Richard hadn't been to many funerals. Throughout his life he had either avoided them or only been persuaded to go by an anxious friend or relative, who wanted company – someone to be with for the obligatory occasion. But this one, somehow, stood out as being important. So he was going alone. And, at least, this was a chance to see John and Mary again; and an opportunity to meet friends from his past life up in the north of England.
He stood in the early morning queue at Sheffield station, his hair uncomfortably slicked back and shiny. He was dressed in his recently purchased dark suit bought specially for the occasion. The vast entrance hall, with its large illuminated departures board, echoed to the sounds of early morning travelling: groups of business men journeying to daily meetings together; small clusters of mainly men on the way to Manchester for the football; and family parties out for a day's shopping in Leeds or Barnsley markets.
The last time he had worn a tie was for his own mother's funeral. His stiff white starched dress shirt increased his discomfort, and the collar cut uncomfortably into his angular neck, irritatingly rubbing the perfumed skin where he had recently shaved. He purchased his ticket just after 9.30 to allow him to make use of his Senior Rail card for the first time. How the years go by! His journey wasn't far. A quick change at Leeds, and a thirty-minute train to Burnley.
John had given him the directions very clearly. Take the train to Burnley Manchester Road station (don't keep on to the main station), after a change at Leeds; then a taxi to the Cross Keys pub nearby. Any taxi driver would know where that was. And get there for about 1.00. Time for a quick bite with the family you have never met. And it was only a short trip from there to the Chapel in time for the service at 2.00.
Richard boarded the train and settled himself down for the trip to Leeds. The compartment was relatively quiet, and he relaxed in the comfort of a four-booth table seat. He had been told that his Auntie Dorothy had passed away peacefully in the nursing home a week ago. He blamed himself for not seeing her. He had told John and Mary that he had meant to visit her soon, but it had never happened. At the time too involved with sorting out his own mother’s final wishes: the disposal of her belongings; her last messages to local friends; and the staff she knew and loved in her retirement home. And now it was too late. His eyes wandered to a Metro that had been discarded on the seat opposite. Brexit Talks Develop Complications: Relationships Tested.
John had been to the funeral of Richard’s own mother some months ago. It had been a quiet affair in the village. Not many in attendance, but he had expressed his sincere condolences and had brought along a contribution to the Heart Foundation from Auntie Dorothy. What Richard was travelling to now was totally unknown. He hadn't been to Burnley for many years and only when his parents were alive for the occasional statutory birthday celebration. He wondered who he would meet there.
The train pulled into Leeds station and he found the platform for the Burnley train quickly enough. This one was a lot busier as its final destination was Blackpool. The platform was packed with lots of family groups. Parents fussing anxiously over children who were buzzing loudly with excitement. He managed to find a single seat along with a family of five. This time there would be no chance to settle down. He wondered what John and Mary’s family would be like. John had said he would be meeting them for lunch in The Cross Keys.
I want some rock, shouted the youngest boy opposite him. He was wrapped in a blue Superman sweater that had seen better days, and was chewing on red globular sweets from a bag of Haribos. When will we get there?
Not long now, Tom, breathed a large lady with huge pendular earrings (presumably his mum), Just sit straight and stop jigging about.
The sun streamed in through the passenger window revealing grey streaks of dried water on the glass and black stumpy angular shadows on the half-empty cups on the table. It was pleasantly warming and friendly with an atmosphere of excitement and expectation.
There! It’s going to be great on the beach, Tom. You can get to ride on the donkeys!
And on the Big Dipper!
We'll see when we get there. But not the Pepsi Max!, emphasised his Mum pointedly.
Richard wished he had been able to see his Auntie Dorothy before she died, but it wasn't to be. His Uncle Clement had passed away several years ago and they'd had no children. John's family were like adopted relatives. They had been the support and comfort that Dorothy needed. Again, Richard had never really met them, and he blamed his own parents. They had seemed to resent John and Mary and their children; and their interest in Dorothy. He remembered they had been very distant at Uncle Clement's funeral.
