Holy buttons, sad but dignified

Bechaela Walker lives and works in Glasgow. Her work has been published in Gutter and New Writing Scotland, as well as by Monster Emporium Press, London.

She sat at the full-length streaky café window overlooking the carpark and thought of how empty the train had been—how did they keep running such services? Money and power, no doubt. Still, winter. Winter always lasted longer than she remembered; yet each year when it was gone she longed for it to return. A row of shops and all but two—a newsagents and a Ladbrokes—closed or shut down; concrete planters with weed-bushes and old juice cans and the benches made of concrete too. Three women with prams talked under a large metal shelter in the centre of the square, which looked like it had been revamped in the late 80s, early 90s, all brick cladding, red metal railings and hopes for the future: Leisure Zone, Business Zone, Retail Units for Let. Her tea was brought in a polystyrene cup because she wasn’t sure exactly when Derek would arrive so she’d asked for it to take-away. There was the smell of toast, bacon, potato scones being fried, and the prices hadn’t gone up much in twenty years—she had change of a pound for her tea, which she’d given to the waitress, only 10p though, so she’d dug into her bag to find more and the coins had come out all covered in lint and bits of foil from chocolate bars. She tried to clean them as best as she could but still. Gifts. There was always something sad about them, as though what you gave contained a measure of the given-to, as though the exchange revealed the fact that you couldn’t possibly give anything to anyone in this world, nothing more than objects anyway; things.

A man and a woman in thin anoraks sat at a table outside. They cupped their mugs of coffee as though they might warm themselves with them, those and the long cigarettes they smoked. Her dad had taken up smoking on a cold day because he thought they looked like they might have a warming effect. Each time the woman leaned her elbow on the table some tea spilled, so that whenever she lifted her cup, some would drip from the base onto her jacket. The sun hit off the metal tabletop and practically blinded the man, but he didn’t move, even seemed to be enjoying the sensation, and closed his eyes like he was relaxing on a warm terrace somewhere in Spain. Maybe it had warmed up a bit, but no, the woman was shivering. They didn’t have to look at one another anymore anyway, this couple. Like with Scott, how sometimes she would catch his eye and his look was as guarded as a stranger, more guarded, because with a stranger there was still some amount of trust, it hadn’t all been used up. In the morning, so many people with sad worn faces and yet the sun poking through the low grey cloud like it was trying to melt something, dissolve the cloud, but couldn’t and so it just pooled there like a gob of pale yellow phlegm. You should say beautiful things about the sun. Don’t cast me from the white world! Such phrases came to her sometimes when she looked out upon a scene, bits from old Russian fairytales. Derek would arrive soon and they’d share a taxi to the crematorium. What did it mean anyway, the ‘white world’, and had it later been changed to ‘wide world’ in a transliterative blunder?

She looked at her phone and deliberately put it back face down, away from her, over with the vinegar and sauce sachets in their little silver dish. She’d forgotten to talk to her friend Joey about the funeral the night before and he’d forgotten about it altogether. She’d texted him to say her and Derek would be sharing a taxi from Dalmuir but he’d just woken up and wouldn’t make it in time. He was only 7 or 8 miles away, less, but there was no public transport, hardly any these days, so you couldn’t get anywhere without advanced notification, military planning and blind faith that the bus would actually turn up. You also needed lots of change, too much, it was far too expensive and therefore only for solo travellers so that buses were full of the lonely and abandoned, the anti-social and friendless of this world, or just those bad at maths: any more than one person travelling to the same place at the same time and a taxi was generally cheaper. Her grandparents still wouldn’t have countenanced it though—taxis! The public library across the road, a designated Learning Zone, was shut; it didn’t open until 12 on Saturdays and was closed altogether on Sundays. Thus here, but at least it was cheap. A café in the city wouldn’t have even been an option, where a coffee cost three times as much and in here the music was conducive to just being, because it was incidental, rather than some stupid chain trying to imbricate you in their brand mood. God, why couldn’t she just sit and relax, stop thinking about this crap that didn’t really matter anyway, and still it kept coming, when really she wanted to think about something useful, something interesting even. She had no career. No promotions. Nothing. Well that was a lie, what was there to complain about, she had plenty. Once, she’d applied for a job as a youth worker and half way through the interview the panel had said that they’d like to consider her for the manager’s post at the same time—they practically made it known to her that the job was hers but she’d said no, she’d prefer not to, a phrase from a story she’d read and which worked very well when you didn’t want to antagonise those you were saying no to. You think you’re so clever, that’s what her mother would have said. But you’re not. Why had she said no, she couldn’t really work it out. If there had been a political, a philosophical position to hold onto it would make more sense. If she was saying no because she didn’t believe in managing others, for example—that was actually her position but she doubted her own sloppy thinking. Maybe it had nothing to do with her politics. Maybe such a seemingly noble position masked a pathetic reality, which was that she didn’t have the courage to take on any sort of responsibility, didn’t believe in her own capacity to do anything well. Believe in yourself. When you look in the mirror say three nice things to yourself: you are beautiful, you are kind, you are enough.

