I drive to the Committal service behind the car with my mother, her sisters and J, following the hearse. In my car, my sister and I have our French cousin and French uncle, the latter of whom plays us the Benny Hill music on his phone as we travel in convoy and bangs the top of my head until all four of us are weeping with laughter. At the Crematorium, we meet my dad’s family, his sweet sisters - really, we have so few men in the family, we’ve had to marry them all in or produce them ourselves - and suddenly the simple horror of his still body in a box makes me feel sick and weak and bovine. We shuffle into the Chapel, accidentally wedging my mother down the end of one row, and listen to the RAF Padre talk about the Kingdom of Heaven for a while. He mispronounces my mother’s name over and over again, and I smirk each time. We enjoy the hymns. I’m distracted by the buttons he pushes when it’s time to draw the curtains across our view of the coffin - he’d told us about them earlier, and once you know he’s doing it, you can’t un-notice it, like the weather presenter’s discreet thumbing for a new screen - but when the service is over and my mother’s choice of exit music begins, ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’, the front row - my mother, my sisters and I - fall apart, starting up a howl in perfect sync, which of course instantly turns to laughter in my mouth and sets us all giggling. We sit and cry and sing along, then realise when the song starts up again that everyone is waiting for us to move first.
As we drive out of the Crematorium ground, we see my father’s oldest friends, the ones we were wondering about the absence of, driving in. We have given them the wrong time. For the rest of the day, we all laugh about this, and friends tell us that my father would have found it hilarious, that error. (He wouldn’t. Appropriately, somehow, he would in reality have been so angry that he would have refused to attend the entire rest of day.)
At the afternoon Memorial service, the church is full, bulging, standing room only. The Padre brings us to the door to see where we’ll speak our Memorial words, and the verger misunderstands and makes 300 people stand up, while we back away from the door, doubled-over with fist-in-mouth silent laughter. When our chosen organ music strikes up, we feel any tension has been destroyed by the premature rise and burst in, the four of us marching down the aisle to our blank pew at the front. It feels like some kind of last-minute provincial rep, not a sacred ritual; Bring Your Own Costume.
We head straight to the pub afterwards. J reassures me that I got the biggest laugh of the service - is there any other reason to speak at a funeral? - and I am tearful at the sight of my friends there, pressed fresh and smart in black. They buy me tiny glasses of sambuca. I am struck by how few people I know at the wake: there are hundreds, literally hundreds, and I wonder at how far my father’s life drifted from the one he loved to the one he had when I knew him, that I don’t think I’ve met even half of these dear friends before. But the ones I do know, the beloved family friends whose children we were raised with - their hugs and hand clasps and laughter are a cure for what ails me. By four o’clock, I am cadging cigarettes from mon Oncle Georges and when my mother comes outside, she gives me a mock-shocked look and I reply with an exaggerated What?, letting a pop of smoke bubble from my mouth. She laughs. I am so proud of her, as she stands in stockinged feet outside the pub, next to my friends who tower above her and listen to her stories. Her oldest friend finds me too, and tells me such beautiful things about my mother that I wrap them up carefully in my brain, to tell her that evening, when we are quiet, after midnight, back at home.