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Mrs Garnett at the Funeral by Victoria Finan

January, 1965

Gwen was on the late morning duty, and she was none too happy about it. Most of the other girls preferred the morning shift so they could be home by noon to give their kids beans and chips before afternoon school, and Gwen liked the evening because the residents had normally settled down to play cards quietly together, or else staring dimly into nothingness to the sound of the radio. There was nothing pleasurable about being the one serving up dinner. So, she wasn’t best pleased when the rota had gone up. Especially because Sylvie from number eleven had said that if she wasn’t working that morning, Gwen could pop over so they could watch the funeral together. Sylvie’s husband had just bought a bigger television.

Still, best not to complain. And it wasn’t a bad day, after all. The weather had finally let up, and the roads were quiet as she drove in. There’d been talk of making the day a Bank Holiday, but that’d come to nothing. It wouldn’t have meant anything to Gwen anyway. There were no Bank Holidays at the care home.

“You see to the ladies sat in the front lounge, love” called Clara from the kitchen when she heard Gwen open the door. “We’re going to wheel them all into the big room to watch it.”

There were three sitting in the lounge as Gwen walked in with the tea trolley. Two were chatting about the funeral, of course. What else would anyone be chatting about?

“I wonder what hymns he’ll have,” said Mrs Gibb, as she took a bite of a fig roll. “If it were me, I’d want something stirrin’. Summut to get everyone roused up. Well, he were that kind of bloke.”

“Aye,” said Mrs Clark, “But he might not have had time to pick any at all, y’know. That’d be a shame. It’s a burden on the family, is picking ‘ymns. I got myself all in a knot about whether my Ted would want Tell Out My Soul, or if it were too jolly. We went with Dear Lord and Father of Mankind in the end.”

“Hmm,” said Mrs Gibb. “What do you think, Mrs Garnett?” She called out a little louder. “Mrs Garnett?”

The third woman, Mrs Garnett, did not answer. She looked up at Gwen, almost as though she was frightened of the two other women.

“She’s going more deaf by the day,” said Mrs Gibb, as Gwen began pouring the tea. “Her,” she said, pointing at Mrs Garnett.

“Yes, I know who you mean, Mrs Gibb,” said Gwen. She handed the mug to Mrs Garnett. “Don’t you worry,” she said. “We’ll be taking you into the big room to put on the television soon. Then you won’t have to listen to these two goin’ on and on.”

“Thank you,” Mrs Garnett whispered. She was one of the residents that Gwen always felt a little sorry for. It didn’t do to get too attached to any of them, for obvious reasons. But Mrs Garnett was soft-spoken and cut a somewhat lonely figure, preferring her own company to that of the other residents. And Gwen couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a visitor. She wasn’t sure Mrs Garnett would remember herself.

“Gwen!” called Clara. “It’s starting! You’d best bring them through.”

“Ooh,” said Mrs Clark, rubbing her hands together. “I’ve been looking forward to this all week.” Gwen wheeled her into the big room first, before coming back for Mrs Gibb and Mrs Garnett. She suspected that Mrs Garnett had no interest in watching the funeral at all, but she couldn’t possibly be left on her own for the rest of the morning.

Gwen put her chair right at the back of the room. Clara was fiddling with the television volume. She was wearing all black. Always dramatic, was Clara.

All the residents were there, apart from the ones who were bed-bound, of course. Mr Arnold, who’d served against the Boers and was happy to remind everyone of the fact daily, had pinned his medals to his chest. And Mr Howie was looking around the room at the ladies disapprovingly. “In my day,” he called out, “You wouldn’t have women at funerals.”

“Well, it’s a good job we’re not in your day, nor mine either,” retorted Mrs Gibb, who’d never seen eye-to-eye with him. “Besides, Queen’ll be there.” And that settled the matter.

“Ssh,” said Clara. “Now, we’ve to all be good and quiet while we watch it.”

They must have looked so silly, thought Gwen. Twenty geriatrics and two women crowded round a tiny television, where hardly anyone could see and even less could hear. Clara had turned up the volume as high as it would go so, when Big Ben chimed, a few of them jumped.

“Turn it down!” called out Mrs Clark.

“No, don’t,” said Mrs Gibb, “I like a sense of ceremony.”

Gwen watched the screen. The great coffin, adorned, of course, with the Union Jack, was being lifted gracefully onto the gun carriage. It was strange to think of him lying in there. He’d never been a man you could imagine being still.

