Back to the Farm Ch. 05byevanslily©
Okay, Chapter 5 at last. Sorry for the long wait - and thank you so much for having patience with me. I know I'm going to get things thrown at me now, but I'm afraid I've got another exam coming up on May 13 so there'll be a slight delay before Chapter 6 appears I'm afraid. I promise faithfully that the moment the exam's done, I'll get back to the story!
'Always look on the bright side of life' - written by Eric Idle, originally featured in the film 'Monty Python's Life of Brian' (1979)
'My Way' - as popularized by Frank Sinatra, lyrics written by Paul Anka. The melody is a French song "Comme d'habitude" composed by Claude François and Jacques Revaux.
Before Melissa could ask him what he meant, she heard the approaching roar of an engine and turned to see a dark blue Land Rover Discovery hurtling up the driveway towards them, moving effortlessly across the potholes.
"Never mind, we'll talk about it later," Matt said hastily, as he too turned to watch. "Looks like the vicar's here. You know--" his eyes narrowed "--you're right. That's exactly the sort of car an architect should drive."
She stared in disbelief. "But it can't be the vicar."
"No?" Matt shot her a grin and began to stride forwards. "Wrong sort of car, right? What sort of car should a vicar drive then? Ford Fiesta? Skoda? Morris Minor?"
But by the time she'd managed to think of a suitably scathing reply the car had reached them, the window lowering as it drew to a halt. A white-haired man leaned out. "Matt!" he called, much to her astonishment. "So it is your car at the bottom of the drive then?"
Melissa stared. There was no doubt this was the vicar--the dog collar was stark against the man's grey shirt. She watched, speechless, as he climbed down from his car and shook Matt's hand.
"Good to see you again, Michael," she heard Matt say warmly. "Yes, it is my car and you're not allowed to laugh. It broke down."
The vicar turned twinkling brown eyes on Melissa. "Well I tried to tell him not to buy it. I said that an architect should drive a car like mine, but would he listen?" He held out his hand. "Hello, my dear. I'm Michael Wright. We spoke on the phone?"
Completely wrong footed, she took his hand, throwing Matt a bewildered glance. "You two--you've already met?"
"Oh yes." The vicar smiled. "We met at Christmas."
Christmas. Melissa felt an unwelcome surge of guilt, anger hard on its heels. If she'd visited at Christmas, she too would've known about Charlie's illness. His death wouldn't have been out of the blue. She would have had time to prepare herself, ready herself for the worst. She could have made the most of the conversations she'd shared with Charlie, made every word count. "I see," she said slowly. "Well, it's good to meet you at last, Reverend Wright."
He held up a hand. "Please--just call me Michael. Is it all right if I call you Lissy? Your uncle told me so much about you."
"Actually," Matt began, looking amused. "She doesn't like being called--"
"Lissy's fine," Melissa interrupted hastily. "Would you like to come in? I can make some tea--though there isn't any milk, I'm afraid. Actually, there isn't any electricity either, but we can boil a saucepan on the stove."
"No electricity?" Michael appeared puzzled. "Well now, that's strange. Charlie asked me to keep an eye on things here. I've been dealing with the post and I don't remember seeing any red bills." Then his face cleared. "Of course, you did realise it's switched off at the mains?"
Heart sinking, Melissa gazed at Matt. "Please tell me you checked?"
He looked rather sheepish. "Well, you were the one who kept saying everything would've been disconnected."
"Hey--why is it my fault?"
"Because it was your stupid car that broke down. Because you were the one who tried all the light switches. You were the one who said the phone was dead!"
"Yes, because it needs the power to be on for it to work!" She swung around to the vicar. "We had to stay here last night."
"Excuse me," Matt said with dignity. "That was your idea. I was quite willing to walk down to the village to get help--"
"It sounds like you had quite an adventure," Michael interjected, smiling. "But may I make a suggestion? As I knew there wouldn't be any milk here, I took the liberty of bringing some along. Why don't we go inside, turn the electricity back on and make ourselves a nice pot of tea?"
Sitting at the kitchen table twenty minutes later, Melissa was beginning to feel rather foolish. Why hadn't it occurred to her that the electricity had merely been switched off? She'd spent a most uncomfortable night with Matt, and for what? There'd been no reason for it to have happened. They could have called for help any time. As it was, she'd spent the night in Matt's arms, for heaven's sake. That should never have happened...
