The last summer of the w.., p.3
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       The Last Summer of the Water Strider, p.3

           Tim Lott
 
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  The man who greeted us was of the same stamp as the other two, but his suit was more informal – carbolic-soap grey rather than black – and his smile somewhat less mechanical. He didn’t seem to feel the necessity to be unduly sombre – brisk and workmanlike was his pitch. I liked his face; it was that of a butcher anxious to show you some new batch of chops he had just got in fresh from the farm.

  My father seemed reassured by his demeanour. His name was Flaherty, although there was nothing of the Irish in his accent. After we had gone through the pleasantries, condolences and so forth once again, we were offered the catalogue. On the first two occasions Ray had picked through the pages as if they were sacred, a book as holy as the Bible some anonymous vicar would be reading from when the actual ceremony took place.

  Now, though, he was seasoned, and he flicked through purposefully, pausing over the cedar, the oak, the burnished teak. But it was clear that he was becoming exhausted by the whole process. He had no idea what to choose, it occurred to me – in fact he couldn’t choose, because to do so was to acknowledge further that his wife was truly gone.

  After he had considered, reconsidered and procrastinated for almost ten minutes, I noticed Flaherty furtively checking his watch, although he remained studiously polite. I leaned over to the page my father was on. He had been staring at it for some time. It contained the cheapest caskets – white pine, utilitarian, a good twenty per cent cheaper than anything else in the book.

  ‘What do you think of these?’ he said gently. It felt as if he was asking me to help choose a piece of expensive furniture for the front room.

  I knew Ray was practically minded, and that a struggle was going on within him. His natural choice would be to go for the cheapest option, and yet I am sure he had a vague sense of wanting to honour Evie by making a gesture. I was beyond caring in any respect – I just wanted the funeral to be over so I could take a step away from death, get it past me, lined up in the rear-view mirror, shrinking from view.

  I rested my finger on one of the cheapest models – the ‘Standard’.

  ‘That one looks all right.’

  Ray momentarily looked doubtful, but I could tell he was pleased that I was acknowledging the practicalities of the situation. My mother had once confided to me that he had been of the same mind about her wedding dress: ‘You only wear it once.’ She had ended up walking down the aisle in a second-hand trousseau.

  ‘Well,’ said Ray, ‘it’s very plain.’

  He looked up at Flaherty, whose corona of grey hair seemed itself to have expired, so inert was it when he nodded, as he did now.

  ‘What do you think?’

  ‘It’s a very popular choice,’ he replied. His voice was bland, but he was careful to insinuate the faintest grain of disappointment. This Co-op branch was not situated in a prosperous area – doubtless Flaherty longed for someone to splurge out and go for the Midnight Silver with dual-tone finish and silver crêpe interior.

  ‘Is it solid pine?’

  ‘No, it’s a veneer.’

  ‘Well, I don’t suppose anyone will be able to tell.’

  Flaherty said nothing.

  ‘Pine’s quite fashionable, isn’t it? Lots of people I know are getting pine kitchens,’ said Ray. ‘It’s quite the thing.’

  Flaherty said nothing again.

  ‘I don’t know,’ said Ray. He stared at the photo.

  I knew I needed to speak what he was thinking, if only to get us out of there.

  ‘She’s gone, Dad. She won’t know anything about it. She wouldn’t have cared. You know what she always used to say: “Bury me in a paper bag if you like.” She wasn’t one for fanciness. She’d have worried about the cost.’

  In fact, I remembered the air of sadness that came over Evie when she talked about her wedding dress; but Evie was gone. She would not be able to reminisce ruefully about her funeral.

  ‘Do you think?’ said Ray, looking at me pleadingly.

  Flaherty’s attention was wavering. Clearly there wasn’t going to be a great deal of profit in this particular stiff. I noticed him glancing out back. I wondered again what horrors were held there behind the reassuring, wood-panelled vestibule.

  ‘Do you . . .’ Ray hesitated for a long time. I was wondering if he was going to be shamed into plumping for something more expensive after all.

  ‘I’m not trying to be funny or anything. But do you accept Dividend Stamps?’

