James Kelly was still
somewhat flushed from his embarrassing encounter with Douglas Searle and the
subsequent handshakes he had been obliged to offer several of Mr Searle's
relatives, when news of the arrival of their cars prompted him to peer through
the front windows of the lounge and optically verify the fact. Altogether, there were five black saloons
parked outside in addition to the hearse, which was to convey the remains of
Paloma Searle to the
Having been under the impression there was going to be a burial Kelly had asked the widower to which cemetery Mrs Searle's corpse was about to be conveyed, only to learn that it wasn't going to be buried at all but cremated instead. Although he had initially considered burial, Mr Searle realized that Paloma's suicide would undoubtedly complicate matters, especially as, née Gomez, she had been born a Catholic. He had accordingly taken the undertaker's advice and opted for cremation. The coroner, witnessed by the local GP, had subsequently verified the cause of her death as arsenic poisoning and, satisfied with his findings, had duly furnished a medical certificate. The fact that the Searles had not been regular church-goers was another factor in determining the choice of cremation, thus enabling the deceased to be disposed of without drawing undue attention to their atheistic past and perhaps even bringing his name into public disrepute. Consequently if the idea of burial had initially presented itself to Mr Searle's grief-stricken imagination as a more dignified and even romantic means of disposing of his late wife, the realities of modern life, the sinful nature of her death, and the almost total disregard for Christianity to which he had hitherto professed in his obsession with money, quickly combined to quash the idea and open the way for the Enfield crematorium. The executor had thereupon obtained a copy of the cremation regulations from the local undertakers and, following the coroner's inquest, arranged to have his late-wife's corpse resolved into lime dust on Friday, August 28th.
Of the assembled relatives and friends only the executor's father, Edward Searle, had expressed overt disapproval at the fiery prospect in store for his deceased daughter-in-law. But, sympathizing with his son's bereavement, he had cut short his criticism of cremation with a gesture of resignation intended to convey the impression that what must be must be. And as though to apologize to his son for having thus expressed himself, the old man endeavoured to console him with words to the effect that 5lbs of Paloma's ashes were better than no ashes at all!
"It looks like we're going to be under way soon," a voice to the right of James Kelly murmured, betraying a slight relief.
"It does rather appear so," agreed Kelly, as he recognized the chubby face of Keith Brady, who was standing next to him. "I imagine it will take us about half-an-hour to get to the crematorium - assuming we'll be travelling at funeral speed."
"The hearse is bound to ensure that!" rejoined Brady, allowing a vague smile to play around the edges of his fleshy lips. "Strangely, this is the first time I've ever taken part in a funeral actually."
"Me too," confessed Kelly. "And I hope it'll be my last." But, almost immediately, he regretted having
said this, since it seemed to betray his personal guilt concerning Paloma's
death, and reminded him moreover of the three additional letters she had sent
to his home address whilst he was away in Paris, thereby making a grand total
of six! "Do you know why we're
going to the
"Simply because that's the nearest one, I believe,"
the painter replied. "The
Although there were some other voices at large in the room, the predominating atmosphere of mournful silence sufficed to restrain Kelly from asking or saying anything else, and it was with a feeling of relief - relief, above all, from the oppressive proximity of Douglas Searle - that he followed the other mourners out to the waiting cars, where the widower proceeded to allocate them all their respective places - the relatives naturally taking the front two cars behind the hearse, and their friends the rest. Thus it happened that Kelly subsequently found himself being allocated a place in the fifth car, in the company of Trevor Jenkinson, Gordon Hammer, and Rachel Davis, who, as soon as they were under way, began to relax a little and to open-up on the subject of Paloma's suicide.
"By the way," said Jenkinson, turning his attention
upon Kelly, who was seated next to him, "both Gordon and Rachel are
acquainted with the existence of
"Yes, didn't I tell you in that letter I sent to your
Kelly almost heaved a sigh of relief, as the truth of this
statement dawned on him. Yes, Trevor had alluded to Douglas
Searle's connection with the club as a possible motive for Paloma's suicide - a
connection he had kept silent about at the ball in order, presumably, not to
betray the latter's disguise. So there
was no reason for Kelly to suspect that Trevor and Paloma had been secretly in
league with each other over his private affair.
