A respectable number of people turned up for the funeral. I had worried that it might be embarrassingly small, as Will had been an only child, never seemed to have many friends and hadn’t done much to endear himself to family; but there were at least twenty, from younger cousins in their twenties to Aunt Sarah in her mid-eighties. Nobody seemed particularly upset, but they all looked slightly sad, as we would expect for mourning a guy who didn’t make sixty. I knew more than half of the faces, relatives and one guy who I thought I had once seen with Will in a pub, and wasn’t sure if the others were close friends, neighbours or colleagues in one of those jobs he had never really explained. There was no wife – never had been – and no woman I recognised as a former girlfriend, although meetings them had been so rare and long ago that I probably wouldn’t have recognised one. That was Will, my cousin who had drifted, not made much of an effort at school, work or in keeping up with people. He had taken the easy path in everything and not done much with his life.
I didn’t expect us to go anywhere after the service, but Rose – the cousin who had seen him most often – said he had left some money for everyone to have a drink, so she had reserved a couple of tables and snacks at a pub up the road. Most of the mourners went along, like me appreciating the chance to chat with people we probably wouldn’t see until the next funeral. I went to the bar with my sister Mel, where we talked for a while with the couple who lived next door to Will, then a man who had known him from school, recently friended on Facebook and knew of his death from Rose posting on the account. I noticed others chatting in pairs or small groups, but one man who seemed on the fringe of it all the time, not really getting into conversation. I thought someone should make a friendly approach, so I crossed the room and extended my hand.
“I’m Hugh, Will’s cousin.”
He shook my hand. He was older and taller than me, wearing a smart black suit and dark blue tie, and spoke in received pronounciation.
“Malcolm. I was a colleague of Will’s, quite a few years ago.”
“Where? He never spoke much about work but seemed to move around.”
“Well, that’s good to know.”
It seemed an odd response, and he quickly changed the subject.
“You have my sympathies. He talked about you occasionally. I believe you have a sister as well.”
“That’s right. She’s here.”
I looked around. Mel was still at the bar. I was surprised that Will had talked about either of us.
“I should think you were close to him.”
“Maybe when we were kids – our dads were brothers – but I saw him less often as we got older, maybe two or three times a year. We had different interests, moved in different circles.”
“But you got on.”
“He was amiable.”
He asked if I had seen Will recently, whether I knew much of his interests, his work, relationships. I told him the truth but with some respect for Will, used the terms ‘laid back’ rather than ‘apathetic’, ‘private’ rather than ‘secretive’, ‘introvert’ rather than ‘waster’. Malcolm’s expression suggested he recognised my descriptions, then he glanced to my side and I realised the Mel had joined us. I did the introductions. He smiled.
“Hugh was just sharing his memories of Will,” he said. “I understand that he was very low key in his life. Not someone to stand out from the crowd.”
“That’s if he could be bothered getting into a crowd,” Mel said. “He usually gave the impression he was happy to sit at home most of the time; and he never said much about the jobs he had.”
It prompted me to ask a question.
“Sorry, but where was it he worked with you? I remember he spent a while doing some admin for his local council, then he said something about a bank, then an insurance company.”
“Nothing about the Civil Service?”
Mel and I looked at each other and shook our heads.
“Which department?” she asked.
“Part of the Home Office.”
“Where exactly? I worked there for a while.”
“It was in one of the teams where they keep a low profile.”
“That sounds mysterious.”
It made me smile. I couldn’t think of Will doing anything that had to be kept secret.
“I’ll be honest,” I said. “Will wasn’t the type to talk about work, but I always thought it was because he didn’t take it that seriously.”
Malcolm responded with a faint smile. Mel asked a question.
“So what did he do exactly?”
Malcolm waited a moment, as if considering his next words, then spoke quietly.
“I can’t say much, only that he served his country well.”
“Discreet work, the type that can’t be made public.”
Mel and I shared a disbelieving glance.
“You mean he was some kind of ….”
“It’s better not to say it out loud. But it’s something of which his family can be proud.”
“Without really knowing what it was?”
“I’m afraid I couldn’t say more.”
I wanted to say something – Spy – Spook – but could see from Malcolm’s expression that I wouldn’t get any more. There were a few seconds of awkward silence, then from behind us a “Hello!” and Rose appeared. We hesitated, then fumbled an introduction.
“Er, Rose, another cousin. This is Malcolm, he’s an ex-colleague of Will’s.”
“Nice to meet you.” He shook Rose’s hand. “Sorry if this seems rude, but I can’t stay any longer. I have to be somewhere in an hour. And please, what we’ve just spoken about, can you be careful about who your share it with. I’m sure you understand why.”
Then he shook hands with me and Mel and moved quickly towards the exit.
“That was odd,” Rose said.
“You bet it was.”
“I have a feeling I’ve seen him before. Can’t think where.”
