Memories · Notes from West London

A Funeral Day (10 March 2016)

[There are over 4,000 words here]

The call came on Tuesday, early, before the school run, before I wake my son, my uncle died in the night, the uncle I’m named after, he died aged 86, north of Dublin, funeral for Thursday, arrangements by phone and text, later there was a long chat with my cousin who lives near the coast here in England, early flight booked to get to Ireland on Thursday morning, last plane back to Heathrow, mass card bought on Wednesday, make sure I have an early night on Wednesday, alarm clock radio (still working after 27 years) set for 4am / I wake in the dark and think “If it’s before 2am I’ll use some memory tricks to try and get back to sleep, if it’s after 3.30am I’ll get up” / it’s 2.58am so I lie there for 20 minutes wondering if I should use one of those tricks – think of 15 countries beginning with B, think of 15 films that star Kate Winslet, or Michael Caine, 25 countries with a capital city containing 6 letters, don’t think too hard now, it’s okay to drift off to sleep before you get there / no, I’d better get up, 3.30am, I had my 6 hours in bed / downstairs and check last night’s football, look Leeds won away at Cardiff, and Chelsea are out of Europe, shame, I wanted them to go through, not PSG / post a piece about Broccoli and Comedians / breakfast, shower and shave / into the funeral suit, pack an old black rucksack, after some thought, having decided that if I arrive without any kind of bag I’m more likely to get stopped, although all I really need to take can fit in my pockets – Kindle, phone, charger, cash, cards, passport, print-out of flight details, keys, gloves, black tie, blue tie – no I’ll take the bag, put in an A4 notebook just in case, no computer for a change, a jumper, headphones, a smaller notebook with some song lyrics, Oh I’ll take Florian Illies’ “1913” so I can read even during take-off and landing, I don’t go for all this “flight mode” stuff / out of the house and on the platform by 5.17am – 26 minutes till the next Piccadilly line to Heathrow? Really, Twenty Six Minutes? Should I get a taxi from outside the station, let’s see I need to be at the airport by 6am, if the timings are right – and the indicator board is screwed is usual, why don’t they just leave a big sign saying “Don’t Trust Me, and use your phone to check train times instead”? Well, should be there just in time, train arrives after about 20 minutes, I can read 10 or 15 pages from “1913”, it looks like there are at least four facts per page, about artists and writers and politicians and other historical figures, and at best I might already know one fact per page, so that’s close to a thousand new facts from this book, I’ll never remember all that / Terminal 2, automatic check-in for a change, and there’s my boarding card for the way home – don’t need to be back at Dublin Airport till 20.25, that’ll be plenty of time after the funeral / quiet flight, both seats next to me empty, get to page 100 of “1913”, celebrate in my usual way / longer walks than I recall at Dublin Airport, I must have managed my daily 45 minutes of exercise just walking around both airports / bagel and coffee at the Bagel Factory, nearly 5 hours since breakfast / 9.05am bus to take me down to Dun Laoghaire, should be able to read 30 more pages on the way / no, there are my two cousins from the coast, waiting for me it seems, they got on the bus round the corner / so we chat and talk about our lives, family, though there are always people in the family you don’t ask about / and we’re taking the coast road, down past Blackrock and Seaview and they ask “Is that where Dad used to swim?” – their dad, who died in 2007, brother of the uncle whose funeral we’re all going to, good swimmer – and I say “It could be”, there are plenty of places along here for a dip – we’ll be near the Forty Foot Tower when we get to Dun Laoghaire, you know, that swimming place that’s mentioned early on in “Ulysses” but no they haven’t read it (so few people have, and my dad always said that you couldn’t really understand it unless you knew Dublin well, and I said, well I’d heard that you can’t really “get it” unless you know Homer’s “Odyssey” too, but he didn’t respond to that, I made sure that I read my Penguin Classic version of Homer, with all that stuff about the wine-dark sea, before I attempted to read Joyce’s book, which I did in that first year at Cambridge, started it on a Friday night and thought “I could read this by tomorrow afternoon, if I keep at this pace – 50 pages an hour, I’ll do nothing else, except a few hours’ sleep, until those people come for my school reunion dinner which I don’t really want to go to” but then a few friends came by and asked if I wanted to go on an all-night punting trip to Grantchester, a party, and I said “Not really, I was going to read all night”, and they said “Come on, it’ll be a laugh” and told me who else was going, so instead of reading all night I was on a punt all night, drinking, learning how to propel the thing and landing back around 6am, a few hours’ sleep and no more reading until Sunday morning) and we land up in Dun Laoghaire before 9.40am – those airport buses, they seem to travel back in time, something about the tunnel, maybe some little kink in time-space, I remember I was taking air buses to the airport to get back to London for work during the