THE DRIVER was waiting in Aldi carpark, a surprisingly accommodating space for a supermarket chain favouring smaller, more intimate, plots. The vast and highly festooned vehicle, parked up ready for the first guests to arrive, made for an incongruous sight.
This was the starting point for a round of pick-ups that had caused the driver to groan when she’d learned exactly how many there were. Spread far and wide, with many stops touching winding residential streets, it was not likely to be an easy morning. For now, though, she sipped black coffee and felt the warm comfort of a McMuffin in her hand.
The coach had taken all the previous day to fix up. A check list was rigorously followed by the one person charged with decorating it. He was a funny sort, the driver had thought, once she’d been with him a while. Quietly determined, he seemed a little unfriendly at certain moments and endearingly vulnerable at others. One minute he’d be laughing to himself, the next wiping away tears she recognised were borne of sadness, before laughing once more. Then the cycle would begin again.
Rarely engaging with clients, especially the unpredictable sort, she hadn’t liked to talk to the man. And why she was forced to meet him, one full day before driving, was anyone’s guess. Why the boss himself couldn’t have done it instead was never explained. Lazy bastard. All she’d been told was the client requested someone from the company attend the fitting. Perhaps it was to make sure the vehicle remained safe to drive, with all the drapery and bunting and God knows what else hanging all over the place. Even so, the boss could have advised him. As he was so fond of reminding everyone: he did, after all, own the business, founding the firm alone and working every hour God sent until he could afford to employ a second driver. He was, after all, a cock shoved so far up his own arse that he couldn’t even walk without moaning about it.
She sipped her coffee. Save the few early-birds trundling in and out of neighbouring McDonalds, the area felt deserted. Unwrapping her breakfast, a movement outside caught her eye. She sighed. Great. The second she wanted to eat, someone demanded her attention. The driver pretended not to see; instead, she bit into the McMuffin, leaned back against the head rest and closed her eyes. Whatever is was made from, it tasted good.
A knock on the window.
She turned, with her best did you have to? face punching. There stood one elderly woman and two old men. The woman was mouthing something at her. A question. Is this… something or another… coach?
Is this? The driver thought, angrily. Is this? For Christ’s sake. You could hardly fucking miss it.
After her second deep sigh of the morning, the driver nodded and pressed a button. The ancient trio moved around to the now open door but rather than climb aboard they waited.
‘One more to come,’ the woman said.
Right, thought the driver, so you didn’t actually want to get on. She considered closing the doors again, but decided against it. Last time, she had almost lost her job.
THE GRANDSON. This is how Will had introduced himself. Why had he said it? Why hadn’t he said, hi, my name is Will? But he didn’t and the driver hadn’t said much back and the long day passed in near silence.
Decorating the coach had been fun. Having no input from anyone other than the list of directives written by Granny, made it easy. Will had hoped to get his children involved in helping with some of it, but they were busy, they’d said; they still needed to buy something to wear. All of you? he’d asked. All of us, they’d said. Will thought buying outfits one day before they were needed was a risky approach, and said so. The kids just groaned a collective groan and applied a tone to the name Dad that turned it into an insult. Great Granny told you what to do, the youngest called brightly before speeding away with his siblings, as if this was help enough.
Will had smiled. It was good to know his children were friends. He’d always said they would be, eventually. Throughout the battles making up the long, long, war, he had made certain to reassure them that they wouldn’t always hate each other. All four had taken the idea of future friendship either as an affront to their dignity or as a threat. But he’d seen the connection and understood they fought partly because they were so close; both in age and spirit. His thoughts had not been on them during the coach fitting, however, but far away, looking to the future and therefore unavoidably straight to the past.
Five years had slipped by since their mother had died, and four of those five years had seen Will unable to move on. He’d existed solely for the children, though they were barely that anymore. Without them, without their anguish and neediness, their inappropriate humour and strange acceptance, their silence and those oddly rowdy rages, he knew that by now he would be lying beside her. Instead, he was moving away.
It had taken two runs in the car to shift everything needed from the garage to the coach. There was bunting, meters and metres of battery powered fairy-lights from Ikea, posters with uplifting messages Will suspected were chosen for irony but couldn’t be sure, photos, balloons, bags of confetti; everything needed to throw a party on a bus. The champagne took up much of the space and drew the biggest question: would anyone want to drink so early in the morning?
