Drinking in the Last Chance Saloon
“Typical! Absolutely typical! Only Gwen would write rather than phone. That woman takes the biscuit, she really does!”
Alan looked up from the sports page and regarded his wife resignedly. He would have to listen to the latest episode of the long-running saga of her dissatisfaction with her family in general, and her cousin Gwen in particular. He might just as well get it over with.
“What has she got to say for herself this time?” he enquired.
“Only that Auntie Ethel’s died!” Rose replied.
For once Alan was astounded. He put away the paper and his cup of tea.
“But why on earth didn’t she ring to tell you?” he asked.
“That’s just what I’m saying, if you’d only listen instead of burying your head in that newspaper. Anyway, it seems she had a fall last Thursday, and when the doctor saw her on Monday – Monday, mind you, Gwen waited till Monday to get him! I - well, he said it was nothing to worry about. Then she died on Wednesday, and he, the doctor, that is, says it was an – I can’t read it – emblo- embo –“
“I think he means an embolism, a blood clot,” Alan helped out.
”Oh. Well, Gwen says the funeral is next Friday, and it’s family flowers only. I suppose that does include me. I am, after all, her closest relative.”
Rose suddenly seemed to run out of steam. She sat down abruptly at the table, put her head down onto her arms, and wept. After the merest pause, Alan got up and moved round the table to her, pulled her to him, and rocked her.
“There, there. You let it out, girl.”
Rose turned in towards him and wept all the more.
A few minutes passed, and her sobs subsided. Alan sat down again.
“I could swing for that Gwen,” he said. “She knows how close you were to her mother. Fancy not telling you straight away about the accident. And then to write the news like this. And to have arranged the funeral and everything all by herself. You think she’d have had the decency to ask ME to do it. I am the main man in the family, after all.”
“I expect she just wanted to show how ‘competent’ she is,” said Rose, “dried-up middle-aged spinster. She’s always been jealous of me. Always. She was furious when I won the shot-put at the school sports, and it’s been the same ever since. This is one way of getting her own back. Well, if that’s what she wants, that’s what she can have. We’re not paying a penny towards the funeral. She can stew in her own juice. Mind, you, we are going to that funeral. Definitely. I owe it to Auntie Ethel.”
“How old is your Gwen?” Alan asked.
“Let me see. I’m forty-six, so she’ll be coming up to forty-three. Mind you, to look at her, the way she dresses, you’d think she was a good ten years older than me.” Rhoda preened herself unconsciously.
“Yes, she’s never made the best of herself, always been a bit dowdy-looking,” Alan said. “You never know. Perhaps now she’s not got Auntie Ethel to look after she’ll spread her wings a bit. She must meet quite a few men in that library she works in. Perhaps she’ll up and surprise us all. I expect your Auntie Ethel will have left her a bob or two.”
Rose began to weep again, quietly this time, the tears oozing slowly and unstoppably. “We’ll have to tell the twins,” she said.” I’d better write to them. It’s only going to upset them, AND whilst they’re in the middle of their final exams for their degrees, too.”
“You could always ring them, you know,” said Alan, with the merest hint of irony.
The funeral had gone surprisingly well. Rose and Alan admitted that to each other on the drive home. It had been a pity that the twins, Samantha and Jayne, had felt unable to make the journey, but it was understandable, given that they were in the middle of their finals.
It had meant that only a few people were actually there : Gwen, of course, looking unusually smart in a new, tailored charcoal coat, and a small but jaunty hat; Rose and Alan, who had shared the Mourners’ Car with her, directly behind the hearse; and Cousin Muriel and her husband Arthur, who had followed on in their Volvo. Then there’d been Mrs. Tedstone and Mrs. Smith, Auntie Ethel’s friends, and of course the Vicar. A few neighbours had been at the crematorium too, but at the lunch afterwards, back at Hillside, it had been a select group.