"So what do you think, Lissy?" As Michael's voice penetrated her thoughts at last, she realising she hadn't been listening at all.
"Sorry?" she said, embarrassed.
Matt shot her a grin. "Michael was just asking whether you were happy with the order of service for the funeral," he said helpfully.
Melissa could feel herself blushing. "Of course I'm happy," she said. "That's what Uncle Charlie wanted wasn't it?"
"Yes, it was," the vicar agreed. "But if you aren't happy with that--"
"It's fine," she said hastily, not wanting to admit she hadn't been paying attention.
Michael's brown eyes softened but he said nothing. Instead, he drained the last of his mug of tea and pushed back his chair. "Well, that's just about everything then," he said. "But if you think of anything else, please, just give me a call."
"We'll do that," Matt said, still watching Melissa with obvious amusement.
Michael smiled, walking across to the window and peering out into the garden. "I see planning permission was approved then, Matt?"
To Melissa's surprise, Matt's smile faded. "Yes, it was," he said rather curtly.
"I didn't think you'd meet with any objections. Goodness knows, the village could do with some new blood."
She stared from one to the other. "Planning permission?"
Before Matt could reply, the vicar gave her a beaming smile. "Yes, isn't it wonderful? For six houses isn't it? Or is it eight?"
"Eight," Matt said, not meeting her gaze.
"Eight?" Melissa frowned. Matt's demeanour seemed puzzling. "Where are you going to build?"
"Here, of course," Michael said with a laugh. And then seeing her face, he frowned. "Oh my. You did know that Charlie asked Matt to draw up plans for the land here at the farm?"
She shook her head, staring at Matt. "No," she said slowly. "He didn't mention that."
"Look--" Matt gave a guilty sigh. "I was going to tell you. In fact, I was just about to tell you when Michael arrived." He grimaced. "The thing is, Charlie asked if I'd draw up the plans for a new development here. He wanted to maximise the worth of his estate."
"The worth of his estate?" she echoed. "Please tell me you're kidding?"
He shook his head. "It's what he wanted to do, Lissy. He wanted us to use the land to its best potential."
"Right." Melissa wasn't sure what to think. She'd known that the farm would have to be sold, but naïvely, she'd thought she'd always be able to pop back from time to time and re-visit her childhood memories. Not even for a moment had she envisaged that the place would be altered beyond all recognition.
"Jason found out that the District Council were going to release the land across the road at Roper's Field for housing development and--"
"Jason?" She stared at him, shaking her head. "I might've known he'd have something to do with this."
He hesitated. "They've just granted planning permission for a hundred homes there, otherwise I doubt we'd have got permission to build here. It seemed like the perfect opportunity."
"Oh, I'll bet it did!"
Matt gave her a wary look. "I knew you wouldn't take this too well."
Wouldn't take this too well? Suddenly, Melissa's angered re-ignited. "You know what?" she said, barely managing to keep the fury from her tone. "You're damned right." And rising to her feet, she found herself walking straight out of the kitchen.
Ignoring Matt, she picked up the pace, opening the front door and carrying straight on down the drive. They'd spent the last sixteen hours together and he hadn't found a way of telling her? Just what kind of coward was he?
To her dismay, she discovered she was crying. This wasn't fair. She hadn't known Charlie was dying, she hadn't known she was the last to know he was dying, and now, she'd been the last to find out that the farm and everything in it was going to be redeveloped?
"Lissy, come on." Glancing back over her shoulder she saw Matt was jogging down the drive behind her. "Please? I was going to tell you. It's another thing that Charlie should've told you--"
"That's right, blame a dead man" she said, turning on her heel to face him. "That's bloody convenient, isn't it Matt? You should've told me, all right? You should've told me all of this. What kind of flaky woman do you think I am? Yes my mother died, yes, the last few years haven't exactly been a picnic--but I'm really not that weak, okay? You bastard."
And suddenly running out of steam, Melissa found herself dropping to the ground, giving a yelp as her scraped knees made contact with the driveway.
"Liss." Matt crouched beside her. "You have to believe me when I tell you that I told Charlie you wouldn't like this. This wasn't my idea, okay? This is what he wanted."
