Puffy-cheeked clouds, a vivid blue sky, a balmy breeze. If there was such a thing as a perfect day for a funeral, this was it. The feathers on Audrey's black velour fluttered as the cortege passed. A wreath shaped like a tennis racquet lay on top of the white coffin, which was surrounded by flowers. As soon as the last car glided by, Audrey and Brian joined the procession of black clad, bible-clutching villagers who had gathered to say goodbye to Steven Smith. It was a sobering sight.
The capacity of the church was misleading. First impressions were that it was small, until one noticed the height of the stained glass windows, so tall it was difficult to make out the entire design. The pews either side of the centre aisle connected with the radiators which in winter months lent warmth to the cold stone. There was a musty smell of old books and ancient hassocks. Displays of bud roses on the pulpit and at each end of the choir benches, pressed home Steven's tender age. Like the flowers, his life had been cut off before getting the chance to bloom.
Gladys and Sam sat several pews behind the grieving parents. Gladys wore a black beret, the only extra to her usual black attire. Sam wore navy with a black armband. Tugging Brian's elbow, Audrey indicated her wish to join them, and as they slipped into the pew Gladys gave Audrey a surreptitious wink to demonstrate her opinion of her escort, which made Brian smile as he undid the coat buttons of his grey pinstripe suit.
On the far side Vera sat with her mother. Vera waved and Liz nodded in acknowledgement. Young Bess was with them; no doubt the awkward passage to the church had prevented her invalid mother from attending.
Those mourners who could not find a vacant pew huddled at the rear and, for those outside, a loudspeaker had been erected to relay the service. Steven's tearful school friends fidgeted and whispered, rustling hymn book pages, and hunting noisily for handkerchiefs, every one solemnly mindful of the occasion.
Carrie swayed during the first hymn and Fred held her tightly to him. He whispered something and she nodded. Witnessing this, Audrey's voice faltered. How would she feel in Carrie's shoes, trying to get through the days and months without her son.
'Suffer the little children to come unto me,' quoted Michael. 'Steven's cheerful grin will light the pathway to Jesus and all those who follow will do so joyfully. He was a treasure to his parents. He will be a good friend to those who sleep beside him.'
Sneaking a look at Brian, Audrey prayed that their boys would have long and contented lives.
There were tiny beads of sweat on Brian's forehead when they left the cemetery. 'What happens now?' he asked, removing his jacket.
Taking a cue from him, Audrey slid out of her sable coat and replied that she thought they should wait for Gladys.
'Naturally. He's part of the fixtures now.'
Michael Spencer broke from a group of parishioners and scurried towards them, his cassock and surplice swinging around his feet. 'Do forgive me if I'm being presumptuous,' he said, 'but am I right in thinking you two are now united.' He beamed as he scrutinised their blushing faces. 'I guessed as much when I saw you entering the church, and I can't tell you how utterly delighted I am. Please accept my very best wishes.'
In thanking him, Audrey wondered why she had always presumed him to be a man bent on usurping her space. Was he not simply showing concern for her welfare? For all his cordial felicitations and apparent warm-heartedness she reckoned not but ignored the niggling doubt, preferring to think it was her who had misconstrued his affable attitude for something more ambiguous.
As more of his flock emerged, Michael sped away. 'One of these days,' Audrey muttered, 'he'll trip over that frock.'
Decorum having deserted her, Vera skipped ahead of her mother to talk to Audrey. 'Wasn't it a lovely service,' she said, slipping her hand in the crook of Audrey's arm. 'I am glad we came back.'
'So am I,' Audrey said, thinking of the other reason she was pleased to be here in Fieldmoor.
Seeing her mother approaching, Vera gabbled that everything was absolutely hunky-dory at home, but her mother wasn't above telling her off for running, so if Audrey didn't mind she would walk by Brian. Without further ado, she scooted to Brian's side and plunged her arm in his and, by the time Liz joined them, Vera was querying whether Brian had thought any more about adopting her as his girl friend.
'Sorry, your Ladyship. I'm promised to another.' Brian furtively batted an eyelid at Audrey, forgetting that Vera was shrewd enough to discern the significance.
'Yes!' Vera yelled, punching the air. 'Whoopee. Right on. Fantastic!' Suddenly she stopped jumping around and looked enquiringly at Audrey. 'Can I tell Bess?' Receiving agreement in the form of a humorous nod, Vera flitted off.
'Will she ever grow up, d'you think?' Liz was laughing as she watched her daughter go.
She seemed much more self-assured than yesterday, strikingly graceful in a tailored black and white outfit. Her posture had improved and the pinched look had entirely vanished. The visible transformation, a direct result of shedding inhumane burdens, was equal to Audrey's; with no trials to drag them down both were poised and self-assured, their countenances free of worry lines, their general demeanour showing renewed contentment.
'I hope she stays as she is,' replied Audrey. 'Youthfully fresh, with no anchoring grudges or bitterness. She'll confront the cruel world's occupants soon enough.'
'I agree, and I've already decided to seriously monitor her prospective liaisons. The idea of her diving into one like mine makes me cringe.' Liz paused and glanced round, and in a muffled voice, she said, 'I heard from Gerald this morning. He's moved to Ireland. Permanently from all accounts. I was wondering how that would affect you?'
