The road itself was a busy dual carriageway with the path running beside it. It wasn’t what I was expecting, so when a man approached along the path towards me, I asked him if he know how far away Nine Mile Road was. He looked at me with a faint smile and then my map. He explained that there was a considerable distance between the roundabouts and I would be a better bet, to take a bus. So I retraced my steps until he pointed the way to go.
It was a shabby place, a large grey carpark with few long bus shelters running parallel on one side of it. There were four, what I imagine to be bus drivers standing outside either a café or office or both, having a chat. So I interrupted them and asked which bus I needed to take.
I fell into line, or what I hoped it was the right one, and waited. The people had at a glance, a rather resigned look and dressed like they mostly could not care less what they were wearing or what anyone else looked like either. A few caught sight of me though, which was hardly surprising, as I was dressed top to toe in black.
Between cities, towns like Bracknell are very common. Usually, I say this, as I didn’t walk into the centre, but usually, there is a concentration of office buildings, ugly and characterless, accompanied by a couple of big supermarkets, a four storey car park, a sprawl of 1930’s semidetached houses morphing into 40’s then 50’s and so on, as you approached the outskirts of the "town". Town, a loose term, place is a better word, a place to work and live and not a lot more, so standing there with this bunch did nothing to contradict this preconception. One had the impression, it had been a long time since the circus had been in town.
“A ticket to the crematorium please”
“Single or return?”
“Er… single please” I replied.
I could feel the wheels going around in the bus drivers head, and those standing immediately behind me, hence the black. The bus jerked off and seemed intent on travelling down and on occasion in both directions, as many back streets as possible, before finally reaching the wooded Nine Mile road. It was as its name implied, long, it was also straight fortunately, so I has a clear view of the sign for the cemetery, long before arriving at the stop. I was early anyway, I could have missed it and I would still have been on time. I followed a wooded path some distance before reaching the gate. From a distance, I could see a handful of people milling around anxiously at the entrance of this one storey building, with its painful chimney bolted on its back. They were clearly leaving, or in the process of doing so. So I walked on towards the head stones, sad, or is it sobering, passing, then stopping to read names and dates with a sentence or two about them sometimes. To see the sometimes bright and fresh and sometimes decayed flowers around them, sometimes an object, so sad when it's a toy, a favourite car, a miniature plastic football boot, with a message from a mother, father or grandparent even. Sometimes there was photograph, with a few words attached, “ well loved”,” had many friends”, “always wanted to do or be”, “forever missed”.
I sat for a while on a secluded bench beneath an arch trellis and watched while too distant figures tended to the graves. All those sad stories people take home with them each day. Straight faced, carrying on as normal, with quiet understatement,such enduring human qualities.
By now it was two, so I got up and returned to the entrance, inside there were faces I recognised...Chris, Emma and the boys who were now were taller,of course, Rodney, Emma’s brother, who I had known independently years before Union street, when I worked part time at Dillan’s bookstore in High street Kensington. One by one familiar faces, changed faces, after six or seven years had passed, entered this inappropriately dressed room for waiting. Chloe with tall boyfriend in tow, her mother, Coco, Paul and Juliette, Pete and Claire, Nick Hodder...so not all, but most of the Union Street faithful in fact. Antonis was missing, as he was now living in France and unable to come at such a short notice. That just left Allen, who I think we all would have most wanted to see walk through that door, but unfortunately, this being his funeral,was our reason for being there.
It had been Sunday night or evening when Pete had called. I greeted him with my customary “how are you Pete” to which there was an uncharacteristic delay, before he replied,
"I have bad news." My mind raced off, bumping into the most likely obstacles before added,“Allen has died”, and came to rest in a dark corner.
He then told me that Margaret, (his wife) is as fine as she could be, (given the circumstances) and then gave me some details about what happened. I don't remember having very much to say after that, I put the phone down and sat staring into space for a while.
During the days before the funeral, I sat down to write few lines to Margaret, and I wrote pages…it was easy, memories returned to me, vividly and naturally. When I first met Allen downstairs in union hall, when he showed me his amazing Chinese saw and explained something of the carpentry he wanted to create using it. Then there were the moments down the pub, in The George, The Rose, and at his shop across the road, his stag night and of course their wedding in 2001, which really was a special day for us all.
