Simon Jones: Paying Respect

Copyright © 2012  Simon Jones

 It was the death of Princess Di that started me off, and all the public grieving after she died. I had a job then, just off the Strand, and I remember I walked down the Mall on one of those baking hot days before the funeral, to look at the tributes. The florists were raking it in. I was surprised to see a young woman walking towards Buck House, swinging her floral tribute beside her and enjoying her time off. That got me looking more closely at the people queuing to sign the book of condolence, and they were having a good time too. Not laughing and mucking about, but chatting and, well, not looking sad. They’d got time off work, it was sunny and they were having a good old mourn.

I forgot about it as time passed – then a couple of years ago the job went and I found myself hanging around in redundancy limbo. Interviews were scarce, but I got out there every day to keep the brain stimulated. Walking past a church one afternoon, another hot day, I saw an undertaker’s team taking in a coffin and found myself wondering what sort of affair it would be inside: distraught spouse being held back by traumatised children, or a bunch of bored people looking at the stained glass and back to their watches, and thinking what to do later?

I didn’t have anything better to do that afternoon, so I gave it a couple of minutes and then slid through the doors and onto the back pew. What was it like? I started with a good one. A much loved lady was bowing out in front of a big crowd and being praised to the skies. The vicar must have known her well, because what he gave her was more like a best man’s speech than a memorial. Her daughter thanked everyone, they sang ‘Amazing Grace’ and I was really enjoying it – can I say that? What the hell, I was enjoying it. It was a privilege to have almost known the woman.

But then came the awkward bit. I’d forgotten the mourners had to come back down to the main entrance behind me. I was in a sort of warm comfortable mood by then, so I didn’t get out quick enough, and suddenly I was in everyone’s field of vision and I couldn’t sneak out. The family started filing past, giving me that brave ‘thanks for coming’ smile as you do, and I realised I was going to have to meet them and say something on the way out.

I stepped outside all nervous, but the daughter came up and asked me how I knew Marjorie. I hadn’t the heart to say I was there to gawp and I remembered the vicar saying something about amateur dramatics, so I said I’d helped backstage on a couple of shows. She wanted me to come back to the house for a cup of tea and a cake later, but that wasn’t a goer because there’d probably be some drama types there and they’d blow the whistle on me. I said I had to get on.

Back in the flat, I could still feel the adrenalin, and that’s a welcome event after a few months doing nothing. I started thinking: here I am, a presentable man in his mid-fifties who’s always taken a pride in his appearance, who owns a black suit and has his afternoons free; the Social don’t exactly shower you with money; it’s not working and claiming; I could get a bite to eat for nothing. Add to that the chance to meet new people and all you could set against it was that I was technically gatecrashing and it might be seen as a bit cynical. I weighed it all up for a few days, then decided to have another pop at it. After all, I was upping the numbers and nobody wants a lean send-off.

The first few I bottled. I mean I went into the church, sat through it, but then left before I was noticed. I steeled myself and soon managed to pull it off. It didn’t really matter that I was stumbling and nervous, because people often are when they’re upset. The families often were. On the whole, they were grateful that I’d turned up and generous with the invitations to come back and join them. It’s a funny thing, but you only get that at funerals. Try crashing a wedding without your printed card and you soon get kissed off.

It could go wrong, of course. Some days there was nothing going on, and I traipsed from church to church. Sometimes family and close friends would take themselves off to the graveside or crematorium and I didn’t have the address for the do. My technique got better. I started looking at the Births, Marriages and Deaths in the local paper. It saved turning up and getting no action, it gave you some extra information (it’s always good to know the deceased’s name if you want to pretend you knew them) and it specified place of committal. Sometimes you need to be there when the job is done and they all start to think about the ham sandwiches. Plus, being there implied a level of intimacy with the departed. I would tear out the page from the local rag and head on up to the Crematorium. This greatly increased my strike rate. There were things I had to learn, of course. Close, small affairs would get you a glare if you went near, and emotional ones would be a pain and you’d probably end up with a complete stranger bawling onto your shoulder. Big affairs with lots of well-heeled mourners from different backgrounds – they were the best.

The hardest part was taking in the information from the vicar or the paper and deciding where I fitted in, but I discovered I had a natural dramatic talent and even came to relish the thrill of it. Sometimes it went wrong – you weren’t invited back or they were just tight – but it was good enough to get me fed about three times a week on average. Stimulating amusement, free food and the Social couldn’t touch me for it. And my outgoings? A bus pass, the local paper, an occasional dry cleaning bill and a bit of shoe polish. It’s good to have a hobby, and it’s even better if it’s one you invented and refined yourself. Any downside? A niggling sense that I was cheating these people, taking their food and giving them an inflated sense of their loved one’s capacity to inspire devotion.

