Mark shivered a little as he tightened the scarf around his neck, turned up the collar on his best black overcoat and reached into his pocket for the leather gloves that Jess had bought him for his last birthday. He slipped his hands inside, the fake fur interior bringing slight relief from the icy wind that was coming in from the northeast. Why was it always so exposed at places like this? Mark stood away from the main waiting area, stamping his feet occasionally – as if that was really going to help – and watched as the first of the mourners arrived.
The family had asked for bright colours to be worn rather than black but somehow Mark felt the mix of purples and blues a little incongruous for the surroundings and the occasion. Within minutes they began to come in numbers; swarming up from the car park. By tradition, Jews bury quickly and it had been barely thirty-six hours since the tragedy had occurred. Shock was etched on many of the faces, old and young alike, as they greeted each other with handshakes or hugs that seemed tighter than usual.
From where he stood, Mark could make out the dwindling frames of his aunt and uncle, Anne and Michael, his late father’s sole surviving sibling. He took comfort in the fact that at least his parents were no longer here to witness this. Hunched over at what looked like almost a right angle, Anne and Michael appeared even older than their eighty years, giving Mark immediate pangs of guilt that he hadn’t checked up on them or had them over to the house more often. They were greeted by cousins he barely recognised, as groups of family friends strode arm in arm towards the prayer hall. And then he caught sight of Jess. Her face was grey; her appearance vacant as if her entire soul had been removed and taken somewhere else. She struggled to walk as those assembled spoke quietly behind hands about the awfulness of the situation; others moved forward to approach her like fans in the most subdued of mosh pits. Jess moved tentatively as if each step weighed her down a little more than the one before, stopping to clutch on to Charlie, their son, as if he was the last remaining constant in her life. Charlie, twenty years old, but propping up his mother, coping with something that no-one of his age should be forced to cope with; trying to be strong, yet crumbling beneath the suffocating burden of other people’s sympathy. Sophie, their seventeen year old daughter, followed behind, sobbing hard, her head locked to the chest of her boyfriend Chris; his protective arm around her, guiding her when she seemed unable to walk anymore.
Mark, watching from the place where he stood, the cold really getting into his bones, began to cry himself at the unimaginable tragedy of the scene. He hadn’t had a clue how he was going to feel about today, but then he had never been to his own funeral before.
It had been a typical day for Jess; trying to cram in far too much in too short a space of time. When Mark and the kids had grabbed breakfast and left the remnants strewn across the kitchen before each going their separate ways, she had felt like screaming out in despair. How difficult was it for them to put their dishes into the dishwasher and return the cereal boxes to the cupboard, she wondered; too difficult, obviously. She had street-walked Pepper, their four-year-old miniature Schnauzer, before driving the five minutes to Costa Coffee to catch up with Marie. As she slumped into the leather-backed armchair and took her first sip of the skinny caramel latte that Marie had had waiting for her, she sighed deeply and felt relaxed for the first time that day.
“Mark doesn’t want to do anything for his fiftieth,” she said, snapping a biscotti in half and dipping it part way down into the warm coffee. “He seems dead set against it but I think it’s something we should be celebrating.”
“We could always throw him a surprise?”
“Could you imagine? He’d hate that. You know how much Mark likes to be in control.”
“Well how about something simpler? Don’t go for the whole big glitzy party thing if you know he’s not up for it. Why don’t a few of us just go somewhere nice for dinner or away for the weekend?”
Jess inhaled deeply.
“Yes, why not? I’ll talk to him about it tonight. He’s daft, really. You only get one life; might as well have as much fun as you can while you’re here. He’s been feeling a bit under the weather lately, complaining of headaches and feeling a bit sick. It would do him good to let go a bit.”
“There’s so much of that stuff going around. I’ll have a dig at him next time we see you or I’ll get Tony to suggest it to him. The idea might stand more of a chance if the suggestion doesn’t come from one of us.”
Charlie hadn’t really got used to wearing a suit every day. He would constantly wrestle with the top button of his shirt in an ongoing effort to feel comfortable without falling below the standards of dress that was expected of him in a new job. He’d lost count of the number of times Mark had told him, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression”. It had become a bit of a running family joke. But then he’d also lost count of the number of times that Mark had told him lots of things: that The Rolling Stones were the best band ever; that Messi had nothing on Cruyff and that he’d go deaf if he continued to listen to music that loud. So he was twenty now and college was behind him but who, in their right mind, honestly thought that getting up at seven every morning and dressing to be uncomfortable was a sensible way to live their lives? Mark laughed when Charlie said things like that.
