First time I went into recovery, one of the guys in the circle described it as putting a massive beast to sleep. Kicking, I mean. He said once you got clean, this monster would hibernate, but it would keep growing. Every day you didn’t go to back, the beast would get bigger. And if you ever stumbled, dabbled, it would wake up, angry and hungry, and consume everything that you’d been building since quitting.
It was his fifth time on the merry-go-round, so he knew what he was on about.
I decided my own personal beast was a tiger – it had to be – and I’m thinking about it as I stand at the entrance of the crematorium.
On the way here, the taxi driver subjected me to a friendly prying. A light grilling. He had the broad strokes: he was taking me to the crematorium and I was wearing a suit; he just needed the finer details to fill in the rest of the picture.
“No-one close, I hope,” he said while flicking through his radio pre-sets. He settled on BBC Humberside. The DJ was hosting a phone-in about people smoking crack in telephone boxes on Spring Bank.
“Dunno mate,” I replied.
He shrugged his shoulders.
People are already beginning to drift in when he drops me off, so I have a quick fag, think about tigers for a bit, and make my way down the road towards the chapel. Someone made the decision to extend the bypass just past Castle Hill, so the sound of cars whooshing past in the distance doesn’t completely fade until I get near the room with the Book of Condolences. I briefly toy with the idea of sticking my head in, but I hope to avoid as many people as possible. Besides, I’ve got nothing to write.
The sky is milky and grey, the sun is a cataract. A cold breeze ruffles collars and blemishes cheeks. I squeeze past a couple of people to get into the chapel, an old dear and a crumbly gentleman, both wearing their Sunday best, and they nod. Caught in the no-man’s land between recognition and bafflement. Although there’s something familiar about them, I have no clue who they are either.
I make my way to the back and plant myself at the end of a pew. The chapel begins to fill up. It’s a good turn-out. There’s a low murmur of voices as people chat and greet each other, and then there’s a barrage of throats being cleared. The doors swing open. My brother is one of the pall-bearers, along with Pat and Phil, my Dad’s boozing buddies from way back, and my uncle Mick.
I don’t recognise the music that’s playing as they carry the coffin. I’m craning my neck to get a better look at Mark, our kid. He’s put a lot of weight on. They plonk the coffin down, and they drape a Hull City flag over it. Mark makes a big thing of putting a stuffed tiger, probably from his kids, on the lid of the coffin.
To this day, I don’t know what upset Dad the most: the day I told him I just wasn’t into football, or the day I wrote him a list of all the drugs I’d tried in the year leading up to my GCSEs.
A guy in a suit wanders up to the podium and starts to talk about Dad. How he was brought up in a house off Hessle Road with loads of love but no money; leaving school at fifteen to work on the docks; his beloved Hull City; how he met Mam and settled down but still liked a drink, that kind of stuff. I struggle to keep up. I feel like an extra waiting for his name to pop up in the credits at the end of the film. I get a brief mention, but he spends most of his time talking about how much Dad loved his grand-kids, and how much he loved Hull City football club, of course. I can see the back of Mark’s head. Unfortunately, he’s inherited Dad’s fat neck, and it jiggles as his head bobs. He could be crying or laughing; I can’t tell from this angle.
Just when I think it’s over, Mark gets up and reads something. It’s more stuff about his kids. I’ve heard second/third-hand that Dad mellowed and became a bit of a softie in his latter years, especially when it came to Jack and Holly, the kids. I’m overcome by an urge, a fantasy of making my way to the front to share some of my own memories. Like the time Dad decided to turf me out onto the streets after I dropped out of college in order to fully devote my time and efforts into the study of the effects of Class A drugs.
“I’ll never forget his last words to me,” I’d say, in conclusion. “The snarl on his face as he slung my bags out the front door and said: ‘Son, fuck off and don’t come back. The rest of your stuff is going in a skip.’”
Mark wraps it up and takes his seat again. More music. It’s a Rod Stewart song, but I’ve got the synth refrain from ‘Dominator’ by Human Resource (12” mix) stuck in my head. We all do the Lord’s Prayer, and then it’s over. For a moment, I think that I might have got away with it, that I might be able to slink off, but then I realise we all get funnelled out past the grieving family, my family. I get nervy and edgy, wait until most of the other people have filed out.
I look around the chapel, at the architecture that points all the stresses and forces of the structure upwards towards the sky, towards God, but I don’t feel anything, because I don’t believe in god.
In recovery, they always went on about ‘reconciling yourself to a god of your own understanding’, but I couldn’t get my head around it.
“The way I figure it,” I’d say, in between puffs on my fag, “If god does exist, then he has to be fundamentally unknowable in nature, beyond the capacity of human understanding.”
“So, how do we get around it?”
“Let’s just say I’m agnostic for now and we’ll come back to it later.”
My brother spots me approaching and he runs over and hugs me. He’s big and cuddly and he makes my ear wet with his tears. He keeps saying things like, “It’s so good to see you” and “I’ve missed you” and “it’s been so long” over and over again. He squeezes me.
When you start using, you keep a lid on things. Your feelings. That’s why you end up doing it for so long.
Eventually, he lets me go. “You look good,” he says. “Really good.”
“Thanks. Not looking bad yersen.”
Debbie, Mark’s wife, comes over and hugs me. I always got on with Debbie. She’s my age, went to my school. She knows what I’ve been through.
There’s a little old lady hanging about. It takes me a moment to realise it’s Mam. She doesn’t hug me. She doesn’t know what to say. Dad’s dead in a box and he’s still got a hold over her. I remember once, on my third time through the merry-go-round, I tried calling her, on the advice of my counsellor. Part of making amends with everyone I’d wronged, or some shit.
Sat in an office, sweating like a bastard, I picked up the receiver and dialled. Dad answered. “Hello?” he said.
“Dad, it’s me.”
He hung up.
Mam, the survivor. It’s been that long since we’ve spoke, there’s nothing left to be said. “Good to see you Mam,” I say, letting her off the hook.
“You too,” she says.
Mark, my brother, puts his arm around my shoulder. “What you doing now? After this, I mean,” he asks.
“Not a lot. Was just going to get the train.”
“Where’s home now?”
“Sheffield,” I say.
“We’re off to the pub, Half Way. You should come. Please. We need to catch up. Talk.”
It’s a bad idea. A couple of drinks; sometimes that’s all it takes to wake the beast. I should steer clear, but I feel compelled to go anyway. “The kids are staying with Debbie’s sister. We thought they were a bit too young for a funeral,” Mark says. “You can jump in the car with us.”
I ride in the front. Debbie sits in the back with Mam. The sky has cleared, and even though it’s still chilly out, it’s nice to feel the sun on my face.
I rest my forehead on the glass. I close my eyes and think of tigers.