Afternoon mist hung in the trees surrounding the small Chapel in the big Cemetery, dimming the air until only the absence of sodium street lights prevented the scene from resembling an October evening: not all that different from a March afternoon, then.
Inside, the Minister, his voice indelibly marked by an East European youth, looked out at the mourners, folded his hands, and began his practiced service with the words, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to celebrate the life of Brian.”
Thirty faces froze into prayerful expressions, the common theme being the devout beseeching of whichever deity came to hand that no-one giggle, or I’m going to completely corpse.
Fortunately for the soul of the departed Brian Andrews, the service was in no other way memorable, leaving the mourners, Richard Worthington and his wife Judy among them, to concentrate upon a respectful send-off.
Back into the damp air, still suggesting that, at any moment, an ageing Peter Cushing would appear, pursuing a young blonde in an open-neck nightie, the Worthingtons guided their agreed posse around the corner to their parked Volvo, for the surprisingly long drive to the graveside. Richard and Judy – who had heard every joke there was, who would have positively delighted in one that hadn’t previously been used on them – were amongst the first not to refer to that dangerous moment. John Wetherall had no such inhibitions.
“Bloody typical of Brian,” he offered.
“I didn’t know where to put myself,” put in Charlie Harris.
“Not a problem Brian ever faced,” observed John. “Which, come to think of it,” he added, “has a lot to do with why we’re here today.” Richard, still tall, increasingly lean, and showing signs of growing grey around the edges, winced.
“Still,” John finished, “he’d have been the first to have laughed.”
“Thank God he wasn’t there, then,” Charlie said. “Cos if anyone of you had laughed, I’d have gone, and it wouldn’t have been a pretty sight.”
“Charlie,” said Judy Worthington – similarly tall, but of more generous build than her husband, with long fair hair that she was still trying to arrange decorously inside the collar of her best coat – “you have never been a pretty sight at the best of times.”
Three of them laughed, Richard merely adding a polite smile to the mix as he thumbed the car key to release the locks. In the years since he had drifted into Judy’s circle of friends, on his return from Chester, he had met Brian from time to time without ever really getting to know him. He was well aware that Brian was known for putting it about a bit, and from the areas of personal history that Judy still refused to share, had the benign suspicion that some of it had been put near his wife at one point. But as long as as any putting had been confined to the period between her divorce and the Christmas he’d first taken her out, his interest was no more than prurient.
The graveside ceremony, brief and simple as it was, was affecting to all of them. Brian had only been forty six, and if most of his assembled friends and colleagues were younger than that, it was not by so much that they could afford to feel proof from the winds of mortality. Richard, five years behind, seemed more affected than most. Judy, who knew it was not the prospect of death being somehow catching that was getting in her husband’s eyes, edged him forward quickly to toss a handful of token earth onto the coffin before pulling him away.
“Come on,” she said softly, “we don’t need to hang around. Brian wouldn’t have still been here if it was someone else.”
Richard smiled, though it didn’t rate the name. “Sorry,” he said, with some difficulty.
“What are you saying sorry to me for?” Judy asked. “It’s not three months since your Dad, you’re allowed, you know.”
Mike and Sally Stowell followed them away from the grave, Mike stamping his feet a little, as if to remind everyone that not only was it cold, and wet, but here was someone here with a genuine claim to be considered nearer the grave than Brian had seemed to be, and that a couple with their own transport ought to be offering to take the oldest mourner off to the pub. Especially if, now Brian was no longer supporting Mike’s profits, his bereft mates could make a fairly immediate contribution to takings by way of a wake. In these times, you took what you could get.
“You’re heading back to the Dragon, I hope?” Mike rumbled. Richard, lost in his own thoughts as he was, surfaced quickly enough for a warning look at his wife but she was already agreeing.
“If you don’t want to hang around,” Sally said, noting Richard’s expression, “could you give us a lift? We can start getting the food out.”
“Ham sandwiches?” enquired Richard, but it was under his breath and no-one except Judy was listening to him anyway. One of her feet got tangled up with his long enough for a boot-heel to do damage to whatever polish was still clinging to his instep. Richard limped ostentatiously back to the Volvo, but as he was at the back of the party, no-one was required to notice.
“Don’t forget we’re taking John back,” he warned Judy, before unlocking the doors with the fob. She stood back to usher Sally in to the back seat. Mike, breathing heavily, hung back.
“Suppose I’d better get in the front,” he suggested, pushing his ample waistband forward as justification. Richard, with a grin that could have earned Jack Nicholson an extra $5,000,000 in his next movie, shook his head.
“Spouses in the front,” he said, waving John Wetherall over.
“What? Two big fellas like us in the back?” Mike protested.
“You’ll survive,” Richard said, making sure both pushed themselves into the car’s interior before he laid the seat back against John’s knees and ushered Judy in with all the care of a dealer in Mysen China wrapping a package for a customer in the Gaza Strip.
“Thanks, pet,” she whispered, the softest of Geordie accents coming out.
“Think little or nothing of it,” he said, automatically.
“Oh, I do,” Judy offered, wide-eyed.
