mourning could somehow be completely pure. She wished, indeed, that other people’s feelings could be more straightforward, too. For she had this nervous sense that today might not turn out quite as it should.
She opened her eyes abruptly as the landing creaked under footsteps. Mark was coming down the stairs. His shoulder knocked against hers; his mobile was vibrating; now he spoke into it quietly, as though caressing a troubled infant. At the top of the stairs she almost tripped over the wash basket, from which sprawled an assortment of fresh-smelling, tumble-dried clothes – a pair of studiously ripped Miss Sixty jeans, a number of flimsy tank tops in assorted colours, several pairs of girls’ boxers and some tights which should never have ended up in the dryer. This receptacle, shaped like a Moses basket, was Clemmie’s version of a chest of drawers.
Once more Melanie reminded herself that she must not, today of all days, allow the possibility of being upset. But it had been a shock, nonetheless, returning from abroad just a few days after hearing the news of her aunt’s death, to find that Clemmie had skulked home from the Pattersons’, where she was meant to be staying, and created such havoc that the cleaner would no doubt resign. Her knotting anger at high rise dirty crockery, peanut butter smeared like excrement on the worktop and assorted bus tickets, invitations to clubs and clothes labels (why had teenagers never learnt to use bins?) was tightened by a tug of guilt. She shouldn’t have gone away. It was for less than a week – staying in Tricia’s flat in Edinburgh – and she’d needed a break so badly; they wouldn’t, as a family, be going away over half term. So she’d gone; and Louisa had died. No, said her brother Patrick who’d telephoned with the news – no need to rush back; they had to fly the body back from Crete, after all; the British consul was being most helpful, but it wouldn’t happen straight away; not to worry – he’d be making the funeral arrangements; and please, could she say something about Louisa? Yes, he would be speaking too, of course. Straight from the heart and straight to the point. Nothing too long and fussy: Louisa wouldn’t have approved of that, would she? Feeling at the edge of something that was supposed to be important, a central rite of passage in her renunciation of those people grouped at the heart of childhood, she had to admit she felt cheated. Yes, it was this sense again that things weren’t quite working out as they should, and that today was, so far, unpromising.
Mark had been away too; that’s why Clemmie had gone to stay with Olivia Patterson’s family, and Alice had been shunted – with no reluctance at all on her part (she was an easygoing little poppet) – to her best friend Jemima’s. But Mark, without doubt, had every reason to be absent. Unlike her, he was not going for pleasure; he did very little for pleasure these days, as far as she could tell. No, he’d had to go out to the Hong Kong office. He’d arrived home about an hour after her. Bending down to pick up the wash basket and take it through to her daughter’s bedroom, she wished now that she hadn’t mentioned to Mark the flight from the Pattersons’ and the poor state of the house. But she’d felt so let down by her daughter – at seventeen she really ought to know better – and she’d needed to share her disappointment. Mark was often reluctant to exert discipline; he wanted to be the hero in his daughters’ lives. Now the time had come for him to step forward and say something. She, Melanie, was in no fit state for such confrontations. She was in mourning.
But her husband, as it happened, seemed spoiling for a fight with someone this morning. Melanie could tell. That gentle purring into his mobile just now – that masked some buried irritation – or perhaps, even, a sadness. Behind his lower lip, she had seen the teeth thrust forward. This neither surprised nor especially troubled her: she had grown accustomed to the ricochet of his moods, up and down, as though on a spring balance. It offended her a little that he seemed unable, even on the day of a funeral, to keep the spring pushed firmly down. But maybe, she reasoned, it had been difficult in Hong Kong; he hadn’t yet had a chance to recover from the flight; he’d had to change his plans, and he certainly was busy these days. When she’d told him over the phone the date of the funeral, his first reaction (callous, it’s true, but she was by now immune to this sort of thing) had been, “Oh”. Silence. Then, “I’ll have to re-arrange lunch.” Melanie hadn’t waited for anything else; she knew it wouldn’t come. She’d learned to expect very little of him, in certain areas of their lives. The birth of both daughters he’d almost missed, arriving at Alice’s from a meeting with a client just as his wife had reached the pushing stage. Fortunately for the midwife, the statutory torrent of abuse was therefore diverted towards him. But today, as she contemplated the other end of life’s corridor, as it were, she was surely in control of the situation. Today’s ritual did not include shouting and swearing. Decorous tears, restrained, elegiac: these befitted the funeral of Aunt Louisa.
