‘I never realised you were going bald,’ his sister in law said. She had phoned him straight after his mother’s funeral and he thought she was going to offer some sort of condolence or comment on his choice of music, but no, it was his bald patch she wanted to discuss.
‘You’ve really got quite a gap there,’ she said. ‘I’ve never noticed it, but then I’ve never looked at the back of your head for forty minutes before.’ She laughed.
He didn’t know what to say. He was particularly sensitive about his loss of hair, which his wife commented on occasionally, running her fingers over his head, I can’t see why men mind so much, bald men are quite sexy really. It didn’t make him feel any better. And it was his mother’s funeral too. He had held his voice steady during his eulogy and none of the four attendees cried, although he’d noticed that his daughter-in-law, who had known his mother the briefest time, clutched a handkerchief tightly in her hand throughout the service. He wasn’t sure quite what he was upset about, his mother or the state of his follicles. His mother had been dead for three weeks. He hadn’t seen her for three months and when he had, the last time, he was pretty confident she didn’t recognise him. She smiled absently and squeezed his hand when he held hers, but he hadn’t stayed long. And then they had shut the care home so he couldn’t visit. And then she’d died.
The funeral had been live-streamed, a camera high in the back of the crematorium. It had gone better than he expected. The intimacy of the four of them, himself and his wife, his son and daughter-in-law at an interval along the front row. The crematorium, less than a year old, was all cream wood and lake views, tasteful and fitting. His mother’s coffin was adorned with purple flowers which coincidentally matched the filmy curtain which finally engulfed her. His mother would have approved. The livestream meant that his other sons could watch. One was stuck at university, one still not back from travelling. His cousin in upstate New York could tune in too, and several elderly aunts, all of whom wouldn’t have been able to make the journey, even if it had been allowed. He thought of them watching the back of his head, thinking of his hair loss and not about his dead mother.
He was still wondering how to reply when his sister-in-law said, ‘the funeral was lovely too, surprisingly good, but I really missed the bit at the end where we would have all hugged and told stories about your mum. Especially the hugging.’ She paused.
‘Thank you,’ he said.
‘I came out of work and sat in the car. I got it on my phone.’ His sister in law was a keyworker. ‘And then I just had to go straight back in and carry on. It didn’t seem right somehow.’
No, it didn’t seem right.
‘That’s a shame,’ he said. ‘we’ll have to do something, when this is all over.’
He thought of how the four of them had stood outside the exit door to the crematorium in the unseasonable sunshine, sweating in their smart black outfits talking to the vicar. None of them had met him before and the vicar had never known his mother. There had been some debate about having a vicar at all. His mother had lost her once strong faith after the death of her second husband. His wife was a strident atheist. But what else would they have done? He had been surprised how much comfort he found in the vicar’s words and the familiarity of the prayers. Maybe it was the authority of his voice. The certainty. It was one of the things his wife objected to, which was hypocritical as she was in no doubt about her lack of faith. It wasn’t worth the argument, and she conceded it was his mother, his choice.
Eventually one of the officials brought the purple flowers out and lay the arrangement on the ground by a low wall. He could see another small group of people assembled just around the corner and about to be ushered in. They were in brightly coloured clothes like a small collection of exotic birds. They must be doing that modern thing of celebrating. His mother would have hated it. As it was he was a little unhappy at the scuff marks on his son’s shoes, he was thirty now, he could at least turn up to his grandmother’s funeral in clean shoes. She never left home without her pearls on and a pair of gloves in her handbag, her mouth freshly lip-sticked. Although in the last five years she had never left home, full stop.
The official stood for a moment while they were deciding what to do with the flowers. They could leave the arrangement here, on the paving slabs, or the official suggested, they could take it with them; no one would enjoy them here and in the sun they would soon wilt and die. Should they be enjoying the flowers? Would they enjoy them if they took them and watched their slow death in the comfort of the living room? The official didn’t quite shrug. The vicar agreed, or didn’t agree, he wasn’t quite sure. It must be an odd way to spend the day, working at a crematorium, being an undertaker, officiating at funerals for people you didn’t know at all. Each funeral individually special, important to the band of friends and relatives. Each funeral merging into the next. Did they dream of bodies and coffins? What about undertaker’s humour? He bet they could party, they would need to at the end of the week, the end of the conveyer belt of deaths. Especially at the moment when they were impossibly busy. They had been good though, efficient and respectful. He imagined the drive back to the funeral parlour would be one where they might joke and play loud music, disco or heavy metal maybe, while sitting bolt upright and looking sober to the passing cars. He smiled at the thought. It didn’t really matter.
