THE WAKE IS AT THE BLUE BELL
I used to come here when I was younger. I used to go in the taproom though. The snug has a green carpet and red velvet curtains, horse-brasses on the wall. There are sandwiches and cakes on a table. There are people here that I don’t really know. Everyone is talking quietly as they eat. Some people are standing up. Some people are sitting down. Me and Grace and Scarlett and Joe sit at a table near a window. The window is crisscrossed with lead like an old window. It’s not old though, it’s just pretend. On my paper plate is a salmon sandwich and two pickled onions. I’m not hungry. I drink some shandy then put the glass back down on the table. The sunlight shines through the drink, making a strange rainbow on the wood. I can hear Grace’s mouth eating. Her hair looks okay short. She said so this morning. She said it makes her look younger. Scarlett said she likes it too. Joe said nothing about it. Joe’s eating crisps. They crunch in his mouth. Scarlett says the sandwiches are nice and Grace agrees. I drink shandy again. My tongue feels itchy. Joe looks at me as I put the glass down on the table. We make eye contact for moment then he looks down to his plate. I ask him if he’s okay. He says he is. Joy and Victor and Hope sit at the table next to us. Hope has a friend with her. Her name is Tina. I get the sense that Tina is fucking Hope because they look at each other in a funny way, and sometimes when they talk they touch each other on certain words. I think it’s a code or something, a way of saying things to each other without actually saying them. Tina is pretty, like Hope. I chew my sandwich until it makes a little moshed ball in my mouth. The ball is hard to swallow. Victor eats with his head hung over his plate, scooping things up like a cat eats from a dish. I glance over at Joy’s plate. She has a little castle of sandwiches moated by an orange circle of Wotsits. She talks with her mouth full… It was a lovely service, she says. Grace agrees. Beautiful, Joy adds… Hope and Tina swap sandwiches with each other. They sit side by side. Under the table I can see their legs are touching. Joy says, Ooh, your mum would have loved the service, wouldn’t she Billy… I want to say No, she wouldn’t, how could she, she’s dead, but instead I glance over my shandy at her and make a noise like I agree. Behind me, someone says my name. Cousin Barry. He has a paper plate in his upturned hand. He looks like a waiter. His other hand is on my shoulder. Alright Billy?... My smile feels stiff. He pats the top of my arm, then thankfully he stops. I haven’t seen Barry for a couple of years. He has a little moustache and a side-parting, which makes him look even more like a waiter. Behind him stands a woman with a wonky fringe. Barry looks around our table and smiles. Lovely service, he says. Beautiful, says Joy. Barry ushers the wonky-fringed woman forward and says This is Jessica… Jessica says Hello, then does a little wave at everyone. Barry stands there grinning, his arm draped around Jessica. He looks like he’s just won a teddy at the fair. From behind Jessica, Uncle Gerry and Aunty Julie appear. Uncle Gerry has two drinks. He puts a pint of what looks like lager in front of me, says Get that down yer, lad. Aunty Julie bends down to my ear and whispers That was lovely what you said about your mum, Billy. When she moves away from my ear she nods with her lips sucked in. Uncle Gerry pats me on the shoulder as I drink. It’s definitely lager. Aunty Julie tells us about Daniel. Apparently Daniel isn’t here because he’s somewhere in the Middle East with the army. The conversation flickers around me as I sit and drink. Grace catches my eye for a second as I put the half-drunk pint on the table next to the quarter-drunk shandy. There seems to be something in Grace’s look. I get up and go to the toilet... Pissing, I remember once in here when I pissed myself a little. Not too much, but enough. I stood here holding a lighter to the dark piss-flower on my jeans trying to dry it off. Someone came in and laughed at me. I think I must have laughed too… On my way out the toilet some old gadge stops me to shake my hand. I don’t recognise him. Ernie, he says, Used to work on the farm. The pigs... I pretend to be pleased to see him and I ask him how he is. He says he’s sorry about my mum. Ernie says his wife passed away last year so he knows how I must feel. I nod, and for some reason I say Thanks. Anyway, he says, pointing to the toilet door… Back at the table, Chris is talking to Joe. It was strange talking to Chris after Mum died. Me and Grace went round because we had to sort the funeral stuff out. I was relieved in a way because it meant we had to talk. He cried when we talked about the coffin. I’ve never seen him cry before. But that was good too, because it meant me and Grace had to comfort him, which meant it broke the awkwardness of it all. Before we went home I said I was sorry. He hugged me and said he was too. This meant everything was sorted, which was good. I watch Chris and Joe talking to each other. Joe laughs and Chris play-thumps him in the arm. Grace and Victor are talking too. Victor says Yeh, had an interview there last week, bet I’ll not get it though, and Grace says something about counting and chickens. Victor shakes his head then blows air out the side of his mouth. Joy and Hope are still talking to Aunty Julie and Uncle Gerry. Definitely, says Uncle Gerry. Burn me up rather than worm fodder any day. Joy laughs. Hope says something about being put into the sea so her