Quentin finds an unexpected guest in the congregation area.
Quentin Gibbs stood behind the lectern and looked down at the mourners seated in rows in front of him as the four pallbearers made their way from the entrance door carrying the coffin containing the body their old school chum. They carefully laid it on the raised ledge to the side of him by easing it on to runners. At the end of the service, a mechanical curtain would automatically surround the coffin before it disappeared, discretely, into the business end of the crematorium.
They had been given the first 30 minute slot of the day at 9.00 am on a Monday morning. As Putney Vale Crematorium was a popular, not to say fashionable, final resting place, Quentin had been asked to stick to the allotted time to allow the ten other funeral parties booked in to follow Martin Andrews’ cortège in strict booking order thereafter throughout the day.
A horse drawn hearse had been chosen to reflect his old friend’s family’s farming interests. Plans were also in hand to scatter his ashes over Murrayfield in recognition of his nickname, the Flying Scotsman, which had been well earned over a successful, if short lived career, playing at outside-centre for London Scottish, then Harlequins, and finally, Scotland.
Having completed their task with aplomb, the pallbearers quietly took up their allotted seats in the front row, two on either side of the central gangway they had just negotiated. All four had been at Gordonstoun together with Quentin Gibbs and Martin Andrews; half a dozen of the most diverse characters that had ever attended Scotland’s most famous finishing school at the same time.
Quentin had been in the room an hour earlier to rehearse his opening speech. Although he was an eloquent speaker he never referred to notes so he gave the impression that it all came naturally to him, that everything he said was spontaneous. The truth is he worked hard at his technique and rehearsal was essential; one of his heroes being Churchill who reputedly rehearsed all his ad libs.
As he glanced up before launching into his carefully crafted words of welcome, he caught sight of a late arrival slipping in through the entrance door and sliding on to an empty seat in the last row at the back of the room.
Quentin Gibbs was almost put off his opening remarks for he immediately recognised the latecomer as none other than Martin Andrews himself who should have been in the coffin next to him.
The four pallbearers had been part of a formidable rowing team at Gordonstoun whereas Quentin and Martin had preferred the more sedentary pursuits of snooker and croquet during which they often put the world to rights with profound statements that owed more to generous measures of alcohol than any innate intellectual insights. Martin mastered Sudoku when it became popular, but Quentin was the undisputed king of scrabble.
Both were competitive at Chess without ever getting close to Grandmaster standards, but they did have philosophical arguments about the relative roles of the Queen, the King, and the knights; why the King was the most limited piece on the board, even more handicapped than a pawn; whereas the Queen could glide effortlessly in one of two directions per move accompanied by two prancing knights for protection. Gordonstoun was the ideal place to engage in such frivolities. Their alumni included real life versions of all the chess pieces. Knights were two a penny and minor royalty had been using Gordonstoun since the late Duke of Edinburgh first went there in 1934 followed, eventually, by his three sons and at least two of his grandchildren.
The ethos of the school’s founder, Kurt Hahn, a Jewish German educationalist, was based on physical wellbeing as much as academic brilliance, which made it an ideal establishment for the wealthy who paid for their offspring to acquire an education with social status whilst subjecting them to spartan living conditions as part of the price.
Another source of students was the British Armed forces where state subsidised boarding suited the peripatetic life style of serving officers who would not otherwise have been able to afford the fees. Martin Andrews had been one such beneficiary, his father having been a Squadron Leader in the RAF before inheriting the family sheep farm in Yorkshire.
However, once students are randomly divided up between nine houses – six for males and three for females – some unlikely combinations of eclectic personalities is inevitable.
The Bruce House intake of 1990 was no exception and from it emerged the five mourners and a corpse now part of the congregation gathered in front of Quentin Gibbs at the Putney Vale Crematorium.
Pallbearer 1 was the nephew of Dar Robinson, a famous stunt man who once jumped off the 1815 ft CN Tower in Toronto for a scene in the movie Highpoint starring Richard Harris, Christopher Harris, and Beverly D’Angelo. Robinson killed himself in 1986 when he drove his stunt motorcycle over a cliff when filming Million Dollar Mystery. His nephew, Lance De Boyle, known to his friends as Chancy Lancy, shared his uncles fearless genes.
