Nathan attends the funeral for Doris and gets an unexpected surprise.
Note: Apologies for the delay in getting this chapter posted. As some of you might be aware, I recently flew out of the troubles of Hong Kong, in the confusion of Brexit, tying the knot (literally) with my longterm partner, Chris. In case anyone is interested, I've included alink here to some of the pictures of the day, which turned out to be a whole lot of fun.
There is nothing like a funeral to bring people together and inject a dose of grim reality back into a community. Maybe the same number had turned out for his father's funeral. Nathan had no recollection. Polly had been there to hold his hand and guide him through the ordeal. And the day of the funeral had gone by in a blur. Nathan estimated around three hundred had turned out to send off Doris Gwendoline Watts, nee Doris Gwendoline Partridge, owner of Daisy Chain florists on Crumbington High Street. Crumbington's nearest church, St Mary's, could squeeze in around two hundred and fifty. With all the pews packed full and other mourners standing in the aisles either side, others spilt out into the church vestibule, and out into the grounds. Not that anyone minded. The day turned out beautiful, June's first real kiss of summer.
Doing something right for a change, Arlene Killjoy point blank refused to allow the documentary crew to film any part of the day. She also informed the local police service and her husband's high profile law firm of the decision, in case anyone tried to sneak in and film anything on their phones.
Nathan, along with many who turned out, learned much about Doris that day, most from the heartwarming speech given by Father Mulligan which left not a dry eye in the house. Eighty-eight when she died, she had just turned thirteen when the Second World War came to an end. Apart from spending two years evacuated to the south coast of England, in the coastal town of Weston-Super-Mare, she lived her entire life in Crumbington. Ned—Benedict Watts—her husband, had been the son of a wholesale supplier of flowers to the family business. After courting for all of four weeks, he popped the question, sought the permission of her parents, and then the two married in St Mary's in 1952, the same church in which she'd been christened. Only fitting, then, that this should be where she bade her goodbye to the world.
"You know, Doris considered herself the luckiest person alive. Surrounded by people she considered her village family, all who shared their lives with her, people who trusted her to create floral arrangements for happy moments as well as times of grief such as these. She once told me she had the best job in the world, and that if she had her time all over again, she would change nothing—well, almost nothing."
Nathan wasn't sure, but Father Mulligan's gaze seemed to linger on him for a moment.
After the ceremony and burial in the church grounds—a plot reserved for her next to her husband—people gathered around chatting. Only one arrangement of flowers was laid outside on the front lawn—a huge, ostentatious arrangement from the Hogmore family, and clearly not the work of Daisy Chain. Doris had left instructions that instead of spending money on flowers, people should donate money to a local children's charity. Typical of Aunt Margie, who had sat front and centre in the church in her huge black hat, wilfully blocking the view of those seated behind, to have either ignored or been oblivious to Doris' final request. As Nathan stood there, squinting into the daylight, a woman came up to him, probably in her mid to late fifties. Even shaded by her sombre black veil, she bore an uncanny resemblance to the late Doris.
"I'm sorry. Are you Nathan Fresher?" she asked, a hand landing lightly on the arm of his black suit jacket. "Only, I asked a gentleman back there, and he pointed over this way and said, 'the man in the black suit'. Not terribly helpful on a day like today."
"Yes, that's me," he said, smiling, and shaking her hand. "Are you a relative?"
"Margaret—or Maggie, if you'd prefer. I'm Doris' niece. We ran the shop together. I believe you were there when she slipped away?"
Once again, Nathan mentally kicked himself. All this time, Doris had her niece helping in the florist shop, something everyone else in the village probably knew, but not him. Which cemented in his mind the notion that he was not a true Crumbingtonian, not someone who cared enough to get to know the business of everyone living within the village limits.
"Maggie, I'm so sorry. For your loss, I mean. And for not recognising you. Doris was like an aunt to me. And as much a voice of reason as I'm sure she was to you. But if it's any consolation, as far as we could tell, she went peacefully."