  The expression on Flaherty’s face never wavered. But he did wait for several seconds before answering, as if the question needed to be taken apart, examined, then put together again.

  ‘I’m afraid not, sir. We are a quite separate concern from the supermarket chain.’

  My mother had books of the stamps piled up at home. She always squirrelled them away but never got round to using them, hoping to save up for a big premium item. This would have certainly fitted the bill.

  I almost left the shop, so visceral was my embarrassment. Instead I stared fixedly at a knot of wood on the floor. Ray seemed aware that he had committed a faux pas. Clearly trying to move the conversation along, he pointed blindly down at the catalogue again.

  ‘The Standard. Does it come with the handles?’

  ‘No, sir, I’m afraid the handles are extra. You have a choice – brass, chrome or steel.’

  ‘Perhaps,’ Ray was addressing me now, ‘we could go for the Standard, um, thing and put some nice handles on it. You know. To jazz it up.’

  Flaherty seemed very slightly encouraged by this turn in the conversation. He immediately suggested the solid brass handles, which were the most expensive by some good amount. He reached into a drawer and fetched one out.

  ‘Hold it,’ he said to my father. ‘Feel the weight.’

  Ray dutifully did so, lofting it up then bringing it down, as if he were competing in a ‘guess the weight of the cake’ competition at the local church fair. Then Flaherty hit him with the price. With all six handles, it was almost the price of another Standard, but this time my father, no doubt aware that he had violated some unwritten principle of bereavement with his request regarding the stamps, seemed determined on his course.

  ‘We have to show some respect, don’t you think, Adam? Let’s have the brass handles. Shall we?’

  He looked up at Flaherty.

  ‘Good choice, sir,’ Flaherty said quietly, replacing the handle in his desk then scribbling with a pencil on a white blotter. ‘A nice combination of styles. The practical and the decorative. It’s a common election.’

  Election. A weird Victorian term, which I supposed they used as part of a toolbox of arcane language, hoping it would elevate undertakers out of the crafts and into the professions.

  ‘Well. That’s it then.’ Ray looked at me with an expression that somehow managed to simultaneously combine apology, anxiety, regret and relief.

  Flaherty’s smile – now more flagrantly mercantile – remained pasted in place as he totted up some figures on the blotter. He flipped it around to show my father.

  ‘Will this be satisfactory?’

  Ray stared at the figure long and hard.

  ‘Does it include everything?’ he said eventually.

  ‘Gratuities for the pallbearers are sometimes proffered, but it is not compulsory. There is normally a pecuniary gesture towards the vicar who performs the service. You are C of E?’

  Ray nodded.

  ‘But apart from those small items, it represents the full cost.’

  Still Ray hesitated.

  ‘Of course, if it is beyond your budget—’

  ‘No,’ said Ray, a little too quickly. ‘Something like this. It demands a certain . . .’

  Ray struggled for the word. Flaherty stepped in.

  ‘Gravitas.’

  ‘Yes.’

  Flaherty paused, as if wanting to make sure that Ray’s level of commitment was not too fragile to survive an actual transaction. Finally he spoke.

  ‘Then we’re settled. There’s just the matter of th
e deposit.’

  Ray had clearly expected this. He reached to his inside jacket pocket and tugged out his chequebook, which he immediately fumbled and dropped on the floor. I picked it up and handed it to him. When he spoke again, his voice had changed, as if acknowledging that we now stood on the firmer ground of the commercial, rather than the spiritual, realm.

  ‘How much?’

  ‘Twenty per cent is customary. And if we could have the remainder within three working days?’

  Ray scribbled briefly, then ripped out the cheque and handed it over. Flaherty took it and inspected it assiduously.

  ‘I’m afraid you’ve dated it incorrectly, sir. Today is the twenty-seventh, not the twenty-sixth.’

  ‘Does it matter?’

  ‘It’s important to pay attention to detail, we find.’

  This seemed unnecessary, and I decided Flaherty was punishing Ray for choosing the Standard, even if he had splashed out on the brass handles. He took the cheque back, tore it in two, wrote another one and handed it to Flaherty, who inspected it again with a care that seemed largely theatrical.

