DAY 1: SATURDAY 11 FEBRUARY 2012, 8.13 P.M.
I knew He was dead. His pupils were shot, and fixed on a point beyond me. He had no pulse. His face was pinkish-grey and doughy. But as the paramedics pounded up the stairs into the bedroom where He lay, I honestly believed they would bring my husband round. I had been doing CPR for twenty minutes on a dead man, but didn’t allow myself to believe it was the end.
We’d been in the middle of making love – in my mother’s bed. We were there for the weekend for the funeral of my grandma, who, in an unfortunate twist of fate and tragi-comic timing, had died five days before Mark. We were making love in Mother’s bed because we were trying to conceive (she was out at the time, I hasten to add).
Those who become embroiled in the complicated world of conception know that there is a ‘moment’ during the month in which all systems must absolutely go – you have a thirty-second window before the egg explodes and the sperm shrivels or something – so needless to say this wasn’t going to be the Barry White of sessions. It was business. We’d lost a baby in September and this was a last-ditch attempt to have another. And besides, Take Me Out was starting in ten minutes so we had to be quick.
‘You’ve still got your socks on,’ He’d said, climbing on top of me.
Hardly the Humphrey Bogart of last words (his were reputedly: ‘I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis’). Seconds later, He crashed on to the pillow next to me, heavy as a felled oak. I slapped His face and told Him to wake up. He was breathing, heavy, laboured breaths into the pillow. I wondered if I should bother the emergency services with my call. Surely He would come round and I didn’t want to cause a scene in the street outside. Our daughter, B, appeared in the doorway, woken up by the screaming – I must have been screaming but I don’t remember – and she was crying and peering in. I told her the ultimate adult lie; that everything was all right.
The voice on the phone told me to roll Mark over and begin compressions on His chest. I manoeuvred Him, with difficulty, on to His back and started in time with the voice: 1… and… 2… and… 3… and… 4.
B was by my side now, crying and asking me why Daddy wasn’t waking up. I remember feeling conspicuously nude – except for the socks, of course – and considered where the nearest shroud of decency might be found when the paramedics arrived. (Towel… bathroom.)
His lips were turning blue. I opened one of His eyes and it stared through me. I felt His neck for a pulse. His skin was already beginning to get cold, vital signs shutting down one by one, like lights in an apartment block. A nerve in His left thumb twitched. I wouldn’t believe He was dead.
But I would later learn it had been instant. There was nothing anyone could have done.After the paramedics had arrived, I’d glimpsed Mark one final time. I needed to call Mother but the phone was where I’d left it after making the emergency call, discarded in panic on the set of drawers in the bedroom. I stepped in to get it and my eyes fell to where they’d moved Him on to the floor next to the bed. His arm was propped against the radiator. They’d placed a mask over His face and all I could hear were the faint beeps of machinery.
My call to Mother went something like this; ‘Mark’s collapsed… the ambulance is here… they’re upstairs with Him now… you need to come home…’
She was just around the corner babysitting at my sister Beth’s house, and while I didn’t really register her response, I knew that she would be arranging care for the kids and with us within minutes.
B and I sat at the kitchen table and waited. B looked at me over the rim of a cup of milk. ‘I’m frightened of something,’ she said.
‘What are you frightened of?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘No need to be frightened, love,’ I told her. But a cold shard of terror had lodged in my guts. We listened to the beeps and creaks coming from the room above us; each one part of a last-ditch attempt to save her daddy.
When the paramedics came down the stairs after forty minutes, grim-faced and exhausted, and one of them uttered the words: ‘Mark’s died’, you might forgive me for my response.
‘Right,’ I said. ‘Right.’
I suddenly, inexplicably, felt frightened of the body upstairs. Did I want to see Him? No. I regret that response now. A chance for a last cuddle before He went truly cold.
‘But whereabouts have you left Him?’ I asked. ‘Is He on the floor?’
‘Yes. With the blanket over Him. I’ll come up with you if you like…’
I shook my head. ‘What will happen now?’
The paramedic prodded at his electronic notebook with a stumpy digit. ‘The police will be here shortly. Then they’ll come and take Mark.’
‘Are you leaving now?’ I asked, watching as the team filed past carrying their arsenal of life-saving equipment, now redundant, back to the ambulance. ‘Please, don’t leave.’
‘They are,’ he said. ‘But I’ll stay until the police arrive.’
‘Was it your… husband?’ asked the younger, more ample-eared of the two policemen who were now sitting in Mother’s living room drinking tea.
The other one, clearly an old hand at incidents of sudden death, took notes and handed me a photocopied leaflet, ‘Coping with Sudden Death’. ‘Have you decided if you want your husband cremated or buried?’
Mark hadn’t been dead two hours, yet the policeman seemed surprised that I hadn’t considered the options for His disposal.
‘Tell me this is a dream,’ I pleaded with Mother.
‘I’m afraid it’s not.’
The Old Hand pressed his fingertips together and brought them up to his mouth. ‘We have all night,’ he said. ‘Take your time.’
Policemen, up close, in your living room, have a kind of other-worldliness about them. On the whole, they’re taller than you would imagine, and their uniforms are straight out of the BBC costume department. Never having had a proper encounter with one before, their presence seemed to add to the theatrical quality of the evening.
‘Cremated,’ I suggested.
I didn’t know what the significance of my answer was – I still don’t – but I was prepared to agree to anything to avoid all night in the company of these two.
This seemed to have satisfied his line of questioning. For him, the bureaucracy of death was complete. He sipped his tea and reassured me that he wouldn’t leave until the undertakers got there. Small-talk doesn’t come easily in situations such as this (‘Been busy tonight?’ ‘Is this your first sudden death?’) so I stood by the window, willing the undertakers to arrive.
It occurred to me that perhaps I should make some phone calls. But should I wait until morning to launch the grenade, or was it best to do it now, in this cold excess of time between death and undertaker? I asked the Old Hand for his advice. After all, he was the bearer of ‘Coping with Sudden Death’, which must surely have had a sub-section devoted to ‘Telling Family and Friends (about the) Sudden Death’. He brought his fingers to mouth again and paused. Then he said, ‘It’s entirely up to you.’
I called my dad. He lived half an hour away in North Yorkshire with his wife, Karen.
‘He’s at the pub I’m afraid – anything I can help with?’ Karen asked. I glanced at the hour: 10.30 p.m. Dad’s habits hadn’t changed in forty years. Two pints of Theakston’s and he’d be home.
‘It’s just… well, there’s really no easy way to say this… Mark has died, Karen.’ Saying those three words for the first time, I felt like an actor rehearsing a script. They seemed fraudulent, somehow, with no basis in reality.
