Last supper

SHORT STORY


A businesswoman at her father’s funeral must ride out the ill-placed comments and ignorant glares of others who all cocky top define the deceased in their own words. As she stands in silence, she recounts the memory of a man who few others truly knew like she did.

FULL TEXT

If my phone rings, I know exactly what certain people will say. “She couldn’t even turn that damn phone off for her own father’s funeral.”

And there are a lot of ‘certain people’ here.

I will be mortified if it does ring, but it’s on and it’s turned up loud because I promised my daughter it would be. She is by my side, and is convinced that her grandad will phone at some point today to say goodbye.

I could have put it on silent, or just turned it off and told her it was on, but I won’t lie to her; I can’t. There’s enough people pretending here today already without me joining in the charade. On a day like this, reality is crucial. She is here today to say goodbye to her granddad just as much as I am here to say goodbye to my dad. If part of the process of her moving on is having my phone on loud at the funeral then so be it.

The fact that Milly is even at the funeral will be looked down upon by many people. It wasn’t an easy decision, but she kept hearing people talk about saying goodbye and that had settled it. She said that even though grandad hadn’t said goodbye to her, she still wanted to say goodbye to him.

It has meant that I have had to explain a lot about what happens at a funeral and face all sorts of difficult questions such as, “How can grandad get out of the hole when he goes to Heaven?” I muddled my way through as best as I could without lying to her and tried not to heap concepts upon her shoulders that she isn’t quite ready for yet.

People, yes those same certain people, keep telling me not to feel guilty that I wasn’t there when he died. Well, I didn’t; at least I didn’t until they started telling me not to. I live over a hundred miles away and it was quite sudden. He had been ill on and off, but there were no signs we should all rally to his bedside.

My sister, Ruth, was there with him, but she lives in a cottage on the farm. She’s older than me by a few years, but never moved out. My mother always says that people move away from the country and then spend all their lives trying to move back again. My sister says she realised this early and so has cut out the middle bit; they always exchange a particular grin at this point and it jars inside me. They don’t ever look at me; they don’t need to.

The vicar is a stout balding man who reminds me of a salt or pepper pot.

I always find it odd that vicars stand up at funerals and tell the friends and family all about their own loved one. It’s a sound bite; a sanitised snapshot of an entire life.

Thomas Drake was someone who liked to think outside the box,” the vicar says with a straight face. Ironic seeing that he is the only one in the church currently lying inside one. Everyone else is nodding solemnly; I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Dad would have been in hysterics.

I have asked his eldest daughter Ruth to come and say a few words.”

Ruth looks lost, like a child actor having to cope with receiving an Oscar.

Words cannot express how the family is feeling,” she says.

I love Ruth dearly, but she’s wrong. What a poverty to find yourself in, where all available words in every combination have been exhausted. There are reams of words that could set flight to my thoughts and emotions right now.

The vicar phoned me a few days ago.

I was just wondering,” he said. “And it is entirely up to you, but would you like to say a few words on Friday?”

No,” I said. “I don’t want to say a few words. There are thousands of words I want to say.”

He obviously felt safer with Ruth’s expression of no words rather than allowing me to let fly with my thousands.

* * *

I remember going to the park one weekend just after I had started school. There was an old roundabout right in the middle of the play area and it looked huge. The paint was peeling and some of the wooden boards were missing, but something about its bulky frame captivated me. Perhaps it was the fact that it was so still. The swings were all swinging and an endless queue of children were slipping down the slide, but this grand old roundabout sat in its own silent thoughts.

I gave it a push. To begin with it was more of a slap. I can’t remember exactly what I thought, but I have a vague memory that this old, tired roundabout looked wrong being so still, almost lazy.

And, push after push, the huge wheel began to turn. After a while it was spinning with a dizzying speed and all I had to do was give a gentle tap every so often to keep the momentum going.

All the while dad stood watching me, smiling, knowing. I was completely hypnotised by the turning wheel and the knowledge that all the energy of that spinning blur was coming from me.

My mother saw what was happening and sighed a loud audible sigh. “Tom, stop the roundabout and put her on it and push her round.”

She was waving her arms around wildly and acting as though the concept of pushing children on a roundabout had passed dad by completely.

A sweet smile crossed his face. He didn’t counter with, “She’s enjoying just pushing it herself,” as that was obvious enough to see. He simply said, “She’s turning the wheels of industry. She really will one day.”

