Oscar should be there right now, I think but don’t say.
‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,’ she says. ‘I don’t know what to do, Jack.’
‘Lu, there isn’t anything you can do. Believe me, I know.’
‘I know you do,’ she says softly.
‘You don’t need to rush or do anything at all today,’ I tell her, because I remember those dark, difficult days all too well. ‘It’s going to be confusing, just do whatever you feel is right – don’t beat yourself up for crying too much or for not crying when you think you should or for not knowing how to help your mum. Just be, Laurie. It’s all you can do right now. Hang in there, okay? Wait for Oscar to come to do the official things, let him get in touch with the right people for you. Trust me, he’ll be glad of a practical way to help.’
‘Okay.’ She sounds relieved, as if she just needs someone to walk through this with her. How I wish it could be me.
‘Alice at number three asked me to bring this in. Said she’ll be at the church later.’
Aunt Susan, my mum’s sister, hands me a large Victoria sponge. She’s been staying for the last few days and has been an absolute rock; having her here has helped Mum get through the emotional meeting with the celebrant to talk about the funeral, to plan what she’s going to wear and to realize that the world still has to keep turning without my dad in it. Aunt Susan lost her own husband, my uncle Bob, four years ago; she can empathize with Mum in a way that neither Daryl nor I am able to. We’ve lost our dad, but she’s lost her soulmate, and today she has to face up to that fact at his funeral.
I go through to the kitchen with the cake stand in my hands just as Sarah appears at the back window, her hand poised to tap. Everyone comes round the back at Mum and Dad’s, it’s that kind of home. I flinch at the idea that one day soon I’ll have to get used to calling it just Mum’s. I can’t stand the thought of her rattling around here on her own.
‘Hey,’ Sarah says when I unlock the door. And then, ‘Wow,’ when she takes in the spread of food across the kitchen counters. I doubt if the local M&S have much left on the shelves. Aunt Susan has ordered everything online, right down to napkins and disposable crockery.
‘It can all just get swept into the bin at the end,’ she told me, brisk as she clicked through the order screens. ‘The last thing anyone feels like doing after a funeral is clearing up.’
Added to the half a dozen or so cakes that have appeared over the course of the morning from various neighbours and friends, it’s a sure fact that no one will leave here hungry.
I was so glad to have someone who knew what they were doing take charge, though Oscar, Daryl and I made the basic arrangements with the funeral directors when Oscar arrived back from Brussels. Is there anything worse in the world than having to choose coffin options? Who really cares whether it’s ash or pine, or if the handles are brass or silver? We fumbled our way through, and somehow whichever casket we selected is going to be here shortly bearing my lovely dad. It feels unreal, too cruel to possibly be true.
Sarah turns to me and puts her arm round my shoulders. ‘Okay?’
I nod, blinking away the tears that are always just behind my lashes. I haven’t told her that I called Jack first when it happened. But I tell myself that he’s the only person I know who’s lost a parent; I needed someone who knew what it felt like. But when it got to the end of the day and I found myself sitting alone in my childhood bedroom, all I wanted was to call my best friend. We’ve been texting and meeting up for coffee and cake every couple of weeks since that day in the market, wine sometimes too, slowly gluing our friendship back together. Within seconds of hearing her familiar voice, any last shreds of distance in our friendship disappeared. She arrived on the doorstep the next evening without being asked. And though she had to go back to London for a few days to work, she came back again yesterday in time for the funeral.
‘I think so.’ I shrug and give her a helpless look. ‘There’s nothing to do really, just wait.’
She hangs her coat over the back of one of the kitchen chairs and puts the kettle on. ‘How’s your mum?’
I shake my head, passing Sarah a couple of mugs. ‘Coping, I guess.’ It’s the most positive word I can muster. She’s coping. She wakes up and she goes to sleep, and in between she answers if someone speaks to her, but most of the time she just sits and looks a million miles away. I don’t know what to say to her; it’s like suddenly I’m the parent but I have no idea how to do it, how to comfort her.
‘Perhaps today will be a turning point,’ Sarah offers. She isn’t the first person to say that, that sometimes the funeral is the point where it sinks in that someone has actually gone. It seems like after the funeral everyone else just gets on with their lives and you have to find a way to get on with yours.
‘Maybe,’ I say, uncertain how any of us will ever be able to do that. ‘You look nice.’
Her low ponytail swishes as she glances down at her Jackie O-style black dress. ‘Perk of the job,’ she smiles. She’s a regular face on the rolling news channel now, as she was always destined to be. We sit down at the kitchen table, coffees in hand. I add sugar to mine, watching the grains as they spiral into the liquid.
‘This reminds me of Delancey Street,’ she says.
Suddenly I’m hit by a pang of longing and regret. ‘I wish we could go back.’
‘I know, honey.’
‘Sarah, I’m so sorry …’ I find myself desperate to apologize, to get it all into the open. Because despite her being here, we still haven’t said a word about our argument; about Jack.
‘Let’s not talk about that now. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then.’ She clasps my hand and squeezes.
But it sits between us, unresolved, as if we shrouded it in a dustsheet and repainted around it, and I know that one day we’re going to have to take the sheet off and see what’s left underneath.
‘One day though,’ I say.
‘Yeah,’ she says. ‘Not today, but one day.’
I’m grabbing a quiet five minutes on a bench next to the brook that runs across the bottom of Laurie’s parents’ rambling garden when Oscar finds me and hands me a beer.
‘Thanks.’ I look at him sideways as he sits down alongside me, elbows on his knees. ‘Long day.’
He nods. ‘Do you think she’ll be all right?’
It’s such an unexpected question that I have to ask him to qualify it. ‘Laurie?’
‘Yeah.’ He drinks from whatever it is in his glass, whisky by the look of it. Over the years we’ve established that I’m the beer drinker and he’s a single malt man. ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do or what to say to her.’
Is he asking for my advice? I dig deep, because even though he’s never going to be someone I feel any affinity with, he cares about Laurie. We have that much in common.
‘In my experience, she’s tougher than she looks, but not so tough that she doesn’t break sometimes.’ I remember back to the day I saw her break, when I kissed her in a snowstorm. ‘Ask her how she’s feeling, don’t let her bottle it up.’
‘But I don’t know what to say.’
‘Nobody does, Oscar. But something, anything, is better than nothing.’
‘You always seem to know what to say.’ He sighs and shakes his head, thinking. ‘That speech you made at our wedding, for example.’ He pauses, watching me, and I think, oh fuck, because this isn’t something he and I should ever talk about.
‘What about it?’ I look at him sharply.
He leans back and drapes his arm along the back of the bench. ‘I’ll level with you, Jack. I’ve sometimes wondered if your feelings for Laurie are entirely platonic.’
I laugh as I look away and drain the beer in one. ‘Of all the days, you choose the day she buried her father to talk about this?’
‘It’s a simple enough question,’ he says, reasonable as always. ‘I’m asking you if you have feelings for my wife, Jack. And I think I’ve been patient long enough.’