Shouting and swearing and the pain of childbirth. These were the kinds of things Louisa had been spared. Or rather, she’d spared herself. Melanie couldn’t help feeling that the solitary life had been, in her aunt’s case, the one she’d deliberately chosen. For nothing had seemed to happen to Louisa by accident. Every step was considered and rational, a piece in the overall plan she’d drawn up for her life. Except for death itself, of course. That, Melanie supposed, had taken the old lady by surprise – even though she was eighty-six and had been suffering for at least a year from a painful illness she hated to discuss. Death in a Greek hospital must have come as a slip-up – or, as Mark would say, an almighty cock-up.
With a brief warning tap, she opened the door of her daughter’s bedroom. The curtains were still closed; the air was warm with sleep, sweet with make-up and perfume spray. Clemmie, in the black skirt she used to wear to school last year and a baggy sweat-shirt her mother would have to ask her to remove, sat hunched on the bedside rug, her ears jammed with iPod headphones, her face invisible but her closed-in body spelling sullenness. Melanie bent down and prodded her arm – reasonably gently, for now was not a time to stir up the current. Muffled in her gloom, deep inside the melody which seeped out as though from underground, the girl started slightly. She pulled out one ear stop and gazed pointedly ahead. That was fine: Melanie didn’t want eye contact either. She was down on her knees now, lips close to her daughter’s ear.
“The taxi’s coming in ten minutes. Please make sure you’re ready. And…” She hesitated. “I take it you’re going to change your top into something more… suitable?”
Clemmie’s eyes met hers for an instant and she gave a brief nod.
“Purple’s a colour of mourning, isn’t it? I’m going to wear my purple jumper. It’s shrunk – but too bad.”
“You shouldn’t put these things in the tumble dryer.” She could have elaborated but, managing to pull back, added instead, “I’m sure it will look fine.”
It was a favourite colour of Clemmie’s. She wished her daughter could convey just a little more visibly that she was sad about Great Aunt Louisa. Well, perhaps this hunched shape on the floor was her way of showing it – a very traditional mourning pose, after all – but she suspected its source lay elsewhere. Clemmie’s next remark confirmed this.
“Dad’s just come in and been horrible to me.”
So it had started. She had to support him. It was she, after all, who’d complained to him about their daughter’s untidiness, and so drawn him in as an ally in parental discipline.
“He’s just disappointed. We both are.”
The stopper was back in. Melanie doubted that her next words would be audible, but she uttered them anyway.
“All the same, let’s not get caught up in that sort of argument. It’s not what’s important today, is it?”
Ending thus on a question, she waited a moment for some sort of response. None being forthcoming, she merely patted her daughter’s shoulder, straightened herself and went off to alert Mark and Alice, and double-check with the next-door neighbour on the arrangements for looking after Boris, their ageing springer spaniel.
* * * *
It had been Mark’s decision that they take the train rather than drive. This seemed a good idea, today being a Friday and the traffic therefore likely to be heavy. But Melanie felt nervous as she eased herself into the back of the taxi, taking care to sit in the vulnerable middle section. With the sort of journey they were undertaking, there was always the sense that you were never entirely in control. On balance, it might have been preferable to submit herself to the vagaries of the M25 than those of the railway and underground systems.
But she wasn’t given long to brood on this dilemma. Mark, seated next to the driver, turned round shortly after they’d set off and addressed Clemmie.
“Have you apologised to Mum about leaving the place in such a tip?”
Clemmie was sitting on Melanie’s left, directly behind her father and so making it difficult for him to see her. Melanie felt the thigh grow rigid against hers. There was a brief shrug, which Mark may or may not have been able to catch.
“What was that?”
He edged his shoulder further round the back of the seat, as if he was about to jolt his daughter with it. Melanie tried to glimpse in the rear-view mirror the taxi driver’s expression, but he betrayed nothing. He must have witnessed one or two rows in his time.
A heavy exhalation of breath to her left was the prologue to a sudden torrent.
“That’s between me and Mum. It’s none of your business. You’re being vile to me just because you’re in a bad mood about something. And I don’t think it’s anything to do with Great Aunt Louisa dying. I think it’s just you being selfish, as usual.”
Her voice had gone very shrill. She stopped suddenly, swallowing and catching her breath. Mark’s shocked glance had shifted sideways, surreptitious, to take in the taxi driver. And now Melanie tore into the silence, clenching her fists in an effort to keep calm, reminding herself that today only one thing mattered.