But most of all, I wanted to convey how much I liked him, how much I appreciated his support and valued his simple and yet uncommon ability to just know you. It wasn’t just about listening or observing either. His was a kind understanding, and if you had any sense, or sense of humour about yourself, you would acknowledge that he knew you were learning, that the for or against was just relative to your time as it had been to his,and that all of this was,i n word, fine.
Needless to say not one of those words did I take with me that day. After the mental twists and turns, the changes of mind, all I had in my bag, was a book of T S Elliot poems’ for Danielle, a couple of catalogues for whoever, and a small red chalk portrait of a woman that I thought Margaret would like. In the end I didn’t give this to her, I realised the face was just too sad,and that was hardly needed.
One by one they started to leave the room. I watched them go. For some reasons I wanted to be the last to leave. Maybe I needed to collect my thoughts, prepare myself for the service which I wasn’t,like the others no doubt, particularly looking forward to.
Allen, I could see, was been carried in a rather charming wicker coffin. Peoples heads were down, hands to faces in grief. We entered a very large wooden beamed room with high ceilings and separated to the left and right. “The Friends” went right, so I planted myself at the end of the bench five or six rows back,with Pete and Claire to my left and Nick just in front.
So there we were, the coffin before us, flanked with flowers and curtains. Quite theatrical in fact, one half expect something to happen, you would wish it would, even if it would scare everyone half to death. So no, Allen didn’t emerge, poke his head up and say in that rumble of a voice he had “God that was a bad night,what did they put in my drink”.
Instead, a dark haired middle aged lady stepped up, introduced herself and began what it turned out to be an interesting short story about the life and times of Allen Dunlop.
Now, if you divided Allen's life in 12 chapters, I knew him around half way through chapter 9. So there was quite a lot I didn’t know about...especially his childhood, his early days in the oil business and the difficulties he had after his first marriage broke down.There were many tears around me and I could see hands being clasped, fingers tightened and then relaxed again. These words were direct and I liked them for that, difficult or maybe still unresolved issues were not just glossed over, which is unusual. Finally she got to us, the union street crew, chapter 9 and 10. It was very touching and then more tears around me...Pete had in fact done what I was unable to do and put his thoughts and feelings about Allen onto the page, for her to read. His openness to learn, his generosity as a friend and his determination for excellence in his work.
Finally the story ended, we were by being there perhaps the last few pages of it. Then came that moment of stillness, as though everyone takes a breath and holds it in. There was no sound and yet in the silence, I am sure I heard the twisted agony of separation.
The ridiculous curtains, a dull green made with glossy fabric, glided together along their rails with all the inappropriate professionalism of a pair of ice dances in tutu's. Closure.
Once again people started to leave,mourners so called. I dragged my heels stopped before the closed curtains and once more curst my lack of super powers. Of course, there was nothing to be done, but leave the room. Outside in the cold air, below the light grey overcast sky, we shuffled down the slope, then came to rest next to the brightly coloured flowers with sad messages attached, then collectively exhaled. I couldn’t say a word, maybe it was because of my own memories, having to put on a brave face, perform, when it’s the last thing on the world you feel like doing. I could not pretend not to see and feel the pain Margaret and Danielle (and others who I know less well) were experiencing at that moment. So I stood next to Nick, who fortunately was talking to another guy and avoided looking at Margaret, for the time I needed it to collect myself.
Nick was complaining that he had lost his hat, I asked him to describe it,then reached into my
bag and produced this ridiculously large plaid flat cap
“I had no idea it was yours Nick” I said,
“I cannot believe your head is that fucking big, this things enormous”.
“Should have known you’d have it”,
“lucky I did, I wondered who it belonged to”.
“Where was it?”
“On the floor, in the room we were waiting in, couldn’t miss it, it took up half the carpet”
“Very funny, give it here”.
Arrangements had been made, we were all to go to a pub in a nearby town for a drink. I found my voice again and myself and Nick now engaged in a mixture of serious chat and banter, until we rolled up at the pub car park.
Apparently half the bar had been booked, it wasn’t I was told, their first choice, after a number of restaurants had refused to take a party of "mourners". They were told it would be “too depressing”, however the atmosphere was anything but, in fact it was like old days again.Then when a large brown box of fish and chips arrived (as the pub was not able to do food) carried by Chloe and Coco, I couldn't help thinking Allan would have being pleased. In fact, it was like he was there with us, bringing us together,like he used to do.
Later I got the chance to talk to Margaret and said few words to Danielle, I hope she likes the book. With Christmas approaching, I guessed they would have some dark days ahead,but it is always good to know,that there’s someone out there that understands.