The day of Leonard's father's funeral arrives with a few surprise guests.
On Friday morning—the day of his father's funeral—Leonard stood barefoot in the middle of his parent's overgrown back lawn still in his grey silk pyjamas. Beneath clear skies and mild sunshine, perspiration beaded his forehead from the range of movements he had performed. At first—and then for only a fleeting moment—he sensed the damp grass beneath his toes and wondered what his mother's neighbours might make of the strange man performing exotic routines in her back garden. But once he had begun, as soon as his mind switched off and his muscles stretched and burned, concentrating intently on performing the range of precise Qigong movements—The Eight Strands of Brocade—nothing could penetrate his concentration.
Seated finally in a lotus position on his workout mat and surfacing from meditation, conscious once again of his surroundings, he surveyed the yard with a critical eye. Should the weather remain dry, he would attempt to tidy the small garden during his stay. On looking back towards the house, he noticed his mother moving around in the kitchen. As though acknowledging, his stomach made a rumbling sound.
Neither of them spoke as they breakfasted on boiled eggs and buttered wholemeal toast, with a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice. With all the preparations for the funeral ceremony made—easier than Leonard had anticipated—they had little left to discuss
Much to his surprise, his mother had insisted on contacting people herself about the arrangements as well as sorting out the post-funeral gathering. A true professional, the local undertaker took care of almost everything else after getting a sense of their budget. Leonard had been left to sort out his father's correspondence—cancelling subscription or removing names from bills—as well as placing a small obituary in the local newspaper. Many of the tasks he remembered from when Kris died, although Kris’ family had snatched those away from him after they stepped in and froze him out of everything. At least today he would be there to bid goodbye to his father, a rite of passage Kris’ family had denied him.
According to his mother, thirty-seven accepted the invitation to the chapel service, most of those medical professionals and other colleagues from the university. The former chancellor of the college agreed to provide a eulogy on behalf of other teaching fellows and the current executive team. Leonard would also speak, albeit briefly. His mother, who had never shown any desire to speak publicly, wanted to get the whole depressing business over and done with.
After he washed up and tidied away the breakfast things—they had settled into a comfortable routine of his mother preparing food while he tidied up—Leonard had a whole morning free, so he pulled out his laptop and caught up on work. Touching base with his team back in London became a highlight in the otherwise monotony of staying with his mother.
"Hey, Leonard." Isabelle's cheerful face filled the screen on his laptop. "How are things going?"
"Funeral today, followed by snacks and drinks at a local pub. Then all I have left is a meeting with my father's solicitor on Monday, to go over his will, which should be routine. So I'll stay the following week and be back in the office the week after, all going well. How are things your end?"
"Perfectly fine. Don't hurry back if you've got other things to deal with. The accountant meeting went well, as you heard. I've sent you a soft copy of the report and put the original on your desk. Murray Drummond and his crew let us down again—"
"What do you mean?"
"Reading between the lines, I think they've taken on more than they can cope with, so we're going to have to source someone else for the Cheltenham manor renovations."
"Again? That's four times he's done that."
"I know. I've tried GHB and a couple of other specialists, but they're all busy, too. Any suggestions?"
"Yes, delete Drummond from our preferred builders' list. Shit. I would have suggested GHB, but you've already tried them. Heritage. They're going to be expensive, but give Molly from Heritage a call, see if they're available. I'm getting a bit tired of us bouncing around trying to source decent builders. When business is good, we're the first they blow off, because they all want the easy, well-paid work. Of course, as soon as times are hard when the market slows down, they'll be on their knees begging us for work. Anything else while I'm on?"
She gave him a very brief update on their other sites. Everything seemed to be going fine. Only the building specialist for the listed building in Cheltenham had his temper frayed. He'd bought the property in the hopes of renovating and getting a buyer on board by May. But significant structural work would have to be undertaken, and approvals sought from the local buildings authority to ensure none of the listed building's original features would be affected.