Then came the day I went to pay my respects to Mr Parminter. Mr P had been in the merchant navy, was about thirty years older than me and had ended up in a care home. He had moved to this town after his naval career, so that was me cast as an old (if junior) shipmate. The service was a medium sized affair, but there were no private eulogies, just the vicar’s take on the life now over. We had lost an interesting man, one whose early love of adventure had taken him away to sea, a life he had loved and where his willingness to lend a hand to his fellow man had made him loved and respected by all the crews he had sailed with. Most famously, of course, he had been boatswain on the Lady Rosemary during the Silver Jubilee celebrations. After his seafaring days were over, he had retired to this town, where he had been a popular resident until struck down with the debilitating illness which meant he had to spend the last few years of his life in care. Despite all that, he kept up a positive attitude, etc, etc. For all its predictable monotony, there was something about it that unsettled me. The man must have done this hundreds of times, but I got a feeling something was unsaid, something wasn’t right.

I got even more of that feeling as the head mourners made their way back down the aisle. First came a couple I assumed were son or daughter and spouse.  She had something funny about her, a darting, nervy way of scrutinising everything as though she was anticipating something or someone. She saw me, and gave a tight little smile. I decided I didn’t like her, which is unusual for me, specially when there’s no particular reason for it. Never mind, it was nearly lunchtime so I gave her my best commiserating nod. A short time later I was standing by the hearse, my usual place to hover as it was difficult to be overlooked. She came to me.

‘Did you know Mr Parminter?’ she asked through the smile.

‘Oh yes, many years back,’ I said. ‘He was my boatswain on my first trip out, way back when. A really good man.’

‘Your boatswain?’ she asked, tilting her head. Her other half – I presumed – had been hovering near, and now they exchanged a glance, like the earlier darting one but slightly longer. He was a big, slow, sullen man, much given to staring at the floor. I felt nervous. Were they going to ask me what a boatswain was, or where we had sailed from? I ploughed on.

‘That’s right. Not seen him in thirty odd years, but you don’t forget a man like that. I was in the area and saw the paper and there he was. After a coincidence like that, I had to come and say goodbye.’ I stopped – I didn’t want to make too much of the unlikelihood, just to acknowledge it before they did. Put in any more details and they end up tripping you later. They didn’t need to know why I was here and I never told anyone I lived in the town.

‘Well, then you must come with us to say goodbye properly,’ said her man. He held a hand out and stared. The handshake was slightly painful, in a way that suggested its owner’s ability to cause damage if he felt like it. ‘Geoff. And this is Pam.’

I got in the limo with them, feeling vaguely kidnapped. And then – praise be! –the vicar got in from the other side. I sensed Geoff and Pam had not anticipated this. Here was a chance to change the subject, and maybe even get some more background. I smiled at the Reverend.

‘Nice tribute.’

‘Oh, thank you. One hopes to sum up the man.’

‘It moved me because I knew him many years ago, but we lost touch. We were in the navy together.’

‘Ah, old sea dogs – you must have tales to tell.’ He gave me a simpering smile, then looked across at the others. I didn’t follow his gaze, but kept watching him. He was ill at ease and I realised this was what had struck me about him in the church.

‘So how long had you known him?’

He mumbled something about not having time to visit all the parishioners, but hoping Mr P knew he was there if he wanted him, and said he had been a good man – a true Christian, if not a churchgoing one. ‘He was a good man,’ he repeated, and flashed a quick look at Geoff and Pam. Geoff’s response was a question to me.

‘So what ships did you sail with Freddie on?’

Freddie? Ah, Mr Parminter. That’s good – a first name. He’d only been ‘Mr F’ in the paper. It was only a crumb but I needed all the help I could get.

‘Oh, just the one. The Lady Rosemary.

Geoff’s fist had been rhythmically clenching and unclenching: now it whitened. Pam’s dark, pinhole eyes fixed on me.

‘The one that sank? We thought Freddie was the only survivor.’  Pam asked, then turned to look at Geoff, then they both turned back to face me. They were openly glaring now. My right hand remembered Geoff’s grip. The vicar faded out of the picture. This wasn’t just an embarrassment – I sensed I was in danger.

‘I wasn’t on the last voyage – just the bit for the Jubilee.’

‘Freddie only sailed on her once. That was for the Jubilee.’

There was an icy pause. I was going to say too much, I knew, but my nerves were shot.

‘No – I wasn’t needed after the celebration. They were overcrewed for my work so I put ashore.’ I breathed deeply – I needed to keep grounded, to stop myself gabbling.

‘And what work was that?’ Geoff’s voice had deepened.

‘Engine room.’

‘On a clipper? She sank during the Tall Ships race.’

The blood was thumping in my head now. Just lie, I told myself, just lie and lie. I tried a knowing smile – there was nothing to lose.

‘Our name for the sail shop.’  Do they have a sail shop on ships? They must need to maintain them and that name was as good as any. ‘Tragedy when she sank. A good bunch, they were. A good crew.’

Geoff was not impressed. ‘Lucky you dropped by just now, or you’d have missed your chance to say goodbye.’ I nodded, but the mood was too strong to break with words. The most I should have been feeling was embarrassment, but there was something darker about the mood in this car.

The crematorium! I nearly laughed out loud. As we pulled up, I felt my fear turning to bravado. I held the door open for Pam, and stood back as we lined up behind Mr Parminter. Geoff stayed beside me. I hadn’t actually thought I’d make a run for it, but he had.

