I made it just in the nick of time. Sneaking, like a thief, into the colliery church, right behind the coffin. I could imagine the disapproving harrumphing coming from inside the box as Aunty Joan was hoicked to the alter by Brycremed Rochesters in overcoats heavy with solemnity and moth. (I could quite go for a pall-bearer, I mused. They are very much my type.)
"Couldn't even make it on time for my funeral, Elizabeth? Dalmation print pumps, what in the name of Celia Johnson were you thinking of? At least I warranted a dress I see. . .well, a dress 'of sorts'. What on earth is that on your tights? It looks like half an Irish Wolfhound. Do you not possess such as thing as a lint roller?"
I could see 'the family' in the front pew. What should I do? It seemed inappropriate to push in front of Aunty Joan, who was sombrely making her way (lips and girdle, no doubt, pursed as tight as a cat's bottom) up the aisle. Joan hated fuss. A be-ballet pumped flibbertigibbet galloping for the place at the front would not do. No. It would not do at all. I guiltily sidled into the back row and tried discreetly wipe the dog hair from my opaque tights. An elderly lady, white hair styled in an unforgiving cauliflower perm, doughy, rosy cheeks dusted with so much powder that they looked like they were formed from coconut ice, handed me a hymn book. I glanced around. Old colliery ladies; the church was overflowing with them. Mildreds. My childhood was full Mildreds. Memories flooded back to me. After my mother's death, I was raised by colliery aunties: complexions like corned beef, starched clean hankies every day; as flinty and straightforward as the guillotine.
The colliery church is impressive in a very modest, unassuming way. It is situated on top of a hill, surrounded by meandering rows of red-brick 'two up, two downs'. Those terraces, once so neat: yards scrubbed, lace curtains bleached, sheets billowing in the nipping North wind are now strewn with litter, many houses boarded up. You can see the sea from most parts of the colliery; a perpetual churning, rolling sheet of grey. There was a time, in the 1980s, when this place was forever on the telly (much to Aunty Joan's disgust). There was the miners' strike, of course, followed by relentless gloomy documentaries and party political broadcasts about unemployment, crime and decaying communities. Then there was Billy Elliot, of course.
"Is there any need for all that swearing, Elizabeth? I don't swear. Your father never swore in his life. None of our family swear. That film makes us all look like uneducated heathens. Pass the Basildon Bond. I'm going to dash off a letter to The Express about it."
I could not wait to leave this place when I was eighteen. I thought it was suffocating. Embarrassing. Petty and unpolished. Funny how, sitting there, amongst the hymns and headscarves, looking through the arched windows above the alter at the amber autumnal leaves rasping in the scurrying wind, that I felt oddly at home.
It was a new vicar, I noticed. I bet the Mildreds love him, I thought. What with his floppy hair, rimless glasses and cassock billowing and puffing in the draughty church, he looked like a rather kindly but startled owl. The last vicar, who buried my dad, was an Oxbridge-educated twat. I despised him. " I came here because of my calling. It IS hard, serving a community like this. I wasn't quite prepared for how hard it would be," he snivelled to me once, after visiting my beautiful, gentle father, who lay dying in the front parlour. The vicar, slurping tea and devouring Jaffa Cakes at a very unchristian rate, appeared to think that working in an East Durham village was akin to self-flagellation. The colliery was his personal hair-shirt.
The new owlish vicar spoke eloquently of Joan: her beloved Hillman Imp, her membership of the Nelson Eddy fan club, her career as a secretary at the Northern Coal Board, how she remembered typing up the letter giving the approval for the filming of Get Carter on Blackhall Rocks beach, her love of cats, Tio Peppe and Sudoko.
" Some might say it was a small life. Joan never married. But she was famous for her straight-talking and her lively mind. This was a lady who look night classes in Norwegian and GCSE Woodwork when she was in her 70s; whose poems about colliery life were enjoyed by many."
Oh God. A small life. What makes a life small? Or big, for that matter? I don't even do the Norwegian lessons. A gentle sobbing trickled from the front pew: Joan's elder sisters. Both in their nineties now, frail, tottering little marionettes, swamped in too big winter-coats. (Even in their prime, none of the sisters ever hit five foot).
I noticed something else. Fuckwit Brother was also in the front pew. Fuckwit Brother! I'd not spoken to him since my dad's funeral, eight years earlier. I shan't bore you with the back-story, just to say, the man is a cunt. King Cunt. From the Kingdom of Cuntopia. This was going to be awkward, I thought to myself, as the shy, owlish vicar launched into a speech about the lyrical beauty of the psalms. "Joan, with her love of poetry, would have approved!" he proclaimed.
