Four Funerals and a Wedding

Andrew O’Hagan

When I was young people didn’t die and they didn’t pass away. They certainly didn’t expire, or perish, though there was a woman in our street called Hazel who dabbled in spiritualism while her philandering husband went out to fix people’s Hotpoint twin-tubs, and she quite often spoke of people who had ‘crossed to the other side’. I thought that was sick. Hazel had a lot of anger in her, as people now say, and I felt that must explain her hazardous use of words. She’d met Sandy, her husband, when he drove one of the Alexander buses about the town of Elgin. She happened to be the clippy on the same bus, and she would often tell me about the beauty of those single-decker vehicles (‘the Bluebird’) and the handsomeness of Sandy behind the wheel. Now she was furious all the time, and took it out on her accordion, playing Strathspey reels until the red varnish flaked off her fingernails.

In our town it was all in the words. Nobody was ever ‘dearly’ anything, certainly not ‘departed’. ‘Deceased’ seemed a bit high and mighty, even allowing for the fact that in Scotland everyone’s station is slightly raised by their having enjoyed, if you will, the process of personal death. People in my childhood found the word ‘death’ unsayable, and got round it by saying, of someone whose corpse lay in the next room, that ‘something had happened.’

‘If anything ever happens to me,’ my mother would say, ‘you’ll find the Liverpool Assurance policy book in the cupboard up above the stock cubes.’

‘If something happens to me,’ my grandmother said, ‘don’t put me up in that Dalbeth Cemetery. It’s a cold place.’

And my father too. ‘If anything ever happens to me you’ll know what life’s all about.’

‘What do you mean “if”?’ I would say. ‘Why can’t you just say “when I die”?’

‘You think you’re that smart,’ my granny would say. ‘But that’s just a morbid thing, to use that word.’

‘Death!’

‘Don’t say it! It’s a horrible word.’

‘Death!’

‘Stop it,’ my mother would say. ‘I hate talking like this, but if something happens to me . . .’

‘What do you mean “if”? And what do you mean “something”? The thing that will happen to you is called death and there’s no ifs or buts about it.’

‘He’s so pessimistic him, isn’t he?’ my granny would say. ‘Always had a dark side. Probably got it from his uncle Peter. He was like that as well. Morbid.’

‘You’re just trying to draw attention to yourself,’ my father would say. ‘If something ever happens to you, I suppose you’ll want one of them statues to yourself up in the Glasgow Necropolis.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘The sign could say: “Up here, something did happen to Andrew O’Hagan. Like each of us, he wondered if it would happen. And it did.”’

Something happened to my second ever schoolteacher, Mrs Wallace. We saw her totally somethinged in her coffin under a huge crucifix of Jesus Christ, to whom, by the look of the nails and the blood running down his arms and toes, there might also have been a question of something happening. Mrs Wallace was a champion smoker and worrier of rosary beads. She took a liking to me, giving me the not entirely popular task of writing pupils’ names on the blackboard if they spoke while she was out having a fag. I was so unremitting and cruel with the chalk that Mrs Wallace figured me to be a potential candidate for the priesthood; she got me my first gig ringing the bell on the altar at St Winnin’s, though a combination of sleepiness and professional jealousy on my part was to harm my chances of advancement in the eyes of Father McLaughlin.

Mrs Wallace’s funeral was my first one, and in some senses no funeral could ever have the same intensity, not even my own in the event that anything should ever happen to me. I sat through the funeral mass, aged seven, in a state of shock, with all the pasty-faced solemnity of a Pre-Raphaelite mourner confronting the eternal, my intense concentration broken only for a second by the gentle passing of the family, who I knew instantly must be counted the stars of the occasion, each of them top to toe in respectful, chalk-free, something-comprehending black. My seniority in the diocese was not marked by an invitation to the graveside, but I did go there two years later, taking the bus to a populous cemetery in the small town of Stevenson. Mrs Wallace’s spot was up against the right-hand wall, deep in the shadow of the Ardeer Explosives Factory. Of course, something has since happened to the factory and its cooling towers too, but I remember their real presence in that Stevenson graveyard. In a tangle of crosses and angels it said on the gravestone ‘Mary Wallace’, the chiselled words seeming to embody in some powerful and menacing way the mysteries of faith.

In the via Monserrato, a few weeks before the pope’s death, the light seemed yellow against the rain, and Rome seemed a place not of eternities but of passing trade. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor entered the restaurant in his civilian uniform of open-necked shirt and windcheater, smiling to the waiters and taking his usual table. I didn’t approach him, but took time to notice the high-spiritedness of his friends, happy to be in the company of the head of the English Catholics, a man not given to any obvious show of relaxation but, rather, seeming constantly anxious about being behind with business.

Nearby is the English College, or the Venerable English College, as its fanbase likes to call it. Father Clive was waiting on the steps for me. He was in his late twenties, very neat, soft-toned and red-cheeked, and he welcomed me into the building in the manner of someone obeying time and tradition, naming the exact moment on his watch before telling me I was the latest visitor in a tradition of literary visitors stretching back to John Milton. He said it very kindly, but I wanted to laugh. However, something high in his red cheeks warned me neither to laugh nor to make any reference to Paradise Lost. I simply smiled and composed my wits and followed him over the black and claret tiles to the Martyr’s Chapel.

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