Magpie Soup

It’s Mum’s funeral today. Dad’s completely lost the plot and just tried to go out without his trousers on. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Mum didn’t want a house full of sad people trying not to cry. Which is why I made some alternative arrangements of my own...

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1. Magpie Soup

‘Dad?’ I knock on the bedroom door. ‘Dad? It’s me, Mina.’

 

The wood feels cold and slightly clammy when I press my ear against it. I listen to the silence on the other side for another few seconds, then turn the handle.

 

Dad is sitting on the side of the bed. He’s wearing the white shirt I ironed late last night and the black tie we bought to go with his suit, but that’s as far as he’s got. Then I notice his boxer shorts: a present from me last Christmas—the ones with Homer Simpson’s face all over them—do you remember? You said he’d never wear them.

 

‘Mrs Radcliffe’s here,’ I tell him.

 

Dad’s staring at something in his hands—a narrow gold band clamped between shaking fingers.

 

Just when I begin to think he hasn’t heard me, he looks up. His eyes are red, and the salt and pepper stubble across his cheeks glistens with tears.

 

‘The undertaker’s here, Dad. We need to go soon.’

 

He stares at me for a moment, as though he isn’t sure who I am, then he nods and stands up.

 

I stop him at the door. ‘You should probably put some trousers on first.’

 

Again the look of confusion as he glances down at his bare legs, then turns back into the room.

 

‘I’ll tell her you’re on your way,’ I say, closing the door.

 

***

 

Mrs Radcliffe is what you would have called sturdily built. She reminds me of that statue outside the library—the same look of granite-faced, gothic disapproval—except Mrs Radcliffe hasn’t got pigeon shit highlights in her hair. If she had it might stop me staring at the huge monobrow sitting above her eyes like some kind of face-pet. As I walk back into the front room I can hear your voice in my head: You keep her talking, while I grab the tweezers and sort that thing out!

 

The laugh is so unexpected, I catch it late and announce my arrival into the room with a noise like a pig snort. Everybody looks at me and I feel my cheeks glow.

 

‘He’ll be out in a minute,’ I say, staring them all down.

 

This is your house Mina. Don’t get pushed around on your own turf, girl! Too right.

 

‘Would anybody like a drink?’

 

There’s a collective murmur and raising of mugs, and I remember Celia has been shoving cups of tea and coffee into people’s hands the moment they cross the threshold. Mrs Radcliffe is holding your HOT STUFF! mug—the one where the bloke’s clothes slowly disappear as the liquid inside cools down. I wonder if Celia gave it to her on purpose? The undertaker doesn’t seem to have noticed that she’s holding a mug with a semi-naked man on it.

 

‘How is your father this morning?’ Mrs Radcliffe leans towards me and I catch a waft of strawberries. I had her down as more of a Chanel No 5 woman, but maybe she’s all floaty pastel dresses and fruity soaps in her time off from being Bride of Dracula. We all have our secrets.

 

Do you remember that game we used to play? If we were stuck in a place full of strangers—all those hours in hospital waiting areas. We’d go round the room deciding who the people were, giving them names and occupations, coming up with whole back-stories like we were making up characters for a book. The best part was always deciding what people’s secrets were.

 

We all have secrets, Mina.

 

That’s what you told me.

 

Of course I wanted to know what yours was.

 

If I told you, it wouldn’t be a secret, would it?

 

It’s not a secret now though is it, Mum? You were dying and now you’re dead. Your secret’s out.

 

We never made up horrible secrets like that for people though. Most of ours were funny. Like the bored hospital porter we saw struggling to push trolleys bulging with dirty sheets into the lift. We gave him a complete double-life. By day: mild-mannered hospital worker; by night: Gloria—glamorous drag queen and huge star on the Soho club circuit!

 

We used to see him a lot. Do you remember that time? When we were taking the lift down to the café and we saw him running to get in before the doors closed. You said—actually said out loud—hold the door for Gloria. He heard you too. He was giving us funny looks all the way down and we couldn’t stop giggling.

 

Shit!

 

Why did I have to remember that? Now my throat’s gone all tight and dry and I can feel the heat behind my eyes—a warning that tears are on their way.

 

Not today. This is a celebration. That’s what you wanted, right?

 

I want a party, Mina. A proper knees-up. I want people dancing, laughing, getting drunk and being sick in the garden. I want people to have something to remember me by.

 

So that’s what we’re doing. Unofficially. Celia’s been brilliant, of course. I couldn’t have done it without her. I couldn’t have bought all the booze for a start. More importantly, I don’t know if I’d have had the nerve to go behind Dad’s back if she hadn’t been there reminding me that this is what you wanted—that we owed it to you.

