(first published in Scribble, Issue 73, Spring 2017 pp. 11-14)
I’m relieved that Jane has invited me to the funeral. The way things had been between us in recent years, I’d have felt uncomfortable being here without an invitation, even though it’s my twin brother that we’re cremating. As the curtains swish shut across the coffin and the automatic rollers noisily trundle Maurice towards the furnace, I realise with a shock that I’d had no inkling that he’d want to be cremated. At some deep level, I must have assumed that we’d be together again in death down at the cemetery, despite our separation in life. I begin to suspect that Maurice had expressed no wishes about his funeral arrangements before his accident, and that the cremation had been Jane’s idea.
As my fellow-mourners and I begin that slow, self-conscious shuffle down the central aisle that follows every funeral service, I start to panic that I must have voiced my thoughts about Jane out-loud: a number of people are covertly observing me, and a few are whispering. Then I realise that they’re staring because of my startling resemblance to the deceased. To those that didn’t realise that Maurice had a twin, it must seem that Maurice is attending his own funeral.
Jane is standing just outside the crematorium chapel, receiving condolences. When she sees me, her composure leaves her. Not catching my eye, she mutters: ‘Thanks for coming, Bill.’ Before I can reply, her brother Andy – standing by her side – has seized my hand: ‘Damn it, damn it, this is a terrible business.’ I’ve always liked Andy and I let him draw me aside:
‘Come away, Bill. These clowns are all staring at you, because you’re the spitting image of Maurice.’
I’m surprised Andy has noticed the surreptitious goggling, but that’s what he’s like: Andy notices things. Into my disordered thoughts there comes the memory of the time when Andy and I were playing for the same youth club football team. A cup game, the semi-final, I was on the left wing. All through the first half, the opposing right back had been working me over: muttering threats and contriving niggling blind-side fouls. As we trooped off at half-time, he was beside me, breathing his dog’s breath in my face and whispering that he’d cripple me if I tried to take the ball past him again. Suddenly, Andy, the captain, was there beside the two of us calmly telling that right back, ‘Any more crap out of you and I’ll rip your throat out.’ And then Maurice was there too: ‘Dead right, we’ll all rip your throat out.’
I catch myself thinking: ‘Good ol’ Andy! Good ol’ Maurice!’ My eyes are watering and I belatedly realise that Andy is asking me a question:
‘I was saying, Bill, that I’m sure Jane will want you with us on the family table at the meal, down at the pub. You’ll be coming along now for the refreshments, I hope?’ He paused: ‘Your thoughts were miles away just then, Bill. Understandably.’
I smile: ‘I was thinking back to the time when you, me and Maurice were playing in the Rykneld Road youth club team.’
Andy smiles too: ‘Yeah. Maurice was a useful mid-fielder. Left-half, as we used to say. A pity he could only play in the school holidays.’
Yes, that was the start of it, really: Maurice could only play in the school holidays. I’d passed the eleven-plus exam and gone on to the grammar school. Maurice had inexplicably failed. Our parents were determined to ‘do the best’ for him and had scraped together the money to send him to that awful boarding school, where the school made him play rugby. So he could only play footie for the youth club in the school holidays. That was the start of it, alright: that bloody eleven-plus…
‘Mmm. We always stood a better chance of winning when Maurice was playing for us. He covered twice as much ground as anyone else: it was like having an extra man, remember?’ And before Andy can answer, I continue: ‘Sorry. I shan’t be coming on with you for the meal, Andy. I’m afraid I have to be getting back. Do apologise to Jane for me.’ I move away to the carpark. As I open the car door, I chance to see Andy and Jane in the middle-distance, both silently looking on. I give an awkward wave, climb in the car and drive off, back to Derby.
I’d baulked at the suffocating family table, with the salmon sandwiches. But once in the car, I’ve a sudden wish to be home without delay, to be back where I’m loved. On the motorway, I switch the radio on: it’s Woman’s Hour, an interview with a feminist conceptual artist. I press the CD button – choral music, Thomas Tallis, which matches my mood…
He always hated it there – at that school. He couldn’t tell Mum and Dad that though: they’d sacrificed a lot to send him there. And the way he saw it, that school was his punishment for failing his eleven-plus: he felt guilty – he thought it was all his own fault. That’s not what he said, but I knew that’s what he felt. I always knew what he felt, at least I always knew what he felt til he and Jane got together. And that boarding school was useless: he failed most of his exams, which made him feel even more guilty. While I went on to read Law at Nottingham, he joined the army. That was where he learned to drink…
A huge, two-story car-carrier swings out of the slow lane in front of me, I swerve out of the way, into the fast lane, causing a Mercedes behind me to brake, flash his lights and sound his horn. I realise I’d missed responding to the car-carrier’s previous indicator signal: I’m inattentive and tired. I wonder if that’s how it was with Maurice’s accident? or was he drinking again? I pull into a motorway services, have a pee, and buy a can of Red Bull. I don’t drink coffee, so all caffeine drinks work for me like a slap in the face. Back to the tarmac tedium; I’m alert but still inattentive, if you get my meaning.