  ‘That’s all in order. Thank you, sir.’

  I watched as Ray wrote Evie’s coffin + brass handles on the stub. The phone rang, and Flaherty picked it up. Immediately his voice changed and his face lost its equanimity and sheen of serenity.

  ‘This isn’t a good time. It’s out in the shed. Behind the fertilizer. No, not the . . . the sack. The blue sacks. Yes. Goodbye.’

  He put down the phone. His face was restored to its professional countenance. But he said nothing.

  Our business was clearly concluded, but Ray hesitated all the same. I wondered what he was waiting for.

  ‘Can I just ask? What if there is . . . I don’t know . . . What if things aren’t, don’t turn out to be . . . satisfactory?’

  For the first time, Flaherty sounded a note of impatience. Clearly the receipt of the cheque had relieved him of the need to be so dutifully civil.

  ‘Are you asking if we have a money-back guarantee, sir?’

  Ray flushed. ‘I’m just not sure how these things work.’

  ‘Any complaint would be very unusual. But of course, we are concerned that you will be satisfied, and that all due observances will be carried out efficiently and properly. Let me set your mind at rest about that. But there is a complaints procedure if you felt unhappy in any way.’

  He reached into his drawer and brought out a glossy leaflet, the rough size of a business envelope. ‘I hope you won’t be needing it.’ He smiled without warmth.

  Ray looked at the leaflet, entirely beaten now.

  ‘I’m sure I won’t. Thank you for your help, Mr Flaherty. Come on, Adam,’ he said to me sourly, clearly under the impression that he had been fleeced but powerless to do anything about it.

  His head hung low, he walked out of the front door. He left the leaflet lying on the counter, and I saw Flaherty, with a satisfied air, return it to his drawer. He nodded to me, as much in dismissal as farewell, and I followed Ray out into the street.

  Not many people turned up for the funeral. Evie was a shy woman who preferred work to socializing. She had cleaned other people’s houses for small change in what spare time she had enjoyed, a solitary occupation in itself. An only child, her parents were dead. She had two cousins, both of whom she had long lost touch with. As with my father, extended family ties were considered extraneous to the nuclear unit.

  Ray had elected for cremation rather than burial, and the funeral took place a week after our visit to Flaherty, in a light-industrial chapel on the outskirts of an anonymous satellite town skirting north-west London.

  There were maybe twenty people sprinkled throughout the aisles, few of whom I recognized. Ma Gibbons was there, but I found it difficult to look at her. She was the closest thing I had to a witness to my shame. It was a chilly day for the season, and I shivered under a thin raincoat, having not wanted to ruin the effect of my one good suit – three-inch lapels, tucked at the waist, double vent – with the bulk of a sweater.

  The vicar, a fat man with a pimple on his nose, was businesslike and inappropriately jocund. My father had briefed him about Evie’s life, but it appeared he had transcribed some of his notes carelessly, describing Evie as an enthusiastic gardener (we didn’t have a garden, although she had a collection of pot plants) and a pillar of the local operatic society (she occasionally attended Yiewsley and District Dramatic Society performances). My father sat blankly by my side as the priest delivered platitudes about resting in the hands of God, the shadow of death, rods and staff, lying in green pastures etc, etc.

  The coffin looked ill-judged, both cheap and gaudy simultaneously. The expensive handles confessed the tackiness of the pine veneer, and I sat, chilly and distracted, despairing over the statement the casket made about the value of my mother’s life. I could hear whispering during the service, and I imagined that each of congregation was judging the ceremony as lacking in both taste and sufficient capitalization.

  At one point I heard a latecomer arriving, the timpani of their shoes puncturing the grainy, maudlin background drone of the pre-recorded organ. I looked round and saw Henry, brandishing, like a processional torch, a bunch of flowers – a bouquet of simple sweet peas. My mother always loved the quiet delicacy of sweet peas more than any other bloom. How had he known that? In his other hand he carried a dark, bone-and-silver-topped walking cane.