summer of 2014, and even when they left Wicklow late, and got stuck in traffic, and drove through the city, they always seemed to make up time / shopping for flowers, chocolates and a bottle of booze to take to the cousins in Dun Laoghaire, but you can’t buy a bottle of anything before 10.30am, oh look they’ve got a Nando’s here, and a huge Starbuck’s, that wasn’t here last time I was in town / and we’re at the house and chatting to the girls – we still call them “the girls” but they’re now in their 60s, and looking after their mostly bed-bound mother, the oldest of the four siblings, and the other three have died in reverse order, just like their mother’s sisters did, the youngest (my mother) went first, then the next youngest (the uncle back in England) and then the second oldest (whose funeral it is today), and my aunt here is the only family member left from that generation, on that side / and Maggie (Margaret Margot – she is known by all three names) has kept aside a book by Anthony Trollope, she saw it and she thought of me and no I didn’t know that he was based in Ireland for all those years, how did that pass me by? And I tell her the little that I know about Anthony Trollope, and then, after tea, toast, a cheese sandwich for me, more chat, changing our mind about taking the train – two trains it would be, and a cab to get to the church – it’s a cab to take us all the way, north of Dublin City, to the small town where our uncle and his wife moved to, nearer to her people, though it’s not such a small town now – lots of new-builds there, and a good commuter service into the city – and on the way two of my cousins mention two of the comedians I had in mind that very morning when I posted that piece, they mention them in passing, how much they can’t stand them, and how did they ever get on TV at all, how did they ever get their own series? This was all unprompted by me, and I give them my explanation, about “Broccoli”, and feel like saying “Check my Blog – it’s all there” but no, we just have a chat about it, and I don’t mention The Compartments to anyone in the family / and we’re an hour early for the funeral mass, which is at 2pm, so we head for the nearest pub, I’ve never been in a pub in this town before, it’s “The Drop Inn” and it’s quiet at 1pm, a pint of Guinness for me and everyone else is on the soft stuff, Liam’s never had red lemonade before, I’d probably have time for a second but it’s just the one, and the woman sat at the bar is talking to the man next to her about the funeral, the man who’s being buried, and “You wouldn’t know him, he’s not from round here,” and she talks about his wife’s family, they’re from round here, you might know some of them, Jimmy, the youngest one, you might know him / and we’re in plenty of time at the church, to follow the coffin down the aisle and take our places, no organ or piano, just a chap on guitar, and a solo singer, she looks about 18, and there are no hymn books or orders of service, there rarely are at Irish funerals – no time to get them together, too much to do in the 48 hours or so that you have to arrange everything / and it’s outside, afterwards, that we say hello to the immediate family, most of whom I have seen in the last fifteen years – not at funerals, fortunately, we were regular visitors to this part of Dublin over the years, my wife and I, we saw the family in good health, and we came back with the children, in fact my uncle here was the first person my wife met, on her first ever trip to Ireland, back in 2001, 15 years ago yesterday we recalled, the anniversary of the death of my mother’s mother, she died 9 March 1944, when mum was only 7, and that weekend in 2001 I proposed, on the Ha’penny Bridge, in the drizzle, that Friday night, after we had spent the afternoon with my uncle here and his wife, had a great lunch at the “Mind your head”, or “Stoop your head”, or whatever it’s called, in Skerries, and after tea at the house he drove us all the way into town, to O’Connell Street, where we were staying, and the next day the hire care that I’d booked wasn’t available, no there’d been a mistake, there’s only one left, but you have to go and collect it, from Dun Laoghaire, oh that’s no bother we’re heading down that way anyway, and we were, a much longer walk from the DART station than I was expecting, but we got to the car-hire place just in time and that Toyota Yaris had exactly 7 miles on the clock, and we had lunch with the girls in Dun Laoghaire, and talked about Willie Nelson and a thousand other things, and then we drove, reluctantly, to Walkinstown, to see my dad’s brother, about whom we’d heard less than happy memories from the other side of the family, and I really can’t go into that right now, but no I never knew that story before, and we were having such a good time – I wasn’t reluctant to see my dad’s brother, just reluctant to break up the party, and I had a can of Guinness maybe, because I was driving and we had to be up early the next morning for my godson’s Confirmation in Kilkenny, plenty of time, and the do afterwards in that big hotel, the name always escapes me, a son of Ken Bates married a girl from Kilkenny and they had their wedding reception there, I heard, and later that afternoon we called in on my dad’s sister, in the old place where they grew up, just outside Kilkenny City, and the way it worked out meant that my wife, as she is now, met nearly all of my family and friends on the one trip, all of the older generation, and some of the younger generation, five groups of family and friends, five very different households, a good introduction to just about everyone we hung out with in Ireland at the time / and there outside the church I met Tommy, a cousin on my uncle’s father’s side, someone I’d never met before and we were having a good old chat and we turned down the offer of a lift up to the cemetery, maybe a mile or two down the road, the sun was shining so we walked along behind the hearse and talked about his side of the family, his dad was my grandfather’s brother, from Longford, and I recounted the little that I knew, that my grandfather had four children before my grandmother died, and he was remarried within two years, and had two more, and I never met them, not that I recall, and he, Tommy, was one of eight children, and his dad Tom was married to Bridie, who lived to 99, and his uncle Joe had 16 children, and I recalled how my uncle, whose funeral this is, had always said “You’d never remember who all of them are – so many of them on that side, it’s easier to know who everyone was on the mother’s side” / and the coffin was lowered into the ground, and, out of nowhere – and I hadn’t ever thought it at a funeral before, and I’ve been to plenty of them – a line from the comedian Dave Allen came to mind, how when he heard the phrase “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” at a funeral he thought they were saying “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and into the hole he goes”, and he thought that that’s what they were saying, for years afterwards / and a chap called George gave me a lift to the Golf Club where the wake was being held, and we took the scenic route, a few times, couldn’t find the bloody place, no signs anywhere, and no sat-nav, just like the old days – he has one, yeah, but lent it to someone who was going to Switzerland / but we’re there before long and I’m stood there too long in my coat, grubby rucksack at my side, before I find a place to leave everything and then I’m back, pint of Guinness please, and hanging out with Tommy again – it’s a much longer walk back from the cemetery to the church without the fascinating conversation he says, and I thank him, and he’ll have the just one, because he has to drive back to Offaly later – and we sit at the table with my mother’s half-sister and half-brother, the ones I had never met, and she says “I don’t believe in all this half-brother, half-sister stuff, it’s brother and sister” and then my head is full of dates and places and how many children, and I reflect on the 80/20 nature of conversations, I am learning a whole lot more about these people than they’re learning about me, but that’s the way it is, though I do talk about that horror-show trip we took, the five of us, Easter 1977, the last time we all came to Ireland together – I swore, even then, even as a teenager, that I’d never go through that again, and never did, I returned at different times with my father, mother, brother and sister, but never all five of us at the same time – and that was the time that her mother had died, my grandfather’s second wife, we saw her the night before she died, “a woman with death in her eyes”, I’d never seen anything like it, that was in Rathfarnham, and we were in some anonymous B&B somewhere between the city and Clontarf, no idea where we were, went everywhere by car that trip, and that was the last time I was in 13, where my mother was born, and that was the last time I was in Clontarf, and we escaped for a few days up to Cavan, where we always had the best time, is anyone coming from Cavan? I haven’t seen any of the Cavan relatives, no, I guess not, and I tried to make sure, after the funeral, that I talked about the person who’s just been buried, that’s what you should do, talk about them, and your times with them, share your memories about them, I can talk about my wife and children, and those of us who are still breathing, anytime, there were those times the two of us drove down to my uncle, his brother, near the coast, and the two of them, my two uncles on my mother’s side, went down the pub, and three of us stayed back and played records, records that my cousin Shaun had owned, I played John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” over and over again, can never hear it now without being taken straight back to that Sunday evening, Shaun who died back in 1983, the first of my generation to die, and Matthew was in the room, the son of one of my first cousins, and he wanted to go to the pub too, but we didn’t, and within a year Matthew was dead, aged 17, died in a motorbike accident, even though he’d promised his grandfather, my uncle, that he’d never go on a motorbike, I’d made the same promise myself when I was 15, and have still never been on a motorbike, no, there was that one time, when I was pissed, aged 16, and Andy gave me a lift, about a mile, down backstreets, because he didn’t have a spare helmet, and when I got off the bike and walked the rest of the way home I thought, no, I promised I’d never get on a motorbike, but that was the only time, and I drove my mum and her brother down to Matthew’s funeral, a miserable freezing cold sleeting February day in 1991, the water for the windscreen wipers was all frozen up and I had a bottle of washing-up