"Whatever," she said, shaking her head. "I just want to go home. I don't want to be here anymore, okay? I just want to go home."
He nodded, releasing a heavy sigh. "I'll go and call the garage," he said. "See if someone can come and fix the car."
"It's all right," she said, swiping at her face with one hand. "I'll walk back to the village and get the bus. It's not like it's raining now.
"There's no need to do that," came Michael's voice.
Oh, just great, she thought miserably. Now even the vicar had seen her being feeble...
"I can take you home," he said gently. "I've got to go to Mickleton now anyway. Want to come along for the ride?"
"You okay?" Gemma's glance was sympathetic.
Melissa nodded. "Sort of. As all right as I'll ever be." She heaved a sigh. "God, I hate funerals." "Well, it'd be kind of weird if you loved them," her friend said dryly. "Wow," she added, looking rather startled as she steered the car into the crowded church car park. "Looks like there's been a good turn out."
One of Charlie's stipulations for his funeral was that there was to be no formal procession from the farm. It seemed he hadn't wanted the pomp and ceremony of the traditional hearse followed by black cars. Instead, he'd requested that his coffin be taken directly from the Chapel of Rest to the church and that all those who wanted to pay their last respects would congregate there.
Melissa couldn't help but feel grateful. She certainly hadn't wanted to follow a hearse as one of the chief mourners. That would've meant sharing a car with Matt and she wasn't sure she was ready to talk to him yet.
She'd accepted Michael's offer of a lift home with gratitude. Leaving Matt beside his car on the driveway waiting for a mechanic, she'd barely been able to bring herself to say farewell to him, despite the enforced intimacy of the night before. Bad enough that he'd withheld the information that was Charlie was dying, but now it seemed that rather a lot of decisions had been made without her involvement. She wasn't too sure how to feel about that.
Fortunately, there hadn't been any need to contact Matt again before the funeral. Other than make a phone call to Jean at the pub to check the arrangements for the funeral tea, there'd been no further preparations to make.
Having turned the car around, Gemma pulled on the handbrake then looked at her friend. "Are you sure you'll be okay? I don't like leaving you here like this."
Melissa forced herself to smile. "Hey, someone's got to hold the fort. It was good of Jonathan to let you drive me here. He hates manning the office on his own."
"I still don't see why we couldn't just have closed for the afternoon." Gemma frowned. "All your appointments were cancelled, it's not like we usually get a last minute stampede on Friday afternoons. I could've come with you then."
"I'll be fine," Melissa muttered, looking at the digital clock on the dashboard. They'd arrived with two minutes to spare, a deliberate ploy. The idea of standing around chatting to virtual strangers about how sad it was that Charlie had died held little appeal. She was dreading having to do so after the service.
"And you're sure someone will give you a lift home again? Because if no one offers--"
"Then I'll give you a call, I promise." Melissa pulled a face. "Hopefully you won't have to. I don't want you to have to come back again. It was good of you to bring me."
Gemma gave her a stern look. "Are you kidding? I had to bring you, otherwise you'd have caught the bus. I know you. You'd have ended up doing something daft like standing around for three hours. That's the last thing you needed on a day like today."
"I know. But thank you, anyway." She bit her lip then drew in a deep, steadying breath as she looked at the church porch. "I s'pose I'd better go inside."
"Call me if you need to, okay?" Gemma reiterated as Melissa opened the door. "It really wouldn't be any trouble. I'd rather know you were safe. In fact, call me anyway, okay? When you get home? Let me know how it went."
She nodded then closed the door, shooting her friend one last brave smile. But on entering the church, her breath caught in her throat. She hadn't anticipated just how many people would be there. The church was packed, every pew full, around a dozen people forced to stand at the back. And as she saw the coffin at the top of the aisle, she found she couldn't breathe at all, a little voice inside her head insisting on being heard...
Charlie's body is in there.
But as she headed towards the front, trying her hardest not to look at that dark wooden box, she realised that many of the congregation weren't strangers at all. It seemed that just about everyone in the village had arrived to give Charlie a good send-off. Furthermore, they'd abided by Charlie's wishes. This was no dark suit and black tie occasion. In fact, many of the men weren't wearing suits at all, the women wearing an assortment of brightly coloured blouses and dresses.
