…and so it began

Usually
my neighbour Beattie’s wrath is reserved for immigrants, unmarried mothers, and
people with food allergies. Sometimes even a nature programme can set her off
especially if it shows animals mating. Mind you ever since she found herself
forced to drink tea made with sterilized milk at Jean Shank’s funeral Beattie
had talked about nothing else for the past week.

“£15.00
that wreath cost us Maureen’ she said for the umpteenth time and blowing hard
on her lunchtime soup,’ and for what? An organist who managed to make ‘Abide
with Me’ sound like ‘Oh I do like to be beside the seaside’, that awful tea and
half a Danish pastry you wouldn’t have fed to the birds!’

Now
experience has taught me that it’s never a good idea to go about speaking ill
of dead and I do tell her but will she listen? No she will not. As far as she is
concerned they are gone ‘up there’ and that is that. I know different. Still
it’s no good trying to tell Beattie these things. When a person genuinely
believes Romanian immigrants eat babies it would be an uphill struggle trying
to convince her that the dead do walk amongst us. ‘Speak loudly speak clearly
speak now’, and to hell with the consequences is her motto.

It’s
all very well her believing that ‘The truth will out’ but I do feel that there
are times when true or not things are best left unsaid. Still because Beattie
always insists on speaking her mind she’s not what you could call popular. As
you can imagine when allowed to roam free across open border policies and into
the vast hinterland of a welfare state full of underage teenage pregnancies it
is not always a very nice mind to have to listen to.

‘For
heaven’s sake Maureen there was even a woman at that funeral in tights and a
Lurex cape!’

Although
I have learned over the last ten years that it’s never wise to try and argue
with Beattie unless you like losing I’d always had a soft spot for Jean’s niece
Wanda so I found myself sticking up for her.

‘A
Human Cannon Ball’ I said, ‘stops for nothing, not even the death of a Loved
One.’

‘Well
she could have washed!’ snapped Beattie. She blew so hard on her soup that I
felt a splash of Oxtail hit my cheek. ‘That woman reeked of gunpowder.’

Now
when you consider that with her limp Wanda could have easily settled for a life
on disability benefit instead of carving out a nice little career for herself
twice daily on the promenade you’d think Beattie would have admired her
enterprise. But no. Wanda Clithold was half Shanks and therefore genetically
bound to the sterilized milk fiasco. No amount of limping in Lurex was ever
going to change that even if Wanda landed herself on Mars.

Still
leaving aside the catering arrangements Beattie did have a point. With or
without the added glamour of a local celebrity as funerals went Jean’s was not
one of the best. For a start it was at St Jude’s and try as they might no
amount of incense will ever get the smell of that burst drain out of the
hassocks. Still that’s no excuse to skimp on the wake. Quite the reverse I
would have thought. Of course I can think of better ways of spending an
afternoon especially as Jean was more Beattie’s friend than mine. However being
as Beattie had made me pay good money for a black wool and cashmere coat it
seemed a shame not to get the wear out of it.
Apparently fake ocelot isn’t suitable as funeral attire, or so I was
told. Shame really as I’d always thought it brought a hint of show biz to what
can often be a joyless occasion. But what did I know? After all I wasn’t the
widow of the late Chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce. I was just plain
old Maureen Truscott, ex wife, ex clairvoyant and ex con. But I keep all that
to myself.

‘By
the way your hair’s twisted’. Beattie waggled her soup spoon at my head.
‘Honestly Maureen if you have to wear a wig to a funeral couldn’t you at least choose
one that doesn’t make you look like an out of work magicians assistant?’

Occasionally,
on days when even Beattie can see through some of the headlines in the Daily
Mail, she keeps her hand in by having a go at me. Sometimes it’s my lack of
devotion to housework, sometimes it’s my love of bright coloured emulsion. Quite
often it’s the fact that I shop at Top Shop and wear high heels despite being a
pensioner. But when all else fails her favourite topic is my collection of ‘diva’
wigs. Now that even she was fed up recounting the failings of Jean’s wake over lunch
in the BHS restaurant I could tell she was looking for another victim. And
there I was, right in front of her, my own hair hidden under Shirley Bassey.

‘I
mean why not wear Thora Hird?’ she said, ‘Far more suitable for a funeral. She
did ‘Praise Be’ for a start and there is no way she would make you look like
you should be dancing round a pole at a business man’s lunch.’

Now
whilst I can often manage to turn a deaf ear to what she calls my ‘slovenly
ways’, my ‘hallucinogenic colour schemes’ and ‘my dressing like a teenager’ I
won’t hear a word said against any of my wigs. Beattie once accused my ‘Dusty
Springfield’ of having nits and we didn’t speak for a week. But I am equally
fond of ‘Shirley’. For one thing she’s made of real human hair that has been faithfully
styled on a cultural icon and for another I lived on beans on toast for three weeks
to pay for her. ‘Thora’ on the other hand was a free gift with ‘Alma Cogan’. But
then that was precisely the sort of thing that appealed to Beattie’s
parsimonious nature. Anyone who recycles teabags would feel a natural affinity
to free nylon fibres.

