After her acclaimed debut The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals, Wendy Jones returns with its sequel and picks up where it left off. It is 1926 and Welsh undertaker Wilfred is newly married and preparing for fatherhood. But can he embrace his future, without letting go of his past?
Now read on, to sample the first chapter of this cherishable second novel.
Narberth, late summer 1925
Wilfred Price, undertaker, purveyor of superior funerals, was up with the larks and off for his morning constitutional. And no time, today, for a cup of tea first. Wilfred strode out of his house, put his hands on his hips and breathed in the watery Welsh air that smelled of turned earth. He felt affection for Narberth, the small town – green as a bean – five miles from the crinkly coast of Pembrokeshire, where he had lived all his life.
‘Morning, Jeffrey,’ he called to his friend above the sound of a cleaver splitting a rib in half, as he passed Lloyd the Butcher.
‘Sunny day, today.’
‘Talking sense you are, Wilf.’
‘Good morning to you, Mrs Evans,’ he greeted Mrs Annie Evans, who was heaving a sack of oatmeal on her tiny back up the steps of the Conduit Stores.
‘Beautifulest funeral yesterday,’ she replied.
‘Wonderful funeral,’ Wilfred agreed. It had been the simplest of funerals yesterday for Mrs James – as it often was for elderly ladies. Half the time the whole town had been expecting them to kick the bucket for decades. But some old ladies were surprisingly enduring; they could be very determined about not dying, despite a whole host of ailments, including sugar diabetes. Though when they finally fell off the perch, the family were prepared, and simple grief made for simple funerals.
‘And beautiful weather it is for you today,’ Mrs Evans added. Wilfred raised his hand in acknowledgement.
In the High Street, Willie the Post, carrying his bulging mailbag, waved at Wilfred cheerfully. Mrs Cadwallader was singing opera in her steamy bakery. Wilfred heard Handel Evans, the organist, playing Bach in the Bethesda Chapel as he did every morning of the week, crashing chords and hitting harmonies. Meanwhile, no doubt, the Reverend Waldo Williams MA (Oxon.) sat hunched at the lectern beneath the organ, suffering perturbations over the Psalms in the big black King James Bible he so earnestly studied. Shiny-faced schoolboys scampered around Wilfred, and outside Dai the Mint’s a baby in a broken perambulator cried.
Wilfred climbed the hill to Narberth’s ruined castle, flattening the dewy grass with his feet as he walked. He stood between the roofless towers and the vaulted cellar, gazing over the hushed and splendid land where Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, was said to have struck his bargain with Arawn, Lord of the Underworld. Wilfred saw the fields of barley; St Andrew’s Church, where the gravestones stood like wonky gentlemen; and the wide circle of trees surrounding Narberth, tree after tree with great, round crowns, standing like a chapel congregation, neither ostentatious nor afraid to be what they were.
He rested on an ancient stone wall, listening to the wind, then took the Narberth & Whitland Observer out from under his arm and glanced at the front page.
Popular Narberth Wedding
Miss Daisy Prior and Mr J. Heath
The Tabernacle Chapel was the scene of a pretty wedding
on Saturday morning . . .
He was eager to read on, couldn’t help wondering what was inside the newspaper. There would be births, deaths, marriages, scandals, and the umpteen things in between of which he knew nothing and would be surprised to learn about. And there would be news of the prime minister in London, Mr Stanley Baldwin, along with an account of Mrs James’s funeral. But there wasn’t time to read – or to think, much as he loved to. He must go straight home to 11, Market Street right this moment and prepare himself. He folded the paper in half and set off across the hummocky grass. There wasn’t time to read the newspaper, not today.
‘It’s mighty tidy in here,’ Wilfred announced confidently, arriving back in the house and looking around the scully. But as Wilfred and his da stood in the cosy kitchen they’d shared for twenty-nine years, both had the same thought: the kitchen didn’t cut the mustard.
‘Let’s get rid of that old flour sack,’ Wilfred suggested, lifting up the frayed sack on the floor to reveal tea-leaves, grit, bits of grass and a dog-eared playing card.
‘Ach-y-fi. Didn’t you sweep under the rug?’ Wilfred’s da asked.
‘No,’ admitted Wilfred. ‘It didn’t occur to me.’
‘Well, quickly then – get the brush.’
Wilfred collected the dustpan and brush from the yard next to the cabbages where it had been left a few months ago and swept the floor, but the brush kept shedding bristles and he had to sweep up those as well.
‘That dustpan and brush,’ his da said, watching, ‘was a wedding present from Auntie Blodwen for your mam and me. Long time ago now.’
Wilfred stood up from all fours and put his large hand over his da’s gnarled, soil-stained hands and squeezed gently. Summer sunlight streamed through the window and lit up the humble and dishevelled room, and brought it into vivid relief.