  He was, as before, tanned to perfection, the colour of nutmeg. He wore a pure black two-piece suit, cut close to his rangy frame. It was expensive-looking but slightly shot around the edges at the collar. His shirt was sparkling blue-white. No tie, open top button, burnished ebony leather shoes that I knew my father would register as hand-made. He looked out of place – although he seemed perfectly at ease. Other people had turned and were staring at him, wondering how this elegant creature had lost its way and stumbled into this maimed, bargain-basement ceremony. Henry caught my eye and gave me a carefully modulated smile, pitched somewhere between sympathy and familial affection.

  A few minutes after Henry’s arrival, the box was consigned to the flames. I watched like a wax dummy as the pine and brass monstrosity disappeared, while my father choked out tears. Then, with the gasp and whine of the sourest-yet organ music, Ray and I took our places at the exit from the chapel and the mourners began to file out. Ray shook their hands one by one as they left and exchanged a few muttered words. Then we stood outside in the cold among the sparse flowers that decorated a concrete plot allocated for tributes to Evie.

  Henry laid his flowers among the few other scrappy offerings, eclipsing them. Then – to my astonishment – he fell to his knees and kissed the ground. After remaining in this posture for several seconds, he took a vial of something out of his pocket, uncorked it and sprinkled the contents on the blooms.

  He bowed down again, forehead touching the concrete. Then, he rose gracefully in a single movement. I saw a tiny chip of gravel embedded in his forehead. Ray stared at him. Henry held his arms out to Ray, as he had on his visit to our flat. This time, Ray somehow seemed to fall forward, and Henry enfolded him. Ray gave way to sobs, Henry supporting his weight, his legs moving apart in order to keep his balance. The other mourners averted their eyes, as if the time for sobbing had ended when they had left the chapel, and now the protocol of grief was being subverted.

  Eventually Ray peeled himself from the buttress of his brother.

  ‘Thanks for coming, Henry.’

  ‘I’m sorry I was late, Raymond. Well, to tell you the truth, I wasn’t late really. I was standing just outside. I struggle with religious ceremonies, I’m afraid. Thought I’d slip in for the final . . . consignment. I hope you’ll forgive me.’

  Ray nodded.

  ‘The casket was perfect,’ he said, as if sensing Ray’s insecurities.

  ‘Thank you.’ My father looked genuinely lightened by this comment.

  ‘Raymond, I want you to know that if there’s any way I can help ove
r the coming weeks and months, I will do so. These are not empty words. These are words spoken in all sincerity and full intent. Please write to me if there is something. I am not on the telephone, as you know, but I will be there for you.’

  Something struck true in Henry’s words, and I sensed that Ray, like me, was comforted by them.

  Then Henry looked at me.

  ‘Hey, stupid,’ he said lugubriously.

  ‘Hey.’

  ‘You should come and see me. At the boat. In Somerset.’

  ‘Maybe.’

  He looked at me askance, clearly doubting that I would do any such thing.

  ‘What did you sprinkle on the flowers?’ I asked.

  ‘Water blessed by the Dalai Lama.’

  Ray looked sceptical. ‘Where did you get that?’

  ‘He gave it to me,’ Henry said simply. ‘Raymond, I’m sorry, but I can’t stay for the Scotch eggs and finger buffet. I’ve got a meeting in town about my book, and it can’t wait. They’re already annoyed with me keeping them waiting by coming to this in the first place. Business, you know. Hard heads, cold hearts. But I hope you know my thoughts are with you and will remain with you.’

  Ray said he understood. Henry hugged him once more, shook my hand and tousled my hair. That was the last I heard of him for several more months.

  Four

  Shortly after the funeral I began to spend a lot of my time wandering the avenues and crescents of Yiewsley in the evening, half-heartedly trying to sniff out mischief. I idly vandalized road signs and kicked cans at stray cats. Most dramatically, I was caught joyriding a car – an Austin Princess, still smelling of fresh seat leather – that had been left unlocked in the street adjacent to ours. The owner – who had momentarily nipped inside his house, I later discovered, to retrieve a tin of driving sweets – had left the keys in the ignition. I just took the car without a second thought. My father had taught me to drive, around the back of an abandoned gasworks, but I had never driven on a road.

 
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