Mystery Woman Crime Competition

Hal’s ladder

“Poor Hal. I knew him well – like a brother …”

An incestuous one, I think, listening to Adriana bestow the virtues of the man in the coffin.

“Such a generous and sensitive man.”

She waves her damson fingernails in the air as she simpers, glancing at her audience from under her fringe.  I turn to my friend, the decanter, in the corner of the white room; the top makes a satisfying shhlop as I release it.  I take a swig of the dry sherry.  Through cut glass, the mourners remind me of a chess set, bunched up in black, missing their king.

“He will be missed.”

As Adriana states the obvious, my brother-in-law offers her a starched white handkerchief, in his liver-spotted hand.  She uses it to tickle the end of her nose.  Even her snot is fake.

I wipe my mouth on my sleeve where the sherry has dribbled down my chin. My mouth isn’t big enough for the quantity of alcohol I need.  I don’t care about the stains; my jumper is pocked with moth-holes and pulls where the cat has slept on it. It is the last present he bought me with any pretence of caring.

I remember unfolding it from its beautiful tissue paper, a moment of hope and then watching the sequins drop, like dead skin, onto the carpet.  It was the wrong colour and the wrong size.  I remember smiling, saying I’d put it on later, and then running out of the room to vomit.

The sickness helped me to drop two sizes that Christmas.  See how well the jumper fits now? I am my dead husband’s ideal woman.

I take one last swig from the decanter and push the stopper back in. I am an embarrassment, a wife-cum-wino, with a lead crystal bottle and no paper bag.  I think I should probably do something about food.  There is some cheese in the larder and a tin of pineapple.  I could wrap a potato in foil and stab the cocktail sticks into its flesh. Such a satisfying feeling.

But Adriana, Hal’s perfect PA, has organised prawn canapés.  They are carried into the room on foil trays by waifs.  Thin, like vultures, they circle the room, profiting from death.  I imagine a seafood allergy and bury Adriana next to Hal.

“Sheila?”

I hear Adriana’s voice, and realise she is standing next to me.  I find I am still holding the decanter.  I offer it to her. She turns her perfect nose up higher.

“Do you want me to say a few more words?”

About my husband? How about two-timing, adulterous, bastard.  There’s a few she could quote.

I nod.

“Do you think you should sit down?”

She’s worried I’ll fall and spoil her monologue.

I let her guide me towards the sofa.  I don’t care any more that her stiletto heels mark my parquet, leaving a trail of guilt. I sit on the smooth leather cover.  It ripples.  I imagine walking one-way into the sea.

“Poor Hal. I knew him well – like a brother …such an unfortunate accident.”

I hear the roar of the surf, the repetition of the waves.

“He was a generous and sensitive man, a loving father and a faithful and patient husband.  Even when times were hard, he was always there to help, despite his circumstances.”

What circumstances?  What is she accusing me of? Her face is smooth as she speaks.  I want to take a knife and tear it open.

“He was a wonderful man,” she ends with a flourish. “A wonderful man,” she repeats.

She raises her glass.  There is silence as they drink out of hired flutes.  I look for a familiar face, a gaze I can hold in the wash of faces in front of me.  But they are all old, covered in wrinkles, I don’t recognise them.

I find I can’t look anyone in the eye.

I look up at the chandelier instead.  It is missing a few droplets.  No one else notices the rainbows filling the empty spaces. I picture the moment Hal fell, the sparkle of crystal rain, and his look of surprise at seeing me there.

“Say something.”

Adriana nudges my ankle with her pointed shoe.  Her shoe is black with a diamante bow. I look down at my own shoes, round, sensible brown, lethal on the wrong feet.  I think of the fallen ladder and Hal’s broken neck.

I stand, lifting the decanter towards the chandelier, and say,

“To health, happiness, and seeing the light.”