Garrison Fields

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Chapter 9 - A child's funeral

No one played in the street outside their house in those three days. As neighbours passed the house, eyes were averted to the pavement, voices were hushed as people passed. They did as they always had done round here and showed their respect. Dipping their heads, men wearing caps, took off their caps as they passed the house, clenching them tight in their fists as they passed.

These were hard working-class men whose faces showed the signs of their struggles with life, their hands showed the battles; the calluses and burns. Yet they were meek and quiet when passing, this was one of theirs that had gone.

Inside the house the curtains at the front of the house were pulled to the world, even the clock on the mantelpiece had been stopped. No sound other than sadness was audible.

Three days passed, the appointed morning dawned. Jane was already dressed in her mourning wear, busy preparing sandwiches and other items. They would need something on their return from the cemetery, she had the boys to think of. It kept her hands busy a distraction; she didn’t want to think.

The mood was quiet. Albert opened the door and welcomed members of the family who would be coming to the chapel and internment thereafter. The boys had all been given black armbands and similarly those men whose suits were not dark enough for the occasion also wore them. The ladies present had used their wardrobes to the best effect and most wore black ribbons.

Albert’s mother was in deepest black, such was her advancing years that she had now had the necessity to attend more events such as this than she would have ever believed possible. Young ones, old ones, you never knew when your time was up. She sat in the front parlour in the same seat that Mr Taylor had sat on his visit. A perfect spot to see all who entered. She sat upright on the edge of the seat, complete in her black mourning jewellery, passed down to her by her own mother. Such had been the fashion, many years previously.

Most of the men and the boys stood, the conversation was low. The only exception in this small family gathering was Derek, who totally out of character was quiet and talked to the boys, keeping them occupied.

It was now within an hour of the appointed time when Josiah Taylor would call. Jane, had returned into the room with her sister, who had been aiding her in the kitchen. She approached Albert informing him they should go up now. He gestured to Matt and Luke and carrying Ted they opened the door to go up. As Albert reached the door, he told the family that he and Jane would be going upstairs to pray and pay their last respects. All would be welcome to come up in a few minutes, to see their daughter before she was taken.

It is best to say that as they left the front parlour to climb the stairs that many present including the men lost their composure. Albert’s mother Maud, was especially heavily affected and through her veil of tears, expressed her wish to be taken. Why they, at their ages had been spared and why had God taken such a beautiful young angel. Her husband Joe knelt by her and held her hand, but solace was not to be found at this moment, it was just the unfairness of life.

The minutes went by and as protocol dictated, they looked for the matriarch of the family. Maud went first, she rose, Joe taking her by the arm. Her younger sister Mary Tyler stood next to her, their eyes met.

‘It’s time you were going up our Maud.’ The words acted like a tonic to her, coming from her younger sister. In a slow morbid procession, they climbed the stairs, entering the room in twos and threes. Some of them kneeling by the child’s open coffin, which was laid on its little bed and prayed with the parents each for a few minutes before returning. There were no words required. Derek was the last to enter the room, he had let all the family go first, as he turned to go.

‘Derek, don’t go.’ Whispered Jane, through her grief. Derek, new that he was as close as any living soul to them at that moment.

‘Say goodbye to your sister boys, then we’ll say our prayers together.’ Each in turn, approached the coffin and kissed her on the brow. Derek turned slightly to wipe a tear from his eye. Then they all knelt and said the Lord’s Prayer and followed by their small childish family prayer which they said each evening.

As they finished a low knock was heard on the door and they could hear Josiah Taylor, being given access to the house and then his footsteps on the stairs.

‘He’s coming to take her Albert, our poor beautiful bairn.’ She pressed her face into Albert’s chest her hands on his shoulders in an attempt to muffle the sobs, it was only for a moment though, before she regained her composure once more. The footsteps stopped at the door - followed by a light knock, the door opening slowly as he entered. They knew the time had come.

‘We’ve said goodbye. We’ll leave know.’ He thanked them and standing by the door escorted them to it.

‘We’ll be down in five minutes.’ He followed them to the top of the stairs and signalled the two pall bearers in the hall to ascend the stairs. They looked in the coffin before securing it; her favourite rag doll beside her, a small bible under her hands. A sepia picture of mummy and daddy on their wedding day inserted into the pages, so she would know they would always be with her and never forget her.

The family entered the front parlour and Jane spoke.