His mother had few belongings. A little jewellery, a silver framed photograph of the grandchildren when they were younger, a couple of bin bags of clothes, a bag of pills. He was in no hurry to sort them out. He collected them from the care home on his way back from work. They hadn’t let him inside the building, handing over the remains of her life in the beech-hedged carpark. The carer had been patient with him, and kind, which he appreciated but behind her smile of sympathy he could see she was exhausted, her eyes vacant and circled by dark rings. His mother’s wasn’t the only death they had experienced in the home and although they were not forthcoming with details, he knew they were troubled with more sick and vulnerable folks. He had been shocked when they had offered a facetime call, when she was already unconscious, the diagnosis presumed but not tested, the carer with only a simple surgical mask and gloves. He hadn’t liked to say anything but it was the first comment his wife had made when they hung up, even before she mentioned his mother.
As he unloaded the bin bags from his car the first one split, the contents spilling out onto the drive. His wife, who had come out to help, gathered up a nightie and a silk scarf, pulled the bag open further. There was a hangered dry-cleaning bag, plastic, perished at the seams. As lifted the bag a familiar dress emerged followed by a wave of his mother, her perfume, sweet and musty, released from the folds of fabric, as if they had just arrived at her bungalow and she had thrown open her front door to welcome them.
‘It’s your mother’s wedding dress,’ his wife said. His mother had remarried long after the death of her first husband, to an old family friend. It had been a delightful time, to see a couple in their eighties behaving like teenagers, so madly in love. They hung on each other’s words, their hands lingered on each other’s fading bodies. After his death she admitted it had been the best part of her life, the happiness of it. It had been a terrible loss.
He leant across, put his hand against the pale green of the silk. He could picture his mother as she walked down the aisle of the little church, clutching his arm to steady herself, her voice shaking as she took her vows, the champagne at the reception, how his youngest son had drained all the glasses while the speeches were in progress and fallen asleep in a corner.
He should put the dress back in the bag, take some time to decide what to do with it. As he zipped it he realised there was an envelope Sellotaped to the front of the plastic with his name on it in small neat writing.
‘Oh no,’ his wife said. ‘I can guess what that’s going to say.’
He pulled the envelope off and ran his finger along to open it. It was from the woman who had looked after his mother at home before she had to go into residential care. It must have been waiting for him for years. This is your mothers wedding dress, it read, your mother said many times that she’d like to be cremated in it.
‘I thought as much,’ his wife said. She screwed up her face as if she was trying to fit the facts together in a different, more comfortable way. ‘That’s so sad.’
He looked back at the note. Replaced it in the envelope.
‘We weren’t to know, and it’s too late now.’ He thought of the rise of smoke from the crematorium as they drove away.
‘Why didn’t anyone tell us?’ His wife said as he stuffed everything back into the bin bag.
‘It wouldn’t have made any difference,’ he said. ‘They wouldn’t have dressed the body, no one would want to touch it, not at the moment.’
He lifted the bag precariously in front of him and set off for the front door, leaving his wife to gather up the few remaining things, slam the boot shut and lock the car. He dumped the bag in the hall, caught a glimpse of himself in the full-length mirror.
In the cupboard in the utility room he found the old electric clippers under the sink. He plugged them in, felt the buzz in his hand, the smell of stale oil. Manoeuvring them slowly over his head in long smooth strokes he let what was left of his hair fall onto the working surface, onto the floor, clumps and strands separating out as it drifted down. When he finished he ran his fingers over the skin, the smooth curve of his head, the imperceptible margins where he used to have hair and where he didn’t. He ran the clippers again, tidying up the few tufts he had missed. There was pleasure here, in the loss of distinction between scalp and hair, scalp and face, the one open vista.
He unplugged the clippers, coiled the cord, gathered up the fallen hair, flicked open the pedal bin. The front door banged shut, his wife’s feet clattering across the wooden floor of the hallway. He would look in the mirror later but for now it was enough to hold his head in his hands, feel the bumps and gullies, the sore spot where he had nicked the skin.
Rowena Warwick is a writer of fiction and poetry based in Oxfordshire, UK. She has a diploma and an MA in creative writing, both with distinction. Her poetry has podiumed and been listed in many competitions, including the national poetry competition. She is currently editing her first novel. When not writing she can be found working in the NHS.
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