Charlie, in turn, just wished his Dad would see him as a man and not cling on to the notion that he was still his little boy.
This morning was worse than normal. Charlie was nursing the remnants of a hangover caused by one too many beers watching Arsenal on the big screen in The Plough. They had come back from two goals down to win in the final minutes against all the odds. Drinking on a ‘school night’ was never a great idea but three rounds of buttered toast and a couple of paracetamol on his way into the office would soak up the excess and take the edge off the worst effects.
A levels; Christ, Sophie hated them so much. The whole thing must have been the product of one sick mind; so much pressure, so much all or nothing. Jess and Mark had told her more than once not to panic, that the results weren’t the be all and end all of life, but then it wasn’t them staring down the barrel of a triple A grade conditional offer from the University of Leeds, was it? Five months out from the exams themselves and Sophie was beginning to regret ever having agreed to do them. Sure, she was looking forward to the freedom that going to university offered but she felt she might be an emotional wreck by the time she got there. And then there was Chris. Okay, so they’d only been dating for six months or so but she felt like she loved him; he was funny, he bought her little presents and when he held her close under his duvet she felt safer than she had for ages. Her parents were one thing but, not that she would tell them, she couldn’t bear the thought of being parted from Chris. People could mock all they like but she felt he completed her.
Papers were strewn across the table in front of her, books lay open but not necessarily read, her laptop plugged into Spotify rather than searching for information that might be relevant to the sociology essay she was supposed to be completing. “The theory of an underclass offers an inadequate explanation of the social position of ethnic minorities in Britain.’ Discuss. She looked at her watch. Gone eleven already. She had to have it finished and emailed to her tutor before three to give her enough time to get ready. She and Chris were seeing Florence and The Machine that night. She had been looking forward to it for ages and nothing – nothing- was going to stop her.
The prayer hall was stark. Mark stood unseen at the back and watched as the growing crowd squeezed through the doors, taking prayer books from the stout man with the strange combination of top hat and wellington boots who stood guard over the entrance. He noticed faces contort, some stifling tears, as if seeing the coffin for the first time provided the confirmation that each had hoped they wouldn’t receive. The room parted as the crowd entered; men to the left and women to the right. Even though this was not an Orthodox gathering, force of habit and that word ‘tradition’ guided them instinctively. By tradition the coffin was a simple chipboard box, with rope for handles and a white sticker bearing Mark’s name affixed unceremoniously at one end. A black cloth, mainly clean save for a brush of mud from its previous outing, was draped across the top; an occupational hazard of the environment in which it was used. Jess and Sophie locked onto each other in the far corner from the entrance, refusing suggestions to sit, hands clasped together, staring at the coffin in disbelief.
“How could I be planning his birthday one day and be burying him the next,” Jess thought to herself.
Charlie stood on the opposite side of the coffin, the black tie hanging loosely around his neck cut and ripped in the traditional sign of mourning. The minister had called it K’riah, an ancient custom where the tearing of the garment symbolises the tear that’s in the mourner’s heart. But what of my heart and the tear in that, thought Mark?
Charlie bowed his head, lifting it only occasionally to respond to a hand on his shoulder or an arm round his back. For some of the women, the sight was too painful to bear and they sat on the hard wooden bench and sobbed quietly to themselves. To many, Charlie just looked like a younger version of Mark; the way they remembered Mark, the way they would now always remember Mark.
And as for Mark, he merely watched, a deep pain of despair eating away at him. He wanted to call to them; he wanted to go and stand next to Charlie and let him know he wasn’t alone. Most of all he wanted to turn back the clock, but then doesn’t everyone sometimes?
“There is a time for everything under the sun; a time to be born and a time to die.”
The cavernous nature of the prayer hall with its high ceilings and its bare stone walls acted as a natural amplifier of the minister’s sonorous voice.
“A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.”
This was wrong, thought Mark. This whole situation was just, plain wrong. Why couldn’t he just rush to Charlie and shake him and tell him everything was going to be okay?
“A time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate.”
Why couldn’t he shout to all of them that this was absurd? That he was here, among them. He could run to Jess and feel her warm embrace, wipe away her tears and convince her that this had all been one hideous misunderstanding. Why, above all, had he not been afforded the time to say goodbye?
“A time for war and a time for peace.”
