No Flowers by Request
Had my highlights not been in need of attention, I might never have known of Mr. Blenkinsop’s demise. I don’t normally patronise the local rag but I was marooned at the hairdresser’s and some other woman had nabbed last month’s Vogue.
Perusing the obituaries was once considered a symptom of decrepitude, but we baby-boomers have slain that worn-out cliché. With savings and proper pensions, and the flair and energy to use them, we refuse to spend our twilight years in the grim reaper’s shadow. With a lifetime’s misadventure condensed into a few paragraphs, a well-written obituary is the perfect literary genre for those too busy to sit down with a book.
Waiting for my hair to cook, I had time in spades, but there was nothing in the earlier pages to entice me beyond the headlines. A Princess Eugenie lookalike opening the hospital summer fair. The refurbished swimming baths switching to unisex changing facilities. Our honourable member of parliament deciding to stand down at the next election – as if anyone would notice the difference.
I didn’t realise I was staring his death in the face when I peered through my varifocals at those blunt lines of text. It wasn’t the richness of the story they outlined that struck me, but the flimsiness. A man was born. He worked. He died. His body would be dispatched at the crematorium. No flowers by request.
Despite the sparsity of biographical detail, there was no doubt this was my James Blenkinsop. A shiver rippled through me from my heels to my head, making the layers of hair tinkle in their foils. It connected to some core of sentiment with which I was hitherto unacquainted; I hadn’t felt so stunned when my parents died. But don’t we all believe, at some level, that our idols are immortal?
Returning to unwrap my hair, Kelly met my gaze in the mirror and asked if anything was wrong. Had it been my usual hairdresser, I might have told her, but I’ve always found Kelly rather coarse. She’s perfectly adept at cutting and colouring, but she has a narrow emotional range. I suspect she downloads her opinions from Facebook and Twitter.
Mr. Blenkinsop wasn’t much older than we were when he arrived at the grammar. Eight years according to his apology for an obituary: the same as the gap between me and my ex. But it was more outlook than age that brought him closer to us than to his stuffy colleagues. Avoiding the staffroom, he’d hang out with us at break times, lingering in the classroom to chat about last night’s TV. We’d never have dreamt of a similar scenario with Miss Jordan, the cranky head.
In an era when teaching entailed force-feeding facts from on high, Mr. Blenkinsop had encouraged us to think for ourselves. How shameful never to have thanked him for treating us like human beings and not geese fattened for the exam board’s foie gras. How fortunate I now had the opportunity, albeit in a small way, to make amends.
When Kelly sashayed off to fetch the hairspray, I tore out the section with the funeral details and slipped it into my purse. I was curious to see who turned up from school. With three kids and a job that cranked up the air miles, I’d lost touch with all my childhood friends. As Kelly flashed the mirror at the back of my head, I smiled my appreciation, not only for the vibrancy of the colour right then, but for the certainty of it retaining its intensity until Mr. Blenkinsop’s send-off in a few days’ time.
Until I hit sixty, I’d felt embarrassed about my surfeit of leisure. I hadn’t planned to retire so soon. But I hadn’t planned to be signed off with stress, either. Deep down, don’t we all see Wonder Woman when we look in the mirror?
They made me see a counsellor. I accepted my obligation to turn up each week – someone had to establish me batty enough to qualify for early retirement on the grounds of ill-health – but no-one could make me talk. Not that I had anything to hide, of course, but everyone knows how these characters twist your words, turning your happy childhood inside out.
Life became much sweeter once I’d ditched the counsellor; likewise my ties with the father of my sons. I learned to fill the hours with U3A groups, the house with original artwork, my phone with photos of two tawny-haired grandchildren. A couple of years ago, when I was less robust, I might have balked at revisiting my inner schoolgirl. But now I thought it would be a hoot. I even splashed out on a fetching pillbox hat to set off one of my more sober work suits. So I was somewhat nonplussed, on arriving at the crematorium, not to recognise a soul. In fact, I had to check with the usher that I’d turned up to see off the right corpse.
I slipped into a pew around the middle, expecting the empty rows in front and behind to throng with family and former students before too long. But a rat-faced woman in a clerical collar stepped up to the lectern shortly after I’d sat down. Scanning the hall for the chief mourner, I had a sniff of the raw panic that used to grab me in my final months at work. Surely someone had a stronger stake in marking his passing than a grandmother reconnecting with her first teenaged crush? I half wished I hadn’t come. I certainly wished I hadn’t bothered with the pillbox hat.
