Last Stop. Silence.
Dilys Wyndham Thomas
Father Mike clasps the lectern, leans towards us and declares that Marianne—he calls her Mary—will be missed by all who knew her, especially her son, Matthew. He nods at me and then stretches out his arms as if acknowledging pews filled with mourners. But there are only fourteen people at my mother’s funeral. One is our landlady, another the psychiatric nurse who swung by twice a week and occasionally left a dish of cold cauliflower cheese on the kitchen counter. I haven’t told anyone at work about the funeral, but somehow Julie from accounting is sitting a few rows back and is giving me long, intimate looks. I can’t even place the fifty-something exec with basset-hound jowls who arrives late, then spends most of the eulogy fighting sleep.
The person in the framed photograph I positioned in front of the casket is, and isn’t, my mother. Looking back at me with heavy eyelids and a vampish head tilt is Marianne, the woman. It’s the photograph she kept on her dresser, a posed, backlit still life from another life. A life where the paranoia hadn’t yet etched itself into her forehead, where she never sat staring into—or rather past—the mirror, backcombing the same portions of hair until they formed an electric halo around her face. It’s a photograph of her before her friends stopped calling with invitations, then out of concern, then just out of seasonal guilt. It’s a photograph my mother regularly threw at the wall. If you look closely enough, you can see scratch marks from all the broken glass.
Just when I manage to settle into his potent blend of Catholic decorum and televangelist theatrics, Father Mike starts saying something about Mary being a wonderful woman, a loving mother to her beloved son, and a cherished member of the community. Wonderful, loving, beloved, cherished. The man uses adjectives like mouthwash: gargles them, then spits them out, leaving everything all minty-fresh and sparkling clean. As if everyone who pushes a child out into the world is automatically caring. As if all their bouncing baby boys are beloved. Perhaps Father Mike believes his bullshit. Or perhaps he thinks we’re burying someone else, some other woman. Mary.
I fight down the urge to interrupt, to stand up and demand he shut up, demand he say something real, something that tries approaching the truth. But who here, in this awkward little assembly, really cares? The priest is just giving us what we need. It’s in his damn job description. He’s here to make us forget that there is a dead body decomposing right there next to us, that when our time comes, we too might only have semi-strangers to watch over our corpses.
When Father Mike asks if anyone would like to say a few words, I stay glued to the chair. I explicitly told him that there would be no readings, but he seems to have forgotten. He pauses and looks pointedly at me. His face is a practised pout of understanding: serious yet saccharine sweet. I can hear people shift in their chairs, hear the whispers crescendo. I frown and look down at the funeral order of service. Marianne-the-woman stares back at me from the already-crumpled sheet, her arched eyebrows haloed by copy-pasted roses. Fuck. I close my eyes.
Since she died, whenever I try to remember Marianne, all I can conjure up are the twin ghosts of her smell and her laugh: Bourbon vanilla, menthol cigarettes, wet wool, a giggle so child-like it could break your heart.
Father Mike eventually coughs again, probably signalling to the organ master to lead us in an off-pitch rendition of Abide with Me.
Halfway through the hymn, a memory does appear, unbidden. I am ten, maybe eleven, and we are in Marianne’s bedroom. She is in a short nightdress, rifling through her collection of flea-market silver pillboxes, frantically searching for morning uppers or evening downers or some combination of both. A dozen empty boxes lie scattered on the carpet.
‘Where are they,’ she screams at me, brandishing one of the empty pillboxes, the one with a malachite lid. ‘Where are they, Matthew? What the hell have you done with them?’
I shrug and instantly regret it; I know the gesture will enrage her, but it’s too late. Her jaw tenses and her fist looms large. It all happens in slow motion. I duck just as the pillbox hurtles past my ear.
The surprise jolts me back to the present. I notice I’ve crumpled the order of service into a ball. The funeral is coming to an end. Father Mike crosses himself, glancing at his watch as he invokes the Holy Spirit. And A-men. He gestures discretely to the morticians.
I hastily try to think of happier times—Christmas, birthdays, anything—but the memories fall like confetti, and the coffin is already being wheeled back up the aisle. People have started shuffling out. I can sense that I am the only one left in the pews, but I somehow cannot move; my limbs are frozen in place. Shit, I can’t just not remember. A sensation of cold creeps up my legs into my stomach. When it reaches my ribs, I know I have no choice but to surrender, to let it wash over me. I don’t cry. I don’t think I react at all. The wave of emotion seems so alien, so far-fetched and violent, that I don’t even recognise it as grief at first, as pure, unadulterated sadness. The room pitches around me and then crashes down, leaving nothing but emptiness in its wake. Emptiness and a ringing in my ears. Once the wave retreats, I turn and look back. The coffin disappears from view in a sashay of velvet and squeaking wheels.
Minutes pass. I heave myself up on unsteady legs, turn towards the door, and lurch towards the late-morning light. My footsteps echo on the stone slabs; I count those steps three, four, five. I count to drown out the absence, and the hush of well-wishers pressed around the portico. I count as I duck away from Julie’s outstretched arms; count as I walk on down the driveway, hoping no one will follow. Gravel crunches underfoot. Fifty-seven, fifty-eight, fifty-nine.
It takes two hundred and seventy-eight steps to reach the road, and a further sixty-one to get to the nearest tram stop. I look up and notice that the stop is named Silence. I can feel myself smirk and then laugh at the deadpan administrative humour and the descriptive accuracy. The cemetery seems to swallow sound, delineate where the clamour of the city ends, and the quiet of the suburbs begins; even my laughter comes out muffled and hollow. I sit on the curb, in the shadow of the crematorium towers, watching the empty road, the poplars’ branches swaying in the breeze, the rows of tombstones crooked like broken teeth. I finally stop counting.
Dilys Wyndham Thomas (she/her/hers) is a Belgian and British writer based in The Netherlands. She has also lived in Saudi Arabia, Belgium, France, Germany, Jordan, and the UK. Dilys is an assistant poetry editor at Passengers Journal and she organizes a poetry feedback group and online events for Strange Birds Migratory Writing Collective. Her work has appeared in Beyond Words, Prometheus Dreaming, Rust and Moth, San Antonio Review, Wild Roof Journal, and Willows Wept Review. Find Dilys online at dilyswt.com.