Cecil was 84, and had paid for his funeral the same week he and Pearl moved into the Village.

Arrangements for the service were an optional extra with the paperwork for the unit, which suited them both perfectly as matters could be organised with minimum fuss. He chose the basic plan, expressly stating that his family forego a reception while knowing even then that this simple command in death, as with most of his wishes in life, would be overridden by benign indifference. A funeral, he felt, was as necessary as a coffin for an earthworm. Pearl, who had dictated that her sending off be ‘a discreet affair’, was always good at explaining their aversion in a way that was palatable to family and friends – ‘well’, she’d say, advancing with a sweet smile and clasped hands, ‘it’s just that we’d much prefer it if you bought us flowers when we’re alive!’ This was disputed by Jacqueline, Cecil’s step-daughter, who observed loudly and often that their so-called foresight was in fact an attempt to limit embarrassing displays of emotion from beyond the grave. She’d mention Britain, where he grew up, and World War II. But Cecil was proud of his frugality, complaining loudly and often that the shoes his grandchildren wore to play soccer in were gaudier and more expensive than any of the jewellery his mother owned in her lifetime. Jacqueline called him a fusspot. Vera next door, who Pearl still referred to as Mrs Walt Richards a decade after she’d parted company with her husband, was inclined to agree. The effusive regularity with which she praised his potted aspidistras led him to deduce that she considered his immaculate lawn a personal affront. Like the humble extension they were nearly denied permission to build, Cecil’s garden left hers in the shade.

Vera’s hobby was computing. She’d taken a course to help pass the time and was renowned throughout the Village for her handmade cards, which she designed and printed herself using a simple software program. Copying and pasting images from the Internet to provide a personal touch, she delivered her creations to bereaved families with a promptness that was almost unseemly. When Pearl passed on, the card was decorated with a picture of a pink sandshoe in honour of her daily walks; floating above it was a cartoon palm tree, in recognition, Cecil thought, of their last cruise to Hawaii. The most recent recipient was Eshwar the kitchen hand and occasional cook. Following a minor accident he had been summoned to Vera’s and presented with a card containing pictures of a bunch of carrots, a quiche, and a big brown cow. He thanked her profusely before explaining that while he liked carrots and preferred quiche to pasties, he was a vegetarian.

When the chef at the Seniors’ Club took liberties with the gravy, Eshwar was the first to hear the rumblings of dissent. There had been problems before, but a petition the previous winter in support of the packet variety was meant to clear up the issue for good. One afternoon he was beckoned over to the buffet by Cecil, who had noticed that instead of treacly brown liquid inside the gravy boat there was the watery stuff the kitchen staff called ‘jus’.

‘What have you got in the way of fish?’

‘Flake, that’s all. You like the fish plain, is it?’

‘Plain, yes, with a bit of lemon on the side.’

‘Today it comes encrusted with basil.’

Cecil turned the plate over in his hands. When Pearl was alive, she’d serve his fish with a sprig of parsley – anything else gave him indigestion.

‘And what have you done with the pork today?’

‘Roasted it, with applesauce and a balsamic reduction.’

Cecil shuffled his feet. Tuesday lunch was always corned beef and potatoes. ‘Is the pork any good?’ he said finally.

‘I can let you know that it is very delicious.’

‘Go on then.’ Cecil reluctantly offered his plate, and could only recall of what happened next the sting of applesauce in his eye.

Waking up later in the nursing home attached to the village – he didn’t know how long it had been, only that his indoor plants would be thirsty – he could hear Jacqueline on the other side of the partition. Bits and pieces of her telephone conversation filtered through.

‘…had a nasty fall, it’s knocked him round a bit…tripped on the rug in the dining room…’

Cecil closed his eyes, and succumbed to a pleasing heaviness that was soon cut short by the twitch in his toes.

Later Jacqueline perched on his bed. Her tender expression reminded Cecil of the look she gave him when he stopped his weeding for ten minutes to chat with Eshwar about the cricket.

‘I was so worried. You must be hungry.’

She let the tears fall straight down onto the sheet.

‘It’s now five years since Mum’s been gone.’ Jacqueline looked at him. ‘I thought –you were probably upset-‘

‘Five years….’

Cecil licked his lips, still able to detect the tart trace of apples.

‘Would you check if they’re doing the pork again next week?’

After an awkward amount of time Jacqueline left. It wasn’t long before Cecil insisted on discharging himself, scoffing at the nurses for trying to keep him in longer and insisting to Jacqueline that someone more in need should have the bed. The card from Vera sat unopened on the hallstand for weeks. If when pottering in the soil he saw her collecting her mail he’d edge sheepishly towards the screen door, concealing himself behind the agapanthus when she  returned from the library with the newest large-print titles. Once Cecil held the envelope up to the light. He could see two pictures on the front of the card, and at least one was an aspidistra.

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