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Below are some extracts of my current work.

To find out more, please visit me at: www.ianashley.co.uk



Dealing with Social Services

Bell, Book & Handbag Posted on Thu, August 28, 2014 06:56PM

Bell Book & Handbag Part VII

Dealing with Social Services

…‘And who are you?’ she barked at the thin young woman who had slipped quietly into the cubicle behind her.

Apparently this was Monica and Monica had been assigned as my social worker.

I felt a surge of panic and said ‘David Cameron’, but nobody was listening to me. And why would they? After all I was only the person who was being forced into the welfare system against my will. I was old, toothless and in a paper nightdress. What rights did I have?

Beattie heard the words ‘social worker’ and compressed her lips into an expression that looked anything but welcoming.

‘And what do you normally do when you’re not assigned Monica? Are you some kind of YTS?

At this point I started to protest but was firmly rebuffed by Beattie who told me to keep my mouth shut and leave the talking to her or I’d end up in a home singing Tipperary three times a week and twice at weekends.

Monica braced herself against her clipboard and prepared to stand her ground. Unfortunately my best friend was not the kind of woman she had come across in any of her training modules. She wasn’t sure if she needed to practise intervention or anger management. Whilst Monica dithered Beattie went for it. You could tell she was in no mood to be wrong footed by a woman with plaits.

‘Mrs Truscott is not homeless, and despite the wig she is not mental or a sex worker and as far as I know my friend is still in full control of her own water works and bowel movements. And neither is she a single parent family…’

My social worker let out something akin to a whimper of pain and fled, presumably to apply for the softer option of teaching French to inner city teenagers with a crack cocaine dependency. I let out a similar sound only mine was real pain. Not so much pain from my injury but more from the sound of Beattie’s voice banging against my own troubled thoughts.

‘I’ll get a nurse,’ Beattie said and charged off down the ward demanding injections, bed pans and a crash team. Still at least she was gone.

Now whatever anybody said, including Beattie, I knew I was pushed, and more to the point I was knocked off my feet by a woman we had both seen committed to the ground less than ten days earlier. But then why hadn’t Beattie seen her? Or had she? Knowing her views on matters psychic if the angel Gabrielle had appeared to a Virgin Beattie there would have been no baby Jesus. Still it had to be said that if Jean Shanks was going to materialise to anybody it wouldn’t be me. For one thing we couldn’t stand each other. And for another I wasn’t the one who had said all those unkind things about her funeral tea.

So why was she picking on me: and why now? We had a coach tour of the Fen Country booked at the end of the month. I didn’t have time for all this. Then again Beattie had seen the trip advertised in the same magazine that sold Velcro fastening shoes so enough said.

Beattie could say what she liked but I knew a ghost when I saw one. I may well have been found guilty of fraudulent clairvoyance but once I did actually possess the gift. Sadly in my case it turned out to be more of a curse but that’s another story. Still at one time I had been very good even if I say so myself. It was only when I got a bit carried away that I came unstuck. And who knew but if it hadn’t been for that undercover policewoman it might well have been me on that poster and not Doris Morris; only thinner of course.

I was still pondering my unwilling return to the world of the spirits when Beattie arrived with a nurse and enough pain relief to stun an elephant.

‘I suppose you do have qualifications wherever it is you come from?’ she asked the tiny oriental woman who was busy trying to find a vein in my arm.

‘Well I hope you know what you’re doing’ she went on before mouthing her apology to me that this was the only nurse she could find. ‘All the real ones seem to have gone home; or they’re drunk’.

So whichever way you told it I was pushed flat on my face by a ghost that Beattie may or may not have seen; Jean Shanks was back in the material world and I was being repeatedly jabbed in the arm by a Phillipino nurse who was trying her best to fend off blows from Beattie’s handbag at the same time.

…it was good to lose consciousness especially when bells are ringing and people are calling for security. With most people you could feign deafness or ignorance. With Beattie you had to go the whole hog and black out…



Maureen gets an unwelcome visitor on the ward

Bell, Book & Handbag Posted on Wed, August 27, 2014 07:02PM

Bell Book & Handbag Part VI

An
unwelcome visitor on the ward

…So
there I was, wigless, toothless and about to be sucked into care in the
community against my will. To be honest wearing a paper night dress doesn’t do
much for your self esteem either. To say
I was at my lowest ebb would have been an understatement and I had a terrible
feeling that things could only get worse.

And
as soon as I heard those footsteps I knew there was trouble brewing. Nobody
else could make that amount of noise on a wooden floor, not even a Bogdan.

‘There
you are!’

The
curtains parted to reveal Beattie as red as a beetroot and panting for all she
was worth. Even in rubber soles she is not capable of launching a surprise
attack.

‘That
stupid woman on the desk, I think she’s a Sullivan by her second marriage which
explains a lot, only sent me all the way over to male urology. I don’t think
so, I said, but she was would have it that she was right. Although why she
thought you’d be in a ward full of old men with catheters I really don’t know.
I tell you Maureen if there is a part of the body that can be drained, stitched
back or cauterized I’ve been there.’

She
made an ill-tempered flourish with the headscarf she was mopping her face with.
I noticed it was one of her best ones too; the one with the map of the Isle of
Wight on it. She’d bought me one but I honestly thought it was a tea towel.

‘I
thought for one awful moment they’d sent you to the Princess Diana. Dropping
like flies they are over there, not to mention loosing limbs left right and
centre,’ she puffed before adding the
comforting afterthought that at least here I could die of my own ill-health and
not from some second hand infection.

‘And’
she said looking round with uncharacteristic caution, ‘did you know this place
is crawling with Orientals? I had to ask three of them the way before I found
one that could do more than smile. You want to be very careful Maureen.’

‘Now you can’t say that Beattie’ I said. Love
her dearly as I might she could be a bit too BNP for my liking. In her black
and white world everything should have been white. Come to think of it I
wouldn’t have been surprised if it wasn’t her who spread the rumour that Mr
Patel scratched the sell by dates off things in the first place.