He liked it in the army. It gave him some self-respect and he was popular with his mates. When he came home on leave, he’d say he wanted Britain to join the war in Vietnam: he and his mates would soon show the Yanks how to kill commies. But I knew that was just a wind-up: Maurice was a gentle soul. I was proud of him. When I married Jane, Maurice wore his dress uniform as the Best Man – he was the star of the show. In his speech at the wedding, Maurice told everyone that it was only fitting that I’d got married first, as I was the oldest – by twenty minutes. But they shouldn’t expect him to be marrying any time soon, because his brother had already married the best girl in the world. Odd that he should have said that, the way things turned out…
Now I’m off the motorway and on the Derby ring-road. I’m keen to get back home. I know Dorothy will be worried about how I’ve got on at the funeral. She’d been determined to come with me, but she has a nasty fluey cold and I finally convinced her to stay home. The traffic slows to a crawl: the Royce’s day-shift is heading home. Rolls-Royce is always called ‘Royce’s’ in Derby; don’t ask me why.
After he came out the army, it was me that persuaded him to come back to Derby. He’d talked about going to New Zealand, where he had an old army buddy. But I was worried about his drinking – the real reason he’d left the army – and I reckoned I could help him find his feet back in civvy street. ‘OK, big brother’, he’d said and gave me a hug. I was a partner in Molyneux & Sowter by this time: we managed several old-established local trusts with property interests in the town. So I got him a job as our Estate Manager. Mum and Dad had both died while Maurice was in the army. So it was natural that Maurice should stay with Jane and I while he looked for something permanent. I wasn’t worried about that: he and Jane had always got on well. And Jane’s heart always went out to a bird with a broken wing…
Dorothy comes to the window and waves when she hears the car in the drive. As I come in the door, she gives me a broad smile, a hug and then a steady look: ‘You’re tired. Not surprising: you’ve had a tough day and a long drive. Come and sit down, while I get your tea. It’s a salad and the rest of the Bird’s pork pie’.
Everyone in Derby swears that Bird’s make much better pork pies than anything found in Melton Mowbray. I take my black tie off first, a signal to myself that the solemnities are over. Like a small child emerging from a dark wood, my heart lifts to be back on familiar territory, to feel the proximity of one who loves me. I help Dorothy open a jar of sun-dried tomatoes and admire her deft movements as she lays the table. All those barren years after Jane and Maurice left – they count for nothing now. I answer her gentle questions about the funeral, but my thoughts are running on my late good fortune – Dorothy is my Indian Summer. As I finish off the pork pie, Dorothy starts another coughing and sneezing fit. Eventually, she is forced off to the bathroom and to bed.
I make her some hot milk and then clean-up after my meal. As I stand over the sink, I catch sight through the window of the tree peony that Maurice had bought and planted for Jane all those years ago: its tumbled mass of fragile, creamy flowers are blushing tonight in the evening sunlight.
Maurice’s transition back to civvy street proved more difficult than he or I had expected. He didn’t like the Estate Manager post; out of my hearing, he was calling himself a ‘rent collector’. Old Mr Sowter told me that his nephew had seen Maurice playing snooker in the backroom of The Bell in Sadlergate in the afternoons, sometimes ‘the worst for drink.’ Against Jane’s advice, I tackled Maurice about it. We shouted and swore half the night. And we both ended up crying. Maurice agreed to seek help with his drinking…
I’m tired, but too restless to go to bed. And I can hear Dorothy still coughing. I watch TV for a bit: I have a weakness for a programme called ‘You’ve Been Framed,’ home-movie clips of members of the public falling into water, being hit in the genitalia by golf balls, and felling trees which then fall on top of their neighbour’s car. Tonight though, I switch it off after a few minutes. I pick up my current book. Years ago, I began reading the Icelandic sagas. I’ve read a load of them and recently I started re-reading some of my favourites. I’m drawn to the quiet heroism of those men, real individuals struggling stoically against ill-luck and hard times, a thousand years ago. They believed in fate, but their sense of honour demanded that, while they had breath in their bodies, they should struggle against their fate. They sensed their lives were imperfect, but they accepted the consequences. They would ‘do the deed and abide it.’
Strangely, it was the group therapy that Maurice undertook that was the indirect cause of the trouble. At first, it seemed as if all was going well. Mr Sowter agreed to keep Maurice’s job open while he sought treatment. The GP referred Maurice right away to the psychiatric day hospital for group therapy. Maurice said it was tough and upsetting, but he kept attending day after day after day. And he stayed sober. Jane and I were delighted.
I gathered that part of the group treatment was for the patients to learn how to establish more ‘honest’ relationships with people, first of all with fellow members of the group, and then with their nearest and dearest outside the day hospital. So I realise now that it was inevitable that one day Maurice should tell my Jane how much he loved her…
Eventually, I set the Laxdale Saga aside, brush my teeth, and move quietly into the bedroom. It’s still not quite dark, even with the curtains drawn. Dorothy’s breathing is more laboured than usual because of her fluey cold. As I climb into bed, she wakens briefly, smiles, murmurs and falls back to sleep. I feel a sudden, engulfing, warm rush of affection towards her. I lie awake, reflecting that acceptance of fate is not just the end of a story – it can sometimes be the beginning. There are times when you can ‘do the deed’ by doing nothing.
When Maurice and Jane left together, something stayed my hand and I didn’t cut down the tree peony. Tonight, I feel very fortunate that it still stands there: Maurice’s legacy.