Now, on his way to Aldi carpark to meet Mum and her two brothers, Will again thought about the drinks. Had he allowed enough? And did they need more bottled water? Aldi would not yet be open.
Something else wasn’t right. He ran through everything in his mind, from the moment the guests would be boarding. Music. He had forgotten the music.
THE GUEST list was extensive, Harriet knew. It included almost everyone Mum had met in her life, including the last few years. She’d done well to keep such a breadth of friendship when all around they were dropping like flies. Of course, it was because most of her friends were dead that they were able to avoid the party taking on festival proportions.
Where was Will? He’d done a marvellous job organising everything, but there was a schedule to keep to, and the rude driver seemed fed up. Was she annoyed that they weren’t yet on their way? When Harriet had tapped on the window, she’d thought she might wither and die from the look she’d been issued; strike another from the party list.
That bloody driver; it was hardly the cheery face of someone in charge of a party bus.
Harriet looked at her brothers, still so tall despite their age; one with a wife refusing to come and the other unmarried. For herself, four failed marriages in, she thought that of the three of them, this single brother had been wisest. Not that marriage hadn’t brought her adventure. There were no regrets as such, but nor was there any of the lasting companionship marriage had promised. On the other hand, she was free; an easy sort of freedom that comes with wealth and family.
Poor Will, even he had been let down by life. Perhaps he would find someone else. Perhaps soon, he might pick himself up and move on. He was certainly a good deal brighter these days than he had been. It hadn’t been easy, Harriet reflected, to watch her only child flounder, unable to mourn in any constructive sense. They’d all been devastated, of course, but Will was crushed. Nature was nothing short of duplicitous, giving with one hand and snatching back with the other.
Harriet stole a glance at the driver. What a sour face to be lumbered with, she thought, though her own mother always said that by forty years old everyone had the face they deserved. The driver had clearly followed an unhappy, unpleasant, prickly and somewhat fatty path. But maybe life dealt her a poor hand?
And what if it had? Look at poor Will and his terrible time, yet his handsome face could still light up a room. Where was he?
‘Won’t be much longer,’ Harriet assured the driver, who, apart from the occasional chew and sip, was corpse-still.
No reply came. Harriet wondered if they should get on and sit down, for while the day promised to be pleasant, the chill of the autumnal morning hung in the air.
She asked her for brothers’ opinion, and both eagerly boarded without being asked again.
Before following them, Harriet looked to the road one last time. Will. At last. There was his car. But who was the woman at the wheel?
THE JOURNEY was the party. This was a strange concept to Bill, but he was keeping quiet about it; he didn’t want to seem out of step and spoil the fun. His sister, Harriet, and her lad, Will, knew what they were doing. Mum had given them the list herself.
Bill looked to his brother, head leaning against the window, eyes wide. Tom was far away as usual, his mind no doubt drifting amongst theories, calculating what-ifs and the probability of if-nots. He did not have a stubborn wife citing travel sickness as a reason not to come.
Have a tablet, Bill had said. She’d refused. Had it been a cruise he was taking her on she’d have stuffed one down faster than she swallowed cake. It didn’t pay to dwell on it, Bill thought. Let her have her day at home alone with Gypsy Wee, watching telly and drinking tea. She hadn’t been tempted by the champagne, asking him who would drink champagne at that time of day, because I certainly wouldn’t. Bill wasn’t sure he wanted to, either. He wasn’t fond of the stuff even in the late afternoon of a hot summer’s day. He was hoping for beer and thought it likely Will would have factored this in. He checked his watch. Eight in the morning was a little early but he’d accept one if offered, just to get into the spirit of things.
The coach had made two more pick-ups since Aldi. One at the end of a strange little lane, where an even stranger looking, scrawny, old lady that no one seemed to know scampered aboard, grinning. The other was outside a one-stop store; a family group of two young parents and two little boys. Bill had sighed aloud at the sight of the children. Harriet told him off, saying they might be no trouble at all. As it was, they were; fighting over the window seat three seconds after stepping aboard.
