It is 4.45am on March 12th. A flock of Canada geese is passing over my house, on the wing before long before dawn, but I am already awake, sat in the warm, still darkness of the kitchen with my hands wrapped round a mug of black coffee. The first time I ever heard Canada geese was when I was a boy in Scotland, somewhere up around Inverbeg. We used to go on family holidays there, driving up from Glasgow in an Austin Allegro to sit in a caravan by a rain-lashed lake for a weekend. If the sun did come out – moving slowly out of the shadows of thunderheads, wan and opaque, like a recovering invalid, with no heat to it – clouds of black fly would follow and we’d have to stay in the caravan anyway. I remember lying in the army surplus sleeping bag that belonged to my Uncle Ian, curled up inside the warm hibernal darkness, the seam folded over my head like a cocoon, reading the Beano by the spotlight of a weak torch. I remember hearing the geese calling overhead.
The big grandfather clock I inherited from my Grandad, the only thing I really knew him by, ticks away behind my back. It has followed me around all my life like an oversized puppy, dismantled and lined with PVC foam in various removal boxes, lugged up and down staircases of I don’t know how many new homes. It has outlasted my Dad, my Mum, and half a dozen aunties and uncles.
I sit and watch the geese cross the dark plane of the sky and watch them fly south-west over the house in a tight V shape, a formation that reduces drag and allows the geese to fly in each others slipstream. That way, only the lead goose bears the full brunt of the cold winds coming off the sea. I go birdwatching on weekends with my wife, and I’ve picked up a few things. I watch them disappear over the saltings, dark shapes against the greater dark of the sky, until they merge with the horizon and disappear.
I sit and leaf through yesterday’s paper – some flim-flam about the drought, an interview with a Czech director I’ve never heard of, a gardening column – by the light of a too-bright anglepoise lamp while my coffee goes cold beside me, then rise and rinse out the mug. I wash it out before the water’s had a chance to heat up, and place it on the drying rack. I pad quietly to the bathroom and shave, then trim my beard with a pair of nail scissors. I look at my reflection as I snip away. Salt and pepper beard, and the odd white nostril hair. Gunmetal grey eyebrows like threatening thunderheads. I like to think they give me a certain grave dignity. I once heard it said by a client that I looked like Moses emerging from the desert. Does no harm considering my career.
I yawn and nick the skin under my ear. I slap some Aramis on the fresh skin under my beard, which is something of a cliché for a man of a certain age, but it’s what my Dad always wore and it smells reassuringly patriachal to the punters. It stings like shite, especially where it splashes the scratch, but I’m a big boy so I won’t complain. I sit on the freezing edge of the bathtub and pull my socks over my feet. Getting a bit of a belly. More than usual, anyway. I pull on my underwear and trousers, and spray a cold haze of deodorant under each arm. I walk to the bedroom, unlatch the door quietly, and grope around in the dark for my shirt and tie. I find them draped over a chair in the corner under my wife’s bra and blouse. She slumbers in bed, her head lolling in the fissure between her pillow and mine. There’s a little gasp as some dream surfaces and sinks, and the gasp along with it. I notice the curtain is slightly open. A faint grey bar of light rests on her neck. I pull the curtain closed, walk to the door and shut it behind me, lifting the wrought iron latch and placing it gently back into the catch so as not to wake her. She’s a terrible woman when she’s just woken.
I return to the kitchen and refill the kettle, dipping my head and drawing my tie around my neck as I wait for it to boil. The collar brushes against my razor-burn. The kettle sings out and I take it off the hob. I fill my thermos with instant coffee before finishing the crossword as the sky outside turns from black to blue-black to grey and, as I shoulder my bag and place my pen back into the pot, a deep, empty blue. I open the front door, walk as quietly as I can across the wet gravel so as not to wake the neighbours, get into the car, and go to work.
