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Black Dog - Chapter 3

A messenger follows Olivia to the funeral.

As the mourners filed into the pews, Olivia shuffled in amongst them, head down and focused on reaching her seat. She jumped when she felt a tap at her elbow, and looked round to find a small, pale young woman leaning over the back of the pew from the row behind her. She was perhaps a couple of years younger than Olivia, wearing a pretty black dress and resting a lacy black parasol on the back of Olivia's pew. Olivia didn't know the girl's name, but didn't like to ask, since she would almost certainly turn out to be a cousin.

"Are you Olivia?" asked the girl. She had curly black hair and enormous blue eyes that seemed unable to look without staring.

"Yes," said Olivia warily, as if she'd been accused of something.

"Gosh, aren't you tall!" said the girl, as the mourners behind her tried to chivvy her on down the row to take a seat. "Can I talk to you?"

"Later. After the service," said Olivia, not meaning it for one moment. She made a point of avoiding her cousins wherever possible, and was relieved when the press of relatives moved the girl past her. She sat down.

"You're a wicked child, and you're going to hell," snapped a voice close to her ear, making her jump almost right out of her skin.

She took a deep breath and forced her face into a polite smile. "Hello, Auntie Beryl. How nice to see you."

The old woman's half-blind eyes narrowed, glaring out a dry shrivelled face. "Don't you smirk at me like that, Imogen. You should be ashamed of yourself. You've let us all down."

"No, Auntie, I'm Olivia. Remember?" Olivia didn't have the heart to remind the poor old woman that her own sister's funeral had gathered the family together today. "I'm Olivia, your great-niece," she tried again, and paused hopefully.

Auntie Beryl sneered, a well-practiced expression if the set of her wrinkles was anything to go by. "You always were a little liar, but don't go thinking I've fallen for it." Then she caught sight of the notebook still clasped in Olivia's hand. "What have you been scribbling now, eh? More fairy stories? More love notes?" She grabbed the notebook, faster than Olivia had imagined the old woman could move. "It's about time you grew up and stopped acting like a silly little girl." The strength of Auntie Beryl's grip surprised Olivia too, briefly making it a struggle to wrest the book out of her gnarled hands. Auntie Beryl glared. "He's not coming back for you," she told Olivia, her face twisting into a grin of self-satisfied glee.

Olivia smoothed out the crumpled pages of her notebook. "Auntie Beryl, please!" A stifling hush had descended over the rest of the mourners, who had all turned to watch the scene.

"Don't torment her, Olivia!" hissed Auntie Lucy.

"But she thinks I'm Auntie Imogen," Olivia whispered to Auntie Lucy, who was in fact a cousin of some sort, but much older than Olivia.

"Does it matter?" Auntie Lucy's strained voice was low enough to exclude Auntie Beryl from the conversation. "We don't need you winding her up and making things difficult for all of us. I see your mum and dad didn't deign to show their faces today. Sending you out here on your own. This is Alexander and Catelyn's little girl, see?" she explained loudly to Auntie Beryl. "And they've sent her out to her poor old auntie's funeral all by herself." She tutted. "I must say, I expected better. Not a lot, but better than that."

Olivia's heartbeat quickened in anger. "They're very, very busy at the moment," she said, too fast and too defensive, as she repeated the same line she'd used against half a dozen people that day. "They absolutely would have come if they could have."

"She's a shameless trollop, she is," Auntie Beryl announced to anyone who would listen.

Auntie Lucy sighed, taking Beryl by the arm. "Yes, yes, we all know, Beryl. Let's get you sat down somewhere away from her, shall we?"

Olivia hunched into her seat and wished that she could just disappear. As the two aunties moved slowly away, she could only bite her tongue and remind herself furiously that she had a duty to be kind to Auntie Beryl. But if it wasn't for the likes of Auntie Beryl and Auntie Lucy, Olivia's parents would have dropped everything to attend the funeral. Of course they would have come to pay their respects, if only... The thought petered out. Olivia had to confess that she didn't understand the complex and vicious family politics at play here, and had no idea what her parents and Auntie Imogen had done to deserve such scorn from the rest of the family.

She barely heard the service. She stood and sat when the others did, knees bending without conscious direction from her brain. She mouthed the hymns and followed the coffin out into the churchyard. Afterwards, as the crowd began to disperse, she stood there by herself in the drizzle. She couldn't face going to Auntie Imogen's house just yet, knowing it would be empty. Only when the rain began pelting down did she make a dash for the shelter of an enormous yew tree, where she sat down at the base of the twisted ancient trunk, close to a gravestone to shelter her from the wind. She took out her notebook again.