As she loaded the weekly shopping into the boot of the car, Jess cursed that she had forgotten to pick up more dog food for Pepper. She just couldn’t face the thought of going back into the supermarket, finding the food and queuing up all over again just for one item. She certainly wasn’t going to use the self-checkout; not since the last time she was so publicly and frustratingly delayed “in the bagging area”. Pepper would have to make do with cornflakes for his dinner unless she could find somewhere convenient to pick some up. She knew it was the easy option and there would probably be groans from the family but it was going to be spagbol again for dinner. She was just in that kind of mood.
She arrived home, unloaded the shopping and treated herself to one of those fancy coffees in the machine that Mark had bought at Christmas. With her feet up, a couple of digestives and the coffee, she could catch the back-end of Loose Women before doing some housework. She worked harder at home than she did when she was in the office and begrudged the fact that she got precious little recognition for her efforts but then, when a text arrived from Mark telling her how much he loved her, she didn’t feel quite so aggrieved; though she did begin to wonder what he wanted.
Twenty-seven years they had been together. Twenty-seven years; twenty-three of them married. Where had those years gone, Jess wondered to herself? She felt content. Theirs was not a dynamic life but it was the one they had created. Every night when they went to sleep she would look at Mark and feel at ease, somehow secure with him alongside her; not financial security but emotional security, the knowledge that there was someone who knew her completely and who loved her absolutely. She had never wanted anything more than that and, although the kids currently nurtured the more ambitious aspirations that came with youth, it was all she really wanted for her children as well.
Jess and Mark had met at college. She hadn’t initially been attracted to him; he was more confident than she was and she found that a little intimidating at first. Ironically, it was the fact that she was quiet that Mark had found most attractive about her – aside, of course, from her beautiful hazel eyes and porcelain complexion framed by cascading brown shoulder length hair. He was much taller than her, his cropped, dark hair giving him, what she thought, were film star looks. Much later he told her that he regarded her diffidence as something of a challenge but the more time they spent together, the closer they became. By the spring of 1985 they were virtually inseparable and by the time spring gave way to summer Jess knew they were in love (or at least loved each other). She would remember that summer forever: standing in the sun at Wembley watching Bowie at Live Aid, being first among her friends to see Back To The Future, and the carefree abandon of a weekend away in a B&B in Brighton. They shared the same interests, the same “in” jokes and almost developed their own shorthand language in which to communicate with each other. They found themselves refusing to take an interest in others but only in each other.
“I never thought I was going to fall in love at that age,” Jess would say later, “because I was too busy with other things and so was Mark. It simply crept up on both of us when we least expected it. Thinking back now, I can’t believe how lucky I am that it did.”
Sophie and Mark had argued that morning. In the great scheme of things it had been something of nothing really but voices had been raised and tempers had become heated. Mark had called to see how her studying was coming along. He had meant to give encouragement but it had been misinterpreted and Sophie had accused him instead of checking up on her. One thing led to another and she had called him an “overbearing shit” at which point he had simply hung up on her. She had regretted it the moment the words made it out of her mouth and had tried at least ten times to call him back to apologise; but his mobile just went straight to voicemail. Sophie felt bad. In fact, she felt worse than bad; she hated falling out with Mark of all people. She’d always been – no, she still was – a Daddy’s girl. She’d buy him a bottle of red and give it to him that evening with a kiss before she left for the gig.
“I am told that Mark was great company and I can see that is born out by the very many of you who have come here today to pay your respects both to him and the family.”
“Asshole,” thought Mark as he watched the Minister speak about him as if they had actually known each other. “He has no idea what kind of man I am and he also knows that two thirds of the people here have only come either to be seen or because there’s a chance of a free Scotch and something to eat if they come back to the house afterwards.”
Ordinarily, he would have expected such comments to incur either the displeasure or the amusement – sometimes both – of those around him. But he need not worry, being invisible to all.
“He was, over more than twenty five years, a loving and supportive partner to Jess and a proud and affectionate father to Charlie and Sophie. And now, as we prepare to accompany Mark on his final journey, I ask you all to support the family not just today or tomorrow but in the weeks and months and years ahead as they come to terms with this grievous loss and seek to manage the gap that he will leave in their lives.”
