Book Extracts

Book Extracts

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Seeing ghosts

Bell, Book & HandbagPosted by Ian Ashley 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.

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