Jeremy Clarke

Low Life | 14 March 2009

Bright eyes

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I thought no one else was going to turn up at the crematorium to wave Terry off. But as the seconds ticked closer to the appointed time, knots of ashen-faced mourners began to trickle in from the car park and congregate around the chapel doors. Then Terry arrived. He arrived in a cardboard box inside a wickerwork casket laid longitudinally in the back of the hearse. He’d been dead nearly a month. Lung cancer. Diagnosed ten days before he died. He was cleaning windows right to the end. Today would have been his 65th birthday.

Terry’s three brothers hoisted him in through the doors and the rest of us trooped in behind. The interior of the chapel disappointed me. Earlier, the ‘Civic Funerary Celebrant’ had told me that he didn’t really ‘do’ prayers. So I was looking forward to seeing what consolation, if any, our secular-minded state was prepared to sanction instead of the heavenly banquet and life eternal. I genuinely hoped it would have the courage of its lack of convictions and offer nothing whatsoever, not even a platitude. I hoped that the Civic Funerary Celebrant would stand in front of us, shrug his shoulders, and say, ‘Oh, well. Here today: gone tomorrow!’ And then pat his pockets and say, ‘Anyone got a light?’

But the chapel interior, with its polished wood, its big Gothic-style window and velveteen curtains ready to close discreetly around the casket, was exactly like a place of worship. The seamless, dark-suited piety of the civic funerary celebrant was exactly like that of a Protestant pastor. And the undertaker’s unctuous bow towards the casket as the curtains closed and Terry was conveyed on runners towards the furnace, accompanied by Simon and bloody Garfunkel singing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, was exactly that of a long-standing, faithful church deacon. If death has no mystery why the curtains? Why the bowing? Why the hard seats and the Victorian-style chapel? Let’s all go outside and have a bonfire, for goodness sake, with kids running about, and cider, and sausage rolls.

Cider and sausage rolls came later, on the outside decking of the Masons Arms, overlooking Bodmin Gaol. Bodmin is neither the prettiest nor the wealthiest town in Britain, by a long chalk, though the unbelievably enormous county mental hospital has been lately converted to pastel-coloured apartments, and the leper colony has long gone. But from the decking of the Masons Arms the formidable old hanging gaol was looking particularly grim in the failing daylight, though its former power to intimidate the locals must be fading because lead has gone from the roof.

The landlord of the Masons Arms’ knickers were in a twist right from the word go. A pair of characters among Terry’s mourners, who were barred from every pub in town under a local scheme called Pub Watch, had been spotted in his beer garden drinking lager from cans. It must be a well-organised and effective scheme, this Pub Watch, because we hadn’t been in his pub more than five minutes and he’d had a phone call already. ‘Bodmin for you,’ said one of Terry’s ex-girlfriends, rolling her glazed eyes. ‘You can’t scratch your backside without someone getting on the phone.’ The landlord’s red face was among us frequently after that, diligently checking for blacklisted customers.

I recognised only three people, all from the old days, when Terry had the squat beside the Thames. One was one of the brothers. Another was an old girlfriend. Another was a drug dealer who had been celebrated and feared in his heyday as something of a hard man. Formerly well-built, he was now a stooped, emaciated old junky.

He and I talked. We spoke about death and then cancer and then we got back on to death again. ‘Only 62 and I’m the only one left,’ he tutted. ‘Heart attack, blood clot, cancer: they’ve all gone down.’ I watched him push tobacco into line on a cigarette paper with a massive, dirt-encrusted thumb, the nail like a big toe nail. ‘You still smoke dope, then?’ I observed. ‘Why stop now?’ he said. ‘Let’s face it, it’s relatively harmless.’ I looked at his chalk-white face. You could see the skull beneath, the jutting brows, the hollow eye sockets. A death’s head, if ever I saw one. ‘The only thing about smoking dope that gets you, that really gets you, and let’s be serious about it, because I know what I’m talking about here, is the light. It just gets too bright sometimes.’

I looked up at the lowering sky and across the grey town to the old stone gaol. Four thirty in the afternoon, and the light, such as it was, was failing fast. It felt as if we were standing there and sipping our cider at the end of the world. ‘Too bright!’ I said. ‘How can you say it’s too bright!’ ‘Here, have some of this,’ he said. ‘Brightens things up.’