"It's okay. Father Mulligan told me all about your meeting. Honestly, I think it was simply her time. Even though she never complained, she seemed particularly tired of late. But I wanted you to know that she left everything to me, including the business. I'm all the family that's left now. Well, apart from my three grown-up daughters and my retired husband. That's him over there by the tombstone, standing in front of the statue of the silently praying angel of patience, folding his arms and tapping his heel because he's gasping for a pint. The irony is completely lost on him."
Nathan instantly liked Maggie. He couldn't help the smile tugging his lips, which felt like such a relief, particularly when Maggie's husband chose that moment to peer over at them and hold his hands out in exasperation.
"Anyway, look. The reason I hunted you out is that Aunt Doris was meant to give you this." Maggie pulled out a folded piece of paper from her small purse. "I found it on the mantelpiece the day after she passed. It's a cheque made out to you from the shop account. So I'm guessing you know what it's for?"
"No, I don't," said Nathan. "Could she have made a mistake?"
"Absolutely not," said Maggie, pressing the cheque into his hand. "Not that we could ask her anyway. But where money was concerned, my aunt was scrupulous to a fault. And if she wrote out this cheque to you, then you were meant to have it. If you knew her like I did, then you'll know she did nothing without reason. And before you try to decline her gesture, you should know my aunt and I are of the same mould, so if she wanted you to have it, then so do I."
Nathan nodded solemnly.
"On another note. I'm not sure who I need to approach—perhaps that Killjoy woman—but I'd like to take over my aunt's place on the committee. My eldest and her daughter are going to help me run the shop, so I'll have some extra time on my hands. We've all attended the past four fêtes and had the most wonderful time. And I'm a big believer in maintaining traditions. Who should I speak to?"
In Nathan's mind, another cosmic cog was turning, another piece of life's mysterious jigsaw puzzle falling into place.
"Leave that with me. But I don't see any problem. If I'm going to be honest, I think the committee would be delighted to have you."
After she had gone, he opened the neatly folded cheque and saw Doris had left him five thousand pounds. Why, he had no idea. And then it dawned on him. She had probably meant to slip the cheque into the small envelope she handed him, with the card and words It's Your Time To Live. Maybe she meant for him to take a vacation. Five grand would undoubtedly take him a long way. He'd already considered flying out to meet Jaymes in Malaysia if they managed to get another manager for the bakery, but had shut the idea down on the basis that Jayme's schedule meant him working six days a week, usually from sun up until sundown. Even to his own ears, flying halfway across the world for sex and solo sightseeing smacked of desperation. No, he thought, pocketing the cheque, he would save the money for when Jaymes flew back to England at the end of November. Maybe then they could travel together.
"So," came a voice next to him. His cousin, Grant. Since his blow up at the last meeting over a week ago, he had seen neither Grant nor Polly and put this down to everyone still being in shock over Doris. "How are you holding up, cuz?"
"Me? I'm fine. As shaken as everyone."
"Polly's wondering if you're still speaking to her."
"Of course. Why on earth—?" Midway through answering, the penny dropped. He'd completely forgotten about her Miss Marple command performance at the last meeting. "Oh, I see."
"She still feels bad about your last committee get-together. About Doris, of course. But also about keeping you in the dark, and everything. Needlessly, as things turned out."
"Tell her not to worry. We're all good. And I think we've both learnt a lot about each other this year."
"Ripper. 'Cause she's got something she's bursting to tell you."
"You think she'd tell me, mate? I have no idea. Something to do with the fête, I suppose."
Nathan peered around at the milling people, trying to locate Polly's distinctive blonde hair. Even though they had arrived separately, he had seen her sitting with Grant towards the front of the congregation. What on earth could she have to tell him? A quick phone around from Arlene two days ago confirmed they would be going ahead with their original plans for the fête, despite the tragedy of Doris' demise.
"Is she still here?"
"Gone back early to help arrange the food and drink."
Everyone had helped with the post-funeral arrangements. Nathan had commissioned Molly's daughter to knock up an assortment of rolls, sandwiches and hot soups—in case the day turned out cold. Mikey donated a mouth-watering array of cold meats, cheeses, olives and sun-dried tomatoes—accompanied by Nathan's sourdough loaves—together with pasties and pies, while Ted and Jessie Thorpe, landlords of the Crumbington Arms, made sure everyone had something to drink.
