The Crime Readers' Association

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

by Cathy Ace

‘John Evans is dead. Notice here in the paper. Poor dab.’ Gladys Pritchard waved the newspaper in front of her husband.

‘Good riddance,’ muttered her spouse.

Gladys tutted. ‘Died peacefully last Thursday, it says. We only visited him the night before.’

‘I know. I was there with you.’ Her husband rolled his eyes.

‘Looked bad then, he did, with all those tubes poking out of him. Church service in a fortnight, then straight to the crematorium. It’ll take all that time because of Christmas, I expect.’

Ivor Pritchard shoved the sleeves of the baggy sweater Gladys had knitted for him many Christmases earlier up his desiccated arms, exposing the dark blue stain that had once been an impressive tattoo of an anchor swathed in a chain. ‘We’re not going,’ he said with finality.

Gladys made a small ‘O’ with her lips as she took off her glasses. ‘What will people say if we don’t go, Ivor? He lived next door to us for nearly forty years. It’ll be expected.’

Her husband dropped his spoon into his dish, atop a mound of golden carrot-coins – the remains of his lamb stew. ‘If you think I’m going to sit in that blinkin’ place in the middle of winter and listen to people going on and on about him being a wonderful person, you’ve got another think coming. Half of Swansea will be there. They won’t miss us.’

‘Half of South Wales will be there, given the number of choirs he belonged to over the years. They’ll all turn out for the singing, if nothing else. And of course they’ll miss us, Ivor. Everyone in the street will go. We can’t not go. They all thought we liked him. They wouldn’t know anything about the wall. No one has any idea about how much of a misery he made our lives.’ Gladys folded her arms as tightly as possible over her ample bosom.

‘Next door but one down. She probably knows.’ Ivor’s tone was sullen.

Gladys shrugged. ‘Well, she might. They shared a wall too. Mind you, she’s as deaf as a post nowadays, so it makes no difference to her. Not like me. My hearing’s so sensitive. Eat those carrots; they’re good for you.’

Ivor knew his wife was right about her hearing; Gladys could have heard a pin drop onto the sheepskin rug in the front room during a thunderstorm. He suspected she might be right about the carrots too. ‘Never got it as bad as us, though, did she? They had his stairs between his living room and her wall to give her a bit of a buffer. Always stood right next to our wall, he did. Scales? I’ll give him scales.’ Ivor dutifully chased the remaining vegetables around his bowl.

‘Now, now, Ivor, stop it. John’s dead. Gone. No more scales. No more rehearsing three or four lines of one song for hours on end. No more “la-la-la, ne-ne-ne, la-la-la” exercises. Just a nice bit of peace and quiet in our own home. Lovely, isn’t it?’ Gladys Pritchard sat back with a look of pure pleasure on her face.

Ivor wiped his mouth with the side of his hand and arched his creaking back in his creaking chair. ‘Fan-flamin’-tastic. If he’d sung that “Myfanwy” once, he’d sung it a thousand times. I never want to hear that song again. I used to love it; now I can’t even stand the thought of it.’

‘You can’t say he didn’t have a good voice.’ Gladys folded the newspaper and replaced on the table.

‘I can, and I will. Maybe years ago it wasn’t so bad, but since he turned seventy? Terrible! They’d have chucked him out of the choir if he hadn’t been their treasurer for umpteen years.’

‘Oh, I don’t know, Ivor, they were always short of tenors. They even asked you once, remember?’

Ivor laughed heartily. ‘Indeed I do. I suppose they must have been desperate; I couldn’t carry a tune if you gave me a bucket. Besides, that last concert they gave at Tabernacle Chapel? Modern rubbish. Nice bit of Ivor Novello never goes amiss. You think they’d know that for the likes of us around here. And I’m not saying that just because I’m named after him.’

Gladys cleared the kitchen table then rolled the dishes around in her new yellow washing-up bowl. ‘I wonder what his boys will do with the house,’ she mused. ‘Sell it, I expect. They’ve got their own places, so why would they want his?’

‘You’re right,’ replied her husband. ‘Not boys now, though, are they? Got to be in their fifties these days. Both got posh houses down Mumbles way, haven’t they? What would they want with one of these little terraced boxes? Good enough for the likes of us, they are, but them? No way. Gone up in the world they have.’