Beattie
snapped back that she could and she would. She’d watched ‘Tenko’. She knew!

‘When
I think of poor Alec Guinness,’ she huffed, ‘and what he went through building
that bridge….’ she snatched the curtains closed behind her.

‘Anyway
I nipped back to your house and brought you these!’ She whispered and pointed
to a carrier bag as if she was supplying me with Class A drugs.

I
was expecting the bunch of grapes but I was not prepared when she produced
what, given the location and the circumstance, could well have been a human
scalp and part of a jaw. As it was it was only a wig and my spare top set.

‘I
know it’s Liza Minnelli but I’m sorry to say some little brat called Tyrone
snatched up Shirley Bassey before I had a chance to clip him round the ear. And
would he give her back? No he would not. I almost had to break his fingers. And
his mother was no help. You know the sort I mean Maureen; about twelve in a
pink tracksuit and with ‘co-habitee’ written all over her. Still that’s modern
life for you although why wearing one of those scrunchy things means you have
to lose your moral standards I know. They must be the hula hoop of the new
millennium I suppose. Still we are where we are and if people will insist on
voting the wrong way what can the rest of us expect?’

Before
I had a chance to say anything she rammed the wig on my head oblivious to the
dressing Staff Nurse Carole had stuck over a very nasty head wound. Thankfully the painkillers were so strong
that I merely winced.

‘Umm. She didn’t look like that in Cabaret.’

I reached up through a haze of pain in my shoulder
and tugged the wig round the right way.

‘I
think you were done you know. She definitely didn’t look like that. A slut yes,
demented no. Mind you I never saw all of it; mucky and far too much gratuitous
thigh for my liking.’

I
reached up and gave the wig another tug. Then I remembered the cut over my
right eye and settled for comfort and something more Rolling Stone than Weimar
Republic. Beattie merely listed heavily to one side as if she had suddenly suffered
a shift of cargo below the waterline. Her lips pursed and I could tell she
still wasn’t convinced that anybody could have won an Oscar with that
hairstyle.

‘I
expect she was on drugs anyway’.

According to Beattie most people under the age
of forty were. For those that weren’t it was only a matter of time. Her whole
life appeared to be spent shoring up her defences against a rising tide of
drugs and delinquency. That probably explained her corsets. They were a sort of
Maginot Line with eyelets.

‘I have to say Maureen I don’t know what you
thought you were playing at!’ She wiped a finger along the window sill and
grimaced at the dust. ‘Fancy making an exhibition of yourself like that, and in
a public place?’

‘I
was pushed’, I said.

‘You
fell flat on your own face. I was there remember?’

‘But
I was!’ I protested. I thought mentioning that the police would be calling to
take a statement might wipe the smug expression off her face. Instead she
looked like somebody had plugged her whalebones into the mains.

‘Are
you mad Maureen Truscott? They’ll take one look at you in that wig and have you
put in a home! Which reminds me, did anybody ask you who the Prime Minister
is?’

I
nodded. I didn’t say that I’d got it wrong. Well there was no point provoking
her further when she was in one of her moods.

She
said that she hoped for my sake I hadn’t said Gordon Brown and reminded me of
what happened to Polly when she’s said Margaret Thatcher.

‘Six
weeks she was in that place!’

‘Three
weeks’, I said.

‘I happen to know different Maureen, remember
my Arthur’s niece works at the Council Offices and as a government employee she
would hardly lie about such things would she? All of which brings me back to
the police and your misguided attempt to make a drama out of this little
incident. If you ask me (which I hadn’t) you’ve only yourself to blame. I mean
fancy wearing those stupid shoes at your age. Well it’s to be hoped you’ve
learned your lesson Maureen. Honestly falling about like that is it any wonder
people think you’ve got a drink problem?’

I
sighed. That was the first I’d heard about that one. Normally it was just wigs
and prostitution. The trouble with Beattie was that because you could never
tell when she was being deliberately cruel or unintentionally hurtful, you
never knew when to bite back or when to let it all go over your head. And right
now my head hurt so I ducked that one without even a second thought.

She
said that if I took her advice I’d forget the whole thing. After all what would
people think if they read that sort of thing in the local paper?

‘I’ll
tell you what they’d think’ she continued before I had a chance to interrupt
her. ‘They would think that our dear little town was a haven for thugs and
vandals and before you know where you are our houses would be worth next to
nothing.

‘But I was pushed I tell you,’ I said. ‘I felt
somebody shove me in the back just before I fell over.’

I
could feel myself beginning to come over slightly peculiar and prayed for death
before I had to listen to Beattie again. But no such luck. When she was in this
mood she was like one of those giant super tankers, you could turn the engines
off but it took a bloody long way before it stopped.

‘Tripped
over your own silly shoes you mean,’ she snapped. ‘I was right next to you
remember? I saw everything.’

Glossing
over the fact that she had been hit by an invisible stone herself, she reeled
off a sequence of events that saw her leaping into a taxi and, being the good
friend and neighbour that she was, going back to my place, braving my mucky
kitchen, grabbing Liza Minnelli and helping herself to the travel tokens I kept
in a teapot on the mantelpiece to pay for the round trip.

‘And
this is how you repay me, threatening to slice half off the value of my home
overnight!’

I
had no way of knowing how much of this was fact and how much was Beattie. Mind
you the bit about her raiding my secret store of rainy day bus tokens sounded
very much like her. I was about to take my life in my hands and ask if she’d seen anybody following us on the
promenade, well not just anybody, more specifically Jean Shanks when the
curtains twitched and Beattie spun round like a fornicator caught in the act.

‘And
who are you?’ she barked at the thin young woman who had slipped quietly into
the cubicle behind her.

Apparently
this was Monica and Monica had been assigned as my social worker….

© Ian Ashley 2014

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There’s something strange about Bogdan

Bell, Book & Handbag Posted on Tue, August 26, 2014 07:20PM

Bell Book & Handbag Part V

There
is something strange about Bogdan

…There
is nothing like being abandoned in an empty ward without your wig and your top
set of teeth for making you feel old and unwanted. The fact that I was dying
for a wee didn’t help either.

