Friday 15 January 2016

Officer Hours

My father was born in 1917 but brought up an only child in the company of his elderly parents and an extensive array of [maiden] aunts who had all been born and grown up while Queen Victoria was still on the throne [of Ireland! as part of the United Kingdom]. In many ways he was the last of the Victorians, with a value system that was couched in the moral certainties of that era.  We didn't call him Pater but he was nevertheless rather a remote figure - often literally remote when he was at sea. As a sea-captain, he was lord of all he surveyed, his rule was law and if his rule incorporated some eccentricities and peccadilloes, then the men around him just had to suck it up.  In no way was he a tyrant but he preferred some things to Be Done Right. He hated, for example, to see flags tangled on flag-poles and would order the nearest sailor to down-haul and re-set it.  This used to mortify us children, if we happened to be walking with him. Even worse was that he liked to finish up a meal with a cup of black coffee and he wouldn't accept it half-slopped in the saucer: the steward had to take it away and try a 'take two'. That must have been a bit of an ask in a Force 6 gale at sea.  I've no doubt that canny stewards worked out that the way to do it was to carry cup and saucer separately and clink the two together at the last second as they approached the white table-cloth: sailors are known for being resourceful.  All sailors, for example, from admirals to ordinary seaman carry a housewife [pron. hussiff] or ditty-bag: it is a sewing kit for replacing buttons and repairing small tears and generally getting to look ship-shape and Bristol-fashion.

We were, in turn all taught how to sew on a button and hem trouser turn-ups. The Da had a small fund of Victorian jokes, some quite unsuitable for polite company, that would ease conversation along at parties. Growing up at home we had lunch at 1300hrs. That's 1 o'clock +/- 2 minutes. It was a hangover from the institutional regime in which my father had bedded down during 35 years at sea in uniform. He wouldn't have a fit if lunch was late but, even long after retirement, he'd drift, watchless, in from the garden on the ding! of One, asking if lunch was ready. And he was never, ever late for an appointment.

Well, the Old Man died about this time of the morning on 15th Jan 2001 - exactly 15 years ago.  He'd taken a tumble downstairs and suffered a series of "medical misadventures" in hospital before dying four days later of iatrogenic things nothing to do with his fall. We immediately upped-stakes and flew to England, thinking that it would a funeral in the Irish style which is almost as expeditious as for Muslims who have to be underground with 24 hours. Died on Tuesday, waked on Wednesday, buried on Thursday would be the Irish norm: I like that because this ritual gives closure. Between the jigs and reels (waiting for an autopsy, waiting for a slot in the schedule at the nearby Abbey: as a pillar of the community a rather public service was thought appropriate) it was nearly ten days before his mortal remains were finally send up the chimney at the crematorium. It was very wearing for my mother and was only possible because modern undertakers have cold-storage facilities. A few weeks later, still in the grip of Winter, we agreed to have a much smaller service in the village where he'd lived for his final 25 years. His ashes, in a neat wooden mini-coffin were to be interred just outside the door of the medieval village church.

It was Sunday. The immediate family and the neighbours gathered for the memorial service at 11 o'clock. The organist was playing the introit when it dawned on us that there was no casket. My mother had assumed the vicar would have seen to that, the vicar was sure that was the family's business and the undertaker was 20 miles away. Note: undertakers are available 24/7. My brother slipped out of the church and phoned the undertaker, the organist continued playing. The Brother and the undertaker agreed to meet half way at a pub car-park and he sped off in his Land Rover. The organist continued playing until she'd absolutely run through her repertoire, then the vicar started the service off speaking v e r y  s l o w l y and we carried on as if everything was on schedule. The service eventually finished and the casket made a simultaneous appearance as if that had been planned all along. The Da was not without a sense of humour and would have been tickled at the irony of being late for his own funeral.

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