I pull my long black woollen coat around me. Lennon lies quietly at my feet, the cold air teasing his fur. My sister told me it was disrespectful to take a dog to a funeral. I didn’t see why. It’s a woodland funeral. Dad’s in a wicker coffin. She didn’t like that either, Jasmine. God knows how she turned out so conventional, so staid.
Twanged notes jostle the still air – Evan playing the five-stringed banjo. Dad’s banjo. He finishes the song, pauses, throws the banjo into the grave. It thuds and gives off a final dismal note. Jasmine pulls a face like she’s tasted something nasty.
The grave looks like a white elephant stall. So far it contains – as well as Dad – a flat cap, a scarf, a necklace, a coin, a crystal, a belt buckle, several CDs and photos, football programmes, a CND badge and the banjo.
I finger my offering in my deep pocket. My sister steps forward and throws in a long-stemmed white lily. Very traditional. Very her. From my pocket I pull a doll that looks like it’s been made and painted by a child. I’d stayed up until three o’clock in the morning trying to perfect one. Then I’d stopped. Dad wasn’t flawless, and neither am I. Nor is dear Jasmine, much as she likes to think she is. So I picked the first one I’d made, the most imperfect. Dad would like that one best.
We used to make them as kids. Papier-mâché dolls. It’s my first recollection of childhood: sitting in our tiny council flat kitchen making those dolls. We would get to take them, with whatever else we could muster, to Greenham Common. I didn’t understand the relevance of the place then. To me it was just like a big picnic on a huge campsite. Rain or shine, we’d rock up in our VW van held together with rust, proudly displaying large CND symbols on either side – which always reminded me of a bird’s foot.
Nineteen eighty-one. I was eight years old when the protest march was organised. I didn’t witness it but I imagine it was a phenomenal sight. I can’t imagine something like that happening nowadays; the march, maybe, but not the peace camp. I loved it there. It got bigger each time we visited. It was such a unique atmosphere; more than community spirit. People gathered for a common cause. It was family. Jasmine hated it. She was twelve going on twenty; too old to play and too young to be taken seriously. Not that she was interested in campaigning. Heaven forbid she should get her manicured hands dirty. I often thought she was adopted. She should’ve been. She split our family more than she unified it.
Mine’s the last memento in the grave. For the wake I’ve arranged a picnic in the woods. Jasmine decides not to stay, mumbles something about work commitments. Doesn’t want to risk getting a speck of dirt on her Karen Millen or Ted Baker. I don’t wear designer. My clothes are mostly from charity shops. The coat Jasmine wore today probably totals the cost of my entire wardrobe. I’m not jealous. I just don’t get it. If I had that kind of money, I’d buy a piece of art from a local artist. Like me.
We move away from the grave, Lennon at my heels, and settle in a beautiful spot. The grass is spotted with daisies. Tall trees surround the glade; their bronzing leaves rustle in the autumnal breeze. The odd acorn and conker lie on the floor. A low seasonal sun bleeds through the branches, comfortingly warm.
People unroll blankets and unwrap food. Bags and boxes of rolls, scones, cakes, samosas, cold pizza and stuff I don’t recognise are passed around. Beer is opened, wine uncorked, thermos flasks circulated. Stories are swapped and memories shared, accompanied by laughter. It’s not a jovial atmosphere, but it isn’t sad either. As the sun sinks, the chill in the air increases and people begin packing up and hugging goodbye. Lennon is sated and sleepy from copious titbits. His Denis Healey eyebrows lift as movement disturbs him. I’m asked countless times if I will be okay, do I want a bed for the night, company, a lift home? I thank them all and politely decline.
Lennon and I trail back to the car park with the last of the mourners and friends. I unlock my bike, take my gloves, lights and helmet from the pannier, then scoop up Lennon. Wrapping his fleecy blanket around him, I clip him into the dog carrier on the handlebars.
It doesn’t bother me, going back to the empty house. I’d moved back in with Dad when Mum died of breast cancer. I’d had over a week now to get used to being without him. I had contemplated moving the furniture or getting rid of Dad’s chair – the tatty armchair that he always sat in by the fire with Lennon at his feet on the rug. The chair I had found him in ten days ago. Dead. A peaceful death, they said. Massive brain haemorrhage in his sleep. He was always nodding off reading Private Eye. I got used to leaving him there. He’d wake when the fire died down and he got cold, and would take himself off to bed.
Apparently, they are more common than you think – aneurysms. Loads of people wake up next to dead people. That must be awful. That morning was bad enough. I remember seeing him as I got to the bottom of the stairs and chastising him for being there all night. I remember having a cold feeling in my stomach, knowing instinctively that something was wrong. At first, I thought the dog was dead because he didn’t respond to my voice, didn’t lift his head. ‘Come on, sleepyhead.’ I nudged Dad. I remember simultaneously feeling relief and horror – is that possible? – as Lennon lifted his head and Dad slumped forward, his lips blue. He was so cold. I sat on the floor with Lennon and held Dad’s stiffening fingers. Eventually, through streaming tears, I got up and unfolded a blanket from the back of the chair and tucked it around him. Stupid, really.