“Clemmie, let’s not talk about it now.” She tried to curb her mounting desperation as she added, almost in a whisper: “Please.”
Her daughter responded by plugging into her iPod. But Mark, maybe taking her plea as a licence to switch to a different subject, reached out and gave a little tug.
“Hey nothing. I haven’t finished talking to you. So you can get that thing out of your ears. All I wanted to ask” (here the taxi turned sharp right, and he seemed about to collapse onto the driver as he tried to swivel round further) “- all I need to know is – did you get that Sunday Times and Observer I asked for?”
For a minute, Clemmie seemed to shrink into her seat. Then it was as if she’d taken a decision to flick into an upbeat: leaning forward a little, hands spread out on her thighs, not quite gripping them, brown eyes suddenly widening, almost bursting through the mascara.
“I’ve got you a bit of the Observer. Olivia found it at their house.”
“Olivia found it? But I told you to buy it. To buy both of them.”
“Well, I was busy, so I asked Alice to, because she was in town anyway.” The eyes shot sidelong to her sister. “But she didn’t have any money.”
There was a pause.
“I didn’t have any money either. You didn’t leave me any.”
Mark swung back and talked horribly quietly into the windscreen. “I ask you to do so little. Mum and I make so few demands on you. But you don’t stay with the Pattersons like you’re meant to (God, Clemmie, they would have lent you some money for the papers!); you turn the house into a pig-sty; and you can’t even get me the Sunday papers I need.”
Clemmie dropped her eyes and sank back into her seat. Melanie didn’t want to try and read the expression on her daughter’s face; she couldn’t bear to look at her.
On her other flank, she heard Alice murmur, “But what about getting them online?”
Neither father nor sister seemed to hear her: their anger had slammed up a soundproof barrier against the reasonable world.
No-one said anything. Melanie registered Alice giving a kind of shudder. Her older daughter remained completely still. They were travelling straight up Queens Road to the station now; there was really little point, at this stage, in asking the taxi driver to stop so that she could escape from the car. Just before they came to a halt, the front seat passenger seemed impelled to sum up the journey thus far:
“Hopeless! You’re absolutely hopeless!” He spun round briefly, hard dark eyes fixing like bayonets, before turning back to pay the driver.
Melanie rather wished she had after all jumped out at the beginning of the journey and driven herself up alone.
* * * *
A ball of panic rolled in her guts. The journey got no better. Tickets and bottles of water were purchased in silence. Once on the train, Clemmie pointedly separated herself from the rest of them, disappearing inside a party of chirping ladies two compartments away. Melanie decided the most advisable tactic would be to steer clear. Sitting down next to Alice, she found herself reaching out to clasp the girl’s hand. A quick squeeze – and her daughter’s eyes had dropped back to the cover of Heat. She had to withdraw her hand in order to open it. The glossy pages squeaked; Alice licked her finger and smoothed out the inside spine; there stood Britney, hiding behind shades but scrambling into the camera.
Mark wasn’t yet finished. After a quick check of his mobile, he faced her square, brows puckering as though in deep thought, or in pain.
“You want me to support you. I give Clem a bollocking. And now you’re treating me to that hurt look, as though I’m being mean and it’s all my fault really.”
She found it so difficult to come back at him with anything. Always, it seemed, he struck her dumb. But she had to manage something; it was up to her to salvage the day.
“Yes – but why go on about the papers? I mean, if it was so important, why not leave her the money? And, as Alice said, you could catch up online… Get one of the girls to download it for you.”
“That’s not the point, is it? She’s disobeyed us!”
“Mark…” How to say it? “Mark… not now; not today.”
She rose swiftly, walked down two compartments, swerving to avoid a suitcase, a pushchair, a woman leaning across the aisle to talk to someone. Clemmie was sitting in the midst of her chosen refuge – well-dressed middle-aged women with stiff hair and confident, long-vowelled tones, and the air of a group on a day’s outing to the Royal Academy and Regent Street. Her daughter was staring out of the window, ears plugged, iPod resting in the palm of her hand.
“Excuse me. Sorry.” She edged past a woman in an electric blue jacket; felt the expensive scent particles wash over her; for the second time that morning tapped Clemnmie’s arm.
The brown eyes looked timid now; they’d softened into something that might be the edge of tears. She picked up on that note. Beseeching. “Please. Clem.” That’s all she could muster. She couldn’t believe that she was going to be let down. Not on the way to a funeral.
