The four of them met at the pub, just as they do, just as they had always done for years. The biggest difference was how they were dressed, this time there were no silly shirts with hilarious slogans, and no jeans. This time they were dressed for business. With matching black suits and black ties.
They didn’t say much because there wasn’t anything to say. They had one drink each and then got in the taxi.
It was time.
They pulled into the grounds and the place was virtually empty. This came as a bit of a surprise, but it was too late to do anything about it now.
The taxi pulled up in front of the chapel and they got out. With only ten minutes to go they were the only ones here. George checked inside and spoke to the minister. Everything was ready to go, so they were just waiting for the man of the hour himself.
Right on the dot he arrived. His mother wouldn’t have it any other way. There was only the two cars, the hearse and the towncar. Freddy rode in the lead, the place where he was always the most comfortable, and his mother and sister rode in the car that followed.
The car pulled up and opened the back door, the coffin sitting there waiting. The boys each took a corner. This might be the last ride they could ever make with Freddy, but he would ride high because he was carried by the men he called friends.
Freddy’s mother looked around and noticed the lack of people and sniffled again into her handkerchief, her daughter pulled her close and they followed the coffin into the chapel.
There was room for a hundred or more people in the chapel of rest, maybe double that, and yet there were only six of them. When they laid the coffin on its table at the front, it seemed silly to sit any further back so the boys sat on the front row, opposite Freddy’s mother and sister on the other.
The mother nodded her thanks at them and each gave a wave or a smile in support.
The minister took the stand at the front and started mouthing the words he no doubt said a few times a month. He didn’t know Freddy. Not like the family did, not like the boys did.
Tom looked around the chapel, and especially at the empty seats. Where were the people? He knew that some people would have wanted to come, but they couldn’t travel far, but how many would that account for?
Where were all his so-called friends? Where were the people that said they’d come on facebook? Did they really find it easier to lie and make excuses later than take time out to say farewell to a friend.
Maybe he didn’t mean as much as they thought to people. It might have been true that he wasn’t the easiest person to get along with, but he rarely had any ill will towards anybody.
It just seemed strange, not strange, it was sad that such things translated to a final farewell. Maybe if he was a nicer person, more pleasant then more people would be here? But then he wouldn’t be Freddy, and how could you wish for a friend to be anything other than they were. Besides, Freddy wasn’t unpleasant, and nice enough.
It broke Tom’s heart that there were not more people here. To see the lifespan of a man, a friend, all brought down to an empty chapel and a crying mother.
Hell to it, if they were the only people to pay their respects, then they would see him out with honour, respect and a hell of a lot of booze in the pub later. The minster eventually yielded the podium and one by one the boys took the microphone and spoke about Freddy.
Pete spoke about how they met, long ago school days full of excitement, adventure and the occasional misadventure in growing up. George took over and spoke about the past, about holidays they had taken together and tough times they had got through, the five of them, together. Tom went next, and spoke a little about the other interests in Freddy’s life, his hobbies and his inability to sit still when there was a universe of exploration out there. Michael was the last and spoke about the illness, how it took them all by surprise and how Freddy handled it like he handled everything, head on and full bore.
Each in turn took a time to speak about their friendship, and what he meant to each of them. There were tears, but each got through it, and though the audience was small, they all understood that this was something they had to do, for each other, for Freddy’s mother, for his sister, and most of all for Freddy.
All too soon the time moved on and the minister made noises about it being time for the final journey. The four of them gathered again around the coffin while one of the ushers went to go open to the door to the graveyard. He came scuttling back quickly and whispered to the minister, who came over to Tom.
“There seems to be a couple of people outside… do you want to … talk to them?”
Tom blinked. Surely any latecomers would have just knocked and come in during the service? He walked to the door and looked out. The pathway was packed, absolutely mobbed with people, many of which he could recognise the faces of.
He walked up to Miles, a close friend that he was surprised wasn’t here when the service began. “You’re over half an hour late! What the hell, man?”
Miles jumped, unaware that Tom had crept up on him. He nearly choked on the cigarette he was calmly smoking while watching the crowds.