Charlie inhaled deeply to the point where you could see his shoulders push back and his chest move forward as the enormity of the situation weighed heavily upon him. Jess and Sophie shuffled forward, huddled together for warmth and comfort, clutching Chris’s arms so tightly that you could see him almost wince in pain. Charlie took hold of the trolley on which Mark’s coffin lay and, echoing the Biblical moment when Jacob’s children carried him to his last resting place, he began the walk to bury his father.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Charlie had bought himself a tuna salad roll, a carton of juice and a packet of ready salted crisps. He sat at his desk, brushing crumbs off his lap, headphones plugged into his iPhone relaying Ed Sheeran into his ears, and looking at small, used cars on ebay, none of which he could afford. He was impatient; impatient to progress, impatient to earn more money, impatient to be able to move out of home and be able to afford a place of his own. But he knew that on his starter’s salary that was going to take some doing. On top of that he had his Dad’s fiftieth birthday coming up and he wanted to do something special for the ‘old man’. He was planning to cross over to the dark side and take Mark to Paris to see The Rolling Stones in concert. It would be one hell of a surprise and the child within him couldn’t wait to see the expression on his father’s face. He had even downloaded the Forty Licks album to make sure he could match his father song for song, lyric for lyric.
Despite the frustrations of everyday living that everybody had to endure, Charlie reflected that life was pretty good at the moment. His relationship with Emma was good. He was having fun and, although it had only been a month or so, he was happy to define it as a relationship. It surprised him and scared him a little that he was; maybe he wasn’t commitment-phobic after all. His parents didn’t know, only because he didn’t want to get the third degree from his mother seeking out every little nugget of information that she could, but now he wanted them to meet her. Actually, he really wanted them to meet her; perhaps he’d arrange something for the following weekend.
A fiftieth birthday is something worth celebrating, Jess thought to herself. Pepper had curled himself up in a ball next to her on the sofa, keeping her left hip warm, as she balanced a coffee and the iPad on her lap. So, he didn’t want a party; she could understand that, but she wanted this milestone in Mark’s life to be something memorable; something that they could enjoy together. Maybe they’d go to New York, take in a show on Broadway, hit the shops, eat in great restaurants, stay in bed all day in the Waldorf Astoria, drink hot chocolate in Central Park. She began to google short break packages in New York.
For Jess, Sophie and Charlie it seemed to be the longest walk they had ever made; like the walk of condemned men. The chilling wind cut through their clothes as they led a misshapen throng numbering nearly two hundred along the narrow pathways and between the chalky white headstones. Occasionally the trolley bearing Mark’s coffin would catch a stone or a pothole and have to be steered one way or another as the squall carried the sound of crying across the cemetery’s barren landscape. In the distance, gravediggers in dirty jeans and high visibility jackets stood with shovels driven into high mounds of clay soil. A yellow mechanical digger was parked incongruously away to one side. Jess and Sophie were locked in a desperate conversation that nobody could hear as Charlie brought the trolley to a halt on the pathway adjacent to where the grave had been dug.
The diggers moved forward and lifted the black cloth from the coffin exposing the simplicity of its construction for all to see. Grasping at the rope handles they carried Mark waist high across the headstones of others and laid his coffin across two mud- caked planks of wood that had been placed horizontally across the open grave. The family followed instinctively until they stood at the foot of the grave whilst the most active of the throng poured like ants across the burial ground to swarm around. The less able and those not keen to get mud on their shoes stayed on the pathway and commented to each other on the tragedy of the situation in silent convocation; others just gossiped about how Jess would cope now that Mark was gone. Mark knew this because he was standing on the path alongside them watching the scene that was unfolding in front of him. If only he could tell them to keep their views to themselves.
The diggers had slung ropes underneath Mark’s coffin and with a nod from the Minister they kicked the wooden planks away and used the ropes to gently and unevenly lower the coffin into the soil below. Jess and Sophie dissolved into hysterical crying; Charlie looked up to the grey sky to avoid witnessing this final moment as Emma slipped her hand into his. Nobody knew who she was and yet with that one gesture, everybody did. The wind blew and Charlie, who was not remotely superstitious, was convinced that he caught sight of Mark standing on the pathway, smiling and nodding in his direction. He shook away the image and cursed his mind for playing tricks on him on a day like today.
“May he come to his place in peace”, the Minister said aloud.
Charlie stepped forward, and to every onlooker he seemed a man before his time. He took the spade and pushed it into the mound to the side of the grave, the heart-rending thud as the earth landed on the coffin below making another rip into the hearts of those who cared. The sound embodied the finality of the situation. And then, as is customary, with the family watching on, others came forward to fill the grave, covering the coffin until the ground had all but consumed it.
The first that Jess had known that something was wrong was when her mobile rang a little after three. That, in itself, wasn’t particularly unusual but it was rare that her friend Nicola, whose husband Gary worked with Mark, would call in the middle of the day. The tone of her voice was unusual, disconnected in some way.
“Jess, where are you?”
