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Authors: Rebecca Tope

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A Grave in the Cotswolds

BOOK: A Grave in the Cotswolds
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A Grave in the Cotswolds

REBECCA TOPE

Allison & Busby Limited

13 Charlotte Mews

London W1T 4EJ

www.allisonandbusby.com

Copyright © 2010 by
REBECCA TOPE

First published in hardback by Allison & Busby Ltd in 2010.

This ebook edition first published in 2010.

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

Digital conversion by Pindar NZ.

All characters and events in this publication other than those clearly in the public domain are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent buyer.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

ISBN 978-0-7490-0935-9

Available from

A
LLISON
& B
USBY

In the Cotswold series

A Cotswold Killing

A Cotswold Ordeal

Death in the Cotswolds

A Cotswold Mystery

Blood in the Cotswolds

Slaughter in the Cotswolds

Fear in the Cotswolds

Deception in the Cotswolds

 

Other titles

The Sting of Death

A Market for Murder

Grave Concerns

R
EBECCA
T
OPE
lives on a smallholding in Herefordshire, with a full complement of livestock, but manages to travel the world and enjoy civilisation from time to time as well. Most of her varied experiences and activities find their way into her books, sooner or later. Her own cocker spaniel, Beulah, is the model for Hepzibah, but is unfortunately ageing much more rapidly.

www.rebeccatope.com

For Judy Buck-Glenn
in gratitude for your interest and encouragement

Author’s Note

As in all the other Cotswolds titles, the setting is in a real village. But as before, the actual buildings and people in the story are imaginary. Furthermore, the personnel on the Gloucestershire County Council have been wholly invented for the purposes of this fiction. Drew Slocombe’s Somerset home, however, is in an invented village, surrounded by other invented places, making the interface between real and imagined impossible to follow on a map.

Chapter One

The roads grew increasingly narrow and undulating, the closer I got to the village of Broad Campden. The strange intimacy of travelling with a dead woman in the back of the car joined with the timeless effect of the towering trees and long stone walls, the combination making me quite light-headed. I found myself muttering out loud, addressing my silent passenger in none-too-friendly terms.

‘What a place to bring me,’ I accused her. ‘Why couldn’t we have stayed in Somerset and done the business there?’ I groped once again for the map beside me, checking that I really did have to take the right turn shortly before the town of Chipping Campden. Yes – right, and then right again after passing through a small village, and then left into a small sloping field on the edge of a wood. Three cars awaited me, and I greeted their occupants with due dignity, straightening my tie. It was windy, the trees tossing loudly overhead.

Broad Campden was a mile or two away from Chipping Campden, in the middle of the Cotswolds. It was a region I hardly knew at all, the road map on the passenger seat a vital part of my equipment as I transported the dead woman in her cardboard coffin to her place of rest. Cardboard had been selected after an exhaustive discussion about the coffin, a year before. ‘Willow,’ she had said, to begin with. ‘I hear there are lovely willow coffins available.’

‘There are,’ I had agreed, ‘but they’re extremely expensive.’

When I told her the price, she gulped. ‘And that’s with only a modest mark-up,’ I added. She had not questioned my integrity; it was my own sensitivity to the practices of some undertakers that led to my saying what I did.

I really had not expected to be handling Greta Simmonds’ funeral so soon. She had seemed to be in good health when I met her, and I had wondered why she was so intent on arranging and paying for her own funeral at the relatively tender age of sixty. Childless, retired, and passionately committed to all things Green, she was a type that I recognised. We had got along well, and I was sorry when her family contacted me to say she had died.

The funeral had come at a bad moment, and I was in no mood for the task that particular week. It was going to take all my most conscientious efforts to conduct things as they should be conducted, for a number of reasons. It was sixty miles from home, for one thing, and poor Karen, my wife, wasn’t happy about being left on her own with our children. I took no pleasure from driving, and had little anticipation of a warm reception from the family. The dead woman had been emphatic about wanting me to dispose of her body according to sound ecological principles, while admitting that her relatives were unlikely to be very cooperative about it. I had been visited by her sister and nephew, who had stiffly agreed to the day and time for the burial, casting their eyes to the ceiling and sighing heavily as they did so. Now they were gathered, along with another nephew and a handful of friends, in the windy little field, where Mrs Greta Simmonds was to be interred.

The great majority of the funerals I conducted were in the land at the side of my house in Somerset. I had been running Peaceful Repose Natural Burials with my partner, Maggs Cooper, for nearly five years, building a quiet reputation for reliability, sensitivity and frankness. I told people how they could reduce costs, how they were still permitted under the law to opt for a range of alternative burials, and I invited them to take control of the process as much as they wished. As a result, Maggs and I earned an embarrassingly small income, but made a lot of friends.

