It was awkward. It had always been awkward. He had always been awkward. That was my father; a nuisance to the end. And afterwards.
Susan came with me to the funeral, which was good of her, since she and Dad didn’t see eye to eye. She was a declared non-believer and I was officially agnostic (Church of England long since lapsed), so the fact that Dad had got religion on his death bed thanks to a happy-clapper hospice visitor (or perhaps a touch of the pre-Judgement collywobbles) made it all – to say the least – interesting. The enthusiasm of the congregation and their ebullient cheerfulness was rather embarrassing and I shifted several times in my seat, stood up at the wrong time, started to sing the wrong hymn and – worst of all – gave vent to a long, loud and unconcealable yawn right in the middle of the address by a nice young lady vicar called Frances. Much head-shaking and tutting ensued.
Many of those at the church were merely fellow parishioners or acquaintances and so, unlike we family members, did not feel the need to join the second part of the afternoon’s entertainment, the trip to the crematorium. They were the lucky ones. There is nothing quite so disheartening as strolling through a garden of remembrance, remarking on the beauty of the roses and the neatly trimmed lawns, only to glance up and see the towering chimney, dark against the sky. It was like a huge finger pointing towards heaven as if to speed the departed on their way. At least it wasn’t going at the time. That would have been a bit too much to bear.
“As his eldest son, I believe that these by right are yours to look after,” said the crematorium manager, handing me the shiny black urn as I was putting my coat on and preparing to leave. I stared in horror at the object in my hand as if I expected it to start talking to me. Susan glanced over my shoulder and muttered something less than complementary.
“Usually, we take care of them,” the manager said, “but I believe that there is something in the will…”
“I’ll pop them in my handbag,” said Susan. “You’ll only drop them.”
I was glad that she had decided to come. If she hadn’t been there, I would have had to have found a place to put them and driven home half distracted by the prospect of them falling off the seat and spilling as I negotiated a tight bend on the A120, or rolling across the floor and getting stuck under the brake pedal, as if Dad was trying to reunite us with all his effort. Instead, they sat there in her bag, next to a travel pack of Kleenex, her glasses case and a half-used stick of Cerise Glory lipstick. It was probably the closest he had been to a woman since my mother left him.
And the manager was right; the will contained a surprise for me. It was one of his last requests that I, his eldest son, should scatter his ashes on the site where my mother was buried, so that they could be together at last. I rang her to check.
“Mum, did you and Dad ever discuss where you’d like to be buried?”
“Not that often,” she replied, the theme tune from Eastenders vying with her voice for the rights to the telephone receiver. “It might have come up once or twice. Why do you ask?”
I explained. She laughed.
“That sounds like him. The incurable romantic or a silly old prat. What makes him think that I wanted to spend the rest of eternity with him, anyway?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “Remember, he doesn’t know you’re not dead yet.”
“Nor ever will he,” she said. “Just scatter him wherever you want. He’ll not know the difference.”
I took a few days off from the antiques shop, leaving Elaine to handle things, and – having racked my brains to think of somewhere appropriate – resorted to the old trick of a road atlas and a pin. On my fourth go – after discounting scattering sites in the Theatreland map of London, halfway through the index and Junction 10 of the M25 – I settled on a strip of beach near Hunstanton in Norfolk. Susan declined to come with me, which was entirely understandable. She felt that she had done her duty to the old man at both church and crematorium. To stand and watch me pour a jar of grit and sand onto a beach of grit and sand was, she said, taking the piss.
I packed a lunch, filled up the car at Asda and set off up the A134, taking it easy. The beach would still be there no matter what time I arrived, and Dad was in no hurry any more. I put the radio on and let the steady passage of the programmes mark my journey through the day. I made Bury St Edmunds by eleven, Thetford by five to twelve, and my approach to King’s Lynn was slowed only by the need to keep an eye out for speed cameras. Susan, the queen of speed, had three points on her licence, a moral advantage I did not intend to abandon lightly.
And then, perhaps a little after one, I turned down a minor road, came over a rise and saw before me, the glistening expanse of the Wash, a huge toothy bite taken out of England by the ravenous North Sea. I turned to Dad’s urn, secured to the passenger seat with several strips of parcel tape.
“Well, here we are,” I said. “This is where you and I part company.”
I couldn’t drive all the way down to the beach. There was a sign several hundred yards from the sea which read “NO VEHICULAR ACCESS - ENGLISH NATURE”
I parked the car, undid the urn, slipped it into a pocket of my coat and set off down the track towards the beach. It never occurred to me to just tip him into a ditch and drive off again, even though there was no-one around to see me. It had been raining the night before and the track was muddy, slippery even. I nearly lost my footing a couple of times but I was more concerned with not breaking the urn. I had visions of myself, cupped hands full of ash, stumbling the last few yards onto the sand.