“On the way to Waitrose to get some dog food; it was the one thing I forgot to get this morning and Pepper’s just going to drive me mad all day if I don’t get some. Why? Have you seen me? Are you stalking me, Nic?”
“Are you on your own?”
“Yeah, it’s hardly a mission for two. Why?”
“Pull over, Jess. Stop the car.”
“What the hell are you talking about? What’s the matter, Nic? You’re beginning to freak me out.”
“Just park the fucking car, Jess. Please.”
Jess turned the steering wheel sharply to the left, scraping the wheels against the curb. Mark would be livid if she’d scratched them.
“Okay, Nic. I’m parked. One person hooted me and one more gave me the finger, but I’m parked. Now what’s going on?”
Jess could hear Nicola swallow hard.
“It’s Mark, Jess. He’s been taken ill. Gary’s just called me. He’s collapsed at work. They’ve taken him to hospital. Gary’s gone with him in the ambulance, but you need to get yourself there. Do you want me to come and get you?”
Jess was silent. She tried to respond but no words came out. “Jess?”
“Yes,” she said quietly. “I’m still here.”
“You need to get yourself to the hospital. Get a cab or I’ll come and get you now. Just leave the car where it is.”
“No. No. I’ll drive there. I need to get hold of Charlie and Sophie. I don’t want them finding out from somebody else.”
“I’ll call them. Just get yourself to the hospital.”
Charlie swore at his phone again. From the moment he took Nicola’s call he could feel a wave of fear sweep across him. He knew she meant well but there was no point in her telling him to stay calm. How could he? He was in the back of a taxi, not knowing whether his father was alive or dead and his fucking sister wouldn’t answer her fucking mobile.
“Soph,” he pleaded inwardly. “Call me back.”
Jess ran into Accident and Emergency, unsure whether she had even taken the keys from the ignition of the car or not, and pushed her way through the horde of walking wounded. Why did she have to wait in the queue when all she wanted to do was get to Mark, hold his hand, let him know she was there and ready to nurse him back to health?
She was growing increasingly frustrated when she caught sight of Gary walking slowly towards her, looking pensive and ill at ease, she felt sick in the pit of her stomach.
“Gary, thank God you’re here. I swear I’m going to lose my rag unless…”
“I’m sorry, Jess. I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be daft, it’s not your fault; they have their procedures.”
“Not the queue. I’m sorry about Mark….” he whispered, ushering her away from the crowd with a tender arm around her shoulder.
Jess just could not compute. What did he mean he was sorry? What could he possibly be sorry for? And why was he crying?
“He’s gone, Jess. Mark’s gone. I’m really sorry.”
Jess understood implicitly what Gary was saying and yet took none of it in. She stared at him as if it were the first time they had ever met. He guided her to a seat in the far corner of the waiting room and placed her down on a moulded plastic chair.
“Gone, Jess. They tried to save him but I think he was dead before the ambulance even arrived. “
It was the first time anyone had used the word “dead” and it sucked almost all of the air from her lungs. She began to shake and sweat. Her head spun and she began to feel tightness in her chest. She wanted to scream out that this was simply not happening but she could make no noise. She just stared directly at Gary’s tear-stained face.
“Charlie, Sophie,” she said with an abrupt urgency, “I need to get to Charlie and Sophie. They need to know.”
“Nicola spoke to Charlie. He was calling Sophie. They are on their way.”
Jess nodded to confirm this was good; although she doubted anything could ever be good again.
“Let me take you through,” said Gary. “The doctors want to talk to you and you can see Mark.”
Jess nodded softly, unsure she really wanted to see her lifeless husband, but knowing also that she needed to. She grasped her handbag in a routine manner and rose to her feet. Her attention, and the attention of most other people waiting, was drawn as she did so to the main door which was thrown open as Charlie stormed in. He saw Gary and Jess stand and look towards him. Their faces said everything he needed to know and everything he had dreaded from the moment he had taken Nicola’s call. Jess mouthed simply “I’m sorry”, her composure broke, her body began to shake and tears raced to pour down her cheeks. Charlie ran towards her and gripped her hard; there was little they could do to prevent the nakedness of their grief being exposed to the world and neither did they want to. Those waiting turned their heads away almost as if they were affording them some privacy by doing so.
“I’m sorry,” Mark said, as Charlie lay, fully clothed, on his back on top of his bed. “I didn’t want it to happen like that.”
Charlie wiped his eyes but didn’t make contact with his father who stood, suited, in the corner of the room.
“Did you know it was going to happen?” Mark shook his head.
“They told us you had a brain haemorrhage. They said you probably knew little or nothing about it.”
