The International Writers
scrum of hard-faced women cradling extra-long Superkings between
taloned fingers crowded around the flowers while husbands and
dads in sharp suits passed a pouch of baccy from hand to hand
in the summer sunshine.
It was a mistake to be so early and Joe waited in the car, in borrowed
suit and a tie that had not seen the light of day for years eating into
Eventually the group by the crematorium door dispersed into cars and vans,
and Joe looked around for familiar faces. He gave up, checked the clock
on the dashboard and got out of the car to walk slowly over to the reception
"They say its the hottest summer since records began. You are
Joe Rowney, arent you?"
Joe looked down to see a small man with a shock of bright fair hair sitting
inside the door.
"Simon. Si Jones? You havent got any taller, have you?"
"And youre just as ugly as you used to be."
"Well, yeah," Joe admitted. "So, whos coming? Or
is it just us here to see him off?"
Simon stretched his legs out in front of him.
"Its too hot for this today. Not sure. His family will all
be here, but theyll follow the hearse. Dont know about the
rest of us, though. Did you ever keep in touch with the old crowd?"
"Not really. Just a few. Christmas cards from Hayley and Angie. Used
to see Mark and some of the guys in the Coach and Horses now and again,
but I havent been there for years."
They fell awkwardly silent, almost embarrassed, the quietness of the reception
room broken only by the hum of the motorway a mile away.
"That your Montego outside?" Simon asked.
"Girlfriends," Joe replied, not wanting to have to ask
Simon about the Mercedes he undoubtedly had.
"So, still live round here?" he asked, but before Simon had
a chance to reply, the door swung open and a pair of women walked in,
the first of a straggling procession of faces that were vaguely familiar
as Joe struggled to place them.
"Hey, Si. Who are these people?" Joe asked in an undertone,
but Simon had already stood up and gone across to the first pair, leaving
him to scan the room as conversation buzzed to drown out the distant traffic.
Joe tugged at his tie in growing discomfort. With a suddenness that took
him by surprise, a large woman dropped herself into the next seat, which
creaked in protest.
"Joey Rowney! Why didnt you come to the reunion?" She
demanded with a toothy smile.
Joe looked blank for a second, not having a chance to reply before the
woman swelled with mock indignation.
"Are you really going to say you dont recognise me?"
"Sorry, Tess. Of course I recognise you. Just a bit of a shock, thats
all, seeing all these old faces."
"Naughty. Less of the old, if you dont mind. Some of us havent
got to the big four-oh quite yet."
"Youll always be seventeen to me, Tess."
"Dont try flirting with me," she giggled. "Come on.
Its time to go in."
She stood up, adjusted her features into a sombre mask befitting the funeral
of an old friend and practically hauled Joe to his feet, snaking an arm
There was a sudden hush as they trooped quietly out and across to the
chapel. Joe saw faces being desperately scanned to see who remembered
whom after a gap of a almost a quarter of a century.
As befitted a lifelong atheist, there was no clergyman. An out-of-work
actor, who Joe recognised from old episodes of the Bill, stepped up to
the podium and the room fell silent.
"We are here to remember the life of Michael Abbott, or Mickey as
most of you here knew him. I did not have the privilege of knowing Mickey,
but friends and family have told me so much of what a wonderful character
Joes attention wandered as he examined the bowed heads around him.
Hayley Ashcroft, Jamie Mallory, Karen whatsername, Zoe Blair, Paul Tunstall
and more he could not put names to were present. There were a few missing,
Tracy McGivern and Clive Green, gone the same way, and Mark Hughes, gone
The people bowed down in the front pews had to be Mickeys family
and he saw with a stab of anguish that the haggard woman on the end was
Mickeys mother, who had been the confident woman who had cleaned
up cuts and bruises when they had been small and coped with the results
when he and Mickey had discovered beer.
Tess began to sniff. At one point everyone tried not to look round as
the actor paused and late arrivals came in to seat themselves at the back,
a beefy man in a violently colourful suit and a sharp-featured woman in
black. Joes heart missed a beat.
"Bloody hell, its Gloria," Joe murmured.
"Julie and her brother Gloria. Keith Fitch."
"The poof?" Tess whispered back.
"Politically incorrect, Tess. But yeah."
The actor drone on and Joe forced himself to listen as Mickeys qualities
were listed, skimming over his personal problems that Joe
and a few others knew to be a history of drink, drugs and dodgy girlfriends,
compounded by a string of mental problems that made treatment impossible.
"Bloody shame," he thought to himself, as the congregation stood
to watch the coffin disappear through the curtains, trying not to remember
Mickey as he had last seen him, glass in hand, bloated and eyes popping
as he fought for breath. Tess burst into full-blown sobs and Joe wondered
how he was going to disentangle his arm with dignity.
In the sunshine of the courtyard he pretended to admire the flowers. His
trousers were clinging uncomfortably to his thighs and the tie around
was threatening to strangle him in the heat. He withdrew his arm from
Tesss grip and wrenched the tie loose until he could pull it off.
"That makes a bloody difference," he muttered to himself with
relief. "Cant wait to get this fucking suit off as well."
Tess started and looked at him with enquiring eyes and Joes heart
"Oops, sorry Tess. Didnt mean to swear like that."
"Thats all right. I couldnt agree more."
"You married, then?" Simon enquired.
"Oh, right. Kids?"