Afternoon there. David Watts, Watts-Cale Ltd. Sorry to have kept you waiting. You find your way here alright then? No traffic on the way in? Aye, they’ve been doing work on the way into Glynde, thought it might have held you up. An hour and a half’s about right from Orpington though, not bad at all. Jim’ll be along shortly. No, we had one last job to do today. Just a quiet country affair, sweet old lady who used to up in Firle. Knew the family, so it was pro bono as much as anything, you know? Aye, beautiful tumbledown old church in a hollow at the foot of the south downs. Lovely stuff, as these things go.
Right then, I’ll just give you a quick once-over of the property and grab my stuff from the office and be on my way. You’ll have to mind Garrett there, here’s just doing the last of the renovations in Jim’s office. The intercom’s a bit iffy, but there’s a man coming round tomorrow to fix it. Tenish, I think he said. There’ll be someone here to let him in if you’re not about Other than that, it’s about ready to go. You might want to slap a bit of Polyfilla on the door frames in the depot, they’ve got a bit tatty over the years as you can imagine, lugging the kit about. Tell you what, let’s go up to my office – the office, excuse me – and do the last of the paperwork and I’ll be out of your way.
Aye, it’s not bad, is it? Watch your feet, there’s a little step there. Plenty of light in the summer, although it gets bit gloomy in the winter months. Put in a few lamps here and there and you’ll have no problem. Nice view, and of course, plenty of room. Yeah, we knocked the wall through, gives it a bit more ambience. Can I get you a drink there? No? Just a small one? Ah, you’ll have a small one. It’s not bad stuff this. Talisker 57 Degrees North. Nice and drinkable. Bloody should be at the price. This is the last of it anyway, go on now.
No, this place has been good to me. And Jim, of course. Jim? Oh aye, he’s local as you like. Born down there, on Havelock street. Well, born in Princess Royal hospital in Brighton, but you know what I mean. See that chip shop there? About two doors down from that. That’s the one. No, he lives in Berwick now. Nice little place in the country and all of that guff. Hah, no, I’m from Glasgow originally, as you might be able to tell. Aye, opposite end of the world. I like the sun and the bracing air. Hah. No, my wife’s from just up the road in Eastbourne.
Well, I was indoctrinated in the business in Scotland by my father, who ran his own business. Strictly a family affair. I was the younger of two brothers, and my brother Alan was set to take over, so I decided to go independent. Always wanted to move down to England. It was where everything was happening, you know? Earned my stripes with my Dad though. You see, England in the seventies seemed a world away from the winding DSS queues and empty foundries of the Glasgow docklands. I’d met my wife in a nightclub called The Black Wang – aye, some real Scottish humour for you there, free of charge – in the summer of ’71; she’d been visiting her grandparents in Kilbride. I’d left school and had been working with my Dad for a few years. Well, we courted for a fair while, as you do, until she moved up to Glasgow to be with me. Do you know Glasgow at all? Jim’s daughter’s at University there and it’s all change now.
Well, we lived in a miserable little dive on Shipton Street. My wife – well, she wasn’t my wife at that point, we got married in ‘76 – worked in a little dressmakers below the flat. She was a dab hand with a needle – still is – and she made us all kinds of things. She used to bring back scraps of bri-nylon and floral prints and knock up clothes for us on the weekends. A new wardrobe every week. Aye, we looked pretty cool in those days.
There wasn’t anything keeping me in Scotland, so we moved south. See, Sussex in those days was as religious as you’d find in England – you lads weren’t into hellfire and damnation as much as we were, so it felt like more of a social club. See, your standard Church of England doctrine is largely based around flower arranging and local gossip in any case, which came as a bit of a shock to me. We liked freezing pews. Watery orange juice and cakes after the service wasn’t part of the deal where I’m from.