The Vicar had left fairly soon, making apologies, as he had another funeral to conduct. Alan and Arthur talked expansively to each other about business, the forthcoming Test series, and their respective cars. Mrs. Tedstone and Mrs. Smith caught up with each other’s latest health problems, and Gwen, Rose, and Muriel indulged in stilted conversation about Samantha and Jayne, Muriel’s son Robert and his unsatisfactory fiancée Jill, and Gwen’s elderly cat Mogg. The atmosphere between Rose and Gwen had been guarded, but now, after a couple of glasses of Harvey’s Bristol Cream, it had begun to lighten.
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When Muriel went to the bathroom, Gwen leant forward, dropped her voice, and said hesitantly, “Rose, there’s something I want to tell you, but you won’t say anything to anyone, will you? Not even Alan?”
“Of course not, Gwen. Come on, don’t keep me in suspenders!” The old family joke brought a faint smile to Gwen’s lips. It seemed to decide her to proceed.
“I’ve met someone. A man. I didn’t dare tell Mother. She wouldn’t have approved. She never approved of anyone when I was young. She always managed to spoil things for me, and I thought my last chance had gone. Then I met Ross three months ago. He’s wonderful, Gwen. Everything I always wanted. And now, with Mother having, you know, passed away, there’s nothing to stop me. I mean, I’ve got this house we can live in, and she’s left much more money that I ever imagined she had. I’m not THAT old. If I got a move on, I might still have children. Oh, Rose, it’s as if my life is opening out! It sounds awful, but Mother dying has freed me. Oh dear, I shouldn’t say that, should I? But when you meet Ross, you’ll understand.”
Rose’s heart was thumping. All her senses were alert. Everything was wrong about this. Part of her mind was working overtime, thinking of how Gwen hadn’t got the doctor; how Gwen hadn’t telephoned; how she, Rose, hadn’t set foot in the house until the funeral today. She felt to be on the edge of a pit.
The other part of her was smiling and saying,”I’m so happy for you, Gwen. And when am I going to meet Ross?” Ross! That was another thing. It was no name for a respectable middle-aged man. It was straight from a magazine.
“Meet us for coffee tomorrow at eleven o’clock in the Tudor Café,” Gwen said. “I know it’s silly, but I’ve always looked up to you, Rhoda. I do so want you to like Ross.”
On the drive home, after discussing how well the funeral had gone, Alan and Rose lapsed into a thoughtful silence. Alan was pondering Arthur’s confidences about a new opening in the plastics industry, and Rose was hoping she was mistaken in what she kept thinking. If Gwen had precipitated Auntie Ethel’s death in some way – pushed her downstairs and left her lying there or something – for the sake of getting her freedom and a bit of life before it was too late, then she, Rose, ought to do something about it. But what? Auntie Ethel had been cremated. There’d been no trouble over the doctor signing the death certificate. And who was to say how she’d come to fall? Only Gwen had been there.
Rose decided to wait until she’d seen the fabulous Ross before she made any decision.
Saturday morning was hot and humid. Rose arrived first at the café, feeling sticky and dishevelled. She managed to get a table outside at the front, so she’d have a good view of Gwen and Ross approaching. She leafed through her magazine as she waited, but without noticing any of its contents.
It was five-past eleven when Gwen arrived. Rose had never seen her look like this. She was lit up, somehow, glowing with excitement, anticipation, and, yes, love, as she shyly led her companion up to Rose.
“This is my cousin Rose,” she said. “Rose, I’d like you to meet Ross.”
Rose was conscious of her heart banging, and there was a ringing in her ears. She felt a mixture of horror and pity spreading though her as she regarded Ross. She knew instinctively that it was for this that Gwen had, indeed, hastened Aunt Ethel’s death : for the vain hope of marriage and children. Roses’s eyes slid sideways to her innocent , sheltered, repressed cousin, than back to Ross. She took in the tell-tale signs: the smooth skin, the tapering jaw, neat hands, narrow shoulders, broader hips. She saw, too, the cocky, satisfied smirk. This was no man. For this smug travesty had her dear Auntie Ethel been sacrificed.
Rose picked up the heavy glass ashtray from the table, and hurled it at Ross, who went down like a stone. She had not lost her shot-putting skills.
“No!” she wailed. “No!”