Journeys to Ashes

Mum’s death has been an occasion for travel. New faces and new places. I have been nowhere exotic, but I have been places that I have never been before, and I have seen old familiar places in a new way.

Early Friday evening, caught up in the madness of the London rush hour. It feels exhilarating and exciting, fighting my way through the crowds at Victoria station. Heading North of the water to escape death

Going to ground in West 10, hiding away, escaping like a man pursued. The ghost of mum is still present though, even on this side of the water. I couldn’t carry on living in her flat, it felt like a mausoleum, a museum, a charnel house full of dead mum, even though most of her life has been bagged up and sent on to charity shops, so the living get some benefit from the dead.

Here I am in pre-funeral purgatory, a bit like mum. Her husk sits in a southeast London hospital mortuary, and my shell is sheltering in the red brick west London Victorian terrace. I haven’t started my mourning yet, I have been caught up in a whirlwind of administrative activities, no time to think, save the sleepless nights at mum’s flat, where she still stalks. I have had to come here to prepare for the final goodbye, in a death-free zone.

The mourning will come after the ceremony, when we have finally committed mum to the flames, when the mechanics of death have finally ground to a halt and she is in her new home and I can finally go home. When the process is complete, when each one has gone to their respective place

For the moment though, I feel safe in the red brick – the neat, never-ending rows of late nineteenth century terrace – a bit like the house I was conceived in – 34 Norman Avenue in Twickenham – just a stone’s throw from the Thames – where life’s journey started.

I was with mum at the end of her journey, or as I like to think of it, the next stage of life’s journey and since the parting of the ways, mum has given me the opportunity to begin a new journey, I might even call it an adventure.

The physical process of winding up a loved one’s life on earth is fascinating , even enriching. I am glad that mum has given me this opportunity. I see life in a new light, I view my fellow humans with a more benevolent eye. I am taking time to talk to people . The most enriching has been to meet all those who deal with the end of life – all those whose job it is to « clear up the loose ends » and do things as they should be done. There are some real characters – the lady undertaker – compassionate but not morbid, she loves her job, even of everyday involves laying out the dead or going to funerals.

« Why do you do this? » I ask

« I don’t know, I just like helping people I suppose »

And as we plan mum’s funeral, we actually have a laugh and crack jokes.

« I’m sorry, but we can’t get an early date for your mum » says the “undertakeress.”

« Can’t you get a cancellation? Maybe someone got better» That gets a laugh.

The “undertakeress” has been looking at mum.

« Haven’t you got any false teeth for her ? I know she’s being cremated, but you’ve got to give the poor dear her false teeth. »

I hand over the recently found falsers, and the hearing aids.

“Maybe we could pop those in and she could listen at the ceremony.”

“Oh yes, that’ll be nice for her” says the “undertakeress”.

At the Registry, the man who makes the death certificate is calm, collected, thoughtful and meticulous. A long thin six-footer with round John Lennon spectacles perched on the end of his nose. His shirt is so pressed it is like a second skin, he wears discreet cuff links and the crease in his trousers is razor sharp.

« Can you give me mum’s full name? » he asks slowly, with perfect intonation and accentuating every syllable.

This is the perfect voice

Nonchalant

Soothing

Common sense

Paternal

Therapeutic

Religious

World Service

Meticulous ? Indeed. The bespectacled registrar has ten different fountain pens, each with a different nib. Each with a precise function. One pen, to enter the death certificate number on the register, another simply to make notes, and yet another to sign the death certificate. The last is a chunky pen that gives a distinctive wide signature. As he signs, I am reminded of the signatures I have already seen on other family death, birth and marriage certificates. There is a distinctive style and the act of signature is slow and thoughtful.

« Are you all, trained to write in a particular way? » I ask.

« It is not actually part of the training, we just seem to develop a particular style with the job. » he replies.

The half hour in his office has been a moment of much needed calm in the madness of the eradication process. Yes, it is eradication. We are removing mum from the land of the living and committing her to the administratively non-existent. (Removing mum from the machine)

It seems strange that we have the technology to wipe out millions of lives at the touch of a button, and yet we take all this trouble to « remove » just one life.

And there have been other characters

The Muscovite mini cab driver who took a car-load of mum’s stuff to the dump.