"Mind if I stroll back with you, cuz?"
"Of course not."
Most of those gathered appeared to have brought cars. Maggie, her husband, and a couple of women he assumed to be family members climbed into the back of a black limousine. With such a beautiful day and only a fifteen-minute walk to the village hall, Nathan preferred to saunter back anyway. They needed to catch up. Nathan had a few questions he wanted answering but waited until they had exited the church grounds and joined the other mourner's unofficial procession along the wide pavement.
"So when do you leave?"
Grant had the decency to appear sheepish, glancing nervously at Nathan before looking ahead as they strolled together, shoulder to shoulder.
"July fifth. Weekend after the fête. Fly out just after midnight with a short stopover in Dubai."
Nathan nodded grimly.
"It's only for a month, Nathan, and I know you're going to miss her—
"Not just Polly. I'm going to miss you both, Grant. I've really grown to like having you around."
"Oh mate," said Grant, clearly moved. "Don't make it any harder. Besides, I'm pretty sure you're going to be so busy, you won't even notice the time go by."
"What with your shop negotiations and everything. Poll told me all about it. Notice you didn't think of offering to sell the place to me."
Nathan looked aghast at him. Did he already know? That the place should really belong to him?
"Would you have wanted it?"
"Not on your life. Helping Fingal out is one thing, but running the place myself is not something that fills me with any kind of enthusiasm. Actually, I think a better emotion would be dread."
"You and me both."
"And she told me, by the way. Poll. About the will, and about the place being left to the oldest surviving member of the Fresher family. Which in a couple of months, if everything goes to plan, will be me. But just so you know—and I'm happy to sign anything to that effect—I want nothing to do with the place. Not only was that business built on you and your forefather's sweat and blood, but I am very comfortably off right now and plan to enjoy life. My father's words on his death bed drew me back here, and it was great to connect with you, Nathan. But something else entirely is keeping me here. So whatever you decided to do with the business is your decision alone."
Nathan kept walking, speechless, a swirl of emotions.
"Christ, Grant," he eventually whispered.
"What's the matter, mate?"
"I wish we'd known each other as kids. Reckon it would have been really cool to have a cousin like you around."
Grant stopped walking and pulled on Nathan's arm.
"Look, I'm really serious here. Once you've offloaded the place, come down to Melbourne, you and Jaymes. I'm not going to be there all the time, but I'd love to show you around, and there's a shitload of things to do. Before I come back here and settle for good."
"Is that the master plan?"
"Poll will love the place, but she won't want to stay. Even without her saying so, I know this village is where her heart is. And wherever her heart is—"
"That's where you want to be? When did you become such a lovestruck Romeo?"
"Piss off, cuz," said Grant, pushing Nathan's arm and laughing. "Or I might just withdraw my invite."
Just then, Nathan's phone began to vibrate in his pocket. Nathan pulled out the device and stared at the name on the display. Solicitor. In two minds whether to decline the call, he nodded to Grant to go on ahead, before stopping beneath a small tree at the side of the road and taking the call.
"Mr Fresher. This is Philippa Cawthorn concerning your offer to sell the bakery. Are you free to talk right now?"
On advice from Gupta, he had handed over the legal negotiations for the shop sale to someone with more clout in that area. A pitbull of a negotiator, Philippa Cawthorn had seemed the perfect choice at the time, but saw no issue in contacting Nathan at any time, day or night. All things considered—being Sunday and the day of Doris' funeral—Nathan felt like telling her to call back, but he would only have to deal with her later when he would rather be relaxing with his friends. As he watched other mourners drift past, he decided to take the call.
"First, the good news. The price you're asking has been agreed, which includes the apartment above the shop. So if you wish to continue living there, they'll charge you rent at current market rate. But from my early discussions, I think they'd want their new manager to take over the premises. And they will continue to employ your staff as you requested, salaries to be negotiated separately. However, one of their conditions would be for you to remain as assistant manager, locked in for a maximum of twenty-four months. They're absolutely adamant about this point. They want to assure continuity. Also, they insist the name of the shop be changed immediately using the Upper Crust logo, but with the words 'formerly Freshers' in small writing below. Those two conditions are non-negotiable."