"Ah, yes, of course!" he at length admitted, his face
betraying a degree of embarrassment.
"In fact, I had concluded the 'outlaw' to be
"Well, now there's little you don't know about the damn club you needn't be surprised that things have turned out the ill-fated way they have," Jenkinson remarked.
"Yes, I did indeed," admitted Jenkinson. "And I couldn't help noticing the looks on Peter and Catherine Wilson's faces, either."
"Who are they?" asked Kelly, feeling somewhat out-of-his-depth.
Instead of replying, Jenkinson waded-in with: "Do you recall that chap dressed as Blackbeard at the ball?"
"Well, he and his wife, the 'vestal virgin', were celebrating their admittance to the club, following the expulsion of the 'wizard' and wife," Jenkinson reminded him. "They foresaw a rosy future of organized adultery for themselves ..."
"And now that future no longer exists," interposed Hammer, "seeing as the founder and leader of the club is without a wife and cannot therefore continue to participate in it. And without him, the club's finished."
A brief silence supervened as their car drew-up behind the one in front at a traffic light turning red. Then, once they were under way again and the fourth car had duly pulled farther away from them, Hammer drew Kelly's attention to the fact that it contained Peter and Catherine Wilson. "We wouldn't want them to overhear our conversation," he chuckled dryly, drawing notice to their own two open windows, which had been lowered on account of the sweltering August heat. "But I shouldn't think that Matthew and Susanna Boyle would be greatly distressed by it."
"Matthew Boyle was the defeated 'wizard' at the ball," Jenkinson almost academically informed Kelly, whose ignorance of the fact had been total, "and Susanna was the one in that old-fashioned and slightly ridiculous nurse's costume. So, as might be expected, the news of Paloma Searle's suicide probably didn't have anything like the same negative impact on them as on the existing and new members of the club. Naturally, they did their best to appear upset, to offer sincere condolences, etc. All the same, I bet you anything they were privately revelling in malicious pleasure from contemplating the disappointment on the faces of Douglas Searle's accomplices, particularly in light of the fact that they hadn't received a very congenial farewell at the Bensons' anniversary affair!"
"But couldn't someone else take over the club's leadership?" Rachel Davis asked with an almost rhetorical intonation.
"Yes, there's always that possibility," Jenkinson
reluctantly conceded. "But it
strikes me as rather unlikely. After
"Here, here!" cried Hammer, slapping his right hand down on the thigh parallel to it. "I thought I'd made that point perfectly clear to you a few moments ago," he added, casting Rachel Davis a faintly reproachful glance. "Anyone would think you bloody-well wanted the damn thing to continue!"
A wry smile played across Rachel's heavily rouged lips, in spite of the obvious effort she was making to suppress it. "Well, none of us could profit from the damn thing," she averred, taking out a large white handkerchief from her bag to divert attention from her emotional excitement.
"Three bachelors and one spinster," Jenkinson observed. "Let's hope we shall never have need of such a club ourselves."
"Poor Paloma," murmured Rachel, after she had blown her nose. "To think she did away with herself over that."
"We're not absolutely sure why she killed herself," Jenkinson rejoined. "But the pressures of living with the club seem to be the most likely explanation."
Kelly sharply turned his face towards the nearest window, in an
effort to hide the guilty feeling which overcame him on hearing this
conjecture. He was almost expecting
Trevor Jenkinson to say something sarcastically ironic to him, but his literary
rival merely continued by saying: "When you bear in mind the number of
snooker victories that
James Kelly had stopped listening to Jenkinson's conjectures,
since the memory of what Paloma herself had confessed to him, when they were
alone together in the second-floor room of Mark Benson's house, coupled to the
recollection of the letters she had subsequently written him, left the young
man under no illusions concerning the real motive for her suicide. If he had still been in some doubt when he
arrived back from
"... a terrible death," Jenkinson was saying, as Kelly returned from the distant planet of his morose reflections to the mundane reality before him, "and one which reminds me of Madame Bovary, whose heroine spent tortuous hours writhing on her bed while the arsenic cut deeper and deeper into the wellsprings of her tormented life. Now Douglas, who discovered the catastrophe too late to be able to do anything about it, admitted that many of the symptoms described by Flaubert were also to be found in his wife. To tell you the truth, I'm rather glad it was all over by the time I arrived. I expect Paloma purposely chose such a suicide on account of the fact that she'd been re-reading that novel shortly before deciding to take her own life."
