‘Salmon?’ she asked, holding the oval silver plate. Sheila was wearing one of her black work suits. Her hair was tied back so tight there were no lines on her forehead, her green eyes pinned wide open.
Steve took a bit using the clinical fish slice. He placed the pink sliver onto the biscuit on his plate and put the slice down with a tinkling clatter. He smiled at her. A small, tight smile.
‘Thanks,’ he said. Sheila looked at him and returned the smile.
‘I saw you look,’ she said. ‘I thought for once you might make the effort to concentrate. But no.’ She just stood there, the plate of salmon between them.
He never knew which kind they were. This one had hovered and danced, plunging just as the minister finished. He could not keep his eyes from it. And she had noticed. Just a bird of prey in the air.
She turned from him, shaking her head. Steve looked at the floor. Covering it was an old, red, worn carpet. She walked away from him, carrying the plate on her upturned palm. All Steve could think about was a mouse, its neck gashed open, lying limp in long green grass.
The salmon tasted good but it sat wrongly with the whisky in his belly. People lined up, picking through mouldy conversation. The whisky, vodka and rum sat lined up like chemicals in a lab to kill the bugs and dull the misery.
The bright winter sunshine split the room in two. Steve looked up from the floor. Sheila was heading towards him. He could tell she was going to speak by the way she pursed her mouth and her eyes seemed to flash.
‘Have you seen mum?’ she asked. She smoothed back her hair and pulled her suit jacket tight at her sides.
‘Eh, no,’ Steve said, to her shiny black shoes. ‘She was talking to Uncle Gordon a wee while ago. Maybe she’s away to the toilet.’
‘I need to talk to her,’ she said, ‘You take this. Will you go and speak to folk? I wish you wouldn’t just stand there.’ She gave him the plate, which he took in both hands, and turned her back.
Only about a quarter of the whole spread of salmon was left on the plate. Fleshy and shiny, with wee bits of greenery spotted around, it looked ragged and forlorn. He stuck the plate on the table behind him. Uncle Gordon was approaching.
Gordon had a whisky in one hand and a plate piled high with sandwiches in the other. He was wearing his only suit, a vaguely brown tweed with patches at the elbows. He was Steve’s dad’s older brother. He had the same fat red nose and white hair combed across his balding head. Gordon put his plate down on the table.
‘How’s it going, son?’ asked Gordon, touching Steve’s elbow with his palm. Steve tried not to flinch.
‘Not bad thanks,’ said Steve. ‘The minister did a good job. It was a nice ceremony – mum said so herself.’ He heard himself say these things as if it was someone else talking.
‘Aye it was,’ said Gordon, pausing between each phrase and nodding. ‘No lies and no insincerities. Tommy would have appreciated that at least. You go to so many of these things when you are my age. Get to know all the guff they come out with.’
‘Mum was in an awful state,’ said Steve. ‘But it’s Sheila I’m worried about.’ Steve looked around to check she was not within hearing distance. All he could see were groups of old folk he did not know. Steve had moved away from the town after school.
‘Aye?’ said Gordon, looking surprised. ‘I thought she was doing well, organising all the food and that, getting folk talking to each other. Somebody’s got to do all that stuff.’ Gordon picked up a sausage on a stick and twirled it round.
‘Well yeah, that’s just it,’ said Steve, looking up at the windows on the other side of the room. ‘She’s kind of flipped. She’s on automatic. It scares me, you know. It’s not like she’s ever been the most emotional person or anything, but when she comes over all Hitler you can tell she’s really not coping.’ Steve looked for the first time straight at his Uncle.
‘But that’s just women, Steve,’ said Gordon. Again he put out his hand. He touched Steve’s shoulder this time, squeezing it slightly. Steve did not flinch. He felt grateful, even if it was only Gordon.
‘It’s crisis mode, that’s all. She’ll be much better soon, you’ll see.’ Here he was, learning about women from Gordon. Anywhere else he would have laughed. The murmur in the room died down suddenly.
Sheila, propping up their mum, marched from the toilets at one end of the room to the entrance at the other. Steve made a calming motion with his hand to Gordon. He did not know what he meant by it. Gordon indicated that Steve should follow his mother and sister by tipping his head towards the door.