‘I
mean you don’t exactly help yourself Maureen’, she sighed, ‘and even you have
to admit that most of the outfits you wear are more suited to women at least
half your age and then only Lithuanians hoping to be employed as lap dancers.’

In
a way that is true. I never fit the identi-kit granny look favoured by Beattie.
She prefers what she calls her ‘heather shades. I call it ‘World at War’ myself
but I never say anything. Still, now on funeral days I always make a conscious
attempt to tone it down and today had been no different. I thought I looked
quite sombre in my black dress and matching coat and gloves. I was thinking Jackie
Kennedy, only with more polyester. Beattie was just thinking black thoughts; as
usual.

‘If
you’d looked after your hair Maureen, like I have, you wouldn’t feel the need
to cover up.Still I suppose it was all that peroxide that ruined yours when you
worked as a prostitute.’

I
swallowed the last mouthful of my carrot and lentil and said nothing. When
she’s in this mood I know she is best ignored.

It
has to be said that although we have been neighbours in Palmerston Terrace for
the last ten years, and as dear to me as she is, if Fate hadn’t pitched us either
side of an adjoining wall we would never have even been acquaintances. Outspoken,
opinionated and very often downright rude Beattie might be but she is also the
nearest thing I have to a friend these days. So very often it’s a case of
biting your lip and just letting her vitriol wash over you; like now.

Besides she knew as well as I did that I’d only
worked on a fun fair. I’d once let that slip in a moment of weakness during a
conversation about short hand typing. Beattie showed me her Pitman’s certificate
and I showed her a picture of me in skin-tight Capri pants with a towering
blond bee-hive hairdo. I’ll admit that I might have looked a bit flighty when I
was ‘Maureen the Waltzer Queen’ but I can honestly say I was never on the game.
That was just one of her little fictions. The late Arthur Hathaway having been
such a perfect husband was another one. And you didn’t need a magnifying glass
to read between those lines! If you listened to Beattie’s tales of marital
bliss her Arthur sounded a nasty little piece of work indeed. And if I’m honest
I’m not over sure she was exactly sorry to see him go. All that sighing and eye
dabbing is just an act if you ask me.

‘Of
course when I buried my Arthur….,’ she paused just long enough in the middle
of dismembering her bread roll long to assume what she thought was an
expression of grief and despair. It always looked more like trapped wind to me.
Now usually I hold my tongue. However because I wasn’t about to sit through
that particular bench mark of funereal excellence for the umpteenth time I
seized the moment.

‘Well
I’m sure the catering at Peggy Braithwaite’s wake will be something to look
forward to’, I said, adding that we all knew how much Peggy loved her cream
cakes.

‘It’ll
be more interesting Maureen to see how many pall bearers they needed to carry
the coffin’.

Well
she did have a point there. Peggy wasn’t exactly what you could call small
framed.

‘Most
of Paxton’s men are over 60 and wear trusses. You can’t expect them to be
heaving that weight about at their age. I wouldn’t be at all surprised they didn’t
insisted on wheeling her in, the compensation culture being what it is these
days. If you ask me that’s the only
reason she’s being buried and not cremated. Imagine all that wood going up, it
would probably set light to the chimney.’ She leaned in close enough for me to
see where her lipstick had missed her mouth adding in a low voice that she just
happened to know that they had to have the casket especially made.

It
was a well known fact that Beattie, ‘just happened to know’ a great deal about
everything that went on in Biddermouth on Sea. Not that she gossiped. She
didn’t need to. Her niece Pauline worked on the switchboard at the local
council offices. Unfortunately this meant that everything Beattie ‘just
happened to know’ she believed to be placed beyond the reach of rational
argument by the rubber stamp of officialdom. Even so I had never believed that one
about the mayor having a nuclear fall-out shelter built under the wool shop.
Anybody with an ounce of sense only had to look at those road works to see it
was gas mains. But Beattie stuck to her guns. Even today she circumnavigates
the manhole cover that marks the spot out of respect for the mayoral regalia.

‘Apparently
none of the off the shelf models were big enough,’ she whispered before
launching back on to her favourite topic, namely her husband’s death.

‘Of
course I know I had to have Arthur’s custom made but then a civic funeral is an
entirely different occasion. You can’t expect the whole of the Chamber of Commerce
to walk bareheaded behind veneered chipboard can you Maureen?’

I
obviously said nothing because I heard Beattie repeat herself.

‘…..Can
you?’ she said. ‘Are you alright Maureen? You look like you’ve just seen a
ghost.’

And
in a way Beattie was right. I had just seen, or at least thought I’d just seen
Jean Shanks standing outside the supermarket.