The train pulled into Manchester Road and Richard managed to squeeze past the seated family without disturbing the assembled packets of sweets (empty now) and the large cartons of Pepsi with bent angular straws that caught on the edges of his dress jacket. He somehow felt out of place dressed as he was.
The station was virtually deserted, one single British Rail attendant at the ticket barrier, but he found a lone taxi which dutifully carried him to what he presumed was the Cross Keys.
The pub was a typical Wetherspoons. A newly refurbished front advertising reduced-price family meals and the usual quiz night every week plus Saturday night entertainment. Laura Cross was the solo artiste this weekend, whoever she was, the sweetheart of the North.
Inside, through the heavily polished brass double doors, there was one large area divided into small compartmentalised family-friendly units. Each offering a certain amount of intimacy in a communal setting. White-globed chandelier lamps, recalling a Victorian era. Mirrored pillars, and a long open bar surveying the group area. Posters giving information about local celebrities. Richard noted one about Ian McKellen. The famous theatrical personality was apparently born close by. Richard thought he might have to make use of some acting skills himself in the next few hours.
There were comfort settees giving you the opportunity to talk informally. The menus reflected a middle-of-the-road answer to extravagant and personal individual tastes: burgers and dogs; salads and pastas; fresh from the grill; and deli deals. Richard noted that these smartly-sectioned meals were identical to those he had tasted in other Wetherspoons.
John and Mary (he assumed it was Mary for he had never met her) were looking for him as he stood by the bar and they quickly ushered him to where the family were already ordering food. Brief introductions were considered sufficient and everyone returned to their orders.
I really liked Auntie Dorothy, said John's granddaughter, Fiona. She was such a laugh.
She was just like one of the family. added Mary.
We thought there wasn't really any need for you to come to the crem, said John. But you're welcome to say a few words in the chapel. Keep it short. We need to run to time. Just take the car directly to the reception at The Lightning Tree. Think I'll just have a mixed grill, well done.
A tuna melt for me, Richard added, responding to the image presented of Dorothy’s impending incineration.
The meal was pleasant enough with only brief snippets of unrelated conversations amongst all round the table. They seemed to be looking at Richard from a distance.
We often come here for Sunday lunch. It saves us washing up, Mary declared.
Do you remember when Auntie Dorothy pretended to be our school teacher? What a laugh we had!, Fiona interrupted suddenly
A pity you never got to see Dorothy in the home; she was so comfortable there, observed John. (Was there a slight hint of niggling in what he said?)
John paid for the meal, then settled up individually with Richard.
Don’t worry about the tip, chuckled John, We have an arrangement with the pub – regular customers.
The journey with John and Mary to St Marks Chapel was tortuous and jerky, the large car weaving its way through row upon row of terraced houses, all regimented and identical. A landscape Richard well remembered from childhood. Playing allies in the grids of the gutter at night time, interrupted by knock-and-run forays to neighbours’ doors, and attempts at football in the cobbled streets.
Things don't change much round here, said John. Same streets, same people really.
They arrived at the Chapel but Richard did not recognise it, nor indeed where he was. A small rectangular-shaped building with clear bare white walls and a few stained-glass windows. Inside was virtually full but not with faces he knew and Richard, together with John’s family, was ushered to the reserved front pews.
The ceremony was calm and loving. John gave an impassioned address about Dorothy’s closeness to his own children and grandchildren, listing the many events and experiences they had all enjoyed together: the Christmas parties, the birthday celebrations and the frequent visits together to Rossendale Working Men’s Club and the Chapel. All Richard could do was to add brief references to the holiday forays undertaken to Bournemouth and Caernarvon by Dorothy and his mother, emphasizing the seemingly close links between the two sisters-in-law, yet acknowledging these as only too-brief encounters: weekend breaks away from their known environments. He felt distanced from what he was saying, as if he was commentating on his Aunt from afar. The closing hymn, Richard realised, was one sung at his own mother's funeral –
Who like thyself my guide and stay can be
Through cloud and sunshine O abide with me
He was a part of the unity, yet somehow separate from it. The service ended peacefully and Richard walked out from the chapel on his own as some of the congregation lingered in the vestry quietly acknowledging each other as they all stepped into the bright sunshine.
