Wednesday, 4 February 2009

There was no crying, no breaking voices, no sobbing nor tear filled eyes, laughter filled the room.

If I hadn't wandered/been dragged down the road of waitering I think I could have made a fine undertaker.


It's honest work, certainly more honest than schlepping overpriced plates of pompous pate and showy sirloin. And whilst no one really wants to see you they are glad you came, the undertaker that is - no one is ever really glad the waiter came, relieved maybe but not glad. Plus black is rather becoming for a chap with a [ahem] portly frame, which is always a bonus.

Obviously I had never considered the peerless joy of undertaking as a career until I happened across the path of one Mr S Doherty, Funeral Director. His arrival was greeted by the few family members that were sitting, muted, in the living room with quiet relief. The chatter had slowed and the air was filling with stifled sobs and teary but unspoken memories. There was work to be done and decisions to be made. Mr S Doherty was the man for the job and his arrival shook us all out of our sombre malaise.

He was a tall man with a bright white face and matching hair and whilst his hands were icy cold they exuded a genuine warmth and sincerity for, this our most gravest of loses. Tea was declined but he was happy to chit chat about the ever worsening weather. Actually people from the countryside don't chit chat about the weather, it's too important for mere chatter. But for me it was just banal chit chat, but welcome none the less.

The undertaker needed a few details for the insertion in the newspaper - mum's full name and family details, husband, children, brothers and sisters and so on. It would have been very easy for him to take those details over the phone or even to a have just rattled through them in a mechanical, officious way. But he didn't, he took his time, passing comment and asking questions. It made it easier. He lightened the mood both with his jovial jabber jabber and respectful tone.

Still, he could do with changing the ring tone on his mobile phone. If it went off once it went off fifteen times, death it appears is a recession proof industry, and I'm not sure the electro big beat stylings of Armand Van Helden is entirely appropriate in such situations. Although if he sticks with it because he knows it makes people giggle and forget their woes for a moment then rave on old man, rave on.

People came in waves, actually they mainly came in cars, but you know what I mean. At times the house would be empty and quiet save for the tick tock of the clock and the cracking of logs on the fire and a moment later filled with heavy hearted mourners and well wishers. Sad and solemn expressions, nervous introductions, warm handshakes, it all became familiar and as a result sustaining. My heavy heart was lifted by the kindness and heartfelt compassion of strangers. Wakes are wonderful things, emotional roller coasters true, but wonderful all the same. One moment you are clasping the hand of a stranger the next you are up to your elbows in tuna and mayonnaise.

"Need seven more teas. Are there still plenty of sandwiches?"

"Sorry for your loss."

"Ah she's at peace now."

"Do you take sugar?"

"And you must be Manuel? I remember your mammy when she was a child...."

"Is that a tuna sandwich?"

"Ach Manuel I haven't seen you in twenty years. You were a bit slimmer then" , and he poked my tummy with an umbrella and winked at me. It drew a laugh in the kitchen so what was I to do.

On and on and on it went. People came and went at all times of the day and night. Tea was made and tea was drank. Sandwiches were made and most were eaten. Everybody had a role.

The night before the funeral when it was just family left a couple of bottles of wine were opened and the stories really began flowing. Tall tales and exaggeration. Scallywaggery and shenanigans. Brutes and creeps. Errol Brown. Love and laughter. Stories of dodging the curfews and barricades that so marked Belfast in the 1960's and 1970's. I saw her body in the next room but I knew she was here in this room laughing with her brothers and sisters and her husband and her children.

I got to know her as a child with all the stories from her school days. I closed my eyes as people talked and I could see her as a young woman dancing with my father - laughing and giggling and loving the attention. I could see it all as my aunts and my father spoke, their voices becoming like one narrator of a happy story. There were no tears, no breaking voices, no sobbing or tear filled eyes, laughter filled the room.

Tuesday morning marked a change in tone. Words unspoken said everything that needed to be said. Men shuffled back and forward as they took long draws on their cigarettes. Hushed conversations and knowing nods. Little Miss Manuel held my hand tightly. If she had let go I feel I could crumbled into dust under the weight of it all.

The undertaker took over, guiding us through our steps, doing the thinking for us, easing the load. The rain masked the tears of the hurt, the wind carried the sounds of the grief but not the pain itself. It remains, forever remains.

"What are you crying for?", I asked my sister as I got ready for school.

"Mum went into hospital last night", replied my sister through blubbery tears and sniffly nose.

I considered this for a moment and then said, "Well what's for breakfast then?" In the mind of this nine year old people who went into hospital got fixed and promptly got sent home. Well she finally did, 27 years later.

Thank you all for your kind words and thank you reading. Now lets hear no more about it, the comments are closed. Normal order resumes tomorrow.