An extract from BREAKFAST AT DARCY'S
I’ve always liked funerals.
There’s a reassuring certainty to the whole thing.
Not like weddings. Lovely though they are, filled with all that hope and optimism for the future, I tend to have a slight niggling doubt about whether the happy couple will still be together in a few years’ time. Or whether they might be filing for divorce, and paying exorbitant solicitor’s fees to argue over one of the gorgeous but expensive wedding gifts still patiently waiting to be unwrapped.
Christenings and baptisms are much the same for me, too. I often find myself wondering, Will this child really be able to keep the faith when he or she is eighteen years old, and being tempted by the sins of the flesh? Especially when you notice that one godparent at the font is updating his Twitter status, and the other’s checking her reflection in the holy water.
But then that’s me all over; I like to know what’s going to happen next. Be prepared – that’s what the Boy Scouts say. So I always like to be. Although I’m not too sure your average Akela would advise taking six changes of outfit with me on a weekend away, when – maybe – only three would be sufficient.
The funeral I’m at right now is my aunt Emmeline’s, or Aunt Molly as I used to call her when I was a child. Considering how close we were when I was growing up, I’m extremely ashamed to admit that I haven’t actually seen my aunt Molly for more years than I care to remember. I kept meaning to pop over here to visit again, but weeks kept turning into months, and then months into years, and you know how quickly time seems to fly by these days.
When did that start to happen? Is it another of those EU regulations, like measuring everything in kilograms and litres? Was time officially speeded up in Brussels one day, and I missed the big government announcement?
The ‘over here’ I mention is Ireland. Dublin, to be precise. At the moment I’m just outside of the fair city in the village my aunt lived in for the last few years of her life. I don’t remember her in this small cottage the wake is now being held in. The house I remember her living in was a huge, sprawling mansion by the sea in County Kerry. As a child, I used to travel over from England to spend my holidays with her while my mother was working. I can remember happy days spent mostly outdoors in the bright sunshine. Even in winter, when we were well wrapped up against the biting sea wind that would sweep across the coast, the sun always seemed to be shining in my memories of Molly.
Why does the sun always seem to shine more in your childhood memories? Is that something to do with the EU, too?
As I ponder this thought, a lady with tight white curls breaks into my thoughts. ‘Now, another cup of tea, dear?’ She’s wearing a flowery apron, and is standing next to me waving a pot of tea in my direction.
‘Oh, no, thank you, I’ve already had two,’ I say, placing my hand over the top of the cup.
‘Cake, then?’ She gestures towards a table groaning under the sheer weight of food upon it.
‘No, really, I’m fine, thank you.’
‘Not from round here, are you?’ She peers closely at me through a pair of silver spectacles.
‘No, I’ve come over from London for the funeral.’
‘Sure now, how would you be knowing Emmeline?’ she asks suspiciously, eyeing me up and down.
‘I’m her niece, actually.’
The woman’s expression immediately changes to one of pleasant surprise. ‘Oh, you must be Darcy, so y’are! Why didn’t you say so before, child?’
‘Yes, that’s right.’ I smile at her. ‘But how did you know?’
‘I’m Maeve. Molly was my next-door neighbour.’ Sadness fills her blue eyes as she remembers her friend. But they begin to brighten again as she talks with fondness about her. ‘Molly was always talking about you, so she was. About when you used to come and visit her as a child – when she had the big house across in Kerry. Shame you didn’t come lately, though . . . ’ She gives me a reproachful look.
‘It’s just . . . I’ve been a bit busy with my job and everything.’ Once again I feel the wave of guilt that has been flowing back and forth all day wash over me.
‘What is it you do again, now? A newspaper reporter, isn’t that what Molly said?’
‘Kind of . . . I’m a features editor on a women’s health and beauty magazine.’
‘Health and beauty, you say?’ Maeve considers this. ‘Ah, what’s there to write about that? A good scrub down with a bar of carbolic soap and some cold water, that’s what’s kept me going for over eighty years.’
I look with surprise at Maeve. She certainly doesn’t look over eighty. I would have guessed somewhere in her mid- to late sixties at a push, and her skin doesn’t look anywhere near that.