‘We have lived very well, you and I, in this room, and this house, boy bach,’ his da stated. ‘I hope I have been wise,’ he added. ‘The only thing I ever prayed for was to be a good father.’
There was a gentle pause.
‘Do you think you should have cleaned the stove?’ his da asked.
‘I did,’ Wilfred replied. He took the blackened, encrusted frying pan with its inch of white lard from the stove and put it in the higgledy-piggledy crockery cupboard. ‘That’s looking better now,’ he stated. ‘And you won’t be able to keep your spade in the kitchen sink any more. I don’t think that will do.’ Wilfred’s da rubbed his chest in silent contemplation.
‘There are momentous changes ahead,’ Wilfred said, attempting to console his da but succeeding only in unnerving himself. Then, from nowhere, Wilfred remembered, as a child, waking from a nightmare and running with all his might to his da – out of bed, across the tiny landing and under the scratchy blankets of his da’s bed, where he clung resolutely to his father’s back, which was naked and strong.
‘I dreamed a saint nibbled me.’
‘Whoever heard of a saint in a bedroom?’
Tumbling into the deep dip in the middle of the old mattress, Wilfred was soothed by his da’s presence.
‘Keep still, boy bach. You’ve got St Vitus’s Dance.’
‘Who’s St Vitus? Is he dead?’
‘Not yet,’ his da replied. And then Wilfred had fallen asleep, warm and safe – safe as houses.
Wilfred straightened the chairs around the kitchen table and closed the cutlery drawer.
‘That’s looking better again. Are you going to comb your hair?’ he asked his da.
‘Aye aye,’ his da replied, smoothing his halo of white hair down.
‘Now, you’s better go and get yourself ready.’
Wilfred nodded, rubbing his bristly chin. He must have a shave.
‘I’ve put petrol in the hearse,’ he mentioned, adding, ‘It’s not ideal, is it?’
‘What?’ his da said, alarmed.
‘No! I’s thought you were happy this time.’
‘Not that, Da,’ Wilfred explained. ‘This time I couldn’t be happier. I meant it’s not ideal, going to my own wedding in a hearse.’
‘Once an undertaker, always an undertaker,’ his da replied.
‘Now, cariad,’ said her mother, bending down and cutting the stems of some dalias, separating forever the flower heads from their roots. She stood up and handed the freshly cut flowers to Flora Myffanwy. ‘Let bygones be bygones.’
Flora nodded. Her mother was talking about Albert. It seemed an obvious comment, but Flora knew what her mother meant. She was to let go of the past, no matter how golden it had been.
‘This is a new beginning for you,’ Mrs Edwards continued. She reached for the white, trumpet-like lilies. ‘Shall I cut you some of these?’
‘Yes, I’d like some lilies.’
‘Your father planted these earlier this year.’
It was still so raw. Flora saw an image of her father slumped on the hall carpet. It was a very fresh memory. She gazed at the line of metallic blue sea in the distance. The air was full of insects flitting and a rabbit hopped in the apple orchard at the end of the garden.
‘He would have wanted to give you away,’ her mother stated, cutting four of the tallest, most beautiful lilies.
Her father had died in the spring; she had first seen Wilfred at the funeral, met with him across the summer and they were marrying before harvest. Much else had happened besides, but at its simplest and most pure, they had come together over the year. Today was her wedding day, not to Albert, but to Wilfred. She loved Wilfred, but she was marrying him because Albert had died.
‘Perhaps a few sprigs of laurel?’ her mother enquired.
‘Shall we find some ivy?’ Flora said.
‘Let’s walk to the front garden,’ her mother suggested, ‘and see if we can find some. I’m sure there’s some ivy clinging to the silver birch.’ They ambled across the dappled lawn, passing the pink and lilac hydrangeas growing bushily in the borders and heading towards the iris beds.
‘I like irises,’ Flora said, gazing at the elegant, indigo flowers leaning giddily against the garden wall.
‘But I couldn’t imagine them in a bouquet,’ her mother responded. ‘The trailing ivy will go lovely with the lilies.’
Flora unbuckled her sandals, took them off and began walking barefoot on the cool, fresh grass. The lawn had not been cut regularly since her father passed away so the clover had long, wilting stalks.
At the silver birch Flora began pulling the ivy away from the tree. The sun beamed down, the sky was cloudless and it was a hot, almost oppressive day. Flora ran her hand round the back of her neck and lifted up her long brown hair.
‘It will be time soon for you to put on your dress. I will help you with the lace veil,’ her mother said, watching. ‘That ivy’s proving difficult.’
Flora tried to pull a young piece of ivy away from the bark but it was tangled and stuck too tightly to come away in one piece.