The light from the table outside shone through her thin awful hair and she could see all the breaks in it. She should cut it all off, shear off the whole lot, but she was frightened that would make her look even worse, that she would end up one of those old witch-women with long, grey hair. That wasn’t a very feminist thing to think. ‘Witch’ as a pejorative, get a grip. She took a deep breath, sipped at the coffee which she kept forgetting to add milk to. Two children at the counter ordered a cheese and ham toastie and chips with curry sauce for 1:30pm. Chips for 1:30! They were putting in an order for later for god’s sake. The elder girl, who looked about six years old, counted the change over and over. The wee one pressed herself right into her big sister, who just let her do it. The waitress spoke kindly to them. They had ordered a toastie for now and chips and curry sauce for later. Would a portion of chips be enough for the two of them for lunch — maybe the waitress would make sure they got a large portion, that was it, and everything would be OK, she’d put in extra chips and maybe even a couple of rolls too. But where were the parents, were they out the game, at work all day, at the pub, unable to do more than hand their children a bunch of change and send them to the café. Was there no gas, no electricity in their house? Or was she over-thinking things again, she was always doing that and it was a bad habit, maybe they were fine, just ordering their bloody lunch, a treat for god’s sake! People were actually hungry, going to food banks and relying on donations of soup and pasta to get by. Just the other day a woman had started talking to her in the shopping centre. If you’re going to that place at the Salvation Army, she said, you need to hide your jacket, go along without it, then they’ll give you another one. She talked like she was getting one over on them. She even said you could pretend to have your period and you’d get tampons. I’ve got boxes and boxes of them stacked up at home, she said.

A man walked past holding the hands of his grandchildren, one on either side. It was a beautiful sight, the way he talked so deliberately to them, and them, gazing back up at him, smiling and young and intelligent, as though he was explaining why snails had shells or what made leaves green, photosynthesis, the circle of life, god, or whatever he was saying in such a lovely manner, stooping a little to meet them at their height, which was up to the pockets on his Harrington. They picked their way round a pond-sized puddle that practically cut off one half of the square from the other, and the puddle contained the sky and the high-rise buildings opposite and then their long slender figures.

There was a bridge she crossed often for work and once when she crossed it a man stood looking at the river, which was so still that day, still and almost warm-looking, like you could just vault the fence and go for a swim, there in the Clyde, swimming instead of walking to work, and the man had said to his friend, ‘it disnae even look like water,’ and it had stayed with her, that line, pure poetry, but she didn’t know why, what was so poetic about it, what made poetry poetry so that you wanted to say it out loud or in your head over and over. Tom would have known.

She caught herself. It felt daft saying Tom, thinking ‘Tom’, when she hadn’t even known him: Tom Leonard. She couldn’t get her head to fix properly on him, what should she call him in her head, why couldn’t she focus. Instead, she was staring at a woman opposite who seemed to have landed in the place: beautiful, with this wide, effortless smile that played on her lips – it was symmetrical, like anything beautiful: a bridge, a butterfly. Or especially a book. Its symmetry is what feels so good in your hands and allows you to hold it for long enough to read it, to want to read it. People go mad about books, about the object, the book as an actual thing. She’d worked once in an old bookshop in Edinburgh and the owner hid certain books from certain customers, the ones who wanted old editions of Sherlock Holmes novels so they could have them re-bound. Imagine! The owner couldn’t bear it, the whole re-binding thing, and if he got a whiff that the buyer wasn’t a reader and just wanted something to be authentically old and Scottish in their Dallas dining room bookcases he’d tell them he had nothing suitable. These books were worth hundreds, thousands sometimes, and he’d just pretend they didn’t exist. Such was life. He was a poor man too, paid her in cigarettes his Spanish wife brought back from home, and in books, which she could get at half the price of her hourly rate. Sherlock Holmes, though.