"Two. And you?" he forced himself to ask, deflecting further
"Tommys six now and Jemimas three. Tommys in a
very good school and Jem should be able to follow him. Theyre both
Joe groaned. He had escaped from Tess as they reached the reception in
the upstairs room of a fairly respectable pub, but found himself in the
middle of a group of middle-aged men, trying to hold a conversation while
also holding a plate and a glass. Simon Jones had been dull at school
and he was no less boring now, except that his toys had become more expensive
"Excuse me, Si. Dyou mind? Theres someone over there
I need to catch."
He dropped the plate with its soggy sausage roll, spicy chicken wing and
handful of crisps onto the nearest table and bolted across the room, avoiding
Tesss eye and making for the odd couple in the corner. The sharp
features crinkled into a smile as he bore down and the mans nose
"Julie, how are you? All right, Gloria?"
The man pouted.
"Im Keith unless Im in character," he hissed. "More
pop, Julie dear?" he asked with a tiny pirouette before marching
"Its been a very long time, hasnt it? I have to say,
you dont look much different."
"I dont know. Maybe not quite as radical these days. I dont
do safety pins in my ears any more."
Joe took Glorias chair and a deep breath.
"You know, I used to fancy you something rotten. I had a terrible
crush on you in year five."
"Really?" She arched an eyebrow.
"Hmm, yeah. I think it was because you looked like Souixsie Souix.
You still do."
Julies deep laugh was quite out of character with her delicate frame
and features. Their eyes met over a spray of plastic heather on the table
"I thought you and Tess
"Fuck, no. Sorry. But, no. She just grabbed me at the funeral. What
about you? Are you..?"
"No. Happily divorced. Twice, actually, but that was after Mickey.
Living in Hove now. What about you?"
"Same here. Not living in Hove, though. How about Gloria?"
"Oh, hes the same as ever, never stopped being nineteen. Hes
the lead in a musical about Freddie Mercury at the moment."
"He doesnt look anything like
"Its amazing what a little makeup and a false moustache will
do. Shush, hes coming back. I need a lift home, so I dont
want him upset."
Gloria sat down next to Joe, who noticed that the people were starting
to drift away.
"Poor Mickey," Gloria wailed. "He was such a beautiful
"Oh, come off it, Keith. You hadnt even seen him for fifteen
years," Julie said.
"I know, but we all loved him so much."
Joe and Julie looked at the floor.
"Now Im embarrassing you all," Gloria sniffed. "Im
sorry. But everyone fancied Mickey. Dont you remember?"
"I liked him a lot, but I didnt fancy the guy," Joe said.
"I did," Julie put in.
"You lucky cow, you lived with him for ages," Gloria said, slurping
"It was only a few months and it was years ago. And will you please
be careful, Keith? Youve still got to drive home."
"Im upset. Im allowed."
They helped Gloria downstairs and propped him in a corner of the lounge
bar. A few faces from the party that had dispersed upstairs were dotted
around. Tess in the far corner looked longingly in Joes direction.
Julie ordered the strongest coffee available while her brother began to
"Ill drive you home of you want," Joe offered. "I
reckon Glorias not up to it."
"Im Keith today and Im upset
" Gloria mumbled.
"Thats sweet of you, but its a long way. Dont worry.
I can get a taxi to Mums afterwards and we can stay there tonight
if we need to."
"If youre staying here, maybe we could meet up for a drink
or something this evening?" Joe ventured.
"Dont do it!" Gloria thundered. "Hes a dirty
little beast and he only wants to see you with no clothes on," he
ended, lapsing back into gentle snores.
Joe looked at his hands.
"Well. I cant deny theres an element of that."
"Why did you never ask me out when we were at college?"
"Didnt have the bottle, I suppose."
"We could have been so good together. I wished you had."
"You were übercool, way too cool for me. Just like Souixsie,
dead scary with all that black makeup and spiky hair, and I was more Jilted
John. No competition."
"Too late now, I suppose."
"Probably. I dont think we should be going down that road,
"I dont think hes going to drink this coffee."
At the bar Tess was feeling emotional with the effects of half a bottle
of wine and a couple of gin and tonics on an empty stomach when Joe appeared
next to her trying to catch the barmans eye.
"Need any help with that suit yet, Joey?" she asked, leering.
"Er, mate? Any chance you could call a taxi, please?"
The barman nodded.
"Not sure, but its local."
The man disappeared came back with the phone cradled to his ear.
"Fifteen minutes all right?" he asked, hand over the mouthpiece.
Joe gave him a thumbs up.
"Fitch the bitch, we called her at school," Tess spluttered.
"You what?" Him or her?"
"Why, both of them, I suppose. Give me your number, will you Joey?
We must meet up again."
Against his better judgement, he scrawled his number on a beermat and
handed it to her. Tess passed him a business card.
"My home numbers on the back," she whispered.
"Thanks, Tess. Look, Im sorry, I really ought to help Julie
with Gloria. Shes
hes in a right mess."
"Him or her, you mean?"
"Him. Mickey going so sudden like that has upset him more than anyone
Joe helped manoeuvre the bulky Gloria into a cab, assuring the driver
that there would be no question of needing to clear up afterwards.
"Thank you, Joe. Its been lovely to see you again."
"And you. Can I have your phone number?"
"No. But give me yours."
He pulled a second beermat from his pocket, on which he had already scribbled
phone numbers and email addresses.
"It would be good to see you again."
"Well see," Julie said, leaning forward to peck him dryly
on the cheek. "Now, you had better run, unless youre waiting
"What? Oh, shit. Call me, please, Julie. When you can."
Faced with the choices of the back seat of a cab with Gloria or facing
Tess once again, he took the only choice left.
He ran for it.
Quentin Bates Jan 2007
Quentin is a journalist on shipping matters and deep sea fishing
Lifestories in Dreamscapes
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