New Year 2017 dawns in an unexpected way. A phone call in the early morning. My husband’s father is in hospital, rushed in that day. New Year’s Day. The prognosis is poor say the doctors. My husband rushes away to Scotland to try to get there. A very long journey in the car. I stay because we have pets. Alone with my thoughts. The weather is terrible. Snow. Rain. Fog. The cruelty of January all around. I am left alone with my thoughts. I am shocked. There was no intimation of illness. No expectation. People roll on, seemingly forever. I hold on to hope. The doctors will do things. It will all be fine.
He isn’t. The phone call comes he died at eight o clock with his wife and step son there. Neil his real son is not there. He is still stuck on the road, on the motorway. The indifference of fate strikes me. I keep thinking of that line from Waugh, “A blow falling on a bruise…” I don’t know why it comes into my head. We don’t know the cause of death though we can imagine. I feel numb. I am confused, my thoughts jumbled. I perform tasks in a daze, a dwam they used to say in the Highlands. I am always in a dwam, just now in more of one than usual. I hadn’t seen Douglas for years but I had always liked him. He was a gentle kind person. I am given the task of informing Neil’s mother, Douglas’s first wife. There is always the awkwardness of broken relationships, things not fitting as they should. She seems unsurprised. “He was always a heavy smoker.” She starts to talk about gardening, Christmas presents and trivia. I am endless surprised by the British way of not dealing with things, not facing things, avoiding the issue. I don’t know what else to say and ring off. Neil’s family are not religious. Neil’s mother wears her atheism with pride. There is no mechanism to deal with death. I am different. I don’t fit in with this family. I think of myself as a Christian Buddhist. I believe in some sort of after life, some sort of soul. It comforts me and it is a deep belief I cannot shed. I long for meaning and ritual to deal with the occasion. Post-Christian Britain offers no succour. I make my own rituals. I pray. I meditate. I light a candle. Someone told me long ago candles help people pass over. So do prayers. I don’t know where these beliefs come from. I hope I am helping in my small way with my small rituals. I don’t know if am.
Neil stays up in Dunfermline to help with funeral arrangements. Douglas’s second wife is devastated. She seems helpless like a child. She needs support. Neil is good in a crisis. Unflustered. Calm. Not passionate. Emotions are held deep inside and not allowed out. It is the Scottish way. I am a half Scot. I don’t fit in in either country. I am left alone for a week. I perform functions like a machine. My faith should help me but it is weak. I am more upset than I expected to be. I see nobody. I stay in the house apart from walking the dog. The weather is as foul and evil as January can be. I snuggle with my dog. Comfort. I make simple meals. I sleep. I can’t think straight. I write a memoriam to Douglas on Facebook. This is the modern way. I am attacked by some distant relative who is livid at not being informed first. I don’t even know who she is. This is why I keep giving up social media. People making issues. She is making the death all about her. I doubt she has seen Douglas for forty years. I delete my memoriam. What is the point? I don’t even have technological contact with the world. I prefer it this way. I can process things alone. I pray to Uriel. He is my guardian angel. I feel comforted. I hope Douglas is in a better world. I am not sure of it. I have such weak faith. I find out from phone calls it was lung cancer that killed him, spread throughout the body. He was a lifelong smoker, tobacco and other substances. It is not a great surprise and yet nobody knew he had it. He had always coughed. It seems strange that doctors had not picked it up sooner. He had lost a lot of weight. All the signs had been there but nobody put the pieces together. I feel guilt we had not visited recently. It is so far away and yet we could have done it. Perhaps we would have noticed the change. But we didn’t. Guilt.
Neil comes home. He is hurt. He is withdrawn. His mood is black. There is no way around it. We go back to Dunfermline for the funeral. I enjoy the car journey. There is snow. I love looking at the landscape. I love the north. The moorlands are as wild and bleak as it is possible to be. I feel at home with them. Isolated stone farms crouching in the lea of the wind. Moors. Sheep. Wind. Snow. More moors. Stone walls. Everything is hard and grey. Stunted trees stretch from the moorlands “as if craving alms of the sun.” Emily Bronte’s line comes into my head. How fitting. I am the north and the north is me. I would like to live on one of these farms, hidden and alone. I could write. I could walk on the moors.
