I straightened my tie, pulled on my thick, charcoal-grey suit jacket and then my heavy, winter, black woolen overcoat; turning the collar up to protect my neck from what I could see through my office window. Outside it was dark and cold, rain drops clung to the window although some ran in streaks down the glass, now and then pushed to the left or right as the wind blew in ill-timed, ill-tempered gusts… Through the window I could see the lights of vehicles of all descriptions, the lights of buildings opposite and tri-coloured traffic lights; all distorted and as if I was peering out through a badly damaged kaleidoscope, the incoming lights danced, spread, narrowed and split. I could hear the wind too as well as the traffic, now and again a siren of some description, wet, swishing trails of traffic noise and, inside, phones ringing constantly as well as the – by this time – annoying throng of my human, office co-inhabitants, as they clucked and crowed sometimes pointlessly around me! I longed for the warmth and solitude of the car I was about to get into. Although not completely sound-proofed, the car would offer some degree of damping and the opportunity to be on my own and end the pretense that I was calm and not irritable in such busy surroundings. This would please my delicate, late afternoon, early evening senses; I just know they’d coalesce and result in a huge sigh of relief…then each sense would gently shuffle and nestle back into a reasonable degree of comfort; like the slow gyrating of a bird’s backside as it positions itself comfortably to re-warm a clutch of eggs. Leaving the office I fought hard to endure the wrath of winter’s worst; then finding myself in the car, I breathed ‘that’ sigh of relief. I willed the car to warm up and stop me wishing I was still a child, lost in summer warmth or safe and without responsibility in the bosom of my mother… Feeling work-weary, cold and tired stifles my ability to deal with adulthood and I detect yearnings and longings for an earlier comfort zone; they wiggle their way to the fore of my needful psyche (where is Johann von Staupitz when I need him!?). As I drive, the interior warms up and I begin to lose sight of happier, warmer times and return to the present, responsible and mature thoughts and feelings that I know I have to relent to in order to do my job of work – among other things.
Despite the windows of the car being lashed with rain, and my vision therefore impaired, I found my client’s residence without too much trouble; only running past a few yards before noticing another door number greater than the one I was looking for – a quick reverse and I was there. The windows of the house were illuminated with Christmas lights and some tinsel of sorts and colours. The inside, behind the window’s seasonal accoutrements, glowed a subtle orange and gave an inviting and warm reassuring feel. It’s common to find, when visiting bereaved clients at this time of year, that they still have Christmas decorations brightening up the home; it may well be for the sake of children, or for grand and perhaps even great-grandchildren.
Clutching at my brief case and locking the car, I made a hunched haste to the door and knocked; not impatiently for this was a time to appear calm, professional, pleasant and reassuring – my knock was slow, deliberate and moderate in weight; not at all a ‘policeman’s knock’. Be upright and find strength – walking into someone’s misery at this time of year needs a purposely calm but pleasant, though not overly cheerful approach… Given the weather though, I had no problem dropping the overly cheerfulness.
Friendly faces are very welcome sometimes during my working days. I become so tired and I’m no lover of the winter so cold, rain, wind and a whole day behind me already, with still a few hours yet to work, add to my sometimes generally grumpy mood – to get through a full day is a hard enough job of work; cynicism, negativity, disrespect and a complete lack of morals sometimes surround me…it’s tough. In fact the last few years has all but drained me of any hope for certain individuals; giving the benefit of the doubt and being patient is costly; my pockets, once full of grace and, ‘straight-over-my-headness’ have long since emptied… I search them but alas, like the penniless hobo, I have nothing to quench my thirst or satisfy my appetite. Oh, hang on, I think there’s a penny’s worth in there somewhere that I roll between my fingers now and then, just for my own sake.
So, friendly faces… I was met at the door by a very welcoming smile. An honest inviting gesture gave me hope and when entering my client’s warm, softly lit lounge, I felt all the better. Odd that I should need very sad, very heartbroken, bereft individuals, brave and stoical, to lift my spirits. I felt quite selfish and from that point there had to be a little boot kicking me up the backside to remind me how fortunate I was that this bereavement was not of my own… How on Earth could I allow myself to be so pathetically self-pitying when all around me are people, who while dealing with the devastation of the loss of a loved one, can still stand up straight enough to greet and host me with pleasantness and respect – well, yeah, normal of course but in light of their trauma they would have every right to be miserable and withdrawn, no matter who was visiting? Someone they didn’t know. Someone who would very shortly be discussing very intimate details regarding their grief and pushing in their faces the very fact that death ‘has’ actually touched them. It’s all the more real when the undertaker calls. Still, they watered me with hot, sweet tea and even a biscuit. My overcoat was taken from me and I was seated, quite comfortably in a velour-covered armchair in the corner. Everyone settled, they waited….and wondered I’m sure.
