Mum had a quixotic relationship with funerals. I’ve always considered the seven ages of man to be best described by what the happens to our longest friendships and how we celebrate with them: we meet them at school and share the sandpit; we move to the next phase of our lives in a blur of partying; we form a long term relationship with someone and our BFFs are there persuading us to have just another and forget them; we acquire our first home and warm it with said friends; we pop out sprogs whose heads are wetted with the self same mates; we divorce that ill chosen life-partner and our hands are held and sorrows drowned by our chums; and come our last, those friends are there, knowing better than anyone who we were and why the wake is our first solo celebration without them, but, as always happy we are paying.
Maybe that’s why funerals can be sad affairs, because the centre of attention is well, absent. Leaving aside all that grief and loss stuff of course.
Not for mum. No, as she got on, they were events to be embraced.
First there was the sharing of the news, and the excuse to reprise both the life now over but also they mode of death. This need for detail was neither salacious nor gratuitous. Partly it stored up a comparative knowledge that might aide others – ‘oh yes Dawn had Prescott’s Biblious Gromet Syndrome but she lasted ten years after the tuna poultices were applied’; partly it allowed for a deepening of the sympathy – ‘poor Merryl had Crowther’s Redundancy Complications, and could never manage cribbage after the third operation’.
Then there might be a little light speculation on who might go next. ‘Dennis is peaky’. ‘Harold has given up Rioja.’ ‘Beryl is on the dabs again’.
And the type of send off. ‘She said quiet. Though she liked a do if some one else was paying.’ ‘It’ll be canapes and warm white. Never did grasp catering did Phyllis’.
Of course there was some mileage in who hadn’t been invited. ‘Dolores is going to her daughter’s that day.’ ‘Really? No invite?’ ‘I expect so. After the crochet farrago, you remember?’
The songs. ‘She’ll have hymns, the heathen.’ ‘Apparently he wanted Kylie but Martine put her foot down after that video embarrassment.’
So when Joan, a family friend of some 60 years died after a short bout of pneumonia, we had to go. Dad was at school with Joan’s husband, Fred and they had married a couple of years before Mum and Dad. Sadly Fred now had dementia but their sons were organising things and were keen if mum could make it. ‘Not many left,’ was the way their GP son, the eldest put it to me. ‘Dad mentions your mum. A lot.’
That was left to hang. You wondered why he should remember her specifically. But Mum was keen so I took a day off work and planned to drive her the 150 miles to Surrey for the service and wake and then home.
We had a bit of a to do in the car. Mainly because we used hers – ‘It needs a run’ – and I said I’d drive. ‘I’m still capable of driving, you know.’ Hmm we left that one hanging. Then there was the radio. ‘It doesn’t work properly. I can’t turn up the volume.’ ‘You’re not using the right knob, mum.’ ‘Well that’s a bloody silly place to put it.’
We settled eventually and talked about Fred and Joan and boating holidays in the early 1950s before children. Of Fred and Dad, lean young men, just out of the forces showing off by jumping in the Thames and posing for the camera. Of parties. Not exactly sober affairs. Of Fred’s old Ford that took them everywhere but hated the many Surrey hills. Apropos of this, mum said, ‘Poor man had one shot off.’
It is difficult to know where to come at a statement like that. I was pretty sure she didn’t mean Fred so decided on the who question hoping that the what would be answered too.
‘George Bale. Big bear of a man. Odd nostrils.’
Were they the what? Did he lose a nostril? Having one would be ‘odd’ in several ways.
Mum stared at the recently cut hay being bundled into those huge ball things that pass for haystacks these days. It was a lovely autumn day. ‘Fred drove the boys to away games (of rugby). He always tried to avoid taking George because of his size. Said it weighed down the car.’
‘Did he have the handlebar moustache? Rode a Triumph motorbike?’
‘Wrong George. That was Stuart. Charming man though he did pat a little too much for my liking. Drank Vermouth.’ This last said in a way I think meant she suspected his orientation, though that contradicted the tendancy to pat women. Mum wasn’t someone you patted twice methinks.
‘They had to take George because he’d injured himself. They were off to the hospital which meant going up Church Hill (this is one of the steepest hills in North Surrey) and the car was struggling. When finally they crested the top and breathed a collective sigh of relief, Fred looked back at George and said, ‘Just as well you’ve only got one, George or we’d not have made it.”
I waited. I know my mother. She was deliberately waiting for me to ask the what. She could out-wait St Peter, that woman. I asked.
‘His testicle. Hit by a snipper near Mannheim in 1945. George always said it was as well it was his left one because he was so right handed.’
The funeral was freezing but we warmed up at the do after. Mum held court, telling nephews and nieces and younger generations about the Fred and Joan she remembered. George’s testicle loomed large as it were. She loved to shock, did mum. Meanwhile Fred circled the food table greeting mum with the best smile of the day and a hug of real affection. Mum played along each time, like they hadn’t met in ages.
On the way back mum was quiet, contemplative. Finally she said, ‘Dementia is a dreadful thing, isn’t it? Losing someone you’re close to without really being able to grieve and move on. But oddly the new Fred is lovely. Charming. He’d become something of a curmudgeon latterly. This one is much more like the old Fred, the one we holidayed with. I hope his children can appreciate that at least.’