For years after that, I thought ‘wheels of industry’ was a literal phrase and pictured dad going to work every day at some giant warehouse where he spun huge metal cogs.

* * *

I throw a handful of soil down onto the casket. Milly is tugging at my coat and holding up her pink toy telephone that she has smuggled along.

Mummy, does grandad know my number?” she whispers.

Yes, darling,” I reply.

The vicar is reading Psalm 23; he has the small bible held in the centre of his chest in symmetrical arms and has completed the cruet look.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

It’s a bit of a cliché at funerals, but I am glad to hear it read; it was dad’s favourite Psalm. That opening line always confused me as a child. I never read it for myself and always heard other people garble that first line out in one breath. It always sounded like the verse was saying that out of all the shepherds you could have, the Lord was the shepherd you really didn’t want.

The following line, ‘He makes me lie down in green pastures,’always put a picture in my head of some poor sheep having its face pushed down into the grass while protesting, “I’m fine to go on walking a bit more.”

It was only when I was older and read the verse to myself that the crucial semicolon cut through my misunderstanding. ‘The Lord ismy shepherd; Ishall notwant.’ A beautifully balanced equation rather than any negative statement.

Ruth always wanted sheep. We weren’t a traditional farming family though. The family retired to the farm when dad first became ill. It isn’t a working farm; it’s not really a farm at all, but more just a huge house in the country. Dad had enough investments here and there and was respected enough to retire early and live off the land. Not that he retired immediately. But it was after the move to the farm that he began to wind things down and divest most of his interests.

In his day, dad was quite the captain of industry and he always missed not being back at the helm of the many companies he had steered over the years. Mother always tutted and called him a workaholic. He never replied to this and always just smiled that same sweet smile.

He took me aside once and told me that you should never argue with someone who doesn’t have the experience to understand your own view, as it was cruel to do so. It was years before I made a connection between the two things.

* * *

The first time I closed a deal and successfully integrated two companies my firm had acquired, I was back in that park all those years ago.

I quickly learnt that people want management that is close enough to support them, but with enough distance to show them trust. They don’t want you standing over them. You just give a little push and then stand back and watch huge wheels start turning.

That’s the thrill of it; it isn’t the money or the power or the lifestyle, nice though all that is; it’s seeing those huge wheels start to spin and knowing that your tiny child-like hands were behind it. Hundreds of miles away from the farm, and sitting in a stuffy, coffee-drenched boardroom, I felt closer to dad than at any point in my life.

* * *

Ruth and I have three brothers, two older and one younger, and none of them were there when dad died. Nobody at the wake is telling any of them not to feel guilty; it’s just accepted. Dad understood; he referred to Ruth and me as country mouse and town mouse.

He always had the time of day for folk, but in many ways he was a closed book,” says a distant aunt. Martha or Maude, I can’t remember; she never had any time for us.

It’s true that he didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, but I have always hated the phrase, ‘a closed book.’ Every book is a closed book; you won’t find any open books on the shelves in a library. If you see a book and want to know what it’s really about then you have to open it. You have to take the time to study it and read it carefully. Only then you will grow to love it and never want it to close again.

I used to sit and watch him for hours. He never said much and preferred to listen and watch. He’d occasionally catch me scrutinising him and fire back a mock intense glare that seemed to read everything there was to know about me in a single look.

She is still talking, though almost into the air rather than at anyone. “And in many ways a strict man, strict but fair.”

He was strict in business matters, but was he strict with us? He was certainly no pushover, but he never lost his cool. He had too much dignity for that.

He never raised a hand to us. He always said that inflicting pain, even as a last resort, was a sign that intelligence had been exhausted. He said smacking just passed on violence as an inheritance. But he was not soft with his words; when he called you to order, it pulled you up sharp. It wasn’t just a case of not teaching children to hit out. He believed the far more important lesson for the child was to realise that there are always words. However bad a child’s behaviour, there were always more words; the time to stop talking was never a point he would reach.

For all Aunt Maudtha’s talk of him being a closed book, it didn’t stop people queuing up to get his advice. It’s not like he ever lauded it over people or sat holding court to dish out favours like Marlon Brando in The Godfather. He just passed the time of day wherever it suited him and whoever was nearby would inevitably end up drawing close to him in order to unburden themselves.