Pallbearer 2 was Duncan Jones who was known as Joey to his friends at Gordonstoun but was in fact the son of the late David Bowie, the rock star. He was originally known as Zowie Bowie, but he reverted to his birth name in his last year at Gordonstoun. He was now a successful director producer and screen writer. His first feature film, Moon, was nominated for seven British Independent Film Awards.
Pallbearer 3 was Johnny de Mol, a Dutch actor and presenter whose father created Big Brother, the reality TV show which helped his father become a billionaire media tycoon. His insider knowledge of how popular television programmes are made was to prove crucial to the project.
Pallbearer 4 was Peter Parker, a direct descendent of George Safford Parker who patented the first fountain pen in 1889. Peter’s own father had become an expert in calligraphy with a profitable side-line in creating testimonials, birth, and death certificates as props for film and television productions. His connections were another important element in the ultimate success of the plan.
By the time they reached the sixth form, the group had acquired the nickname “the Bruce House Sextet” which had nothing to do with their musical abilities but did acknowledge their frequent undercover forays into the female houses of Hopeman and Plewlands. They managed to avoid detection by the House Masters by the simple device of bribing the relevant Matrons.
However, their most influential group bonding exercise took place as part of the Outward Bound courses which were integral to Hahn’s concept of character building. They were dropped in the middle of the night on top of the Cairngorms with no overnight rations, three tents and a compass and told to get back to Gordonstoun on foot over two days. Martin Andrews emerged as the Sextet’s natural leader with an ability to stay calm and carry on. The others were happy to defer to him.
The Bruce House Sextet kept in touch after leaving Gordonstoun although they all went in different directions. Quentin Gibbs ended up in business to business publishing and Martin Andrews became a surveyor whilst pursuing a part time career in rugby union before it went totally professional. They had a reunion once every five years. It was at the latest of these that Martin Andrews of all people admitted that he had a serious financial problem which he wanted to share with them.
Quentin Gibbs was the Marketing Director of Billboard Media. One of their trade magazines was staging an awards ceremony at the Hilton Hotel on Park Lane. The Bruce House Sextet’s usual reunions took place in well-known London restaurants, but they all made their own individual arrangements for overnighting.
The initial launch of the new Bravado Awards not only gave Quentin an opportunity to show off his latest event creation but also enabled him to offer his chums an evening’s entertainment plus a suite each for the night at the Hilton as part of the package.
They all accepted with alacrity and found themselves occupying a table for six in the middle of the banqueting hall surrounded by hundreds of similar tables, each with a host determined to entertain client guests, roughly half of whom were vivacious looking females determined to have a good time and dressed to impress. Many struggled to contain themselves within their selected evening gowns.
It was a long time since the Sextet had all been together for a formal black tie occasion, the last one being the 70th Anniversary Ball organised by the Old Gordonstounian Association which Lance De Boyle dubbed “the last refuge for royal rogues and ruffians.” The evening had been enlivened by a politically incorrect but witty speech from their then President, HRH the Duke of Edinburgh or “Phil the Greek” as the Sextet preferred to call him.
Martin Andrews, resplendent in full Scottish regalia, including clan kilt, black silver mounted sgian dubh tucked into his right sock, a lace jabot about his neck, and an impressive looking furry sporran, was particularly effusive with his thanks. Having treated his comrades to a theatrical twirl before sitting down, he announced, with a hint of emotion in his voice which he struggled to hide.
“Only a true friend has the ability to turn a meal into a feast”.
“I’ll drink to that, Martin” responded Duncan Jones, lifting his first glass of champagne as a toast.
This was followed by corresponding gestures from the whole table, which was an immediate excuse to order another bottle of the Hilton Hotel’s house champagne; in truth, a modest Moet & Chandon marked up and charged as though it were a jeroboam of Dom Perignon. As the convivial evening progressed, the Bruce House Sextet caught up with all their latest gossip.
