Illustration by Denis Tegelmeier.
T WAS under the table playing with A the cat when the pamphlet arrived. Auntie Rose dropped it on the table with the Daily Mail and some letters. I heard them flop on the white tablecloth and immediately after Uncle Sydney said: " You've dropped that paper in the butter again. its all messy. I'm always telling you to be more careful." " I'm sorry, dear." Uncle Sydney said nothing, just smacked his lips over his porridge and the milk gurgled in his throat I used to listen to his eating noises with a sort of joyful horror. I was a prim feeder myself, and though I could not bear the loud violence of the way my uncle treated his food I felt cornpelted to observe his manners attentively. The more gross he was the more I felt that shocked satisfaction which I found afterwards many of the virtuous enjoy in reading of the misdeeds of the wicked. So 1 sat there tickling our unresponsive cat and listening to the porridge slopping down into Uncle Sydney's stomach. Presently there was a sound like matchboxes being broken, and grunting, and the faint whistling of heavy breathing through slightly obstructed nostrils; then I knew Uncle had started on the toast.
"Who are the letters from, dear? " asked Auntie Rose.
With the words subduing his eating noises with difficulty, Uncle said: "Gladys .. wants to know if we know anyone . .. who'll buy their shop . . wants to go and live at the seaside. That child of theirs has got whooping cough again. Other one's from Alec . . wants us to go over and see him. Always wanting something, relations. Will you get that boy out from under the table. Get out! " My Uncle's black boots kicked at me. I got out.
" I'm always telling you Shad not to get under the table when your Uncle's having his meals," said Auntie Rose. "And put that cat down. He's not nice. No business in the room at all." " Ought to be put to sleep," said my Uncle. I carried the cat into the garden, hugging him protectively. He treated me with indifference, save when I offered him food, and he smelt. yet he was the only thing in that house I cared to hug. When I returned Uncle was saying: " Nicest lavatories I've ever seen. Better than those in Church Street. All marble.
" WHAT were you saying about the " chapel?" said Auntie Rose quickly, giving Uncle a meaning frown. The pamphlet was open in front of him propped against the marmalade pot. There was a photograph on its cover of a building lase a church with a high tower behind and gardens in front. " Eh? The chapel? ' said Uncle, then noticing me: " Oh yes, it's a very nice chapel. Very nice. Not so modern looking as the lavatories or the furnace room." Auntie Rose made a face as if she had a fly in her mouth. " Very nice though. Peaceful, old-world like."
" I don't like the idea of it at all," said my Aunt.
" Idea of what? "
'' Cremating people." "Why not? Don't be silly. It's most hygienic. No mess about it. Scientific and hygienic." "What does cremating people mean? " asked. Neither Uncle nor Aunt took any notice. " Most people are buried," my Aunt said.
"That's only because of ignorance," said my Uncle. " Listen to this." He began to read from the pamphlet. " ' Cremation ensures against our bodies after death doing harm to the living, by preventing pollution of water or contamination of air.' You see, you've got to think of others besides yourself. How would you like to feel you're doing harm to others after you're dead? "
" I wouldn't feel it."
" Now you're just being selfish. It's people like you obstructs the march of science. Here's a new crematorium they've put up. Lovely job of work. No expense spared Two hundred and twenty-three thousand pounds the Council spent on it. And it s money well spent. I.ovely bit of work. I had a good look round when we were fixing the drains. Everything you could wish for. Electric furnace, gardens of remem brance, lavatories, cloisters. Everything. And you don't want anyone to use it. Just because its new. Just because—" " I'm sorry. dear. It must be a very nice building." "Well anyway, I'm going to use it," and he bit so violently into his toast that 1 heard his teeth clamp together.
'-Auntie . . ." I began with my ques
tion again. " Hush, dear! " " I don't want any worms messing about with me." Uncle continued with his mouth full. " Anyway what's the use of living in a progressive borough if you don't take advantage of its amenities? " Aunt looked at him earnestly: "You must do as you think best, of course dear."
She didn't like the idea of cremation but already she had decided to put up with it. She was smiling forgivingly and her hands were hurriedly patting her thick brown earphones. There were so many things she didn't like the idea of, the smell of the cat for instance, or my
spares relatives and friends the discomfort of standing by the graveside in inclement weather.' " My Aunt was impressed. " I hadn't thought of that," she said.
"There's a lot of things you haven't thought of." Then my Uncle pushing back his chair with a sigh, as he always did after meals, "Well . ." and he stood up slowly, brushing crumbs off his waistcoat, picking at his teeth with a fingernail. Aunt followed him into the hall where she helped him on with his navy blue overcoat and turned her face to one side to he kissed. "Be back for tea," he said as he went off to his office which was a penny tram ride away. This office was in a small shop which had half its window painted cream with green lettering upon it which said: Sydney Hole. Builder and Decorator. Sanitary Engineer.