« How long have you been here? » I enquire, as we wait in the endless line of cars all queuing up for the dump. « Eight years. » he says. « Back in Moscow, I was sport teacher. Here I can’t get job, my English not good enough, innit, so I drive taxi. » And all the while, he puffs voraciously on  a ciggy

Staring down the line, I wonder how many cars and vans are full of articles of the recently deceased.

The day I go to collect the death certificates, there is not a bus in sight. With only ten minutes to go before I must be at the Registry, I pray for a black cab, and one comes speeding round the corner. (Thanks mum) I flag it down even although the orange light is not on. I tell the driver of my plight and he gives me a free ride to the front door of the Registry.

Ever since mum’s demise, I have started talking to total strangers, mostly old people at bus stops. (I came without the car, and have spent the past ten days travelling everywhere by bus.)

« The bus is late isn’t it », moans the diminutive wrinkly blue rinsed babe in multiple anoraks.

« Oh yes, it’s never normally this late. »

Then the conversation normally turns to the weather, and no matter the ensuing subjects, I always seem to end up telling the oldies the purpose of my trip, adding that I live in France

I’ve been out in France for over twenty years. For the first ten, mum kept asking me when I would come home and get a proper job.

« I’ve got a proper job » I said

“Your brother says you haven’t. He says you’re unemployed. Why can’t you come home?”

Mum was never convinced, and for years she would send me job ads lovingly clipped from English newspapers. They were mostly media jobs, mum always wanted me to be a journalist

« You write so well, and you can speak French. Can’t you get a job as a foreign correspondent? »

Yes mum, I did try, and like you, I ended up in teaching, despite all your warnings.

I had a few good lengthy phone chats with mum after her diagnosis. One evening I asked her why she gave up journalism and went into teaching.

« To bring up you two » she replied « After your dad died, I needed an easy nine to five job that would let me bring up two sons. »

And we talked about dad

« Were you two actually happy together ? »

« No, not especially »

« Why did you marry him then ? »

« Well, we’d been together five years, it seemed the logical thing to do. »

« Did you love him ? »

« Sometimes. »

And then the question

“Did you want kids”

“Well, it seemed the logical thing to do. I wanted girls. Dad wanted boys. When your brother was born, I didn’t look at him for six weeks, I was so upset at not having a daughter, and when you were born you turned yellow with jaundice. I didn’t see you for a week.”

“Was I planned.”

“Not really, I was just sick of not “getting any” from your father, so I kind of forced things and nine months later you happened. You made me miss the Avengers when you were born.”

« And when did your dad die ? » asks Bill

« December 1970 . »

« And did mum and dad have a good relationship? » enquires Bill

Bill is the minister conducting mum’s funeral service. We go over the finer points of the order of service.

« I just want to ask you a few questions about mum … »

We chat and suddenly, I don’t know how to address Bill. I have been so long in France that all vicars and ministers are priests and they are all called Father. (Pere)

« Just call me Bill. »

Bill asks if he can say something about « mum going to join dad » ?

« That sounds good. » I say.

Bill explains that – « this is not a sombre service, it is a celebration of mum’s life. »

This is very much the ethos on which I have tried to organise the funeral. Yes there will be the religious bit with the Lord’s prayer and Psalm 23, but for the committal we’re having the Skye Boat Song and as we leave the Chapel, I have asked for a rousing rendition of « I do like to be beside the seaside ».

« Played with gusto and a cinema organ sound full of Blackpool pier and fish and chips – I want to smell the salt and vinegar as we leave the Chapel » – My exact words to the organist. I hope he enjoys playing it. Mum liked the seaside

As for the « going down » No one will see the mechanics. We are leaving before mum is consumed by the flames.

« Mum’s having a Burger King » I told the undertaker.

« Uh ??? »

« Flame grilled »

She laughed

This week has been the longest of my life. It has been a time in between lives and the start of a new life. Family have become friends and friends have become family. I have had the great experience of meeting all those who deal with death, and they all seem to love life more than life itself.

This evening I am going uncork a bottle of champagne to drink mum’s health ands wish her a « Bon Voyage ». Doubtless we will meet again. I also want to say thanks to mum (and dad) first for making me, and making me the person I am (for good and bad).

October 15th  2010

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