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I spent my last twenty quid on the tree.
I’d been thinking about it all day, and bought it after work. It fell against me on the bus like a drunk friend, and a man with skin the colour of old piano keys looked at me funny.
You must have seen me coming down the road because you opened the door to the flat and watched me from above as I climbed the stairs, dragging it along.
You closed the door behind me and I leant it against the wall and put my arms around you so you couldn’t see my face.
“Dad rung me earlier.” It was the first time he’d ever rung me and as soon as I’d seen it was him at nine in the morning I had known. “Grandfather died.”
You asked me questions and I answered them and then took the tree into the living room, cut off its netting and fixed it into a red metal stand, and then spread the branches out. I had no decorations to put on it but I didn’t care. Closing my eyes, I pushed my head right into it, between the layers of branches, until the needles felt spiky on my head.
It smelt so strong.
I called Dad as I started dinner.
We talked about relief as I chopped the onions and tomatoes and mushrooms, and it was the longest we’d talked for a while. He called me by my childhood pet name, an old joke.
Just before he hung up he said, “Thanks for ringing.” He sounded as if he really meant it and I heard a faint echo of surprise in his voice.
That was what made me cry as I was stirring the pasta sauce, and you came in and stole a bit of onion, and said you thought I wasn’t close to Grandfather, so what was I being silly for.
“I’m so glad I’m taking Dad away after all this.”
It was six o’clock in the morning on December 21, the day of the funeral, and Mum was pouring the tea. She had rented a cottage in Cornwall for Christmas that had a real fire and thick beams that Dad would bang his head on.
It was still dark outside.
She stirred the five cups of hot tea in turn. “Do you think we’re all completely bonkers?”
“Ere ya, then.” She pushed two mugs towards me, one white and blue clouds and one yellow with a huge smiley face printed on it. I had bought that for Dad as a birthday present about eight years ago, but I knew he wouldn’t remember, and I suddenly thought that I was probably the only person in the entire world who knew that.
“Sugar?” I don’t know why I asked because I knew already.
She walked out. “You know where it is.”
I hadn’t been back for months, but it was in the place it had always been, in a white pot with wild strawberries on the side and a wooden lid. It was all so familiar.
I saw Dad coming down the stairs before I heard him; he’d always been soft-footed and as a kid I would often turn around and find him standing in the doorway, watching the telly over my shoulder.
When we arrived yesterday, he opened the door in trousers flecked with paint and his jumper elbows almost completely worn away and I hugged him harder than usual. I was almost relieved that he looked the same as I remembered.
Now he was wearing a collared shirt and a charcoal grey jumper under a neat dark grey jacket. I’d never seen him in a jacket before.
I took you the cup of tea, putting the mug with the clouds on a shelf by your head. We’d slept on the sofabed in the front room, and the curtains were so thick that the room was pitch.
“Morning,” I said, and you moved a hip but didn’t speak. Your head was still mashed into the pillow, as much as it could be since the pillows were older than me and flat as deflated balloons.
I gulped my tea down fast, and it was so fresh that I could feel it sliding down inside me. I left half of it and went up to use the shower as my parents had both already been in there and I knew there wouldn’t be much hot water left. I used what I thought might be the last of it to rinse the suds from my hair.
When I came back downstairs you were sitting up, tea in your hands.
“How are you?” You asked.
I dried quickly as it was cold and got dressed in the semi-dark while you watched. I had to pick my way through the previous day’s outfits to find clean underwear but I had a black skirt, and a light blue collared shirt ironed and ready on a hanger. I only realised as I put it on that the semi-smart jumper I had brought was black too, so the only non-black item I was wearing was now almost completely covered up. I didn’t have any choice, as it was freezing and I had no coat. I wasn’t sure about the rule on black, though my mum had said last night that if anyone was going to have an all-black funeral then it was Grandfather. I knew what she meant.
I pulled on my black tights and sat on the edge of the sofabed, taking care to avoid your legs, and brushed all my hair over to one side so I could rub it with the towel by my shoulder.
It was half past six. “You getting in the shower then?”
At quarter to seven, I took your car keys from your coat pocket and put our bags in your Punto. We were going to the funeral and then back to our flat in the South: my parents and little brother were taking their Volvo to the funeral and then going straight on to Cornwall.
I helped my parents take their holiday things outside. Dad stood behind the car, running his hands through his hair and slotting the bags into the boot like Tetris shapes. They never looked like they were all going to fit but he always made them.