You got a funny old bunch in those days. Lots of war veterans – every man decorated up to the nines, pinned with medals and campaign crests even when they went to the pub for a pint of mild of an evening. Their wives were uniformly mousy little women in shades of lavender and violet, all wearing that particular lily-of-the-valley scent so heavily favoured by ladies of a certain age. They trailed along beside their husbands as if lost until after the service, where they drifted off into little gangs of fellow mouse ladies to discuss preserves and book groups, births and deaths. There were a few families and a good cross-section of glowering teenagers, their piercings and dyed hair curbed for Sunday sermon, but not many.
Can I get you a refill there? Just say when. Yep, it is – ten to five. I imagine he’s got snarled up in traffic on the way in. I’ll keep on eye on my phone, if he’s not here in ten you’re probably better off locking up and either him or I will nip round tomorrow to remove the last of the kit. Hah, he never was good at keeping time.
Yeah, anyway. So. I wasn’t particularly religious by now – your undertakers very often aren’t. Especially Scottish ones. Twenty-four years of being dried out on the stove of Scottish Presbyterianism does that to you, you know? But I saw a gap in the market, and property was cheap to buy on the south coast. The decline of the seaside resorts, I suppose. I bought a little two floor detached property on Talbot Terrace with attached garage, just around the corner from The Parish Church of St John Sub Castro in Peacehaven, a funny old church built of local knapped flint and redbrick. In other words, bloody ugly. Do you know the one I mean? Aye, that’s the one, up by the Strand. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for it. Didn’t think much of the Sub Castro bit when I moved here though. Had a distinct whiff of popery to a god-fearing Scottish boy. Well anyway, I decided to ignore it in favour of being in the same catchment area. Having a funeral directors round the corner from a church does no harm at all when it comes to free advertising.
The property itself wasn’t bad – a nice view of the Channel, new windows, lino tiles and some horrendous wallpaper in those particular shades of brown and sunset orange much favoured in the early seventies. You know what I mean? Aye, my granny had them too. I still remember the design – hourglasses of muddy brown, fringed with pale orange against a tangerine background, repeated ad nauseum. Hardly right for a modern, up-to-date funeral directors, eh? I stripped it off, sanded it down, and painted the whole thing white before putting in some black executive chairs and a walnut burr desk – aye, this very same one – which made me feel like a flash bugger. It’s not doing too badly, is it? A little warped and stained here and there, but I believe they call that character. I spent the rest of my savings and the money my father had given me on a Reliant Scimitar, which looked the business, but farted clouds of exhaust fumes wherever I went. I was pretty much broke by this point.
You see, on hindsight I may have banked rather too heavily on getting much of my clientele by being in the slipstream between St John Sub Castro’s and the nearest pub – see, in Glasgow, there’d be a mass exodus to the nearest boozer immediately after the funeral, ostensibly an informal pre-wake, but really because no Glaswegian likes to be without a pint of McEwan’s much before noon, at least round my way. I didn’t have a clue how to promote myself, didn’t know how to turn a profit, and didn’t have the heart to undercut the only rival business – Elroy’s Undertakers, a dusty sunlit office above a laundrette by the marina run by a gentle old soul called William Elroy who only really worked for the beer money. It’s gone now, but if you care to look for it, it’s where Domino’s is, off of Keys Road. How times change, eh?
We were majestically poor. Business never really took off, and when Linda was born in the spring of 1982, I considered putting the office on the market and downsizing, or dropping out all together. My wife enrolled in the local technical college, and I took up cab driving to supplement the scraps I got from the business. Which was where I met Jim. Picked him up from the races in Brighton. Drunk as a skunk, he was. Could barely lift his head, but he was a funny man. A really funny man. We got on just fine. Turned out his Dad was a funeral man too, but Jim didn’t have the kit to start a firm. I did, of course. We set up together pretty quick, and business picked up pretty rapidly. Aye, he knew his stuff, did Jim. By the end of the decade we were wealthy men, with a fleet of hearses and limousines and a bespoke line-up of coffins to suit all budgets in a warehouse down by the train terminals in Newhaven. We even started doing green burials and crematory ceremonies. Green burials – cardboard coffins, fully biodegradable, trees instead of headstones and all of that – sell like hot cakes these days. Very eco-friendly. We bought this place in the spring of 1991. Been here ever since.
