Recently, a microlight aircraft chugged across the sky above our house. Usually, this is one of the well known and well liked local gentry flying home from Northrepps International Airport – a field with an elderly shed in it – after a few breakfast vodkas in the village. This particular microlight, however, was being piloted altogether more purposefully and, as it buzzed across the mid-morning blueness, I explained to Sid that this was his grandmother, who had died ten minutes earlier, flying to Heaven. He found this a satisfactory explanation of a difficult concept, jumping up and down shouting ‘Hello Grandma!’ and waving his arms at the tiny aircraft until, at length, it disappeared from view.
In the strange minutes since the call from a ward sister at the Norwich and Norfolk University Hospital informing me that she was ‘drawing her last breaths’, I had in turn called Richie, her son and, in effect, my brother in law. Again, unable to properly articulate the situation, I appraised it by explaining that ‘ninety minutes are up, mate – the referee is checking his watch and looking at the linesman’ which, while somewhat bewildering, was more sensitive than my initial response to the call from the ward sister, which was ‘Right. So how do we get her stuff?’. In any case, it got the message across in a format with which we were both comfortable, and I therefore regard it as successful communication.
Her final day at home was odd. I had popped round in the evening to find her battling her way up the stairs to the bathroom. I have never seen anyone look so old or, under the circumstances, so foul mouthed, exclaiming constantly that she was ‘fucking sick of this’. The previous day she had offered to make tea, whereupon I explained I could make it, drink it, wash the cup up and re-grout the tiling around the sink in the time it would take her to sprint to the kettle, whereupon she told me to fuck off. In retrospect, I feel that foul language became a great comfort towards the end of her life – probably more than I was, now I think of it. Her imminent decline was not unexpected; I had been doing my half of Joe and I’s IT job in her kitchen over Easter, and rushed into the living room at the sound of the choir from King’s College, Cambridge, which she had been watching on the telly, saying that I thought the angels had come for her. Although I cannot now remember, she probably told me to fuck off then, as well.
Eventually, she reached the bathroom. I retired to the kitchen. Everything went quiet. It remained so for quite a while. I found myself listening for tell-tale thumps indicating she had Elvis-ed it and expired on the lavvy. Some time passed. It occurred to me that this was not a dignified situation for either of us, but to my relief, she re-appeared as her daughter, my current girlfriend, arrived with Sid, and it was decided to call an ambulance. The front room was soon full of flourescent jackets and forthright bonhomie and, unable to bear the sight of house guests not eating, she asked us to get some melon out of the fridge for the ambulance crew. She passed away five days later in hospital, after a nice breakfast, while talking about her grandchildren. Sid later claimed it was because her ‘heart stopped when no one was looking’. In any case, it was not a bad end, as ends go.
Thus it was that the funeral was arranged. This was not without incident. For example, the day before we learned that the service was at one o’clock and not two o’clock as stated on the invitations. Making the best of a bad job, I rang the crematorium and arranged for anyone turning up late and missing the funeral as a result to be allowed in to the next one instead.* In the event, some sharp phone work by Kitty, an unmarried mother who is, in effect, my sister in law, managed to get everyone arranged nicely. The dress code for the occasion being fairly relaxed, she turned up rather brilliantly like someone attending a picnic in an early series of The Crown. ‘God, I’m not even wearing tights!’ she pointed out, prompting me to reply that ‘You’ll find that there comes a time / For taking your tights off’ in the manner of Making Your Mind Up, a 1981 Eurovision Song Contest winner for Bucks Fizz. I have no idea why I did this. Anyway. My contribution to proceedings was a reading of the lovely old 23rd Psalm, with its still waters and green pastures and rods and staffs and cups runneth-ing over. This had caused confusion when the Orders of Service were printed, as they thought we meant the Lord’s Prayer. It is a short psalm, and I considered Hey Jude-ing it by repeating the last few lines over and over as a kind of singalong to pad it out, but in the end I left it as it was, grateful that the printers hadn’t left me to style out Away In A Manger or something.
Sid charmed everyone at the after party by explaining that ‘Grandma isn’t here because she is dead now’. As we got stuck in to the buffet I enjoyed bellowing ‘IT WAS A LOVELY SERVICE, VERY QUIET’ at the top of my lungs to her neighbour Vera, who is all but deaf. I spent much of it near the oven, from which a distant cousin in law produced a seemingly endless steam of baked goods. ‘Why make one cake, when you can make three?’ she said to me. ‘So – are you here on your own, or what?’ I replied, grabbing a bottle of merlot and a couple of glasses.** My dog got all the cheese and chicken in her fridge freezer – it’s what he would have wanted – and, apart from the sadness and what not, everything was remarkably convivial. Joe and I cleared the remainder of her furniture some days later. My dog bit him as we manhandled a G plan sideboard into a Transit van. I like to think he is biting through his grief, and I distinctly remember Joe saying that a nasty puncture wound is a small price to pay for helping him with the healing process, and that all things considered he was glad it happened. There was the material flotsam of course – books of crossword puzzles from 1986, a receipt for a four course Chinese meal in Finchley that cost £6.45 in the mid Seventies, a half finished box of After Eights (which I finished). It struck me, as we emptied the place that all of us, in the end, have a life marked out by a pile of litter in a carrier bag. Ah well.
Someone had been born, and then they had lived, and then they had died, as per Cemetry Gates by the Smiths, who she always hated. In some ways, it’s like a huge waiter’s been lifted off our shoulders, although there was little for her in the way of actual distress. She saw as much of her family as she could, enjoyed the early summer sunshine while it lasted and tapped out at the last moment where the going could be reasonably described as good. This is all very nice of course but, nonetheless, I have lost a dear and trusted friend. Interestingly, she has since become the voice of my inner monologue, not unlike Ben Kenobi, but with the focus very much more on biscuits and being warm enough and, as everyone we love is only borrowed from God, I am quite happy about that.
Main: The road to Northrepps. I walk the dog along here quite often.
Top inset: Bit further along. It’s all like this really.
Middle inset: Horse enclosure by the church in Northrepps village.
Lower inset: Unreturnable calls.
*This is not true.
**This is also not true, except for the baked goods.