The mourners followed the pall-bearers to the grave. They watched as the coffin was laid on slats of wood, the undertakers holding the rope taut whilst their chief removed each plank from underneath the brown box. Then inch, by inch, they lowered it in the grave. The deceased’s daughter let out a long moan. His wife began to dab her eyes. The mourners followed suit. Hankies were brought to watery red eyes, hats were doffed in respect. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. He returned to the earth from which he came.Little spots of rain began to fall, then larger ones, umbrellas were raised and the funeral party scattered for cover.
Later, at the wake, his wife sat, straight-backed and pale-faced, in her black crape gown. She greeted her damp guests with an air of slight indifference, that was put down to shock. A young woman joined the queue. She was slim, dressed in Charles Worth, carrying an elegant black parasol.The wife shook her hand, wondered for a moment who she was, then turned to the next person. The woman wandered through the crowd, greeting no-one. She nibbled on a cucumber sandwich, wiping the crumbs from her mouth with a tiny lace handkerchief. A little girl ran up. She was dressed in black velvet, yellow curls tumbled down her back.
“Hello,” she said.
“My grandfather died.”
“My mother is very sad.”
“He was a good man.”
“He used to tell me stories.”
“Was he your grandfather too?”
“No. He was just a friend.”
“Oh,” the little girl paused for a moment, contemplating the idea that friendship existed among adults. It was too much. “There’s cake. Would you like some?”
“I’d like it very much.”
The lady in grey allowed herself to be led to the table. She ate a sliver of fruit cake, made her excuses and left. No-one ever saw her again.
“It’s just too sad,” said the neighbour.
“It is,” her friend nodded.
“A mother shouldn’t see her child in the ground first.”
“They say she ran back to the house to get the baby’s toy. If she’d only stayed in the shelter…”
“It’s too bad.”
The neighbours watched the grieving mother follow the coffin out of the church. She walked with a ram-rod back, her face invisible under her black veiled hat. Her husband walked behind her, staring ahead with expressionless eyes. There was to be no formal wake. The couple said it was because they had to get back to the baby, and everyone understood. But in truth, they couldn’t bear the throng of sympathetic handshakes. The graveside was dealt with as quickly as was decent. Water, earth, ashes, to ashes. She returned to the ground from which she came and it was time to go home. The little girl was napping, their friend said. They thanked her and saw her out.
The father poured out two glasses of sherry.
“I think, in the circumstances…”
She nodded, took off her hat, and let down her hair. Blond curls, greying in places, cascaded down the back of her black rayon suit. She looked out of the window as spots of rain fell on the pane. They sat in silence for a while, sipping their drinks. A cry came from the child’s bedroom, her old room. The mother sighed, she knew the routine. She put her drink down and walked upstairs to offer the necessary comfort.
“…I have a mental image of her now, standing on the front step in her dressing gown, shaking her fist at the house as if it were to blame for locking her out.” The mourners laughed, there were many such moments to remember. The deceased’s daughter continued, “What I loved about her, was she could laugh at herself too. She knew her own little foibles. It was a great gift, and for that and so many others, we’ll miss her.” She stepped down, and returned to her seat. Her husband raised an arm in comfort. Her brothers and cousins stood up to lift the coffin. Under the watchful eye of the undertaker, they carried it out to the funeral car and then arranged the convoy to the cemetry.
It was a colourful parade by the graveside, in keeping with the deceased’s wishes. No black, I hate bloody black, you’ve got that? They got it, and in respect wore turquoises, purples, reds, oranges. The daughter who’d given the eulogy wore a bright yellow dress, a sun-hat and strapless sandals. The grandaughter was sporting a blue miniskirt and pink halter-neck top. Only the second cousin made the mistake of dressing according to tradition, and they forgave her that on the account of the effort she’d made, coming all the way from Newfoundland. But the sunshine and brightness couldn’t disguise the inevitability of the thud of the coffin as it reached the base of the grave. The sprinkling of water, the clods of earth. Ashes, to ashes, dust to dust, she returned to the earth from which she came.
Afterwards, in the pub, the grandaughter approached her mother who was sitting alone with a glass of wine in her hand.
“I’ve got something for you.” It was a photograph album.
“Darling, how sweet. Where did you get these?”
“Grandma liked to tell me the old stories. She had all these old photos. She said I could keep them.”
Her mother flicked through the pages, “Oh look, that’s my poor grandmother who died in the war. And her parents, who raised my mother. She always said it was harder for them than for her.”
She carried on turning the pages, “My goodness there’s my great, great grandfather.”
“He was a station-master wasn’t he?”
“Very straitlaced apparently, though Mum always hinted at a disreputable past.”
“Wasn’t there some strange woman at his funeral?”
“So Mum said. They never did find out who she was.”
“Perhaps she was his first wife?”
“He looks very respectable though. Maybe she was just a regular passenger on the line come to pay her respects.” She closed the album and put it on the table. “This was very thoughtful of you sweetheart. Now go and mingle.”
She sipped a mouthful of her drink. “What do you think Mum?” she said.