Chapter 1 – Monday 23 January 2017
Rebecca unpeeled the plastic wrapping and the little sticky security strip from her new lipstick and applied it admiringly. She couldn't remember the last time she had bought a new lipstick, certainly not an expensive red one. Russell would have had kittens. Worse. All of her make-up was from the market or passed down to her from her sister, Susie, or her friends. Sometimes, the apparent hand-me-downs from Susie were brand new and unused. Susie would say the colour didn't suit her or it was an unwanted gift. Rebecca didn't always believe her.
She checked her reflection in the hall mirror straightening down her new satin silver grey dress. This had also cost a small fortune. Earlier in the week, when trying it on in the changing room, she had secretly imagined wearing it again, perhaps at Christmas when she went out with the girls. The next moment, she was in one of her daydreams twirling about envisaging herself as one of those models in a magazine showing how you could go from “the office to the party” in the same dress by changing your hair, shoes and accessories. Maybe this Christmas, she would stay until the end of the evening dancing in her new dress. Even have her hair done. Yes, she would definitely have her hair done, what a treat that would be. Her daydream had been broken by the sound of her mobile echoing in the changing room. It was a text from her son, Josh, wondering where she was and checking she was alright. He was such a kind, thoughtful young man. She had lost all track of time out shopping as she relished the liberation of such a simple experience. Russell hated it when she was late. He was easily annoyed by her daydreaming too, even though she had always been a daydreamer, long before they had even met. Maybe she had daydreamed too much over the past few years, though sometimes, it felt as if it was all she had left. Her own secret thoughts where no-one, not a single soul, could see in.
In the hall mirror she saw Lauren, her beautiful daughter, come up behind her. She turned around and hugged her tightly.
“You okay Mum?”
“I will be, what about you?”
“Me too, come on, let's go, the cars are here. Joshy, you ready?”
Rebecca took a deep breath, slipped on her shoes and put on her jacket, also new, and took the hand of her daughter. Josh put down his guitar and joined them in the hallway, just as Rebecca turned the heating up so the house would be warm when they returned.
“I want you to know I am so proud of you both,” Rebecca smiled as she put her arms around her gorgeous children, “ready?”
Her children could not be more different and she often had to catch herself when she was watching them. They appeared to blossom more each day and were coping remarkably well lately, all things considered.
Outside, Rebecca looked up at the dull overcast sky. In contrast, the flowers inside the hearse were bright and beautiful especially the Chrysanthemums saying “DAD” along one side of the coffin. On the other side, pretty Carnations spelled “RUSS”.
The crematorium was about half full when Rebecca, Lauren and Josh walked in behind the coffin. Eyes focused straight ahead, Rebecca could not bring herself to make eye contact with anyone, she had to hold it together. She felt dozens of eyes boring into her. What does the grieving widow look like? She began to doubt her choice of outfit, the heels and the red lipstick, suddenly feeling over dressed and overly made up. Which she was, of course, for her. Rebecca and her children took their place at the front pew and Rebecca briefly glanced over her shoulder. She recognised most of the people as Russell's family who had all travelled down from the North for the funeral. He had a large extended family, most of whom she had met only a handful of times over the years, usually at weddings and funerals. A few people were there to support her which she found extremely overwhelming and there were others that she didn’t even recognise. She thought they were probably Russell’s work colleagues and she found it strange that these people who she had never even heard of were crying – she decided that they must be crying about the situation rather than in grief, like crying at a sad film. She felt incredibly in control, somewhat detached, as she felt a soothing calmness envelope her. She felt as if she was floating above everyone watching it play out beneath her. Like she was in a dream but with the absolute certainty of knowing she wasn’t. She realised she felt free and the relief was palpable.
The vicar spoke first about Russell's life, where he was born, where he went to school, his family, his career and his marriage to Rebecca and their wonderful children and amazing life together. This was followed by the hymn “Morning Has Broken” where the singing was almost drowned out by the organist. Rebecca wondered why this hymn was so widely used as she realised she must have chosen this stupid hymn herself last week. It was all a blur now, it was a blur then too actually, one big massive blur. How was she meant to make decisions when her brain was addled with the fact that her husband had just died. Rebecca thought there should be a law that every grown up has their own funeral organised, paid for and ready to go. A “pay-as-you-might-like-to-go” contract. At least there might be some good music.
