Della glanced around the room, noticing that Terry and Val, Mark’s parents, had just arrived, looking quite terrified as both twins twirled energetically in the curtains while neither Jeff nor Tamsin made a move to stop them.
‘So sorry we’re late,’ Val explained as Della offered them their preferred cups of sweet, weak tea. ‘The car broke down, we’d hardly been going five minutes …’
‘Well, Val had put petrol in,’ Terry admonished her.
‘I thought it was diesel, dear.’
‘But it wasn’t.’
Della tried to placate them with mini tarts and fairy cakes, but no, they both had digestive issues at the moment – ‘I couldn’t stomach a thing,’ Val whimpered – and they looked around Kitty’s living room in awe, as if they had accidentally stumbled into a minor stately home. Everything seemed to intimidate them, Della reflected. In fact, she had long been concerned about her in-laws, now in their late-seventies, living in their cottage on the North Yorkshire coast. Sparsely furnished and permanently cold, it had nothing of note nearby apart from a fume-belching refinery and an abattoir. Della worried about them, so stuck in their ways and rarely venturing out, but had long since given up on suggesting to Mark that they should invite them over more often. ‘You know what it’s like when they come,’ he’d said, and Della did know; it was as if all their spirit had been directed into the raising of Mark, their only child whom they doted upon, leaving nothing left over for themselves. ‘Excuse me, Della,’ Val whispered now, ‘could I possibly use your bathroom?’
Della escorted her to the antiquated loo upstairs and on her return gave Mark’s hand a brief squeeze as she drifted by. He had escaped from Jeff only to be cornered by Nicola Crowther who ran the sole hair salon in Burley Bridge and who had only recently upgraded from the rubber cap method to foils. ‘All these cookbooks,’ she exclaimed, gesticulating towards the bookcases by the fireplace. ‘I’ve never seen so many!’
‘There are hundreds of them in the kitchen, too,’ Mark murmured, ‘and in the bedrooms and bathroom. They’re crammed into every room of the house.’
‘Amazing,’ she gasped as Roxanne strode past. ‘Oh, look at you, Roxy Cartwright. I haven’t seen you for years. Barely recognised you. You’re so glamorous!’
‘I don’t know about that,’ Roxanne said with a tight laugh. She had politely requested that no one should ever again call her Roxy before leaving for London.
‘Seriously, are you planning to age at any point? You’re putting us country people to shame …’
‘You look great too, Nicola,’ Roxanne murmured. Della saw the tendons tighten in her sister’s long, slender neck.
‘Thanks, but honestly, there must be something in that London water.’ Nicola gazed at Roxanne reverentially as if she were a beautiful, unaffordable dress. ‘You’re only four years younger than Della, aren’t you? Incredible! But then, you are very different physically, you with your lovely blue eyes and Della with brown.’
Something clenched in Della’s chest. It was true, they barely looked like sisters at all, and at forty-six years old, Roxanne appeared eerily youthful: aided by whitened teeth, expensively honeyed hair plus, Della suspected, the occasional shot of Botox and a filler or two.
‘Still working on that magazine?’ Nicola wanted to know.
‘Yep, still hanging on in there.’
‘You must meet so many famous people! D’you get lots of free clothes?’ While Roxanne insisted that she didn’t – ‘It’s not nearly as glamorous as people think’ – Della coaxed the twins out of the curtains with a plate of cookies, and caught snippets of village news from Len who, as well as running the garage, seemed to be the oracle of everything that happened in Burley Bridge. Virtually everyone else had gathered around Roxanne, as if hoping that a little of her London glitz might rub off on them. But no matter, Della decided: at least everyone was here to celebrate Kitty’s life. That’s why she had pulled out all the stops, having placed a notice – an open invitation really – in the window of Irene’s shop. Virtually everyone had come, all the villagers who had known Kitty – for fifty-odd years, some of them – even though they hadn’t been what you’d call close to her. Because no one was. Real friends had fallen away over the years, like dead-headed flowers. There’d be some imagined slight, a hastily ended phone call, and their name would be angrily scribbled out of Kitty’s address book.
Della nibbled a cucumber sandwich and wondered whether Morna, Kitty’s nearest neighbour, had given any thought today to her run-in with Kitty over a visitor parking in ‘her’ space, even though the road outside Rosemary Cottage belonged to no one (maybe the council or the road department or something: Della had no idea. But she did know Kitty had no legal claim on it). She wondered, too, what Irene would have thought if she’d known that Kitty had scraped the chicken and leek pie into the bin, and whether Len was aware that she’d gone around complaining that he’d ‘poisoned’ her car by putting the wrong kind of oil in it.
The afternoon wore on, and then the villagers began to drift out amidst thank yous and hugs, leaving just Della’s extended family – ‘My tattoo,’ Isaac announced, ‘is going to be of a dog pooing’ – plus Freda, who was rounding up glasses and crumb-strewn plates in the manner of an efficient waitress.
Reclining in an armchair while Tamsin admonished their sons, Jeff sipped his red wine. ‘Well, I thought that went very well,’ he said, his glow of satisfaction almost visible, as if he had fashioned those savoury tarts with his own, eerily baby-soft hands.