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The International Writers Magazine

The Funeral Reunion
Quentin Bates

A 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 his throat.
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 room.
"They say it’s the hottest summer since records began. You are Joe Rowney, aren’t you?"
Joe looked down to see a small man with a shock of bright fair hair sitting inside the door.
"Simon. Si Jones? You haven’t got any taller, have you?"
"And you’re just as ugly as you used to be."
"Well, yeah," Joe admitted. "So, who’s coming? Or is it just us here to see him off?"
Simon stretched his legs out in front of him.
"It’s too hot for this today. Not sure. His family will all be here, but they’ll follow the hearse. Don’t 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 haven’t 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.
"Girlfriend’s," 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 didn’t 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 don’t recognise me?"
"Sorry, Tess. Of course I recognise you. Just a bit of a shock, that’s all, seeing all these old faces."
"Naughty. Less of the old, if you don’t mind. Some of us haven’t got to the big four-oh quite yet."
"You’ll always be seventeen to me, Tess."
"Don’t try flirting with me," she giggled. "Come on. It’s 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 through his.

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 he was…"
Joe’s 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 to Australia.
The people bowed down in the front pews had to be Mickey’s family and he saw with a stab of anguish that the haggard woman on the end was Mickey’s 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. Joe’s heart missed a beat.
"Bloody hell, it’s 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 Mickey’s 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 Tess’s grip and wrenched the tie loose until he could pull it off.
"That makes a bloody difference," he muttered to himself with relief. "Can’t wait to get this fucking suit off as well."
Tess started and looked at him with enquiring eyes and Joe’s heart sank.
"Oops, sorry Tess. Didn’t mean to swear like that."
"That’s all right. I couldn’t agree more."
"You married, then?" Simon enquired.
"Oh, right. Kids?"
"Two. And you?" he forced himself to ask, deflecting further questions.
"Tommy’s six now and Jemima’s three. Tommy’s in a very good school and Jem should be able to follow him. They’re both so talented."

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 now.
"Excuse me, Si. D’you mind? There’s 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 Tess’s eye and making for the odd couple in the corner. The sharp features crinkled into a smile as he bore down and the man’s nose lifted.
"Julie, how are you? All right, Gloria?"
The man pouted.
"I’m Keith unless I’m in character," he hissed. "More pop, Julie dear?" he asked with a tiny pirouette before marching away.
"It’s been a very long time, hasn’t it? I have to say, you don’t look much different."
"I don’t know. Maybe not quite as radical these days. I don’t do safety pins in my ears any more."
Joe took Gloria’s 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."
Julie’s 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 between them.
"I thought you and Tess… Are you..?"
"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, he’s the same as ever, never stopped being nineteen. He’s the lead in a musical about Freddie Mercury at the moment."
"He doesn’t look anything like…"
"It’s amazing what a little makeup and a false moustache will do. Shush, he’s coming back. I need a lift home, so I don’t 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 person."
"Oh, come off it, Keith. You hadn’t 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 I’m embarrassing you all," Gloria sniffed. "I’m sorry. But everyone fancied Mickey. Don’t you remember?"
"I liked him a lot, but I didn’t fancy the guy," Joe said.
"I did," Julie put in.
"You lucky cow, you lived with him for ages," Gloria said, slurping red.
"It was only a few months and it was years ago. And will you please be careful, Keith? You’ve still got to drive home."
"I’m upset. I’m 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 Joe’s direction. Julie ordered the strongest coffee available while her brother began to doze.
"I’ll drive you home of you want," Joe offered. "I reckon Gloria’s not up to it."
"I’m Keith today and I’m upset…" Gloria mumbled.
"That’s sweet of you, but it’s a long way. Don’t worry. I can get a taxi to Mum’s afterwards and we can stay there tonight if we need to."
"You’re sure?"
"If you’re staying here, maybe we could meet up for a drink or something this evening?" Joe ventured.
"Don’t do it!" Gloria thundered. "He’s 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 can’t deny there’s an element of that."
"Why did you never ask me out when we were at college?"
"Didn’t 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 don’t think we should be going down that road, somehow."
"Oh, well."
"I don’t think he’s 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 barman’s 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.
"Name of?"
"Going to?"
"Not sure, but it’s 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?"
Tess giggled.
"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 number’s on the back," she whispered.
"Thanks, Tess. Look, I’m sorry, I really ought to help Julie with Gloria. She’s… he’s in a right mess."
"Him or her, you mean?"
"Him. Mickey going so sudden like that has upset him more than anyone expected."

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. It’s 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."
"We’ll see," Julie said, leaning forward to peck him dryly on the cheek. "Now, you had better run, unless you’re waiting for Tessie?"
"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

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