The opening of A Terrible Kindness, the debut novel by Jo Browning Wroe, published by Faber on 20 January 2022
Something dreadful happened in Wales yesterday, but it was William’s graduation and so he has been distracted. He left the Thames College of Embalming with outstanding and unprecedented results. Tonight is the annual social highlight for the Midlands Chapter of the Institute of Embalmers; the Ladies’ Night Dinner Dance in Nottingham. To celebrate William’s success, and equip him for his first social highlight, Uncle Robert has bought him a dinner suit and a bow tie. Aged nineteen, William is a little excited, but mostly terrified by the news from his uncle that their president, David Melling, is going to ensure that a fuss is made of him.
Fifty miles from home in Birmingham, William will spend his first night in a hotel; the Lace Market, along with Uncle Robert and his business partner, Howard. Sharing a table with them are the Strouds, an undertaking family from Solihull, and on William’s left, the only other person his age, Gloria Finch, also from an undertaking family, with whom William lodged during his year at college in Stepney. Glorious Gloria, whom William has loved from their first conversation a year ago, drinking cocoa in the Finches’ cosy galley kitchen, while her parents watched telly in the lounge. Tonight, she’s wearing a tight black dress with sequins, through which her whole body seems to be winking at William.
‘Swanky’ is how Robert described the event to William, and he wasn’t exaggerating. The bright, trussed figures of the women, with sparkling necks, wrists and fingers, are vivid against the men’s solid black and white – though Howard’s cufflinks are sparkly too. Howard loves an event; loves a fancy do. He helped to choose William’s dinner jacket and dicky bow, and stood behind him to demonstrate tying the tie, his broad cheek, brushing occasionally against William’s face, making them both giggle.
William takes in the ballroom’s high ceiling, the pink and white embellishments, looping and twisting in and out of the alcoves. Giant diamond teardrops and swooping strings of chandelier glass hang imperious and heavy over the tables. There may be more knives and forks on either side of William’s plate than in their entire cutlery drawer at home – he must work from the outside in. The knife is heavy, the white linen napkin that he unfolds and puts over his knees surprisingly stiff.
It’s been a while since William has seen such dressed-up tables and people. Not since he was a boy chorister in Cambridge and sang at Formal Hall, or one-off special occasions. He quickly pushes the memories away, but not before registering a difference. Even as a ten-year-old, William understood that those seated at high table hadn’t arrived, they’d always been there, and opulence was no treat. Tonight’s excitement is palpable, so too the satisfaction of these embalmers who have earned an evening of opulence, a reward for their dedication to exacting, important work; the work of their grandfathers, their fathers, and for some, their sons.
After the hard graft and study of the last year, William is happy to take his place in a world in which you do a difficult but honourable job to the very best of your ability, most of the time for little reward beyond your own sense of satisfaction. But every now and then, you get to pat each other on the back and go swanky.
The fish soup is salty, but delicious eaten with the dainty roll he’s daubed with curls of ridged butter. William is using the perfectly round spoon, tipping the bowl away from him when he gets to the bottom. He notices that Gloria is watching him, beaming her warmth through her lively green eyes.
‘I’m glad you came,’ he says quietly.
‘I’m glad you asked me.’ She grins, and holds his gaze long enough to let William feel he can gently rest his leg against hers under the table.
The roast pork, crackling and apple sauce move from William’s plate, to his mouth, to his stomach easily, and it makes him happy to see Uncle Robert’s bright-eyed enjoyment of the evening. But during pudding, he notices David Melling at the top table patting his breast pocket and removing a piece of paper, which he unfolds and looks at over his glasses. The jam roly-poly expands in William’s mouth. The weighty cutlery slides in his palms.
Gloria glances at the top table then back at William and slips him a wink. ‘Get ready for the fuss,’ she whispers, leaning so close he feels her breath on his ear and smells her perfume. They joked earlier about quite what that would mean. Gloria thought they might sing ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’, and William, desperate to appear nonchalant and funny, said he hoped they’d stand him on a very high pedestal and bow down.
Howard takes a cigarette from the bowl on the table and lights it, as does Gloria. William, who still considers his lungs the most precious part of his body’s architecture, even though he hasn’t sung for five years, has never considered putting one to his mouth. Yet there’s something appealing about the bluish wreaths of smoke winding through the banquet hall – a communal breathing out and relaxing. As coffee is poured from skinny silver pots, people lean back in their seats. William wants it over and done with. He sees Uncle Robert look to the top table and then at William, giving him a small nod.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you’ve enjoyed tonight’s feast.’ David Melling smiles. ‘And don’t you polish up well!’ He brandishes a piece of paper. ‘I have my dance card here, ladies, though you may have to form a queue, so please be patient.’