Greta Simmonds had been unusual in several ways: her insistence on the precise position of her grave, in this obscure corner of the Cotswolds; her comparatively early age; her wry acceptance of the need for a minimum depth for the grave in order to safeguard her from scavengers. ‘You know,’ she had said, with a little tilt of her head, ‘I’m not sure I would mind if some hungry vixen took part of me home for her cubs. What’s the difference between that and providing nourishment for a lot of fat pink worms?’

I had been careful to retreat from that line of conversation. People were almost never as sanguine about their own dying as they might appear on the surface. I had diverted her to the question of timing. ‘Statistically,’ I said, ‘you are quite likely to live another thirty-five years. You need to be sure that your money is safe, and the funeral costs secured, however far in the future it might be.’

Her smile suggested that she knew something I didn’t. ‘I don’t think we need worry about that,’ she said. ‘We don’t make old bones in this family.’

As any undertaker would, I had inwardly permitted myself to hope she was at least more right than I was. With risibly low interest rates, and every prospect of rising costs and changes in regulation, the sooner I could gain access to her cash the better. But I squashed the thought. I liked this woman far too much to wish an early death on her.

She had paid for it all, up front, quite content to trust me with her money, thrusting the carefully drawn-up agreement into a large shoulder bag.

That had been fifteen months earlier and now she was dead. I was shocked when her sister, Judith Talbot, telephoned me with the news, and harassed by the implications. Maggs had been on holiday at the time, with Den, her husband. They’d gone to Syria, of all places, and I had a nagging worry that I might never see them again. I had to arrange the Cotswold burial for the day after they came back, dropping everything into Maggs’s lap only hours after she crawled off an overnight flight from Damascus. But we both knew this was the way it went. She made no complaint, helping me to slide Mrs Simmonds’ coffin into the back of the vehicle and waving me off with a good grace.

To our disappointment, natural burials hadn’t caught on as well as I’d hoped when Karen, Maggs and I began the business. If anything, it had gone backwards – we’d had fewer customers over the past twelve months than in the year we started. It was galling in a number of ways, not least financial. If it weren’t for the compensation package we got when Karen was shot, we’d have had to wind everything up and do something else. Even the stalwart Maggs’s meagre salary would have been unaffordable.

All of which meant, of course, that I was in no position to turn away work, even if I had not been obligated by my agreement with Mrs Simmonds. Maggs assured me she could watch out for Karen, as well as keeping everything going in the office. She’d done it plenty of times before, after all. And I could do the funeral on my own, since three somewhat reluctant pall-bearers had been dragooned into helping out when it came to the actual burial. It was a far cry from the days when I worked for a mainstream undertaker, with no fewer than five members of staff always in attendance.

The dead woman’s two nephews and brother-in-law helped me to carry her to the grave in a corner of a field that she told me had been hers for decades. I had, with some difficulty, arranged for the necessary digging to be performed that morning, by a man from Blockley, who still dug graves for some local undertakers. He had promised to return as soon as the funeral was over, to fill it in again. I deftly arranged the pulley ropes around the coffin, and we lowered it in without mishap. There was no vicar or other officiant. Mrs Talbot, sister of the deceased, produced a sheet of paper and read a poem by Sylvia Plath which Mrs Simmonds herself had chosen. I hadn’t heard it before, and forgot it as soon as it was over – but it was a relief not to have to endure the ubiquitous lines by Henry Scott Holland which claim that the person in the grave isn’t really dead, but just in the next room. That had never worked for me.

I was unsure of Mrs Talbot. She showed very little sign of distress at the loss of the person she must have known for her entire life, longer than anybody else, in fact. She stood straight-backed and British, reading the poem with no trace of a regional accent, wearing a well-cut dark-blue suit and expensive shoes. Her elder son, Charles, kept close, flicking frequent glances her way, as if needing to follow her lead. Mr Talbot was silent, detached, as if wondering quite why he was there at all.

And then a little surprise sent ripples through the modest assembly. The younger son, still in his teens, cleared his throat, and moved a few inches closer to the open grave. ‘Auntie Greta,’ he began, looking directly down at the coffin, ‘I’ve got a message from Carrie for you. She says she wishes she could have been here, and she’s going to miss you a lot. We both are. You’ve been the best auntie anybody could ever have. You were the bravest, funniest, cleverest person in our whole family…’ here he glanced defiantly at his parents and brother, ‘and it’s a bastard that you went and died, when we still need you. But you’ve got what you always wanted, and that’s a good thing. Rest in peace.’ He choked out the last words, and retreated to the edge of the group, turning his back on us all.

BOOK: A Grave in the Cotswolds
6.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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