It was raining wet diggety on the way to my father’s funeral. My wipers didn’t know which way to turn.
Aunt Stella Markham’s features filled the rear mirror. She leaned on the seat tops and stared at one arm. “I’m surprised you can see to drive” she said after twenty minutes.
Isla lifted her head from the train timetable on her knee. She was due in Macclesfield by four.
She led the run into the steamy glass caff. Scarlet showed beneath her borrowed black coat.
We sat down to order and a young man joined our table. Aunt Stella Markham looked round the empty seats and looked at me. Isla said: “I found a train with only one change. If I leave at 2.00 I should get it.”
The young man had dried blood where his hair parted. “Where are you off to?” he asked and smiled at us in turn. I looked at Aunt Stella Markham, and she looked at the man. “I’m going to Macclesfield”, Isla said.
The young man dropped his fork and put his hand to his eyes. “Not Macclesfield! I spent four hours on that platform, and that was just the start.”
We all looked at each other past his head.
“No. Macclesfield. Bad duty. Can’t you change your plans?” He dropped his hand.
“I was back for my demob and missed every connection on my way there. The only train I didn’t miss was cancelled. Can you believe it?”
He picked up his fork, lost in thought, and pronged his chips. “It was only after I’d sat there for an hour and a half that I realised there was a body under the bench.”
Aunt Stella Markham’s eyes turned hard and she started looking at each of us faster. I wanted to be in the rain again, and to shut this man up and his stupid talk. I looked at the window. A line of water edged down the glass like a stocking. Isla’s foot moved nearer mine.
“How come it took you so long to notice?” she asked.
“Because I could see there was something wrapped up in sheeting, but I thought it was workman’s gear, like cans of paint. Then I saw the handbag on top and thought: ‘funny’. D’you know what I mean? Then when I pulled back the sheeting. There was a whole body lying there in a blue puffa coat with her hands tied in front.”
I turned my head back to the table and decided to go. Opposite, Isla and Aunt Stella Markham chewed slowly together, watching the man.
“I got the police and they said it was an honour killing. When these girls refuse to marry, the father or brothers come and duff them up, and that saves the family’s honour.”
“They don’t usually leave the body on a station platform, though” Isla said.
The man shrugged. “How do I know?” He went on stabbing his chips.
Light was beginning to show through the steamy glass.
“All I know is I spent ages with the police on that platform, and when my connection finally came, I missed it. Would you believe it? I thought they said it terminated at Bolton, so I didn’t get on.
“It shook me up a bit, finding that body. The police said they’d been looking for her quite some time, but she didn’t look long dead to me. First the families make them drink paraquat”
“Bleach” Aunt Stella Markham said.
“Whatever. Then they do them over. It’s really sad. She looked a nice girl.”
“Is that how you got the dried blood here?” Isla pointed to her own parting.
“Is it still there?” The young man dropped his fork again, and wiped his hair, suddenly much brighter. “No, it isn’t.” He smiled to himself as he remembered.
“No, it isn’t. You’ll never guess how I got that!”
Moments passed. We had drunk our tea.
“Try us” I said eventually, into his left ear. He seemed startled.
“I’m just back from the Dales, demob happy and walking on the Pennine Way. There’s a lot of jets doing radar avoidance flights down there from RAF Leeming and a lot of hang-gliders, using what updraft they can get from the ridges. I was rounding Cam Tor from the old Roman Road at Hawes, when this glider threw a wobbly with the jets streaking down above him, and made an unscheduled landing. Anyway, he got my head with his boot.”
The young man looked round us all, hugging some of his amusement to himself.
“Bloody ridiculous” I said when we got back to the car and were strapping up for off. “Bloody stupid stories. As if anyone’s bloody interested.”
“Your father always attracted people like that” Aunt Stella Markham said, taking up her position against the front seats and looking again to one side. The light starting at the window made her eyes blue. “At least he ended up giving a window cleaner a lift on his wedding day.”
Isla and I laughed. “Why?”
Aunt Stella Markham shrugged, and also laughed.
It still rained. Spray threw up intermittent sheets on the windscreen. The wipers yelped against the glass, but were coping.
“Do you think any of it was true?” Isla said, avoiding the elbow at her head. “The dead body, or the hang-glider’s foot?”
We all laughed again. It seemed so ridiculous.
“I think he definitely missed a train at Macclesfield” I said. “He was very hot on that. And maybe somebody did kick his head in. That would be understandable.”
We drove some miles in silence. The rain was lightening.
“I think maybe he has seen a dead body in a puffa coat some time. That seemed a strange detail, if it wasn’t true.” Isla said.
“I think it was probably all true” Aunt Stella Markham said from the back.