Peter Parker had recently joined Wentworth Golf Club and had managed to get his handicap down significantly. He had a realistic opportunity of making scratch before the end of the current season.
Johnny de Mol was working on a new format for a reality TV show which would take the concept even further than the original Big Brother which had made his father’s fortune.
Martin Andrews struggled to maintain his composure but finally had to admit that he was in serious financial difficulties. His late father had developed a serious gambling habit before committing suicide in a barn on the family farm which had negated the life assurance policy he had taken out 30 years earlier. The farm was mortgaged to the hilt to pay off gambling debts. His mother was in an expensive nursing home with senile dementia. The bank had decided to foreclose leaving Martin with very few options. His own income as a surveyor was modest. The only saving grace was the fact that he had remained single so didn’t have a wife and kids to worry about.
“How much is the farm worth Martin?” asked Quentin.
“It’s impossible to say” replied Martin shaking his head thoughtfully, “but, as a going concern, I suppose it might fetch £750,000 but the bank is owed £600,000 and I simply cannot afford to maintain it and the nursing home fees and the mortgage on my own apartment in Leeds.”
There was a moment’s silence around the table until Peter Parker attempted to lift the mood.
“Has Chancy got any brainwaves?” he asked whereupon all eyes immediately turned to their colleague as coffee was being served and brandy orders taken. The awards ceremony itself was due to start in ten minutes, hosted by Jimmy Carr.
Earlier, Lance De Boyle had proudly announced that had just negotiated his third expensive divorce and kept repeating that he was looking forward to giving marriage one last go, “But not without a pre-nuptial agreement this time!”
As he gathered his thoughts, his eye was taken by the approach of a thirties-something leggy blond weaving her way towards them from four tables away. He sat bolt upright and adjusted his bow tie ready to make the right impression and preparing to drop the condition of a pre-nuptial altogether. To his astonishment the young lady ignored him and spoke to Martin Andrews instead.
“I’m so sorry to interrupt” she purred. “But didn’t you used to be Martin Andrews?”
They all fell about laughing which caused the attractive young interloper to blush, making her even more desirable to Lance than ever. Martin Andrews kept calm and responded with gentle encouragement.
“As far as I know I still am” he said smiling, “Just ignore these reprobates!”
“My mother was/is a big fan of yours – she would be amazed to know I met you tonight. Would you mind awfully if I took a selfie with you signing this menu. My name is Fiona, but her name is Sheila!”
“Not a problem, Fiona” replied Martin whereupon Lance leaped up, offering to take the shot himself. He took the mobile phone from Fiona whilst they all posed together.
Fiona beamed before politely refusing offers from Lance, Peter, Duncan, and Johnny to escort her back to her table just as Jimmy Carr took to the stage to introduce the 2021 Bravado Awards.
*************************************************************** Afterwards, Quentin Gibbs went back stage to congratulate Jimmy Carr for helping to make this first ever Bravado Awards a rip roaring success. He had used Jimmy on many occasions over the years his £20,000 fee reflecting his huge demand on the corporate circuit, but it was worth every penny. The event had been a highly profitable sell-out.
Jimmy had been on top form reducing the audience to gales of laughter with material bordering on the blue at times but which seemed to appeal to the women in the audience especially.
When Quentin returned to his table he found the Bruce House Sextet in very good humour and deep in animated conversation.
“Congratulations!” called Duncan Jones as Quentin approached, “We’ve all been toasting your good health, haven’t we lads?” he added to much ‘hear hearing’ around the table.
“You have a winner on your hands” said Johnny De Mol. “ I just love the concept of the Bravado Awards and Jimmy Carr was an inspired choice as host, very funny.”
“Not only that” chipped in Peter Parker, “We’ve come up with a plan to solve poor old Martin’s financial problem! I’ll get Johnny to explain it to you … pull up a chair; pour yourself another glass of Merlot!”.
Quentin did as he was instructed and listened with increasing trepidation as their masterplan was outlined. Put simply, they were planning to fake Martin Andrews’ death in order to collect the life assurance Martin had on his life with the Scottish Widows, a sum of £800,000.
