Chapter 13

13
Goodbye to Love

It was a funeral like no other.

It was my first since Zena’s to be attended by so many people; some folks had to stand in the rain outside the crem and hear the celebration of Nelson Maurice Love’s life relayed via speakers.

It was my first experience of a dress code, specifying ‘bright colours please, no black.’  Of course such a convention is common nowadays.

It was the first time I’d seen a red ribbon, the universal symbol of AIDS awareness, which is also ubiquitous now but had then just been launched.  They were dished out at the door, along with envelopes in which to drop donations to the Terrence Higgins Trust.  I was more accustomed to passing a church collecting tin along a pew.

Rather than sport a traditional black armband, I’d made myself one in the purple, green and white colours of the suffragette movement.  I wore it for work – in the fictitious world populated by our characters, mine had taken up the cause of women’s emancipation – and it seemed appropriate somehow.

I felt Linda’s presence before I saw her.  I was pinning my ribbon on my green jacket (they say red and green should never be seen, but on this occasion I forgave Nelson for engendering the eye-watering clash), when I felt an eerie draught on the back of my neck.

I oh so nonchalantly turned, to see her bustling into a seat at the back with a very tall man who had a thatch of dark hair and wore glasses on a gold chain.  I’d only ever seen Larry Grayson model such an accoutrement, but this man didn’t look camp.

The ribbon slithered out of my quavering fingers.  Mel retrieved it and fastened it on me.

‘He’s her lover, apparently,’ he whispered.  ‘Some Tory toff.  Owns half of Derbyshire, by all accounts.’

‘You’re kidding!’

‘She’s had death threats – ’

‘I didn’t send them, honest!’  I held my hands up in mock surrender.

‘No!  From her old Socialist Worker crowd, who say she’s sold out.  He funded her last tour, apparently.  Which was a disaster.’

Interesting.  It was the first time I’d seen Linda in seven years – in the flesh, at least – and I watched her in grim fascination.  Posh boyfriend or not, she was still evidently cultivating a ‘scruffbag’ image off-screen as well as on.  She wore a cherry crushed velvet top, with a matching bandana knotted around her scarecrow blonde hair, and a jumble of beads clonking round her neck.

I averted my gaze only at the last second, when she sat down and eye contact was threatened.  I saw Glasses On Chain Man shoot me a stern look, but I didn’t much care about him.  A funeral was an inappropriate backdrop for a scene.  I had to rise above my own issues and pay my respects to Nelson.  Anyway, the service was starting.

‘Welcome,’ declared the officiant, a stout lady with a kind face and a Wolverhampton accent.  ‘What a spectacular turnout we have here on this drab, wet morning.  It’s a real honour and privilege for me to be here today in front of you all, and I would like to personally thank Nelson’s family for their encouragement and support in allowing me to perform this last task for a very special person.’

And that was me in bits straight away.  I clamped a hanky over my nose and mouth, to stifle any embarrassing teary snorts.  I practically stifled breath too.

‘I know that most of you will be more familiar with a very different form of service, but I hope we can agree that the human values we all share are of far more lasting importance than those matters which may divide us in this respect.

‘We are here this morning to pay our last respects and bid a sad but fond farewell to Nelson, also to honour and pay tribute to his far too short life, and in our own way to express our love and admiration for him.  We have all been profoundly affected by Nelson’s passing, and though he was taken from the bosom of his family and friends far too early we will try in the short time we have here this morning to make this occasion a celebration of his life and to express our thanks for having known him.

‘We have come together from different places, and we are all at different stages on our journey through life, our paths are varied and we look at life in different ways.  But there is one thing we all have in common: at one point or another, and to some degree or other, our lives have touched the life of Nelson.

‘I sincerely hope that at the end of this farewell ceremony for him you will also feel glad that you took the opportunity to do some of your grieving in the presence of others who have known and loved him.’

Nelson’s parents and sister Aurelia remained stoic, almost detached, throughout, but there were plenty of tears in that crammed room.

One of his fellow dancers, a lithe wisp of a girl called Ruby, delivered the eulogy.  It appalled me how much I was learning about Nelson’s recent life, and thus the inference therein of how out of touch with him I’d become.  I felt selfish and sad that I’d been engrossed in my own issues.  I made a mental note to make more time for the friends I had remaining.

