Carla knew something was wrong the minute she pulled into the drive; she could feel it. It was more than the usual dread that she always had when she got home. What had he done now? Would he be in a good mood, a good mood that didn’t depend on having drunk half a bottle of scotch. Only the week before he had fallen and cut his head, so drunk that he didn’t even notice the blood dripping into his eyes. Today it was different. The house was silent, no music blaring, no interminable golf commentary on the television. She called his name softly, in case he was sleeping. The lounge was just as she had left it, except that now the patio doors stood wide open, the muslin curtains billowing into the room. It was another blisteringly hot day, and at first she could see nothing untoward as she walked outside, the bright sun blinding her as it bounced off the swimming pool. ‘Harry?’ she called again. ‘Harry, I’m back.’ Then she saw him.
Barbara was preparing Sunday lunch when the telephone rang. It was one of those family rituals that she liked to hang on to, and a chance to get all the family together. Sylvia, Richard and Linda always came over, and Tom with his current girlfriend.
‘Barbara, it’s Tom. He sounds upset,’ Ian said, handing her the handset.
She wiped her hands on her apron and took the telephone. ‘Tom? Everything all right?’ she asked. ‘You’re still coming over for lunch, I hope.’
‘Hi Mum. Yes, I’ll be there, don’t worry.’
‘Good, because I’ve bought this lovely piece of top-side.’
‘Mum, Carla telephoned me this morning,’ he said interrupting her.
‘Carla?’ For a moment she didn’t know whom he meant, then she realised there was only one Carla that they both knew. She felt her stomach turn over in trepidation. ‘Yes?’
‘Dad’s dead,’ he said.
‘Your father’s dead?’ she repeated. ‘Harry, you mean?’
‘Yes Mum. Dad. He’s dead. Heart attack or something. Not sure exactly.’
‘When did it happen?’
‘Yesterday. He was cremated this morning.’
She sat down, her legs felt weak. She’d hardly given her ex-husband a thought for years but now the image that came to mind was not of the man who had left her that dismal Sunday morning, desperate to get away from her tears of rage, but rather the handsome teenager, walking her home from school, holding her hand and smiling lovingly at her.
‘What is it?’ Ian asked, sitting on the settle beside her.
‘Harry’s dead,’ she said.
He took the telephone carefully from her hand. ‘Tom, it’s Ian. Do you have any details about what happened?’
‘Not really. He died yesterday and he was cremated this morning. Carla wanted me to let the family know.’
‘Did she say anything else? Is there to be a funeral?’
‘I don’t think so, she didn’t say.’
‘Okay, Tom, thanks for ringing. Will you let Sylvia know?’
‘Yes, I’ll ring her this evening. Bye Ian.’ The telephone went dead.
‘He sounds very upset,’ Ian told Barbara.
‘He’s the only one who has tried to keep in touch with Harry, so I suppose it’s natural.’
‘Are you all right?’
She wiped her eyes. ‘Yes, I’m fine. It’s just a bit of a shock. Do you think we should ring his mother?’ she asked.
‘I’ll do it for you.’
‘Maybe we should go over there.’
‘Whatever you want.’
‘Teddy’ll have to be told.’
‘Don’t worry, Tom’s going to ring everyone. Let me make you a cup of tea.’
‘No, something stronger, I think.’
ONE YEAR LATER
Carla stared through the window of the aircraft at the sodden land below her; Britain had experienced weeks and weeks of unremitting rain and it showed in the waterlogged fields, the overflowing streams and rivers and the scattering of glistening ponds where none had been before. She heard the heavy clunk of the plane’s wheels drop down; they were about to land. In no time at all she would be walking across the concourse, collecting a single suitcase from the baggage hall, picking up the hire car she’d arranged, and then there would be no going back. The one question that was beginning to haunt her was how she was going to explain to Harry’s family why it had taken so long to bring him home. His son, Tom, had written a few days after she’d told them about Harry’s death, saying that they wanted to bury him in the family plot. And here she was, almost a year later, finally doing what was requested. What on earth was she going to say to them?
She closed her eyes and braced herself for the landing. Already expected, it still came as a shock when the wheels touched down and the plane started to coast gently along the runway. She looked at the rain falling steadily from a steel grey sky, and longed to be back in Spain, somewhere that was more her home now than this alien country.
The funeral was tomorrow. At first she hadn’t replied to Tom’s letter, but as the months passed and she began to feel stronger, she wrote to say she would do it, she would bring his ashes back to Frieth, if Tom arranged everything with the vicar. He didn’t ask why there had been a delay; he simply said he would email her with the date and let everyone else know. He made it sound as though a lot of people would be attending and she’d instantly regretted phoning him. How would she survive it? She didn’t know these people. Harry never spoke about his family; she imagined it was more from guilt than dislike of them, but he never admitted to it. She went through each of them in her mind, ticking them off, like a shopping list: Harry’s first wife, Barbara, abandoned with two young children, Tom and Sylvia, both grown-up now, and Phoebe his mother. And Teddy of course, his brother. He and Harry had been very close once, but something had happened to destroy that relationship. A few years before he died, Harry had finally persuaded Teddy to visit them in Spain; his brother had promised to stay for a month or maybe two, but instead he left rather suddenly. Neither of them told her the reason, and all Harry would say was that he never wanted to see any of his family again, and as he downed a large glass of scotch, he vowed never to return to the UK. She hadn’t fully appreciated the depth of his anger until he removed the wedding photograph of Sylvia walking happily up the aisle on Teddy‘s arm, from its prominent place in the lounge. Whatever had transpired between the two brothers, it had a profound effect on Harry, and from then on he withdrew more and more into himself, finding solace in drinking alone.
Well, whether he wanted it or not, now he was returning to the place of his birth. She bent down and picked up the casket from the floor and placed it on her lap. His family had been waiting long enough for his ashes. There was such emptiness within her, an ache that would not go away, and it was for this too that she had come; she needed to find some closure, some peace, some forgiveness. Bringing Harry back to his family might give her that. Carla took a deep breath and blinked away the tears of self pity; she would get through this. She had got through worse. All she had to do was to take it one step at a time.
She closed her iPad and slipped it into her handbag. Tucked in there, between her passport and her boarding pass was another letter. This one was from Routledge and Routh, solicitors, inviting her to discuss Harry’s will. She had been stunned to receive it; Harry had never mentioned making a will. Not really; he had said he’d like to leave something to the children, but not that he’d actually written a will. She had always imagined, that under Spanish law, what few possessions they had would pass directly to her, as his legal wife, so she hadn’t done anything about it. That was the system. So what was this all about? What did it mean? The more she thought about it, the more she realised it wasn’t just Harry’s family she didn’t know; she didn’t know the man who had been her husband for twenty years.