When she sneaked into the kitchen, her parents were leaning over the table, staring at the open pages of the funeral brochure, her mother’s finger resting on one of the coffins while her father looked over her shoulder, 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 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.
She watched next door’s cat patrol the top of the garden fence, and when their eyes met, the cat stopped to unfurl its black tail, pondered its next move. The kettle hissed into life. “About what?” she replied.
The mother ran her fingers through tidy platinum hair, removed her matching glasses so that she could fully take the measure of her daughter, from the bush of dark-brown hair still tangled from sleep to the pyjama bottoms tucked into blue football socks, before returning her gaze to the two columns of shiny wooden boxes.
“I’m still not sure,” whispered her father through his fingers, a freshly ironed tea-towel dangling from the back pocket of his jeans. He’d already chopped the lamb, carrots, potatoes and onion for the hotpot, and a pan of stock was gurgling gently on the cooker. Two bottles of pale ale waited by the side – the secret of the family recipe – and he was now arranging the cheese board, starting from the left with the Single Gloucester and Red Leicester and moving on to the crumbling Stilton.
When the kettle began to rumble, she allowed her vision to blur as she followed the cat’s tail rippling 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 a pricier model at the top of the page.
“Remind me again, love. What’s the difference?”
“I’m thinking about what the director said. Don’t you remember? He explained the different woods, and said the hard varieties tend to last 20 to 30 years longer.” She stepped back from the table, shifted her weight to the heels of her loafers, and made a tidy rectangle with her hands. “The elm is sturdier, more resistant. It does a better job of keeping things out. What did he call them? Coffin flies.”
“Yes, I remember now. But the pine still looks better to me. I can’t put my finger on it, but 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.”
She sniffed the fresh tea bag and dropped it into the mug she now used every day, a pop singer pouting and pointing at the camera, a Christmas present from a few years back, the last one they’d all spent together. “You’ll be listening to proper music soon,” her grandfather had winked and pinched her elbow. The water began to boil but before the ping had sounded she filled the mug and glided past her parents and out of the kitchen. As she climbed the stairs, she caught their final exchange.
“When do we need to let them know, love?” 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.”
“Something written down, you mean?”
“Yes, his final wishes.”
“Maybe he did.”
“I wouldn’t know where to look.”
In her room she sat on the bed and let the steam from the tea rise into her cheeks. The album in front of her was nearly full, and now she was thinking about which photos should fill the final pages. Maybe finish with their wedding, she thought. It wouldn’t be in the right order, but it would mean a happy ending, and she imagined the end of a film when all the names begin to roll up the screen. Or perhaps it should end with the one of Ania, where he’s kissing her on the cheek as she rolls her eyes and tries to push him away. After all, she was the one who was there at the end. Maybe the right order was best.
When she’d finished her tea and dressed, she went downstairs and headed for the front door. From the kitchen she heard the soft clicks of her mother’s laptop and the stirring of a wooden spoon against an earthenware pot. As she opened the front door, the air stung her cheeks and she pulled her scarf over her mouth, breathed hot air into the wool.
The cat was gone, and the only noise was the rumble of buses from the high street. Reaching the front gate, she glanced down at the plastic bags by the dustbins, and saw her grandfather’s last gas bills soggy and blurred from the rain. Her mother had used her accounting software to organise all the finances, make sure everything was settled, leave no debts and put together a budget for the funeral.
When she reached the end of her road and turned into the high street, she stopped for a second and looked down the row of shops. This was where he’d walked with her when she was still at primary, when he’d lived with them for a while after grandma had passed away. She pushed her fists into her coat pockets, set off, and his voice followed her down the street as she looked into the windows.
Oxfam: “I’m a bit too big for this one now,” handing over the suit jacket, palm spread over the bulge in his jumper. “Still a few good years in it though, should make someone happy.”
The betting shop: “Right, Sarah, today’s the Grand National, and I want you to pick the winning horse for me. Now take hold of the paper, look through all the names, and then when you’re ready, I want you to pick the one that gives you a special feeling in your tummy. We could be millionaires by tea-time.”
The Saturday bus queue: “I don’t know, they must’ve spent a fortune on those shirts, ‘Beckham’ and ‘Jimmy’. Probably bet against their own team too. Anyway, good that they still go down. Father and son.”
The Indian: “I’ll bring you here for your 16th.”
The newsagents: “Why have I bought three of them? 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.
The repair shop: “Look at all those computers. Who’s going to use them now? I suppose you can’t throw them away, can you?”
The tiny library with its school doors: “Have you joined yet?”
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, and 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 tight blue jeans and white trainers.
“Hi, Sarah, alright? Can I get you a coke?”
She nodded and smiled.