He thought of Gypsy Wee, the small Yorkshire terrier who had so easily filled the space left in his wife’s heart by Oscar, their old black lab. She’d never really liked big dogs, so for her the space was not especially large. For Bill, it was vast, and Gypsy Wee rattled in it. Bill’s wife did not know Gypsy’s full name. He’d added the Wee in a childish moment, and not because the dog was small.
Oscar Wilde was the lab’s full name, because Bill felt the man had been a genius and very brave. Most of Bill’s friends assumed the name was ironic in some way. It wasn’t, which is why they could never work it out. Bill had just wanted to honour the man.
He sensed movement up front. Will was starting to unload the drinks. The next stop, he was saying, would see another guest joining them and after that it was a bit of a drive to get the next few people. It was, therefore, time to start celebrating because Granny wouldn’t want anyone to wait any longer.
The music turned up a notch. Looking around the coach, Bill suddenly noticed just how decorated it was. The interior shimmered with life of its own. He was just trying to recall the last time he had seen such extravagance when his thoughts were interrupted.
‘You prefer a beer, Uncle Bill?’
THE LOO was tiny and Effie struggled to find space to manoeuvre Charlie. He was excited and keen to get back up the few steps to the party, but she knew he needed the toilet and was making him sit it out until he’d done his business. He’d been kneeling on the coach seat with that strange, sideways, posture he often took on, making him look like a curled lamb; holding in what must eventually come out.
She watched his bright expression shift to one of flushed concentration. It was starting. She hoped it wouldn’t smell too much because the only way to make space for them both was by leaving the door open.
Effie wasn’t sure why the boys had been specifically invited, and the last thing she’d wanted was to bring them. She could have left them with her mother easily enough. But their dad had insisted. He’d said the old lady had always been kind to him and they’d spoken of it recently.
Was she mad, Effie had asked? Yes, she was, came the quick reply.
‘No. Not that. The sort of mad that isn’t,’ he’d said, seriously.
‘What the hell does that mean?’ Effie frowned. Her husband once gardened for the old woman, and always brought home so many hilarious tales each week that she thought this softened response might indicate a change of heart. He was feeling guilty for laughing, perhaps.
‘It means just that,’ he went on. ‘It means truly sane, rather than working at it, like most people. When I knew her, she didn’t consider how things sounded. She was funny; content to amuse herself and if you happened to be standing nearby then she was happy to amuse you, too. I’ve never known anyone so cheerful.’
This statement had irritated Effie. Wasn’t she cheerful enough for him, anymore? Since he’d decided to switch from gardener to student of psychology, she’d been feeling insecure. At least, according to him she had been. Of course she was insecure. Studying wasn’t cheap.
‘That’s not the sort of insecure I was talking about,’ he’d said, ‘though you do have a point.’
Loudly, Charlie announced that he’d finished pooing. Effie shushed him, wiped his bottom, washed his hands and hers, and staggered back up the steps. The baby-weight had never left her, but today was not the day to begin dieting. Champagne was being served and she was not going to miss out on the one thing that might see her through.
Back at her seat, she noticed her husband held a single champagne flute. She reached out to take it and he let it go, but with reluctance.
‘I thought it was a little early,’ he said, ‘so I didn’t get you one. But have it. I’ll get another.’
Effie felt her blood beginning to boil. Too early for her but not for him, she thought? Then she said it out loud.
He gave her a sharp look. ‘Before we left home, you said you would probably wait before drinking; that it was too early.’ He sighed, exasperation plain.
Had she said it? Yes, she had, but the least he could have done was ask.
THE SON of such a character ending up so different from her seemed extraordinary to Tom. He looked to the subject of his thoughts: Bill, with his quiet face that was never quite happy. Was that wife of his a burden, or was she the reason he got out of bed in morning? Either way, it was Bill’s choice, he supposed. Thankfully, she had stayed away.
Music beat in Tom’s ears. How did anyone stand doing this every weekend, or whatever it was the youth of today did to entertain themselves? Whatever it was, loud music would certainly be involved, he knew that much.
He smiled a little. Was it the party his mother envisaged, or was it a way of making others suffer, just a tiny bit. He was like his mother, even if Bill was not; finding fun where he could, little parcels of delight here and there. He enjoyed life, just as she always enjoyed it. Work was a pleasure, his friends engaging, and his mother supportive in every respect from as early as Tom could remember.