“Dude, don’t sneak up on me like that!”
“What .. the .. hell. You’re late!”
Miles looked at his watch. “I’m not late, I’m early. Nearly half an hour so. Glad I got here this early as it is, I can’t imagine all of these people getting a seat.”
“The time of the service was twelve noon, and we’ve just had it”
“No man, the time was one o’clock, the invite said specifically.” He fished in his pocket for his phone, and poked it a few times. After a minute the FB event popped onto the screen. “There, one o’clock. Says it right there.”
Miles held it up for Tom to see. Tom squinted at it for a minute, then took it out of Miles’ hand and strode back into the chapel. He tried to wipe the anger from his face but that wasn’t working, so he tried his best to just look serious. He nodded to Freddy’s mother, who was looking distressed again, not knowing what was going on.
He pushed the phone into George’s face. “What … does .. that .. say?”
George took a step back, then fished into his pocket for his glasses and put them on. He looked at the phone and read out loud. “Freddy’s memorial service. It’s the invite I put on Facebook.”
Tom nodded. “Yes, that’s right. And what time does it say.”
Pete caught on quicker than George. “Oh, you didn’t…”
George finally kept up and looked at his watch. “Oh shit.”
Pete turned to Tom. “So, who’s outside?”
“Everybody. Everybody and their family.” He turned to Freddy’s mother. “Mrs Race, it’s your family and Freddy is your son. What do you want to do now? We can manage anything you feel is right, but you have to feel right about it.”
She took her time in answering, and she looked a lot stronger now she had a frame of reference. “There are people outside wanting to say goodbye to Freddy?”
“A fair few of them, yes.”
“Then we let them. Bring them in.”
The minister looked panicked about going through it all again, but Tom wasn’t going to brook any excuses. He strode back to the front door and raised his hands.
“Ladies and Gentlemen. EVERYBODY! Good, good. I’m glad you could all make it today, and due to circumstances completely blameable on George, you’re all late for a service that has actually happened. HOWEVER, Freddy enjoyed a fuckup as much as the next one, so we’ll get you all inside and go for a second run. Since I don’t want to bore Freddy and his family again with our eulogies for a second time, we’ll skip them this time and we can all get the opportunity to tell ridiculous tales of daring do in the pub later.”
The service was smoother, and strangely less tearful the second time through, and without the eulogies was shorter. Freddy’s mother and sister were still missing their son and brother, but they were buoyed by the wealth of spirit that the suddenly full room gave to them.
Tears happened, as you would expect, and handkerchiefs were used throughout, but there was still a part of Tom that wanted to smile. This was the send off that Freddy deserved.
The hard part came at the end, when it finally was time to walk from the chapel to the grave. The four took their places at the corners of the coffin and lifted. Freddy never weighed very much in life, and the wooden coffin was a large weight, but they lifted him without complaint. Freddy had carried them all in one way or another over the years, they could take him this one final trip without complaint.
The minister spoke more words as the coffin was lowered into the ground, and finally the veneer that was his sister cracked and she wept, loudly and without shame for a long long time, the two women hugging each other in full view of the masses that gathered.
The boys stood to one side after their duties were done and the people took time to come and say their last goodbyes to Freddy, before wishing whatever condolences they could to his family.
Michael fished into his pocket and pulled out a bottle of Vodka. He twisted off the cap and took a huge swig of it, before passing it on to Tom. Michael breathed invisible fire for a minute, then gasped for breath.
“Maybe I should have brought a mixer to drink it with.”
Tom drank, then passed it to Pete.
“It doesn’t matter. I’m not sure it’s the done thing to chug vodka with a pineapple juice chaser by the graveside.”
Pete passed the bottle on to George, the level having visibly dropped by this point.
“Do people drink at funerals often?”
“Every one I’ve been to.”
Tom took the bottle from George, and poured a generous amount into the hole, before handing back to Michael.
“Come on, pubtime. Let’s see what the eejit had to say for himself.”
The crowds were still taking their time at the grave. They would follow in their own time.
That was up to them.
