When she sneaked into the kitchen, her parents were staring at the open pages of a funeral brochure, her mother’s finger resting on one of the photos while her father looked over his wife’s shoulder, a hand clamped over his mouth. They might have been working on a crossword.
Had they been there all night? she wondered as she tiptoed round them and headed for the sink. Filling half the kettle with icy water, she looked out through the window and tried to lock her eyes onto something that would keep her attention.
“What do you think?” asked her mother.
“About what?” she replied after a few seconds, watching next door’s cat patrol the top of the fence. When their eyes met, the cat stopped to unfurl its black tail as it pondered its next move. The kettle hissed into life.
The mother ran her fingers through tidy platinum hair, removed her glasses so she could take the measure of her daughter, from the nest of dark-brown hair still tangled from sleep to the pyjama bottoms tucked into football socks, before returning her gaze to the two columns of shiny wooden boxes.
“I’m still not sure,” whispered the father through his fingers. He’d already chopped the lamb and carrots for the hotpot, and a pan of stock was gurgling on the stove. Two bottles of brown ale waited to the side, the secret of the family recipe. As the kettle began to rumble, the daughter allowed her vision to blur as she followed the cat’s tail unfurling along the fence. She relaxed and felt her weight sink down into her legs.
“I still reckon elm is best,” said the mother, placing her finger on one of the coffins.
“Remind me again, love. What’s the difference?”
“It’s what the funeral director said: the harder woods last 20 to 30 years longer.” The mother stepped back from the table, shifted her weight to the heels of her loafers, and made a tidy box in the air with her hands. “The elm is sturdier, more resistant, does a better job of keeping things out. What did he call them? Coffin flies.”
“I remember now. But the pine still looks better to me. I can’t put my finger on it. Just seems a bit less…heavy. I know it sounds daft, but it feels like he’d be less trapped.”
“He’s not coming back, you know.”
Their daughter sniffed the fresh tea bag and dropped it into her favourite mug: a pop singer pouting and pointing at the camera, a gift from a few years back and the last Christmas they’d all spent together. “You’ll be listening to proper music soon,” her grandfather had winked and pinched her elbow. As the water began to boil, she didn’t wait for the ping but filled the mug and shuffled past her parents and out of the kitchen. Climbing the stairs, she caught their final exchange.
“When do we need to let them know?” asked the father.
“We said by this afternoon, and it’s eleven now. Part of me wants to go back and take another look.”
“Which one do you think your dad would’ve wanted?”
“I honestly don’t know. I’m still wondering why he didn’t leave me any instructions.”
“Maybe he did.”
“I wouldn’t know where to look.”
She carried the tea into her room and sat on the bed, letting the steam rise into her cheeks. With the photo album nearly full, she stared at the last empty pages, unsure how to end the story. Maybe finish with the old wedding portraits, messing up the order of things but bringing her grandparents back together again. Isn’t that where her grandfather had gone now? Or perhaps it should end with one of Ania, from just a few months back, where he’s kissing her on the cheek as she rolls her eyes and tries to push him away. After all, Ania was there at the end. Maybe keep things as they really happened.
No need to decide now. She finished her tea, slipped quietly downstairs again, avoiding the kitchen and the soft clicking of her mother’s laptop, opened the front door and pulled her scarf over her mouth, breathing hot air into the wool. The cat was gone, and the only noise was the rumble of buses from the high street. As she reached the front gate, she glanced down at the plastic bags of rubbish and saw a stack of her grandfather’s electricity bills, soggy from the rain. Her mother had used her accounting software to organise his finances and put together a budget for the funeral. “Everything needs to be settled.”
Walking into the high street, she looked all the way down the long jumble of shop-fronts where she and her grandfather had walked every day after school, in the years when he’d lived with them after grandma had passed away. Today his voice followed her down the street as she looked into the windows.
The charity shop: “I’m too big for this one now,” handing over the suit jacket and patting his belly. “Still a few good years in it though. Someone’ll look smart in it.”
The betting shop: “Right, Sarah, today’s the Grand National, and I want you to pick the winner. Look through all these horses here, and choose the name that makes your tummy go warm. We could be millionaires by tea-time.”