As a video of Nelson performing an exuberant dance routine to Holding Out for a Hero by Bonnie Tyler was projected on to a huge screen, a pre-chosen troupe of dancers filed up to place rainbow roses on the coffin.  I later speculated to Mel whether the flowers were real or synthetic; he enlightened me that they were real roses artificially coloured by the means of drawing dyed water up through the stems (he knew stuff, did Mel).

I wondered which, if any, of the girls was the one who’d betrayed Nelson’s confidence and snitched to their cruise ship employers, resulting in his dismissal from the Princess of the Aegean.  I wondered whether, alternatively, she’d stayed away, possibly scared she’d be infected.  My one-time desire to rip her face off had abated.  What purpose would it serve?  Nelson was still dead, after all.  Nothing could amend that sad state of affairs.

Watching Nelson power his way across the stage, so robust and graceful, I was struck anew by the unfairness and tragedy of the situation.  Dancers have always fascinated me.  The manoeuvres and lifts they execute so effortlessly seem like magic.  Nelson was born for the stage.  I simply could not relate him to the multicoloured rose-festooned box positioned in the corner.

‘Let’s remind ourselves,’ summarised the officiant, unwittingly paralleling my thoughts, ‘that the departed reside not in the grave or an urn but in the hearts and minds of the living.’

My tears were pouring unimpeded and unselfconsciously as the curtain slid around the coffin to the strains to Nelson’s favourite song, This is My Life by Eartha Kitt.  I always hate that moment in a cremation.  It feels so final.  I have this desperate, irrational urge to reach out and yell, ‘Please don’t go!’

The heavy grey curtain snagged on one of the wreath arrangements on the floor, so until the funeral director tactfully rescued it Nelson and the roses were momentarily visible through the gap.  It seemed so fitting; Nelson’s cheeky encore before his final curtain call.

The Condom Fairy, a six-foot transvestite in glitter lipstick, doled out condoms as we exited the ceremony.  Johnnies appeared to be omnipresent then; dispensed like sweets, so to speak.  With AIDS panic at its height, they had evolved from ‘something for the weekend,’ rubbery devices to be sniggered at, into vital lifesavers.

Our service overran somewhat – Nelson always was late – and as we emerged, the next party were already waiting to go in.  A very small party.  Consisting of five people, to be precise.  In traditional black, grief etched across their craggy faces, staring openly curiously at the Condom Fairy.  Their jet black suits contrasted sharply with our jazzy attire.

My mind reeled back to the other funeral I’d been to in recent months, that of Alice Cooper.  Only Gloria, Mel, one of the nurses from Russells Hall Hospital and I had been present at Gornal Wood Crematorium that day.

An idea I’d previously entertained started to brew anew.

 

We filed outside, through a line of floral tributes beneath a long archway that shielded us from the hammering rain.  Each recently departed person was allotted a slot, designated by a name handwritten on a sign that looked as though it belonged on a fruit and veg stall.

Linda and Glasses On Chain Man were some way ahead, he with his arm round her.

‘You hang on there, Linny,’ he boomed, his voice predictably commanding and posh, ‘I’ll bring the car round.’

‘OK, Guy.’

Guy?

I lingered and studied the flowers to avoid catching up with ‘Linny’ while Guy fetched his vehicle (probably a Bentley or Range Rover).  I speculated about the lives of these people, commemorated by flamboyant ‘NAN’ or ‘DAD’ displays as well as more understated sprays.

There was even a display shaped like a TV: a photograph of the late Harry Hooper in close-up grimace from Part & Parcel, framed by chrysanthemums, and even a little remote control alongside it fashioned out of petals.  Well, it was different.

******

We drove to a huge banqueting hall on the main road out of Wolverhampton for the wake.

This event was very much a modern memorial, entirely appropriate for a young person.  I’d never been to a funeral for someone so youthful before.  Nelson was thirty.  So was I – which always gave me quite a jolt.  Too young for death, yet too old to be coasting through life as an aimless actress.  When I was eighteen, the age I met Nelson, thirty had seemed so remote and mature.  I didn’t feel particularly mature now (remote at times, yes).  I was still playing at life.  Perhaps that was the mere nature of my profession.

