It’s been a while since I’ve posted a piece of Friday flash fiction. I hope to post another entry later in the day explaining why. For the time being, here is another story that is technically too long to be flash, clocking in at 1,171 words.
We meet the morning before the funeral. The venue is a coffee shop, a little off the high street down a quiet side road. The skies are blue and flecked with wisps of cloud. It’s too early on a Saturday for the town centre to be packed but there are young mothers and children and, of course, the elderly, the unspoken masters of the early hours.
Paul, as always, has arrived before me. He has chosen an outdoor table, a round disc of white plastic with a nylon sheet tied to its surface. In an incongruous touch the chairs are metal, also white. Heavy feet scrape the ground noisily as I take my seat opposite Paul.
‘Hello,’ I say. I remove my sunglasses and fold them up. Paul nods and smiles, yellow-white teeth bright in the sunshine. He puts down his paper.
‘Beautiful day,’ he says. ‘It’s the time of year I suppose. I bought you a coffee.’
‘Thanks.’ I pick up the mug and sniff at the contents.
‘I didn’t know what you took, so you can add your own sugar and milk.’
I nod and do just that. We sit in silence for some time, sipping at our drinks and not looking at one another. Instead we watch the world pass by, shivering occasionally as a breeze still tinged with morning chill pricks at our skin. It tickles the thick hair on my forearms.
‘Is this your first?’
The words come abruptly, stumbling over one another. I shake my head and turn my attention away from the birds flocking overhead. ‘No. I lost both my grandparents when I was in my teens.’
‘It’s my first,’ Paul says. ‘It doesn’t seem right. I’m halfway to fifty and I’ve never lost anyone.’
‘That just makes you lucky,’ I observe. ‘Not wrong.’
He smiles, flashing those lightly nicotine-stained teeth again. Paul smoked throughout his teens, since I first knew him, and only broke the habit when he moved in with his boyfriend – an asthmatic.
‘Thanks,’ says Paul. ‘I don’t know how to act at a funeral. I feel… well, I feel terrible. Of course I feel terrible. It’s so tragic. But I’m more nervous than anything else. That I might say or do something wrong and ruin the ceremony.’
‘That’s pretty normal,’ I tell him. I try to smile reassuringly, although I’m not sure quite how I’m supposed to contort my face to achieve this. Paul isn’t looking at me anyway; he’s staring down at his coffee, watching the rising steam. ‘Funerals aren’t for the dead, they’re for the living. So it’s understandable to be worried about how you act.’
‘That makes sense. Thanks, Simon.’
‘If it helps, at the first funeral I went to I couldn’t cry. I started pinching myself, trying to make myself shed a few tears, but only managed to make myself cry out. It was embarrassing yet hardly anyone turned to look. They’re communal events where everyone is dealing with their emotions privately. You shouldn’t worry about any expectations beyond respecting that.’
Paul reaches over and takes my hand, squeezing it hard. ‘Thanks, Simon.’
I have never been one for physical contact between friends but I let Paul hold my hand until he releases it. I clasp my coffee and nod, a reflex action when I feel slightly uncertain about where a conversation might go. Over the other side of the street a child starts to cry, but is quickly hushed by her mother. We drink more coffee; I have managed to over-sweeten mine.
‘What about you?’ Paul asks. ‘You’re a… veteran, I suppose. Do you still feel nervous?’
I shake my head and rap my nails gently against the porcelain mug. ‘Not nervous, no. I would if I had to deliver the eulogy, but that’s just my fear of public speaking. No, the service, the burial… that doesn’t bother me.’
I take a deep breath, unsure of whether or not to continue this line of thought. I look up at Paul to see him looking straight at me, his mouth twisted in a half-smile, caught between concern and curiosity. I think to myself that if anyone should hear how I feel, it should be Paul. Our friendship has deep roots.
Still looking straight at him, I say ‘It’s not death that appals me so much as my own reaction to it.’
Paul frowns and opens his mouth to speak. I shake my head and continue. ‘What I mean is that, whilst I grieve for the people who’ve died, I don’t feel the same sense of loss as a lot of people seem to. I’ve always been okay with death. It’s sad, but it happens. Yet at the same time I spend so much time thinking about myself instead of whoever it is that’s died. I feel so selfish, focused on my own petty problems instead of someone who has… well, faced the biggest problem a human being will ever face.’
I take another deep breath, and stare down at the nylon sheet over the table. It has strawberries printed on it. My heart is racing and I shiver.
‘Simon,’ says Paul. I glance up. He’s smiling softly at me. My brow furrows and his smile widens at the sight. ‘Simon, it’s not just you.’
‘I feel the same, sometimes. I’m sure a lot of people do. No one wants to face death, especially not while they’ve still so much they want to do and experience.’
A young woman walks past us, dragged along by an eager spaniel on a lead. Paul is silent until she passes. ‘It’s as you said: funerals are for the living, and people can be pretty focused on themselves. It’s normal. Besides, you’re a very private person. You can’t compare yourself to people who are very open and public about their grief.’
I bite my lip. ‘I suppose.’
‘This is exactly what you’ve just been telling me, you daft sod. Everyone deals with these things in their own way. Besides, loss is about losing a person who is a part of your life, right? So it’s inevitable that you’d get caught up worrying about yourself.’
‘True,’ I say, and I sigh, a slow release of breath. I feel a weight lifted from my shoulders and I sit upright, enjoying the feel of the breeze tousling my hair. ‘We’re all scared of death, I guess.’
‘That’s our Simon, always finding a cloud for every silver lining.’
I laugh. ‘Thank you, Paul. I’m glad I told you about this.’
‘I’m glad you told me.’ He pulls back his shirt cuff and checks his watch. ‘We should go. We don’t want to be late and miss the service.’
He moves to stand but I hold up my near-empty coffee mug as if in a toast. With a smile he sits back down and holds up his own mug.
‘For the living,’ I say.
‘For the dead,’ Paul replies.
We clink the mugs together, and swallow with a grimace the lukewarm dregs of coffee.