Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Win Yourself A Cheap Tray

(NB: for associated photos of my time see the related blog “The Seaside Town That They Forgot To Close Down” on my Houses In Motion site)

It’s morning and I’m up unnecessarily early. It’s a thing I do – if I know I have to go somewhere for a specific time then I just can’t settle and prefer to just go and be there early. Surprised that my partner hasn’t murdered me with an axe by now, come to think of it…

The bus stop is crowded with students and local women with prams. They all alight onto the various local services: everyone except those of us with big travel bags that is. I prefer to travel light where possible: cramming everything I need into a single backpack and a carrier bag so that I can keep it with me on the bus.

I booked the seat over a month ago now – the further in advance the cheaper. This journey is costing me £1 for 100 miles. That’s a penny a mile: bloody highway robbery!

I get on the bus and realise that my bag is to big to go in the overhead compartment, so I place it on the floor between my feet: praying that the Law Of Single Men Travelling will protect me.

The law goes like this: No single man travelling will chose to sit next to someone else unless there is no other option. A single woman will always sit next to another woman unless there is no other option, or unless the male is particularly good looking. A couple will always attempt to sit next to one another.

The Walking Sofa doesn’t seem to be aware of the law and is hovering over my seat with all the ominous foreboding of a mushroom cloud. There are sweat stains on the armpits of his tracksuit (worn for comfort because it was the only thing aside from a tent that would fit, rather than any inclination to exercise). I decide that if I am ever to discover that I have the ability to perform Jedi mind tricks then now would be an opportune moment and wave my hand vaguely in his direction, muttering “You don’t want to sit here: try somewhere else” under my breath.

But the Walking Sofa must have Hutt relations, as my Jedi powers bounce off his thick layers of blubber and he sits down beside me, taking up a third of my seat as well as his own before his head lolls backwards on the seat and he is lost to sleep. For the next two hours I realise this is what it must be like to have to breathe through a straw.

When I finally get to the train station things get better – although there seems to be a good measure of confusion as to where it is going. About half-way along the journey the train will divide in two: only part of it heading my way. However the staff and the boards on the platform tell me the front half; whereas the staff on the train tell me it is the back half that I need. I decide (correctly as it turns out) that the staff on the train probably have a better idea where they are going and take a seat: glad that I finally have sufficient arm move to read my book without decapitating myself or anyone nearby via an unavoidable accident with a nasty paper cut.

At the destination the man from the Bed & Breakfast (B&B) is standing waiting for me and he takes me to my destination, where I unpack my spare underpants, socks, toothbrushes and razor. The razor clogs within one shave and remains virtually useless for the remainder of my stay.

I take a walk down to the sea front. This is the first time I have seen the sea in six years. Storm clouds block out the sun and the wind blows the waves furiously under the pier. There are few tourists and almost everything seems closed or run down. Here and there you can see the echoes of the Edwardians and the Victorians in the broken cornices and frontages. I find a restaurant and head for an early night in my room


The first day of the course and I take a stroll along the front with my pen and paper. Over the course of the next few days, and despite the panorama in front of me, the best drawing I will do will be of a teddy bear in my hotel room.

We trudge upstairs to the series of rooms above the Funeral Directors – our spaces are already laid out: green folders for boys, pink for girls. Someone has clearly sussed out that I am an inveterate gazer-out-of-windows and placed me with my back to all of them, which is probably for the best.

Every one is invited to introduce themselves, to give a background of why they are here and to place a candle in the holder on the wall to represent the light we bring with us…only due to Health And Safety regulations we can’t actually light them.

Within a few words one of the class is getting on my nerves: she’s the type who has to tell you on every possible occasion how they spoke for England in the last Olympics, how they’ve done absolutely everything ever and how wonderful everyone around them thinks they are, about how this, that and the other and to keep their sentences running on long after they have ceased to be interesting. Everyone else seems to be ok though – but they are all far more prepared for the initial speech we are supposed to give: as it is without notes I have decided not to prepare too much, because my memory may be many things – but it is not reliable: not even slightly.