 

We did try talking to Dad, but he was either off in another world or just refused to talk about it. Which isn’t like him at all. One night he just exploded. Started shouting at me to leave it alone; that he was taking care of it; that you were HIS wife and it was nothing to do with me. Of course I shouted back that you were MY mother, except the words stuck in my throat and I started crying which really pissed me off. I mean, why do I have to start crying right in the middle of an argument when I’m trying to stand up to someone? It really ruins the effect.

 

It was all rubbish anyway. When Dad said he was taking care of it, what he meant was, he’d asked Mrs Radcliffe—the Princess of the Night—to take care of it for him. Sod her! She never knew your mum—that’s what Celia said. Which is when we decided to make our own . . . alternative arrangements.

 

So, this is for you, Mum.

 

All the surprises. For you.

 

I need to keep remembering that. It helps to stop my knees shaking so much. That’s not just an expression either, they really are shaking. A few centimetres below the hem of my black school skirt my knees are knocking like something from a Scooby Doo cartoon.

 

I just hope Dad forgives me.

 

Eventually.

 

When he calms down, he might understand I did it for you. That this is what you wanted.

 

I just wish you could have written it down somewhere so I could show him. Prove it’s not just something I conjured up for my own entertainment.

 

You know me, I get carried away sometimes, get caught up in the idea. I can see it all playing out like a movie and it’s brilliant. Except when it’s really happening, it’s nothing like I imagined. It’s a cold, damp Yorkshire day and the house is full of serious people in dark clothes, and Dad is so full of grief that he’s forgotten to put his trousers on. Now it doesn’t feel like such a good idea—it feels like a disaster waiting to happen.

 

But it’s too late to stop it. Everything has been arranged.

 

I just wish you were here. It would be OK if you were here with me. Though I don’t suppose we’d be doing any of this if you were!

 

You said that at the hospital, remember? When you were scared. It’ll be OK if you’re with me. Well, it’s payback time, Mum. If ever I needed you with me—now is the time.

 

***

 

Dad still hasn’t come out of the bedroom and we can’t leave without him. Part of me wants him to stay in there for ever, so my plan will never be triggered into action. At the same time, I want to get it over with, because the waiting is killing me. Sorry . . . bad choice of words.

 

Death hijacks everything. Things you say without thinking suddenly mean something else. Or you forget for a moment and find yourself laughing at the TV, then remember again and feel guilty. I know people are avoiding me today as much as I’m avoiding them. They’re scared of me and dad—scared of our grief. They don’t know what to say, because nothing you say makes any difference. It’s just words. But words are better than silence.

 

How can a room be packed full of people and still feel so empty? It’s like everyone is holding their breath. It makes me want to pull a really loud armpit-fart, or burp or something—anything to break the silence.

 

As I haven’t got a burp brewing, and I don’t think even I’ve got the nerve to do an armpit-fart right now, I pull out my phone and plug it into Dad’s stereo. By the way, everyone in the room jumps when the song starts and then stares at me, I’m guessing you’re not supposed to play music on the morning of a funeral. Tough! I need you here, Mum, and now you are.

 

Your favourite song fills the room, pushing back the shadows, breathing life into the stale, dead air. OK, the fact that the song is called ‘Fortunately Gone’ has never registered before. In the current circumstances it strikes me as somewhat ironic. I’m suddenly fighting back the urge to burst out laughing again because you would have loved that. You would have thrown your head back and laughed that loud, dirty laugh of yours and not cared what anyone thought.

 

How many times have I heard this song? Hundreds? Thousands? I know all the words off by heart, though I don’t remember ever learning them. They’ve just been there all my life—me and you singing along about magpie soup. That was the line I loved when I was little. I wanted to know what magpie soup would taste like—if there were real magpies in it.

 

You told me that magpies fill their nests with shiny things they like the look of, and that magpie soup was the same: a combination of all the things you liked, so it was different for each person who made it. You said it didn’t matter if the ingredients didn’t really go together—because how could it taste bad if it was made up of all my favourite things? I have to say, you set yourself up for disaster with that one, Mum. What was it we put in? Chocolate spread, mint ice-cream, tomato soup and banana! And you ate the lot! Said it was the most delicious magpie soup you’d ever tasted . . .

 

OK . . . not such a good idea to think about that right now.

 

***

 

‘Your father is very lucky to have you, Mina.’

 

I realize Mrs Radcliffe is standing next to me, her pale eyes peering out from under the eyebrow creature.

 

She’s not wrong though.

