Home > Don't You Forget About Me(11)

Don't You Forget About Me(11)
Author: Mhairi McFarlane

Mark’s client is a robust, friendly-but-gruff sounding man called Devlin with an Irish brogue, who has that male thing of talking on the telephone in the way you give someone directions when leaning down to a car window: staccato bursts of necessary information, delivered at volume.

He calls me straight back after I text to say that 3 p.m. will be fine, as he wants to explain a) it’s a wake and the wake is for a friend of his, and b) the reason he needs bar staff urgently is because The Wicker on Ecclesall Road isn’t yet open after a refit – am I OK with being the only one on for most of the evening? I am, grand, grand, OK then see you at three. Click.

The Wicker, hmm. I hope they had a few quid to spend as that wasn’t a small task.

The Wicker was always attractive from the outside: its Victorian exterior is covered in varying shades of intense green lacquered subway tiles, the door is a giant solid gloss-painted black slab. If you didn’t know the city, you could be easily fooled into thinking it was going to be all craft ale and cheese boards with pickles in miniature Kilner jars inside. Instead it used to be gloomy and musty and the drinks were always cloudy. It’s one of the places you wouldn’t contemplate, a place very much for regulars only, regulars who must be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome to keep going back.

‘Hello?’ I rap my knuckles on the imposing door, which lies ajar. ‘Hello?’

I tentatively push it open, step inside. You know when you step out of the plane door abroad and reflexively flinch for the British cold air to hit you, and instead it’s this hairdryer warmth?

Like that, but with beauty.

There’s a sweeping curve of mahogany bar that’s obviously original, lovingly nursed back to rude health from its knackered one-hundred-years-of-being-leaned-on patina; panels of etched vintage mirrors behind, bottles of spirits stacked against it. Classy ones which promise good drinks, too: a dozen different gins, Aperol, proper whiskies. I’m a sucker for this sort of shabby chic mixture of old and new. It’s all the glamour, as far as I’m concerned.

They’ve gutted the place, without tearing its heart out. Booths in the windows are now oxblood leather, instead of that textured, itchy fabric they make train seat covers from. The lights are low-hanging white china pendants.

The floor, which I recall as having a thick wodge of much-trampled sticky carpet covering it before, is varnished mole-dark parquet. The expensively atmospheric walls are the colour of sky at dusk, which if I recall Esther’s endless interior project vacillations correctly, is Farrow & Ball’s Hague Blue.

I smell meaty food cooking. Trestle tables line the walls, holding platters of triangles of soft white bread sweating under clingfilm, and starbursts of crudités are arrayed around ramekins of dips.

‘Hello! You must be Georgina?’

I turn as a man dumps down a sizeable floral display on the floor, words picked out in orange gerberas and lollipop-headed white chrysanthemums, and bolts across the room to shake my hand.


He’s nothing like I imagined him when we were on the phone. I thought from the singsong, deep voice he’d be a Hagrid-like beast. Instead he’s a livewire, five-foot-something with inky hair, deep grooves in his face and a trendy jacket. He’s forty-ish and good-looking, in a lived-in way.

‘You’ve scooped us right out of the shit here, grand of you to step in.’

‘No problem … cor, it looks great in here.’

‘Ah, you think?’ Devlin looks gratified. ‘Been a back-breaker this one but I’m pleased with it. Did you know it before?’

‘Er … I knew it but I wasn’t a customer.’

‘Yes, a bit of a drinkers’ pub, as they say? The previous owners had let things get very bleak. Could see it was a diamond in the rough though.’

‘So much so! Wow.’

It’s now lovely enough it makes me feel happier just being here.

‘We’re still a week off opening so we’ve not got the tills up and running, so it’s a free bar. Still, less for you to do.’

I smile and nod even though I am experienced enough at bar keeping to know free bars are an absolute bloodbath, and free bars at wakes, doubly so. Once you remove the need to pay, people are animals. As Mark said, the money is great, and it’s only now I start to figure why this might be. This is a wild lock in with no clear end.

It’s also the first time I’d been near a funeral since my dad’s, twelve years ago.

