I was in my 30s before I got round to wondering why none of my relatives spoke to any of the other relatives. I just accepted it as a child. Questions were not encouraged.
As an adult, I set about trying to trace some of them, and discovered that ‘Uncle Popsy’ as he was universally known, was alive and well and living in a hospital on the South coast. I trekked the several hundred miles south to visit him. He threw his arms around my neck and covered me with rather wet and slimy kisses and then proceeded to blow his nose of the sleeve of my shirt.
This was a novel experience for me, not the nose blowing, but the welcome. I had long since learnt that visual proof of my continuing existence tended to produce an embarrassed silence, followed by an ‘ahhh’ from the other relatives I had traced. It wasn’t so much ‘who’ I was, but the fact that I, er, well, ‘was’. Existed. It didn’t fit the various narratives they had conjured up to explain the many grudges and non speaking scenarios they harboured between themselves.
Enough of that. Popsy was a grand revelation. The perfect relation. Always pleased to see you. We formed a firm friendship that eventually encompassed a permanent invitation to spend Christmas with him. You will have gathered that sharing Christmas lunch with anyone I was related to was a novel turn of events for me.
A bed in an unused side ward was always made available for me, and I discovered one of the great unspoken truths of real life. If you want to enjoy a truly memorable Christmas, make friends with the staff and patients at a home for the mentally ‘subnormal’ as the outside world refers to Popsy’s many colleagues.
There will be no family rows, carols – usually several different ones at the same time – will ring out from morning to night, everyone will be smiling, and, should your motives not be altogether altruistic, you will be party to a cornucopia of bounty.
You see, shortly before Christmas, a bevy of letters will arrive from the ‘relatives’- ‘they are sorry, it is unavoidable, but owing to family commitments/great aunt arriving from Australia/an unavoidable appointment with the chiropodist, they won’t actually be able to have David/Shauna/Paul/ home with them for the festivities this year – they will, of course, ‘drop in’ soon afterwards – but in the meantime, they have arranged for a hamper/crate of wine/bottle of excellent whisky to be delivered in grateful thanks for all the staff have done over the past year, and they are sorry they haven’t been able to visit as often as they would have liked’.
Some families maintain excellent contact, but fortunately, or at least in those years, sufficient didn’t, and felt guilty, to make Christmas a memorable occasion for all concerned. We will gloss over the year that Richard managed to trap the head of a visiting dignitary, who regularly arrived to plague us with ‘Hinge and Bracket’ style renditions of stirring hymns bashed out on an old piano, in said piano lid. Everybody was agreed that Richard had successfully dissuaded her from returning, so all’s well, etc.
Eventually those happy years came to an end one September morning with the call to say that Popsy had passed away in the night. There had been false starts before; I still remember hitch hiking down there in a snow blizzard, no transport running, after a call saying that Popsy hadn’t eaten for several days and they thought my presence might help. After some 12 hours of risking life and limb standing in piled up snow on the side of motorways hitching my way south, I arrived at 6am in the morning to find a totally unperturbed Pops tucking into his breakfast – liquidised as usual, and coloured green – he had never agreed to eat anything that didn’t resemble my grandmothers pea soup from the day she died and he had been whisked away suddenly to live amongst all these strangers – delighted to see me as always, and with no explanation for his strange 6 day ‘fast’ – had someone forgotten the food colouring? I shall never know.
When I arrived at the hospital, I was invited to see an ‘official’ – I had never met anyone other than the brilliant staff in Popsy’s unit before. This lady informed me that there had been some peculiar occurrences recently. Someone called ‘The Public Trustee’ would write to them each year, asking whether Popsy needed anything ‘over and above’ that provided by the NHS. They would dutifully reply that of course he didn’t. They had never felt it was their place before to inform me that Popsy had been left considerable sums of money by my grandparents, and the staff had felt guilty that I had arranged for a local cake shop to send him a chocolate cake each week, and had always provided the track suits and t-shirts that he preferred to the hospital clothing the NHS provided, so many years beforehand they had arranged to inform the Public Trustee that I was Popsy’s next of kin and therefore his beneficiary. Before I had time to take in this potential windfall, she went on – ‘unfortunately, my Father’s recent suicide had many repercussions, one of which was that various relatives were now aware that my Mother’s silence on the subject not only of me, but also of her brother Popsy, didn’t mean we didn’t exist, and she had retaliated by arranging for her solicitor to contact the Public Trustee and have her name inserted as next of kin; the staff had never met her in the 40 years that Pops had been with them, and were somewhat annoyed at this turn of events, so had decided that the one thing they could ‘do’ for me, was to let me organise his funeral, the bill for which was to be deducted from Popsy’s estate before it was passed on to his next of kin…..they had some unusual suggestions which I might care to approve?
Totally brilliant suggestions I might add.
It was agreed that the funeral should be held on a Wednesday, a day when they normally had a group outing to the local garden centre or some such suitable venue.
