Keith paddled along the dado rail towards the bathroom, bumping the table. Oops, careful, someone said. They all put a palm over their glasses and swapped looks. Good job the bathroom is downstairs someone whispered, giggling, but then Keith pissed loudly with the door open. This was at one of the few family things he was invited to. It was at the old house, when Barbara was there, and he kept calling her ‘Barb’ though he knew she hated it. When he came back, they had conspired against him. The chair he’d been sitting in was gone, so he turned around and staggered through the kitchen into the back room. That’s where I was, with the rest of the kids, the buffet, and the other ostracised adult - the new boyfriend of one of my Mum’s friends. Keith sat opposite him at the table and the man shifted uneasily.
It could have been something on the TV that reminded him, it could have been apropos of nothing, but Keith began telling the man about the time he worked at Gilroes cemetery. A doddle, he was saying, Like sliding lasagnas into an oven all day.
The man frowned uncomfortably. You worked in the crematorium?
Keith continued without acknowledging the question, And you don’t even need to check the cooking times. Just burn it to a crisp! Nodding towards Barbara, who was in the kitchen, and then the overdone pizza on the table, he said, She’ll be headhunted soon. Completely caught out by his own wit, his laugh quickly mutated into a cough. Only kidding Barb! he called through. She wasn’t listening. But I was. As many children do, I’d learned that if I pretended to stare at cartoons I became inconspicuous.
Keith leant in and the man stiffened against the fumes. And listen, he let a pocket of gas escape his mouth, Who do you thinks in those urns? The man asked what Keith meant. Well, another stale hiccup, It’s not your aunty Cath I can tell you. Not your dear old Dad, not any – Keith stopped, he’d spotted the man’s resolute head shake.
I know what you’re going to say, about them getting all mixed up, said the man. It’s not true. I’ve heard that before. He shook his head again. It’s not true.
Keith gave him an inquisitive, intimidating stare. You’ve worked on the burners have you?
Well, no. There was a pause. I haven’t worked in a crematorium, no, but -
You haven’t? So tell me this -
But, the man jumped back in, keen to make his point, I did lose my Mum last year. And we scattered her ashes - her ashes - somewhere very special to her. Special to us all actually. So, to be honest, I’d rather this conversation not continue in that direction. There was a tense silence between them. Sorry I don’t want to be rude, said the man. It’s just…he trailed off. Keith looked away and said nothing. He took another drink from his glass.
Later, when everybody was in the back room for the cutting of the cake, Keith. He loudly asked our neighbours’ daughter - a girl I was besotted with - if she had started her period. My Dad grabbed him by the shoulder and Keith made no resistance. He was taken outside, shoved him into the passenger seat of our car and driven away. My Dad was back within ten minutes so Keith had been ejected far short of his own front door. Most people began to leave after that. The girl’s mother was crying. My birthday party was over.
+ + +
The next time I saw him was when the funeral cars came down our road. I was looking out of the window with my Dad as he announced, Right, come on then, let’s do it. We went outside to the driveway and I saw myself for the first time in the polished black door of a hearse. My Mum had combed my hair into a side parting and the blazer of my suit was too big for me. I sat in between her and my Dad and opposite, attached to the cold scent of brandy and aftershave, was my uncle Keith. I tried to imagine my Grandad’s face a few inches away from the satin lid. Were his eyes open? Was he naked? It didn’t look wide enough for his shoulders. I looked out the window as we drove up our street. A few people were out doing things. Big Fat Dean was trying to squeeze into the passenger seat of his girlfriend's Vauxhall Astra and Jim, who’d been off work for 20 years on incapacity benefit, rode by on his bicycle. He nodded at us solemnly.
It was a flat, grey day. Perfect funeral weather. Driving down Saffron Lane we passed the Working Men’s Club and my Dad said he saw the lid of my Grandad’s coffin lift open. And I, eleven years old, actually looked to see. Everybody else attempted a smile. Everybody except Keith. He was exhaling long, damp breaths, staring straight ahead. His mind a crow on a branch. My Mum hooked her hand inside his and after a moment, he closed his fingers around hers.
In the chapel I was at the back with my Mum and I felt undermined. I wanted to be at the front where my Dad was, and his two brothers, holding each other by the waist. Was my Dad crying? I couldn’t see properly. They were too many people in the way. When it was over, my Mum and I were the first two outside and I observed people’s behaviour as they came out. One woman fetched car keys from of her handbag and passed them to her husband. Another lady dabbed her eyes with a tissue and her husband yawned.
Whenever I hear or read the phrase alcohol causes delayed reactions, I think of the same moment. I think of Keith, who had been quiet during the entire service, now collapsing against the side of the chapel, his upper half sliding down the wall, wailing. I was scared by it. Small children cried like that, but in adulthood, they are octaves only grief can reach, and I had never seen a man howl with such pain. An older woman tutted and shook her head at my Dad. Is he going to be all right, Al? she asked. Do you want me to see if I can calm him down? My Dad said no, leave him. I didn't know this woman’s name but she was a friend of my Dad’s family from way back. She had a big beige plaster stuck over a cut on her chin from where she’d fallen down some steps in front of her house. She looked ridiculous. It’s the drink, isn’t it? she said. He’s dowsed in it. My Dad didn’t say anything, and I too thought I knew otherwise. The woman knelt in front of me and held my wrists. You’ve been so brave you have. I was looking over her shoulder at Keith. Two men were holding him up by the armpits. Hey, the woman tugged at my sleeves so I’d look at her. Haven’t you been brave? You should make a little plaque for him, she was saying, To put by his ashes. He’d really like that wouldn’t he? I nodded. Someone had driven their car up close to the chapel doors and Keith was being encouraged into the back seat. Your Grandad would really like that wouldn’t he? the woman said now, turning my chin towards her face, towards her sad-eyed kindness. Then you can come and talk to him, can’t you? You’ll always know exactly where he is.