A mysterious envelope arrives on Eve McNabb's doorstep soon after she has buried her mother, a woman who kept many secrets. The puzzling letter inside this envelope hints at an illicit passion between the letter writer and Eve's mother, May McNabb.
Even when she was a child, Eve sensed that there were parts of May's life she would never understand. She would never know the details of her parents' marriage or why her father suddenly disappeared from her life. While Eve has always believed that her father was dead, she begins to wonder whether her mother's life as a widow had been a ruse. Will she have to question everything her mother has told her? Could her father be alive and well? The letter writer may have some answers, but how can Eve find him or her?
With only a blurred postmark for a clue, Eve sets out to locate the writer and journey into her own past. What she never suspected was that questions can be dangerous, perhaps even deadly...
Filled with piercing wit and illuminating insight into the human condition, Robert Barnard's Last Post proves yet again that he is one of the great masters of mystery.
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A Novel of Suspense
By Robert Barnard Scribner
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Eve looked down at the face in the coffin. It was prettified, and the neckline of the dress, the only thing visible, was too meticulously neat to suggest her mother's usual style. She wondered whether to kiss her for the last time. But she had already kissed her for the last time -- as she lay dying. To kiss her now would be no kiss at all, because there was nothing remaining of her mother to receive it.
Mr. Bradshaw, the head of the firm of Bradshaw and Pollock, Funeral Directors, had not explicitly asked Eve if she wanted to see her mother laid out in her coffin. He had merely, after they had swapped funereal inanities, raised his eyebrows in the direction of the main laying-out room, and she had walked automatically, as if this was part of some ritual like exchanging rings at a wedding. Now, faced with the total extinction that was death, she felt nothing that she had not felt over and over again in the days since her mother died.
She had been with her when she died, sitting beside her in the hospital room. That was the important thing.
Eve shook herself and went back into the tactfully dim lighting of the main premises. She realized with a sinking heart that Mr. Bradshaw was preparing to be chatty.
"She'll be much missed," he said, as if he had just thought it up.
"I shall certainly miss her," Eve said, trying to beconversational, "even though we lived a fair way apart with me in Wolverhampton and her here in Crossley. We always talked to each other every week, twice a week if anything noteworthy had occurred. And we wrote quite often, particularly if it was something that was difficult to put into words."
"I remember very well when Mrs. McNabb first came to Crossley," said Mr. Bradshaw, perching himself on an empty coffin with a price tag on its lid. "I was within an ace of taking Betty, that's my eldest, out of the primary school and sending her to a private one. Then someone told me that he'd met the new teacher who was said to be going places, and who seemed enormously competent -- knew what she wanted and how she wanted to achieve it. After I'd talked to your mother for a few minutes at a parents' evening, I decided to give the school a go for another year. I never regretted it, and there's a lot of parents about that time who did like me and would say the same."
"I'm so glad," said Eve, wondering when she could legitimately plead busyness and end the conversation. "I think she found being deputy rather difficult. She liked -- not being in charge exactly -- "
" -- but being able to take a lead, take people along with her. She even liked the maneuvering that convinced people they were part of the decision-making process. And she liked the compromises that had to be made, because she didn't want the reputation of being a one-woman band."
"I think it was her human side that made her such a good head. There was so often a glint in her eye."
"I think it was a Scottish sort of humor," said Eve. Then suddenly she thought: the woman we are talking about and the woman I loved and remember are two different people. And really I don't give a damn about the public woman. It's not her I feel like crying for. She smiled at Mr. Bradshaw.
"Well, I must get going. Always a mountain of things to do when something like this happens. The post is piling up. I am grateful to you for all you've done."
As she went out into the discreet Crossley side street, a passing man looked at her, nodded, and murmured something that was obviously a condolence or a tribute to her mother. Eve smiled her thanks and walked on -- briskly, repelling any further encounters. It was time to concentrate on the private woman May McNabb.
When she got to Derwent Road, she slowed to a halt as she neared the house where she had grown up. Number 24 loomed rather pushily over the houses around and opposite it. It was an Edwardian product, with large rooms, a study and five bedrooms: it had been built for a substantial bigwig in the small town of Crossley, and it had been designed to impress. Size was of the essence and was not something to be apologized for. The garden, entirely cared for by May McNabb until an occasional help had been engaged in the last months, stretched comfortably on all four sides of the house. How had her mother and father afforded this house, back in the seventies, when salaries in teaching were derisory? Maybe a legacy, maybe her father's cartoons had brought in money. Eve shook herself and walked on.
But before she could get into the home that she had shared with her mother for the first twenty years of her life, there was the neighbor in the garden. She had been there and shown signs of wanting to talk when Eve had come out earlier in the afternoon, but Eve had used her appointment with Mr. Bradshaw as an excuse, and felt that now she ought to have a few words. Mrs. Calthorp was a woman her mother had liked and respected, and she had always been good when her mother had taken a well-deserved holiday -- fed the cat, collected the post, even done a bit of weeding if her mother had been away a long time. Eve stopped at her front gate. "Well, that's over," she said to the stooping form.