Bill did not understand him like their mother, and nor did Tom wish him to. Frankly, there wasn’t much to understand. He was focussed, self-aware and happy with his life. He did not need someone at home waiting for him, ready to wash his underpants or cook his dinner. Friends came on the few holidays he took and went to the theatre and cinema with him. And when they didn’t, he was perfectly content to go alone.
But sometimes – times like this – despite himself, Tom’s thoughts unavoidably turned elsewhere; a short dip into regret that always served to remind him a person existed who should be waiting at home, if not sitting by his side. For a few, painful, moments, he longed for that homely offer of a cup of tea; or the silent flicking through of a magazine, while he, Tom, worked at his desk. But that person had been forced into line with different ideas, leaving the only fracture in Tom’s otherwise complete life. Tom smiled, affectionately. The names were never a great match: Tim and Tom; too camp. Had they met now, in this era so changed from that one, things would have been different. The last Tom heard, and the only thing he had ever heard, was that Tim was an old fart in a nursing home and his wife of fifty years was dead.
The time for wishing was past. Almost. What Tom now wished for most was that people would stop asking him when he was planning to retire. He wasn’t. He’d made this plain and everyone seemed happy with it. Yet still, each year, someone would ask him again. He did not need reminding that life was galloping by, any more than they should keep fretting that someone so useful was going to leave, although they should accept that he was unlikely to be useful forever. Death would certainly come knocking at some point.
‘Drink?’ Harriet said, as she made her way down the aisle, avoiding the tangle of legs.
‘Cheers.’ Tom took the proffered champagne.
His sister was a different species from Bill altogether, he felt, with multiple marriages and husbands who were lucky to come out alive. She took no shit from anyone – her words – but seemed unable to recognise the stuff when it was lying next to her in bed. Of course, she’d made magnificent financial gains along the way, and Will and his children had been the best pay-out of all. He was a great lad and the kids a credit to him and his late wife. Tom frowned. Her name had never stuck in his mind and since her death this felt disrespectful. Was it Laura? Or Natalie? One of them was Will’s long-term girlfriend from school, the other his lovely late wife. Will had a brighter look about him, Tom thought. This strange party must be agreeing with him.
THE LOO was busy again. The longer the journey went on and the more champagne flowed, so the number of bladders needing emptying grew. June decided to sit down on one of the steps to wait. It was the only sure way of peeing, since queuing from her seat saw a stream of people using the tiny toilet ahead of her.
The coach was throbbing with chatter and laughter, just as she knew it would be when she’d jumped aboard, all those hours before. Not too much longer and they would be there. June didn’t know anyone on the bus and hoped the same would be the case once they arrived, for one or two had insisted on meeting at the venue. Her old friend had no choice but to be there ahead of them, of course; a dear friend and the best of them. No, June preferred not to get caught up with people she knew already in these situations, because heads soon became buried in conversation with everyone else ignored, which was not the purpose of a party. She enjoyed the freedom that going alone allowed, talking with whomsoever for however long, or sitting by oneself and people-watching; it was the most sociable way, she’d found.
It was a clean sort of bash, which June also preferred. She’d been young, she’d lived, she’d seen drugs and silliness, though never partaken of the former whilst trying hard not to judge those who did. But deep down she had judged; drug use was such a complicated path to take she’d never understood it. But then, she hadn’t understood so many things, she felt. In fact, when she looked back over her life and tried to recall all the crossroads and obstacles that naturally occurred, it looked like roadworks at a spaghetti junction. What the hell would it look like on drugs? Why was she thinking about drugs? Perhaps it was the talk of morphine recently. June forced her thoughts away. Today belonged to someone else.
A strongly perfumed person trotted by behind, cheerily greeting whoever it was they were planning to talk to. June smiled. Even as a youth she’d preferred this sort of party; music, fancy booze, and chitchat. She turned to check if the two little boys were still dancing in the aisle, but couldn’t see far enough along. Dancing in the aisle. How perfect. Their mother looked half cut an hour ago, and one could only hope she wasn’t planning on dancing with them, June thought, since that bottom, once it was swaying, might concuss those within buttock-reach. Such a miserable looking young woman. What she needed was to get out in the sunshine and dig those boys a vegetable patch.