 

Right up until you died, Dad was brilliant. Everyone said it was amazing how strong he was. But the moment you were gone, it was like his elastic broke.

 

The first sign was the smoking. I’d never seen him even hold a cigarette before. You remember how he always said you need strong lungs to get a noise out of a trombone? Then he stopped playing in the band altogether.

 

Celia didn’t understand how significant that was, but then she didn’t grow up round here. She couldn’t believe I’d started playing trumpet when I was five. I told her how members of Dad’s family have played in the Thackett Mill Brass Band for over one hundred years. I tried to explain how the band is like our extended family, a part of who we are—like different coloured threads in a carpet.

 

So when Dad stopped going, it meant something—it was a sign. Not that I really needed one. I could see what was happening right in front of my eyes. Dad acted like a zombie—confused all the time—like he wasn’t really here any more. I don’t think he would have eaten, or washed or anything, if I hadn’t been around to make him.

 

So maybe The Dark One has a point: he is lucky to have me. To be honest it helped me having something to do—someone else to think about.

 

I’m about to say something along those lines, when Mrs Radcliffe glances over my shoulder. When I turn around, Dad is standing in the doorway. I’m relieved to see he has some trousers on, and apart from the stubble and slightly crazy hair, he looks fairly normal. But there’s something wrong. His face is clenched with suppressed rage and his eyes are burning with such ferocity, I can’t look at them.

 

There’s only one reason Dad would look like that.

 

He’s found out about the surprise. But how could he?

 

I look around for Celia, but can’t see her anywhere.

 

When I turn back, Dad is barging into the room, pushing his way through the crowd heading for the stereo. He grabs my phone and fumbles with the controls for a few seconds, only Dad’s not so great with technology. I guess he’s trying to turn it off, but instead the music suddenly booms out and everyone twitches like an electric charge just passed through the carpet. Eventually Dad yanks the wire out and the music stops with a loud pop.

 

He turns round and I’m sure he’s going to shout at me. How could I? Her favourite song! What was I thinking? Then he notices everyone in the room is staring at him.

 

Dad coughs and puts my phone back on top of the stereo, then he looks at Mrs Radcliffe. ‘Is it time?’

 

‘Whenever you’re ready,’ she says with a thin smile, her voice like the purr of a cat.

 

***

 

I wait for Dad to move away from the stereo, then grab my phone. I’ve got to find Celia. We’ve got to stop it! If Dad reacted like that to me playing Mum’s favourite song, he’s going to explode when he finds out what’s going to happen next.

 

Luckily, Celia is alone in the kitchen.

 

‘You’ve got to call someone,’ I blurt out. ‘Tell them it’s off! Dad’s going to hate it.’

 

Celia puts down her bag and places her hands on my shoulders. ‘We’re doing this for your mum, Mina.’ Her eyes lock onto mine. ‘Your dad will understand. If he doesn’t . . .’ She sighs and shrugs. ‘Today is for your mum—remember that!’ She gives my shoulders a squeeze, then pulls me into her soft and substantial bosom.

 

‘Come on, Mina, we’re waiting.’ Dad is in the doorway, his face pale as the paintwork.

 

Celia gives me a final hug and winks as she lets me go, but it does nothing to quell the shaking that has spread from my knees and is slowly taking over my entire body.

 

Where are you, Mum? I can’t do this on my own!

 

***

 

I don’t want to step through the front door. That’s the signal. The moment they see us, a member of Celia’s special squad waiting outside will make the call and everything we planned will begin.

 

I wonder if I’ve got time to run ahead? If I stand in the middle of the street so they can see me . . .

 

Then what? Is there a universal signal for Oh my God, I’ve made a terrible mistake! Abort! Abort! Abort!

 

Dad links his arm through mine and the moment’s gone. We’re already moving towards the rectangle of outside framed in the doorway. One of the Dark Queen’s attendants is waiting like a giant crow on the doorstep, a black umbrella flapping over his head, ready to protect us from the rain scratching lines through the air.

 

I shake my head. I want to feel the rain on my face—to feel the cold sting of it against my skin—anything to distract me from what is about to happen. But the man shadows us anyway. I wade through a puddle just to make a point. The cold water makes me shiver as it seeps into my shoes.

 

Mrs Radcliffe’s Death-mobile is parked at the kerb, its black paintwork and chrome shining out under the bruised sky. I can see the pale wooden box through the glass, almost buried by flowers: white roses from Dad and MUM spelt out in red carnations from me.

 

I imagine you beyond the wood, lying there alone in the dark. Cold. Stiff. Dead.

 

Fortunately gone.

