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Saturday morning. I’d only popped into mum’s to collect my clean washing and next thing I knew I’d been roped into taking Mr. Royle to the cemetery to put flowers on his wife’s grave. To be fair to mum, she’d done my laundry every week since me and Laura started on our trial separation, so I sort of owed her. I said I’d do it.
Brian and Penny Royle had been our neighbours for the whole of my childhood. I didn’t like them. They were unfriendly and never seemed too keen on me and my sister, I think simply because we were children. When I was about ten, I accidently kicked my football over the fence and took out their bird table and the top fell off it. I can still remember Mr. Royle hammering loudly on our door and telling dad he expected him to pay for a new one. “The Royle Family” is how dad referred to them (like that comedy we used to watch together). Or sometimes, more derogatively, “Them Next Door.” After Brian left, dad had patted me on the back and said it must have been a right kick. He got the mum look.
We lived in one of the nicer bits of Sheffield in a semi-detached property, and that meant we were physically attached to Brian and Penny’s house. My bedroom happened to be next to theirs and in my teenage years I could sometimes hear them at night, through the wall. Not like that. They were far too old. In fact, I don’t think I ever saw either of them show physical affection. What I could hear through the wall was Brian helping Penny to the loo at all hours of the night because her mobility had got so bad. Once I heard her shout “Don’t let go of me!” and he shouted back something like “Course a’won’t let go’w o’ yer woman.” He was proper Sheffield, with the accent to prove it.
I tried to get out of the cemetery trip by saying that it was always freezing up there and did she want me to get ill, but I got the mum look (still do, even aged 32) and I knew I’d already lost the argument. She had to stay in because dad had forgotten he’d booked an Ocado delivery (they’ve gone up in the world since me and my sister moved out) and then conveniently remembered just before he went for his lunchtime pint.
Brian didn’t say anything when I explained that it’d be me taking him to the cemetery. He just handed me a bunch of flowers and, grim-faced, started the long process of getting down his front steps. I went ahead and opened my car, landing the flowers on the back seat.
“Y’mother’s car’s a better height for me,” he said. “Cum on, yer’ll have t’elp me ere.”
I held his arm whilst he steadied himself on the open door and painstakingly lowered his elderly and bulky frame, eventually slumping down and almost tipping over backwards. He hoisted himself round, placed his stick between his legs and indicated, a little impatiently, that I could close the door.
“Happy to help Brian,” I muttered.
“Alright with your belt Mr. Royle?” I asked, noticing he didn’t have it on. He didn’t hear me or pretended not to.
“Not a bad day,” he said, looking out of the window. I decided to leave the belt. If we crashed, he wouldn’t need the airbag, judging by the number of layers he had on.
As we approached the cemetery I began to turn into a space at the roadside and he said, “Y’know y’can drive right in?” So I continued along the road and through the imposing stone pillars that stood sentry at the entrance. I felt a bit like I was driving a hearse.
“It’d finish me off, walkin all that way. She’s right u’ver ont uther side. Here,” he said abruptly, indicating where I should stop.
Another palaver, getting the old bugger out of the car.
“I’ll be rate now,” he said, clumsily tucking the flowers I’d just handed him under his arm. He shuffled heavily up the path between the rows of headstones, head down, one hand holding on to his flat cap, stick scraping on the chipped tarmac. As predicted, it was freezing because it always is at the cemetery, and I was desperate to get back in the car. But I noticed that Brian was struggling with the flowers in the wind.
“OK Mr. Royle?”
The grave stood near a tree, conspicuous amongst a host of newer stones which had gold gilded edges and gold writing on jet black, polished stone. By contrast, the Royles’ grave was a grey, concrete thing, with cheap grey lettering attached to the front. It tilted back slightly on the uneven ground, no more than two foot high, an upended rectangle with the top corners cut at an angle and mounted on a second strip of stone. Brian was bent over trying to get the stems into the holes of a little domed urn that stood in the trough of gravel in front of the stone.
“A never just lie em ont’op,” he said. “Wind teks em.”
I helped him finish the job. Then I happened to glance at the gravestone.
In loving memory of
Penny Margaret Royle
And below that:
Loving mother of
16.04.1959 – 30.04.1959
I stood and stared and tried to work out what it was I was looking at. Brian seemed to sense it.
“I thought I should put em both on,” was all he said, after a moment.
“Who’s……is she, I mean, was Catherine….?” I stumbled over the words and couldn’t form the question I wanted to ask. Brian came to my rescue.
“Aye,” he said.
We stood together, and he bowed his head. I wondered if he was praying. He was that generation. After a minute he looked at me, and some of the agedness seemed to have left his face.
“The quiet of it. That’s what she could never forget,” he said. Then he turned and started the slow journey back to the car.
We pulled up as the Ocado van was leaving. Brian let me help him out of his coat in his hallway and I noticed a flowerhead caught on his sleeve, from the tussle with the wind. He thanked me as I left; gruffly but not begrudgingly I didn’t think, even though he’d have preferred mum’s superior car. I almost went to shake his hand but that felt a step too far. I was still the young hooligan who’d decimated his bird table.
At home dad was back from the pub, sat in the living room with the newspaper spread across his knee.
“Alright?” he called. “How was His Royle Highness?”
“Do you remember when I broke Brian’s bird table?”
Dad smiled, looking at me over his glasses. “Right kick,” he said.
“Did you replace it?”
“I did. As requested. Not the cheapest thing as I recall. He’s not still complaining about it is he?”
In the kitchen, mum was unpacking the shopping.
“Alright? Not too cold? Not ill?” she asked. I tried to give her a look, but I’ve never equalled her on that score. My clean laundry was in a basket in front of the washing machine, all neatly folded.
“Have you ever seen Penny’s gravestone?”
“Yes,” she said, reaching up to put two packets of ground coffee in the cupboard (long gone are their days of instant).
“I helped him with the flowers.”
She guessed what I meant.
“Sad isn’t it,” she said. “I only know because of taking him up there these last couple of years.” She looked thoughtful and said, “Sometimes you think you know people but you don’t.”
As I helped her unpack the rest of the shopping she said, “You never know what you don’t know.”
I picked up the laundry basket and she looked at me. “You’ve got to make a decision in the end you know, love. You can’t keep the poor lass hanging on forever.”
I sat outside for a minute in the car. It’s a form of grief, my sister said, what you feel when you’ve split up with someone even if you’re the one who’s ended it. I haven’t ended it, I told her. It’s a trial separation. But in truth I’d already made my decision. We weren’t compatible, me and Laura. I had to be true to myself. And I knew mum was right. I just hadn’t found the courage to say it out loud yet and break Laura’s heart. There would never be a good time to tell her, would there. I had to let her go.
I moved the basket of laundry from the seat and wedged it in the footwell, started the car and pulled away.