“Ooh, there’s been nothing like this since the Coronation!” squealed one of the ladies.

The parade to the Abbey seemed to take a long time. The cameras occasionally focussed on the faces of those Londoners who’d stood and waited, some perhaps all night, for this last glimpse. They must be bloody cold, thought Gwen. She decided to do a tea run. It was bound to be a long service. As she quietly made her way to the kitchen, she looked across to Mrs Garnett and saw she was asleep, drooling a little into her jumper.

When Gwen came back with the tea trolley though, her eyes were open. “Excuse me,” she whispered to Gwen. “But what are they all watching?”

Gwen smiled. “It’s the funeral, Mrs Garnett. They’ve put it on the television.”

“Oh yes, of course. The funeral.”

She made her way back up to the front of the room, handing out drinks to the residents as she passed. The service was beginning.

“Battle Hymn of the Republic!” shrieked Mrs Gibb as it started up. “I didn’t expect that one, Nellie!”

There was a hush as they listened to the congregation sing the first hymn, punctuated by Mr Howie trying to keep up in time.

It was in the middle of the first prayer when the voice piped up from the back.

“Whose funeral is it?”

It was Mrs Garnett. The residents shushed and tutted. Gwen nipped to the back and bent over the old lady. There was curiosity in her face where, before, there had simply been dull resignation.

“You’ve got to try to be quiet, Mrs Garnett. It’s Mr Churchill’s funeral. In London. You know. Mr Churchill. He was the Prime Minister.”

“Oh,” she whispered, the dullness settling back into her features. And then she sat up, bolt upright.

“Mr Churchill!” she yelled, making Gwen start back. “That infernal man!”

The residents seemed to spin round as one - some, of course, much quicker than others. Gwen felt her face getting hot, as she moved quickly behind Mrs Garnett’s chair.

“Don’t worry,” she called out, in a voice as bright as she could muster. “Mrs Garnett is a bit tired. I’ll just nip her to her room.”

But Mrs Garnett, for the first time in the eighteen months she’d lived at the home, seemed the exact opposite of tired.

“Horrid creature, he was! The very scourge of men. Enemy to womankind everywhere, Mr Churchill!”

This was too much for Mrs Gibb. “Show some respect,” she barked. “If she can’t be quiet, nurse, you’d better take her away. Always knew she had a nasty side.”

For once, Gwen followed Mrs Gibb’s advice. Mouthing an apology to Clara, she wheeled Mrs Garnett down the overheated, cloying corridor to her room. Mrs Garnett seemed to calm down as soon as she saw her bed. That was the thing with dementia, thought Gwen. Take them out of a routine and you risk everything. Mrs Garnett had had too much distraction for one day, and it had addled her head.

She stripped Mrs Garnett quickly, the old lady becoming soft and compliant as Gwen pulled off her slacks. They all looked the same, under their clothes. She mumbled a little under her breath as Gwen got her nightie out of her top drawer, but Gwen couldn’t hear what she’d said. Perhaps she’d once had a sweetheart who’d scorned her by the name of Churchill, she thought. Or perhaps it was nothing that could possibly make sense at all. At any rate, Mrs Garnett seemed to have already forgotten all about it.

“There, Mrs Garnett,” said Gwen as she pulled the blanket up around her neck. “You can have a nice rest now, and I’ll make sure Liza brings you a cup of tea when she comes on shift.” Liza was Mrs Garnett’s favourite carer, but none of them had time to be sentimental about such things. She thought the old lady would be asleep before she closed the bedroom door.

But Mrs Garnett looked straight at Gwen, her blue eyes hard, like a tabby about to pounce on an unsuspecting mouse. “Is he really dead?”

“Mr Churchill?” said Gwen, “I’m afraid so, Mrs Garnett. Very sad day for our country, is today.”

“Yes,” she replied. And then. “I whipped him once, you know.” Gwen shook her head. Her brain truly has gone, she thought. Pity. Perhaps she was someone with a story to tell, once upon a time.

“Have a nice rest, Mrs Garnett,” she said, wearily, before closing the door.

*

The carer closes the door. She watches for a moment to see if she’ll come back. Sometimes, they do. If they’ve forgotten their glasses, or their pen. Never because they’ve forgotten her - forgotten to say goodnight, or asked if she’d prefer porridge or toast for her breakfast.