Gladys looked wistful as she mounded the clean dishes on the draining board. ‘They’ve done very well for themselves, have David and Gerald. Both married nice girls, and all their children always seemed well-behaved. You know, when they used to visit.’

‘Never saw any of them at John’s flamin’ concerts, did you? All but forced us to buy tickets, he did, but he let them get away with not going. You’d think his family would be a bit more supportive of him and his blinkin’ singing, wouldn’t you?’

Gladys filled the kettle, and put it onto the gas ring to boil. ‘Go through to the living room, love; I’ll bring you a cuppa when it’s brewed. Take the paper to read while you’re waiting for the local news on the telly. I’ll wipe these dishes and put them away so I can sit down and enjoy Coronation Street later. Go on now, out of my way.’

The aged couple shared a companionable hug, then Ivor shuffled out of the kitchen on carpet-slippered feet. He was no longer the imposing man he’d been when he’d worked at Swansea Docks; decades of labour had wrecked his back, though he still did what he could around the house. They’d bought it a short time after they’d married, forty-eight years earlier.

‘Not long till it starts,’ said his wife, finally settling into her armchair beside her husband. ‘Look forward to The Street, I do.’

When the doorbell rang, the couple stared at each other with surprise.

‘Who can that be at this time of night?’ snapped Gladys.

‘Why don’t you answer it and find out?’ mugged Ivor.

‘You do it, Ivor. I don’t like to unlock the door after dark. It could be anyone.’

Discarding the newspaper, Ivor pushed himself to his feet and lumbered to the front door. His wife also stood, hovering out of sight in the living room, straining to hear who could be calling.

‘Oh, it’s you,’ said Ivor. ‘We’ve not long finished tea, and we were going to watch a bit of telly, but I suppose so.’ He turned and shouted, ‘Gladys, company!’

His wife tottered forward to see who it was. ‘Really?’ Her expression softened from surprise to sympathy when she saw their late neighbour’s elder son. ‘David. Hello. We were sorry to hear about your dad. Just talking about him, weren’t we, Ivor?’

‘We were,’ said her husband truthfully enough.

‘He’ll be missed. That’s what we were saying, wasn’t it?’

‘It was.’

‘Had a lovely voice on him, didn’t he, Ivor?’

‘He did.’

‘The choir will miss him terribly, won’t they, Ivor?’

‘They will.’

David Evans watched the couple shuttlecock their comments back and forth, then smiled wearily. ‘Thank you. You’re both very kind.’

‘Come in for a cuppa, will you?’ asked Gladys tenderly. ‘Let’s not stand here with the door open, heating the whole street. It’s cold out. Only to be expected, so close to Christmas. Come on in.’

The unexpected guest hesitantly navigated the narrow spaces between a worn, overstuffed suite and poorly varnished, dark-wood furnishings draped with crocheted doilies until he sank into the middle of the sofa. Gladys reached past him to press the ‘Record’ button on the TV’s remote control before switching off the set.

‘Tea or coffee, David?’

‘Tea’ll be fine, thanks, Mrs. Pritchard,’ he replied, removing his cap. He rubbed his balding head. ‘But only if it’s not too much trouble. I can’t stop long; they’ll be expecting me at home.’

‘The kettle’s just boiled, so I’ll be quick.’ Gladys bustled out of the room.

The electric fire hummed mournfully in the ensuing silence, the yellow light dancing behind the plastic coals doing little to make the room appear welcoming, or feel warm.

Ivor cleared his throat. ‘We saw the notice in the paper tonight. Funeral’s in two weeks, I see,’ he said in appropriately solemn tones.

‘Yes. It was the earliest we could get it booked. They’re backed up at the crematorium. I suppose it’ll give a lot of his old friends the time they need to arrange buses to bring them down to Swansea from the valleys.’

‘Gladys reckoned there’d be a load coming. Will the choirs all be travelling together?’ Ivor tried to sound interested.

David nodded. ‘I believe they’ll try to consolidate into just a couple of coaches. It’ll be good to see them there, and lovely to hear them, of course. Singing was Dad’s passion. He always said you couldn’t beat a male voice choir, but I suppose you know that.’

‘We were saying as much before you got here.’ Ivor searched for something more to add. ‘They’ll miss him.’