We stay at Neil’s mother’s house in rural Perthshire. It is modern built, quite grand. They have a big garden with nothing in it. There is snow. The husband is a retired academic. I do not get on with these people. They are very scientific. They are not like me. It is all about eating and drinking wine. I don’t feel hungry. A selection of curries has been prepared. She is a good cook. I don’t have an appetite. Neil’ sister arrives with one of her many daughters in tow. I have not seen her for about twentyfive years. She is the same but bigger. Everyone else has a huge appetite. Douglas is never mentioned. The dead are never mentioned. The Scots have no vocabulary for dealing with death it seems. They avoid it. They behave like nothing is wrong. People are so strange. We sit in the living room after dinner. Wine is poured but I don’t have any. Once I start I can’t stop so I don’t start. I don’t have a normal relationship with alcohol. I watch the flames in the log burner. It is modern and state of the art. It burns well. The house is full of things. Things are important to these people. They start talking about wine. Neil’s sister says, “This wine is aromatic and I would say old world.” I look at her. Her statement has no meaning. Aromatic. You could say that about any wine. People pretending they know about wine. It is all so tiresome. People pretending they are more middle class than they are. British social structures are absurd. I claim tiredness and go to bed. I am irritated. They have not mentioned Douglas once. They have not asked after anyone. They are caught in a world of charade. It is like visiting the Queen except the Queen is probably more relaxed. I have no love for these people. I feel completely alien.
The day of the funeral is bitterly cold. I wear a 1950’s black suit I bought on the internet with a fur collar. If anyone asks I will say the fur is fake though I know it isn’t. Nobody asks. Neil and I leave in the car. It is commented on that we don’t eat. We do eat. Just not as much as them. We arrive in Dunfermline far too early. The town is grey. It starts to snow. We go for coffee. There is a coffee shop in the art gallery. It is almost sophisticated. I was married in this town. I used to live here. The accents are coarse and the people abrupt. The don’t mean to be. It is just how they are. They don’t know any different. Everything is grey. The town seems to be trying to keep out of the wind, hunkering down against the cold. The buildings are low with windows poking out of the roofs. We go to Douglas’ flat. It is a development of council flats built for the dockyard workers. They are increasingly dipapidated, showing their age. There is no dockyard now. Douglas’ wife seems small and tired. She is helpless. At least there was love here. Love and no money. The house is full of grandchildren, dark boys who look the same as each other. I feel as out of place as always. I have never fitted in this place. Eventually, the funeral car arrives and we all go to the crematorium. It is to be a humanist funeral. It is not what I would have chosen but it is not my choice. I always thought Douglas had faint, residual Christianity like a lot of Brits but apparently he didn’t. It is none of my business. In spite of the humanist service there is a huge cross above the coffin. It is part of the fabric of the building.
The man does well. I don’t know what his title is. He describes the life. Douglas was a character. He worked in the dockyard until early retirement but his real life was other. He loved clothes and embraced the gothic 80s with enthusiasm. He was usually clad in black leather, a tall thin figure. People mistook him for Andrew Eldritch. We had that in common; a love of playing dress up. He often used to tell the story that the first time I met him I was wearing a ball gown and DM boots. It wasn’t quite a ball gown, more of a cocktail dress but he was right about my mismatched style. He loved music. He used to dj at alternative discos in Rosyth and Edinburgh. They were popular, a place for lovers of the darkness to hang out. I always think at the funerals of working class people how much more their lives could have been. If only given more opportunity he could have been a music promoter in London or some such thing. But working class men know their place. Douglas rarely left Dunfermline. It held him like a vice.
It is over. We head to the function room of a pub for the wake. There is bad coffee and sandwiches. I drink a lot of coffee. I don’t drink. Neil plays a selection of music Douglas liked. It’s music I like too. I enjoy listening to it again. The funeral is well attended. He was popular. There are prehistoric relatives I have never met before. Some of Neil’s school friends are present. Their stories revolve around getting drunk in various situations. None of them live in Dunfermline now. I was never accepted in this circle. I felt like Yoko Ono breaking up the Beatles. I don’t have many happy memories of this place. I got married here in the registry office and had the reception in the glen. It was a good day. The weather was sunny. Apart from that my memories are hazy. We had a tiny flat on Rose Crescent. I read a lot. We left.
I still feel alien though I like the music. Eventually it is over. We stay in a hotel in Dunfermline because it is going to snow in Perthshire and we are afraid of being snowed in. Neil goes out drinking with his friends. I stay in the hotel alone. It is freezing in spite of the heater. I doze off. Neil brings pizza. I finally feel hungry. The pizza is terrible. The Scots can’t cook. The cold is bitter. It snows in the night.
We wake the next day and drive back to Norfolk. The snow recedes when we get to England. The journey is easier than we thought. Home to Norfolk.
A funeral. A life. RIP Douglas Matheson. I hope you are in a better place. I remember a kind, funny person who wasn’t afraid to have his own style. You were a one off. A character. An eccentric. You were loved.