The Saturday bus queue: “Oh, look at ‘em all, they must’ve spent a fortune on those football shirts, ‘Beckham’ and ‘Jimmy’. Probably bet against their own team too. Anyway, good that they still go down together. Father and son.”
The Indian restaurant: “I’ll bring you here for your 16th, but you’ll need to wear a dress, young lady.”
The newsagents: “Why have I bought three of ’em? Well, this one here is for the news. This one’s for the sport. And this rubbish is what your grandma used to read,” and another pinch to the elbow.
Then, at the end of the row, The Robin Hood: “This is where he used to drink at weekends. Hard work being a robber. Did it for the people though. Come on, we’re going inside. You’re allowed to have a coke.”
She pushed through the door of the pub, and went straight to their usual table in the corner. A slot machine blinked in silence by the wall. A dishwasher squelched from behind the bar, and a TV whispered to itself above the pumps. This was the first time she’d sat here alone; she felt she was doing something wrong. She put her hands under her legs and waited for the young barman to stride over in his skinny jeans and white trainers.
“Hi, Sarah, you ok? Can I get you a coke?”
She nodded and smiled.
“I’m so sorry about the news. Everyone’s been asking about him, and about you. Checking that you’re ok and all that.” The first customers still hadn’t arrived, and he was soon back with the drink and a packet of crisps: “These are on me.”
Sarah felt her cheeks burn. He was two years older, with a steady girlfriend, but sometimes she looked at him from behind this table, when her grandfather lost himself in the paper or his eyelids started to drop. The young man’s spots had now given way to a smooth jaw, and he’d started to gel his hair back, which suited him. Sarah opened the packet, offered it back, and he grabbed a couple of crisps.
“I think some of the regulars have collected some money. Not loads but enough for some food and drink. I think they want to have a small do here next week. I’ll let you know which day.”
“Thanks, Tomek, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to come. They don’t know I’m here now.”
“Well, let’s see how things go. I’ll take some photos if you can’t make it.” He looked over to the entrance as the door swung open, and started back to the bar. “Right, I’ll leave you two ladies alone. Morning, Ania, jak şie masz?”
The woman’s smile widened as she walked over to Sarah’s table, casually waving to the barman on her way – “I’m very well, thank you” – and then unwinding her shawl, removing her red leather gloves and unbuckling the belt of her raincoat. Approaching the table, Ania kept her eyes and smile on Sarah, took the girl’s cheeks in her hands and gently pinched them, “Oh, look at you, young lady. Look at you.”
Ania’s hand lay on Sarah’s as she asked about her parents and how they were coping; about the funeral preparations and whether the priest was being helpful; whether everyone was eating enough; and about Sarah’s schoolwork. Sarah didn’t say much but every question felt like a warm hand placed gently on her shoulder, and she asked for another coke when Ania ordered her white wine.
It was here at this table that Sarah’s grandfather had shown her the photos of Ania from the 1970s. The young Pole had worn her skirts a few inches longer than her English girlfriends did, but she seemed exotic, thought Sarah, like an actress from the black-and-white films, hair brushed back and dark lipstick on a pale face. Sarah had tried to copy that look in her bedroom only to burst out laughing when she looked in the mirror.
Ania was still smiling: “Your parents won’t be happy if I come to the funeral. They didn’t get to know me before, so why to bother now? But I am sad for your mother, really, she will miss him more than she knows, and she will regret this silence at the end. But I don’t want you to worry about all this. Can you promise me that?”
Sarah couldn’t answer. She looked down at the table between the two of them, felt her lungs fill with air and then block; she had to stifle something. “But even grandma wouldn’t have minded if you were there. I know she wouldn’t have.”
“Don’t worry, please. I will come here next week, with work friends from the hospital. My family. Good people.” She took a sip of wine, sat quietly for a few moments, and then the smile returned. “You know, I never stopped dancing. Party, party, party, every weekend. Party girl, that’s what your grandfather called me. He was a very bad dancer, terrible. But he went with me sometimes to the dances on Saturday night. He liked to dress smart. Here, take this.”
Sarah looked down at the man’s neck-tie now lying on the table. The faded cotton was frayed around the edges, and carried a strange pattern: diagonal rows of tiny red caterpillars against a navy-blue background, crawling up the silk in orderly formation. She shook her head and raised her eyes to Ania.