soul can travel the planet. Tina says me too. Hope seems louder now she’s with Tina. Under the table I can see Tina’s hand on Hope’s thigh. I drink. Scarlett is still eating. I watch her. She must feel me looking because she looks up from her plate and half-smiles at me. I feel myself half-smile back. People say she looks like me. Billy!... I turn to see Aunty Belinda coming toward me, arms outstretched. She hugs me hard and says into my ear Your mum would have loved what you said. She lets go of me, kneels by my side so our faces are at the same level. She has a glass of wine in her hand. The other hand pats my leg. She says, How you feeling, luv?... I drink the last of my lager, and putting the empty glass to the table, I say Okay ta… Oh Billy, she says, her bottom lip tightening, How I wish you and your mother could’ve gotten on better… I look to the carpet for a second, and I figure I’m going to say Me too as a full pint clacks on the table in front of me. I look up. It’s my cousin Jason. There’s another one in at the bar for you Billy-O. He raises his thumb. Alright Mum? he says to Aunty Belinda. She smiles, says Yes ta, luv. I raise the glass to Jason as he turns and heads back to the bar. Aunty Belinda pats my leg again, her hand remaining on my leg as I drink. Daft, she says, pat pat, That’s how we are though… I drink, she drinks, I ask her what she means. Dunno, she says shaking her head, But it’s like we never realise what we’ve got until it’s gone. I nod, drink, then say Suppose so… A hand slaps the table. I look up to see Joy nodding her head quick with eyes wide. You got that right! she says, wagging a finger. Me and my husband Willy were always at it. Hammer and bleedin tongs we were. Always bloody bickering at each other. And then, POOF!... She clicks her fingers in the air. Gone! Just like that!... Aunty Belinda stands then sits down on the stool that was Victor’s, starts talking to Joy about Grace’s dad. If I was in a cunt of a mood I’d be tempted to ask Joy if poof! meant buggering off with a barmaid then dying of throat cancer several years later. Instead, I drink up and head to the bar. Jason’s brother Lance buys me a double Bell’s. I don’t know Lance that well. He’s Aunty Belinda’s youngest, and even though he’s in his twenties he still seems to be a little boy. We talk about football as we drink. He follows Chesterfield. I don’t follow anyone, but I used to like Liverpool, and then tried to get interested in Celtic. I feel fake as I talk, like I’m pretending, so I listen to Lance mostly. He tells me about Chesterfield’s new signings. I don’t know either player but I still go Oh yeh, like I do. Uncle George comes to the bar and buys us all a drink. Lance doesn’t make eye contact with his dad, and Uncle George seems to be pretending that him and Lance are best mates. There you go, Lancey, he says, handing his son a pint of Heineken. Ah, footy isn’t what it was, Uncle George says. Too much money in it now… Neither Lance nor me say anything. No more Georgie Bests no more, he says, shaking his head. Lance drinks. So do I… Better off with the horses, he says. I finish my whisky. Uncle George gets me another. What you got in the Gold Cup, Billy?... I shake my head. Nothing, I say. He tells me and Lance to put our money on Red Hand. You’ll get a good price if you get it on now, he says. I watch his Adam’s apple rise then sink as he sups. His skin is dry-shiny like a lizard’s. I raise my glass, say Ta, then go back to our table where Chris is talking to Grace… Yeh, he says, Try less grass clippings. And wee is great for breaking your compost down. Grace laughs as Aunty Deirdre and her husband Tony sit down opposite them. Tony says Yep, get yourself a little potty in your shed and get it chucked in, lass… I watch them all laugh. On the next table, Scarlett is talking to Joy and Victor. She glances up at me and smiles. I think we’re better now. I light a fag and go stand by the window. Scarlett called me a bastard when she came downstairs and saw her mum’s hair. I think she thought I’d done it. I’d never heard her swear before. I could hear her crying as she tried to tidy it up with the scissors. Then Joe came downstairs. He didn’t call me anything. He just pretended I wasn’t there. Grace told me to go away. I went to the shop and bought a half-Bell’s, then I went for a walk to the ponds. I remember thinking about when we used to take Jack there. Sometimes we’d take a picnic. When we took Jack to the vet’s a while ago, we all held hands and watched as the vet put Jack to sleep… Funny… They call it going to sleep, but it’s not, it’s dying. I remember his eye seeming to go cloudy as he died, but really it didn’t. Why did I think it did?... When I got to the ponds it was dark. The moon was out, and I was looking how it reflected in the big pond. It seemed to tremble in the water but there wasn’t any wind. Some birds were singing. Odd chirps like the end of a conversation that made no sense to begin with. I could hear the motorway dull-humming too, and I remember wishing it wasn’t there, so all I could hear was the birds. When I got back, Grace had told Joe and Scarlett about my mum. All three of them were crying. They all hugged me, and Grace said we’d have to pull together now. The next morning I was sick loads. I felt bad about everything but it was good that we all started being nice to each other. That seems to be what death does. Makes everyone nice… I drink up and go to the bar. I order a treble Jameson and a Guinness. They don’t have either so I have a pint of