'Me? I think it's brilliant news. The further away from me the better, providing he doesn't venture into long-distance phone calls.'
'I meant regarding the court case.'
'There's not going to be a court case. As I see it, his flight has eliminated both our difficulties. If I pressed charges it would mean having contact with him, albeit from a distance, and I don't think I could stomach being in the same room as him. I want to forget the past and move on. And there's Vera to consider. You and I will doubtless handle our contemptible memories, but I think it would be unwise to heap them onto Vera's young shoulders.'
'That's exactly how I feel.' Liz glanced to where Brian stood talking to Sam, then fastened her eyes on Audrey. 'And it might bode ill for your relationship with Brian. I'm thrilled to the traces that you two are together again, the poor man's been floundering for years.'
Gladys invitation to lunch was gladly accepted since Audrey's own kitchen was so impoverished, though Brian whispered to her that he felt a bit in the way in a kitchen that resembled Crewe Station on a Friday. Audrey nudged his arm and told him not to be so daft, but she smiled coyly as she said it, contemplating a future of cookery pursuits and other pleasures.
Sam excused himself as he trundled a trolley past them, a means of transportation Gladys loudly deemed unnecessary, considering its load was a single bowl of crisp green salad. She tutted as she lugged a tray of chicken portions from the oven, complaining that men had no sense when it came to domestic tasks. Transferring the steaming portions to stoneware dishes, she placed them next to a basket of wholemeal bread, then, after casting a supervisory eye over the table, she instructed them to help themselves.
Audrey selected a chicken piece and scooped salad from the bowl Sam offered. There was an awful lot of food in the light of there being only two of them, assuming the invitation had been a polite afterthought, and she began to question if the meal had been planned, and, if it was, why the masquerade. She thought back to when they came out of the church, when Gladys unexpectedly asked them to drop round, phrasing the invitation: 'Come to us if you like, we've got a bit of chicken left over from yesterday.' Looking at the table now, Audrey calculated that the bit of chicken would feed the locality, and then some.
'It's nice in here now you've decorated,' Brian said, viewing the room.
'It used to be two rooms,' said Sam, speaking knowledgeably, as if he personally had accomplished the alteration, but he quickly clarified the remark by referring to Gladys's husband, Percy. 'He knocked the wall down to create one big kitchen. I reckon he did it so he could watch Gladys cook. Sensible chap. I also like watching a cook at work.'
Brian smirked. 'Well, they do say the way to a man's heart is through his stomach.' He gently butted Audrey, and quietly asked if she was okay.
For reply, she seized his hand. She could smell his aftershave and minty toothpaste. She wanted to recline against him and confide how she felt, but she didn't trust herself to stay calm. Out of the blue, she had a vision of Liz Tomlin's former tense face, the face of a woman having no knowledge of romance or ecstasy, and Audrey thanked God that Brian was normal and able-bodied, and gave additional thanks that the skirmish with Gerald had been no more than a foolish, personal blind spot.
When all the chicken pieces had been devoured, Gladys carefully deposited an iced cake on the table, while Sam poured champagne into flutes and handed them round. Audrey knew then that her suspicions were correct; there was definitely something afoot. Brian, too, was puzzled, judging by the sharp prod he administered with his elbow. They didn't have long to wait to have their curiosity quenched, for Gladys carried her bubbling drink to the head of the table and stood motionless until she had their attention. Then she began her address.
'It was sad seeing Steven buried today, and my heart went out to his folks. The lad had a proper send-off, bless him, especially from his friends at school.' Almost as an aside, she stated, 'I never thought I'd attend the burial of one so young. Bad enough sending us old 'uns to the other side.' She interrupted her little speech and bowed her head, while Audrey tried, by rapid blinking, to block the tears. However, Gladys wasn't taciturn for long. Straightening her shoulders, she pressed on. 'Perhaps today's not the right time, but young Steve wouldn't have wanted us to be miserable. Our lives must go on, so I've asked you here specifically to share my happiness. I haven't been so at peace since the day dear Percy died, and it's all because of him.' She inclined her head towards Sam and gazed lingeringly. 'So I'd like to propose a toast: to Sam.'
'To Sam,' they said, charging their glasses.
It was smashing of her to do that, thought Audrey, reflecting on the legion of qualities that made Gladys famous, of which the help, the counselling, and the friendship came top of the list. At Brian's murmured direction, she abandoned her deliberations and turned her eye to the square cake, painstakingly iced with yellow icing, with yellow rosebuds at each corner. There was some lettering in the middle, but, with the cake being back-to-front, it was indecipherable. She was about to query it, when Gladys's next utterance told her that the speech wasn't finished.
'When you're ready,' she said, sternly addressing Audrey and Brian, whose heads shot up like errant pups. 'I've got something else to say. I can't tell you how thankful I am you two've come to your senses.' As she spoke, she rotated the cake. 'I couldn't imagine spending the rest of my days cajoling you to get your blessed act together. So get your drink, Sam. Let's toast our two good friends.'
Brian squeezed Audrey's waist and, with his lips brushing her hair, he hissed, 'Look at the cake.'
Audrey leaned forward to scan Gladys's microscopic writing: For Audrey and Brian, whose love is immortal.
(to be continued)