The nurse made a small adjustment to a monitor then turned to her colleague and in a hushed tone said, ‘Won’t be long now; you can see he’s fading. His blood pressure’s dropped since this morning, and his heart rate’s increased but it’s weak. He was struggling to breathe, so I’ve put him back on the ventilator.’
‘Has he been conscious?’
‘Yes, a little while ago, only for a few minutes. He became agitated, muttering things, names I think - couldn’t quite make it out.’
‘Do you think he understands he’s dying?’
‘Perhaps. I upped the Morphine level so he shouldn’t be in any pain now. If he comes around again, though, keep an eye on him. Only raise the dose if you think you must - but not too much mind or you’ll finish him off for sure.’
‘Have there been any visitors, other than that doctor friend of his - the darkie?’
Honestly, Kerry, you are so old-fashioned about coloured people. No, only him. He seemed nice - so...′ She paused as if trying to find the right words, ‘... refined - and ever so well-spoken. He could pass as an English gentleman!’
‘But it does seem odd, doesn’t it?’
‘That his only friend is, well, you know, black. Hasn’t he got any family?’
‘No, apparently not - at least, none we know of. He lived alone - a recluse. Poor chap - no one to share his last hours with. Anyway, I think you should prepare yourself. He's near the end, and I think you may be the one holding his hand when he goes.’
The pain has gone together with the crushing sense of fear. He experiences a strange sensation of peace, and he feels detached from reality. His eyes are shut - not tight - just enough to provide a shutter from the world outside - the desire to be alone within himself is powerful. He registers the muted conversation by his bedside but most of the words elude him.
The sure knowledge death beckoned him makes him sad although he is no longer afraid. And yet something continues to trouble him. A recent dream, one with significance, prods his conscious thoughts but he can’t remember the details. As hard as he tries to retrieve them, they remain out of reach.
An awareness rather than memories of life beyond the hospital bed tease the recesses of his mind. Small, incoherent scenes flash intermittently: tiny vignettes - never complete and therefore making little sense. But, they are significant - somehow.
Aware of the physical presence of someone nearby, he opens his eyes and registers his surroundings. A concerned face gazes down at him. She looks kind, he thinks, before slipping into unconsciousness.
It was a strange experience, the sort you might have in a dream with reality suspended. No feeling other than a sensation of movement, shape and light suggest he is witnessing the scene and not imagining it. He is hovering parallel, inches above a body which he does not see but can sense. He does see the face, though. If the eyes had been open, they would be staring into his own. He knows the bed on which the body lies prostate is being propelled at speed - the floor underneath is blurred. There is a sensation of being dragged along with it as though an unseen connection is tethering his incorporeal self to mirror image under him.
One moment, his nose is all but touching that of the one facing him, then he is higher, perhaps just under where the ceiling would be. With detached curiosity, he notes the tight white sheet covering all but the head. The face, he notices, is almost completely obscured by a rubber mask - only the closed eyes and top of the head, topped with unkempt hair is visible. But enough of the features are apparent for him to register, although, with no sense of surprise, the face below him is his own.
Most of the pews in the crematorium chapel are vacant. A small scattering of middle-aged men and women fill the back two benches on the right, near the entrance door through which they entered a few minutes ago. They talk in hushed tones; their familiarity with each other easing the disconcerting sombreness created by the mournful toll of the funeral bell. Several rows in front of them sit a huddle of three: a man, woman and a teenage boy, their heads close together in deep conversation. The seats to the left are empty except for a grey haired black man who, despite the warmth of the day penetrating the coolness of the interior, is wearing an expensive looking camel hair coat. His head is bowed in silent prayer. The group at the back throw curious glances towards him.
A casual observer might guess a random gathering of people have been corralled to form a token congregation - and they would be correct. The invitation had been unexpected but interpreted as an instruction. The Boss suggested they might like to pay their respects.
He worked with them once - but that was a long time ago. Most struggled to recall him, and to understand why the funeral had taken on such importance - even more so considering what they knew, or thought they did, about their former colleague
Whispers pass too and thro.
‘Can you remember him?’
‘Barely. I think I’d only been working a few weeks when he...’
