Two men flank the porch. Acknowledging the mourners. A slight bow of the head; a sympathetic murmur. A vague air of Dickensian solemnity. Hands clasped behind their backs.
A third man stands inside the door. He looks about nineteen. Top hat, black gloves. The outfit looks incongruous. As though he’s borrowed his father’s clothes. Earring in one ear. An orange tan you just don’t get round here.
He says ‘Would you like to sign the Book?’
‘The Book of Condolences.’ He’s holding out a pen that says I’m made from old car tyres. I’m sure I’ve seen that pen before.
I’m not sure what to write. I scan the page for clues. A list of names. The occasional comment. You can tell a couple of them are teenagers. Big loopy hand-writing. One of them has written Love You Forever with hearts where the Vs should be. Somebody has written ‘I hope you have fun in heaven.’ You can see the concentration in the solemn, childlike hand.
‘It’s for the relatives.’ Says the man with the earring and top hat. ‘It’s nice for them to have a complete list of the mourners. You don’t have to say anything clever. You can just write down your name.’
Linda looks round surreptitiously. It’s tricky to be nosy when you’re standing at the front. The price you have to pay for being the self-proclaimed chief mourner. Still, she’s doing pretty well. Putting names to faces. Jenny and Melissa from the sewing shop. Jenny’s husband Derek. Melissa’s new boyfriend John. Her ex-husband Steve. Good of him to come. Jenny’s children. Melissa’s twins. She’s surprised to see them if she’s honest. They were on friendly terms, but not that close.
There’s Dee Delaney by the door. Hand hovering over the Condolence Book. Deciding what to write. That damned Book of Condolences. Expensive. Leather covers. A waste of a good notebook. A waste of fifty pounds.
Pat McGinty from the shop. Elsie Tanner looking tearful. God knows why. It’s not as if the two of them were friends. Dr. Tanner standing in a different pew. Five rows away at least. Christ knows what he’s doing here. Taking a professional interest. It seems a bit extreme. He can’t turn up to every patient’s funeral. He’d never be at work.
I write my name in the Condolence Book.
‘Ah’ he says. ‘Dee Delaney. Someone left something for you.’
He’s fumbling behind him. He proffers a lilac envelope. Sloping purple-hand-writing. Proper ink. A proper pen. I tuck it in my handbag. As though this is an everyday occurrence. Receiving written correspondence from a corpse.
I sidle into a pew. The middle-aged man in front of me is trying to check his emails. It doesn’t seem quite right to take a quick peek at my post. I bow my head as if in prayer.
The organ changes tempo; changes key. Mournful; more processional. There is a drawing in of breath, a nod towards the aisle. Towards the coffin bearers. Serious, steady, slow. One at every corner, two in the middle either side. Three of them look like professionals. Identical blank expressions. Identical cheap black suits. Standard issue mourning wear. The same pressed crease down the legs. A steady even gait that says they do this all the time.
The others have been drafted in. I guess there’s a shortage of male relatives. Too young; too puny; too self-conscious for such a heavy responsibility. Pained expressions; mis-matched suits. An awkwardness that signals that they’ve not done this before.
There’s Linda in the front row with Billy. Scanning the congregation. Pretending she hasn’t seen me. Odd that she’s wearing lipstick. No reason why she shouldn’t. It’s just that I’ve never seen her wearing it before. The odd splodge of mascara. But never lipstick. It seems a funny time to start.
Reverend Pitt is making heavy weather of the eulogy.
He’s generally pretty good at it. Judging the right balance between familiarity and gravitas; solemnity and warmth.
But he’s struggling with the personal touch. The information he’s been given by the granddaughter just doesn’t seem to tally with the woman he thought he knew.
Not that he really knew her. But you can’t help forming an impression.
He is trying to stick to facts. But these are few and far between. He struggles for something to convey her character.
He says ‘She took a lively interest in amateur dramatics.’
Even he can tell it doesn’t really cut it as an epitaph. He looks across the sea of expectant faces before he adds his punchline.
‘And often played the lead.’
This is going nowhere.
He needs help. Divine Inspiration. He calls to mind a ditty from his childhood days in Sunday School.
Never fear when you’re in doubt…
Trust the Good Book to help you out
Ah, he thinks. Of course. He addresses the congregation with a renewed sense of purpose.
‘Irene’s granddaughter has asked me to share with you Irene’s favourite passage from the Bible.’
‘And why take ye thought for raiment?
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow;
They toil not, neither do they spin;’
Odd that it should be Irene’s favourite. He always considered her to be something of a clothes horse. Not that he’s in any position to judge. Still, her granddaughter seemed absolutely sure.
The mourners are looking blank.
Time to round the whole thing up; retreat to well-worn ground.
‘Lord, comfort us as we recall our dear departed sister.’
He needs to grab his audience. Regain the upper hand.
‘Irene Violet Grover.’ He intones, with all the grandeur he can muster.
He makes a final effort to summon up his Fire and Brimstone preaching voice. The one he learnt at theological college. Where you say Every Significant Word as though it Starts with a Capital Letter.
‘Loyal Servant of the Lord. ….Loving and Much Loved Mother; Grandmother; Great Grand-Mother and Friend….So Many Things to So Many People.’
Elsie Tanner’s words are echoing in my head.
A Silly Woman Who Talked Too Much.
You don’t think of an envelope as heavy. Yet somehow this one is. A weight inside my pocket. A nagging, tugging presence. Begging to be read.
I’ve made a superhuman effort not to read it in the service. Not to rip it open as the young men in cheap suits transport the coffin down the aisle.
I wait until I’ve left the church. Until the mourners have disbanded. Until I’m at least two blocks away. Sheltering in the doorway by the Pound Shop.
Now I’m looking at it closely it’s crinkled round the edges. It’s been reopened and resealed. Someone else has seen the message.
One last message in purple ink.
‘DO NOT DISTURB THE GHOSTS.’
She’s been looking forward to this bit.
Standing by the graveside.
She’s seen it enough times in her mind’s eye; in the movies; on TV.
She wishes now she’d made more effort with her outfit. She’s thinking Mafioso Widow. Pillbox hat; smudged mascara; black lace veil to screen the tears.
Linda eyes the flowers on the coffin. It’s a miracle they haven’t blown away.
Christ knows how you anchor wildflowers to a coffin. Bradstocks seem to have managed it. They must know a trick or two. You would do, really. Four generations in the trade.
They’re barely even wildflowers. Little more than weeds. She and Billy picked them this morning. Out on Macey’s Field. She’s told anyone who’ll listen that it’s what Irene would have wanted. Flowers from the field.
She’s chucked in a couple of lilies too. She didn’t want to look too mean.
She had to bite her lip during the service. All that guff about the lilies of the field. She knows just what Irene would say. ‘There’s no such thing as understated beauty.’ Irene would hate those lilies. Freshly cut. Not even properly arranged. She’d hate the wildflowers even more. Irene liked a formal flower arrangement. Symmetical. Blocks of floral Styrofoam. Given a choice she would have opted for artificial blooms.
Bradstock Junior Junior Junior murmers something in her ear.
This is her big moment. Time to take a sad step forward. Throw a flower in the grave.
She hasn’t come prepared.
Billy steps up to the mark. He has pocketed Irene’s powder puff. Vintage Revlon. The one that’s shaped liked a peaked cap. It falls onto the coffin with a clunk.