Karen and Mark were good pals; they enjoyed talking over Sunday morning coffee while the rest of us slumbered upstairs on the weekends we spent at Dad’s. Mark had recently been exchanging letters with Karen’s dad relating to the war; Mark loved his stories about flying Thunderbolts over Burma, and Karen’s dad loved regaling Him with them.
Karen had heard the three words, yet clearly they had no basis in her reality either. She replied with:
‘Your dad’s only just left the house. I’ll call the pub. He’ll be with you in half an hour.’
I made one more call. To Mark’s sister. Perhaps I should have granted her one last sleep before her life changed for ever, but I figured she’d want to know. ‘I can’t believe it…’ she uttered. ‘I just can’t believe it.’
I left her with the gruesome task of informing her parents, who were living 11,000 miles away in Australia. I can only imagine the phone call and their subsequent desperation to find a flight back to the UK, where each air mile would only bring them closer to the grievous reality that they had lost their son.
Mother offered to call my sister Beth, who was just about to settle into the second half of a performance by Cirque du Soleil at the Royal Albert Hall. It was rare that she and her husband Will were spared a weekend away together, and this frozen one in February was it. The details of the call and its aftermath were described to me only later, when she and I lay in each other’s arms on the bed.
She’d stepped out into the foyer to be told the news, whereupon her legs had given way under her.
Despite desperate attempts to get home, she had no choice but to wait until the first train out of King’s Cross the following morning. She and Will had drunk whisky in the hotel bar until it permitted them to sleep. They arrived home just before noon the following day, as shell-shocked and disbelieving as the rest of us.
Two men finally came to Mother’s door. The first man, a raven-like figure, stood in the puddled gloom of the streetlight, and announced:
‘We’ve come to take Mark.’
Even now I can hear his voice uttering those words.
I don’t have any concept of how long it took them to package Him up, manoeuvre Him round the bend in the staircase and out the front door. It could have been five minutes; it could have been half an hour. I had the TV on in the lounge, volume turned up full, with the door shut. All I remember was the silence once they’d gone.
I slept fitfully that night, in the sheets in which He’d died. Then I woke, and He wasn’t there.
FOUR YEARS EARLIER: SUNDAY 17 AUGUST 2008
By 9 p.m., I knew there was something amiss. I’d been trying to contact my husband by phone for the last hour, but each time it had rung off. He would have started the hour-long journey to the centre of Cheltenham by now, ready to start His 10 p.m. shift at GCHQ. Three hundred miles away in Mother’s kitchen in Newcastle, I waited. There would be an explanation for this. He was never late for a shift. At 10.05, I called the office.
‘Has Mark arrived into work?’
‘No, He hasn’t actually. We were just starting to get a bit worried… who am I talking to?’
‘This is His wife…’ My throat closed up around the word ‘wife’.
‘Listen, give me a number where you are and I’ll make a few calls.’
Panic had cleared my mind. I couldn’t remember Mother’s number. ‘Who are you going to call?’
‘I’ll just make a few calls. Don’t worry. Are you calling from the number that I can call you back on?’
I paced the carpet in cold dread. Ten minutes later, a consultant from Cheltenham General Hospital rang. They had Mark in. He’d just managed to call an ambulance before collapsing in the flat around four hours earlier. He was stable and coherent, but they were as yet unable to ascertain what the problem was. There seemed to be an issue with the blood flow in His right leg. If it persisted, and they couldn’t find a reason why, they may have to amputate the leg.
‘Is it life-threatening?’ was all I could think of to ask.
‘Not if we get the leg off in time,’ the consultant said.
I stared at the muted television, unable to take in the words I had just heard. ‘I’m coming down, now.’
‘Yes, do so. But please drive carefully.’
Mother, Beth and I gathered and held an eerily calm crisis meeting. I pushed the consultant’s words to the back of my mind and focused on the practicalities. Who would look after three-month-old B while I drove to Cheltenham? How would she be fed, given she was currently on the breast? Having no transport of my own, whose car would I drive down in?
I threw clothing items into a suitcase, whatever I could find on the floor. Mother would come with me. Beth would stay with B, using whatever milk I was able to express for the midnight feed, and one of the ‘just in case’ ready-mixed formula feeds for the next morning.
I hurried Mother out of the door and into her car. We drove as far as Darlington before my phone rang. It was Beth. The consultant had called again and asked that I call him urgently.
‘Change of plan,’ he told me. ‘We’re transferring Mark to Oxford. We’ve discovered it’s a problem with His aorta. An aortic dissection, in fact.’
‘Is it life-threatening?’ was all I could think to ask.
‘I can’t answer no to that,’ the consultant said. Those were the exact words he used.
Mother and I drove for five hours through the black August night, each of us unable to find a single word to say to the other. We stopped once at Woodall services for a toilet break. Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’ was piping through the sound system with ominous prescience as I paid for a bottle of water.
I expressed milk from my swollen breasts and threw it out of the car window on to the motorway. We arrived at 5 a.m. in the desolate car park of Oxford’s Radcliffe Hospital. I jumped out of the car while Mother went and parked. I ran down empty corridors, whose polished floors reflected the strip lighting overhead, and found the lift to the cardiac ward.
All I could see were His eyes, peering out from above the plastic oxygen mask that covered His face. Machines beeped through the thick gloom of the ward. He was waiting for me.
His eyes smiled.
‘Are you all right?’ was the only thing I could think to ask.
‘I am now you’re here,’ he said, reaching for my hand.
He asked me to be waiting with a big bottle of water and a smile when He came out of surgery. I chivvied. He chivvied. But we both knew this was catastrophic.
‘Have you had any recent impact to the chest? Car accident? Spontaneous aortic dissection this extensive is most unusual in someone so young…’ The straight-talking Scottish surgeon, dragged from his bed in the middle of the night to operate in this most acute of emergencies, looked at Mark.
The surgeon glanced at his clipboard. ‘You’re thirty-three, aren’t you, Mark?’
Mark nodded through a tangle of wires and tubes.
The surgeon turned to his registrar, then back to my husband. ‘Thing is, Mark, we don’t at this point know why this has occurred. But whatever the reason, your aorta has ruptured and our immediate and urgent task is to fix it. We’re just assembling the team, then we’ll take you down to theatre.’
The lighting was dimmed in the ward, but the glare from an anglepoise lamp reflected in the surgeon’s glasses. Life had gone from baby shit and colic to the vocabulary of acute crisis in the space of six hours. My hand gripped the rail on the side of Mark’s bed. The registrar, a small, kind-faced man, placed his hand over it. ‘You look terrified. Don’t worry, Mark’s in the best place. Professor Chambers is one of the most respected heart surgeons in the country.’
‘What will you do to my husband, though?’ I pleaded.
