After The Funeral (Part 2)
Gran has been laid to rest and we’ve spent time admiring the wreaths and the sprays. The long convoy of black Mercs makes its way to one of the family hotels. I tried integrating myself with the group containing the pale girl in the dress, hoping that maybe I’d get a seat in the same car, but my dad pulled me aside. ‘Drive with us’ he said. ‘I want you to meet Vince.’
Vince is my dad’s boyfriend. He’s a rugged blonde, a good fifteen years younger, and works as a cabaret singer at one of the hotels. ‘I do all the standards’ he says by way of an introduction. ‘Stuff from the 50’s and 60’s - before your time.’
He places a hand on my shoulder - just long enough to let me know he’s interested.
‘You should hear his rendition of ‘Many a Tear Has to Fall’ my dad says as he slams the car door. ‘Makes your hair stand on end.’
Vince laughs. He has a hoarse, wicked laugh made vulgar by the morning’s booze. He glances at me in the rear view mirror:
‘Your old man thinks he’s going to launch me into the charts, has he told you ?’
‘Why not ?’ my dad says. ‘It’s a wide open industry. There are no class acts left.’
Vince: ‘He’s not with it, is he ? He still thinks he’s living in the early sixties. Tell him, Mike. Tell your dad he’s living in a fucking time warp.’
I tell my dad he’s living in a time warp and Vince laughs his hoary laugh. I notice they’re wearing matching ruby rings on their little fingers. Does this mean that Vince is now legally entitled to a piece of the action ? I make a mental note to check out inheritance law when I return. Today it’s a ruby ring; tomorrow, who knows what it might be ?
I possess a number of photographs of my father and mother’s wedding - my mother looking cute in a white Mary Quant two piece (she was a model at the time), my father looking slim and hungry in his double breasted suit and greasy quiff. Some of the photos show them standing outside the church, others getting in and out of a sleek Daimler.
My favourite photo is the cutting of the cake.
My parents are kissing open mouthed and their hands are clasped round a knife. Little Robert stands in the background looking on.
One thing I can say about Little Robert is that he took care of my mom. He spoiled her, but what’s new - men always did.
Even today, with all those empty bottles behind her, she still keeps her looks.
The way Little Robert spoiled her, though, wasn’t natural. It went beyond good taste. And this thought has stayed with me from childhood. His concern seemed to cross an invisible boundary.
Even during the split from my father Little Robert took my mother’s side. She was in hospital for months. Little Robert paid to rebuild her leg. And when she came out he installed her in a seventeenth century gin palace.
Familial devotion he called it. There are others, though, who would call it something else.
It was around this time that I became a boarder. Little Robert said it was for the best.
There’s another photograph too, of Little Robert and his two sons. It’s the late seventies - the height of my grandfather’s power - and they’re sitting in a bar. The two Roberts are smoking cigars and drinking champagne; my father sits to one side.
Whatever it is they’re celebrating, my dad clearly isn’t in the mood.
Gran’s funeral party is swinging. Her framed portrait gazes down from above the buffet table, which runs the full length of the conference room. A stuffed pig takes pride of place. A hansome young chef slices veal to order.
On stage a band slopes through all of gran’s favourite songs: Strangers in the Night, You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To, and Ipsy Dipsy Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.
At Big Robert’s table there’s a lot of noise:
Rita and Angela are spooning each other lobster and two of Robert’s sons are engaged in a bout of ferocious drinking. Across the way my dad and Vince are busy necking. The pale girl in the dress is in my field of vision near a window. She’s smoking and looks bored. Funerals, it seems, are nothing new to her.
I’m sitting with Len and Ellie. Len is talking about the old days, when he and Little Robert grew up behind the brewery.
‘Your grandfather was a born leader’ he tells me. ‘One of the old school. One of the best.....’
I stifle a yawn. His voice has the quality of gravel. He’s wearing a pair of dark Ray-Bans and transmits a strong sense of loathing in my direction.
‘We had to work for everything - had to fight, if you understand the meaning of the word.....’
I say yes I understand.
‘Running numbers for the dreymen when we were twelve years old; selling bootlegged liquor from the back of a car; That was no picnic, boy. Blood was spilled! And if you couldn’t stand the pace you didn’t belong, understand what I’m saying ?’
His hands shake as he talks about this golden age when men were men and only touched one another in private. Ellie, conscious of where the old fool is heading, says: ‘We should let the past take care of itself. We’re all god’s children’ and begins her party piece about how Jesus died for all our sins.
When she at last falls silent I smile and say: ‘Who’s the girl ?’
Even though they’re primed for my question it unnerves them still.
I watch her walk across the room, heading for the door, and it’s like watching a younger, more slender version of myself. As she does so a cheer goes up: Big Robert’s taken off his shirt. He wants Angela to do the same.
I follow the girl outside. It’s late afternoon and the light is beginning to fade. The reception area is deserted.
She’s cool, this girl, no doubt about that. A sculpture made of ice. She’s Little Robert’s kid, she tells me, but not by Angela or Rita, and the photo of the cake and the knife comes to mind. I think back to my time as a boarder and the months that went by without me ever seeing my mother.
I understand now why my father fired twice: once for my mother, once for Little Robert.
The girl lights a cigarette. I remove my tie and drink in her eyes - vermillion blue. ‘What are you going to do about Vincey ?’ she asks.
Vincey: I like that. I shrug: ‘I’ll think of something.’ We walk across the hotel car park, her skin even paler than I thought. She tells me she can handle the four boys. She
tells me Big Robert isn’t the man he was. She says she’s sorry that gran has gone but I know she doesn’t mean it.
Taking the keys to one of the Mercs from her handbag she suggests a tour of the family empire. Before we drive she places my hand on the silk of her thigh.
I kiss her neck - taste perfume and red wine - and she asks me how long it’s been since I slept with a woman.
It’s strange: I’ve been gone from this place for twenty years, sunning myself on far-away beaches, travelling the world. And yet as we drive - as she drives - it’s as though I’ve never been away.