This is a commission for my patron Sonia Marie, as part of the offer I had on during February 2020. Sonia’s prompt:
Three friends in their mid-twenties meet at a fourth friend’s funeral. They haven’t seen each other since a fifth friend’s funeral when they were teens. Write their story.
It was a lovely day for a funeral. The sun was warm, but not too harsh for standing around outside. Blossom floated through the air, giving the entire churchyard the vague impression of hosting a wedding. Well. Aside from the technicalities of the thing, there wasn’t a lot of difference between a wedding and a funeral. Both required guests to arrive with clean hair and a desire for diplomacy.
Clemency couldn’t get over how different it was to the last funeral she’d been to. The weather, for one thing. Horrible grey drizzle versus spring sunshine. The type of funeral, for another. Neutral crematorium versus quaint church. The biggest difference was in the atmosphere. Hysterical mother carried down the aisle versus stone-carved faces and a palpable, albeit unmentionable, sense of relief.
‘Do you feel like this should feel normal?’
Clemency jumped, although she shouldn’t have done. Her friend Tasha—her steadfast companion for the last funeral too—hadn’t left her side since they got out of the car. She hadn’t stopped fidgeting either, picking at a scab on her hand and adjusting the bow on her blouse.
‘I don’t think it’s supposed to feel normal,’ Tasha continued as they meandered from the graveside back to the church. ‘I think all funerals are supposed to feel like an out-of-body experience. But my nan’s funeral was nowhere near as… as strange as this one.’
‘I suppose,’ Clemency replied, ‘that could be because the last time we were at a funeral, Jem was part of the congregation, not the main event.’
Tasha winced and Clemency felt bad for a second. Then she remembered that she hadn’t seen Tasha for five years despite at least thirty requests to meet up.
‘Shall we head for the restaurant?’ Clemency asked quickly. ‘I have a feeling we’ll be hard pushed to get a table.’ She turned toward the carpark and walked straight into the front of a smart suit.
It was Clemency’s turn to wince. She’d managed to avoid eye contact the entire service, even though he was sat on their pew, and during the burial even though the three of them had instinctively stood together, and now she’d bloody walked into him. ‘Hey, Ben.’
‘Beautiful service, wasn’t it?’
‘Was it?’ Clemency had felt nothing but contempt throughout the whole thing. For the choice of hymns, for the bloke doing the eulogy—Jem’s first ever employee who clearly had no idea how his boss really worked on the inside—for Jem himself. He’d allowed himself to be immortalised by tabloid headlines about teenage prodigies and then by headlines about off the rails twenty-somethings and finally by headlines about well we saw that coming, didn’t we.
‘Can I nab a lift to the wake?’
‘Sure!’ Tasha said enthusiastically, although she wasn’t the one driving.
As predicted, the wake was packed full. Mr and Mrs Brown had hired out a restaurant for the afternoon, and the bar looked as busy as it would have done on any evening out. Tasha headed straight for the scrum with a quick ‘I’ll get them.’
‘How’s Giovanni?’ Clemency asked Ben when they’d given Mr and Mrs Brown a hug and found a table. They had to pull their chairs in just to hear each other over the hubbub, which seemed to consist almost entirely about the latest decrease in local pollution levels, the new electric charging bays in the nearest car park and who the new CEO of JLB Ltd would be. At least, Clemency reflected, JLB had the grace to wait until after the funeral to announce Jem’s replacement. Then again, they’d probably had someone else in the pipeline since that first arrest for disorderly behavior.
‘He’s off his antidepressants,’ Ben was saying, ‘and he’s never missed a day of therapy. Not in eight years. He’s doing a couple of A levels at the college, wants to go away for university. Something to do with mental health or counselling. He still has bad days and weeks, but I think the very worst might be behind him for good.’
‘That’s great,’ Clemency said, and found she meant it.
‘How’s your mum?’
‘Really well. Not pre-cancer well, but her last few scans have been clear. She’s working again.’
‘That’s fantastic. Look, Clem, I—’ Clemency was saved by Tasha, who swooped in with a tray of drinks.
