In the warmth of the crematorium, Myles could feel the sweat pooling under his armpits. He knew that there would be visible stains there and so kept his arms tight at his sides. In the moments of silence that the service offered, he became conscious of his breathing. He held his breath to avoid breathing too loudly, only to then realise how odd a long exhale would appear and having to release it in shallow breaths.
The priest’s words reached his ears, but he never took them in. He put his hands together when needed, stood and sat on cue, but his thoughts kept wandering. Would as many people turn out for his funeral? What would they say about him? It was a pity that he wouldn’t be able to write his own eulogy. He wouldn’t want this kind of service anyway, with everyone just looking at his coffin and being sad. The prayers went on too long as well, as though they were dragging it out just to throw a bit of faith at the non-believers.
He shouldn’t have been thinking about stuff like that. But what was he supposed to think about? He closed his eyes for the silent reflection and his mind’s eye showed him the skip. The shadow slumped against it; the body which now lay in the wooden box at the front of the room. He opened his eyes and stared at the ground, swallowing down the lump in his throat.
At the end, they were led out to the other door at the back. They were all supposed to share condolences while waiting for the cars to come back around and take the family off to the wake. He recognised Michelle’s mum and took her hand, offering her a sombre nod and a mumbled “I’m sorry for your loss.” After that he retreated to a corner to avoid having to do it again. Why was it so hard to get the actions right even when the feelings were genuine? Better to avoid having to do it, to make less mistakes.
Shortly, his friends joined him. Then the cars departed, giving everyone else leave to make their way to the venue for the wake. Conversations quickly returned to ordinary volumes as they started walking away from the building. Once they were back at the front, by the car park, then it was safe to light cigarettes.
The wake took place at a British Legion social club not far from where Michelle’s parents lived. They were gathered around a couple of tables in the corner. Jess had spent the last half hour fiddling with an empty cigarette packet and was now picking apart the lid. Kit found himself fascinated by the movement of her hands.
“Me and Lydia were seventeen and we were in Manchester for a Rigor Mortis gig.” She said. “Amazing band. At least, I think so cause we were stoned as fuck by the time we went in there. Anyway, afterwards we were walking back to the station when we saw this girl lying on the floor.
“She had blood in her hair and she was shaking. We didn’t know if she was throwing a whitey, having a seizure or what, but we couldn’t leave her there, so we picked her up and started dragging her to the station. Logical thing would’ve been the hospital, I know, but we were stoned and thought we’d get arrested, so we took her with us and luckily she woke up along the way.
“Turns out, she’d drank till she passed out and was shaking cause she was having a bad dream about spiders.” Jess put her hand over her mouth, suppressing a laugh. “Me and her couldn’t stop giggling our tits off about that, but we were all inseparable after that.”
Lydia raised her glass. “That was Shell.”
“Shell.” Jess agreed, raising her own glass.
They all clinked their glasses before drinking deep.
“I missed that gig.” Paddy said, the slightest smile on his face. “But Shell always had a thing about spiders, ever since she was little. She couldn’t stand them, they scared the hell out of her; but she couldn’t kill them either. Thought it was bad luck.” He looked down and sniffed.
Silence followed then, until he stood up. “I’m going outside for a fag.” He said. “Anyone else?”
As the only non-smoker in the group, Kit took his phone out of his pocket ready to keep himself occupied when left alone. But Jess declined, so she was sat with him as the rest went outside.
Her eyes were red, he noticed, though her eye-liner was still intact. Her hair reached down to her chest when not spiked up, and he decided that he liked it better brushed down like that. She caught him looking at her and smiled.
“You okay, chick?”
He smiled back. “Yeah, I’m fine. This is all just a bit…” In lieu of the right words, he waved a hand in the air.
“Yeah. I know what you mean.”
“I hope they find that guy she was with.”
“Yeah. Myles is convinced he’s seen him before, watching us and stuff, but I dunno. It’s too weird and horrible.” In her hands, the cigarette packet finally came completely apart.
After the artificial light of the windowless function room, the glare of the sun took them by surprise as they stepped outside. It was harsh enough that they couldn’t stand by the door, and had to seek refuge in a shady spot around the side of the building to light up.
“Mind if I nick one?” Lydia asked Myles.
He took another out of the pack, stuck it in his mouth, and used the end of his own to light it. He blew the smoke out as he presented it to her. “Fresh off the rack.”
