Kevin Crokesmith and his assistant, stood patiently in the reception area. The Crematorium people slid about with subdued faces in a monotony of black. “Well, Wendy are we early or are the girls late. She’ll be arriving soon.” His face was a slightly pinker version of the grey of his shirt and his too-wide black tie made him look like a lollypop. Wendy Boilings gave him a nod as she watched the Crokesmith girls tumble through the door, the taller one breathless the rounder one even more so. “The hearse is just coming.” Together the two daughters and their father traipsed after Wendy Boilings and the celebrant into the chapel. With its socially distanced chairs and a one way system taped tastefully to the floor it was a space of solace. They were the only people in the room. Outside the skies were dismal and sad but behind the floor to ceiling windows, all was light. The Crokesmith girls Fellander (Felly) and Muriel (Muriel only answers to Muriel) with heads bowed and expressions dutiful, followed their dad and Wendy to the front row. The celebrant took her place at the podium and set her face to a blend of sorrowful yearning and hopeful energy. The effect was barely undermined by her random glances outside, looking to see if the next one was coming in yet. She was slightly distracted by the front row disagreement about who sat where. Felly and Muriel Crokesmith wanted to sit next to their dad, but so did Wendy Boiler and an undignified squabble was underway, along the lines of “you never liked her anyway” and “she’s our mum, not yours.”
As they droned through All Things Bright & Beautiful, Wendy wept snorty wet tears and the girls pulled sad faces and fiddled with their hair (Felly) and fingernails (Muriel). It was true, they never did like their mum and the Covid-19 diagnosis had lead not to sorrow, but to hope that an odious individual would soon be carried off. It didn’t take long, and even the hospital staff felt guilty relief when their time with Mrs Crokesmith was done. Mr Crokesmith felt much the same way. Only Wendy was sad, sad for the loss of her best and only lifelong friend, sad that without Mrs Crokesmith’s protection she faced the prospect of losing her job, sad for the bills she would have to pay, once access to the business financials was over. BetFred would be particularly tricky.
These thoughts seeped through Wendy Boiling’s small brain, fuelling her tears and sobs, making it impossible to hear the short reading. Something about a house, which was apt given that Crokesmith & Starr were estate agents. They’d left the choice to the celebrant, as no one had any idea what would be best. Felly had suggested something from Ann Rice on vampires or Dean Koontz on murder, but in the end they left it to the celebrant to decide.
The soaring wail of My Way marked the beginning of the end and Mr Crokesmith fancied he could hear the fires starting up. But it was just the wind, tinged with wishful thinking. It had only taken fifteen minutes. Not long Crokesmith mused to despatch a lifelong bully and tyrant, a woman who never smiled and refused all physical contact once she turned thirty. Odd that she got the virus, he thought to himself, and then remembered how it was the girls’ fault. “Those little bitches” she had said when they’d dropped off a batch of shopping without gloves or masks. She’d always looked for excuses like that. He wondered at how well she’d weaseled her way into his heart after the first Mrs Crokesmith had, as it were, croaked. It didn’t take long for him to understand that the second Mrs Crokesmith was more interested in Crokesmith & Starr than in Mr Crokesmith and his spoilt little brats. He’d spent over two decades keeping himself between his girls and his unloved second wife. Under her incompetent stewardship the fourteen branches of Crokesmith & Starr had slowly dwindled to one, and Mrs Crokesmith’s dreams of a Riviera lifestyle had dwindled with them. Mr Crokesmith smiled to himself as he embraced the thought that the dwindling days were over.
The celebrant was ushering them towards the car park, looking at her watch, wondering if there was time for a sneaky fag. But it’s raining and windy, then “Join us for the wake?” she heard, as Mr Crokesmith beamed at her, oddly joyful and almost flirty she fancied. “Wake?” “Yes, wake. We’ve a picnic in the car. Hoped to be able to sit on the grass, but that’s not going to work. Heh, heh, heh.” “Right.” A free lunch of something that wasn’t leftover chips was welcomed, so of course the celebrant said “thanks, don’t mind if I do” and ambled along with the little group to a no longer new Landrover.
