3rd November, 1960
Some might argue that an infant returning to the Lord deserves rays of brilliant sunlight and the Hallelujah Chorus sung by the angels themselves. This was not that kind of funeral. It was a sombre occasion, a ceremony in black, as only a Catholic funeral knows how.
Violet Postlethwaite was still a young girl, though the strain of the past week and the black clothes and veil had given her the appearance of a woman fifteen years older. She was called Woods now, had been for the past five months, but people round those parts took to change slowly. So to them she was, and pretty much always would be, little Vi Postlethwaite.
She had elevated opinions of herself and very firm opinions about her name. She shuddered visibly if anybody dared to call her Vi to her face. ‘My name,’ she’d declare icily, ‘is Violet. Vi-o-let, three syllables. It is the name I was given and, had my parents wanted me to be called Vi, I’m sure they would have seen fit to christen me thus, in the sight of God.’
Her grievance with the name Postlethwaite was even worse. She hadn’t been married long to Donald Woods and, on returning from their honeymoon, they’d moved into the small public house, just outside Windermere, run by Donald’s parents. Local dialect was very neatly divided through the middle of Windermere. Anything Bowness and south was still Cumberland until Cumberland leaked into Lancashire, but north of Windermere the Cumberland dialect really kicked into its wellies. Violet had been horrified the first time she’d heard Postlethwaite contracted to produce the sound Postlethut and was glad that she’d taken her new name of Woods. Even these yokels would find it difficult to tamper with that. Donald wasn’t good for much, but at least he’d had the sense to be born with a reliably dependable surname.
She wasn’t thinking about names, though, as she stood beside the damp hole watching the coffin being lowered. She wept into a fine lace handkerchief and threw a small amount of earth on to the top of the white casket lid.
‘God bless, my darling,’ she sniffled, before throwing her head back and wailing, ‘My baby. My poor dead baby.’
Molly Davis, the Woods’ cleaning lady, sobbed even louder. ‘It was a lovely service,’ she would tell everybody later.
Georgina and Arthur, Violet’s parents, were the epitome of dignified mourning. They stood shoulder to shoulder with their daughter, lending her their support and strength. Donald was pushed out. He loitered, slightly apart, ashen and confused. In his turn he dropped a handful of earth into the grave but only after Monsignor Burton had urged him to do so. Donald had expected the soil to sprinkle like icing sugar on the top of a sponge cake, but Windermere earth is predominantly clay and it clumped in his sweaty hand and fell to the coffin lid like a stone landing with a resounding thump and Donald jumped as though he had been hit in the chest by a rock.
Georgina’s head shot up, glaring at her new son-in-law. Her lips pursed tightly and her black eyes peered at him. She looked startling, like a malevolent crow, as she shook her head in slow exaggerated movements. Again Donald had disappointed. Donald felt that Georgina blamed him for the mud on her new court shoes, for the escalated price of home-cured ham and for the fact that it was raining. But what she could never blame him for was the death of the child.
Donald didn’t want to get married. He’d never really wanted to put Violet in the unfortunate position that they had had to get married. If truth be told, he didn’t really like her very much. He hadn’t liked her on sight and his opinion of her had never warmed. He had been pushed into taking her out by his enthusiastic parents. Violet herself had made all the other decisions; he just went along with them because he found that, where Violet was concerned, that was usually the best way. What really upset Donald was standing beside that gave, with those people, on that day with his own mother smiling at him. It was one of those smiles that were meant to encourage but really it said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say.’ Perhaps what Donald hated the most was the fact that his parents were hurting. They didn’t deserve this. They were good people.
Violet told everybody that the baby was brought to his burial in what would have been his christening gown. ‘Yards of pure white lace,’ she said to anybody who would listen, ‘adorning his poor tiny little body. What was Our Lord thinking?’ She repeated this many times that day, along with, ‘How could He take our angel, our sweet, precious angel?’
Whispers carried back through the church from pew to pew. It was the tradition in these parts to go for open-casket funerals. Why then had they chosen to keep the baby’s coffin closed? But nobody dared mention it to the family. ‘Well,’ said Maisy Roach, ‘It wouldn’t be right to ask, would it?’
‘Mebby’s it were a really ugly babby,’ said Jack Dawson.
‘Aye, or ’appen it ’ad summat right wrong with it like. ’Appen it were that spiral biffica, there’s a lot a that abart.’ Maisy sucked in air through her teeth and tutted and they all nodded their heads in solemn agreement.
No expense had been spared on the funeral. Usually, Arthur clung onto his wallet as Georgina ripped it from his hand with vigour but, that day, he just looked shifty and sad…and scared.
Willoughby’s had taken care of the funeral. The family rode in the finest black Rolls Royce with red brocade curtains up at the windows to shield their tears from curious eyes. The coffin was brought to the church in a carriage with a glass mantle. A team of four identical ebony stallions, with black plumes on their heads, pulled the carriage, their hoof beats tolling perfect time along the cobbled streets. Mister Willoughby himself headed the procession. He walked in front of the carriage and black vehicles stamping the tempo into the road with his cane, raindrops reflected in the calyx patterns from the crystal orb on the top. He wore a black coat that came to his knees, a claret cravat and a black top hat, but mostly he wore dignity and respect. It was what the family had paid through the nose for.
Monsignor Burton ran out of prayers, his hands ached from being spread, upturned to God at chest height. His thin, reedy voice sang the final lament. His left knee throbbed with a deep arthritic pain from the damp weather. ‘God be with you,’ he said for the third time. ‘Go in peace to serve the Lord.’ For the most part the mourners had dispersed. They left quickly with a taste for fine sherry and salmon sandwiches with the crusts cut off. The family didn’t seem to know what to do. They looked down on the tiny coffin, shaking their heads and searching their hearts for guilt.
Jack Murray gave an apologetic cough, his hand fisted at his mouth. He didn’t know how best to disturb them and he was terrified of Georgina Postlethut, but time was getting on and Stinging Nettle was running in the three o’ clock at Cheapstow.
‘Jack,’ said Arthur, turning to shake the large man’s hand, but he couldn’t look him in the eye. ‘Thank you for coming. And please, thank everyone at the lodge for the floral tribute. It’s right grand.’
‘It’s nothing man, nothing,’ grunted Murray. His eyes examined the same pebble that Arthur seemed to find so interesting. ‘Terrible business, terrible. Of course’—cough—‘we’ve had another whip round’—cough—‘for…um…Well, there’s a small monetary gift for Violet. It’ll be presented at the lodge on Monday. We’ll see you there, yes?’
Arthur could hear raindrops bouncing off the lid of the coffin. They shook hands and, without another word, the president of the Windermere branch of the Freemasons Society walked away, wiping the shaken hand on the seam of his suit trousers.
Like the family, for his part in the scandal, he wouldn’t sleep easy in his bed that night.