‘We need to assess the extent of the damage first, but we’re aiming to patch up the aorta, and replace the aortic valve.’
I felt foolish having to ask at this late juncture, but I heard myself say; ‘The aorta being…?’
‘The main artery to the heart.’
‘And what was that about the valve?’
‘Mark will be fitted with a mechanical heart valve. It’ll mean He has to take pills for the rest of his life, but in someone so young we would always go for this option over a pig-skin valve. Those tend to be the option for older patients; requiring no medication but only lasting ten years or so. Mark can expect a normal lifespan and a mechanical valve will go on for ever. All things being equal.’
I turned to Professor Chambers, one of the most respected heart surgeons in the country, and asked: ‘Have you done this many times before?’
Chambers was unfazed by the blundering nature of the question. ‘Yes. But it’s always more difficult in the acute scenario. Let’s go, Mark.’
Mark looked up at me and smiled. ‘It’s like that Al Green song, pet. “How To Mend A Broken Heart”. See you soon. And don’t forget that bottle of water.’ They wheeled Him into the operating theatre, and I saw a single tear crawl down His cheek.
We left the hospital together three months later. ‘I’m granite, me, man,’ Mark said. He’d been sliced in half, His lung had been drained, He’d suffered a mild stroke during surgery. Yet here we were, racing along the B-road between Oxford and Cheltenham, the fingers of a brittle autumn sun splaying through the trees on to the road before us. He was three stone lighter, gaunt, shell-shocked, yet He had made it. We had made it. ‘We win,’ we said – our catchphrase against the world.
He took short, tentative steps into the flat. Each stair left Him breathless. He took His first bath when He got home, the livid wound bisecting His sternum. He was smaller. Depleted. He had been violated in the most savage way imaginable. Surgical fingers had sawn open His ribcage and tampered with His heart. But He never complained, not once. Life was different now, dictated by pills and blood pressure and Warfarin, yet it was there to be lived. He’d been given a second chance and He was going to take it with both hands.
A year later, I wrote the following letter to Chambers:
10th August 2009
Dear Professor Chambers,
I am compelled to write a few words to you as we approach the first anniversary of the ‘cardiac event’ suffered by my husband, Mark.
Mark was brought into the Radcliffe from Cheltenham on 18 August 2008 with an emergency ‘Type A’ aortic dissection. By some miracle, he found himself in your care and that of your wonderful colleagues. Despite the odds, you saved his life. Although his troubles were not over – further surgery and a stroke – your intervention on that fateful morning has meant that I still have a husband and our tiny daughter B (just three months old at the time of the incident) will grow up to know her dad.
Mark is making a great recovery – he is an unrelentingly positive soul, which helps enormously. As you can imagine, each milestone is an emotional one. One year on, with the immediate crisis over, we find ourselves in the whirlwind of trying to come to terms with what happened. However, we are totally and utterly indebted to you and the team at the Radcliffe, and each day we are thankful that Mark was lucky enough to have been attended by you.
We intend to make a financial donation to the unit, but I wanted to write to you personally to express my gratitude.
On behalf of Mark, B and our entire family and friends – thank you.
It took me two years to begin to feel comfortable with our new life, for the anxiety to subside and for the sense of doom to lift. The surgeons and the doctors had spent twenty-four months reassuring us.
‘What about, you know, exertion…’ I asked Chambers during Mark’s first review. ‘Can we still have sex?’
‘As long as you’re not swinging from the chandeliers…’ Chambers told us.
‘And what about the future…?’
Chambers turned to Mark. ‘Listen, you get dealt a hand. You can’t do anything about it. You’ve been lucky, though, you’re still here, and despite what you suffered, you can expect a normal lifespan. Now go and enjoy your lives.’
DAY 2: SUNDAY 12 FEBRUARY 2012, 6.30 A.M.
I rolled over and instead of Mark there was Mother, lying awake next to me. We’d tried to sleep downstairs, on the sofa-bed (‘the rack’ as it had come to be known), but we couldn’t settle. In the end we had climbed into the bed He’d died in, pulled up the duvet and fallen into a troubled slumber.
‘Where are Mark’s things?’ I asked. ‘His clothes, His back-pack? His glasses from beside the bed?’
‘I moved them,’ Mother replied.
We stared at each other over the undulations of our pillows. ‘Moved them where?’
‘They’re in the wardrobe.’
‘Why the hell…?’ I threw the duvet back and opened the wardrobe door.
‘I didn’t want you to have to face them, lovey…’ She sat up and watched as I burrowed in the bottom of the wardrobe.
I dragged His suitcase out and opened the zip. His brown Dr Martens boots were crushed up inside with all the other offending items: His mobile phone, His belt, His wash bag, His pill box. Those now defunct remnants of a life, hastily packed away. And finally, His glasses. He’d taken them off seconds before we began making love, and I lifted them out of the case and looked at them. I thought I could discern a fingerprint on one of the lenses. I looked through them in an attempt to see the world as He did.
I packed everything back up and pushed the case back into the dark corner of Mother’s wardrobe. I turned to look at Mother.
‘You didn’t get rid of the Guinness, did you?’
‘The four-pack of Guinness He’d just bought that were sitting on the bench. You didn’t throw them out, did you?’
Mother shook her head. ‘They’re at the back of the shelf in the porch. I just didn’t want…’
I pulled on a dressing gown and walked out of the bedroom.
I peered in at B who was yet to awaken into her first day without her daddy. I was relieved she still slept, for I had no energy to deal with her. Downstairs, I boiled the kettle, then went into the lounge and forgot about it. I felt hungry, but the thought of food made me retch. I looked out of the window at the trees, skeletal against a white February sky. I had been told my husband was dead, but it felt impossible to me that the world could keep turning without Him in it.
It was almost 7 a.m. He hadn’t yet been dead twelve hours and already there was a burning in my heart. How on earth was I going to face a lifetime without Him?
It occurred to me that I ought to let people know. I sat on the settee and contemplated how best to do it. In the post-postmodern age, how do you tell friends that one of their friends has died? By text, of course. But how to put it?
Morning all! Just to let you know, Mark passed away yesterday. Happy Sunday!
After numerous attempts at rephrasing, I ended up sending words to this effect. Minus the salutations. There was no way of dressing up the facts. Their friend had died less than twelve hours earlier and the bringer of this news was in a stupor. People tried to call. My closest friends Kim, Beccy, Nicole and Anna were all desperate to get through. But I let the phone ring. I don’t remember listening to the messages that began building up. Maybe I never did. I did make one call – to Mark’s best friend John – and asked him to relay the news to the other lads. Tag-team bad news. On reflection it was a crass way to announce it to the people Mark loved. But sudden death is crass. What else could I do?
