The spade turns and the soil lifts.
Sobbing flows from my mother beside me. Parting words are issued by the man in authority, God is thanked for his good work, no irony intended. Restless feet shuffle, and a cold wind cuts its way through all present. A child cries, one of my younger cousins, though more likely through cold or the need to pee, for the child is too young to mourn.
Finally soil is released, confetti style, onto the coffin. I accept a steady line of commiserations, direct those that want to towards the pub, finalise the thank-yous with the vicar, take one last look at the flowers and am ready to go, more than ready for the beer that awaits.
The Stag. His local for thirty years. Took his money. Took his liver too. A fitting place for farewell, his memories live here as much as anywhere. And it remains his local, just five minutes from the cemetery. I buy a round with a wad I can’t really afford, but you have to don’t you. I pass beers and gins to anonymous passers-on behind me, and do the necessary with the notes and the barman.
Sandwiches circulate. Beer and gin are imbibed. Misery slowly slinks away, until the first laugh is heard, at which the tension disappears.
I circulate. Count cousins (nine) uncles (one) aunts (nineteen), family friends (seven) and total strangers to me (also nineteen). I talk to the strangers most of all. Mostly friends of my father. Mostly regulars. Mostly coming here anyway. And one couple, here on honeymoon, whom I had bought drinks by mistake, and who consequently feel duty-bound to talk to me. They pass on their condolences, I pass on my congratulations. We pause awkwardly, they both laugh, simultaneously, the way lovers do. I let them be.
I move on until all the family are greeted, thanked for coming, and allowed to utter their ‘I’m sorry to hears’. Most of them I only see at funerals these days. I’ve only ever seen cousin Will in the dark suit he wears for weddings, christenings and funerals, although he’s a butcher by trade. Would I even recognise him in civilian clothes?
Sandwiches are soon passed round and soon pass away. The sausage rolls also go with great speed, and the cousins, aunts and uncle all leave too, with a hug and a kiss from the women, blushing awkwardness from the children, and warm handshakes from the men.
Before long all the family have left. There is just me and mum. And the honeymooning couple, who insist on buying us both a drink. And the remaining six or seven regulars, who have in truth forgotten us anyway. The honeymooners join us, and excitedly tell us a secret, we’re the first to know, she’s just discovered that she’s pregnant. Don’t tell a soul.
The barman comes over with my father’s tankard. Kept for thirty years behind the bar. Pride of place. I accept the drink within it and so doing form a bond; with the tankard, with the Stag and consequently with my father.
Eventually we are ready to leave. I return the tankard to the bar, where it belongs, and am reassured that it is there waiting for me, anytime I happen to be passing. I walk home, supporting mother on my arm, the way dad used to.
We arrive back to an empty house.