Laura rearranged the hydrangeas that adorned the end of each pew. They were supposed to be in alternating bunches of blue and pink down the aisle, but somehow the florist had missed that instruction. Lillian wouldn’t be happy.
The guests would be arriving soon. Was ‘guests’ the right word in this context? It seemed too upbeat. Laura was feeling anything but upbeat.
She switched the second row pink with the third row blue and retied the pearlescent ribbon into a double-centre bow, just the way Lillian had taught her. Lillian was always showing her how to tie intricate bows – she said it was the special little touches that told people you cared. Down the aisle Laura walked, adjusting each of the bows. It was the least she could do.
From beyond the heavy wooden doors she could hear muffled voices. Deep breath. The moment she’d been dreading for a week was here.
She gave the usher at the entrance a nod, and they opened the doors. Slowly Lillian’s friends from bridge trickled in, dressed in lavender and teal, and they came up to greet her. No family, though. Laura was all that was left of Lillian’s family now. Unless you counted Donna, but she was unlikely to come. As the church filled and everyone took their seats, Laura focused on her breathing. In, out. She was determined not to cry. Lillian Woodhouse-Prescott would not approve, not even at a time like this. Maintaining a stoic veneer, however thin, was one of Lillian’s great strengths. Something Laura had always admired.
Laura was a lot like her grandmother – organised, methodical. Unsurprising, given her upbringing. She even looked a lot like her, some people said. The thick dark hair that fell perfectly straight past her shoulders, though of course Lillian’s was grey in her later years; the same high cheekbones; the same brown eyes. That was a small comfort to hold on to today, to feel close to Lillian still.
Men in flashy suits arrived next. Friends of the family going back generations. Lillian hadn’t followed in her father’s political footsteps – women didn’t in those days – but the old connections were strong.
The ushers showed the suits to their seats, Laura breathing deeply as she offered them her condolences for their loss. Laura wasn’t interested in receiving sympathy from anyone today, but it did seem strange to her that she should be offering it instead. It was backwards. Upside down.
Her life was upside down now.
Laura caught sight of her boss, Stanley Maher, slipping into the back pew with a slight incline of his head towards her, and was filled with relief. At least there was one friendly face among the crowd.
The priest gave a slight wave of his hand, indicating that he was ready to begin. Laura really should take her seat. But Mrs Duncan wasn’t here yet, and they couldn’t start without her. The home had promised they’d get her there on time.
Swallowed coughs and restless whispers wafted through the cavernous space of the church. The priest raised his eyebrows in question at Laura, and she gave him a pleading look, hoping he could hold off just a little longer.
Then, through the doors, Laura saw the home’s minibus pull up out front. She raced down the aisle to help wheel Mrs Duncan into the church. There may not have been any family in the church today, but Mrs Duncan was there, and that was something. Lillian wouldn’t have approved of the rush of affection that flowed through Laura as she adjusted the blanket over Mrs Duncan’s legs – she was only ‘the help’ after all. But other than Lillian, Mrs Duncan had been the one constant in Laura’s life, and even though the old woman was lost somewhere inside her own mind nowadays, she was the last tangible piece of home Laura had now that her grandmother was gone.
Laura settled Mrs Duncan and took her place at the front of the congregation.
The ceremony was long and dull. Old politicians talked of their enduring relationship with the esteemed Woodhouse family; old friends recounted stories of a fragile Lillian who relied on her faith in God to face the many trials of life. Their stories were cold, pale outlines of a woman they barely knew. Laura stared at the crucifix above the altar, holding in a groan.
This wasn’t the real Lillian. Not the Lillian Laura knew, anyway – the grandmother who’d sat with four-year-old Laura in her lap reading her Dr Seuss; the woman who’d tucked Laura into bed every night until she was ten; the warrior who’d taught Laura how to be strong and independent. Her beloved Nan.
The priest called her up to speak. She would set the record straight. She would show them there was so much more to Lillian than they knew.
Laura stood from her seat in the front row and walked up to the lectern at the altar, beside Lillian’s mahogany coffin, hoping nobody would see that her hands were shaking slightly. She cast her eyes over the crowd and saw a middle-aged woman in a poorly-fitting black dress fumble her way into the pew beside Maher. Everyone turned around at the kerfuffle. Laura stared at her icily. How dare she?
The priest stepped beside Laura and touched her hand gently. He offered her a tissue, which she brushed aside. She wouldn’t cry. Especially now. She wouldn’t give that woman the satisfaction.
It had been years since Laura had seen Donna, but there she was, hiding behind oversized sunglasses and dyed black hair with a fringe that fell across her face.
‘Whenever you’re ready,’ the priest whispered in Laura’s ear.
But all her words were gone. No one here deserved to know the real Lillian. All her life she’d been a fiercely private woman. Laura wouldn’t betray that now in her death. Instead, she addressed the gathering with simple words and empty platitudes that carried no meaning. A throwaway anecdote about a loving grandmother. A quote from Lillian’s favourite poem. Laura would keep her memories of Lillian to herself, deep inside her heart, where no one here could touch them.
She watched as Donna pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head.
Yes, no one here deserved to share in Laura’s precious memories. Especially not her mother.
The wake was a far too extravagant morning tea in the hall next to the church. Laura supposed that was probably always the way with a family like hers. She’d never been to a wake before, not even her own father’s. ‘It isn’t right,’ Lillian had said, ‘to have children at such occasions.’ Or something like that. Laura was only ten when it happened, and her memories were sketchy.