“I had the worst headache ever so I got up to get some water. But my vision went strange and I couldn’t speak, not even to tell Gary what was wrong. That’s all I remember.”
“Why did it have to happen? Why to you?”
Mark sat himself on the corner of Charlie’s bed.
“I don’t have the answer to that. Maybe it was just my time.”
Charlie sat up, his back against the papered wall.
“What happens now?”
“Life goes on, Charlie. A different kind of life, but it goes on nonetheless.”
“Because it has to; what’s the alternative? Only I died today. Nobody else did and you mustn’t act as if you did; any of you.”
“What about mum and Sophie?”
“What about them?”
“They’re not going to cope. They’re destroyed.”
“They’ll cope. They’re in shock, you too; me as well, come to think of it. It wasn’t exactly what I had planned for my day either. You must stay close, be there for each other; look after each other. Each day there will be something to get through. You’ll take three steps forward and two back but I promise you things will get back to normal. It will just be a different kind of normal.”
“It doesn’t feel like anything can ever be right again.”
Mark placed his hand on Charlie’s. “But you just have to trust that it will. There will be days when you can laugh again.”
“I don’t want there to be.”
“Not now, maybe, but you will. It’s good to laugh.”
They sat in silence for what seemed like hours. Occasionally Charlie would start a conversation; sometimes Mark.
“How can I get on without you?” Charlie asked. “How am I going to manage?
“You’ve been managing for ages just fine. You just haven’t noticed it. Mum and I have done our work. We finished giving you and Sophie all the values and tools you need to live your lives ages ago. Now is the time for you to trust yourselves and go and do it. You don’t need me here for that. I know you would want me here and I would have given anything not to be taken away from you. But you don’t need me. You can go on to be the person you’ve always wanted to be and to live the life you’ve always wanted to have and we’ll be proud of you whatever that turns out to be.”
“But what if I need advice? What if I just want to talk to you?”
“Who says you can’t? You just need to do what we’re doing right now; you close your eyes and you talk to me. I promise you I will always reply.”
“It’s not the same.”
“It never will be as it was, sure, but there’s nothing that either of us can do about that now. I will always be here. I’ll never be that far away. You don’t think I’m going to miss the chance to be a pain in the arse from beyond the grave, do you?”
“It’s not funny.”
Jess, Charlie and Sophie turned away from the grave and began to make their way back to the main hall, seemingly carried there on the emotion of those in attendance. Jess hated the thought that she was turning her back on Mark and leaving him alone in this cold and desolate place. Charlie knew as much and huddled both his mother and his sister close to his chest, nodding at Mark, who stood silently on the pathway watching everyone slowly moving away.
The ritual, which Charlie thought he would find so frustrating but which had been strangely comforting, was nearly complete. The minister, who had been more sensitive than Charlie had imagined, guided him to a freezing tap and to a cup from which he would pour water alternately on both hands; yet more symbolism, this time of purification. Then, as the priority changed from honouring the dead to comforting the living, Jess, Charlie and Sophie were seated so that those who had attended could file in front of each of them.
“May the Lord comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
The minister’s voice resounded for the last time as he ushered the throng past to offer their own personal condolences. Charlie and Sophie knew hardly any of the people there and felt like automatons but they accepted hands and kisses with the openness with which they were offered, even though being seated low, they rarely saw anything more than the individual’s knees.
“Mum and Sophie have taken it bad,” Charlie said to Mark a few nights later as he lay in the darkness on his bed.
“I know. I’ve seen.”
“Mum’s putting on a brave face but I can hear her crying when she’s on her own. She just doesn’t want anyone to see her.”
“That’s your mother!”
“Dad,” Charlie, shouted, probably a little too loud. “Have a little respect.”
Mark laughed a little and for the first time since “it” happened Charlie did too.
“You can’t stop her crying, Charlie, and you shouldn’t try to. It’s something she needs to go through but you will come out the other side and so will your mum. All you can do is be there, support her, let yourself grieve too. It may not be cool but there are no shortcuts in a process like this. Your mind and your body will let you know when they are ready to move on and, I promise you, they will. There will be a point when you’ll know the time is right.”
By the time Mark had finished the sentence, Charlie had drifted off to sleep. Mark could tell that the combination of shock, grief and attempting to look after Jess and Sophie but not himself had taken its toll. The shiva, the traditional seven day period of mourning that followed the funeral, was almost at an end. The constant stream of visitors to the house during the week had kept their minds occupied but having to talk repeatedly about Mark and the events of the day he had died, to relive those feelings on an almost hourly basis, was something they had found debilitating.
