The Woman by Ken Cumberlidge

What with the music playing and everyone waiting for my coffin to arrive, few noticed the woman who slid quietly into the crematorium and found a seat at the back – and, of the handful that did glimpse her, none knew who she was.

This wasn’t surprising. Knowing how little time I had left, I’d planned the day myself, leaving a list of everyone I thought should be invited: people from as many of the various facets of my life as possible; from times and roles and places unconnected, one to another. She could have been any one of the females on that list. She wasn’t, but who else was to know?

The ceremony went very well. He did a good job, my brother. But then, he is a Theatre Production Manager: who else was I going to ask to take care of it? The result was just what I’d hoped for: warm, positive; no off-the-shelf platitudes or droney hymns. I liked it   – although one thing I hadn’t reckoned with was the number of people who’d want to speak, to get up and give their personal ‘take’ on me. That was very touching.

Funny thing, though — no two of them were alike – the speeches, I mean – and I’m not just talking presentation. If anyone else noticed, they were too polite to register it, but I did and it surprised me. Of course I recognized myself – or bits of myself – in all of them, but beyond that one could have been forgiven for thinking that each speaker was remembering a different person. On one point, though, they were all agreed: I had been, they said, a very good man.

When the rain arrived, my cousin (bless him) saw the woman struggling with her cheap umbrella and offered her a lift to the reception — in his pimped-up Ford Cosworth. No prizes for guessing who was first to arrive.

At the pub, at least initially, various strangers did their best to cross-pollinate – comparing notes, sussing out roughly who was who – but gradually, as tends to happen, the room settled into a number of discrete groups: people who already knew each other and their relationship to me, so felt comfortable together.

The woman, though, remained separate. Having gathered herself a modest paper-plate selection of nibbles, she identified an unobtrusive corner seat and occupied it, sipping with such delicate infrequency on her complementary glass of white that she managed to make it last the whole afternoon. Even so, every now and again someone in passing would notice her and, driven by the kind of good intentions that are two-a-penny at such occasions, attempt to include her.

It never worked. Having proffered the customary genial opening gambits, invariably her interrogators would discover that, whoever this person was, she had little by way of small talk – and of that, what she did have was very small indeed. Worse still, when probed, howsoever gently, on anything of substance in relation to herself, she would become visibly uncomfortable and her answers unsatisfyingly vague. The most anyone managed to elicit by way of detail was that she’d led a very quiet life, wasn’t one for going out, but had known me for as long as she could remember. Little wonder, then, that one after another they found her dull and invented polite excuses to move on.

And in this way the afternoon was passed until at last the room began to thin, goodbyes were hugged and taxis called, dispersing everyone but the immediate family. As, in their course, they too began to gather their belongings and depart, my cousin (bless him) had a sudden thought and cast about him, looking for the woman he had brought. But she was gone. How long since was anybody’s guess: no-one could recall having seen her slip away.

I’m glad of that. I’m glad they didn’t notice. It wouldn’t have been right, you see – not right at all, especially on such a day – for them to have discovered who she was: the She in me. Not after I’d hidden her so well and for so very many years.

Ken Cumberlidge has been based in Norwich for the past eight years. Recent work can be found online (Algebra of Owls / Allegro / Ink Sweat & Tears / Message In A Bottle / The Open Mouse / Picaroon / Pulsar / Rat’s Ass Review / Spilling Cocoa over Martin Amis / Strange Poetry / Snakeskin). Find out more here and here.


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