‘Worse
things happen at sea,’ I told myself.

We
used to say that a lot in prison. Usually when somebody’s parole was turned
down or they got a letter saying their husband was leaving them or their
boyfriend had got another girl into trouble and was having to get married. But
to be honest what is the worst thing that can happen at sea? Yes. You drown.
And sometimes when the doors were locked at night and the lights were turned
out that was exactly what it felt like.

One
of the pills they’d given me must have made me nod off because the next thing I
knew there was this great big thing looming over me like…like a great big
looming thing. He smiled and apart from the gold teeth he looked quite
friendly. Still there was something in his eyes that made me feel sorry for the
lad. He looked so sad, displaced, which I suppose he was really, being called
Bogdan.

‘I
frighten you, sorry’ he said. ‘We go to ward.’

‘Toward
what’ I said, and for a nasty moment I wondered if he wasn’t one of those
maniacs who make a habit of working in hospitals to help old people on their
way Toward The Light. Not doctors I mean, although Beattie just happens to know
such stories. Sadly these only serve to bolster her rather right wing views on
foreigners. For some reason she has a real phobia about doctors from Sierra
Leone. I doubt she even knows where it is, but whatever the reason she once
contemplated amputating her own septic finger when Dr Ndolo was the locum at
the surgery.

Bogdan
thought I’d made a joke and laughed. I could see that with decent dentistry he
could be a bit of a heart throb. But then those Eastern Europeans are like
that. They are either drop dead gorgeous or they look like hobbits. There is no
middle ground. Fortunately my Bogdan was a bit of a dish despite the teeth and
if I’d been twenty years younger I wouldn’t have minded being left in a goods
lift with him at all. Well let’s make it thirty years then, maybe even forty.

I
also had the feeling that he wasn’t really the sort to go leaving people on
trolleys in goods lifts for no good reason. Call it a sixth sense but I felt
sure he was not as black as he was painted. I reckoned it had more to do with
him not being British than anything else. There is a lot of prejudice against
foreigners but at the end of the day they are only trying to make a living like
the rest of us.

Of
course if you listened to Beattie they were milking the social security system
left and right, taking jobs from British people and snatching the daily bread
from out of our very mouths. Added to that there was the TB and the host of
other communicable diseases that she claimed they brought into the country
because of their lack of personal hygiene and spitting. She didn’t exactly go
as far as saying that they eat babies but I knew the thought was there. Anybody
wondering how one small man with a dodgy moustache could wind up killing six
million Jews needed to look no further than the likes of Beattie Hathaway.

She
was exactly the same when Mr Patel was mugged for his takings. Beattie claimed
it served him right for scratching the sell-by dates off his yoghurts. She soon
changed her tune when he shut his shop for two weeks whilst his brother
installed attack alarms and metal grills on the windows. Walking those four
extra streets to get her newspapers not only gave her corns but a totally
different outlook on the Asian community I can tell you.

What
is sad is that you only had to listen to her to know that she had led such a
very small life. It could not have been easy living with all those neck-less
relatives. Buying Christmas presents must have been a nightmare. You couldn’t
have got a scarf or a tie on any of them. Not that she ever talked much about
her family except to harp on about how wonderful they all were, hinting now and
then that when she ceased to be a Freemantle she had married beneath herself,
but if the photographs were anything to go by you got the impression that they
were not what you could call a barrel of laughs.

For
a start there’s not one of them with a smile in any of her wedding photos. I
mean my lot may have been a bit rough but there was always something going on
somewhere causing the branches of the family tree to tremble. Sometimes being a
Truscott could be very exciting. If you added in the Openshaw and the Tappley
cousins the effect was mind blowing. When I was growing up the local newspapers
court report was a veritable who’s who of my genetic inheritance. Small wonder
I ended up where I did then?

Anyway
not for Beattie the thrill of a life on the waltzers that’s for sure. And I
don’t suppose she’d ever made love under Blackpool pier either. What I am
saying is that a narrow mind in the wrong hands is a very dangerous thing. Like
a hand grenade with no pin.

Despite
my forebodings the St Vitus ward looked a nice enough place. At least it wasn’t
mixed and Bogdan soon had me safely installed in nice clean bed which
considering it had only just been vacated by the recently deceased was
reassuringly cold.

The
sound of the safety bars being locked firmly into place had a familiar ring of
doom about it and my heart sank.

‘See
you alligator later!’ he said as he bowed and kissed my hand.

So
there I was, wigless, toothless and about to be sucked into care in the
community against my will. To be honest wearing a paper night dress doesn’t do
much for your self esteem either. To say
I was at my lowest ebb would have been an understatement and I had a terrible
feeling that things could only get worse.

© Ian Ashley 2014

If you wish to receive
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Sea either click the RSS icon on this page or e-mail me at
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Maureen Experiences the National Health Service

Bell, Book & Handbag Posted on Mon, August 25, 2014 06:44PM

Bell, Book & Handbag Part IV

Maureen
experiences the National Health Service

Placed
in alphabetical order the things Beattie hates most would run to several
volumes rather like the Encyclopaedia Britannica. However under ‘B’ you would
find ‘Being shown up’ and under ‘M’ you would find ‘Making an exhibition of
yourself’. Under ‘R’ would be ‘Ruining a
perfectly good day out’. Being taken to hospital having rendered myself
unconscious in a public place meant I had definitely transgressed all of those
and probably a few others along the way.

I
have to admit coming round with Beattie threatening to topple over on top of me
in the confined space of a speeding ambulance was enough to make anybody suffer
a relapse. Somewhere she must have read, heard, or ‘just happened to know ‘that
the best way to keep people conscious was to keep talking to them. I’ve heard
that too, but I thought the idea was to ask them questions to keep them
thinking. Instead she just rattled on with no need for me to even draw breath.
She was doing enough of that for both of us.
Now normally when she starts I switch off but I figured that this time
round it was safer to stay awake. The first hint of a dropped eyelid and she’d
be breaking all my ribs in a mis-guided attempt at CPR.