Clemmie rounded her lower lip over her teeth – just like her father. Slowly, she shook her head. That was all. Then she turned to look out of the window again.
The women’s conversation had lulled but now, as Melanie retreated, it rose once more. She wondered if she was its subject. What a relief that she hardly cared.
Back in her seat – impossible to focus on a book – she stared out of the window, watched fields draining away like life itself, saw the spread of suburban awning, and tried to feel calmed by the rocking of the train.
* * * *
It’s rocking her back, back, back in time, and she’s aged seventeen, in the sitting room of her parents’ home. They are abroad – she can’t remember where – and Aunt Louisa is looking after her and Patrick. This is unusual, and it must have been during the school holidays, in the days when her aunt was still teaching classics at a girls’ grammar school – probably not long before she launched her educational travel company, ‘Travel Scholastica’. It is winter. Melanie remembers that: she can still picture the greyness through the sitting room window – a damp garden, gaunt trees, that closed-in wintry feeling from the days when we had real winters. Had her aunt moved on already to the next phase in her life, she would have been in the Mediterranean or the Aegean, checking out modestly-priced hotels and reliable coach companies and searching for a spot of sun.
But there are already tokens of a later re-invention as she sits with her niece, helping her to revise for her A levels. Melanie can still picture the bright heavy beads round Louisa’s neck, which dangle as she leans forward over Ovid’s Metamorphoses, hanging there in vivid defiance of the cold grey day outside. That’s what she was to concentrate on eventually, when she’d grown tired of ‘Travel Scholastica’ and sold it off to a larger outfit: jewellery, and scarves, and ceramics, which she imported chiefly from Sorrento and the Amalfi coast. When she eventually retired, half the year was spent in Crete. She had always lived alone.
The beads, chunky and seemingly edible, brush against the story of Daphne, who, early in the Metamorphoses, is transformed into a laurel to escape the clutches of Apollo. How convenient. Melanie would like to be able to do that, sometimes.
When the telephone rings, Aunt Louisa raises her hand as if to command “Ignore it!” But Melanie can’t ignore it. Patrick is out. She can’t leave it sounding into silence. Anyway, she’s expecting to hear from her friend Pauline.
“Just a sec!” Pen and paper are dropped – reasonably gently – on the floor, as she darts to the hall to answer it – just in time.
There’s a coat cupboard in the hall. Into its warm darkness she and Patrick like to secrete themselves, shutting its door almost completely – just a tiny gap left where the telephone cord is slipped through. Here it is possible to converse with your friend in private. Melanie rarely switches on the light. The darkness, and the sense of mufflement from the outside world provided by the hanging overcoats, help her to concentrate on the voice at the other end of the line.
But it’s not Pauline. The voice is young and male – and doesn’t belong to some friend of Patrick’s.
She knows immediately who it is, but she won’t let on. “Speaking.”
“Oh, right, good.” Young Master Waring sounds a bit flustered. “It’s Laurence here.”
“Hi. How are you?”
“Fine. Fine. It was good fun at Pauline’s last night, wasn’t it?”
“Yes.” She pauses, waiting, wondering why he’s telephoned. Rather awkward, with schoolboy red cheeks and eyes that are watering a good deal at the moment, as he’s trying out contact lenses. But she is secretly keen on his friend Adam. That much she will admit to herself.
He’s clearing his throat now, and asks her what she’s doing at the moment.
“Right now? I’m revising Latin with my aunt.”
“Oh, sorry. Sorry to interrupt, I mean…”
She registers a quick intake of breath. Then, bursting through the dam of his shyness, the reason for his phone call comes out slightly shrill:
“Would you like to come to the cinema tomorrow night?”
Well here’s a surprise. She’s really not sure whether or not she wants to say “yes”, and anyway is so taken aback all she can manage is a stupid repetition. “Tomorrow night?”
“Yes. How about it?”
“Well…” She doesn’t want to sound too keen – but then, as this is Laurence at the other end of the phone, rather than Adam, there’s no need to bother about playing hard to get. “I think I’m free. Yes.”
Another intake of breath, and then a sort of exasperated sigh gusts down the telephone line. “Oh God, I’m an idiot. I didn’t find out what’s on.”
Yes, that was a bit idiotic, actually.
He hurries on. “Look, I’ll ring the Odeon and then I’ll get back to you. OK?”
