Issue Forty-Three - Winter 2024

The Performance of Grief

by Claudia Cruttwell

Columbo interrogated me long into the night at the patio table where we’d taken our family holiday meals. He wasn’t really anything like the shabby raincoat-sporting seventies’ US detective, this Italian coroner in a smart police uniform with giant epaulets on his shoulders. He didn’t try to lull me into a false sense of security by playing stupid. Didn’t pretend to be my friend either. He made it perfectly clear I was the principle suspect. The only reason I called him Columbo was because he brought to mind the detective’s catchphrase: ‘there’s something bugging me.’

After I gave my answer to each of his questions, he stared at me long and hard. I stared back. If I didn’t, if I broke eye contact, I was afraid I’d look guilty. He watched me with particular intensity when a policeman came out of the room where Frank had died with a long stretch of rope carried in front of him at arm’s length, coiled like a snake. In the latter stages of a degenerative disease, Frank had locked himself inside and bolted the shutters. It had taken two men to prize them open with a crowbar. He’d made sure there could be no doubt about the cause of death or the person responsible. Sadly for Columbo, things were, in fact, just as they seemed. There were no flaws in my testimony. There was no sleight of hand at my disposal, no cunning manipulation of watches and time sequences, no fabrication of alibis.

Eventually, he had to let me go. He ordered me and my family – my mum and my three children – to stay at the villa until after the weekend and, just to make sure, took away our passports. The night hours melted away. The next day, Saturday, was as hot and sunny as the day before. The sunflowers in the surrounding fields turned their heads to face us. The pool glinted its daily invitation. No one wanted to use it. What to do during this time before we were allowed home? For me, there was a list of phone calls. As I heard myself speaking to relatives, explaining as gently as I could, I was aware of a new person dawning – the bereaved wife.

In the afternoon I drove us all into the local town where we sat amongst tourists in the old square in front of the basilica and ate ice creams. For a second, squinting at the sun, the pistachio gelato sliding down my throat, I forgot what had happened. I looked at my children and wondered if they’d forgotten too.

‘Dad hung himself, Dad hung himself.’ They set up a chant when we got back to the villa, repeating it over and over, trying to grapple with the outlandish idea. Until my mum couldn’t bear it any longer. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘But I have to tell you something.’ She’d been keeping it in, whatever it was, afraid to say. ‘The past participle of to hang, when you hang yourself, isn’t hung: it’s hanged.’

The boys looked at me doubtfully. I thought about it for a moment.

‘Actually, she’s right.’

They began again. ‘Dad hanged himself.’

The owners of the villa drove down from Rome to stay in the annex and be there for us. A kindly couple. They did a grocery shop and the woman offered to pack Frank’s suitcase. When she lamented the fact that I’d never want to visit Italy again, I reassured her that this wasn’t the case and, from the look she gave me, immediately wished I hadn’t. In the evening, she spotted the children coming out of Frank’s room and I pretended I knew nothing about it and hadn’t given them permission to go in there. Fascinated by the technicalities of their father’s death, they reported back to me that there was a stepladder standing in the middle of the room all on its own.

On Sunday, we watched a series of Family Guy DVDs we’d brought with us from England. They still made us laugh, two emotional realities existing side by side. We played charades to pass more time. On Monday morning, a police officer came and gave us back our passports. We were free to go. Frank would have to follow later, on his own, accompanied by reams of red tape and repatriation regulations.

I managed to get us booked on a flight home a week earlier than planned, provided free by British Airways on compassionate grounds. Frank would have been pleased with that, but he would not have been pleased with me stopping for petrol at a motorway service station on the way to the airport. He’d be doing his nut. You must never, ever, stop for fuel on the motorway, it’s a complete rip off. I looked up at the sky, half expecting a hand to reach down and swipe the pump away from me.

At the airport we discovered the flight I thought we’d been booked on had already departed. The next flight was full. Until then, I’d stoppered up the tide of emotion inside me for everyone’s sake. Now, I released a tiny portion.

‘My husband has just killed himself on holiday,’ I blurted, ‘and I’m trying to get home with my mum and three children.’

The woman at the desk looked over at my family group in horror. Her manager leaned forward and said in her ear, ‘get them on that plane.’ A few taps of the keyboard later and she’d miraculously conjured up five empty seats. I thanked her and put the stopper back on my tsunami.

On the plane, when the food trolley came around, there was one less member of our party to be fed. On arrival, there was one less passport to show at passport control. On the luggage carousel, there was one suitcase going around and around with a set of spare clothes.

