Peter Steward's Web Site
The crematorium was empty apart from the vicar appointed by the authorities and a small white haired couple who constantly gazed at their feet during the short service.
Soon it was all over. A few words of comfort were passed between God's representative and the couple. But they heard none of those sugary words of comfort
For them there could be no comfort and it wasn't grief that made them uncomfortable but guilt.
The man smiled a wan smile and walked forward as if in a daze. A single wreath lay in the porch. It came from the couple.
The man shuffled forward taking small measured steps. He was at an age when life had long ago left him behind, He was a survivor but he had survived for nothing, insanely cocooned in age and senility, scarcely able to walk, scarcely able to mumble other than a few incoherent phrases.
One arm hung down limply at his side, a reminder of the stroke suffered a few years previously and still remembered in physical as well as mental terms.
The old man no longer had a memory, he had been anaesthetised against it. Or certainly he had forgotten the immediate past. He could vividly remember 60 years ago when as a boy he stole the neighbours apples and was soundly beaten for it.
Remembering last week, well that was something different. He scarcely remembered picking up his last week's pension - he scarcely cared. He bore the scars of life and all around him bore the scars of his existence.
This little old man was incapable of showing love. That was the way it had been, that was the way it always would be.
He was a small man, small and wizened. Once he had power, once he had been strong and that strength had been used not to advantage but to punish all about him. And when he was not punishing physically he would punish mentally.
His hair was a shock of white, the front scraped across his brow as if he was trying to recapture his youth in his haircut.
His complexion was sanguine as if he had suffered too many winters and too few summers. His hands were unusually gnarled even for his age. some said they were full of character. But those who said that were the toadies and sycophants who were once afraid of him and who now gently mocked him for his frailty.
He found that most people tried to humour him nowadays. He couldn't understand why. HE was imprisoned by his mind, but he had no idea that his brain cells were being eaten away one by one as they were starved of lifeblood. He had no way of knowing that he had under a year to live. That was the future and now was now and something had brought him to this damp unfriendly place. He wanted to shout but the effort had long proved to be too great for that kind of thing.
He sat down on a seat unable to stand any longer despite having a walking stick to help him. The stick had a carved head - a present from a long distant relative whose name he had quite forgotten and who never knew him for the tyrant that he once was.
If he had owned a mind the little old man would have been able to reflect, but reflection needed time and space and he seemed to have so little of either.
The woman - his wife - was tall and straight. Her face still flashed a warning of youthfulness although age had taken its usual and inevitable toll. She was still relatively youthful although weighed down by the inconsistencies of her husband's moods over the years.
But today of all days just for once she needed his strength and it was no longer there. She had stayed with him over the years despite the depression, the violence. It had been many years, if ever, that he had comforted her. He had forgotten how to comfort people long before illness set in.
Over the years they had grown apart. His drinking, his bullying, his womanising, destroying any tenderness. Now he could no longer answer back. No longer fight and all she felt was sickness, sadness and sorrow.
She had lost the need for him many years ago. She had stayed because there seemed nothing else to do and she came from a period in time when wives stuck by their husbands no matter what. Now this shambling old man by her side was dying and coming to the end of his life in some kind of foggy haze.
He turned to look at her with the same wan smile on his face and no recognition. For a moment she felt like clutching him to her for perhaps one last time to try and rekindle some of the passion that once existed so very long ago.
After that initial passion she had needed him as a husband and as a provider and he was never there when needed.
"For God sake hold me", she had implored at times wanting not the passion of a lover but the tenderness of a husband. But even that was many many years ago. He had been lost many many years ago. She still vividly remembered the first night she had cried, left alone with a young baby while somewhere in the city he enjoyed the night and the dawn with somebody else.
She had never asked how or why even when rolling drunk he would stagger in and knock her to the floor with oaths and foul language echoing throughout the house and the baby crying in his room.
She still remembered the nights when she pleaded for him to stay and how occasionally he responded. But the response often ended with bouts of depression and violence. She remembered how he had stayed on his terms. How she was a wife during the day but not part of his life at night. She had got used to it until he was too weak and old to be attractive to other women and then he had lost his mind. low none of it mattered ... nothing seemed to matter to her.
The old man was suddenly gripped by fear. Where was he, why was he here, what was he doing in this place. Why couldn't he go home, why couldn't he go where he was safe.
The woman almost read his feelings. She helped him up and an hour later they were back home. Back to their reality and while she thought of what had happened that day, the little old man fell asleep in a chair. She wasn't strong enough to move him and so he slumbered bent over in the chair with his head almost against the arm.
The woman did not sleep that night or the next day. She had to tray to remember. It was the day they cremated her son.