I crawled into the bed next to my daughter and drew her close. Her head was tilted up at mine, framed with a froth of ginger curls. Her eyes were His. A deep, creamy brown.
She considered this for some time. ‘At Cheltenham?’
Great sobs convulsed through me and I squeezed her tiny, sparrow-like shoulders with my arms.
‘Are you crying?’
We lay for a moment in silence. I looked at the area of carpet where He had last stood. He was the bearer of bed-time milk. He had handed it over and kissed her goodnight. It was the last time He would ever see His daughter, and the last time she would ever see Him.
Finally I said: ‘Do you want some breakfast?’
On the way downstairs, we passed the entrance to my mother’s bedroom. B stopped, her hand wrapped around mine, and looked in.
“‘You tried to wake Daddy in there,’ she said. ‘You said “and 1… and 2… and 3… and 4”.’”
‘You tried to wake Daddy in there,’ she said. ‘You said “and 1… and 2… and 3… and 4”.’
‘But they couldn’t wake Daddy?’
She accepted this. Now she wanted Shreddies.
Bereavement professionals call it ‘puddle-jumping’. Children hop in and out of grief as if they were splashing in puddles on a rainy day. This was unsettling for me at first. I didn’t understand how a complex, potentially upsetting line of questioning could be followed by something as mundane as a request for a biscuit. She never cried for Him. But then she was three years old. She didn’t understand ‘forever’.
DAY 3: MONDAY 13 FEBRUARY 2012
People came and went. Family members had arrived from Canada for the funeral of my grandmother which was taking place in two days’ time. I watched them walk uneasily up the path to my mother’s front door. I hadn’t seen my Canadian cousin for six years, but I couldn’t face her. They came into the house and I went upstairs and lay on the bed in Mother’s room, in the same position I’d been in when Mark died on me. I glanced around the room, wondering what the last thing was Mark had seen before His eyes closed for ever. The leather headboard, perhaps? The alarm clock on the cane side table? Or had His last image been of me, lying there in my socks?
A sharp pain skewered my guts. I hadn’t eaten much for three days, and my innards were protesting. They didn’t want dry toast hastily stuffed into them at 3 a.m., yet food had become an ordeal – the sight of it, the preparation of it, its demands to be chewed and swallowed. I had largely managed to avoid the stuff during the day, but hunger had taken to waking me up in the night when I was sufficiently woozy to ingest food without thinking. I rolled into a tight ball and dry-retched into the pillow. When it had passed, I stayed in the ball and wept until my eyeballs ached.
My oldest friend Kim arrived, unbidden, from Preston.
‘You don’t have to speak to me,’ she said. ‘And don’t worry, I’m not staying long. I just needed to be here.’
I’d known Kim since high school. She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen and I instantly wanted to be her best friend for ever. At the time she had layered hair like Debra Winger and the longest legs imaginable. We went through break-ups, make-ups. We lost touch then found each other again. And here we were, twenty-five years later, sitting on Mother’s bed not knowing what to say to each other.
The constant stream of visitors was a distraction for B, but I worried about when I should tell her the truth. Mark couldn’t be in Cheltenham indefinitely. There would come a time when the visits stopped and His absence would be noted.
I asked Kim to contact another friend, Suzie, who worked for a children’s bereavement charity called Winston’s Wish. I couldn’t face phone calls, but Kim could ask Suzie for some advice on how to deal with my daughter on my behalf.
The advice came back, scrawled on the back of an envelope. We sat on Mother’s bed, away from the hoopla downstairs, and we wept as Kim explained what I needed to do. I was to tell B that her daddy had died. I should use direct terminology, no euphemisms, and explain, in simple terms, what it meant. That the doctors had tried to save Daddy, but they had not been able to. Daddy had a problem with His heart and it had stopped. She would never see Daddy again. There were to be no more lies.
I brought B upstairs and the two of us sat on the bed where she had last seen Daddy, lying flat on His back with His eyes open and His arm splayed over the side of the mattress.
‘Do you remember what happened here?’ I asked, softly.
‘You tried to wake Daddy up,’ she said. She played with a loose flap of leather on the sole of her shoe.
‘I did. But I couldn’t wake Him. The doctors couldn’t wake Him. Daddy died. Do you understand what that means?’
She looked at me. ‘Why did Daddy die?’
‘Daddy was very poorly. The doctors tried to save Him, but they couldn’t.’
She was distracted, perhaps by the voices of the newly landed visitors, or maybe she just didn’t want to hear.
‘When somebody dies, it means we won’t see them again,’ I went on.
She said nothing for a short while, then she said: ‘My shoe has broked.’
She’d jumped out of the puddle and I wasn’t going to force her back in.
DAY 4 : TUESDAY 14 FEBRUARY 2012
Dennis from the funeral director’s arrived. The salesman of death. He was a mouse-ish little fella with gingivitis and a terrible bedside manner. He offered no condolences and didn’t look me in the eye as he unloaded casket and coffin catalogues on to the table.
‘This one is very popular,’ he said, flicking through the coffin selection. ‘At the end of the day, it’s only going to end up being burned so you may as well go for the cheapest one.’
It was prudent economic advice from Dennis, but not what I wanted to hear at that moment in time. In fact, I didn’t want to be thinking about coffins for my husband at all. It was Valentine’s Day and I had anticipated that we would be holding hands somewhere, eating Cornettos and blowing kisses at each other in the wind.
I didn’t know where the hell Mark was. He’d been whisked away in a body bag and I could only imagine Him to be filed in one of those drawers in a morgue somewhere with a name tag hanging from His toe.
Truth be told, Dennis couldn’t wait to get out of there. It transpired that he’d already been in Mother’s living room, in that very same chair, just a few days before, discussing my grandma’s funeral requirements. He probably thought the place was cursed. He clearly wanted the choices to be made so he could be excused from the company of this blighted family and get to his next appointment. This was business – the tragedy that had ripped apart my life three days prior was not his concern.
And frankly, I didn’t want condolences from Dennis. Not only was I sick to death of hearing condolences, but this whole thing was becoming more and more surreal as each day went on. I just wanted it to be over. I wanted Mark, like Bobby on Dallas, to come walking out of the shower and for it all to have been a dream. I believed He would, too.
I took Dennis’s advice and went for the MDF, E-Z burn coffin. Selecting the casket proved more difficult. The vessel in which to burn the body of your beloved husband is one thing – the one in which to preserve their charred remains is quite another.
I was jostled into a decision to have Mark interred at the crematorium in Newcastle. When Dennis asked if I wanted to add the cost of a plot to the bill, naturally I said yes. I figured at least He’d be close by and surrounded by hallowed Geordie soil. I hadn’t considered the lunacy of this decision at the time; that I would not be able, even two years later, to commit Him to the ground in any form. That doing so would be an acceptance of His death, the dropping of the final curtain.