‘Now
pay attention Maureen, as long as you can remember your name, your address and
the name of the Prime Minister they can’t touch your pension money! Now who are
you?’

I
think I said ‘Maureen Truscott, 53 Palmerston Terrace and David Cameron’, but
even I couldn’t be sure with the oxygen mask clamped firmly across my face. I
wasn’t even sure she was telling truth. All that sounded like another urban
myth put about by social services to keep the elderly in a state of perpetual
terror: like bogus gas men and the friend of a friend who ended up with their
replacement knee joints fitted back to front. Still somewhere in a haze of
incipient concussion and analgesics I could dimly recall the tale of Polly
Albright. Legend has it that she said ‘Margaret Thatcher’ whilst she was still
coming round from having her veins done. After that it took her son Nigel three
weeks to get her out of Willow Bank Home for the Elderly, by which time she was
word perfect in ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary ‘ and could never bring herself
to sit on a plastic chair again. It is frightening how quickly people become
institutionalised; especially when they like embroidery.

So
I have to be extra careful. I haven’t got a Nigel to look out for me. I’ve got
twin daughters, Cilla and Sandie, but I haven’t heard from them since they were
six so I can’t see either of them lifting a finger to help their poor old mum.
As they say in those detective movies, that Beattie also claims not to watch,
that leaves me in a very vulnerable situation. So there we were in casualty. Me
on a trolley, a nurse trying to do her best to get me booked in and Beattie
doing her damndest to get my rings off before they were stolen.

‘I
know they’re not worth anything’ she said getting in everybody’s way and almost
dislocating my fingers, ‘but they are all you’ve got. Some of these porters
can’t tell the difference between rubbish and the real thing. Evadne Collier
lost her watch and her engagement ring. Both of them heirlooms and both of them
turned up in that pawn shop near the cobblers.’

Eventually
Beattie was asked, told, and then forcibly made to sit outside by two men in
security uniforms. They must have taken her some way away because it all went
terribly quiet allowing Staff Nurse Carol to get on with her forms.

It
was just as well I said that I was sorry about my friend Beattie because in the
confusion she had me down as Mrs Hathaway. Poor soul, it can’t have been easy
trying to fill in the paperwork with Beattie pushing her out of the way all the
time and demanding to know when she had last washed her hands.

Staff
Nurse Carol said it was ok. Apparently since the cut backs they were used to
psychiatric patients wondering about the place now that they all had their own
keys. She said that they just didn’t have the time to keep locking them in and
out. Apparently only last week one of them even turned up in the operating
theatre dressed as a surgeon. When she laughed I got a strong whiff of cough
mixture. When she called me ‘Beattie’ again I started to panic.

‘Maureen’
I said quickly. ‘My names Maureen Truscott and I live at 53 Palmerston Terrace
and the Prime Ministers name is Gordon Brown. And I didn’t fall. I was pushed!’

‘Yes
of course you were Beattie,’ she smiled, ‘Actually it’s David Cameron. Just
make sure you get it right if Sister Mottram asks you. She’s very old school,
but not in a nice way. She hates dust. Well if you ask me she doesn’t care much
for patients either. But that’s between us. Better make sure we’ve got your
brakes on hadn’t we? Don’t want you rolling away and getting lost! Now let’s
see if we can find a porter with enough English to get you down to the ward in
one piece. We don’t want you falling into Bogdan’s hands do we? Not after what
happened last week when he left that patient in …..’.

She
checked herself before adding that I was lucky the old lady in bed three had
died that morning or I would have had to been sent to the Princess Di on the
other side of town.

‘Oh’,
I said, wondering if I should be marvelling at my good fortune.

Staff
Nurse Carol paused and checked her watch.

‘Just
between us they’ve got MRSA but keep that under your hat or this place will be
swamped. God knows we’ve got enough on our hands with the cystitis epidemic let
alone having to cope with a flesh eating virus.’

‘Now
don’t you go worrying yourself Beattie’, she added. ‘She turned up in a goods
lift of all places. Mind you if we hadn’t been stock taking and noticed we were
one drip short she might still be there now!’

No
doubt she was doing her best to establish what I believe is called ‘rapport’.
But to be honest when she confided that last week alone they had lost 15 swabs
and 2 pairs of forceps I think she could tell from the look on my face that all
she was doing was putting the wind up me; that and the fact that I was now wearing
a wristband with the wrong name on.

She
gave the pillows an extra puff and straightened the covers. Apparently there
was nothing to worry about. All I had to do was concentrate on getting better.

‘After
all these things always turn up,’ she said brightly. ‘Usually at the sight of a
post operative infection but we always get them back and after a quick boil
they’re as good as new.’

She
parked me in a side ward and I watched her disappear, the NHS in action,
squeaking her way down the corridor. You could tell from the way she walked
that she’s rather be wearing sling backs and working in a nice office. Yet
despite the fact that she reeked of cough mixture and her foundation hardly
bothered to conceal her acne she seemed a nice enough girl. I mean it can’t be
easy dealing with death on a daily basis. Once upon a time nursing was a
vocation. Now people were forced to do it because they couldn’t get jobs in
travel agencies. No wonder she looked so demoralised.

And
she wasn’t the only one. There is nothing like being abandoned in an empty ward
without your wig and your top set of teeth for making you feel old and
unwanted. The fact that I was dying for a wee didn’t help either.

© Ian Ashley 2014

If you wish to receive
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Sea either click the RSS icon on this page or e-mail me at
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The last thing you need is a celebrity medium with an ego problem

Bell, Book & Handbag Posted on Mon, August 18, 2014 08:00PM

As
usual, unless it’s raining or Beattie has forced her feet into a pair of court
shoes, we took the route home along the sea front. I thought the walk would do
me good and if you hit the promenade at the right angle Biddermouth On Sea is
actually quite attractive. If you hit it at the wrong angle you’ll probably get
mugged. Like all seaside towns and most of the inhabitants it has seen better
days. But then that was what drew me there in the first place; that and my old
friend Olive Mannering.

