- Published: 1 December 2020
- ISBN: 9780241371435
- Imprint: Penguin General UK
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 304
- RRP: $22.99
Nan Appleby, waiting for the kettle to boil in the kitchen of her fifth-floor flat, observed the signs of weather. The sky was a Turner palette of brooding colour. A storm looked to be brewing. Nan liked storms. She liked it that so far – but who could say for how long? – the weather still eluded the creeping control of humankind. Outside, the tops of the trees, which were at a level with her window, lifted and fell and then lifted again, heralding the storm. In the oiled-wool fisherman’s socks she wore for slippers Nan carried her mug of tea back to bed and opened her laptop.
Peace of Mind Funeral Planning, she read with a sense of pleasant expectation. Act Now to Spare Your Loved Ones the Anguish of Rising Funeral Costs.
Nan was engaged in her favourite occupation: researching her own funeral. Only the other day she had come across a tempting possibility, a firm offering a cut-price casket of Norfolk reed – a material that usually commanded a price that was high even in the exorbitant market of funeral services – and she was about to scroll through her search history to recover the details.
On that same morning at a later hour Blanche Carrington woke in her comfortable mansion flat to an unlocatable sense of despair. The day, she divined, without bothering to go to the window, was an accomplice to this mood. The bedroom felt chilly – the boiler had given out and the man had not called to see to it as he had promised. Behind the heavy curtains she heard the thin wail of a wind get up and – memory broke rudely in – all this only went to emphasise the misery induced by the dreadful row she had had with her son. Her only son, Dominic, the light of her life, as she had once held him.
The faint whining sound outside seemed to bind her to these dark thoughts. Unwilling to leave the insulation of the down-filled duvet, Blanche turned on the bedside radio.
Storm Christina, she heard, was moving south and motorists were recommended not to undertake needless journeys. Well, she wasn’t going to make any journey if she could help it. She would quite happily stay where she was in bed for the rest of the year, for the rest of her life if it came to that.
Minna Dyer woke to the sound of rain making a rousing kettledrum of the roof of the shepherd’s hut that stood in Frank Fairbody’s smallholding and sighed contentedly. She especially liked it when it rained. The hut was cosy with her newly installed stove and she had banked up the coals so they would smoulder overnight. The wilder the weather outside, the more she enjoyed her snug cocoon. She leant down from her bunk bed to fish up the book she had set aside the night before. A long read but, she had been assured by the nice volunteer at her local library, a worthwhile one. She would finish the chapter she had started last night and then get cracking on the doll’s dress.
It was Nan’s day for collecting her grandson, Billy, from school. The storm had swept in splendidly while she was checking out the details of a willow coffin advertised as fashioned to fit around the living form.
Many of our satisfied clients the blurb ran take home our lovely caskets and decorate them in their own unique and personal style so family and friends can become acquainted with their loved one’s chosen end‑of‑life journey. There were photos of caskets stuffed with flowers – artificial ones, Nan judged: detergent-white lilies, electric-blue delphiniums and egg-yolk daffodils all mixed together without regard to season in shades that cheated nature’s own. One of the featured pictures had a casket’s intended content lying in an imitation of repose with a smug would-be- seraphic smile.
Now in raincoat and wellingtons, Nan waited with the assorted mothers, fathers, grandparents, the odd nanny, for the children of St Monica’s Primary to come out.
They were let loose according to a system intended to allow one lot of chattering children to disperse before the onset of another wave. Billy didn’t appear with the rest of Year 5, who straggled out swapping sweets and jokes or cheerfully shoving each other, apparently oblivious to the rain.
Nan enquired of a boy with a plump rosy face, ‘Laurence, have you seen Billy?’
‘He’s been kept in.’
‘For swearing at Josie Smith.’
Oh Lord, Nan thought. ‘What did he say, do you know, Laurence?’
The boy looked at her, sizing up her resilience. ‘He called her an effing little shit – only,’ he added tactfully, ‘it wasn’t “effing” he said.’