"Kieran's out today in Sussex seeing a private owner of vintage Bentleys. Otherwise, I'd put him on. At least he isn't leaving rude post-it notes on my screen."
"He's doing that to you now?"
"Yep. I think he's missing you."
"Keep up the good work, Isabelle. In case I don't tell you enough, you're doing a fantastic job. See you soon."
Sweet girl that she was, she turned away to her right at that remark as though someone or something had caught her attention. But he spotted the telltale red tinges on the cheek caught on camera. Funny little thing, she always blushed when anyone complimented her. To save her embarrassment, he clicked off the program and leant back.
* * *
Just after midday, dressed in traditional black suit and tie combination, Leonard held the front gate open for his mother. She chose a simple long-sleeved black dress and carried a black handbag, but wore no hat or gloves. Across the street, a few neighbours he didn't know peeked through net curtains or stood outside their front porches to observe the black limousine filling the road. When his mother called the funeral director's suggestion of a hearse morbidly garish and ridiculously expensive, they agreed for the coffin to be taken directly to the crematorium. Leonard put his foot down when she suggested he drive his own or his father's car, or that they ride the public bus.
"At some point, you need to take this contraption for a run,” said his mother, as they stepped off the kerb, behind his father's navy blue Astra, ready to climb into the back of the plush limousine. Leonard simply nodded, opening the limousine door for his mother, and adding another chore to his already long list. The Astra had a thick film of grime on the bodywork, giving the machine a sheen of neglect. "Before it turns into a lump of rust. The thing's been sitting there gathering dust for over a month."
"I thought you were going to learn to drive?" he asked, before walking around the other side of the limousine, and climbing into the soft leather seat next to her.
"Well, I didn't. Your father did all the driving. And it's too late now."
"Why is it too late?"
"My eyesight's getting worse. And I lack the confidence. Besides, I have my bus pass."
"Then you'll need to sell. No point having the car sitting outside the house doing nothing."
"Sell it then. The old rustbucket's no use to me."
"Can you not sort that out?"
"Don't you already sell motorcars? Besides, cars are a man's domain. You'll know what you're talking about when people come to view the beast.”
And just like that, his mother landed him with yet another task on his already lengthy list. Both sat in silence as the limousine moved painfully slowly down the road. Leonard focused his gaze out of the window, through the tinted glass, watching the real world go by. With the funeral and other arrangements completed, he would need to sit his mother down and have a serious talk about the future.
At the crematorium chapel two miles outside Drayton, the car park had already half-filled. His parents—both humanists—had specified cremation with non-religious ceremonies when their time came. Entering the small hall to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata felt entirely fitting. Ending the service with his father's choice ofsong provided a glimpse into his rare sense of humour. He had chosen My Way by Frank Sinatra, which would undoubtedly raise eyebrows as well as causing a few stifled giggles.
Insisting on speaking first, Leonard struggled to come up with anything meaningful to say about his father, and left the heavy lifting to the medical professionals his father, Professor Colin Day, had worked alongside, those who also had—very clearly—been good friends.
"My father and I were not what you would call close. But I believe we shared a mutual respect. One thing he taught me, something that has stayed with me throughout my life, was the importance of ambition, hard work and perseverance. My father personified those qualities and, although I didn't follow in his footsteps academically, they have served me well in business. I will miss you, father, your patience, sound advice, and your wisdom. Wherever you are now, I hope you rest well."
With a quick nod to the celebrant, he returned to his seat alongside his mother. Fortunately, the former chancellor provided a long, polished and heartfelt eulogy, which compensated for Leonard's concise effort. When the curtains closed around the coffin, and the Sinatra classic began, Leonard breathed out a sigh of relief. At a nod from the celebrant, he took his mother's arm and led them through a side door out to the chapel gardens.
For the next half hour, stood next to his mother, he listened to awkward, often repetitive condolences from people he had never met and thanked them for their kindness.