In the pub, Tom got a table in the middle while Pete got the drinks and they waited for anyone else to turn up.
It didn’t take long. People arrived in dribs and drabs for a while then the main bulk of them packed the pub out from the garden at the front to the carpark at the back. As much as the pub was used to gatherings and even the occasional wake, they were unprepared for the numbers they had.
When the numbers reached critical point, Tom pulled out a disc from an inner pocket where he had been looking after it for a long time.
The other three looked up. They knew what was on the disc, even if they hadn’t seen it. “Have you watched it yet?”
“Nope, he’d have bloody killed me if I had.”
Tom took it to the bar and passed it to the manager. He had just long enough to get back to the table before it started to play. All the screens around the pub, which up until now had been showing one pop video after another, all went blank.
After a few seconds there appeared a face most people in the pub thought they would never see again, Freddy himself. There was even a few shrieks as people were taken by surprise. As ever, Freddy let people settle down before he started talking.
“Hello Monsters. I hope you’ve had an interesting day, though I guess it would have to be, since it’s the last one you’ll be spending with me, and that’s a bit of a shame, isn’t it really? I really wish I could be with you now, for a few reasons, I suppose the biggest one of which would be that if I was there with you then I wouldn’t be dead.
“See? I’m allowed to use that word now, now that there’s no other options. I’m not with you because I’m gone, dead, shuffled off this mortal coil. It brings new light to the dead parrot sketch, I’ll tell you.
“Anyway, the reason why I’m talking to you isn’t to get all maudlin, or to have one last joke, it’s to give you something to think about. The last couple of years haven’t been fun for the most part, and I didn’t get chance to do what I wanted to do. Not everything I wanted to do. I never went to Vegas. I never water-skied around the cape of good hope and I never made love to a movie star under the influence of drugs and hard booze. Or if I did then I don’t remember it, so maybe I’ll say I did that last one anyway.
“The point being that the earth goes around the sun only so many times before it does so without you. Regrets are meaningless so I’ll let mine go now, because I know I’ve had a brilliant life and done many wild and wonderful things. You should never regret the things you’ve done, they are what makes you you.
“So make a list of things that you’ve done, people that you’ve met and experiences that you’ve had and treasure them. Then think about what you can do to add to that list. Go out and meet people. Go travel. Write a book, hell, read a book. Create something, discover something … pretend you’ve done something and lie to everybody about doing it, and make the story huge a florid and entertaining.
“Then, once you’ve done it, come back and tell me all about it. I’ll be here all the same and I promise not to interrupt.
“Go out and enjoy your life. I did. You’ll not regret it.”
The screen went blank. There was a full minute’s silence as people thought about the words they had all heard.
At the table there was a beeping noise. Pete leaned over and noticed George playing with his phone just under the level of the table.
“What the hell are you doing? Will you show some respect?” chastised Pete.
“Relax, I watched what he said. It’s not exactly a surprise though, he’d been telling us the same for the past few months anytime we visited him.”
“Yeah, well maybe it’s time to think about doing something about it then” agreed Michael.
“What do you think I’m doing?”
“I have no earthly idea”
“I’m looking up prices for tickets to Las Vegas, flying out Monday night. Tickets for four I might add.”
This took them by surprise. Tom was the first to react. “What the hell? We can’t fly to Vegas next week. We’ve got work. Bills. Responsibilities.”
“Count me in” said Pete.
“What?” Tom was shocked. Pete was normally more sensible than this.
“Me too” said Michael.
“You as well? What about … what about everything?”
“What about it? Bills, jobs, people …. responsibilities … will all be here when we get back. What’s the worst that could happen? No, ignore that, no matter what happens, life, death, love, lust, fortunes and hookers, it will all be worth seeing, worth doing, worth visiting, even if we graze by something by a hair’s breadth, when it’s done we can say we’ve done that, we were there and it was glorious.”
Tom looked at his friends from one to another. They had all lost their marbles. He had appointments to go to, meetings and people to see.
An arm appeared at his right and put the disc in its envelope down on the table in front of him. Tom looked at it for a long minute.
“Make it four tickets.”