My Father was a big man. He measured over six-foot-three and weighed as much, but his hero’s stature was stunted, his shoulders rounded by the burdens of several life-times. Now he lay, almost un-burdened. My Father smiled at the two visitors who rested their hands on the foot-board of his bed, one short, the other tall. Confronted with the transient, their fingers shuffled for something solid to grip. Pleasantries were exchanged: Nice day. Nice House. Nice life. The clock ticked on the mantelpiece in the living room below. Eventually he spoke – he was good at removing the awkwardness of others.
“You’ll have trouble getting me out of here” he said, laughing, a wicked glint in his one remaining eye. The undertaker smiled benignly and made mental notes. His assistant, an uncouth rock of a man, looked out of the window to a different horizon. I half-expected him to spit into his hands as he rubbed them together with anticipation. After more talk of little consequence their unusual visit had reached its inevitable conclusion and they bade my Father farewell. They would meet again, later. We shuffled out of the bedroom and onto the landing. The assistant paused at the top of the narrow stairs that twisted their descent through ninety-degrees to the hallway below. He shook the landing-rail. It wobbled gently, like a loose tooth. “Does this come apart?” he asked hopefully.
“No,” I said. “It would be a bit of an inconvenience.” I felt guilty at my lack of assistance. The two men irreverently wound their noisy way downstairs, forgetting the true purpose of their reconnoitre. They made their way along the hallway to disappear through the front door into blinding sunlight as if to their paradise. I could hear My Father chuckling upstairs as his dying weight grew heavier by the hour.
Two days later, in the early evening, he slipped away. We washed and dressed his body and strapped his jaw with a tie he once wore. His false teeth were, for once, in their proper place. That night my mother slept next to him, which I thought was brave.
Next day, the two undertakers returned to the cottage. They carried a plastic coffin, worn, earth brown, well-used, always a different occupant. With no room for manoeuvre, it was passed up the stairway vertically, over the banister and onto the small landing. By reversing into the bathroom, they were able to guide it into the expectant bedroom. It took a while, but we knew My Father would wait. He was in no hurry, nor were we, knowing of the route that lay before us. It was like a dress-rehearsal in reverse and we all careful to follow the script.
The coffin was an ingenious contraption. The undertakers, like magicians, unclipped the top and the sides from the base which was slid discreetly beneath My Father, as though not to disturb him. The sides and lid were snapped back into place with a flourish and he was lost to my view, for a while anyway. We paused for a respectful moment and then my mother, wishing to avoid embarrassment, took herself off to her garden whilst my Father began his final journey. We gingerly carried the now, considerably heavier coffin into the bathroom to be rotated through ninety, a ship nudged by a tug, until it pointed towards the landing rail. The stronger of the men reluctantly made his way half down the stairs whilst we paused and surveyed our obstacle like climbers about to descend Everest. With unspoken agreement, the coffin was placed on the rail and shunted across to the point where it rested in the balance. The man on the stairs, looking up as though from Hell, nodded and we lifted the coffin and slid it over the rails towards his waiting hands. The rail leant, but held. We heard my Father’s body slide. Instinctively we paused and listened for it to settle. Reassured, we continued in silence with muted grunts and hasty hands to lower the coffin onto the first, available step. We paused, took breath. In the narrow stairway we gave assistance as best we could, the lead man turning the coffin and lowering it from step-to-step as though in a waltz with an overweight partner. My Father bounced and jolted around the corner until he reached the bottom tread. We wriggled between door jamb and coffin and gently lifted my Father and coffin onto the waiting trolley. We all breathed relief. This particular mountain had been scaled but we discreetly hid our sense of achievement as my Father was trundled along the narrow hallway to the waiting, morning light.
The long path to the cottage was made with cobble-stones. These presented a challenge, even for the sure-footed. The trolley bounced and lurched resistant over the uneven path as though possessed by an unwilling spirit, cajoled by the two men, their coat-tails flying. They gripped the coffin like exorcists and wrestled the apparent demonic all the way to the narrow gate. I remained by the front door and watched my Father go, trying unsuccessfully to stifle my laughter. Eventually they reached their destination and My Father’s coffin slid, without resistance into the back of the patiently waiting hearse. The doors were firmly and finally closed.
I knew the stronger man by sight; in a former life he used to drive a cattle truck, more familiar with living beasts than the dead. After the doors were closed he stood, panting. He tucked in his errant shirt, leant against the side of the hearse and wiped his brow. He must have felt my eyes, or heard my laughter which, hopefully, he mistook for grief. He turned and caught my gaze. He jerked upright and restored his dampened handkerchief to his pocket. He looked at me for a moment, uncertain, then shouted, with reassurance, “You’re Father wasn’t that difficult”.
“Well,” I said, quietly, “You never knew my Father.”