True enough I open my mouth and everything I’ve thought of to say goes straight out the window as I burble on in the hope that I will eventually regain some semblance of a point.

The day slopes along nicely, being a general introduction day. We talk about the way funerals are structured and what the role of the celebrant is within it, about visiting the family and putting together a picture of the person’s life. There’s nothing tangible at the end that you can put your finger on and say “I learned this”, but it is still interesting.

By the end of the day I’m dog tired: I never sleep well on strange pillows – one is never enough, two are always too much – and my brain feels like it is dissolving in my ears by 5pm.

The clouds are still thick overhead and promising rain, but the wind has deceased and the waters are calm. I walk along the pier and listen to the sounds coming from the arcade: thinking about how strange life is.


Day two of the course is still a little unstructured, but we seem to be heading somewhere now: as we divide into groups and hold conversations for the Eulogy we have to deliver tomorrow. I talk about Rick, a chap I used to work with in my last job. He killed himself shortly after I left (no connection), but the sad thing was that the company we worked for didn’t tell myself or my friend still working there about the funeral until it was over and done with. The woman I’m working with talks about her first husband who died some years previously, so I’m very aware that I have to get this right.

Nonetheless we are finished long before the other groups and find ourselves fretting over whether we have done enough, said enough.

The two tutors take it in turn to talk about their experiences and how they go about putting a service together. It’s the first time they have trained together, so it doesn’t always gel well and the student with some hearing loss struggles to follow the internet clips on the laptop. I wish that he knew sign language so I could have a go at interpreting (did I mention I know British Sign Language?), but am equally glad he doesn’t in case I get something important wrong.

For the last part of the class I write a short eulogy for myself as I’m keen to have a back up speech in case the woman I’ve been working with changes her mind. I get some food and head back to the B&B, where I sit and hand-write my speech (having not brought a laptop with me). My hand is tired by the end and I will keep going back to what I have written between now and class the next morning: trying to change and improve.


I’m feeling a little bloated today. Normally the most I have for breakfast is a bowl of cereal – but when breakfast comes as part of your bill there’s always that tendency to eat and eat to make sure you get your money’s worth. I decide to walk it off by going to the pier again. For the first time since I arrived there’s a bit of sun on the water, peaking through the layers of cloud.

First thing in the morning it’s the Eulogies. I elect to go first to stop myself from tampering any further. I’m already aware that I’ve created a scrawl that will be hard to read and find myself spending far too much time staring at the piece of paper instead of the group.

I’m not the greatest speaker, though I can do ok: but I tend to mumble and swallow words and this is my feedback afterwards – so I am forced to agree. At the end of it the woman is in tears, but thanks me for doing it. I glance at her feedback notes and feel guilty that she has written “Better than the original”

In the afternoon we take the trip to the Funeral Director. She’s bright, funny and mad about cats. She tells us that, in no uncertain terms, whatever the bereaved wants is what the bereaved should get. She tells us that she wont budge on price unless she knows and trusts someone, but by now we should all know that money is not the reason to be doing this.

When the day ends we say our goodbyes. Some of us are staying on for the conference, but I simply cannot afford another night’s hotel bills and have to dash to the train station. I reflect along my journey that death is like leaving a room: we no longer see or feel the people in the room, we can have no perception that they exist as anything other than toys to take out of a box when next we meet – and yet our time with other people shapes us in ways that we may never fully contemplate.

Back in London a two-hour wait lies in front of me before my bus and I sit and read my detective book. Tiredness leaves me confused as to the full plot revelations, so I’m glad when the bus finally arrives.

Once onboard I place my bags on the seat next to me and feign sleep: knowing that most Britons would rather set fire to themselves than approach a dozing stranger. My strategy works this time and I stretch out into the chair.

There is still so much to process, so many thoughts in my head. The course was interesting, but what have I actually gained? On Monday I will return to work: sixty five emails will be waiting for me. Not one of them will change anything. Not one of them will improve the world, change the way someone lives their lives, help someone in their time of need.

It’s not enough

It’s never enough.


Anonymous said...