“Sorry to hear about the news. Everyone’s been asking about him, and about you. Just 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 at least two years older, had a steady girlfriend, a local girl from the library, but sometimes she looked at him from behind this table, when her grandfather lost himself in the paper or his eyelids started to drop. In the last few months, the young man’s spots had given way to a smooth jaw, and he’d started to gel his hair back, which suited him. She 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.”
“OK, let’s see. I’ll post some photos if you can’t make it.” Then he looked over to the door as it opened, and started back to the bar. “Right, I’ll leave you two ladies alone. Morning, Ania, how are you today?”
The woman smiled at the barman, gave a small wave, and walked over to the corner table, unwinding her shawl, removing her red leather gloves and unbuckling the belt of her raincoat. As she approached the table, Ania didn’t say anything but kept her eyes and her smile on Sarah. When she’d taken off her coat and sat down, she took Sarah’s cheeks in her hands and gently pinched them, “Oh, look at you, young lady. Look at you.”
For the next few minutes, Ania’s smile didn’t leave her face, her grey eyes sparkled with every question, and she put a hand 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; about the old house and the paperwork; about whether everyone was eating enough; about Sarah’s school work. Sarah didn’t say much but the talking felt like a warm hand placed gently on her shoulder, and she asked for another coke when Ania ordered her white wine.
It was at this table that her grandfather had shown her the photos of Ania from the 1970s. She’d worn her skirts longer than her English girlfriends, covered her arms, but she had something special, like an actress from the black-and-white films, hair brushed back and ruby lipstick on a pale mouth. Sarah had tried to copy the look in her bedroom and burst out laughing when she looked in the mirror.
Ania was still smiling when she said this: “Your parents won’t be happy if I come to the funeral. They didn’t get to know me before, so why now? But I am sad for your mother, 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, a feeling she’d never known before. “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 another 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, really terrible. But he went with me sometimes to the dances at the club, on Saturday night. He liked to dress smart. Here, take this.”
Sarah looked down at the man’s tie that Ania had unfolded onto the table. She didn’t recognise it, it was frayed around the bottom, and the pattern was strange: three rows of small red caterpillars against a navy-blue background, all of them crawling up the silk in orderly formation. She looked at Ania for an answer.
“This is what Martin was wearing the last time. Look, here, you can see where he’s spilled the sauce, messy man,” and she scratched 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 the men from the war who survived with the parachute. The caterpillar makes the silk. The silk makes the parachute. The parachute saves the pilot. You see? All of 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, he was too young.”
Ania gently placed her hand over Sarah’s, eyes bright as she leaned in, “My sweet thing, this is not Martin’s, this is not your grandfather’s. This tie belonged to my father. I was cleaning out his room after he died, and I found it in his old clothes. At the end of the war, his squadron 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 silk around her hand and held it over the table.
“What do I do with it?”
“Take it to the dry cleaners,” and they laughed together.
Sarah looked at her watch, time to go. Ania 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. Pulling the scarf over her mouth and gripping the ball of silk in her hand, she set off down the street, hemmed in by a row of cars, bumper to bumper. She broke into a jog, and glanced at the houses she passed. A flag hung limp in the cold, clamped tight by the sill of a closed window. A plastic signpost leaned over a low brick wall: for sale and a phone number, the codes of the adult world. A hooded man stepped out of his front door, set off towards her, and she kept her eyes to the ground as he hurried by.
At the end of the street she reached a crossroads just as the lights turned red, stopped to catch her breath, felt the damp wool against her mouth. 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 to red. She looked to the sky and scoured every part of it for an outline, a shape, but the pale grey reached to every corner; a small patch glowed more brightly where the sun had to be.
She stood there for a while, let the cold pinch her ears, smiled at her shoes. She let the lights turn one more time, still didn’t move but kept her eyes raised to the sky, then finally crossed over to the street that would take her home.
Opening the front door she smelled the hot fumes of ale from her father’s stew. She hung her coat on the banister at the bottom of the stairs, coiled the tie into a tight roll 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 steaming tea balanced on their stomachs, eyes fixed on the screen as the weatherman advised the nation to wrap up warm for the night ahead.
She pushed her boots off with her heels, then 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, looking for clues. Sarah’s gaze moved around the room, stopping for a second on each object: the lampshade that had frightened her as a child when she believed it turned into an old woman’s hat at midnight. The bars of the fire that lit up one by one like window’s in a doll’s house. The tiny hole in the skirting board where, her grandfather had told her, the mouse family lived. She felt 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 still fixed on the screen, they blew on their mugs of tea.
“It feels right,” continued the mother, flattening the creases in her slacks. “It’s light and clean. And I’m glad we took our time,” she glanced at her husband, “these things are important. It’s all in the detail, isn’t it? 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, the boys of 303, the lucky ones. She rested her arms on the sides of the chair, and turned to her mother. “It’s alright. But I want to choose what he wears.”