"I doubt it," the sprightly Mildred next to me whispered, handbag quivering with impish delight, "Not unless it was by Pam Ayres."
After the burial, we retreated to the Miners' Welfare Hall for the 'do'. A colliery funeral feast is a sight to behold: corned beef pie, mince and onion pie, steak pie, chicken pie, quiche, sausage rolls, vol-au-vents. Pastry: as far as the eye could see. A field of pastry, cheap meat and trans fats. It looked delicious. I was torn though. I desperately wanted to avoid Fuckwit Brother. That would be impossible if I stayed. Yet leaving would:
a. be rude.
b. mean I'd have to return to the School of Hard Knocks and teach PE (gymnastics, for fuck's sake).
c. result in me missing lunch. That was unthinkable as there were brandy snaps too. Brandy snaps oozing with whipped cream. Brandy snaps that had been sat next to the radiator for several hours and would now be at optimum ripeness, just ready to collapse, stickily, into the mouth.
I decided to stay. The brandy snaps did it.
I almost pitied Fuckwit brother, in his £2000 suit, forlornly picking the corned beef garnish off a chocolate eclair and looking suspiciously at the cloudy pint of brown liquid in front of him.
Fuckwit Brother severed all ties with this place twenty five years ago. He is now Director of a 'production company for multi-disciplinary performance art'. Indeed. A twat. In 2008, his company won a prestigious Golden W.T.F. (Wearisome Turgid Fuckwittery) Award in the much coveted 'No one in the real world gives a shit' category. I seem to remember that feted 'installation' involved 2000 screens showing the BBC 1970s Test Card whilst a troupe of leotard-wearing dancers smeared each other in Angel Delight to a throbbing Laurie Anderson soundtrack. There is always a Laurie Anderson soundtrack in Fuckwit Brother's projects. Always.
"There's cheese and onion quiche, you know," I said. Trying to be helpful.
"It's got PEK in it apparently. I don't even know what PEK is," he sulked.
"Of course you do, we had PEK sandwiches every week for school. Are you still a vegetarian then? You've kept that going a long time, considering you hate animals."
" I don't hate animals. We've got a dog now. Maya chose him."
Now, this was a revelation indeed. As much as I dislike my brother, I dislike his grasping and Machiavellian partner even more. She'd have a pug, no doubt. "What kind of dog?" I asked. His answer took me quite by surprise.
"A whippet. . . . here have a look. . . he's called Basil."
A whippet! My FAVOURITE (apart from Deerhounds and Wolfhounds) breed of dog. I squinted at the picture on F.B.'s phone. There indeed was a forlorn looking, caramel coloured creature sat in a bleakly minimalist sitting room.
"Here's another one. In this one he is in one of his bespoke fair isle jumpers. Whippets get cold you know. £150 each mind. "
I look again. Basil is indeed sporting a puce-hued sweater and is seated imperiously on a mustard coloured Eames chair by a vast sash window. He is bathed in weak, winter light and his melancholy eyes bore beseechingly into the camera. The composition has the macabre feel of hostage shot about it. He really should have been posed grasping that morning's paper betwixt his perfectly manicured paws (The Guardian, of course). Proof of Life, they call it. 'Help me!" he seemed to call.
"That's a rather dramatic shot. Have you thought of exhibiting this? Possibly with a Laurie Anderson soundtrack? Anyway, you both travel all the time for work. How do you manage to look after Basil?"
"He goes to a creche every day. It's really good for his emotional and social development. He gets to meet other dogs. You should consider it for your two."
My heard was bleeding for poor Basil. I had hoped F.B. and I could bond over a shared love of sighthounds, but this was not going well. By now, the buffet was winding down and the Mildreds and Berts were making their shuffling way home.
" Look at all the food that's left! I'm going to take some for Hetty and Cyril. Gosh, there's enough steak pie to keep us all going for days," I said, grabbing a box and loading it with pies and pasties. "I am sure Basil would love some of this. Are you going to take him something?"
Fuckwit Brother looked at me disdainfully. 'No, Basil has a sensitive stomach. He has Fenwicks' Food Hall poached chicken, the occasional slice of prosciutto. Mostly though, he's vegetarian. He's quinoa crazy! "
"What, not even a sausage roll? Not even ONE sausage roll? I've never met a dog that doesn't love a sausage roll!"
"No. Certainly not. He can't handle processed meat. Plus we've just had the floorboards Farrow and Balled with Plague Pallor White. I can't take the chance. Anyway, I've got to go. Flying to New York tonight for a meeting with Laurie Anderson. Basil's going to his country club. I've got to pack his weekend bag. See you later."
And with that, Fuckwit Brother was off. I don't think I'll be keeping in touch.