Some people die alone, without friends and forgotten. Perhaps they’ve started out again anonymously. Some councils employ professional mourners to ensure someone is there at the funeral……..
Brenda licked a finger and tucked her fringe back into place. It would have to do for now. They were beginning to file out of the first service, so there was no chance to nip into the ladies’ and sort things. The Lord’s My Shepherd filtered through the thick porthole doors. A stiff wind blew off the marshes rattling the last brittle leaves from the silver birches. Brenda shuddered. A burial was taking place on the hill. The mourners huddled close, heads bowed and collars turned against the wind. They were short, wiry men in shiny suits and flat caps. Two council workmen leaned on their shovels smoking through bunched fists. A pickup truck was loaded with soft, brown earth and pebbles and a roll of synthetic grass. The plastic grass was lush and uniform. It looked like the stuff butchers used to cover trestle tables to make you think of farm fields. She patted down her tweed jacket – a bargain from Evans, if a little snug – stretching it across her bum. Caught in the act, she gave a weak smile to Gregory. Jacobs and Sons had been undertakers in the town for six generations. Gregory was their eldest, a pimply, copper-haired youth whose hair was clipped close giving his head the appearance of a tin loaf. She felt sorry for Gregory. Imagine having to embalm folk while your mates were playing pool or parked up on the Chase with their girlfriends. There was a time when girls would have settled down with lads like Greg. Now they all wanted to marry footballers or hairdressers.
Brenda nodded to one of the mourners. Sheila worked in the Scope shop, sorting books in the back room. Sometimes she’d spot a first edition among the Dan Browns and Wilbur Smiths and make a song and dance about it, posing for photos in the local rag. They watched the glossy black hearse pull out of the gates.
‘I knew him from the market,’ Sheila said, ‘he had the pet stall.’
‘I know,’ Brenda said.
She used to buy millet and cuttlefish from him years back. One of those out-of-town pet superstores had opened and he’d lost half his customers overnight. They undercut him on squeaky toys.
‘Are you here for business or pleasure?’ Sheila said.
People thought Brenda’s choice of profession peculiar, but she didn’t care. She was here because no one else was. She plucked a piece of lint from her shoulder. A gust of icy wind made them step into the veranda. It was a narrow strip of felt roof that offered little protection from the wind or the rain. Fag butts had collected in a wire mesh drain cover. Flagstones stretched away down the slope to a memorial chapel. Lilies and chrysanths were stacked along the base of the wall. There were wreaths made to look like footballs and sports cars. The turf was bald in places, but trimmed neatly. Brenda longed to escape the concrete for a church service in the country. She’d watch crows gather in a distant cornfield. The coffin would be lowered to rest in the shade of a giant oak. The last of the mourners, a woman in white jeans and a leather jacket, dabbed at her cheeks with a balled hankie.
‘Not dressed for a funeral, is she?’ Sheila said, a little too loudly.
‘Is yours a suicide?’
Sheila mouthed the word suicide, though there was no one near to hear her. Brenda’s friends often mouthed words to avoid embarrassment. You had to learn to lip-read or you’d soon be left behind. They’d spell things out, like S-E-X, or use phrases like ‘down below’ or ‘waterworks’ if they wanted to get medical. How times had changed. Brenda heard girls discussing what went on in the bedroom on the bus or in the supermarket queue. Sally in the post office often talked about her boyfriend’s failure to perform.
‘Perhaps it’s the cold weather,’ she’d said.
Brenda had blushed and taken cover behind the greetings cards.
Sheila tapped her arm.
‘He’s a tramp, is he?’
‘The police called him Michael.’
‘Is he the one they found at the allotments?’
Brenda nodded. He was called Mick, according to the local beat constable Francis Jeffries.
‘He’s got no one?’
‘They haven’t found anyone.’