It was always the same, you would talk at length about whatever was bothering you and he would listen in silence. Once you had finished, he would breathe a long empathetic breath and then stare out at the scenery or find an old trinket on the mantelpiece that suddenly fascinated him. After a brief pause, he would reply with a short story or something he had read in a book and it always seemed to have nothing to do with your problem.

It wasn’t until you walked away that it slowly dawned on you that you now had your answer. And it didn’t matter how many times you received his advice, you always walked away certain that this time he had missed the point and his wisdom was off beam just this once.

But it was like the original problem had changed and somehow morphed into a completely different problem that didn’t seem quite as bad. Dad’s answers were never long and involved. He never lectured people or showered them with impassioned pleas to heed his advice. He just gave a small gentle push to start the right wheels turning.

* * *

Dad’s favourite verse from Psalm 23 was verse 5: ‘You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.’ He told me once that he used to say this to himself over and over whenever he was in a difficult meeting.

I took this one stage further and used it to introduce a pause whenever someone directly criticised me in the boardroom. Once my accuser had ceased their attack, I would sit and imagine a plate and cutlery being set out before me and make myself look forward to a hearty meal. It gave me time to think and let the heated moment cool off. It also unnerved the other person something rotten.

I told dad about my imaginary meal in the boardroom and he said, “I’ll have to remember that one.”

I assumed, as I so often did, that he was just humouring me.

A few weeks ago I got a card from him. It simply said, ‘Thank you for supper.’

I thought he must have sent it to the wrong person, so I gave him a call.

Hello, dad, just me,” I said.

Hello, sweetheart,” he said.

I think you sent a card to me by mistake. It said thanks for supper on it.”

No, that was to you.”

But, we haven’t been out recently.”

He chuckled. “I had a tricky evening meeting at the golf committee. Won’t bore you with the details, but another member was laying blame on me for some of the club’s recent struggles.”

Hope you wrapped a nine iron round his head after all you’ve done there.”

I just sat there in complete silence and stared at the table, imagining a string of waiters laying out a knife and then a fork and then a wine glass and this other man shouted, ‘Well? What are you waiting for?’ I just looked nonchalantly down at the tabletop and then looked up and said, ‘The dessert spoon.’ The entire meeting collapsed into laughter and a much better atmosphere followed after that.”

I was so moved by this that I could hardly speak down to the phone. Realising that dad had not been humouring me at all. That moment rippled back through my entire life and all the moments when I had assumed he was just placating me transformed into a dad that was listening attentively, had always listened attentively. At that moment, I realised with an overwhelming joy how much I really knew him. How much I had always known him.

* * *

I wake up in a brightly tiled room dressed in a white gown. After the uniform black of a funeral, it takes a few seconds for my eyes to adjust. I quickly glean from a nurse that I collapsed at the wake and that Rob, my husband, has taken Milly for a milkshake while I sleep it off. A few tests have been done and nothing to cause any major concerns has shown up.

This is all I need. I can imagine what is being said right now. “She’s been working too hard.” “She’s not eating enough.” “She couldn’t take the guilt.” “She can’t take her drink.” Well, they can say what they want. I have spent the whole day trying to ignore what others have said and forgot to concentrate on why I was there.

Seeing my jacket hanging over a chair, I quickly fish out my mobile phone. My initial reason for doing this, in all honesty, was to check that it hadn’t been stolen; you read about things like that and there are enough signs plastered on the walls to remind you that you are responsible for personal belongings.

As I lift the phone out of my jacket, I find a simple message sitting on the screen in front of me.

1 missed call.

Withheld number. It’s obviously some marketing firm wanting to sign me up to some insurance scheme I don’t need, but it makes me smile. I am not sure if Milly will see it as a good thing or a bad thing that there was a call and we missed it, but I will show her later.

Pressing the button for a new text message, I type in ‘Goodbye, dad.’ I feel silly at first, but tears begin to flow. There is obviously nowhere to send these words and so the best option I can think of is to press the option for ‘Save as draft.’

And as I press the button, I already know that somewhere wheels have started turning.

PUBLISHED IN

  • Page count: 240 pages
  • Publication date: 9 May. 2011
  • Publisher: CreateSpace
  • ISBN-10: 1460984765
  • ISBN-13: 9781460984765

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