With the hearse going to the crematorium, Richard was directed to another car which took him to The Lightning Tree, a place booked for the reception. This proved to be a rambling hotel that had seen better days. A vast white-faced mock-Tudor edifice covered with now-peeling and wrinkled expanses, advertising, Book Early for Christmas. As Richard entered the main building he found himself trapped in crowds of people aiming for different rooms served by a central bar. One elderly stooped barman was attempting to serve many people from the different groups simultaneously. These groups were booked in for different events: a wedding; a hen night; a staff reunion; and Aunt Dorothy's funeral. Chaos surrounded all as two overworked waiters also attempted to serve food in all four rooms. Plates of sandwiches and sausage rolls and vast quantities of elaborately arranged cups in pyramids alongside single white pots floated from room and to room, and from table to table.
The guests from the funeral formed around several tables in one room but there was free flow into the bar area where Richard had positioned himself. He noted that John's family had formed a group on one table, whilst John moved from mourner to mourner holding brief conversations with each.
Richard tried a similar manoeuvre, but could only survive each encounter for the minutes it took to establish who each mourner was and where they were from. You're Mary's sister? Oh you know Fiona? And you remember me with my mum? Did I really have curly hair? It became ritualistic and meaningless. He couldn’t identify with any of them.
He went back to a seat on his own and nibbled at an egg sandwich. He looked at his watch. I think it's time for my train, John. Don't you worry. I'll book a taxi for the station at reception, said Richard. And he slipped inconspicuously from the room, moving past a group of bridesmaids in deep pink dresses giggling continuously and a bevy of females dressed in white T shirts emblazoned with Sharon's Slaves.
His train journey back through the dark seemed to take less time. The first train was this time virtually empty but most of the journey was punctuated with heavy rain and the occasional rumble of thunder. Richard had time to reflect on the events of the day. He had known nobody at the chapel or the reception except his Auntie Dorothy. Yet he felt that his presence had satisfied his own mind and given him the opportunity to reflect on the brief and only occasional encounters with his last relative.
The final train home was again different. A week-end holiday special to Cleethorpes – ideally timed for those on a weekend who wanted to get the most from a short break. This time Richard found himself surrounded by what seemed to be an office event. Young men and women using the break to establish team-building but also to mix socially – a weekend piss-up. The carriage was full of raucous chatter and peaks of laughter. The bottles of Prosecco circulated relentlessly:
I need a one dance, Got a Hennessy in my hand
As the noise and hilarity got louder the stormy elements outside the carriage grew proportionately and became more invasive to the rest of the carriage, as the train got noticeably slower.
An announcement on the train's scratchy tannoy system suddenly acknowledged clinically and without emotion the situation with the formulaic utterance: We regret to inform passengers that the current bad weather means this train will terminate at Sheffield. There is a bus replacement service to take ongoing passengers to Cleethorpes. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.
At Sheffield he left the disgruntled and bewildered passengers for Cleethorpes behind secure in his own onward journey home.
Richard was finally back in his own cottage in the village. His disrupted return journey was the last straw. Howling winds and lashing rain reinforced his feelings about the events he had experienced. The day had started pleasantly enough, if apprehensively. Now his mind was filled with the reactions of John and Mary and those of the family. The wind and rain increased his sense of frustration and isolation from the events of the day. He bolted the front door. Muted silence, at last. Safe and secure now in his own space.
He realised that the world that his Auntie Dorothy had created for herself in Burnley was not that of his own. She had surrounded herself with another family. He slumped into his chair by the fire that he had purposely stoked up in the morning.
Both his parents now dead. No brothers or sisters of his parents still living. No wife, or children, of his own. In sickness and in health. In sunshine and in rain. He raised a glass of red wine in acknowledgement. End of the line.