Lost Dog 1
When Richard Rowe's mother died his older brother, Peter, told him in no uncertain terms that he wanted nothing to do with either the funeral or the dilapidated cottage in Cornwall where the old woman had lived. "You have it" he said. "Take the fucking lot. I don't want any of it."
He, Peter, had cut off all relations with his mother when, during a fraught visit some five years previously, she had proclaimed that her daughter in law's injuries, sustained during a terrorist explosion, was nature's way of punishing her for the 'bad karma' she had put out into the world. It was a particularly insensitive remark, Richard agreed, and Peter refused to forgive her for it. Crippled with arthritis and a degenerative bone disease, Richard and Peter's mother was susceptible in her daily agony to all manner of quack philosophies which seemed to help explain her own and the world's pain. From her chair she raged against modern life and the pampered lifestyles of her children and grandchildren, a lifestyle she avoided by divesting herself of the simple everyday appliances that constituted modern living. She was, everyone who came into contact with her agreed, ‘hard work.’
After Peter's estrangement from his mother, Richard made an effort to remain on speaking terms, occasionally visiting her for a few days but inevitably returning home earlier than he planned. When she was eventually placed in a care home Richard prepared the cottage for sale, the money to be used for the cost of her upkeep. But her deterioration was swift and she died within a month of moving. And now, in February, after been told by Peter that he wanted nothing from their mother's estate, Richard travels from his house in the West Midlands to Cornwall in order to attend to the old woman’s funeral and oversee the sale of her home.
The two bedroomed cottage was situated off a winding road, a mile or so from the nearest village and three miles from the nearest town. Stone-built and with an austere, grey exterior, it looked an unforgiving place, reflecting the simple, no-nonsense men and women who had previously lived there. It had been built at the beginning of the 20th century to house fishermen and agricultural workers - common folk who worked hard throughout their lives and received minimal reward for their labour. Richard's mother had purchased it from an elderly sailor and had lived there for over twenty years.
Richard retained his own key. The cottage had been empty for almost ten weeks and he was greeted by a damp, musty smell. His mother had struggled to keep on top of the most basic chores. The rooms were littered with newspapers, unopened post, and soiled clothing, as if squatters had been resident rather than a fiercely independent woman whose dedication to cleanliness and order had imprinted itself from an early age onto her two sons.
Richard began the task of tidying up. He knew that his mother lived a primitive existence and he had arrived well prepared. After clearing the kitchen of its old cutlery and pans, and after sweeping the carpet-less living room where his mother used to sit alone for days on end, he recovered from his car a futon bed, a box filled with food, and a bag of clean clothes.
He furnished the living room into a single bed-sit, a clean and tidy oasis within the decay and squalor of the other rooms and for the next few days the mornings were given over to the practical aspects of his mother's demise while the afternoons were set aside for long solitary walks along the coastal paths and harbour roads. His mood altered at this time. He replayed the schism that developed between his brother and mother and found himself sympathizing more and more with her outspoken theories about cause and effect. Richard's relationship with his sister-in-law Jackie had never been particularly good. He always found her patronizing and disinterested and he understood why for many years his mother was offended by her daughter in law's attitude towards her. Both Peter and Jackie had been unashamedly social climbers before the terrorist bomb ripped their lives apart. Perhaps Richard's mother was simply too weird for Jackie's conservative liking. As he stood on the sea front, leaning against a balustrade, Richard felt an overwhelming compassion for his mother. Life had given her a raw deal and he felt ashamed that he hadn't done more to ease the pain of her final years.
She had left no instructions regarding her funeral arrangements and so Richard chose for her remains to be cremated, a decision made with financial concerns uppermost in his mind. He was not a wealthy man. He worked part time as an administrator at a college of further education and supplemented his income by renting rooms in his house. Now, Peter's strident refusal to claim any money from his mother's estate offered Richard an opportunity. The old woman had lived a bizarre existence in her final years but Richard could find no evidence to suggest the cottage was anything other than hers, a capital asset that was, structurally at least, in reasonable condition. During his afternoon walks he began to consider whether he should move to Cornwall. He would be able to maximize the income on his own house whereas the outgoings associated with his mother's cottage were minimal. He discovered that he enjoyed being by the sea. The winters could be severe, he knew, but the generally mild climate would be more beneficial, he thought, for his health. For a few years now he had suffered with bronchitis and living on the outskirts of a major city was a contributory factor. The more he pondered these things the more he began to convince himself that moving into his mother's cottage would be the best option for him. At the age of fifty five it would represent a new start - an opportunity to move on from the painful memories of his own past life.
After a few days the memory of his mother’s physical appearance began to fade. He possessed few photographs of her (she was always insistent that she should not be photographed) and he began to struggle to re-construct her image in his mind. He wondered: is this is what happens to us in death ? Does the image of a person’s physical form linger in the memory of a few acquaintances for a short while before being consigned to oblivion ? Or else does it survive in another realm, and not just as a piece of numerical data in one of mankind’s vast electronic servers, available to be retrieved by curious future generations ?
The funeral parlor had asked if he wished to see his mother for a final time and he had at first refused. But he changed his mind. One afternoon, after his walk, he carried on into town and entered the undertakers. He was led into a rather dark ante-room where he was confronted by a waxwork figure that vaguely resembled the fading image in his mind. At least, that was how he interpreted what he saw. She had been dressed in a white nightgown and her face seemed puffy, carrying with it an oily sheen, as if she had put on too much foundation cream. Her hair was dry and her hands, resting above her stomach, seemed to have shrunk to child-like proportions. It wasn't his mother. "It" was a vague resemblance of someone he once knew. Richard whispered his goodbyes and left. A young woman, the receptionist, asked him, in solemn tones, if everything was to his satisfaction. Richard said yes and thanked her, stipulating that he wouldn't make any further visits. The cremation was scheduled in two days time. He said: "I’m not expecting any relatives to call by."
The woman nodded and smiled an understanding smile. "There's a condolence book, if you'd care to write a few words." She directed him towards a large white book, as thick as an ancient bible, that stood on a dais in the corner of the reception area.
Richard hadn't considered writing anything other than signing a cheque to cover the funeral expenses but now, presented with the opportunity, he began to formulate a fond farewell. He thanked the receptionist and stood for a while over the book trying to think of something appropriate to write. As he did so he noticed an entry written earlier in the day, which praised his mother as 'a remarkable and formidable woman'. It was signed with an initial - M.
The message left in the condolence boook puzzled him. He asked the receptionist if she knew who had made the entry but she was unable to say. As far as she knew he was the only person in connection with his mother who had visited the parlor. Of course, someone could have visited after hours but they would have needed to speak with Mr Wicks the head undertaker about that. Would Richard like her to ask Mr Wicks ? She could call him now, it would only take a minute.
Richard thanked her and, flustered, said: "No, no...please, don’t go to any trouble. It doesn't matter. It's not important."
Part 2 here: