The Bukowski Agency - The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag - Excerpt
The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag

by Alan Bradley

EXCERPT

I WAS LYING DEAD in the churchyard. An hour had crept by since the mourners had said their last sad farewells.

At twelve o’clock, just at the time we should otherwise have been sitting down to lunch, there had been the departure from Buckshaw: my polished rosewood coffin brought out of the drawing room, carried slowly down the broad stone steps to the driveway, and slid with heartbreaking ease into the open door of the waiting hearse, crushing beneath it a little bouquet of wildflowers which had been laid tenderly inside by one of the grieving villagers.

Then there had been the long drive down the avenue of chestnuts to the Mulford Gates, whose rampant griffins looked away as we passed, though whether in sadness or in apathy I would never know.

Dogger, Father’s devoted jack-of-all trades, had paced in measured step alongside the slow hearse, his head bowed, his hand resting lightly on its roof, as if to shield my remains from something that only he could see. At the gates, one of the undertaker’s mutes had finally coaxed him, by using hand signals, into a hired motorcar.

Neatly put, Flave, I thought. It was true. I hadn't seen them: not since they had gagged and blindfolded me, then lugged me hogtied up the attic stairs and locked me in the closet.

And so they had brought me to the village of Bishop’s Lacey, passing sombrely through the same green lanes and dusty hedgerows I had bicycled every day when I was alive.

At the heaped-up churchyard of St Tancred’s, they had taken me tenderly from the hearse and borne me at a snail’s pace up the path beneath the limes. Here, they had put me down for a moment in the new-mown grass.

Then had come the service at the gaping grave, and there had been a note of genuine grief in the voice of the vicar, as he pronounced the traditional words.

It was the first time I’d heard The Order For the Burial of the Dead from this vantage point. We had attended last year, with Father, the funeral of old Mr Dean, the village greengrocer. His grave, in fact, was just a few yards from where I was presently lying. It had already caved in, leaving not much more than a rectangular depression in the grass which was, more often than not, filled with stagnant rainwater.

My oldest sister, Ophelia, said it collapsed because Mr Dean had been resurrected, and was no longer bodily present, while Daphne, my other sister, said it was because he had plummeted through into an older grave whose occupant had disintegrated.

I thought of the soup of bones below: the soup of which I was about to become just another added ingredient.

Flavia Sabina de Luce, 1939 — 1950, they would cause to be carved on my gravestone, a modest and tasteful grey marble thing with no room for false sentiments.

Pity. If I’d lived long enough, I’d have left written instructions calling for a touch of Wordsworth:

A maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love.

And if they’d baulked at that, I’d have left this as my second choice:

Truest hearts by deeds unkind
To despair are most inclined.

Only Feely, who had played and sung them at the piano, would recognize the lines from Thomas Campion’s Third Book of Airs, and she would be too consumed by guilty grief to tell anyone.

My thoughts were interrupted by the vicar’s voice.

‘…earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body…’

And suddenly they had gone, leaving me there alone — alone to listen for the worms.

This was it: the end of the road for poor Flavia.

By now the family would already be back at Buckshaw, gathered round the long refectory table: Father seated in his usual stony silence, Daffy and Feely hugging one another with slack, tear-stained faces as Mrs Mullet, our cook, brought in a platter of baked meats.

I remembered something that Daffy had once told me when she was devouring The Odyssey: that baked meats, in ancient Greece, were traditional funeral fare, and I had replied that, in view of Mrs Mullet’s cooking, not much had changed in twenty-five hundred years.

But now that I was dead, I thought, perhaps I ought to practise being somewhat more charitable.

Dogger, of course, would be inconsolable. Dear Dogger: butler-cum-chauffeur-cum-valet-cum-gardener-cum estate-manager: a poor shell-shocked soul whose capabilities ebbed and flowed like the Severn tides: Dogger, who had had recently saved my life and forgotten it by the next morning. I should miss him terribly.

And I should miss my chemistry laboratory. I thought of all the golden hours I’d spent there in that abandoned wing of Buckshaw, blissfully alone among the flasks, the retorts and the cheerily bubbling tubes and beakers. And to think that I’d never see them again. It was almost too much to bear.

I listened to the rising wind as it whispered overhead in the branches of the yew trees. It was already growing cool here in the shadows of Saint Tancred’s tower, and it would soon be dark.

Poor Flavia! Poor, stone-cold-dead Flavia.

By now, Daffy and Feely would be wishing that they hadn’t been so downright rotten to their little sister during her brief eleven years on this earth.

At the thought, a tear started down my cheek.

Would Harriet be waiting to welcome me to Heaven?

Harriet was my mother, who had died in a mountaineering accident a year after I was born. Would she recognize me after ten years? Would she still be dressed in the mountain-climbing suit she was wearing when she met her end, or would she have swapped it by now for a white robe?

Well, whatever she was wearing, I knew it would be stylish.

There was a sudden clatter of wings: a noise which echoed loudly from the stone wall of the church, amplified to an alarming volume by a half-acre of stained glass and the leaning gravestones that hemmed me in. I froze.

Could it be an angel — or more likely, an archangel — coming down to return Flavia’s precious soul to Paradise? If I opened my eyes the merest slit, I could see through my eyelashes, but only dimly.

 

 

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