From nowhere, the thought struck me that I ought to travel.  I had never travelled extensively.  A cousin of mine had recently backpacked around Australia, and I’d shown a shameful lack of interest in her infinite photographs of Outback scenery, only pumping her for information about what was happening in Neighbours and Home and Away (their storylines being a good six months ahead of the UK transmission dates at the time).

I needed to expand my horizons.  I had a narrow knot of allies in my life, which following Nelson’s passing had shrunk even further.  Outside my family, there was Mel, Gloria, my fellow Victorian re-enactors from the museum, a few college friends.  Hey, even Roger the counsellor counted – at least we had a conversation once a week.

Back to the funeral: the massive room was bedecked with flags in the rainbow colours of Gay Pride.  There were pinboards dotted around the room, covered with collages of photos of Nelson in various costumes, striking poses on and off-stage, intercut with clippings of his favourite performers.  Liza Minnelli, Wayne Sleep, Eartha Kitt, Andy Bell, that girl from Flashdance and, prominently, Kylie.

Poignantly, there was just one photograph depicting Nelson with Mel, Linda and me, in our carefree flatmate days.  It was an extremely early ‘selfie,’ our quartet squished into the frame, Mel’s right arm stretching out of the shot at an odd angle denoting that he was the photographer.  Like Ruby’s eulogy, this lone shot was sadly symbolic of what a tiny role I had played in his life.

It’s sobering how your illusion that you figured as significantly in someone’s life as they did in yours can be shattered.  Merely carrying memories is not enough; people move on.

People outnumbered chairs at the event, but Mel managed to bag a couple on the end of a trestle table.  I reserved them – my bum forming an inelegant bridge across the two – while he got us some drinks, then it was his turn to do likewise while I nipped to the loo (funerals are an endurance test for the bladder).

Actually ‘nipping’ to the loo proved easier said than done, as there was a queue longer than at the IKEA sale.

At last I dived into a cubicle.  The lock was wobbly, and there were holes in the wood around it, plugged up with soggy loo roll.  I wedged my handbag against the door as an extra blockade.  I heard a woman outside simper, ‘I’m surprised you’re queuing with the rest of us – I thought you VIPs had your own gold plated toilets.’  It was hard to tell if she was being sarcastic or genuinely obsequious – probably the latter.

An ominously familiar Derbyshire voice rasped, ‘Ah, bless ya.  Nah, I need to wet me lettuce same as everybody else.’

Oh, how down to earth she was – reducing a toilet queue to gales of laughter with her delicate turn of phrase.  Presumably Linda’s fawning, full-bladdered fan wasn’t one of those penning the death threats.  Well at least I was poised over a convenient receptacle should I wish to vomit.  I held my breath.

The conversation outside the door had somehow progressed to the recent rejuvenation of Birmingham.

‘I tell ya, I hardly recognised the city last time I were there,’ Linda reflected.  ‘That Symphony Hall’s dead ace, and down by the canal used to be dead scuzzy but now it’s all wine bars and that.  Even Lewis’s has gone – you know, the big department store.  We used to use that expression: “If so-and-so fell off Lewis’s, they’d land in a brand new suit,” another way of saying they were a jammy bastard.’

I admit to experiencing a pang at this.  Birmingham was changing, and for the better – even Bert’s Burgers had been shut down, following a listeria outbreak – but I cherished my memories of the grotty old city of our blithe student days.  When we were friends.  I didn’t end up having to tear off any of the scratchy bog roll to wipe my eyes, but it was close.

I stayed hunched in that cubicle for as long as feasibly possible – thinking I could perhaps invent a heavy period or gastroenteritis, should I be asked to justify taking up residence in the lav – hoping enough of the others would empty to absorb the ladies in the queue, including Linda.

‘Are this lot gunna hurry up or what?  I’m spillin’ over.’

Bloody hell!

I was a schoolgirl all over again, evading PE.  I had read and reread the graffiti on the side of the sanitary towel bin proclaiming that ‘Chantelle’ was a slag.  Finally I could endure it no longer.  Someone flushed, and a gust of shite whacked me right in the nostrils.  I feared I really would heave up my breakfast.  I tugged the hefty chain, and marched out of there, head held as high as possible.  Linda, still queuing, looked unusually taken aback.  Her gaze landed upon my armband.  ‘Good to see your feminist stripes.’  I couldn’t gauge if she was being sarcastic, or was simply at a loss for something to say.  She sounded rather absent.

