Standing at the front – because that’s the privilege of the nearest and dearest – I wanted not to be there. I wanted to be right at the back, in the middle of a row, so I couldn’t see – it.
I wanted to think about how much she had meant to me, what one of her hugs felt like, the sound of her voice reading bedtime stories. I wanted to remember making fairy cakes, sitting up in bed with her on a Sunday morning eating hot, buttered toast and reading. Instead, I just saw – it.
And because it was right there in front of me, reflecting the lights with a varnished glow, I thought about what was inside. I thought about the process of decay, pictured cells deconstructing, what was once firm, becoming slack. I wondered if it was lined with lead, and what colour material they had used to cover up the screws, the joints, the glue. Was she wearing outdoor clothes? Were they new ones, purchased especially?
I thought about one summer, right before my teenage years, when were getting up late in the long, lazy school holidays. She was still wearing her nightdress as she leaned forward to make her bed and in that moment I saw the secret, light brown hair of her underarms, grown soft and long like the whisps on a baby’s head. I feel embarrassed, and look away. I think about that.
And now, because I can’t stop my thoughts, the wood has become transparent and we can all see her. A faint trace of powder blusher frosts her cheeks, her favourite colour glistens on her lips, with a little bit caught on her front teeth. Someone must have told them that she never really wore much make-up. So she’s lying there, peaceful, and my heart is hammering and my head hurts with all of these things.
I look behind me at the rest of the congregation just before the vicar opens his mouth. Nobody is shielding their eyes from the sight of an old, dead lady lying on a trolley in front of the altar. Nobody else can see what I see.
Which kind of makes sense, when you think about it.