Saturday, 25 June 2011
Jade heard the knock on the door and stopped to look in the hall mirror before opening it. Her fingers brushed away a small piece of white fluff from her black coat. Not sure about the boots. Too late to change now.
Michael stood on the other side, dressed in a dark suit that stood out against the colour of cold snow.
“Are you ready?”
“As I’m ever going to be.”
Jade stepped out, shut the door carefully and examined the ground before taking small steps on the ice. One foot slipped as soon as the smooth surface of the boot’s narrow sole hit the icy footpath. She fell backwards and looked like a windmill as her outstretched arms flapped about trying to secure her balance. Michael took hold of her arm and steadied her. she gripped her fingers around his sleeve like a wrestler in a clinch.
Michael guided her to the passenger side of the car. She waited as he walked round and stepped in. A moment later she was inside. It was warm.
“Yes. Just not used to snow. Especially in these boots. Should have worn my wellies or my trainers but I told Mum I’d make an effort.“
Head forwards, she watched as Michael drove slowly and negotiated his way off the estate and onto the main road which was clear with snow pushed up against each side. An old couple gripped onto each other and the hedge that lined houses on the pavement as they slipped their way along an icy path with fresh fall.
”Thanks, by the way.”
Michael flicked her a look.
“For coming with me. I didn’t really want to go on my own and I didn‘t want to be in that funeral car. Easier to escape afterwards.”
“No worries. But I don’t even know why you’re bothering. I didn’t think you liked him that much.”
“Not many people did. Mum‘s still in shock. I’m going for her. It was a bit, er, you know … sudden.“
“As long as it doesn’t take all day. I told Emily I’d get the kids from school.”
“I think it’s just this morning but we might have to drop in after for a little while. I offered to organise things for her but she wouldn’t have it. Costing a fortune as well.”
“Always was a bit stubborn, your mum. “
“Quite, but this is going to be hard for her and she needs support even if she thinks she doesn’t.”
“Shame he was such a bad tempered old git. Don‘t you remember that time…”
“Yes, yes, I know but you couldn’t take him anywhere. Embarrassing. Especially when women were around. I don’t know why your Mum put up with it.…. And he could be a right nasty bastard when the mood took him.”
Jade put her head in her hands and then swept her dark, long hair, back from her face.
“He wasn’t like that always. He was lovely when he first came. It was only as he got older. I think his mind had gone a bit…”
The heater in the car whirred hot air into Jade’s face.
“… It’s quite warm,” she said, as she pulled her scarf from around her neck.
Michael fiddled with a switch and the whirr whispered in a lower, cooler breath.
“Is Kelly or your brother coming?”
“Kelly said she would. Don’t know about him. Aunty Flo‘ll be there.“
“Maybe you ought to phone and check?”
Jade’s eyebrows arched . She dipped into the black handbag by her feet and pulled out her mobile phone. She looked across at Michael, began to dial and held it to her ear.
As she waited for Kelly to pick up, she pointed to the left.
“Ooh - this way, Michael - It’s by the hospital.”
He cursed: “Shit. I’ll have to turn back at the roundabout ahead.”
Jade tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and stared down at her knees as the phone at the other end picked up. “Oh, hi Kelly. It’s me. Are you still coming today?”
Michael couldn’t hear the response but he saw Jade‘s smile began to slide downwards as she listened.
“Yes, I know, but Mum wanted us all there. Even Michael’s coming and he’s only a cousin. You know she’ll never let it drop if you don’t come….”
Jade held the phone away from her ear and all Michael could hear were obscenities.
“Look Kelly. OK. I know he hasn’t always been around but he was good for mum - despite his faults. You know how much she loved him… and don’t forget, if she didn’t have him she would only have been whining for us to spend more time with her as she got older… “
Michael nudged Jade’s arm and nodded ahead. They’d caught up with the funeral car on Hospital Road. It was in front of an impatient racing cyclist who was zig-zagging in the space between the hearst and Michael’s white Vauxhall, Michael wasn’t sure if he was going to overtake on the inside or the outside. Traffic crawled behind them all.
“Yes, yes, I know he was. Please Kelly. For mum.”
There was silence as Jade listened. She sighed a resigned “OK” , ended the call and slapped the phone shut, holding it between her fingers like a prayer.
“She says she hated him. She doesn’t see the point of all of this and she thinks Mum will be a lot better off without him. They never got on those two. She tried sticking the boot in when Aunty Flo first brought him round… and the way he used to look at her. They just got off on the wrong foot and never had a chance to put things right as the years went on.“
Jade unclasped the phone and dialled again as the hearst turned off the main road and onto crunchy snow. It‘s 15mph slowed to 5mph. The funeral car had a floral show in the back and a small arrangement spelled out with a bouquet ; JIM.
