Walter liked funerals. Not the funerals of his family and friends of course; they had been terrible, especially his mothers, only the funerals of people he didn’t know. He liked hearing about people’s lives, he liked the quiet and the sense of occasion, and he liked being a part of it all without being noticed. He never got in the way. It was easy for him to sit apart from people at a funeral as they always assumed that he knew somebody else and he was never spoken to so there was no chance of him saying the wrong thing and upsetting somebody. He had his own simple rules to make sure that he behaved correctly, and not speaking to anyone if he could avoid it without being rude was the first of them. He never went to a crematorium and he didn’t want to. That was usually by invitation, just for family, and it seemed to him like a conveyor belt of grief that diminished rather than celebrated a person’s life. He never went to a funeral tea either. You had to give your condolences if you did that and he would have had to explain himself. It would have felt grubby, as though he was just looking for a free meal.
All funerals were different, but now that Walter had been to quite a few, he could see a pattern and he had begun to feel a sense of a whole generation passing on. He liked that. It was his generation who were passing on, the generation who had lived through a war that wasn’t real to most people any more and put up with the austerity after it was over for far too long, so he had a right to be there. People were spoilt these days, they felt that they could have everything without trying. It wasn’t their fault and he wouldn’t have wanted the young ones to have a hard time, but they were still spoilt. You noticed that when you watched them at a funeral. It didn’t touch them in the way it touched the older people. The young ones had their own lives, they had everything in front of them, and they were just desperately sad for a while rather than changed. That would come later. They would think back and wish that things had been different, they would regret conversations that they had never had and want answers to questions that they had never asked, but for now they were busy inside their own heads and looking forward not back, which was as it should be. The older people were silent. Their own lives were mostly lived in the past now however much they liked to think otherwise. They had been here before. Their faces were stoical, pale and drawn, shadowed by grief. They were mourning their own death as well as that of their loved one. Another strand had been pulled from the fabric of their own lives, leaving them thin as gossamer. It was a stark reminder that none of us are here forever. Strangely, Walter didn’t mind that. He had outlived almost all his friends and family and he had no children. There seemed to be less and less to keep him hanging around. Seeing other people off was a worthwhile way of spending his time while he waited.
Today’s funeral was the biggest that he had been to for a long while. The kindly man smiling out of the front of the service sheet must have been well liked. His name was Henry Jackson and his dates were proudly set out underneath his photo. Just living had become an achievement now that he was gone. He had managed three years more than Walter had, so far. Three more years didn’t seem very long. Walter wondered when they would be bringing the body in and then he realised with a jolt that Henry Jackson was already there. He wasn’t used to that, there was normally a bit of a procession. Henry was right at the front, neatly packaged in pride of place before the altar, which was no more than you would expect. He still had a wife and what must be a son and two daughters. They were already there, right next to him, huddled close at the front. Walter didn’t know them of course, but it was easy to pick them out. There was a look that close family had at times like this. They might as well have had name badges on. There were hardly any empty seats. All around him there were dark suited older men who looked as if they belonged together, almost in uniform. He was glad that he had dressed up smartly, as he always did. He had a good look round, scanning everything he could see without turning his head. The church looked modern to him, even though it had been built almost forty years ago in the nineteen sixties. It was a large, square, barn like Roman Catholic one with the altar set right in the middle on a big stage. There were seats on three sides and a narrow band of stained glass all the way round the top of the brick walls which let light flood down into the space. Right over the altar in the centre of the roof there was a big clear glass window which acted like a spotlight sending a beam of holiness down onto the sacrament. Arthur wasn’t a believer, but he watched the dust spiralling around in the shaft of light appreciatively, enjoying the drama of it. This was going to be a requiem mass too, he didn’t get to go to many of those, so there would be plenty more drama. There would be smoke and incense and bells. A proper send off.
When the priest got to Walter’s favourite part of the service, the part where you found out what the person had done with their life, it became obvious why it was such a big gathering. Henry had been a mason, and a stalwart of several charity committees, a great example of what his mother would have called a “do gooder”. Walter had always wondered why his mother never seemed to think that doing good was something to admire. After all no matter how full of themselves some people might be they still helped others didn’t they? Anyway, he was pleased to see that doing good was unquestionably something to admire this afternoon, there was a whole army of Henry’s fellow masons and charity workers here to prove that. Right at the end of the service there was a beautiful prayer about sending Henry up to be with the angels while they wafted incense around him. Even for someone who was waiting to see an angel before he was prepared to believe in it that was a nice idea, and it made the lady who had slipped into the empty seat next to Walter at the last minute sniffle and get her tissue out. He turned to look at her. She had hair that looked like it wasn’t going to move in a hurry, and she was wearing a smart navy blue dress (such a serviceable colour navy his mother would have said) and matching shoes. There was a string of pearls round her neck which matched her earrings. All very tidy. She was on her own. When it was all over and she started to get herself worked up about finding a pen to fill in the little card that they had given everybody Walter broke one of his own rules and spoke to her.
