An Inquiry Into Love and Death – Excerpt
By Simone St. James
My uncle Toby died of a broken neck in the autumn of 1924, just as I was starting the Michaelmas term at Oxford. I was pulled from the back of the lecture hall by a pimpled assistant in thick Mary Janes and an ill-fitting skirt who hissed that I had a confidential summons and must go to the Administrative Office at once. She even led me there, though it was just across the quad, so agog was she at the mystery of it.
When I learned what had happened, it was a mystery to me as well, for my uncle had not been spoken of in my family in nearly eight years.
I was shown into an unused office where the solicitor from London gave me the news. He was a compact man in a neat vest, out of place against the scored and mismatched furniture and stacks of books. Still, he bade me sit and spoke to me with quiet courtesy, as if we were not in a damp, borrowed room whose drafty windows barely kept out the mist from the commons outside.
“I’m sorry,” he said, after he had told me. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a clean handkerchief. “Do you need a moment before we proceed?”
I looked at the handkerchief, apparently a spare, and the only thought I could muster was that he had come terribly well-prepared. “You must give news like this often,” I said.
Surprise flickered across his face, and he folded the handkerchief again.
“I’m sorry,” I said, realizing how I sounded. “It’s just that I don’t know what to say. I really don’t. I didn’t know Toby very well. And I don’t – that is, I’ve never dealt with…” I trailed off. How stupid for a philosophy student, who had safely debated the concept of death and the immortality of the soul with her fellows, to admit she had never known anyone to actually die.
“It will take some time,” the solicitor, who was called Mr. Reed, said kindly. “And yes, I do give such news from time to time. Usually in situations in which the deceased does not have much family.”
I nearly opened my mouth to protest: But Toby has family. He had his brother, my father. But perhaps Mr. Reed meant a wife, children. Toby had never had those. And why count family one doesn’t speak to? “Does my father know?” I asked.
“Yes. I cabled him yesterday.” Mr. Reed gave me a calm, lawyerly regard, stern but not without gentleness. It was well-perfected for a man under forty. “I’ve come, Miss Leigh, to tell you there is a great deal to be done. Do you understand?”
I nodded, awash with relief. “Yes, yes, of course I understand. My parents will come home.”
There was an awkward silence as he straightened the papers in front of him, running his finger along the edges. “I’m afraid that’s not quite what I mean. I received the reply by cable this morning. It’s why I came up here from London on the first train directly. Your parents are not coming home. They have sent me to you.”
“To me? What can I do?”
“His personal effects will require taking care of. But as your uncle carried no identification on him, no legal issues can be addressed before someone identifies the body.”
I stared at him for a long moment, aghast. “You must be joking.”
He shook his head. “I wish I were.”
“I can’t do that. Identify a body. Are you mad? I simply can’t.”
Again he ran his finger along the edge of his papers. “Miss Leigh, I realize the idea is unpleasant. I admit these aren’t the exact circumstances I would have chosen. But it seems these are the circumstances we’ve been given. Your uncle’s body is currently housed in a magistrate’s office in Devonshire. The coroner has not yet submitted his ruling, but I expect it will be classified an accident. In any case, we can’t move forward with Toby’s final wishes until the identification is done.”
I tried to picture it – my uncle lying on a table in a shabby room, under a sheet somewhere – and failed. Toby had always been kind to me, bringing me sweets as a child, even though he was shy and unused to children. I pressed my hands to my temples. I felt ill, but I tried to buck myself up. I’d go to Devonshire, get this hideous experience over with, and come straight back to school. That was all.
Then Mr. Reed continued on about wills, and finances, and cremation arrangements – it seemed my uncle did not want a funeral or a burial plot – and I felt a sickening twist in my stomach as everything suddenly got worse. A headache began to form beneath my temples.
I was twenty-two, and a college student; a worse candidate for these tasks could hardly be found. I interrupted him mid-sentence. “Are you certain this is what my parents instructed? I’d think it is something they would want to handle themselves.”
“It’s unorthodox,” he admitted. “But I don’t know your parents, Miss Leigh. I only knew your uncle, and, well,” he smiled, as he had gathered I wouldn’t take offense at the implication – “Some families are less orthodox than others.”
I nearly groaned. Unorthodox only began to describe my parents ¬– or Uncle Toby, for that matter. I possessed only enough courage to tell the girls at school a much-edited version of the truth. “What did you mean about his belongings?”
“Yes, that. Miss Leigh, I gather you are aware of what your uncle did for a living.”
I forced my lips to move. Mention of Toby’s occupation always gave me a chill of fear, mixed with bewilderment I had never untangled. “Yes.”
“He was staying in a small town called Rothewell. In Devonshire, as I say. I believe he was on one of his unusual projects. He had taken rooms, which need to be emptied, and his things sorted and packed.”
One of his unusual projects. Oh God. “Travel to Devonshire? It’s the start of the term. Can’t it wait?”
“According to the landlady, I’m afraid not.”
I stared down into my tweed-skirted lap. Somerville was the most prestigious women’s college in the country. Girls prepared for years to get in. As it was, I worked day and night to keep up with the workload; I was, quite simply, expected to succeed. To leave at the beginning of term was ludicrous. And yet, it seemed my unorthodox family would conspire to have me do just that.
He was on one of his unusual projects.
Perhaps someone could be hired… but no. Even at my most selfish, I wouldn’t hire a stranger to go through my uncle’s things.
“Miss Leigh,” Mr. Reed said, as if reading my mind. “I would not be here if there were another option.”
My glance caught his hands, resting on the desk. He wore a wedding ring. He would take the London train home tonight to his wife, and possibly his children, in a warm, happy home. He had family; so, in a fashion, did I. Toby had no one.
I sighed and raised my head.
Mr. Reed looked into my eyes and smiled. “Let me get the map,” he said.