“This is what Martin was wearing the last time. Look, here, you can see where he’s spilled the sauce, messy man,” and Ania scratched away at the stain with her polished nails. “It’s a special tie. Do you know what it means? No, of course you don’t.” She took the tie in her two hands and leaned forward to display it before Sarah’s eyes. “This is for men from the war who survived with the parachute. Caterpillar makes silk. Silk makes parachute. Parachute saves pilot. You see? All the lucky ones, they got one of these, they were part of a club.”
“But I don’t understand. Grandad wasn’t in the war.”
Ania gently cupped Sarah’s cheek, eyes sparkling as she leaned in. “My sweet thing, this is not Martin’s, this is not your grandfather’s. No, this tie belonged to my father. I was cleaning his room after he died, and I found it in his old clothes. At the end of the war, his unit gave it to him. The boys from 303, he called them. And then he wore it every Christmas Day. “Am I smart enough for her majesty?” he used to ask me when I was small. Last week, your grandfather… our last Saturday… he forgot to bring his tie, so he borrowed this one.” Ania coiled the faded silk around her hand and held it over the table.
“What do I do with it?” asked Sarah.
“Take it to the dry cleaners,” Ania smiled and then stood and walked round the table, took Sarah’s face in her hands, kissed her on both cheeks. “You take care, young lady, and don’t worry. You promise me that?”
Sarah pushed through the doors of the pub, and decided to take a different way home, down a backstreet. She pulled her scarf over her mouth, gripped the ball of silk in her hand, and set off down the street, hemmed in by rows of cars parked bumper to bumper. She broke into a jog, glancing at the houses she passed. A flag of Saint George hung limp in the cold, trapped by the sill of a closed window. A hooded man stepped out of his front door, and she lowered her eyes to the ground as he passed.
Halfway home, she reached a crossroads just as the lights turned red, and stopped to catch her breath, sucking on the damp wool of her scarf. She decided not to cross and stood instead on the kerb, flaring her nostrils to take in freezing air, letting the bleeps go on and then peter out until the green man flashed a last chance, and then turned red. She turned to the sky and looked for an outline, a shape, but there was only white and a patch that glowed more brightly where the sun had to be. She let the lights turn one more time, kept her eyes raised to the sky, then finally crossed over to the street that led home.
The beery fumes of her father’s stew wafted through the hall as she opened the front door. She hung her coat on the banister at the bottom of the stairs, coiled the tie into a tight ball and dropped it into the coat pocket. Her parents were sitting on the sofa in the living room, feet resting side by side on the coffee table, mugs of tea balanced on their stomachs, eyes fixed on the screen as the weatherman advised the nation to wrap up warm for the night ahead.
Sarah pushed her boots off with her heels, and walked over to the armchair by the front window. Sitting down, she saw next door’s cat jump onto the gatepost and lick one of its paws before settling down to snooze.
“Been anywhere nice?” asked her mother.
“Just to the shops.”
Her mother peered over the metal rims of her glasses, scanning for clues. Sarah’s gaze moved around the room, lingering for a second on each object: the lampshade she dreaded as a young child because it turned into an old woman’s hat at midnight. The bars of the electric fire that lit up one by one like window’s in a doll’s house. The tiny hole in the skirting board where the mouse family lived. She felt like she was visiting the place, as if she’d been away.
“We’ve made up our minds,” said her father, placing his hand on top of his wife’s. “We’ve gone for the pine. Norwegian pine.” Eyes fixed on the screen, they blew on their steaming mugs of tea. “It feels right,” continued the mother, flattening the creases in her slacks. “The wood’s all light and clean. And I’m glad we took our time,” she glanced at her husband, “because these things are important. It’s all in the detail. Just a few more things to discuss with the church and then we’re done. The priest has asked whether we want to do anything special, like a reading or a speech. We wanted to ask you, Sarah. Do you want to say anything?”
She thought of the tie. She wanted to hold it now, wrap it round her hand, bring it to her nose, unfurl it again and count the caterpillars, row by row; she wanted to turn it over and see the label on the back, read the name and say the number, 303, the boys of 303, the lucky ones. She rested her arms on the sides of the chair, and turned to her mother. “No, it’s alright, mum. But I want to choose what he wears.”