What if the Briton were to set fire to the dozing stranger? I'm kidding, joking.....just being an idiot.

Practicing the eulogy delivery at home will help, I'm sure. You said that you knew British Sign Language? Is this different from American Sign Language although both countries speak the same language?

the watercats said...

The thing with life is, nothing is ever enough.. but then, that's not really the point.. is it? The fact that you had the experience of an obscure week, and managed to notice all the in between bits, surely counts for something?...

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

Samuria - ASL and BSL are quite different.

ASL is mostly based on LSF - the French Sign Language - and is one-handed. It was brought over mainly by a chap called Galludet, who started the only University for the Deaf in the USA. BSL is two handed.

BSL varies from area to area - do people in the bronx speak the same way as people from San Francisco? Similar thing, only more isolationist.

Watercats - yeah it was a nice week. Right now i'm just wondering about the other fifty or so...

Argent said...

Now, now, Pixies, just because we cannot see what good our life is doing does not mean that we are not doing good. Yikes, that was almost profound!

English Rider said...

This post has a certain poignancy to it. When you were considering becoming a celebrant had you focused more on happy celebrations, like weddings, or were you prepared for this, sadder side?

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

argent - indeed: our actions have more impact than we realise...however moving figures about on a spreadsheet not that important in the whole sort of general mis-mash

English Rider - Actually when i was first looking into this i was thinking about just doing weddings at weekends alongside my day job: but the funeral training has made me really think about things again

English Rider said...

I finally managed to post the zombie chicken award. Thank you again.I do enjoy your blog thoughts

the watercats said...

Hey Pixies!.. have just been tagged by English Rider, so I thought I'd pass on the tag to yourself, if you fancy it! All the things are on our page.. cheers!

Michael said...

This is a very interesting post. I like this direction you are taking. I believe a person can learn much about how to live by contemplating our eventual exits. It's a great way to lose fear and find compassion

"The day slopes along nicely"
- I love your verb choice

"I write a short eulogy for myself"
- did you learn anything?

"I tend to mumble and swallow words and this is my feedback afterwards – so I am forced to agree."
-> your phrasing and subtle humour are such a pleasure to read. The description of Tuesday on the bus is fabulous. The kind of travel writing I like to read.

"There is still so much to process, so many thoughts in my head. The course was interesting, but what have I actually gained? On Monday I will return to work: sixty five emails will be waiting for me. Not one of them will change anything. Not one of them will improve the world, change the way someone lives their lives, help someone in their time of need.

It’s not enough

It’s never enough."

--> You are correct the emails (and what they represent) don't make much difference. What matters is your response to them. It's all about you.

Michael said...

"however moving figures about on a spreadsheet not that important in the whole sort of general mis-mash"

That is a belief that may not be doing you much good. Robert Pirsig's quest for quality and it's importance have made me think differently about carrying out "meaningless" tasks. I think we get into trouble when we believe in ideals that need to be acquired because they take us out of the present. The present becomes not good enough and then we miss the point.

DFTP, this has been an extremely resonant post for me. Thanks!

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

English - yeah, i saw it! Just keep up the good work

Watercats - i will pop over and have a look

Michael - thanks so much for such a detailed response and for all the feedback. If you haven't already read any Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett then you should do - because what turns me on about their writing is their choice of words for description. So few writers seem to understand how much it impacts.

With regards to the spreadsheet - its one of those jobs where if it didn't exist then nothing much would change, but i do see where you're coming from. Thanks again

Lisa Allender said...

Hi Pixies--Lovely idea--funerals/eulogies studied/written, in order to get more from one's LIFE!
Bless you, hon.

Roxanne said...

you're taking the course!

Two unrelated thoughts. You must read "Speaker for the Dead" by the same guy who wrote Enders' game (sorry name escapes me at the moment).

Please enter that deadly creatures short fiction contest. Truly. Please.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

Lisa - that's the most interesting thing i got from the course: that it shouldn't just be about mourning the death, but celebrating the life.

Roxanne - i have actually started on a couple of ideas, but want to make my entry original and not to cliche'd. Thanks for recommending the book :)