‘Oh Lord,’ Nan said, aloud this time. ‘I suppose I’d best go and brave Miss Green.’
Laurence looked sympathetic. ‘She’s in a cross mood.’
‘Who can blame her? Thank you, Laurence, wish me luck.’
Nan met Miss Green with Billy in the corridor. ‘Mrs Appleby, I’m afraid I am having to take Billy to Miss Rainwright’s office again.’
‘I’m so sorry, Miss Green. What is it this time?’ Nan shot a glance at her grandson, who, mulish, was examining the floor.
Miss Green frowned. Her healthy young face was creased with fatigue. It must be hell, Nan thought, coping with a class of nine- to ten-year-olds with all the cuts to the budget and no assistant. ‘I’m afraid Billy used language.’
Billy’s mule expression turned to blaze. ‘Josie Smith said I was on the spectrum.’
Nan looked enquiringly at Miss Green, who looked embarrassed and said, ‘Josie has also been reprimanded. And I’ve asked to speak to her parents.’
‘Well, now’ – Nan sensed that the teacher was keen to be free of this nuisance – ‘Billy shouldn’t swear of course but perhaps with the provocation . . .? I’ll give him a telling-off worse than Miss Rainwright’s, I can promise you that.’
Miss Green had a hair appointment and was anxious to be off. ‘Billy, if it happens again then you will not be coming on the field trip. Is that quite clear?’
Billy examined his shoes. ‘Yes, Miss Green.’
‘Well, run along with your nan.’
‘She’s not my nan,’ Billy said. ‘She’s just “Nan”,’ but his teacher, relieved of the burden of imposing discipline, had already hurried out of earshot.
Nan looked at her grandson, who said, ‘Anyway, I don’t want to go on a stupid field trip.’
‘That’s as may be but right now you can have a quick slap and then come back to mine and no more said or we can go back to yours and you can write a letter of apology to that girl.’
‘Smacking’s illegal,’ Billy said. ‘You could go to prison.’
‘Ah, but who’s to tell?’ Nan asked. It was not that she was in favour of corporal punishment but she heartily disliked the modern habit of subjecting children to prolonged reproach or dismal lectures. ‘It’d be your word against mine.’
This was a well-rehearsed dispute and both were familiar with the terms.
Billy considered. ‘Is there cake at yours?’
‘Mr Kipling and some Battenberg.’
‘I don’t like Battenberg.’
‘Suit yourself,’ Nan said. ‘Back at yours it’ll be oatcakes and almond butter. What’s that little girl’s name again?’
Billy settled for a token slap on the back of his calves. They walked briskly back to Nan’s flat, past ‘Geraldine’s’ the corner shop, still valiantly holding its own against the vastly superior, in terms of stock, supermarkets. Although she generally shopped from the market in the Portobello, Nan made a point of buying the odd thing she needed from the struggling local shops. Now she bought a loaf of sliced white and a tin of baked beans and agreed with Geraldine that outside it was perishing. One of her reasons for patronising the local shops was that there, as with the market-stall holders, one could hold a genuine conversation.
After chatting with Geraldine Nan offered to buy Billy a traffic-light lolly. ‘That’s a reward for making up your own mind, not for the slap,’ she explained. ‘All ways of life have a cost,’ she added. She was aware that for the present this wisdom would mean little but she hoped it might lie dormant in her grandson’s mind. It was a useful observation. One she had learned from her own grandmother.
Back at Nan’s flat Billy inspected the weather house which hung in Nan’s hall. For as long as he could remember the inhabitants had been out of sync with the weather. True to form, the lady with her red sunhat was out, which by rights should indicate sunny weather. Outside, rain like a hail of knives had joined forces with the wind howling round the flats. ‘Your weather house still isn’t working,’ he called to Nan, who was opening the tin of beans in the kitchen.
‘Don’t go fiddling with it, you’ll upset their balance – you know they’re used to it that way.’
