The organ packs up after the first hymn, which is a relief. It has been pumping out bleats that sound like Andean pan pipes.
‘Terribly sorry,’ mumbles the little organist, his cheeks as red as his robe.
‘We’ll manage without!’ declares the vicar, and leads the congregation into the opening line of Jerusalem, his flat tenor reverberating around the church as heavily as the feet that walked upon England’s mountains green.
As the final, unaccompanied warblings fade to silence, people shuffle their bottoms back onto the pews.
This is the second time in six months that Kathleen has walked down this aisle.
‘We are here for Kathleen and Arthur,’ booms the vicar. ‘This is their day, and we are gathered together to show our love and support for them.’
This is the second time in six months that Kathleen has walked down this aisle. On the first occasion, she had her father on one side and her dog on the other, a pug with a pink ribbon tied around its collar. As the old man retreated to the front pew, job done, he tried to drag the dog with him, but it fought back with surprising strength and squatted on the tiled floor, depositing a pile of poo so overpowering it steamed. The stench had hung in the air for the rest of the service, even though one of the ushers scraped up the mess with tissues and rushed it out of the side door of the church.
Today there is no pug and no pungent steaming, just the earthy aroma of prayer books which have been stacked too close to the mouldy walls of the vestry.
‘Such a cheerful disposition,’ the vicar is saying. ‘The ability to light up any gathering…’
The church is packed today, possibly busier than at that first service. Most of the congregation remember plenty about that day: the nervous best man whose hands were shaking so much that he dropped the ring on the stone floor; the maid of honour who, having relieved the bride of her bouquet, stepped back and began to sneeze into pink and white petals. The couple kneeling in front of the altar laughed at first, then smiled sympathetically. But as the sneezing continued throughout the service, they stopped smiling and raised their eyebrows at each other.
Those here today also remember how young and innocent Kathleen looked in her frothy, white dress and the way she giggled as her veil got caught in Arthur’s buttonhole.
The only one wearing white at today’s service, is the vicar. He is coming to the end of his oration, his voice rising as he reaches his climax, thundering at the congregation and daring anybody to nod off.
‘The family invite everyone to join them afterwards,’ he says, ‘for tea and sandwiches at the Winston Court Hotel.’
Six months ago, when the happy couple stood before this same altar, the church was full of background noise. Cameras clicked, small children chattered, wooden pews creaked under the weight of smartly-dressed bottoms. Today, the silence is deafening.
‘Let us pray!’ The vicar lowers his eyes and the congregation falls to its knees in relief, knowing that the end is in sight. One more act of supplication, one final unaccompanied hymn, then it is time for Kathleen and Arthur to leave.
Six months ago, people stumbled in their haste to get out of pews, following the newly-weds up the aisle towards the doors – away from the smell of dog poo. Outside the church, Arthur stood smiling and nodding, while beside him Kathleen waved at the photographer and giggled so hard that it made her hiccup.
‘Lovely service!’ Men pumped the groom’s hand up and down and women air-kissed the bride’s heavily powdered cheeks.
But as they walked away, they huddled in censorious groups and whispered, casting glances back at the church. If any of them had some backbone, they would have said what they were really thinking to that sweet young girl, as she stood beside the sturdy, bellied, balding man, twenty years her senior. They would have asked whether she knew what she was doing. Did she know what she was taking on by becoming the fourth Mrs Arthur Pellow? She was, after all, following in the footsteps of Teresa, Jacky and Claire: Mrs Pellow numbers one, two and three. All those women had been well known in this small town. Sadly, none were at the church to wish their former husband well in his latest marriage.
The first Mrs Pellow – energetic, bustling Teresa, who ran half marathons – fell down the stairs and broke her neck. A tragic accident, said the coroner. The second – clever, sensible Jackie, a much-loved primary school teacher – went missing. She disappeared one Monday morning, without leaving a note or taking her phone, and was never seen again. Completely out of character, said the local police inspector. The third – chatty, witty Claire who worked on the till at Londis – now spends her days in an armchair, locked away in an institution on the other side of town, bleary-eyed with Temazepam. She hasn’t uttered a word since the day Arthur booked her into the place and filed for divorce. A sad example of why society needs to pay more attention to mental health, noted her GP.
What many members of the congregation wanted to say to the new bride, as she stood before them six months ago, confetti floating in her hair, was: ‘Good luck, Kathleen. As you embark on married life, be alert and on your guard. Take care on the stairs; administer your own medication; have your phone to hand at all times. And never let anyone tell you that you’re crazy – even in jest.’
But none of those fears were ever voiced and, at today’s service, the congregation waits respectfully, heads bowed, as Kathleen comes out of the front pew and walks back up the aisle, following the oak coffin through the open doors towards the waiting hearse.
‘Lovely service,’ people say again today, as they air-kiss her heavily powdered cheeks and rest their hands on her forearm.
Nobody could have foreseen that Arthur would be gone before the year was out. According to Kathleen, it happened suddenly and there was nothing she could do. She had offered to find an electrician to fix the faulty socket by the toaster, but Arthur insisted he could sort it himself. Tragically, she explained, the mains supply hadn’t been turned off properly, and when he stuck in his screwdriver, the shock from the electric current sent him into cardiac arrest. By the time the paramedics arrived, there was nothing to be done.
The young widow has bought herself a smart new dress for the service today, with expensive shoes to match. She has had her hair restyled, and neighbours have seen a stream of online shopping orders being delivered to the house.
Arthur’s clothes have been donated to a homeless hostel in town, and his golf clubs are in the window of the local charity shop. A couple of days ago, a beautiful bouquet of fresh flowers appeared on Teresa’s grave, just feet away from where everyone is standing now.
Everyone agrees that Kathleen is bearing up tremendously well under the strain.
Sarah Edghill worked as a journalist for many years, before turning to fiction. She has been short-listed in several short story and novel competitions and lives in Gloucestershire. Her third novel, The Bad Wife is published by Bloodhound Books and available through Amazon.