This may surprise some of you but I never dive straight into my pocket for my pen and pop open my brief case. If I can, I prefer to let the client family express themselves if they want to – a few words from me and many people feel they should tell the ‘how’ and ‘where’ of their loss. I know this puts them at ease and with lots of ‘genuine’ eye contact and ‘genuine’ interest, I find it easier to glide into discussing their funeral wishes, and they find it easier to tell me. I seem to spend around seventy per cent of the visit chatting through things without my paper and pen, gleaning almost all I need to know from this, then the remaining thirty per cent getting the scribble work done – or something like that…
I nursed my cup of tea and chatted quite easily with my client. He was an elderly gent who had lost his good lady wife. Surrounded in the lounge by his doting family, he seemed to enjoy our little bit of fellowship, as did I. He was very matter-of-fact, and blessed with a very dry sense of humour, despite his loss, he was keeping his spirits high. Eventually though I would pick up my pen and papers and having explained that I better start taking some formal details, we set aside the chit-chat. Chit-chat that would ignite here and there as I asked of him all I needed to know.
I’d been with my client and his family for roughly an hour and it was time I was drawing my appointment to a close. In doing so, pens and paper were rested back in my case and once again, we shared a little small talk. I always hope that by this time any of my clients are a lot more settled, relieved that arrangements will be looked after and that we’ve come to know one another just enough to build and leave a little reassurance that all would be taken care of. Surprisingly, another family member, who, having made my first cup of tea, appeared with another, made just the way I like it – two sugars, plenty of milk… During our chit-chat I’d learned that my client was very fond of his allotment, wherein he actually kept chickens. His enthusiasm for all things ‘fowl’ tempted me to reflect and share a little story from my much younger days.
My eldest brother had a girlfriend. Pretty normal, I know. His girlfriend’s dad had an allotment and as we all got to know one another, I became particularly close to Stan – the girlfriend’s dad that is. Because I was such a well-behaved, polite, good-mannered and cute little boy….no comments on that please….Stan would often let me help out with feeding his chickens, collecting the odd egg here and there and cleaning up the place. Not only that but sometimes I’d help him, in my inexperienced though nevertheless eager determination, to turn over the soil before it was raked of weeds and stones, ready for seeding with something or other. There was a greenhouse too that I often would help tidy and organise small pots of seedlings, etc. I enjoyed the chickens mostly. They can be quite manic when they want to be, more so when their feed is thrown down for them. Wide-eyed, clucky and heads-a-nodding with every step, they humoured and fascinated me. One of my favourite jobs was to put new straw – or hay, whatever it’s called into their little house. There was a door just high enough to walk through and for Stan to crouch through, however, when this was closed, there was a little hatch with a latted ramp for the chickens to use.
For a time, after school, in the height of a warm, careless summer, I’d dash home to change then head straight to the allotment. It was common knowledge among my friends that this was where I could be found. Now and then, some of them would show up and hang around playing outside; Stan would never allow anyone else in there – understandable really, after all, it wasn’t a free-for-all. And the likelihood was that eventually the novelty would wear off and I’d return to more childish antics and pursuits. My visits though, were brought to an abrupt halt one afternoon when I arrived to find Stan in a terrible mood! He was fuming and told me that I should just go home and that I couldn’t come along and help anymore. I was devastated and very upset. It turned out that someone else had been into the allotment and all but wrecked the place. Most of the glass had been broken in the greenhouse, water barrels tipped over and damaged, keenly growing vegetables torn up, pots smashed and glass and nails filled the shed where the hens would sit to lay! Stan had far fewer chickens too as someone had set them free to roam outside of the allotment – inevitably two or three of them had been scooped from the road where they’d wandered and been run over by traffic! Stan’s pride and joy was in ruins… My eldest brother was fuming too, hurling accusations my way, suggesting that I had done the malicious deed, or if not then my friends. I’ll never forget the intense feeling of disappointment and shame that I felt for something I never did. My reputation for mischief spread throughout the village but it was harmless mischief, not malicious. My mischief was never destructive or harmful, I had never been a destructful child – the worst I’d ever done was to damage my own toys in games.
I always intended to try to explain to Stan that I was completely innocent of any wrong-doing in this matter, however, me being but a child and him a big, strapping, angry grown up old man, it would have me struggling to convince him that I played no part… Times change, girlfriends change, life changes….some years later, in my teens, I learned that Stan had died. I doubt much later on whether he would even recognise me but the sad thing was, if he ever looked back, he was never sure that I hadn’t let him down.
My client reassured me that these things happened and that from time to time, certain malicious characters do this kind of thing. He then went on to recall times when pigeon-fanciers had their lofts damaged and their pigeons hurt. It seems that allotments, being easily accessible and ‘soft’ targets, have always suffered damage. He himself had experienced trouble in his own once or twice in the past.
We talked a little about the chickens; ‘hens’ he called them. I told him of my fascination with the eggs that had been popped out, he told me of the little rubber eggs he would place to encourage his hens to lay. I told him about some beautiful little baby chicks that just looked so wonderfully cute…. I asked him, and then took a sip of my tea, “do you get many hatchlings?”
“Why would I?”, he said….
“I don’t have a cock!”
It took at least five minutes for my client’s daughter to wipe down my shirt and jacket where the tea I had just sipped sprayed from my mouth in huge vortices and cascaded out of my nostrils as I choked on the stuff!
I left my client and his family and as I did, they were chuckling… I sat reminiscing later that evening…confused. Then I thought, ‘….of course. Oh, I’m so slow at times….’