However, that afternoon, four days after my husband’s death, I understood that this was the course of action I would be taking. And interment meant I couldn’t go for the free plastic ‘sweetie jar’ option to hold His ashes. It needed to be an expensively crafted box, complete with brass plaque and lacquering.
‘This is a popular one,’ advised Dennis. The benefit of his wisdom was welcome by now, as I had had enough of making decisions about the funeral arrangements of a man whom I still hadn’t accepted was dead. ‘Simple lines, solid oak.’
He sat, pen poised over his order form. I railed and bucked in my chair like an impatient child.
‘I don’t want Him in any of those! I don’t want Him to be dead!’
Dennis said nothing. Eventually, I nodded. I went for limos, top hats, the works. If Dennis had suggested pole-dancing chipmunks, I would have gone for it.
The final query on Dennis’s death list related to my sartorial preferences for Mark’s journey into the ever-after. Dennis was keen on a standard-issue shroud. Something akin to the capes one wears at the hairdresser’s.
‘They come in white or blue satin,’ he told me.
‘I’d rather He wore His own clothes,’ I said.
‘The crematorium prefers the shroud. It’s all to do with emissions these days, you see…’
Dennis, I felt, had had his own way too much during this transaction. I shook my head. ‘No. I want Him in clothes of my choosing. He is not being cremated in a satin cape.’
He scrawled a note on his form and left the house with a request for an £800 deposit up front. Presumably in case Mark changed His mind.
No sooner had Dennis left than I had a call from the undertaker. Mark had just arrived at the funeral home from the hospital morgue and – great news! – He looked ‘very peaceful’. The funeral director, Lee, was an irritatingly amiable fellow, for whom death was so much part of life he was practically gleeful about it.
‘But look at the AGE of my husband!’ I wanted to say to him. ‘Aren’t you shocked, or saddened in the least, Lee?’
But seemingly, Lee was not. ‘We’re just going to get Mark ready and then you can come in and see Him,’ he told me with a chuckle.
I could hear him beaming down the phone. I found myself beaming back. ‘Great stuff!’ I heard myself respond. ‘I’ll be down as soon as He’s ready, Lee!’
I thought about this exchange with Lee later. Why on earth would Mark be peaceful about dying at the age of thirty-seven? Excuse the pun, but it wasn’t the sort of thing I imagined He would take lying down. On the contrary, He would be fucking furious. Lee’s ‘peaceful’ was an example of the placatory, euphemistic language we use around death and dying, along with, ‘He’s in a better place now’ and ‘Rest in Peace’.
But Lee’s upbeat attitude to my husband’s sudden death had a curious effect on me. The four preceding Mark-less days had been characterised by people arriving and departing, by weary jags of tears, by emotional and physical sickness, by moments of impotence followed by frenzied decision-making. Talking to Lee on the phone, I felt momentarily relieved of the weight of the tragedy. He was an expert in the field, and his jauntiness seemed to suggest that death, even when it was sudden and involved one so young, wasn’t really all that bad. And at that point, I was ready to pounce on any opportunity for reprieve.
DAY 5: WEDNESDAY 15 FEBRUARY 2012
I walked into my sister’s kitchen where a small gathering of family members and Mother’s partner, Jim, were drinking tea and waiting for the hearse containing the body of my grandmother to arrive. The mood was light, and I sensed the weight of my arrival.
Mother and I had had a hostile exchange that morning and we eyed each other warily over the teapot. She had been tearful about the prospect of her mother’s despatch, and I had spat: ‘I don’t care about Grandma’s funeral. I don’t care about anything any more.’
‘Well, I care!’ she’d shouted. ‘It’s my mother!’
She was right, of course, but I was unable to summon any sympathy, even for the grandma I dearly loved. Five days in, and already grief had begun to calcify my emotional response to anything other than my own shattering loss.
Now, my aunt placed her arm around my shoulder. ‘You’ll come to the pub afterwards, then?’
‘I’ll see how it goes,’ I replied. Dad would stay with me and B while the ceremony took place. Two funerals in one week were too much, even for someone anaesthetised by shock and red wine.
They finished their tea and set off to take their places in the two limos which had rolled up outside. I spotted a piece of paper on which Mother had scrawled a seating plan for the limos a few weeks previously. Older generation in the front one, grandchildren and their partners in the one behind. Beside my name, Mark’s. Now crossed out.
I don’t remember how Dad, B and I passed the time while my grandmother was being sent off. We may have watched a film, or done a jigsaw, or simply looked at each other through the thick silence. At some point I went upstairs and got myself dressed for the wake. It was the first time I’d worn make-up since Mark had died. The effort of lifting the mascara wand, of squeezing the foundation, of applying the blusher had been too much. Besides, the pallid, tear-paunched face that looked back at me every day through the mirror was an accurate reflection of myself. Why try to cover it up?
I drew my face on, and watched as another person emerged. My bone-white face with its hollow eyes decorated into some semblance of a living human being. I dressed B, and Dad told us we both looked nice.
We set off for the pub and again I sensed the burden my presence would bring to the occasion. While the mourners were relatively few, there were old family friends and neighbours in that room whom I hadn’t seen for years. Eyes lifted and dropped again as I walked in. Conversations paused and resumed.
I nibbled a slice of garlic bread – that staple of the funeral after-party – and drained a glass of wine. Somebody told me I would ‘be all right’. Another said I was ‘doing well’. I sat at a table and spoke to people from behind my veil of despair. I managed to form words, and arrange them into coherent sentences. I asked them about their families, their holidays, their jobs.
I drank three more glasses of wine before I left, and throughout that whole time, no one asked about Mark.
DAY 6 : THURSDAY 16 FEBRUARY 2012
Following Lee’s invitation, I made an appointment to go and ‘view’ Mark at the quaintly named ‘Chapel of Rest’. Dad and Beth would accompany me, as none of us were sure how the mission would unfold. The thought of seeing my husband again after six long days filled my heart with joy, so much so that I ignored the small fact that He would actually be dead when that time finally came.
Six days was, after all, a long time for us. Only once before had we had that long apart. Shortly before He died, He was asked to go to Australia with work.
‘Are you sure you don’t mind me going, pet?’ He’d asked. ‘It’s a long old time to be apart.’
‘I’ll hate every minute, love, but you should go. It’s an opportunity not to be missed.’
He was gone two weeks, during which time I’d prowled the house like a demented tigress awaiting the return of her mate. He’d emailed from the departure lounge at Heathrow, then again at Doha.
‘Miss you, pet.’
‘Me too! You’ve been away long enough! Home now!’
Two weeks later He stepped off the train at Malton and we ran into each other’s arms, the three of us, all beaming like an advert for toothpaste. We loaded up His luggage in the car and drove homeward, vowing never to be apart for that long again.