After the congregation finished mumbling to “Morning Has Broken”, Russell’s elder brother, Richard, took his place at the pulpit and gave the perfect eulogy. It was the perfect length, totally engaging and a tiny bit witty which seemed to relax everyone and even cause a small giggle or two, albeit slightly suppressed, it was a funeral after all. Richard was never going to fail with this task, he was a very clever and affable man. Russell had envied him. Rebecca just envied his wife.
After the final hymn, everyone came outside, the subdued women checked each other's mascara, some hugged and others went so far as to admire each other's dresses because you can do that after the service, but not before. The men began shaking hands with each other and patting each other on the back giving that grave sympathetic look that men can just about muster, that good old stiff upper lip reserved solely for sombre occasions. The children began running about, letting off steam having just had to behave for the best part of an hour without a screen to amuse them.
Rebecca stood in the middle of the pub surrounded by people yet still felt so completely distanced from everything. She could sense an emotional shift as people stopped crying and started drinking and telling funny stories about Russell, often embellished with a good sprinkling of bullshark (as Joshy would say), anything to make the story and the deceased sound funnier or better than they really were. No one is allowed to speak ill of the dead are they? Rebecca joined in with the mourners and found it very strange that the focus of attention was on her. She was surprised that this didn't feel as unnerving as perhaps it once would have.
A familiar voice broke her thoughts as she turned around to see Tom walking towards her. He embraced her tightly.
“You okay Cinders?”
Rebecca smiled at Tom, they worked together and she felt very humbled that he had turned up today to support her. He had called her Cinders for years. Whenever there was a leaving do, a birthday gathering or a meeting at the pub, Rebecca always had to rush off. In fact, she couldn't remember a time when she wasn't the first to leave. Tom always teased her that she had to get home before she turned into a pumpkin. She had long ago given up explaining that, in the fairytale, it was the stagecoach that turns into the pumpkin, not Cinderella. She couldn’t remember the last time he had called her Rebecca. She liked it, it felt nice. No, better than nice, it made her feel special that he had his own name just for her. Though the irony of the name itself was never lost on her.
“Ah hello, yeah hanging in there I guess. It's very odd though, I don't even know some of those people over there, they keep staring at me. Must be work people perhaps, I don’t think I’ve ever met them.”
“Probably,” he managed while finishing off whatever was left on his plate. Tom liked his food, not that you would know to look at him, and he often bought them both cakes when he popped out in his lunch hour. “And Cinders, you know I’m here for you, don’t you? I can even do tissues, just say the word.”
That made her smile, she always had tissues and everyone seemed to know that. If someone was upset, tell them to go to Rebecca, she has tissues. Trudie in the office was known for posh designer handbags, she for tissues. Great.
“And no rush with coming back to work, Shaun sends his love and is sorry he couldn't make it but says to tell you, you really don't need to hurry back.”
“That's decent of him but actually, part of me wants to carry on as normal, whatever that is. I think going back to work will be better for me than sitting about at home, I'll give it a few days and see how I feel. And thanks Tom, it's good to have you here, it really is.”
Work had been her salvation in recent years and that was not going to change in a hurry, she was looking forward to going back. Tom winked at her and then headed back to the buffet. He never failed to lift her, with the simplest of words and gestures. He was one of life's good people and she definitely knew the difference.
The rest of the wake passed with a procession of family members and strangers all coming up to her and passing on their condolences, all with a similar mantra of “such a great man”, “so much of his life ahead of him”, “the perfect family man with the perfect life”, “such a tragedy”. The cliches just kept on coming. Rebecca graciously accepted the sympathy, the pity, the hugs and nodded, agreed and hugged back all the time holding it together while wishing they would all fuck off. People also mentioned how amazingly she was coping through this awful nightmare, as they didn't think they could be so brave. She wasn't sure how she was holding it together either, though the rather fine Marlborough Sauvignon that Susie kept bringing her was certainly helping matters.
Throughout the afternoon, there were plenty of offers of “if you need anything, just ask” and “call me, whatever the time, day or night”. Once again, she was very grateful though, with the exception of Tom and her own family, the few people she would even consider calling in the middle of the night were not here today. To be fair, they weren't being hypocrites as they were not exactly Russell's biggest fans and that had suited Russell just fine. Most of the offers of help were people paying lip-service, saying the appropriate stuff at the appropriate time. Most of these people were sneakily, and some just blatantly, looking at their phones, probably catching up on their social media or just checking the time to work out when it would be appropriate to leave. Everyone was being so fucking appropriate, she just wanted to scream. Instead, she found herself wondering what the acceptable time to stay at a wake was. Is it like a dodgy date? Not that Rebecca could be sure, though she thought two hours seemed perfectly acceptable. She just about stopped herself then from daydreaming about starting to date again. Now is not the time, she reminded herself and snapped back to the present.
