‘And lastly, so that we may remind ourselves that the dead reside not in the grave but in the hearts and minds of the living, I’d like you all to take a few minutes to reflect upon your fondest memories of our dear departed Hugh while we play a piece of music that I’m told he was particularly fond of.’
The vicar of St Probyn’s, the Reverend Dudley Tirbett, nodded in the direction of the verger who rose unsteadily to his feet, shuffled his way to a table and pressed the play button on a portable CD player. As heavy urban beats rattled the chandeliers and rapper Earl Grey T explained how his homies were ‘strapping up to fight for their flow’ in Downtown LA, the vicar turned to his aged colleague and invited an explanation.
‘I’m so sorry,’ whispered the verger. ‘I borrowed the player from young Harvey at the café. I must have forgotten to change the CD.’
Sitting among the congregation, newly-widowed Gladys Brockhole maintained a dignified, if dismayed, silence while her three middle-aged daughters struggled to contain themselves. Emotions ranged from grief to embarrassment to the urge to laugh out loud and their eyes streamed and their noses ran; a situation made all the worse by the fact that none of their husbands had remembered to bring a handkerchief or a box of tissues as they’d been instructed to do. Consequently, all they had was a single paper napkin that one of them had found in the bottom of her handbag. As it passed from sister to sister and back again, it began to take on all of the unpleasant physical properties of raw egg white.
‘I thought they were going to play ‘Our Last Song Together’,’ growled Len Youlden, sitting several pews behind the grieving Brockholes and holding his hands over his enormous hairy ears. ‘This isn't Neil Sedaka. It isn’t even music.’
‘Oh I don’t know. It has a good beat,’ said Gerry Waxleigh, tapping his toe.
‘I can’t listen to this,’ said Youlden. ‘I’m going down the pub.’
‘You can’t. You’re a pallbearer.’
‘Oh bloody bugger.’
Following the service, the family and friends of Hugh Donelan Brockhole gathered at the graveside to say their final farewells. Someone had thought to bring along a tablet so that his sister and family in Australia could be part of his send-off by way of a video-sharing app. However, the wifi signal had proven to be almost non-existent so they had been offered a commentary by mobile phone instead. Gladys Brockhole still hadn’t quite recovered from her late husband’s occasionally X-rated rap tribute and didn’t feel up to it, and nor did any of her dishevelled daughters or their chastised and apologetic husbands. It was therefore left to Mr Wyngarde, the octogenarian verger, to provide a blow-by-blow account of the committal.
As the Reverend Tirbett began his final blessing, the weather seemed to sense the mood and heavy grey clouds pregnant with rain gathered over the churchyard to mope.
‘In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother Hugh, and we commit his body to the ground …’
‘They’re lowering him in now,’ shouted the verger into the phone at a volume he considered necessary for speaking to people half a world away.
‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust …’
‘Oh dear. I’ve dropped my umbrella. Hang on …’
‘The Lord bless him and keep him, the Lord make his face to shine upon him and be gracious to him …’
‘It’s fallen on top of the casket. I’ll just reach over and …’
‘The Lord lift up his countenance upon him and … good grief. What are you doing down there, Mr Wyngarde?’
Barry Chetwynd had intended to be at the funeral service. Hugh Brockhole hadn’t been a friend as such but he had been a regular customer, with a particular penchant for offal, and it had seemed only right to pay his respects to say thank you for all the kidneys. However, his plans had been disrupted by the fact that his shop in Sacker Street had been vandalised overnight. The words, ‘Nando’s is the neo‑opiate of the masses’, had been spray-painted across the display window in large purple letters. He was frowning at it, his beefy arms folded in annoyance, when Charlie Barnfather, dressed in a dark suit and black tie, appeared at his side.
‘I say. That’s a nuisance,’ he said.
‘What does it even mean?’ said Chetwynd. ‘In my youth, the graffiti at least made some kind of sense. ‘Clapton is God. Eat the rich. M. Kahn is Bent. That sort of thing.’
‘Beats me,’ said Barnfather. He scratched at the large white sideburns that didn’t quite cover his pock-marked cheeks.
‘Sorry I missed the funeral,’ said Chetwynd. ‘How did it go?’
‘The verger fell into the grave during the committal.’
‘He’s so doddery these days. Remember when he fell in the canal when they scattered Henry Gawkrodger’s ashes?’
‘I do,' said the butcher. 'Poor old sod. They should have used a bigger boat. Good turnout this morning?’
‘Not bad. Oh, I have some news for you from Sid Munsun. He told me that there was another sighting up at Black Dog Wood on Friday night.’
‘The Shaggy Beast?’
‘Supposedly. He said that young Jessica Tremblett came into the mini-market on Saturday morning and told him that she’d seen a big hairy thing in the woods.’
‘I imagine that young Jessie has seen a great many big hairy things in the woods,’ said Chetwynd, scoffing lewdly. ‘She’s a bit of a sport from what I hear.’
‘I try not to listen to gossip and nor should you.’
‘So what else did Sid say?’
‘You’d best speak to him if you want more details,’ said Barnfather. ‘Or young Jessie. I’m just passing on the news.’
‘Thanks Charlie. I’ll do that. There’s definitely something in those woods.’
‘Psilocybin I expect,’ said Barnfather, tapping his nose. ‘Magic mushrooms. The fields are full of them this time of year. And you know what youngsters are like. I reckon Jessie and some beau of hers scoffed a handful, went into the woods for a bit of how’s-yer-father, probably heard a couple of amorous foxes and her imagination did the rest. They make a hell of a noise when mating.’
‘So does Jessie Tremblett, I bet.’
