The day forgot to dawn
silent dark fog surrounded the small group.
Freezing frost turned flesh to marble as it soaked into every pore.
From nose to toes they froze
leaden limbs heavy as steel,
and yet they stood exhaling white clouds of breath.
Waiting in line for the cortège to appear at the weather worn gate.
The living statues wondering when their turn would come creeping up behind to silence any thought, before it turned to words.
Judith Crooke, a distant cousin of Sidney, who travelled down from the north coast for the funeral.
Lovell Loftus, born long years before ‘special schools’ were even thought about, so spent her growing up years in the shadow of her older sister Alice. It seemed like a forgone conclusion when Sidney asked Alice to marry him, that Lovell came too. She had not really learned to run a home or deal with accounts, but sure Alice was there to deal with all that for her. She could make a cup of tea and cut the grass with a push mower, but clipping edges or weeding was not in her reckoning at all.
Mary Matterface, a widow from St Andrews by the Wardrobe, was the most recent resident of the crescent who adopted the position of controller of all their lives.
Carol Cribben, next door neighbour, counsellor & amateur gardener, was the caterer for the funereal tea.
Maisie Mullen, the oldest neighbour with very fixed ideas. Not sure if she actually liked the seventy eight year old deceased, Sidney Slythe, but, he did wheel out her laden refuse bin each week and return it to the corner before the end of the day. It might look peculiar if she did not attend, so she went along to avoid any gossip.
Julie Jenkins, from three doors down, was always waiting for her prince charming to come. Roger de Montfort was fond of telling her that Prince Charming took a wrong turn, got lost, and was too stubborn to ask for directions. Julie had cable television, she was always ready to welcome Sidney to watch the football.
Daphne, a neighbour, in whose eyes, men were like pennies: two-faced and worthless. Her world and home featured all manner of creatures – finned, furred and feathered. Some even slept inside in the bed with her! Her one concession to the male form was following wrestling on television. Sidney liked the wrestling!
Yvonne, lived round the corner. A good vintage (if you were talking about wine), she was fond of fluttering about on heels that were in no way built for comfort. She had always been the mouse of the group saying little, answering when spoken to directly, but happy to sit and listen. Her eyes did the talking for her, always alert, they darted from face to face as each had their say. No matter what was happening, Yvonne was there, somehow she never missed a beat.
Lettuce Playfair, neighbour, married to Norman Playfair, was known for feeding the neighbourhood cats.
Silently sliding to a halt, the driver’s door of the hearse opened and the undertaker emerged. Straight as a ramrod in his usual uniform of top hat and tailcoat, black leather gloves and shoes that shone brighter than a frosty harvest moon.
The gathered group twiddled their beads, more by way of habit or distraction, than piety. A bird in the tree above their heads might chirp that ‘the seasons were out of kilter’, but somehow they matched the mix of mumbling souls present, as lob-sided as the coffin being carried in through the warped stiff and rusting old country graveyard gate.
The pall-bearers completed the compliment of men present, as ill matched as the bead twiddlers. All strangers until a few hours before, unsure of foot and the task in hand, they stumbled over the rough ground of sunken graves, rabbit holes and fallen headstones to the group gathered round the open grave.
Slowly, very, very slowly they respectfully set the coffin on the ground opposite the mound of freshly dug clods of clay, with the only wink to modernity – a green sheet of plastic grass that covered the soil.
Carefully stepping backward the men straightened up to their various heights between 5’4” and 6’ 2”, as if to form a guard of honour. The mismatch in stature seemed in keeping with the assortment of ages and backgrounds. The common threads amongst them were the recently deceased and the black ties they wore.
Fresh and crisp, out for its first airing, was the tie worn by young Morgan Troy at the left front corner of the coffin. Tallest of the group and an honorary nephew, Morgan, whose father Rowland shared a love for, and worked alongside Sidney Slythe restoring his collection of vintage cars. Morgan spent many hours in the workshop with his father and Sidney. He had his own corner for working in, first it was his tricycle, followed by a two wheeler and eventually oddments from an old retired engine. He had many memories of those days and years, so many he had not shared, while others so special he could not part with them.
