A Voice from the Grave

A short story by Barbara Godfrey

 


 

Marlene had always wanted a daughter, but fate decreed that she should bear only sons – three of them in all. She loved them dearly and sometimes thought perhaps it was all for the best.

Then she became close friends with a French family, her neighbours in the little stone cottage she bought near St Malo and where she spent several months of each year to relax after her frantic life in a busy town not far from London. Her particular chum was Yvette, though she was also fond of Yvette’s husband Marcel and their two teenage sons, Jean-Luc and Jacques.

For Marlene, Yvette was the daughter she had never had. She often referred to her affectionately as “ma petite Yvette,” and in return her little friend treated the older Englishwoman as an adoptive mother, her own parents living far away in Normandy. Yvette and her family had several times stayed with Marlene in England, and as soon as Marlene arrived at the cottage on her frequent visits to France, Yvette was there to welcome her.

“Tomorrow we’ll go off to the seaside for a swim,” Yvette would say. Or if it was winter, there were so many other things to do – browsing in the picturesque old city of Dinan, driving along the exciting coastline to Cap Frehel, making the most of market days in Dinard, and going to concerts in the cathedral at St Malo. Both women enjoyed above all the works of Handel, Bach and Purcell – it was largely through Yvette’s love of baroque music that Marlene also became a devotee – and they would spend hours relaxing happily as they basked in the warmth of these glorious offerings of bygone days.

In between her visits to France, Marlene had regular phone calls from Yvette. The French family had moved the previous year to a village nearly two hours’ drive away, as Marcel had changed his job and now worked in Rennes. The two friends had agreed it was best to leave it to the younger woman to phone as she could then choose a time when it suited her to fit in with her busy working schedule. She usually rang in the evening or at week-ends after the family had eaten and she could phone in peace. The conversations always rattled along merrily in French as Yvette spoke hardly any English, and Marlene had little difficulty in following her – her French had improved in leaps and bounds since her friend, whom she affectionately called “ma petite institutrice,” had taken her linguistically in hand.
It was one evening in May that it suddenly occurred to Marlene that she hadn’t heard from Yvette for some time – several months, in fact.

“Surely I haven’t offended her in some way?” she asked herself. But she felt confident the answer was “No.”

Her first impulse was to reach for the phone and ring France to find out if all was well. She was aware that Yvette had over the years had some minor medical problems, mainly hormonal in nature , for which she was in the habit of consulting a Chinese acupuncturist – “la petite Chinoise”, she used to say – in Dinard. But these problems were, Marlene was sure, not serious and she felt the likely cause of Yvette’s silence was to do with work – she may well have changed her job – or with Marcel or the boys, all of whom could have been demanding her attention for one reason or another.

“After all, I’m off to France next week, anyway, so I might as well wait until then to ring Yvette,” she mused. “I expect she’s just been extra busy at this time of year.”

A week passed and Marlene arrived at her French home, full of the joys of spring and bursting with anticipation at the prospect of getting together with her little Yvette again after such a long absence. It had been a bitter disappointment when the French family had moved away as Marlene now saw them only once or twice during her time in France instead of every day as she did when they lived next door.

On this occasion it was her first visit to her house since the previous autumn and she was aghast at the state of the garden – the trees and shrubs seemed to have trebled in size, the lovely rockery leading up to the front door was smothered under a blanket of weeds, and the lawn was more like a paddock.

“Never mind,” she told herself. “One or two more days won’t make much difference. I’ll save the slavery until after I’ve seen Yvette.”
So she waited until mid-evening to call her friends. That would be the best time – Yvette was always at home in the evening, and the family would have had their meal by now. The phone was answered by the eldest son, Jean-Luc. He had been to stay with Marlene the previous summer and she had a very brief chat with him before asking for Maman. He hesitated – did he sound a little odd? – and said his mother wasn’t there and he’d pass Marlene on to Papa.

Marcel came to the phone and in his usual high-speed French – which on this occasion was tinged with unusual sadness – announced: “On a perdu Yvette – elle est décédée.”

Marlene’s heart skipped a beat, then started pounding. She felt dizzy. Was she dreaming? Had she misheard Marcel? Had they really lost Yvette? Could she really have died?

Steady on, old girl, she warned herself, conscious of her recent mini heart attack. It won’t help anyone if I drop dead, too.

These thoughts ran wildly through her head in a flash, partnered by the memory of her recent unease at Yvette’s silence, her friend’s bouts of illness, Jean-Luc’s uneasy voice when she asked for his mother.

After a stunned silence she managed to gasp: “Oh, non!”, adding weakly: “When did it happen?”

She was conscious of Marcel’s voice, far far away as if at the other end of the world.

“The day before yesterday,” he said. “The funeral is next week.”

Only two days ago! It seemed like some sick irony that this dreadful thing should have happened just before she came to France.

