Epitaph for The Man

We sat quiet in the final car of the slow black three-car procession, the wheels hugging the tail of the motor in front that was carrying his mother and sister and the woman-child of eighteen through the narrow, crowded streets of the rural, county market town. A small town where everyone knows everyone else's business and where dirty washing hangs beside gleaming Royal horseshoes and public-school cricket banners. Where Prince Charles plays polo and the local jail-birds roost on their bar-stools in the low, black- beamed public houses that are scattered around the ancient market place like wheat from the malthouses. Where unplucked geese and still-warm rabbits hang from hooks outside the butchers' shops and mullion- windowed teashops squeeze like clotted cream between Oxfam and the local fish-and-chippy's. Where everyone knew The Man's face and name and hunched-shoulder walk. Where he had passed his truant hours and those desperate nights trying to return home.

The Man's and my daughters were wearing flower-bright dresses, well- scrubbed cheeks and lost, puzzled expressions on their tiny faces. I was wearing red: blood red, violent red, the red of anger and passion and despair and a plundered love. Red for fire and pain and hope and hatred. Red for a dying sun and a blazing poppy. Red for his blood and mine. And I was also wearing red because I was damned if I would ever wear black to anyone's funeral, least of all his...

The woman-child was wearing The Man's clothes. We had met on the stairs in his mother's house, in a hug of friendship and pain and aceptance. She was wearing his clothes, the same clothes he'd worn the last time I'd seen him and the same clothes he'd been wearing when she returned to the house they had once shared, responding to a desperate, early-morning call: finding the note on the kitchen table to tell her about the gift he'd left for her upstairs. The gift of the empty, spiritless, husk of his body which was hanging liberated and free in the stairwell.

She was wearing his torn, patched jeans, cracked-and-polished Doc Marten boots and my old leather motorbike jacket, from which he'd torn the sleeves because one evening I'd grated them to shreds sliding across the black tarmac of a too-soon road junction thirty miles from home. But it still bore the rastafarian colours my youngest sister had painted onto the black leather.

And I looked at the woman-child as if I was looking at my reflection in a ten-year-old mirror.

His mother sat small and compact and quietly calm with her fourth husband, a tall, thin, damaged, trembling man whose father had beaten him until his young eardrums had burst. She had come across this gentle man through a dating agency after burying her third husband and discovering that she was alone with their daughter. His mother now thought she would be happy until the end with this quiet man who was now shivering and crying in her pain. And we all gathered around her, in front of her small suburban house, to follow the car carrying the narrow, pale pine box, the flowers and the body of her son.

The small Baptist church was squashed between a bakers' and a butchers' on the main station road, and the street outside was blurred with the faces of friends and family and strangers and passers-by. Faces of friends, good and bad, old and new; faces that I couldn't see or acknowledge or recognise: Go on, just follow his mother and hold on to the children and sit with them and your New Man on the second pew and look at the pine box and wonder who's inside it and listen to the preacher struggling to say something good or real about The Man, because he had never known him and would never have wanted to; Keep saying, "this is real, it's all real" and trying to believe it, like you have been all week ever since his best friend phoned late on Wednesday night, though you hadn't answered the phone because your New Man was drunk and had just wallowed to bed and you were tired and thought it was the New Man's sister who had just left and had forgotten her umbrella, but the Man's friend had phoned again the next day while you were at work, and the New Man had told you when you arrived home and then lost his temper when you scrambled to contact an old friend far-away across the country, because you needed to hold the hand of someone who knew and remembered the old days, and because your New Man was from the new days and you'd built a wall between the two, both to protect the yourself and children and also to hide behind. And all week you'd been watching a stranger who wore your shoes and did your job and who told your family and colleagues and friends that The Man had gone, while you listened to your own voice screaming somewhere very quiet and still: "It's not true, he's still hiding and waiting just around the corner and he's going to hurt you..."

The church was full of a crowd of people who I'd left behind in another life, because he had seemed to need them more than I did...

Later, slowly driving, slowly, slowly driving long miles along the highway to the big, dingy town where the only crematorium for miles sat at the top of an industrial hill, amid cold, wind-blown daffodils which were bouncing in the ragged grass. A long, straight roman highway across long, flat, ancient country. A long, straight road of memories.

