I must have nodded off in the car because the next thing I know, Harry is pulling up outside the ornate chapel I spent every Sunday morning of my childhood from six onwards.
I once overhead a conversation between my mum and gran, when I was too young to really understand it, that hinted at the fact that at least part of the reason my dad’s family cut him off was related to the papal tendencies of the MacIvars. Personally I would have thought that Agnes’s penchant for razoring her enemies would have counted more against her than the fact she doesn’t take fish on a Friday, but who am I to judge. So that’s one more thing I know about my father’s family. They owned that house, they abandoned their son, and they may be given to setting off fireworks in daylight.
Personally, I’m an atheist who couldn’t give less of a crap about football if I sat down for a week and tried. I think the whole business is a load of absolute nonsense and any grown adult who starts fights over whether virgin Israelis or Dutch kings are better, needs a word with themselves. But nobody asked me.
All that said, it’s hardly the first time I’ve scrabbled out a car in a dazed mess and belted in late for mass. I vaguely hear Harry shouting after me as I clatter up the steps but I wave him away — the last thing my reputation needs is a bloody polis escort — and shove open the heavy chapel doors. The scent of incense and beeswax hits me with such a palpable force of nostalgia that for a second I’m sure I’m about to be sent to my room with no tea.
I slip into the back row and hope I’ll get a moment or two to catch my breath before the next round of kneeling and standing. Honestly, you’d think that they’d cut down on the cardio portion of mass given that the median age of any given congregation is about a hundred and five, but no such luck. The air is alive with the sound of knees creaking as we get up and down and in and out and shake it all about.
Finally it’s time to sit again as an ancient priest — I don’t recognise him but he’s your standard, red nosed, self satisfied, servant of God — steps into the pulpit to give some rousing speech about Hell or something. I can’t really hear him from back here and I’ve heard it all before anyway, so I tune him out and look around.
I don’t see anyone I recognise. Few of the folk near me are in black and I realise that they’re probably just members of the congregation here for the service. Any old friends or errant relatives of mine will be crowded down the front with Agnes. I sit up straight, peering through the gloomy candlelight towards the front, bracing myself for my first sight of great-grand-mommie dearest, but all I can see is a row of carefully set white hair. Any one of them could be her.
The door screeches as it’s opened again and someone slips into the back pew across the aisle from me. I’m not the last one, at least. Maybe someone else was held up by rescuing a random naked guy from a fire. It’s a young guy, early twenties maybe. He’s in a neddy tracksuit, his hair a shock of thick, jet black curls that puts me in mind of that comedian from those ancient movies Agnes likes. The Little Tramp. I read once that Hitler liked those films and modelled his wee moustache on the Tramp’s, so it checks out that Agnes was also a fan.
The kid turns to look at me and icy recognition prickles over me. His eyes are so startlingly familiar I’ve got goosebumps under Harry’s jumper, which a weird overreaction even for me. He’s clearly a distant cousin, some genetic quirk making him look like — who does he look like?
Ach who cares, I tell myself firmly. The MacIvars can all go hang, remember? Wee Chaplin guy and his tracksuit included. I turn my attention back to the alter where the priest continues to drone on and I feel my eyelids grow heavy.
I wake with a start to find everyone queueing up for Communion. My last Confession was in the last century, but some treacherous muscle memory propels me into the queue. I could get a blessing to be polite and hope I don’t burst into flames, I reason as I shuffle forwards, tiny old people surrounding me like munchkins.
The coffin sits open on the alter and too late I realise that in just a couple more steps, I’ll be able to see in to it. Icy chills dash down my spine and hot tears prickle behind my eyes. This isn’t how I wanted to see my gran again after a decade.
I want to give her a cuddle. I want to say sorry for everything. I want to split a rich, sticky, ginger pudding cake and a pot of tea with her, as we set the world to rights and she promises me, for the millionth time, that Agnes’s bark is worse than her bite.
I really want to give her a cuddle.
Tears half blind me and the lump in my throat is so sore I feel as though I’ll never be able to swallow again. I promised myself I could cry at the funeral. But now I’m here, I can’t.
Then I take one more step and peer over the edge of the coffin and
It isn’t her.
Mother of Christ it isn’t her.
It’s not my gran in the coffin.
Some other wee old lady lies there looking all angelic and dead and holy fucking buggery shite I’m in the wrong funeral.
I back away, crashing into the man behind me and nearly causing a domino effect of pensioners all waiting on their body of Christ.
‘Sorry, sorry,’ I mutter, trying to push my way through the sea of elderly folk. It feels as though there’s hundreds of them, and for a desperate second I consider crowd surfing Crocodile Dundee style, before remembering all the brittle bones. I have to get out of here. I’ve never been a one for perfect etiquette, but even I’m fairly sure you’re not supposed to just rock up at stranger’s funeral.
‘You’re alright, darlin’.’ A warm, dry hand clasps mine. ‘Just you let it all out. Did you know Marjorie well?’
‘I’ve never even met her,’ I blurt, then I turn and run.