Stage One: Denial
Harry dropped doornail dead just as the newsreaders were shuffling their papers to say good night, right before the weather report, which he’d been waiting for, so although he died knowing the economy was taking a nose-dive, he never did find out if tomorrow would be a good day for planting out his seedlings — he preferred a wet day to save on watering.
It was very sudden and unexpected, Harry’s unexpected and sudden demise. He stood from his armchair and fell forward on to his face, which was very unlike him. His wife, Hilary, who was ensconced in her own armchair, said, ‘Harry, what’s wrong?’ but of course, he didn’t respond, or even hear the question, because he’d literally. Just. Died. Somewhere between vertical and horizontal, somewhere between twelve and a quarter past had he been a minute hand. Very sad.
The ambulance arrived lickety-split-double-quick-smart, but the paramedics pronounced Harry dead, which Hilary had sort of figured out for herself, only, she’d been trying to remain positive. It took a while for it to sink in. She even joked to her son over the phone: the blue lights have taken him away under cardiac arrest. Her son didn’t find it funny. He has no sense of humour.
Stage Two: Anger
The undertaker was reassuringly gaunt with doleful, spaniel eyes. He came to the house armed with glossy brochures, but arguments ensued over the casket (the undertaker had explained that ‘coffin’ was outdated and unnecessarily morbid). Harry Junior had an eye on the pricelist and suggested wicker, or even stiff cardboard, but Hilary snapped he wasn’t being posted to the afterlife, and what would that cost in stamps? And shall we shroud him in bubble-wrap too? She selected the glossiest of glossy brochures, in which the coffins (caskets) were all named after quaint English towns, and eschewing The Derby and The Cambridge, she chose The Chesterfield, which made her think of sofas. She wanted him to be comfortable.
Harry Junior felt cremation to be a cost-effective option, but Hilary cried, I’m not paying for a coffin to be used as firewood! (‘Casket,’ the undertaker, again, intoned). No. Harry would be interred in the local churchyard, his wife decided, with a proper headstone on which flowers would be regularly lain, and with enough space left for the carving of Hilary’s own name when that time came, as it inevitably would.
And what should he wear? He’d shuffled off the coil in a pair of corduroy slacks and an elbow-patched brown cardigan, which would never do for meeting his maker. Hilary rifled through his wardrobe and pulled out a clean shirt and dark suit. She found the tie she’d given him three birthdays since, and which he’d never worn, which rankled a little. She put everything together in a carrier bag. ‘And shoes?’ asked the undertaker. Harry had died in his stockinged feet. She chose his favourite black leather brogues, only slightly scuffed. The undertaker patiently sipped tea as she slipped each one, glove-like, on to her hand, and polished them until they shone.
Stage Three: Bargaining
If only she’d learned CPR. If only he’d complained of a sore arm, or a sore chest, or a sore anything, she’d have called the doctor straight away, she knows she would have. If only she hadn’t had that one-time thing with the flame-haired milkman when they were going through a rough patch. If only Harry Junior’s beard wasn’t tinged with ginger (which awakened not a little guilt). If only she hadn’t given up sex aged 53. If only they’d taken that cruise. If only she’d told him she loved him more often than once a year in a Happy Anniversary card. If only she hadn’t cooked sausages and bacon for breakfast each morning. If only she’d insisted he cut down on beer. If only she’d demanded he quit smoking. If only, if only, if only.
Stage Four: Depression
The funeral was appropriately solemn and there were tears; Hilary’s face shone like a rain glazed apple. It was well attended, and pleasant things were said by all and sundry. It was an open coffin (casket) and Hilary admired her dead husband in his suit and birthday tie, which would now (satisfyingly) hang about his neck for eternity. Before the undertaker drew the shroud over his dear face, she kissed Harry’s cold forehead more tenderly than she ever had when it was warm.
Harry Junior collected the paper package of his father’s old clothes and brought them to his mother. It was several days before she could bear to open it. She drew out the baggy corduroy slacks, still cuffed with garden soil, and buried her face into the woolly softness of the brown cardigan, breathed in the still oaky fragrance of his tobacco. She withdrew his shirt and socks and underwear, and his polished brogues.
He was buried without his shoes?
She thought back to the sight of him in the open coffin (casket). The shroud had been withdrawn only to his waist; that’s why she hadn’t noticed. The undertaker hemmed and hawed when she called, and apologised for the oversight.
She hadn’t been sleeping easily as it was, but now she was troubled by fevered dreams of Harry squelching over the dewy pastures of Elysium, his socks sodden, complaining of trench-foot. It was clear to her in the sweat-drenched hours of dawn, that Harry must have his shoes.
As next evening’s darkness fell, she took the key to the garden shed and retrieved a sturdy spade. Hanging from a hook, was a small headtorch, as though he had placed it there with his own darling ghostly hands. That he wanted his shoes was evident — she hadn’t known he even owned a head torch. He’d obviously planned ahead.
The pale moon shivered behind drifting clouds and so on and so forth as she crept between the tilting headstones to arrive at the still fresh soil of Harry’s final resting place. In the distance, an owl screeched. She placed a foot on the lug and began to dig.
The soil was still loose and the first two or three feet took a little over three hours. Even though the head torch flickered and gave out, even though the heels of her hands blistered and bled (she wished he’d thought to leave a pair of work gloves handy) she persevered. The deeper she mined, the more compacted the earth became, and the more troublesome it was to hoist the soil to the graveside. It would dislodge from its crumbly heap and tumble back in, filling her wellington boots with damp loam.
As daylight broke pinkly in the East, Hilary’s spade struck with a thud. She had reached the coffin (casket). She shovelled and scraped the last remnants of soil from its lid. Now to open it, and anoint her beloved’s feet with his durable shoes.
She’d left the shoes by the graveside.
She gazed up, blinking, at the tall piles of soil heaped unthinkingly on all four sides. How would she climb out? She had, extremely literally, dug a hole for herself. But Hilary was a resourceful woman. With the spade, she cut toe-holds in the mud walls, then threw it down with a clunk (sorry Harry) and placed the tip of her wellington boot into the lowest one. She heaved herself up, grasping at the grave edge, and disturbed the stacked soil as the soft mud toe-hold gave way. She fell back as the cold loam cascaded in an earthy avalanche upon her. This is it, Harry, she said, we’ll be together sooner rather than later. But just then, as she wiped the unstoppable slide from her eyes, she saw, silhouetted against the rising sun, a tall figure, his hands outstretched.
Harry? She whispered.
‘Mother? What the fuck are you doing?’ it said.
Harry Junior plucked the wriggling earthworms from his mother’s greying hair before filling the grave back in. He sat beside his mother on the grass. ‘I miss him too,’ he said. ‘I come here every morning, to talk to him, you know? To say the things I never did.’ Hilary slowly nodded her head. ‘It would be more respectful if you shaved off that beard,’ she said.
Stage Five: Acceptance
It took time, and medication, and expensive therapy, both alone and in a group setting, for Hilary to feel more herself again. She missed Harry every day, but also joined a knitting circle replete with other widows, who invited her for coffee and cake, swapped recipes, and arranged shopping outings, theatre visits, country walks.
And each year, on the anniversary of his death, Hilary and Harry Junior meet at the graveside to say a few words. Harry Junior is always clean-shaven for this event, wearing a good suit, and on his feet, his father’s favourite brogues.