“That’s fine. Right, well I’ll wait to hear from you.”
It’s hard to concentrate on Daphne, the laurel tree. Aunt Louisa is talking to her about Ovid’s metre; she’s asked her a question; it’s gone unheard; Melanie is deciding that she can’t go to the cinema tomorrow night with Laurence Waring. They’re supposed to be friends: they go around with Pauline and Adam and the others. How dare he go and complicate things by asking her out to the cinema? That’s a date. It could ruin everything. And in any case, she doesn’t fancy him. She needs to think this one through. She wishes Aunt Louisa would stop talking.
“Melanie, are you listening to me?”
The phone rings.
“Bother!” exclaims her aunt.
At a leisurely pace, Melanie walks out of the sitting room and, seizing the receiver on her way, closets herself in the coat cupboard. Despite the darkness in there, she needs to shut her eyes.
“Hi. It’s me again.” His words are spilling out fast, now. She finds herself hanging onto the arm of her father’s coat, as though to steady herself. “I rang the cinema – ”
“Yes?” He sounds suddenly suspicious, as well he might.
“Look – I think it’s better if we don’t do this. I think it would…” She strokes the smooth lining of the sleeve. “I think it would spoil things.”
He’s saying nothing.
“I’d rather we stayed…” And now she pauses, realising how trite she must sound. “Good friends.”
Still silence at the other end of the line. Then a small sigh, and “OK. If that’s what you feel.”
She senses she has to justify it further, but all she can summon up is another cliché. “I really value our friendship… as it is.”
And what is their friendship, exactly? She really couldn’t say, and as they politely hang up on each other, she wonders whether she has done the right thing.
It’s impossible to concentrate on the Metamorphoses, but Aunt Louisa seems happy to move on to a later section of the poem and hold forth on Orpheus and Eurydice, while her niece sits chewing her pen and pretending to listen. She always was somewhat impervious.
* * * *
Sitting now on the train, borne along to her aunt’s funeral, Melanie finds she can remember nothing else about the Laurence Waring story, except that Pauline’s older sister Sandra said she was a little fool, and Pauline was annoyed because Laurence blamed her: he was convinced Melanie had telephoned her between his two calls and been advised to turn him down. She wonders what would have happened if she had actually telephoned her friend, rather than returning to Ovid and Aunt Louisa. But it does come to her now, as the train pulls out of Clapham Junction and she decides she ought to go and check that Clemmie really is planning to get off the train with them, that there is a curious conjunction between those events, when she herself was her daughter’s age, and what’s happening now. Her childless aunt staying at their house, coaching her in Latin literature, oblivious to the turmoil seething in that adolescent heart. Her aunt, now dead, never – as far as anyone knows – having given her heart to anyone. And here comes another teenage girl battling with life and its trifling but searing pains. Her aunt, always on the periphery of life.
In silence, Clemmie accompanies her family into the bowels of the underground. Contemplating the map, she turns to her mother and surprises her by remarking,
“I don’t even know where we’re going.”
Melanie should have prepared her better; this is the first funeral she has ever been to, after all, and she’s probably feeling anxious. But, unlike Alice, she’s seemed eager to avoid the subject. So Melanie just watches as her daughter ostentatiously turns her back, to go and sit on a bench further up the platform. On the wall opposite, a poster advertises holidays on the Red Sea. Fixing her eyes on the couple lounging on a golden beach, Melanie remembers once more the story of Orpheus and Eurydice: if he turns round to look at her, she’ll be lost to him forever in the underworld. A train is approaching the other platform; she can hear the rails rattle and gasp.
Mark glances up, registers Clemmie’s deliberate separation, and starts moving towards her. Melanie stops him in his tracks. People may be watching; she doesn’t care; again, there’s the sizzle of panic.
“Mark; no.” She’s beating a kind of tattoo on his arm. “Please; leave her alone.”
She can’t be sure what’s got into him. No, she really doesn’t understand what it is, and suddenly finds herself speculating with some alarm about the nature of the lunch engagement he’s had to cancel. He raises his eyebrows, as if to ask, “Why should I do as you say?” Then he pulls his arm away, strides off to where Clemmie’s sitting. Alice’s slipped over now; she and Melanie are with him, powerless now to restrain him, but needing to be witnesses, as though being so will limit the chaos.
Clemmie looks thin and small, sitting there on the bench next to a large lady in a peaked velvet cap. And seeing her there, drawn, shuffling back into the seat as her father approaches, Melanie spots a flicker of fear, too.