The sound of the flush was encouraging, though where all the mess was going was a mystery. June resolved to ask the driver about it. She thought of home, and of Benji. He’d be fine for the day on his own, pottering in and out, though now he was older he tended to lie around on the patio or some other warm patch nearby, rather than on the roofs of neighbouring sheds. Had he been a dog she might have brought him along.
‘Are you okay, June?’
June turned and looked up, then smiling widely said, ‘I might be ancient and half dead but I am perfectly able, thank you, Will.’
‘Are you queuing?’
‘It’s a great party. Well done.’
THE JOURNEY was drawing to an end and Harriet sensed the mood changing. There was a drop in the pitch of chatter and a lessening of laughter; a certain anxiety, perhaps.
Will started clearing up, though Harriet had already told him it wasn’t necessary. They would all be making the return journey and inevitably people would opt to sit in the same spot; it was human nature to find comfort in the familiar. If they’d made a mess it was their own to sit in. Wasn’t the driver tasked with clearing up, she asked him?
‘Yep,’ Will confirmed, ‘but I doubt the grim-faced beast will do it.’ He gathered an empty packet.
‘For goodness sake, Will, do as you’re told and stop,’ she ordered. ‘Leave it. You’ve done enough today without this. We’ll sort it together, later. If it makes you feel better, we’ll leave it tidy enough so the sour-puss just needs to gather up a few things after she’s dropped us all off again. Okay?’
The power of a mother never lessened, she knew, when the order was something that might benefit the child. Will nodded and stopped what he was doing.
‘Here.’ Harriet handed him a glass of champagne. ‘You’ve been so busy checking on everyone else that you haven’t stopped for a drink yourself. Enjoy it. I don’t recall Granny mentioning tidying up, do you?’
Will took the glass and Harriet wandered back to her seat, close by. Drinking champagne in the morning was fun, but she felt a weariness creeping over her. She opened a bottle of water and drank it down. The refreshing effects of rehydration were instant. Across the aisle, Bill and Tom were talking. Wonders would never cease, Harriet thought. Though her brothers were always civil, and there had never been any serious animosity, they rarely spoke or made time for each other. Yet here they were, two old men on a party bus, nattering away like there was no tomorrow, both with a pint of beer in hand. Pints, not bottles.
‘Look at that. Will really has thought of everything,’ she said to June, who had just chosen to sit beside her. ‘Even a casket.’
‘I think you mean cask,’ June said, with a chuckle.
‘Oh, my goodness. I suppose I must!’ Harriet laughed.
THE GUEST sitting next to Harriet was making Bill uneasy. She was laughing too much, he felt. She was a friend of his mother’s, he knew, though on introduction her name had gone in one ear and out the other. Tom hadn’t been able to recall it either, and took offence at Bill’s suggestion that this meant they were getting old. Bill decided to placate his brother, for today was a day for friendship. And he’d been well rewarded. He and Tom were talking more freely than they had in years.
‘Champagne’s good but the beer’s better,’ Tom remarked.
‘It is,’ Bill agreed, raising his glass to confirm the truth of it. ‘Very nice.’ He ignored the cackle from across the way. That woman was taking the idea of a party too literally.
‘How old do you suppose she is?’ Tom asked. ‘Not as old as Mum.’
So, she bothered Tom too, Bill thought. ‘Older than us and younger than Mum, I suspect, which wouldn’t be difficult.’
‘Maybe she’s a smoker,’ Tom suggested, with a grin, ‘in which case she could be thirty-two.’
‘You still smoke, Tom?’
‘Not for forty years or more.’
Bill nodded, allowing the number to sink in.
‘You?’ asked Tom.
‘Never. The missus does. Not in the house. She has three a day, regular as clockwork. One after breakfast, one after lunch and one after dinner. Sits outside, on the back step.’
‘In the fresh air…’
‘Exactly,’ laughed Bill.
‘Still keep the house clean enough to eat dinner off the carpet, does she?’
‘Immaculate, Tom. Immaculate. You wouldn’t know anyone lived there, let alone that we have a dog.’
‘And what about you, Bill? What do you get up to these days, while she’s cleaning?’
Another laugh cut through the conversation. The two men looked across to see June raising her glass, ‘To your mum,’ she called.
Silently, they returned the gesture.
‘I write a bit,’ said Bill. ‘And read. You know me, Tom.’
