I like the walk back from the supermarket as long as I have only one bag to carry. Not because I’m lazy but only one bag means I can open, hold and eat a bag of crisps as I walk. Today it was cracked black pepper and sea salt flavour. The day didn’t seem to know if it belonged to summer or autumn and was stuck in a seasonal limbo. A day that was so still that it seemed that the world had stopped and all the noise had floated directly up into the pure blue, leaving a memory jarring silence of younger before days. The only sound was that of a bird singing, falteringly, as if it kept forgetting the tune.
The bird reminded me of Harry and the day he buried his Mother. Not literally, he had watched an anonymous man in a too tight black jacket push a button to start a conveyor belt moving and the coffin sliding. Not quite a ferry across the river Styx but that’s progress for you. Strangely enough, the funeral directors were called ‘Charon and sons’.
Harry walked out and across the crematorium/graveyard/park. Each step seemed to put him hours away from the service so that by the time he reached the far side of the grounds everything that had just happened felt as it was a dream of a distant memory. Like an inherited memory, a false memory from somebody else’s life. He knew he was expected back at the pub, his pub now. No longer Mum’s pub but Harry’s’ pub but pubs and drinks and wakes and receptions with their weeping aunts and red-nosed uncles mean fuck all when you’re stood under a horse-chestnut in a graveyard. The conkers were already beginning to form, spiky green spheroids with their polished brown jewels locked away inside. Harry began to work out when they’d be ready and how to reach them when he remembered he was thirty-six and hadn’t played conkers for a good twenty years.
Maybe he’d have a conker’s night at the pub. The crowd in the public bar would love that, that was his bar. Mum used to stick strictly to the lounge bar and they’d both take turns in the snug whose only customer was the Mad Major. It was Mums name above the door but he’d been running the pub for years, especially when Mum started getting on a bit to do everything business-wise.
Originally, it had been his Fathers pub, his Fathers secret pub that no one knew of until he died. His Father, an alcoholic vitriolic who had driven tanks in the war and designed office blocks after. When he died, he just died. No heroics or dramas or deathbed proclamations, he just drank and drank and died. He was there and then he wasn’t and in his place was a mountain of debt and a secret pub run by another alcoholic friend from the war days. There was obviously a story there but the alcoholic friend died suddenly as well so there was no one to ask but there was a pub to run.
The architect firm had to be sold to pay the debts along with the very large ex-farmhouse where Harry and his two sisters and his Mother lived. That was enough though, the pub was left and there they all went. Harry and his sisters had to leave their private schools and join local comprehensives. His Mum learnt to pull a pint, order pork-scratchings and deal with drunks. Harry learnt to play football not soccer and how to punch bullies before they knew they were bullies. His sisters learnt that sobbing alone at night achieves fuck all.
Harry was twelve at the time and his sisters fourteen and sixteen. The girls didn’t last long at the pub before moving out to a sympathetic aunt. Harry and his Mother stayed on though, changing the pub, changing themselves, changing reality itself to suit them. It was something Harry was intensely proud of, something of which he was violently protective. You didn’t get any rowdy drunks in the pub anymore or if you did, they were shown the beer garden in more close up then anyone really needs to see crazy paving and solid oak garden furniture.
It worked. That was the point. The pub worked, they all survived and if not actually prosper they learnt to smile earned smiles at each other. The sisters on the peripheral married and produced children that visited at holidays. Harry didn’t marry; his love life was Mum and the pub. He had relationships, short and intense, like magnesium burning under water. He had affairs, secretive and dark. He had flings, drunken and fumbling after late night lock-ins. He had fights with pissed and jealous husbands; he listened to long rambling admissions from the same, often on the same night. Always though, he had Mum and the pub. Like a life raft to be clung to when childhood had sunk and the sharks of reality had swum to close.
Now the life raft had sprung a major leak and Harry felt to old and tired to swim for the shore. He sat on the grass under the huge horse chestnut. It was late summer so the tree was still in full leaf, leaves of dark green and musk where the sun filtered through in a jade thickness. Through the gaps in the head stones he could see the rest of the mourners clambering into the black shiny cars with the white walled tyres. A few were peering around, looking for him to take his place in the lead car. Harry felt like a child again.
When Harry had been ten years old, before his Father had died, he had been sent to scout or cub camp somewhere. Harry was the youngest one there and in order to impress his elders he had made a mug tree. It was rubbish, a forked stick with a mug hanging off it. The others had laughed in a camaraderie from which Harry had felt excluded. He ran into the long grass and hid and watched as the others searched for him. It had made feel part of and outside at the same time. The same was true under this tree. ‘Part of and outside’, seemed to Harry to sum up his life all to well.
After a while the cars pulled off, the pub was ready with the food and the drink and the wreaths on the door. The mourners could look after themselves; the sisters were there with attendant husbands in the background. They would all ask where he was but they would all drink and eat and remember Mum. Everyone called her Mum, even those older than her. She was everyone’s Mum but she was Harry’s Mother.
Harry just sat under the tree and world seemed to slow. The people and cars were all gone. Nothing left moving except the flitty things in the air who lived a life in a day and therefore seemed to slow the world even more. There was no wind, not a breeze, a breath. Sound disappeared as if it was hiding behind the gravestones. Harry sat in the stillness and silence and felt that time had stopped or even that all time was now concentrated into this one instance. All memories and experience equal now, together, as a whole, as a life and existence.
In the tree, a bird, brown and non-descript began a song, faltering and half-remembered. Half remembered or not properly learnt. As if the bird was new to being a bird, like a stuttering trainee on the first day of work. Harry stared at the bird as it struggled with its song. The Bird hopped from branch to branch, flapping its wings as if it didn’t quite know what to do with them.
This went on for some time, the bird getting better and more bird like all the time till eventually it glided perfectly down to the stone in front of Harry. It cocked its head and stared with an eye full of twinkle, opened its beak and sung a song full of beauty and life. Harry smiled and the bird flew up straight and real into the pure blue of the sky.
Harry watched the bird disappear as time stretched back to the linear. Noise crept back from its hiding places and a breeze, fragrant and real, rustled through the leaves of the tree. Harry stood up and walked slowly back to the pub. He smiled as he walked.
Harry told me that story on the night he was engaged to Janet. He didn’t give it any meaning apart from the smile on his face and the twinkle in his eye. His name was above the door of the pub now and he was just as happy in the lounge as he was the public, with an eye on the snug.
A good story for quiet, still, days when you’re walking back from a supermarket. I stop and listen to my bird for a little while before crushing some crisps in the palm of my hand and sprinkling them on the pavement. After all, my Mum use to love black pepper, she had it on everything.