At one point, a woman around the same age as his mother came up to introduce herself. Leonard recognised her as the woman who had planted herself in the pew behind them, and throughout the ceremony had muttered muted words. At one point, Leonard had turned around, ready to glare, thinking she might be talking on her mobile phone. Instead, he saw she had her eyes closed, hands clasped before her mouth, grasping a purple lace handkerchief to her lips and talking to herself.
Although Leonard could immediately see the resemblance to his father—the same grey eyes, straight nose, and angular face—he had never met the woman before. Maybe her grey hair tied back severely in a bun, accentuated the facial features. By her side, a bald, heavily overweight man in dark glasses, around the same age as Leonard but with less family likeness, slouched untidily, giving off an air of boredom and indifference.
"Geraldine," the woman said to his mother, producing an overly sad smile, before thrusting out a black-gloved hand. "My condolences on your loss. And my apologies we haven't been in touch more. I know you don't share our faith, but I hope you don't mind that I prayed for my brother's soul throughout the service. He is in the hands of Our Lord now."
Leonard's mother rarely displayed emotion but appeared to stiffen at the outstretched hand, beforeaccepting the gesture. Once connected, and somewhat affectedly, the woman brought her other gloved hand to place on top of their clasped hands.
"Thank you, Millicent," said his mother, her awkwardness apparent, especially in the way she pulled her hand away.
"Leonard, this is your Aunt Millicent. Your father's sister. And this is your cousin, Matthew."
Taken aback by this new knowledge, Leonard nodded a welcome, before being pulled into a tight hug by the aunt. While holding him, she whispered in his ear.
"God bless you, Leonard. We'll speak later."
After another tight hug, she pecked a kiss on his cheek and then let him go. The cousin, Matthew, stepped up, nodded and shook hands weakly, the fingers cold, damp and chubby. Leonard likened the handshake to clasping a pack of freshly opened sausages. Matthew also seemed incapable of making eye contact. Noticing other people waiting to pay their condolences, his aunt and cousin stepped away, swallowed up by the small crowd.
"My father has a sister? And I have an aunt and a cousin?" asked Leonard, as an aside to his mother before the next well-wisher stepped up. "When were you going to tell me?"
"Millicent, the 'pious, pompous, poodle' your father used to call her. They live in Clifton, Bristol in the south. I had to invite her but didn't think she'd come, being as he stipulated a humanist ceremony. You know your father's views on any form of organised religion. Before you were born, he asserted his opinions at a family gathering—without me, thank goodness, because I was carrying you at the time—and harsh words were spoken. That weekend, he came home and told me his sister no longer wanted anything to do with him or us. Not sure exactly what happened, but I know he felt a sense of relief, said he didn't want her kind of fanaticism infecting your childhood. So we cut all ties. We've only met them once since, at your grandfather's funeral. You'd have been mid-twenties then, living in London, busy working hard. And you have—had—three cousins. An older cousin, Luke, who passed away years ago, and Matthew and Mary, the twins. We still get a Christmas card from Millicent each year, something your father used to open, read aloud, and then, with a snort, cheerfully rip up and throw in the bin."
Although Leonard knew his father's views, he never imagined him to be a man who would let them come between family members. Whatever happened must have been severe, especially if he told his wife and son none of the particulars.
Once everyone who could come filled The Red Lion for the post-funeral gathering, Leonard felt grateful to have his cousin Eric attending, even though the conversation wasn't exactly riveting. Standing in one corner of the room, among other regulars, they could chat in virtual peace. Most of the twenty-something mourners who attended turned out to be college employees; current and former. A few came up to introduce themselves again, but most knew his mother well. The way she flitted from one small group to another, he guessed she enjoyed the attention. One minor consolation was him not having to stick by her side for the whole afternoon. Eventually, she settled into a small booth chatting with Eric's mother, Aunt Marcie. Both sat red-cheeked nursing large glasses of red wine, a plate of sandwiches and sausage rolls between them.
