Finding Ruby: A Nell Montague Mystery
Last night I dreamed I fell in love. I was walking down a sandy lane – well, someone was walking; a girl my age, thirteen or perhaps older, but small like me. There were others there too. I was at the back of the group and we were laughing. Not because something was funny but because the sun was setting in splashes of pink and orange, and the summer air was soft, still and warm.
I cast my gaze on the track beneath me. My tanned legs were clad in shorts, my sandy feet in espadrilles. As I watched each foot fall, one in front of the other, I felt the smile easy on my face and heard my friends’ voices gently lap around me. My skin tingled, each nerve humming, waves of hot and cold chasing each other over my bare skin, because he had slowed down and was walking by my side. He never walked at the back of our group, always up front, leading us. Now we were heading for the beach, the surf roared close by, and he had given up his position to walk at the back with me. And this was the other reason for the laughter, but it was not meant unkindly. No, these were my friends. I belonged. They merely saw what was happening and were giving their approval. Their laughter was a sunny soundtrack to a momentous scene in my life and I felt the need to bottle it somehow, to remember how I felt.
As we approached the dunes, the track narrowed. I was aware of his easy stride next to me, long limbs moving like a dancer. I sneaked a peek: long, soft brown hair draped over his face was lifted by the ocean breeze. His head hung down but he smiled, self-conscious maybe. My right arm hummed as I sensed him moving closer. Each breath I took was sharp and shallow – and then it happened. Taller than me, his hand brushed my arm, making the small hairs reach up in celebration. A jolt of electricity shot through me and I felt my face flush. Then his hand brushed again and reaching down his fingers slid over mine. Softly they locked into place. Warm, dry, gentle, but secure and purposeful.
“Is it OK?” he whispered.
I nodded, then glanced up to him. His dark eyes met mine and I felt like my feet were lifting off the ground.
“Yeah, I like it.” Was that lame? But there was no time to worry. His face split into a huge grin which made his eyes nearly disappear into his face.
“Good. I like it too.”
And that was the moment I knew I was in love. All the songs wrote of falling in love, and I had read countless stories which described how it felt. To me love was a warm strong hand holding mine, claiming me as his girlfriend in front of all our friends. Then later, when the sun sank into the inky, foam-topped water, and the breeze turned cold, love was being wrapped up in his hoody with his arms holding me close.
“You’re beautiful.” His breath was warm on my face and when he placed his lips gently on mine he tasted of salt from the surf. I knew at that moment, blissfully unaware that I was dreaming, that this was the happiest moment of my life, and whatever else was planned for me, I would never again feel this safe or this loved.
I wake and open my eyes to darkness. The pain pauses for a moment then pounces. My lips are dry and cracked, and my mouth swollen inside. My body aches for water and food, but there is none so I close my eyes against the horror of the darkness, of the hideous stench and breath-robbing fear, and instead will myself back to my dream. As my ears begin to buzz I hear his voice again. I sink back into my dream to find him holding my face gently in his hands, kissing away my tears.
“I think I might be dying.” I feel the words form on my lips.
“You’ve got me now. Come on, let’s go.”
And I am suddenly lifted and being carried back along the sandy track, his arms strong, being brought back to warmth, food and life. My cheek rests against his cotton T-shirt and I can feel his skin quiver from each heartbeat. I press my face to feel the warmth of his flesh through the soft cotton, and his arms tighten around me.
“Rest now. I’ve got you.”
I know that I will wake again at some point, shrouded in utter sound-numbing blackness; my hands will beat against the cold door, slippery with blood. My voice will become raw with screaming, and then dropping back on the damp mattress I will let despair anaesthetise me. But for now, in my dreams, I am safe.
Friday, late August
Noon – and at Wiltbury crematorium a sudden hush fell on the congregation. A screech of brakes outside sent a ripple through the black, grey and navy clad assembly, causing necks to turn and the minister to hesitate.
Outside, twenty-nine-year-old Nell Montague gathered up her bag, pushed her sweating bare feet back into unyielding shoes, and hastily paid the driver. Her hand trembled as she passed over the note, damp and crumpled from where she had clutched it throughout the journey. She was late, and as she struggled to open the black cab door, her grandmother’s words echoed in her aching head.
‘You’d be late for your own funeral, my girl.’
As she stepped down from the cab, her bare toes crunched inside the smart black shoes, and she wished again she had worn something else. Too late now. Adjusting a chunky bangle to hide a fading bruise, she paused to let the full force of the midday sun hit her. The flush of heat that swept her body caused her skin to blush comfortingly, but then a wave of nausea chased it away and the birds fell silent. Taking a deep breath to dissolve the dark spots before her eyes, Nell realised that her frail courage could yet fail.