Slowly driving along the same high-speed highway where he'd given a first driving lesson, because "It's dead straight so it's easy," even though it wasn't easy at all when it came to turning a corner and I didn't know how to change gear; slowly driving along the same, startled highway where he'd amused himself driving a speeding, second-hand, fuel-guzzling hearse past sedate sunday drivers, hooting and waving and grinning and leering at the shocked faces; slowly driving down the same midnight highway that he'd driven to get to those friends who bought and sold and traded and needed and wanted and hated and stole for his goods; slowly driving along the same work-day highway that he'd driven happy in a Transit van, North to Aberdeen and South to London, talking to hitch- hikers and drinking hot sweet tea in dirty mugs from roadside transport cafes and bringing back tales of distant roads and bad drivers and never- enough-money to pay the rent or the milkman or to feed our hunger or the electric meter or his desperate habit. Slowly driving through low, flat, end- of-winter countryside, our two daughters pale and shocked and quiet, my New Man occupying himself with our very-young son and my head a just a dry and empty shell.

Then hearing the cold, rigid prayers within the grey, utilitarian room filled with bright spring flowers and draped by velour curtains. Sunlight shooting through the ceiling windows at the floating motes of powdered dust. No tears in my dead, dry eyes. But what would they be for, when I knew that in just a moment, one more moment, any second now, he would force up the narrow pine lid and spring out like a jack-in-the-box with his manic amphetamine grin and strange hair and two-day beard, to rejoice in having fooled us all with this, the superlative practical joke; another vicious game, another lie... and I could no longer believe anything he said or did, not even in his dying... But then the music was softly playing and the curtains slowly closing, sucking the cheap pine box back and away towards the burning, and his mother was crying "my son, my son" and my New Man was telling my bewildered daughters to say goodbye to their father, and then they were crying too and The Man's sister was crying and his mother's new husband was crying and ill and couldn't move and my New Man was helping him out of the room and everyone was leaving and then I was outside looking at the already-wilting flowers...

... talking to old old friends in the cold May sunshine, reaching across the walls... ribbing someone for having put on weight and learning that he'd already lost a lot and had been feeling quite slim until I'd mentioned it... touching and remembering the best-loved and then each of us retracting alone back into our private, cold and fragile castles...

Then back home safe within our evening flat, and me phoning the house where friends had gathered "to remember", and wanting to speak to Neil and to know that a friend was there... but instead finding myself talking to the ever-young fool who'd poured me mugs of cheap whisky and tried to seduce me the night I'd left The Man, but who'd suddenly given up "out of respect" for The Man but who probably wouldl have succeeded, because all I'd needed on that night was some care and gentleness and human warmth - but instead he drove me to my mother's home where she took me and wrapped me in her homely nest and then bustled me off to a fighting-cock lawyer who won back my children and a erected a legal barricade between us and The Man.

But when I'd spoken to the fool and to a few others, there was Neil and it was the same as it had ever been, and suddenly an hour later our home was full of him and other old friends, Neil was chatting to and reconciled with an old boyfriend and my New Man was sitting by the blazing log fire and doling out vodka and telling stories and everyone was talking and reminiscing and wondering and I was making tea and coffee and rebuilding the bridges that I'd broken... but then the New Man kissed Neil out of mischief and Neil was upset and hurt and said nothing but it showed in his eyes and he left with a hug and a promise... and after the door had closed behind him, the evening swiftly degenerated into just another late, noisy and crowded night at the end of a long, cold day in early May.

It was a year later, a lifetime later, in our comfortable, neat, prim Dutch home, when the children were secure and asleep upstairs and the evening light was playing with the shadows in the garden, when I was tidying the kitchen and my New Man was watching MTV on the twenty- channel black-and-white portable, when that long, cold day in early May came swimming across the English Channel straight into our safe new home. "Come quickly," my New Man called from behind a supper-time sandwich. "Quick! It's your friends from Newcastle... The Janitors... you know them! On MTV! You'll miss them..."

And I saw a familiar face and voice, heard a familiar guitar, knew a familiar rhythm. I saw a big-hearted, gentle giant of a man singing for his lost half- hero-half-demon friend; singing for a half-way chance, a half-way brotherhood and a half-happened, half-forgotten, half-finished dream. I heard a newly-mellowed edge to their cutting, brash old-punk sound. And I saw a pale denim-and-leather-clad video figure gently twisting in the air at the end of a rope, and a celluloid woman-child with horrified eyes and gaping mouth. And I heard the love in their song. And I knew who the song was for, and why.

The New Man wondered why I watched so pale and silent as two long-ago friends played nothing very new to a video-numbed, front-room audience. But I didn't see the video. I didn't hear the tune.

Because all I heard and saw was an overdue epitaph, an epitaph for a friend, a husband, a father. An epitaph for The Man.