Back at the Chapel of Rest, there was the anticipation, waiting to go in. Like standing in the wings before the start of the school play, knowing your dad’s in the audience with his video-camera. The anxiety was further fomented by the receptionist’s insistence that we have a cup of tea. We had accepted, Beth, Dad and I, assuming it would be a matter of filling a cup from a machine.
But the kettle was upstairs, which necessitated her running between it and the phone, which was downstairs at her desk. The phone wouldn’t stop ringing. We were becoming increasingly agitated, she increasingly placatory, her lacquered blond curls bouncing as she ran up and down the stairs.
‘Why can’t we just go in?’ we whispered to each other.
But clearly, there was an order which needed to be observed before one could view the body of one’s beloved lying in the funeral home, and tea was first. We sipped in silence. I studied the picture on the wall behind the receptionist’s desk. A blown-up photograph of an oak tree with the words: from little acorns… written across it in a dreamy script.
‘I’ve had a request from the Echo,’ said the receptionist breathily, peeling a Post-it note from the side of her computer screen. ‘They want to know if you would be happy for them to do a piece on Mark. You know, how He was so young and it was so sudden. They asked if you would call them. You’ve to ask for Andrew.’ She held her forefinger up with the Post-it attached to it. ‘His number’s on here.’
I stared at the yellow slip and the number scrawled across it. ‘I have no interest in talking to the Echo,’ I replied, draining my tea. ‘Look, can we go and see my husband yet?’
The room was stage-lit. There was a crucifix on the wall and some silk roses in a vase. The lid of His coffin was propped up in the corner, with a brass plaque across the centre testifying to His identity and date of death. But to me, it all looked like theatre. Theatre of the Absurd, of course, but theatre nonetheless. A macabre stage set where Mark had the starring role.
I saw His hair first. It was exactly as I remembered it from the last time I had seen Him. Somehow I had expected it to have changed, in the same way that my entire life had changed. It was Him, there was no getting away from it. I scrutinised His face. All the features I knew and adored were still there. The half-white eyebrow. The mole on His forehead. The tiny hairs on the end of His nose.
‘Where have you been?’ I asked Him. ‘I’ve been looking for you.’
He didn’t stir, but for a moment I thought He might open His eyes and sit up. I examined every part of Him. I stood at the top end of the coffin and looked down His body, checking the shape matched His.
‘You can touch Him, you know,’ said the receptionist, moving in alongside me.
‘I’m not sure if I want to. Is it… you know… OK?’
She put her hand in the coffin and wrapped her fingers around His. Gently, she stroked His hand. ‘Go ahead,’ she said. She positioned her head on one side and looked down at Him. ‘It’s tragic, isn’t it?’
I ventured a hand into the box. First I touched His shirt – the blue one I’d selected in lieu of Dennis’s shroud. It had been specially ironed by Mother, and was complete with the stain on the collar. Mother had protested – surely we couldn’t send Him off in that? – but it was His favourite. And at this point, who the hell cared about a stain? I ran my hand over His jeans. Then I felt His feet through the socks I had just bought Him for Christmas.
I reached for His hand and touched His thumb with my forefinger. The hand that had once held me, caressed me, bore the symbol of our union. It was cold now, and the nails were yellow. I kissed His face and rubbed my nose with His. I smelled His skin but got nothing but embalming fluid. I clipped locks of His hair and placed them carefully in a little plastic box. I lifted His shirt (I wanted to see if He still had fluff in His belly button) but the rough-hewn, hastily sewn track of the pathologist’s knife made me drop it.
It was, indisputably, the body of my husband. And I’d seen enough. The familiar sensation of sickness rose in my throat, and I cupped my mouth until it passed. Tears spilled down my cheeks as I said goodbye, knowing that I would never see Him again.
DAY 7 : FRIDAY 17 FEBRUARY 2012
A woman named Judith arrived at Mother’s door to take notes for the funeral service over which she would officiate. With her shaggy auburn mane and vivid make-up pallette, she resembled a doll that had been defaced by an experimental child. A maelstrom of perfume and stale cigarette smoke whipped up as she moved through the hallway and into the living room.
She arranged herself in the chair, placing her closed notepad on the floor beside her feet. Turns out one of her friends had lost her husband when she was younger, and Judith seemed keen to tell us about it. She accepted Mother’s offer of a cup of coffee and began the tale of Barry’s demise.
‘He was forty-four. Worked for the Council. Housing officer I think he was. Went to work as usual. Suddenly, collapses at his desk. Everyone thought he was messing about. Wake up, Baz! But he’d gone. Just like that.’ Judith clicked her fingers to illustrate the point. She took a Bourbon biscuit from the plate Mother had placed on the coffee table. ‘Same thing as your Mark. Heart attack.’
I raised a hand: ‘With due respect, Judith, I can’t listen to any more of this.’
It wasn’t just Judith’s assumption that Mark had died of a heart attack (He hadn’t) which caused my patience to expire. I wasn’t interested in the shared experience. In fact, I couldn’t have cared less about the death of Judith’s friend’s husband. Yeah, yeah, it sucked and everything, but nobody could have loved their husband more than me, and therefore my tragedy outweighed everyone else’s. Plus, I still didn’t quite believe that my husband was dead, so why would I want any allegiance with some widow I didn’t even know? I flounced off into the kitchen and waited for her while she finished her story and her Bourbon biscuit in the lounge.
Mark’s parents, newly arrived from Australia and in a state of total bewilderment, and His sister had arrived to contribute to Judith’s notes. We sat around the kitchen table. Stories from Mark’s youth were exchanged. His hobbies, his aptitudes.
‘He liked to build model aircraft as a boy… finished them off intricately with Humbrol paint. He was a perfectionist like that,’ said my father-in-law.
‘When He was little, He refused to eat anything green,’ said Mark’s sister. ‘Even cheese and onion crisps. They were in a green packet, you see.’
Mark’s mother stepped in. ‘He loved his guitar, didn’t He?’
‘Yes, He loved his guitar…’
Judith took notes. MARK (name circled) = loved guitar. She accepted the offer of another Bourbon while nodding sympathetically as we talked. Everyone chuckled dumbly at reminiscences of a man who was not yet laid to rest. Meanwhile, the tinny pulse of the bossa nova demo resounded for the umpteenth time from the lounge.
DAY 8 : SATURDAY 18 FEBRUARY 2012
It occurred to me that funerals normally involved flowers. Swathes of them, all over the coffin and in the hearse. Sometimes these flowers were teased into letters spelling out the name of the deceased, or fashioned into a guitar, or a set of golf clubs, or in one case, a bar stool and pint of Theakston’s. Mark would not want flowers. Flowers were a nod to tradition, and they bore no relevance to the subject of this particular funeral. I made a firm decision that there would be no flowers.
