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An unusual funeral

CHAPTER 38

In the last episode, things started to collapse underground, while above ground, Patricia, Rex and Mrs Post struggled up the church path with the body – and found a coffin! The next day, Rex discussed poisoning with Lord Jo, which was somewhat awkward, while those underground reached the zero hour.

Rex, the Vicar of Misty Longings, looked around the church with some pride.

The ornate coffin sat on trestles at the front, and the organist played some sad music. They had finally decided against an open coffin. Rex was all for the body being visible, but felt that on this occasion, the dried out skull might frighten people who came to make their final farewells. As he had said: ‘No offence, Mrs Post, but would you want to kiss his forehead? His skull is like one of those pre-historic pygmies that get dug up from time to time.’

The flowers were absolutely gorgeous, and they had Mrs Pump to thank for those. ‘If Wordsworth were here, he would most definitely write about them!’ said Rex appreciatively.

‘They’re not daffodils, you know,’ said Mrs Pump.

‘Of course not!’ said Rex. ‘And this isn’t Ullswater in the Lake District! But I’m sure Master William could write about other flowers as well. I have little doubt, for instance, that his poetic turn of phrase could equally well conjure for us the wonder of the lily!’

Mrs Pump had a crisis half an hour before the service, when she ran out of holly.

‘I need a car – quickly!’ said Mrs Pump.

‘A car?’ said Rex, who was just putting the finishing touches to his talk, in the vestry.

‘No car, no display.’

‘But there must be a display!’

‘Then find me a car! I need to get to Cauliflower Lane.’

What was the vicar to do? Cauliflower Lane was famous for its holly, but was over a mile away. Time was against them.

‘Let me drive you,’ said Lord Jo, arriving in the doorway.

‘You?’ said Mrs Pump, quite caught out.

‘Me!’ said Lord Jo. ‘I’ll take you to Cauliflower Lane.’

‘Yesterday, we weren’t speaking.’

‘And your point is?’

There was a pause as years of history passed through her.

‘All right!’ she said, and in 20 minutes, they were back with the finest holly berries in England.

So all was fine, and all was set – but where was everybody?

‘Has everyone died?’ said Rex under his breath, as he put out the service sheets. He’d run off 40 on the vicarage photocopier, but it appeared they might not all be necessary.

‘That would be a shame for Mrs Post,’ reflected Rex, ‘and obviously a huge waste of paper. Even in a village as beautiful as Misty Longings, you should think about the environment – if people aren’t coming to funerals, for whatever reason, they should say.’

‘I am a little disappointed that certain people haven’t bothered to come,’ said Mrs Post, when she caught up with him.

‘It is a Tuesday, I suppose,’ said Rex. ‘It may not be ideal for everyone.’

‘Even so. I gave particular invitations to Dr Hafiz, Jane, that Inky boy, Cadbury, and the unfailingly depressed David. But where are they? Trapped in a coal mine or something!? I really feel most let down. It’s both incomprehensible and reprehensible! You think you know people – and then this! Really!’

‘We’ll give it a couple more minutes, and then we must begin.’

Rex passed down the aisle, swaying a little, as clergy sometimes do when walking in public. He nodded warmly at the assembled congregation.

‘I might be the only person who smiles at them today,’ he reminded himself.

When he knew their names, he used them. When he didn’t, he improvised and said: ‘How simply wonderful to see you! And looking so well!’

Sometimes those who merely had their name spoken, felt a bit short-changed.

‘Oh, he’s all over the newcomers – just watch him!’ said Mrs Mole.

By the time Rex reached the back of the church, he could delay no longer. It was time to get the show on the road – if such a term can be appropriately used for a funeral.

The organ stopped on cue, and after due pause, Rex began his measured walk up the aisle, reading the famous words from the Gospel of John: ‘Jesus said, I am the resurrection, and I am the life; he who believes in me – ‘

‘Hold the front page!’ shouted someone behind him.

Rex looked round; everyone looked round. It was Inky – typical!

‘We made it back!’ declared Inky.

‘Back from where?’ asked Rex, now stuck half way up the aisle.

‘Back from the amazing cave!’ said Cadbury.

‘And it was all down to the Kid!’ said Billy. ‘Who I tried to strangle!’

‘Well, we don’t want any strangling here,’ said Rex, still frightened of the boy.

‘Or poisoning!’ said Lord Jo loudly – and perhaps unhelpfully.

‘I’m so glad you could all come!’ said Mrs Post, leaving her pew at the front, to come down and greet them. ‘I was about to be most upset and angry with you all.’

‘Well, you were upset and angry with them all,’ corrected Rex.

‘I was, yes – but as it turns out, prematurely.’

‘You’re all very wet,’ said Patricia, also leaving her pew. In fact, it was now less of a service, and more of a ‘social’, as everyone was greeted and questioned. ‘Have you been for a dip in the river?’

‘It’s a long story,’ said the doctor.

‘Well, you can tell it round at mine afterwards,’ said Lord Jo, standing in the pulpit.

‘Lord Jo in the pulpit? – I’ve seen it all,’ said Jane.

‘The wake is at the Manor, and you’re all invited!’ said Lord Jo.

‘Hooray!’ everyone said.

‘Now – shall we sing a hymn?’ said Lord Jo, which truly capped the nightmare start to the service for Rex.

‘‘Abide with me’ was my first choice,’ said Mrs Post.