Instead, when I reached the end of the track, there was no sand waiting for me but a vast panoply of saltmarsh, glistening and undulating like a sodden rag cast across the landscape. I let out a sigh through clenched teeth.
“Sorry, Dad, but this is as close to the sea as you go. Besides, give or take a few hundred yards, this is where the pin landed, so here you are.”
I took the urn from my pocket and gripped the lid, wondering if it was a twister or a puller. I struggled with it for a moment and it just came off in my hand. Inside….
“Excuse me, but what are you doing here?”
I turned, stopping up the urn again. A grey-haired, thin man in a waxed green jacket stood there, looking suspiciously at me.
“Just walking,” I replied, strangely reluctant to discuss my business. “Is that a problem?”
“Well, it might be,” he said “Depending on where you intend to walk. It’s the season, you know.”
“The nesting season. The grey-winged Samarkand mud wader.”
“Oh, right,” I said. “I see.”
“This? Oh, it’s my father,” I said without thinking. He raised his eyebrow.
“Take him out for walks often, do you?”
At that point, I shrugged, sighed and told him the full story. He seemed a harmless sort, and I needed someone who wasn’t family or friend to talk to.
“That’s a very nice thing to do,” he said as I finished. “Some folk would’ve just tipped the ashes into the dustbin and have done with it. But you’ve done the decent thing and that’s mighty rare in this world.”
“What more could a son do for his father?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’d like to think that when I go, my son might do something like that for me, but I know he wouldn’t. Him and that wife of his are only after my house. And my daughter’s only interested in me for child-minding when she goes off gallivanting with another of her fancy men.”
I didn't want to stand on a saltmarsh beach in Norfolk all afternoon acting as agony aunt for an amateur Bill Oddie, so I took the chance to ask
“So where do you think the best place to scatter the ashes is?”
“You could do worse than the headland, down there yonder,” he said, nodding away behind my shoulder. “I’ve often thought that when I go, I’d like to rest there. You get some lovely sunsets across the Wash.”
“Let’s go there then.”
We set off, he leading the way, picking the best route through the marshes, pointing out things that I might have – no, let’s be honest, would have – missed, dropping little asides from his life into the conversation. I discovered that he had been a fireman, retired early due to stress, moved to King’s Lynn, got a job as a security guard, lost that when the company went fully automated, then volunteered to help out at the nature reserve and eventually become the assistant warden.
“I’m hoping to become the head warden next year,” he said. “That’s when Harry retires. Not that I’ll really notice the difference. I’m here practically all the time.”
“You must really love it here.”
“We all ought to have something that we like to do, rather than have to,” he said. “What do you do with your days?”
“Oh, I run an antiques shop in a little village near Colchester.”
“Do you like it?”
“Yes I do.”
“Then you’re lucky. What did your father do?”
“He was a policeman for thirty years, then he moved into insurance, became a loss adjuster. Then he retired and then he died.”
“Do you think he liked it?”
“It never seemed to me that he did.”
“Well then, perhaps he’ll like this more.”
We had reached the headland, and he led the way up the earthy, crumbling slopes to a clump of trees that stood watching the shifting, shimmering marshes. My new companion stood a little way back as if not to intrude on this moment. But as I took the lid off again, I found that I couldn’t just cast him to the winds. Instead, I handed the urn to the assistant warden while I dug a hole in the ground. I took a fallen acorn I had found in the grass and popped it in, then poured the ashes in on top of it and filled the rest in with soil. We both stamped it down and stood there, as if the occasion demanded some deeply moving eulogy. In the end, all I could say was
“Be at peace, Dad.”
and hoped that somehow this might increase his chances of being so. I didn’t know. I still don’t.
The assistant warden walked me back to the car, but offered me a cup of tea at the warden’s lodge, a few hundred yards further up the shoreline. I still had my packed lunch in the car, which I brought with me to eat. When I had finished, I glanced at my watch. The afternoon was slipping away and at that time of year, it got dark worryingly early. I didn’t want to be driving that far in twilight, and so I made my excuses and set off for the car. He came with me to the start of the track.
“Thanks for coming,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t get that many visitors at this time of year. It was nice to spend some time with someone who’s not interested in birds. I am, I know, but everyone needs a break.”
“That’s true,” I replied. “Good luck with your grey winged Samarkand mud wader.”
“Good luck with the antiques.”
The last image I had of him was a figure dark against the brightening western sky. I remembered what he had said about the Wash sunsets. I hoped that evening would be a good one.