On the morning of Billi’s funeral, I woke very early. I still didn’t know if I should go, I barely knew her. But mum said it was a local tragedy and we should all show our support.
Trying to imagine what it would be like, I kept thinking back to my dad’s death. This wouldn’t be remotely similar, I kept telling myself. But it was really the only experience of death I had to go by. And the only time I’d ever seen a dead body.
Lying there in the open coffin, Dad looked so like Dad, I remembered, and yet so unlike him. My dad was always smiling, chatting, moving his arms about; this eerily still figure had to be a waxwork, a replica, some sort of inanimate clone. I touched the skin, cold but not damp. I touched the moustache, so deeply unfashionable (as I’d always told him) and yet so unmistakably him. I kissed his forehead.
And then I welled up because it hit me suddenly, and very hard. That it was him. That my dad was dead. That I would not see him alive again.
I blundered out of the funeral place, face hot and eyes clouded with tears. Though I wasn’t usually one to cry, the tears were a relief, almost pleasurable in some strange bittersweet way. But I’d come out round the back, into the car park, where I came across a gaggle of off-duty undertakers, all smoking fags and having a laugh.
When they spotted me, they nodded respectfully, turned their backs to offer me some privacy, and started to speak quietly and soberly. But were they talking about me and my histrionics? Ashamed of coming across as just another punter who’s lost it, I reined the tears in, all too easily.
I don’t think I cried after that for a long time.
I went back in because they told me my mum had arrived.
As soon as she got in there with Dad, mum started to tremble violently and it was all I could do to keep her on her feet. She circled the coffin several times, repeatedly touching the wood, making the Sign of the Cross and mouthing bits of the Rosary to herself. In the end, she sat down heavily on a chair and just stayed there, swaying slightly and muttering prayers under her breath between sobs.
I don’t quite know how it happened now, but I picked up a Bible that was lying around in that room and I started, well, riffing. I read out some words at random, and then I added a few more of my own, and then I read out some more. I seemed to sense a theme emerging, because suddenly I was making connections between different passages, improvising prayers and sermonising with all the understated rhetorical ease of Father Des.
I surprised myself, but the effect on my mum was something else. I thought she’d be embarrassed or oblivious, but she was looking at me now like I’d sprouted a tongue of flame from the top of my head. She held her palms out, her eyes all lit up with prayerful fervour and a new righteous pride in her preacher-man son. Somehow, I made the end of my speech tie up with the start of what I’d been saying, and I was aware of a feeling of almost literary satisfaction (as well as massive relief) at this fluke.
Now, on the day of Billi’s funeral, as we made our way towards the church, she was reminding me of this time yet again. ‘I’ll never forget what you said,’ my mum was saying now, as she always did. ‘I was so proud of you.’
My mum tightens the knot of my tie. ‘Through you, the Lord was such a comfort to me on that day of all days,’ she smiles. ‘I pray he comforts Billi’s family today in their hour of need.’
I’m glad I was a help to her, at that terrible time. I’m happy that I somehow made that day a bit easier for her. But I live in fear of her asking me to repeat my words.
The thing is, I haven’t got the faintest clue what I said.
Dan’s first collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, is published by Sandstone. He is also co-author of a comic novel, Kitten on a Fatberg, now available to pre-order at Unbound.
He won the 2019 Riptide Journal short story competition, was runner-up in the 2019 Leicester Writes contest, and was highly commended in the Manchester Writing School competition 2018. He has words in places like Pithead Chapel, Ellipsis, Reflex Fiction, Cabinet of Heed, Bending Genres, The Esthetic Apostle, Spelk, Ginger Collect and Fiction Pool.