‘They will,’ replied the dead man’s son. ‘The grandkids have taken it hard, too.’

‘They would,’ agreed Ivor, summoning as much sympathy as he could muster. He and Gladys had, sadly, never been blessed with children.

Ivor beamed when his wife arrived. ‘There she is now.’ His tone suggested he’d been waiting for several hours to be rescued from a terrible fate.

Gladys pushed her fancy ‘hostess trolley’ through the door, bearing the best china, and the teapot they never used. Ivor shot up from his chair as fast as he could, and noticed the sugar was in a bowl, and the milk was in a little jug. There was even a plate of biscuits.

When they were all finally holding cups and saucers, Gladys said, ‘It’s lovely to see you, of course, David, but . . .’ Her unasked question hung in the air above the digestives.

‘They told me at the hospital you visited Dad the day he . . . on his last day.’ David’s hand trembled as he blew across his steaming tea.

‘Not exactly,’ replied Ivor. ‘It said in the paper he went on Thursday. We were there for evening visiting hours on Wednesday.’

‘He actually died on the Wednesday night,’ said David gently. ‘We put Thursday in the announcement because that’s when my brother and I arrived at the hospital, and it seemed . . . well, the right thing to do. Neither of us had been able to visit him since the Tuesday, you see. Gerry – you remember my brother, don’t you?’ Gladys nodded and smiled sympathetically. ‘Well, he had to go to Scotland on business first thing Wednesday, and I went to watch my two girls in a school concert that evening. It’s that time of year; one thing after another in the run-up to Christmas. The doctors had told us Dad was improving, so we thought it would be all right to miss a day. It seems you were the last visitors he had, and Gerry and I wondered how Dad had seemed. We knew he’d never have been the man he once was, but we were shocked when we were told he’d . . . gone. We wondered . . . well, was he was in good spirits? Did he seem content? With neither of us being there at the end, it would be a comfort to know.’

Ivor thought David looked just the way he had when he’d kicked his rugby ball over the garden wall on so many occasions all those years ago, when the Evanses had first moved in. Even though he’d been a teenager at the time, David had always had that lost-little-boy look about him.

Ivor and Gladys exchanged a glance as David sipped his scalding tea.

At an almost imperceptible nod from her husband, Gladys said, ‘To be honest, your father wasn’t at all well, David. Though I have to say, that evening we saw him at the hospital, he did finally have a bit of colour in his cheeks. We’d been in and out of next door with food for him for about a month, and I did bits of shopping and so forth, just to keep him ticking over, so to speak. He’d not wanted to go out much. Not feeling up to it, he said. That last heart attack did for him, though.’

David blew across his steaming cup, his eyes wide and sad.

Gladys continued, ‘In a way it was lucky for him that he’d managed to get himself out for a walk when it happened, otherwise – well, who knows how long it would have been before someone would have found him in the house. But, as it was, that nice man at the corner shop saw what happened. He did the right thing phoning the ambulance when he saw your father fall down on the pavement.’

‘Yes, I understand it was his quick actions that saved Dad that day,’ said the grieving son.

Gladys nodded. ‘It was. And him not speaking much English, too, poor dab. Well, enough to run a shop, I suppose, but, you know, not much real conversation. I happened to be coming back from town, and I was walking up the hill from the bus stop. There was your dad being carted off by the ambulance, so, of course, I rushed to see if there was anything I could do. I could tell just by looking at him that he wasn’t good, but I’d been thinking that for a couple of weeks. He’d reached the point where his teeth looked too big for his face. Never a good sign, that. And he was getting on a bit, after all. Well, you know, he had a fair few years on us, anyway. Eighty-five, wasn’t he?’

David smiled sadly.

‘Good innings, really,’ said Ivor.

David put down his tea. ‘So they say.’ He didn’t sound convinced. ‘The thing is, Gerry and I were wondering if Dad had – well, just given up, I suppose. You see, the doctors said they were puzzled that he went as fast as he did.’ He unzipped the top of his waxed-cotton jacket a little. ‘He’d been doing well, they said, and then . . . he was gone.’