“For God’s sake, pull yourself together, Nell,” she muttered quietly, as she had done all morning, “and get a bloody move on.” Painfully conscious that time was running out, she picked her way carefully over the treacherously smooth tiles and into the overzealous air conditioning of the foyer. Puddles of colour lapped at her legs from the modern stained-glass window above. Over the years it had provided a calming effect on the droves of mourners who stared at it, grateful for the brief respite from their grief and the ordeal of the funeral service. Fixed in the entrance foyer, it caught the midday sun and splashed red, blue, yellow and orange onto the pale floor, in competition with the flower memorials in the garden of remembrance outside.
‘It makes your mind jump, like an adrenaline rush,’ her grandmother had enthused. ‘I want the mourners at my do to be hit with colour as they walk in with their boring black clothes.’
Nell’s mouth twitched into a smile as she remembered the day they had come here to ‘source out a suitable venue’. But now her nose began to sting and for a moment she wondered if the tears she had blocked were breaking through. Taking another deep breath she opened the door and went in.
This was the funeral of eighty-year-old Elizabeth Montague, which she had planned meticulously with her granddaughter, Nell. It was her last project; filling the months from diagnosis until the lung cancer took total control of her body and her days became filled with medication, hospital beds and pain. She was well liked and the more mobile residents from the home, along with staff, filled the rows.
Nell winced at the loud clatter from her shoes. The congregation looked up and a few smiled in recognition as she took her place in an empty row near the front. Desperate to avoid looking at the coffin she concentrated on the rich robes of the rented minister and mouthed ‘sorry’. From behind she could hear a few sniffs and snuffles. She felt silly having a whole row to herself, like she smelt bad or something. But it was reserved for family – the grieving relatives – so Nell sat alone. It was comforting to Nell that her grandmother had found friends in her last years, after so many years alone. The friendly, patient carers had always been ready with a steadying hand, or some light-hearted banter which Nell and her grandmother had both found comforting. It had been a home in the true sense of the word, and the carers and residents on her grandmother’s wing had been like family. But today, Nell alone represented her blood family, as her grandmother’s only son, Nell’s father, had dropped off the radar years ago.
Now the temperature contrast was even more evident and she shuddered as the hard-edged wooden seat bit into the back of her legs. Rubbing her arms she scolded herself for not bringing a jacket, and for nursing the hope that her father might have made an appearance today.
Music began to play and Nell smiled as Massenet’s Meditation swirled into the air. Finally her eyes drifted to the tasteful pale coffin in front. She must have made a noise because a hand from behind fell onto her shoulder. Pleased at the distraction, Nell heaved herself around.
“Hello, Eleanor?” The portly care home manager said in a whisper that everyone could hear.
“Nell,” Nell corrected, then realised she sounded rude. She tried a smile to soften her retort. The woman leaned forward and offered her a fleshy hand poking from a tweed sleeve. There was a waft of sweat lurking beneath the heady perfume. Nell took her hand awkwardly, not sure whether to shake or squeeze.
“We have met. I’m Mrs Harrington-Brown. Such beautiful music. She arranged this all herself as you know.”
The face flipped from comedy to tragedy and a flake of mascara spiralled to the ground.
“So sorry for your loss. Nell, yes now I remember,” she repeated, feeling for firmer ground. “You brought those lovely roses on dear Elizabeth’s birthday. And that chocolate cake.” This last remark was punctuated with a wink. Had the cake provoked an orgy amongst the octogenarians, wondered Nell, as the entire congregation stared at her.
But knowing how fond Elizabeth had been of the elusive care home manager, Nell produced a more genuine smile and granted the kindly woman a nod. Satisfied, Mrs Harrington-Brown shifted back in her seat and stared at the coffin again.
The music ended and the minister began his speech. There was a slight pause each time he used the deceased’s first name, as if trying to remember whose funeral it was. If it is noon then it must be Elizabeth Montague, one o’clock would be someone else. The large empty row stretched out around her. Alone and on display; like Nana in her pale coffin. Now she wished she had sat at the back; was it too late? Or creep in at the end of someone else’s row? It felt like a hundred eyes were flicking from her shivering back, to Nana, and then back to her again. The front row was practically sitting on the coffin. This made her smile, despite the sombre occasion, and the fact that she had been crying and throwing up since dawn, because it was something Nana would have said. If she closed her eyes she could feel her sitting next to her, muttering about the cold and clutching her bag on her lap, like it contained a bomb. Now Nell’s jaw felt stiff, like it was too tightly hinged. This was not right. How could the only person in her world who truly knew her, who would always have her back and put her first, be gone? How could she be left behind, alone again? And this was far worse than before because there was no Nana to love her. Her jagged fingernails burrowed into her soft palms in vain as she blinked back burning tears and listened to the words being said.
