Our writing group (Lichfield Writers) gave us a prompt as follows:
The happy couple living next door have died in a horrific accident. When their parents show up for the funeral, you find out why the couple always changed the subject when you asked them about their families.
“Who was that?” Marianne asked Peter as he slumped into a chair and carefully put the phone on the kitchen table in front of him.
“The police. It’s about next door. Colin and Caroline.”
“Oh dear. Has their house been broken into? I didn’t hear anything. You went in yesterday to feed the cat and pick up their post while they’re on holiday. There wasn’t anything the matter then, was there?”
He sighed. “Sit down. It’s rather shocking, really. I mean, these things happen, but not to people you know. They’re both dead.”
Marianne turned pale. “Oh, the poor dears. What happened?”
“Accident on the M5. The one which was on the news last night.”
“Oh my God. Dead?”
He nodded. “For what it’s worth, the police say that death must have been instantaneous. They wouldn’t have suffered.” He thought about what an instantaneous death in a car crash would mean, and all he could think of was gory impalings or decapitations, or… He swallowed, fighting his nausea.
“I suppose I shouldn’t say it, or maybe I should, but it’s a mercy there are no children, isn’t it?” She made a face. “Oh, the poor dears,” she repeated. “Poor things. So young and so alive, and so devoted to each other.” She pulled out a handkerchief and started to cry. “Why did the police call you, anyway?”
“They had our name and phone number written on a card I gave them in case they ever needed to call us. The police wanted to know if we were next of kin.”
She sniffed and wiped her eyes. “Well, we’re not, are we? Who are, I wonder?”
Peter scratched his head. “I suppose his parents, or hers. The police asked me, and I said I didn’t know. I suppose they have their ways of finding out.”
“They never talk about their family or their parents, do they?”
“No, they never do– did, did they? Always seemed to want to talk about something else if the subject ever came up. Never went away at Christmas to see them. Or had them to visit.” It was going to be strange, thinking of them in the past tense. As Marianne had said, they had seemed so alive. They’d been good neighbours, helping out when Marianne had had to go into hospital, always ready with an invitation to share their barbecues, or New Year’s parties, and excellent company whenever they came round for a meal or just for a cup of coffee and a friendly chat. In a way, Peter and Marianne felt they’d become their neighbours’ parents. He’d worked it out once; Colin and Caroline were literally young enough to be his children. Or was it that he was old enough to be their father? Anyway…
“Perhaps they don’t have parents,” Marianne suggested.
“That’s silly, everyone has parents.”
“Not if their parents have died,” she pointed out. “Or maybe they were fostered, and they never knew their parents.”
“I suppose so.”
He poured himself a cup of coffee, added milk and sugar, and sipped. “I suppose we’re going to the funeral?”
“How will we know? Who’s going to tell us?”
“Maybe it will be in the local paper.”
A few days later, there was a short paragraph in the weekly Chronicle describing the crash, with the last paragraph informing the reader that there would be a committal and cremation at the municipal crematorium on the following Friday.
Peter dug out his black suit, which he hadn’t worn since… He couldn’t remember. “Have I even got a white shirt that still fits me?” he called downstairs from the bedroom.
“Are you going to wear black and white?” Marianne called back. “That’s so old-fashioned. People wear all sorts of colours to funerals now. They put what they expect you to wear in the notice.”
“Well, maybe I am old-fashioned, then. And there’s nothing in the paper asking me to wear a psychedelic tie-dye T-shirt.”
The crematorium chapel was empty when Peter and Marianne arrived about ten minutes before the funeral was due to start. The two coffins were sitting at the front. There were no flowers. The chapel was cold, and the winter sunlight barely pierced the gloom. Almost as soon as they took their places near the back, a dozen or so people entered the chapel – mainly in couples – with nameless faces Peter and Marianne recognised from Colin and Caroline’s barbecues. Peter seemed to be the only one wearing a black tie. The front rows remained unoccupied.
“We’re the oldest ones here,” Peter nudged Marianne and whispered. “By a generation.”
“No parents?” Marianne whispered back.
“No relations at all, by the look of it.”
As he spoke, two men about Peter’s age entered, hand in hand, and made their way to the front row where they sat, almost ostentatious in their black suits.
“Who are they?” Marianne whispered. “What are they doing? Are they hers or his or what?”
