A Burning Question…

When Someone asks me, “does it bother you seeing all those dead
bodies?”, I always answer, “no”.  I mean, why should it?  My job’s
really all I know – it’s just unfamiliarity with what I do that can make people cringe at the thought.  There was a time though, that it did bother me.  A long time ago, and only once…

Snotty-nosed, grubby and pre-funeral fascination early years, I was given my first real experience of someone who had died; and I must admit, it wasn’t comfortable…

Summers seemed longer when I was small and probably enjoyed more so than
the present day.  The days seemed short as rigid bed times meant that
the sun was still up way after I’d been settled into my bed.  Hours were
spent tossing and turning, unable to drop off due to a lack of
blackout curtains and the light pinching at me through unwilling-to-
stay-closed eyelids.  Well, blackout curtains weren’t exactly the norm,
only drawn, thin, flower-patterned drapes with even more flimsy net
curtains behind them to assuage the intrusion of light.

Anyway, my sister had a new boyfriend – nothing unusual there.  But he
was really nice.  However, perhaps a lot of teenagers wouldn’t want the
company of a scruffy little seven-year old as a gooseberry, he/they,
were quite happy to let me tag along – until of course I was called in
by mum or dad; being as far away from the house but still hearing the
long, loud call that parents make when it’s time to come home, meant
that I could always pretend I hadn’t heard….for a few more minutes
anyway – pushing your luck and stringing it out would only land you
between the wrathful ticking off of both parents; and I never could get
to grips with being ticked off.  Even Now.

My sister, her boyfriend and a gaggle of a few other friends decided
they would pitch some tents at the bottom of the bowling green in the
village – quite adequately hidden behind a huge row of hedging, out of
the gaze of any passing adults that might disapprove of the cigarettes
being smoked, the alcohol being swallowed and the general, overall
larkage of buoyant, care-free teens…  Late afternoon and the sun was
still throwing out waves of glorious warmth.  I should have really been
around my own friends but sometimes I preferred the company of the

At some point during that afternoon I’d managed to get my little hands
on some matches, and decided it would be a good idea if we had a
campfire, to compliment the couple of tents that were sitting there…  Whilst the oldies were growing quiet in their tents and either sitting
around outside smoking, drinking and chatting, others were getting to grips with awkward, in-tent teenage fumblings – I’ve no
doubt…judging by the giggling, at that age I’d probably have thought they had a bunch of Ken Dodd tickling sticks in the tents with them…

So, this campfire…  I’d scratched about among the hedges and shrubs for kindling and bits of old paper – anything that would burn basically.
I constructed a pyramid-shaped, mini bonfire, and proud I was; almost
seemed a shame to burn it.  Besides, I had to light the thing because
one of my action men held captive another – the captive had a leg
missing, however, action man one intended to burn one-legged action man
at the stake!  This was following the fight of all fights in which
action man one got the upper hand and defeated his uni-legged enemy.  A
match was struck and the fire began to burn.  I knew that action man one
would face another struggle as one-legged action man had no desire to be
roasted!  Just to make action man one’s life and struggle a little
easier, I plucked up one-legged action man and stuffed him
unceremoniously into the fire, head first….well, I had to ensure
maximum cruelty on action man one’s behalf!  As it happened, my little
campfire was growing at quite a rate and, not surprisingly, I’d built it
a little too close to the hedge!  Dried and colourless grass around my
pyre burned here and there and it wasn’t long before the hedge was
burning – it was okay though as I knew I could stamp and bat it

About twenty minutes later, the hedge, tents and both warring action men
were an unrecognisable, charred mess – and the fire brigade worked
vigorously to damp down about one hundred yards of hedging and a tool
shed at the bottom of the bowling green!  Oh dear…

Naturally all the oldies scattered when it was clear the fire was a
little out of control, and had it not been for my sister’s new
boyfriend, I could have been toasted too – the bottom of my trousers had
caught fire and he was quick enough to put me out!  And now with a
healthy distance between ourselves and the authorities, my own fireman
carried me home sobbing, where I was immediately tended to with flannels
soaked in cold water to sooth the small but painful blisters around my
ankles.  Polyester socks sticking in places.

There came a time when my sister’s boyfriend was no longer her boyfriend
but she would swear to this day, he still has a small, treasured corner
in her heart.  Not too long a time after my pyro-antics, he grew ill,
suffered kidney failure and after an unsuccessful transplant, he died.
He was a gentle sort and was well-known around the village, perhaps as a
cheeky, but nevertheless, good lad.  My sister was adamant that she
would see him before his funeral and so visited the funeral home in town
where he was resting.  My sister and me were extremely close – still are
in fact.  Any dental appointments I had and she would take me.  Any
doctor appointments and again she would take me.  And there was always a
treat for afterwards.  I kept many of her secrets where boyfriends and
fags and booze were concerned.  Kept silent about who she had in the
house when mum and dad enjoyed their regular Saturday evenings at the
local social club, and even, as young as I was, consoled her during
times of teenage girl moments of angst…offering up the odd little
pearl of wisdom – not that I had any decent life experience to speak
of…although I’m not sure about that; my young days were almost as
chaotic and dramatic as some of my adult years.  I already knew what was required when someone was upset.

My sister was often lost without her little brother and so it stood that
I was dragged along to the funeral home so that she could see her young
man for the last time.  I’m not really certain what I was expecting but
crisps and pop made the bus ride and the idea of a dead body seem less
daunting.  We arrived at the funeral home and without question, were
taken through into the room.  It was a sizeable room with a division
in the form of a curtain.  Pine boarding clad the walls of the room and
by one of those walls sat a coffin.  The place had its own unique smell
– which at times, I’m sure I can still smell these days in my own
funeral homes; perhaps the lacquer which gave the gloss finish to the
veneer of the coffin?  The room was dimly lit and chilly.  The odd
muffled voice, perhaps from an office or a workshop in the building.
The faintest ring of a tinny old phone could be heard too – other than
that, silence.  A very macabre and surreal atmosphere.  My sister found
nothing holding her back but my own hesitation was apparent and obvious
as I tried my best to squint my eyes to block out any detail, and stay
as far away from the coffin as possible.  She took a couple of steps
back and tugged at my arm, “come say ‘hello'”, she whispered, “he liked
you, he won’t hurt you…”  He didn’t hurt me.  However, that sight, and
that touch will never leave me.  And of all the sights and people I’ve
handled over the years, nothing will ever compare to that first time.

I’m only human…


About Robert

A fifty-something, retired Celestial Travel Agent. Walked many paths; some good, lots bad. Meandering through the past, plodding in the present, crawling toward the future.
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