‘Married life . . .’ Mrs Edwards began, then stopped. Flora knew her mother would not advise her on married life; she would be more sensitive than that. ‘I only want you to know that I had a lot of pleasure from married life.’ Her mother was allowing Flora into an aspect of her life that she had not revealed before. ‘And I learned that there was nothing to be gained from holding back.’
Flora tugged at a different frond of ivy. She didn’t know if she could let go of the past. Time had passed but the ties of her heart remained. Flora tried to feel within her her love for Wilfred, but it felt hidden quietly beneath the preparations for the wedding and moving to Narberth. She needed a still moment to feel her love for him clearly and strongly again.
‘And to think you are wearing the same muslin dress as I wore, the one belonging to your great-grandmother,’ her mother said, arranging the flowers in her hand. ‘That reminds me, I have a small gift for you.’ She went into White Hook and Flora stood waiting, looking at the large, old house that was her home, and could not imagine having another home. Her mother returned with a neat box wrapped in dark green ribbon. ‘It is for you, now you are almost married.’
Flora carefully removed the ribbon and brown paper, opened the glossy black box and pulled out a lipstick in a pale, pearly pink.
‘It’s for you to wear today,’ her mother explained. ‘Something new to go with the something old – the wedding dress – if you think you would like to use it.’
‘I’ll try it,’ Flora Myffanwy said, carefully dragging the lipstick across her lips.
‘If ever there is a day a woman can begin wearing lipstick,’ her mother said, ‘it is surely her wedding day.’
‘Tell out my soul, the greatness of the Lord,’ the reverend roared, and Handel Evans hit the organ chords as if his life depended on it.
Wilfred stood at the altar next to Flora Myffanwy and sang, strong and deep, with his shoulders back and head high, losing himself in the voices of those he loved surrounding him. He sang with all his might so that his heart was full of lightness and he felt he could float above Stepaside and Narberth and be singing with the stars. His joy was as plain as the written sign.
When the final thunderous organ chord had faded to a slow echo and the Benediction had been given, Wilfred, beaming, held out his arm for Flora to take and they walked together down the aisle to the church door. These are our first steps, he thought, of a long journey.
Wilfred and Flora Myffanwy stepped out into the sunlight to the sound of voices raised in a cheer. A shower of rice confetti landed with a pitter-patter on Wilfred’s top hat and tails. The rice fell helter-skelter onto his shoulders and into Flora Myffanwy’s bouquet, nestling among the lilies and the ivy. Small children from the local cottages strewed wine-red camellia and rose petals at their feet for the bride and groom to walk on.
‘Here’s the bride and groom,’ Jeffrey announced. ‘They look a masterpiece.’
Wilfred and Flora stood outside the small chapel in Stepaside. Wilfred noticed the quivering aspens and wild rambling roses. It was a glorious day, the sun was shining and the sea in the distance was still. A blackbird was putting loops and twists in his voice and a solitary plump bee hovered about the honeysuckle. The black clothes and the white linen of the guests were very plain against the green of the trees and the silvery-grey of the chapel.
‘There’s one thing I will say, and it is this,’ Mrs Annie Evans stated. ‘There’s children you’ll have, with all this rice thrown.’
Men in bowler hats and top hats nodded in agreement, as did the ladies in bonnets with feathers in them.
‘It’s better than the old shoes of tradition they threw at my wedding,’
Willie the Post called, pulling Mrs Willie the Post towards him. ‘We’re only happy because I’m deaf and my wife is blind.’
‘Wondrous sermon. The reverend is like Milton and Cromwell rolled into one,’ Wilfred overheard Handel Evans comment.
‘Aye,’ Dai the Mint replied. ‘There’s no flies on that bugger.’
Arthur Squibs of Arthur Squibs Studios of Tenby emerged from the gathering, lugging his cumbersome camera.
‘Good afternoon, Mr Price. Good afternoon, Mrs Edwards. Good afternoon, Mr and Mrs Wilfred Price.’ He doffed his bowler hat in greeting. He gazed up at the light of the sun, then set up his heavy wood and brass camera on a tripod.
‘Now, Mr Price and Mrs Melbourne Edwards, if you would stand next to your son and daughter respectively.’
His da, smelling of mothballs and boot polish, stood beside Wilfred, his fine hair fluffing out around his hat, as white as if the snow had fallen in it. Mrs Melbourne Edwards, holding a new handbag, stood next to Flora. Wilfred watched his da attempting to straighten up.
The Reverend Waldo Williams MA (Oxon.) sashayed forward, his cassock swaying about him freely, with two simple wooden chairs for his da and Mrs Melbourne Edwards. His da sat down, as if resting from a long journey taken and completed.
‘Wilfred, move closer,’ Arthur Squibs said. Wilfred leaned towards Flora. Flora smoothed the wisps of brown hair springing loose from the delicate white veil placed over her head.
‘There’s beautiful the bride is,’ said Mrs Bell Evans with admiration.