Thus it was that on the agreed Wednesday, a fleet of solemn hearses pulled up outside the unit. I use the word fleet advisedly, for every one of Popsy’s colleagues had been invited, of course, all 26 of them, each accompanied by a couple of members of staff, to ensure a modicum of approved public behaviour, or semblance thereof.
Richard was first out of the door, naturally, he always was. Every week he would bag the seat directly behind the driver and hold onto the chrome bar for dear life. This week was to be no exception. Except that there was no seat, just a set of rollers on a wooden floor and the bar appeared to be brass for a change. No matter, he clung on for dear life.
It took some time, and several members of staff to persuade him to relinquish his place of honour in favour of Popsy’s coffin; he kicked, he screamed, he was finally mollified by the gift of a ‘Wales is magic’ badge from one of the staff, and ensconced in a seat in one of the following cars. A magnificent floral display spelling out Popsy’s name was placed either side of the coffin. It was beginning to look like an old style East-end gangster’s funeral. The po-faced undertakers were looking traumatised already and the day had only just started.
Since Popsy and some of the staff had spent many years at ‘Greystokes’ institution, now closed, it had been agreed that we would start the day with a memorial service in the chapel there.
Sure it was 120 miles north of where we were, but everyone was looking forward to the day out, and liked a long drive. So we convoyed north, electric window fitments were fiddled with, some of us discovered the joys of leaning out of the window and waving to passers by, some of us sang to keep our spirits up, we may have cut a strange and noisy image swathing through the Surrey countryside, but all were agreed it had been a terrific idea.
We swung through the magnificent gates of Greystokes and made our way to the chapel. The local vicar was waiting for us outside wearing his best ‘all God’s people’ expression. His blessed each of us with the sign of the cross as we queued to enter. Richard was so overcome at this unexpected greeting that he decided to give the vicar his newest, bestest, most valued possession; his ‘Wales is Magic’ badge. Never blessed with the nimblest fingers, he plunged the pin into the vicar’s bosom, producing an instant ‘we must suffer for our faith’ pained expression. The vicar recovered manfully and led us to our seats.
He did announce the hymns, he even told us which page they were on; he seemed to have forgotten that some of his flock that day had only ever managed to memorise one song in their entire life. Thus we had ‘As shepherd’s watch’ overlaid with ‘a hard days night’, a line, or rather word or two, from ‘Satisfaction’ and some enthusiastic ‘hula hoop’ dancing from our more agile number. The undertaker’s faces were now set in stone. Botoxed to a man. Or perhaps just flummoxed.
The plan was that the vicar, having intoned his way through the prescribed words, would lead us back to our convoy, and we would speed off to the proper ceremony. He set off down the aisle swinging a glittering golden bowl of incense. Richard’s eyes gleamed. Fair exchange being no robbery, he set off, over the back of the pews in hot pursuit of his prize. They met just before the West door. The vicar was patronisingly unwilling to relinquish his bowl of office. He tried to reason with Richard as several of us dived forward to head off the inevitable struggle. We didn’t get there in time, dear reader. The vicar ended up lying on the rear pew, as Richard calmly retrieved his ‘Wales is Magic’ badge without bothering to undo the pin, and claimed part of the vicar’s surplice into the bargain.
Eyes averted, grins suppressed, we piled back into the cars and sped south again. The unfortunate contretemps meant that we were early, and besides, everyone was hungry. We stopped at the only place the undertakers knew that could accommodate some 50 people at short notice.
Which is how we came to have lunch at a most salubrious establishment on the top floor of a department store. No longer did Popsy’s magimix and bottle of food colouring have to be carried on every outing, but some of us still had some ‘unusual’ dietary requirements. Paul wanted a boiled egg. They didn’t have boiled eggs on the menu, well they didn’t until they discovered just how much Paul, really, really, wanted a boiled egg for lunch. Two minutes boiling time never passed so slowly in a crowded restaurant full of ‘ladies who lunch’.
Meanwhile, Popsy lay outside, guarded by a phalanx of undertakers and drivers. Surprisingly he didn’t get a parking ticket.
Off we went again, to Worthing cemetery, where Pops was finally laid to rest a few yards from Rocco Forte; death is a great leveller.
Tears were shed by me and the staff, but no one else was much impressed. Another Vicar was traumatised as Shirley threw her skirt over her head at a solemn moment to reveal that no one had checked to see if she had kept on the knickers she had been given that morning. She hadn’t of course.
By this time it was very hot, and some of us were becoming rather fractious, and needed to let off steam. The undertakers were given one last task. Would they please stop by the pavilion on the sea front to ‘give everyone a run in the sand’?
The only parking spot they could find for our long convoy ‘just happened’ to be right by the candy floss stand. It was a huge success.
So if you were driving along the south coast that day, and found yourself behind a convoy of hearses, full of happy smiling faces, candy floss sticks waving out of windows, dripping down the side of immaculately polished sombre black cars, feet protruding from some windows, enthusiastically waving hands from others, and a grand sing song from all, now you know why.
It was Popsy being laid to rest, in grand style. He would have loved it. Surely the mark of the perfect funeral. For the perfect relative.
I am told it was hideously expensive. The Public Trustee paid the invoice though.