She grinned. “Ta. I didn’t realise I’d smoked the last of mine on the way from the Crem. I’ve gone from like twenty a day to about sixty in the past couple of weeks.”
“Sixty?” Paddy snorted. “I’m pretty sure that I could have done in that many first thing this morning, if my lungs would have allowed it.” His brown hair was cropped, just about long enough for a fringe. He had a young face, making him look closer to sixteen than twenty-four, an impression strengthened by his small, slender stature as well as his hair and his clean-shaven face.
When he finished his cigarette, Paddy headed back inside. But Lydia was still smoking, and Myles hung back to wait with her.
“How are you doing, My?” She asked.
His mind returned to the shadow propped against the skip. He shrugged. “I’m okay. I think. How about you?”
“Yeah…” She was still smiling, but now it made her look so much more pained, vulnerable. The moisture in her eyes glistened with the sunlight. “It’s strange, her not being around, you know? I just keep thinking I should’ve done what you said.”
“Taken more weekends off.”
“Oh, right. Wise man, whoever told you that.”
“He has his moments.” She caressed his arm lightly, absently. He tensed up and felt his cheeks flush and heart rate quicken.
“Nah, to be honest I’m terrible at all that sort of stuff. You know, where people are upset and need consoling? I never know what to say.”
“I think everyone’s the same.” She stubbed out her cigarette.
“Maybe. But even the little phrases and stuff you’re expected to say, I either forget to say it or it sounds awkward coming out of my mouth. I dunno.”
“You’re over-thinking it.” She reached in his pocket and took out his cigarettes. “You mind?” When he shook his head, she lit two up and stuck one in his mouth. “It does get a bit much, though. Just because of the reason we’re here, even having a drink it feels like I need to take a break from it.”
“Well, if you want to come with I’ll need to go the shops in a bit. Someone’s been smoking all my fags.”
Her hand touched his arm again and he found himself smiling.
It was dark now, and Lydia’s head was swimming. It was the wine that had done it; how much had she drank in the past few hours, four bottles? Five? Still, it wasn’t an unpleasant sensation. There was something about watching the orange glow of the sunset while smoking, with her head feeling as though it was floating several inches above her body that was kind of enthralling.
She was just finishing her cigarette when Paddy came out. He gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek, announcing that his taxi was almost there and that he would see her tomorrow.
“You take care of yourself, alright?” Lydia said. “Call me if you need anything. Anything at all.”
“Yes mum.” He said, clicking his tongue and rolling his eyes.
“I’m serious –” Lydia’s phone buzzed in her pocket. She took it out and saw the text from her dad. “Shit. The baby’s sick. I’m gonna have to get off myself.”
A taxi pulled into the car park, then. “This is mine. Do you wanna take it? I’ll call another one.”
“Lyd, honestly. I’m not in a hurry, so stop being daft and get home to your sick kid.”
Lydia gave a frustrated sigh, but she knew that she wasn’t going to win the argument, so she ended up taking the taxi. A ten-minute ride later, and she was back at home and talking her two-year-old daughter back to bed.
Paddy took longer to get home, opting to walk rather than wait for a taxi. But it was warm enough, a pleasant summer’s night, so he didn’t mind too much. The fact that he had enough alcohol in his system that he wasn’t exactly walking in a straight line may have also been keeping him warm. Despite this, he managed to reach his door in a little over half an hour.
Shortly, music blared out from the living room and he had a lit joint in one hand. The high smothered the grief, and he spent the rest of the night slumped on the couch staring at but not really watching the television. He may have eaten a pizza at some point, but it wasn’t a detail his mind held onto.
At some point, the doorbell might have gone. But that wasn’t a certainty either. He slipped more than once between sleep and waking. The living room around him gave way to a darkness filled with strange shapes. Faces that disappeared when he tried to look at them straight, throwing him back into wakefulness, but only for a moment. Words came out of his mouth, but he was hardly aware of what they were, or who they were said to.
He snapped back to the present when he felt something sharp dig into his neck. His mind took several long moments to reconcile his last memory of being in the house with the fact that he was now on the street. He couldn’t focus on the face of the man now holding him. Biting him.
Before he could begin to make any sense of it, he felt his strength waning and he slipped away again. This time, not into the stupor of his high, but into the cold black.