Tom paused momentarily, before saying, ‘I often think of your love of literature. Didn’t you once own a dog called Shakespeare, or was it Tolstoy?’
Bill was touched that his brother remembered such a thing. ‘Oscar,’ he corrected, ‘Oscar Wilde.’
Tom again hesitated before speaking. ‘Why that writer?’
‘I liked the name Oscar,’ Bill said. ‘And…’
‘I liked the idea of the sort of bravery that changes things for other people. I still like it.’
Tom said nothing.
Bill began chuckling. ‘Though my Oscar was a lazy, greedy bastard who confirmed the reputation of black labs, rather than smashing preconceptions.’
‘Did Oscar Wilde really smash anything?’
Bill shrugged. ‘He died very young.’ He wasn’t sure why he’d added this fact, especially since Oscar the black lab had lived an unusually long life, something his wife viewed as spite.
There was something tangible hanging between the brothers, and Bill knew a moment had arrived that he could not let pass. He had never shut his brother out and only ever wanted to know him better. But it had been hard to know someone whose thoughts were always focussed on work, or avoiding the path he felt he could not openly follow.
‘Whatever happened to that mate of yours?’ Bill ventured. ‘Tim, was it? Nice guy, as I recall.’
‘Tim? Why, I haven’t seen him in years.’
Bill felt his heart racing. These were not things he was used to talking about, but a morning free of his wife and drinking beer on a party bus had loosened the years of repression and the old-fashioned correctness knotted inside. ‘Did you ever meet anyone else? I mean, is there another man in your life? Anyone special?’
THE GRANDSON. The father. The son. All Will needed now was to be told he was the Holy Ghost, which would be entirely inappropriate for this particular gathering.
All morning he’d been labelled as one thing or another. And he knew people loved to define him as widower. They saw him as some kind of hero, a man who tragically lost his wife and brought up four kids on his own. He was their father – what else was he going to do?
Will sipped the champagne his mother had forced on him, and tried to relax a little.
What happened when widows and widowers remarried, he wondered? He supposed their special status was withdrawn, returning them to wife or husband. And what of their new spouses? They’d be labelled second wife and second husband. He glanced at his mother and sighed; or third, or fourth.
Why did everyone have to fit with some definition or another, and be categorised? Even Uncle Tom over there existed with a degree of classification hanging over him. You remember Uncle Tom, the one we all think is gay? Was this any substitute for the fact he was very tall and thin with bright red hair, albeit now somewhat faded? Wouldn’t any one of these three features prove a more worthwhile description when prompting someone’s memory, than what may or may not happen between the sheets, unseen?
Will wasn’t sure why he was suddenly feeling so cross. Possibly, it was because the event had loomed large and he’d managed very little sleep the few nights before. And maybe it was the fact that when it was all over he intended to tell his mother and children that he was remarrying. More accurately, he was marrying the cleaner, who brought him absolute joy when he had believed his quota was spent.
‘Penny for them?’ asked his mother, leaning over him.
‘Just having a quiet moment while I can,’ he said. ‘When we get there, the party will move up a gear, I think. The kids just messaged me. They’ve got everything organised. Apparently, everyone has to wear a tee-shirt.’
‘Mum never mentioned that.’
‘I know. They sent me a picture.’ Will pulled the image up on his phone and showed her. ‘They’re just trying to get into the spirit of the thing.’
The picture made his mum smile. ‘That’s fine,’ she said.
‘They sorted it yesterday. Had me ranting at them for not being organised enough to have their outfits ready, but they were really picking up the shirts. Paid for them out of their own pockets.’
‘That makes a change,’ his mother quipped.
‘Indeed, it does,’ Will agreed.
THE DRIVER had been as bored as it was possible to be. Ordinarily, passengers were excited and loud to start with, before slowly lulling into an accommodating silence. Once this happened, she would then listen to the radio, quietly. It was the atmosphere of the coach that pacified them, she felt. A shared, safe space, warm and gently rocking; a fully upholstered womb. But not this lot.
The noise had been ceaseless, and, in her opinion, the party itself inappropriate. There was no way on earth she would have allowed her own grandmother to organise such an irreverent funeral for herself. Since she was already dead there was nothing to worry about, but even so.