"Was it awful?" asked Mrs. Calthorp, straightening up.
"Not exactly. But I felt pressured to go and see the body. I suppose it's usual, and we do usual things at such a time. But I didn't want to. It was meaningless. I had seen her die."
"I know what you mean. I thought I ought to when Harold died. People even said the grandchildren ought to go, but I put a stop to that idea. You're quite right. It's just a charade."
"Now I want to sit down and cherish memories of her alive."
"I'm sure there'll be a lot of those. You were so close."
"Yes, we were. But somehow these last years, it's been difficult to be close. Her having school holidays and me never being able to get off then because of having to give priority to people with young children."
"Still, there were all the times you came back here, and all the weekends away."
"Those were nice, especially the weekends. Little festivals here and there. We found some good ones and some really odd ones. We'd have done much more of that sort of thing if only she'd had longer in retirement. And her keeping quiet about the breast cancer didn't help. Oh well..."
Eve went through her own gate and started toward the front door.
"The postman's been. Another big bundle for you," said Mrs. Calthorp, bending down.
Eve let herself into the house she had grown up in. She stepped over an untidy mess of envelopes on the doormat and went through to the kitchen. She needed so much to have a cup of tea and time for thought. The making of tea and the finding of biscuits helped, but then when she sat down in the sitting room, in her own old threadbare armchair, the thought came back to her: I only knew part of my mother -- the private area. The headmistress part meant nothing to me, but it meant everything to most of those who knew her. Quite rightly she found another school for me to go to, not her own. But even the private area of her life I didn't know all that well. Visits home, phone calls, weekends at Buxton or Garsington -- what did they amount to? We could have had such a good time now that she had reached sixty-five. Gone around together, made discoveries about each other. The process was beginning in the six months after she retired. And then the beastly cancer intervened -- suddenly, and quickly deadly.
She fetched the post and began to open the envelopes. Mostly short missives about how sad people were, how much her mother had meant to them, how wonderfully she had turned around the Blackfield Road Primary School. All of the messages heartfelt, this Eve felt sure of. There were hardly any purely formal condolences. The longer ones usually mentioned one or two special memories of her mother -- as teacher, headmistress or just as a sympathetic and enterprising human being. Eve had to admit that many of the anecdotes caught the essence of her mother in her public role.
She was nearing the end of her task, with two piles on the floor beside her: those needing answers and those that did not. She picked up an envelope that had been near the bottom of the raggedy pile she had taken up from the doormat. It was fatter than the earlier ones, with a fierce animal on a first-class stamp and, as usual these days, an illegible postmark. She opened it and found four small pages of very flimsy paper covered with large, clear script. When she read the inscription she realized with a shock that the writer was not one of those who wanted to pay tribute to a dead woman.
It seems ages since we've been in touch, and I can only explain the scrappiness of my letters by pleading the extreme busyness of someone who has madly taken up this and that these last few years, and has less time than she ever had in her life before. Don't do anything as silly now that you have retired!
My activities are easily cataloged, though they take up so much of my time. Apart from all my church work, which I've told you about before, I am a school governor, I am secretary to the local Green Party and I dabble as often as I am asked and can manage it in amateur dramatics. People say that there are few parts for older women, but I think they must mean few good parts, few long, meaty ones. I am now into my third production of Hay Fever. In the first I played Myra, in the second I played Judith Bliss, and now I'm going to play Clara the old maid. Plenty of meat in that part if you know how to dig for it. But how amateur dramatics do bring home to one the passing of time!
But sometimes, you know, it's as if time has not passed at all, and we are back, together again and happy as sand boys. Often at night I dream of you being beside me in bed, with your lovely enticing body throwing out invitations even in sleep. We were the most wonderful pair, May; two people who had to come together because physically and mentally, we made a complete whole, and were quite diminished by separation. Oh dear -- I did so love you, May darling, and I sometimes feel bitter that you did not have the courage to make the sort of stand that women of our tastes make all the time nowadays. And when I'm in that mood, I feel it wasn't the business with John that separated us, but your own conventionality and lack of fighting spirit.
Oh well -- water under the bridge. You'll wish I hadn't mentioned it, I know. But how wonderful it was. I feel invigorated just by the memory of it. Have fun in your retirement, dearest.
With all my love,
Eve sat in silence with the letter in her hand as outside the sun went down and evening came on.
Copyright © 2008 by Robert Barnard
Excerpted from Last Post by Robert Barnard Copyright © 2008 by Robert Barnard. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A very enjoyable read, although the speed of the relationship between Eve & Omkar is pretty unbelievable. The ending,however-UGH! Why make the father-daughter reunion so touching if that was his intention? FOUL!