Roger de Montfort was fond of centre stage no matter what the occasion. He was short and so old, his birth-certificate must have expired, yet he made more appearances than wild mushrooms in a field. A real ouldwoman’s blouse if ever you saw one, always ready for a good gossip and to add his two pennyworth, even when it was only worth quarter the price. He was handy for fetching ‘n carrying, and the ‘girls’ of the neighbourhood were not behind the door in coming forward to ask. Today he was at the front right corner bringing Sidney to his final rest.
Allen Allaway ‘ Male Friend’ of Judith Crooke, and Norman, husband and doer of deeds for Lettuce Playfair followed behind them.
The graveside prayers over, the short eulogy commenced, Morgan spoke from his heart. The gentle words were for a gentle man and caused a flutter of lace handkerchiefs from the ladies surrounding Alice, the widow.
On the outside, Alice Slythe looked composed and in control, but the hidden truth was an internal battle to stay calm and not allow the tears to flow. Once begun she feared they would never end. The tears would come, but they would come behind the closed door of her bedroom with her face buried deep in a pillow. The pillow that Sidney rested his head on every night of the twenty nine years shared in their Marriage bed. Every night. Until last Saturday.
Sidney Slythe, seventy eight and three weeks, came late to marriage. He had lived for years at the other end of the crescent with his well fed tiger cat. The large garage was ideal for working on and storing his well loved vintage cars. The gardens at front, back and sides were proof he was an accomplished plants man. He shared many cutting slips and tips with his neighbours. On bin day he could be seen going from house to house to wheel the bins to the kerbside. These weekly visits gave him the opportunity to talk to his neighbours, check on the plants he had shared and advise on the best way to prune, feed, or deal with any disease as it appeared.
Football was his passion but Alice, or should we say Lovell, could not stand it. She preferred to watch a Saturday romantic matinee or evening round of the soaps. So Sidney kept the peace and shared the games between the girls of the neighbourhood.
During the last ten years he took care of three houses. The one he lived in with Alice and Lovell, the one with the cars and the third, a family home handed down, but in a little village twenty miles away on thudder side of the Hill.
It was while checking on the latter that Saturday afternoon, Sidney felt unwell. He knew it was not good, and driving was not an option. He phoned Alice, and suggested she ask Mary Matterface to drive her over. Alas, by the time they arrived it was all over. They found Sidney sitting in the old armchair. The ambulance men assured Alice that the heart attack took him quickly.
Alice Slythe, was rather timid invisible & mousey. She was reared with her younger sister Lovell by their widower father, Leonard Loftus, whose spirit had died with his wife and only son, following a long and complicated birth. The girls were reared in the vacuum of the large detached house, still pre-war in style, with the silence only broken by the winding and slow tick of a heavy and ancient Grandfather clock or the occasional whispered question from their father. Alice had inherited the dark mausoleum when her father died. He was a shy man, who drew comfort from his large collection of dusty old books.
One month down the line found Alice, sorting, folding and packing a couple of boxes with the contents of Sidney’s wardrobe. It was a task she dreaded, but refused to delegate. Perhaps it was an internal admittance that the ‘good byes’ would remain unsaid and she would have to face the future without her rock. The chat with Morgan, the evening before, had helped. He was a kind soul and clearly fond of Sidney. Yes, having three houses was totally unnecessary, but the problem was deciding what to do with them. All mature and ripe for renovation, was it a task she was up to… or willing to undertake? Should she just stay where she was and put the others on the market? These were not questions easily answered over a cup of coffee, but they did need to be addressed, and soon. Alice decided to sleep on it for a couple of nights. The coming weekend she would make a list, then on Monday take the first real steps on this new journey.