He sat in the foremost pew and pondered that with this funeral, he and his sister were now technically orphans. He was in his forties so could he really use that word to describe himself or his sister? She is a few years younger, so maybe for her it would work. Random. The vicar, swaying slightly in his pulpit, had a serene expression on his soft rabbity face. His voice was animated and sincere, confidential. Did his nose appear to twitch? He was recalling happy times with Keith’s father, jogging, golfing, sailing and “just being two blokes together”. The words hung on the air waiting for the slightly baffled congregation to collect them. It’s a funeral right?
None of these things did Keith do with his father. And Keith was pretty sure that Lucy hadn’t done any of them either. The thought that the vicar had shared secret moments with their dad, along with the vicar’s tender tone was niggling. In his sister Keith could feel a tension, growing as the voice drifted on. Lucy shifted in her seat. She was sweating slightly, sighing and picking at her nails. The vicar’s tone verged on the sort of jocularity one would expect for a wedding speech. Now she was rolling her eyes.
Not that the loss was so dreadful for either of them. Their dad had been a very private man, a distant man and they rarely saw him. In his midsixties he’d not been so very old, just old enough to die. What was so bothersome was the knowledge that neither of them knew much about him or his life and now it’s done, over. No more chances. Too late. And then there was the shock, the unexpected visit from the police to tell him his father had suffocated and was dead. They described where he’d been found, who he had been with and how he had died. Details were being catalogued. After they’d gone Keith pictured the scene with his dad and the companion. He concluded they must have been following an old path, but not expecting the final fatal twist.
In had happened the top room of a large house in Hackney on a sunny Thursday afternoon. Keith pictured birds, heard their chirping outside and the rumble of the number 30 trundling towards Islington. He pictured spilt champagne and half eaten kebabs and the thrill jumping from excitement to horror in an ill-judged moment. What would the friend have done, laughed perhaps at the joke, wept as with shakey fingers he called the ambulance? According the police the friend hadn’t dare touch a thing as he waited, not even the congealing mess. It might have looked like Keith’s dad had hanged himself. Except that he didn’t. Keith saw slow falling tears and in his head listened to a replay of the detailed explanation of how the ropes and pulleys were positioned. He heard the friend describe how he’d been standing close to the bed ready for the finish, but not for the end. More tears.
And now Keith’s dad’s friend was in the back row sniffing into a paisley handkerchief. Surreal. Keith muttered the word and Lucy shifted her damp bulk a little further away, closer to the man sitting on her other side. He had tried unsuccessfully to take her hand, to proffer tissues, to whisper soft comforts. He was very new.
Standing in the queue to accept the mourners’ gentle kindnesses, Keith and his sister stood very still. Lucy simmered in ancient darkness and scowled at her boyfriend. A gentle and kind man, recently widowed, he was beginning to think that Lucy may not be for him, although the brother seemed nice enough. It was Keith delivering the required sad smiles and murmurs of appreciation. One by one the people shook their hands, offered the occasional hug and turned away.
Walking to the car with the nice boyfriend a respectful few metres behind, Keith listened and Lucy railed. First it was the nerve of their dad’s friend to show up, then it was the vicar’s jolly sermon and Keith’s “completely inappropriate” additions to the agreed playlist. And she was not coming to the wake. She was no longer meeting him at the solicitors and she would be on a business trip when the house clearing was due to start. They had agreed to do all these things together, in a spirit of sibling unity, of their new life as orphans, of sharing.
But no. There could be no new life until the old one was buried along with their father. Keith was learning, at volume, about a new set of ancient wrongs, wrongs that went back so very far and that Keith had no reference for. All those terrible slights that he had never heard of surprised Keith. Slowly he came to understand that buried there somewhere in the depths of her anger was more than this new list and the old familiar one. He started to understand that he was hearing a different sorrow, something beyond anger and its rot was slowly seeping up, unblocked. Lucy was unaware.
In every life there are sorrows for what might have been, for the choices someone else makes, for the legacy of uncontrolled decisions. This is the sorrow of lost chances, missed moments that never arose, of twists and turns in a life that shapes it into something unanticipated. So it is with us all Keith, saw as he looked over his shoulder at Lucy’s new boyfriend. He was on his phone and Keith hoped that here was one of thhose moments of alternatives, that it would lead the nice man away from Keith’s tortured sister. Lucy was still on the attack unaware tears were falling “And this stuff with dad. You knew, you must’ve known.” He didn’t and said so, lettin gthe sound and anger wash over him. He pictured it breaking on a distant shore, on the rocks of discarded temper tantrums and forgotten resentments. The echoes of so many hateful conversations riddled with jealousy and bitterness followed and Keith began to understand. With their father’s death, perhaps this was also and end for her. “Are you listening to me or is this you being sad? He was my dad too you know. And whoever that bloke in Hackney is, he owes me as well as you.” Lucy dabbed at her wet cheeks and glanced back to see her boyfriend raise a hand and point to the car. “We’re going now.” She was calm and let Keith take her hand and stare into her face. “Go. It’s fine. Ring me when you’re ready. Take your time with this.” And he knew that whatever is was with Lucy, it was over.