‘I’ve earned my feminist stripes, Linda.’  As she barrelled into the cubicle I’d just vacated, and shut the door, I added nonchalantly to the mirror, ‘And that toilet won’t flush.’  Let her think she was sharing a confined space with my stagnant piss.  I ran a jet of blistering water over my hands and shook them triumphantly over the sink.

******

Over the Caribbean buffet – another queuing/seat-reserving relay – I finally confided in Mel about my new career brainwave.

‘The funeral industry fascinates me,’ I began.

Majella –

He shot me a dubious look as he heaped jerk chicken on to his baked sweet potato.  I could hardly blame him.  He’d pulled me out of the path of a car just over a year ago.  It was natural he’d worry if my mind appeared to be straying into morbid areas it should be avoiding.

‘There’s nothing macabre in it,’ I reassured him.  He looked unconvinced.  ‘Honestly.  I mean, there’s a wonderful turnout here today, but what about all those people who have no family or friends?  Who have even fewer folks to grieve for them than dear Alice did?  Who is there for them when they pass away?’

‘Well, I suppose – ’

‘Hi Mel, Majella.’

No, not Linda – the interjector was in fact Trevor Lilley, of Glinda Spitfire keyboard and ‘GAY HELL’ fame.

He was dressed informally, in a beige roll neck and matching slacks.  The quiet one of the group, who’d always been the least comfortable with fame and scrutiny, he now looked fit and calm.  Chilled, I suppose you’d say nowadays.  We chatted awhile.

‘I don’t see the guys anymore,’ Trevor said, with what I thought was a pointed glance in my direction, as if to preclude me from enquiring after Gareth, who I believed had by now entered rehab.  I was long over him anyhow.  ‘I’ve retrained as a tai chi instructor.’

The last Glinda Spitfire album, which had flopped spectacularly, was named Wudang Mountain, which was supposedly the birthplace of tai chi in China and had also given its name to a sequence of exercises in the ancient Chinese art form.

He eventually departed, bound for the buffet.  There was such a huge gathering, we queued up in batches, and the trays of chicken goujons and ackee and saltfish were replenished as quickly as they were emptied.

‘So I’ve had this idea,’ I continued to Mel.  ‘It’s a chance to use my acting skills, to a degree, but also perform a final deed for these poor folks who would otherwise be buried by the council with no fanfare.  Homeless people, those who have no relatives, or are estranged from their relatives.’

Mel’s expression was still perplexed.  ‘So what do you propose doing?’

I speared a kidney bean with my fork and wagged it in front of me, a prop to hide behind.  Over Mel’s shoulder, I spotted Linda and Guy leaving.  The odd couple, who looked weirdly comfortable together; Glasses On Chain Guy to all appearances fond and protective over this messy girl.  As they departed, relief washed over me, yet also a curious sadness.  I realised I’d been keeping my voice down, subconsciously afraid of them overhearing and scoffing at my little ideas.

‘To set myself up as a sort of rent-a-mourner, to put it very crudely.  To be a presence at their funerals; show that somebody is thinking about them, even though I never knew them personally.’

‘Pretend to sob?’

‘Nothing so vulgar.  I could do a little reading, say a few words, just give them a dignified send-off.  I could even do readings where there are relatives present, but they’re just too emotional, or too shy, to deliver eulogies.’

‘So how would you get to know about the deaths?  Hang out in graveyards; become a freelance grief groupie?’

‘I’m hoping I’d get referrals from councils, or funeral directors.  You know, I read in the Evening Mail about this poor old man who lay undiscovered in his flat for three months.  Imagine that – to be missed by nobody?  How does someone, who must have been wanted at some point in their life – at birth, at least, you’d imagine – become reduced to that?’

I popped the congealing kidney bean into my mouth, to fill the poignant silence, not because the image of a decaying Birmingham pensioner was one I wished to dwell on whilst eating.

‘You’re really serious about this, aren’t you?’

The first time you give voice to a pipe dream is always momentous.  I recall when I first announced to my parents my intention to become a professional actress.  You get that little buzz inside that makes you feel grown-up and decisive; a sense that it – whatever ‘it’ might be – is becoming real.

‘I’ve never felt more motivated by an idea in my life.  But there’s something I’d like to do before that.  Would you be able to look after Tesco for a few weeks?’