Sorry for the rip in the page - I should know better and be more wary of Auntie Beryl. Mum says it's her age and she can't help it, but Auntie Imogen says Beryl always was the spiteful type. You'd know the truth, wouldn't you? I suppose I ought to be glad that nobody's kicking up a fuss about the inheritance, like Dad said they would. Maybe they're afraid of

She paused. The patter of rain in the branches didn't quite mask the soft swish of someone walking lightly through the long grass. The somebody, wearing a pair of small and elegant black boots, hesitated in front of her, and belatedly Olivia remembered the girl from the service. She took a sudden renewed interest in her page, scribbling frantically.

"You're in my place," said the girl.

Olivia looked up at that. "Pardon?"

"You're in my place. I always sit there."

"Oh, I'm sorry." Olivia stood up, brushing dirt off her dress.

The curly-haired girl, looking unimpressed, hopped up onto the gravestone. Olivia studied her: the neatly applied eyeliner, the plum lipstick, the silver and jet jewellery. The untameable wildness of her black curls, beaded with bright raindrops.

A flash of intuition put Olivia's mind to rest, if only briefly. "You're not family, are you? Do you live in the village, then?" It would be so nice to have friends her own age in the village. She should make the effort, really. "I just moved here today. What's your name?"

"You can call me Verity," said the girl, staring off into the distance.

"Oh, what a pretty name."

"Yes." With a deep sigh, Verity laid her lacy black parasol across her knees. "I know."

Olivia looked again at Verity's pretty dress, the satin and lace choker she wore, with an antique cameo. Olivia had borrowed her mother's old standby black dress that morning, with the understanding that it was the sort of thing one wore to a funeral. She hadn't know what to do about her hair or makeup, though, so in the end she hadn't done anything much. Standing in front of Verity, who looked as neat and dainty as a porcelain doll, Olivia felt more huge and awkward than ever (a full foot taller than Verity, she was sure!) and couldn't help but feel the stab of envy.

Suddenly Verity's icy composure slipped and she almost fell off her tombstone. She stared in the direction of the church, her bright blue eyes huger than ever with shock, but Olivia could see nothing out of the ordinary.

"Are you all right? You look like you've just seen a ghost." When Verity didn't respond, just kept staring, Olivia's skin crawled. "Verity? Are you all right?"

Verity pulled herself together. "Oh, I'm fine, thank you. He startled me, that's all." She pointed, and Olivia tried again to follow her line of sight.

"Who, the vicar?"

There was nothing remarkable or frightening about Reverend Milton. He was a smallish man, young and soft-featured, with fair cherub curls. He hurried towards the shelter of the yew tree, waving to Olivia with one hand as he tried to hold the hem of his cassock out of the wet grass with the other. "There you are, Miss Lockwood! I'm afraid I had to move your suitcases. Hello," he said to Verity, who just stared at him in silent horror. "You can pick them up from the vicarage whenever you're ready," he said to Olivia. "Would you like to come back indoors and have a cup of tea?"

Heavy grey rainclouds made it feel that much later in the day than it really was, the sandwiches Olivia had eaten on the train that morning a distant memory, and she thought a cup of tea would only highlight her hunger. "No thank you. It's been a long day and I'm not far from home now, I suppose." She looked uncertainly at the big old house across the churchyard, backed by dark woodland. It looked bleak and rundown in the grey drizzle.

"Of course - we'll be neighbours, won't we?" said Reverend Milton. His face settled naturally into a gentle smile. "Are you sure you won't pop in for a cup of tea? I'd feel terrible sending you off on your own at a time like this."

Olivia shook her head. "You're very kind, but I should probably just fetch my cases and settle in for the evening."

"Well, if you're sure. My door is always open, should I be able to help you with anything."

"That's very kind, thank you."

"Anything at all," he persisted. "I only met Imogen a handful of times, but I'm so glad I had the opportunity to do so. A very forthright and vivacious lady."

"Oh?" Though Olivia had loved Auntie Imogen dearly, she suspected others found her opinionated and pushy.

"Oh yes. We had some very interesting conversations. I can tell you've inherited her charm, too."

Olivia smiled weakly. Even in old age, Auntie Imogen had been something of a social butterfly, striking up conversations and kindling new friendships effortlessly - something that Olivia could only dream of.

