After The Funeral (Part 1)
In the church (a church that I ignored many times during my youth) I try putting names to faces: Big Robert I pick out straight away; so too his wife, Angela, and her sister, Rita. Further back I recognise a couple of aunts and uncles - Ellie, the religious fanatic; Len, Little Robert’s brother, now blind. My father and his new boyfriend I’ve already located sitting on the pew front right. My grandmother is lying centre stage, hidden in a wooden box.
Soon, though, I’m drawing blanks. The other mourners, I presume, are employees, hoodlums, and members of the ballroom dancing association. As the service begins I try to recall the last time I spent an afternoon with this side of the family - an afternoon so long ago I was still wearing shorts.
My mother mailed me a newspaper report of my grandmother’s death. ‘Millionairess found dead in luxury home’ the headline said. It was accompanied by a picture of a frail old woman - navy blue pleated skirt, cotton wool hair - handing out a prize at the regional ballroom championships. According to the report she’d died peacefully in her sleep, although my mother (always bitter, more so now that her ex-husband had ventured out of the closet aged fifty nine) wondered if Big Robert and my dad hadn’t helped along my grandmother’s death with piano wire. I doubted this - not because parricide was beyond them but because they hadn’t spoken to one another in years.
‘You going to the funeral ?’ my mother asked when I rang.
She sounded edgy - her voice brittle and dry. Nonchalantly I said: ‘I’ll see if I can get a flight’ and wondered if she was back sharing her life with a bottle.
‘You don’t have to go, sweetie’ she said. ‘Nobody expects you to be there.’
‘I’m thirty seven years old, mom. I know I don’t have to go’ I countered.
She started crying and I felt guilty - just like I always do when she crys for no good reason.
‘I’m sorry, Mikey. It’s just.....’
Just what, mom ? Just what ?
This is what I should have said. Instead, trying to lighten the conversation, I quipped: ‘And anyway if I don’t go who’s going to fill you in on the gossip ?’
Later I rang my father and asked what he thought. ‘I’ve settled down again’ he said. ‘I’m thinking of retiring.’
I said he could afford to. After gran’s death he was joint heir to seven hotels,
three casinos, a string of restaurants and a Timeshare complex. I put the question again:
‘Think I should fly in for the funeral ?’
He didn’t answer straight away, as if there were other, more disturbing, things on his mind. Finally he said: ‘I’ve told you before - you’re family. If you can make it, great. If not, I’ll understand.’
I thanked him for sounding so enthusiastic and put down the phone.
During the first hymn my eyes settle on four smartly dressed young men and a young woman lined up behind Big Robert. I guess they’re the product of Robert’s unholy union with his wife and her sister. He’s been living with the two sisters for years - ever since I can remember. Two of Robert’s sons by an earlier marriage were rubbed out in the mid-80’s casino war. This, then, must be his new crop. The boys (one is in a wheelchair, another has a metal plate in his head) all look as dull and clumsy as their father.
The girl catches my eye. She’s a pale looking creature wearing a black silk dress, delicate as a freshly poached egg. If she’s Robert and Angela’s kid we’re cousins. If she’s Robert and Rita’s kid we’re compatible in the eyes of the law. The more I study her, though, the more her biological make up seems to mirror my own. There’s beauty in this girl but her beauty conceals something - an unfamiliar genetic strain that I find unnerving.
We sing the final hymn and the bearded vicar asks everyone to give thanks for my gran’s life. I close my eyes.
I remember her picking the turkey clean at Xmas and making rounds of salmon sandwiches. I remember her waiting hand and foot on my grandfather, Little Robert, a rat of gargantuan proportions. It was said that my grandfather kept vats of acid dating back to the early 50’s in his garage, all of them containing the liquid remains of his rivals. I don’t ever recall seeing any vats in Little Robert’s garage. But he was a mean piece of work, made even meaner by his size. Every bad thought that’s ever entered my head I put down to him. His heart was as cold as the church floor beneath my feet.
Turning my thoughts once again to gran I try hard to remember a special moment we shared, but can’t. So I open my eyes and look at the girl in the black silk dress. Her head is bowed and she’s smiling.
Whether it’s a smile borne out of happiness or compassion I can’t tell.
Because I’m my father’s only progeny it’s assumed that I’ll inherit his share of the family empire. It hasn’t always been like this. In fact it’s only recently that things have changed.
After he caused grievous bodilly harm to my mother (he shot her twice in the leg) I baled out of the family and went to live abroad. This upset my father. It upset him very much. He informed me that I’d been cut out of his will. I sent him a letter. It read: I couldn’t give a monkey’s fuck.
I’m talking about twenty years ago, you understand. Life was sweet for me then. I was young. I drifted around exotic beaches and had love affairs with exotic young men. I had my trust money. I did what I liked.
My father re-married a number of times - four to be precise - but still I remained the only issue from his loins. (Barren loins according to my mother, but I never pursued this startling statement. Who could say where it might lead ?)
During the early eighties things got complicated for the family.
Another family moved in - foreign blood, foreign ways. There were tactical disagreements. Decisions had to be made. One of our long-time associates defected. Big Robert and my dad had a falling out. Then Little Robert bit the dust and for a time the empire looked close to falling apart. It was gran taking over that pulled the family back from the brink. Who would have thought the old woman had it in her ?All those years fetching and carrying for Little Robert, caring for his vats of acid: she must have absorbed more than we thought. She greased the right palms, brushed the right people aside. (That long time associate I mentioned is now cocooned in a motorway flyover. It’s said that gran lowered the corpse herself.)
And while all this was going on my dad laboured to plant his barren seed.
Our rapproachment was gradual but inevitable.
Big Robert was busy raising his dull and clumsy boys - no shortage of inheritors there - so it stood to reason that my dad would invite me back into the fold. I said if you want me it’ll be on my terms. (I had a lot to give up: a cocktail bar in Acapulco, a brothel in Saigon.) So we met a few times and my dad outlined his plans. He was polite. I listened. ‘You’re all I’ve got’ he said. ‘Our only true flesh and blood.’ I asked him why he’d slipped into the plural but he stopped short. ‘Look, I want to put our differences behind us. If everything’s handed over to Big Robert’s kids on a plate, well, as far as I’m concerned, you can kiss the family goodbye.’ We were in Calcutta at the time. I was living with an Indian prince. (I was already bored with him; maybe this fact softened me up.) I noticed my dad eyeing the prince with interest.
One evening, taking tea on the balcony, my father confessed to me Little Robert’s indiscretions.
‘He spent years deceiving your grandmother’ he said and,to my embarassment, began to cry.
Then he got angry - mouthing off about Big Robert’s kids. Thinking back to that time now, he
never once mentioned the girl.
Read Part 2 here: