My mother’s funeral took place 21 years ago today, 18 April 1997, a Friday. In each of the last two years I have written about the anniversary of her death, 10 April, first in this piece, and then here, last year. I didn’t publish anything about this year’s anniversary and have instead drafted the thousand words that follow, about her funeral.
Sometimes trouble comes out of a clear blue sky. There is no way you could have predicted it. It surprises you when it arrives. Sometimes you know that trouble is coming. You might be able to get out of the way of it. If not, you have to deal with it.
The week of my mother’s funeral was tough, for so many reasons. Among other things there were, literally, hundreds of phone calls to be made and received, arrangements to be finalized, people to accommodate. The same things had to be said hundreds of times. These days you could send out group messages about the straightforward things (date and time of the funeral, location of the graveyard, location and time that refreshments would be served, that sort of thing). You could save yourself lots of time and upset. Things were not like that in 1997. None of us even had text messaging back then. We did at least have an answering machine, and I had a mobile phone with voicemail, so we didn’t have to answer every call immediately.
One of the most troublesome phone calls, in those days leading up to the funeral, was from someone called Paddy. He had grown up on the same street in Dublin as my mother, was a few years younger than her, and had had a tough time of things. In adult life he always remembered my mother’s kindness to him when he was a child, when she was still a child herself, pushing him in his pushchair, playing with him, helping him to escape, however briefly, from the troubles at home. And my mum’s childhood was tough too. She was seven when her mother died, and she ended up mostly in the care of a maiden aunt.
As an adult Paddy moved to London, changed his name, and adopted more of a cockney persona. People called him John, or Johnny, but he was always Paddy to us. His wife was a Londoner. There were people who knew him for decades who did not know about his Dublin background.
He phoned a few days before the funeral. After the straightforward things – confirming the time of the mass and so on – he, to use the vernacular, “went off on one”. He started shouting about what he’d do if my dad gave him a dirty look, or gave him some lip, or started something. “I’ll fahking deck him, so I will, I don’t fahking care, I’ll …” You know that thing people do in movies, when they hold the phone about eight inches from their head and just stare at it? I did that while he carried on with his rant, and heard his wife shouting at him to behave. When things had quietened down I told him that that wouldn’t be much use to us, and it certainly wasn’t what my mum would have wanted.
I kept the contents of the phone call to myself but wondered if there was any way to minimize any potential trouble. An old workmate came to mind, Mike. We had worked together earlier in the 1990s. He was London Irish like me – North London rather than West London – and his dad was ill with heart problems at the same time as my mum first got sick with cancer. His dad didn’t live as long as my mum did after that first bout of illness. We had many conversations about what we, and our parents, were going through. Mike was the closest friend I had at that particular workplace, and he was a huge fan of my mum’s. He had trained as a butcher before he ended up working in an office, and was well able to take care of himself. He was the strongest person I knew, the kind of person you should never attempt to arm-wrestle, or take on in any other tests of strength.
I had already spoken to Mike about the funeral arrangements and wondered whether to call him again and ask him to look out for trouble on the day. I decided to wait till the day itself, so that I could point out exactly who I was concerned about, but that conversation didn’t happen. I didn’t see him before the mass began, at 10am.
The weather was warm and sunny, like it is today, 21 years later. After the mass, at the graveside, Paddy and my dad were standing next to each other. Of all the places they could have stood, with over a hundred people gathered there, they had to stand side by side. As the coffin was lowered into the grave and the priest said those final prayers I wondered if it would all kick off. Would it be like something out of “Eastenders”, two grown men thumping each other by my mother’s grave?
It didn’t turn out like that. The two of them didn’t exchange any pleasantries, as far as I could see, nor did they come to blows. The burial took place peacefully enough. A lone bird sang its heart out from a nearby tree.
A few hours later, back at the Parish Centre, where the food and drinks were being served, I spoke to Paddy’s wife. I hadn’t seen her for years. She told me how difficult things were with him. She said that he was an alcoholic depressive, which sounds like a bad combination.
Immediately afterwards I caught up with Mike. He nodded his head towards Paddy and asked me who he was. I began to explain (old friend of my mum’s, from Dublin, I’d just learnt that he was an alcoholic depressive) and then told him that I had hoped to have a word about him before the funeral, to ask Mike to keep an eye on him.
“Clocked him outside the church,” Mike said, and he had continued to keep an eye on him without being asked. He said that his wife gave him a hard time for this, the way he scanned a room – or in this case the pavement outside a church – checking for trouble or potential sources of trouble. I was relieved that things had passed without incident, and pleased that my instincts had been right. My feeling of relief was increased, knowing that Mike would have acted if things had got nasty. I didn’t even have to ask.
Sometimes you know that trouble is coming. If you can’t get out of the way you have to deal with it. If you’re lucky there’ll be other people around who can deal with it without being asked.