The time had come to pack away the manifestations of mourning: the prayer books, the low stools on which the mourners sat, the ripped garments. It was time to uncover all of the reflective surfaces that had been draped in accordance with tradition to prevent the mourners becoming concerned with their appearance. It was time, as Mark had said, to get back to normal. But what of Jess, he wondered? How would she be now that the visitors would be gone, that the telephone calls would slow to a trickle as, inevitably, friends and family began to return to their own lives and their own priorities? She couldn’t expect and Mark knew she wouldn’t want to be an intrusion into their lives or a special case that they all felt they had to accommodate. Of course they wouldn’t feel like that but he knew Jess and he knew that she might.
The months that followed were challenging for each of them in different ways, though not without their lighter moments. The raw edge of the all-pervading heaviness of grief had softened and they had found themselves able to talk about Mark and smile instead of instantly succumbing to tears. Charlie spoke as often as he could about Mark and to anybody who was kind enough to listen. He had visited Mark’s unmarked grave at least three times and had found being there alone unexpectedly comforting. He had taken the initiative in getting Jess to consider what they should do for a permanent memorial. In contrast, Sophie had become more withdrawn. She had split up from Chris within weeks of the funeral; her mood swings had become too tough for him to negotiate and she had spent most of her time shut away in her room, struggling to concentrate on her coursework. When Jess had suggested deferring her exams for a year, she had snapped back, apologising immediately, remembering that she had never been given the chance to make her peace with Mark. As unlikely as it seemed, she couldn’t bear the thought of that happening twice.
Each new event affected them in their own way. Jess found herself cursing Mark in the car if something went wrong or crumbling in a heap in the supermarket when, as a matter of routine, she put the brand of filter coffee that only he drank into her basket. Charlie gave every outward sign of coping but had to pull the car to the side of the road whenever the radio played The Rolling Stones. Once, when Paint It Black came on, he swore he could hear Mark sitting in the back seat whistling along.
Friends had suggested doing something to commemorate what would have been Mark’s impending fiftieth birthday. It would be an opportunity, they had said, to celebrate his life and maybe raise a bit of cash for charity in his name. Charlie liked the idea; Jess hated it, though Charlie was pretty sure he could turn her around. Sophie was his bigger concern.
Charlie found Sophie laying on her bed, surrounding by unread text books, but playing music videos instead through the iPad on her pillow.
“Want to talk? We haven’t really spoken since, you know….”
“What’s to say, Charlie? Dad’s gone and he died thinking I hated him. Life’s pretty much fucked right now.”
“He never thought you hated him. You know that.”
“But the last words he heard come out of his daughter’s mouth was that he was an overbearing shit.”
“So apologise to him.”
Sophie looked up.
“Go to his grave, say what you need to say. Apologise to him. I reckon he’ll hear.”
“I’m not ready to go back there.”
“It will help. It helps me. I’ll come with you, if you like?”
“So help me with this thing for Dad’s birthday? Let’s do something positive. It’ll keep us talking about him and will give us all something to focus on. And this way you get to have your say about what we do. It means we don’t have to leave it up to all of their friends. He’d want it, Soph. He’d want you and me to do it.”
The cemetery looked different when Charlie pulled the car to a stop. The sky was blue and the freezing wind had given way to a gentle late Spring breeze. Most of all, though, it was empty; the mourners had gone and now only the children remained.
Charlie pulled a soft black beanie onto his head and interlocked his arm with
“It’s fine,” he reassured her. “It won’t be as bad as you imagine. Just take your time.”
They walked, unseen by the world, along the pathway retracing the steps they had taken those few short months previously. Already they could see how the ground around where Mark was buried had been populated with other graves; other families whose lives had been forever changed, perhaps other children trying to make sense of things, to rationalise the irrational.
“So here he is,” Charlie said reassuringly as they stood bearing down on the mound of earth that marked their father’s final resting place.
“I still can’t believe it,” sniffed Sophie. “It’s just not real. I still expect him to call me or text me. I’d give anything for him to have a go at me one more time.”
She rested her head on her brother’s shoulder and slipped her hand into his.
“You know what he’d be saying if he was here, don’t you?”
“He’d be saying, come on kids, move on. Get on with it. Do something exciting.”
“You know it.”
Charlie bent down and picked up two small stones. He handed one to Sophie and they both went down on their haunches together and laid the stones at the foot of Mark’s grave. Neither knew that the tradition originated from the time when a pile of stones was used as a marker in the days before headstones, but both had seen their parents and grandparents before them place stones to indicate that someone had come to visit the grave. They liked the idea and it seemed the right and natural thing to do.