I wore a distinctly modish double-breasted suit in blue serge from Cagney’s of Brighton, and a three-piece suit in black for pall bearing and the funeral itself – sombre, timeless, elegant. I still do, although they’ve had to let it out a bit around the waist. I’m pretty top-heavy these days, you know? Aye, happens to the best of us.
See, the trick with the funeral business is never to upstage the punters, never to draw attention to yourself. You’re part of the scenery, or as near as makes no difference. You are on the edge of things, an accessory to the death experience as a whole, along with the lilies and book of common prayer and crunch of gravel as you carry the casket.
Now I don’t mean to sound cruel, but you can’t work in the funeral business for any length of time if you take it to heart. Any man who comes to blows with death at any point in his life isn’t cut out for the business. That’s what I’ve always told the men who worked for me. Never look him in the eye, because you won’t win. All you can do is gently guide the client through the catalogues, listing coffins and garlands and hearses in a soft reverential murmur, as though in prayer, and try your best not to let the set of their jaw or the tremors of their hands get to you.
And they are always so dignified, the customers. So still and polite. I have never seen a man bury his wife, nor a wife bury her father, without that same beautiful blank face, like they were carved out of marble. You can touch their hand for reassurance, and it is always cold. But you can do any more than that. No more than that. Anything other than a touch is unprofessional. You can’t do what I do for forty odd years and not expect to be affected.
Preparing the remains is a skill. Aye, it’s ‘the remains’ now, thank you very much. Something we’ve pick up from the Americans. Ten, twenty years ago, it was ‘the deceased’ or, god help me, ‘the customer’. But that’s political correctness for you. The remains? Well, it’s what they are, I suppose. I have to admit, it’s about the best word for it. See, a lot of the clients think of it as a bit of a ghoulish task – working underground by strip-lighting is how I imagine they think of it, when they let themselves think of it at all – but it’s not like that, you know? You’re not dealing with Grandfather Bill or Granny Prue, you’re dealing with an empty shell. Aye, it might look a wee bit like them, but there’s something that just isn’t there, you know? Can the soul please turn off the lights when it leaves the body. You take away the human part from the human body, and what you’re left with is, well, it’s just a vessel, really. So you apply a little rouge and a little powder and you trim any errant eyebrow lashes and so on. It’s odd. My wife says she doesn’t know how I do it every day. Neither do I really. You know, my Granddaughter was christened last September and I swear to God, I haven’t been in a church as a punter since I was in my twenties. Not once. I only own the one suit, so it was all-purpose black for that occasion too. My wife wasn’t happy. Nearly ever time I’ve seen a crowd in suits and dresses it was in remembrance for the departed. Maybe that’s why I’m getting out of it now, hey? Or maybe I’m just getting on a bit. Aye, we’re all getting older.
Ah, there’s Jim now. Only fifteen minutes late, must be some kind of record. I’ll leave him to fill out his part of the paperwork with you – it never ends, does it? – and it’s all yours. Oh, and here you are – keys. Twenty-three years I’ve had those. The little gold one unlocks the back door – you have to give it a bit of a shove – and the two bronze ones are the downstairs windows. Any problems, I’ll be around this weekend, but I’m sure Jim’ll talk you through it. As I say, there’ll be a lad round tomorrow to fix the intercom, but I’ll have one of my guys around to let him in.
Best of luck with the business then Mr- Middleton, Middleton, of course it is. It’s a lovely old building. Lots of memories. Some of them good ones. I certainly will, think I’ve earned it. Retirement doesn’t seem so bad now, hah. Maybe I’ll even play a bit of golf tomorrow. No, no not to worry, I’ll let myself out. Aye, pleasure doing business with you, I’ll let Jim know we’re done here, shall I? Thanks then. Bye now.