Olive had discovered that it was the sort of
place where a woman with a secret could disappear. Granted I didn’t have as
many secrets as her but I had enough. Then again perhaps Olive didn’t have as
many as she thought either. Getting herself on the covers of most of the Sunday
papers had seen to that. Not that they charged the archbishop in the end but
the damage was done. I think he got off quite lightly considering she claimed he’d
been wearing his mitre at the time. Still, after all those years of running and
hiding, living in grubby little bedsits under assumed names and over fish and
chip shops and Indian takeaways Biddermouth On Sea was a place we both felt
that we could finally call home.

But
for how much longer, I wondered? This business with Jean was stirring up old
memories. The Dead and I had been uneasy bedfellows and I had no wish to be
dragged back into that world.

‘It’s
probably indigestion’ said Beattie.

‘What
is?’ I asked wondering if I’d missed something important.

‘You’
she replied,’ you’ve been in a funny mood since you ate that soup. What was it?
Carrot and lentil? Whatever next? If the Lord had meant us to eat pulses we’d
have been born in Africa. What you need Maureen is a good dose of Andrews Liver
salts when we get home. ‘

‘Probably,’
I said although by now my head was beginning to throb and I knew carrot and
lentil soup was the least of my problems. A martyr to trapped wind and
indigestion herself Beattie saw no reason why anybody else should be any
different. The fact that all her problems stemmed from eating large quantities
of chutney and wearing pre-decimalisation foundation garments never seemed to
enter her head.

The
further we walked along the seafront the colder the wind became although according
to matron freezing to death would do me the power of good. I wasn’t so sure now.
It didn’t feel right. And it had nothing to do with excess stomach acid. Out of
the corner of my eye I saw something or somebody flit from the cover of one
shelter to another. What we needed was to hide, and hide quickly.

I
thought that feigning an interest in stately homes was a stroke of genius as I
pushed Beattie into the local tourist information office. If it was Jean Shank’s
ghost that was following us we should have been pretty safe in there. The words
‘Jean’ and ‘culture’ had never sat well together in my opinion. Politically she
may have been as bigoted as Beattie but even I had to admit that my neighbour’s
Maria Callas was one up on Jean’s collection of James Last albums. Beattie may
have called them ‘arias’ and I may have called them ‘noise’ but there was a
Maria Callas wig in my catalogue for £65.00 so she must have had something
going for her despite sounding like a cat in mangle.

As
it happened I should have just kept walking. Despite being numbed by the cold
wind, my jaw almost hit the floor. There, right in front of us was an enormous poster
advertising the forthcoming coming attraction at the Town Hall Theatre.

‘Doris
Morris, Celebrity Medium and Clairvoyant to the Stars presents ‘The Above and
Beyond’ tour.’

‘Beyond the Pale if you ask me’ snorted
Beattie. ‘I mean how can she call herself a celebrity medium? For a start it’s
all hogwash. As I always say ‘once you’re gone you are gone.’ Full stop. End of
story. But I mean to say Maureen one interview with Lorraine Kelly and a
picture with a weather girl is not my idea of celebrity anything. And just look
at the size of her. She makes Peggy look positively svelte!’

Whilst
it’s true that Doris Morris was what my ex-husband Archie would have called a
‘hefty piece’ it is also true to say that Beattie wasn’t exactly on the small
side herself. Despite only being five foot two inches tall and rigorously
corseted she still manages to make most reasonable sized rooms feel small. Beattie
Hathaway was not so much a fine figure of a woman as a monolith in gabardine. In
fact she was a standing stone dedicated to the art of the all in one foundation
garment.

It
was also true, as they say in America, that Doris Morris and I had history. At
one point, after I’d left the fun fair, after Archie had been exposed as a
bigamist and before I ended up doing three years at Her Majesties Pleasure and
the twins were taken into care, Doris, Olive and I had all been highly
successful mediums on the Spiritualist circuit. But some things were best kept
hidden and I was determined to keep it that way. The less I saw of Doris Morris
the better. Fortunately for once Beattie was on my side, but as usual for very
different reasons.

‘Well
one thing’s certain we won’t be paying good money to see that load of old tosh,’
she said, ‘Of course what can you expect when people vote for a LibDem council?
Now when the Tories were in power the Town Hall Theatre used to put on some
lovely musicals. Even you would have understood them. But look what we got last
Christmas; some girl who played a corpse in ‘Casualty’ trying to be Cinderella.’
She blushed a bit and well she might! According to Beattie she never watches
programmes like that.

‘I
tell you Maureen it’s all bare thighs and more rubbish like this! No wonder this
town has become a haven of illegal immigrants. You mark my words Maureen by the
time we get to the next election we’ll all be smoking guano!’

’Ganja’,
I said, but she shot me one of those
famous ‘I happen to know’ looks and I thought ‘well you can smoke bird
droppings if you want and tried to deflect her with a leaflet about coach trips
to the Cotswolds.

‘Yes
all very nice’ she said then looked nervously at her watch. ‘You know I don’t
like being out after dark since than man was caught exposing himself in the
shopping arcade.’

She
tried to tighten her scarf around her neck but then that’s another curious
thing about Beattie. Not only doesn’t she have a waist she doesn’t have a neck
either. Her head sits straight on her shoulders. Had she possessed a more
amenable expression she would be a dead ringer for one of those Russian dolls. But
as it is with no neck and everything subjugated by Playtex she often just looks
like an angry skittle on the run from a bowling alley.

As
soon as we ventured outside I could tell all was not well. Whatever it was that
had been following us was still there and that could only mean one thing. The
psychic powers that had got me into so much trouble in the past had to be
coming back. Maybe they had never really gone? Perhaps the shock of Archie’s
bigamy, losing the twins and three years in prison for fraudulent clairvoyance
had simply pushed them to one side. Either way I suddenly found myself having
to think about a lot of things I didn’t want to think about for the rest of the
way home.

