The polished walnut coffin ploughed its wavering progress through the rain, a galleon borne up like ocean by six solemn shoulders in long black coats. Before it were the doors of the crematorium, a softly lit beacon in the grey morning, from within which harbour’s safe embrace a rich contralto voice intoned the ‘Eriskay Love Lilt’. As the congregation’s heads bowed in prayer, Forbes Frobisher Dalwinney was brought to receive their last devotions on his way to eternal rest.
“You can’t do it!”
Deprived suddenly of one of its bearers, the shining wooden ship lurched perilously, recovered, then crabbed sideways before its remaining five stalwarts regained control. Oblivious to the aghast cries and protests of those who came to see F.F. Dalwinney honourably reduced to cinders, a young pall-bearer had deserted his post to run ahead of the coffin and stand resolutely, arms outstretched, in its path.
“He never wanted a cremation! He hated fire. The thought of being burned terrified him. He wanted to be buried – he said that to me. He did!”
The contralto’s voice fluttered and ceased. At his lecturn, Father MacGonigal closed his book of prayer.
“It’s most irregular!” Said the Superintendent of Mortuaries as he surveyed an array of mourners gathered in his office. “Young man, why couldn’t you have spoken to someone about this before?”
The renegade pall-bearer shrugged: “I didn’t know before. My invitation was to Mr. Dalwinney’s funeral, and I was picked up from my house this morning. I was honoured to be asked to carry him, but it was only when the cortege brought us here that I realised you were going to torch him.”
“I think we would be better avoiding words like ‘torched’.” An older voice interjected. Its owner, a disarranged figure of wispy white-haired and haggard appearance, placed a bony hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Toby here was Forbes’ youngest nephew. They’ve been very close these last few years. If anybody knew the old man’s final wishes, I am sure it would be Toby.”
A cummerbund-trussed individual with great presence and no hair at all seemed to swell visibly with indignation. “This is scandalous!” He puffed. “Dalwinney’s widow is out there breaking her heart. Can we not just get on with the funeral? I’m sure nobody else has any objection?” He looked over his shoulder at the others with a challengingly raised eyebrow. This aroused some uncomfortable muttering.
“I don’t know why Mara’d be so upset. This is the first time she’s seen him in two years.”
“It would be nice to have a proper grave…”
“It’s rather out of our hands, I’m afraid.” The Superintendent said. “Father MacGonigal has already told me he’s uncomfortable with the situation. He won’t proceed.” He spread his hands in a gesture of hopelessness. “I fear you will just have to take him back.”
“The problem,” Toby said to Michael confidentially, as they shared a pint at the Wheatsheaf, “was that bloody bus.”
Michael was Toby’s friend. He made sympathetic noises that intimated his complete understanding. After a minute of silence, he said: “What bus?”
“I’ll explain.” Toby said. But he didn’t.
There was a further interval before Michael broke the silence. “So he’s buried, now. I mean, in a grave, sort of thing?”
“You had some courage, mind.”
“I had to say. The relatives never went near him, the old man; not for years. None of them did.”
“Nope. I mean, he was ancient, wasn’t he? He might have whiffed a bit, but he was quick-witted enough and I liked him. He used to tell me stories, about his life, and that. He got up to some stuff, mind. ‘You’re my favourite nephew’, he used to say. The others, they were just waiting for him to die. Circling like vultures, they were.”
“Then he went and left all his money to them, and didn’t leave you a thing!”
Toby grinned. “Well, there you go. Money isn’t everything, though, is it?”
In another public house nearby, the Superintendent of Mortuaries was enjoying a lunchtime glass with his old friend Ryan Pargeter. Ryan was an inspector in the local constabulary.
“By the way,” The Superintendent was saying as he lined up a fresh glass; “we nearly cremated Forbes Dalwinney the other day.”
Ryan glanced up at him enquiringly. “Nearly?”
“Yes. It’s an odd story. The family made a late decision – very late – to have him buried instead. So he got passed on to St. Margaret’s, I believe. He’s out of your hair, at least.”
“Being dead, you mean?” Ryan nodded. “I take your point, but of course he’d been inactive for years. I was always doubtful that we’d got everything cleared up, though. There was a little matter of the Brydon payroll robbery…”
“Good Lord! Did he organise that one?”
“It wasn’t proven. We had nothing to go to court with, no cash was ever recovered, and our Forbes had a good strong alibi; one of those typical criminal covers…”
“He was playing cards all night?”
“Exactly. Meantime, we’ve never traced a penny. There’s nearly half a million out there somewhere.”
“Surely, he used it to set himself up, didn’t he? I heard he lived very well.”
“No. He was set up already. But you’re probably right – it takes a sizeable income to live the way he did. Dear old Forbes! In a peculiar sort of way I’ll miss him! So they’ve buried him, have they?”