Despite the man’s unfamiliarity he did a good job. They sang Jerusalem – Elizabeth’s favourite hymn – and the snuffles and sobs around her kept Nell’s own tears in check again. The loss felt like a full sink with a tap dripping over it. Cold, heavy and at any minute about to spill over the edge and onto the floor, but she had long ago learned to keep her feelings private and she was desperately trying to do so now.
The minister went on to document Elizabeth’s childhood years, her marriage, family, and her love of art, music and cooking. Then there was a mammoth jump to the happy years in the home. Mrs Harrington-Brown grunted as each new point in Elizabeth’s life was ticked off and Nell wondered if the absence of any real mention of her father was intentional or had he just never been spoken of. It then occurred to her that she also had only been given a passing mention, which was puzzling since Nana had written this herself. Perhaps she had tried to spare Nell from such a public sharing of her love. Knowing how torturous the whole funeral would be for Nell she had made it almost sterile. Now Nell shifted on the hard wooden seat, like a child who had been left behind on a railway platform. Alone. Truly alone now. Ever since the diagnosis, Nell had tried to prepare for the moment when she would be left alone. She had expected fear, despair, misery, but nothing had prepared her for the physical loss. Sounds were too loud, movement hurt her eyes, she was incapable of carrying out an action, and on top of it was the continual quivering inside as if she were a volcano about to erupt. Plus the concrete block that was wedged in her lungs, making breathing difficult and crying painful.
For a moment Nell wondered how Ruby would have coped, and involuntarily she glanced at the back of the room as if to watch her arrive. Of course there was no one there but the door was caught in the act of closing, as if someone had just crept out. Ruby would have been on time, elegantly dressed and not with her head down the toilet all morning. She also would not have had to check her body for visible bruising before deciding what to wear.
As the second hymn started, Nell wondered if her father had had a funeral. How careless, she mused, not to know if your own father was alive or dead. Had Nana known? It was the one thing Nell had wanted to ask her but never had the nerve. Each time she had visited her grandmother and listened to the silences that grew longer and longer, as Nana’s breath had become less and less, she had wondered if it was a good time to ask. Now she realised that there had been no good time to ask, only time, and even that had finally run out. Too late now.
Nell had placed an announcement in The Daily Telegraph in a desperate attempt to flush him out. It had been a long shot but if he was still out there somewhere she had wanted this chance to reach him. She vaguely remembered him reading the Telegraph at the kitchen table when she was small. Not the best way to hear that your mother had passed away, but better than never knowing. Nell would not have minded. A well worked out daydream began to surface, of him walking up to her with all the explanations that she needed, complete with overflowing, unconditional love wrapped round a secure future.
Her memories of him were thin from their constant rewind, play and pause. Nell had a few photographs of a tall man, with dark brown hair, smiling at her as a toddler or holding her as a baby. Her favourite – one when he had actually looked at the camera – had been taken at her seventh birthday party. He had been hugging her as she squealed, and the Instamatic had captured a moment of pure love. He had walked out a week later, gone to work, and never returned. Now even the photograph had faded with time so that Nell dared not look at it, in fear the colour would fade irreversibly in the harsh reality of daylight.
Suddenly, there was a loud clunk and the coffin began to jog its way along the conveyor belt. Reminiscent of the seventies show, The Generation Game which Nana had giggled to, it dented the velvet curtain and jolted out of sight. There were more audible tears now and Nell bit her tongue harder. A vision – complete with sound effects – came to her mind of Nana lost in a large white hospital bed, clutching at the blanket as she struggled for each breath. The gurgle of the medication, the tubes, the smell, but mostly Nana’s eyes filled with panic as each breath failed to ease the pain. Minute after minute, hour upon hour. Elizabeth had waited for the one moment when Nell had gone to speak to the nurse to pass out of life. For days Nell had admonished herself for leaving her to die alone until the nurse had confided that the dying often waited to be alone before letting go. It had been a comfort to know that her absence had brought an end to the pain.
Then the doors at the back opened and a suited middle-aged man walked in.