Hardly
surprising then that I was quiet was it? Not that silence ever stops Beattie
having a conversation. She is like nature. She abhors a vacuum. When she is talking
to you and you don’t reply she is quite happy to imagine your answers and use
them against you later. So by the time we’d reached the hut where the deckchair
attendant was arrested for interfering with young boys she had ticked off
everything that was right about that afternoon’s funeral. Then she worked systematically
backwards to refute each point with something unpleasant.

Yes
it had been a lovely spread but Peggy’s children had obviously been brought up
not knowing that gluttony was one of the Seven Deadly Sins. The tea had been refreshing
but whatever possessed people like that to think they could drink Earl Grey? It
was very touching when the grandchildren sang ‘Lord of the Dance’ but a pity
they hadn’t bothered to learn all the words. And finally it was nice to see all
the men in suits but had nobody told them white socks belonged in a
gymnasium?

‘But
a eulogy Maureen, I ask you! When did people like Peggy Braithwaite start
warranting eulogies? All she ever did was get herself banned from Weight
Watchers and spawn that God forsaken brood! Still’ she added momentarily coming
to berth alongside the promenade railings,’ at least they tried which is more
than can be said for that Shanks rabble.’

Then
she let out a shriek and felt the back of her head.

‘Who
threw that stone?’



Funeral Tea

Bell, Book & Handbag Posted on Mon, August 18, 2014 07:55PM

On to Peggy Braithwaite’s Funeral Tea

‘I said are you alright Maureen?’

Foolishly I muttered something about it being
too hot in the restaurant. I should have known better. Instead of sympathy I
got another salvo of unwelcome advice on the perils of wearing unseemly amounts
of other people’s hair on top of your own.

‘Anyway it’s time we were off,’ she said
swinging her handbag over her arm. ‘It’s at St Luke’s and if we don’t get there
in good time all the best seats will have gone. Remember Eileen Murchison’s? Jammed
at the back with all those Boy Scouts? Then get a move on. I’ve no idea why Peggy’s
family chose that place. The acoustics are dreadful and the walls are covered
in graffiti. They say it’s the play group but where do the under-fives learn
words like that unless it’s from their parents? Still have you seen those
mothers? How you can expect to bring up a child when you live in a tracksuit I
don’t know. Then again I suppose it’s
got a wide aisle.’

That was one thing Beattie was right about. She
also shot me a triumphant smile when they wheeled Peggy’s coffin in on a
trolley, which I will admit was the size of a double wardrobe with very sturdy
handles. But she was wrong about the lack of seating. Apart from the immediate
family there was only us there. Sadly Peggy’s only close friends in life were
Jean Shanks and Frieda Waverley. One of them was dead and the other was in St
Mary’s Hospital having had her spleen removed. We didn’t really count either,
only being there for the cakes. Still we knew that a small turnout always boded
well in terms of catering largesse. Plus judging from the combined tonnage of Peggy’s
brood they definitely seemed like a family that enjoyed their food so it looked
like we were in for a treat.

‘As soon as that last clod of earth gets
thrown in’, sang Beattie to the tune of ‘Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer’,’ we’ll
be round that church hall double quick as I don’t fancy being trampled to death
under that lot when they whip the tea towels off the sandwiches. Look at that
grandchild. You can’t tell me it’s natural for twelve year olds to be that
size! And what is that Karen wearing? She looks like a bungalow under an
awning!’

Our plan worked. Dust to dust and we were right
at the head of the queue. Beattie was over the moon and all over the food.
Despite her girdle she managed to eat four chocolate éclairs, three Fondant
Fancies and a slice of pork pie. She was so overcome by the size and magnificence
of the spread before us that she even risked her immortal soul by telling all
Peggy’s children what a wonderful woman their mother had been and how greatly
she’d be missed by everyone. All poor Jean’s family had got was a tactless request
for more Rennies.

‘Decent milk,’ she hissed using the excuse of
a cup of tea to get a good feel of the table cloth. ‘Real linen too! Has to be
borrowed surely?’

As far as I was concerned they could have
been serving fresh caviar on gold plates stolen from Buckingham Palace for all
the difference it made. Without trying to sound dramatic I knew that we were
NOT ALONE. Ever since we’d left the restaurant I’d had a feeling that we were
being followed. Even in the church I kept turning round, convinced that somebody
was watching us. And it wasn’t the Almighty either. By the time we got to the
eulogy the feeling was so strong I could feel the hairs on my head standing up,
which was no mean feat considering they were buried under £40.00 worth of ‘Hey
Big Spender’.

What I needed more than anything was fresh air.
Unfortunately my attempt at a speedy exit was thwarted when Peggy’s daughter
Karen lumbered over and begged us to take some of the leftover food with us. I
think she said something about it only going to waste if we didn’t but it was
hard to tell because her mouth was full of Cheesy Wotsits.

‘I doubt that very much!’ Beattie muttered but
she did her bit to help and crammed most of a ham and egg pie and a jar of
pickle into her handbag. Then she rammed half a dozen scones into mine. Only
when our pockets were bulging with mini chocolate rolls were we allowed to
leave….



Seeing ghosts

Bell, Book & Handbag Posted on Mon, August 18, 2014 07:50PM

…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.



Chapter 1

Bell, Book & Handbag Posted on Wed, April 02, 2014 08:42PM

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
that wreath cost us Maureen’ she said for the umpteenth time as she
blew 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 Beattie will never listen.
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 there 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 would have
thought 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 sombre 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 British Home Store’s cafeteria 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
solemn occasion. 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 don’t normally 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, she continued. ‘Still I suppose it was
all that peroxide you used when you worked as a prostitute that
ruined yours. ‘

I
swallowed the last mouthful of my carrot and lentil soup and said
nothing. When she’s in this mood 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 in the middle of
dismembering her bread roll long enough to assume what she thought
was an expression of grief and despair. It always looked more like
trapped wind to me but I held 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 to see how many pall bearers they needed to carry
the coffin,’ she sniffed.