Around the church hall people were sipping on cups of tea served in white bone china, pushing tiny silver forks through soft carrot cake. Some pressed her hands as they offered condolences, ‘You were so close’, ‘She loved you so much’. Most didn’t bother. She wished Maher could have stayed. Someone she felt comfortable with. But he had to go back to work. The news didn’t stop for anyone. She was thankful he could attend the funeral at least.
Someone had wheeled Mrs Duncan into the corner of the room, slightly behind a ficus in a heavy grey pot. So many of the funeral-goers were only here because of Lillian’s family, her father’s legacy – the esteemed Senator Woodhouse. The only one who actually knew Lillian properly, had been there her entire life, was shoved out of the way.
Laura marched across the room and knelt beside Mrs Duncan. ‘Can I get you a cuppa, Mrs Duncan?’ She squeezed her hand. The hired wait staff had overlooked her, it seemed.
The old woman grunted. She rarely spoke these days, and often when she did, the words made no sense.
Laura wheeled her towards the trestle tables adorned with shiny white crockery and pressed linen serviettes, and silver platters laden with finger food the catering company had supplied. Yes, far too extravagant for Laura’s liking, but it was what Lillian had wanted. Nothing but the best, even in death. Laura handed Mrs Duncan a cup of tea with an extra splash of water to make it weak, the way she liked it.
Mrs Duncan took a sip, her hands shaking slightly as she raised the cup to her lips.
Laura pulled up a chair and sat beside her and asked Mrs Duncan how she’d been, how the nurses at the home were treating her. She didn’t expect an answer. But she didn’t need one. She visited Mrs Duncan regularly at the aged-care facility and they couldn’t be looking after her old governess better. ‘Governess’. It was a silly word, and one that hardly did justice to everything Mrs Duncan had been to Laura and Lillian over the years. Besides, chatting to Mrs Duncan helped keep her mind off the unexpected appearance of Donna at the service.
The side door to the hall opened and Laura held her breath. Surely she wouldn’t be so bold. Attending the church service was one thing. To turn up at the wake as well?
But of course Donna would be bold enough. Of all the adjectives Laura could use to describe her mother, ‘bold’ was most definitely near the top of the list.
Right under ‘absent’.
A whisper went around the room. They all knew who she was – Lillian’s outcast daughter-in-law. Even those who’d never met her had heard the rumours.
Donna sauntered towards Laura, who stood to greet her mother.
‘I’m surprised to see you here.’ Laura’s tone was even, cool.
‘I couldn’t miss this.’ Donna shook her head. ‘Ding-dong, the witch —’
‘Don’t, Mum. Not today. Not here.’
Donna took a bacon-wrapped prawn from the waiter walking by.
Laura took in a deep breath. ‘Mum, what are you doing here? Clearly you haven’t come to pay your respects.’
‘Respects?’ she sniggered. ‘Respect is the last thing I have for that woman.’
‘Then maybe you should leave.’
‘Your loyalty to your grandmother is admirable, darling.’
‘She did raise me.’ Laura looked her mother in the eye.
‘Yes. Well, she didn’t give me much choice in that.’
Laura had heard this before. The evil mother-in-law who’d never accepted her son’s choice of wife, blah, blah, blah. All Laura knew, all she cared about, was the fact that Donna had left her after her dad died and had made very little effort to be part of her life in the two decades since.
‘Mum, this is not the time or place.’
‘It never is. It’s amazing how you Prescotts and Woodhouses stick together. Circle the wagons against outsiders. Hide your dirty little secrets from the world.’
Mrs Duncan dropped her teacup and the bone china shattered on the wooden floorboards. Everyone turned their gaze to the trio. Laura bent down to pick up the pieces, but a waiter rushed in and assured her he’d take care of it.
Donna lowered her voice. ‘That’s the thing about coming from money. There’s always someone there to clean up your mess for you.’
At this Laura stood and took a step towards her mother. ‘Is that why you’re here? You want money?’
‘No, darling. It was never about money. Not for me. I came to give you this.’ She handed Laura an envelope. ‘Your father found it, not long before he died. I don’t know what it means, but he and Lillian had a huge argument about it. You were so little, you wouldn’t remember.’
Laura opened the envelope and inside was a photo of two young girls on a beach. Mrs Duncan began to mutter random words. ‘No. Gigi. Bad.’ Her entire body was shaking. ‘Don’t cry, baby girl.’
‘Mrs Duncan? Are you okay?’ Laura put her hand on the old lady’s shoulder.
‘No.’ Her whole body trembled. ‘No. No. No.’
Laura hushed Mrs Duncan and rubbed her back until her agitation settled. It was never nice seeing her upset like this.
‘I think maybe it’s time you left.’ Laura turned to her mother.
Donna turned her back. ‘I did try, you know. Many times. To see you. She wouldn’t let me. Maybe, one day, now you’re free of her, we can talk.’
‘Leave. Now.’ Laura felt tears well up. She’d held it together all day. She wouldn’t let her mother be her undoing. She watched her mum walk towards the door and Donna turned back once, looked Laura in the eye and put her hand to her chest. As she stepped outside, the afternoon sun cast her figure in silhouette and Laura watched her disappear into a bright light.