On the day of his dad’s funeral Tony gets himself ready early while the care staff busy themselves having a meeting to decide who is to accompany him. First they have to get everybody to school. Tony skips breakfast and sits on his bed, waiting. Nips in and out of the toilet, because his tongue seems to swell in his mouth, block his throat and he feels sick. Someone rattles the door. ‘There’s somebody in,’ he shouts.
‘Well, hurry up then,’ a girl’s voice, drifts further away. ‘What you doin’ in there?’ and lilting laughter.
He doesn’t answer, drags himself away from the mirror, cracked and mottled with fawn flyspeck in the corners. His face yellowish, square and dull and his body heavy with sleep. He trudges back to his room and climbs into bed fully clothed in school tie and blazer, grey shorts, doesn’t even take off his shiny black shoes. He curls under the blanket, picks at the fringe and hides from daylight, waits for the world to stop.
When he is sure everybody is away he surfaces and heads down the stairs and towards the kitchen. The cook’s broad shoulders stoop over a sink piled with dishes, smoking, and looking out the window. Rain belts down outside, but her face is sunny.
‘You look bonny,’ she says, eyeing him up. ‘A credit to your faither.’
‘I’m no’ well,’ he says. ‘I cannae go.’
She nods, whether in agreement or not, he’s not sure. Wiping her hand on a dishcloth, she tiptoes across, snuggles him to her with a warm arm, and brushes his hair away from his eyes. ‘I’ve just the thing for you. Andrew’s Liver Salts. Never fails.’
The concoction fizzes in a glass and she urges him to drink it.
It feels tickly on his throat, but doesn’t really taste of much and he smacks his lips as he puts the glass down on the draining board.
‘Feel better?’ she asks.
‘Aye,’ he says, burping. ‘You better get away then. No doubt they’ll be somebody looking for yeh.’ She draws him in and kisses his forehead before gently pushing him adrift and turns back to her work, the pots rattle in the sink.
He watches through the dining-room window as a long black limousine squeezes through the gates and scrunches the stones, reversing and turning, turning and reversing, until its parked parallel with the building and doorstep. The chauffeur gets out of the car and the doorbell echoes in the hall. A black peeked cap hides his eyes and he wears funeral colours, grey, leather driving gloves, held in his left hand, as he shrills the bell again.
Tony hurries, but Julie answers the door before him. ‘You better come in,’ she says to the chauffeur, then looks at Tony and changes her mind. ‘We’re pushed for time. Wait there and we’ll come out. I’ll just get my coat.’ She doesn’t wait for a reply, yattering over her shoulder as she retreats. ‘I had to borrow one because mine isn’t black, and it’s a bit too big for me.’
The chauffeur fiddles with his gloves. Languid eyes gazing out from under his cap. A purplish beak with thread-like blue veins and tobacco stains his nostril hair. He reaches a decision and Tony hears the car door opening and shutting.
Julie is aflutter when she returns, gathering up Tony and checking her purse, perfume, cigarettes, keys and diary are safely inside her bag.
‘Hold this,’ she says, tutting, and handing Tony her bag and rushing away again to put her coat on.
The limousine parks behind the hearse, outside Dalmuir Parish Church, a gothic building staned with soot. Tony can see his old house from the car window on the other side of the road. The chauffeur holds the door open for him. He gets out and he goes to the other side and holds the door open for Julie and whips out a black brolley, holding it high over her head.
Cluster of swarthy men and some women, in ill-fitting clobber, stand black against wall and fence, whey-faced, tight lipped, ducking down and smoking. Julie’s pallid prettiness, bright red lipstick and nails pink as semi-precious stones seem out of place among such sombre faces. Tony tags on to her coat tails flapping in the wind like a forgotten thing. Douts are flicked into the gutter, washed away by rainwater, and reluctant church goers fall into step behind them, the coffin already in the nave as the opening bars of Abide with Me, strikes up on the organ.
Julie squeezes his hand as they sit in the front row, the coffin to their left. Auntie Lila and Uncle Bert in mismatched black garb, sit next to Tony. They share a hymn book and look straight ahead with a glazed look, but their lips remain pinched and silent, but that is perhaps because the woman next to them is making so much fuss. Top heavy with a curly mop and red face and broad shoulders she is compact, but Tony looks quickly away because he’s embarrassed.
She is talking to herself and God, jerking, arms flapping, like a broken doll and keening. ‘What am I gonnae do Lord?’
Leaning over the pew she gulps in air. God doesn’t answer.
Auntie Lila waits for the hymn to end, flopping down in the seat behind her and in a snide voice whispering with to her husband, but in the silence, loud enough so those sitting in the second row can hear. ‘That wiz his bit of stuff, wae a bun in the over. Wee cow'll know all about it, noo.’
Reverend Soutar, a tall cadaverous man, with a pointy grey beard is a man in a hurry. Between hymns he stares over the head of the congregation and reads and recites prayers in a monotone voice. His spiel about Dermott is brief, he mentions his age and he has a son and moves swiftly on, delivers God’s words of consolation as telegram messages. Mentions a wife that has gone before him. The pall-bearers sneak up the side of the church, broad red and familiar faces his dad had worked with, big men, sure stepped, shouldering the coffin, carrying his dad out.
Julie sniffles and cries into her hanky, all through Amazing Grace, but she is outdone by the bit of stuff, who faints and is carried out of the church, much like Dermott. Outside, Tony shakes hands with people he doesn’t know, dry-eyed among all that sobbing, he wants to go home, but he doesn’t know where home is now.