water to rinse the windows – they got filthy on the way there and back – and there was that time in 2004 my uncle and I drove to Cavan, I left my wife at the hotel in the centre of Dublin, she was five months pregnant with our first child, and drove north of Dublin and then across to the family place in Cavan, and we stopped in Virginia on the way for a cup of tea and a sandwich, and he pointed to the step where he was sat on 3 September 1939, aged ten, you know what happened that day? And I said yes, war was declared, and he said, “I was sat there, on that step, we’d come to town on the buggy, and I was sat over there and people were shouting ‘War has been declared’”, and that day in 2004 we drove on, found our way to the old place eventually and met our cousins on that side, the last time I was there, and they were delighted to see him – me, I was just the driver, but I was able to tell them about my mum, hadn’t been back there since she died in 1997 and the wife of my distant cousin (never really sure what we were, second cousins once removed or something), said she was sorry for our loss, and “She was a lady, a real lady”, and I thanked her, and yes, food is just what I need, I’ll have the beef, and then the cheese-cake, and a few more pints, no, no time for that, everyone’s anxious to get to the airport, the cousins who were on the bus down to Dun Laoghaire have a boarding time of 19.45 and before 6pm they’re asking me if they should book a cab and I say “Well, for 7 o’clock maybe” but they’re not convinced, and they order one for 6.30pm, they’ll have more than an hour at the airport before their plane leaves, and then a lift is being arranged for me, way before 7pm, a friend is heading back that way, so we’re away, and I’ll be there much earlier than I need to be, just finish this pint, nope, no time for any more, there’ll be time for another when we get to the airport, and four of us are heading back on the same plane, and the way it is these days, with check-in happening so far ahead of the flight itself, we’ll be spread out all over the plane, I’ll be sat at the back, they’re up near the front, and after a couple more pints, and some fancy kind of Tayto crisps, “gourmet” or “luxury” or something, very strong flavour, at the bar that overlooks where all the planes come in – the kind of viewing position you don’t get at Heathrow or Gatwick – I rush off to buy some Tayto popcorn – popcorn, by Tayto, that’s a new thing – and then misread the flight boards, last call for the 20.50 to London, better rush, and it’s further than I think and it turns out I’ve run to the other terminal, I’ve read the gate number for the British Airways flight, no I’m on the Aer Lingus flight, and they send me back and say “If you run you might make it” and I think “Crap, I’ve never done that before”, and now I need to pee, and I’m running wondering what I’ll do if I miss the plane, I’ll need to get back into London on the first flight on Friday morning, how could I be so stupid, reading the wrong line on the flight board? But when I get there people are still boarding and the three other family members are sat down, in no hurry at all, saying “We’ll wait until everyone’s on board”, and I think no, I’ll get on now and recover from my unnecessary trot around Dublin Airport back in Row 27 / And I do, recover that is, but that exertion has triggered off a cough for the rest of the flight, take it easy, flick through that Anthony Trollope book that Maggie gave me, nope, can’t read in this light, so I take out my A4 Pukka Pad – well, I’ve brought it all this way – and scribble, scribble away like I did when I was a kid, page after page of this stuff, as many details of the day as I can remember, and birthdays and numbers – Tommy had 8 children, Joe had 16, he worked at the museum – but it’s only a start, and I think where’s that video I made, back in 2004, of my uncle telling me what he’d discovered doing research into family history? He was in Virginia and found out about our distant relative – was it a great-great grandfather or a great-great uncle of his? – who fought in the American Civil War, and returned to Ireland and was on an American army pension, and my uncle, may he rest in peace, was telling me back then about the woman at the library in Virginia, how he had told her what he knew about that distant relative, how he’d been in the army that marched on Atlanta Georgia and after that she wasn’t so friendly, she told him that they’d done such dreadful things, burnt down the city, yes I must dig out that video, it’s in that box of mini-VCRs, along with the other family videos, I’ll transfer it to DVD and send it to his children, they’ll like that, I’ll do it at the weekend, and when we land it takes an age to get off the plane and I can’t see the rest of my family, so it’s home on the Piccadilly Line again, a few minutes to myself, which I’m grateful for, and I’m home before 11pm, safely, and I’m grateful for that, and thinking how much you can get done in a day, how far you can go, how many people you can meet, and how many memories can be triggered, and blimey this Tayto popcorn is salty, I can’t eat the whole packet, if I do I’ll feel like another drink, and I don’t need another drink, I need sleep, a good night’s sleep, I’ll write this all up tomorrow, or Saturday, sleep is what I need



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