‘She’ll be down in a minute Mr Taylor’s, just making everything right. We best be ready.’ She donned her outdoor mourning wear all others performed a similar task, a few of the men went in the back yard and lit a last cigarette. The street was quiet, most people had pulled their curtains in a mark of respect and several stood on their doorsteps, ready to bow their heads when she came out.

The cortège was now at the top of the stairs. Mr Taylor, led them down ensuring that decorum was observed and that no obstructions would hinder there progress. The family members in the parlour observed as the small procession made its way out. Mr Taylor, stopping briefly as he opened the front door to ensure that all was ready.

The hearse driver alighted and opened the rear doors, the hearse had been arranged in such a way as to raise the usual platform so that the small coffin would not be obscured by well-wishers’ gestures. He stood back, all was ready, the procession made its way out followed by the family.

There were a number of hackney carriages that had been hired to take the family to and from the cemetery, this was unusual but there again, they were needed to get all in good time to the municipal cemetery.

The coffin was loaded and arranged and there was just a brief moment when the family paused just for a second at the hearse before alighting the cabs. With all in order Mr Taylor, took his place in front of the hearse resplendent in his funereal attire, from his spats all the way up past his waistcoat, heavy watch chains and cravat with diamond pin. His mourning coat and top hat complete with silk scarf trailing now in the wind behind him.

The hearse driver hoisted up the weight restraining the horses. Mr Taylor satisfied that everything was in place, turned around and looked at the route in front of him. The hearse driver raised his arm alerting the carriages behind him they were due to set off and with no further ado Mr Taylor, struck out down the street, like a drum major on the trooping of the colour. The tip of his thick ebony and ivory walking cane just touching the ground as he moved, such an elegant site. As he past the neighbours gathered on either side of the road they bowed their heads, he returned the gesture in recognition. Once they had left Kimberley Street, he stepped to one side and as the hearse came along side climbed into his position next to the driver. It was a good clear crisp morning all would go well.

Within what only appeared to be a few minutes, the cortège was at the chapel. The vicar stood at the door of the small Victorian chapel, a small rotund character with ruddy features and a balding pate, a character which might have quite easily have come from one of Mr Dickens novels. Mr Taylor knowing him, consulted with him and finding everything in order approached each carriage in turn, informing them to enter the chapel.

It was now, with all was present that the operation of loading the poor unfortunate child went in to reverse. The small coffin was taken in and placed on the trestles in front of the altar, such was the size of the poor child that a decorators table had been placed over the trestles and covered with a blanket as the length was too small and would not fit between them. Once the arrangement had been made the firm of Taylor withdrew to the rear of the chapel the men going outside, their work finished for the moment. it was time for them to have a cigarette and, perhaps a sandwich after all, this was not their only job today.

The service was brief, the lady organist cranking the small foot bellowed organ as they sang the paid for three hymns, interspersed with the usual eulogy, of the child now being in a far better place. It only seems right not to dwell on the detail of the service as this was a day, where the approach of an automaton was required by those closest to the child; the swirl of events being but a brief moment in the pain.

The service over, Mr Taylor now stood in the aisle in front of the coffin, hat and walking stick in hand. He bowed to the altar and the vicar indicating everything was ready for him to proceed, he spoke gently to Jane and Albert but audible enough so that the majority in the small chapel might hear.

‘The vicar will lead the way - then if you would rise and follow followed by the rest of the family.’ The next choreographed scene mapped out, as they followed the small coffin to the plot.

As the committal was read the coffin was lowered, finally each taking a scattering of earth offered to them dropping it down onto the coffin they each said their last goodbye. They slowly departed back to the waiting cabs. Only Derek, stopping briefly to tip the gravediggers, who were stood at a convenient distance, this was now a matter of custom as opposed to a necessity, but encouraged the filling of the plot quickly and efficiently, the day of the body snatcher having long since gone.

Within what appeared to be no time at all the cortège was back at Kimberley Street. Mr Taylor, helping Jane from her hackney cab, talked briefly to her and Albert. They thanked him for running the proceedings so well; he thanked them and informed them, that should they have any questions in the future, they should come to see him. The offer was given and accepted as one would a friend. The few relatives now entered the Burns’ house, for the usual sombre tea which she had prepared earlier. A day, which no one had wanted and all were glad it had ended. A day which they would feel each morning, as they awoke, the emptiness dwelling in the pits of their stomachs.

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