I phoned my sister. She was a big help. Cold. I mean calm – Freudian slip. I said, ‘Oh my God, Jas. Dad’s dead. Here in the house. I just found him. In his chair. Dead.’ After a pause, she said, ‘Thank you for letting me know. Have you called an ambulance? They’ll deal with it.’ I said, ‘It?’ She sighed and said, ‘They’ll take him away.’ I said, ‘I don’t want him taken away.’ She said, ‘Oh for God’s sake, P. Grow up.’ Then she went quiet for a bit and I tried not to sob audibly. Eventually, she told me she’d ring later, when I had calmed down, and check how I was doing. Perhaps she needed time for it to sink in. Maybe she did her crying when she hung up. I stood staring at the phone for a bit, then Lennon nudged my leg. I had to think hard to remember the number for the ambulance; funny that 999 could be difficult to recall. She was nice, the lady on the other end of the phone. Apparently, she’d woken up next to her dead husband a few years ago.
Jasmine rang later to check on me. I was sitting in the dark on the rug by the fire with Lennon. I couldn’t bring myself to sit in Dad’s chair. She didn’t ask how I was or if it had been dealt with. She said something about assuming I would know of his funeral arrangements as he’d not discussed them with her, and to tell her when and where, she’d be there.
I still can’t sit in that chair. It smells of him, which is odd because I can’t say I noticed him smelling of anything specific when he was alive, except maybe Imperial Leather soap. The chair doesn’t smell of that, though. It smells of comfort, love, tenderness, deep-rooted principles and bucking the system. And contentment. It smells mostly of that; a life well lived.
I’m sitting on the grey-white sheepskin rug with Lennon when she arrives. I’ve just finished making paper knots and laying kindle. It’s oddly therapeutic, almost creative. I haven’t been creative since I found him. Didn’t open my stall this week. All I’ve done are those bloody papier-mâché dolls, and I cocked that up.
She casts her usual cursory glance of distaste around the place when I let her in.
‘Do you want a drink? I’ve no milk. There’s rum, or wine.’
‘I’m not stopping. Can you put a decent light on?’
‘Oh, come on, Jas. Why don’t you sit down for a bit?’ I offer, switching on the standard lamp.
She purses her lips into a pencil-thin line as she takes in the debris of pottery and papier-mâché on the kitchen table. It’s never been used for eating; we always ate off our laps. She almost sits in Dad’s chair, but doesn’t. Unzipping her (doubtless designer) bag, she pulls out an envelope.
‘I’m to show you this.’ She clears her throat as she speaks and proffers the envelope, then watches me tear it open.
As I pull out the contents, I see the words Adoption and Birth Certificate.
‘So you are adopted?’ I say before looking properly.
‘No,’ she snorts. ‘You are.’
I yank out the rest of the paperwork and skim through it.
She’s by the front door when she turns and concedes, ‘I can see why you’d think it would be me.’
Then I notice it – Dad’s name on my birth certificate.
‘But…’ I can’t find the words. It doesn’t make sense. ‘How can I be adopted if—’
‘Dad had a fling. Your mum died after having you, some sort of complication,’ she says and waves her hand dismissively. ‘My mum adopted you. Christ knows why. You’d never catch me taking someone else’s kid on, especially if it had been produced by my philandering husband. I’d cut his balls off first.’
‘You really hate me, don’t you?’ I whisper, still reeling with shock, but beginning to make sense of a lot of things that had never made sense.
She pauses with the front door ajar, and sighs, irritated. ‘No, Peony. I resent you. I hate him, and as for her…’
‘Hate is so harsh, Jas. You can’t mean it. You don’t come to the funeral of someone you hate.’
Jasmine turns to face me, her expression hidden in the shadow of the doorway.
‘Don’t you dare tell me how I feel. I’m so angry. Beyond angry. I’ve been angry since the day you arrived. They doted on you. They were so protective of you.’
‘They would’ve doted on you, given half a chance. You were always so… unapproachable.’
‘Unapproachable? I was unloved. Unwanted. I was pushed out. You – some tart’s offspring – usurped me, just like that. Maybe I am jealous, if I’m honest. There – happy?’
‘Jasmine, how can you say these things? Unwanted? Unloved? You know that’s not true.’
I step towards her and she steps away.
‘Look, I’ve kept my promise and the stupid secret. I’ve done what I said I would. That’s an end to it.’
‘You’ve known all this time and you didn’t say anything? I can’t imagine how hard that must have been for you, and how painful.’ I reach out to her and she backs away.
‘Shut up, P. Don’t pretend you know me.’ Her voice falters, and for a moment I think I see tears in her eyes. Then, with renewed vigour, Jasmine flings the door open and cold air rushes in.
‘But don’t you see – that’s an act of love, Jasmine.’ I reach out and touch her arm; she snatches it away. ‘Maybe we can…’
She cuts me dead with a hollow laugh, ‘Oh, please don’t say start again.’
‘But we’re family. That matters.’
‘My family are dead. Keep the house – I want no part of it and have no reason to visit it.’ She slams the door behind her. I listen to her heels clip up the garden path, and then she’s gone. Silence engulfs me.
In a trance, I lay and light the fire; I watch the flames dance and tease their way up the chimney. The fire cracks, jolting me back to reality. I get up to fetch a drink. On the kitchen table lie four papier-mâché dolls. Scooping them up, I carry them to the fire. I lean over Lennon, catatonic on the rug, and line them up on the mantelpiece. Mum, Dad, Peony, Jasmine. Must make one for Lennon.
Tearing the adoption papers up, I throw them on the fire. We are family, whatever Jas says. So, she’s angry. She resents me. But she never said a word about any of this in all that time. We had some humdinger fights as kids. She’d had this ammo against me all along and hadn’t used it. Surely that must count for something. One day I’ll find out.
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