“I don’t think it’s likely.”
We shuffled uneasily. I could tell Mel was thinking the same as me, whether we should tell Rose what we had just heard, but we were interrupted by her husband Paul. He had received a text from a neighbour who had accepted a package for them but was going away overnight. Suddenly they were in a hurry to leave.
“Sorry,” she said. “I’ll have to get away. Let’s get together soon, have a curry or pizza.”
We agreed, waved her goodbye and stood together in a state of mild shock. We thought about telling someone else what he had learned about Will, but weren’t sure who it would be right to tell.
“I’m feeling bad,” I said.
“Do you remember a few years ago, when Will’s mum died. He said he would tell us when he was going to scatter her ashes, but just did it in the local park without letting us know. I got annoyed at him and said he was a waster, that he never did anything worthwhile in his life.”
“You mentioned it to me. I thought you both got over it.”
“We did, but now I’m thinking I wasn’t fair to him.”
We stayed in each other’s company for a while, watching as other mourners drifted away, and kept the secret to ourselves.
We got together again three weeks later. Mel picked out a Turkish restaurant, we both arrived early and assured each other over what we had agreed earlier – that Rose should know what we had been told about Will. As it had sunk in we felt pleased to have been wrong about him and reckoned that, despite Malcolm asking for discretion, she was one person who should have a share of our vague, surprised pride. She was maybe the one person who would really care.
When she and Paul arrived we did the kisses and handshakes, compared our journeys, got some drinks and looked over the menu. Once we had ordered our meals Mel and I shared a glance, the sign we were ready to tell them the news, but Rose opened her handbag and said she had something to show to us. She placed a folded leaflet on the table face upwards to show a drawing of three drunken tramps below a title, When Godot Turned Up, and above a playwright’s name and Slapdown Theatre. I thought it was going to be a recommendation, but Rose unfolded the leaflet and turned it towards us to show a page of blurb to the left and three photos, matching cast biographies, to the right. She placed a finger beside one.
“Is that the bloke from the funeral?”
I couldn’t tell. She moved the leaflet closer so Mel and I could dip our heads to look more closely. It was him, Malcolm, except that his name was Andrew Muldrew and he had played Godot.
“Where did you get this?”
“You know I’ve been in to clear Will’s flat. It was in one of the drawers with a bunch of old flyers and ticket stubs. He didn’t do cultural stuff often, but when he did he kept a memento.”
“And he saw this play?”
“Looks like it.”
I looked at Mel. Our faces twisted. We dipped our heads again to peer at the photo. Then I quickly read the bio and saw that Andrew Muldrew hadn’t exactly had a glittering career. There had been a few plays in provincial theatres, unnamed characters in a couple of very old TV dramas, and theatre workshops with schoolkids. Rose spoke again.
“And look at the bottom of the page.”
There was some scrawl in biro, Denham Dramatic Agency and a phone number.
“He must have remembered the actor, done some Googling and found out how to get hold of him.”
Rose hesitated, careful to say what she was thinking, but went ahead.
“Because he knew he was going to die, and he wanted to leave something for you.”
The look on her face was somewhere between disbelief and amusement.
“There was some time between when he knew the worst and when he had to go into hospital, then he told me that he had sorted out his affairs with a lawyer and asked me to let her know when he had passed.”
“So how would this guy Malcolm. No, Andrew whatever, know about the funeral?”
“Because the lawyer asked me when and where the funeral was taking place.”
I had to stop and think. Mel and I stared at each other for a few seconds and the pieces fell into place.
“So he had found this actor and paid him to come to his funeral to pretend he was someone else, then tell us a story, because ….”
“Because he wanted to stitch you up, from beyond the grave.”
Rose and Paul were pressing their fists on their foreheads and trying to stifle the laughs.
“I think you pissed him off. He told me there was a time when you called him a waster, and that he always had the impression you didn’t think much of him.”
I couldn’t deny that. I glanced at Mel. Now she was spreading a hand over her mouth and shaking. After a moment she turned to me and said: “I didn’t know. Honestly.” Then she laughed again.
“So he didn’t do some shady job in national security.”
“Never. Actually, you were probably right about him overall, he was a bit of waster.”
“But he made the effort to make me think that he was some kind of spy.”
Heads nodded. There were giggles.
“You have to admit, that took a bit of setting up, especially when he didn’t have long to live.”
I let it sink in. What I had been feeling for the past three weeks – a quiet pride for reasons I still struggled to accept – disintegrated immediately. But something smaller and more realistic took hold, an admiration that Will could make the effort to make a fool of me as one of the last acts of his life. The bugger had something in him.
There was a round of chuckling, punctuated with remarks that it was all a bit much to believe but we all had to believe it. Then I raised my glass.
“Can I propose a toast to Will. Turns out he was a slippery, conniving git, and I’m glad he was my cousin.”