The disposal wasn’t a long affair, but it did let me centre myself and think things through. I needed to establish who Geoff and Pam were, and to take the spotlight off me. I seized the initiative on the return journey, the minute the door was shut.

‘So how were you related to Freddie?’

‘We weren’t.’

They looked at each other – I sensed a conspiratorial moment. Shame not to explore it. I needed more information about them, and I needed to stop them finding out more about me.

‘What’s your connection with him then? What was he like on dry land? You’re the ones with the stories to tell – thirty odd years is a long time. Last time I saw him was when I visited him after the wreck.’

I was about to curse myself for going off on another transparent lie, when I noticed something. They were darting glances again. They had lost their impetus. Geoff piped up first.

‘We’re not family as such, no – but we’re probably the nearest thing he’s got – he had. To the best of our knowledge there was nobody else. Did you know of any family? Did he mention any?’

I felt a shift in power. ‘To the best of his knowledge’, eh? He was trying to get back his threatening growl, but now he was asking me a real question, not setting traps.

‘He did have family, in Southampton or somewhere round there. Should be easy to find, with a name like that.’

Oh no, there weren’t any Parminters down there – they’d checked all over the place. They both blurted it out simultaneously.

‘So, how did you two meet him?’

‘Oh, I cleaned for him and Geoff did odd jobs around the house,’ said Pam. ‘Well, he wasn’t married and the place was far too big for him.’

‘He bought it with the settlement,’ offered the vicar. I’d forgotten about him. He was looking out of the window with what he obviously hoped was an absentminded air. It was too fixed. I figured he was scared of the others, but since I came back off the ropes he’d started to get brave. Geoff’s knuckles went even whiter, and Pam squeaked.

‘Settlement?’ I asked, as innocently as possible.

‘Negligence. From the shipping line. After the wreck.’ Geoff tried to sound matter-of-fact. He failed.

We drew up at Mr P’s old care home. I was intrigued now, and their nervousness had made them seem a lot less frightening.

The first thing I noticed was that they were not interested in anybody else. This, I soon realised, was because all the other mourners had been staff from the place. I was pampered with tea and cake, and a large glass of sherry was given to me. I dutifully passed it to the vicar – the braver he was, the better. When mine came I was careful to sip it – I was using it as a truth drug and a good doctor never self-medicates. Pam was very keen to know anything at all I might have known about Mr P’s family. I decided to push my luck – it seemed to have come back.

‘Brother in the police, I think.’ God, that was fun. I thought Pam was going to faint. I’d said it was thirty years ago, so I couldn’t push it any further. ‘Don’t know what happened to any of them.’

‘We sort of looked after him when he began to get frail.  He had MS you know.’

‘When it got bad we arranged a room here for him – our friends own this place. It’s very good,’ Pam jumped in, ‘he was well looked after.’ She was leaning towards me and her weedy little voice had gone up an octave, I’ll swear.

‘And he could afford it I suppose – with the settlement?’ Geoff gave a tug at her sleeve and glared at her.

‘So how did Freddie… you know… pass away?’ I asked.

‘Fell down the stairs here,’ came a voice from behind me. The vicar had been hitting the sherry  and decided to spread the word. You’d think vicars would get used to the booze, but thank God they didn’t. I liked him, I decided – an honest man getting a dark secret off his chest. I don’t think he particularly liked Geoff and Pam, and I’d bet good money they didn’t like him.

A long pause, then Pam and Geoff both started talking at once – this, I’d learned, was how they panicked. They’d looked after him, hadn’t they? Yes, and he’d really deteriorated and wasn’t able to do anything, or even think for himself, so they’d had to – they’d not wanted to but they’d had to be made his legal appointees, just to keep things in order. And their friends here, at The Grove, the nursing home, that’s what it’s called, they treated him so well and really looked after him, but then one day, he must have been in trouble and he wanted something and he’d got himself to the top of the stairs, but he must have… slipped. Pam hid her face as her voice choked away. It was very good, and if I hadn’t been particularly focused on the art of lying that day I might even have swallowed it.

I told them I was based in Cardiff, then took a long and winding route home. I didn’t want anyone following me, and I wanted to clear my head.  I don’t know how big Mr P’s settlement was, but I bet it was a lot. I bet he bought himself his Englishman’s castle and saved the rest of it, I bet he had dreams before the MS kicked in and trashed them all. And now he was dead, a man with no motor power in his body who managed to fall downstairs in the nursing home run by his guardians’ best friends. I wanted to say I lived in Southampton, to say I’d look for a horde of Parminters who could come here and ask them about the man they’d used. I wanted Geoff to stare at the floor and Pam to gasp and twitch, and I wanted them to keep doing that for the rest of their rotten lives. But I went back to what I did best. It didn’t matter that I’d crashed the funeral – I was way past feeling any shame for that now – but it did matter that people like Geoff and Pam should never cross my path again. I hoped the vicar didn’t suffer too much from Geoff’s wrath, but that was a cross he had to bear, as per the job description. Tomorrow I would hold my head slightly higher. The nice thing about meeting new people is that it puts your life in perspective.