Ivor rallied. ‘Well, what do they know, these doctors? Just youngsters, all of them. When it’s your time, it’s your time. As the wife said, Ivor was obviously not a well man. She might be right when she says he had a bit of colour about him, propped up in that bed there, but I don’t know. Maybe they just filled him full of drugs to make him look a bit perkier. He was weak, but in good spirits, mind you; talking about when he could come home and get back to his singing. We chatted about that, didn’t we love?’ Gladys smiled. ‘Talked about how things were around here, could we keep an eye on the house for him, that sort of thing. But then he got tired, and asked if we could pull his curtains around him, cos the lights were a bit bright, and we left. He was a bit quiet but – you know – all right, I suppose.’

‘So, Dad seemed quite . . . happy in himself, then?’ asked David with the eyes of a hopeful child.

‘As happy as he ever was when he wasn’t singing,’ replied Ivor. Gladys nodded.

David stood, grim-faced, the dark circles beneath his eyes telling the tale of his grief and loss. ‘Well, thanks for that at least. I suppose you’re right; even the best of doctors can’t always be certain of things, can they?’ He forced a smile. ‘We’ll see you both at the funeral, of course.’ It wasn’t a question.

‘Wouldn’t miss it for the world,’ said Ivor, also rising to his feet. ‘Have you made any plans for next door yet? Gladys and I were saying we thought you’d probably sell up.’

David shook his head. ‘Actually, we think we’ll hang onto the old place. Gerry and I talked about it; my eldest is at university now, just started here in Swansea, so we thought it would be a good idea to keep it. Him and a couple of his fellow-students will live there for the next few years. It’ll save them paying rent to someone else. Of course, they won’t move in until the new term begins, after Christmas. Then, maybe my younger son will use it. After him, Gerry’s girls will be about ready for it. If they all decide to go to university or college in this area, of course.’

Ivor felt Gladys reach for his hand. She gripped his fingers.

‘Young people living next door? That’ll make a change, won’t it, Ivor?’ she said quietly. ‘I hope they’re nice.’ She forced a laugh.

David’s reply was warmed by genuine affection. ‘He’s a good kid, is Rob, my eldest. He’s studying geography, but he’s a wonderful musician too. Got a lovely voice he has – must have inherited it from his grandfather. And he plays the bassoon. All three of them who’ll be moving in are musical types. Bassoon, clarinet, and violin, they play. It’ll be nice for them to have somewhere they can rehearse in the evenings.’ He pulled at the collar of his jacket, and tugged the zip upwards, flapping his cap onto his head as he left. ‘See you at the funeral,’ he called, as he slid into the leather-upholstered seat of his large, sleek car.

Once the front door was locked, Gladys dissolved into tears. ‘All those years listening of singing – and now young people? With instruments? I don’t know if I can take it, Ivor. I thought all that was behind us with John finally gone.’

Ivor put his arm around his wife’s heaving shoulders and steered her into the sitting room, where he settled her into her chair. His heart was thumping. He’d seen the same horrified expression on his beloved wife’s face when John Evans had perked up in his hospital bed, and begun to talk happily about getting home, and starting to sing again.

Ivor’s stomach clenched as he recalled how he’d spotted the huge, thin-needled syringe on a little cart beside John’s hospital bed. Gladys liked to watch those ‘real emergency’ TV programmes where they saved people’s lives – or didn’t. In one of them, a nurse had talked about how, sometimes, little air bubbles in injections weren’t really dangerous at all, saying how they got it wrong on telly all the time. She’d even shown how much you needed to pump into a person to be sure to make it fatal. It was quite a lot. Handy to know.

Ivor had fussed about a bit at the side of John’s bed while Gladys was picking up something the man on the opposite side of the ward had dropped onto the floor. All he could think about at the time was that he wanted Gladys to be happy; that was all Ivor had ever really cared about.

It only took him a minute to do it, then Ivor had said goodbye to John for the last time, and had closed their soon-to-be-late neighbour’s curtains around him. It had been surprisingly simple, and he hadn’t felt so much as a single twinge of remorse since he’d done it. Quite honestly, until Gladys had told him about the notice of John’s death in the newspaper, he hadn’t even been sure it had worked.

It seemed he’d got away with murder all right, but now? All that noise next door? For years to come, maybe? The news couldn’t have been much worse. And just before Christmas, too.

You can read more about Cathy Ace and her books here.

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