“My company makes authentic looking documents for TV and films so it would not be difficult to create Martin’s death certificate!” explained Peter Parker with a chuckle.
“What is he going to die of?” asked Quentin, pouring himself another Merlot.
“We thought an ischemic heart disease would fit the bill” responded Duncan Jones. “According to google, that’s a popular cause of death in males of Martin’s age and lifestyle.”
“Popular?” queried Quentin sardonically.
“Well, ‘standard’ or ‘frequent’ or ‘normal’ if you prefer” replied Duncan. “The point is we don’t want to trigger a post mortem do we?”
“We need to make Operation SOMM a box ticking exercise for the claims department of Scottish Widows” said Johnny de Mol, who was emerging as the prime mover.
“Operation SOMM?” asked Quentin, still not quite able to believe what he was hearing.
“Saving Our Mate Martin!” they all chorused together whilst topping up their drinks.
“Are you happy with this Martin?” asked Quentin, sounding more and more dubious.
Martin Andrews looked up through bleary eyes but smiled at his old Chess chum.
“You bet I am” he said “What have I got to lose? Johnny has even come up with a SOMM safety net which I will leave him to explain to you, Quentin. Meeting young Fiona earlier has restored my faith in me. I have you and the Bravado Awards to thank for that.”
It was approaching 1.30 am so, struggling to his feet, Martin attempted one final twirl before making his way, unsteadily, to the lifts, calling back over his shoulder as he meandered.
“Cheers again gentlemen of the Bruce House Sextet! I’m off to my bedroom suite now to luxuriate in the arms of Morpheus”.
Quentin Gibbs ordered black coffees all round from their table waiter then invited Johnny to explain the SOMM safety net to him and the Cheshire Cats who hadn’t had such fun since planning the raids on the female houses of Hopeman and Plewlands at Gordonstoun 26 years earlier. He needed some convincing but listened with the intention of keeping an open mind.
Johnny De Mol explained that he was working on a new reality TV project which was remarkably similar in many ways to Quentin’s new Bravado Awards.
“Yours is based on some company or individual having the courage to try something which has never been done before or even compete with an existing brand head on by doing something revolutionary. The market calls this type of product or service a disruptor, right?”
Quentin nodded his head.
“Well” continued Johnny, warming to his task “What if a member of the public wanted to test how far the establishment would allow an illegal act to progress before the police, say, stepped in to stop them? In my new reality TV show we would make it possible for them to try”.
Quentin was beginning to see the logic of Johnny’s argument but couldn’t see how this would make enthralling TV.
“Provided every move was filmed as it happened in real time, the viewer would be hooked in, desperate to see what happened next and caught between wanting the idea to succeed or horrified that it might.”
“So, Johnny, how does the SOMM safety net work?” asked Quentin.
“That’s easy to explain” chimed one of the Cheshire Cats, “If something goes wrong, Johnny steps in and explains that Martin was merely participating in a pilot for a TV show.”
“Don’t forget, Quentin “ piped up another of the Cheshire Cats, “Operation SOMM is simply based on creating a box ticking exercise for the admin staff at Scottish Widows. It should only take a couple of weeks once their Head Office receives the death certificate and the policy documents.”
Quentin Gibbs conceded that it might be a bit of fun so asked Johnny what was the next move.
“We have to be careful not to spill the beans by accident” he said, “I would suggest that Duncan and I control strategy as that would look better in the event that we have to create the safety net. The more in the dark you and Lance are the better. Peter needs to create the Death Certificate so will liaise directly with Martin. I will keep you up to date by sending you a WhatsApp message as and when there is anything of importance to report. How does that sound?”
There were high fives, what else, all round.
Martin Andrews slept soundly in his 10th floor bedroom suite overlooking Hyde Park blissfully unaware of the details of Operation SOMM or the drama about to unfold.
The first WhatsApp message from Johnny De Mol to Quentin Gibbs was encouraging.
“Scottish Widows have confirmed receipt of the documentation. They have indicated a delay of up to three weeks before being in a position to settle the claim.”
