Laugher filled the air like the tinkling of hand-bells. The sound swirled around us, gathering into its train the more sonorous peals from the great brass bells in the tower, mingling with the deeper reverberations of the organ, and all rising, rising in a vortex of luminous, sparkling bands of colour, straight through the roof, then leaping high into the sky above. The church steeple spun the threads of sound, projecting them heavenwards – attracting both angels and playful spirits of the air who came to dance among the music’s golden strands. Inside the church people were smiling, some chatting. Eyes turned from the polished wooden coffin which sat at the front of the nave to look around. Some may have heard the laughter or caught its vibrations, others merely felt the atmosphere lighten, sorrow and respect turning to wonder and joy. As I looked at each face in turn the many and varied parts of my life resolved themselves into a single narrative. Had I ‘kept the faith’ and ‘run the race’? I had certainly reached the end, only to find that it was instead a new beginning. I laughed again and the air danced and sparkled weaving new colours and harmonies. It had not been an easy life, but even in my darkest moments a dogged steadfastness and sense of humour had somehow pulled me through. I had been ready to go, my spirit gradually loosening the cords that had bound me to my ailing body, until at last I had slipped, like a hand from a glove, into the freedom of the ether. Many old friends came to greet me, and I could have gone with them then, but I wanted to enjoy this last party, to say my goodbyes, held in place by too many ties and unfinished emotions.
The horses had been splendid. I have always loved animals and found the advert in Horse and Hounds. ‘Just like mum! Trust her to make an entrance’ was the children’s response, but the even villagers enjoyed the sight, stopping to point and stare as the four black mares with their waving plumes and tassels as they pulled the elegant, if rather poorly sprung, carriage down the lane to my beloved old church. I had planned it all carefully. I left the advert for the horse-drawn hearse with my bank book, where I knew they would look first. In those last months of semi-conscious immobility I found that I could on occasion dwell consciously in the astral world, and gently plant an idea in the mind of my children or friends, or guide them to an object, until at last the whole thing was almost done. When the silver cord that bound me to my body finally gave way for good, I found their minds even more susceptible. They would dream of a hymn and on awakening, feel sure that this was the one I wanted. Turning the pages of the hymnal they would find themselves in agreement; ‘This was one of her favourites’ ‘I’m sure she would have chosen that one’. I helped my daughter and niece piece together the pages of my life, with jokes and reminiscences. I didn’t want undue solemnity and kindly but hollow sentiments, only real stories and memories of the good times, the fun and ridiculous little incidents that nevertheless become part of our shared history. It was important to me that each one of my family and friends would see the whole of a life, and not just the part each played and the scenes in which they entered or departed. That old photo album and 16mm film were more difficult. I knew where they were of course, but had never told anyone. They weren’t really interested, until now that is. I had to plant nostalgia. The children dreamt of childhood places and family holidays at the beach house. It took me three the best part of three days and nights to convince my son to open the old wooden box on top of the wardrobe. He didn’t know why he should look in there, indeed had never really noticed it was there at all, and it was heavy and awkward to get down. At last I succeeded, and he woke up with a start, staggered out of bed and reached up to grasp the worn handles. The box wasn’t locked, which was just as well as I had long since lost the key. That morning, with his sisters, they sat around the kitchen table and talked, talked freely and without the reserve that had built up over the years, while looking at the pictures of our life together. ‘It is almost as if mum is with us’ said one. ‘Well where do you think I am?’ I replied, ‘In the morgue? That isn’t me – just the body that I used. And yes, do make me a cup of tea, it isn’t silly at all. It draws me close to you all, and that steaming cup is a powerful symbol of our enduring affection, a love that goes far beyond all the petty squabbles and jealousies’ that kept us separated from one another. They seemed to hear, to sigh and feel their hearts warming, clutching the hot mugs with shining eyes that reflected a moment of longing for the time that they too would be drawn home.