"Please, do feel free to drop in any time for a cup of tea and a chat. I know you've come some distance and I don't want you to be lonely here." His gaze wandered to the house on the hill. "That's it, isn't it? Your new house. Lovely old place. Very picturesque."

'Picturesque' wasn't the word for it, especially in the rain. At three storeys, all steep slate peaks and dark windows, the house loomed over its cottage neighbours down the hill, and it had never looked so unwelcoming.

"Oh, look at you - you're shivering, you poor thing," said Reverend Milton. "How rude of me to keep you talking, out here in this dismal weather. Let me help you move your suitcases."

As well as the two large suitcases, Olivia had a bicycle to move, and she wheeled it up the hill while Reverend Milton gallantly carried the cases. She felt guilty for letting him do it when he was neither a large man nor a strong one, but she'd hardly been able to refuse the offer: she'd had a devil of a time trying to move cases and bicycle the short distance from the train station to St Peter's Church.

Verity trailed after them at a distance, and Olivia turned to smile tentatively at the girl, still rather hoping she might have found a new friend. Verity gave a tight-lipped smile in return, then went back to staring suspiciously at the vicar.

"And are you a friend of Olivia's?" he asked her, his tone a touch condescending.

Verity stubbornly refused to say a word, and Olivia didn't like to be presumptuous. "I think I can manage from here," she said to Reverend Milton. They'd reached the gate in front of the house. "Thank you for all your help."

The Reverend beamed. "You're welcome. I'll see you again soon - Sunday, perhaps? Feel free to call on me if you need anything at all."

Verity watched the vicar go, glaring after him until he'd disappeared from view.

"Is there something wrong?" Olivia asked.

Verity turned to stare at her as if she'd just drowned a kitten. "You were talking to him."

"He was being nice, and helpful. What should I have done, told him to get lost?"

"You could have done. You don't have to just stand there and take it when people are being 'nice' to you."

"Well, I'm being nice to you, aren't I?" Or at least I'm trying. "Are you going to tell me to get lost?"

This appeared to require some thought. Verity wrapped her black coat tighter about her slender frame as she shivered in the chill drizzle. "No."

"Good. Do you want to come in for a cup of tea?" Olivia rolled her eyes. "There I go again, being nice to you. Do excuse me."

Verity smiled; a slight but genuine smile. "No thank you. There are things I need to be getting on with. But I just had to -" She stopped, biting her lip anxiously. "I really shouldn't do this." She turned as if to go, then wheeled back round and said, "Imogen wanted me to tell you: it was good of you to come to her funeral, what with her horrible sisters being there and everything." And then she stood there looking nervous but defiant.

For a moment, Olivia could only stare at her in confusion. "What?"

"Well, we got to talking this morning, and she mentioned how she wished she'd had the chance to say goodbye to you properly and all that. And I said that I didn't mean to be rude but she ought to have done that sooner, but still she rather insisted I tell you how glad she was to see you there. And that she understands why Alex and Cate didn't come. She says that's fine too."

"Verity, the dead can't talk to the living."

"Yes, that's what I said. That's why she wanted me to pass on the message. I did warn her you might not appreciate it."

Olivia took a step back, wishing she hadn't sent Reverend Milton away so soon. "I don't understand." What was this sick joke? How had this stranger found out her parents' names? Ah, the altercation in the church - Verity had been there, hadn't she?

"No, I didn't think for one minute that you would understand. But Imogen said she expected -"

"Stop it!" Olivia cried. "Enough is enough and it isn't funny!"

Verity sniffed, looking petulant. "You know, if being helpful is this much hard work, it's a wonder anyone ever bothers. I know I shan't try it again. Although if Imogen asks, I might at least tell her you said 'thank you'."

Olivia hefted her suitcases, barging through the gate with the front wheel of her bicycle, and closing it with a bang behind her, leaving Verity standing on the pavement outside. "You have things to be getting on with, don't you?" she said loudly. "Why don't you go and do them?"

Verity glared at her a moment, eyes narrowing fiercely, then she turned and ran off down the road, black coat flapping behind her.

Olivia stomped up the path to the front door as fast as possibly could under the burden of her cases. She dropped them and out of habit knocked on the front door, before remembering in the next instant that the house would be cold, dark and empty, no Auntie Imogen there to welcome her with a smile and a cup of tea, and on that realisation the tears overflowed again. She glanced over her shoulder to see Verity still loitering, some way down the hill. Angrily Olivia swiped her tears away, fumbling for the key in her coat pocket.

 

 

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