The second was less so …
“Lance has received a message from Fiona. She would like to arrange for her mother to meet Martin as a special birthday treat. Duncan and I are discussing our next move.”
Quentin spent the next twenty four hours ruminating over the possibilities. Surely it was time to deploy the SOMM safety net?
The next WhatsApp message caught Quentin off guard.
“We decided to tell Fiona that Martin had died suddenly of a hitherto undetected heart condition; that It has shocked us all, but he didn’t suffer. We will continue to monitor the situation. Safety net still available”
Quentin continued to feel uneasy but had little choice but to trust Johnny and Duncan’s judgement. The next WhatsApp message did little to calm his nerves.
“Fiona & her mother want to send flowers. Need to know when and where is the funeral to take place? Duncan and I are discussing our next move.”
Quentin was convinced the time had arrived to deploy the safety net but the next WhatsApp message took OPERATION SOMM to a whole new level.
“Peter & Lance have secured a slot, through a mutual friend, at the Putney Vale Crematorium for Monday 31st at 9.00 am”.
Quentin poured himself a gin and tonic. His barely contained emotional equilibrium was not helped by the next WhatsApp message.
“We all think you would make a brilliant job of conducting the service. You did such a good job last year for your brother in law”
Quentin poured himself another G&T. His brother in law’s funeral had been a relative success but only because it was his two daughters who had asked him to officiate. They had set the secular tone which suited Quentin’s philosophy. Martin Andrews was a different kettle of fish entirely. For all Quentin knew, he might even be Roman Catholic.
However, after getting reassurances from them all, including the deceased, Quentin began mapping out a 30 minute routine in his head that he thought might be appropriate in the circumstances.
His composure was not helped when some social media activity suddenly appeared on twitter but Johnny De Mol’s latest WhatsApp message had anticipated his concerns.
“We thought a short tweet might keep Fiona on side; don’t fret if you see it. Scottish Widows would not think it unusual. Safety net still available”
With the event now less than one week away, Quentin put aside his lingering reservations about Operation SOMM to concentrate on the funeral service itself.
He selected two pieces of music which he thought would work, Flower of Scotland by the folk group the Corries and Scotland the Brave, the latter being the unofficial Scottish National Anthem.
Although Martin Andrews was a lapsed Catholic, he thought he would avoid quoting Robbie Burns as he wasn’t the poet of choice for most Catholics, lapsed or otherwise, given his status as a prominent protestant freemason.
Quentin waited for the four pallbearers to settle in their seats then rose to address the assembled mourners. It was only at this point did he realise that he was about to address a full house. The twitter feed must have reignited interest in Martin Andrews, even though he hadn’t been in the public spotlight for many years. Even back then he was only a minor celebrity compared with other rugby personalities of the era like Bill Beaumont and Will Carling. As he took a deep breath he thought he noticed Fiona sitting next to a sombre looking older female Quentin assumed was her mother Sheila.
“We are gathered here today to say au revoir to Martin Andrews. I use the phrase advisedly because, as a friend of Martin’s for more than 30 years, I can’t really believe he is no longer with us. It’s almost as if he has just slipped out for a ciggie and will return shortly to regale us with his trade mark Scottish wit. He shouldn’t be long. After all, his nickname was the flying Scotsman.”
There were appreciative smiles from a few brave souls not used to such a light touch at a funeral.
“The four pallbearers and I first met Martin at Gordonstoun when we were part of the 1990 Bruce House intake. He quickly established himself as our natural leader, planning regular forays into the female houses. We became known as the Bruce House Sextet which will explain why we chose the Scherzo from Brahms String Sextet No 1 to accompany the coffin this morning”.
The pallbearers smiled at one another, relieved that Quentin had rejected Lance’s suggestion of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries which would had been a bit too challenging.
“Martin survived the rigours of Gordonstoun and went on to play one glorious game of rugby for Scotland when the auld enemy was defeated at Murrayfield so I would ask you all to be upstanding and join in singing Flower of Scotland by the Corries”.