Back home, people were kind in many different ways. They brought home-baked lasagnes in foil containers and freshly risen loaves of sourdough. They wept on my doorstep. They told me how much they’d liked Frank. They pointed out what a great guy he was, in case I was angry with him.

People worried about saying or doing the wrong thing. What they didn’t know was that I was worried about this too. How should the bereaved wife behave? Should I be scratching my mosquito bites, or I should I be oblivious to the itch? Should I be functioning on any level at all?

Scheduled in the diary was a trip with friends to Whipsnade Zoo. Should we go? We were met by a nervous, but familiar, group of mums and children by the sealions. My three joined their friends near the front, inside the blue ringed area where they were guaranteed to get a thorough soaking from Berkley, the majestic male.

Later, I received a call on my mobile from the coroner’s office. The woman on the line wanted me to describe what had happened the day we found Frank. Though only two weeks, it already seemed like a long time ago, but, as I went through the details, I was right outside the house again, watching the men break in. The children were now, thankfully, all aboard the Whipsnade train. My friends stood away from me while I took the call. It reminded me of my mum and children standing away when the two men had come rushing back out through the window, clambering over one another in their desperation to escape.

The Italian police had forbidden a cremation. Anyone who dies from unnatural causes must be buried, in case the body needs to be exhumed for future examination. In case something was still bugging Columbo. My father-in-law emailed me brochures of biodegradable coffins you could bury in the woods. Sounded idyllic, but could I be bothered? I just wanted to get the job done. Luckily, the coroner’s office told me it was all nonsense. Frank’s body was on English soil now, he was under English jurisdiction and it was up to the English coroner to decide what could be done with him. Columbo overruled.

A death certificate was issued. Asphyxiation due to suspension. When I took it to our bank, the young clerk behind the counter paled and disappeared to a back room. Someone else returned with a photocopy and gave the original to me, scrutinising my face for signs of unbearable grief.

As I was driving home, a car stopped in front of me in the middle of the road. A woman, a stranger, got out and came towards me. What had I done now? She tapped on the driver’s window and I pressed the button to wind it down. She reached in and hugged me. When she let go, I saw she wasn’t a stranger, but a close friend.

One of the many pieces of advice I received during this period was not to throw anything of Frank’s away. It sounded like good advice, like telling someone not to change their hairstyle when they felt down.

But Frank was a terrible hoarder and I couldn’t bear all his stuff living on around me. He kept three broken irons for spare parts. Our garage was full of stuff like that. Our loft was full. I ordered a skip and threw the contents of the garage into it. I emptied the loft onto the landing. One of my children stepped out of his room to find he couldn’t get to the stairs. Like Brody in the scene from Jaws where he says, ‘you’re going to need a bigger boat,’ my son said, ‘you’re going to need a bigger skip.’

I painted our bedroom Rose Pink, the colour least likely to have ever been chosen by Frank. That way, it would no longer be mine and Frank’s bedroom and I’d be able to sleep in it once again.

I stowed away his most prized possessions in the now empty loft: his old green Cubs sweater; his undergraduate dissertation on the Design and Implementation of a Digital Reverberator; his Bank of England chequebook; his leather jacket.

Sitting in the chapel with the coffin in front of us, I suddenly realised the wedding suit I’d given the funeral directors for Frank to wear would be too small. He’d filled out a bit since we were married fourteen years before. I wondered if this was a regular thing at the funeral parlour, trying to squeeze corpses into too tight outfits provided by their loved ones. It made me smile. One last joke with Frank before the flames took him.

At the beginning of the summer, I’d been accepted onto a creative writing course. Frank had been keen for me to do it. I didn’t know now if I’d have any creative juices flowing inside me, but I enrolled anyway. I didn’t tell any of my fellow students about my recently deceased husband. It wasn’t a subject to be lightly dropped into the conversation and, anyway, I didn’t want them to feel they had to censor their material on my account. In an early workshop, one student produced a short story about a man who’d hung himself. ‘You mean hanged,’ I said.

When I was pitching my first novel to an agent two years later, she asked, ‘Why Italy?’ I’d set a particularly dark section of the book in an Italian house in the countryside. The house was surrounded by fields of sunflowers. It had a pool which, in my writerly pretentiousness, I described as ‘the colour of Nordic eyes.’

The day after Frank died, I’d sat by that pool and phoned his parents to tell them their first-born child had killed himself. As I spoke, I looked out at the sunflowers and watched them turn their heads towards the sun.

Copyright Cruttwell 2024