We went to London to say goodbye to Paddy´s old friend Derek.
Derek and his wife Jean were with us here last summer, right when Bella Dog arrived. He was one of only two of Paddy´s old friends to ever visit the Peaceable, far as it is from civilization. He was the only one to ever come back twice! Paddy knew Derek since they both were 15 years old, for more than 50 years.
It was sad and interesting, attending a funeral at a London crematory. The service happened in a 1930´s-era chapel-like room, but everything was carefully engineered to avoid reference to Jesus, God, Allah, or Church. The attendants scuttling round in top hats and Edwardian morning coats made me wonder what all the formality was about. The attendees were advised in advance that this was an informal funeral, that Derek played pretty fast-and-loose, sartorially speaking, and we could too. But the women stuck with conventional black dresses. The men, black suit-coats, if not ties. The few who came in jeans and jerseys were dissed outside their hearing.
A humanist minister spoke. Paddy gave a short eulogy. They played Erik Satie´s Gymnopedies 1. At the end, an electric curtain closed around the coffin up front. It was no secret a belt carried the box into a flaming oven on the other side of the white-paneled wall, but that particular truth was discreetly hidden from view. A man in a morning jacket several times stopped and bowed gravely before the bier, the same way a Catholic bows before the holy Eucharist in the front of a church. I wondered if it was Derek he was honoring, or the altar-like bier and curtain, or the firey furnace beyond. In that setting it was vestigial behavior, truly meaningless ritual.
At the end almost everyone repaired to a pub along the Thames riverbank, where drink was taken in quantities and Derek´s memory was toasted and roasted and recalled.
The people who came to Derek´s do are a fascinating and fruity lot. Except for his children and grandchildren, most of Derek´s friends -- like him -- are over 60 and white and suburban. Many went to school with him, or worked with him at the London daily tabloids where he was an artist and layout man. They are intelligent people, and after a glass of white wine or two, they are loud and fun and funny. They´ve all known one another for decades.
One lady wore a lavender blouse with matching handbag, shoes, and hair. She joined a sprightly, slim companion, the sight of whose amply cantilevered bosom even now brings joy to the hearts of men much too mature for that sort of thing. (I know because one of them said so, out in the driveway, after asking my pardon.) Paddy´s second wife was there, looking trim and healthy, as was Derek´s first. Another well-upholstered woman arrived, wielding a vast handbag, a sharp young man in tow. Her curly mane and Scotch whisky voice were unmistakeable -- We´ve met before. She´s one of Paddy´s old girlfriends, and she knew everyone in the most elaborate and dramatic way.
A clutch of ladies watched from a table nearby. They wore costly haircuts and pressed linen. Their nails were manicured, their eyes and smiles took us all in. They looked at each of us, then at one another, and glittered like gorgeously patterned reptiles.
Some were newspaper veterans, others wives of newspaper veterans, others were neighbors in Ealing, the pricey Peyton Place suburb where Derek lived most of his life. Paddy and Ray, Gloria, Jilly, Alisdair, Sue, Chedgey (in fabulous leopardskin sneakers), Brian and Molloy told stories of their art school days together, the nights in the newsroom and later at the pub -- Fisticuffs, love affairs, betrayals, shameful behavior and last-minute triumphs.
I kept to one side, out of the way. Paddy´s life has been very full, with lots of friends, heartbreak, booze, laughter, and women. The people at that pub know more about those years than I ever will. Now that retirement has scattered them from Brighton to Norfolk, it´s funerals that bring them together again. With their future hanging heavy ahead, they smile and laugh and talk about the past, the years when the paper sold 3 million copies a day and they had nothing but time.
They lived the best of times, and they know that very well. They have a healthy view of life and death. They go to a friend´s wake, and laugh afterward. They are characters -- still here, still very much alive.
I am lucky to see even the last chapter of some of their stories.