She’d take charge, all right, she thought, setting her chin. Someone who can safely move fifty-two people and manoeuvre forty-five feet of coach would have no problem arranging such a thing. It was easy. She’d done it before, though not for her grandmother: a respectful church service, a hole in the ground, followed by a family-only wake in the local pub with forty pounds behind the bar. None of this traipsing around collecting up any old waif or stray. Who knew how much it was costing. And where was the respect?
A tap on the shoulder reminded her to open the doors.
Steadily, passengers disembarked. Outside, four twentysomethings, too slim and attractive for the driver’s liking, were handing out bright green tee-shirts from a box. The two small boys were given tiny copies, which they immediately put on. Their mother, whom the driver knew was called Effie, because throughout the journey there had been much berating of her, was not objecting. Instead, she was helping, whilst loudly declaring the small tee-shirts to be the cutest things she had ever seen. She was plainly a woman who had never been to a pet shop, the driver thought; a person who had never cradled a baby rabbit.
The front of each shirt bore a picture of a very old woman holding a flute of champagne close to her smiling face. One child turned, and the driver could see the reverse of the tee-shirt bore a depiction of the back of the old woman’s fluffy white head. She sighed. Wouldn’t a picture of this person as a young woman have been nicer?
In the warm autumn sunshine, the guests clustered around the coach and chattered, waiting for direction. This was no Aldi carpark. This was one of those fancy grave yards for the politically correct, where people planted trees over dead loved ones.
A sudden wrench of the heart caused the driver to stop eating the cold pasty she’d automatically reached for on parking. Geoff. He would have hated this place. He loathed nature. How she missed that rotten bastard, with his fat gut and lewd humour. She’d been driving around with a small, framed, picture of him, secured to the dash so he could enjoy the route ahead. She touched a finger to it, flake of pastry falling. This lot had partied and laughed and cheered a woman who had lived her long, long, life. Geoff had gone at fifty-two. Where was the justice in that?
Across the way was a white marquee. Eating again, the driver watched as the grandson broke away from the group and marched over to check it out. He stopped to speak with someone and then began waving everyone across. She’d seen this many times. Not a marquee at a funeral, but the way crowds moved when summoned, as if some vacuum were pulling them away from the safe proximity of the coach and into the unknown.
THE LIFE of the party rejuvenated once in the marquee. The space was large, and adorned with pictures, most featuring the old woman in her latter years. A few showed her as a young girl, a few more in her prime. In the largest print she wore a summer dress; standing tall with a broad smile, shading her eyes against the sun. In the smallest image, she was a baby.
Rows of chairs, each set with a party popper and cracker, revealed to all that their attention would soon be required. Up front and central, was a small, closed, cardboard coffin, draped in homemade paper chains cut from old newspapers and magazines. Inside it, rested she who had been daughter, sister, wife and widow, mother, grandmother, great grandmother and friend. Most of all, there lay a person who had been herself.
A ceiling of fairy-lights hinted at the long festivities still to come, the hum of a generator giving background to waiting staff dressed entirely in white. They stood with trays of water and orange juice in elegant tumblers, plus a few canapes for those in need of something to nibble on.
There would be more champagne later, one of them assured Effie. It would be given before the banquet, for the toast. After this, there would be a choice of wine, beer, or soft drinks. First, there was to be a short ceremony.
The two little boys took front seats, their reluctant father unable to shift them. Alongside, were Bill, Tom, Harriet and the great-grandchildren. June settled herself one row behind. Effie chose to sit off to the side.
Music began. Chopin’s Funeral March. June’s shoulders began to shake with mirth.
Will stood before them all. He smiled, and took a breath as the music faded. Then he
began the speech that had kept him awake for three nights straight, while his new love slept peacefully beside him.
‘According to my grandmother, she spent a happy life striving and never quite reaching her goals. It seems fitting then, that she passed away the day before her one-hundredth birthday…’
Harriet smiled. Her mother would have found that line very amusing.
Tom allowed a tear to fall.
Bill noticed the atmosphere was lifting from the question mark his mother’s choices often aroused, in this case the sombre music, to the hearty exclamation mark she deserved. He liked to think in these terms, since life was a journey that was rigorously punctuated. Regardless of when or how it has been lived, irrespective of exclamation marks, question marks or semi colons, colons, and Oxford commas, there can be no avoiding that final full stop.