Eventually the last stragglers left, the ones that had turned it into their own drinking occasion, the ones Rebecca didn't know. They had probably offered to go to represent the company Russell worked for, anything for a paid afternoon off work with some free food thrown in. Apart from Lauren and Josh, the only other people left were her mum, sister Susie and Kate, Susie's wife. Rebecca still couldn't get used to the fact that her little sister Susie was married. It wasn't her being gay that she couldn't get used to, everyone had worked that out many years ago, probably before Susie. It was because they were together for so many years before being able to marry, it was funny hearing Susie say “my wife” which she did as many times as she possibly could in every sentence. There had been no dodgy organist at their wedding, it was a civil ceremony at a swanky hotel and it had been the most incredible day ever. Rebecca had been a bridesmaid and had felt a million dollars in her dress; there were so few occasions that she got to go to the ball, she had enjoyed every second. Even Russell's continuous comments about how weird he thought it all was didn't spoil it for her.
They headed back to Rebecca's house where her mum, Susie and Kate were staying over. Her mum, Maureen, still lived in the house that Rebecca had grown up in near Chichester, not far from Susie and Kate and they had all travelled together for the funeral. They walked into the warm house and all took off their shoes to a chorus of “Ahh, that's better” except for Josh who just laughed at them all. Rebecca considered putting her pyjamas on, she knew she could in front of these, her favourite, people but decided to stay in her dress just a little while longer and anyway, she was rather liking the dress/slippers look. It reminded her of coming in from nights out years ago with her friend Sam when she was a teenager, before she had met Russell. She put the kettle on though Kate had other ideas and opened a bottle of wine along with a box of Rebecca's favourite chocolates. Rebecca loved her sister-in-law so much, she felt she had gained another sister or at the very least, a true friend. Susie and Kate made each other so happy, they were an absolute pleasure to be around. The magic of their relationship was infectious and made you believe in the fairytale of “happily ever after”. She often wished she lived nearer to them and her mum, and, right there and then, made a promise to herself that she would make a real effort to go and see them all as often as she could. This was not one of her daydreams, she really would make it happen. They were her family and she had missed them over the years. Her mum wasn't getting any younger and Susie and Kate were in the process of planning a family and Auntie Becky was not going to miss out on that. No way Jose!
She would have to buy a car. She would be able to get one now and imagined herself driving a brand new car, a small car in a funky colour with happy music blaring out, hair blowing in the wind, bright make-up and heads turning admiringly as she drives through the town.
“Becks? Becks? You want your usual, with soda and ice?” Kate's voice breaks her reverie and she's back in the room once more. Her closest friends call her Becky and Kate calls her Becks, always has done. Kate calls Susie “Suze” and Lauren “Lols”. Rebecca thinks she must get everyone's name down to one syllable somehow. She calls Maureen “Mum” and did so even before she married Susie and somehow that's always been okay, her mum likes it, Rebecca can tell she does. They are very close, her mum loves Kate and adores her for making Susie so happy. Russell had always called her mum Maureen and her mum had never suggested otherwise.
“Oh sorry, yes please Kate, thank you. Sorry I was miles away then.”
Kate immediately assumes she is thinking about Russell and Rebecca doesn't correct her. Kate hugs her tightly before handing her a very full glass of wine spritzer, just the way she likes it. How thoughtful that she remembers how she likes her wine. That, and bringing her favourite chocolates, makes her cry for the first time that day. Whoever cried over wine and chocolates? But the gesture of it completely unravels her, thoughtful kind acts always do. Kate leads Rebecca by the hand into the lounge where her mum and Susie leap up to cuddle her, stroking her hair, bundling her on to the sofa where they sit either side of her, not letting her go.
“There, there,” her mum soothed her, just like she did all those years ago when Rebecca was a child. She let herself be caressed and calmed by her mum and her sister, feeling so very loved and cared for, enjoying their closeness, their smell, the nostalgia of their familiarity. Kate hovered for a moment before getting on her knees in front of them and joined in the group hug. They all had a good sob and raised their glasses to the future and then her mum added “to Russell” because that seemed like the right thing to do.
Almost three bottles of wine and all the chocolates later, everyone went off to bed. Rebecca lay in the king-size bed alone and reached out to the empty space beside her. Her thoughts turned to …