Her phone thrummed on the table. It was Joey saying he’d get a taxi to the funeral. She pushed the phone away from her again. The beautiful, symmetrical woman reached over and stole one of her boyfriend’s potato scones. The guy laughed, snatched it back. Such is love.

A man stopped at the door clutching his zimmer, breathing heavily, his thin little mouth was moving like fish lips, or maybe reciting a prayer. Blessed art thou amongst women. The zimmer had bike-style breaks and she wondered how they operated, what they were required for, in which situations might a mobility aid such as this get out of control. Someone got up to open the door for him and when he said, “I’ll manage,” it came out angrier than maybe he’d wanted it to. That sometimes happens. You go for one tone and another entirely is made by your voice, because the windpipe contracts involuntarily, or you speak on an in-breath by mistake.

Three people at the table next to her rose. They were all in black too and from out of town, you could tell by their voices, the way they gawked at the place as though it were something they were considering improving. They argued politely about who was to pay while they put on their jackets; jackets that they probably used to enjoy the Scottish countryside; jackets that were a ‘good investment’ and would last them more than a decade; boots too, that might be the final pair of hiking boots they’d ever have to buy because the leather was such high grade and they were practically dead anyway. Where did these horrible thoughts come from? The older man looked at her for a second, as though he recognised her, and so she smiled, like she always did for men.

Her phone was face down on the table, a futile strategy intending to stop her poking at it all the time, consulting it like the oracle of Delphi. Love of money and nothing else will ruin Sparta. That was something else that was good about this place: hardly anyone on their phones, maybe because of the lack of wifi. People were actually talking to each other or, heaven forbid, staring into space, daydreaming. It was almost romantically old-fashioned, bucolic, these philosophical folk, wondering what to make for dinner, did they need to buy onions, thinking about love, loneliness, how to connect, was it even a possibility — only coming-to when the waitress put down their cup of coffee, back to the absurd reality of Coldplay or Florence and the Machine, the clicks of crutches and zimmers scuttling over the laminate floor of the cafe, towards endless coffee refills and fresh bacon baps, kind waitresses, the quarrelling couples. She tried reading an article a friend had sent her about love, identity and the family through the eyes of Adorno but it failed to refresh when she got to the bottom of the page. It was all around her anyway if only she could put down the phone and look: the way the tables were set up for small groups of people familiar with each other, co-dependent and inward looking, avoiding the gaze of those they deemed strangers; benches designed by the council to repel all forms of sociality.

The two friends that sat at the tiny round table in the corner, arranging their legs so they would not touch; maybe friends for over thirty years and yet never embracing, never touching, even with their own sons and daughters rarely if ever after the age of seven kissing or cuddling, especially the sons, but she knew this was not always the case, you couldn’t generalize, some folk were lucky, smothered in cuddles, at least twenty per day, thirty!—anyway, the men in the corner looked like poets.

They possibly were poets, here for the funeral, gathering from the far corners of the whole white world to say farewell to the poet whose name she couldn’t form in her mouth, in her head even. Maybe on any other Saturday the place would be dead—dead on the days without funerals. Wasn’t laughing at your own jokes a sign of something bad? Maybe everyone in the general vicinity was a poet-mourner: the gracious man with his grandchildren, the beautiful woman with her smile, the girl, pressing herself into her sister in grief perhaps, perhaps all of them poets. There was a song in her head, it had been there all day: this means nothing to me! She tapped her fingers on the table and played the Yamaha keyboard bit in her head. Oh Vienna! It was hard not to actually sing out loud. Where did these songs come from? She did all the drum bits too and the fast synthesizer bit and was in the process of mentally recreating the original video when Derek waved at her from outside. His action worked well with the bit of the song she was at, as though he were following the instructions of some invisible camera crew and director, and she smiled. Moments like that made her happier than almost anything, how it could all just fall into place like that: a piece of music, a man locking up his bike and waving at her. It was as though the world itself, buildings even, things, were designed to automatically or inevitably intervene in any ordinary unhappiness and make you smile again; you could never stay sad for too long, or it was game over. Derek gestured that he had to get money and disappeared round the corner. Outside a man was pulling too hard on the collar of his labrador, she could see him actually trying to reason with it as though it were a child and could understand English.