Sheila was already hailing a taxi when he got outside. Their mum was crying, but her tears were clearing up in waves of sniffles and deep breaths. Sheila had her left arm around her mum, propping her up, the other arm saluting the traffic.
‘Steve,’ his mum said, ‘it’s alright Steve really. I’ll be fine. Sheila says I’ve to go home.’ She said this with an empty smile on her face.
‘Do you want to go home mum?’ Steve asked, knowing instantly that it was the wrong thing to say with Sheila around. Sheila turned her head and glared at him.
‘Well it might be for the best,’ said his mum, clearing the wet from her eyes. Steve hesitated then moved forward and put his arms around her shoulders. He hugged her and she gripped him back, but when it sounded like she was going to start crying again, Sheila drew her away. All three of them stood on the pavement not knowing what to say.
‘Is Sheila going with you then?’ he asked. A taxi was pulling up.
His mum nodded her head and asked, ‘You’ll see to everything here won’t you?’ She grabbed his hand and squeezed it. He had never seen her so distant.
‘Of course mum,’ Steve said, looking at the concrete.
‘Mind and say bye to everybody when they leave,’ Sheila said. Steve nodded and held his mum as she got into the car. Sheila pushed him out of the way and got in, slamming the door.
Steve remembered when his granda died. He was twelve at the time and had not been to the funeral. At the end of the wake, his grandma stood at the door and shook everyone’s hands as they passed. Steve had not understood this ritual at all. He watched the taxi pull away down the empty road, and fixed his tie. He walked back into the hotel lobby. There was nobody around. The funeral taxi drivers had not arrived back; they were not due for another half an hour. At this rate there would be nobody left to collect.
Steve went over to the table with the drinks lined up on it and helped himself to a whisky. Gordon was talking to some people. They were his dad’s friends; he recognised one man. The man nodded to Steve as he crossed the room. Gordon had broken away from the group and was helping himself to more sandwiches.
‘How many folk here do you know, Gordon?’ he asked, taking a sip of the whisky.
‘Just about everybody son, why? Is your mum away?’ Steve noticed that Gordon’s cheeks were going red with the drink.
‘Aye they’re away back to mum’s,’ Steve said, ‘Sheila took her in a taxi.’
‘Probably for the best,’ said Gordon.
‘Mum said exactly the same thing,’ said Steve. The conversations were the worst part about the whole thing. The phrases people came out with.
‘You remember granda’s wake?’ asked Steve, knowing the answer.
‘Of course son,’ said Gordon, ‘You were only a wee yin then.’ He turned away from the table. There was a lift in his voice that told Steve he was interested.
‘I was twelve,’ said Steve, nodding, ‘I remember it well enough though.’
‘You’ll mind my auld mother then, at the door,’ said Gordon. It was this that Steve had wanted to talk to him about.
‘That’s what I meant,’ said Steve. ‘I know mum would never have wanted to do a thing like that. I don’t see the point myself. But Sheila, she said to me before she left.’ Steve smiled another one of the tight, apologetic smiles he was getting used to doing. Gordon scratched his scalp.
‘Look,’ said Steve, ‘I’ve talked to the people I know. I’ve talked to lots I don’t. I can’t go standing at the doorway shaking all their hands.’
‘I understand,’ said Gordon. He had put his plate down, a good sign that he was actually listening.
‘Would you?’ Steve asked, ‘I mean I don’t like asking, but I don’t think I can do it.’
‘Listen,’ said Gordon, ‘You don’t need to apologise. Leave it to me.’ He picked up the plate again.
‘Thanks Gordon,’ said Steve, breathing in deeply. ‘I don’t want to go and leave you. I mean there should be somebody here.’ He noticed his hands were clenching into fists, and he released them, looking back to Gordon.
‘Son, do what you can,’ said Gordon, and patted Steve on the shoulder. Gordon walked away to get another drink and join the crowd. Steve could not remember him and Gordon ever having touched at all, apart from shaking hands every new year.