She isn’t coming back, and Theresa closes her eyes. She wishes she’d remembered to ask her to put on the radio. Theresa can’t see the dial herself to choose the right frequency. Back when she used to have a visitor, they’d occasionally leave books, or a newspaper. But Theresa can’t see to read anymore, and she gave up following the news a long time ago. She grew tired of having to be reminded which cabinet minister had resigned, or which union was threatening to strike. And - and this was one of the really funny things about growing old - once she’d stopped reading the news, she found that it was very easy not to care. To allow ignorance to wrap around her like a soothing blanket, the wool muffling whatever it was that had once kept the cogs of her brain ticking. Theresa was tired, and she’d never been one for allowing others to do for her what she could do herself. But once she’d surrendered to not choosing what she wanted for supper, or what she wanted to watch on the television, or who to listen to in the lounge every day, she found her life allowed her to drift quite nicely into forgetting.

There had been a general election last October, and Theresa hadn’t known about it until it was over. The carers hadn’t taken any of them out to vote.

She sleeps, for a time. In her dream, she is walking among trees. The trees do not have branches. Rather, they have arms which billow in white sleeves, the sort from a dress you might wear for a summer picnic. Some of the sleeves had intricate embroidery, purple and green, but the majority of them are simply white. Each arm has a hand waving from it, as if to beckon Theresa. She feels that she could walk up to any of these trees and have them stoop down to receive her, the arms making their way around her back, crushing her to the trunk. She can almost smell the moss. They all look so very old, their wood gnarled and rotting in places. Theresa was never one for the outdoors, but she longs to climb one of these trees, to haul her tired bones up the bark, to allow the arms to catch her, their twig-fingers running through her hair.

She hears the crack of a branch falling, or perhaps a whip, and then she is awake.

It is darker outside now, and someone has left a cup of tea on the bedside table. Theresa reaches out for it. It’s still warm, thank goodness. A little too much milk.

Theresa tries every day to make a habit of thinking backwards. When she can remember of course. It’s when she remembers to think backwards, and then realizes she can’t remember beyond deciding to think backwards that she gets scared. Today is not one of those days.

Theresa remembers being wheeled to her bedroom by one of the ladies, whose name she can never think of. She remembers being in the big room with the television on. It was an important thing, she thinks, it must have been, to have us all in the room like that.

She thinks she remembers one of the other old ladies shouting at her, but she’s not sure. She thinks perhaps it was in London, whatever they were watching. Certainly, a city. Leeds, or Manchester. Or Bristol. Yes, she thinks it was Bristol.

There was a train, she remembers. A man walking through the station, with his wife. They were holding hands. Theresa did not have anyone to hold hands with, and besides, her hands were full. Was this earlier in the day? Or was this some other time? She can’t think, but she doesn’t seem to remember the man ever coming to visit her at the home. No matter.

She remembers walking up to the man. He had a face that was neither young, nor handsome, but rounded like a baby’s, without the moustache most other men wore. She thinks she was calm when she first spotted him but, as she got closer, her heart began to race, and she didn’t quite believe she would do it before she did. The crack of the whip roared through her ears and she heard herself shrieking “Take that, in the name of the insulted women of England!”, and she thought perhaps he said something back, but then again, most men would always say something back, even if it was just a yelp from the pain of the whip.

Theresa tries to be kind to everyone, the carers and the other residents of course, but she finds she cannot regret being unkind to that man.

Perhaps he had been to the home, at some point. She thinks back to before she had whipped him, and finds all she can remember is sitting in the front lounge, next to two women gossiping about hymns, and that she’d pretended not to be able to hear. She thinks - no, she knows - that the man is dead, and that, whatever she might be, she is not. His face, she can recall, on posters and his voice in long, slow, speeches which had made grown men weep in the street, and had made Theresa’s stomach curl up in on itself, as if in hunger again. No surrender, he had said. No surrender.

She sighs and closes her eyes. She misses her sisters , she thinks, even though she can’t quite place their faces, or the way they’d pin their hair, or the way they’d nimbly weave through the crowds with their banners, ready with a glad shout, ready for the fight. She tries so hard to think of them, their forced smiles as the policemen wrestled them to the ground, but she finds that they are nothing but a blur to her, the letters of their names smudges of black ink across a page, their voices laughing as they dug the plots for the trees. She finds she is crying, although she doesn’t know why. Everyone here is so kind to her, after all.

She thinks it’s enough remembering, for one day at least.