Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Parting Glass

My family has known the Reverend Thompson for many years, and on this day the man was on the form of his life. I suppose you could call it merciless, but the well-spoken ex-soldier with the grey beard was calling the bluff of one of his former parish members, rampaging down a list of charges the length of your arm. And it was impressive rap sheet, that’s for sure.

“…riding an elephant through a Nepalese jungle… while tracking tigers.”
“…being chased by machete-wielding gypsies in Madeira.”
“…taking your infant son up Mount Etna a week before it erupted.”

The Reverend continued for some time, encouraged by peals of laughter from those who were in the know and drawing looks of astonishment from those who were not. To be fair, the ‘dressing down’, as my Mother would put it, was more than deserved. Colin and my Father had met way back in the day, with the embarrassing occasion when Dad played a butler in a church pantomime best forgotten... 

By lunchtime, some of those who had been listening to the Reverend earlier in the day found themselves elsewhere, namely in a garden at the business end of a bottle of whiskey. But these socialites were not the entire deal. A group of “more savory”, individuals was also enjoying the blue skies of rural Ulster. In one corner, a collection of fancifully festooned post-church party-goers was feasting on a table laden with ham, chicken, pies and spuds, while by the greenhouse lingered a group of awkward young professionals trying to fit in. A few inspired folk had got their hands on some guitars, while yet others were gathered around a table on the patio debating rugby. Strange words, feigned derision and claps of laughter were exchanged; it all seemed rather jolly. But then again, aqua vitae was involved.

By the end of the night I found myself in the pub beside the crossroads, one of the last members of an otherwise long-extinguished party. One more, I cried, one more, before rising to my feet and lurching in the direction of the Bushmills. Grinning, I ran from the bar and hopped the fence, clutching my glass of fire water all the while. But when my feet touched the ground on the other side, all the giddiness suddenly stopped. The graveyard was silent, cold, dark. It was different somehow, hauntingly empty. It was not unfriendly. It had no discernible emotion, it was just there.

I walked down the hill to where we all had stood many hours earlier, gathered together in strength and fragility, watching as the man was finally laid to rest. The wicker coffin had been a nice touch, the inspiration of my pseudo-hippie Mother, while dressing Dad in his flat cap, gilet and cords was a family effort. As was the decision to fill the basket with essential treasures for the old man to take across the divide: dog biscuits for when his faithful Jack Russell eventually follows; keys without locks that might find their partners in the great unknown; a collection of old stones; and a whisk, just in case.

But the dark casts a different perspective, and I was surprised to feel that the grave, and the cancer that took my father, meant nothing. The site was just another patch of dry earth in a field of short grass, the disease but an insignificant footnote to a life well lived. Thinking nothing else of it, I tossed the whiskey onto the pile of settling dirt, pushed the glass deep into mud beneath, and set-off down the hill.

I laughed, I smiled, I sang.

There were other stories to tell.

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