The following is a draft from The Longest Night, my debut novel! Let me know what you think in the comments or on my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/MagicOfAStory
A funeral was the last place he thought he’d get a shock. Yet here he was in the corner of the sitting room, holding a small slightly dried out sandwich in one hand, and a mug of very weak and lukewarm tea in the other, filled with confusion and anxiety. Austin Hunter was in a room that was jam-packed with neighbours, distant relatives, old colleagues, grandchildren and plenty of current and former students. Somehow though, it felt like there still weren’t enough people present for the wake of George Spears.
Why did Delia tell me she needed to talk to me so urgently? He thought.
For what was easily the forty-seventh time, Hunter saw Sophie weave through the room, offering fresh mugs of tea or a biscuit or a sandwich to the crowd. She had her blonde hair pulled back into a respectable ponytail to keep it out of her eyes as she darted around the room. Eventually, she made her way over to him after catching his eye.
“Jesus it’s crowded isn’t it?” she said, her lilting tones betraying her Kerry origins. He stood, towering over her, and took the tray and pot from her hands. She thanked him as he set them down on the chair he had been sitting on.
“Not a problem.”
“How are you holding up?”
Hunter sighed, rubbing a hand through his light brown hair. “It’s been a long day. The funeral was nice, but it’s this part I hate.”
“I know what you mean.” Sophie strategically turned her back to an old man she knew was looking for more tea. “Hunter I swear to god that man is driving me demented. I don’t think he even knew George. He’s just here for free tea and sandwiches.”
“Aren’t we all?” asked Hunter, smirking down at her as he took a bite from his sandwich. She playfully punched him in the chest. “Have you seen Delia? She said she urgently needed to talk to me on the phone but I didn’t see her yet.”
“Urgently? God, she didn’t say anything to me. She’s in the kitchen though. There’s a big enough crowd in there too, all trying to get to her or the kids.”
“I’ll chance my arm. See you later?”
“Later Hunter,” she sighed and picked up the pot and tray, “I’ll just keep busy. Call me when you get home yeah?”
Hunter smiled and nodded his head.
He started to walk through the crowd and make his way to the sitting room door. The air was clammy and warm, but when he turned out into the narrow hallway, a cold blast came in the open front door. The hall itself was packed with people. As he walked, he could hear the whispered conversations of his fellow mourners.
“…awful shock. He was usually so careful at work and…”
“… can’t believe it, I was talking to him about the site last week…”
“… a great match wasn’t it?”
“… Delia. She’s just going to be alone now. Sure the kids are all grown…”
“… I best go now and say good luck now and…”
Silently Hunter seethed at the empty conversations that surrounded him. No-one spoke of George’s strong, hearty laugh that seemed to rumble the foundations of any building nearby. Not a soul whispered of his passion for history, or how he cared for every book he came across like it was a newborn child. Instead, they gossiped about the nature of his death or didn’t speak about him at all. I guess that comes with the territory when you die in such a strange way…
At last, he got to the kitchen and saw Delia, George’s wife. Her three adult children, David, Áine and Michelle were scattered across the small kitchen, each deep in conversation with a mourner. Delia was just after shaking someone’s hand, who moved on. Now was his chance to finally talk to her.
Delia was one of the few people in the world that called him by his first name. He wasn’t sure how it happened, but save for his immediate family and Delia, no-one called him Austin. He didn’t enforce this rule, it was just one that evolved.
He turned to see that Delia had her two thin arms extended towards him, and Hunter did not hesitate to hug her as tightly as he thought her slight frame could manage. He held her for as long as she needed, and once he felt her pull away, gave her another slight squeeze to somehow make her feel better. She clasped her hands together and smiled at him, but the smile did not reach her brown eyes.”Delia, I’ve been trying to get to you most of the evening, but there’s just so many people. I’m here for you if you need anything.”
“Oh Austin, thank you so much for not apologising! I’m sick of hearing the word sorry. Everyone is sorry, and that’s fine, but I really want someone to say something other than ‘sorry’, ‘poor George’ or ‘can’t imagine what you’re going through.'”
Just at that moment a tiny old man pushed past Hunter, grabbed Delia’s hands and said, “I’m so sorry for the passing of poor George, I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”
Delia tried her best to suppress a smirk and she shook the man’s frail hand and thanked him. Hunter had to bite his lip to stop himself from laughing.
