The duty priest at the crematorium was surprised when he saw the coffin. For some strange reason, it appeared to have been secured with thick heavy chains. He looked at the undertaker, Geoffrey Peters, who shrugged his shoulders and nodded in the direction of the sole mourner in the chapel.  Her request had surprised him and had presented a considerable practical challenge, but her story had intrigued him and he’d been happy to oblige.  Especially as the heavily made-up blonde in a leopard print coat who had visited his funeral parlour two weeks previously had all the glamour and sex appeal of a Hollywood starlet. Not that she was nowhere to be seen this morning. Just a soberly dressed woman in her mid-thirties with short brown hair and wearing a rather shabby overcoat.

She had introduced herself as Mrs Dolly Phillips, the wife of Walter Phillips. Who, she said, had been a decorated veteran of the last war. When the undertaker nodded respectfully, she’d laughed and said in a husky voice ruined by too many cigarettes. “He always told people he’d been a POW and made a daring escape.” Leaning forwards and filling Geoffrey Peter’s head with an overly strong perfume she’d added “He also told me he wrote forged documents for special agents. You never quite knew with Walter what to believe.”

 As she told it Dolly had met Walter in London in the happy chaos of VE night in May 1945.  She was only sixteen at the time and had lost her entire family and all her possessions when one of Hitler’s “doodlebugs” had landed in her street. “There was no point crying about it”, she said, “You just had to get on with things in those days, we all did.” And so, she had. With a bit of thieving from bombed out buildings and a bit of whoring in the Black Out she got by. She’d grinned at the undertaker and said; “I was younger then and a bit on the small side, not much up top as you might say, but it’s amazing what you can get away within a tight sweater and a bit of padding.”. She’d lit up a cigarette and whispered; “They never took much time about it anyway.

She’d leaned back in her chair, taken a long drag on her cigarette and exhaled smoke through bright red lips. She’d coughed slightly and then continued her story.

“I met my Walter outside a pub near Piccadilly. Odd looking sort of chap he was, not very tall or handsome, with glasses and wearing a uniform that didn’t fit him properly. I was a bit cheeky and asked him if the uniform was really his. He just laughed. I didn’t care who or what he was though. Nobody did that night. We got drunk and ended up in one of those hotels the more expensive girls used, but he never tried it on even though he must have guessed what I was.

 “After that, we used to meet up regularly at one of those British Restaurants Churchill set up. He’d buy me a hot meal and we’d just sit and talk. I told Walter I had nowhere proper to live. So, after a month or two he put me on a train and sent me off to stay with his widowed Mum in Kent while he sorted out his Demob papers. She lived in a nice little house full of photos of Walter and her but none of his father. There was one room full of costumes and theatre stuff. His mother told me that Walter had done those ENSA shows during the war, entertaining the troops with magic tricks and impersonations. That’s how he’d got that uniform apparently. She didn’t like me much. She thought I was no better than I ought to be and treated me like a skivvy. Or at least she did until she fell down the stairs and broke her neck a few days after Walter arrived back home.”

When Geoffrey Peters had suggested that the tragic accident must have shocked them both Dolly had replied;

“Not really, I hated her, and Walter told me that she always tried to control him, and he now he could do what he wanted but we would have to leave the house. I had to go with him of course, I had nowhere else to go.”

And so, the two of them became The Great Mystic Merlino and Dolly. A theatre act that featured glamour, trickery, illusion and eventually escapology. Together they travelled the country for the next fifteen years. They stayed in Boarding Houses and the occasional hotel sharing a room as man and wife. “We even had a marriage certificate to prove it if they asked.” said Dolly, “Walter sorted that out.”

 “Not that we ever did anything as marrieds”, she’d confessed,” Walter wasn’t keen on that sort of thing. He was a dreamer though, always thinking the big time was just around the corner.”

Sadly the “big time” never came. At first, the public, tired of wartime austerity, enjoyed the escapism of a bit of magic and glamour. Walter performed his tricks and illusions while Dolly, all makeup, bosom and curves, distracted the audiences, enticing men, usually men, onto the stage to be willing stooges.  Eventually, though it became harder to get decent bookings. Sometimes they earned barely enough to pay for their digs and Dolly would have to offer the Theatre Manager what she described as “A little bit of extra” so they could make ends meet. On one occasion the wife of one of the Managers had walked into his office and caught them at it, much to Walter’s amusement.

As Dolly told it that was about the last time she and Walter had laughed together. She said; “Walter started drinking heavily, disappearing after the shows, doing goodness knows what and with men too. One of them started demanding money, threatening to go to the police. Poor Walter was beside himself with worry. He started forgetting bits of the act.  One night he messed up his escape routine and he couldn’t release the padlocks and chains as quickly as he usually did. He suffered a heart attack. Right there on stage and died a week later. I didn’t know what to do. He was my best friend and now he’s gone.”

“So, you see Mr Peters”, she’d said, after taking a long pause to compose herself, “that’s why I want the chains on the coffin. I loved Walter, but I never felt that I really knew him and I never was a proper wife to him if you know what I mean. He never wanted that and he was only ever really happy when he was on stage doing his tricks.”

Later that evening, full of curiosity, Audrey Peters asked her husband;

“Was the coffin really chained down? He replied, “No, we just made it look like that for her sake. The chains were just for show.  You know, the more I think about it the less I think I know the truth of it all.  I saw the death certificate alright and his name was on the coffin, but it wouldn’t really surprise if it wasn’t Walter who was actually inside that box.”

As she handed a cup of tea to the undertaker his wife said, “Do you think we’ll ever know if any of it was true?”



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