‘Alcohol-free G&T, Clem, cognac for the man with no taste buds and a vodka lemonade,’ she announced with a flourish.
‘They do alcohol-free gin?’ Clemency was surprised Tasha remembered both her drink of choice and that she was driving and felt bad again.
‘I think they do alcohol-free everything,’ Tasha replied. ‘I thought you shouldn’t miss out.’ She raised her glass. ‘To Jacob.’
‘To Jacob,’ Clemency and Ben echoed. They were silent for a minute. On the next table, a couple was talking about who would inherit the Italian villa and who would get the flat in London. What about the cars? Perhaps they would go to a girlfriend? His parents? Perhaps, the couple speculated, there might even be a mini Jacob running around somewhere. It wouldn’t surprise them in the slightest, not with Jacob’s lifestyle. Not that he was up to much toward the end except inhaling white powders, although they shouldn’t say that with Mrs Brown so close by. Now a baby, they decided, would be welcome news for the Brown family.
‘How have you been?’ Ben asked Clemency. Maybe it was the toast, maybe it was the alcohol-free gin, maybe it was because, out of the corner of her eye, she could see Mrs Brown break down in tears over a glass of wine, but she was suddenly tired of the entire day.
‘Don’t give me that.’
‘I’m being friendly!’ Ben snapped with at least as much venom she had, and Clemency was reminded all at once of the time they collaborated on a chemistry project for their GCSE. An argument over methodology erupted one afternoon and the classroom had to be evacuated when an unidentifiable cloud leaked from the test tubes. Neither of them had ever been great at listening to the other.
‘Look, I just…’ Clemency bit back five years of anger and frustration. ‘I reached out to you guys after Alex’s funeral. I wanted to talk about what happened and you just blanked me. I didn’t even hear from you a couple of years ago when my mum relapsed.’
Tasha had the grace to look at her glass. ‘I’m sorry, Clem. I just didn’t know what to say when you messaged me. And then I went to volunteer in Thailand and it just got harder and harder to pick up the phone. Your mum wasn’t supposed to relapse after what happened.’
‘Ocean wasn’t supposed to fill up with plastic,’ Clemency pointed out.
Ben sipped his cognac. Clemency got the impression he was choosing his words. ‘I’m sorry too. After Alex died I was… it was the first year of uni, wasn’t it. I’d never been away from home for more than a week, and I’d never left Giovanni with just our parents before, and I was absolutely shite at my degree, and I just… it was easier not to pick up the phone. I didn’t want to think about what we’d done, I didn’t want to think about Alex dying and I couldn’t face talking about how we might be next.’
‘That’s what I wanted to get hold of you about. I think the magic worked exactly as it was supposed to.’
‘It can’t have done, Clem.’ Tasha’s scab broke open, oozing blood down her wrist. ‘They’re both dead. And we’re—we might be—’
‘We’re not next.’ The couple on the next table jumped. ‘We’re not next,’ Clemency said softly. ‘I figured it out.’ She put her bag on the table and pulled out a small glass vial. Both Tasha and Ben leant backwards.
‘Read the packaging.’
Once-Upon-a-Wish. This vial grants the drinker one wish. For best results, keep your desire clearly in your mind while consuming the potion. Please note that Once-Upon-a-Wish is only intended for small-to-medium scale needs. Not intended for children under 12 years. NOT DESIGNED FOR PERSONAL GAIN. Consumers should note that anything wished selfishly is liable to backfire due to the complex construction process.
Thank you for purchasing from Bezzina’s Emporium of Magical Artefacts and Antiquities. We hope you are pleased with the speed of delivery and the quality of your product. You have thirty days to return anything, unused, with the receipt and in the correct packaging, as long as it isn’t damaged. Bezzina’s Emporium of Magical Artefacts and Antiquities bears no responsibility for any unpleasant or unsettling experiences induced by our products, as the origin and intended effects of each product is clearly indicated on the label.
‘I don’t get it.’ Ben frowned at the label. ‘We read the instructions when Jem bought them off the internet.’
‘I know.’ Clemency replied. ‘But what did you wish for?’
Part two will be up next week!
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