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Book Extracts

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Chapter 1

Bell, Book & HandbagPosted by Ian Ashley 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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