‘Yes, that surprised you, didn’t it?’ She smooths out the ruffles in her apron proudly. ‘None of your expensive potions and creams for me! You don’t need them.’ She leans in towards me. ‘You take a piece of advice from me, child. Stop wearing all that slap on your face. It’ll fair ruin your skin in the long run. Good clean air and clean living is all you need to keep yourself looking young.’
My hand goes subconsciously to the incredibly small Mulberry bag I’m carrying. It’s crammed with lipsticks, powders, brushes and compacts – my make-up bag alone would normally be bigger than this tiny effort. But today I’ve chosen to carry this one because the colour perfectly matches my new pewter-grey Louboutin shoes. I wanted to look my best for my aunt Molly’s funeral, even if she wouldn’t be there to see me.
‘So now,’ Maeve says cheerily, suddenly seeming to forget all about her grave warning. ‘That’s grand someone from Molly’s English family has been able to make it over to see her off.’
‘Yes, there aren’t too many of us left now,’I begin, but Maeve has been distracted by a large man deliberating over a plate of fruit cake.
‘Now, can I cut you a slice of that cake, dear?’ she asks him, glad to be of service to someone in the food department at last.
As Maeve deftly cuts the man a large wedge of cake, I look around at the motley gathering of people now squashed into the kitchen of the small stone cottage that had belonged to my aunt. I guess by their ages they must be mainly Molly’s friends and acquaintances. I’d thought something similar in the church, that it was odd how everyone was so much older than me. Normally at funerals there’s a slight variation in the age of the mourners, but everyone at Molly’s funeral is around my aunt’s age. I’m assuming they must be her friends and acquaintances because I know for sure she had no brothers or sisters other than my mother, and since she passed away when I was twenty, some seven years ago now, I’m the only one left on that side of the family. I try desperately to remember some of the stories Molly told me when I was younger, about her time as a child in Ireland, but as hard as I try nothing is immediately forthcoming. I find it frustrating that memories I want to recall remain buried with those I would rather forget.
Sighing impatiently, I drain the last of my milky tea from my cup. How can I have let this happen? Aunt Molly meant so much to me when I was younger; how can I have just let her drift out of my life like this? I should have tried harder to keep in touch . . . I should have made the effort to come over here and visit her. It wasn’t like we’d ever fallen out, or anything. We’d just drifted apart. No, that wasn’t fair; I’d allowed us to drift apart.
I turn to see a slim, smartly dressed young man wearing a suit and tie standing by my side. ‘Am I addressing Miss McCall?’
‘Yes, you are.’
‘Miss Darcy McCall?’
He looks relieved. ‘Oh, good. Then allow me to introduce myself.’ He holds out his hand. ‘Niall Kearney at your service, Miss McCall.’
‘Pleased to meet you, Mr Kearney.’ Hesitantly I return his handshake.
I smile, hoping it will prompt him into continuing.
‘I’m so sorry, of course you wouldn’t recognise the name, would you?’ He reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a business card. ‘Here’s my card. My father, Patrick Kearney, was your aunt’s solicitor and friend for many years. He sends his deepest regrets that he’s not here himself today, but unfortunately he’s not too well at the moment, so I represent the company on his behalf.’ As he proudly informs me of this, he squares his narrow shoulders underneath his slightly oversized jacket.
‘I see.’ I glance down at the card for a moment. ‘But what do you want with me, Mr Kearney?’
The young man furtively glances to either side of him before leaning in towards me. ‘First of all, Miss McCall,’ he whispers,‘I must insist you call me Niall. I may be a solicitor, but I much prefer the more personal approach.’ He looks about him again in a clandestine manner. ‘And perhaps we could go somewhere a little bit more private to continue our conversation?’
‘I’m not too sure . . . ’ I hesitate; this guy seems a bit odd.
‘It’s just,’ he looks about him again, gesturing for me to do the same. And indeed, although the others in the room are trying to look like they’re sipping at their tea and deeply in conversation with their partners, pairs of eyes are swiftly darting in our direction, then just as swiftly darting away again. Ears are definitely being tilted towards us and hearing aids adjusted, as Niall and I stand awkwardly together on the other side of Molly’s kitchen. ‘What I have to tell you is of a somewhat delicate nature. I really don’t think it needs broadcasting around the room and across the whole of the village in ten minutes flat.’