Jade shook her head, clasped the phone shut, and put it in her bag.
“No answer. He‘s not there.“
“Or just not picking up,” Michael cut in.
The cars moved through snow covered gates that led into a cold and bleak small cemetery. Engraved stone tombs lay embedded in white which hid most of the details of the dead and who loved them. The cortege inched it’s way towards to an open grave and stopped.
A thick stockinged-leg finished off with low black ankle boots pushed out of a door, opened by a streak of a funeral assistant in top hat and tails. The elderly woman, with silver-white short hair and wearing a thick, black fleece, turned, and reached back to help the other elderly lady who was half way out with a stick. The second woman pushed away the offer of help from an outstretched arm and shuffled out of the car with some difficulty.
Once outside. The two women stood, ankle deep in snow, huddled and shivering as Jade stepped carefully towards them while gripping onto Michael’s arm.
“Hi, Aunty Flo. How is she?“
“I’m not so old or so stupid, I can’t speak for myself, you know!” the woman with a stick snapped.
“Sorry, Mum. You know I didn’t mean that.”
“Well, for your information. I’m fine. But I‘ll never get over this. Do you hear? Never!”
“Time’s a great healer, Ruth,” Aunty Flo said.
“Come on, Mum. You’ll be fine, you’ll see.“
“He was such a good frie… “ the end of the word came out like an aching limb.
Michael handed her a hankie. She blew. Loud, like a trumpet playing, screwed up the hankie and pushed it back into Michael’s hand.
“Thank you.“ She nodded towards Jade. “It’s very good of you to bring her.”
Michael walked to a bin and wiped his hand down his trouser leg.
“She tried, mum, she really did, but she just couldn’t get the time off work.”
Ruth sniffed and pursed her lips.
“At least your brother sent flowers.” She nodded at the JIM.
“Yes. I did wonder about that.”
“It’s the thought that counts.“ Flo put her hand on Ruth’s shoulder. She turned to Jade. “Not the sharpest knife in the drawer. He didn’t realise it’s supposed to have the name of the deceased and not the person who sent it. But never mind.”
“Jim’s always been such a good boy,” Ruth said.
The thin funeral assistant was joined by his shorter, stocky colleague and between them they carried the coffin at a jaunty angle, due to their respective heights, to the open grave where a woman in a black cape, and holding a black book, waited at the head.
“I couldn’t have had him cremated. I just couldn’t.“ Ruth sniffed.
Jade patted her mother’s arm as they walked slowly behind the coffin carriers. Her new boots were ruined but at least they stopped her feet getting wet. The thick snow was easier to negotiate than the icy pathway
Michael, with hands clasped in respect, walked next to Flo. His feet were soaking and he couldn’t wait for all this to end.
Flo nodded down at her feet: “I’m the same. But we’ll all get a nice cup of hot tea back at Ruth’s. Are you coming , Michael?”
“Maybe just one cup, aunty Flo but I can’t stop. Kids, you know.”
They arrived at the graveside. The coffin was placed on planks ready to be lowered in. Ruth let out a gurgling cry of grief and launched forward towards the coffin. She slipped, her stick angled away from her, and she fell before Jade could catch her. Ruth, lying in the snow, picked up a handful and threw it to the ground.
“I just loved you so much. My Boy. My friend. My All.”
Jade, Michael and Flo, reached down and helped Ruth to her feet. Michael looked like he was about to explode through facial skin. His face hurt trying to keep a sombre look when every muscle twitched and urged him to roar with laughter.
“It’s alright you sniggering, Michael, but he was always there for me. So loyal, forgiving, he’d have died to protect me if he had to. Unconditional love, that’s what he gave me. You don’t get that very often. Who’s going to be there for me now?”
The woman in the cape began to speak as the assistants lowered the coffin in.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” She threw in a small handful of soil from the newly unearthed mound by the side of the grave, topped with white. It scattered across the brass name plate.
“We commit the body of Scruff, great friend and companion of Ruth Robinson for 16 long years, to the ground. “
Ruth hobbled forward. She took out a photograph of herself with a collie dog and a brown, leather collar, rather worn around the edges, from a bag passed to her by Flo, and threw them into the grave.
Michael rolled his eyes and checked his watch. Jade nudged him. Flo stroked Ruth’s back as she sobbed. The woman with the cape muttered some kind of prayer and after a minute’s reflection in silence, it was all over.
The cortege turned and walked back towards the car. As soon as they were out of sight, a man in a waterproof coat which said Pet Cemetery on the breast pocket moved in. He drew in the last of a cigarette, threw the stump into the hole, picked up a shovel, and began to fill in the grave.