When Eric excused himself to use the toilet and get more drinks, Leonard stood awhile on his own until someone tapped him gently on the shoulder. He turned around to see the solid frame and, frankly, handsome face of Adrian Lamperton standing before him. Adrian eyed Leonard’s chest uncomfortably but stood his ground, eventually meeting Leonard’s eyes. Absently, Leonard realised the man must have been marking his time to speak to him.
"You're Leonard Day?"
With some uncertainty, Adrian held out his hand in greeting and Leonard was met with a firm handshake, his hand enveloped by Adrian's much larger, coarser one.
"Look, you probably don't remember me—"
"Lamperton. Adrian Lamperton," said Leonard, letting the hand go. “We both went to Cranmer High."
Where you labelled me Gay Lenny, he left unsaid.
Adrian smiled. Leonard did not reciprocate. Against his better judgment, he noticed Adrian had a nice smile, one that reached his eyes and made his whole face brighten. Up close, Leonard realised that on top of his light caramel, biracial colouring, he had cute orange freckles on his nose and cheeks. Something came back to Leonard then. Adrian's father had been a big West Indian man, popular in the community, while his mother had been a small, fiery Irishwoman. An unlikely combination, but unmissable in the small town. As for Adrian, he still had a full head of the dark red hair Leonard remembered, but worn short now and showing signs of grey at the temples. A few years older than Leonard, he must have been touching fifty but looked in incredible shape.
"Or maybe you do," said Adrian. "Happy days, eh?"
"Yeah. Not so much."
Adrian's smile faltered then. Leonard didn’t care. The guy had been an asshole to him at school.
"Look, I was in the other bar and noticed you all arrive. Maisie the barmaid told me the occasion and what had happened. I didn't know your father well, but heard he was respected around here, especially at the university. So I just wanted to pass on my condolences. And I'm not sure how long you're in town, but if there's anything I can do—you know—to help out in any way, just let me know."
"That's kind of you.” Leonard’s voice remained flat.
Adrian's eyebrows flickered, and he appeared to want to say something else, or maybe expected Leonard to take up the conversation. Eventually, the smile faded into silent awkwardness. Beating a retreat, he turned and moved away back to the other bar. Despite having tainted memories of the man, Leonard felt a tingle in his solar plexus watching the thick jeans-clad thighs, slim waist and solid shoulders of the man, not to mention the tight muscled backside moving off. If only they belonged to somebody else. With his gaze lingering, he barely noticed the slight figure approach him, but definitely caught the pungent odour of mothballs.
The woman, his Aunt Millicent, stood with a tall tumbler of what appeared to be sparkling water. Once again, his cousin, Matthew, stood slightly behind her in his charcoal suit and tie, and dark glasses, like a personal minder. Never having met the family, he had no idea what his uncle looked like but guessed Matthew’s father had similar looks. Heavily overweight, he had a bald pate surrounded by jet black hair—a little too black to be natural—and a bloated face of chubby jowls and drooping double chin.
"I'm sorry it's taken the death of my brother for us to finally meet. Your father and I didn't see eye-to-eye on many things. But in the end, he was still family, and as the Good Book teaches us, we need to love each other unconditionally despite our differences. Shame really, because you are about the same age as Matthew and Mary. Had we not been estranged, I'm sure you'd have been close.”
Leonard wasn't so sure. Nothing about Matthew came across as congenial.
“Is Mary here?” he asked.
"Poor thing. Her husband has mobility issues. Otherwise, she would have."
"Oh, I'm sorry. That must be difficult. Send her my best when you return."
"I will. So do you have faith, Leonard?"
Leonard had heard the question asked in different ways in the past, but knew innately what his aunt was asking. Right now, the last thing he wanted was a sermon on the depths of his aunt’s faith.
"If you're asking whether I follow any organised religion, then the answer is no. I'm on the fence. Agnostic."
"I see. And are you married?"