‘Thank you, Mrs Evans,’ Flora replied quietly.
‘There’s proud you must be of your daughter, Mrs Edwards.’ Mrs Edwards swallowed visibly, unable to reply.
‘Look straight ahead,’ the photographer advised, clapping his hands to attract their attention. Flora Myffanwy stood by Wilfred, her shy eyes smiling. Wilfred stood tall and upright in his best suit.
‘Stand still, if you please.’ Mr Arthur Squibs moved his large camera and tripod slightly to the left, hid his head under the thick cloth and emerged, moving the camera nearer again. He stood beside the camera, like a magician about to capture their souls. The photograph was eventually taken.
‘There are photographs, and then there are . . . photographs,’ Mr Squibs said enigmatically, ‘and that was a photograph.’ Then: ‘One more picture, please. It is important to have two of everything that is important to have,’ he announced to the baffled gathering, adding, ‘like kidneys.’ He took a cloth from his waistcoat pocket and rubbed the camera lens vigorously. ‘Now, keep still, don’t move a muscle,’ he instructed. ‘This is a ten-second exposure. Talk among yourselves, ladies and gentlemen . . .’ Arthur Squibs pressed the shutter. ‘One second, two seconds . . .’
Wilfred stood as still as he could. This was a proper wedding in an ancient chapel, and standing next to him was the woman he wanted as his wife. Out of the corner of his eye he looked at Flora Myffawny – beauty was around her like lavender – and thought to himself that this was the happiest day of his life. And there was the night to come as well. He felt the muscles in his belly contract and the long muscles heat and flare inside him. It would be the happiest night of his life, too, when the air between them was hot. He had not yet had conjugal relations and did not know the exact ins and out of these things, but he had lain in bed with a woman before and he felt confident this practise would hold him in good stead tonight. He glanced at Flora Myffanwy.
‘Wilfred, you’re twitching!’ Arthur Squibs reprimanded. ‘Six seconds and seven seconds . . .’
Flora was looking at the camera lens with her solemn beauty and serious eyes. It wasn’t always like this at a wedding, Wilfred knew. But he wouldn’t think about that today. That was the past. Whomever else he had professed to love, honour and obey was gone. He would dwell on it no more. He would put it behind him. Flora was his wife now and he couldn’t be happier. To think that the days earlier in the year had been so dark, so imprisoning, when all had seemed lost . . . and now here he was.
And Flora had loved before, but the chap had died in that dreadful war and so that was all over and they could both begin a new life. The past was gone for Flora, too. She loved him now. He must remember Mr Ogmore Auden’s advice. Mr Auden had asked him, when he was an apprentice undertaker: ‘Do you know the secret to a happy life?’
‘No, Mr Auden,’ he’d replied.
‘Two words: “Yes, dear”.’
Wilfred decided, there and then, that he would call Flora Myffanwy ‘dear’ and he hoped that she would like that. It was important to call one’s wife ‘dear’. It was called a term of endearment, Wilfred knew, and was the opposite of a term of abuse. One would never call one’s wife a term of abuse. That was unthinkable.
‘Nine seconds and ten seconds,’ Arthur Squibs counted. There was the fat click of the camera then a fizz of the photograph being taken. A dignified round of applause broke out.
I will kiss her cheek, he thought to himself, and felt the gentle warmth of her skin.
‘There is good to have flowers so near you,’ Wilfred remarked on Flora’s posy. ‘Dear,’ he added. Flora looked up at him quietly. Still waters run deep, he thought to himself, though she had said the only words that mattered to Wilfred: ‘I do,’ and in the gentlest voice he could ever imagine. Wilfred put his hand tenderly around her small warm waist and looked at the woman he could almost barely believe existed. And he could see the smile coming in her eyes. Wilfred was aware that he knew very little about women, as his mother had died on the fourth day of his life. Women were different from men. He had already noticed, and he’d only been married five minutes.
‘Shall the bride throw the bouquet?’ Mrs Willie the Post suggested.
‘Those flowers are more beautiful than poetry,’ Mrs Cadwallader remarked.
‘There’s an abundation of lilies for you,’ Mrs Annie Evans agreed, ‘and with the smell of the scent of paradise.’
‘Jeffrey, if you catch the bouquet it will be your wedding next,’ Mrs Willie the Post encouraged.
‘Good God Almighty, there’s a thought!’ Handel Evans retorted.
Flora smiled, turned her back to the expectant crowd but the bouquet slipped from her hands, falling onto the soft grass. Wilfred, removing his top hat, bent down to pick it up.
‘Oh,’ she said, blushing a little.
‘Let me. Dear,’ he offered, picking up the bouquet and handing back the slightly crushed lilies. Flora took the flowers and threw them carefully behind her to a cheer of joy and excitement from the anticipating crowd.