As the day of the funeral approached, I began to fret about the flowers. People would wonder why there were none. I phoned a local flower shop and explained my predicament.
‘Everyone goes through this, love. Come in and have a chat to Xanthe our creative director. She’ll come up with something lovely for your husband.’
Xanthe was very thin and very blond and in a rush. She used her long, plum-coloured talons to flick through the catalogue and point out the various features of each bouquet.
‘Did Mark have a particular flower that He liked?’ she asked, pulling her hair round to one side of her shoulder where it hung like the tail on a coonskin hat. She was the type of woman who would flirt with herself in a mirror and was probably filthy in bed.
‘He lived in Japan for a time, and often talked about the cherry blossoms.’
‘So, Asian-themed then?’ Xanthe flicked through the catalogue. ‘Hmmm. I’m thinking pussy willow, cherry blossom, a palm frond here and there…’
‘Yes, and how about bamboo?’
Xanthe looked at me as if I’d just shat on the floor. ‘Asian themes are all about simplicity.’ She closed the catalogue and brought out her purchase ledger.
‘I think we can come up with something special here. Leave it with me, it’ll be beautiful.’
‘I want something from our daughter too. She won’t be coming to the funeral so a little bouquet from her might be nice.’
Xanthe opened the catalogue again. ‘Does your daughter have a particular flower that she likes?’
‘Not really. But she has ginger curly hair. I was wondering if there might be an orange flower that we could use…’
‘Gerbera. A posy of orange gerbera, with twists of greenery in between the flowers to signify the curls. I think we can come up with something special here. Leave it with me, it’ll be beautiful.’ She closed the catalogue again and went to stand up.
‘Just before I leave… Would you like to see a picture of my husband?’ I asked.
Xanthe’s face softened. She lowered herself back into her seat and said, ‘I’d love to.’
I pulled out the passport-sized picture of Mark from my wallet and handed it to her. She held it lightly with her plum talons.
‘He looks like such a lovely man. Lucie, I’m just so sorry for your loss. But don’t worry, we’ll sort the flowers.’
Satisfied that the flowers were in expert, perfectly manicured hands, my mind turned to any other aspects of the funeral circus that I might have neglected. Dennis had left me a checklist along with his bill, outlining things I should consider for the day. I had tossed it to one side, believing that if I ignored it the whole thing might just go away. I unearthed it, and discovered that we had no order of service, no provision for charity donations should people wish to make them, no book of condolence. These were the sorts of frills people expected, no matter how untimely the death or how apathetic the shell-shocked spouse felt about them. They were part of the send-off, integral to ‘celebrating’ the life.
Rather than an order of service, I curated a selection of photographs of Mark spanning almost four decades, and Mother’s partner Jim turned them into a four-page booklet for each mourner. On the back, he directed people to a webpage I’d hastily set up with the British Heart Foundation in Mark’s name, specifically for research into genetic heart conditions. In the event, I forgot all about the book of condolence, but I figured it was for the best. It wasn’t the sort of literature I was in the frame of mind to read.
DAY 12: WEDNESDAY 22 FEBRUARY 2012
Lee loved funerals. You could just tell. He was the sort of man to whom one might refer as a ‘fellow’, and who pronounced the word ‘Hallo’ exactly as it is written.
‘Hallo,’ he said, walking into the reception area of the funeral home, where we had all gathered in advance of the service. ‘How are we all today?’ Top hat on, he clutched a pair of white gloves in his fist. By now, Lee’s relentless jocularity was starting to wear thin. His aim was to elicit a smile from grieving relatives, but I wanted an expression of sadness. All I got was a chuckle from beneath a top hat.
The reception area featured a small cast of mismatched characters. Our respective parents. Siblings. An aunt. My sister’s parents-in-law (for reasons that remain unclear to this day). The men told jokes; the women laughed nervously like people queuing up for a Ken Dodd show. I stared at a vase of fake chrysanthemums on the windowsill, and then at the traffic on the road outside. I thought about B. I had made the decision not to bring her to this final farewell. She’d borne witness to her daddy’s last moments and I felt that was enough. I’d left her bouncing on the trampoline at a neighbour’s house in Mother’s village, happily unaware of the grim significance of the day.
“‘We’ll be leaving in five to ten minutes,’ said Lee, pulling on his gloves with a smile. ‘In current traffic it should take around twenty minutes to get to the crematorium. Would anyone like a final look at Mark before we put Him in the hearse?’”
‘We’ll be leaving in five to ten minutes,’ said Lee, pulling on his gloves with a smile. ‘In current traffic it should take around twenty minutes to get to the crematorium. Would anyone like a final look at Mark before we put Him in the hearse?’
Lee made it sound so commonplace, so in the order of things. I’d already looked. I didn’t like it the first time round. I couldn’t imagine it would be any easier now. I had, however, taken some time to inspect Xanthe’s flowers, which had been delivered that morning and sat in the garage area out the back of the funeral home.
The Asian-themed arrangement for the top of the coffin was as thin as Xanthe herself. Two sprigs of silk cherry blossom nestled unassumingly amid three or four long fingers of pussy willow, which themselves were almost lost in a forest of fern and bracken. As for B’s, the orange gerberas were gathered into a posy, but the greenery which I had envisioned spiralling delicately up out of it was in fact a heavy hula-skirt of grass and foliage around the base. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed.
On Dennis’s recommendation, I had ordered one limo for immediate family. The driver wore a peaked hat three sizes too big for his head. He’d been listening to Smooth FM while he waited for us on the double yellow lines outside, and we were serenaded by ‘When The Going Gets Tough’ by Billy Ocean until, a hundred yards down the road, Dad shouted: ‘Music off!’
The man-child blushed beneath his visor and apologised. We continued the rest of the journey in silence, looking at the Asian-themed box containing my beloved husband through the rear window of the hearse in front. I could just make out the top of Lee’s balding pate in the seat beyond.
We passed my old school, then The Three Mile Inn (site of many lost evenings with Mark), and snaked down on to the A1 for a short stretch, a section of motorway well travelled by our family tyres.
We pulled round into the crematorium and suddenly, the hearse stopped and Lee got out, placed his top hat on, and walked slowly ahead of the cortege. I wondered what the hell he was doing. He led us in, past the line of mourners. It seemed everyone Mark and I had ever known was there: faces from our shared past, faces unknown, the face of that bloke Mark hated from work, as well as my oldest friends Kim, Beccy, Nicole and Anna. I watched as their eyes fell on the coffin, looks of revulsion and disbelief etched on their faces.