Once the laughter dies down, Mr Melling talks, William notes, for eight minutes and ten seconds about the continued high standards of the institute, its charity work, its growing international reputation. William resists wiping the sweat at the back of his neck.
‘But now,’ their president says, putting the card down, clasp ing his hands in front of him, ‘closer to home. In a profession largely family-run, though it’s frowned upon nowadays to put pressure on the next generation, it is, nevertheless, a heartening and happy circumstance to hear of a young man not only taking up the baton, but winning gold.’
Gloria raises her eyebrows at William. ‘Bring on the pedestal,’ she mouths. Uncle Robert grins at him. His throat catches. ‘Our longstanding member, Robert Lavery, of Lavery and Sons, is, I know, a very proud uncle this week.’
The idea of everyone looking at him is suddenly intolerable. William wants to run. He can’t, for Uncle Robert’s sake. Not again. He must force his mouth into a smile, calm his eyes. The thud of his heart is so aggressive he’s sure if he looks down, his shirt will be punching outwards.
‘Young William Lavery graduated from the Thames College of Embalming this week, not only making him the youngest embalmer in the country . . .’
William stares at the floor. Will he have to stand? Should he wave? Bow? Say something? David Melling has stopped talking. William studies the hectic yellow and orange swirls of the carpet, the spiked breadcrumb near Gloria’s stiletto. Why has it gone quiet? He forces his head up. A waiter has handed Mr Melling a piece of paper, which he is now reading.
‘Thank you,’ he says to the man, who is leaving through the tall double doors of the ballroom.
The hush is like a scream. Uncle Robert is frowning. David Melling’s moustache glistens under the chandelier as he stares at the pink piece of paper.
‘Apologies.’ He holds it up briefly. ‘This is a telegram from Jimmy Doyle, Northern Ireland Chapter, and I’m afraid it requires our immediate attention.’ William’s eye is caught by Uncle Robert shuffling in his seat, disgruntled. ‘So, many congratulations, William Lavery, for being the first student to achieve full marks for every piece of work, both practice and theory,’ continues Mr Melling with a surge of good cheer, propping the telegram against a small vase in front of him. ‘Let’s give him a big round of applause.’ William stares at his crystal glass, smiles, nodding his head a couple of times. Sweat dribbles into his left temple. Gloria pats his knee under the table. ‘We expect great things from you, William.’ He pauses then reaches for the telegram. ‘But sadly, we have another important matter to consider. It concerns the tragedy at Aberfan yesterday, of which you will no doubt have heard.’ He reads aloud. ‘“Please share with gathered institute members.”’ William sees thin strips of David Melling’s scalp shining through his brilliantined comb-over. ‘“Embalmers needed urgently at Aberfan. Bring equipment and coffins. Police blocks surround village; password Summers.”’ He lays the telegram down and stares at it for a second. A cold creamy smell wafts up to William; the custard sitting in his bowl. ‘I suggest, gentlemen, those who feel able to answer this call for help, have a strong cup of coffee and be on your way. The rest of us will try and enjoy the remainder of the evening on your behalf.’
William knows his uncle expected more of his moment of glory, but he is relieved at the sudden refocusing of attention and feels a steadily building resolve in his chest.
‘I want to go,’ he says.
Uncle Robert’s face shows he wasn’t anticipating this. ‘I think they’ll want experienced men, William.’ He glances at Howard. ‘Maybe even with a bit of disaster experience.’
‘They didn’t say that,’ William says. Gloria is watching him.
‘Maybe I should go?’ says Uncle Robert.
‘Your back wouldn’t last,’ Howard says immediately. ‘No sleep, a long drive and then God knows what.’ Howard nods his head at William, but holds Uncle Robert’s eye. ‘The boy’s a wonderful embalmer, he’s stronger than you or I. Let him go.’
‘With respect,’ William hears himself say, ‘I don’t need permission. I’m going.’
Everyone at the table is looking at him – Uncle Robert, Howard, the Strouds, Gloria – but William doesn’t care.
‘Good on you, lad.’ Mr Stroud pats his hands on the table. ‘This says more about you than any exam results. You show ’em!’
Half an hour later, wrapped in his winter coat, William is on the pavement with his uncle. He’ll drive himself and two other embalmers back home to Birmingham, where they will get changed and load their cars with all the kit and coffins their hearses can hold.
‘You’re going to see things you’ll never forget.’ Uncle Robert glances sideways at William, concern all over his gentle face. He turns back and looks straight ahead. ‘You know, your mother’s not far from Aberfan.’ He slides a piece of paper into William’s pocket. ‘You could call in on her.’
‘I can’t. You know that.’
His uncle’s mouth turns down as it always does when they mention her. He breathes in and out slowly. ‘And you know I’ve never accepted that, and I never will.’