The Morning After
I wasn’t aware of waking up, but somehow it had happened. I looked round. There were a lot of people clustered round my bed, and someone sounded to be crying. It was all a bit blurred, and I wasn’t sure who anyone was. Gradually, things began to clear, and I saw my wife at the far side of the room. It was she who was weeping. What was very strange was that my son and daughter were there too, and also Dr. Smith. Perhaps I’d been ill – but somehow I couldn’t remember. My brain seemed fuzzy. I supposed I must have been very ill indeed, if my children were there. Kirk lived in Wales, on the Isle of Anglesey, and Kimberley had moved to Yorkshire when Steve, her husband, got a promotion there.
Dr. Smith was speaking. His voice sounded a bit strange, as though it was coming from a distance.
“Do you have any preference as to funeral directors?” he asked.
I shouted, “Hey, wait a minute! I’m not dead yet!”
It was as if no-one had heard me. No-one took any notice. My daughter said, “We had Charltons when Grandad passed, didn’t we, Mum? They were very good.”
“Yes, that’s right. Kirk, will you ring them, please? The number will be in my address book, in the top drawer of the sideboard.”
“What’s going on?” I shouted. “Why are you talking like this? I’m here! Look at me!”
No-one took any notice. I started to feel very scared.
Kirk went out of the room, and I heard his steps going down the stairs.
“Anyway,” Dr. Smith said, “We won’t need a post mortem, as I’ve seen Jim a couple of times in the past week. I did warn him something like this might happen, but he was convinced he’d be all right, and refused to go to hospital. I’m very sorry, Pam, but you can’t help those who don’t want to be helped.”
“Oh, I know what he was like. Always knew his own mind.”
“Stubborn as a mule, more like,” Kimberley muttered.
“That’s enough, Kimberley,” my wife said, “ I won’t have you speak ill of the dead. Whatever else your father was, he was still your dad.”
What were they talking about? Why were they acting as though I couldn’t hear them, as though I really WAS dead? I struggled to get up. No-one took any notice. I got out of bed, and walked over to my wife. She didn’t seem to see me.
“There’s a draught from somewhere,” she said, pulling her cardigan more tightly round her. She wasn’t looking at me. Her eyes were back at the bed. I looked round, and got the shock of my life. There I was, lying in bed, on my back, very still and pale. How could this be? I looked down at my hands, felt my face. I was here, standing near the door. I could hear Kirk’s voice downstairs. I was alive – but in that case, how could my dead body be lying in my bed, the bed Pam and I had slept in for over thirty years? It had to be a bad dream, a nightmare, and soon I’d wake up properly. I pinched the inside of my wrist, hard.
“Ow!” I yelled. No-one looked at me. No-one heard me. The awful realisation dawned: I really was dead.
All of us wonder what being dead is like. Is it just nothing? Do we stand at the pearly gates, having to account for everything we’ve ever done, good and bad? Do we have to wait for the world to end, before we all rise up? Whatever we may imagine, it is nothing like this, where I can see my body, hear what everyone says, and be completely ignored. Am I a ghost? I have never believed in ghosts, so it would be ironic if I am now one.
Kirk came back into the room. “I’ve spoken to Charltons. Miss Emily Charlton will be here in about an hour.”
“Why isn’t old man Charlton coming himself?” my wife bristled.
“I asked that. He retired two years ago, and his daughters Miss Emily and Miss Amelia took over.”
“I don’t know about having a woman undertaker,” my wife said. “It doesn’t seem right.”
“Oh, Mum, things have changed. You want to get more with it. Women can do anything nowadays,” Kimberley said.
Absolute rubbish! I wanted to yell at them to get another firm. All this women’s lib nonsense has gone too far. Man is the master. That’s what I grew up to believe, and I’ve seen nothing to change my mind, except Mrs. Thatcher. I was only young when she handled things, but my dad always said he‘d been sure she was really a man, until he found out she’d got children.
They all filed out of the room, leaving my body lying there, unattended. How dare they! I followed them to the lounge. The doctor was filling in some papers. Kirk was sitting in my chair. MY chair! He’d never dared have done that if I were still alive.
After the doctor had gone, my wife said, “We can all relax now. There’s no use pretending to things we don’t feel. Let’s face it, he was a crotchety old sod, and it’s a relief not to have to put up with him always knowing best, always throwing his weight around.”
“Yeah, I know, Mum, but you mustn’t say that to anyone else.” That was Kimberley speaking.
“Oh, don’t worry, I shan’t. I’ve had to play a part all these years, and I’m sure I can play the grieving widow for a while. Kirk, look in that box in the sideboard, at the bottom left. There’s an insurance policy in there. Get it out, will you?”
