The funeral celebrant had been speaking for several minutes, but I wasn’t really listening. I could see his mouth opening and shutting, but my mind was elsewhere.
I snapped out of it as everyone else did, as the father of the dead young man rose to his feet and stepped to the lectern.
The bereaved family sat in the customary spot in the front row. Michael’s father was hidden from view until now. He hadn’t greeted the mourners and had probably been sitting on that front pew since the church opened some two hours ago. No one approached him. The force field of grief was too strong — it repelled all who would console him.
Dead silence greeted his opening remarks.
“When I became a father, I turned into a different person. I had a reason to get up in the morning. I went to work at a job I loathed, willingly. I was a father. My job was to provide and to protect. Everything I did had the welfare of my family at its core. I planned for the future for my only son.”
Michaels father stopped speaking and looked at the paper in front of him. Some of the gathered souls thought he would be unable to continue.
He struggled, through tear-filled eyes.
“Now, when I wake up in the morning, my day’s work is meaningless. I have no son to protect, and he has no future for me to plan for.”
Michael’s father stood silently for an agonising minute until the celebrant put his hand on the distraught father’s shoulder. He leaned in and whispered a question. Michael’s father gathered up his tear-stained sheet of paper and walked back to his seat and our hearts, which were already broken, ached even more.
The celebrant said a few more words, something about ‘gathering back at Michaels home after the burial’, but I’ve tuned out.
Funerals give me a headache, and this one is the size of eastern Europe. I want to be somewhere else, anywhere else, but good manners dictated that I wait for the family to follow the coffin out of the church.
Finally, I’m outside in the cold fresh air, and my eastern Europe headache has some room to move. I lean up against the bluestone walls of the church. This building would have been the centre of life for the local community some one hundred and fifty years ago. These days, it sees a bit of activity for weddings and funerals — mostly we have moved on from believing.
Conversations are scattered across the church’s forecourt. The mourners are deciding whether to go to the gravesite or head to the wake.
“I don’t like to get too close to an open grave at my age,” says the old lady next to me.
“Why didn’t you come into the service uncle?” says a young man, neatly and uncomfortably dressed.
“I don’t much like God when you get him indoors,” says the older man, opening a pack of cigarettes. He offers the pack to the young man who shakes his head.
I feel a hand on my shoulder. I turn to see Michael’s father looking at me with dead eyes. Until this moment I have spoken maybe a dozen words to this man.
“James, I need your help.”
“What do you need me to do?” My mind went to the burial service — I really didn’t want to go to the cemetery or the wake. I need a drink, a large one followed by another large one.
“I want you to find who’s responsible for Michaels death. I know he respected you for all that you did.”
“You do know that I don’t do that anymore?” I was pleading with my eyes. If I hadn’t been jammed up against this bluestone wall, I would have been backing away.
“No one is doing anything. They all think it’s hopeless. You’re my only hope.”
I’ve heard this speech a dozen times, usually from distraught mothers or desperate siblings. Always the same hysterical tone, always the same wide eyes, hands clutching at my arms so that I can’t escape. If I get away, they know they’re doomed.
“I’m retired, and all my contacts have drifted away. Let the authorities do their job. It’s what they do, and they’re good at it,” I lied. I know it is hopeless, but I say the words anyway. His eyes are burning into me. He doesn’t speak, he’s said his piece, he’s just staring at me, his fingers digging into my arm.
“Look, the best I can do is ask around, see how the investigation is doing. But I’m not making any promises. I’ll just be asking the few friends I have left what they think. Best I can do.” My words are obviously thin and evasive, but Michael’s father sees them as hope. His eyes show a small sign of light, and I know that I’m being drawn back in. Back to that place that tried to kill what was left of me.
I understand, even if I know I won’t come up with the result he wants. This is Michael’s father’s way of being a protector, one last time.
Not that answers ever solved anything.
Not that knowing ever eased the heart.
I’ll go through the motions, ask all the right people, and when it’s all over, Michael will still be dead, and Michael’s father will still have no-one to build for.