“So what do we do?” Sophie asked as they walked away from the grave and back towards the car.
“A dance; he loved music and if we want to celebrate him, there’s no better way of celebrating than by dancing.”
“Especially as he was such an awful and embarrassing dancer?”
“Exactly and we do it for charity. We get a DJ and we sell tickets to all of Mum and Dad’s friends, to your friends and mine. We have a blast and raise a ton of cash in his name. What do you say?”
Sophie looked up at her brother. “I say, let’s find a hall.”
Friends and family rallied round in a way that Jess, Charlie and Sophie could only have hoped that they might. Sophie joked that tickets had sold faster than for a Take That concert. Here they were, only eight months after Mark’s sudden death, standing in the middle of the banqueting room at the Regency Hotel, watching as the final touches to the room were completed. Jess could hardly believe it. Emma stood alongside Charlie, their relationship confirmed and her place within the family circle assured.
The evening was joyous; a celebration of friendship, a reaffirmation of family and, from Charlie’s point of view, a bloody good laugh as he got to watch his parents’ friends demonstrate their singular lack of co-ordination and dance ability. Gary’s attempt at a Freddie Mercury strut was a particular highlight. In fact, Charlie chided him; he seemed to be enjoying it just a little too much. But then Gary didn’t know that Sophie was filming it on her phone and uploading it to Facebook there and then.
At just after ten thirty the DJ broke into the music and asked for attention. He hoped everyone was having a great evening, but he wanted a big round of applause because Charlie was going to say a few words on behalf of the family. As the ovation began, “Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones played loud and proud to herald his arrival at the microphone. The choice of song was not lost on Charlie. He cleared his throat before putting the mic to his mouth.
“Hello Wembley,” he shouted loudly to laughter and jeers.
“Sorry, I’ve just always wanted to say that.” He swallowed hard. “You know the past few months have been really tough for Mum, Sophie and me. To lose Dad when we did in the way we did kind of knocked all of us quite a bit and without your love and support and friendship, it would have been much harder for us to get through to here.”
He stopped as clapping rippled again.
“But we knew from very early on that Dad wouldn’t have wanted us moping. He would have wanted us to do something that would bring a positive out of such a horrible situation. To be able to raise five grand like we have tonight for charities that help people who have survived brain haemorrhages is just amazing. It doesn’t bring him back, of course, but it means we can look at him when we dream and say, we did this in your name.”
Applause broke out once more.
“I must also just answer one question. Somebody asked me why we chose an event like this. Why not do a sporting event or a sponsored event or something similar? Well the idea came from one moment in the funeral service. Most of it went right over my head, to be honest, but there was one line that stuck with me. The minister said that there’s a time to mourn and a time to dance. And he’s bang on. We’ve mourned and we will carry on doing so. But now is the time to dance.”
Cheers split the air as Charlie handed the microphone back to the DJ and watched as the same people who had so desolately followed his father’s coffin lined up to face each other as the Grease Megamix began to play. Their chills were definitely multiplying.
Jess walked up to Charlie, tears rolling down her cheeks again, but with a smile on her face – the first he had seen on her for months – and threw her arms around him so tightly as if he were the last piece of driftwood in a choppy ocean. “Thank you,” she whispered, kissing him twice on the cheek.
He looked directly at her, returned her kiss and smiled.
“We’re going to be okay, you know?”
Those friends not on the dance floor, whose power was not yet electrifying, were queuing up to shake his hand. But there was one more thing that Charlie needed to do first. He climbed back up to the DJ desk and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Good speech, mate.”
“Thanks. I just wanted to ask you something, though. How did you know to play The Rolling Stones to introduce me?”
“It was a request, mate.”
“No, some guy came up and asked me to play Satisfaction when you came up to speak.”
“Tall guy, short dark hair, dark suit.”
Charlie’s heart beat faster as he used their elevated position to scan the room, its half-light occasionally illuminated by flashes of pink, red, blue and green from the DJ’s lighting rig. It was in one of these flashes, midway through Summer Lovin’, that Charlie spotted Mark, standing at the rear of the hall, back to the wall, beside the door. They made instant eye contact. Mark’s smile was broad and knowing as he nodded towards Charlie in approval. When Charlie smiled back, he watched as Mark turned and walked out of the door behind him. The pain was sublime. He knew it would be the last time he would see his father.
Howard Robinson asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work