- An extra lie, not included in A Book of Untruths -
Family should be buried together
Seated on the front pew, I stare through the stained glass window above the altar, an image I’ve ignored through sermons already countless times. A single white sheet of A4 paper, folded down to the size of a calling card, turns in my hands. It is an elegy for my mother. Although all four of us spoke at Dad’s funeral, at Mum’s no-one wants to. The task has fallen to me, and whatever the words are, wearing away in my hands, they are forgettable, because within a few weeks I will even forget them myself.
We orphans have struggled to put the show together, and behind us the church is filling. She was loved. Soon there is standing room only. Yet still we wait. For her family to come - that better half.
The worse half, my father’s, the rampant Irish, the ones usually held up as the example of what to avoid, have already taken their seats. A detachment of fifteen line the pews behind us, holding their Catholic breaths.
You see, because however wrong their socio economic classification, Doyles can be relied on. Whatever the family occasion, and if there’s drink and a free lunch going, a brace of large-boned, befreckled relatives will show. A good number of them have driven miles and miles and miles.
I look again at the window, the shadow of my mother’s coffin, filling the aisle. The funereal welcome is going on funereally long. Then there is a scuffle at the back. The Patersons arrive, seating themselves near the door.
Their placement in the church is indicative of how difficult my mother’s choices were. I imagined that the subject had overwhelmed the long drive from Perthshire. Her younger brother visited only once after her diagnosis. The other not at all. His wife, my aunt, only a month previous had yelled down the phone:
‘What are you doing? Your mother is deteriorating? Why aren’t you there?’
I had two pre-school children and a job.
‘Why won’t you call her?’ she yelled.
Perhaps if the woman had bothered to visit herself, she might have realised that my mother, by that time, was no longer able to speak.
As the organist starts to play the first hymn I raise the question of pallbearers. A request whispers back through the aisles:
‘Would her brothers help carry their sister out?’
The funeral service is as terrible, and as difficult as I have anticipated, in too many ways to explain. I stand and read from my over-folded paper whatever forgettable words I force myself to say. As I read I watch the faces of my aunts, perched as far away from me as possible. They sit like their chairs are dirty, with the horrified look of people who could catch something – religion perhaps, poverty, or even death.
It is only when we reach the last hymn that word filters back: Mum’s elder brother is refusing to carry. I lean over the children and tug Ed’s sleeve:
‘What the fuck?’
He holds up a hand, signalling the conversation is over, and I am under too much grinding stress to make a strike for feminism and realise I can carry her out myself.
‘Without him we don’t have enough,’ I say. ‘YOU don’t have enough.’
I turn to Matthias:
‘For fuck’s sake do something.’
There are more whispers back through the ranks. Immediately two burly Doyles stand, and between them they help carry her down the steps to the waiting car.
It is a long drive to the cemetery, a windswept piece of land, rootless from any church. It looks over to the River Clyde and the islands in the west. It is the same ground where we buried Dad two years before. Within sight of Ireland she often told him, as though that might soften the knowledge that she’d already bought him a plot.
When her own time came she put together a clear plastic wallet with post-it note instructions. They covered every detail for her burial, and a receipt. When I handed it over to the Co-op Funeral Care office on the way out of town, I told them:
Without realising how much it couldn’t be.
For her funeral we stand beneath a steel grey sky, leaden waves crashing against the rocks, no view at all. Despite her considerate planning, the day is coming apart, another disorganised debate erupting over who will lower the coffin into the grave. Again her elder brother dissents. He and his wife, my aunt, peer into the hole, close enough to its edge that a brisk shove would put them in it.
The coffin judders, the rope catching on my fingers. I don't hear what she hisses into the wind, but someone else does:
‘How can they bury her beside that bastard?’
Neither the person reporting to me later, or the aunt telling it then, are of an age where swearing comes easy. Incomprehensibly though it was what Mum wanted, her last wish. The marital lie's final full stop; a keeping the story together right to the bitter end.