#16 Shoulders


Clouds the size of villages crowded the May sun. Sounds of distant traffic travelled slowly through the air. There were few people about, the marina was beginning to wind down for the day.  The cafe was shut and the boat-hands were waiting for the last of the hired boats to return. They had already upturned most of the two man canoes onto the quayside, the under-powered river cruisers were tethered to the mooring posts.

I have a vantage point on the scene. I am raised high on my father’s broad shoulders and look down on him and my grandmother. My father is talking to my grandmother in his  steady, public voice and she is nodding and looking up at me often. I cannot remember what they speak of. I was too young to comprehend more than a few words, but I am unable to forget the sensation of being elevated, of seeing all of life enacted before me. Warmed by the sun, my stomach leant against the back of my father’s head, I was deeply content.

There was a pair of faded black leather sandals on my feet, they hung loosely onto my father’s chest and bounced on his bosom as he walked. He wore an open cotton shirt, and my grandmother wore a linen blouse and a cardigan. We were under a tree by the side of the canal, a birch, its many leaflets dappling the sun. Voices belonging to others are here:  two women at a nearby table, a family of three on bicycles. Other than my grandmother, no-one sees me.

There was a noise. My father turned, and so I was turned to face the last of the day’s hire-boats returning. A dark green canoe, a man and a woman. I looked up. The sun now had a whole sky of blue to itself. The couple manoeuvered the canoe to the quay-side. My father continued to watch them as the woman stepped out without any sign of imbalance. She arched her feet as she turned back to the man, who lay the paddles in the gravel on the quay and pulled himself out, keeping hold of the rope attached to the prow. He tugged at the rope and the prow lifted from the water. Then, the canoe slipped and span round, its hull scraping the stone wall of the quay. The sound unsettled the air.

My father walked towards the man, his hands closing around my hips and, for a moment, raised me higher. I could see the cars on the bridge above the canal, waiting at a traffic light. I winced at the searing edge of another immense cloud as it spilled into the blue, its edges sharpened cobalt white. My father called out.  A slight breeze lifted, trees seethed, and then everything became diminished as  my father placed me down on the gravel path at my grandmother’s side. I watched him move across the quay, and heard the question in his voice. I watched him as his arms reached over the edge of the quay, then raised the canoe, dripping, from the water. He turned towards me and smiled shyly. I did not smile back. This was the last time I remember being on my father’s shoulders.

#5 My friend’s grandfather’s funeral.

My friend’s grandfather’s funeral
The funeral went like this:
When everyone was gathered in the chapel, the vicar began the service. Generally, it went off well, although it was difficult for the assembled to sing the hymns, as the hymn books had been forgotten. For the first few hymns, the vicar had looked cross as he sang them from memory and the audience stood mute. The vicar gave a good sermon, the service itself was reverent and sombre. The whole ceremony would have been fine, had not the vicar insisted on referring to the departed as Henry, which wasn’t his name. The dead man’s name was William J. Samson. This muddle affected the depth of sentiment that the mourners were able to reach. It’s hard to rightly hold the memory of a dear one in mind when someone resolutely refers to them as Henry, when their name is William.
After the service, the congregation moved outside to the graveyard. The grave had been freshly dug and there was six foot’s worth of earth piled high beside the hole. On the opposite side of the hole, some synthetic turf had been specially laid. It was autumn and it had been raining; the grass had become rather slippy. With this in mind, the friends and family of William J Samson naturally chose the astro-turf to stand on for the final part of the ceremony. The vicar walked out of the church and joined them by the graveside. In his hand was a plastic Tesco’s carrier bag. In the bag was a plastic bottle of holywater. The pall-bearers walked towards the grave. The pall-bearers had been supposed to walk to the astro-turf so that they could easily (and with a sure foothold) lower the coffin into the grave. But now, they didn’t ask the mourners to move aside, for fear of disrespectfulness, fear of ruining the moment. Instead, they anxiously  edged their way to the far side of the grave by the mound of soil, slipping and slithering, threatening to fall to the ground at any moment. After considerable effort, they made it to the edge with the casket intact and managed to commit it to the grave with composure.
The vicar took out his bottle and sloshed some holywater down onto the coffin. He hadn’t held onto his carrier bag, but had placed it absent-mindedly on the grass beside him. Because it was autumn, the wind was strong. It blew the bag into the hole on top of the coffin. There it sat and no-one moved. Everyone could see it, of course. It was a white, crinkly bag with bold blue and red stripes, like a jumbled Union Jack. Set against the light grain of varnished wood, it looked up at everyone pathetically. No-one did anything, and it’s not hard to see why. 

Were you going to climb down and get it? 
What if you fell and came clattering down, mud everywhere, on top of your friend’s coffin? 

So, nothing was done. The vicar and everyone stood silently, seeing but only half-looking as the men returned six foot’s worth of earth onto the coffin and the carrier bag.
At the wake, people talked about William. Many fine things he had done. He had been a solid man. The incidents of the day were spoken of. Very slowly, like the emerging warmth of the sun, gentle laughter began to glimmer among the people, small embers of mirth that heightened the golden evening. This was in keeping with the life of William, who had always kept a ready laugh. The vicar seemed pleased with how it had all gone, and ate, and drank to his heart’s content.