Leonard used to hate being asked the intrusive question, something that happened regularly in his line of work. But now he simply shrugged off the irritation and answered truthfully.
"Ah, well. Marriage is not for everyone. Since his divorce, Matthew hasn't found anyone special, either. Have you, dear? Not for want of trying."
"Mother!" came Matthew's voice, a high, nasal sound. "Do you have to?"
Leonard tried hard not to smile.
"Don't worry, Matthew," he said, smirking over his aunt's shoulder. "It's a mother's duty to embarrass her offspring in public."
Leonard couldn't interpret the reaction behind the sunglasses, but Matthew's mouth remained unsmiling. Instead, he looked away while taking a sip from a pint glass of bubbly brown cola filled with ice cubes and lemon slices.
"Your father could be a difficult man, Leonard," said Aunt Millicent, her lips pursed.
Leonard's mood spiked at the comment, bearing in mind the occasion. Two hours ago, he had no idea who this woman was. Did she now feel familiar enough to justify judging his father in front of him?
“As I said at the chapel, my father had integrity. He was also principled and stood firmly by those principles, something he passed on to me. I have nothing but unconditional love and respect for him."
"Yes, yes. I'm sorry. I'm not trying to denigrate him in any way, especially for his transparently vital work in the field of science. I'm only talking about his closeness to the rest of the family. You probably don't know this, but he rarely saw any of us after he moved up here. Tragic really, because we were very close as children. I blame the university for brainwashing him with their godless ideology."
Leonard doubted anybody would force his father to believe anything without empirical proof, but felt best to leave well alone. He hoped his lack of a response might entice Aunt Millie to move away and looked around to see if Eric was on his way back. But Aunt Millicent had not finished.
"Will you be living back here with your mother?"
"Only until my father’s estate is tied up. Then I'm back home."
"And where is that? Home?"
"South London. Balham."
"I see. Your mother said you've called the solicitor to run through your father's Will on Monday, so Matthew and I will remain in town until that's finalised."
Leonard felt sure his father had no significant assets, apart from the house and his life policies. Everything would be signed over to his mother.
"You don't need to stay. I'm sure it'll all be pretty straightforward. If you prefer, you can leave my mother or me your contact details, and we'll either email a summary or call you."
“Thank you. But I’d rather be here to find out in person."
By late afternoon, only his mother and Aunt Marcie remained of the funeral guests. Even cousin Eric had decided to leave. Leonard went to join them. Both red-cheeked, they had been giggling together like schoolgirlsas he sat down at the end of the small booth.
"She's changed," said Leonard's mother, when Leonard told him about his conversation with Aunt Millicent. "Not so prickly, and definitely not constantly thrusting her religious fanaticism down everyone's throats."
"But she doesn't drink," add Marcie, slurring a little. "So I wouldn’t trust her no further ’n I could throw her."
"She told me her and Matthew are staying to attend the reading of Dad's Will."
“Did she?” His mother frowned at that and stared at her drink. “Not sure why. He never mentioned leaving her anything. But I suppose she has a right to be there, being family. And the poor woman has had her fair share of tragedy."
"What do you mean?"
"Her husband, Michael, walked out on her and the kids some years back. So she's been on her own since then. Although it looks as though Matthew's living back home again."
Leonard sympathised but didn't consider a husband walking out tragic. Marcie voiced his thoughts before he had a chance to speak.
"Not sure I'd call that tragic. The poor sod probably had enough of her, if even half of what you told me is true."
"I remember the day Colin got a call from your grandfather to let him know. Said he thought trouble had been brewing between the pair of them for a long time. Ever since what happened to Luke."
"Who's Luke?" asked Marcie.
"Her oldest. Good looking boy. Bright, too, by all accounts. Tragic."
"Why? What happened to him?" asked Leonard.
"I thought I'd told you. Luke took his own life."
As I mentioned, this is a slow burner mystery/romance, so I hope this is getting you hooked.