Sunday, March 29

The Number 6

THE TOWN OF R—, like many within the circle of Greater London, sits inside the M25 like a tumour, its borders unclear and blurred. To leave the town south, along the road, fractionally closer to the equator, one is no longer sure whether they are still in it. The path is punched by roundabouts, and there, by the roadside, is Queens Hospital, large and white. That is where my grandmother, her bones soaked in morphine, died. The road beside the hospital is not for pedestrians, for walkers, for enemies of bus routes and lacking licenses. On one side of the road – the hospital side – the pavement disappears completely. I walked along the pavement’d side of the road, dressed in traditional black funeral wear, my head caught in the pangs of an ache, desperate for coffee, perspiring profusely. How fitting, I thought, to walk past where my grandmother died on my way to her funeral. Sadness does not overcome me, for which I feel guilty, as my thoughts are only concerned with not arriving late. I should have taken my brother up on that lift from the station, I think.
It is when I am past the hospital (where her body was kept cool) that I see a large sign for a coffeeshop; unfortunately it is inside a babywear shop, set in a large warehouse, and the carpark filled enough for a Monday. Am I ready for babies? I take a deep breath and head inside. The women – mother daughter granddaughter – are dilly-dallying at the till, while the young girl behind the till hides her crooked teeth, sheltering everyone with an understated politeness that is warming. I ask for my coffee and take it with wet hands. All around me are women with babies. I even see men with babies. There are babies everywhere, their podgy, featureless faces staring at me, with no trace of humanity on their plump frames, not a sense of humour nor affectation. They are remarkable for their unremarkableness, which we fall for again and again, cooing on cue and kissing their toes. I rub the sweat off my hands on to a napkin and go back outside, where it is hot and uncomfortable. Funerals are best on cool days.
Farther on I walk, confronted with the landscape of my childhood – after all, my cousins lived down that road there: we played in that garden, stayed over (the coco pops, the smell of pine furniture, the clean soap his mother was so fond of, the casual sofa!) and beneath his weeping willow we buried each other alive. That was a lifetime ago. I pass the supermarket where his mother, my aunt, bought us doughnuts. My white shirt is soaked through.
Outside of the church people say hello and kiss most sombrely. I am sombre but only my parents know why; they great me with a kiss. Everyone is instructed into the church. It is the same priest from the last rites, his sore skin standing out from the altar in the slow chant of hymns. I do not kneel or pray, but stare at the coffin.
‘Is Nan really in there?’ I ask my mother.
‘Yes.’
My grandmother is really in the coffin. I imagine what she will look like, having been dead for thirteen days. The coffin seems very small for her body. The wood is of good quality. The brass handles will be used to lift that dead body up in the air. When everyone is praying for various things, I look at the photograph of her on the front of the programme. She is most likely dead, though I do not really know it. My eyes water and I brush that away.
None of the pallbearers are family; no one wanted to do it. The pallbearers from the funeral home (of all the words: ‘home’) gather round the coffin before it is removed from the church, where it waited overnight and gathered dust. One of the pallbearers is weeping. I am interested that he sees death everyday and yet he still weeps. What is there for the rest of us? All of the pallbearers have shaven heads, bulky bones beneath their pale skin and trousers pressed to perfection. He weeps and I watch him weep, his sagging shoulder shaking.
Outside of the crematorium, a short drive later, my brother, some cousins and second-cousins, have a cigarette. The rest of the group are waiting inside. The coffin is brought in and put on a large table with rollers on it. My cousin’s husband sings a tacky song that I do not understand. It does not appeal to me, this grieving. The song itself, sung a cappella, does not stir me, but I stand there, still perspiring and trembling all over, focused on the coffin, still struggling to imagine her whole body stuffed inside.
Once the service is over, an eighties ballad rings out from speakers I cannot see. The song is awful. I think of which song I would like played at my funeral. It is not this one. I do not think that my grandmother would have liked the song. People are dismissed. One by one, they filter out through the front, past the coffin and out of a back exit. Everyone watches as the bereaved approach the coffin, lay their hand upon it, whisper words, kiss it, make the sign of the cross; it is awfully phony. Contemptibly, I sneer at the show. When it is my turn, feeling most coldhearted, I walk past the coffin, neither looking at it nor looking away.
Beyond the doors, floral tributes are arranged under the signs of names. People gather and say things like—‘Lovely service!’ ‘That was beautiful.’ ‘She’d’ve been happy with that.’
I stand alone and thoughtlessly stare at the tributes, imagining how old the deceased may have been.
As we leave I see my cousin running across the (grave)yard with distressed leaps and a bouquet. His sister in the back seat tells me that he is visiting the mark of his colleague’s child who died aged six. That would have been a small coffin. Six is not even a number, but magnificent in its tragedy. As the car slowly winds on its road out of the crematorium park, I see only his dashing figure, halfway between movement and pause. I think of the number six.
The wake is held nearby, next to an artificial lake. I drink. It is not that I feel nothing, but that what I feel is gradual; the loose choke of life about my neck. When I arrive home in the evening, she is packing her belongings, ready to move out. I am nauseous and miserable beyond recognition. I lay on the sofa, trying to sleep yet it does not come. It is light through the window. I cannot sleep, but I lie there, my eyes peeled open and running down my cheek. Slowly the clarity appears, slowly I am coming to terms with it all.

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