“Would you like to borrow mine?”
He had filled in his own card before the service, having decided that just doing that wasn’t being a nuisance to anybody and he might as well.
He watched while she wrote her name in tiny neat handwriting. Margaret Dawson.
She smiled at him and gave it back.
“Did you know Henry then? Such a lovely man. Lovely, lovely man. He’ll be very much missed.”
For a few moments Walter panicked. He could hardly say that he had just come to have a gawp, but when you got down to it that was what it amounted to. Then he pulled himself together. You couldn’t go wrong if you said a few nice things about someone who died. That always went down well.
“We weren’t close, no. He did a lot of good work by all accounts.”
“He certainly did. He was a great help to me when my husband died. I feel I would like to go to have a bit of tea, show the family some support, but I don’t know whether that’s appropriate on my own.”
Walter frowned, wondering what was coming next. She looked at him anxiously.
“Are you planning to go?”
Walter was about to say that he needed to get on his way and wish Margaret well when he suddenly had a surprising thought. Why shouldn’t he?
“Well I wasn’t going to, since I’m on my own as well, but perhaps we could go together. Keep each other company.”
That pleased her. He could tell that from her face and it made him grow inside. It was a long time since he’d felt useful to somebody.
“Thank you so much. I’d appreciate that. My husband would have wanted me to be there.”
He took their two cards and placed them together in the brass plate which was being held out towards him.
“My name is Walter. Walter Harrison.”
“Pleased to meet you Walter. My name is Margaret Dawson.”
He already knew that of course but he didn’t mind hearing her say it again.
“Shall we go?”
The tea was in a small hotel near the crematorium which specialised in such things, and it was a good one. There were proper tablecloths and plenty of good coffee. By the time Walter was sitting down with a plateful of sandwiches, sausage rolls and plain crisps he had been told quite a lot about Margaret. She was a retired hospital administrator and her husband had been a town councillor, an accountant and a former Lord Mayor before he had had his own funeral in the same church two years before. Thankfully Walter hadn’t been to it, he could be sure of that because he would have remembered the church. He could imagine Margaret with a chain of office round her neck and a big hat. She also had three Yorkshire terriers and she liked Torquay. In return he managed to avoid telling her too much about himself but halfway through his second sausage roll he was startled into admitting that he lived on his own and had no family. She shook her head.
“That’s sad. I think the world of my grandchildren.”
He made a rueful face.
“Oh, it’s not so bad. I keep myself busy.”
“That’s nice. What do you do with yourself?”
Now Walter was in trouble. He could hardly say that the way he kept himself busy was by going to funerals. It was a complicated business and Margaret might not understand. In fact she might run a mile, and he was starting to enjoy himself.
“Oh, this and that, you know.”
Margaret nodded. Politeness had been taken care of and she was more than happy to spend the next twenty minutes telling him all about what she did. Which was quite a lot. By the time she had finished explaining about the Women’s Institute and how it wasn’t all jam and Jerusalem but more to do with naked calendars and women’s rights Walter’s head was reeling and he was entranced.
“I’d no idea.”
Slowly the small crowd of people began to thin out. One by one, two by two they made their way over to the family table and said goodbye. Walter watched them carefully. It was a series of conversations which nobody wanted to have but there was no way of getting out of the door without. Henry’s wife had a fixed look on her face. She had worked out what to say now and how to get it over with quickly. She was restless, pulling at her dress and wanting to go home, glancing over at her son anxiously. He was watching her too, knowing that it was too soon. They would have to be there until the bitter end. When Margaret finally announced that she was leaving and walked over to the table Henry walked behind her and stood well back.
“So sorry Elaine. It’s a terrible loss. I’ll be in touch.”
Elaine smiled and looked down. Everybody had said that, but the house would still be empty when she finally got home.
“Thank you for coming.”
She looked at Walter, frowning slightly, trying to place him. He held out his hand quickly.
She nodded and took it.
“Yes. Glad that you could be here.”
Margaret made her way towards the door, head down, not wanting to get involved in another conversation, with Walter behind her. He was glad to feel the cool air on his face and breathe deeply again. She turned and smiled at him.
“So. Thank you very much for your company. Much appreciated.”
“The least I could do.”
Walter was quite pleased with himself. He wouldn’t need to worry about getting himself something to eat when he got home now. Margaret gave a deep sigh.
“I have another one to go to next Friday at St Oswalds. George Harper, one of my late husbands rotary colleagues.”
For once in his life Walter thought quickly.
“He was a nice man George. Perhaps we could go together?”
She nodded with relief.
“That would be kind. I was dreading going on my own. Shall we meet outside the church at half past ten?”
Walter shook hands and made his way towards his bus stop happily. He had been told the date and time of the funeral and there was almost a week to find out who George Harper was. Things were looking up.