The phrase 'a terrible death' cut into Kelly's consciousness like a knife going through butter, and the vague emotion of negative pride that he had been on the verge of discovering, the moment before, was duly eclipsed by the remorse which now descended on him like a ton weight for the unspeakable pain he had unwittingly caused Paloma to suffer. For an instant he felt like confessing everything, confessing to the guilt which had once more welled-up, like molten lava, inside him - and just at a time when he was on the point of establishing his innocence in his own eyes! But his courage failed him, or maybe his common sense came to the rescue (he had no idea which), for he merely glued his face to the car window and tried to focus on the buildings across the other side of the street. Guilty and innocent, innocent and guilty by turns on an incessant roundabout. Was it ever any different? No, life was always a combination of vicissitudes, a dualistic balance, a dichotomous relativity.
"It looks as though we've arrived," Rachel observed, as their car came to a gentle standstill behind the one in front.
"Indeed it does!" confirmed Hammer, peering out towards the stern façade of the crematorium. "Oh well, I suppose we'd better prepare ourselves for the worst."
They alighted with due decorum on the pavement side of the car and slowly ambled towards the hearse, where the pallbearers had already lifted the coffin onto their shoulders and were now advancing at a measured pace towards the crematorium's main entrance.
"A job for the young," Jenkinson remarked sotto voce, as they trailed mournfully behind the others at the tail-end of the cortège.
"All we need now is the Heroide Funèbre," Hammer opined in a reverential whisper. But this allusion by the concert pianist to Liszt's Symphonic Poem No. 8 was largely wasted on the three people by his side, who weren't in the least familiar with it.
Once everyone was safely inside the building, the formalities proceeded more or less according to plan, with no delay and scarcely any sentiment. In fact, they were disposed of so efficiently, by the officiating officials, that more than a few of the assembled mourners now experienced a sense of anti-climax, so great were the tensions and expectations which had accumulated in their breasts over the preceding hours! No sooner had they resigned themselves to being where they were and to participating in the disposal, through incineration, of a female corpse, than the coffin had been consigned to the furnace and its contents assisted towards total dissolution by a process which seemed akin to a factory production-line, the only difference being that the end-product would be an urn of ashes rather than a car or a motorbike. Rather than being consigned to an eternity of earthly or watery dissolution through burial on land or sea, Mrs Searle's corpse had been conveyed to a frenzy of fiery destruction which, though incontrovertibly hellish, would be over and done with in the twinkling of an eye, comparatively speaking. They need only wait for the urn of sanctified ashes on the far side of the conveyor-belt process, as it were, for them to have no further business there and to take their dignified leave of the place - as was soon to transpire, with relief that it was someone else's corpse and not their own which had tasted the flames' diabolical wrath, so to speak, and been reduced, in judgmental fashion, to a few pounds of common ash.
However, since the return journey was conducted at a slightly quicker pace than the outgoing one, it wasn't long before they arrived at the classy little restaurant in Hampstead which Mr Searle had booked in advance, for the benefit of both relatives and friends alike. Even old Edward Searle, who seemed the one most aversely affected by the cremation on account of his moral preference for burial, appeared to have acquired a new lease-of-life from the more familiar surroundings in which he now found himself, as the prospect of tucking-in to some dead animal's cooked-up flesh presented itself to his cadaverous imagination as something greatly to be relished.
"I don't suppose the sombre experiences of this mournful day will prevent us from eating our fill," remarked Hammer, as he took his place at table and proceeded to scrutinize the menu. "The living are always under obligation to eat."
As in the cars, so in the restaurant, the participants were divided into relatives and friends, similar arrangements applying as before. Thus James Kelly still found himself in the company of Gordon Hammer, Trevor Jenkinson, and Rachel Davis, albeit with the addition, now, of Keith Brady and Susan Healy. At the next table, the Bensons were seated in the company of the Wilsons and the Boyles, whilst at the third and farthest table from the door Douglas and Edward Searle sat facing each other in the company of their four relatives - Mr and Mrs Gomez (Paloma's mother and father), and Mr and Mrs MacNamara (her brother-in-law and sister). Their dinners, ranging from beef and chicken curry to roast lamb and pork, were duly ordered, and a few large decanters of red wine, to boot.
