She sat straight-backed, at the front, staring resolutely ahead as the mourners filed in behind her. The little parish church of Broadly Underhill had served the faithful these last eight hundred or so years and Jeffrey and herself for the last forty. She knew she would have to greet people after the service, listen to the time-honoured words of condolence, inevitable really.
She recognised the strains of the Bach chorale and let the gentle polyphony swirl around her mind, shutting out the realities of the day. She played piano herself and JSB was still her favourite.
The closing note from the organ resonated around the church and amidst shuffling of feet and discreet coughing, she saw the Reverend Samuelsson slowly climbing the steps to the pulpit; he wasn’t getting any younger.
‘We are gathered here today…’ he intoned.
She shut off. She didn’t wish to share thoughts on a life she, in reality and despite all those many years of marriage, barely knew. She wasn’t religious, as Jeffrey had been, her rational mind had shunned the strictures of belief and faith since her teens. But she gave thanks to religion for inspiring some of the greatest music & architecture the world had known. And here in the old Norman church she felt great reassurance, surrounded by traditions determined over many centuries and a need to just…lose herself in a gentle numbness
She stared at the coffin ahead of her, Jeffrey’s coffin. She couldn’t push away the thought that one day she would have a coffin of her own. Perhaps she should design it herself?
She was brought back to the present realising the vicar had finished and was now replaced by Michael Henryson, for many years the chairman of the local Conservative Association and Jeffrey’s bridge partner. He had called by a couple of days before and had asked if he might say a few words at the service; she had readily agreed. She knew and liked Henry as a kind and gentle man. He spoke for a few moments, made references to their bridge partnership and said kind and gentle things about Jeffrey.
Her mind wandered once more.
‘Why, oh why, Jeffrey did we have to have that gaping chasm that was your job between us? Whatever happened to the love that sparked at Oxford, the love that blossomed into marriage, the honeymoon in Paris, the love that would never part us?’
She never knew exactly what Jeffrey did, something connected to the Foreign Office. He would never talk about it, ‘Frightfully boring! Civil service thingy.’ he’d say whenever he was asked. They’d bought the old manor house some 30 years ago. Must have been doing all right. He would never travel abroad with her during the holidays that seemed to decrease in inverse proportion to his rise up the ranks; said he’d had quite enough travel with the job ‘Too many bloody foreigners!’. Instead, he’d bought the little cottage in Scotland, up on the West Coast. Much better, he’d said, bit of salmon fishing, visits to his favourite distilleries ‘Just the job to blow the old cobwebs away!’ Fiona would pack plenty of her favourite authors.
Jeffrey had worked impossibly long hours in London. She remembered the telephone calls in the middle of the night, the few murmured words, the sound of the car scrunching up the drive, the old oak door slamming shut and the car disappearing into the night. He might be gone a day, a week or sometimes even a month. Sometimes, a call to reassure her all was well. If pushed he might claim that he was ‘at the office, lots going on, better not to be disturbing you at all hours’. She never knew in reality where he might be, but there was sometimes that delay on the line that told her he might well be many thousands of miles away. He had an office in the manor house where he frequently worked when he was at home but always kept it locked.
They had never had children, it wasn’t a conscious decision but it just never happened. Their love was indestructible but over time Fiona had gradually built a life of her own that didn’t depend upon Jeffrey’s presence. She took care of the household expenses from the account Jeffrey set up for her, ensured the old house received the maintenance it required and lavished love and attention upon the gardens.
And now, after a few months retirement and a short illness, he was gone, forever. And, for Fiona there was a gap in her life. There had been a gap throughout their marriage, a gap that grew. So, in a way, she thought, nothing has changed. But…where did he go, where had he gone and where had he stayed for all those long years?
Now, by the graveside, she was brought back to the present…
‘…in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ.’
‘I wonder,’ thought Fiona ‘if the good Lord really approves of such tautology!’
She somehow managed to shake hands and exchange a few words with the friends and mourners who had walked to the graveside with her.
And then it was all over. She threw a rose into the grave and thought ‘Is this it, is this really the end …or is this this just another absence, another gap?’
She started back. There were now just a few close friends and distant relatives due back at the house for drinks.
It was when she was walking away from the graveside that she noticed the two men for the first time. Standing by the lychgate, hands clasped behind them, clad in similar raincoats and trilbys, they looked as dull as the weather. The elder and more distinguished of the two stepped forward.
‘Mrs Kinsley-Parker? Mrs Fionna Kingsley-Parker?’
‘Yes, I don’t think I know you.’
‘Please accept our sincere condolences on your sad loss of Mr Kingsley-Parker.’
‘Thank you, but if you would excuse me, I have guests I must attend to.’
‘This will only take a minute, Mrs Kingsley-Parker.’
‘Very well, but please be quick. And who exactly are you?’
‘Our names do not matter, we are here on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government. However, before we go any further, I must state that what I am about to share with you is for your ears only and cannot, must not, under any circumstances be shared with any other individual, now or at any time in the future. Do you accept that?’
She stared back at them, nonplussed.
‘Mrs Kingsley-Parker, what we have to share with you is of great importance, do you agree?’
‘Very well, I agree.’
‘Excellent. I am authorised to share with you the sincere recognition of HM Government for the work and contribution that Mr Kingsley-Parker made over a long and distinguished career, often in the most difficult, arduous and dangerous conditions, for the peace and well-being of our country. And may I add, on a personal level, I shall miss him greatly.’
Image: A. J. Armstrong