The picnic, egg sandwiches tightly wrapped in cling film, scotch eggs, mini pork pies and crisps was a brown but generous affair, and competition was tight. Wendy Boiler was soon in the lead, closely followed by the celebrant. Packaging rage caused a major disruption to both front runners as an exploding crisp packet sent its contents unexpectedly into flight on the rising breeze. Seagulls swooped, neatly stealing Wendy Boiler’s third pork pie to put the greedy celebrant narrowly in the lead. The girls gave up wrestling with the cling film and smoked instead, despite the wind. Mr Crokesmith sucked eggy mush through a small hole he’d managed to wrench in the plastic wrap. Eventually giving up, he went for a scotch egg which he chewed on pensively. Much of the scotch egg ended up on his black tie, the ground or in the beaks of seagulls. Mr Crokesmith didn’t notice. He was wondering how to tell his girls that it was over, all of it. That Crokesmith & Starr no longer held charm for him, that he yearned for a new life, that he wanted to be happy. The lack of interest in the business had been clear to Felly and Muriel for some time now, but of the rest they were unaware. Could Mr Crokesmith now finally tell them about Desmond and their plans for a cruise to Rekjavik and the Artic circle? Their plans to move to Wales to start an organic wool business? Their ambitions for spinning workshops and tastefully designed knits to sell online at Desmonddesimode.com?
The celebrant was cramming in another pork pie, “thansawffly, mush get bah” she said, choking and exploding pastry as she turned to return to her podium. What remained of the picnic mess after the seagulls were done blew into the threadbare bushes, purpose made litter traps. In the car driving back to the office to drop off Wendy Boilings, Mr Crokesmith explained that they would all be going back to the office for an important meeting. Wendy Boilings still working on the last pork pie, much of which was sticking hard to the roof of her mouth could say nothing, but wished she had some water.
Within two weeks Wendy Boilings was in awkward discussions with BetFred and other creditors. Mr Crokesmith and Desmond were enjoying complimentary champagne and chocolates, and exploring the walk-in dressing room of their suite on the Prince of the Bahamas. They were sure it had ice breaking equipment. Against expectation, his daughters had jumped at the chance to take over Mr Crokesmith’s business, and also to move back home, live for free and use the company car. Both girls had been furloughed and then made redundant thanks to the pandemic and their respective incompetencies. Felly was convinced that her training as an actuary, which had been underway for the last four years generously subsidised in secret by her dad, would be useful in selling houses. She was further convinced that her degree in media studies specialised in 19th century film would come in handy too. Muriel was the more likely estate agent. At her father’s suggestion, she had methodically plodded her way to becoming a Chartered Surveyor. The fact that she had no personality at all was surely no impediment to returning Crokesmith & Starr to its former glory.
The sisters’ first act was to upgrade to the estate agency’s website with the catchline “Estate Agents to the Stars”. “We can’t say that” Muriel had said, “what stars? There are no stars.” “And who was ‘& Starr’ in any case?” Blank looks. Then with a long sigh Felly reminded her dull sister about their dad’s friend. “That second cousin of Rick Astley, he bought a bungalow in Cleethorpes once.” There followed a minor dispute as to whether Cleethorpes could still be considered part of the Essex catchment area. True there had been a sale to Rick Astley’s second cousin, but that was because Mr Crokesmith had been an intimate friend of one of the executors whom he had met at a speed dating event in Putney. Mr Crokesmith had put the cousin who had inherited the bungalow in touch with a local solicitor for the conveyancing. But highlighting star connections was just one little part of the company’s new and enhanced social media presence. FaceBook, Twitter and Instagram were now awash with property details and teasing slogans, “a new life in Essex” “Essex and the Fringe” “Reach for the Crokesmith & Starr experience”. “Don’t forget, you’re an Essex star”.
Oddly enough their efforts did spark some interest, mainly from Londoners wanting to move out to the country. Since the beginning of the first lockdown, the Clarphams had been working from home and wrestling with home schooling for three children within the narrow confines of a terraced house in Cricklewood. Now it was shown that both coding and support analysis could be done from home at least for three days a week, Surrey sounded idyllic. Sussex too. Except that they couldn’t afford either. Essex might be a better option. And when they watched the video tour of Belchamp House, they simply had to agree with Felly Crokesmith who had said it was “an absolute star property”.