Billy went to the bedroom and opened his grandmother’s laptop. He took an interest in her search for the perfect send-off and was keen to discover the latest candidates for her funeral. He had once mentioned his grandmother’s preoccupation to his mother but she had warned him off the subject, saying that it was ‘morbid’ and that he must not think about his grandmother’s death, which would be a long time off. This was in spite of an awareness of her son’s unusual interest in naked truths. His mother, terrorised by any threat to her vision of life, attempted to curtail this trait much as she attempted to discourage his taste for unwholesome foods.
Nan came through to the bedroom and found Billy absorbed in the details of the ‘take-home, tailored- to- fit all-natural willow casket’.
‘This one’s cool,’ he decided.
‘I was thinking of going to take a look next Saturday. Your beans are ready. Milk or tea? I’ve just brewed a pot.’
Billy said he’d have tea and could he go with her to view the casket.
‘If your mother says you can. I’d be glad of your opinion.’
They ate beans on toast at the gate-leg mahogany table in Nan’s snug sitting room. Billy ladled three spoons of sugar into his tea.
‘Are you doing that to spite your mother or because you really like it?’
Billy considered. ‘Don’t know.’
‘You should think about it. If you like it, all well and good. If it’s to get at your mum, you’re doing yourself more harm than you’re doing her. There’s rebelling and there’s revolting.’
‘Revolting? Like fish pie?’
‘Different meaning, or it’s come to have. You can turn against things for the sake of it, that’s rebellion, or because you see them as wrong, that’s revolt.’ The two conditions look alike, she reminded herself but said, ‘It looks the same but it’s all the difference in the world.’
‘How?’ he asked, truly interested and sure of a real reply, for his grandmother understood his urgent need to get to the bottom of things.
Nan thought, then said, ‘One’s reaction, the other’s action. You taking all that sugar because your mother doesn’t like you to is reaction; it takes no account of what you like or don’t like yourself.’
Billy sipped his tea. ‘Would I like it without sugar?’ he enquired.
His small white triangular face with the peat-dark eyes looked so ardent, so utterly honest and trusting, that she leant across and kissed his forehead. ‘You won’t know till you’ve tried, pet.’
Her heart ablaze with love for him, she watched as he went to the kitchen and fetched a mug and poured himself fresh tea. Adding only milk, he sipped it cautiously. ‘I think I do prefer it with sugar.’ But he put in a single spoonful, stirring it extra to extract all the sweetness. ‘Can we look through the funerals?’ he asked when he had eaten his beans.
‘No Mr Kipling?’
He looked a mite anxious and she said, ‘Listen, I’m not saying liking sweet things is wrong. Just be sure why you are choosing them.’
‘Then I’ll have one.’
She got up to fetch the tin from the kitchen. ‘A little of what you fancy does you good. Now once you’ve eaten that and helped with the dishes we can check out the coffins. There’s another’s caught my eye that comes in parts they say’ll double up to use as a bookcase beforehand, which could come in handy.’
Sylvia Blackwell was just twenty- four when in 1958 she took up the post of Children’s Librarian in East Mole.
Last week’s performance by the West Moonah Women’s Choir at the Festival of Voices offered up generous serves of the ‘singalong, sway and smile’ repertoire the choir’s audiences have come to rely on.
Yia-Yia knew many stories of gods and heroes, giants and nymphs, and the Three Fates who spun and measured and cut the thread of life.
I stare down at the young man who stands below me ankle-deep in the mud of the banks of the Thames.
My fifteenth birthday is stinging with a blistering heatwave. Balloons and streamers are dangling off the clothesline, motionless.
Charlie’s ugly Crocs stuck to the mats on the floor behind the bar, making a sticky, squelching sound.
Lisa arrived in Southbend in mid-November on a day of gathering storms, when the air dripped with humidity and the huge grey-white cumulus clouds were piled like soapsuds above the line of timber fronting the banks of the Rainsford River.
To avoid being seen by their teachers or anyone in the frum community who might dob Yonatan in, they ignored the tram stop outside the 7-Eleven on the corner of Hotham and Balaclava and opted for one further down the road.