They filed into the crematorium. She would not cry, would not cry, what right had she, who hadn’t actually known the man and didn’t even have a firm grasp of how to address him. They sat at the back, her and Derek, and stood as the coffin came in and the main thing she thought, and she knew many people in the room must be thinking the same thing, the main fact of the matter was that it was way too big for him, the coffin—he’d been quite a small man, and so it forced you to consider his body, lying for three weeks, where had he been all this time? Try thinking of something nice for a change. His poetry, but none, not a single line would come; was this what memory was, something that could just fail you when you needed it, when what you wanted was to think about someone’s life and death in a solemn way. There’s Joey, said Derek, and she caught the outline of his shoulders, the shape of his head. Life was made up of so many moments, so many: people just came and went, friends, acquaintances. ‘Someone’, what a word to use of the deceased; what was he to her though, not a friend, not a colleague, not a stranger, but maybe all of these things at once and so there should be a word for it, for what the writer is to the reader, was, and not just a fan, something more personal than that. She’d cried at Oscar Wilde’s grave, reciting The Ballad of Reading Gaol, kissing his headstone, alone in Paris; she’d had a nosebleed on Rhode’s grave in Bulawayo, she was so angry and it had just come out of her, the blood spurting everywhere, like her body itself was enraged and wanted to desecrate his grave because she was too weak, her mind reasoned to leave it alone. Maybe we were all just fans of each other, or not, as the case may be, fans or enemies or nonplussed, not even giving the person a second thought, that was the most common state of affairs, but how could you get any closer than that, than a general opinion of someone?

The man at the front, one of Tom Leonard’s sons, was recalling a time when his dad was sat eating a banana and drinking a cup of tea with his headphones on, listening to classical music. Of all the things to remember.

Then the celebrant spoke: About a year ago, Tom had a near brush with death, and it was at this point he realised he was happy with his life.

Why should hearing that make her whole body hurt? Yet it did.

He carried on: Tom never had an affiliation to any party.

She felt sure that she would not cry. The ceiling was painted a pale blue; the woman in front, in profile, looked composed and yet serious, thoughtful, as was befitting at a funeral on the West coast of Scotland.

Tom had psychosomatic asthma his whole life, said another friend, but he just got on with it, and there’s a lesson to be had in that. That’s not what he said, he said it better, but she couldn’t get it right in her head, it was all unravelling. She looked at a man to her right. His whole body was held upright, tense and attentive, but maybe he was trying to think of anything but the coffin, maybe he wasn’t really there at all, but instead counting his breathing, pinching a hidden piece of flesh and trying not to listen to the words so he could continue to sit there looking so dignified.

The celebrant thanked the speakers and told the congregation that it was time to say goodbye, that there was this time at every funeral, when the body would be taken for good, but she said it in a better way — who could remember such things? A real writer could. At her gran’s funeral, the body had been taken without warning. They had all been asked to sing a song, All Things Bright and Beautiful, and then, when they looked back up, the coffin was gone, like a magic trick; it was terrible, the most terrible slight of hand. The man across the aisle sat there composing himself over and over, he had the look of someone at a concert, clearing his throat a little as the orchestra tuned up. There was soft music now. Maybe she was imagining things, almost cheerful music, slow and gentle, holy buttons/sad but dignified. Finally some of his poetry, where was it coming from, and they were being asked to stand while the body was taken for cremation. She was losing it, the composure, but she mustn’t. For a second, her throat closed over and she couldn’t breath. The man in the next aisle stood tall and looked strong, although inside he felt terrible, this terrible pain they all felt, who was to say to what degree. Keep breathing, keep breathing, you’re OK. And silently she comforted herself: by standing still and alone and untouchable. She would get bread on the way home, and batteries; and all of Alexandria would be laid out in the valley in front of her, with the lights coming on at lunchtime because it got dark so early this time of year. ●

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