I took a plastic box of food out – pasta, jam, tuna – and put it at my Dad’s feet. He looked at it, an open box of heavy goods that clearly belonged on the bottom.
“Oh, fucking Hell.”
After folding the sofabed away I wasn’t sure what to do with myself, so I just sat at the bottom of the stairs and waited. Neither of us ate breakfast so you were the second one ready and we wasted time in the hallway talking in hushed voices about nothing. I sorted out your rumpled collar. I felt partly empty and partly tired, but mostly desperate for the whole thing to be over.
My little brother was third, and stood next to me yawning, in a jacket that he’d borrowed from the kid next door but one and a Simpsons tie, all electric blue and yellow.
His jaw had become a lot squarer and I could see tiny red bumps just under his skin.
I stood toe to toe with him. “I’m now the shortest person in the family,” I said, “And to think I used to feed you mashed pears.” I rubbed his hair playfully, big-sisterly.
“Oi.” He craned towards the mirror and smoothed his hair, and I exchanged looks with my mother, who was coming down the stairs with armfuls of sleeping bags.
“You want to come in the car with us?” I asked. When I was fifteen, I would have begged to go my big sister’s car, but he just shrugged.
“If you want,” he said.
Eventually we got in the car and waited for the Volvo to pull out. My little brother was in the back, zipping and unzipping different pockets on his rucksack.
I twisted round and spoke to him through the head rest. “What do you want on?”
“You got any Libertines?”
“Ergh, really? That’s what you’re into these days?” It felt weird to talk to him as a friend and not a child, but I knew the eight-year gap between us would only get smaller as we got older, until we became middle-aged and it would barely be visible.
Probably there would always be some small a part of us who knew who came first, even if we were eighty and eighty-eight.
I wondered who would die first. I hoped it would be me: I remembered him one day old, so I didn’t think I could bear for it to be the other way round.
“Yeah. Don’t you like them?”
“Hmmm. Bit posy.”
I dug around in the glove box, sliding homeless CDs over each other. I found a scratched copy of Rodrigo y Gabriella and turned the volume up to twenty so the car was filled with guitars.
Until you figured out the way, we followed my parents, chasing them down the motorway. As the familiar streets swung away I wondered when I would see them again.
“Will your Dad think I’m a wanker if I overtake?” You asked.
“I expect Mum’s driving,” I said.
You still had a lot to learn about our family.
When you did eventually overtake them, I felt a little thrill.
The further we went, the foggier it got.
At nine you flicked your lights on.
We pulled into the crematorium before my parents, an hour early for the service.
There was a low building the colour of sand and a pond covered with lily pads and iron herons, but apart from that, we seemed to be surrounded by fields and skinny black trees and fog. The three of us got out and stretched and yawned, feeling that faint ache in our bones of getting up too early.
All dressed up in the middle of nowhere.
The Punto was encrusted in something brown from the motorway, as if dirt had been hanging in the air waiting for something to cling to.
My little brother got back in the car.
Me and you shared a Benson. For some reason it felt disrespectful to smoke, even though we were outdoors and nowhere near anyone else. I watched the ash float into the air and fleck my skirt and I didn’t brush it off.
People in black started filing out of the building, obviously having just finished a service.
I stubbed the cigarette out on the bottom of my shoe and put the butt back in the box.
“My funeral better be nothing like this,” you said.
“What do you care? You won’t be there to see it.”
“I know, but I don’t want everyone in black.”
We watched them coming out, like ants from a hole but older, slower and sadder. Neither of us said anything for a while.
“Just look at them all.”
I was feeling more and more desperate to be anywhere else. “I know what you mean.”
My little brother got out of the car and I caught a flash of his Simpsons tie. In the mist it was the only bright thing I could see.
The Volvo pulled in and we all watched Mum park.
Through the back window, I saw her say something to Dad, and kiss him on the lips, before they both got out at the same time.
We waited in a stuffy room with salmon carpet and salmon curtains and salmon sofas, and a plastic Christmas tree. Two women who I didn’t know came in and sat down.
During the service, I hardly breathed in case I made a sound, as if I was watching someone in a film searching around a room that they shouldn’t be in. I was aware of your eyes on me, waiting for me to cry or something but I just sat there wondering what was happening next and before I knew it we were filing out and making our way to a nearby pub for the wake.
I left you standing with Mum and my little brother, and went over to the buffet table where all the wine glasses were stacked. There were some bottles already open so I didn’t have to worry about that. I filled one up and went outside for a fag.