Mark’s head points down and forward, as though he’s charging at something. Melanie’s in time to hear him hiss at their daughter, “You know what you are? You’re a slut!”
The woman in the peaked cap turns and stares. The rails begin to plunk; there’s a flourish of warm air through the tunnel; the headlights of the train are suddenly visible.
Clemmie darts a deadly glance at her father; Melanie feels a jab in her flank and, as they all board the train, turns to see Alice, eyes and mouth wide, in questioning amazement.
Of course, Mark has used the wrong word. It surprises his wife, who considers that someone whose career is in the law would be less sloppy in his use of language. What he intended to call her was “slattern.” Or even a “slovenly girl”. Not that his daughter is likely to have understood either of these rather archaic words. Well, she reasons, the fact that he got his vocabulary so grotesquely wrong shows what a state he’s in. She has neither the time nor the steadiness to wonder what it’s all about. At this moment, she’s terrified. Clemmie has plonked herself down and is poking her fingers angrily into her mobile. Maybe she’s preparing a text to send round to all her friends, once she’s got signal, telling them what her father’s just called her. Suddenly, she looks up. Her eyes are fiery. She stalks over to where her father is standing next to the doors.
“I can’t believe you called me that!”
“I meant it.”
“No you didn’t, Mark. What you meant to say…”
The train slows down as they come into Oxford Circus. People edge past them, alighting, getting on, busy with their ordinary Friday. The doors start to close. Clemmie slips past her parents, out onto the platform, and away.
There’s no point in trying to look normal: this is a disaster. Melanie registers a wail, like keening, come from her.
“She doesn’t know where to go!”
“Don’t be silly. She’s nearly eighteen.”
“No – she doesn’t know where the funeral is…”
“Come on, Mum. Let’s get off at the next stop.”
So at Warren Street the three of them jump off, run up the escalators (Melanie taking in deep gasps, working to stop the hopeless wobbling of her legs) until – first to reach the top, Mark manages to pick up a signal on his mobile. She leaves it to him to talk to Clemmie: he loves a crisis; this is where he truly comes into his own. And now, perhaps, here’s a chance for forgiveness, after all. She herself feels powerless, standing here panting for breath. Yes, he’s got her. To Melanie’s horror, he’s telling her to take a taxi to the crematorium in Golders Green.
“She’s fine. Just needed to be on her own, I think.”
“Won’t a taxi be very expensive?”
“Quite, Alice.” But the energy has all drained out of her. At least her older daughter is still going to the funeral. She’s on her way, however crazy that way might be. “She’ll have to stop off at a cash point.” Melanie pauses, working it out. “Oh God, Mark. That’s going to delay her still further. The traffic will be terrible. It would be so much quicker for her to go by tube.”
“I’ll reimburse her. Not to worry.” Her husband puts his arm round her. “Look – at least the taxi will get her right to the door.”
She doesn’t care to let her imagination dwell on the possible doors to be found in a crematorium. So she says nothing, but – anxious to make up this lost ten minutes or so – leads the others back down the escalator to the Northern Line.
* * * *
During the final part of the journey, Melanie tries to focus on reading through her funeral address. Concentrate on Aunt Louisa. You could say, after all, this is her day. Yes, her husband and her daughter have torn her grieving into fragments; these they have scattered down a black tunnel, whirled about by a conflict like wind. But now she must try to push all that aside – be more like her aunt, in fact, in her single-mindedness. The short piece she has prepared captures the woman very well, she decides – her intelligence, her sharpness, her energy in making a path through life. Melanie closes her eyes and tries to picture her. Instead, she sees the assembled mourners – Patrick and his family, her cousin Rowena whose four children will all be immaculately turned out in black, her own parents, assorted friends and former colleagues – those who have not already preceded Louisa across the Styx. She sees the coffin waiting before the curtains for its final journey; she sees herself walk carefully to the microphone to deliver her oration; she sees the heavy chapel door open, just as she prepares to speak. And there will be Clemmie.
I am thinking about a person’s life, she reminds herself. And this is life, life itself, the turning over of the hours, glorious and ordinary, joyful and sad, sometimes so complicated you don’t know what to do, but you have to make your way through it, step by step, until the final moment of your journey. This is the life I have chosen, Melanie says to herself, folding her speech and returning it to her bag. It would have been foolish to expect that the journey would be straightforward.