I sat behind her during the service. She was the only one in that pew. Wish I’d sat next to her now. I only sat behind her because she was there before me and I only just made it in time so I crept into the nearest pew at the back and well, you don’t go and sit next to a stranger at a funeral, do you? Not when there’s plenty of empty pews. And especially not when she’s a woman on her own and you’re a man on your own. So, I sat behind her.
She sat really straight – that’s what I first noticed – like she’d been in the military or something. And she was still, ever so still. Most mourners at a funeral fidget. They flick through the order of service, they adjust their sleeves or their collar, they look up to the rafters or at the stained glass windows. They do anything but keep still. They don’t want to be there. Who does? It’s a reminder of a future no-one wants.
Anyway, I sat behind her. It was bitter cold and every time somebody opened the door an icy blast swept right through the church. You could see people pulling their coats tighter round them, shuddering and folding their arms, whispering about how perishing it was and why couldn’t someone turn the heating up.
Not her. She was unmoving.
The weak November sunshine fell upon her hair. I’ve never really looked at a woman’s hair before. I mean of course I’ve looked at a woman’s hair generally, but not closely. Not so that you could see the individual strands: auburn, copper, bronze, proper deep red, blonde, grey and burgundy, glossy curls tumbling over each other…
Suddenly I was hot. I was just on fire. I undid my coat, put my scarf on the pew beside me and pulled my collar away from my neck.
I didn’t see her face until after the service when she got up to leave. My heart skipped as I caught a glimpse of her. If she can look so beautiful in sorrow, what is she like in happiness?
I couldn’t move for a few seconds, only coming back to life when I dropped the order of service. I automatically bent down to pick it up, left it on the pew and made my way to the door. My cousin Stewart grabbed my hand before I could catch up with the woman.
“Thanks for coming, John,” he said. “It means a lot to the family.”
I think that’s what he said. I’ve no idea what I said. I hope it was something suitable. I just know that our conversation took an absolute age.
I looked for her outside the church, but there was no sign. I walked to the car and pretended to get something from the glove compartment so that I could scan the car park for her. No luck. She’d gone.
I shut the car door and made my way back to where the relatives were huddled, variously stamping their feet, propping up the older ones and having a quick ciggie. I made a few apparently trivial enquiries about who the woman might have been; most of the cousins shrugged their reply.
“Aunty Jane’ll know,” said Alan.
“Oh, it’s not that important,” I replied, not wanting to bother the widow at her husband’s funeral. “I was just curious, that’s all.”
The November cold got through to me. As I buttoned my coat, I realised I’d left my scarf behind. “I’ll catch up with you later,” I said to the cousins.
I went back into the church and retrieved my scarf. I sat down and gazed at the place where the woman who had captivated me had sat, but it offered no clue to her identity. Somehow, I knew I wouldn’t see her at the funeral tea.
That was a week ago. Tomorrow, I’m going to pay Aunty Jane a visit – see how she’s getting on, if there’s anything she needs doing, if she knows who the straight-backed auburn-haired lady who sat in the pew in front of me was, because that lady left her gloves at the church and I’d like to return them to her.
That’s tomorrow. Today, I’m going to buy some ladies’ gloves and make them look as if they’ve been worn.
Carol Carman’s splendid new novel – Gingerbread Children – is out now, published by McCaw Press.