I know funerals are meant to be sombre, but Mr. Blenkinsop’s was unusually flat. A hymn wouldn’t have gone amiss between the piles of platitudes; Rat-face spoke as if the man had never touched another’s life. She had us in and out in ten minutes. As if she’d realised just before she went on stage that she’d left a cake in the oven and couldn’t afford to hang about.
As we trickled into the courtyard, I still held out hope of a wife or lover who’d let me shake her hand and tell her I was sorry for her loss. But no-one stood sentinel by the door. An assortment of men and women, dressed in their everyday clothes like extras in a kitchen-sink drama, shuffled along the line of floral wreaths left on the paving from the service before.
I was ready to take my disappointment and confusion home with me when I spotted a woman dabbing her eyes with a lace-edged handkerchief. As I made my way over, she looked up. “You too?”
“I thought I ought to,” I mumbled, as I struggled to match her face with my dusty memories.
“Catharsis,” she said, between sniffs. “Even so, I feel cheated of my day in court.”
The cogs of my memory creaked into action, rekindling the pain of exclusion from Mr. Blenkinsop’s coterie. Among the rumours of girls invited to tea at his flat, Carolyn Portland’s name had loomed large. “So you were about to get divorced?” I hoped my voice didn’t betray my childish envy that she’d secured the prize – and my even more childish delight in her losing it.
She grimaced. “I’m a widow!”
Carolyn Portland – or should I say, Mrs. Blenkinsop? – hadn’t lost her prickliness. Back then, if anyone had inquired about her out-of-school liaisons, she’d stormed off with a flick of her hair. But my years in corporate finance had left me braver than I’d been as a schoolgirl. “I suppose you are, technically, but you were getting divorced anyway …” If Brian died, could I claim widowhood? More dignified than divorcée, the designation had a morbid appeal.
She turned towards an older woman who was leaning on two sticks. I’d tagged her as Carolyn’s mother but, as she edged forward, I realised my mistake.
“Miss Jordan?” We’d devoted almost as much passion to detesting the head as we’d poured into loving him. Strange that decades later, Mr. Blenkinsop’s favourite would be in cahoots with his nemesis.
“Should we start again, girls?” Her haughty tone reminded me how much I’d hated her at fifteen. “I think you might have grasped the wrong end of the stick.”
Yet she was politeness personified compared to Carolyn. “I can’t believe you’d be stupid enough to think I’d marry that pervert.” Fortunately, all the other mourners had drifted off, so only me and Miss Jordan witnessed her spitting on a pillow of pink carnations, roses and ranunculi.
Miss Jordan would never have countenanced such behaviour in class. But she seemed in no hurry to bring Carolyn into line. Girls like her float through life behaving precisely as they please. I could’ve done with a smidgen of that sod-all mentality during my sticky patch at work. “You’ve changed your tune,” I said.
Carolyn looked ready to slap me. “Are you still as blinkered as ever?”
Miss Jordan inclined her head. “I take it you were one of the girls he spared?”
My skin flooded with heat from the tips of my toes to the touched-up roots of my hair, but I’d been done with the menopause for years. I was back with my counsellor, squirming on an ugly faux-leather armchair, warding off her assaults on my past.
“I blame myself,” said Miss Jordan. “I was his manager. I should’ve guessed.”
“Nobody’s to blame but him,” hissed Carolyn. “And the trial would have proved it if he hadn’t topped himself first.”
I’d imagined a quiet get-together in the back room of a pub, jollying his widow along with our cheery recollections. Having exhausted the topic of Mr. Blenkinsop, we’d swap stories of our grandkids, sharing the photo galleries on our phones. Silently, we’d eye each other up, monitoring thickening waistlines and thinning hair. I wondered why Carolyn had bothered to come when she showed no interest in any of that.
I garnered my diminishing reserves of patience. The poor woman was a widow, after all, even if not to this particular corpse. Mr. Blenkinsop’s funeral must have scratched a deeper grief.
I patted her sleeve. I wasn’t so presumptuous as to hug her. I uttered the words I’d been longing to bestow on some other widow. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
I delved into my bag for my keys and held them up with a smile and a mincing shrug. I turned on my heel and hoofed it to the car park, a blissful release tingling through me as I banished the unpleasantness to the mists of the past.
ANNE GOODWIN’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, appeared in 2017. Her short story anthology, Becoming Someone, is due in November 2018. Anne is also a book blogger focusing on fictional therapists.
Website: annethology http://annegoodwin.weebly.com/