“Hmph. What did your last slave die of?” Richard asked.
“The same thing you will if I’ve got anything to do with it,” she said.
“That I can believe.” He rounded the car and slid awkwardly behind the wheel as he manoeuvred his head under the door frame.
They left the Cemetery. Richard turned left at the gate, and left again at the lights, onto the Parkway. The rain was now a mere scrape of the wipers and Richard turned these off. In the back, Mike grumbled at his confines, Sally told him to sit still, John asked that if they had to be crammed in like this, could Richard at least drive a bit faster, but he kept to a steady 30 all the way into Town.
By dint of being first back to the Dragon, Richard discovered he could get away with a three drink round: lager for himself, Landlord for John and a bitter lemon for Judy, who greeted it with a look of distaste. She had followed Sally to the nook at the end of the bar where, until the refurbishment five years ago, the pool table used to stand. Richard squeezed in beside his wife, bending his knees awkwardly to fit under the table and bumping her thigh as he tried to get comfortable.
“He’s not very generous, is he?” said Sally, eyeing the drink. “You want to get a gin in that after standing outside for that long.”
“Give over,” Richard said, “it wasn’t that cold.” He gave Judy a warning look that she chose to ignore.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll let you stand me one later, Sal.”
“Yes,” Sally said. “I reckon you need it on a day like this.”
Richard took a pull from his glass. Under the table, his hand found its way onto Judy’s knee. The gesture was neither sexual nor proprietorial, but familiar, or rather familial. Whilst he talked to John, Andy, Sarah and Bob arrived, to a look of delight from Mike. Judy chatted with Sally and Arthur, Mike started bringing out trays of sandwiches, which were indeed primarily ham, and the rest of the funeral party slotted in, talking at cross-purposes and cross-angles. Richard’s hand remained, a touch of security. Sometimes, when Judy turned to address someone on his left, her hand would rest on his arm for a moment, until she needed it for her drink.
Richard frowned. Waiting for a gap in two conversations, which was like trying to get onto the Mancunian Way in rush hour, he hissed in her ear, “I thought you said you wouldn’t be drinking.”
“One glass, that’s all,” Judy replied, sotto voce. “Anyway, it’s white wine, not gin.”
“Well,” Richard said, unmollified.
“I hope you’re not going to start treating me like a child,” Judy continued. “I’m not the first woman in the world who’s done this, you know, millions of us survive every year. And it’s only going to be the one.” Before Richard could mutter something unnecessary about how it had better be, she was into a conversation between Sally and Sarah about Brian’s last girlfriend, and he was being drawn back to his corner of the party, with Alec Morance asking something about how they were going to replace Brian in the Department.
If the pool table hadn’t been moved into a back room during the refurbishments, someone would undoubtedly have suggested a quick game of doubles, in honour of the deceased. If this seemed disrespectful, it could be understood in the context of Brian having been captain of the pool team at one time. This status had little to do with his often erratic cuemanship and much more with his ability to coerce people into turning up for away matches with their own transport. Of course, if Rumour – a well-informed if not always reliable fellow – had it right, the fact Brian was shagging the Landlady of the time couldn’t have hurt.
One time, Richard reflected, when his propensity for going in-off would have come in handy.
About twenty of them had come back after the funeral, hutched up on the seats or cramped in around the tables. Temporarily detached from any of the conversations, Richard tuned in idly to the buzz. For someone with Brian’s record, it was perhaps odd that only three women had turned up for the funeral, or perhaps it wasn’t odd at all when you considered that none of those present had featured in any of Rumour’s carnal bulletins.
Except, of course, for those old tales of years back that featured his own sweet, sanctified Judy, in respect of whom Richard had been industriously closing a blind ear ever since.
What were they on about now? And John was saying something to him and Richard lost the plot and the thread and slid back into another deep pool of chat.
“Go on girl, don’t think it’s a secret from me! Not the way he’s fussing over you about having a glass of wine. How far along are you?”
“About two and a half months, according to the Doctor.”
“Two months? I thought you were usually regular. Didn’t you start to worry when you missed the first one?”
“Well, yeah. Last month, when I was a week late, I made his coffee one morning and it made me feel so queasy, I threw up in the sink.”
“And that didn’t give you any clues? I mean, I know it’s your first, but it’s not like you haven’t got enough mates who’ve dropped them for you to have had a clue or two.”
“Go on, girl.”
“Wait a minute, wait. I don’t want him to hear any of this… No, look, keep all of this quiet, but I was scared stiff. I didn’t want it at this time.”
“He knows, of course. I mean, it’s obvious, the way he’s been treating you all day.”
“He knows about that. I told him last night, and he’s over the moon, bless him. And don’t you go saying anything, it isn’t public knowledge yet, and it isn’t going to be for as long as I can get him to keep it our secret. I want as much time to go by as I can. He might not make the connection, but I don’t know about some of this lot…”
“You mean? God, girl! How long?”
“And is it?”
“…………………………you tell me.”
“Exactly. Now shut up, for God’s sake, he’s turning round…”