When I was fifteen or so, my mum pinned the order of service for her cousin Janet, a physiotherapist in Swansea, to the corkboard in the kitchen. It said A Celebration of The Life Of and inside there were photos of Janet in a clown’s outfit at a party, in a kayak, raising a watermelon margarita to a camera lens next to her girlfriend. The dress code was ‘be a rainbow’. Mum sent flowers.

I recall my dad huffing and saying: ‘I don’t like this “celebrating” and holiday snaps and jollification of mortality. Let death be death. It’s sad. It doesn’t need this modernisation where we’re in Hawaiian shirts, trilling KUMBAYA MY LORD, KUMBAYA and cheering them on their way.’

‘Janet chose her own funeral,’ Mum said.

‘Then Janet is being selfish – it wasn’t for her, was it? It’s the very definition of an event where you should only think of other people’s feelings.’

Mum gasped and Dad muttered about going to the shops if anyone wanted anything and left the room.

It was only years later I realised Mum probably didn’t go the funeral because she knew Dad would react like this. Was he really bothered about happy-clappy send-offs? Or was it a way of providing them both with an excuse for their non-attendance, so they didn’t have to spend a weekend in Wales with each other for company? The argument wasn’t about what it was about. Maybe none of their arguments were about what they were about.

It didn’t make Dad’s funeral three years later any easier, knowing that he wouldn’t have approved of gaiety, that he wasn’t religious and said it was ‘the plunge into eternal TV test card nothingness.’ In a strange irony, he hadn’t thought of our feelings.

For his send-off, we had the standard package of inexpensive coffin, MDF with veneer finish, a service at a church that Dad never visited but Mum wanted as it was posher than a crematorium, then a wake in the adjoining hall where young staff in white shirts and dark trousers served hot drinks from catering-sized canisters and vinegary warm wine from boxes.

I can taste the dislocated, bad-dream-like nauseous quality of it as if it happened yesterday. The feeling the universe had taken a sudden mad swerve, a left turn into some grotesque alt-verse that it should be possible to clamber back out of. Mum and Esther had identified the body; I was in my first year at university. An ordinary morning, when Mum heard him crash to the kitchen floor, rushed down and found him prone, lying in a lake of cafetière coffee.

I wanted to walk up to one of the poker-faced, white-gloved men from the undertakers, schooled not to make eye contact, and grab them by the grey lapels. Say: ‘There’s been a terrible mistake. That’s my dad in that coffin. Death happens to other people, I get that, but not to my actual dad, and definitely not yet. I need to discuss something with him urgently, so get him out of there.’

The word loss had a new meaning, or its meaning became clear: a person who loved me, in a completely unique and irreplaceable way, had vanished and took with him our relationship. And it wasn’t only Dad that disappeared, but his perspective, his encouragement, his approval, his opinion of me. There was no one else who could be my dad and I still badly needed one. I was never going to see him again? Ever?

We hadn’t said goodbye.

I return to these memories reluctantly. Then I push them away again. It’s like forcing too many things into a cupboard and using the door to keep them jammed in. Knowing it’s a short-term fix, and that the next time you open it – instant cascade.

Another clue that this wake might be more ‘Cousin Janet’ than ‘my dad’ are the pictures hung like bunting, across the bar. A lantern-jawed, strawberry-blond man in his thirties, larking it up: walking the Peaks, or dressed as a Roman centurion, the yellowy quality of 1990s pub trips, documented when photographs weren’t taken on phones and every man seemed to be in lumberjack shirt and light blue jeans. A sagging banner hangs above them, spelling out: RIP DANNY.

Oh, no. It’s a young person. The out-of-the-way, non-fashionable venue had made me assume otherwise. It stings. Someone who’d lived a long life, was in a care home and whose faculties had possibly gone to mush is one thing. I look at the images a second time, feel my throat tighten. However late this ends and thinly it spins my wages out, I won’t complain.

‘Should I start unboxing the glasses?’

I gesture at the stacks of Paris goblets and a spare wallpaper pasting table, with paper cloth.

‘Yeah that’d be great. You can pour out plenty of the red and white too because they’ll get drunk, of that I can be sure.’ He checks his watch. ‘About half an hour to lift off, they’re still chatting outside the church, it only just finished. Catholics, you know.’ He does a talking hand puppet mime. ‘They like a long ceremony.’

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