"Don't you believe in ghosts any more?" asked Clement's mother, while fingering the tiny cross hung at her throat—as if she believed it would protect her from those very ghosts.
The empty room was crowded with other members of the Victorian family—a funerary gathering, with too many children under the age of ten for comfort. Clement grimaced at the thought of the ensuing hours of small talk and big arguments. Yet, despite the numbers, there was currently a deathly hush, as the grown-ups balanced the chinking of their cups against the nibbling noise caused by an inconsequential cucumber sandwich, underlaid with the snickering of the log's flames from the hearth.
The children maintained an uncharacteristic modicum of good behaviour, even including the boy who had dared wear a bobble-hat at the earlier ceremony. They were crouched on the floor peculiarly staring at an empty corner of the room.
Twins Archie and Annabel had given up squabbling, once one of them at random had been given what Clement considered to be a rather vicious clip round the ear by their otherwise prim and proper mother. After all, in those days, punishment was worth the effort.
Clement had arrived at the funeral on his own. His mother lived in the opposite end of town, pretending to her neighbours that she had always been a Spinster, thus concealing the evidence of Clement as fruit of her erstwhile marital loins. Indeed, she had ignored her son during most of the day's proceedings—other than the initial pleasantries which she had a way of making quite unpleasant.
Clement surveyed the others. They surveyed him, too, with the usual embarrassment that people have about returning silent stares. Most of them were unmentionable creatures whom Clement would not have even granted a second glance in the town's market. The simple fact that they once had blood-ties with him in various devious ways surely did not make them worthy of consideration. He would rather be friends with those donkeys on the sands, when his mother and father took him to the seaside every Whitsun.
"Ghosts, mother?" he said, as if the words fitted in with what had already been said earlier. He fingered his cufflinks, echoing her earlier perfomance with the crucifix.
"Yes, Clement, you were always going on about ghosts. If you're so clever, where's Auntie Rita now?"
His mother swept the room with her heavily braceleted arm, as if to conjure up some wraith masquerading as the remnants of that day's buried body. She ignored the steely glances from some of the grown-ups who evidently condemned her tactless remark.
Clement had found it difficult to remember who Auntie Rita had been. Some long-lost distant relative born not only on the wrong side of the blanket but also quite the wrong blanket? One who wanted to be called Auntie because of some perverse logic as to respectability? Or was she his mother's sister, as simple as that? Whoever she was, he laid the blame at Auntie Rita's door for today's irritations. At least, at a Christening, one could curse the babe in question. Or, at a wedding, stick pins into metaphorical dolls of the bride and groom. But at a funeral, the proximate cause of yet one more family gathering was already dead. But, he knew, as the old saying went, there was no rest for the wicked.
With corpses as scapegoat as well as subterfuge, families, like nations, had wars, bitter, twisted and, yes, mercenary. Why would they all be haunting the living-room, otherwise? If not for the reading of the Last Will and Testament...
So that explained the gentleman in half-moon glasses who sat uncomfortably on the sofa between Archie and Annabel. The family lawyer, no doubt. But the man also had the stigma in his eyes and the caste of complexion which typified the rest of the room's crawling life. Clement winced at his own words. He hadn't chosen them. It was as if someone else described the scene. Clement was no culprit—he was sure. Yet the family did stem from a particularly nasty form of ethnic cleansing that had transpired in Old Europe, before Clement's birth. Yet nobody had heard of ethnic cleansing in those days, that, at least, was true. But it gave him no excuse for racial slurs.
"I don't believe in ghosts any more, Mother."
Clement had broken another icy silence. Her accusation could not have remained unchallenged. Who knew what concertina of destinies would have been set in motion, otherwise? The supposed lawyer coughed—either because he had a frog in his throat or he genuinely wanted to let slip the dogs of war with the Will. It turned out to be a frog, since the man pawed at his own chest as if he fought for breath—or someone else's breath, Clement unaccountably thought, in a moment spawned by surrealistic private humour.
Still the children silently stared at the empty corner of the room but one of them was eventually instructed to fetch the lawyer a glass of water. Upon recovering, he maintained that a piece of cucumber had gone down the wrong way.
Gone down the wrong way?
Which was the right way? contemplated Clement, as he fingered his own throat and discovered the tiny cross he always had hanging there, against his better judgement. Habits died slowly—and a habit, inculcated in the younger Clement by his mother and father, was particularly hard to kill. Not that he believed in God any more. Well, not that God in whom his mother appeared to place so much faith.
The children were now becoming more and more fractious. Who could blame them? The whole affair was being drawn out to unncesssary lengths of fitful silence. At least, their encroaching wheedles and whines relieved the heavy atmosphere. Nobody had dared broach the Will, not even the so-called lawyer—a man who looked remarkably like Clement's late father when he was younger. Yet, Clement's father had been a cleric: or a lower-rank verger or sexton or, maybe, at a push, a curate or something. Certainly not a deacon. Some shame had come on the family when Clement was too young to appreciate the repercussions. A minor peccadillo with a female creature which flaunted itself on the seaside rocks (near the donkey-ride).
Clement couldn't believe in ghosts. He never would. He didn't dare.
He snatched the long toasting-forks from either Archie and Annabel (he was unsure which shape was which) and jabbed and spiked the air of the dark living-room. He then squatted in the empty corner and tugged harder at the cross-chain, hoping it would make him dark, too.