On cue the Putney Vale backroom staff switched a lever and the words to the famous Rugby anthem appeared on a screen in front of them accompanied by the classic Corries recording. The gusto with which the mourners sang took Quentin by surprise. At the end he indicated that they should please be seated as he sought to find the right words to conclude the proceedings.
“Those who knew Martin as we did, will know that he was not the type of person to make a fuss or draw attention to himself. Following his Murrayfield triumph, he eschewed fame and fortune, much preferring the low key profile of a modest Leeds surveyor which he became. So could I suggest we all close our eyes and reflect on a life well lived as his final journey is accompanied by the pipe band of the British Colombia Dragoons playing Scotland the Brave”.
As the mourners sat motionless with eyes closed the airwaves were filled with the unmistakeable sonority of twenty five bagpipes, ten side drummers, six tenor drummers and a base drummer playing the unofficial Scottish National Anthem.
As it neared the end, Quentin looked up and was horrified to see a uniformed police officer approaching him from the entrance door in time to the music. He also noticed Martin Andrews slipping out of the door whence the policemen had arrived. The music stopped as the curtain closed on the coffin which was the cue for the policeman to speak.
“I think we have had enough of this charade Mr Gibbs. Can I have a quick word?”
“Of course officer” replied Quentin, puzzled.
“Who or what is in this coffin?”
There was an audible gasp among the mourners who couldn’t believe what they were witnessing.
Johnny De Mol leapt to his feet and quietly took the officer to one side, whispered some words of explanation in his ear and discretely showed him some authentic looking paperwork.
The officer turned to the mourners, most of whom who looked bewildered beyond belief, and calmly announced.
“There has been an almighty administrative blunder for which I can only apologise. You are free to conclude this service Mr Gibbs.”
Quentin breathed a sigh of relief. He had delivered the event on time. The mourners filed out through a side exit, some crossing themselves as they went. The service had taken 20 minutes giving the next cortège waiting in line plenty of time to prepare for their turn.
But Quentin had several questions for the rest of the Bruce House Sextet.
Quentin stood in the garden of remembrance with the four pallbearers long after the mourners had departed. There was only one wreath placed next to the name of Martin Andrews, but it was impressively large with a card attached bearing the simple inscription.
“Rest in peace Martin. Thanks for the memories.” All our love Sheila & Fiona Parker Fans for Life
The pallbearers were almost giggling but could hardly wait for Quentin to ask his first question.
“I didn’t know Fiona was a Parker did you lads?” he said innocently.
“Sheila’s my Aunt” said Peter in a matter of fact tone, with the other three trying desperately hard not to laugh out loud.
Quentin was not impressed. “And who have we just cremated, a tailor’s dummy?” he said using an overtly sardonic inflection at the end of the sentence.
“Martin’s mother” replied Duncan Jones earnestly, “Johnny showed the police officer the paperwork which included her real death certificate. Lance did the deal with one of the Directors here.”
“I got a special rate” he explained “Two for the price of one!”.
At this the pallbearers could contain themselves no longer and burst out laughing at the success of their elaborate practical joke. They had hatched the plan when Quentin had first sent them his invitations to attend the Bravado Awards. They had arranged for Peter Parker’s niece, Fiona, to be on another table.
“Martin’s mother’s death in the middle of it all was a bonus for him and us as it happened but it has enabled Duncan and me to show Endemol proof of concept for my Fake It For Real Show.” Explained Johnny de Mol. “The initial rushes make great TV”.
One week later Martin returned the cheque for £800,000 to Scottish Widows who agreed to be interviewed as part of the promo for Fake It For Real.
Norwich Union sent Martin Andrews a cheque for £600,000 which was the amount she had been insured with 40 years earlier by her husband on a joint whole life second death basis.
Endemol agreed to sponsor the Bravado Awards for ten years with an advanced payment of £200,000.
Quentin hadn’t the courage to ask what Martin’s mother had died of.
This Decamot was inspired by the following Decamot items: Flying Scotsman, feast, finishing school, lance, hearse, grandmaster, bill board, queen, CN Tower, speaker.