Marcel was conscious of her distress and tried to console her as best he could. “Don’t get too upset – I’ll call you at the week-end,” he promised. “It is just a small family funeral, by the way.”

Dearly as she had loved Yvette, Marlene realised there was no way she could have gone to the funeral so she was relieved it was not expected of her. For one thing, she never felt up to driving long distances on her own, and in any case she was expecting a friend from England to join her in France the very day of the funeral.

There was only one thing she could do now to express her sorrow. She sat down and wrote The Letter.

To get the wording just right, she got out her biggest French dictionary and thought long and hard about what she should say. She told Marcel how she had loved Yvette as she would a daughter; how her visits to France would never be the same without her “petite Yvette”; how she would always think of her when listening to Handel’s immortal music.

But how to close the letter? Nothing seemed quite right. And then the words suddenly flashed across her mind like a line from one of the great French tragedies. “Je pense à vous tous avec une grande tristesse,” she wrote.
That was perfect! “I am thinking of you all with a great sorrow.” Maybe not a conventional ending; maybe it didn’t sound quite as good in English. But to Marlene it exactly fitted these terrible circumstances. She signed the letter and posted it in the box round the corner.

When her friend Janice arrived to spend a week Marlene told her all about Yvette, what they used to do together, where their favourite haunts were. Luckily Janice was a good-natured, kindly soul who did not mind in the least when they were wandering through the walled city of St Malo and Marlene said: “This is the tea-shop where Yvette loved to come. We often sat here and had tea and cakes.” Or there was the outdoor swimming pool on the beach, below the ramparts, where Marlene and Yvette often swam when the tide was too far out to provide ideal bathing conditions.

Despite all these sorrowful reminiscences the week passed happily enough, and the last evening was on them all too soon. Marlene and Janice sat in the cosy sitting-room listening to Handel’s “The Messiah,” which Yvette had lent several years beforehand for Marlene to copy on tape.

“She’ll be listening – up there,” commented Janice, pointing heavenwards, at the ceiling.

“I do hope so,” replied Marlene.

It suddenly occurred to her that Marcel had not rung her yet as he had promised, and this would be the last chance to speak to him and find out more about Yvette’s death before she returned to England.

“I’ll ring Marcel,” she said. “Could you please stop the tape just for a few moments.”

Bracing herself for the coming conversation, and hoping it would be Marcel and not one of the boys who answered the phone, she dialled the number.

A female voice answered. It was loud and clear. It was Yvette.

Marlene went deathly pale. Her heart gave a lurch. Then came a stabbing pain, the worst pain she had ever felt. She sank to the floor and the last thing she remembered before passing out was Janice leaning over her, fear in her eyes and panic on her face.

Loud clicking noises and voices could be heard on the phone, which was now dangling just above the floor. Janice picked it up and managed to tell Marcel in halting French what had happened.

“I think she’s dead! My God, I think she’s dead,” she moaned.

Marcel told her in slow and careful French that he would telephone for an ambulance to get to the house as fast as possible.

“And I’ll call back later this evening to find how things are,” he added.
Janice was shaking as she bent over her friend and felt for a pulse. There was nothing. Five minutes passed – they seemed like five hours – and there was a loud banging on the front door. Two ambulancemen came into the room. They were kind and gentle. It took them a mere two minutes to confirm that Marlene was indeed dead. One of them spoke English and explained he was going to call a local doctor.

The next few hours were like a nightmare, and it was late evening before Janice finally learnt about the shock that had struck down her friend like a shaft of lightning. Neighbours Philippe and Jeanne had been called in by the doctor to help in the crisis. Philippe spoke good English and without his practical help and moral support Janice knew she could not have coped.
Now he volunteered to ring Marcel and try to solve the mystery of Marlene’s sudden death.

Janice, of course, had no idea that it was Yvette who had answered Marlene’s last phone call and literally frightened her to death.

After his talk with Marcel, Philippe explained to Janice what had happened.
“Marlene misunderstood Marcel when she thought he said they had ‘lost’ Yvette. He did not say ‘on a perdu Yvette’ – it was ‘le père d’Yvette’, her father, who had died. Marcel speaks very fast so I can understand how Marlene got it wrong.

“When Marcel got Marlene’s letter of condolence he at first refused to show it to his wife in case it upset her. Then they agreed that Yvette should not answer the phone until Marcel had spoken to her friend in case it gave Marlene too bad a fright.”

By a tragic coincidence on that fateful evening, Yvettte was expecting a call from her mother at the exact time Marlene chose to ring, and it was she who answered the phone.

Hers was, indeed, a voice from the grave.

 

THE END

 


© 2001 Copyright by Barbara Godfrey

The story “A Voice from the Grave” is an original work protected under copyright law, and may not be reproduced or adapted without the written permission of the author.



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