Nathan had no qualms about the name change, but two more years in the shop he would not accept. After repeatedly and forcefully stressing this point, and Ms Cawthorn repeatedly telling him that rejecting the condition would effectively be a deal-breaker, he ended the call. As he stared at the blank display, only then did he notice the familiar, expensive perfume oozing from over his right shoulder.
Margie Hogmore stood there, a modern-day Audrey Hepburn, in a tight, figure-hugging black dress, black tights, spiteful black stilettos and wearing her ridiculously large hat covered in what appeared to be glossy raven's feathers.
"You know her?"
"We've met. Happily not across the boardroom table of her law firm. And let's just say her dulcet tones tend to carry even when she's whispering. Shop sale negotiations? So what do you think she might say when you tell her you're not going to accept their offer? When you tell her you've been offered something better?"
"You heard all that?"
"Darling, most of Crumbington heard that. I simply have enough background knowledge to be able to piece together the substance of the conversation. Tell me truthfully, though, what would they say if you told them to stick their offer?"
"Call their bluff, you mean? I think they're all too old and ugly to fall for a stunt like that."
"Who said anything about a stunt? It's high time the Hogmore family stepped back in and made their mark on this community. Clifton and I talked about investing in the village. We'd be willing to buy you out, as long as we could keep your current staff, and the name."
"Why on earth would you want to do that?"
"Lots of reasons. As petty as it may seem, Shawbanks, Radleigh, and Posner were one of my ex-husband's major clients when we lived here, and they ran him ragged. To this day I despise them. They were the main reason we rarely saw him. Transferring to the US bank seemed like a blessing at the time. And would have been if only my ex-husband could have kept his dick in his pants. On top of that,Clifton and I are not fans of the corporates and the way they bully their way into communities. Actually, this whole idea came from Clifton. I've a notion he wants to run a little celebrity business on the side, no doubt something he'll be able to capitalise on one day in the not-too-distant future, or when he retires from acting."
"Why hasn't he said anything to me?"
Aunt Margie put her delicate fingers over her glossy red lips to cover a secretive smile.
"He's going to. Day of the fete. And when he does, please do your Auntie Margie a favour and look surprised. But you know my son. He seems to think his ideas are infallible, that everything always works out the way he wants them to, like every single one of his movies. And most of the time, they do. But heaven knows, he hates rejection. You of all people must have witnessed that. So I wanted to test the water first, to see if it's even something you'd consider."
"Of course I would. It's just—" began Nathan, shaking his head in disbelief. "Do you even know what's on the table here?"
"Nothing I haven't had to negotiate before, Nathan dear. And I promise we'll match anything SRP have offered."
"And would I come as part of the deal?"
"Not if you didn't want to. We might need to consult you for a short time, but we could do that over the phone. If you don't want to remain a part of the shop—and I completely understand if that's the case—then we'd make sure that was written into the deal. But listen, I'm only giving you the head's up to allow you time to think. Let Clifton bring up the idea, and then you can tell him your decision."
Aunt Margie leant in then, put a delicate hand on each of his shoulders and pecked him on each cheek. When she turned away, she seemed to be headed away from the other mourners.
"Are you not coming back to the hall?"
About to step off the kerb and cross the lane, she turned back to him, a hand holding her hat in place against a rogue gust of wind.
"No, dear. I've bid my fond farewells to Doris and done all the other things I came here to do today. Not really a big fan of crowded halls and cheap drinks. So I'm heading back to the hotel to soak in a long, hot bath."
"When are you headed back? To LaLa Land?"
"Well, that sort of depends on you, dear. But certainly not for a month or so. See you on the Saturday of the fête. Are you going to participate in the date auction? Now that you've publicly acknowledged your significant other?"
"Well, as Arlene made clear to everyone, it's all for fun and, more importantly, for charity. So I thought as team captain, I ought to be a good sport and take part."
"Quite right, too. And if you play your cards right, I may well place a bid on you."
Before checking to see if any traffic headed her way, she winked once at Nathan before sashaying off towards a small carpark. Nathan stood watching her go, wondering again on what planet he had landed. One thing was for sure.
He needed to speak to Jaymes.
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