On the afternoon the Clarphams were due to view Belchamp House, Felly, tall and skinny was folded into her dad’s office chair, unaware that its swivelly wheels functioned only occasionally. Felly pushed herself forwards, going for an authoritative lean over the desk and unexpectedly shot sideways into the bin. Muriel watched as her sister hefted the chair back into position to take her seat, but this time she had the chair close enough for the lean. Felly was pulling at a strand of fair wispy hair, and eying up her short round sister with what was meant to be a serious stare. “Why are you looking at me like that?” Muriel drawled. “Is it the Toffee Crisp, because if it is you’re not getting any.” Muriel threw back her shiney dark hair because she knows how much Felly envies it, and wiped Toffee Crisp crumbs from her slight moustache as the remnants of her snack disappeared into her satchel mouth. She stood up to put the bin, still swaying on its side on the floor, to rights. Muriel appears to have no hips and her legs naturally splay. Felly thought for the umpteenth time that her sister really should have a third leg to avoid toppling over.
“Here’s the thing,” Felly said, “these people want to see Belchamp House. You know more about this stuff than me, so you should show them round.” Muriel looked across the desk, “We’ll both go. Nothing else to do here. We can practise this stuff together. We’re selling country living, and we’re both country dwellers so let’s go.”
“We’ll make a day of it. Pub lunch, walk in the woods, maybe feed the ducks.” Sunita Clarpham was loading her handbag: iPad, iPhone, old iPod in case of need, hairbrush, masks, hand disinfectant, another pack of tissues all crammed in on top of the many strata of stuff that had accumulated since she last changed handbags in 2018. John Clarpham was busy with a calculator working out how many square metres the house had. “Works out at £3108 per sqaure foot inside and the outside’s for free.” “Yes dear” she said, and wiped yoghurt from screaming little Terrino’s head. “Darling it’s not nice. You know it’s not nice.” Her daughter Bromilia, scowled and gave Terrino a surreptitious pinch. His howls were perfect cover for the sneering reply to her mother that Terrino looked “better with pineapple yoghurt in his stupid hair.” “Yes dear” her mother said, relieved that her extensive customer service training was paying off now that Bromilia was hitting those difficult years. Actually all of Bromilia’s years had been difficult, only now there was a recognised label for it. Teenagers are meant to be difficult. She had training for teenagers. Her smallest child was engrossed in his phone and didn’t notice his mother’s request to “come along, into the car with us”, nor his father’s repeat. Eventually Dervil looked up and said. “No pub lunch. Pubs closed remember.” And then continued to press and tap. “He’s right love, we’ll have to order it as takeaway to eat in the car. Or we could find a park or a verge with picnic tables.” Picnic tables in the countryside, of course, masses of those.
This was what Felly and Muriel told their new clients outside Belchamp House, once they were all chatting about the journey and the rest of the Clarphams’ plans for their little excursion. The family had clambered out of their too-small car bathed in a slightly steamy blend of scents ranging from restrained motion sickness, sweat and stale cheesy wotsits, to hand gel and ancient car air freshener. Felly and Muriel had never seen picnic benches on the grass verges of the Essex lanes, so it wasn’t really a lie. Just because they hadn’t seen them, didn’t mean they didn’t exist.
Picnic location ideas confirmed, the sisters waited expectantly for what should happen next. Neither had the remotest idea, so Mr Clarpham weighed in, “We’ve seen the video”. Felly smiled and Muriel smiled. “Yes” they managed and Felly unable to hold it in any longer joked “of course it’s not really my best work”. Mr Clarpham was talking so he didn’t wonder about best or worst work” “ …understand we can’t go inside… social distancing … putting us all at risk … the children will love exploring the garden…no toilet options” And Sunita was nodding watching a brace of squirrels running along one of a great many power lines running to the property. She was smiling quietly to herself and holding slightly too tightly to Terrino and Dervil’s hands. Whatever her husband was saying was surely important, but she didn’t really need to listen.
What Mr Clarpham said next Felly or Muriel didn’t hear either, bored as they were already with their clients, despite being keen to nose around someone else’s garden, greenhouse and shed. They smiled politely through his little monologue and were just glazing over when a voice cut through their reveries. “There’s the owner, welcoming us. Look see there’s a woman waving from the window”. Sunita spoke across her husband, not on purpose but because she was so used to his droning little speeches that she didn’t notice them anymore “She’s certainly waving very hard, isn’t she?”