I couldn’t believe it. This was my wife of nearly thirty years, who it seems could not stand me. I know things weren’t always right between us, and sometimes I had to show her who was boss, but she’d never let on like this. And the kids! Why didn’t they stick up for me? I’d given them everything I could afford. Obviously I wasn’t going to waste money on frivolities, like when Kimberley wanted dancing lessons, and Kirk wanted to go to Cub Camp, but I’d done what I could, within reason. We’d had a couple of holidays, going to Rhyl when the Bowling Club got to the final, so the family could do what they wanted when I was playing. I let my wife go to the hairdresser’s once a fortnight. It wouldn’t have done for her to look a mess, it would have reflected on me. I’d given Kimberley some money, all of a hundred pounds, towards her wedding to that Steve. After all, it is a father’s place to pay towards his daughter’s big day. No-one could accuse me of being mean. And I’d kept the payments up to date on my insurance policy, to ensure I could have a good send-off when the time came. I just hadn’t thought it would come for a while yet.
The time must have gone, because the next thing I was aware of was Miss Emily Charlton, sitting there, discussing my funeral. I’d left strict instructions about what I wanted: A big do, with all the men from the Masonic there, and no expense spared; a sit-down meal at the White Swan; burial at St. Simon and St. Jude’s, with a marble headstone with gilt letters.
I might as well not have bothered. My wife was telling Miss Emily another tale entirely.
“ Jim was very clear what he wanted,” she was saying. “He didn’t want any fuss. That wasn’t his way.”
She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue, and Miss Emily nodded sympathetically.
“He wanted a simple cremation, with a willow coffin. It’s more ecological, isn’t it? Then I thought we’d just have a finger buffet back here, for close family and a few friends. He was always careful with money, so I want to carry on like that for his funeral.”
The cheek of the woman! How dare she! I went to strike her, but my fist just went through air.
Next thing I recall was the kids going out, saying they were off to the pub, and would be back later. Miss Emily seemed to have left as well, though I couldn’t remember her going. My wife had her shoes off, and her feet up on the pouffe. She got out a packet of cigarettes and some matches, and lit up. I had always forbidden her to smoke in the house, and now look at her. She had the phone in her hand.
“You can come over now,” she was saying. “The funeral woman’s gone, and the kids have gone down the pub. It’s safe for an hour.”
I had no idea who she was talking to.
It wasn’t long before I found out – and I wish to God I hadn’t. It was her friend Helen. I hadn’t been able to stop her having a few friends. It would have looked bad. Helen was the nicest of them, or so I’d thought, a plain, rather dowdy woman, a typical spinster – not that anyone uses that word nowadays. I can hardly bear to even think what happened next. Helen and my wife, my Pam, threw their arms round each other, and began kissing passionately. They were pulling off each other’s clothes, and next thing they were lying on the floor, doing things to each other I couldn’t have believed, and moaning and crying out as well. I was shocked beyond measure. I wanted to shout at them, “How dare you! How long has this been going on behind my back?”, but of course it wouldn’t have done any good. They were deaf to me, as well as reason.
When it was over, and they’d got dressed again, they sat discussing my death.
“It was a blessing, really,” Pam said, “how it happened. He’d had that cough a while, but wouldn’t see the doctor until it got really bad. Then he was told to stay in bed. He was too weak to do much, so when I pulled off all the bedclothes, and opened the window during that heavy downpour three nights ago, I thought it might do the trick – and it did, thank God. I couldn’t have gone on much longer. I was debating pushing him downstairs, but this way is better. It’s ‘natural causes.’”
“You are brave, Pam. What if it hadn’t worked, and he’d realised what you’d been trying to do?”
“I’m not even going to think about it,” my so-called wife said. I could hardly bear to look at her. “All I have to do now is cash in the insurance, claim what he’s been squirrelling away in the bank, that he thought I didn’t know about, and I’ll be properly set up. It’s pay-back time for all the hurt and pain he’s caused me. I’ll sell this house, and we can get somewhere together, at last, somewhere a bit warmer, like Torquay. I just have to get through the next few weeks, keeping up appearances. Anyway, Kirk and Kimberley will be back soon, so we’ll just sit having a cup of tea. I don’t want them to know anything about us, except we’re friends.”
I started to feel a bit strange, as though I was losing some substance. It was all I could do to remain there. I was shell-shocked by what I’d seen and heard. All I had thought my life to be had been a flimsy illusion. I knew that soon I’d just go, and that would be that. The world would go on without me – and no-one would mourn my life or my passing. What a terrible indictment this had been. Does everyone get the opportunity after death to find out what their ‘loved ones’ really think of them? It they could know in advance, would they have behaved differently? This is the thought I leave with you, as I gradually fade from this life-after-death, into the great void which is waiting for each and every one of us.