‘‘Abide with me’, organist!’ said Lord Jo, warming to his new role.

After that, the service never quite got back on track. Mrs Post did speak about how glad she was that this episode was finally over, and that although her dad had been bad at some things, she did know that he was good at others. And then Dr Hafiz made his way to the front and said that John was a most humorous patient, with a thought always for others:

‘He brought a wild flower every time he came to the surgery. He told me he liked wild flowers, because they were beautiful, despite no one looking after them.’

‘Here, here!’ shouted Billy, who was enjoying sitting in a pew, and not behind the organ loft – even though the pews were really uncomfortable.

‘His addiction made him sad of course,’ said the doctor, and there were some murmurs of agreement. ‘Our addictions do make us sad.’

‘Or does our sadness make us addicted?’ asked Cadbury, speaking for the first time in public. ‘It’s like a vicious circle, isn’t it?’

‘True,’ said the doctor. ‘And it was a circle John never quite broke free of. So he was always the wild flower – never neatly potted.’

Dr Hafiz made his way back to his seat, and there was a slight pause in proceedings, until another voice spoke up: ‘And sometimes he visited me at the ruin.’

Who said that? Heads turned! It was the Kid, and the shock of those around can be explained by the fact that many here had never heard her speak before; had believed her dumb, in fact.

‘I thought that one was dumb,’ said Mrs Mole.

‘Do not feel bad, Mrs Mole – I too thought I was dumb,’ said the Kid.

While Mrs Mole spluttered, Mrs Post found another reason to be shocked by this latest speaker: ‘I didn’t invite her!’ she whispered to Mr Johnson.

‘Really?’

‘No, I most certainly did not. She has just walked in of her own accord – which I find rather brazen!’

‘I think you’re rather blessed!’ he replied.

‘Blessed? What sort of a word is that from a coach driver?’

‘She’s actually chosen, of her own accord, to come and honour your father. I’d say you were blessed.’

‘Well I’m not sure about blessed – but I agree that when you put it like that – ‘

She stopped there, because the Kid was continuing: ‘Me and John – we’d drink soup together on cold nights.’

‘So did I!’ said Inky. ‘I had soup with the Kid. Wicked!’

‘Once, John came to me very worried. He feared that when he died, his life would appear as nothing more than a misspent half hour.’

‘And what did you say?’ asked David, because he had often felt the same.

‘I shrugged my shoulders, as if to say, so what?’ said the Kid.

‘‘So what?!’ said David, mimicking her. ‘I like that!’

‘It made him smile, because he always felt people looked down on his life; so he looked down on his life.’

Rex looked for the right moment to intervene; for the moment to make his official way to the pulpit to give the address – the one he’d prepared beforehand. But the moment never came, and after everyone had chipped in, with various degrees of relevance and candour, the coffin was picked up, taken outside and placed in the ground.

‘Well, that was a bit different,’ said Mr Johnson, as they emerged from the church.

‘It certainly was!’ said Jane.

‘A funeral where they didn’t play Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’.’ Remarkable!’

‘Mr Johnson!’

When all were gathered round the burial site and the coffin had been safely lowered in; oh, and when Inky had pushed through to stand next to Cadbury – the vicar began. And how glad was he to have his special moment at last! Everyone needs their moment:

‘We have entrusted our brother John to God’s merciful keeping,’ intoned Rex, in familiar fashion. How many times had these words been said down the years in this country setting? ‘And we now commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope…’ If someone had a mind to throw themselves into the grave, this was when they usually did it, and Rex watched for movement. Last year, two members of a Much Needing family had jumped in, which had certainly caused a stir. But today passed off peacefully enough – no one leapt in after old drunk John.

The mourners stood in the frosty graveyard, paying their final respects; and in time, a gravestone would appear to join the others. There was one incident of note: after the vicar had finished, a robin appeared, seemingly to inspect the grave. It hopped, busy and orange, against the white grass. First it pottered down one side of the hole, and then down the other, before taking flight, up and away. They all watched it go, the Christmas bird.

‘I’ll remember that robin,’ said Mrs Post.

‘It was an angel making final arrangements,’ said Dr Hafiz.

The assembled company then slowly left, leaving just Mrs Post and the doctor.

‘It is time to go,’ he said, as Mrs Post lingered uncertainly.

‘It’s hard to walk away.’

‘True. But he’s long gone; heaven is his playground now.’

‘Do you think so?’

‘Oh yes – but it’s not ours! Not yet. For the rest of us – heaven must wait!’

‘I sometimes think your heaven’s now,’ said Mrs Post wistfully.

They walked together from the grave, watched by the robin in the tree. They joined the others on the pavement, from where – with the help of Mr Johnson’s hire van, Lord Jo’s 4X4 and Patricia’s runabout – they made their way to the manor.

Because life went on.

*

Though possibly not for Alky. There is sometimes a crossroads in the consciousness, at which point choices must be made. It was a crossroads such as this which Alky now faced in his hospital bed:

‘Shall I go back?’ wondered Alky, as choices jostled in his swirling mind. ‘Or shall I give up? The sign posts are clear enough. Go back – or give up? Go back to Misty Longings – or accept the sleep on offer. It would be nice to sleep. A good, long sleep…’

‘Mr Key?’ said the nurse.

He could just hear the nurse.

‘Mr Key?? There’s a doctor to see you. Mr Key?’

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