Charlie Barnfather waved an admonishing finger and crossed the road to his chemist’s shop. Barry Chetwynd looked once again at his defaced window and shook his head.
‘Little bastards,’ he growled.
‘Best funeral I’ve been to in a while,’ said Gerry Waxleigh. ‘It’s gone straight in at Number Three in my Top Ten.’
‘Remember when Old Wyngarde fell out of that boat?’ chuckled Len Youlden.
‘I do indeed,’ said Waxleigh smiling. ‘That’s Number Two. Our verger is certainly going for gold.’
The two old friends were enjoying a post-funeral drink in the saloon bar of the curiously-named Happy Onion, Nasely’s only pub. Both men were in their late sixties; Waxleigh was tall and gaunt, the result of a lifetime of hard work on the farm. A floss of frizzy grey hair covered him everywhere except for the crown of his head. Youlden was shorter and paunchier and sported a cruel scar that ploughed a furrow across his lower lip and badly-shaven chin. He whistled as he spoke due to a missing incisor and was already three sheets to the wind, having a very low tolerance for liquor.
‘You have a Top Ten of funerals?’ asked the landlord. ‘That’s not right.’
‘Why not?’ said Waxleigh. ‘Most send-offs are completely unmemorable. A good one is worth celebrating, surely?’
‘So what’s Number One then?’
‘Has to be the Cheesemans,’ said Waxleigh. ‘That was a corker.’
‘Was that the one where the marquee came down in high winds and everyone got trapped inside?’
‘That’s the one.’
‘Three people were hospitalised, Gerry.’
‘Ah, memories,’ said Waxleigh, with a nostalgic smile.
‘Here, Vic,’ slurred Youlden. ‘Did you see? Some bloody bugger has painted a cock and balls on the side wall of Gladys Brockhole’s cottage.’
‘I know,’ said the landlord. ‘It popped up overnight.’
‘Ah, those were the days,’ said Waxleigh. ‘Things pop up with depressing irregularity now, sadly.’
‘A foot long it is, I reckon,’ said Youlden. ‘It’s a disgrace.’
‘Poor old Gladys,’ said Vic. ‘Must have been a shock.’
‘I’ll say. Hugh used to tell her he was hung like a stallion,’ said Waxleigh. ‘She probably doesn’t know that they come bigger than a Chantenay carrot.’
Len Youlden choked on his beer.
‘Have some respect, Gerry,’ said Vic. ‘You just buried the man.’
‘Ah, he’d have laughed along with us,’ said Waxleigh. ‘He had a rare sense of humour, did Hugh. Knew every dirty joke in the book, and a few more besides. If he’d been at his own funeral he’d have pissed himself. I know I did. And so did old Miss Shelmerdine. Again. She needs to see Dr Meissen about that. Anyhow, here’s to Hugh.’
‘To Hugh,’ said Youlden.
The two men clinked their glasses together and looked expectantly at Vic, who lifted the empty glass he was wiping dry in symbolic solidarity.
‘To Hugh,’ he said as the two old friends downed the last of their pints. ‘Two more?’
‘Go on then’, said Waxleigh.
‘It wasn’t just Gladys Brockhole’s side wall that got vandalised,’ said Vic as he pulled their pints. ‘The little sods did the butcher’s window too. Barry reckons it's animal rights protesters.’
‘Young Colin Cheeseman and those scruffy herberts who are always waving placards outside the abattoir?’
‘Could be. Didn’t understand a bloody word of what they wrote, mind. Something about opium I think.’
‘Bloody yobbos,’ growled Youlden. ‘How do they expect to have bacon sandwiches without killing pigs?’
‘I don’t think they’re the kind of people who eat bacon sandwiches, Len,’ said Waxleigh. ‘That’s the point they’re making; that none of us should be eating meat.’
‘They’ll have to pry my Sunday morning fry-up from my cold dead hands.’
‘With the amount of cholesterol you eat it’ll be sooner rather than later,’ said Waxleigh.
‘The thing is, I can understand protests at the abattoir. And at a butcher’s shop,’ said Vic. ‘But what have they got against Gladys Brockhole?’
‘Indeed. The last thing a newly widowed woman wants is a big cock on her side wall,’ said Waxleigh. ‘Ah, good morning Frank.’
Frank Shunter wiped his shoes on the doormat.
‘Good morning gents.’
‘Oh, hello stranger,’ said Vic.
‘Stranger? It’s only been a week.’
‘A week is a long time in this trade,’ said Vic. ‘Pubs are closing at a rate of six a day.’
‘Then I’ll do my bit to help. Pint of the IPA please. So, how was the funeral?’
‘Hilarious,’ said Waxleigh. ‘You’d have enjoyed it.’
‘I doubt that,’ said Shunter.
‘We were just talking about this sudden epidemic of graffiti in the village,’ said Vic, handing over Shunter’s pint.
‘Does writing pretentious twaddle on the butcher’s shop window constitute an epidemic?’
‘Have you not seen Gladys Brockhole’s cock and balls?’ asked Waxleigh.
‘No. But it sounds like I might need a drink before I do,’ said Shunter. He sipped at his ale. The froth caught in his neatly-clipped grey moustache and he sucked it away noisily.
‘Animal rights protesters we reckon,’ said Vic.
‘Bloody buggers,’ said Youlden.
‘It’s unlike them to be so brazen,’ said Shunter. ‘Perhaps they’re building up to something. Protesting at the public meeting tomorrow, perhaps?’
‘Waste of their time that’ll be. The pond is going to be drained. It’s a done deal,’ said Waxleigh, popping his tweed cap on his head. ‘Fancy a gasper, Len?’
The two men made their way outside to the beer garden and smoking area.