This was one reason I had wanted to see Him in the funeral home – imagining what lay inside the box would have been too much for an overactive imagination – I needed to know in order to have some kind of peace. And, of course, to believe it was actually Him in there.
I got out of the car and for some inexplicable reason waved at the crowd, like someone out of Celebrity Squares. I had requested that Mark’s three best friends, His brother-in-law, my brother, Dan, and Mark’s dad assume the grim task of carrying the coffin from the hearse into the crematorium. They were waiting anxiously by the door, sucking on cigarettes, hunch-shouldered, trying to keep warm. I saw Lee amiably giving them instructions as to the best way to balance their departed friend.
And then came Lee’s second offence of the day. I’d requested Neil Young’s ‘Heart of Gold’ be played as people entered the crematorium. It was one of our favourites; we had sung it to each other under the Tyne Bridge on an early date, our voices straining in a parody of Young’s. But Lee had downloaded the live version, and frankly, even in a studio Young’s voice isn’t pretty. And because there were over a hundred people in attendance, we had to listen to it on a loop for ten minutes while they all packed in.
The men carried Mark in through a side door. We watched as they manoeuvred the coffin on to the plinth at the front of the crematorium, then took their seats. Looking at the box, with its gaudy golden handles and wood-effect whorls, it was impossible to believe who lay within it. I looked across at Beth, who was sitting in the row behind me with her head in her hands. I scanned the rest of the congregation, my eyes alighting on grey face after grey face. I turned back to look at the coffin and felt utterly detached from the reality of why we were all here.
Judith took to the lectern and set her face to ‘wistful’. I’m not sure whether the lack of note-taking had got her, or perhaps it was the size of the crowd, but she proceeded to mangle facts and vowels with gusto. In fact, you could hear the collective exhalation of breath whenever she stumbled to the end of another paragraph.
‘As a boy [verifies name on notes] Mark loved to build modal aircrafts…’
Finally, she invited me up to the lectern. It’s incredible what post-traumatic shock, a shot of gin and a beta-blocker enable you to do. I gave a speech during the service without spilling a single tear. Dan stood behind me as I delivered it ready to step in when I broke down. But I didn’t.
I stalked back to my seat, forgetting to thank Dan. I felt bad about that, afterwards.
Mark’s best friend John was invited to come and read the speech he had prepared. John was seated a few rows back from me, snottering uncontrollably into his wife’s shoulder.
‘John? Can John come up…?’ Judith looked out into the crowd.
‘John sent you the speech to read, Judith,’ I called out. I’d been cc-ed into the email. ‘Remember? He knew he wouldn’t feel able when the time came.’
Judith rifled through her notes, false eyelashes fanning like peacock tails. She shook her head and looked plaintively at me and then John
‘I haven’t got a copy. John, do you have a copy by any chance?’
John shook his head.
‘Do you feel like saying a few words off the cuff?’ I shouted to John.
He couldn’t formulate a word, never mind a sentence.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said.
And it really didn’t matter. I wanted this whole farce over with. Judith, Lee, Xanthe, Dennis, they were all people just doing their jobs. No matter how they performed them, it was never going to be good enough. For as hard as they tried, this was the love of my life they were dealing with. And I didn’t want them to be dealing with Him at all.
The committal is a solemn moment traditionally heralded by the playing of a piece of poignant music – ‘Moonlight Sonata’, perhaps, or something by those singing monks. I’d chosen ‘Rule the World’ by Take That. It was a song Mark had heard in the hospital when He first became ill in 2008 – it played on the radio during the summer. Generally He liked music by bands with names like Them Crooked Vultures and Muse, but for some reason that song by a hairsprayed, perfumed boy band floored Him. After He was released and back home, we would play the song and cry at the memories it conjured up. We thanked God those times were over and we’d come through it intact.
Sitting there in that freezing crematorium, listening to Gary Barlow, I couldn’t help but remember a photograph of him in the early days of Take That, where he’d posed naked except for a sock on his genitals. I wished I’d gone for the singing monks.
When the service ended I took one last look at the box that held my soulmate and walked heavily up the aisle. Leaving Him there, on that frigid plinth, I tried not to think about the next and final stop that remained on His journey. I kept my head down as I walked towards the exit, not daring to look at the faces on either side of me lest one of them prompted tears to flow. And I knew once the tears came, they wouldn’t stop.
By the time we left the crematorium, our infantile chauffeur had been dismissed and Lee was now behind the wheel of the limo. Immediate family took their seats in the vehicle and we set off for the wake. I watched life go by through the window of the limo. This was an overcast Wednesday in February. Ordinarily we would have been at work. I followed strangers on the pavements with my eyes and longed for the drudgery of everyday existence.
Driving from the City’s West End to the pub on the Quayside, I felt waves of weariness and dread converge. I had gone through the motions, done what was expected, but now all I wanted was to close the curtains on the world and let the pain do its worst. I tightened my fists into balls and focused on the sensation of sharp, hot-pink nails digging into my flesh.
Thanks to Facebook, people had got wind of Mark’s death and the funeral and flocked in their droves for the free turkey 56 pinwheels and chicken wings. We had catered for sixty, but at least twice that came. The ensuing bun-fight left napkins and cutlery strewn about the Pitcher and Piano mezzanine like one of those teenage parties that ends up as an insurance claim.
I spent most of the wake in a ‘meet and greet’ role, a sort of lobotomised Beverly Moss from Abigail’s Party. My strategy was to imagine that Mark was somewhere in the crowd. Occasionally I’d forget myself and absently look about for Him, and then feel panic rise in my guts when I realised He wasn’t there.
I’d push it back down with a slug of wine and a new conversation, but I knew it was simmering.
I directed guests to the free hot drinks and the paying bar, and regaled them with stories of Mark’s death. I comforted those who were crying and took advantage of the goodwill of smokers by taxing them for fags. My glass was never empty of wine, despite my best efforts to drain it.
I met uncles and cousins who had been unknown to me until now. In ten years, Mark had never mentioned them, yet here they were, plates stacked with samosas, reminiscing about when He was a lad. Friends whom I hadn’t seen for years turned up, old neighbours, ex-colleagues. When only the last few mourners remained, I picked my way over to the buffet and salvaged a flaccid slice of garlic bread and a few anaemic fries. The only thing I had eaten all day was 80mg of Propranolol, and by then even that was wearing off. It was nearly 7 p.m. and I was ravenous, so a group of us headed to the nearest pizza joint. I stepped outside for a smoke of someone else’s cigarette and the first drag whipped up a storm in my brain, as if it had somehow brought together the synapses linking the events of the days and caused them to combust. The breakdown that had been dancing around the periphery of my vision swung into plain view, and I collapsed, right there in Beccy’s arms in the street: drunk and totally heartbroken.