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 and you can’t expect
them to be heaving that weight about at their age. I wouldn’t be at
all surprised Maureen if management 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 still
circumnavigates the manhole cover that marked 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. I mean you can’t expect
the whole of the Chamber of Commerce to walk bareheaded behind
veneered chipboard can you?

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.

‘I said
are you alright Maureen?’

I muttered
something about it being too hot in the restaurant. I should have
known better. Instead of sympathy I got another salvo of unwelcome
advice on the perils of wearing unseemly amounts of other people’s
hair on top of your own.

‘Anyway
it’s time we were off,’ she said swinging her handbag over her
arm. ‘It’s at St Luke’s and if we don’t get there in good
time all the best seats will have gone. Remember Eileen Murchison’s?
Jammed at the back with all those Boy Scouts? Then get a move on.
I’ve no idea why Peggy’s family chose that place. The acoustics
are dreadful and the walls are covered in graffiti. They say it’s
the play group but where do the under-fives learn words like that
unless it’s from their parents? Still have you seen those mothers?
How you can expect to bring up a child when you live in a tracksuit I
don’t know. Then again I suppose it’s got a wide aisle.’

That was
one thing Beattie was right about. She also shot me a triumphant
smile when they wheeled Peggy’s coffin in on a trolley, which I
will admit was the size of a double wardrobe with very sturdy
handles. But she was wrong about the lack of seating. Apart from the
immediate family there was only us there. Sadly Peggy’s only close
friends in life were Jean Shanks and Frieda Waverley. One of them was
dead and the other was in St Mary’s Hospital having had her spleen
removed. We didn’t really count either, only being there for the
cakes. Still we knew that a small turnout always boded well in terms
of catering largesse. Plus judging from the combined tonnage of
Peggy’s brood they definitely seemed like a family that enjoyed
their food so it looked like we were in for a treat.

‘As soon
as that last clod of earth gets thrown in ‘sang Beattie to the tune
of ‘Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer’,’ we’ll be round that
church hall double quick as I don’t fancy being trampled to death
under that lot when they whip the tea towels off the sandwiches. Look
at that grandchild. You can’t tell me it’s natural for twelve
year olds to be that size! And what is that Karen wearing? She looks
like a bungalow under an awning!’

Everything
went according to plan. Dust to dust and we were right at the head of
the queue. Beattie was over the moon and all over the food. Despite
her girdle she managed to eat four chocolate éclairs, three Fondant
Fancies and a slice of pork pie. She was so overcome by the size and
magnificence of the spread before us that she even risked her
immortal soul by telling all Peggy’s children what a wonderful
woman their mother had been and how greatly she’d be missed by
everyone. All poor Jean’s family had got had been a request for
more Rennies.

‘Decent
milk,’ she hissed using the excuse of a cup of tea to get a good
feel of the table cloth. ‘Real linen too! Has to be borrowed
surely?’

As far as
I was concerned they could have been serving fresh caviar on gold
plates stolen from Buckingham Palace for all the difference it made.
Without trying to sound dramatic I knew that we were NOT ALONE. Ever
since we’d left the restaurant I’d had a feeling that we were
being followed. Even in the church I kept turning round, convinced
that somebody was watching us. And it wasn’t the Almighty either.
By the time we got to the eulogy the feeling was so strong I could
feel the hairs on my head standing up, which was no mean feat
considering they were buried under forty pounds worth of ‘Hey Big
Spender’.

What I
needed more than anything was fresh air but my attempt at a speedy
exit was thwarted when Peggy’s daughter Karen lumbered over and
begged us to take some of the leftover food with us. I think she said
something about it only going to waste if we didn’t but it was hard
to tell because her mouth was full of Cheesy Wotsits.

‘I doubt
that very much!’ Beattie muttered but she did her bit to help and
crammed most of a ham and egg pie and a jar of pickle into her
handbag and half a dozen scones into mine. Only when our pockets were
bulging with mini chocolate rolls were we allowed to leave.

As usual,
unless it’s raining or Beattie has forced her feet into a pair of
court shoes, we took the route home along the sea front. I thought
the walk would do me good and if you hit the promenade at the right
angle Biddermouth On Sea is actually quite attractive. If you hit it
at the wrong angle you’ll probably get mugged. Like all seaside
towns and most of the inhabitants it has seen better days. But then
that was what drew me there in the first place; that and my old
friend Olive Mannering.

Olive had
discovered that it was the sort of place where a woman with a secret
could disappear. Granted I didn’t have as many secrets as her but I
had enough. Then again perhaps Olive didn’t have as many as she
thought either. One weekend she’d made the cover of most of the
Sunday papers. Not that they charged the archbishop in the end but
the damage was done. I think he got off quite lightly considering
he’d been wearing his mitre at the time. Still, after all those
years of running and hiding, living in grubby little bedsits under
assumed names and over fish and chip shops and Indian takeaways
Biddermouth On Sea was a place we both felt that we could finally
call home.

But for
how much longer, I wondered? This business with Jean was stirring up
old memories. The Dead and I had been uneasy bedfellows and I had no
wish to be dragged back into that world.

‘It’s
probably indigestion’ said Beattie.

‘What
is?’ I asked wondering if I’d missed something important.

‘You’
she replied,’ you’ve been in a funny mood since you ate that
soup. What was it? Carrot and lentil? Whatever next? If the Lord had
meant us to eat pulses we’d have been born in Africa. What you need
Maureen is a good dose of Andrews Liver salts when we get home. ‘

‘Probably,’
I said although by now my head was beginning to throb and I knew
carrot and lentil soup was the least of my problems. A martyr to
trapped wind and indigestion herself Beattie saw no reason why
anybody else should be any different. The fact that all her problems
stemmed from eating large quantities of chutney and wearing
pre-decimalisation foundation garments never seemed to enter her
head.