I began reading the pamphlet about the crematorium. I thought it dull. There was a section about the advantages of cremation and a price list which told you the cost of such services as scattering ashes under bushes (chosen to taste), decorating the chapel, putting the name of the corpse in the Book of Remembrance. There was a careful description of the buildings. The most interesting thing about them was that "in the gallery at the back of the chapel is an electric sound reproducing apparatus which can give, by means of gramophone records, some remarkably faithful reproductions
of organ or choral music." But my Aunt asked wasn't it time for getting ready for school dear?
QHORTLY after this my Uncle cut his
mouth and died. It happened one tea-time. He was eating Welsh Rarebit and telling my Aunt which of his relations should have presents and which
merely cards at Christmas. He interrupted himself to kick me. His boot caught me in the face, I began to cry a bit. My aunt said: " l'm always telling you about getting under the table, Shad." " Yes, get out will you," said my Uncle. He kicked again, but I was hastily crawling out of reach. The boot however touched our cat. Instead of following me he reared back and neatly drove a claw into my Uncle's leg. My Uncle jerked back as he was pushing Welsh Rarebit into his mouth and his knife cut him. He swore. The blood
dribbled down his chin. Auntie Rose said she would get some lint. But it was a difficult cut to dress, right in the side of his mouth. He complained that the plaster my Aunt put there spoilt his appetite. so after a day or two the plaster was taken off. The cut did not heal. How could it with Uncle always opening his mouth to talk or to feed? After a little while his face began to swell, and there was something else than plaster spoiling his appetite. He was too busy to go to a doctor. besides he didn't believe in them. My Aunt gave him hot fomentations night and morning, and he drank a tonic recommended by the chemist. He died three days before Christmas, early in the morning.
MRS. Tilley, our charlady, helped Auntie Rose to lay him straight. It was a Friday. The crematorium was not open on Saturday morning, nor of course questions. She was wearing now a straight black dress. Aunt Gladys and Eric, who had whooping cough, came the same evening. She was not so hearty as Aunt Mabel. She gave us a tired smile, said how nice it was to see everyone gathering together again for a happy Christmas and began complaining of Eric's cough and the work it involved. While she was describing the peculiar violence of the cough, Eric obligingly demonstrated. " Ssh! " said Aunt Mabel. Aunt Gladys raised her eyebrows. " Uncle's dead," I said. After this it was thought best that I should go to bed. " Go quietly, Shad," said Auntie Rose. But I would not go alone past the door of the best bedroom.
nN Saturday more relations came,
beaming with Christmas spirit. Their brightness was quickly snuffed out before they could make any embarrassing remarks, by the whispers of the initiated. 1 here was an awkward moment however when Auntie Rose went to the front door to answer a violent ratatatat and found a case of beer on the doorstep with a postcard on which was written: " To Syd, Wishing him a tight and merry Xmas, From Alec." Nor was the situa
tion improved when moment later Uncle Alec jumped out from behind a bush in the front garden and began singing "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."
Everyone sat in the drawing room in the afternoon, where Auntie Rose was knitting me a black tie, and talked in low voices about the goodness of Uncle Sydney. The Minister from the Baptist Chapel came, and was taken upstairs to see the body. He stayed to have tea and discuss arrangements for the cremating. When he was gone all the uncles and aunts began singly to visit Uncle Sydney. They tiptoed gravely upstairs, and came down again buoyantly with the air of having done a considerable duty. Eric and I were to make the pilgrimage last. I refused to go. Eric obediently took Auntie Rose's hand, but I held on to the back of a chair and would not move. " But you must see your poor Uncle." said Auntie Rose. " There's nothing to be afraid of," said Uncle Alec, who was now in a repentantly emotional state of grief, " your Uncle is just in a deep sleep, the sleep that will claim us all one day."
"You will pass over too, one day," said Aunt Mabel, " and how Would you feel if from the Other Side you could see people who were afraid to pay you a last visit? "
"Come along Shad. look Eric doesn't mind," said Auntie, Rose, "Eric wants to go."
" I won't go," I mumbled. "Come along dear, you're making your Auntie very sad." She tried to take hold of my hand. I began crying. " I don't want to. I don't want to."
"And your poor Uncle was so good to you. Treated you just like a father. Do come and see him. Just this last time. There's nothing to be afraid of."
I don't want to." Uncle Alec pulled my hands forcibly from the chair. "Come along young man." I screamed. " Hush! Stop it Shad," said Auntie Rose. "Screaming like that and your poor Uncle upstairs. Stop it. You wicked boy. stop it." Eric began crying, and in a minute was coughing. Aunt Gladys hurried to him saying Sssh !"