The man left eventually and Delia turned her attention back to Hunter. For a shade of a second, Delia suddenly looked much older than her 62 years, and the eternal twinkle in her eye vanished. For just the smallest of moments, Hunter saw through the mask she held up to the world.
“Austin, I’m sorry I know I said I needed to speak with you urgently, but I just can’t with this crowd. I didn’t expect it. I hope you can stay for another while? Just until my home isn’t invaded by the apologists.”
“Anything Delia, of course!”
“Go on, I’ll talk to you later, dear.”
She calmly hushed him on as someone else zoned in on her to offer their condolences. The crowd was starting to get to him. He needed to find some moment of respite from the constant hum of conversation.
Hunter squeezed past some women in black cardigans and side-stepped some young undergrads until he finally got to the stairs. Few would dare venture to this part of the house. There seemed to be an unwritten law that only family could go upstairs in the house of a wake. Hunter certainly wasn’t family, but he felt that Delia wouldn’t protest his need to escape the murmuring crowds. As he climbed, he noted the narrow stairs and felt slightly guilty as he wondered how George climbs them, given his large size.
Climbed, he sadly corrected.
The old stairs creaked as he ascended and when at the top of the stairs he turned left. As he twisted the familiar porcelain doorknob he suddenly realised that it was probably the original doorknob. He wondered where this observation came from, considering the innumerable times that he opened this very door. He slipped inside, and the familiar smells of books and a carpet soaked in pipe smoke welcomed him in. Years of memories stirred in him as the door softly slicked shut, and the hushed murmurs of the mourners were finally shut out.
The study was exactly as it always had been. The shelves were lined with books, journals and trinkets from George’s travels across the globe. Hanging from the wall were countless photographs of George at digs with old colleagues, family trips, fantastic scenery and even some drawings. The desk in the middle of the room was clearly one that George must have salvaged from a skip in the college. It had a leather top and dark wood, identical to the one in his office in the Archaeology Department, but in a further state of disrepair. Its surface was covered in stacks of journals and notes, but there was still room on it for a black and white photograph of Delia and George at their wedding. Two chairs were in front of the desk, a simple brown armchair, with wooden armrests and legs, and a leather one opposite it. A small coffee table housing only a laptop stood beside the leather chair.
Hunter steered himself to the brown chair and thought that the room seemed empty without George sitting in the leather chair. Hunter’s eyes toured the familiar room as he felt a lump rise in his throat. He blinked it back and lifted an open journal from the desk. George kept all his thoughts in small paperback journals, a journal for each train of thought. This one had only one page filled in, while the next was full. Another had nothing but writing, while a third was filled with photos and articles from journals. Hunter casually skimmed them and put them aside.
He picked up a book this time, the title didn’t matter and began to read. Not a single word broke through the numb haze that permeated his thoughts. He sat, eyes flicking from word to word, page to page, chapter to chapter. Slowly the night crept in through a narrow window behind him. He must have fallen asleep, as he didn’t realise that Delia was in the room until the familiar soft click cut the room’s comfortable silence.
“Not the first time I woke you in this room. Please don’t let it be the last.”
George’s widow held a mug of tea and drifted to her husband’s chair. Hunter hid a bittersweet smile as Delia sat on the arm of the large leather chair, just as she would if her husband was sitting in it. He wondered how lonely this house would get for her. The children all lived in different countries, and now Delia lived alone. He’d check in with her more often, it’s what George would ask him to do.
Hunter suddenly realised how long he’d been asleep for when he noticed the silence coming from downstairs. He looked at his watch to see that it was almost ten o’clock.
“Delia, I’m so sorry, I didn’t realise it was this late! I should go!”
She simply raised her fingers from her mug to tell him to stay, and he didn’t move. She drank slowly and deeply and lowered her mug. Hunter’s eyebrows furrowed as he saw how tightly she gripped the chipped mug
“Austin,” she began, “I’m sharing something with you that can not—- must not—- be repeated. Especially to the Gardaí, I don’t trust them.”
Hunter sat up straight, the last dregs of sleep leaving him instantly. “Of course.”
She took a slow deep breath.
“I don’t know rightly know who… But I’m certain I know how.” She raised her eyes to meet his. Typically kind, cheerful and caring, they were now cold and filled with a sense of injustice.
“George was murdered.”