The
further we walked along the seafront the colder the wind became.
According to matron Hathaway a brisk walk would do me the power of
good. I wasn’t so sure. Something did not feel right. And it had
nothing to do with excess stomach acid. Out of the corner of my eye I
saw something or somebody flit from the cover of one shelter to
another. What we needed was to hide, and hide quickly.

I thought
that feigning an interest in stately homes was a stroke of genius so
I pushed Beattie into the local tourist information office. If it was
Jean Shank’s ghost that was following us we should have been pretty
safe in there. The words ‘Jean’ and ‘culture’ had never sat
well together in my opinion. Politically she may have been as bigoted
as Beattie but even I had to admit that my neighbour’s Maria Callas
was one up on Jean’s collection of James Last albums. Beattie may
have called them ‘arias’ and I may have called them ‘noise’
but there was a Maria Callas wig in my catalogue for £65 so she must
have had something going for her despite sounding like a cat in
mangle.

As it
happened I should have just kept walking. Despite being numbed by the
cold wind, my jaw almost hit the floor when I saw the life-sized
poster advertising the forthcoming coming attraction at the Town Hall
Theatre.

‘Doris
Morris, Celebrity Medium and Clairvoyant to the Stars presents ‘The
Above and Beyond’ tour.

‘Beyond
the Pale if you ask me’ snorted Beattie. ‘I mean how can she call
herself a celebrity medium? For a start it’s all hogwash. As I
always say ‘once you’re gone you are gone.’ Full stop. End of
story. But I mean to say Maureen one interview with Lorraine Kelly
and a picture with a weather girl is not my idea of celebrity
anything. And just look at the size of her. She makes Peggy look
positively svelte!’

Whilst
it’s true that Doris Morris was what my ex-husband Archie would
have called a ‘hefty piece’ it is also true to say that Beattie
wasn’t exactly on the small side herself. Despite only being five
foot two inches tall and rigorously corseted she still manages to
make most reasonable sized rooms feel small. She was not so much a
fine figure of a woman as a monolith in gabardine dedicated to the
art of the all in one foundation garment.

That said
it was also true that, as they say in America, Doris Morris and I had
history. At one point, after I’d left the fun fair, after Archie
had been exposed as a bigamist and before I ended up doing three
years at Her Majesties Pleasure and the twins were taken into care,
Doris, Olive and I had all been highly successful mediums on the
Spiritualist circuit. Some things were best kept hidden and I was
determined to keep it that way. The less I saw of Doris Morris the
better. Fortunately for once Beattie was on my side, but as usual for
very different reasons.

‘Well
one thing’s certain we won’t be paying good money to see that
load of old tosh,’ she said, ‘Of course what can you expect when
people vote for a LibDem council? Now when the Tories were in power
the Town Hall Theatre used to put on some lovely musicals. Even you
would have understood them. But look what we got last Christmas; some
girl who played a corpse in ‘Casualty’ trying to be Cinderella.’
She blushed a bit and well she might! According to Beattie she never
watches programmes like that.

‘I tell
you Maureen it’s all bare thighs and more rubbish like this! No
wonder this town has become a haven of illegal immigrants. You mark
my words Maureen by the time we get to the next election we’ll all
be smoking guano!’

’Ganja’
, I said but she shot me one of those famous ‘I happen to know’
looks and I thought ‘well you can smoke bird droppings if you want
and tried to deflect her with a leaflet about coach trips to the
Cotswolds.

‘Yes all
very nice’ she said then looked nervously at her watch. ‘You know
I don’t like being out after dark since than man was caught
exposing himself in the shopping arcade.’

She tried
to tighten her scarf around her neck but then that’s another
curious thing about Beattie. Not only doesn’t she have a waist but
she doesn’t have a neck either. Her head sits straight on her
shoulders. Had she possessed a more amenable expression she would be
a dead ringer for one of those Russian dolls. But as it is with no
neck and everything subjugated by Playtex she often just looks like
an angry skittle on the run from a bowling alley.

As soon as
we ventured outside I could tell all was not well. Whatever it was
that had been following us was still there and that could only mean
one thing. The psychic powers that had got me into so much trouble in
the past had to be coming back. Maybe they had never really gone?
Perhaps the shock of Archie’s bigamy, losing the twins and three
years in prison for fraudulent clairvoyance had simply pushed them to
one side. Either way I suddenly found myself having to think about a
lot of things I didn’t want to think about for the rest of the way
home.

Hardly
surprising then that I was quiet was it? Not that silence ever stops
Beattie having a conversation. She is like nature. She abhors a
vacuum. When she is talking to you and you don’t reply she is quite
happy to imagine your answers and use them against you later. So by
the time we’d reached the hut where the deckchair attendant was
arrested for interfering with young boys she had ticked off
everything that was right about that afternoon’s funeral. Then she
worked systematically backwards to refute each point with something
unpleasant.

Yes it had
been a lovely spread but Peggy’s children had obviously been
brought up not knowing that gluttony was one of the Seven Deadly
Sins. The tea had been refreshing but whatever possessed people like
that to think they could drink Earl Grey? It was very touching when
the grandchildren sang ‘Lord of the Dance’ but a pity they hadn’t
bothered to learn all the words. And finally it was nice to see all
the men in suits but had nobody told them white socks belonged in a
gymnasium?

‘But a
eulogy Maureen, I ask you! When did people like Peggy Braithwaite
start warranting eulogies? All she ever did was get herself banned
from Weight Watchers and spawn that God forsaken brood! Still’ she
added momentarily coming to berth alongside the promenade railings,’
at least they tried which is more than can be said for that Shanks
rabble.’

Then she
let out a shriek, clapped her hand to the back of her head and
claimed that somebody had just thrown a stone at her.

We both
looked around. I couldn’t see anybody. I couldn’t see a stone
either. Apart from a dog relieving itself on a lamppost and a man
drinking something out of a brown paper bag down the other end of the
promenade the place was deserted. It would have felt like the lull
before the storm except there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

And that’s
when it happened. Something, someone or somebody gave be me an
almighty shove and according to Beattie, down I went like a sack of
potatoes.



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