When I got in from my fourth cigarette I found Mum alone with her back to the wall, a glass of white wine in her hand.
She mocked coughing. “Had your fag, have you?”
“There aren’t enough cigarettes in the world for this.” Pause. “Where’s Dad?”
I had hardly seen him, the whole time.
“Off doing his duties, I expect.”
“I know. And how are you?”
Before we left, I looked at photos of Grandfather that someone set up in frames on a little table by the door: ones of him all square and grey like I knew him and some from before we were born, when he looked more like Dad.
In one of them, he was wearing a bottle green polo shirt. I’d never seen him without a jacket on before.
Olivia, dad’s sister, came and stood next to me. She looked at the pictures with her head on one side and wet eyes. I’d watched her shoulders shaking from behind through all the readings.
She said, “Did you like the service?”
I wasn’t sure what adjective to use but then remembered that there was only one that was appropriate. “It was fitting.”
She nodded. “Yes. I think he would have approved. You didn’t have to wear all black, you know.”
“I know. It was an accident, really.” She caught my eye and I could tell from her slightly wary look that she didn’t believe me.
She bent in close. “Do you think they’ve done it yet?”
“Done what?” I asked.
“Do you think he’s ashes by now?”
“I guess so.” I ran a hand across the top of my head.
“All floating out the chimney, into the sky.”
I turned to see if anyone could hear us, and Dad was standing behind me, silent.
I stepped towards him. “You off?”
“Yeah, are you?”
“Yeah, if you are.”
I hugged him and his jacket was scratchy on my cheek, nothing like the softness of his old jumpers, but his beard felt spiky on top of my head as it always had.
I could see out the window and the fog had mostly cleared, though it would be dark before long.
“Have a good Christmas, won’t you?”
I didn’t want to let him go.
In the car on the way home I turned the heater up and wedged my hand under your thigh.
When it got too hot, I opened the window and lit a cigarette.
“Thank God that’s over,” I said.
“I don’t want any of that poetry crap at my funeral.” You pulled on the handle for screen wash, and the wipers cleared moon-shapes through the dirt.
“It really doesn’t matter what you want, though, does it?” I said. “A funeral’s for those left behind.”
“It’s how I want to be remembered though.”
“I’ll remember you how I remember you. You don’t get to choose. Nor do I. I am going to make it the blackest, most macabre event in the history of the world though. It’ll last for hours. There’ll be poems so long that the whole congregation will wish they were dead with you. They’ll remember it-” I stopped. I felt dread trickle through my chest. “Oh my God-” I turned to look at the back seat.
“Oh fuck.” I wiped my hair off my forehead. “We’ve still got my little brother’s bag.”
“We can’t go back now.”
“I know,” I said. I turned and looked at it again through the head rest, slumped on the seat like a snoozing dog.
“We can’t go back,” you said again.
“I know,” I said. “I know. It’s too late.”
I sent my mum a text message to tell her, and as I did I thought of the three of them, driving in the other direction, and that old riddle: two trains leave Mississippi and travel at sixty miles per hour in opposite directions…
“Fuck,” I said. I tossed my fag butt out the window and lit another. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
I watched it get dark and rain started to spatter on the windscreen. I looked at the lights flashing, strung up round windows and in trees, white and red and green.
We turned into our road, and I saw the old man who lived in the flat below ours. He had a furry Russian-type hat and was walking like he’d shat himself. I discovered last week that every day he bought a copy of The Daily Express and left it on his dining table unread. He used to buy it for his wife, but she’d been dead for six years. I thought of him throwing it away at the end of each day, untouched.
“I can see why more people commit suicide at this time of year,” I said.
You indicated and turned into the courtyard for our flat. “Actually, they don’t.”
“Everyone thinks there are more suicides at Christmas because some people are alone, but the truth is that most people aren’t.” You slid the car into its parking space. “You know, there’s that whole let’s-have-Auntie-Marge-for-dinner-this-year mentality. Humanity kicks in.”
“It’s not really humanity, though is it? It’s just people feeling obliged to each other.”
You shrugged. “The miracle of Christmas.”
We got out, into the cold. My little brother’s bag felt heavy on my back as I carried it in and up the stairs.
The first thing I did when we got in was draw the blinds to blot out the evening, and while I was by the window I switched on the Christmas lights that your mum had given us and that I had wound round the tree. I turned out the main light and watched the spiky shadows from the branches flicker softy around the room.
I sat near the tree and held a branch in my fingers, as if to release more of the smell.
My phone beeped.
Don’t worry, he’s alright.