Murphy’s and a treble Bushmills. I’ve not had Bushmills before. It tastes alright. I prefer Guinness to Murphy’s though… An old couple come over and talk to me. They say my mum used to call in when she went for a walk down the lane. My mum used to take them tomato plants apparently. They say other things too but I’m not listening. Old people bore the fuck out of me. After a few minutes they seem to get the sense that I don’t care and they go and talk to someone else. Good. I order the same again as Uncle Gerry comes over to the bar. He pays for the drinks, talks about way back when, Them Sat’day afternoons round at Ena’s… It’s funny, because he talks about it like it was just Nannan’s house and not mine. After a bit I stop listening to him, then Uncle George comes over in his lizard skin so I go back to standing by the window and light a fag. I don’t want to talk to Uncle George. He’s a cunt. Through the window I can see the back of the old library. I remember nicking records from there when I was a kid. I still have some of them. Shame I threw my turntable at the wall… You remember your cousin Raymond don’t you, Billy?... I turn my gaze from the window. Aunty Julie has her arm around a tall bloke with a neat haircut… Well, second cousin really isn’t he, she says. Your granddad’s, sister’s, daughter’s lad… She looks up to the ceiling, and letting go of Raymond, she claps her hands together. Phew! That took some working out!... Aunty Julie and Raymond laugh. Then Raymond offers me his hand. I pretend not to notice and put my pint to my lips. I notice a flicker of something in his eyes when I don’t shake his hand, which goes slowly back to his side… You remember don’t you Billy? Your Nannan used to take you to see Raymond and your Aunty Della when you were little… I nod. Yeh. I remember… Sorry to hear about your mum, Billy, Raymond says. I nod again, drink… Still like your Batman comics then, Raymond?... I watch his eyes. I see that flicker again. He looks to the carpet and laughs… Well, I still have the collection, he says, But I don’t read them anymore… Ooh, is it any wonder? Aunty Julie says to Raymond. Bet you don’t have the time, luv… And then to me, He’s got three kids to look after you know. On his own! And he’s a policeman!... Raymond looks to the carpet again. His face is the face of someone being told that they’re wonderful, when in fact they’re not. And they know it… Bringing three kids up on his own! says Aunty Julie. Deserves a bloody medal, she says. Don’t you, luv… Raymond shrugs. He seems to be blushing. I feel a dagger in my hand… What happened to the missis then?... He shrugs again. Better off without her, he says. Kids keep me happy enough… I hear myself cough with a short pop of a laugh… I bet they do, Raymond… The pissiness drips off my words like spit. He looks into my eyes for what feels like an age. Aunty Julie’s hand strokes his arm. I bet they do too, luv, she says. Raymond is still staring at me. I grin. He looks to the carpet then turns to Aunty Julie. Well, just thought I’d pop in and pay my respects. Got to get off. Got someone looking after the kids… Aunty Julie makes an ahhh sound then hugs Raymond. Well, it was lovely to see you, she says. Raymond offers me his hand again. Goodbye, Billy, he says. I take his hand and he squeezes, too hard, his eyes fixed on mine… Take care now, he says. I pull away from his grip, put both my hands to the side of my head like bat ears… NANA-NANA-NANA-NANA RAY-MOND!... Aunty Julie laughs. Raymond pretends to, then leaves. Aunty Julie pats my arm then heads off to talk to Barry and Jessica at the bar. Through the window, I watch Raymond cross the road. He walks fast like he’s angry, or like in a film when someone knows they’re being followed, but doesn’t want to let on. I drink, and I feel like a coward… Why didn’t you tell Raymond any of the things you always said you’d say?... I drink, thinking about what he used to make me do, like I’m watching it on telly, and then something occurs to me that I’ve never considered before, ever… What if he didn’t actually make you do it? What if you did it because you wanted to? Because you liked how it felt? Surely if you didn’t like it you’d have shouted? Nannan was only in the next room, wasn’t she. You, laid on the floor with your trousers round your knees, his fist moving up and down your cock while you, arm outstretched, hand wrapped round his cock doing the same, his other hand clasped tight over yours, pull and push as he straddles your legs on his knees, and then... And then that sense of wonder, his spunk on your belly, his face red as it untightens, the look in his eyes of being there but not. And then... you did it half a dozen more times after that, didn’t you. Wouldn’t you have told someone if you didn’t like it? Well? Wouldn’t you?... I open my eyes. I look once at Joe, once at Scarlett, then I leave by the backdoor. I call at the off-licence and buy three bottles of cheap vodka. I leave the village, start walking to the edge of here, to where the lane starts. As I near the woods I think about my mother. It makes me cry because I feel nothing. I drink from the bottle, understanding that I love no one. Not Grace, not Scarlett, not Joe. No one. As I see the dark lines of the trees, I know the day has gone to night, and nothing can bring it back. I climb over the barbed-wire. The only sound is that of myself, my feet that crick-crack the undergrowth, my breath as it leaves my body, my heart as it bumps in my chest. The air is colder here. I am alone… and it’s getting darker.