Patience was never one of Mara Dalwinney’s strong suits. A forceful woman, she had little time for social etiquette or common decency, although she did – when leaned upon by Forbes’ sister – delay her actual marriage to Sid the turf accountant until after Forbes’ funeral. She had two things to do on the morning Inspector Pargeter tailed her: the first was to get married, the second to open a locker on Temple Meads railway station, using a key she had discovered taped beneath Forbes’ sock drawer. No sooner had she applied the key to the lock than Ryan Pargeter appeared at her shoulder. It was not a meeting she would have wished for.
“What the shockin’ ‘ell are you doin’ here?” She demanded, frozen in the act.
“Following you, Mara.” Pargeter said affably. “Shall we see what’s inside?”
“No. It’s personal business, is this. I won’t bother now, I’ll look later.”
“Wrong. Proceeds of a crime are police business. Let’s open it, shall we?”
“There’s nothin’ in here, you know. Just personal stuff. There was nothin’ in the old bugger’s estate, either. Five hundred pound, that were all I got!” With leaden heart Mara eased the locker door open, her vision of a nest-egg fading in front of her eyes. “Shockin’ ‘ell! What’s this?”
Pargeter took a deep breath. “Seems you were right.” He sighed, staring into a chasm of empty locker. “I had hoped…”
Mara glared at him. “So had I!”
“There’s a letter.” Pargeter pointed out a solitary white envelope. “You’d better let me read it.”
“It’s none of your concern.”
‘Dear Mara,’ the letter began; and then: ‘So you thought you’d find a fortune, did you? Instead you found a locker as cold and empty as your heart. Never mind, all is not lost! I have left you one final, tiny joke. There is another key, and another door to open. Find the key and you will still need to know where the door is, won’t you? Well, I texted the address on my mobile ‘phone, you devious old cow. Happy hunting!”
“Nice turn of phrase!” Pargeter commented. “Why, Mara love, you’ve turned quite pale!”
For Toby, the sight of Mara Dalwhinney perched on a bar stool in the Wheatsheaf was neither pleasant nor welcome, but he screwed up his courage and sat next to her, ordering himself a beer. “You’ll be pissed off at me, messing up the funeral and that.” He said.
Mara returned his apprehension with a smile that was almost genuine. “Shockin’ ‘ell no! Why should I be?”
“All the extra expense, and that?”
“No, lad. No.”
“What you here for then?” Asked Toby, genuinely puzzled.
Mara gave her glass of gin a twirl. “Have you heard the song: ‘I got a brand new pair of roller skates, you got a brand new key’?”
“Well, it’s you who’s got something I need, young Toby.” She withdrew her deceased husband’s letter from her handbag. “Have a read of this.” And she reached deeper and pulled out a single house key, which she placed on the bar. “Then have a look at this.”
As Toby read the letter she continued: “When the bus ran him over, I had to go to the hospital to identify him. They gave me his things, and I haven’t throwed ’em away yet, thank god. After I read that letter I checked through his coat again. I found this key, tucked into the lining; so I thought to meself, where would he be going with that, before the bus stopped him? And I thought about you, Toby. I did. He was going to give that key to you, wasn’t he?”
“He told me about this.” Toby muttered. “He said it was an old joke, and how I was to have everything because you treated him so bad, and that. He was going to give me both – the address and the key.”
“But he never got to you. The bus got him first. So the thing is, young man,” Mara said; “have you got his ‘phone?”
“No, I haven’t.” Toby replied with a weary smile. “But I know a man who has.”
“Fifty-fifty?” Mara asked. Toby knew what she meant.
When Inspector Pargeter’s torch beamed into Mara’s mud-streaked face she squawked angrily at him.
“You! It shockin’ would be!”
“Oh sh**k!” Toby dropped his shovel on top of Forbes Frobisher Dalwhinney, who made no response. Toby tried to pull the coffin lid back over him.
“This isn’t how it looks!”
“Really? Opening a grave in the middle of the night? Doesn’t leave many alternative explanations, does it?” Pargeter grinned. “I think there’s a crime in this somewhere, don’t you?”
Mara glared. “Why? He were my husband. Why shouldn’t I dig ‘im up?”
“Why indeed?” Pargeter conceded heavily. “See, it took a chat with the undertaker to figure this out. He laughed, you know, Mara? He thought the old boy was a bit of a card, stipulating in his funeral plan that he wanted his mobile phone to be buried with him. Good hiding place, eh? No-one would know where it was – except you found out, young ‘un. Because when you were bearing the coffin at the crematorium it rang, didn’t it? And you had your ear right against the wood so you heard it. The message tone. How you must have panicked, knowing he was about to be burned!
“I’m glad to see you’ve found it. No, there’s no point in trying to hide it now. In fact, I’d like you to give it to me, please. It has an address on it I want.”
© Frederick Anderson 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.