 

Another monstrous vehicle waits for us, its doors held open by more shadowy attendants, their beady eyes tracking us from the house. Then I see the other cars: parked in every available space along the street, their paintwork bright and garish by comparison.

 

We’re halfway between the house and the car. Each step is one closer to the bomb I set to go off. Dad must be able to feel me pulling back, because he looks at me, the skin stretched taut around his jaw. I can see it would be too much for him to speak, but his eyes tell me: Come on, Mina. We can do this, together.

 

And then he hears it.

 

Dad’s ears, always tuned in, hear it before anyone else.

 

The distant rumble of brass, the thump of a drum—

 

Dad stops walking and that’s when Mrs Radcliffe registers the noise. The furry fiend above her eyes gathers itself into a query as her head jerks round. This wasn’t on the schedule.

 

People start getting out of their cars, turning towards the sound coming from the bank of grey cloud obscuring the top of the hill.

 

And then we see them, materializing from the mist, five abreast in their green and gold jackets, marching down the centre of the road. Their instruments glisten in the rain, blasting a path through the damp and the cold, while the Thackett Mill Brass Band banner flies proud above their heads.

 

The music is like a familiar voice calling out to me. I get the urge to run inside the house and fetch my trumpet; it feels wrong to not be a part of it. But I stand my ground, letting my fingers twitch over the invisible valves of the ghost instrument in my hands.

 

Does Dad feel it too? That he should be up there, in his rightful place, leading the band?

 

I’m scared to look at him, but force my eyes upwards.

 

Dad hasn’t moved or spoken since the first echoes rolled out of the sky. His face is rigid, staring towards the sound while tears flood down his cheeks.

 

Then it hits me: the reason Dad turned his back on the band—on something that has been so much a part of him all his life. Why couldn’t I see it before?

 

The band, this music—it’s him and you, Mum. You’re in every note. It’s what brought you together in the first place—as teenagers, in a musty community hall. Your entire lives are here, written out across the staves. Dots and squiggles on a page, vibrations in the air to anyone else—but to Dad they are the beats of his heart, his very soul tossed naked into the rain for everyone to see.

 

How could I do this to him? In front of all these people.

 

***

 

As arranged, the people who have been waiting in their cars join the procession as it makes its way towards us, and suddenly I remember what comes next. Sure enough, before I can move or say anything, the band switches effortlessly into ‘Hawaii Five-O’, and the Death Maiden’s thin lips fall open in a perfect circle of surprise.

 

Nobody other than you could have persuaded Dad to introduce cheesy TV themes into the band’s repertoire, Mum. The crowds loved it, of course, and Dad had to admit you were right. But this isn’t a summer fete or a concert in the park, this is a funeral! What have I done?

 

Finally Dad turns to me.

 

‘Did you do this?’ he demands, the words dragged from his throat, smothered in tears and snot.

 

I nod, losing the battle to stem the flood from my own eyes.

 

People at the back of the procession are clapping in time, and front doors are opening all along the street as neighbours come out of their houses to see what’s going on. The air is filled with music and colour and celebration. And suddenly I’m not sorry any more. This is what you wanted.

 

‘I did it for Mum,’ I say, and for once my voice holds.

 

Dad’s eye blaze into mine, fierce and unreadable, blurred by both our tears.

 

Then he grabs me and pulls me to him.

 

‘Perfect.’ The word is buried in my hair, but I still hear it. ‘Bloody brilliant!’ He steps back, staring into my face. ‘You’re your mother’s daughter all right!’ he says, almost having to shout to be heard above the band. ‘She would have bloody loved this Mina! Bloody loved it!’

 

Then he smiles—actually smiles! I realize how long it is since I last saw that.

 

Dad turns to Mrs Radcliffe, who is still gaping like a fish.

 

‘What are you waiting for?’ he says. ‘You lead, we’ll follow.’

 

He grabs my hand and we walk past the waiting car and join the head of the procession. Celia is already there and she takes hold of my other hand.

 

We march to the crematorium, the Death-mobile out in front and your band playing every step of the way.

 

And you’re not inside that box, Mum, you’re here—in the music, in every smile, beside every person walking with us, singing and laughing.

 

You’ll always be here.

 

Bodies wear out, get ill and die, but you were more than just a body. I don’t believe in God or an afterlife, or any of that stuff—but I believe there is life after death. Because you are a part of all the people you ever met. You live on in our memories, your stories, the things you taught us—like how to make magpie soup. I realize now that we are each our own magpie soup: a crazy, unique, brilliant mix of all the people we love and the things we do.

 

We won’t ever stop loving you or missing having you to hold, but we’ll be OK. Because you are part of us. Not even death can take that away.

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