"Well, I suppose one ought to be grateful that one is still alive," Brady murmured to no-one in particular. "Poor Paloma won't be eating roast dinner again."
"Poor Paloma's a figment of your imagination," contended Hammer, the fingers of each hand spread out before him on the white tablecloth, as though he were seated at a piano in some vast concert hall and about to launch both himself and everybody else into a musical rendition of autocratic power.
"Yes, I suppose you're right," conceded Brady, smiling wryly. "I wonder how many people have been cremated in this damned country since 1885, the year it all began."
"Devil knows!" Jenkinson exclaimed. "But I'd rather we didn't discuss such matters over lunch, if you don't mind! Let's change the subject."
There was an embarrassing silence at their table while they racked their respective brains for an alternative and possibly more fitting subject to discuss, but, curiously, it was Jenkinson himself who first profited from his suggestion by inquiring of Keith Brady whether he had now finished work on the painting he'd been attempting to describe to them, back at Douglas Searle's house, in June.
"Yes, quite some time ago actually," admitted Brady, suddenly looking relatively pleased with himself. "In point of fact, I began work on another abstract-surreal one shortly afterwards, which I think will turn out even better than the one in question."
A brief titter erupted from Rachel Davis, who did her best to feign respectful curiosity, in the teeth of her habitual disrespect for Brady's art, by asking him to describe the new work to them.
"Do you know Roussel's novel Locus Solus?" he asked, by way of an indirect response.
"Never heard of it," Rachel blandly confessed.
"It's the most famous of the novels inspired by surrealism," Kelly informed her, before going on to tell Brady that he had been re-reading it recently.
The painter raised his bushy brows in a show of delighted surprise for this unanticipated admission. "Well, I'm endeavouring to paint the exhibit of Chapter Three," he explained, primarily addressing himself to Kelly. "You'll doubtless recall that Chapter Three has to do with the large diamond-shaped transparent vessel containing the aqua micans liquid in which are immersed the dancing girl with the long golden hair, the remains of Danton's face, the hairless Siamese cat, the metal horn, the seven bottle imps, the vertical starting-post for the hippocampi's race, the hippocampi themselves, the golden ball compounded of, er, Sauterne wine, and ..."
"You're actually painting all that!?" exclaimed an astonished James Kelly.
"Well, I'm endeavouring to," admitted Brady. "What d'you think of the idea?"
"Why, it's one of your most enterprising ideas to-date!" averred Kelly enthusiastically. "If you can succeed in that, you ought to try painting scenes from other parts of the book as well. I'd certainly like to see it when it's finished." He stared at Keith Brady with something approaching genuine admiration, a thing he had never felt towards the man before. Did this plump fellow, whom he was apt to regard as a superficial womanizer and simple hedonist, actually possess literary tastes similar to his own? It seemed unlikely and yet, despite his preference for non-representational art, he was nonetheless quite impressed by Brady's choice of subject-matter.
"Aqua micans!" snapped Hammer, whose right-hand fingers were now performing a kind of demonic tango on the tablecloth. "This conversation is becoming a wee bit too esoteric for a simple musician like me!"
Kelly had no desire to commit himself to an elucidation of Roussel's literary masterpiece, especially now that their food had arrived and he was all for tucking-in to his beef curry. The prospect of being drawn into an exposition of the chapter treating of artificially resuscitated corpses was the last thing that appealed to him under the circumstances of his healthy appetite at this moment, as he mixed everything, peas and rice included, into a kind of abstract medley for which his fork alone would suffice. Besides, what with Paloma's own corpse having been cremated little over an hour ago, it was wiser to drop the subject altogether.
"Were you the bloke dressed as Napoleon Bonaparte at the fancy-dress ball?" he asked Brady, whose long aquiline nose more than suggested the possibility.
"Yes, I'm afraid so," confirmed the latter blushingly.
Muffled laughter escaped from Susan Healy, who confessed to having been the Empress Josephine.
"I'm rather relieved that I wasn't there," Hammer declared. "It appears to have been a veritable madhouse! Trevor told me, a couple of days later, what you were all disguised as. I could scarcely believe my ears!" Having said which, he directed a slice of well-forked roast pork into his large open mouth.