This last from Felly to Bromilia in a pointless attempt to engage the girl. Bromilia was looking at what the woman in the house was pointing to and waving for. “Dad, the car’s rolling away. Dad?” But Dad was now onto the bit about mortgagable values, and getting Brexit sorted and had no ear for much else. “Dad? Mum?” Bromilia tried again and then resorted to giving Dervil a sudden smack about the head. “Do something you twat, tell them the car’s rolling away!” Dervil jumped into action and in a squealing tone that just about cut through the interest rate and return on equity paras saw John Clarpham turn in time to see his car complete a short sojourn across the lane and come to rest in a loose but prickly hawthorne hedge. It engulfed the car up to the front doors of the vehicle. Still mumbling about surveyors and water rates he turned away in deflated disbelief saying “no harm done”. He decided it wasn’t happening and instead herded his family towards the window to say hello to the seller of Belchamp House. She looked out of the window a little longer, shook her head and retreated.
He steered his little flock away from the house with a cheery “Let’s get touring shall we” and headed off towards the garden. As they walked, he glanced in his wife’s direction with a cannily raised eyebrow and bombarded Felly and Muriel with questions. They nodded and smiled and Mrs Clarpham also nodded and smiled, baffled. What’s with his eye? Felly was still trying to process the car and how they would get it out of the hedge, Muriel had in mind a takeaway kebab. As they passed around the house to the back garden, the house’s owner was back in the windows following along, smiling. From time to time she opened a window and called out encouragingly “That statue of Donny Osmond by the pond, we brought that back from Las Vegas with us”. “The hen house is perfectly secure.” “That might look like canker on the apple tree, but its just a benign growth.” “The tiles on the garage are perfectly safe.” “Watch out for the pond.”
Dervil was the first to notice with delight a basket ball hoop, unaware that it shouldn’t be hanging at quite such an angle. It was set in a tree. A number of lost balls caught in the branches looked like they’d been there a long time. They were thrilled to find a greenhouse, not noticing that so many of its windows were smashed and it had no door. They didn’t wonder why the bird table was set with rat traps. The rat traps jolted Felly into action and she said conversationally “to scare off the squirrels”, but her clients thought they must have missed the first part of the sentence. Before long Terrino had disappeared and Bromilia had lost her shoe in the pond. “It’s not my fault that it’s muddy.” Dervlin’s shove as she peered over the pond had served only to make his sister step forwards rather than fall, leaving a shoe behind when she regained her balance. But the immediate problem was Terrino who they all noticed was now missing.
“Felly and I can look up towards the stream, at the top of the garden.” Muriel was surprised at herself, but with a kebab in mind wanted this afternoon closed. She didn’t notice the ashen pall spread across Sunita’s face, or the fluttering hand as it rushed to her mouth. They headed off leaving the Clarpham’s to devise a search strategy and calm Mrs Clarpham. As they struck out across the unsheltered lawn they could hear a plaintiff whimpering. Terrino was stuck in a small plum tree into which he had climbed from the table beneath it. He had never been so high in his life and now he was stuck a giddying two metres off the ground, terrified to come down. Felly and Muriel simultaneously yelled: “found him” as loudly as possible and were gratified to see Sunita and John come scurrying up to lift their poor little boy down to safety. ”Something to get the hang of, tree climbing,” said Felly. “Something that takes practise” said Muriel. They nodded encouragingly at Terrino who buried his face in his mother’s sari and let the sobs shake him. “This country life, it might be good for us” she said breathing deeply in relief, stroking his hair and vowing to cut down all the trees.
She didn’t notice a rising breeze pushing through the broken fence marking the edge of the garden. They agreed with Felly that the weedy flower beds, and dense thickets of brambles were wonderful opportunities to “personalise the outside space”. Yes, the brambles would be so wonderful for autumn blackberries. No one questioned that this very new build was close to a stream running slightly above and behind the house. They didn’t ask why there were white lines on the edges of the potholed lane which ran parallel to a main road that passed the railway station a couple of miles away. Felly’s bright “trains to London twice an hour and only some ten minutes from here” distracted them and they never questioned the clear badger and fox trails to the hen house. Muriel had clinched it with “your own eggs, every day”. Crokesmith & Starr were back in the game.