Peter shrugged as the minister entered.
The service, if you could call it that, was a flat affair, devoid of all emotion, sentiment, or religious feeling.
“And that’s that,” Peter said as the second coffin slid out of sight and the curtains closed. “No pale ale and pork pies afterwards. Not that anyone’s said anything about, anyway.”
The two men who had been sitting at the front left their seats first, walking up the aisle between the rows of mourners, hands linked. Both held handkerchiefs with their free hands with which they dabbed at their tear-streaked faces.
Peter looked around, but it seemed that no one seemed to recognise the pair, or be recognised by them. The chapel emptied, with Peter and Marianne being the last to leave.
The two older men were still standing outside, alone, weeping openly. One of them looked Peter in the eye in a way that it was impossible to ignore, and held out a hand.
“Thank you for coming,” he said. “I take it you are Peter and Marianne?”
Peter, surprised, shook the offered hand. “Yes, we are.”
“So glad to have met you at last. Colin and Caroline told Paul and me about you when we spoke on the phone with them. How good you were to them when they first moved into the house, and how you continued to make them feel welcome.”
The other man, presumably Paul, offered his hand in turn, and Peter and Marianne offered suitable vague words of sympathy.
“Excuse me asking,” Peter said, unable to contain his curiosity much longer, “but who…?”
“Who are we?” the other answered. “I’m Neil and this is Paul.” There was a silent pause of a few seconds. “Colin and Caroline never mentioned us to you?”
Peter shook his head.
“Oh, I see, I know that they did feel a bit embarrassed about us. You see, we are Colin’s and Caroline’s fathers.”
“You are Colin’s father?”
“Not really. I’m his stepfather.”
“And Paul is his father? I don’t think I really get what’s going on here.”
“Of course.” He smiled. “Let me help you understand. I was married, and my wife and I had a baby girl, Caroline. Sadly, my wife died as a result of complications in her second pregnancy a few years later. The baby also did not survive. So I was left with Caroline.”
“As for me,” broke in Paul, “my wife ran off with another man a year or so after she’d presented me with Colin. Left me with a baby boy to look after.” He shrugged. “I got a divorce, of course.”
“And we met each other,” Neil taking up the story, “at a group for single dads. There are quite a few of us. You might be surprised. Anyway, Paul and I hit it off together, and we both discovered that we, not to put too fine a point on it, fancied each other. Hadn’t really crossed my mind before then that I might go in that direction, but there you go. Love’s a funny thing, isn’t it?”
“Same with me,” said Paul. “I just knew somehow that Neil was the person I wanted to share the rest of my life with. So we moved in together, and just like we had, my Colin and his Caroline got on really well with each other. All the way through primary school, secondary school, and then college. Never really had eyes for anyone else, did they, Neil?”
Neil shook his head sadly. “Match made in heaven, it was.”
“And they got married?” Peter asked. “Is that legal?”
“Why shouldn’t it be?” Paul answered. “Neil and I are married now. We weren’t when the two Cs – that’s what we called them – got married. But why shouldn’t they get married? They knew each other much better than most couples do when they tie the knot, and they were very happy about the idea.
“And so were we.”
“But they never mentioned you,” Marianne said. “You never visited them. And as far as we know, they never visited you.”
“Oh, they loved their fathers all right. But it was a case of what would the neighbours say – no offence to you as neighbours. It seems that you understand us. Colin was working with some quite sensitive stuff at the Home Office, and despite all the recent changes that have taken place in society, their rather unusual setup might have raised a few eyebrows in Whitehall. And Caroline, of course, was an infant teacher. Again, if it had come out that her husband was her stepbrother, and that her parents were two men…”
“I see,” said Peter. He looked at Marianne. “You will come back with us and have at least a cup of tea, won’t you? Spend the night at our house if it’s too far to get back tonight?”
“Actually,” said Paul, looking at Neil, “we were planning to spend the night next door to you, in Colin and Caroline’s house. We might even move in there some time in the near future, since we inherit the place as next of kin. This town is a much nicer place to live than Lambeth, believe me. We’re both retired, and it seems like a good opportunity to make a break in our lives. But we accept your invitation to a cup of tea with pleasure.”
“Make that supper,” said Peter. “And we look forward to having you as our neighbours in the near future.”