‘I can - just about. It was back when Bob headed up Parks. He took a real shine to him. One moment he’s selling vacuum cleaners door to door, the next he’s Management!’
‘Didn’t he marry Bob’s daughter? I mean, hardly surprising he got promoted.’
‘Got her in the family way, didn’t he?’
‘Shush, Hugh, Helen might hear you! She doesn’t need that today of all days!’ said a severe looking female with a nod towards the huddle of three sitting at the front of the chapel.
’Well, it strikes me as odd. I mean he disappeared suddenly, didn’t he? weren’t there rumours? Didn’t he get banged up?′
‘Yes, he did. But we’re here to support Helen. We’ve worked so long at Parks, she sees us as part of the family, so let’s do our duty, for her sake at least.’
‘Wouldn’t be so bad if there was a wake after this. A few drinks might have made this worthwhile!’
‘Oh, shut up Derek!’
‘Helen doesn’t appear very happy!’
‘Not surprising, is it? This is a funeral after all!’
‘No, I mean she’s arguing.’
The Boss, his wife, Helen, and son, Peter remained oblivious to the muted exchanges going on behind them. Their heads merged close together, deep in their own conversation.
’Why am I here? For God’s sake, after all these years - what’s the point? Look, I’m sorry, I want to go, this isn’t right, in fact being here makes me a hypocrite. That man left our family in tatters - he showed no thought, no consideration - he only cared about himself.′
‘He made mistakes, Helen, some bad choices but ....’
She grabbed at her handbag and gloves as if making moves to go.
‘Mistakes! Bad choices!’ She flashed a glance towards the gathering at the back of the chapel and then raised herself from her seat.
’Helen, please, sit down. It won’t take long and, well, I think we should be here, as a family. Look, what I’m trying to say is that, despite what he did, he had a redeeming side too, and...′
’Did he? Do you really think so? Well, if he had a good side, his bad side far outweighed it - all I can remember is the wicked things he did - and not only when he was, you know, with us.′
‘Well, I will always be grateful for the help he gave me. I wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for him - and we wouldn’t be together either, come to that!’
’But we’ve had no contact with him for well over ten years. The family’s moved on - there’s no connection. He’s not family - he’s a no one, at least as far as I’m concerned. Peter, I bet you can’t even remember what he looked like - you were five years old when he ... when he destroyed everything.′
‘Yes, I can - at least I think so.’
‘That’s right, Peter. How could you possibly forget him? He is your real father after all - you’re bound to have some kind of bond.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake, you’ve been more of a father to my son than he ever was and, judging by what he got up to when he split from us, he was no role model!’
‘Mum, please, I think we should be here like Dad says.’
‘Okay, I’ll stay. But I can’t agree. Just by being here we must be declaring our forgiveness - and I for one will never forgive him for what he did, never!’
They each retreated into their private thoughts. After a few minutes, Helen broke the silence. ‘Did you speak to Doctor Ngane?’ she said, nodding towards the black man.
‘Only briefly. We introduced ourselves. It was strange, wasn’t it, because...’
‘...because, he knew straight away who we were?’ Peter finished for him. ‘I wonder who he is, and what he’s got to do with my dad - my other dad. Sorry.’
‘We’ll talk to him, I’m sure after this is over.’
Movement at the entrance caused heads turned in unison. The coffin was being wheeled in on a heavily chromed trolley escorted by four sombre-faced, black-suited men, one at each corner; the chaplain in his white cassock followed a few paces behind. When the procession reached the front of the chapel, the pall bearers slid the plain, unadorned box on the metal runners in front of the closed red curtains, then, after bowing their heads in drill-like precision, turned and marched back down the aisle.
The service began. There would be no hymns, much to the relief of some - and disappointment of others. The chaplain followed the order of service, his words emotionless, sterile, and mechanical. The congregation watched and listened with a mixture of curiosity and boredom. For most, this was an unexpected call to duty-at best a distraction from work. The words flowed unheard and with no meaning - thoughts focused on what remained of the day: a free holiday, the reward for attendance.
The litany finished. A moment of silence - a pause - the chaplain nodded to the black man who then stood and walked slowly out to the lectern.