Gordon used to sing after the bells. Steve remembered the look on his dad’s face whenever Gordon stood up in preparation. Steve thought back then that his father’s rolling eyes were a secret but everyone must have noticed. Steve was wee then and could run away no bother at all.
He remembered grabbing handfuls of peanuts and hiding out in his bedroom with the other children. But they would never get away for long. Gordon’s singing would start the rest of them off, maybe just to try and drown him out. For some reason Steve’s mum always thought the children should be brought in so as not to miss the whisky-fuelled choir.
Steve’s mum’s preparations for the event lasted for days. Everything had to be right, clean and tidy. Then there were the nibbles and drinks to set up in the evening. Doilies sat all over the sideboard in preparation for the bottles which would gather there through the night.
Steve took another whisky. There were faces he remembered from that time. There were many he did not. The last new year he had spent at his parents’ was when he was sixteen. With no family of his own, there had never seemed to be much point in going back. His mum had been right; the children were what made all that sort of stuff matter.
Steve put his whisky down and walked out of the hall, through the lobby, and down the front stairs. At each junction on his way into town he stopped, pressed the button, and waited for the green man. Even when there was no traffic he stood and waited. His mind was blank.
He waited for the noise and the green man and then he moved, just like he was supposed to. He moved with all the other people. In the centre of town he walked to the station. Looking around him as if a guard might stop him, he stepped onto the train. He found a seat at an empty table and sat down.
As the last people ran stumbling with luggage along the platform before the train pulled away, something grabbed at his nerves. It came fast and made his body feel taut for an instant. That was just it starting. He could feel it in his veins after that and it did not go away for minutes, not until the train was well away. Sheila. What would she say?
Steve’s mind slowly died down into a calmness he did not recognise. The train went over the bridge slowly, clanking to a halt at the south end of it. A train moved northwards, onto the bridge. He gazed at the blank faces on the people in it, until it had passed and his train started again. Once the river was out of view he watched the buildings instead, latching his eyes onto one after another, until his neck got sore. He paid the ticket collector.
Steve undid his already loosened tie and laid it coiled up on the table in front of him. He felt thirsty so he went to the buffet car, swaying past lots more passengers on the way, and bought a coffee. Back at his table he drank the coffee, enjoying the clearing effect it had on his head. The whisky had left his brain sore and dull, and his tongue dry. He thought of Gordon in his bursting suit, shaking hands. And he tried to think of other things. Nothing was visible in the darkness out the window.
Back in his town, out in the rain, Steve thought he heard a taxi’s diesel rasp approaching him from behind. He turned and looked but it was only a car. He shut his eyes momentarily and imagined the taxi, his mum and sister in it. Steve crossed the main road. He could hear the beep beep beep of the green man reverberating off of every puddle.
A man ran past him, folding money into his wallet. On the way to the pub. He imagined himself in a warm bright pub but all he wanted was his bed. There was jaunty folk music fading out of the door of the next bar along. The windows were steamed up. Steve felt he could almost lick it off just for the sheer physical joy of it all. The booze smells made Steve think of the hotel earlier. The conversation. The carpet.
Steve felt invisible in the night, dressed in black; a shadow. He could feel his thick coat wet and heavy with the rain that shook itself over the car roofs. His mum used to say when he came home drenched from school that he was dry at the bone, but only the bone. ‘We are nine tenths water,’ Steve remembered his dad saying, ‘and one whisky.’ There was sand in his throat.
Steve thought of his empty bed. He dropped some change into the bearded man’s cup in the doorway of the late-night newsagent. Steve did not look at him, and the man did not look up. Steve bought a litre of milk. When he tried to say thanks to the cashier a low grumble caught at the back of his throat and he realised he had not spoken since the wake. He walked the rest of the distance home in silence. Steve felt that his mind was quiet too.
In his bedroom Steve took off all his clothes and let them drop onto the middle of the floor. In his bed he could just smell his wet socks across the room. The smell made him think of school. An image of his father, ageless, appeared to him – not young or old but just his dad. Steve’s stomach stung from the whisky. He saw his dad laughing at him at Sheila’s wedding for not being able to take his drink. He could still hear taxis outside, and the orange light through the net curtains gave everything grey edges.