‘Perhaps we could go somewhere a bit quieter, then.’ I glance around me. ‘How about we step outside?’ I suggest seeing my aunt’s garden through the kitchen window. ‘I doubt there’s anyone out there today, it’s too cold.’
I slip on my charcoal-grey military coat, which I’m secretly quite pleased to be wearing again. I’ve only recently acquired this Vivienne Westwood gem online – a steal at seventy-five per cent off. I’d hummed and ha’ed at the time whether to buy it, but on this freezing-cold January day it’s been well worth its price tag.
We escape out into the back garden one at a time, so as not to arouse any more suspicion. There is a definite chill to the air as I step outside, and a strong wind immediately begins to gust around me, lifting my long hair up from my shoulders and twisting it in knots around my face.
Damn wind. Of all weathers, I hate it with a passion. It always attacks me, usually when I’ve just done my hair – in my case, this means my long blonde hair, smoothed and straightened to within an inch of its life. Then, just as I step outside, a strong wind will be lying in wait for me in the sky above, like one of those cartoons of weather you see in children’s books. It grins down wickedly at me before beginning its assault on my newly created coiffure. At least with rain you can try to put up some sort of fight with an umbrella. But wind prevents even the use of that form of protection, so making it much the more powerful of the two evils.
The great outdoors and I aren’t generally the best of friends, in January, full stop. But after the stuffiness of the overflowing house, even I’m glad to feel the cold, fresh air encircling my face and filling my lungs as I begin to talk to Niall.
‘So what’s the big secret, then?’ I ask politely, as I try and tuck my hair under the collar of my coat. This is all very clandestine, meeting like this in Molly’s garden. It’s a shame Niall isn’t better looking, then this furtive outdoor meeting with a stranger might be quite exciting.
I check myself. I must get out of this habit I’ve got into since I started working on Goddess magazine, of immediately judging everyone on their appearance. I know that’s what everyone does – forms their opinion of someone in the first so many seconds of meeting them. But working in the beauty industry as I do, where your appearance counts for everything, it makes this habit so much worse.
Besides, it isn’t Niall’s fault he’s, well, how can I put it kindly . . . let’s just say he’s no oil painting. The suit he’s wearing consists of a plain grey single-breasted jacket and trousers, and he’s teamed it with a white shirt and a plain burgundy tie – hardly the most exciting of combinations. He’s about five foot seven tall, slight of frame – OK, he’s skinny. He wears plain-rimmed silver spectacles. And he has wavy, mousy-coloured hair cut into a neat a short back and sides – all very appropriate for a young up-and-coming Dublin solicitor. He isn’t really ugly, I decide upon further inspection, but then he isn’t really attractive– he’s just . . . plain-looking.
‘No big secret, Miss McCall,’ Niall says, interrupting my thoughts. ‘I just need to arrange a meeting with you, that’s all.’
‘To go through your aunt’s will.’
At the moment, I’m slightly distracted trying to prevent my Louboutin heels from sinking into the soft muddy grass. Just because I bought them brand new off eBay from a woman who was selling them to pay for her daughter’s wedding, doesn’t mean I want to dig the garden with them. ‘Molly left a will?’
‘Yes, and a very thorough one, if I may say so. She knew exactly what she wanted to happen with her estate when she passed on.’
‘Her estate?’ My ears prick up: solicitors only usually use the word ‘estate’ if there’s a fair bit of money involved. ‘So she had some money tucked away under her mattress, did she, my Aunt Molly?’ I joke, smiling at Niall.
‘Please, Miss McCall,’ he says, looking at me sombrely over his spectacles. ‘The reading of a deceased’s will is never a matter to be taken lightly.’
‘No, of course not, Mr Kearney, I . . . I mean, Niall.’ I attempt to look serious and businesslike. ‘So when is the reading?’
‘That depends on you, Miss McCall.’ Niall scouts around him in that same stealthy manner he had earlier, back in the house. Then, as he tilts his head towards me, his pale blue eyes dart around him one more time. ‘Because,’ he says in a tone so hushed I have to strain to hear him properly, ‘I’m pleased to inform you, Miss Darcy McCall, that you are the sole beneficiary of Miss Emmeline Ava Aisling McCall’s entire estate.'