Not Coffee by Frances Holland

Queen of hearts
Queen of Hearts by Victoria Holt, 2017

 

An ex-wife is someone you can hate, but a dead wife is untouchable. Everything you ever did together is preserved in amber, mounted on the stage of your life for your friends and family to look at whenever they feel like it. That’s it, ladies and gentlemen, step right up! You don’t even have to buy a ticket! The greatest entertainment for human beings is picking over the bones of dead loved ones.

When their father died, his little sister went a bit crazy for a while. She would only talk to people in words or phrases their dad had used. Coming into a brightly-lit room, she would turn the light off and say, “It’s like Blackpool Illuminations in here!” When their mother bought a new dress and shoes for the funeral, she opened her eyes wide and cried out, “What do you think I am? MADE of money?”

Their grandmother had ticked her off for that one. It was almost funny watching a six year-old wag her finger at a septuagenarian and growl, “You’re not too big to go across my knee, young lady! Now get out that door and straighten your face unless you want your arse skelped!”

David had been mortified at the way his mother had sobbed, and had kept his head down all day. He was keeping his head down now. He spent his days under the covers, in the bed that still smelled of Her. His mother called round every day to check he hadn’t “done something silly”, and to bleach the benches. She talked to him about the extension she was having built and what food she’d put in his fridge, but he heard it all through a bubble.

*

‘At least it was quick.’

‘I’ll say it was quick, it took her bloody head off!’

‘Oh, for God’s sake, is there any need to be so flippant?’

‘I’m not, I’m just saying-‘

‘Well DON’T “just say”.’

‘He’s in a state.’

‘Wouldn’t you be?’

‘I saw him round the Co-op. He’d forgotten what he’d come in for.’

‘I do that all the time.’

‘Yes, but your wife hasn’t just died, has she?’

‘What had he gone in for?’

‘Does it matter?’

*

People kept telling him that they would have to “go for coffee”. He hated that expression. He hated coffee. An invitation to coffee wasn’t about you, and almost always never came to anything. They said it for themselves, not for you.

*

Take as much time as you need –

                       but don’t leave it too long, because we’ll have to pay a temp if you’re off for more than two weeks.

How are you really?

                       can I have the juicy details you haven’t told anyone else?

She won’t have felt a thing, you know.

                       apparently, Anne Boleyn‘s lips kept moving after her head was cut off.

Eternal rest give unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her. May she rest in peace, Amen.

                       sorry, I’m afraid that’s the best we can do.

Have you given any thought to when you might be back?

You can stick your bloody job.

*

Six months went by and he lived off his savings. She’d been killed in their car, so he walked everywhere. He lost weight, and had to buy new clothes. The money for the new car sat in the bank.

*

Eight months after her death, he had to catch a train to London to attend the funeral of an uncle he’d never been close to. He paid extra for first-class, hoping for peace and quiet. But someone was threatening to kill themselves, and the passengers started to complain. They had more important things to do than hope a soul would stay anchored inside its host. David got off and vomited on the platform – yellow bile, and the complementary croissant that the passengers who were Worth More got. The prospective suicide was apparently averse to the sight of bodily fluids, and changed their mind.

A middle-aged woman asked David if he was alright.

‘My wife was killed in a car crash.’ Oh, that’s not what she meant, he thought.

‘Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry!’

He could feel the mist lifting. The woman was speaking to him and he could hear the shock in her voice clearly; he didn’t have the bubble around him anymore. No more conversations about extensions and what do you want for tea. When he got to London, he would buy a new suit for Uncle Donnie’s funeral.

‘It’s alright.’ He wiped his mouth with his sleeve. ‘She was leaving me for someone else at the time.’

*

He enjoyed the funeral. The service was short, the buffet was plentiful, he hadn’t been close enough to Donnie to feel terribly sad, and after all, the man had been ninety-seven. The phrase “good innings” was bandied about a lot at the club afterwards.

He didn’t know his London family very well, but they commiserated with him over his wife’s death, clapped him on the back and bought him whiskies.

‘ ‘Alf a lager when you’ve got a minute, darlin’!’

‘Two double rum and cokes over ‘ere, sweetheart!’

‘Packet of pork scratchings, love! And a smile wouldn’t go amiss!’

The barmaid was on her own, and she was getting more irate by the minute. David watched her through the warm glow of the three Irish whiskies he’d had. He’d never seen anyone so spectacularly ill-suited to the task of pulling pints and looking pleased to do so.

‘What are you doing? You can’t come behind here!’

David was behind the bar without quite knowing how he’d got there. He’d removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves.

‘You’ll never get this lot served on your own; they’re three deep as it is.’

She narrowed her eyes, watching him serve the double rum and cokes to the man with a face like a plate of varnished corned beef. ‘Well…you seem to know what you’re doing.’

*

An hour later, most of the mourners were belting out songs of the Motherland. ‘The Fields of Athenry’ had been sung four times.

The barmaid, who was called Michelle, was flirting with David. It had come as a surprise to him, after months of seclusion, that he was worth flirting with.

Michelle casually mentioned that she had a day off coming up in three days’ time, if he was still around. Just in case. If he was at a loose end. If he fancied doing something.

‘Yeah,’ David lied as he tried to recall through the haze of whiskey what time his train home was the next day. ‘We could go for coffee or something.’

 

About the Author:

Frances Holland has been writing ever since she was five years old when she realised that putting an amusing caption on a drawing of her dad could get cheap laughs. Her inspirations include folklore and mythology, as well as the everyday lives of the people around her. She lives in Northumberland.