Cheered by the sight, Melissa felt her spirits lift slightly. And as she walked down the aisle and suddenly recognised the rather jaunty tune the organist was playing, she had an unexpected desire to giggle, only for the smile to die on her lips as she reached the front at last and saw who was sitting there.
"There you are!"
Rendered speechless, for a moment she could only stare at the woman clad entirely in black, from the perky little hat perched atop her glossy blonde hair to her high-heeled black court shoes. "Aunt Ruth," she said, recovering at last. "How--lovely to see you."
"Cutting it a bit fine, weren't you?"
Melissa found herself checking her watch. "Er--" It suddenly occurred to her that after herself and Matt, his mother was probably Charlie's next closest relative, albeit by marriage. Doubtless she felt she had every right to be sitting there in the front row. "Well--"
"We were beginning to think you weren't coming."
We? Already irritated by Ruth's affected tones, Melissa was tempted to perform an obvious double-take. There was no one else sitting in the pew. So where was...?
"Move on up, Mother," came a voice from right behind her.
Startled, she turned to find herself face to face with Matt. And just as she met his gaze, the organist reached the chorus of the song he was playing and several of the congregation began to sing along.
Always look on the bright side of life...
All at once, Melissa really did want to laugh, a desire that only grew as, not content to merely sing, those same singers then whistled the next four bars in keeping with the traditional Monty Python 'Life of Brian' ditty. Judging by the look in Matt's eyes, he too was finding it difficult to keep a straight face.
Aunt Ruth tutted. "Really!" she exclaimed, not bothering to keep her voice down. "Whatever possessed that man--" she waved towards the dapper grey-haired man sitting at the one hundred year old organ "--to play something so--inappropriate?"
"It's exactly what Charlie asked for," Matt said, rolling his eyes briefly at Melissa before edging past her so that he could take his place in the pew. "I told you, he planned all of this long before he died."
Grateful that Matt had planted himself as a buffer between her and his mother, Melissa gave him a tiny smile. But before she could decide whether to attempt small talk, Michael appeared in the pulpit.
"Welcome, all of you," he said, smiling at the assembled congregation. "I'm sure Charlie would've been deeply touched to see so many of you here today. As some of you will know, he left specific instructions that this was not to be a sombre affair. He reminded me, in fact, that the word 'funeral' actually begins with 'fun'. This service, then, is intended to be a celebration of his life. So let's begin that celebration right now by singing our first--" the vicar hesitated, giving another broad smile "--song."
"For heaven's sake..." Matt heard his mother mutter disapprovingly as the organist began playing the introduction to 'My Way' and everyone arose. "Whatever was the man thinking?"
Cringing inwardly, he turned away, even more embarrassed by her behaviour than usual. He clearly remembered telling her on the phone that Charlie had asked that no one wear black yet it seemed she'd decided his simple request shouldn't apply to her. And when she'd automatically taken up residence in the front pew, behaving for all the world as though she were the grieving widow, Matt had found himself having to excuse himself, seeking refuge in the belfry. Sometimes, she was just too much.
As the congregation began to sing, he found himself glancing at Melissa, noticing that the blue dress she was wearing was exactly the same shade as her eyes. She looked beautiful. Not that she'd believe him even if he told her, he mused, wishing that things hadn't been left the way they had been on Wednesday. He hated that he'd lost her trust yet again, that he hadn't had a chance to explain. But there hadn't been a right time to tell her about the plans for the farm and he'd known she'd react badly to the news. Hell, he wasn't sure that developing the land was something he wanted to do. But Charlie had been adamant.
"Matt my boy," he'd said, when Matt had started to object, "no one's going to want to keep this place as a small holding, not in this day and age. When the time comes, the first thing anyone who wants to buy this place is going to consider is whether they can build on the land. Why should that person be the one to benefit when you're an architect and your best friend is a builder? At least get outline planning permission. That way, when you come to sell, you'll get more money. Lissy will get more money."
That had been the moment Matt realised that putting up any further argument would be pointless. Charlie had been worried about Melissa for a long while. He'd hated watching his niece struggle to get by. Matt had understood, he didn't want to think of her struggling either. But he'd also known that ultimately, he'd be the one who'd have to break the news to her--and that if he told her the truth about Charlie's motivation for gaining planning permission, she'd hit the roof.