The Long Watches of the Night

by Michael Bloor

(first published in Spelk Fiction, 25 Aug 2018)

The kirk was packed. Of course, there were the extended family and her university colleagues. But there were also many old friends from her student days and more friends and neighbours from the Ayrshire mining village where she’d been born and raised. At the meal afterwards, I found myself talking, first to her optician and then to her postman. As the minister — another old friend — said in her address, it seemed as if everyone she met had been touched by her warmth, her empathy, and her gentle humour.

Alan, Mary’s husband, had asked me to say a few words about her university career. I didn’t feel I could refuse. I’ve got up on my hind legs and said my piece in dozens of lecture theatres and conference halls over the years, but that speech was very tricky. Of course, it was easy enough to talk about her early achievements. There was the doctorate on the miners’ struggle to make pneumoconiosis officially designated as an industrial disease, eligible for compensation. And then there was her brilliant monograph on Abe Moffat, the great Scottish miners’ leader.

Where I found myself in difficulty was in describing her time as Head of the History Department, as this touched more on her personal qualities: her seeming ability to find a solution to every problem at a time of simultaneous budget cuts and mushrooming student numbers; her kindness to troubled students; and her capacity to successfully and craftily manage university staff, a task sometimes likened to herding cats. So caring and temperate were her managerial performances that one misogynist senior lecturer — now deceased — was heard to describe her as “a Mother Teresa” (and this from a man who had spoken of marriage as “a lifetime of lifting and replacing the toilet seat”).

That last aside had raised a few titters: nothing tickles the British Public more than lavatory humour. So I risked one of her jokes: “I’m all for combatting climate change and saving the planet, but the idea of recycled toilet paper is really disgusting.” That got a chuckle that rolled into a roar.

The laughter triggered the tears, tears of sorrow. Mary’s sister in the front row was crying so loudly that I’m sure she could be heard right at the back. Horrified, I felt my own tears stinging my eyes, but I managed to hold it together, draw my piece to a close and step down into the body of the kirk.

The rest of the service and the following meal passed somehow. People were kind about my address, but I just longed to get out the door …

I will always be grateful that, just a fortnight before her death, my dear Mary had promised that I would always be her love, though we could never be together. It was a relief to pull out of the carpark into the November dusk: a fugitive lover can never be mourned in public, only in the long watches of the night.

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