Today's Reading

'And the neighbours?'

'Old. They need new blood. We met the bloke next door a couple of days ago. He was ancient enough to be Clem's grandad, but he couldn't take his eyes off her. It's perfect, Mum. You know it is. That's all you have to say. That's all Dad needs to know.' He shoots me a look. 'Yeah?'

We're on the slipway off the M23, heading for the airport. When he drops me off, Malo gets out and helps me retrieve my suitcase from the Audi's boot. At the kerbside, he looks me up and down. I'm forty-two years old. I'm clad entirely in white, a simple, body-hugging dress in soft mohair that Pavel adored. I toyed with wearing black in view of the occasion but that, I know, would offend him deeply.

'Audition, Mum? Is that it?' Malo grins, giving me a hug. 'You look great. You'll knock 'em dead.'

Knock 'em dead? I give him a wave as he accelerates away, and then step into the terminal building. I have more than an hour in hand, but I always like to get through security before settling down. The queues snake back and forth through a maze of ropes and we shuffle slowly forward until it's my turn to hoist my suitcase on to the belt for the X-ray machine. As I step through the security gate and raise my hands for a pat-down, I'm aware of the woman in charge of the machine looking hard at the image on her screen. She stops the belt and looks up to summon a uniformed guy who I'm guessing is her supervisor. Then her perfectly lacquered fingernail descends lightly on the screen. Look, she's saying. Just there.

Shit, I'm thinking. Pavel.

I'm right. As my suitcase emerges from the machine, it's lifted from the belt and put to one side. I identify it as mine and confirm that no one else has had a hand in the packing.

'Open it, please.' This from the supervisor.

At his invitation, I lay everything out for inspection. My washbag. A towel. A light jacket for the evening. A silk scarf in blues and deep reds I especially treasure. A battered copy of a John Updike novel I acquired in a charity shop. Spare undies, plus a pair of comfortable Nikes for a brief walking tour I plan for tomorrow morning. The supervisor is interested in none of this. Instead, his eyes have settled on the container I picked up from the undertaker. I think the superviser's Pakistani, but he could be Indian. Early middle-aged. Nice hands. Single gold ring. London accent.

'What's in there, madam?'

'Ashes.'

'What?' His eyes flick up to my face.

'Ashes. What's left of a good friend of mine.' I start to explain about Pavel, and his passion for Prague, and the mission that will take me to the Charles Bridge, but he cuts me short.

'Can you prove that?' he asks.

'Prove what?'

'That these are his ashes? They could be anything. They could be combustible.'

'They were combustible. That's the whole point. We cremated the poor man.' I nod at the container. 'And that's what's left.'

'But can you 'prove' it? Do you have a death certificate? Something from the crematorium?'

'No.' I shake my head. I have no paperwork. I should have thought this thing through, I tell myself. I should have come prepared.

'Open it, please.'

I unscrew the lid of the container and he bends to peer inside, careful to avoid touching this object. His body language gives him away. He's disgusted, and it shows.

He lowers his nose, takes a precautionary sniff, recoils at once. 'No,' he says.

'No, what?'

'No, you can't take it on the flight. We need to get it analysed.' He gestures at the line of waiting passengers. 'We have a responsibility here. It could be anything.' One of the passengers, a young woman, nods and whispers something to her partner before gathering up her infant son.

'Like what?'

'Like some form of explosive. These things happen. You wouldn't believe what people get up to.'

'You think I want to blow the plane up? With me in it?'

'I've no idea, madam. But it's a risk we can't take. Like I just said, it could be anything.'

'But it's not anything,' I insist. 'It's Pavel.'

'You say.'

'I say.'
...

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