"Well, I don't suppose we'll ever have to dress-up like that again," conjectured Kelly, as soon as his mouth was free of a large chunk of curried beef and in a position to be used for speech again. "By the way, I didn't see you there, Rachel."
The journalist looked as though she had just been accused of a public indecency as, blushing, she explained that circumstances had prevented her from going.
"I invited her along to review the recital I was giving at the Festival Hall," intervened Hammer, "and she enjoyed every damn moment of it, or so she told me afterwards, in spite of the fact that the works I'd been commissioned to perform were about as atonal and avant-garde as it's possible to get, short of not being music at all but some sort of diabolic noise! Few recitals can have been more intensely discordant than the one I was obliged to deliver that Saturday evening, I can tell you! And I loathed every damn moment of it!"
"Whom would you have gone to the ball as, had circumstances permitted you?" Kelly asked Rachel out of idle curiosity. But since she shrugged her shoulders in a show of bewilderment, he put the same question to Gordon Hammer.
"Probably Franz Liszt. Either him or the Phantom of the Opera!" Subdued titters duly emerged from various quarters of the table. The idea of Hammer dressed-up as the Phantom of the Opera seemed too preposterous for Kelly to swallow, and by a curious paradox he almost choked on the large chunk of beef he had just forked into his mouth. Even Jenkinson managed to find the idea vaguely amusing. For despite the determined effort he was making to remember the nature of the occasion which had brought them all together in the first place, he couldn't prevent his natural ebullience from bubbling to the surface when prompted, as at present, by sufficiently stimulating implications. Besides, the general hubbub throughout the rest of the restaurant, particularly that section of it which had not been reserved for the funeral party, indicated, quite clearly, that the cremation was effectively a thing of the past, with little or no applicability to how things now stood. Even Mr Searle's relatives had given-up any pretence of trying to appear mournfully solemn, as they grappled with the self-indulgent mechanics of eating their respective dinners.
"What, exactly, would the Phantom have looked like?" asked Kelly, once he had recovered something of his former poise.
"More formidable than Mephistopheles!" jeered Hammer, drawing his bushy brows together in a show of strength. "But too many people wouldn't have known who or what he was, so it probably wouldn't have been in my best interests to expose myself to their cultural ignorance."
"I quite agree," Kelly sympathized. "I got rather tired of people asking me who I was supposed to be." An involuntary shudder ran through him, as he recalled his demonic appearance of July 4th. There, in his mind's eye, lay Paloma Searle, stretched out on the bed in the upstairs room with her nun's attire up round her neck and a white G-string dangling from between her thighs. And now? Her flesh had been reduced to a few pounds of common ash, nothing more. Good God! at the thought of this he suddenly wanted to vomit, so distasteful was the juxtaposition of ideas which assailed him, separating him from his companions at table and causing his hands to tremble uncontrollably.
Following a desperate impulse fuelled by an overwrought imagination, he staggered-up from the table and rushed out into the street. A panic overcame him as his mouth filled with vomit. He had no time to look around him for a suitable place to spew. It came gushing out of him, all over the pavement in front of the restaurant - bits of chewed-over beef mixed with the pulp of vegetables and rice and, for all he knew, his fried breakfast. It gushed out of him in a series of violent eruptions, causing him acute physical distress. Never before had any such deplorable thing happened to him! With vertiginous head he leant against the wall next to the restaurant's entrance, gripping his badly strained stomach in a posture of unmitigated agony. People in the street stopped and stared aghast at him, their faces riddled with a mixture of pity and disgust. His embarrassment and humiliation pinned him to the wall as he gasped for breath and tried not to notice what had happened, from fear of provoking more of the same. If only he could hide somewhere, run away from this ghastly scene, recover a shred of his customary aplomb. His right hand accidentally encountered some sick which had fallen onto his jacket and, immediately, a spasm of disgust swept through him, almost causing him to vomit afresh. He fumbled in his breast pocket for a paper tissue but merely succeeded in transferring some of the spew on his hand to the interior of the pocket in question. No, he never kept tissues there ... how could he forget? He pulled one from the right-hand front pocket of his black cords and began to wipe his hand clean and to dab the contaminated part of his matching jacket with it. People were still staring at him, now seemingly more in anger than in pity, and one woman with a pram had to cross over to the opposite pavement to avoid pushing its wheels through the puke.