Mick had been in a terrible state. Brenda didn’t get to see incident sheets or crime scene photographs but there were ways of learning the facts. Bob Anson had been a friend of her Malcolm. From time to time she’d drop in to custody with a Victoria sponge or a tray of flapjack.
‘These are not for your eyes, Bren. You know I would but-‘ Anson shrugged.
Mick was found beneath a stack of damp crisp boxes in a disused allotment shed. He might not have been found for months had it not been for an eleven-year-old called Mark Sperry who hit a tennis ball for six over the park railings.
‘He was growing into the boards,’ PC Jeffries said, stirring sugar into his tea straight from the packet. ‘And the foxes had had a go too. Poor kid went and trod in him.’
‘Bugger off out and make yourself useful,’ Anson growled, ‘Pardon my French, Bren.’
‘Put his foot right in it, so to speak,’ Jeffries muttered.
Brenda knew a certain type of policeman reveled in telling war stories.
‘It’s alright,’ she said, ‘let me know if there’s anything more.’
She made a note in her pocketbook. She’d order a bunch of lilies for Mick; nothing over the top, but a token nonetheless.
Sometimes families had been found long after the burial or cremation. Brenda had a small digital camera to record events just in case.
‘David Bailey won’t be having sleepless nights,’ she’d say, and hand prints over to the relations. She was always thorough and took photos of the coffin and the flowers. It was too late, but they always said they were glad someone had been there.
‘I wouldn’t want him to be alone,’ they said.
‘He wasn’t,’ Brenda said.
She got a swell of pride in those moments. Anson said the pathologist had estimated Mick’s age at 35-40.
‘It was heart failure. His liver was on the way out too. Too much sauce,’ Anson said.
Mick’s case was unusual in that they’d found nothing to identify him. There was usually something; a letter from the DSS or a scrap of paper. Often they’d find a name on a bottle of pills or a doctor’s appointment card, but Mick had nothing. They’d asked around, checking the grimy studio flats and crumbling terraces behind the cemetery. He drank cider, they said. He grunted and stared at the floor. Patrick, who cleaned the park toilets, thought he was from Stoke.
‘Did he tell you that?’ Brenda said.
White bleach fumes nipped at her nostrils. Patrick shrugged and pushed the mop across the tiles in a slick S. Brenda hadn’t hoped for much. You couldn’t rush things. There was the tramp they’d found slumped against the front of the train station. People stepped over him thinking him drunk or sleeping. He was stone cold for hours the doctor said. Six months after Brenda buried him Bob Anson had called.
‘I’ve had the Garda on,’ he said.
He’d had to explain to Brenda he meant the Irish police.
‘You’re not going to believe this.’
Brenda scribbled down the details. Anson had a name, an age and an address for her.
‘He nicked a bottle of milk in 1968. Three days later he walked out on his family. They never saw him again.’
Brenda thanked him.
‘They took prints otherwise we’d never know who he was.’
She’d once buried a man known only as Body Five – the number he’d been assigned in the investigation of a warehouse fire.
Brenda looked up. The vicar was holding the door for her. He had clear blue eyes and tufts of white hair about the ears. Dandruff sleet lay on his shoulders.
‘It’s Michael, isn’t it?’
Brenda nodded. The organist was playing Abide with Me.
‘I don’t think he was much of a football fan,’ Brenda said.
She knew the organist, Ray. He wrote the questions for the pub quiz night at the White Hart.
‘What would you like?’
Brenda bit her thumbnail.
‘I’ll have a think,’ she said, ‘he’d like something bright on a day like today.’
Brenda took her seat, alone, at the front. The vicar began to read from Psalm 13. She thought about Mick. How he’d made people cry and laugh and dance. She preferred not to think what had gone wrong. It was Brenda’s job to celebrate a life. She wiped a tear from her cheek. One day, perhaps as dull and wet as this, thirty odd years ago, he’d bundled into this world screaming and wailing. He’d been hailed as a little miracle and held so tight by his mother she never thought she’d let him go.