A familiar voice crying: "Goodness me, James, are you alright?" sprang out of the confusion of jumbled sounds all around him. He had some difficulty recognizing Trevor Jenkinson through his tear-drenched eyes. "Here, let me fetch you a glass of water ..."
"No, I'm alright," he insisted, his voice hoarse and catching in his throat from the vomiting. But Jenkinson had already disappeared back into the restaurant for the water, duly reappearing with it in no time at all.
"Here, sip this slowly and steadily," he advised, lifting the cold glass to Kelly's slime-smeared lips. "It'll soon make you feel better."
The younger man obeyed like a frightened child, gripping the glass in his free hand. An icy coldness flowed through him when the first drops of water slid down his gullet and entered his hard-pressed stomach. But his breathing had become calmer and a slight feeling of relief was already insinuating itself within him, as he leaned against the wall of a nearby shop towards which he had been gently led.
"There, you'll soon be back to normal again," Jenkinson was saying, as he held his fellow-writer by the arm.
"I d-don't know what the fuck c-came over me," stammered Kelly, his face ghostly pale and his lips trembling from shock. "One moment I was f-fine, the next m-moment ..."
"Don't worry," said Jenkinson, who produced a clean white handkerchief from his breast pocket and, taking the half-empty glass of water from Kelly's trembling hand, motioned him to use it on that part of his jacket which had suffered most from the volcano-like upheaval of the moment before.
"I can't p-possibly return to the r-restaurant now," mumbled Kelly, before applying the handkerchief to his tear-soaked eyes.
"Would you like me to hail you a taxi - assuming you feel well enough to brave the ride, that is?" suggested Jenkinson.
"Yes, I haven't all that f-far to go," admitted Kelly. "In fact, I'm f-feeling a lot b-better already."
Jenkinson soon managed to draw the attention of a passing taxi and then helped his still-trembling and pallid-faced fellow writer to climb aboard. Finally he gave the driver Kelly's address and generously slipped a tenner into the man's hand to cover expenses.
"You're sure you can manage on your own?" he asked, leaning on the open door a moment.
"Yes, I won't die," Kelly managed to smile. "Thanks for your c-concern, Trevor. I really appreciate it."
"Don't mention it, me old mate," responded Jenkinson, with a little dismissive wave. "I'm only sorry you couldn't stay for the rest of the meal, even though the presence of all those vicious jerks is a good enough reason to throw up, if you ask me."
Kelly was wondering whether to return him the handkerchief, but, considering the soiled state it was in, he thought better of that and just smiled back at Jenkinson in comradely fashion while the latter closed the door.
'Damn it!' he thought, as the taxi drew away from the curb and from the one person who meant anything to him at that moment. 'Of all the things to happen! Why on earth did I have to think of Paloma the way I did!'
He lay back on the warm seat and gently closed his eyes, but his head was swimming too much. Moreover, his mouth tasted horrible and his breath reeked of vomit. He opened the nearest window to let in some fresh air, and took a few deep gulps. He felt incredibly weak, like all the energy had been sucked out of him with the vomit. The 12-15 minutes it took the taxi to reach his flat seemed like an hour, so afraid was he that he might throw up again. But he arrived home without further loss of self-esteem and, hurling himself down upon his single bed, proceeded to weep like a child. All the humiliation he had been obliged to bottle-up in the taxi came pouring out of him in a flood of bitter tears. What were they to think of him for having made such a public exhibition of himself in full-view of them all right outside the restaurant? At that moment, while he lay convulsively with face buried in his tear-drenched pillow, all he could think of was death, suicide, the need to follow Paloma's example and put an end to it all once and for all! For in spite of his own self-pity he couldn't help seeing, in his mind's eye, the haunting spectre of the coffin on a raised platform in front of a pair of velvet curtains, then the curtains drawing apart as it slowly slid towards the furnace, and, finally and most poignantly, the gaunt figure of Douglas Searle turning towards him with an expression of severe reproof on his haggard face - an expression which cut to the very depths of his soul. No wonder his guilt had taken a physical turn for the worse later that day!